Archive for March, 2001

Sunday Week 3 of Lent Year C

“The Lord is kind of merciful, the Lord is kind of merciful …” Kinda. Let’s not go overboard here! God is pretty good. Quite compassionate. Kinda kind. But …
There are disadvantages to preparing a homily in the early hours of a Sunday morning. I get migraine headaches from time to time. If you’ve ever had them you know they are nasty little beasts—headache, sickness, confusion—but the worst part for me is the aura—the series of sensory disturbances that mark a migraine’s coming. For some people it’s flashing lights, for others facial numbness, for me it’s as if the things I’m looking at aren’t quite there and not quite gone either.
Seated at my keyboard this morning, writing those words I began with, I saw my words not quite there. Just the on the edge. And I felt that rush of panic to my stomach. Migraine coming! And here is how my inner dialogue went …
“Dung! (well I used another word with four letters—you have to be careful what words you use in homilies) Dung! God why now? Don’t do this to me!”
And amid visions of calling Peter to say “You’ve got a surprise mass this morning” I went straight to the heart of my actual theology even as I was preparing to tell you the one I say is mine. “Why are you messing things up again God?!”
Well, I lay down, closed my eyes, apologised a bit, and waited, and waited … did I dare open my eyes? … is the ceiling all there? … maybe the screen is too? … whew ! false alarm!
So here I am with a different homily …
It might be a migraine at the wrong time, it might be real illness, it might be an electric bill, it might be a love being lost, it might be the smell of sick cattle being burned, it might be children hungry, cities dirty, earth quaking, age a-creeping-up, it might be any damned thing that has us silently shouting “Dung!” That part, at any rate, is good. All that is dung, is waste, is death and dying, and we are right to hate it, to object to it, to shout at it. But we have to have blame too! That’s what’s wrong. And we have to blame someone we don’t trust. And there are two obvious choices: Blame God—the bastard is always letting us down—or blame ourselves. We deserve it! It’s God’s will! Why doesn’t this marriage work? Why can’t I pay the bills? Why can’t I be as beautiful as the boys on TV? Why am I sick? Why must disappointment all I endeavour end? Is it my fault or is it yours Big Guy? You’re the one with all the Power. Don’t you care? What kind of God are you?
There was a guy with a fig tree, hell with a whole vineyard, but he wanted figs. And there’s the poor feller who does the digging. And the parable forces a choice on us—forces is the wrong word—slips a choice past us so we don’t even notice how naturally we make it. Where is God in the parable?
Is God the one demanding fruit, always looking over our shoulder, threatening to rip us our by the roots if we can’t produce? It’s sad how we have God typecast that way. But Jesus does it deliberately, sets us up. “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?” I heartily praise those among you who didn’t even flinch a tiny bit in self-recognition—I did.
OK so you already leapt ahead of me … maybe God isn’t the owner, maybe God is the vinedresser—giving the people—giving us—a second chance, a third chance, a 607th chance, to bloom and blossom and ripen and bear fruit. Even committing himself to a season of shovelling … dung … to get the accursed tree to come to life. Holding off the hasty with all their saws and spades.
That’s not the only choice here … we never know if all that digging and dunging was a waste of time, whether that tree perked up and produced the goods, or whether it sat anxiously unable beyond the patience of men or the industry of God. The parable leaves a hole there for us to fill in. “if it makes fruit in the future … well … otherwise if not you can cut it down.” There’s a hole. You can almost hear the dot dot dot. Will it or won’t it? Of course we’re rooting for the tree. Sunk in … dung … we want it to respond to all the lavish attention and pull through. But what if it doesn’t? When will we run out of patience and pass the sentence of death? The vinedresser’s fighting for a reprieve but even he admits the “otherwise”—if this last ditch attempt fails … well then.
That vinedresser’s not much better than the owner. The owner gives us three chances, the dresser four—big deal! I need more than that! God has to be more than that! Otherwise earthquakes are acts of God. And violence is his judgement. And both God and I are to blame.
Jesus tells this story as he is making his way to Jerusalem for the last time. He has been readying his disciples for what he reckons is inevitable. They will get there, he will speak his piece, he will take his stand for a blameless and un-blaming God. And he will fail. He will be cut down, rooted up, and left to dry in the sun. He will die a fruitless death. It will all be a waste.
Or will it? That’s the hole in the story, the gap to fill in. Will Jesus’ death have been a waste or not? Yes, that’s up to God … but it’s also up to us. Will we change our minds—will we repent—about what life and death mean … or not? Will we follow him to Jerusalem?

March 30th, 2001

Ash Wednesday

Lent never starts at the right time. It always comes as an interruption—an unwanted interruption. When did you last hear someone saying, “I can’t wait for Lent”? Or think to yourself, “I wish Ash Wednesday were here!” No, we are just getting used to ordinary time and a rhythm of life when the whistle blows and we are wrenched from our routine and dragged here to dirty our faces right in the middle of the busy business of our lives.
Lent always begins from outside: we never choose it, but it won’t be avoided. They are blowing that trumpet, they’re proclaiming a fast, gathering the people. They are urging us on to an urgency we don’t feel, to a repentance we hardly want, before a God we scarcely trust. And we don’t even get a day off!
But we come. Here we are! … We come for ashes. Churches fill to the brim for those ashes. We’ve sought larger premises on account of those ashes. And I’m not sure why. In another assembly we might suspect superstition. … Maybe we just like beginnings. Or maybe we brave the embarrassment of walking, black-browed, down the street simply out of habit. … But I like to think our bodies know better than our minds about these matters: that dust is calling to dust.

Why does God finally pay attention and take pity on the people in that last line of the Joel reading? … “The LORD was stirred to concern for the land … and took pity on the people.” For the land. I get the impression that God hardly notices all that trumpeting and fasting and assembling, until God notices the land. And I wonder … maybe it’s only our kinship with earth that gets us noticed. Is that why we come here year after year—to be soiled: with ash, with dust, with the dirt of the land? Not as camouflage but as beacon. “See Lord the land and have pity on your people!”

Today to celebrate our kinship with dirt. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are dust, we are dirt, we are ash, we are earth. We are earthlings, creatures formed from the dust and the spittle of God. We are children of Adam—earth creature—which was our communal description before ever it was a personal name.
We are made of earth; we are made for earth. Earth is what joins us and makes us one. It is what we share. It is soil that unites us to each other, to every other creature of earth, to this very planet, and even to the stars—since every atom of our bodies is dust and ash of long dead suns. Even here on earth, every atom of our bodies has been used before, countless times, in other bodies; other humans, other creatures. We breathe the breath of Shakespeare and Stalin. There is, literally, a little of Jesus in all of us—and something of the slime-mold.
The dust of DNA tells the same story. Of all the genes that makes us who we are, there are only a few hundred that aren’t shared with mice. Only a few tens to set us apart from apes. Down that deep our human differences disappear. Yet you would look at our divisions and think we were from different planets.
Haven’t we always been uppity creatures. Since our clay was first fashioned we’ve been struggling to climb out of the dirt and forget where we come from. We have two faults. We like to dress up … and we like to go it alone.
We like to dress up. We cover our clay with finery. To hide our origins in the soiled earth behind whatever mask we can find. To put on an alien face for the God who made us and project an image for all to see; one endless diversionary tactic lest we be revealed for who we are. I reckon the original sin is not so much Pride as Shame. We were thrown out of Eden and we’ve been in the closet ever since.
Maybe that’s why we like to go it alone? So as not to see, in the mirror of another’s eyes, our own nakedness or the tawdriness of our make up. But we are not alone. For the sake of the soil God took pity on the people. We do two things today when, together, we accept on our foreheads the mark of our making: we accept our humble origin and we accept that we are one people.

This is our beginning, this Lent. Our end is some weeks away, with Jesus and that awkward drama of Holy Week. But what we do in between is what matters. The temptation is to dress up to be ready. But whether it’s good deeds, or giving up, or getting clean, we need to be careful our Lenten trajectory matches Jesus’ own—with all its downward mobility. Or when we get to Holy Week we’ll be floating miles above the one we want to stand beside. Whatever comes later, Lent is the season of his failing flesh and his humble return to dust.
Let us fall back on humility this Lent: let us be humus, human. To be human is to be something made, very well made, and made of the same stuff as all other things. Made from dirt and made for a humble beauty God longs for us to accept. We are just soil—soil singing a song of reconciliation for all creatures.

March 29th, 2001


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