13 February 2011/Epiphany 6A – Deut 30: 15-20/Psalm 119: 1-8/1Cor 3:1-9/Mt 5:21-37
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Nocturn Part 2
Poetry. I suspect we rarely think of it, but a substantial amount of our Sunday worship consists of poetry. The Psalms are Hebrew poetry. Many of the readings from the prophets are in Hebrew Poetry. Even some of the lessons texts from the Christian Scriptures are written in Greek poetry. And all the hymn texts are poetry of one kind or another.
We are hard pressed to define precisely what poetry is. Yet, it is broadly believed that the art of poetry pre-dates literacy, and the oldest known examples of poetry date back to over 2000 years before the common era – before the time of Jesus. And all the oldest preserved poems, composed so as to be recited and passed on from one generation to the next, reflect on life’s deepest mysteries seeking imaginative meaning from our life’s experiences.
Epiphany, we say, is the Season of Light – it begins with the light of the Star leading countless numbers of Magi, “wise men,” to the place where God arrives as a tiny baby, and concludes with the Transfiguration of Jesus shining blindingly brightly white on a mountain top chatting with Moses and Elijah – two earlier prophets who had their own fiery, blindingly white moments as well. To say Epiphany is the Season of Light is to employ metaphor. Poetry, not content to simply deploy legions of metaphors to examine the mystery of life ultimately contends that all language, each word, is metaphor – a word-symbol attempting to describe even the most mundane of human experience, and yet never quite capable of fully embodying such experience itself. So we often say, “Words fail us.”
Makes one wonder why we work so hard at trying to be “literal” – so hard at trying to pin-down precise understandings in a constantly changing, living and evolving universe – so hard to be exacting in just what is exactly happening – just what did happen in a tiny, outlying village of the once vast and mighty Empire of Rome! Language and words express at once both our comfort and our restlessness with all that life sends and has sent our way.
So it is I have found myself contemplating a bit of a poem I read several weeks ago as I was preparing to lead worship with the small but faithful continuing community at Mount Calvary. It is by W. S. Merwin, who happened to be poet in residence one semester while I attended Trinity College in Hartford, CT.
In a poem titled Nocturne Merwin writes:
The stars emerge one/by one into the names
that were last found for them/far back in other
darkness no one remembers/by watchers whose own
names were forgotten/later in the dark
and as the night deepens/other lumens begin
to appear around them/as though they were shining
through the same instant/from a single depth of age
though the time between/each one of them
and its nearest neighbor/contains in its span
the whole moment of the earth/turning in a light
that is not its own/with the complete course
of life upon it/born to brief reflection
recognition and anguish/from one cell evolving
to remember daylight/laughter and distant music
I was struck by the words: "the whole moment of the earth/turning in a light
that is not its own/with the complete course/of life upon it/born to brief reflection"
The earth does not produce light for the universe, it reflects the light of the Sun and other stars. As we turn, we move from light to darkness to light and to darkness over and over again, 365 times a year. Any light that we make on earth is recycled Sun light stored as coal, oil, natural gas, tallow, beeswax, all of which can be made to produce light - but its source is still the Sun.
Last Sunday Jesus said "you are the light of the world." I take this to mean that like the earth, we are called to reflect “The Light of Christ” we sing about in the Easter Vigil, represented by the Paschal Candle that stands next to the Baptismal Font. In the continuation of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to unpack that metaphor, detailing just what it means to be “the light of the world.” Echoing Deuteronomy, he calls us to “choose life” as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has painstakingly detailed such a choice again and again throughout the history of God’s people.
In the opening lines of the Bible’s longest poem, Psalm 119, we learn that our happiness depends on our choosing to “walk in the way of the Lord…observe his decrees, and seek him with all our heart". Which I imagine begins with carefully observing what way the Lord walks so we might walk in that same way.
A careful reading of Deuteronomy reveals that this way we are to walk entails canceling the debts of the poor (15:1-11), pushing government to guard against excessive wealth (18:8-20), limiting punishment to protect human dignity (19:1-7), offering hospitality to runaway slaves (23:15-16), paying employees fairly (24: 14-15), and leaving part of the harvest for those who need it (24:19-22).
To which Paul adds in his correspondence to a poorly behaving church in Corinth that there should be no quarreling among us, no jealousy, and no allegiance to human leadership, but rather only to align oneself with Christ – “For we are God’s servants working together; you are God’s field, God’s building."
To all of which Jesus is only getting going when he adds that if we are in conflict with one of our sisters or brothers, we are to go and seek restoration or reconciliation with that person before we bring or gifts to the altar. Note the assumption and emphasis that we are to bring gifts to the altar, AND we are to be a reconciling community first and foremost – so we might kneel before the Lord with a clear conscience and lighter heart.
In all this, Jesus reveals God – God’s nature and God’s intent for humankind. In this, Jesus is the light and life of the world. Unpacking this poetic metaphor reveals the myriad ways in which we can walk in God’s way. We say, “The devil is in the details,” but in this case, it is “The Way of the Lord” that is in the details.
We are called to reflect the Light of Christ, much the way the Earth reflects the light and life of the Sun. From “out there” among the stars we know how beautiful this fragile earth our island home looks to those who have been out there to see. How much more beautiful would life on Earth look were we to commit ourselves to making the choice God invites us to make?
“Choose life so that you and your descendents may live.” The Way of the Lord entails choices, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of all humankind from this day forward. There can be no other choice we are called upon to make more important than this. When we so choose, the world will be bathed not only in Sunlight, but with the Light of Christ – and the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed! Amen.