Sunday, June 28, 2009

Proper 8B

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Some people came from Jairus’ house to say, “Your daughter has died. Why trouble this teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Do not fear? Only believe? And just what would Jesus have Jairus believe? Believe that he could have done something if they had gotten there sooner? Believe that the woman Jesus stopped to help needed him more than Jairus’ daughter did? Believe that everything was going to be okay?

It was belief...or was it desperation?...that had brought Jairus to Jesus in the first place. He believed that Jesus could heal his twelve-year-old daughter. As a leader in the synagogue, a man of means, Jairus could have gone to any doctor for help, could have bought any medicine, but instead he went to Jesus, a faith healer surrounded by crowds with all manner of sicknesses. He wanted so for Jesus to make his daughter well after having been so sick, but to make her live after having been dead...

Do not fear, only believe. These sound like the words people fumble with when they don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving or sad or hurting or sick. They echo the platitudes we offer, as though words were lifelines that could pull someone out of the depths. Do not fear, only believe. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Bloom where you are planted. It will all be okay. It sounds a little bit like last week’s Peace, be still, when a storm is raging all around and the anchor is lost and the boat is sinking.

Do not fear, only believe. It will be okay. It also what they shout up to you when you’re on the high ropes course for the first time at summer camp. Well, it’s what my counselors shouted up to me, anyway, the first time I put on a harness and, trembling, climbed thirty feet off the ground to where steel cables stretched between the trees. Do not fear, only believe, they still have to tell me every time I’m up one of those trees trying to decide whether I’ll take that first step onto the wire, and then whether I’ll take another step, and another, toward the other tree trunk with nothing to hold on to but thin air.

Up there, halfway between the ground and the treetops, it can feel like you’re all alone, especially when your heart is pounding and your mind is reeling and your hands are shaking like leaves. But walking a ropes course isn’t about being alone at all - in fact, it is about becoming aware of how connected you are to others, about believing that those connections make courage possible, about being a new person by the time you reach the other side of the ordeal. The harness you wear is connected by a rope to someone on the ground who holds their end tightly and watches your every move and will not let you fall. Very often there’s someone else up in the trees with you, someone who’s job it is to help you take your first step, or perhaps someone who, trembling, took their own first step just before you did and has made it to the opposite tree. And there are others down on the ground encouraging you on, because once you’re up there, the only way down is to go across the wire, to walk across thin air, to trust, to believe, one step at a time.

It’s the human condition, isn’t it? We forever find ourselves in too deep or up too high above - in any case, out of our depths. We face limits and boundaries and walls that keep us from moving forward. We feel like we’re alone in all the world, especially when the crowds press in. We keep others away. We tremble. We can’t always be safe and we can’t live forever, no matter how hard we try.

Do not fear, only believe. Believe what? Jesus doesn’t say, not like he does on other occasions, in other gospel stories - and anyway, in our condition, out of our depth, we might brush his words aside as platitudes as well. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. Everything is possible for the one who believes. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. The world doesn’t often seem to allow for the kinds of endings bible stories have, when the darkness lifts, the storm ceases, the disease is cured, and the little girl lives.

And so the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if Jesus is teaching the woman in the crowd, who was afraid to tell her story, and teaching Jairus, to whom he said, Do not fear, only believe... Taylor wonders if Jesus is teaching us all that fear and belief are simply the two choices we are given, the two choices we have when we come face to face with thin air, threats, illness, and even death. We can choose fear, or we can choose belief.

Fear paralyzes us. Fear keeps us from taking even a single step forward, and so life moves on without us. We look with suspicion on anyone who might cause us harm, or who might wrest control from the grip we think we have (in reality, fear controls us), and upon anyone who might try to encourage us to step out on the wire, who might say to us, do not fear, only believe...

We can choose fear, or we can choose to believe. And belief, writes Taylor, is not magic, nor is it a safety net. Instead, it “is more like a rope bridge over a scenic gorge, sturdy but swinging back and forth...with precious little to hang onto except the stories you have heard: that it is the best and only way across, that it is possible, that it will bear your weight. All you have to do is believe in the bridge more than you believe in the gorge, but fortunately,” and here is the heart of this gospel story, I believe, “fortunately you do do not have to believe it all by yourself. There are others to believe it with you, and even some to believe it for you when your own belief begins to wear thin.”

Do not fear, but believe. The gospel story we hear today is not about believing so that healing can take place, so that our prayers can be answered, so that our individual lives can turn out just the way we want them to. There’s far more at stake, far more that must be made well - indeed, the woman in the crowd and Jairus’ daughter were not the only ones healed. This gospel story is about God’s power to restore life, to renew life, to save life over and against the human condition that infects us all causing us to quarantine ourselves against others and sometimes even against God. In Jesus Christ, God shared our human nature, God lived and died as one of us, and out of the depths God brought us as a new creation, as earth forever harnessed to heaven.

Today’s gospel story teaches us that healing is less about what happens to our bodies and more about how we simply, courageously, trembling, move forward. Healing is about how we live, how we believe in the one to whom we are harnessed and the world full of people he came to save. The hemorrhage stopped and the little girl lived, but it was the world that became more heaven-like that day when Jairus and the woman stepped out on thin air with only Jesus to hold on to. Another preacher has noted that healing is about restoring meaning to life, finding the courage to step, although we tremble, onto the wire that stretches before us. And as people created to be in relationship with God and all that God loves, our deepest meaning is found in those dear connections between ourselves and God, the connections between ourselves and others.

The church has long recognized this. It is why Paul urged the Corinthians to give generously to those who suffered from the sickness of poverty in Jerusalem, establishing a relationship that would enliven their own church as well as the Jerusalem church. It is why in our own time Episcopal church has chosen Ubuntu, an African ethic of life that finds meaning in community, as the theme of our upcoming General Convention. I am because we are, is how ubuntu is described in secular humanist words. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has suggested I in you and you in me as a way for the church to understand it, drawing upon Jesus’ words from the gospel of John. And so it is that every step we take together is a step taken with Christ, in whom we are joined - we in him and he in us. Every meal we share together is a meal shared with him. Every person we help, every person we encourage, is a person helped and encouraged and healed and restored to relationship by God.

I’m not going to camp this summer, but my husband, Charlie, will be there in just a few weeks to help direct Special Session. The campers will be women and men with disabilities that no doctor has been able to cure. And while in biblical times sacred laws of purity dictated a woman with a hemorrhage was unclean, untouchable, the codes that isolate people with physical and cognitive disabilities are unwritten but just as potent, just as paralyzing, not because of their fear but because of ours.

Do not fear, but believe. When these women and men come to Special Session, they are healed - they have new life. Their bodies are still bound by their various conditions, but their spirits soar. At camp they live in a community that embraces and encourage them, that trusts them, that believes in them, that is not afraid. Down at the ropes course, I have watched counselors slip a harness around the curled body of a wheelchair bound camper and hoist him into thin air where, you’d better believe it, he can not only walk but fly.

Do not fear, but believe, his joy-filled face seems to say to us. And in moments like that, we are all healed. Amen.

Artwork: "Jairus' Daughter," by Barbara Februar; Little Charlie on the ropes course at Camp Bratton-Green, summer of 2008; Carrick-a-Rede suspension rope bridge (the latest design in more than 350 years of rope bridges strung across this divide) in Northern Ireland; "Femme touchant Jesus," by Corinne Vonaesch; logo designed by the Reverend Paul Fromberg for the 2009 General Convention.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Proper 6B

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

All things with which we deal, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, All things with which we deal, preach to us. What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun - it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields.

What is a farm but a mute gospel? This congregation, then - especially on this Sunday when we ask God’s blessing upon our fields - this congregation is full of preachers. You know far more than I do about growing things, far more about soil and seeds and seasons than I. Yours are the hands, not mine, that sift through seeds, and yours are the hands that hold the harvest. You know that long before the first green shoots appear the land holds life within it, pushing up from the seed through the dark, fertile soil, searching for the wide world in which it will one day offer its fruit. What is a farm but a mute gospel? And you are its voice, its preachers.

What, then, would you say? Would you say that what happens deep in the earth is like what happens deep within us when God plants seeds in our hearts? How would you speak of what it means, literally and spiritually, to grow and flower and bear fruit? Would you talk about how, despite all that you know about planting and tending and harvesting, you still experience wonder and mystery as your fields turn from brown to green? What is a farm but a mute gospel?

Long before Emerson found God in a furrow, Jesus was giving voice to the fertile fields and farms as numerous then in Galilee as they are here in the Mississippi Delta. He often spoke of God as a gardener, a farmer, or a sower of seeds, in one parable after another. The kingdom of heaven is as could he make them understand? The kingdom of heaven is as if, Jesus would begin. I can imagine him taking a deep breath as he wondered how to describe the great and wonderful mystery of the kingdom of heaven, how God grows in and around and among us. With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? he mused aloud, and then I imagine him turning his thoughtful gaze upon a nearby field, plowed and ready for planting. Perhaps a smile rose from somewhere deep inside, like a seedling from the soil, as he turned back to his friends and said, The kingdom of heaven is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

It is the nature of parables, as it is the nature of a plant, to both hide and reveal the life contained within it. Parables are anchored, rooted, in what the poet Henry Vaughan described as the deep and dazzling darkness of God, who is so far beyond our knowing as to be unknowable, hidden from our understanding. And yet parables also put forth leaves for us to touch and feel and see and become familiar, to understand at least in part.

So it is that any farmer who heard Jesus speak that day would have looked out at the same field and heard it preach through the parable Jesus shared. God’s kingdom on earth would still be a mystery, but they would begin to understand that it is the same kind of mystery as life itself - it grows. Of course none of those farmers, nor any farmers today, would stand idly by after sowing their seeds, as the farmer in the parable does; still, for all their hard work, farmers know that in the end, they are trusting an ancient and mysterious and gradual and fully natural process by which that which is planted simply and marvelously grows.

So it is with kingdom of God, the seeding of earth with heaven, growing even now in and around and among us whether we tend to it or not. I can imagine God kneeling in the dirt, giving voice to the land and the life it holds, singing softly the words of yet another poet as the seeds are gently placed: Inch by inch, row by row, I’m gonna make this garden grow. All it takes is a rake and hoe, and a piece of fertile ground... Of course God isn’t planting cucumbers and tomatoes but heaven itself. And the soil in which God kneels isn’t the red dirt of my hometown, or delta soil, or (thank goodness!) Yazoo clay; rather, the soil in which God plants is the whole world and everyone in it - God plants these seeds in us, and there they will grow, though we do not know how.

Kingdom seeds, like mustard seeds, are quite small. A kind word to someone who is hurting. A reconciled relationship. An act of generosity. A visit to a bedside. A word of welcome. An outstretched hand. In these and countless other small ways we are stewards, farmers, tending the kingdom and nurturing the seeds growing in us and in others. We usually cannot see, and could never fully imagine anyway, how very many people are able to take shelter in the shady branches that grow from the even smallest seed of compassion and kindness. We can count the number of seeds in an apple, one preacher told a group of children; we cannot, however, count or even imagine the number of apples in a seed.

What is a farm but a mute gospel?

The love of Christ urges us on, Paul shouts, knowing full well that the gospel, like tender green growth in a field or in a heart, meets with many things that would extinguish its life. Things don’t always grow as we had hoped they would. There are surprises along the way, frustrations, even devastations. Drought dries up our resources. Floods overwhelm us. Pestilence eats away at us, weeds choke out the light, neglect withers us, disease weakens us. Fields and growing things are vulnerable, no matter how hard we work at protecting them. We are vulnerable.

But life is not. If anyone is in Christ, writes Paul, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! On this side of Easter, on the resurrection side of the grave, we have seen the greatest and most wonderful mystery of all, that even from the deepest darkness of a tomb life will push upward and forward and burst into the wide world, into the light of day. God, after all, is life’s Author, Jesus has redeemed it - redeemed even its most devastating loss - and the Holy Spirit daily nurtures and sustains it. The kind of life God plants in this world, the kind of life God plants in us, grows. Inch by inch, row by row, God will make us grow. All it takes is a rake and hoe and a piece of fertile ground, which is to say, our willing hearts...

We are in our growing season, the long green season after Pentecost when we will be fed and watered by the stories of Jesus as he went about scattering kingdom seeds not in neat rows but anywhere and everywhere he imagined they might take root. Season after season, year after year, generation after generation, God’s kingdom continues to grow up all around us and in us. Some of it remains hidden, rooted, deep in the dazzling darkness and mystery of God. But we are called to give voice to those places where the kingdom is in the wide open world, where it can be touched and felt and seen; we are called to make earth familiar with heaven, to preach what we know about growing.

Plant our rows straight and long, season them with prayer and song... Inch by inch, row by row, God bless these seeds we sow. Please keep them safe below... Grain for grain, sun and rain, find our way through nature’s chain, tune my body and my brain to the music of the land. Let us tune our bodies and our brains to the music of this land. Let us tune our bodies and our brains to the life of this land. Let us be tuned to the heaven in this land. Amen.

Artwork: "Psalm 72:6, 'He is like showers watering the earth'", by Jesse P. Mark; two photos I took on my way to preach this sermon in Sumner, MS; "New Growth", by Karen Vath; "The Sower", by Vincent Van Gogh.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Market Research

I like to think that I'm wise to the ways of advertisers.  That I can appreciate a good commercial for its cleverness or creativity alone, without succumbing to a sudden urge to purchase whatever it is the commercial is trying sell me.

(Those are dishcloths knit from Peaches 'n Cream in a variety of patterns, including the ballband of Mason-Dixon knitting fame and a nine-patch of mitred squares)  

I like to think I can hear jingles or see slogans or look at logos and judge them by their own merits and not by the merit of the product they are pushing. 

(That's a linen handtowel knit from...a yarn with some linen in it...and the pattern is also from Mason-Dixon)

And surely I am astute enough to recognize that a product's name is as much a part of the marketing strategy as the advertisement itself.

(And here are two Baby Genius burpcloths from Mason-Dixon, knit from Bernat Cottontots)

Apparently, however, all it takes is giving something a name that would appear in a thesaurus entry for the word "happiness" and I'm in.

Case in point, it was easy for me to purchase this wonderful yarn, because its name is...Wonderful (of blessed memory, from Ornaghi Filati).  It became a light but warm shawl knit in the kata lace rib pattern from Mindful Knitting by Tara Jon Manning.

Applauding, it seems, my love of things with happy names, these glads bloomed in our front yard a few weeks ago... They came with the house, absolutely free.

This blog entry is not a paid commercial endorsement...