Lent 3C: Dwelling in Possibility--Are You Walking or Are You Dancing?

A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
The Very Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Dean & Rector

Midway-through Lent I thought we’d explore Holy Scripture through art and poetry this week and see how we might be buoyed up on our journey in, and with, and into Jesus. I spent some time this week praying with the story of Moses at the Burning Bush and looking at Rembrandt’s on-the-fly, pen-and-ink sketch of that moment when Moses’ and our life changed forever. In Rembrandt’s rendering, Moses seems distinctly taken aback—caught off guard, pulled up short. We can almost imagine him tooling along with his father-in-law’s flock, not paying much attention, perhaps even lost in a daydream, when all of a sudden he notices something out of the corner of his eye.
Moses has wandered into the land beyond the wilderness. Normally we think in terms of pairs of opposites—good/bad, clean/unclean, city/country, domesticated/wild. But here we see that Moses has gone beyond those easy oppositions. He’s shed some of his presuppositions about how things are and how they should be. There’s a certain open receptivity embodied in the mention of the geography of the story. Moses, even before he takes off his shoes, is a sign for us of what Jesus later calls “poverty of spirit”—the first of the beatitudes.
Poverty of spirit is not feeling bereft or lonesome in this context. It’s a posture, a disposition, an openness to mystery and unknowing. Emily Dickenson says it best when she writes,
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Possibility, Dickenson tells us, is a fairer house than prose. Why? Well as Dickenson uses it, “prose” is what trots along predictably and according to conventional logic. It’s linear. It starts and ends and has a nice little nugget in the middle. Poetry, the practice of tracing possibility, is a different beast, however. While prose follows a predictable logic, poetry tends to subvert our expectations. Poetry, like God, is full of surprises and play according our rules. “Poetry,” Paul Valery tells us, “is to prose as dancing is walking.”
Dwelling in possibility is exactly what Moses is up to on his saunter into the land beyond the wilderness. He’s left the land of prose and entered into that God-charged space where the normal rules of doing business don’t apply. Notice that Dickenson says that when we “dwell in possibility” we see more—the “fairer house” is “More numerous of Windows--/Superior for Doors—. Possibility, Dickenson reminds us, allows us to see that the “gate of heaven is everywhere” (Merton).
Dwelling in possibility points to something important for our Lenten journey. It’s rather easy to turn Lent into an ordered, scheduled, and predictable routine. We give up Girl Scout cookies, read Forward Movement in the morning and try to make it mass on time. All wonderful. But in that routine, is there openness to “dwelling in possibility,” or are we being rather prosaic? Is there space for those sacred interruptions to pull us up short, to jolt us out of our habitual patterns of seeing and being? Are we walking or are we dancing?
Dickenson’s poem concludes with these lines
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Dickenson describes her occupation as “The spreading wide my narrow Hands/To gather Paradise.” When we dwell in possibility, when we open the balled fist of our knowing to the uncontainable mystery of God, when we give up trying to predict, manage, and control, something amazing, something miraculous happens. Paradise blossoms right under our feet. We realize that the place we are standing, truly is Holy Ground. We’ve been led beyond our inattentiveness, into a sudden, startling perception that God is in all things and all things are in God.
Another poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it this way,
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
The whole purpose of our Lenten journey is to wake us up to possibility: to take us beyond the wilderness, beyond sacred and profane, into direct encounter with the living God, right here and right now. But it’s necessary for us, creatures of habit that we are, to make a little room for possibility, to spread wide our narrow hands, to take off our shoes, to open ourselves that God’s presence might manifest. Browning contrasts this Mosaic state of wakeful attentiveness, with what is mechanical, automatic, routine—“The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” There’s nothing wrong with blackberries, of course. Browning is using that activity as a metaphor for all the ways we distract ourselves, with all the ways we miss the sacrament of the present moment, which is only place true encounter with God ever occurs.
When we practice a gentle opening to things as they are, when we, with Mary learn the art of arts and let things be, our so-called ordinary life takes on an entirely new (to us) dimension. Every common bush, every common jalopy, every sidewalk crack and cashier’s face reveals itself as afire with God. It’s not just the Burning Bush, in other words, that speaks the great I AM, but each and every moment of our lives as we learn to take off our shoes, to shed the skins with which Adam and Eve are clothed as a result of the Fall, and learn to stand stripped, naked, open, and receptive: dwelling in possibility.

Such a way of seeing and being in the world reveals to us the essentially sacramental nature of the world, our experience, and relationship with others. That’s one thing Paul is up to in his First Letter to the Corinthians—he’s pointing to sacramental nature of reality, the way each thing manifests God’s presence and action, the way each things manifests Christ. That rock that Moses struck at Manasseh that gave you water? That was Christ! The cloud that followed you? Christ! The one who led you through the Red Sea? Christ leading you even now from bondage to freedom, from bareness to fruitfulness, from death into life! Taking off our shoes, we start to see that God spoke at the moment of creation, and is still speaking now: in a casual encounter, in an unplanned visit we might normally consider an interruption, in a sparrow seen corner-of-the-eye bathing in the dust of a roadside gutter. Awakening to this reality is the religious dimension of current environmental crisis. If we truly see to sacramental nature of reality it becomes harder and harder to tolerate or ignore the use of God’s good earth for our own private enjoyment, profit, and exploitation. We are called to be the prophets of reenchantment, witnesses to the sacramental.
When we get to today’s gospel, we’re confronted with a similar theme—predictability vs possibility, our dimmed perception vs God’s reality, shoes vs bare feet, distraction vs attention, prose vs poetry. The man with the fig tree is rather fed up with its lack of fig production. The fig’s only reason for being in the man’s mind is to produce figs for his consumption and profit. And since the fig is figless, the man is sure and certain that the soil is being wasted and the tree would be better used for lumber or firewood. “Not so fast!” says the gardener. Your ways are not God’s ways, nor your thoughts God’s thoughts! There are other possibilities here than what your see according to your logic of use, profit, and productivity. God is present and active in this fig tree even if you can’t see it. Let me nourish it and we’ll see if it doesn’t bear fruit in unexpected ways.”
In the midst of our Lenten Journey in, with, and into Jesus, we can sometimes feel like things are not going according to plan, and our carefully constructed program for union with God is not bearing fruit on schedule. We started like gang-busters, but we haven’t said the morning office in a week, the bible remains untouched, and all that community service at the Food Bank got lost in trying to get our taxes done. The tendency is to look at our own lives with the rather mercenary eye of the man whose fig isn’t up to snuff. But that perspective—that “not enough”—is precisely the viewpoint we are called to let go of, to renounce, to surrender. That “not enough” way of seeing the world—which we’ve imbibed from other people, our teachers, our parents, our nation, our religious education—is precisely what’s preventing us from seeing the presence and action of God, the fruitfulness, even in the midst of apparent bareness.
Sometimes what’s needed is to a little turning aside from how we think things should be going—from schedules, timelines, and expected outcomes. Sometimes what’s needed is a little tarrying with the Lord, a little wasting time gracefully with God. I’m sure there were plenty of voices in Moses’ head that told him that he should have stayed with his father-in-law’s flock when that burning bush flickered in the corner of his eye. I have to be back for dinner! What if one of the flock gets away? What will my father-in-law say? My future in the family business will be toast! But Moses had the courage, the curiosity, the holy folly, to turn aside. The rest, as they say, is salvation history.
Sometimes what is needed is a little dwelling in possibility, a little setting aside our agenda of how things should be going that God is God’s own way might reveal himself to us as He is actually working—patiently, prudently, and God’s own time—for God’s only desired purpose: to bring us up out of our Egypts, to free us from our Pharoahs, to make a way through the rough seas of life that seem at times to rise up to our chins, to slake our thirst with the water of belovedness when all we can see are rocks, and sand, and stones.
“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone,” Paul tells us. Don’t make mountains out of molehills. That’s teapot not a tempest. Don’t chop down that fig tree just yet. Remember, Paul tells the Corinthians and us, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” Spread wide your narrow hands and see, even here, even now, Paradise, earth crammed-full of heaven, eternity in an hour.

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