Pentecost XIX – October 11, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor.
My very dear friend and clergy colleague, Lane Denson, is also a musician. Jazz. He’s very good. I suppose, then, that it should come as no surprise that he often uses stories about music and musicians as a metaphor for life and our lives of faith. This is one of my favorites:
The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz was once asked, "What is music?” He answered that music is made up of little dots on a page, some black, some white. Almost anyone, he said, can render them with some instrument, a voice, a horn, or some string, rather like one can learn to use a typewriter to unravel shorthand. But, he said, that is not music.
Music, he said, is what’s "behind the dots." Music is getting behind the dots and connecting them and making them yours or yours together with others, bringing the music into the present and sharing it. Music is never past, save in our memories. And it’s never yet been done, save in our planning.
Music is behind the dots. So is most of the richness and meaning of life. This is especially true about eternal life, which is what the rich man was asking Jesus about in this morning’s gospel story.
Let me be very clear right up front: Despite how you may have heard this gospel preached in the past, I do not believe that Jesus is making an assault on wealth as such. Nor does he condemn those who possess it.
Neither does he necessarily praise poverty as a virtue. The man’s departure from Jesus in sadness and regret tells us that his life has been defined by his wealth and that a new life defined some other way is beyond his imagination. He cannot see behind the dots.
I think many of us – your preacher included – often make this mistake. We live our lives as good citizens, try to stay gainfully employed, care for our families, mow the lawn, pay our taxes, obey the law, keep the rules, and attend church – well, we try to on a regular basis, anyway.
Check, check and check.
But life, real life, the fullness of life, lies behind the checks. And, eternal life lies beyond the dots. Find that, and you will find the music that will turn your life from a dirge to music that will make your heart sing.
I want to pick up for just a moment on last week’s gospel. You know. The one about divorce. The one that made some of us very uncomfortable – including your preacher.
I think I have a story of my own that will help us think about living behind the dots and finding something about our own lives of faith as well as our life together in community that may help us better understand the Sacred Mystery of Eternal Life.
Years ago – on another planet in another galaxy far, far away – I was doing my own wrestling with the words of Jesus concerning divorce. My marriage had become a sham – or, at least, an utter failure.
I wasn’t exactly sure why, at the time. I just knew that we were both living with the sinking feeling that whatever this was, it was not marriage. It was awful. Flat-out awful.
A friend of mine who was Greek Orthodox encouraged me to make an appointment with her priest. She was convinced he could help me sort through my emotions and find an answer that was right for me – without judgment or condemnation.
I dragged my feet for months, but finally, when I couldn’t stand it any more, and in desperation, I made the appointment and went.
The Good Father listened patiently and kindly to my sad story, told through copious tears and sobs and sniffles. When I had finished, he handed me his fresh, white, starched handkerchief from the pocket of his black clergy shirt and, while I calmed myself down, spoke to me with great kindness and compassion – and, teaching.
“You know that the Greek Orthodox allow divorce, yes? That is because we believe that, when two people fall in love – real love – a new life is called into being. The two become one flesh with that new life, that new love, but they never cease being themselves."
"They become part of something bigger than just the two of them. Something that is in the world but not of the world. They are in the world, but the love, the new life they share, is not of the world.”
“It is a gift from God,” he continued, “It is a gift of abundance that can call forth more new life. Most often that more new life is seen in the children they have together, but it is also the new life they create together, the way each of their individual lives grow – more and more – into the unique person God has created them to be."
"Love always makes you more than you are.”
He leaned forward to be closer to me and said, “Now, sadly, sometimes that new life that came into being because of their love dies. Sometimes, it dies of abuse. Sometimes, it dies of neglect. And sometimes, it just dies."
"It is a lovely, romantic thought to believe that love lasts forever, but we know that the truth of life is not always romantic.”
“Sometimes, life is short,” he continued. “Babies die after a few days or weeks or months of life. Children or young people are taken from us in tragic accidents. We have no explanation for why this is, except that some life here on earth is not meant to live forever.”
“So, too, with the life that is created in marriage,” the Good Teacher told me. “Sometimes, the new life brought forth from love is just not meant to live that long. So, the best thing to do is to admit that the life has died, have a funeral we call divorce or annulment, and get on with the rest of life."
"It is better to live the life God has given you with all the love that is in your heart, rather than drag around a dead life form because we think that’s what the rules insist we must do.”
He sat back in his chair, took a deep breath and said, “The Rule of Life with Jesus is eternal life. You have to look behind the rules of this life to find Life Eternal with Jesus.”
Looking behind the rules – beyond the dots on the page – is where we will find the music that makes our lives sing. That’s true of our individual, personal lives, our lives with our spouses or partners, our lives with our children, and our family life.
It is also true of our lives as sisters and brothers in Christ in this parish family. You may not know it when you walked in that sanctuary door, but something happens here, when we’re together, that changes and transforms us in such a way that, when we walk out an hour or so later, we are not the same.
That happens every week. Week after week. Even though you may not realize that it is happening. I see it and I know it to be true because it happens to me.
It’s not just about coming to church. Check. Hearing the gospel. Check. Taking communion. Check. It’s about what happens behind all that. Beyond all that. About the dots that are connected between each of us and the Gospel and the Eucharist.
If you are simply looking at the dots you will miss seeing the Gospel broken open for you during the sermon just like Communion Bread so that you may be fed on The Word.
If you simply look at the dots, you will miss the True Presence of Jesus, who comes to us from behind the sacred words of our Eucharistic Prayers.
To be with us. To comfort and heal us. To bring us hope. To help us listen for the music we sing with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven AND Earth of filled with your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!”
This morning’s Gospel story – our family story, our spiritual genealogy about wealth and poverty and discipleship – is really a story about sacrifice. To sacrifice something is not only to give it up or to give it away or to do without it.
Listen to the word: to sacrifice something is to make it sacred, to make it holy. And to make something holy is to complete it, to make it whole, to heal it, to give it integrity and purpose and direction. It is to fulfill it and to help make it what it is intended to be and to become. That is what it means to remember, to "do this in remembrance... "
We call our Eucharistic prayer a ‘sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’. Before you can fully enter into this Sacred Mystery you have to give everything away, sacrifice all your worldly goods of anger, resentment, and all that distracts you from being fully present to the Full and True Presence of Jesus.
It is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for anyone to try and enter the Realm of God with all their‘stuff’.
You have to give away all your preconceived notions of status and wealth, and what is of importance to the world. You have to claim your own poverty in order to be rich. That’s what Jesus told the rich man.
You have to die to the importance of this life in order to claim the treasure of Eternal Life.
Jesus doesn’t force the rich man or embarrass him or threaten him. He simply gives him the freedom to say “no.” For if he were to say “yes,” his “yes” would be hollow and meaningless and empty, it would simply display the dots and not what is behind them.
Jesus’ advice, of course, is for this particular man in his particular circumstance, even if his words could be expanded to include all of us who might have any similar sort of roadblock keeping us from a full life.
Make no mistake. This is not easy. “The Word of God is living and active,” says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Those are harsh, difficult words to hear. I think the words of Vladimir Horowitz about music say the same thing in a different way. Music is getting behind the dots and connecting them and making them yours or yours together with others, bringing the music into the present and sharing it. Music is never past, save in our memories. And it’s never yet been done, save in our planning.
Or, in the words of my friend, the Greek Orthodox priest, Look behind the rules – beyond the dots on the page – for that is where we will find the music that makes our lives sing.