Sunday, June 14, 2015
Friday night we went to hear – and see – a fascinating production of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas admits to having struggled over the years with the complexity of Beethoven’s great musical and religious masterpiece. Drawing on his own unique genius, Tilson Thomas used orchestra, choruses, soloists, lighting and projection in a bold and creative attempt to clarify what he sees as the architecture of the piece. He conceives the work as entering a great cathedral and encountering its majesty and its mystery.
Though it evoked for me memories of many a magnificent cathedral, I thought especially of the cathedral at Chartres, just outside Paris. Not only is Chartres exceedingly beautiful in structure and adornment, there is something about it that immediately says, “Surely the Presence of God is in this place.” I think that is the same sense that Tilson Thomas was trying to capture in his re-imagining of Beethoven’s mass. I can’t honestly say it all worked for me. I find that the music speaks powerfully for itself at most turns but I applaud the maestro’s efforts to do something new and exciting with such a well- established work.
However, there was moment on Friday that caused my spirit to soar and brought tears to my eyes. At the end of the rather reflective Kyrie that opens the work, in which the combined forces pray that God and Christ will have mercy, there is a brief pause before a thunderous exclamation of Gloria – “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth.” The production had progressed from the beginning in which some members of the chorus and the soloists wandered onto the stage and walked about as if they were, indeed, entering a great cathedral in wonder and awe. The lighting was subdued and the projections evoked the view looking up into the vaulted ceiling of a great gothic structure.
But as the Gloria was suddenly trumpeted, the lights went up, color was added to the images and the boychoir came running onto the stage from both sides in a profusion of ecstatic joy. “Glory to God” not only sounded in the room, it was seen and felt to the back of the balcony. In the moment, I experienced something like the fullness of the word, the kind of moment when you want to bow your knee before God in adoration and gratitude.
I think this is what the writer of Ephesians had in mind when he wrote the beautiful prayer that is the morning’s Ancient Word. Sally Brown suggests that “An intriguing possibility is that the prayer, and much of the ‘filling,’ ‘dwelling,’ and ‘glory’ language of the book [of Ephesians] as a whole, connects to Old Testament traditions of the glory of God filling worship spaces – tabernacle and temple.” In the letter to the church at Ephesus, she writes, “…we find that the human community of mainly non-Jewish believers is envisioned as a ‘dwelling place’ for God…The apostle prays, beginning in 3:14, for God to ‘fill’ this new ‘dwelling place’ that is the church…The apostle prays for a church filled in every dimension by God, with and for the glory of God” (Sally A. Brown, “Commentary on Ephesians 3:14-21, July 29, 2012,” workingpreacher.org). “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth.”
What if this was our prayer for our community gathered in this place? “Fill us, O God, with a holy vision and the grace to live it out. Grant that a sense of your presence be strengthened in the depths of our inner being. Empower us through your Spirit. Let Christ dwell in our hearts. Keep us faithful, rooted and grounded in love.” I wonder if we began and ended every service of worship, every class, every meeting, every activity, with such prayer how our lives and our witness might be transformed. Might we come running into the Presence, overflowing with ecstatic joy, crying “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth”? Would the well-being of God’s shalom become our goal and the coming of God’s Beloved Community our way and our work?
What would it mean for us truly to comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”? Would that fill us “with all the fullness of God”? I am especially drawn to the notion of being rooted and grounded in love. You have heard me say before that I believe the only real power in this world is the power of love, that it’s love that makes the world go round, not military might or political influence, not academic prestige or fame or wealth. As a child of God and follower of Christ, I believe love will have the last word.
When I titled this sermon, I was thinking that the rooting and grounding of plant life would be the appropriate image with which to work. It always amazes me to take a cutting from a plant, to watch it root in water and then to plant it in the ground and see it grow into the fullness of its being. Remember a couple of weeks we considered John’s image of how the branches extend from the vine so that they might bear fruit. If the branches are secure in the vine and the vine is secure in the soil, all will be well and life will be abundant. Remember that John says we are those branches and Christ is that vine, rooted and grounded in God, which is to say rooted and grounded in love (John 15:1-8).
Bruce Epperly writes that “Ephesians speaks of quantum leaps of energy that emerge when we are connected to God. Perhaps, the author remembers Jesus’ promise ‘you can do greater things’ or the parable of the vine, ‘connected with Christ we will bear much fruit.'” He continues, “From God’s riches in glory – the glory of the big bang and the god-particle, we receive inner power through God’s Spirit. Christ dwells in us and the gifts of divine Shalom are ours. We abound even when we struggle. God is supplying our needs and giving us manna enough for each day. This is not the prosperity gospel, but the simple joy that comes from living in relationship to God’s unsurpassable love”(Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: Everything’s Possible,” July 29, 2012, patheos.com).
However, after my encounter with Beethoven and Michael Tilson Thomas, I started thinking about architectural images, for buildings are also rooted and grounded in their own way. They may not grow and bear fruit organically but without a sure foundation, they are certainly liable to collapse. Remember Jesus’ parable, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:24-27).
This little story is particularly salient as part of Tilson Thomas’s conception of the mass focused on the importance of the words to Beethoven in structuring his mass. Many of the projections were words that would, at times, dissolve into letters raining down from above as when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us or letters rising up as prayers ascending to the Holy One. The solid building of the structure is meant to facilitate the flow of words and the Word between God and creation.
So my memory was drawn to the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake. Most of us remember the collapse of structures built on sand and the safety of structures sunk into the rock. At the time, we lived with friends in a large duplex in Oakland. The building was well-constructed back in the early part of the twentieth century by a contractor who specialized in building schools and other public buildings. It was solid structure built into the side of a hill. From the street it was a two-story building but in back it descended the equivalent of four stories to the deck below.
The night of the earthquake our neighborhood was without power, so we gathered in the lower unit in the candlelight to listen to the news on a battery powered radio and drink a little wine. We knew the earthquake had been devastating but it was not until the next morning when we could see the visual evidence on television that we became concerned. We called the city to come inspect the foundation on our home and they found enough damage to “yellow tag” the building. For six months we lived elsewhere as engineers created and contractors executed an elaborate shoring up of the foundation. In addition to sheer wall and other construction, they sank several large concrete pillars down into the solid rock of the hillside. I have a feeling that that building is now virtually indestructible.
Of course, I know that is not literally so but it is the way of a sure foundation to give a sense of security and safety. When we are rooted and grounded it is much more likely that we can abide the storms of life, that we can face challenges with wisdom and grace, that we can overcome obstacles and keep journeying on toward the full realization of God’s Beloved Community. And I do believe that love is indestructible. That is why I see it as the ultimate source of power. “…for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it…” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).
To be rooted and grounded in love is to look out on all that God has created, to see the goodness inherent in it and to commit ourselves to the fulfillment of that goodness in ourselves and all that God has brought into being. To be rooted and grounded in love is to shout in ecstatic joy “Glory be to God and peace to all on earth.” To be rooted and grounded in love is to walk this worldly way with all its beauty and hardship, delights and challenges, with God as the end, Christ as guide and the Spirit as companion. In today’s Words of Preparation, Brian McLaren tells us that “Whatever ember of love for goodness flickers within us, however feeble, or small…that’s what the Spirit works with, until that spark glows warmer and brighter. From the tiniest beginning, our whole lives – our whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength – can be set aflame with love for God” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 212). Through Christ “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,” may it be so. Amen.