A sermon by the Rev. Kathleen O’Keefe Reed
I know. The photograph is faint, even in the best light,
It’s fading with age--
but the memory remains vibrant.
In the high desert of Abiquiu, New Mexico,
at the outer edge of a trail that edges
the nearly vertical face of a mountain
I met a tree doing more than just hanging on.
Still clear in the photograph
is the fact that the weather that day
Brilliant turquoise blue sky,
billowing white clouds,
The canyon floor carpeted with lush green grass.
And the reservoir fed by the Chama River:
filled to the brim and spilling over.
Was it any wonder
on such a day,
even on that precarious perch,
a tree would have to
Look how she extends one arm out
as if calling to the mountains across the way!
While with another arm she reaches
to clasp the hand of a hiker on the trail.
And with another—three arms?
Well, she is a tree after all,
she gathers up her skirt
so that her hips may swing wide and free
and gravity may be defied.
What is already being lost in the fading of the photograph
is the detail of the pattern in the dancing tree’s dress…
For fabric, it seems like her seamstress
had peeled a layer off
of the surface of river below
precisely when, after a good sustained drenching rain,
the river was coursing through the canyon at peak exhilaration.
The dancing tree wears a river-patterned dress.
But that pattern,
let’s be real!!,
is not part of the tree’s dress,
not in some article of clothing
that could ever be cast aide!
The pattern of the river below has been engraved into the tree above,
deep into its trunk, its body, never to be cast off.
Never to be forgotten.
Here’s the thing. Summer of 1998 in Abiquiu
having been preceded by a winter
and spring of constant rain.
Even into the summer, every evening, it rained more.
And all the old people
who had lived in the Chama River Canyon all their lives,
and whose ancestors had lived there, too, said,
that such rains had not been seen in over 50 years
and barely anyone now alive could remember ever seeing a summer
like this one.
No one could remember when the plains had been so green,
the cattle so fat,
and the reservoirs so full.
If I had stood on that same spot on the same date
the year before
or the year after and had taken a photograph
the landscape would have be drab brittle brown
and the reservoir level low
and the river a barely recognizable trickle.
A year earlier or later
It would have been a dramatically different photograph
with one exception:
the tree would still be dancing.
With the memory of water
stored in her body,
streaming up and down her bark,
be dancing, swinging her hips and defying gravity.
According to the psalmist in today’s psalm
there was a time when such an exhilarated vibe
coursed through the bodies of God’s people:
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
3The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced. We did!
When? Where? Why?
What was the occasion when restorative fortunes rained down?
Once, on the far shore of the Red Sea,
there had been the dry-footed dance
of Hebrew slaves newly freed bondage.
Miriam led that dance.
after a string of victories that included the Lord bursting
against the enemy like a bursting flood” ( 2 Sam 5:20; 6:5)
the newly minted King David led the conga line.
And generations after that,
when an exiled people
trickled back to a land barely recognizable
as the home they’d left
was there dancing then, too?
4Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves
Don’t you see, can’t you feel,
what’s going here in Psalm 126?
With its oddly conflicting verb tenses fore and aft
this psalm is the rhythmic work
of a dance leader
reviving the vibe of a memory
that Israel has forgotten that it carries in its body…
reviving the vibe of THE memory that defines
who Israel is at its core, in every ring of its trunk.
Just as the memory and vibe of river
refreshed by constant rain is stored in the body of a dancing tree,
so God has stored
the memory of freedom
and the vibe of abundance
in the body of God’s people.
The memory that God’s people carry always,
a vibe with power to be the carrier of a people—always—through the driest times
even when the river bed looks to all the world
to be dry as a bone and dusty as a grave.
Pray with me:
God of all power and majesty
you fill all creation with light and life.
Heaven and earth are full of you glory.
And still, photographs fade, and we forget.
We are such a forgetful people, God.
You know. We don’t have to remind you.
We therefore give you thanks and praise for all you do
for the healing of our memories.
For our sake you store the memory of your sustaining goodness
where it cannot be forgotten—no matter what.
So that we will not forget water
even in the driest season,
Constant and playful Creator,
you made some trees to look like rivers
and for their branches you made birds
whose songs in the morning
sound like the music of streams after a night of steady rain.
Even when there is no rain
the birds and trees remember water and they remind us.
We are such forgetful people, God,
You know. We don’t need to remind you.
Some days we cannot remember
what mercy and compassion look like.
For this remembering you have found storing places,
so that the memory of your mercy and the vibe of your compassion
cannot be lost or forgotten
no matter what:
in the waters of a font,
in the breaking of bread,
in the pouring of wine,
in the tree of a cross,
and in us,
your dancing people,
the memory of your mercy and the vibe of your compassion
the defining patterns you’ve engraved into our bodies
as we are one with you in the Body of Christ.