Monday, July 20, 2009

Proper 11B

2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

I’ve always thought I must have a lot of my grandmother in me. Both grandmothers, for that matter. Not because I still sing the songs they taught me when I was little. Not because I’ve taken up grandmotherly hobbies like knitting and sewing. Not because my hair is starting to resemble theirs. My grandmothers have given me all these things, and many more blessings besides, but one thing I know I carry in the very fiber of my being is their non-southern DNA.

I’ve lived all my life in the south, but except for my liberal use of the word “y’all” and my love of azaleas and catfish you might not know it. I think this may be because my grandmothers lived all their lives in the north, in the state of New York. One of them moved to South Carolina when she married, and it was her house I visited most, especially in the summers. Not once did I hear her complain about being so far from home, but I did hear her tell stories about growing up where it snowed, where wild blueberry bushes grew, where the soil wasn’t made of clay, and where the sea made you shiver from both cold and delight.

Their granddaughter through and through, I have lived all my life in the south but I’m not sure I’m really a southerner. I love our early spring, but I wear my mittens and scarf for as long as I possibly can when spring comes around. I loved those summers at my grandmother’s house in South Carolina, but I don’t like hot weather, which I consider to be anything above 85 degrees. I love heat lightening and afternoon thunderstorms, but not humidity - I much prefer breathing my air to drinking it. And when the ice-filled glasses appear and the hostess brings her pitcher and starts pouring, I have to say “No, thank you” because, I have never learned to like iced tea.

I don’t really like any kind of tea, for that matter. I wish I did - it often smells so lovely, and it looks so refreshing, especially when brightened with lemon or orange slices or freshly picked mint. I’ve wondered if sweet tea doesn’t flow through the veins of a true southerner, so often is it served and so swiftly is a glass of it refilled. I’ve been to many a meal when the beverages were already waiting at the table - tall, sweetly sweating glasses of iced tea all around.

The truth is, of course, tea in some form or another is served in communities the world over. Required summer reading for all St. Andrew’s students and faculty this summer is Three Cups of Tea, the remarkable story of Greg Mortenson, a man who literally stumbled into an opportunity to change the world for the better. It all started with a cup of tea, which he was no more fond of than I am. But he had been lost high up on a glacier in northern Pakistan and was weak and tired and frozen, and so he drank cup after steaming cup of the hot butter tea (that’s aged yak butter in the tea, mind you, a far cry from mint!) offered to him in the small village that took him in and cared for him as he recovered from his ordeal. Greg would spend the next ten years of his life - and it is still his mission to this day - repaying their kindness by building schools for children in remote and forgotten Pakistan and Afghanistan villages. He might have felt out of place in that land of extreme heat and extreme cold, where many different languages are spoken and none of them his native tongue, where the faithful cry out Allah Akbahr, God is great, when they pray instead of Our Father, who art in heaven. He might have felt as strange and alien as my grandmother when she moved from New York to South Carolina so long ago. Greg might always have thought about Pakistan in terms of us and them, had he not learned to like tea.

“The first time you share tea,” said Haji Ali, the village leader, “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.” And so, sitting on the dark dirt floors of Balti homes and sipping tea, Greg became family, he learned to build relationships with people who weren’t so unlike him after all, because together they dreamed of building peace one school at a time.

King David, too, dreamed of building. He already had peace, which had been a long time coming. The shepherd-boy-turned-warrior-king had finally united the kingdom of Israel and driven out its enemies, and settled in to reign over God’s people. Having spent so much of his life in pastures and on battlefields, David must have thought it grand to sleep under a solid roof and wake to sturdy walls that kept out the heat and dust and wind. Still mindful, though, that he was king by God’s choosing, he said, See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent. God was no longer needed in the pasture or on the battlefield, either, David thought, and so he dreamed of building God a house.

But David, I already have a house, God said. No roof, no walls, no being settled in one place, but I have never asked for that or needed it. I move about among my people, and I make places for them. My house is in them and now and for all time it will be in you. Most scholars agree that God was playing with words in promising David a house - David had been speaking of building a place, but God was speaking of building a people, of being present with and in and among a long succession of kings and people of faith down through all the ages. David’s son would build a temple, but God was already at home in the hearts and lives and dreams of the people of Israel, and long after the temple fell not once but twice, the community of faith continued to house God in their midst.

When Jesus and his disciples needed a place to rest - it, too, had been a long time coming - the only roof they had was sky and the only wall they had was distance. Jesus took the disciples by boat to a quiet, deserted place where they might sit or sleep or perhaps sip a cup of tea in peace. But someone guessed where they were going and told everyone else, and the people hurried there from all the towns and arrived at the not-so-deserted place ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd...

There was always a great crowd wherever Jesus went, people who by faith or in desperation (or both) sought him out, even if only to touch the fringe of his cloak. They were always there, that crowd, that ever-present always hungry, always hurting, always hoping to be healed crowd.

It would have been easy for Jesus to just see a Them. That’s how the world teaches us to see. Us and Them. In that crowded deserted place it was Us, the helpers, and Them, the needy. In Paul’s time, as we heard in his letter to the Ephesians, it was Us, the Jews, and Them, the Gentiles. But the categories are infinite, aren’t they? The walls we build to divide ourselves from others are legion. Us, from this country; Them, from another. Us, with one skin color; Them, with another. Us, the educated; Them, the uneducated. Us, the tea drinkers; Them, the non-tea drinkers. Rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, immigrant and native born, liberal and conservative, labor and management, gay and straight, old and young, Baptist and Episcopalian and Methodist and Lutheran and Catholic, Christian and Muslim, Ole Miss and State... We’re really good at knowing what makes us Us, and them Them, and while this knowledge can help us feel strong and significant and secure, it is also what separates us from one another. “Oh, East is East and West is West and, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling.

But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have now been brought near... For he is our peace; in his body he has made us into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Long before Paul preached about the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ, Jesus himself was tearing down walls. Jesus could have seen a Them when he stepped out of the boat that day into the midst of the multitude as troubled and turbulent as a stormy sea, but instead he had compassion for the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them, to nurture them, to shelter them, to heal them, and (as we will hear in next week’s gospel reading), to feed them.

It is no different today. Jesus, in whom no wall separated God from humanity, Jesus comes into the midst of this great crowded world and looks with compassion, speaks with compassion, heals, feeds, restores, renews, reconciles, enters into relationship and so teaches us how to disassemble dividing walls and build the household of God. The foundation of prophets and apostles is laid, and the cornerstone, Christ himself, is set. Together with the faithful and the hopeful and the compassionate in every time and place we become the stones and bricks and beams that build a dwelling place for God. In Christ we are not divided by walls of hostility - we are united by the mortar of compassion as we, the Body of Christ, learn to look at the world and see not Us and Them but We.

There are still a great many hungry and hurting and desperately hopeful people out there, including ourselves from time to time. And there are a great many people who look or act or speak or hunger or hurt or hope or believe very differently than we do. Try as we might to distance ourselves from one another, to put up walls that separate Us from Them (whatever Us’s and Them’s there are in our own lives), the foundation we are built upon, whose cornerstone is Christ, simply does not support that kind of structure. Instead, marvels the Reverend Kate Huey, “God’s power [is] to create community not out of stone and wood, gold and silver, stained glass and soaring ceilings, but out of people and the promise that shapes them into a community that says yes to the call to follow Jesus, [the call] to love one another and the world.”

It was a call to compassion that Greg Mortenson answered that day, a call that has since united Christian and Muslim, Shiite and Sunni, rich and poor, young and old, athlete and scholar, tea drinkers in all their diversity, and many, many others who once considered the wall between themselves and the high passes of Pakistan too tall to climb. Seventy-eight schools have been built upon this foundation, offering hope tens of thousands of children living in poverty. As the stone walls go up to shape each new school, walls of suspicion and hostility crumble, and the kingdom of God grows.

And so it is that we sing, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great family of love throughout the whole wide earth.” Amen.

Artwork: "Late Summer Iced Tea," by Emily Zasada; "K2 Mountain Range," by Chaitanya Huprikar; "King David," by Shraga Weil; "The Multitude," photograph by National Geographic; Greg Mortenson and Balti villagers; Photograph of Hushe Community School during construction.

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