Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Crane Liturgy

Once more the northbound wonder brings back the goose and crane, Prophetic Sons of Thunder, Apostles of the Rain.
In many a battling river, the broken gorges boom. Behold the Mighty Giver emerges from the tomb.

These words from John Neihardt’s poem Easter began the opening acclamation at St. Stephen’s, Grand Island,  on Sunday as we celebrated our second annual Crane Liturgy.

Sunday was, of course, also the Third Sunday in Lent; the juxtaposition of the Lenten journey with the arrival of the cranes on their annual journey says something about the way Christians live in the world. We welcome the joyful sights and sounds of the sandhill cranes returning to the Platte Valley once again and see through them the joy of God in creation; at the same time, we prepare ourselves for Holy Week and Easter and an opportunity to participate once again in remembering Christ’s own journey, the pain and sorrow of the cross, and the joy and power of the resurrection. We rejoice in and participate in the world while remembering we are grounded in the salvation story.

The tension between the Lenten journey and the spiritual effect of the crane migration on many of us was maintained by using the usual lectionary readings for the Third Sunday in Lent and continuing our Lenten practices such as not having altar flowers and not saying our usual alleluias in the liturgy. Because of the crane celebration, however, we also had a special banner hanging in the church, children processing in behind the choir with paper birds “flying” from poles, origami cranes placed here and there, and a garland of birds from our church school children on the pulpit.

At coffee hour, we enjoyed seeing some artwork honoring the cranes. Several of the late John Mayer’s crane pictures were on display along with other paintings and photos of cranes and some wonderful pictures from the children. It was a wonderful celebration, and we are already thinking about what we want to do with this next year. Our hope is to move it closer to the river, somewhere closer to the cranes and where more people from the community might be comfortable joining us and learning to connect the awe and wonder the crane migration evokes with the God we worship in our churches

Writing the sermon, I thought about how God can use lures like the burning bush that caught Moses’ attention and the cranes for us to nudge us to change our focus and be more open to hearing the message God has for us and seeing the things God wants us to notice. The sermon is included below.

Sermon for Lent 3C and Crane Liturgy
Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13: 1-9

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

In this morning’s lesson from Exodus, the familiar story of Moses and the burning bush, Moses displays a capacity for wonder. He was curious about the world around him and open to seeing and learning new things. His example fits very well with our second annual celebration of the crane migration, and with our observance of Lent.

With the warmer weather this week, more sandhill cranes flew in from the south. I went out to the Platte River at sunrise Friday morning to see cranes, and I wasn’t disappointed. I was downriver from where some cranes had spent the night. I could hear the crescendo of sound as they rose up from the river, and see them as they flew away from the river into the surrounding fields. Along with the sound of the cranes were the sounds of red-winged blackbirds and the occasional honk of geese. Despite the ice and snow underfoot that morning, I knew this all meant that the seasons are indeed changing and spring is coming in!

When people go and watch the cranes, whether they’re visitors seeing them for the first time or local folks who see them every year – they often talk about the experience using the same words we use to talk about other experiences that we easily recognize as spiritual. “It’s awesome!” or “Incredible!” they say, or “I can’t find the words; it’s indescribable.” As people of faith, it’s important for us to name this experience for what it is, to connect the dots between the wonder we experience out there by the river and the God we worship in our churches.

Even hearing some of the scientific facts about the cranes can evoke a sense of wonder: When they are migrating, for example, they typically fly 200-300 miles in a day; sometimes, with a good tail wind, they go as far as 500 miles. Fossils that are structurally similar to sandhill cranes are more than nine million years old, making this an incredibly – and wonderfully – old species.

And yet, from a different perspective, what the cranes are doing is unremarkable. While this is a unique animal, the birds that fascinate us every spring aren’t doing anything unusual or new: the cranes are simply doing what cranes do.

Before returning to Moses and his sense of wonder and curiosity, let’s take a look at the Gospel for this Third Sunday in Lent. Our passage this morning actually contains two distinct messages.

The first part of today’s Gospel looks at the question of why bad things happen to some people and not to others. How about those Galileans who were killed while they were in the temple offering sacrifices? Or those people who were killed when a tower fell down on them? Did bad things happen to them because they were worse sinners than other people? No, says Jesus; we are all sinners, and all need to repent, to turn toward God, or something worse than these things – the loss of our souls – will happen to us. When an earthquake hits Haiti, it’s neither good theology nor good science to try to figure out what great sin someone committed to cause the earthquake; ditto for hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and landslides. The children in Haiti who will go through life with missing limbs or missing parents because of the earthquake were not being punished by a vengeful God. When I hear people like our mission team members who have worked in the Dominican Republic talk about the poverty and hardship of the people in churches there, they usually also talk about how gracious and generous the people are. They are good people dealing with bad circumstances, no more sinful than the rest of us.

Why would people today ask this same question? Well, if I’m a pretty good person and think bad things happen only to bad people, then I can go around thinking nothing bad can happen to me. This sort of magical thinking disguised as piety lets me use faith as a charm to ward off troubles rather than a means of finding a path through life’s inevitable difficulties, big and small, in a way that glorifies God.

Sometimes this irrational thought that if I don’t do anything especially bad then nothing bad will happen to me leads to inaction. Just as a child who is regularly punished or belittled for any sort of mistake can become extremely withdrawn, we sometimes get so focused on avoiding any sort of risk that we don’t do much of anything at all. If we don’t do anything, then we don’t risk making a mistake. But the parable of the fig tree in the second part of today’s lesson says that eliminating risk by doing nothing is not acceptable.

A little later in Luke’s Gospel (Ch. 19), Jesus tells the parable of the talents. The slaves who take the talents entrusted to them and invest or multiply them are rewarded, but the slave who takes the talent he is given and wraps it up and hides it, fearful of making a mistake that will bring the nobleman’s anger on him, is the one who has everything taken away from him. Jesus makes the same point in today’s parable about the fig tree: the unproductive fig tree is taking up resources and not producing anything, so the owner of the vineyard wants the gardener to chop it down. The gardener intercedes on the tree’s behalf, getting another year for the tree to start producing figs. It’s nearly too late for this unproductive tree, but there’s still a second chance. Just as we delight in the cranes doing what cranes do, someone growing fruit trees and vines delights in these plants doing what they do – producing fruit. The problem with the fig tree isn’t that it isn’t producing apples or oranges, or that it isn’t solving a math problem like a human or singing like a bird, but that it isn’t producing any figs.

The point seems to be that we are supposed to be productive, to bear fruit, in some sort of way, but how do we know what God expects us to do? It’s obvious what God expects of a fig tree or a crane, but what does God expect of me? These questions are especially important during Lent, when we focus on the sort of self-examination and openness to God’s call that we hope to have throughout our lives.

This is where a second look at Moses and the burning bush can be helpful, because the story shows us how easy it can be to hear God when are willing to look and listen. A sense of wonder and curiosity helps us be open to hearing what God is saying to us.

Moses is curious not because there’s a bush burning but because of the way that it’s burning: there’s fire, but the bush isn’t being consumed by the fire. Moses notices this – the first step – and then chooses to look at it. “I must turn aside and look at this great sight,” he says. He doesn’t say, “I don’t understand it; that’s stupid,” or “I’m busy; I don’t have time to look at some bush,” or “It’s so boring here; there’s nothing to look at.” He doesn’t close his mind to the information; and he doesn’t refuse to believe what’s right in front of him even though it doesn’t fit with what he has always believed about bushes and their properties.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, God can use lures like migrating cranes and burning bushes and all sorts of things in the world around us to get our attention. And there are lots of ways to look and listen, especially today. Things that we can’t see or hear directly because of either their distance from us or their properties are things that we can know in other ways. Photos and video clips and sound recordings from every corner of the world are available to us; books and newspapers and magazines in both paper and electronic form bring us information. All sorts of scientific instruments coupled with our knowledge let us explore the smallest structures of living things on our planet, the physical properties of other planets and distant stars, and the patterns of ocean currents and air currents. We can know which species of plants and animals are nearly extinct and which are thriving; we can know the patterns of bird and animal migrations, study their behavior, and predict fairly well how changes in human population, land use, and climate might affect them.

Once Moses pays attention to the bush, to this sort of lure that God uses to gain his attention, God speaks plainly. God makes sure Moses is clear on God’s identity, and then says, “I’ve noticed the misery of my people in Egypt and have come to deliver them; so come, I will send you out to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” This is not something Moses really wanted to hear, and his initial reaction is to say, “Who am I that I should go talk to Pharaoh?” This is perhaps one of the reasons we keep our eyes and ears narrowly focused on familiar sights and sounds and keep our minds closed to ideas that don’t fit the narrow range of whatever specific worldview we prefer; when God speaks, what we hear can be intimidating or unsettling in some way. When we look around, we might see things that disturb us and might know that God wants us to pay attention to these things. But we aren’t left alone in our discomfort; God, knowing Moses’ discomfort, assures Moses that God will be with him. And we need to take the risk; refusal to look is refusal to follow God.

When Moses first turns aside to the bush, God instructs him to take off his sandals because the place where he is standing is holy ground. There’s no special tent or building there, no religious symbols or monuments. It’s holy ground because it’s where Moses is hearing God’s voice. Any place we walk can be holy ground if it’s a place where we are especially open to God’s presence. For many of us this time of year, the Platte River valley is holy ground. The sights and sounds of the cranes lure us out of our everyday routines and concerns, out to take some time to look and listen and feel the beginning of spring, out to reconnect with the Earth. It calls us to look up from our own small worlds so we can see the wonders of the world around us. Every place where we take off our shoes – where we intentionally take the time to look and listen – is holy ground.

Lent is a time when we often work on clearing space in our lives so that we can have more time to look and listen. Moses learned a lot about God and about the work God wanted him to do by paying attention to the burning bush. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that we can learn a lot about God and God’s purposes by studying nature; he also taught that the one uniquely human quality was reason. Just as fig trees flourish by producing figs, we flourish as human beings by using our capacity to reason. We can learn a lot about God and God’s purposes by looking and listening and then thinking about what we have seen and heard.

Humankind is reluctantly beginning to look and listen to the signs of changes in the earth’s climate that could progress to a point that will make life as we have known it unsustainable. Many people choose to look away from the scientific evidence, to discount, dismiss, or ignore it. It’s intimidating; it makes us uneasy; and thinking about it is just plain difficult. The implications of how we might have to change our lives are equally scary for many of us. The fig tree in the parable was using up resources but not doing anything useful; the gardener got it a little more time to try to turn that around. There was hope. We don’t know what happened to that fig tree, if the following year found it full of fruit or cut down.

We have a little more time also to look, listen, and find the courage to go where God calls us. May the presence of the sandhill cranes among us give us a sense of God’s presence as we experience the hope and joy of increasing light and warmth. Amen.