Lent I/Year C
Tennyson and I just finished a book about a superhero squirrel who writes poetry. The first poem that the squirrel, Ulysses, types out at the computer, to the utter amazement of his onlookers, goes like this:
I love your round head,
the brilliant green,
the watching blue,
this world, you.
I am very, very hungry.
Each time I read one of the chapters about Ulysses I was reminded to notice things. Ulysses notices. He’s confronted by the beauty of the world, sometimes the overwhelming fragility and feeling and beauty of the world. “What is the word for that?” he asks. Is there a word for the lighted windows of other houses, how his human friend, Flora, looks when she sleeps, the wind blowing through the trees, a donut with sprinkles on top and cream on the inside. Or jelly, maybe.
Is there a word for all that? For all those thoughts and feelings, for all that love bound up together? Is there a word for that?
It’s the question I can imagine God asking in today’s Old Testament reading. A people in a desert, lost in a desert, find a way into this green place, a place with all these beautiful things. Everywhere they look they come up against it, find it there, notice it. And in Deuteronomy we learn that God notices, it too. God wants to hold it up, to turn it over and taste this land, to take in all these beautiful things.
The rabbis say that the offering of first fruits in Deuteronomy 26 included sweet things, things like milk and dates, honey and pomegranates. It’s not just staples that are put into the basket, left before the altar for the priests, consumed by those who serve as the bridge connecting God to God’s people. Not just the flour for bread, not the basic nutritional staples. But also jelly donuts. The lighted window. The slow rise and fall of breath in sleep.
These things don’t have to mean anything. They are complete in themselves. They don’t have to point to anything except their own goodness, to fall into the hands of God and God’s people, for them to turn them around, look them over in wonder. And in Deuteronomy God notices. God sees it all, the texture and smell and feel of this world. God asks the people to go into the land and to bring it near, a little bit of all of it. God doesn’t need sustenance, doesn’t need to eat the things the people bring before the altar to stay alive. God desires as God is confronted by beauty, by all of these promised things bound up in one place. Is there a word for that? What is the word for all of this together?
What does it mean for us to worship a God who wants something like this to happen, this Feasts of Ingathering, a festival meant to be carried out by Israel continuously, every three years, forever? What does it tell us about God, that God wants this, that God is drawn to grapes and honey, the first “a-ha” of new life that spring from trees and out of vines, the strange surprise that every year the harvest will come again.
We worship a God who sees the world and turns it over, tastes it, and loves it. Perhaps you have loved things in the world this way. Perhaps along the way you have loved the world for itself, have found yourself confronted by wonder.
The sound of gravel kicked across concrete.
The stutter of light through the guardrail as cars pass on the other side of highway.
The sound of Leon Bridge’s voice.
Anything from Janna’s kitchen.
The warmth of a piece of bread pressed into your palm.
God notices, God loves it for itself, puts it here with no other purpose than to be lovely, to be noticed by you. And in Deuteronomy God points God’s people to all these lovely things. See, God says, look and see! Taste, touch, and see.
Of course the thing that God most desires, the most beloved is you. The most beloved are the people in this story, and you, your life, grafted into theirs. Bringing their basket before the altar the Israelites will recite their history, speak it back to God. A wandering people, who became great in Egypt, afflicted and abused, and then God rescued them. God brought them up, brought them to safety and to abundance, to the land of these dates, right here before me, brought us to these trees, to this hill, to this grass, to the fruit in my hand. “Look,” a closer translation of vs 10 might say, “Look at it right here.”
As we hear the story that God wants the people to retell there are significant pieces left out. Important historical details are omitted. In the recitation of Israel’s history there is no disobedience. No complaining in the wilderness. Not a word about wandering for forty years, Moses hitting a rock for water, of distrust and disloyalty, failure and death. There’s no word of the ten commandments. No mention of golden calves and broken tablets. Not a breath spent on promises made and kept and broken. No responsibility. No getting better, being more faithful, following the rules. Not a word.
A friend reminded me of how this sounds a lot like how Dorothy Day begins her autobiography, A Long Loneliness. “When one writes the story of his life and the work he has been engaged in, it is a confession in a way,” writes Day. “When I wrote the story of my conversion ten years ago I left out all of my sins but told of all the things that had brought me to God, all the beautiful things, all the remembrances of God that had haunted me, pursued me over the years…” She continues writing that it is difficult to do that “without a ritual, without a body with which to love and move, love and praise.”
In the Feast of Ingathering God gives the people a ritual, a ritual of noticing and awe. God gives them words to say, words about wonder and grace. And God has left out the parts about sin. It isn’t mentioned, it’s all left behind. All that remains when everything else is pushed aside is this beloved stuff, these wonders. God inscribed this ritual into the life of a people, inscribed this ritual into their bodies, this act where the useless wonder of these good gifts returns back to the bodies of the people.
Communion is like this, too, a sort of Ingathering of our gifts and our bodies, these good things returning back to us. I have often marveled at how God chose to pass on Jesus’ body to us through food. I suppose God could have called our attention to the horror of crucifixion by having us pass around bitter herbs. Jesus could have told us to remember him among us by saying some words, or holding silent meditation. Instead we are given something to eat. Good bread, a good cup. Sweetness and warmth. “This is my body, for you.”
Of course, as it was for Israel so it will be for us. There will be failure. There will be death and covenants, promises broken and promises kept, but mostly promises broken. There will be exile and war, sins that follow kings and priests and children for generations. But here, in Israel’s body, in the ritual of Ingathering they hear the good news of a God who remembers only that they are beautiful. “Look, here it is” they are to say. See what I have here in my hand, to God, from God, through me, through God.
Wick and I always put our faces down in the garden beds each spring, waiting and watching. Each sunny day we come out to stare and see if the first wisp of sweet pea shoot has emerged over night. “Anything yet?” we’ll say, searching the dirt. And when we see it, when it finally appears it feels like a miracle. Every time, every year. We dance around and whoop and holler. We take pictures of these little tendrils, so small they look silly on my iphone screen. We want you to see these pictures. We want to share them with you. We want you to love them, too. First fruits. We notice it all, and it is all beloved.
And of course this is how God feels about you.
You who must do nothing else for God to notice, for God to notice the soft roundness of your head, the way your laugh starts with a burst.
There is nothing you can add to you, nothing you can do to better yourself, make yourself more useful to God or the world,
nothing that could make you more beloved than you are right now.
There is nothing you have to do,
nothing you have to be for God to wonder at the beauty of your right foot that turns out just slightly when you walk.
You do not have to be braver or smarter or kinder or more faithful.
You don’t have to get over your fear or your sadness or your grief.
You are enough, just as you are, enough for God to delight at the way you lick your finger to turn a page,
and how your eyes close when you taste the tomato sauce off the spoon.
You are God’s first fruit. What is put before the altar is you, your life, your beautiful body, one beloved of God.
Flora and Ulysses (by Kate DiCamillo) ends with a final poem. It is God’s word to you written through the vehicle, as it were, of a superhero poet squirrel:
all of it —
sprinkles, quarks, giant
donuts, eggs sunny-side up —
are the ever-expanding universe