Monday, August 18, 2014

Generous Love Lavished Upon All*

This sermon wants to be painted with vibrant colors—red, green, yellow, purple, orange and blue, pink, then black like a blackbird.

Because, according to an ancient folktale from Zambia, the blackbird is the most beautiful bird in the forest because his feathers gleam all colors in the sun.

These words want to be made with seaglass and papier-mache, like the new windows that adorn the island church.

These words want to be a puppet—made with seashells and seal bones and lobster claws and bits of old cloth and driftwood shiny smooth and silver from wave upon wave upon the shore.

These words want be a poem recited out loud, with all the island school children gathered round rapt with wonder.

This sermon wants to invite everyone—all colors and races and kinds—into the infinite circle of God’s embracing love because God’s generous love is lavished on all.

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, writes Paul; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 

We paint, we write poetry and we express ourselves out of our desire to bring people together in a way that goes beyond who we are as individuals. So says Ashley Bryan, the ninety-one year old African-American painter, poet, puppet maker, and illustrator of over fifty children’s books.[i]

Ashley lives on Little Cranberry Island, a vibrant year round lobstering community downeast that welcomes artisans of every stripe.

This summer, the Islesford Historical Museum on Little Cranberry is hosting an exhibition celebrating Bryan’s 70-year career as an artist. When the exhibition opened, crowds gathered outside the red brick museum by the harbor to cheer him.

Two years ago, the island grade school was renamed after him. At the bar at the Islesford Dock Restaurant, when the rum ran short, the bartender saved the best for last for Ashley’s favorite cocktail, a Dark and Stormy.

The island folk love Ashley because he loves them, they who welcomed this black man from the Bronx when he first came ashore in the forties of the last century.

His unconditional regard extends to all, especially children. All who come within the sphere of his embracing love—a love that feels true and deep as the sea that cradles this island—are made to feel special.

Every morning is a whole new day of discovery, Ashley says. The one thing I have in common with any adult I meet is childhood. Every person has survived childhood. The most tragic experience you can have in life is the death of a child.

That’s why I say, ‘Never let the child within you die.[ii]

Sukie and I visited Ashley at his humble home, partially hidden by overgrown gardens that are the subject of many of his paintings, last summer. His door is always open and he invites anyone all who wish to visit him. He only asks that those who visit yell loud enough so that he can hear them in his studio.

Every inch of his home is filled with toys and knick-knacks and books and puppets and mobiles hanging from the ceiling. Stacks of canvases lean up against the wall. Seaglass, collected on his ramblings along the rocky island beaches, is spread out on his workbench. Bowls of snacks and candies for those who drop by array his kitchen table.

Heaps of driftwood are stacked and stored away. Odd bits of things that the sea throws up on the shore—wire and old netting and non-biodegradable refuse—is stashed here and there, all of it eventually transformed into winsome objects that delight the eye and lift the spirit.

In an article in the Maine Sunday Telegram last week, Bob Keyes writes that growing up in the Bronx during the Depression, Bryan  and his siblings collected scraps of colored paper and fabric in the streets that his mother would twist into flowers to decorate their tenement apartment.

In the segregated Army during World War 2, the man who would go on to become a widely celebrated author and illustrator of children’s books drew pictures of the scenes he witnessed on toilet paper that he hid in his gas mask.[iii]

Wholly embracing the beauty and artistry and folkways of his own African-American heritage, Ashley moves through that to make of his life an unveiling of the beauty inherent in creation and in every human being blessed and loved by God.

Ashley’s life is a testimony to the life of faith of which Paul speaks in this morning’s epistle.
By faith, writes scholar David Clendenin, we accept God's free gifts. By faith we get precisely what we don't deserve, and even more.
Faith believes that God isn't a Divine Accountant or Probation Officer.

[God is] an indulgent father who throws a party for his indigent son.

[God is] like an employer who pays employees a full day's wage even though they only worked for an hour.

[God is] like a lavish wedding host who provides copious amounts of the best wine...

For Paul, Jews are no closer to God and Gentiles are no further from God. We're all equidistant to the heart of God's love.

[God] includes those whom I'd exclude, and embraces the people I would shun.

This good news, [Paul] says, is for "all" people and for "everyone."

No one is excepted.[iv]

Like Ashley Bryan, gratefully greeting each day with wonder, we all alike are artists of God’s love—God’s lavish gifts—making with the odd bits of our lives, beautiful creations. AMEN

*A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME;  August 10, 2014; Proper 15, Year A; Revised Common Lectionary

Photo: Bill McGuinness


[i] Keyes, Bob Author and Illustrator Ashley Bryan Comes of Age Maine Sunday Telegram August 6, 2014
[ii] Ibid.;
[iii] Ibid.;
[iv] Clendenin, David Listening for God’s Love: What I Did This Summer Journey with Jesus Online Webzine August 4, 2014

Lean In And Listen*

I saw them out of the corner of my eye on my desk—some flowers in a small ceramic vase. I thought: “How nice. Sukie must have made a bouquet for my birthday.”

And then I went on in my head with whatever pressing issues preoccupied me at the time, passing i
nto forgetfulness.

I didn’t notice them again until three days later. They were still there. They hadn’t moved. I just happened to see them—different kinds of flowers.

One I recognized as a nasturtium--deep, rich yellow petals with orange and blood red accents radiating outward from the stamen.

And then others alongside— more yellow flowers, flowers with shades of purple and blue and tiny pointed buds. Getting closer, I noticed one of them smelled minty. And there was another, with a delicate soft white flower...

I finally thanked Sukie and asked what they were. Nasturtiums, she said, and lemon gem marigolds. And some lavender. And catmint. And white flox. All from our garden.

I almost missed them. Another day or two, and they would have been wilted beyond recognition.

And truly seeing them, my life was, in that moment, touched, even changed. My awareness heightened, sharpened; my spoken gratitude consummating that kind gift.

That experience of truly seeing the flowers reminded me of a favorite scene from a movie.

The film stars Robin Williams as John Keating, an English teacher at an exclusive boys boarding school. Dead Poets Society was filmed at an Episcopal prep school—St. Andrew’s in Middletown, Delaware, established in 1929 by a member of the DuPont family.

The scene I recall takes place in the foyer of one of the buildings, with school banners adorning the walls. There are glass trophy cases containing memorabilia and old photographs of athletic teams. The room has the feel of a chapel, the sacred precincts of sports and boys long since gone.

Keating instructs one of the students gathered round to read from the school hymnal. It’s a poem entitled To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by the 17th century Anglican priest and poet Robert Herrick.

The student reads aloud: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

Keating says to the students: ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’ The Latin word for that sentiment is Carpe Diem. Now who knows what that means? A boy answers: Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

Keating responds: Why does the writer use these words?

Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.

Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. Keating moves them over to the trophy case and huddles them close, turning their gaze upon the uniformed schoolboys in the old photographs.

You've walked past them many times, he says. I don't think you've really looked at them.

They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you.

Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.

But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. Do you hear it? And behind them, Keating whispers in a gruff voice: Carpe. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.

How fitting these lines, as we grieve the loss of this genius, this  gifted comedic and improvisational genius so tragically imprisoned within by dark forces from which he  felt himself unable to escape, except by taking his own life.

And yet his Keating teaches us even now:

Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

Wake up. Pay attention. Of the schoolboys in those old photographs, long since deceased, he remarks: You’ve walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them.

So we might ask ourselves: what or whom do we walk past everyday without looking, without really noticing or truly seeing?

The disciples can’t imagine that a Canaanite woman could be real, says Sara Miles, a priest on the staff of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, as she comments on this morning’s gospel reading.

Jewish scripture was full of these horror stories about the Canaanites who occupied the promised land and who had disgusting religious practices like worshipping idols and cross breeding with people of different faiths, among other abominations.[i]

The Canaanite woman is a heathen. So when she accosts Jesus pleading, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ she has no standing to do it and moreover she’s acting completely shamelessly, just waving her hand around in the air begging for recognition and insisting that Jesus should heal her daughter, something that she’s unqualified to even ask for.

And the disciples believe that they should keep non-persons like the Canaanite from raising their hands and demanding God’s attention.

They see themselves as keepers of the holy traditions. They’re protectors of the true people of God.

And they’re supposed to stay on guard, so that God won’t waste any precious mercy on the unpedigreed, on some stray mutt yelping around the flock.

And it seems that, at least according to Matthew’s gospel, even Jesus sees it this way. He tells the Canaanite woman to shut up and go away. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he says.

Not truly seeing her, he dismisses her.

And then, as Miles asserts, this becomes a healing story, a story first and foremost about the healing of Jesus.

Something happened.

Jesus is challenged by this woman’s back talk, by her pushy insistence that she needs and wants him. This [woman] breaks Jesus open with her faith that God recognizes her too, that God calls her by name and that salvation is for everyone without exception.

And then Jesus knows— [he sees] suddenly—that he’s not just here for the chosen people...he’s here for us all, that salvation is for everyone without exception.

It’s a rough moment and it teaches us, the way that everything Jesus does in his human life teaches us how to be human...Jesus has to undergo the fully human pain of conversion.

He has to be broken and humbled and changed by the realization that someone who he has written off and insulted has consciousness—[is real]—and it hurts.

But it’s healing and like so many of God’s healing acts, the good news is that it happens in unexpected ways...

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I expect everyday to be broken open and humbled and changed. Because to really pay attention, to really see the person sitting in front of us as real—which is to say, to listen attentively and with care—will transform us.

Everyday, I walk away a new person, my universe expanded by listening carefully to the words of  another or at last seeing the flowers on my desk for what they truly are.

That conversion—that change of heart—is the challenge and the gift of being human, something we all share, whoever we are, whatever our work.

So lean in and listen. Do you hear it? It’s uttered every moment if you have the ears to hear and the hearts to respond.

Carpe. Carpe diem.

This is the only day. This is the only moment. Take hold of it gently. And let it change your life. AMEN

*A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME ; August 17, 2014;
Proper 16, Year A; Revised Common Lectionary

[i] Miles, The Rev. Sara Food for Dogs August 14, 2011 St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA.