When God scoots up a bench

Older Homilies (2009-2013)


Year C, Proper 28

“Make known his deeds among the nations

sing praises to his name, for he has done great things.”

-From the song of the prophet Isaiah, and in the name of God, who is

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last month, at the annual readers forum of the Academy of American Poets, I stumbled upon a recent work by our former Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan. In it, we find her wondering if,

the world
might become the
Kingdom of Peace not
through the tumult
and destruction nescessary
for a New Start but
by adjusting little parts
a little bit- turning
a cup a quarter inch
or scooting up a bench.

I like this because it reminds me that sometimes, God is the one scooting up a bench. Sometimes, God turns a cup a quarter inch. Because sometimes, God does a very small thing. It could be that God stops you in the middle of your day to notice something important. It could be a smile or kind word from a friend that you absolutely needed to hear. Maybe its the spare change in your pocket that invites you into a brief, humanizing moment of eye contact with the woman asking for it on the street. In the poem, Ryan wonders if the small things all together might be enough for what she calls an,

incremental resurrection,
a radiant body
puzzled out through
tinkering with the fit
of what’s available.

And sometimes, it certianly seems like it might be the case. Sometimes, God does a very small thing. And sometimes, the small thing is enough to place us one step closer to the new kingdom of God’s peace.

Small things, of course, don’t make for very good Bible stories. A small thing is fine for a poem, or maybe even a parable; but when it comes time for God to break in the new world of his reign among us, it always seems to happen in a big, showy, way. Luke, after all, doesn’t show Mary deciding to have a baby with God after a time of careful discernment in which she saw small signs of assurance here and there that gradually built up her affirmation of his plan over time. Genesis doesn’t show a God creating the Earth one pebble at a time. And Isaiah this morning, doesn’t have God promising Jerusalem that things will gradually get better in small increments.

“I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth!” God says. “I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” And Jerusalem, at this point, really needs to hear it. Jerusalem needs to hear that the whole creation will change; because the world, as Jerusalem finds it, simply doesn’t make sense anymore. The world Jerusalem knows seems like a punishment. It is a world where babies are born only to die very soon thereafter. It is a world where the old are forsaken in their age.

It is a world where the people labor to build houses only to be exiled from them, where people labor to plant crops only to watch others steal their fruit. The world Jerusalem knows falls to sleep at night with the sound of wailing in its streets: moans that lift to the silent starry heavens with no answer given to them in return.

The world Jerusalem knows seems like a punishment: so backwards, so upside down, so hard to keep track of whose blame is on the table that the only thing that promises hope is a completely clean slate. This is why this passage borrows language the creation. This is why the promise is that people will live into their hundreds- because it restores them to being just like the first members of the human family in Genesis. This is why the wolf and the lamb must feed together- an otherwise unnatural act! Because the violence to be undone must be undone from the very beginning of our whole history of sin. God must create the world anew to right this wrong-seeming world. “I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth!” God says. “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” And good riddance to them, says Jerusalem. We don’t want to remember any of this. It has turned out terribly. The very idea that we would be a delight, that we would be a joy, would require a new world order; because the one we are living in right now makes us feel abhorrent of God.

Jesus, in the Gospel, promises nothing less than the same radical, terrible change. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down; Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earthquakes, famines, plagues; dreadful portents, great signs.” A new heaven, a new earth, and good riddance to the old one, we say! This one is clearly corrupt! We could use a little apocolypse to shake things up, to break us from the daze of our complicity with this unjust world. We are tired, Lord, of small victories. Send us into battle, bring us before governors, where are they? We know that somewhere this world is falling apart, and it is very likely the place where it is becoming something new in God. Send us there! If we are to gain our souls by our endurance in this ordeal, then let the great ordeal begin.

When we sense, in our restlessness, that we are ready for God to do a very big thing, it is because we know that it will take a very big thing to save us from ourselves. This is why we tell stories of the big things that God has done. This is why we shut our eyes tightly against the horrors all around us, and hold forth behind the closed door of our interior room, the one where we find Jesus praying again and again inside of us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom come, your kingdom come… your kingdom come.” This is why we fling the door open, eyes wide, hoping to see the world on fire. We are waiting for the day when we can see the systems of injustice crumbling down around us like old buildings ready to fall, where we can see the very real evil of this world bound, writhing, in chains. We open our eyes ready to see a new heaven and a new earth, decending from on high, ready for us all to inhabit as a joy, and a delight. We are desperate, at times, for God’s great thing to be done. But most of the time, we open our eyes, and everything around us only looks the same. We ask for a new creation, and when we are finished asking, the neighbor is still walking his dog calmly down the street. The woman is still asking passers-by for change.

Ryan’s poem comes from this same, ordinary-seeming world, where we are waiting to see the effects of God’s kingdom among us. Listen to it again. It is called, Least Action:

Is it vision
or the lack
that brings me
back to the principle
of least action,
by which in one
branch of rabbinical
thought the world
might become the
Kingdom of Peace not
through the tumult
and destruction nescessary
for a New Start but
by adjusting little parts
a little bit- turning
a cup a quarter inch
or scooting up a bench.
It imagines an
incremental resurrection,
a radiant body
puzzled out through
tinkering with the fit
of what’s available.
As though what is is
right already but
askew. It is tempting
for any person who would
like to love what she
can do.

The world that Kay Ryan imagines here is one where the stage is set. It is a world pregnant with the Kingdom of Peace, ready to happen right now, with just a few adjustments that need to be made, a few pieces that need to be tinkered with to fit, right already but a little askew. It is a world made, in its very substance, to be God’s great thing but for a few minor details. There is a part of this way of seeing the world that is very dangerous- that could easily allow one to tip the ballance of God’s kingdom come “already but not yet” too far into the “already” camp. But there is a truth here as well.

The truth of it that I can witness to, is that God has been doing some very small things in my life lately to show me just how pregnant the world around me is with the Kingdom of Peace. Lately, these little things of God serve to uncover something that looked perfectly normal at first, but upon closer examination reveals a life rich with grace. Last week I was having dinner with a new friend and classmates of mine, whom I have been very glad to get to know since she has come here this year. The topic of General Convention came up and we discovered that we had each been at the last convention. I wondered out loud if our paths had crossed then and asked her if she had had any interactions with Integrity, where I was serving as the legislative observer for resolutions concerning same-sex blessings. She perked up and said that of course she had, as the mother of a gay son in a state that allowed gay marriage, and that she had even testifed at one of the hearings. At the moment she said this, it was as if a viel had been lifted from my eyes, because I recognized her and remembered her immediately. Of course I had seen her at Convention!

Her testimony there was among the most memorable, moving accounts that any of us had heard during the whole process- it had the whole row of the Integrity legislative team in tears by the end of it. And here she was sitting in front of me- here she was, someone who was now my friend. How did I not recognize in my new friend at first that deep current of God’s kingdom and grace running through her, how did she ever seem like a normal person to me?

In another instance I was reading a book by a trustee of the seminary, Countney Cowart, who writes about her experiences at Ground Zero and St. Paul’s chapel during and after 9-11. There is much in Coutney’s book to commend, but the image that sticks with me the most comes from the day of the attacks itself. She was a student at General at the time, and she was downtown at Trinity Wall Street with a few members of our seminary community, about to film a documentary that morning. She and the others were trapped inside a filming studio at Trinity when the planes hit, and she describes how the whole crew huddled in an inner room of the building as the power went out, unsure of what might come next. The image that will not leave me is one where Courtney describes turning a corner to see Elizabeth Koenig, our professor of Ascetical Theology, sitting on the floor beside the door, praying. Here is a woman that I see every day, walking across the Close to Chapel or class, seeming perfectly normal; but this image of her from Coutney’s book lifts the viel from aorund her to reveal a saint of deep prayer in God, a saint who in the face of the greatest evil was grounded in deep prayer with Christ for the world. How could I have ever missed seeing this in her?

Lastly, as our seminary chaplain, Stuart, prepaes to take his leave of the school this week, a few of us have had the privilege of drawing close to him to drink deeply from the well of stories that is his full life in the priesthood of our church. We have heard harrowing stories from murders in a Texas parish to serving as a ground-zero chaplain, to having his effigy consumed by an angry school board. It has been eye opening for me to learn so much of the trials, of the occasions for testimony, of the endurance of this man who on the surface appears to be so ordinary, so much like any one else I know in my community. It has all had me very suspicious as of late, about what else I may be missing of the grace of God’s activities in those I share the routines of my day with.

I tell these stories, because they are all very big things that God brought into the life of my seminary communty, and because at the same time, it was such a very small thing for God to show them to me. I imagine that many of you could say the same about the community here at St. Paul’s. I imagine you could tell me stories of incredible grace that runs as a hidden current beneath this place. God is made large, God is magnified in the passion of a mother for justice, in the prayer of a theologian at the time of greatest trial, in the lifetime of a chaplain given time and time again to the work of God’s grace. But these saints of God are made of the normal stuff all around us. Sometimes the tinkering that God requires is in our own eyes to behold the greatness of the work at hand. Sometimes God scoots up a bench. And sometimes that bench is a front-row seat for the truly miraculous among us.

Sometimes, we are eager for God to do a very big thing, and most of the time, God is already in the midst of doing something great beyond our wildest imagining, right here among us. And it can be the smallest thing in the world for us to turn our eye towards it, to lend our hands to its assistance, and our voices to its telling. It is little more than a slight of God’s hand at times, to lift the viel from our eyes and reveal that the world we think we know so well is on fire with his grace. And, in the face of such radiant joy, of such delight: giving our very small life to the current of God’s great action is the very least that we can do.

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