18 June, 2006

Mustard seeds and cedar trees

Friends, I’m stuck this week.

On the one hand, General Convention is going on as we speak. The next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church will be elected later today, a person whose name we will hold up in prayer together each week for the next nine years. On the other hand, I have instructions from Bishop Lillibridge not to add fuel to the fire if at all possible. Can’t talk about it, can’t not talk about it.

So today, I want to tell you something that God has been telling me, quietly, over the last two years. Something that gives me an odd sort of comfort in these days.

Two years ago, my parents moved to Kerrville from a suburb of Houston, where they had lived for the past twenty-five years. They bought a nice little house on the top of a hill outside of town, a place with great potential. It’s a small ranch-style house, horse corral and a barn in the back, and the property includes a section down the slope of the hill on two different sides.

Sounds really nice, doesn’t it? Well, when they moved in, it had great potential, except for one thing. The guy who owned the property before them hadn’t done any landscaping or maintenance of the property for about ten years. And the property was covered, absolutely covered, with scrub cedar trees. You know what those look like? 6 to 10 feet high, mostly more bush than tree. Dark green and prickly. When you cut them down, there’s sticky sap if it’s the growing season, and the little barbs get everywhere. In the right season, cedar pollen floats like a yellow fog over the Texas hill country. And, most importantly, they were blocking the view off the top of the hill. You couldn’t see the barn from the house, you couldn't see the corral from the house, and, most importantly, you couldn’t see what was probably a very nice view, which is why people build houses on the tops of hills in the first place.

So, about two years ago, right after my parents moved in, I began an offensive campaign on the cedar trees. Cutting them down, loading them in the back of the truck, piling them in the horse corral, and burning them in a series of bonfires. Currently, this little arboreal altercation has cost me about ten weekends, two pairs of loppers, a hedge trimmer, and three chainsaw blades. I’m happy to tell you that the view from the top of the hill is indeed gorgeous.

And at the end of each day, I go get a glass of cold water, and unlace my work boots, and sit down on the porch with my back aching and my hands still buzzing from the chainsaw and my arms all cut and scratched and prickly, with the smell of cut cedar still lingering in the air, and I sit there and feel the breeze, and gaze out over a couple of miles of vista, and I think: Yes, this is better. I accomplished something today.

And that’s when God comes and whispers in my ear. The breeze blows through the remaining trees, and rustles the leaves, and whispers:
Eventually, the cedar will win.

* * * * * * * *

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses an odd image for the Kingdom of God.

An image that’s also familiar. Maybe even too familiar. The Kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed.

Now, we all know that mustard seeds are little bitty things. Hard to see, in fact. And, as the gospel text tells us, from such a small thing, such a small seed, comes a fairly big plant. You usually hear this parable explained, or understood, as a tiny thing becoming a big thing. That the tiny church can, and has, and will, do big things from small starts.

In fact, that’s the theme of General Convention this year—"come and grow." Come, and have some faith, and believe that God can, and has, and will, continue to do great things.

But there’s another thing about mustard seeds. The tiny little seed grows up and turns into... remember what a mustard bush looks like? 6 to 10 feet high, prickly branches, it tastes bad (remember what mustard tastes like), if you cut it down it just grows back, the tiny little seeds are everywhere... in other words, it’s a weed.

Now, if you’re expecting Jesus to use some arboreal metaphor for the kingdom of God, you expect him to say that the Kingdom of God is something grand and glorious. If we’re in California, you expect Jesus to say that the Kingdom of God is like the giant sequoia, the greatest of all trees, the largest of all living things, something so majestic and grand that when you stand in the presence of the tree you feel small and insignificant, and your eyes and your soul both rise up and up and up.

If you're in West Texas, you expect that Jesus is going to say that the Kingdom of God is like a mighty oak tree, 150 years old, great thick branches spreading out as big as a house, so wide that all the community can come together under its branches for a barbecue, a tree that can weather any storm.

And I think those images might be true about the kingdom of God. But that’s not what Jesus says. No, Jesus looks at his disciples and says "you’re a weed."

And I’ve been thinking about that for two years.

* * * * * * * *

Remember that when Jesus first said that, it was to a small group of disciples, walking about the countryside, preaching and teaching. They didn’t really know who Jesus was. Remember the story about how Jesus called his disciples to him and asked, "who do people say I am?" and they respond 'some say Elijah, some say John the Baptist, some say you’re a prophet...' They really don’t begin to figure out who Jesus is until after the resurrection.

And when the gospel was first written down it also meant something else. Scholarly consensus is that the document that we call the Gospel of Mark that became a part of the collection we call the Bible was first written down in about 70 AD, two generations after the resurrection. At that time, the number of followers of Jesus was still pretty small, and many of us were Jews. Viewed from the outside, some people had difficulty telling the Jesus-is-the-Messiah believers from the traditionalist Jews. And there was an argument going on within the synagogues between the people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and the traditionalist Jews. Right about the time the gospel was written, there were murmurings going on between these two factions, and one of them was beginning to say, "I’m sorry, but what you believe is just too weird. You’re going to have to leave the synagogue. You can’t be a part of us any more."

It is to those people that the writer of the Gospel of Mark speaks. He says, remember what Jesus told us. Remember what the Kingdom of God is like. You’re a weed. You can’t be cut down. You can’t be causally picked, because your roots go deep into the soil. If they dig you up, your seeds go everywhere and grow ten more in your place. If they turn their back on you, you’ll be everywhere. The Kingdom of God will not be contained.

I’ll tell you the reason I cut down all that cedar at my parents’ house. It’s because I like a certain sense of order. I like things the way I like them, and I like things that make sense. For example, if you build a house on the top of a hill, I think you ought to be able to see the view. I’m a good Episcopalian that way—for the most part, Episcopalians like things orderly.

Right now, in General Convention, the best and the brightest of us are meeting in convention to try to order our common lives, doing their best to bring a certain sense of order out of chaos. And they’re doing their best. But sometimes I despair at what goes on at convention. At how slowly we move, when we move at all.

And when I despair, I remember what Jesus said.

The Kingdom of God will not be contained.

in spite of our best efforts, if necessary.

03 June, 2006

Pearson-Horany wedding sermon

Sermon at the wedding of Elizabeth Michelle Horany and Christopher Lynn Pearson.

I used an outline and notes, rather than a manuscript; this is what I can remember of what I said.

Posted by request of the bride.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When we were little kids, Sweetmama taught us to dance.

(Elizabeth and Meg and I call our mother's mother "Sweetmama." For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of meeting her yet, the name tells you most of what you need to know.) I remember it was in the kitchen of their house in LaMarque, on Westward. That kitchen, when I remember it, always smells like spaghetti and meatballs. And in my memory, it's always crowded with family.

I remember being a little boy, putting my feet on top of Sweetmama's feet, and she held my hands, and we swayed and moved together. A few years later, Elizabeth was born. And I also remember Papa and Sweetmama doing the same thing with her that they did with me. And then I wanted to play, so I put her cute little toddler feet on top of my big old clodhopper teenager feet, and we danced around the kitchen.

Everybody dances. There's something universal about moving to music. It's funny, most people don't think of themselves as good dancers, but everybody does it, in some way or another. Maybe all you do is tap your feet to the rhythm, or drum your fingers on the steering wheel while you're listening to the radio while you drive. But that's still a way to dance, to move yourself with the music.

But while dancing by yourself, just moving to the music, is easy, I'm here to tell you that dancing with a partner is hard.

Dancing with a toddler is its own unique brand of difficult. Toddlers are not the most graceful creatures God ever created, and for the adult, it's hard to move with thirty or forty pounds on your toes. When I grew up, and started taking dance lessons, I learned that dancing with an adult partner isn't really any easier than dancing with a toddler. It's just a different kind of hard.

First of all, you've got to learn to deal with another person inside your personal space. You know that we all have that polite zone of personal space that we like to maintain. Well, your partner is inside it. Pretty much constantly. Ribcage to ribcage. And while that, in itself, is its own brand of fun, it's also something unusual that you have to learn to deal with.

Then you have to learn to step together. You have to learn to move your body in such a way that you don't step on your partner, but instead step with your partner. Dance teachers call those steps "patterns," which become second nature after a while, but at first require a great deal of concentration.

Then you have to learn a whole new way of communicating. Yes, you can talk on the dance floor. But there's usually not time for verbal cues, especially in the fast dances, so you have to learn a whole new language of communication, using hands and eyes and balance and gestures.

You have to learn what steps your partner likes to do, and what steps your partner doesn't enjoy as much.

And, most of all, you have to learn grace. Not as in gracefulness, as in dance floor coordination, but as in graciousness, in forgiving one another's mis-steps and bumps and missed signals and forgetfulness.

Some of you have known our family for quite a while; a few of you were even present at my wedding to Kristina, some ten years ago. Last night someone was kind enough to remember that we had done a choreographed first dance, and to say that they remembered how nice it was. What you probably don't remember was what happened not fifteen minutes later--in the middle of another dance, with lots of people on the dance floor, I kicked my newly minted bride so hard that I broke one of her toenails, and she limped her way through the honeymoon.

Like I said, grace and forgiveness.

Now why am I telling you this?

Because, being intelligent and perceptive people, you know that I'm not just talking about dancing.

Also because tonight, if you know where to look, you can catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

The first place will be right here, in just a few minutes, in front of the altar. Two people, in the middle of a selfish world, will invoke the name of God and will vow to be together, whatever might come, for the rest of their lives. The church calls Holy Matrimony a "sacrament," which is a fancy church word for something that is a visible sign of God's grace. When we see these two pledge faithfulness to each other, we remember God's faithfulness to us, God's faithfulness to a broken and sinful world, and we remember that God is always ready to forgive and welcome us back into the relationship that God desires for us.

And, if you look just right, out of the corner of your eye, as these two people make promises of faithfulness, you will see a flash of the glory of God.

The second place will be just after the vows. We could, in the tradition of the church, end right there, and everyone go home. But Chris and Elizabeth wanted that the first thing they did as a married couple would be to share the covenant meal with all of you. The communion meal that we celebrate is rooted in ancient covenant-making tradition. When two parties made a covenant together, they would eat together as a part of sealing that covenant. When Jesus first shared the covenant meal with his disciples, and commanded us to continue it, it was at a celebration of remembrance of how God saved us from slavery and bondage and claimed us as God's own. Jesus bound the disciples together into a family, and tonight we bind these two families together.

As you come to the table, as you receive the elements from the parents of the bride and the groom, if you look just right, out of the corner of your eye, you will see a flash of the glory of God.

The third place will be over at the reception, following the service. The Horany family is Lebanese and Italian by ethnicity, and every year the Lebanese side of the clan gathers for a huge family reunion. And at that reunion we always do a traditional dance, called the dubke. It's a simple step: right, left, right, stamp, kick, repeat. One of those long lines where you catch hands and follow along.

The Eastern Orthodox church, whose thought greatly influenced our ancestral homeland, describes the nature of God as a dance. One being, three persons, in an endless circle dance of joy and love and mutual respect and honor. And into that dance, God invites humanity. God reaches out a hand and invites one of us, and another, and another, to join in the dance of joy, until all creation echoes with the pounding of feet and the laughter of children.

Tonight, as we celebrate, as Dad leads us in the dance, I encourage you to get up and join in, even if you think you can't dance, even if you only walk. And as you reach for a hand, as someone else reaches for yours, remember that God invites you to join in the dance of all creation. And if you look just right, out of the corner of your eye, as we dance, you will see a flash of the glory of God.

In the readings from the Bible that Chris and Elizabeth chose for today, Jesus says to his disciples, "I came that my joy may be in you, and joy your your may be complete." And this is God's desire for you: that your joy may be complete.