Since she got back from sabbatical, Ginger has made a point of preaching on some difficult texts and topics, rather than simply choosing the Gospel reading from the lectionary. She has been doing a great job. This week, her text was “the last words of David.” Her choice of subject sent me back to chorus my senior year at Westbury High School. We sang Randall Thompson’s setting of David’s words at graduation. I was then, and am still, a tenor, so I got to wail on the opening lines: “He that ruleth over men, must be just, must be just, MUST BE JUST.”
Trust me, it’s a killer tenor line.
The piece moves on into a beautiful melodic section that carries the lyric, “And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun rises; even a morning without clouds – after rain, after rain, after rain.” Such was our Friday morning after a Thanksgiving storm that deserved a name. We woke to a cloudless day washed clean and blown dry by the rain and wind of the night before.
David’s final words were to say that’s what justice looks like.
Before it was Ginger’s turn to speak, Kathy, one of our wonderful children’s workers gave the children’s sermon and talked about Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley.
No, not Wilford Brimley. That’s this guy.
Wilson Bentley is a man who lived his whole life in Vermont (1865-1931) and spent his whole life studying snowflakes and photographing them. He is the one responsible for our knowing that no two snowflakes are alike. As she began to talk about snow, I found myself thinking about those mornings I’ve spent shoveling out our driveway so we could get to work. All those unique falling crystals can stack up to create quite a barrier. Bentley grew up where the snow is measured in feet and was able to see beauty in individual, short-lived, unbelievably temporary snowflakes. And on top of that, he was patient enough to photograph them. Though he took over five thousand pictures of snowflakes, some winters yielded no more than a dozen useful images.
What amazing things are possible when wonder and tenacity unite.
Our children’s sermons create a very pregnant swirl at the front of the church each Sunday. Kathy has a way of shaping the energy and excitement into meaning with what I think must be the same kind of deftness and patience that Bentley needed to photograph flakes of frozen water. She began by quoting something Ginger says at each baptism – that we are wonderfully and uniquely made in the image of God – and then asking the kids if they ever wondered what that meant. They had not, but she had and she gave them cause to wonder by the way she unwound the story of Wilson Bentley.
She also took some time to describe how a snowflake starts from a single molecule and then, as it falls, adds more and more, developing its symmetrical six-sided shape, and taking its unique form from the unique set of circumstances – wind, temperature, humidity – that are occurring at the exact moment it is being formed. My mind moved from snowflakes back to the people in the room, each of whom was also formed by all that swirled around them as they were growing into who God created them to be. Some of us have been blown off course, some feel more handicapped than holy, some have caught a glimpse of who we are and who we are becoming. One of the best things we can do is stick together, like snowflakes in a drift, as we live out our faith as the church. Nothing we do or say is any more permanent than a snowflake and everything we do or say is crucial to what happens in our world. We, who are as unique and as temporary as snowflakes, can bring about a cloudless day when we incarnate love as justice and believe that things do not have to be as they seem.
The snowflakes had not melted in my mind when Ginger came to this quote in her sermon (sorry, I don’t have the documentation):
Our own future is not dependent upon what human power has realistically done or can do. For those who dare to imagine it, and give poetic voice to it, the future that is God’s future and therefore is always open to the possibilities of justice, faithfulness, and life no matter how realistic might be our assessment of the powers of oppression, sin and death. Surrounded by a troubled and broken world and the crisis of our own lives, we lose sight of God’s power at work beyond and in spite of our human limitations and sin. In the name of realism, we define ourselves, our goals, our communities by our failures and not by our visions. We settle for problems to solve rather than ideals to embody.
One other thing happened with the children before the sermon. I’m teaching them a song for the Christmas Pageant, so I walked over to the Parish House with them after the children’s sermon to teach them during their opening time. Last week, a small altar was set up and, after we sang, we lighted three candles, one for each person in the Trinity, and then prayed together. Today, when we got over there, things were not set up for either the song or the ceremony. One of the teachers had a boombox and the CD of the song we are learning, but the altar was locked up. I was getting ready to pray and send them to class when one of the boys raised his hand and said, “We can do it without the candles.”
He was right. And so I asked them what each candle symbolized and they answered:
for God, who created us;
for Christ, who loves us;
for the Spirit, who fills us.
I walked back to the sanctuary in the sunshine and took my place in the pew, among the other snowflakes who melted together in prayer and praise. David used his last words to say love has less to do with legacy than with listening, less to do with permanence than patience, more to do with community than accomplishment.
And he learned all that without ever seeing a snowflake.