Year A, Pentecost, Proper 21
Images abound in our lectionary texts this week around being in right – or not so right – relationship with God. People whine, complain and despair in the wildness doubting that God is still among them. Yet God provides water in the desert. Psalmists cry out for God’s teachings and truth, promising to proclaim them and teach them in turn to their children. A prophet hears and shares the word of the Lord regarding a false proverb that is obstructing the people’s relationship with the Divine way. Paul exhorts the people of Philippi to follow God’s ways through letting the same mind as Christ be within them. Jesus challenges the authorities and us with a parable picture right relationship with God. It’s a matter of the heart not of the law.
Last week our Jewish sisters and brothers celebrated Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year.” The shofar is blown calling people to synagogue and to wake up to the New Year. It is a time of final summer harvest and preparing the fields for winter. At Rosh Hashanah the people celebrate God’s creation of human beings as well as the whole universe. They pray for a year of health and peace living in God’s ways of justice, mercy, peace and love. This week is the celebration of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a time of repentance and forgiveness.
Combining the imagery of the lectionary texts set in context of the themes of Rosh Hashanah leads us to ponder stories that reveal the ebb and flow of good relationship between human beings, between humans and creation, between humans and the Divine. The search to be “perfect”/whole as God is “perfect”/whole – in other words to “put on the same mind as Christ Jesus” – creates a life of organic movement between balance and imbalance rather than finally achieving some kind of stasis in “perfection.” Wholeness is the foundation of each outcome, whether it be success or mistake or in between. Balance is in the movement not in the rigid stance. God is in the movement with me, with us, with all creation leading us toward justice and love, mercy and peace.
In her book, The Uninvited Guest and Other Jewish Holiday Tales, storyteller, Nina Jaffe tells a creation story for Rosh Hashana that comes from midrash. She found the midrash for this story in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Bible. Her story, “The Never-Ending Song is also found in Chosen Tales; Stories Told by Jewish Storytellers, edited by Peninah Schram. If you google Chosen Tales you can find the beginning of her written tale. Many websites have information and descriptions of the three great beasts. A synopsis of the story is below.
At the creation of the world there were created three great beasts. The Ziz had golden wings as wide as the sky and lived in a nest at the top of a magic mountain. In a cave on the side of the mountain near his friend the Ziz lived Behemoth. His legs were like great iron bars with a tail as strong as cedar and when he walked the earth trembled. At the base of the mountain there was a beach leading down to a wide, warm sea. And there lived the third friend, Leviathan who had shining scales, as many eyes as the months of the year. He swam through the oceans causing the great waves to crash all over the world. At night the Three Friends settled down to sleep on top and in and around the roots of the magic mountain. The angels sang them to sleep with lullabies.
At this time in the world the creatures did not live in peace or order. The large birds of the sky were so proud of their hunting skills that that they hunted for sport and not just for food. The biggest animals of the field did the same, killing each day more than they could eat. The great fish in the sea swallowed whole schools of small fish whether they were hungry or not.
All the smaller animals lived in fear, wondering if their kind would someday be no more because they had all been eaten! Finally the mouse called a council down at the shores of a quiet bay. The songbirds came from all over to rest in the trees at the shore. All the little animals of the fields and streams of the earth made their way to the beach where a small freshwater stream flowed in the sea. The smaller fish and sea creatures gathered in the water just off the shore.
The mouse began by stating what they all knew: “We understand that there is a natural order in the world where larger needs smaller for food. But things are getting way out of hand! We live in fear with no rest or time for play. What should we do?” All the small creatures murmured among themselves for quite awhile. Finally the starfish spoke up and said let us go to the greatest creatures of the world, the Three Friends, and see if they can help. And all agreed.
Thus, it was that the mouse and the sparrow, the frog and the starfish made their way to the island of the magic mountain and told their fearful story to the Ziz, the Behemoth and the Leviathan. The great creatures listened carefully to their small sisters and brothers. And when the story was complete all sat in silence for a time. The three great friends looked at one another knowing without saying what they must do. Behemoth turned to the small ones and said, “Do not be afraid, small friends.” “No fear! No fear!” cried the Ziz. “We know what to do” rumbled Leviathan. “Return home and wait.” The small animals thanked the great ones for their lovingkindness and understanding and they returned home.
On the first day of the first month of summer the Behemoth stepped out of his cave in the bright, hot dawn of day and lifted up his great head. He opened his great mouth and let out a roar that has never been equaled in all the earth. It rang throughout the world and all the large and small beasts of the field heard it clearly. But the large listened most carefully, trembling as it entered their hearts. And the next day the small animals put their heads outside their burrows in peace and without undue fear. They could hear the large animals chanting the word of Behemoth’s roar.
On the first day of the first month of autumn Ziz flew out from her nest and opened her great beak in a cry that has never been heard before or since. All the birds listened. The largest hung their heads and did not open their beaks in reply for a long time. Finally they with responded with the song. The next day the small songbirds found they could fly safely hunting for food and for twigs and grass to build their nests.
On the first day of the first month of winter, a great humming, thrumming sound began as the first light of sun shone on the seas. Leviathan was sending his message to all the creatures of the sea. The sound churned the waves and penetrated the darkest depths. No sea creature could help but hear and repeat the song of Leviathan. Just as in the sky and on the earth, the next day, the small creatures found they could swim free.
On the first day of the first month of spring the angels joined their song to the songs of the Three Great Friends. It swirled through all of creation. And all of creation joined in singing in new and wondrous harmonies that are still swirling and changing and building in praise. Ever since the creatures of the world have lived in balance with one another, taking only what they need, giving time for rest and play as well as hunt. All remember the song of the Great Friends. For the word of the song of Behemoth was “Peace”. The word of the song of the Ziz was “Justice”. The word of the song of Leviathan was “Mercy.” The word of the song of the angels was “Love”. And these words make up the Never-Ending Song the world is still singing today. If we listen very closely we too can hear it and join in.
There is a Yom Kippur story that highlights the imagery in our texts of coming into right relationship with God. It is titled “A Yom Kippur Story Repeats”[i]. This story poignantly connects a story of Jewish tradition with a story actual 20th century Jewish history. The story tells of the Jewish people coming back to public prayer in Russia after perestroika in 1987. I encourage you to read and ponder it.
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!