Based on the Scripture readings:
2011 January 23
There is a fascinating story about a dust cloud, an organic molecule, and the ripe scents of summer, which comes to us from recent astronomy news. It is a story that is grounded in Europe, reaches to the heavens, and offers an invitation to engage all creation with an element of wonder and hunger and hope. It is a story of perspective as well as promise.
The story begins about two years ago when astronomers were staring through a telescope in Spain to study a dust cloud in Sagittarius B2. That's up in the sky. There are two astrophysicists in our congregation here, and one of them is the chair of our Deacons group so from time to time I read some space news in order to keep up.
Anyway, scientists were scrutinizing this dust cloud to see if it contained amino acids, which could be very revealing about life in our galaxy, and they did not find those acids but instead they found something else. They found a complex organic molecule. The found ethyl formate. Which is unfamiliar to most of us except for one thing: ethyl formate is a central ingredient in the flavor of raspberries and the smell of rum. The middle of our galaxy has hints of wild summer fruit and Caribbean cocktails.
Now the truth is that what was observed in this case is just as easily defined as a dingy cloud, a chemical compound, or a summer treat. The final answer relies upon perspective and presumption.
No matter how you see it, though, I have to say that I am very taken with the idea that somewhere out in space, beyond oxygen and easy light, there is something sweet and wonderful and tangy. Indeed, this discovery of ethyl formate got me thinking about the character of raspberries and rum, and I made a little list of my ideas.
I think of raspberries as both tender and powerful. They crush or spoil in a moment, but they usually deliver at least two crops per year, and their bushes are not only self-protective but virtually virulent in their ability to throw roots way beyond where you imagine they will grow. The seed and the fruit are united, and the ripe color is bold, and I like them best either right off the plant, mixed in with other fruits, or sandwiched between freshly whipped cream and a half inch butter-tart crust with maybe just a hint of caramelized sugar syrup holding things together. Raspberries are glorious.
I think of rum as a summertime treat, either light or dark. It is a party flavor. It is the rough hewn product of the cane plant and reminds me of raw sugar and organic earth. It complements other flavors. But of course it is flammable, too. And it is addictive. But that is not the only way that it is destructive: it is a central ingredient in the historic slave trade and the bondage of humanity as well as the wealth of New Englanders and their blindness to what is all around. It travels the world today connected with Coke changing economies with its subtle strength. It's not a neutral beverage or a neutral smell. It has been a blend of sugar and subjugation. But in moderation, as appropriate, it evokes the image of a Caribbean sunset and a congenial repose from the heat of a day. It goes well with raspberries, too.
When Jesus moved to the beach at Capernaum, he inhabited a village perhaps five times the size of our parish real estate. The distance from the synagogue to Peter's house was the length of our building, and the distance from Peter's house to the lake perhaps from this pulpit to Walnut Street. And Jesus came from away. He came to an area that was literally the boundary between several regions under different authorities. Walk half an hour and you've crossed a border. Move a bit north or south or east or west and you change jurisdictions and even conditions, and in His lifetime this was important to Jesus if he was to have time to preach and pray. But when He called the first disciples, He could have been seen as a stranger, He could have been seen as a madman, or He could have been seen as a healer, a prophet, a gift. Based on what He said first, the jury was out: "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand." There is little reason to believe that the first people who heard these words reacted dramatically differently than the way that you have reacted when you have heard it said to you on a street corner or read it in a pamphlet or wrestled with it in the Bible. It is not a compelling opening line to the otherwise engaged: repent! This guy could just be another dirty dust ball, chemically unbalanced, or maybe, just maybe the Messiah.
The second thing that Jesus said was "Follow me." And I wonder, did they go because they were convinced? Or did they go because they were curious? Did His call settle everything, or was it just the beginning: truly just a tenuous down payment on the promises they would pledge later on? The scripture suggests but doesn't settle the answer to this question. But when they followed, they saw healing and embracing and hope. They heard beatitudes and promises, and they were fed. When they saw Jesus one way, they saw God anew.
The three scriptures this morning see a world in danger, a church conflicted in Corinth, and a movement grounded in a tiny town guided by day laborers and fish mongers. They see a world where two empires, the Assyrian one and the Roman one, dominate, divide, destroy, and determine what will and what will not be done. They describe a church with 120 members that agrees on very little, and from this, from this they say that light will shine, promise will be fulfilled, one mind will emerge, and God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
You could call these visions sound and fury, signifying nothing, you could call them simple poetry, pleasantries to be pondered purely as a pastime, or you could call them the living Word of God. These scriptures ask us to remember our history -- when we've overcome great obstacles, to remember our creator -- who has a vision for our world beyond empire and domination, and they ask us to unify our diverse and wondrous opinions into common faith that is a resurrection faith even in the face of crucifixion. They ask us to do this to follow Jesus. They ask us to see something about our world in a certain, sensory way.
After worship today we will talk about our budget for 2011. The basic draft is five pages with four pie charts and eleven tiny paragraphs of text. When you look at it you might see a cloud of numbers. Or you might immediately turn to see if it is unbalanced and judge by that. Or you might notice, in the fact that category A, the first set of commitments, is Missions, and that category F, the last set of figures, is committed to music -- you might see that in our movement from missions to music and covering all of the other dimensions of ministry in between there is something of the Spirit's hand. Something about following Jesus. You might see that our document is a faith document laid out to unite the sweet promise of worship with those of education and service and hope. You might sense food for thought and meals for the hungry.
I can say without fear of contradiction that our ministry here is more unified than the one long ago at First Parish in Corinth. We do not have meals where some are welcome and others excluded. We do not argue across factions regarding the leadership of our faith. Our baptisms are joyful not divisive, and no one has married anyone against the law. As that is the case, if we are operating even better than that parish, could it be that we are called to even more? Could it be that Jesus' call to follow holds even higher expectations for us than those expressed for Corinth? Can we sense that in our budget?
We have a ministry that is simultaneously tender and powerful. It is self protective at times, but it is called to spread roots and branches beyond any cautious limits. It is sweet, and it delivers crop after crop of sustenance year after year. It is grounded in raw hope and organic faith, and its gift at times is to set our people on fire. Never to enslave but to reach across the world with liberation and transformation and love.
You could say that all this is a metaphor for raspberries and rum, or you could say that all this clouds our vision, but I believe that at the center of our creation is something wonderful and wondrous and true. It is God. And our vision in this church, our perspective and perception beholds God in this universe not to claim that God is absent without us but to affirm that we do change our world and its promise with our plans and our presumption and even our holy presumptuousness.
God is very close to you, says Jesus. God is very close to you, so follow me, He entreats. His is the call for us to see and hear and taste and touch and smell and share, to give and to receive and to serve and to celebrate, and when we do our universe is sweet and tangy and wonderful. With hints of wild summer fruit, and divine meaning, in our lives.
Copyright © 2011 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.