Monthly Archives: September 2012

O May My Life Be Bread: A Morning Offering

O may the Sower’s seed

fall in a ready place:

the open heart your furrowed field,

a clearing tilled by grace.

O may the promised rain

find buried grain down deep

and raise up singing shoots of wheat

where hope was fast asleep.

O may good workers come

to gather in the gold

and set a table in the world

with joy a hundredfold.

O may my life be bread

love-kneaded and increased

to feed the guests dear Love invites

to revel at the  Feast.

Rain: A Prayer of Thanks

There is too much to be thankful for.

The goodness of so many years

should be clearer; each face and word,

each discovery and delight delineated,

so that all may be praised accordingly,

with emotions appropriate to each thing.

But this much accumulated grace

is indistinct, it can’t be sorted.

It is like trying to pinpoint precisely why

sharp air in autumn pleases me,

or why, in the wee hours, hard rain

on the roof brings me acquiescing

to the fact of death.

There is too much to be thankful for.

Therefore let this accusation,

that you are too much for me,

stand for now in the place of praise.

Which One of You, Having a Cow…? [Luke 14:5]

She got here the way

we all do, tripped up by fate,

or lured by the promise of more;

the same way we all do,

through a hole in a fence

she needed to squeeze through

because the grass was greener

on the other side;

or because so many grackles

suddenly rose in a loud

shudder of wings and caws

from that irresistible ditch.

She got here the way we all do,

tripped up, led on, curious,

ignorant of the laws of gravity,

or defiant of them and of all

the things our mothers told us.

At the brink, at the height

of freedom and enjoyment,

just this far from smelling

the clover, her knees buckled

and she fell in.

Now, like the pitiable rest of us

wedged between steep sides

looking up at sky, she is

terrified and breathing hard.

It’s not a day appointed for rescues,

but she got here the way we all do;

so you over there, retrieve the ladder,

and you, the harness and ropes.

And will someone please make

coffee?  We’re bound to be here all night.

Gardens and God: A Reflection on Practices

Genesis 1:9-13; Matthew 13: 1-9; 18-23

I am a city person, terminally urban. When we bought our last house, a handsome historic Greek Revival, it was in Somerville, the most densely-settled 4 square miles in Massachusetts. Unlike our former dwelling, however, this house had a small yard, and the previous owner had made the most of it. She’d created a beautiful blossoming border all around the big old house.

After we signed the papers and moved in, it took me a couple of months to understand that along with the house we’d also bought the garden. It took me another month to realize that somebody would have to take care of it! That turned out to be me.

Now, I’d never gardened before, but I came eventually to love weeding and watering, fertilizing, planting and planning. I appreciated even the yucky tasks — setting beer out for the slugs and picking off the crimson bugs that threatened the lilies.

Acquiring a love for something changes your outlook. You pay attention differently. Before I had the garden, I listened to weather reports to decide what to wear or to find out if the Sox would play. After I got started in the garden, what I wanted to know most was whether there’d be a long, soaking rain overnight, or whether I’d have to get up and lug the hose around. How long would the muggies last? Would there be a thunderstorm with damaging hail that could break the blue spikes at the back of the border?

Another thing the garden taught me was that you cannot accomplish everything all at once. I learned that it was bad for my back and bad for the garden to do too much, to spend hours on end fussing at it. But by tending only one part, doing only one chore carefully each day, the border of blossom around my house thrived, and I did too.

At first light and at last, I would sometimes go outside just to look at it, and people used to stop and look at it with me. And when they complimented me, I felt almost humiliated, struck in my soul by the disproportion between my efforts and the garden’s beauty. I’d think to myself, “Nothing I did made this happen.”

Thus I discovered anew the paradox everyone who deals in creativity and beauty knows well: if I hadn’t worked hard at my garden, it would have been a tangled mess. You know the old joke about the minister who stopped on his morning walk to admire a neighbor’s garden. The neighbor was weeding and watering, and the minister couldn’t resist a theological reflection: “Isn’t it wonderful,” he gushed, “what human beings and God can do together!” The sweaty man looked up and said, “Sure is, Reverend. You shoulda seen this garden when God was doing it alone!” Without me — no garden. But I had nothing at all to do with the beauty and pleasure it became for me and for others who saw it. The garden was in fact an extravagant gift.

Jesus says: A man went out to plant, scattering seed everywhere. Some never sprouted — the birds got to it first, or it landed on soil too rocky for roots. Some seed that did germinate got choked off by weeds, and some couldn’t get enough sun. But some fell on good earth: it got the right light and enough rain, and yielded thirty, sixty and a hundred-fold. Jesus explains: the seed is the word of God. Not everyone who hears it will take it in. But if we do, what can happen to us is beyond dreaming.

I used to hear this story as a summons to examine yourself, feel guilty and get busy. Am I the rocky soil? Do I choke off the voice of God in my life like thorns? Maybe I’d better pile on more compost, weed more diligently, shoo away cats, squish bugs and drown slugs with greater and grimmer determination. But too much of this sort of thing turns the parable into a spiritual work ethic — not Jesus’ point, I think.

As practically everyone knows by now, if you’ve ever sat through a sermon on this story, in the Palestine of Jesus farming could be a real hit or miss operation. You went out, tossed the seed indiscriminately, and hoped for the best. The best was about ten-fold. So when Jesus says that his fictional farmer might get a hundred percent yield, real farmers probably laughed in his face — it was beyond anyone’s experience.

Jesus was making an agricultural promise he couldn’t keep. But he was making a spiritual promise he had absolute confidence in: God wants to produce that kind of yield in our lives, in our human garden. This is a parable about a God who can and will make much more out of our efforts to be beautiful and fruitful than is proportionate. I know this now that I know a little about gardening.

God asks us only to come to terms with the fact that we bought the garden along with the house, and to cultivate what has already been planted in us. Just to tend a little to it, routinely — ruminating on the scriptures, worshiping with a community of faith, asking for what we need in daily prayer, giving thanks to God for all we have and for who we are, trying to bring the wisdom of Christ to our lives in small things and large, never getting out of daily touching distance of real human suffering, resolutely resisting the little evils that populate our day, putting ourselves in the way of beauty, meeting the lovely neighbor, welcoming the stranger and loving the enemy, letting ourselves fully enjoy the pleasure of the simplest things, and disciplining ourselves to believe that God is passionate about us and desires our good (for of all the tasks of the garden, this one is perversely the hardest of all).

After a while we’ll begin to feel a certain devotion to our tasks. We’ll begin to feel a need to be doing small things daily. And that in turn will become a blessed routine without which we will feel odd, at sea, a little off kilter.  And gradually, this simple daily discipline will become a deep passion. What was a chore will become a gift.

We will begin paying attention differently too, hearing differently and caring differently. Our interests and priorities will begin to shift. We may judge with more compassion and less narrow-mindedness. We may be less self-interested, more concerned for the good of people who are lacking and vulnerable. We may become less obsessed with our image or abilities, more settled and self-accepting, more open to others and less self-protective; more able to forgive and be forgiven, more able to relinquish our securities and our firmly-held but rarely thought-through opinions; more painfully aware of the pain of the world; more creative in making a difference even in the smallest of ways; more able to enjoy and more gratefully able to give and receive pleasure.

And after a few seasons of such patient daily tending, we will begin to experience that same paradox that people who deal in creativity and beauty know: the harvest we will have become is not of our own making. Rather, it will strike us as a great and extraordinary gift, full of mercy and mystery.

And when others start noticing our more centered lives; when people are attracted to God because of us; when someone inquires about our gardening secrets and growing tips, we will respond not in false modesty, but in all truth: we did not make ourselves loving and just; we did not by our own wisdom and skill help someone in our family change and live; it was not our effort that produced a reconciliation or a compromise in our circle of friends; it was not just our organizing skill that prompted the company to act more fairly or the politicians to work more diligently for the good of all. We will live gratefully in the great wonderment of the hundred-fold yield. All along it was God, we will say, all along it was the Spirit in us, just as Jesus promised.

And when we use the word “grace,” we will know whereof we speak: we will have become intimately persuaded that life is not about achievement, acquisition and productivity; not about earning God’s, our own, other people’s or some free-form cosmic approval; not a protracted struggle to get the love we never got and wish we had (and that would never be enough for us anyway), but about love already given and available in infinite supply, about gifts bestowed and received, mercy showered down and soaked up, and blessing all around. We may plant and weed and water, but God alone makes things mature, including us, including justice, including happiness, including desire.

God wants to give us this ridiculous, unbelievable yield. Maybe it’s hard to accept that we could be the object of this kind of generosity, hard to credit that God could be so besotted with us. But it’s the message of Christ, and we can at the very least try to live as if we know it to be true, in a daily discipline of refusing the internal voices that tell us it can’t be. If we get even that far — even if all we have is desire — God’s creative commitment to us will make us joyful, grateful cultivators of the gardens God gave us to tend: our souls and bodies, the family we live in, the town we are citizens of, the nation and world for which we bear responsibility, and the church wherein we learn about and celebrate the beauty of God’s work. And we will bear fruit, thirty, sixty, one hundred-fold.

You can trust God to produce this beauty, to produce it with or without you, whether you’re lugging a hose or taking a nap in the shade. You can trust that God will bless with extravagant yields your desire as well as your deeds, your deeds that flow from desire, and your sighs too deep for words.

Christ the gardener greeting Mary: Lavinia Fontana, “Noli Me Tangere,” 1581

St. Peter’s Fish [Matthew 17:24-27]

I think he misses fishing. In a boat, he knew what he was doing. After the keel grated across sand and they were off, he was at home. Out on the water in the wee hours, there wasn’t much he needed to say to others who worked alongside. Casting nets under stars required stamina, not conversation.

Now he has to talk a lot more than he’s used to. He gets himself in trouble every time he opens his mouth. On land, forgive me, he is a fish out of water. This time it’s the tax. They asked him, and he answered hotly, without skipping a beat  —  the teacher pays his due. But he didn’t know if what he said was true.

Jesus is indulgent. As if he knows Peter will soon be telling a bigger lie by the light of courtyard fires. If he can forgive him that whopper (and he will), he can forgive this little fish story. Jesus will make good. He will pay the tax. For Peter. And to avoid offense. That’s why, having put his foot in his mouth, Peter is coming down here to discover what’s in mine.

Soon he’ll be dropping in a line, fishing again. And all I ask in return for this favor, Lord—for this neat trick we concocted to save his face—is that, after removing the coin, he might take the hook out too, and throw me back.

What If…? Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman

Mark 7:24-37

In my Bible, this passage has a bold-print heading that says it’s about ‘the Syrophoenecian woman’s faith.’ But I’m not exactly sure what the editors think ‘faith’ is in this story. Are they referring to the way the woman threw herself at Jesus’ feet? Maybe to them that’s ‘faith’—to want something so much it drives you to your knees.

Faith or not, it was high drama, but Jesus still said no.

He was hiding out in Gentile territory like an overexposed celebrity avoiding his fans, and she intruded. But that’s not why he told her no. He refused her because she was the wrong kind, the wrong religion, the wrong nationality. He said, in effect, “Don’t come crying to me, you dog.”

She didn’t budge. Maybe that’s what the editors call ‘faith’—pigheadedness, willfulness that won’t take no for an answer. Maybe. But if so, they should have entitled it, “The Syrophoenician woman’s chutzpah.”

Or maybe ‘faith’ means she just got fed up. If all this happened the way Mark says it did, she must have been furious when Jesus called her a dog. ‘OK. Two can play this game,’ she might have said. When she came back at him with that crack about crumbs from the table, Jesus threw in the towel: ‘For saying that, you win,’ he said. ‘Your daughter’s demon is gone.’

I’ll bet she didn’t thank him. I’ll bet she just turned around and went home. The Syrophoenecian woman’s faith. Well, maybe, but maybe it was mostly that she got annoyed. The way Jesus treated her, it’s a wonder they didn’t call this section, “Jesus acts out,” or  “Chapter 7, in which Jesus gets up on the wrong side of the bed.”

Or maybe even “Jesus the bigot.” After all, his first impulse was to withhold from a foreigner the health he’d given to his own people, and that sounds like bigotry to me. But maybe not. Maybe he intended to help her all along and was just testing her first, upping the emotional ante to make her strut her stuff, to show what she was made of.

I had an Italian Catholic grandmother whose daughters, my aunties, were talking about birth control over coffee in her kitchen one day. They were confessing that they felt guilty about using the pill. ‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’ she told them.

‘But,’ they said, ‘the pope says it’s a sin!’

‘I know he said it,’ she replied, ‘but he doesn’t really mean it.’

Maybe Jesus didn’t really mean it either. Maybe when he said no, he was just toeing the public party line. Or maybe I’m missing something because I’m just speculating. Maybe more exegesis would help. Maybe a word study. You probably already know this, for example: Jesus didn’t say ‘dog’ exactly; he said ‘puppy.’ The slur he used for that woman and her kind had endearing overtones.

Feel better? I don’t. Jesus’ answer was still no. There’s no way around it. Unlike the pope, he meant it. His ministry was not for the likes of her.

At the time this story was written down, Mark’s church may have been fighting about whether to admit all comers without restrictions, or to enforce limits and conditions of membership. Reading between the lines, it seems Mark favored a big tent approach. Maybe this story is PR for that opinion. ‘Brothers and sisters,’ he could be saying, ‘Jesus started out thinking it best to restrict his ministry to his own kind; but a Gentile woman (you heard me, a Gentile woman) made him see a bigger picture. Now, if Jesus could see it, why can’t we?’

Maybe Jesus is Mark’s trump card, the converted champion of an open door. If Mark had written the heading for his story, maybe it would’ve been, ‘WWJD?’ or ‘Touched by a Gentile.’

But the editors of my Bible called this story, ‘The Syrophoenecian woman’s faith.’ She’s the one who interests them. So let’s get back to her.

For her daughter’s sake she’s willing to accept Jesus’ disdain, but only up to a point, and she doesn’t have to like it. She gets annoyed, gives as good as she gets, does whatever it takes, and gets what she came for.

She’s fabulous. And she reminds me of God.

Now, when we hear gospel stories we tend to look for clues to the character of God in what Jesus says and does. We tend to identify with the uncomprehending disciples, the sick in need of healing, the lamb who goes astray, the prodigal child ashamed of his life. But what if in this story Jesus represents us—myopic, a little smug and in need of a breakthrough, people with all the answers?

What if in this story Jesus stands for us—constrained, seeing the world in far too circumscribed a way, and thus inhospitable, ungracious, unable to entertain new persons and new ideas?

What if Jesus stands for the way we act when we’re scared, the way we cling to what we’ve always known, the way we dig in instinctively to defend what worked before when the first serious challenge to the usual arrangement threatens to blow old assumptions out of the water?

Maybe in this story Jesus is us—human beings in need of breakthrough. And maybe the woman is God.

But if she is God, a patient, tender and compassionate God she’s not. Not the nice God we prefer—understanding, open-handed—who gives us space to fail and grow. This God’s willing to take insult and suffer our neglect, but only up to a point, and she doesn’t have to like it. She gets annoyed, fed up, gives as good as she gets.

She’s the God who intrudes and won’t budge until we throw in the towel and give her what she wants—namely, that we change our minds, enlarge our vision, expand our mission, and share a life of utmost generosity with all comers.

She will do whatever it takes to get what she wants from us—a commitment to heal her suffering daughters and her ailing sons, to extend the healing beyond our own kind, beyond our well-known and well-defended boundaries.

Our God is gentle and kind and patient, the Bible says. And that’s a God you and I need and depend on. But I think the Bible says that God is also a Syrophoenecian woman who won’t take no for an answer.

She’s a dog too, but that, it turns out, is no slur—it’s a saving grace, if, that is, you agree with me that this section of Mark’s gospel should be entitled, ‘The divine bird-dog,’ or, ‘The hound of heaven.’

Whatever she is, she is no shrinking violet. She makes a formidable claim on us. And she continues to do whatever it takes to create in us an ever larger heart, to motivate us to an even larger embrace of the world. Her indefatigable purpose is healing, the integrity of life, justice in the nations; and she will keep at it until, in Isaiah’s words, the wilderness is in bloom, eyes shed no more tears, and no one and nothing wicked accosts us on the highways of life.

She brooks no vacillation on our part, no doubts about whether we can or should grow and change and commit to her cause. She has no personal space issues either; she is so near she came in the flesh and now indwells us.

She will not cease to breathe down our necks and beg at our feet until we have to go and tell her story, until we are not the only ones who give her what she came for, not the only ones who throw in the towel to the saving grace she offers, not the only ones who see her coming and rejoice.

Don’t Make Me Come in There!

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81

I once had supper with a young adult parishioner who was returning to college for her final year. Over enchiladas, we chatted about odds and ends of things, including a new love interest. At some point in the conversation (I can’t remember now how we got there), she remarked on a familiar phenomenon—that spooky feeling you get when, seemingly out of nowhere, a phrase comes out of your mouth and it sounds exactly like something your mother would say.

You know what that’s like, don’t you? You swear you’ll never say to your kids the often oddball things your parents said to you when you were growing up. But you do—and you say them with the same tone of voice, the same facial expressions, and the same absolute conviction your parents felt when they warned you, against all the laws of physics, “some day your face will freeze like that!”

“If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?”

“You’re going to put your eye out with that thing!”

“’I don’t know’ is not an answer!”

“Always wear clean underwear when you go out because you could get hit by a car and taken to the hospital, and…”

Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

“Eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes! Have you ever seen a rabbit with glasses?”

“Don’t make me come in there!”

Parental pronouncements like these are hard-wired into the human genome. Even as we speak, it’s a sure bet that in East Afghanistan, Northern Lapland, and Lower Slobbovia, parents are saying these very things to their kids too. Where does this stuff come from? Why do parents feel compelled to lay it on their kids?

If you’re a parent, you know. Most of you feel an almost irrational desire to spare your children the trouble that’s out there in the world, as well as the trouble that’s in here, in the heart. Although you know perfectly well in your heads that not even the best advice can assure physical, emotional, and social safety, and not even the wisest rules and regulations can produce well-mannered, respectable children, you’ll never stop harping on the need to look both ways and to chew food slowly. You’ll never stop trying to make the ones you love stand up straight, use indoor voices, and share their toys. If you’ve told them once, you’ve told them a thousand times… It’s for their own good.

Sadly, not all parents feel compelled to spare children life’s grief. Sometimes the very people who are supposed to love us enough to teach, admonish, and correct us are inexcusably careless with our lives. They cause more grief than they prevent. They blow hot and violent, or cold and distant. And when the inevitable damage is done, there is not enough balm in the world to undo it.

Thankfully, most of our caregivers cared for us well, the best they knew how, anyway. Their flaws as parents may have looked unforgivable to us when we were kids, but now we know that they were merely flaws. Perhaps because we are so conscious of our own shortcomings we can more easily forgive them theirs. Perhaps because we now know a lot more about how hard it is to bring up good kids in this world, we understand that on the whole they did a pretty decent job of it. They used to tell us, “Some day you’ll thank me for this.” Chances are by now we have thanked them, or we know we should.

We heard a heated, noisy word from the prophet Jeremiah just a moment ago. Like all the prophets, he preached to a people who had been hand-picked to be the apple of God’s eye. God, we are told, has been taking meticulous care of these chosen people for generations. But they haven’t been particularly grateful or responsive. They’ve been unjust, selfish, and spiritually promiscuous, courting the affections of other “gods” who are, of course, “no-gods.” Nobody, Jeremiah tells us, was interested in the one true God anymore.

And so Jeremiah, speaking for a bereft and offended Deity, warns that there will be catastrophic consequences for this habitual economic, political, social, and spiritual infidelity. And so it came to pass, as the Bible often says. It was a nightmare scenario. The Babylonians invaded, laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed the temple of Solomon—the center of Jewish worship and the emblem of the people’s special relationship with God—and carried the people off into a bitter, generations-long exile.

Imagining this possible fate over the horizon, it’s no wonder that Jeremiah gives us an exasperated God. He likens God to a spouse who, after years of fruitless counseling and failed reconciliations, is taking this mess of a marriage to court. God wants a divorce. “I accuse you,” God says, bringing a complaint before the bench of an astonished world. “Has there ever been a case like this in all human experience?”

Jeremiah’s God is an angry plaintiff, but in this text God also resembles a parent who’s really lost it with his ungrateful, unruly, disobedient kids. God is threatening to kick them out of the house. God even threatens to unleash divine displeasure on their children’s children, which is an ancient version of what modern parents say when they want to lay the ultimate curse on recalcitrant offspring—“When you have kids, I hope they’re just like you!”

Of course, God’s not-so-holy people have heard all this before. They’ve been acting out for centuries, and the prophets have been yelling at them for centuries. It’s not hard, then, toimagine some of the people mocking Jeremiah behind his back, lip-synching the familiar admonitions as they come roaring out of his mouth. “Yeah, yeah, we know— ‘After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me?’ ‘As long as you’re under my roof, you’re going to live by my rules.’ ‘If you worship dead idols you’ll end up acting like dead idols.’ ‘Don’t make me come down there!’

Prophetic belly-aching about the waywardness of God’s people can get a bit shrill. After several chapters of the kind of tantrums the prophets are so good at throwing, you want to send ‘em all to the time-out corner. And so it’s really important to remember that the sins in question here were not inconsequential, and that God had every right to be apoplectic. After all, this was supposed to be the people that showed the world who God is—loving, merciful, just, and good. They were the people who were supposed to be an alternative community in a messed-up world, playing by new rules that remembered the poor, liberated the slave, welcomed the stranger, and beat swords into ploughshares. It flat-out defeated the whole divine purpose when they started behaving just like everybody else—exploitative, selfish, violent, and faithless.

Thus the dirty laundry Jeremiah is hanging out for all to see is not a humiliating ploy aimed solely at making the people be less naughty. God doesn’t really want Stepford children, morally perfect and perfectly presentable. There is more at stake in God’s complaint than just toeing the line. From the time that God begat this people, God has wanted them to be good, of course, but that has never been enough for God. God has a much larger hope in mind—not just good human behavior, but a new humanity altogether, and a new kind of human community. All the ranting and raving is not about proper living, it’s about abundant living.

The final lines of the passage hint at this. There God names the people’s two big sins. First, they’ve rejected God, “the fount of living water.” Living water means running water—fresh, clean, and safe. In that part of the world, a rare and precious thing. And God has promised to get it for them, to give it to them, and to keep it flowing freely. But the people aren’t taking any chances that God might actually provide for them.

And this is the second big sin God names—they abandon trust and go about providing for themselves. They build containers to capture rainwater. And in those cisterns, that water sits for a long time. And when you drink stagnant water, it’s more likely to kill you than refresh your life.

If building cisterns weren’t bad enough, God reveals in the next line that they aren’t even very well-constructed. They’re cracked. They leak like the Ted Williams Tunnel. So, it turns out that not only have the people opted for bad water over living water, they have opted for no water at all.

They have no water. That’s a biblical hint that they are dying. Metaphorically dying, of course, but in the Bible that kind of death can be a lot worse than physical death. A self-made, aimless, faithless, selfish, unjust, empty, dried up sort of existence is a fate-worse-than death.

God wants to spare them such a fate. And that’s why God rails at them through the motor-mouths of prophets like Jeremiah, picking at their behaviors, calling them to account for every big and little thing, saying whatever comes to mind, no matter how outrageous, all in the desperate hope that they won’t go stupidly down the primrose path to certain death.

Sometimes a parent’s loving concern for our overall human well-being comes gushing out in torrents of exasperation about particular unacceptable and uncouth behaviors. In the same way, God’s scolding is aimed not so much to make the people behave in particular instances, but simply to keep them alive. And not to keep them merely alive, but to give them a life they can’t create on their own, a life they can’t even dream of—a life irrigated with living water from springs that won’t go dry.

Our psalm puts it poignantly. “If only… If only you had listened, I would have fed you with the finest of wheat and honey from the rock.” If only… Now that’s a sentiment every under-appreciated parent understands. You spend hours making a fabulous dinner, set the table with care, and then the heathens descend and wolf it all down in two minutes flat. And later you find a wet tangle of brussel sprouts in the potted plant in the corner. You just wanted to please them. You just wanted to feed them. You wanted them to enjoy. If only…

God says, “Look at me! Listen to me when I correct you!” But there is a deeper invitation in that demand, an invitation to be cared for wholly, to be fed in every part of our beings as creatures, to know God’s wonder, to taste and see that God is good. Enfolded in the insistence that we behave is a more wonderful invitation to enjoyment, a summons to a pleasure-laden table where God serves up a feast at which God is happy because we are.

Parents want their children to be good—to have good values, and, if possible, good manners. And why not? But parents know that this isn’t everything. In the end, who cares if children eats peas with a knife or chew with their mouths open?  What difference will it make if they do dumb and even hurtful things from time to time? Even if they really sin and show up at Christmas with a pin-striped tattoo that says, “Yankees Forever!”, it isn’t the end of the world. Sins can be forgiven, even in Boston.

You hope they learn your values, live by your rules, keep food in their mouths while chewing, and root for the One True Team, but what you really want, what really matters is that they be happy. If you are a parent, haven’t you said that to yourself a million times? If you’re not a parent, didn’t you hope that’s what your parents wanted for you?

Even parents who rashly disown their children for marrying a Muslim, or for being transgendered, or for refusing to follow Dad into the family business, or for whatever perverse reason seems reason enough to break a relationship—even the most adamantly self-righteous parents go to their graves anguished about how the child they cut loose is doing out there in the world, wondering where she is, praying that he’ll be okay, and that somehow she’ll end up being happy—not just well-behaved, not law-abiding, not even “normal,” but simply happy.

Every lover wants to deposit the moon and stars at the feet of the beloved. Every lover aims to give the beloved a crack at ecstasy. Every lover wants to bestow fulfillment on the beloved, a gift whose precise nature is a great mystery to us and can only be intimated, but which we dearly long to possess even sight unseen.

And this is what God wants too, to give us inexplicable, unearned, uncaused, and unending joy. This is why God seems so frustrated in our text. Nobody wants what God is giving. You can’t pay us perverse children to take it! God can talk and talk till God’s face is blue, and we’ll still do just what we want to do! What’s the matter with kids today? We’re bent on living a lousy imitation of life and eating really bad food. Wheat with weevils. Sweet ‘N Low. Brackish swill from a cracked tank.

Yet all the while, a table is set for us.

All the while, the Parent waits: “Oh if today you would listen to my voice, and walk in my ways! Then I would satisfy you. Then I would feed you with the finest wheat, and honey from the rock.”

Three Creeds

I

We believe in the God of Life, whose breath is in us

and whose mercy encircles the creation.

We believe in Jesus Christ, who loved us indestructibly

and who shared our pain.

He is with us now as he promised, even to the end of the age.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, who welcomes us

into the household of faith, gives us gifts in abundance,

enlivens our hearts with joy, and urges us into the world

to testify without fear to God’s justice and grace.

Hoping against hope for the promised realm of peace,

we love one another while we live,

we honor every creature God has made,

we stand against the power of sin and death,

and we bless the earth and all that fills it.

Glory, thanks and praise be yours,

O Living God, now and forever!

Amen.

II

We believe in the wideness of God’s mercy,

wider than the sea.

We believe that no one falls outside God’s care.

We believe that in Jesus Christ,

God embraced the human condition,

our shame and our glory.

Everyone is kin to us in him.

We believe that the Holy Spirit never rests,

but works in the world to gather every creature

and seat us together at the banquet of love.

We believe we are called to a ministry of grace,

a way of hospitality.

We believe that God’s mercy is ours, and ours to share.

We believe. Lord, help our unbelief.

Amen.

III

We believe that the day is coming

when God’s grace will change the human heart,

and we will live as one with every living thing.

We believe that the day is coming

when Christ’s compassion will fill the earth,

and no one will do harm, be hurt, or feel alone.

We believe that the day is coming

when the Spirit’s freedom will unbind our souls,

and we will live generous lives for each other

with a joy no circumstance can alter.

We believe this day is coming,

and we wait and work for it with steadfast hope,

for God has promised it, and God is faithful.

Amen!

Come, Lord Jesus!

Praise for the Incarnation

 

The Divine One became human so that human beings might become divine.” — Athanasius

You dress wildflowers in every hue,

they are lovelier than Solomon.

Birds of the air do not need barns,

you feed them every day.

No sparrow tumbles from the sky unnoticed,

you mark her place in your heart.

Every creature is the love of your life,

but you wrote human names

on your open palm,

you chose our flesh to live in,

you cast your lot with us.

We gave you our deepest wounds,

you gave us your shining.

For the mystery of earth-dust divinized

by your eternal choosing,

we thank you.

For the willing body of our Christ,

we sing astonished praise.

Abundantly Far More

I don’t need to be persuaded that mercy is at the heart of the Christian gospel. And I don’t mean a feeling or attitude of mercy, but its daily practice. “Go and do likewise” is an instruction that haunts me, waking and sleeping. When Christian friends and colleagues declare, as they often do, that Christianity “all boils down to this”—feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and all the other things Jesus mentions in Matthew 25—I don’t say they are wrong. And when they approvingly quote the dictum attributed to Francis of Assissi, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary with words,” I know what they mean and don’t disagree.

If you’re living in a homeless shelter, enduring another scary day in a South Central Los Angeles, or barely keeping your head above water as a divorced parent in a middle class subdivision with three kids, no savings and bald tires, you are probably not going to feel very helped by your Christian neighbors if all they do for you is sit you down in church (as The Mikado sings) “to hear sermons/ from mystical Germans.”

Jesus didn’t ask people who came to him for lunch to be living proof of God’s all-sufficiency by giving them stones instead of fish, or by sending them off hungry to fend for themselves out in the middle of nowhere. And people who never sought the kingdom first (or at all), people who didn’t have hearts undivided and free of worldly preoccupations, were helped by Jesus anyway, even when they came to him hoping strictly for material things—new eyes, usable limbs, food for their bellies.

And yet there’s something not quite right about this reduction of discipleship to what Catholics call the corporal works of mercy. Is this really all there is, when you “boil it all down?”

Peter Gomes once put that question to a congregation in Memorial Church. He was meditating on that great scene in Matthew’s gospel in which the Baptist sends emissaries to Jesus to find out if he is “the one.” Jesus replies, “Tell John the lame walk, the blind see, the dead rise”—and, we might add, people who come out to see him but forget their lunches are lavishly fed.

There they were, all those tangible realizations, the practical stuff, the good, just and compassionate deeds for which we rightly revere Jesus, and which we rightly try to emulate as the very heart and cornerstone of our faith. But then Jesus tacks on one more enigmatic little phrase: “…and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Preach to the poor? Aren’t we supposed to be doing something – something more productive?

Some people think so, Gomes observes; but it turns out that preaching good news to the poor is the linchpin of Jesus’ ministry. Without that announcement of hope, the people he feeds, heals, or raises from the dead “have not really made much progress as human beings from the time they first met Jesus, nor do they have much of an advantage over other creatures.” If all Jesus gave to the miraculously fed and healed was “an extended, renewed license to return and take part again in the misery and sufferings of the world,” what favor has he really done them? To enjoy a full stomach, to hear, even to live again, but “to do so without promise, without horizons” is simply more of the same.

You can feed a crowd all day, Gomes says, but at the end of the day, “what you’ll have done is fill a few bellies and encourage a desperate willingness in the crowd to crown somebody—anybody—king, if only that king will keep those fishes coming.” But “if after the tangibles are taken care of, we get down to the business of gospel living for which Christ came,” the new life he offers to all who open their hearts to it, that would be something to write home about, something unimaginably powerful: nothing less than a way of being in the world “enabled and fortified by hope; by the good news of God’s acceptance that both transforms and transcends.”

The novelist, Gabriel García Márquez, touched upon this decisive “gospel life” in a curious incident he recounted to a journalist years ago. The incident took place during a gubernatorial election in a northern Mexican state where the entrenched ruling party was again on the verge of total victory. Party operatives had bought the attendance of a big crowd of villagers who, eager to earn their pesos, were patiently listening to the customary litany of PRI accomplishments – clean water, new sewers, schools, community centers, more street lights.

Rampant graft meant that everything was badly built, of course, and things broke and closed down with depressing regularity. Nonetheless, the crowd applauded on cue as each achievement was touted. But way at the back of the crowd, a small man raised a big placard on which he’d scrawled this massively subversive message: “¡Basta ya de realizaciones. Queremos promesas!” – Enough already with accomplishments! We want promises!”

Yes, I think we do. We want, and need, in fact, everything we can get—both the practice of justice and the hope of justice; both the capacity to receive the kingdom that will someday appear as a gift from the storehouse of our God who is and gives “abundantly far more” than we can imagine and the capacity to do the works of tangible love of which the kingdom is built; both the generous joys of this world and the all-sufficient joys of heaven.

Here’s the kind of ministry I believe in. It doesn’t boil anything down. It’s got a bias towards breadth and depth and height, a liking for fullness, a preference for having it all. If someone were to say, “People need bread,” I would reply, “Yes—and promises.” Or if someone were to say, “People need promises,” I would answer, “Yes—and bread.”

I believe we are most like Christ when we contend with things whole, so that if someone should say, “Our church is most faithful when it is feeding the hungry,” I would say, “Yes, it is—and when it is caught up in the ecstasy of divine love.” And if someone should say, “Our church is most truly faithful when it is at worship,” I would say, “Yes, it is—and when its life is on the line for the flesh of Christ’s flesh, the last and the least.”

The challenge for disciples lies in not dividing the gospel, in not making of it a wedge that splits action from contemplation, body from spirit, theology from practice, or ministry from buildings and grounds. The challenge is to take our life together whole—not forcing artificial choices between tradition and innovation, doctrine and pastoralia, endowment and annual giving, outreach ministries and internal fellowship, them and us (no matter how subtly such distinctions are drawn).

We’d be fools to choose one and not the other. If God’s abundance means anything, it means that God intends for us to have it all.