Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon: God's One Thing

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, 
RCL Proper 12, Year A
30 July 2017

Listen here.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts

be always acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

In the 1991 movie City Slickers the cowboy Curly gives city slicker Mitch some life advice. They are riding horses along the prairie to move the herd from here to there.  In this scene, Curly says to Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.” Mitch replies, “Your finger?” Curly scans the horizon, ignoring Mitch, and then explains, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [nothin’].” (expletive deleted)

Mitch thinks for just a moment and replies, “But, what is the "one thing?" As they ramble along, the hot sun shines on Curly’s face and with a raised eyebrow, Curly replies, “That's what you have to find out.” For Mitch, whose was about to turn 40 his One Thing was buried deep in his heart.  His work was to sort out his One Thing in the midst of complicated life.

Of all the “things” for which Solomon could have asked (in today’s first reading), when God showed up… of all the riches, or long life, or victory over his enemies, the One Thing Solomon wanted was an understanding mind. Solomon’s motivation to understand, however, was not as simple as this appears. This little bit of text from our lectionary compilers does not tell the whole story.

See, Solomon was a complicated character and scripture more complicated than it appears. The text prior to today’s reading offers background.  The first verses describe Solomon as having married the daughter of Pharaoh. What does that imply? Well, one commentator explained, that, “political exigencies are one thing, but it is hard to justify kinship ties with Egypt the great oppressor of Israel.”[1] Further, this marriage violated the Israelite covenant to “not have relations with foreign people.” Subsequent verses describe Solomon as faithful and devoted, loving the Lord and walking in the statutes of his father David,[2] but worshipping by sacrificing and offering incense at high places.[3] Those “high places” were almost always strongly condemned when mentioned in the OT. 

Yes, Solomon was a complicated character. And, the original Hebrew of this conversation between Solomon and God unveils the complications, too. 

First, do you see (in that first line?) how The Lord appeared to Solomon, and God said?  Two names being used. Here, The Lord and God. See, the English use of The Lord is usually from the Hebrew Yahweh, from the four letters YHWH. Yahweh is the only proper name for God in Hebrew, arising from the pronunciation of YH-WH, the sound of breathing. (yah…breathing in, weh…breathing out. That’s a great spiritual practice on which to meditate - another sermon for another time). This name means something like, “immediacy, a presence,” or “God is with us.”[4]

The English use of God, in this case, is from the Hebrew Elohim, the subject of the Bible’s first sentence, the Creator God. Elohim means God in the highest and widest sense, with the fullness of divine power and expansiveness of the heavenly host. This name means God beyond our imagination BIG.

Now, see how Solomon addresses God, “O Lord my God”? That double name emphasizes the majesty of Elohim found in the immediacy of Yahweh. That double name is commonly known in the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is One” and emphasizes the paradoxical intimacy and immensity of the Divine.

So, when Solomon addresses God with his desire, he says something like: You, who are so close to me as my breath and so pervasive and expansive I can’t comprehend, You are the only one to whom I can ask, from my depth, for an understanding mind. 

But wait! There’s more!  For Solomon asks for understanding with the Hebrew word “shama,” meaning discerning: to hear, to listen to, to obey.  And Solomon asks for a mind with the Hebrew word “leb” meaning the heart: the feelings, the will and the intellect.

Our complicated Solomon is asking from this paradoxical God for a listening heart.

It’s complicated and it’s simple. Can you relate?  People are always a mix of complex motives and it is dangerous to romanticize anyone.  All lives have back stories, and all language used to describe them is insufficient because our feelings cloud the seemingly simple view of our lives.

Maybe our grief surrounding the death of our best friend is fraught with the time we were angry at her for something that we never got to resolve while she was alive. 
Maybe our trust in a friend is frayed because he did not reply to our call for help when we really needed him. 
Maybe our compassion for the woman begging for food is deepened because she looks like our sister who suffers with mental illness.

We, too, are complicated characters with mixed motives. What is our One Thing? Aren’t we, too, asking, from that same paradoxical God for a listening heart? It’s complicated and it’s simple. We wonder with listening hearts: Why am I struggling financially? Why did my friend get cancer?  Why did that transgender teenager take their own life? Why is that person so snarky at me because of the color of my skin or because of the gender of my lover? That One Thing for each of us, is different. 

So on that day, to Solomon, who had prayed and walked in the statutes of his father David throughout his complicated, young adult life … to Solomon God appeared. God appeared. Who was this God? This was the God who came to Solomon despite his complicated failures and frailties.  This was the God who wanted to listen with God’s heart to him.

Last week I heard about the nearly-completed development of Nasa’s most powerful telescope ever.  The James Webb Space Telescope, (to be launched in October of 2018)will study, with infrared and other new technologies, every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the evolution of our own Solar System. This telescope is so powerful that it will be able to look at stars before they were born.  Before they were born!  That means exploring the whole of creation and the dynamic processes of stardust.

In November last year, NASA invited creative artists from around the country to visit the telescope, with its gold-coated mirror. Twenty-five selected artists brought art supplies to listen with the ear of their heart and create in front of the telescope, housed inside its massive cleanroom behind a viewing window. The artists used watercolor, 3D printed sculpture, silk screening, acrylics, comics, woodwork, metalwork, fiber art, ink, kite-making, tattooing and other media.

Their One Thing? To create in front of the observation of creation.  To listen with their heart. To consider with awe, up close, the expansiveness of our universe.

See, this desire to understand, this desire to be known, is not only what we, humanity, seek, it is also the desire of the God who seeks us, the God who appears to us every moment. This is the God who initiates contact with us, despite our complicated lives and frailties. This is the God who makes the first move and keeps yearning to know us, to discern our hearts.This is the God of Love who meets us with a powerful, mysterious yearning and an intimacy so near as the breath passing over our lips.

This is the God whose “one thing” is to Love and be loved.                                            Amen

[1] Brent Strawn commentary on 1 Kings found here.
[2] Verse 3a
[3] Verse 3b
[4] Names of God research found here on July 25, 2017

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermon: Soul of Soil

A Sermon preached in Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
(RCL Proper 10, Year A)
16 July 2017

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Listen here

The book, The Soul of Soil, used to teach Organic Farming, opens with this quote by Helen Keller[1] :

What a joy it is
To feel the soft, spring earth | under my feet once more
To follow grassy roads | that lead to ferry brooks
While I can bathe my fingers
in a cataract of rippling notes,
Or to clamber over a stone wall
 into green fields that
Tumble and roll and climb | in riotous gladness!

I say, “Let Anyone with Ears Listen!”

My partner is an Organic Farmer. When we first moved here in 2015, Leah’s first “nesting” activity was to get the garden going.  She pulled out the weeds that had grown waste-high double-dug the earth below, laid down cardboard, covered it in 5 cubic yards of compost and covered all that with leaves. Then winter happened.  We waited.  The soil rested.

As the soil rested, it became nutrient rich, consisting of living, dying, decaying and dead things that make up organic matter.  And that is the work of an organic famer: to tend the soil.  See, I have learned from her that soil is the heart of sustainable farming – not just the seeds, nor the watering schedule, nor the sun.  It’s all soil management.  This experience of living with an organic urban garden opened my eyes to the gospel text in a new way.  What captivated my imagination today is how Jesus teaches his disciples about soil management.  “You gotta have good soil,” you can almost hear him say.

In the parable of the sower, any farmer listening would have been cringing at the wastefulness of this way of farming. 
But parables are dangerous things. They make us think we know how it ends, but then it has a twist.  And in this parable, with Jesus teaching from a boat with the farmers lined up on the seashore, they hear him tell the story….

He gets their attention – he is talking about their livelihood. He’s talking about planting. A farmer goes out to sow and tosses seed everywhere. The farmers think: yes, I know about that. (See, Palestinian farmers sowed before they plowed. The field wasn’t prepared; it was just sown and then plowed and fertilized. Over the winter, paths got packed down, fields tossed up rocks, vines and thorns took over.)Jesus mentions these things. “Yes, I know,” they mumble.  I know all about planting and getting nothing; I know about the year we didn’t even get enough crop to make back the seed, I know about the year the sun scorched and there was no rain.

And we are thinking: yes, I know too about all those places in life that are just like that: hard places, rocky places, places where everything I give gets taken away, places where I felt like I was being choked. I know, I know.Do you know this experience? You start out fine; you sow your seed.You make plans, you start a business, you get married, everything looks bright. But things happen.

Maybe someone gets sick; maybe it turns out the person you put your faith in lets you down, hard. Maybe you start your business with a great plan but the economy falls apart. It’s rocky.There’s no credit, no help, and no money coming in. Maybe something thorn comes into you and your whole life is oriented around some substance, alcohol or another drug. All these are weeds; all these are
shallow ground, rocks, seed being eaten up.

When these things happen, we often ask why; what we can ask is, “What now?”

Jesus isn’t answering why; but he does have an answer for “what now”. His answer is to keep faith. Tend the soil.

“But some seed falls on good ground,” he says. And then, then he goes on to say what can hardly be believed: yields of thirty, sixty, a hundred fold. The farmers are mumbling now, they know that a good yield is five or six times what you plant, ten if you get lucky. Thirty fold? Sixty fold? A hundred? What kind of farming is this? But some of the farmers are thinking too, yes, sometimes you do get it just right, sometimes it seems everything falls into place, and a quiet little miracle happens.

And what are you thinking? Are you thinking about those miracles? Are you thinking about the time a child came to you and climbed in your lap and apropos of nothing at all said, “Mom, I love you” or the time you fell in love or the time a stranger drove by your community garden and said I believe in your work and offers to mow the field around the garden, for free, for the rest of the summer

See, where there are rocks, then there are miracles, where there are things that eat up what you plant, then there are harvests you never expected, where there are thorns, then there are also the bright blooms that surprise and delight.

And, although these days the world seems to be constantly spreading the hard, rocky and thorny news that there is not enough… and although news and politics seems to have created in our hearts and minds a profound sense of scarcity and inadequacy… and although we are tempted to believe not only do we not have enough,but in the end we are not enough,

well actually, today’s good news is that God the sower scatters seeds of grace and love all about.  God does not hold back!  God is not worried if there will be enough seed or grace or love.  Sure, we need to tend the soil of our hearts and do spiritual practices like waiting in the winter while the living, dying, decaying and dead aspects of our inner lives create rich soil. 

And then God, that reckless farmer, continues to let the seeds of love fall where they may – on paths, on rocks, on thorns, on the finely prepared soil of our soul. God doesn’t care about wasting love because there is enough and at the end of the day. God believes in humanity – that we ARE enough. We are enough to deserve love, dignity and respect.  We are enough.  I don’t know about you, but I need to keep hearing that!

Because we are enough, we do know “what now,” because God loves us more that we can ask or imagine and keeps showering seeds of grace. Because God loves us, God calls us to stand up to fear and scarcity that fuels prejudice, racism, homophobia, greed and violence. Because God loves us,
God invites us to live into our baptism covenant to strive for justice and peace. 

As we continue to tend the organic soil of our heart with spiritual practices and tenderness, may we, today, know the unconditional, even reckless, love of God.  Right here, right now – just as we are.

There is enough. You are enough.  God’s love is enough.
Let anyone with ears, listen!

[1] Joe Smillie and Grace Gershuny, The Soul of Soil, (White River Junction (VT), Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999)