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


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