Last Saturday, we returned to Muscongus Island for a reprise of last year's preaching & piping gig. The Summer residents of this unelectrified and (mostly) unplumbed Maine island had just held their annual auction and the annual church meeting was scheduled to commence right after our worship service. The pressure was on to create a worship service that would adequately honour, foster and further this seasonal community's sense of...well, community.
Fortunately, it wasn't entirely up to me. I had two valuable colleagues along for the adventure: The Piper, who managed to share her musical gifts while complying with the island's rigidly informal dress code thanks to her recently acquired "instakilt," and Zoe, our farm dog, who endured the arduous multivehicular journey with grace, if not dignity, and channeled all her herd-dog talents into her new self-assigned role as church greeter and head usher. She gave a whole new meaning to "shepherding the flock."
We were able to stay on the island for two more days after the end of our official duties. Zoe, the Piper and I took several long walks, admiring the rugged beauty of the island, the hints and remnants of the island's once year-round community, and the weathered old houses, oddly bedecked with both seasonal ephemera and accouterments of sustainability. One particular walk to the island's main cemetery held a special poignancy. As we walked among the lichen-etched stones, we read the century-old names of young people lost in their prime to illness or the sea. I thought about my Grandmother, who died just a week before at the age of 87, and felt humble and thankful for her--and all the lives that have bridged the distance between other island hearts and mine.
Here is the sermon preached at Loudsville Church, Muscongus Island, Maine, on August 8, 2010:
ONE FOR THE BIRDS
I want to tell you about my Grandma Charlotte. I want to share something about her, because, while we worship together in this small island church, the rest of my family is just on the edge of waking up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where they gathered yesterday for her funeral. She lived to be 87 years old, vital and joyful 'til the end. I miss her.
What I remember most about Grandma's house was the clutter. It was friendly clutter. It supported all manner of conversations. If we talked about crafts, Grandma probably had everything you needed in a drawer or a box...somewhere. If we talked about science, history, or culture, she would draw on her extensive collection of Smithsonian Magazines and National Geographics. Grandma was also a highly-skilled yard-saler. She and Grandpa would trundle around Colorado in their old avocado-green VW bus, finding the most astounding things and happily tucking them away for useful occasions. Each Christmas, our family would receive a large box addressed in Grandma Charlotte's handwriting. There would be at least three items for every single member of the family: at least two yard-sale finds, a fossil or mineral to add to our rock collections, and the annual renewal of our own family's subscription to National Geographic.
Grandma loved to find things, hold on to them a while, then pass them on. Other than rockhounding, it was her favorite sport. She was at once a magpie and a messiah, gathering bright, shiny objects into her nest, guided by a belief that everything was worth rescuing, worth saving. And she kept it all up for many years, still sending her famous boxes even when I was in college and grad school. But, as Grandma and Grandpa got older, they ventured out less and less. After Grandpa's death, it became too much of a chore to pack those heavy Christmas boxes and get them to the post office. We didn't mind terribly much. A card and a phone call were just as good, if not better. But, there in that modest little house in Boulder, Colorado, there was still all...that...clutter. She was tripping over it in the hallway. She was bumping against it on the stairs. Grandma got frustrated. She spent time almost every day sorting through it, but she couldn't bring herself to actually throw anything away. One pile would be sorted into half a dozen piles, and they would gradually shift and merge into other sorted piles, and then the mess would be in everyone's way all over again. The task absorbed more and more of her time and her failing energy.
I've been that kind of magpie messiah. Grandma taught me well. I've gathered plenty of bright shiny objects myself, and I've done my best to work them into my nest. I've rescued other people's discards, glued them back together, filed the rough edges, and claimed them as my treasures, additions to my collection. I've welcomed clutter as a rebellion against waste. I hate to throw anything away.
But that's not the kind of savior Jesus meant to be. He had a different message in mind: He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sew nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.
Consider the ravens. The raven is the bird of battlefields and garbage dumps, the eater of carrion. Shepherds and farmers were forever driving them away from potential sources of food. They were unwelcome, unwanted scavengers, trash-pickers, pests. They were unclean creatures and unfit for human consumption, according to Jewish law. Where I grew up, in the Pacific Northwest, Native people tell stories of Raven the Trickster, Raven the Traveler, Raven, the Creator's go-between, the bringer of news. In the story of the Great Flood, Noah sends out a raven before he sends out a dove, but then it disappears behind the curtains and the dove gets all the good press. Ravens are like flying shadows upon which we heap all the darkness of our imaginations.
And yet... have you ever watched ravens? Did you know that, if one young raven finds food—even the smallest bit of food—it will call out to all the other ravens around, inviting them to share it? Did you know that they mate for life, and that an older pair will take one or two younger birds under their wing—so to speak—and train them as nannies, teaching them to care for the newly-hatched young so that they'll be better parents when they're ready to hatch out their own? Did you know they often work in teams to drive off a threatening owl or a hawk? The Creator of both humans and ravens must have loved these “unclean” creatures very much to give them such gifts, for they have not only an abundance of food, but also an abundance of fellowship, an abundance of community.
For Grandma Charlotte, it was the abundance of her community that shook her loose from all her stuff. One by one, friends and family began to visit, to sit and soak up her stories, to laugh and chat—and to help her sort. Wealthy with companionship, she began to care for her “friendly clutter” less and less. Surrounded by loving support, she was able to start letting go. The recycling bins filled up rapidly. The hallway and stairs seemed to grow wider. You didn't have to think so much about where you might put your feet. Best of all, the burden of care was lifted. Grandma was free to devote her remaining energy to the things that made her thrive: relationships, learning, and the exercise of curiosity and delight that made her a true joy to be with.
“...And do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
What is our treasure? Not the clutter, the possessions that bind us and hinder us and weigh us down. You know that already, or you wouldn't have made the effort to carve out time to be in this place. And this “little flock” has already shown that you know how to sell possessions and give alms—yesterday's auction accomplished a bit of that, even if the possessions did just move on to somebody else. In fact, the more we keep things moving, the closer to God's community we'll be. This way, we defy the human powers that would keep us hoarding our petty treasures. This way, we create an economy of blessings and gifts, where the only real value of things is in the way they keep moving between us. We become richer and richer—as a community—the more gifts we share with each other.
Here we are, together on this small island. Here we are, blessed with a place of abundance. We can leave behind the fear-mongering headlines, the power-plays of the nations of the world. Instead, we can watch the ravens and sea-birds playing games with the wind, feasting on spare bits and scraps with joyful abandon. Here, we can study the lilies of the field, the trails bedecked with blooming plants and bushes laden with berries. Here, together, as we share meals and stories, as we greet each other on the paths and gently tend this beloved place, we are indeed striving towards God's kingdom. Here, we rest in the peace of wild things, learn to share our gifts, and let all of Creation teach us of faith, hope and grace.