Monday, March 26, 2007

The Fragrant Gift: Memories of Loving Service and Salvation

A Shell Ridge Sermon preached by Rev. Greg Ledbetter, preached 03/25/2007
Fifth Sunday in Lent: Gifts in the Wilderness

Sermon Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; John 12:1-8

Hear this additional reading from the Song of Songs, Chapter 2:

10My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
13The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.

Close your eyes and “come away with me” for a moment … I want to appeal to one of your senses:

Where do you remember the smell of bread baking? Grandmother’s or your own mother’s kitchen? A favorite bakery? Remember the smell of tearing open a fresh-baked loaf, the fragrant rising up in your face.

How about the smell of fresh-brewed coffee wafting through the house in the early morning.

Do you know the smell of the rain on warm asphalt after a long dry spell?

Who do you remember that smoked a pipe, nasty to taste, but so wonderful to smell. Or was there a loved one who wore a memorable perfume … or cologne … a fragrance that was bracing or intoxicating.

Have you worshipped in a cathedral where the censor is swung and the rich, pungent smell of incense fills the air.

Have you knelt down and dug in the soft, warm earth and smelled the very smell of life? Or buried your nose in the first apple blossoms of spring? Or dragged your fingers through the rosemary or the lavender so those fragrances can be held close to your nose?

How about the smell of a Christmas home … the steamy rich smells coming from the kitchen … the fragrance of the Christmas tree … or remember walking into a Christmas tree lot as a child or an adult surrounded by hundreds of fragrant trees?

Have you walked along the seashore and stood facing into the wind just taking in the tanginess of the salt wind?

If you wish, you may open your eyes now. And if someone could go get me a slice of warm bread slathered in butter, and a mug of fresh Peet’s coffee—French roast--that would be wonderful.

Our sense of smell is a remarkable and wonderful thing. Our experience of life is made rich and deep and full by our ability to experience the wonders of creation with our noses.

Humans can smell, but I have to wonder what it would be like to have the olfactory capabilities of my dogs.

I often catch Sparky, our 7 year old male Jack Rusell, sitting in the open back sliding door … just sniffing the wind … his nostrils flaring and sampling whatever there is to be sampled.

Whenever I have been around another dog, when I get home my are immediately all over me, sniffing me up and down to trying to figure out what foul beast I’ve been two-timing with.

And yet as glorious as their smelling apparatus seems to be, it is equally strange. Every time Jan and I go for a walk above Borges Ranch, when we get up to where the cows graze and wander amongst the final results of that grazing, Sparky and Biscuit are out in the field … splashing on the stinky green perfume … “Yeah, baby … you know that you like it!” We have to drive with the windows down on the way home.

I am trying to remember when I last have heard a conscious reference to our olfactory senses within the context of worship. How is it that something that is so powerful a part of our everyday experience is so completely absent in our worship of God together?

Smells and odors and fragrances have incredibly deep religious roots … nearly all ancient religions, including the religion of Israel, burned incense or sacrifices in the hopes that the smell produced was pleasing to God … these “holocausts”, as they were called, symbolized the devotion of God’s subjects … God’s people … the phrase, “a pleasing odor”, occurs repeatedly throughout the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. You may recall, however, that the prophet Amos lambastes the people and their faith for thinking that “pleasing odors” were what God really wanted … that they were any kind of substitute for the weightier matters of justice.

You know already that our worship in this season of Lent has gently pushed and pulled us into new ways of being present to God and God being present to us in our times of gathered worship. Our tongues have been tantalized this Lent with the flavors of Apples, honey, figs, bread and wine. And we began the season with the usual application of ashes to our hands and foreheads, but this year the ashes were infused with the oil of lavender … ashen crosses that were not only visible, but also fragrant reminders of our frailty and mortality. The lavender was also intended to remind us of the promise and possibilities that are present even in the midst of great difficulty.

Today we join Jesus who is sharing a meal in the home of his beloved friends, Lazarus and Martha and Mary. These are the disciples whom Jesus loved, and we can only imagine the extraordinary warmth of feeling that radiated around that room … the conversation … the lingering eye contact in between the words … hands clenched together and kisses exchanged. I would have to think that the love poetry of the Song of Songs aptly described the love between Jesus and his three friends from Bethany.

We who gulp our meals on the run have nearly no sense of the kind of meal that Jesus and his friends shared. These were long, lingering, drawn out affairs. A whole evening would be spent around the table … food coming and going, conversation ebbing and flowing, wine passed and poured and drunk.

I’m remembering my trip to Israel during the summer of my sabbatical … Jordan and I had flown to Tel Aviv where we picked up our trusty little Hyundai and headed into the hills of Galilee. We finally found the little village of Ibillin where one of Israel’s great peacemakers, Father Elias Chacour had founded a school that welcomed Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews. It was dusk when we pulled into the compound of the school on the side of a dusty hill. A woman pointed to where we could find Abuna, as Father Chacour is known. We climbed the stairs to the second floor of an apartment building … walked through the door into a brightly lit, but empty room. At the back of the room was a door and through the door we could hear voices. We opened the door and stepped out into a garden, olive trees and grape vines trailing overhead … and there in the middle of the garden sitting around a long table laden with food and candle and wine was Abuna and his friends. They looked up and greeted us and welcomed us to their table. I was put at the head next to Abuna while Jordan was seated next to some young teachers from the school. Our glasses and our plates were filled … and as our stomachs were filled, so also our hearts became full. The meal and the conversation lasted as long as we did. Finally, we wiped the crumbs of baklava from our lips, took the last swig of wine and took leave of a most memorable evening.

It was just that kind of evening, long, lingering, intimate, that Jesus shared with Lazarus and Martha and Mary and their friends. And at some point in the evening, as the affection between these friends swelled, Mary slipped away for a moment and returned with a gift that she had purchased for just this occasion. It was an exotic and expensive perfume. And this particular perfume was well-known, in the context of the Song of Songs, as a symbol of the intimate nature of the Bride’s love. Mary took the nard and anointed Jesus’ feet with it and wiped them with her hair. And John tells us that the house was FILLED with the fragrance of the perfume.

This is one of those scriptural occasions when our modern sensibilities simply fail to convey the depth and meaning of the actions being described. In our silk stockings and hand-stitched loafers, we have nearly lost our awareness of just how filthy human feet could become when treading through the waste and sewage of dirty and muddy streets. When guests entered a home, the host would provide water for the guests to wash their feet in … or in a wealthy home, a servant would wash the guests’ feet. It was the first act of hospitality, and possibly the most intimate.

When a loved one washed your feet or anointed your feet, it took on the meaning of an act of loving service … it was a way of expressing one’s affection at an incredibly deep level. By anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, Mary expresses her love of Jesus in the most profound way possible. It is an act of loving, devoted service by the one—a woman follower—who might be considered Jesus’ foremost disciple.

But Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet has another connotation, as well. It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for “dinner” used to describe the meal in Bethany finds its only other usage in describing Jesus’ last meal with his disciples … the last supper. It is at that supper that Jesus speaks to his disciples of his impending departure … his death. At the dinner in Bethany, Mary is not only offering to Jesus an act of loving service, she is also anointing Jesus as a preparation for his burial that is to come.

I can’t help but think of scenes from the movie several of us watched together last night. Paradise Now was the fourth and final movie in our Lenten Cinema Series … it tells the story of two young Palestinian men from the West Bank, friends from childhood, who have agreed to serve on a suicide bombing mission. The night before they are to depart, they are verbally and spiritually prepared for their mission … for what is to come. They gather in a rough-hewn hall around a table in a scene that surely was intended to evoke DaVinci’s famous painting of Jesus’ last supper. 13 Palestinian fighters seated around a table for what will be at least one of the young men’s last supper. And in what appeared to be a sacred ritual, the young men’s bodies are lovingly bathed by the ones who are preparing them for their mission. And as awful and horrific as their actions will be … you get the very strong sense of the sacred feeling and sacred intent of the actions of all who are involved in this event … this deadly mission.

This meal shared by the Palestinian fighters is only a few miles from the place where, some two thousand years earlier, Jesus shared his meal with his friends in Bethany and, later, with his disciples in Jerusalem.

I have to believe that for John, the evoking of the Bethany dinner and the way that the fragrance of the nard FILLED the room is more than just a poetic mention … a literary device. In recent years, scientists have begun to trace the connection between smell and memory. It is said that it may be that smells can evoke our very earliest memories.

One of my aroma-related earliest memories includes living in Hawaii as a child … upon our return from a mainland visit, I rmember getting off the airplane and being festooned in leis … surrounded by the intoxicating aroma of cascades of plumeria blossoms.

While at Linfield College, I worked at Lon Dee Florists … I frequently drove a delivery van full of funeral arrangements … and I remember the overwhelming smell of the stocks in the arrangements … even to this day, when I smell stocks, it is the smell of funeral homes and hushed voices and death that I recall.

Is it John’s intention—the author of the gospel—that the evocation of this room filling fragrance of nard … of this exotic and expensive perfume is to recall us to the memory of this meal among beloved friends? And to recall us to this act of hospitality and loving service that is also a tear-tinged anointing of a loved one who will soon die? John’s gospel is highly artful, and I believe that John wishes for our “spiritual noses” to tingle and twitch and come to life with rich memories of Mary’s act … and to let the memories remind us of what it means to lovingly turn and tend to Jesus our Lord.

Perhaps we find ourselves finally back at the real purpose of Lent … which is to draw us once again into a closer, more loving relationship with God … and with Jesus our Lord. If it takes a pound of pure nard to do it, John tells us that it’s a price worth paying.

And yet perhaps Lent serves an even more fundamental task than drawing us into a closer, more loving relationship with God.

All this talk of smell and memory reminds me of something I remember Rod Romney saying. You may recall that Rod pastored the Lakeshore congregation and Seattle First Baptist before retiring a few years ago. I remember Rod saying that our task in life and faith is less to “be saved” our task is to remember that we have always been saved … at the deepest levels of our individual and shared memories, we may find deep archetypal memories of the God who has always loved us and loved all, the God who has wooed us from when we were in the womb and when we were being “fearfully and wonderfully made” …

It is not a thunderclap of searing salvation that we need as much as a memory as old as mountains and as soft as the sound of our mother’s voice singing us to sleep and as silent and sure as flowers in the meadows in the spring.

And perhaps as we sink and settle down into that deep loving, saving memory we will hear whispered into the imagination of our hearts the ancient love poetry of the God who love us:

[Song of Songs, Chapter 4]

I am for you, my beloved, like an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
14nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all chief spices—
15a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.

Hear the voice of God who says: “I am your beloved and you are mine.”

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Prodigal Family Portrait: Love that Welcomes

A Shell Ridge Sermon by Rev. Greg Ledbetter, preached 3/18/2007
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Gifts in the Wilderness: The Prodigal Gift

Scripture: Luke 15

Kids say the darndest things. This was the name of a TV show started by Art Linkletter and kept alive by Bill Cosby. One boy said on the show: “A Christian should only have one spouse. This is called monotony.” At Shell Ridge, we could produce our very own “Kids say the darndest things” based on the children’s message, alone.

But, alas, not all of the things that children say are memorable for their cuteness. Some are memorable for the inner pain they cause (though I’m pretty confident that the pain kids are capable of causing is far out of proportion to the knowing intent of their words). How about this “darndest thing”, a far more difficult one: “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” I’d be surprised if any parent hasn’t heard one variation or another on these words from the fruit of their loins and wombs. Yesterday in the park at the peace march three of us stood in a circle and, as I looked at us and realized the challegnes we each faced and thinking that the two in front of me may not have been introduced, I said, including myself in the mock introduction: "troubled parent meet troubled parent meet troubled parent." If the child’s “I hate you” is the equivalent of being stabbed with a blunt, plastic Playskool knife, the words can hit us like a Samurai’s sword. It can feel like our guts are all splayed out on the sidewalk.

Sometimes a child will not only say “I hate you”, but may actually be angry enough to run away. I remember my brother ran away once. He didn’t get very far. Unfortunately, he came back and I had to give back his toys. But do you remember the little nine year old boy from Dallas, I believe it was, this past winter who drove a car and got on an airplane by himself just to get away?

We can probably all understand the desire to “get away” … as I look out at you, it’s hard for me to identify anyone here who isn’t an awfully long way away from where you started … Africa … Australia … England … El Salvador … Rhode Island … Connecticut … Philly … Nebraska … Georgia “Hot-lanta” … Oregon. While there are a few “born and bred” Californians in this room, there aren’t many. Most of us here left home at some time in our lives and so far, we haven’t gone back … at least to stay.

Paul Hardwick’s Lenten photo on the bulletin cover speaks of what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey” … and the hero in this instance isn’t someone who performs superhuman feats or a courageous soldier or someone who sinks the game-winning basket. The hero is one who willingly and fearlessly embarks on a journey of body and soul … a journey that does not have a clear path or intended outcome … except that the journey is necessary to “make” the person, to help the person flesh out and test and fulfill the person’s potential.

Alex spent the last several weeks working on his family’s genealogy and I was reminded of some of my ancestors’ journeys, including the Harris branch of my family from whom I take my middle name … the Harrises who came out in the 1850’s on the Oregon trail in covered wagons to Oregon and a new life. They separated from their family of upbringing and never went back.

The hearers of Jesus’ story understood that kind of journey even if they’d never made their own because their earliest faith ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, had heard God’s call come to them in the land of their upbringing which was a whole long way from where they finally ended up.

The hero’s journey is a journey of separation and self-discovery and fulfillment of one’s potential. We could even say that clear marks of that journey are present in Jesus’ own life and journey. Leaving his home … dwelling in the wilderness … ending, finally, in Jerusalem. And all along the way, a deepening sense of who he was and his purpose in the grander scheme of things.

Well, we can only get so far into the mind of the younger son in Jesus’ story. We don’t know all the reason for his desiring to leave, but we do know the implications. By demanding his inheritance, he declares his father symbolically dead, metaphorically dead. He’s not saying, “Dad, can I borrow a few bucks so I can go sow a few wild oats?” He’s saying, Dad, I’m gonna get my share when you die anyway, so let’s cut to the chase. I’m never planning to see you alive again, so give me what’s mine and let’s be done with it.”

If you think it hurts for a sputtering four year old to say: “I hate you. I wish you were dead,” try having a full-grown adult child say that to you. We are meant to understand that it probably would have wounded the father less if the son had died or if the son had killed the father.

We’re not completely clear on the father’s rights, but in the story, he complies with the younger child’s request. By the laws of that time, the older son got two-thirds of the inheritance, so the younger so takes his third and goes as far away as he can. And again, everything in the story is said in such a way as to help us understand that if the father is “dead” in the eyes of the son, so too, the son is “dead” and utterly forgotten in the eyes of the father … and of the family … and, indeed, in the eyes of the community in which the family lives. “Do you have any children?” someone might ask. “Just one son.” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “No, I’m an only child.” Gone. Vanished. No trace. End of story.

The family enterprise has been hit hard by the loss of one-third of its capital, but it will survive … it will go on.

Try as they do, though, the family cannot help hearing bits and pieces of the exploits of the still very much alive younger brother. Bits of juicy gossip trickle back and are whispered around the edges of the community … the kid brother’s getting every bit of bang out of the old family buck that he can. One night he’s helping Britney shave her head … and the next night he’s denying being the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. Oh, it was a riotous time. If it was possible to be hurt more deeply by someone who no longer existed, I’m sure the family’s pain and dismay grew ever deeper.

Whether the family knows or not, we know that the younger son blows his wad in record time and great was his fall. The party’s over and there’s nothing to show for it but an empty coin-purse and an even deeper emptiness that comes from looking back at home and relationships from across an unbridgeable divide. It was as though he’d been thrown into a prison without bars.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent the last days of his life in a prison with very real bars … and barbed wire and machine guns with hair triggers. From the place of his confinement from which he would never escape except by death, Bonhoeffer wrote: I am “restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, … powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?”

Utterly destitute in body, mind and soul, the younger son “comes to himself”, Jesus’ story says. He comes to himself. Whatever had been separated and split and torn apart within finally comes together and finds union. Maybe the first major stage of the hero’s journey is complete.

British psychologist, R. D. Laing used to say “breakdown is breakthrough” … and perhaps this was the shattering event for the younger son that allowed him his wholeness. Perhaps we can think of our own shattering moments, our own breakdowns which have paradoxically led us more deeply into our own selves, our own truth, a new wholeness. We are, after all, at our best, cracked beings that let in the light of God.

The young hero turns … he turns away from the pen of swine, his filthy grunting brothers who had been the only ones to share their food with him , their fodder … he turns away and begins the hardest journey … the journey home, but not home, exactly.

He knows what he has done … for good or ill, for right reasons or wrong … he knows the implications of his actions. He knows that even if he can map a route back to the place of his upbringing, it will not be his home to which he returns. And you sense that for the younger son, that is OK. He seems to understand that he has effected changes that he cannot undo and his has a peace about accepting his new place in the scheme of things, a place without the old comforting privilege … a place of servanthood.

Do you see any of this journey, this pilgrimage in you? In your life and movement? Has there been a time of particular awareness that you really goofed … really blew it … but also a willingness to take full responsibility for your actions … for your journey no matter what far country it led you through?

At this point of the sermon, let’s pause and recall that Jesus’ story—the story of the so-called “prodigal son” is the third of three stories told in response to this: the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling … bellyaching because Jesus seemed to prefer the company of the impure and the outcast, the whores and pushers and petty thieves to the pious and proper scribes and Pharisees. Maybe their personal feelings were hurt … maybe they liked Jesus and wanted to be liked in return, but more at stake was that, on the one hand, Jesus seemed to pass himself off as a Rabbi who claimed an unusually close relationship with God, yet, on the other hand, how could anyone who was close to God have any kind of proximity to those whom God hated … whom God ignored … whom God cursed … because of the filthy, reprobate lives these human vermin lived. “Thank you, God, that I am not like these wretched … people” was a prayer a Pharisee might be heard praying.

Who gets to speak for the mind of God? Well, Jesus makes his case. But he doesn’t argue with them in a conventional manner, but sits down and tells a story … and then another story … and, finally, another.

The first story tells of a shepherd who should have been fired, if not executed, for leaving 99 of the 100 sheep under his care to go out and search for the one wandering lamb. Not even the best shepherd brings back all of his sheep alive … which shepherd would go in search of one lost sheep while leaving the 99 others untended? On earth or in heaven, what kind of economy is this? No matter, the shepherd finds the lamb, puts it over his shoulders and calls his neighbors together to celebrate. Ludicrous.

The second story is like the first … a lost coin instead of a lamb … a woman now instead of a man … the house is swept and searched carefully until the coin is found … and rather than privately expressing her thanks, the woman calls together a block party to celebrate her good news. Bizarre.

Strange behavior that gets even stranger in the third and final story. And if these were merely stories told in no particular context, Jesus would be thought of as an eccentric … an odd duck in a pond full of odd ducks.

The stories tell of things of seemingly nominal worth that aren’t worth a lot of risk or lost sleep if they cease to exist. But Jesus is helping to cast God in a new light—God who takes all of creation seriously, not just part … God who takes all of the human family seriously, not just some … God who takes riotously outrageous JOY when the disparate parts and pieces of God’s creation come back together in a unified whole.

It’s tempting to make the father in the story “God” … it’s an easy allegorical jump … and even if we stoutly resist turning Jesus’ parables into allegory, we can yet see that the father who runs out to greet his son who was lost and is now found hints in a fleshy way at the God of all creation whom Jesus thinks the elder son Pharisees and scribes have seriously misunderstood.

Let’s listen in on some of the language that is used in the story. Throughout the first two-thirds of the story, The story refers to a “father who had two sons” … the reference is always generationally vertical … father/son … son/father … it is only when the elder son comes back from the fields to find a wedding-like celebration going on that he is told: “Your BROTHER has come …”.

We know well the furious, raging response of the elder brother … his father’s other son, who insulted his family, declared them as good as dead, squandered his inheritance in disgusting ways has now come home to spend the elder brother’s inheritance. The fatted calf is the elder brother’s fatted calf. To the father who is seeking to placate him, the older son refers to “this son of yours”. He absolutely, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge kinship, brotherhood. “This son of yours!” ‘He may be your son, but he’s not my brother!’

The father will not bed dissuaded: “My son” he calls him, “my Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." ’

This brother of yours. Whoever is the son of the father is also your brother. Whoever is a child of God is also our sibling, our brother, our sister, a part of our common family.

This parable comes at the very center of Luke’s gospel. It is the final of three terse stories told in quick succession. It comes at a time when the very nature of God’s being and the nature God’s love is at stake. The stories, and in fact, all of Luke’s gospel, seem to being asking the question: which version, which image of God shall we take to be true: the God who nurses the elder son’s self-righteous anger, or the God who sprints into the desert to welcome his lost son. Jesus clearly stands over against all of the religious authorities of his faith and his day in declaring that God is the God of the loving welcome.

It is the elder son in us that makes us persist in naming the parable “The Prodigal Son” which is a reference to the younger son’s profligate behavior. But in fact, the “prodigality” in the story is far less in the younger son’s exploits than it is the father whose love is so deep, so boundless, so durable that against all reasonable behavior and all conventional culture and understanding declares that being in relationship trumps whatever it is anyone has done in their past.

But there is another part of our human nature … roots of bitterness that dig their way into us whenever we feel that God is too good to others and not good enough to us. Typically, we want mercy for ourselves and justice—hard justice—for others. But Jesus’ stories call for us to celebrate with God because God has been merciful not only to us, but to other as well, even to those we would not have otherwise accepted into our fellowship.

A Jewish story tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appear to this farmer and granted him three wishes, BUT with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he recieved a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God’s goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.

If God weeps when we are priggish and cold in our welcome, if God gasps and groans from the depths of God’s being when we are misers of mercy and pinchpennies of grace … if God weeps and groans at these, let us simply try and imagine God’s joy … God’s celebration … God’s divine elation … when we come to ourselves … when we experience a complete breakdown of the old attitudes and opinions that keep us from fellowship with the rest of the human family … when we realize that it is WE, YOU and ME, and not only the despised “other” that are the lost sheep that God so diligently seeks, that we, YOU and ME, are the lost coin that God, like a great cosmic homemaker, sweeps and cleans until we emerge from the dirt and brokenness of our tidy little lives … that we, YOU and ME, are the both the younger AND the elder son, each lost so nearly irretrievably in his own way, yet never quite beyond the joyous grasp of the galloping father who runs out to welcome and embrace us and welcome us back to FULL membership in the FULL family of God. It is when we come to ourselves and know ourselves to be brother and sister to each other and to all that we finally complete our hero’s journey, that we become, at last, whole. When we finally realize that “we are one”, that we ourselves become “one” as well.

And so, I invite you at last to enter the feast … to come out of the shadows or out of that far land where you have taken yourself or where any reluctance to embrace another or even your own self has taken you. Come from that place where you are to the feast that is, even now, being prepared for you. It is a feast of the land that God has given to us and to all. It is a feast and a land brimming with all of the good gifts—the produce of the land—that God seeks to give to God’s people.

And let us proclaim that the name of the one who prepares the feast is “amazing grace” and “wondrous Love” … it is that amazing grace and wondrous love that welcomes us … and welcomes all.

And so let us one and let us all say and sing with our lives and our decisions, our love and our ministry: “Let us build a house where love may dwell, and ALL may enter in” and let us all say and sing with our lives and our decisions, our love and our ministry: “… all are welcome … all are welcome … all are welcome in this place.”

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Abundant Enough

A Shell Ridge Sermon by Jennifer W. Davidson preached March 11, 2007
Third Sunday in Lent: Gifts in the Wilderness

Sermon Texts: Isaiah 55:1-19; Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9

We are now, already, at the half-way point of Lent, believe it or not. It has been a somewhat unusual Lenten season this year, as we have immersed ourselves not in penitence and self-denial but in the promises of God:

Through all of Lent we are keeping in mind God’s comforting words spoken by Isaiah: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” We have listened to the flowing water in our fountain, and we have allowed ourselves, perhaps, to be drawn into the wilderness time, at the least to remember the occasions when we have been in the wilderness places of life—and to remember the gifts that God provides even where all seems desolate, lonely, and lost. “A way in the wilderness; and rivers in the desert.”

On Ash Wednesday a number of us gathered around the fountain and saturated ourselves with God’s promise that “You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” The first Sunday in Lent we lavished ourselves in apples and honey as we remembered God’s promise to the Israelites to lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Last week we feasted at the banquet table of communion as we renewed our confidence, along with Abraham, that we will see the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Our hunger comes in many different forms.

Elliot was about three years old when I found myself suddenly overwhelmed one morning by all that I needed to do in order to properly equip him for this world. I must have made the mistake of venturing “up the hill” from our humble, seminary housing apartment in the Mt Airy section of Philadelphia to the prestigious, wealthy enclave Chestnut Hill only a mile or so away—though light years in terms of income and class--along Germantown Ave. Occasionally Elliot and I would ride the bus up the cobblestone street and debark at the neighborhood-built, all-wooden playground. After a hearty playtime, sometimes we would walk on up to the shopping district, gazing in the windows of the boutiques, and occasionally stopping for a coffee and apple juice at Starbucks.

I must have picked up the Parents Express newspaper on our latest excursion on a beautiful spring day—and I found myself on this particular morning before work paging through the dozens of pages of advertisements for children’s day camps being offered around the Greater Philadelphia region that summer. The choices were endless, but the cumulative effect, at least on this particular Mom, was that I would hopelessly fail my son if I didn’t sign him up for one of these Summer day camps immediately.

There was the Settlement School, where he could begin his life as a musical prodigy; or maybe he needed to develop his physical prowess in this dog-eat-dog world and I ought to sign him up for Soccer or Baseball camp (or both!). Maybe he needed to get a headstart (hardly a headstart already at age three, the newspaper seemed to imply) in computers—and I should send him to the camp to teach him programming. Or, given that there was hardly a day that Elliot went without wearing a cape, maybe I should send him to Drama Camp. Weren’t acting lessons long past due for this three-year old?

The longer I sat considering these options, none of which we could afford in the first place, the more discouraged and depressed I grew. And the more Elliot’s future seemed to loom before me in grey colors of misspent potential. It was clear to me on this particular morning that his could hardly be a childhood future full of lazy summer days, reading by the open window, playing hide and seek until dark with the neighborhood kids, shaping mudpies, playing street hockey, or seeing who could make the longest skid marks in the streets with their bikes (as my childhood was)! No, it was clear to me on that morning that if I didn’t send Elliot to camp that very summer to develop and hone some important life skill—and not only that summer but every summer after that, no matter what the tuition might drain out of us—well, then I would fail him as a parent.

It was all too much, but somehow we were going to have to figure out a way to pull it off—if we wanted our kid to have a rosy future, not a grey one, some competitive chance at making it in this society.

I’d no sooner resolved myself to this thoroughly depressing acceptance of reality, when I glanced up and saw my kid, still only three years old, hungrily gazing up at me—all packed up and ready for daycare. Doug’s hand was on the door as they were hurrying off for the day. Elliot looked at me a bit confused and asked me glumly: “No breakfast today, Mom?”
I hope I never forget that day—when I got so overwhelmed by the pressure to provide the best future possible for my child that I completely forgot to take care of him in the moment he needed me. I sent my kid off to daycare that day without his breakfast. I knew his teacher kept oatmeal on the ready for the families that mismanaged their time on any given morning. He would be okay. But for me, the lesson was stark. I was so concerned with the future, I forgot to be present to the moment.

I tossed that Parents Newspaper into the recycling immediately after Elliot and Doug left. Elliot would be all right with lazy summer days, I decided, just as I had been when I was growing up. What he needed was a family that cared about him here and now. And in every here and now to come. That would be abundance enough.

This morning we have the offer of great abundance from the hands of God in Isaiah 55:8 “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Here is a true invitation to fullness of life, and all of it gift!

Just as God’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey came to the Israelites while they were wandering in the wilderness, after their exodus from Egypt and their liberation from slavery, so this promise recorded in Isaiah comes to God’s people just as they are preparing, once again, to embark on a long journey—this time heading back to the Promised Land after generations of being in exile. Truth is, many of the exiled Israelites weren’t too sure this was good news. They’d gotten comfortable in their new land, and many of them felt settled there. Though they were in exile, they only knew of the so-called promised land from the stories of their grandparents. Going home wasn’t really going home for them. It was going to a place they’d never seen; a place that had been ransacked and destroyed years before; a place they would need to rebuild from the ground up: from city walls to the walls of the temple, everything lay in ruins back there.

God’s promise, in this case, is only good news for those who were indeed thirsting: for those who had no money to buy what they needed to eat. But many of the Israelites at this time seemed to have enough money to waste. Abundant enough money that God is compelled to ask them, through Isaiah: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and labor for that which does not satisfy?”

The question continues to have resonance today. At least it does for me. That morning, when I imagined Elliot’s future, all looked bleak. Because suddenly I’d gotten completely swept up in the belief that in order for Elliot to succeed in life, there were certain things we had to do, ways we would be compelled to spend our money in order to invest in our child’s future. My hunger for his success in the world obscured my ability to perceive his actual hunger in the moment for the nourishment he needed to grow that very day.

Thomas Merton called such desires social compulsions which are manifested in the continuing need for success and approval caused by the lurking fear of failure. As a result there is a steady urge, a compulsion, to prevent failure by gathering more and more things to oneself: whether more work, more money, or more friends. All of this acquisitiveness is done in an effort to bulwark ourselves; in an effort to keep ourselves from truly facing the hunger within.

Henri Nouwen points out that one of the main enemies of the spiritual life is greed. When our sense of self depends on what we can acquire, then greed flares up when our desires are frustrated. The more work, the more money, the more possessions, the more people we can pull into ourselves, then the more we are able to make a case for our success in life. Unfortunately, these are exactly that which does not nourish us and what does not satisfy.
Far from it, in fact. Because in our consumerist society we are kept in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and desire. It is to our economy’s benefit that we are always dissatisfied with what we have. The lure of new and supposedly improved draws us irresistibly to the mall on Saturday, or to i-tunes, or Amazon from the comfort of our own couch. A consumerist economy, such as the one in which we live, thrives when people spend their money on that which does not satisfy. Because if we were to realize that we had enough already, and abundantly so at that, then what would become of the Gross National Product?

This past Wednesday evening, a group of about twelve of us gathered in the sanctuary to experience contemplative prayer together. We started our time out by reflecting on the wisdom of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. These were women and men who lived in the desert of Egypt beginning in the third century. They modeled their spiritual lives after Jesus’ time in the wilderness (from which we have the temptation narrative that opened us into our Lenten journey this year) and Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist—about whom we read in the gospel of Luke this past Advent.

Not a lot survives from these Desert Mothers and Fathers, but we do have collections of their sayings which, when taken together, form what is called a Desert Spirituality.

A man named Arsenius is one of the most highly revered of the Desert Fathers. He lived from the mid-third to early fourth century, for fifty five years in solitude, in the desert of Egypt. Once a Roman educator who had considerable wealth and status, Arsenius gave all of that up in order to descend into his own sense of hunger for God’s presence in his life. When one morning he prayed, “Lord, lead me into the way of salvation,” he heard a voice saying to him in response: “Be silent.”

To descend into silence, as some of us experienced this past Wednesday, is not really the easiest or most comforting thing to do. In fact, it can be deeply unsettling. Because when we descend into silence, when we seek to clear out the constant noise, the clutter, the never-ending wordiness of our lives—we are often forced to confront precisely the things we’ve been keeping ourselves so busy to avoid! Our own sense of emptiness, our own profound hunger for God’s healing presence, our own unquenched thirst for God’s living, loving waters.
Our psalmist this morning surely had descended into that silence before: “My soul thirsts for you,” the psalmist writes: “My flesh faints for you. As in a barren and dry land where there is no water.” To know our need for God as a deep and aching thirst, to know our desire for God as a terrible, longing ache—these are not comfortable places to be. And very often, when we begin to practice a form of prayer that does not fill up the space between God and us with an endless stream of words, requests, and petitions—then we are forced to confront that terrible longing, that yawning ache for God.

Years later, when Arsenius asked a second time: “Lord, lead me to the way of salvation,” the voice that spoke to him not only said: “Be silent,” but also “Pray always.” Henri Nouwen writes that:
To pray always—this is the real purpose of the desert life. Solitude and silence can never be separated from the call to unceasing prayer. If solitude were primarily an escape from a busy job, and silence primarily an escape from a noisy [world], they could easily become very self-centered forms of asceticism. But solitude and silence are for prayer. The Desert Fathers [and Mothers] did not think of solitude as being alone, but as being alone with God. They did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God. Solitude and silence are the context within which prayer is practiced.

The command that Arsenius hears is the very same invitation that God extends in our Isaiah text: “Incline your ear, and come to me, listen, so that you may live.”

This is the marvelous wonder of God’s love for us: it is in the experience of our hunger that we are fed; it is in the realization of our thirst, that we know it quenched. So much so, that the Isaiah text equates listening to God with eating well: in verse 2 God says: “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

In fact, it is the same for the psalmist who writes: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the night watches.”

In our hunger for God, we are fed. In our listening for God, we eat well. In the silence of our prayers, our souls are satisfied with the richest of feasts.

Listen and Eat. Taste and See. Be silent. Pray always. The Desert Mothers and Fathers literally walked into the desert and remained there for year after year. Carlo Carretto, who became a desert monk in 1954 at the age of 44, acknowledges that not everyone is called to a desert life. “But if you cannot go into the desert,” he writes, “you must nonetheless ‘make some desert’ in your life. Every now and then leaving others and looking for solitude to restore, in prolonged silence and prayer, the stuff of your soul. This is the meaning of ‘desert’ in your spiritual life.”

A final image: a fig tree that has yet to produce fruit. An impatient land owner. And a compassionate gardener. The landowner, frustrated by the fig trees aberrant behavior, demands that the tree be cut down. The landowner, like John the Baptist in Luke 3, has no patience for trees which do not bear fruit. And like John the Baptist, he urges the use of the axe, which even now lies at the roots of the tree. But the gardener, like the Compassionate Christ, has other plans: “Another year,” he pleads.

And in that year, we get the sense, this gardener will lavish that tree with more tender loving care than that fig tree has ever known before. He will nourish it, dig around it, love it, and urge it to fulfill its potential. I like to think of that year ahead as the tree’s wilderness year: the making of the desert, the abundant enough in the life that fig tree.

We don’t know the end of this fig tree’s story. But that’s because the ending is not the important part here: it is the tending, the listening, the tasting, the hunger and the thirst, it is the abundant enough of God’s lovingkindness that is the real story here.

Be silent. Pray Always. Be hungry. Eat richly. Taste and See that God is good.