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I know this weekend has been very difficult—another shooting…more loss of life… more grief and fear in another community and an uncertainty about what to do. Which led me to think about those times we might get absolutely caught off guard by our reactions to something. Maybe small things like finding yourself absolutely bereft when you realize that your spouse has taken the dented enamelware coffee mug to the Goodwill? Or finding yourself speaking with great passion about something that you’d never really thought you cared much about? Have you ever been suddenly moved to tears? Well, I have. And I have been thinking about that a lot this week. There have been times in my life when I just spontaneously, without warning and without any conscious understanding of why, burst into tears.
And it’s not that I don’t cry. I am often moved to tears by kindness, by beauty, or by a friend or family member struggling with hurt, illness, or pain. Honestly, I can be quite sentimental. I often cry during sappy commercials or watching a movie. But what I am talking about is different. These unexpected spontaneous bursts of tears haven’t been tied to conscious cognition or emotions. Because, while upon further reflection, I have often been able to kind of identify the cause of my tears—in each of these moments I have had no idea why the tears came.
Perhaps that is why I can so vividly recall them– the dates, my surroundings, minute details. The first time this happened I was just a young girl sitting in front of the television on December 9, 1980 when, after getting home from school, I watched the evening news confirm what I had heard all day. They showed a New York marquis on which was written: John Lennon, Dec 8, 1980. John Lennon was dead. And I wept.
It also happened to me many years later on August 28, 2017 in front of the Department of Justice in Washington DC at the end of the 1000 Minister March. I found myself standing not only amongst 3000 of my fellow clergy from different denominations and faith traditions but also only a few feet away from the Rev. Jessie Jackson. I burst into tears.
And it happened again in between these more notable times on May 17, 2015 in South Orange New Jersey when Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn started singing “All the Diamonds in the World.” And I started to sob.
Oddly enough, what got me thinking about that moment in the concert and others, too, were the shining footprints of our snail friends out in the courtyard last month. Now I know that the gardeners among us, and certainly our lovely Alice Foreman, are probably not as happy as I am to see the evidence of snails. They can be pests and do damage to a garden, but I am delighted every time I see the little paths they leave behind of their journeys on the walks. You know they glitter and shine and do, indeed, remind me of the words of Cockburn’s song— “All the Diamonds in the world that mean anything to me are conjured up by wind and sunlight sparkling on the sea…” or, for me, in the footprints of snails…
So I have found myself wondering if my unexpected tears reflect how sometimes the Divine enters in and catches us off guard —and reminds us how important and beautiful things are often not those that immediately come to our conscious minds –especially as adults. Children see the beauty and value of a feather or a shiny rock. They pick them up reverently. They might even put them in their pockets for safe keeping. But for many of us, growing up has meant being taught to treasure other more “valuable” things like property and possessions. And we then mistakenly put our faith in them and then vest in them a power that they do not have to keep us and those we love safe and secure.
This is well-illustrated in today’s gospel. A man asks Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” This man wants Jesus to arbitrate a dispute over family inheritance. Then, like now, such issues often led to lengthy and unpleasant legal battles.
And while I know this sounds like an exceedingly strange request, in Jesus’ time inheritance issues fell under the jurisdiction of the Torah. So what man is asking Jesus to do was common practice—rabbis often acted as judges in these matters. Jesus, however, is not an ordinary rabbi. Jesus’ ministry rests on spreading of the Kingdom of God. And in the kingdom of God, this man’s concern is meaningless because no one need ask for a portion of anything because God’s gifts are completely and abundantly given to any and all who ask. So, while this gospel might be read as Jesus rebuking this man, Jesus is just asking him to question his belief that this inheritance will somehow bring him happiness, security or well-being.
Jesus answers, “Friend [why would I judge you..] Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then he goes on to tell a parable about a rich landowner who possessed lands that produced so abundantly that he had to figure out how to store his crops. And so, he tears down his barns and builds newer and bigger ones. And then he feels safe and secure and thinks to himself, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But then Jesus says… “God says to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”
What Jesus is saying to this man, whom he calls friend, is that his desire for his family inheritance—our desire for earthly possessions and financial security are not “bad.” They are, in fact, a necessary part of earthly life. But they will not and cannot make or keep us safe. And while there is nothing wrong with the careful management of one’s resources, possessions don’t love you back and they can never take the place of real relationship. The only true source of happiness and security is found in our relationship with one another and God. And so, if we mistakenly spend all our mental and spiritual energy on these things, we could very well lose the opportunity to fulfill God ’s promise for our life. Our earthly realm doesn’t share the value Jesus puts on our hearts, souls and relationships. Our earthly realm values what we do over who and how we are.
A tweet from July 8 that’s gone viral says , “I love how being an adult is just saying “But after this week things will slow down a bit ” again and again to yourself until you die.”
This tweet probably leaves Jesus sadly shaking his head knowingly. His words to the man today echo those of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 22 which foretold the fall of Jerusalem…. You saw that the walls of the City of David were broken through in many places…. You counted the buildings in Jerusalem and tore down houses to strengthen the wall….But you did not look to the One who made it, or have regard for the One who planned it long ago. The Lord, the Lord Almighty…But see, there is…revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”
In today’s gospel Jesus is telling us that our inheritance as children of God is not dependent on financial arrangements, but rather in how we choose to live our lives in our relationship with God, one another and God’s creation. As followers of Christ, we are not called to naively place our faith in our earthly treasures or allow ourselves to get stuck in a fatalistic nihilism which robs us of our very real ability to change things for the better.
As I think back on moments when I have wept without knowing why, I believe they were moments when I was given a glimpse of divine clarity. In the case of John Lennon’s death, I was just starting to really listen to music then. I remember asking my oldest sister again and again “Who sings this song or that song? ”until I knew their voices well enough to know that many of the songs I loved were Beatles songs. And that moment of tears, that moment was my first lesson on the brevity of life and how, no matter how famous and ubiquitous a person may be –even someone who claimed to be “more popular than Jesus”– their life and all their unwritten potential and unsung songs could be gone in the blink of an eye. Just like that.
And when I saw Jessie Jackson standing next to the Dr. King’s son that August day in DC—my tears recognized the continuity and strength of the beloved community I remember thinking “He is still here—still standing with us ” And I knew that I, too, was being called to do my part– to not only try to do my best but also to be there to encourage all of God’s children to bring their best gifts to the important work of building God’s Kingdom.
And of that song All the Diamonds in the World—well I think I felt in that moment that real beauty, that real important things often come to us through the little things….and that maybe little things aren’t so little. He sang:
All the Diamonds in this world that mean anything to me are conjured up by wind and sunlight sparkling on the sea…And amongst all his lyrics highlighting God’s presence within the beauty of the earth he places this line… “Two thousand years and half a world away dying trees still grow greener when you pray…” And I knew it to be true – I have seen prayer change things— I have seen faith and belief make a difference—especially when we, as the African proverb suggests – move our feet when we pray. Friends, I know our progress may seem to come ever-so-slowly – at a snail’s pace but just like snails—I believe our prayers and actions can leave behind a beautiful trail—a glittering legacy–for others to follow.
Last week, on the third step going down to Howell Street, one snail had apparently been unable to climb up the rather large step. But he did not give up. He left a testament to his tenacity in the form of a little labyrinth that circled around and around and ended there in the center of the step without a trail leading back to the soil. I fear he was eaten by a bird or another creature—maybe trampled underfoot. I have often tried to move these little fellows to safety, but they adhere like glue—literally get stuck in one place until they’re ready to move. And if you care about helping them, you cannot force a snail to move just as you cannot force human beings to do something they do not wish.
But the snail’s path was not useless. It was beautiful. And our lives are meant to be beautiful too. No matter how long or short. No matter if the world sees them as successful or not. Because while we may not be able to control when our life will be demanded of us, we can choose what we give our lives to and leave behind a legacy of love, compassion and concern that will leave this world more beautiful for us having been here…And is there really anything more valuable than that?