Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saturday Vespers

Little Charlie and I are at Kanuga Conference Center, near Hendersonville, North Carolina. These mountains smell like heaven, and their cool breezes and daily afternoon thundershowers are a lovely respite from the Mississippi heat. The only thing missing is Big Charlie...

Psalm 51:11-16; Matthew 13:24-30

This is only my second summer to be at Kanuga’s Guest Period Four, but this place has been an important part of my life for many years now. My family attended a guest period back when I was twelve or thirteen, and I still have a few postcards I made in Minkler Grove, cute little raccoons and dark green pine trees stamped on heavy brown cardstock. In college, I returned to Kanuga as a camp counselor, unprepared both for what would be demanded of me in that role and for how I learned to rise to the occasion, even when it meant lighting a campfire in the rain. I met my husband at Kanuga, down in Balthis, where we had both finished rehearsing to sing in a concert with Fran McKendree. And now I’m back at Guest Period again, amazed and humbled by how I’ve grown since that week here with my family some twenty-five years ago.

I still haven’t told you, though, about the very first time a part of Kanuga became a part of me. It didn’t happen here in these mountains, but rather in the other high holy place of the Episcopal Church - Sewanee, Tennessee, where we lived when I was little and my father was in seminary. Sewanee is so very much like here, surrounded by wood and stone and so close to heaven there are angels in the trees.

Nowhere is that more true at Sewanee than in Abbo’s Alley, a woodland garden sown years ago in a ravine three quarters of a mile long. Countless daffodils and dogwoods line the paths that wander from sunbeam to sunbeam, and tulips, hyancinth, rhodedendron, and flame azaleas grow there, too. Around every turn new wonders await - a little stone bridge crossing the stream, a clearing just the right size for a picnic lunch, lichen and moss covered rocks to climb up and over or sit on top of and daydream.

We lived very near the main entrance to Abbo’s Alley, and I felt more than welcome in that garden. Too welcome, it seems... My mother remembers the day I was in Abbo’s Alley and was, apparently, helping myself to some of the flowers along one of the paths. She knows this not because she saw me pick them, and certainly not because I admitted to picking them. She knows this because someone else was in the garden that day and happened upon me with my fist full of flowers. He scolded me and then scolded my mom, I think - we do not pick flowers in Abbo’s Alley.

The man’s name was Albert Gooch. And though he has retired from his service as Kanuga’s president, I feel compelled to tell you that the flowers on the front porch of my cabin are from the grocery store.

This evening we have heard one of Jesus’ many parables about things that grow, and I note that he has decidedly said we are not to pick anything! We will hear more parables over the course of our week together, as we walk through the gospel according to Matthew. These will be our bedtime stories as we gather here for vespers, filling our dreams with strange and vivid images of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is may be compared to someone who sowed good seed... to a mustard seed... to yeast mixed with flour... a treasure found and hidden... a pearl of great value... a net that caught fish of every kind.

It is the nature of a parable, as it is the nature of a plant or flower, to both hide and reveal the life and meaning contained with it. Parables are grounded, rooted, in what the poet Henry Vaughan described as the deep and dazzling darkness of God, who is so far beyond our knowing and even our imagination. And yet parables also put forth leaves and petals and fruit for us to touch and see and feel and so to become familiar, at least in part, with something of who God is and how God acts in the world. These stories we’ll be hearing aren’t really at all about farmers and seed, or bakers and yeast, or treasures and merchants, or nets and fishermen - they are about God and God’s kingdom at work in and through the whole of creation in ways we simply couldn’t imagine without a little help from things we can imagine.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared, Jesus might have said in our day, to someone who sowed good seed in a wooded ravine and grew flowers of every kind, and laid out a meandering path that would lead to places of unexpected beauty and delight.

Or he might have said, The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed a dream in the mountains and grew a conference center where there gathered people of every kind, whose roots mingled and intertwined in the good earth.

Doubtless we have all come here to Kanuga because, at least in part, we understand it to be a place where the kingdom of God is not hidden but revealed, where kindness and welcome and wonder and grace are not dreamed but practiced. And doubtless many of us have come here from lives and circumstances in which weeds have been sown alongside the wheat we have worked so hard to cultivate and grow.

Let both of them grow together until the harvest, the farmer in the parable says. Let it be. This parable, like all parables, has many facets and much to teach us - so much, in fact, that the lectionary will return to it in a few days and we will have another opportunity to understand what it reveals to us about how God is working in and around us. For now, though, let us notice that the farmer suggests we let go of our anxiety about how things will turn out and simply turn our attention to growing. Turning our faces the sun, clinging to the good earth in which we are planted, soaking up the ways in which we are showered with God’s grace.

For now let us notice that the kingdom grows into its fullness in spite of the weeds sown within it. Let us not pick at the weeds. Heaven forbid we should pick anything! Instead, let us grow together in this holy ground, sown throughout with kingdom seeds. Let us wander from sunbeam to sunbeam, let us be surprised around every turn.

In the words of our psalmist this evening, Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew right spirits within us...Give us the joy of your saving help again, and sustain us with your bountiful Spirit. Amen.

Artwork: Row of cottages at Kanuga; flowers on the front porch of cottage 25; "Parable of the Sower," artist unknown; flowers outside the Chapel of the Transfiguration at Kanuga.

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