A sermon preached on February 27th, 2011, based upon Matthew6:24-34 and Psalm 131
I read an article this week by a young woman writer who describes sitting at the bedside of her dying grandmother. Though the hospice people assure her that her grandmother can hear everything, she hasn’t said a word for days, and appears to be drifting in an out of consciousness. The woman’s middle-aged mother is also there, a person who seems to her daughter to be too serious too often. For relief from the heaviness of the situation, the young woman decides to read out loud a poem by Billy Collins entitled “Dharma,” which begins,
“The way the dog trots out the front door every morning without a hat or an umbrella without any money or the keys to her doghouse ever fails to fill the saucer of my heart ith milky admiration.”
She goes on to write that Billy Collins deserves a dozen yellow roses just for making her mother laugh. And then she writes, “Between us lay my grandmother. I looked down and saw that her eyes were wide open, as they had not been in days, and they were filled with tears.”
I suspect that the grandmother’s tears were evoked by the appealing image in the poem, suggesting that it might well be possible to pass through the mysterious door that is death with the simple trust of a dog trotting contentedly out the front door.
Collins captures something of the state of mind that Jesus is inviting us to enter into with his words about “Be not anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for its self.” His counsel to fret not over our food or our clothing, but to rest in the
knowledge that the Father in heaven loves each of us all the more than the birds of the air. And if his eye is on the sparrow, we know He’s watching us.
I’d never really paid much attention to this psalm 131 until it appeared in this week’s lectionary readings. I was struck by the primary image the psalmist uses:
“Surely I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with her mother. Like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
“A weaned child.”
I looked at a couple of different translations of this psalm. The writers of the Good News Bible paraphrase seemed compelled to drop the reference to weaning, perhaps because they felt uncomfortable with the idea of evoking thoughts of women’s breasts, so they changed it to “a child asleep in its mother’s arms.”
But something significant is lost when you leave out the “weaned” part.
To undergo the process of being weaned necessarily involves a certain trauma associated with being forced to let go of the sought after breast.
The psalmist is calling to mind the transition that takes place from moving from a posture of “I want! I want! I want!” – “I can’t live without!” – to a posture of simple trust that my needs will be provided for, in better ways, perhaps than I could have imagined.
We live in a culture that discourages us from embracing the pain that is required to make that transition to that place where our soul is like a weaned child. We are bombarded with noise and images and advertisements. This is the down side of a capitalist society; the engine of the economy is driven by people wanting more, more, more, and advertising is designed specifically for the purpose of persuading you that you shouldn’t be content with what you already have.
How much is enough? For economic growth to take place, we can’t reach contentment. We are required to want more, more, more, and in the endless pursuit of the more, more, more we are distracted from asking the deeper question of, what, in fact is it that I truly want?
And it’s not just material things that our soul locks into like an unweaned child:
We grasp after the breast of… being right, endlessly replaying in our minds our interactions with the people with whom we live out our lives in order to prove to ourselves that we are in the right, that we’ve done more, given more — that our existence is justified.
We grasp after the breast of affirmation from others, needing the people around us to tell us that we are good, worthy, important. But it’s never is quite enough – we constantly require the breast of affirmation be returned to us.
Whether we’re grasping after stuff, or grasping after others telling us we are okay, it’s all the same.
And in our relationship with God, there is a similar dynamic. We can miss out on what it means to live by faith because, like a baby demanding the breast be given, we demand from God that God explain everything to us.
Like a baby screaming for the breast to be offered, we become immobilized by the demands we place on God: Show me your plan, reveal yourself to me, explain how everything works, I MUST HAVE IT or I will not trust you!
But faith isn’t having all the answers. Faith is trusting that you will get what you need–not necessarily what you want — and you can step out and live your life trusting that somehow, everything is going to be all right.
I’ve told the story a number of times before told to me by a young single mother in my first church, of how one evening in her apartment with her hyperactive five year old son, he fell asleep at a time when usually he would still be bouncing around the apartment. The woman found the unusual silence of the apartment disconcerting. Her first impulse was to relieve her anxiety by turning on the t.v. to find distraction from the emptiness, but a voice without actual words inside her told her quite clearly, “Don’t turn on the TV.” A few minutes later she felt the urge to turn on the radio, but again the wordless voice within her instructed, “Don’t turn on the radio.” She sat there in the silence of the apartment, the only sound that of her child’s quiet breathing. And to her astonishment, the anxiety gave way to a profound sense of well being, and the sensation of the house being enfolded in a band of golden light.
It is not possible for us to manipulate “the gold band of light,” or any manifestation of the grace of God for that matter. But the psalm does imply that there are things we need to do.
“Surely I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with her mother.”
There is a kind of necessary suffering that must be embraced — the acceptance of our weaning of that which we think we HAVE to have.
Where is God to be found? Perhaps a good place to look is precisely in those places in our life where we feel like a baby demanding the breast to be shown.
Without turning our brother Al Booth into a perfected saint in his lifetime, that was something instructive in the way he introduced himself in one of David’s groups a year before his death: “I’m a nanny, and there is nothing I would rather be right now.”
We get stuck grasping after big things, missing the blessings of little things, like the company of a three year old with whom we can share love. In the end love is all that matters.
(At this point I led the congregation in a brief guided meditation, in an attempt to enter into that space where our soul can be stilled and quiet.)