Woke up at 4:30 in the morning, a bad dream clinging to me. Outside my window, there's a truck idling, and I can't seem to lure sleep back.
A lecture I attended earlier this week has me thinking about control. "Doubt," Dr, Wengert told us, "is not the enemy of Christian life. Control is. Our desire to fix the problem is where the devil gets us."
It's the darkness that usually pushes us to terror, the nothing, the void that makes us want to grab something and hold it, cling to it, control it.
A few summers ago my friend Michael and I made our way by flashlight down a narrow path in the wilderness of Vermont, until we reached the sand of a lake. It was late -- we had left our friends huddled around the fire, sipping beer and watching the sparks go up. Michael sat on the shore and lit a cigarette; I shed my clothes and waded, then swam, into the dark of the water.
Floating on my back, the only sound I could hear was my own breathing. The night was clear, the stars above me reflected in the water. It was dark. The horizon was invisible, and the red glow of Michael's cigarette, now distant, was the only way to identify the shore.
I floated between water and night, suspended between the beginning and the end. It took my breath away, to know the darkness would hold me, to trust it to balance me on the fulcrum between the womb and the grave.
We make our lives on that fulcrum, daily dyings and risings that keep us oscillating sometimes gently, sometimes violently, between death and life. I spend a lot of time fighting it. Trying to control it. Trying to push my life toward something or find something that somehow, in my mind, is linked to happiness. Only that happiness was never the goal. The seam between death and life, that's where transformation occurs. Happiness is static. Transformation is painful, joyful, dynamic.
The thing is, when I can manage to trust, manage to give up enough to let that in-between place hold me, the fear vanishes. The terror dissipates and I'm left held between the night and the water, trying to tell the difference between them.
We begin, as always, with a little context.
Tonight's reading is a parable, a story that Jesus tells to relate truths that can't be fit into language. “Parable” is from the Greek parabole, which means, “something cast beside.”
Parables are not allegories. There’s a long history of interpreting parables as if they were, deciding what each item in the story symbolizes and deriving meaning from that, but parables are much more complex. In fact, the “explanations” that are given after most parables in the bible are almost certainly later additions. So we’re not going to look at them tonight.
Parables disrupt our ways of thinking. As one commentator puts it, “our doubt around their application teases us into active thought.” Parables ask us to stretch our minds. As my pastor Dr. Braxton says, "In order to teach you, I must first disorient you."
After college, I moved to the Netherlands to live with my boyfriend. I was there for over a year, and for the first couple months, I was completely and totally unemployed. He would go off to work in the morning, and for the first couple weeks, it was kind of like a vacation. I was exhausted after finishing school, and I’d laze around the house for a while and read, try and study some Dutch, go visit a museum.
But it wasn’t very fun for very long. Even after I found a job as a nanny, I felt isolated. I was nervous about trying to speak Dutch in front of my partner's friends; I feared embarrassment. I was spending a lot of time alone, and I didn’t have the money to go out to do anything special or fun. The winter in the Netherlands is damp and gray, and I was at the point where, although I was glad to be on this adventure, glad to be in a new place with someone I loved, I just missed home.
So I planted some seeds. In the middle of March, I rode my bike to the Tuincentrum, and bought the cheapest seed tray I could find. I read up on growing plants from seed, and kept the soil damp and warm by placing the tray on top of the water heater in this tiny room where everyone hung their laundry out to dry. Every morning I would peer in and check on them, filled with expectation. It was as if their survival was somehow linked to my own; if they could spring up, green and fragile from the soil, then there must be some shoot of hope and life in me.
Sowing seeds, while it may not be a common experience for us city dwellers, was deeply familiar to the folks Jesus was preaching to. Many of them made their livelihood from farming. Most of them knew the science of carefully prepping soil, the tedium of properly sowing seeds. And all of them knew that, if you were a sower, you didn’t sow seeds on the path, or on the rock or on in the thorns. You didn’t just waste seeds.
Jesus starts this parable with a confusing reversal. What he’s saying doesn’t make sense from the very beginning of the story. And in the coming chapters, he’s going to tell a lot of stories that don’t make sense, that leave people with their eyes crossed.
I think that this first parable that Matthew records is like a key. It’s a key that helps us figure out how to unlock the other parables, how to listen. Where all the other parables in Matthews Gospels begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like...” this parable, the first parable of the set we will hear, does not. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen, Jesus says as he concludes the parable. My words are scattered across every terrain, but will only take root where the soil is good, and then the harvest shall be abundant. Learn how to listen. Learn to tune your ears to my teaching.
Bring yourself for a moment back to my improvised nursery in the laundry room in the Netherlands. And imagine that, rather than planting your seed in a seed tray and placing them on top of the water heater, you’re planting them in your heart. What is the terrain like there? What fertile soil will the seed find in which to take root, or how might they struggle to take grow? Where is the soil dry and cracked, or where is it rich and damp and dark?
We share our sermons at St. Lydia’s. I invite you to share a story from your experience that relates to the text we’ve explored and the words I’ve shared.
I'm always asking people to notice things. It's a way of pulling people into a different part of their brain, of asking them to stop thinking so much and just be attentive to their bodies, their feelings. You get good at this, and suddenly realize that God's been hanging out right over your shoulder, and you never even...well, noticed.
Noticing and judgment live on opposite sides of town. And noticing and decision making are only loosely acquainted. Rather, noticing seduces us into a slow evolution of our practices, which in turn carve us into new people.
This morning I noticed that the opening phrase of Bobby McFerrin's Psalm 23 turns my choir students into different creatures. My pianist plays the opening chord, I inhale and sing the first line, and the children are suddenly motionless in their seats, ears almost visibly pricked, as that major second sounds, and each of us waits, expectantly, for a resolution that will not come.
This sermon was preached at St. Lydia's on Sunday, February 14, as part of our ongoing exploration of the book of Matthew. The text is Matthew 12:1-14. Read it here.
A little bit of context before we launch into this story. The Pharisees are a group of Jews who were known in Jesus’ time for their meticulous interpretation of the law. Jesus is engaging in a battle of the minds here, throwing scripture back at the Pharisees, trying to beat them at their own game.
Second bit of context: there was a Jewish law that the poor were allowed to eat grain from some one else’s field, and a law that you could pull an animal from a pit on the Sabbath. So these are the laws that the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of wrongly interpreting, and he’s getting right in there and arguing back.
Finally, In order to get our heads wrapped around this text, we have to wrap our heads around the Sabbath for Jews in this period. Everyone rested on the Sabbath, and everyone ate. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. The Sabbath was a day of justice, when slaves were given rest, and the hungry were fed. It was a day of honoring God, and it was taken seriously.
It’s this connection between the Sabbath and justice for God’s people that’s at the center of what happens between Jesus and the Pharisees in the grain field, and later in the Synagogue. The law that allows the poor to eat grain from the fields is another law that was put in place to make justice. Jesus’ disciples have left everything behind. They have no jobs, and are depending on meals offered by others to live. They have nothing to eat. The law about eating grain is for them.
When the Pharisees see what’s happening and criticize Jesus, he quotes the prophet Hosea: For I [God] desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.
So basically, focus on your ceremonies, your offerings, get your worship right, God’s saying, but remember that we do these things because of what fuels them: love of God, love of mercy, love of justice.
There’s a wonderful ironic subtext in this story:
The Pharisees are so concerned with Jesus keeping the Sabbath. They’re so concerned with the letter of the law, that they miss the reason the law was enacted: to feed the hungry and give rest to the weary. They monitor adherence to the law while missing its intent.
I’ve found that church is a place where it’s easy to get confused about why we do what we do. Sometimes in churches, we spend a lot of time fussing, and not too much time loving. And it’s almost as if the fact that we are church, in and of itself, produces our incredible fussiness.
We measure the distance on either side of the altar candles or fight about how many wreaths to put in the sanctuary, almost intentionally using these details to distract us from the reason we’re really there – because the reason we’re really there is actually incredibly terrifying. Actually loving, actually living, actually knowing God…those things are big and scary. Fussing about the altar cloths…small and controlable. It’s terrifyingly easy to reduce the rituals that teach us to love each other into symbols that remind us to how we used to love.
We share our sermons at St. Lydia’s, and I’d like to invite you to respond to the text and what I’ve offered from your own experience.
Today Lydians and New York Sacred Harp Singers collaborated to hold an Ash Wednesday Service in Union Square. There's something wild and powerful about marking a stranger's head with ashes and reminding them they're going to die. Doing it in 30 degree weather on a New York City street is even wilder and stranger.
Highlights of today included:
-the woman who received ashes without getting off her cell phone
-the New York Parks Department worker who rolled up for ashes with her trash can on wheels
-the dude who was wearing one of those big advertisements on a pole that extends from a back pack. He received ashes, all the while brandishing his "Luxury High Rise Apartments" sign.
-And finally, the hipster who took our picture with his hipster-y Super 8 type camera, and then said quietly to Joseph, "Ash Wednesday is so cool."
Tomorrow at 1:00, Lydians will be making the sign of the cross in ashes on the foreheads of anyone who desires it at Union Square. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," we'll say, as we hold a stranger's head in our hands.
In the end, Ash Wednesday is about death. This is a fragment from my journal during a time when my family was experiencing death:
Life felt strangely transparent this week. God takes you home and there’s just a whole lot of stuff. A house filled with things, with ticking clocks and figurines, and you’re not there anymore…and everything is dispersed into the silence. Carried off to be treasured or sold or given away, and everything accrued over a lifetime gradually and steadily erodes.
I don’t want there to be stuff left over when I die. I want to leave just a tea cup and saucer behind, a pot to boil water in, a pillow and a lamp.
This Valentine's Day...something was in the air, and it was the real deal. Real love.
At church where I work in the in the morning, the organist had suggested that we do an organ demonstration with the children after worship, and they all eagerly crowded around him and covered the ears, smiling, as played the trumpets on the loudest stop. One of my littlest singers, a kindergartener with this mop of red hair literally leaped into my arms for a big hug after rehearsal. I tell you what: heart overflowing.
On the 2 train, there was a couple across from me all dressed up for their Valentine's Day date. The guy was wearing this pink shirt and a red tie, and they were turned in toward each other in that way you do when you've just just just fallen in love. Then a five piece a capella group came through singing this song in spot on harmony. Pretty pretty pretty pretty Valentine, they sang, their bass singer grumbling along and bringing up the rear, and the whole train sort of tried to stop from smiling, but in the end just had to give into it.
When I arrived at Lydia's, Rachel had brownies in the oven and was wearing a frilly pink and yellow apron. The welcome table was all red and pink and roses, and seemingly out of nowhere, a whopping 22 people, regulars and newcomers just sort of appeared for worship, and we gave these little heart stickers to two ten year olds who were there that night, who ran around happily sticking them to things. We kept adding more folding tables and finding more place settings and fitting people in at corners until there was a place for everyone, and after we lit the candles and sang our blessing and Jen started doling out the pasta, the chatter at the table erupted energetically and I thought, Oh God, I'm so in love with these people. The room was spilling over with love.
We have Julian of Norwich to thank for a mantra that's shaping my life in this particular season:
All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
We have a little tune we sing it to at St. Lydia's...one day I'll post it here...until then, say it to yourself until a little tune emerges, then sing it to yourself again and again.
I like to notice the ways in which I both resist and rest in this phrase. It's more than a comfort in a difficult time; it helps pull my perspective wider and wider. I think faith should make us bigger people, not smaller ones.