The God Who Sings
A Meditation on Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20 and Luke 3: 7 – 18
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church December 16, 2018
Austin Crenshaw Shelley, a pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, tells the following story. Raised by her grandparents in South Carolina, Austin witnessed how they lived out their faith, giving of the little they had to support God’s work. In addition to the offering Austin was given to take to Sunday School, she was also taught compassion through a weekly grocery store run with her grandmother. Austin writes: As I pushed our cart up and down the aisles of the Red & White, [my grandmother] carefully selected food in duplicate—two boxes of cereal, two jars of peanut butter, two bags of flour—until our cart looked like an abstract rendering of Noah’s ark with its produce and nonperishable food items arranged two by two.
With the items paid for (using coupons, of course) and bagged, Austin and her grandmother would then drive directly to the food bank to deliver half of the groceries. One particular week, Austin asked for a name brand cereal instead of the store brand. “We can’t afford that one,” her grandmother replied without looking up from her list. “We can if we don’t buy two of them,” Austin grumbled. Austin’s grandmother looked deeply into her eyes and said, “If we can’t afford two, we can’t afford one.”[i]
They bought two of the store brand cereals, just like the week before, just as they would do the following week. Sometimes we forget who we are called to be. Sometimes we forget we are created for community, so fearful there will not be enough to go around. So sure that “things” will satisfy us. Sometimes the simplest truths are the most challenging. And so God has to remind us. Over and over.
My mother made all my clothes when I was growing up: play clothes, pajamas, Easter and Christmas outfits, my high school graduation dress. When I was a high school senior and we all had to wear matching dresses with a “ginormous” flower print on them for May Day, she made that, too.
I loved going to Hancock Fabrics in Memphis, Tennessee. We would sit on tall stools and flip through the books of patterns. When a special occasion was on the horizon, she would pore over the Vogue pattern book, searching for the perfect dress for her petite frame. For my play clothes, it was Simplicity or Butterick. With a design in hand, we would move to the bolts of fabrics, ginghams and seersuckers and brightly printed cottons.
Once home, she would spread the fabric out on the living room carpet, carefully pinning the tissue paper pattern to it, aligning everything perfectly. I remember one outfit that she made for me in quantities. Same outfit in multiple fabrics. I must have been seven or eight years old. It was a dress with matching shorts underneath for those sweltering Memphis summers. Most importantly of all, it had pockets! Mom understood the importance of pockets. You have to have a place to keep the secret treasures you collect on a summer day.
The stars mis-aligned perfectly for this particular outfit: my height, the placement of the patch pockets on the front of the dress and the location of the handles on the kitchen drawers. Running through the kitchen, I caught one pocket on the drawer pull, and heard that horrible sound of ripping fabric. My mother, God bless her, was nobody’s fool. She never threw away the leftover scraps of fabric after completing a sewing project.
She didn’t scold me for running through the kitchen. She didn’t shame me for ruining my new dress. She wiped my tears and took me to the sewing machine. In a matter of minutes, she had whipped out two pockets, corners neatly beveled. After cleaning up the tear, she attached one pocket to overlap the damage. She let me press the sewing machine pedal that powered the needle – a risky maneuver for her! “Look! No one will ever know it was torn. It will look like you always had two pockets there!” And just to reinforce the idea that the dress was designed this way, she placed a corresponding pocket on the other side. That dress eventually ended up with a series of three stair step pockets on each side.
You’d think I would have learned not to run through the kitchen. You’d think I would have remembered to stay away from those annoying draw pulls. You’d think I would have been more careful…but no matter how many times I tore that dress (at least 3) – my mother repaired it. Only she and I knew the secret reason why my dress had six pockets. And what’s not to love about having six pockets? Although I did walk in on her measuring the distance from the floor to the draw pull one day…
Mercy over judgement. Renewal instead of shame. Grace instead of punishment.
Sometimes things break, but God can mend and renew and God can make something beautiful from the brokenness.
If something is broken, it’s broken. You can ignore it. But it’s still broken. Perhaps in its broken state it is still valuable – monetarily or in its function or sentimentally. Perhaps it could be of value again if it were repaired. It may be the case that there is no value in fixing it, so it is best thrown away. Lynn Miller, Faith & Art Matters
Miller, a theologian, blogger and artist, writes about a repair process used in Japanese ceramics called kintsugi. It is essentially a much fancier form of adding pockets to your daughter’s torn dress. Broken ceramic items are repaired with lacquer, which is dusted or mixed with gold, silver or platinum. Picture a broken vase or plate. Imagine it reassembled, the cracks clearly visible as bright metallic veins. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. The plate that slipped from someone’s hands in a moment of distraction. The vase that was smashed in anger or frustration or grief. Whether intentional or unintentional, the break carries a story. [ii]
The history of God’s people, as we read through scripture, is the story of a people broken and mended, broken and mended. People forget how to be kind, how to be compassionate, how to be honest. Prophets come and scold and urge and threaten. And God? God waits, ready to forgive, ready to repair. God seeks to calm us with her singing…if we will only listen. God’s mercy always exceeds God’s judgement. That is the promise of scripture, the promise of Advent. All the cracks will be repaired. All the broken places mended. Though the brokenness will be visible, in our communities, in our personal lives; the repairs will give them a tenderness that wasn’t there before…
Read the whole book of Zephaniah if you want to. It’s not long. Don’t read it to the kiddies. And really, don’t read it before Christmas. It contains the rantings of a very tired prophet. The first chapter opens with a warning that God will reverse creation in a great, washing flood. (Did Zephaniah forget that very specific promise God made to never flood the earth again??) Prophets feel it very deeply when people turn away from God; they become pretty anxious. Zephaniah talks about pouring peoples’ blood out like dust and their organs like dung…pleasant imagery. He is convinced that the faithlessness of the people will cause the world to end in fire…until you reach the halfway point of chapter three. The tone here is such a contrast to the earlier verses that some scholars have wondered if this portion was tacked on by another writer. Or perhaps, Zephaniah was quiet enough to hear God’s singing…everything changes:
Watch what I am about to do… I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast. I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. At that time, I will bring all of you back, at the time when I gather you. (Zeph. 3: 19- 20)
These words were written for a people far from home, strangers in a strange land. A people who had lost their way. To them God says, “I am with you; I love you; together we will create transformation.
The people who came to hear John preaching at the Jordan were lost as well, and so they asked him, “what should we do?” His answer was so simple that we are almost disappointed. Shouldn’t it be more complex than this? No books to read? No issues to debate?
“Raise your hand if you own two shirts,” John says. “Great! Everyone who raised their hand needs to give one shirt to someone who needs one. Hands down. Raise your hand if you have extra food at your house. Great! Go home and give some of it away.”
So simple that it’s embarrassing, but if we listen, we can hear God singing in the background: singing of mercy, grace, and renewal.
John then fields questions from tax collectors and soldiers, two walks of life where corruption was prone to be rampant. To the tax collectors, who could easily cheat innocent citizens, he said, “Be fair. Do honest work.” To the soldiers, who could get away with brutality, he said “Don’t harass people. Resist bribery.” There was no magic formula, just the basic admonition to act in ways that don’t grieve God. Wherever you are. Whatever your walk of life.
In our fear we hold on tightly to more than we need: both intangibles (power, anyone?) and the tangibles. Have you heard your grandmother’s voice, reminding you that you are part of a community? Have you heard the sound of the fabric ripping as you ran past inattentively? Did you hear the echo of the pottery cracking? It’s okay. God can fix it. And while she does, gazing into your eyes as she speaks, adding a pocket here or a vein of silver lacquer there, she is singing over you. Singing to calm you. Singing to inspire you. Singing to remind you that her mercy will always exceed her judgement. Her compassion will always exceed her anger. Her love for us will never end. That is the promise of Advent.
Thanks be to the God who rejoices over us…rips and cracks and all. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Shelley, Austin Crenshaw. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/december-16-advent-3c-luke-37-18
[ii] Miller, Lynn. https://artandfaithmatters.blogspot.com/2018/10/kintsugi-art-lectionary.html