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On Not Being Spanish Moss -
and a Dream of Magnolia Sprouts
Revelation 3:15-16; Matthew 5:13-16
Twenty seven years ago, almost to this day, I got off the auto train and drove from Sanford, Florida to Gainesville with Sandy, Matt who was three years old, and Chris three months old. There were many new and strange things about moving from Connecticut to Florida. One of them was Spanish Moss. Having lived all my life in places where trees had branches with leaves or needles and that was it, encountering this wispy, gray tinsel hanging all over the Live Oak trees was another reminder, to paraphrase Dorothy, that we weren't in Connecticut anymore. By now I take Spanish Moss for granted, but northerners always find it intriguing, disorienting, or even scary.
It intrigued my mother. She stuffed it in garbage bags and took it back to Pennsylvania. She dazzled her Garden Club friends by using it in flower arrangements, and they all begged her to bring some for them. I considered hauling it up there by the truckload but didn't have the courage to quit my day job to become the Harry and David of Spanish Moss.
Spanish Moss disorients the Orlando based filmmakers. I think Disney or MGM took all the Spanish Moss off the trees around the University Auditorium when they wanted it to look like a New England college for either the movie, Parenthood, or Just Cause.
My daughter-in-law Mary thinks Spanish Moss is scary.
Spanish Moss is not really a moss. It is a bromeliad, a distant member of the pineapple family. It needs no soil to grow but instead thrives on warm air and moisture. It will attach itself to any open semi-horizontal piece of the environment from an Oak tree to a telephone wire.
A few years ago botanists at the University of Florida tried to get a grant to study Spanish Moss. After all, nobody knows a lot about it other than if you take it down and stuff a mattress full of it, as early white settlers once did, you'll find that it is full of mites, chiggers, red bugs and other unpleasant critters. But, the fact that Spanish Moss does nothing either terribly positive or negative to the environment meant that no one was willing to fund a major study of it. It doesn't kill the trees it lands on. It doesn't do them any particular good either. It's just there. It makes a pretty sight when the sun shines through it, but that's it.
One of the dangers of living in Florida is to turn into a human equivalent of Spanish Moss. In fact, that seems to be why a lot of people come here: to hang in the sun, to enjoy the sights, to live without putting down roots, and to thrive without having to give much back. It's certainly not the worst thing in the world. In our moss-like moments we don't add much to the community around us, but we don't hurt anything either. We're just there, and when the sun catches us in a particular way, we have a certain translucent beauty.
What is true of Florida is also unfortunately true, sometimes, of the church. A lot of people come to church to become the religious equivalent of Spanish Moss. We can be in the church without hurting anyone or helping anyone. What is even more unfortunate is that often the better organized and larger the church, the easier it is to be like Spanish Moss. We can just go to church, join the group that matches our interest, and look good when the light hits us. The Spanish Moss syndrome is a fine example of the old encounter group cliché: "just be." It might be fine to just be. As I said, we could do a lot worse. But if God created us to "just be" why did God give us heart, mind, arms, and legs to create, love, think, work, and move around?
Each age in life has its own special temptation to be Spanish Moss. When we're young, school takes so much time and energy that we say we'll get on to the important issues later. When we're first into the job market, or just married, or have young kids, we're overwhelmed with keeping our heads above water. We say we'll care about others later. When we're middle aged we feel like the dog that caught the truck, and we claim we're expending all our energy just trying to keep up with the career and responsibilities we had chased so long. When we're retired we claim we've done our part and deserve a rest.
But, and you all know this, our faith has a way of reminding us that we were not put on this earth to make excuses about not caring. There is a wonderful passage from the book of Revelation (3:15-16) which takes aim at "just being." It is God's voice at the time of judgment, speaking to the church in Laodicea (which in Greek means the United Church of Spanish Moss). "You're not hot,'" says God. "You're not cold. Would that you were hot or cold. But you're lukewarm, and I spew you out of my mouth."
This is a difficult spot for me in this sermon. I am torn between that whole struggle of workaholism on one side and the spiritual laziness of the Spanish Moss syndrome on the other. I don't believe God calls us to "just be." Neither do I believe that God calls us to give up being Spanish Moss in order to race through life like a sugared up Jack Russell Terrier.
I gave Sandy one of those tear-off calendars for Christmas, this one with a theme of simplifying your life. I told her that if it was just another stupid list of useless suggestions about how to organize your socks to save time getting dressed in the morning she could throw it out. But the suggestion for January 1st was to look back at the holiday season, remember what you liked and what you didn't like. Decide to get rid of what you didn't like and hang on to what was important.
I thought of this myself. There's a lot of pressure to simplify the holidays, and I worked on that. But I also realized that much of what made my Advent and Christmas season holy were the special experiences that also made it busy. I loved singing in Lessons and Carols. Singing is grace to me. But it also involved rehearsals on Thursdays, Sundays, and half a Saturday. It made my Christmas busy, but I wouldn't have traded it for anything.
I joined Sandy's contemplative prayer group each Tuesday evening of Advent. It added time but it was the spiritual highpoint of my Advent season. We went to "The Nutcracker", when we could have spent a Saturday night at home. We shopped for our own "Christmas Angel" from the UCG tree on a day we could have well taken time for ourselves. I spent a whole day visiting as many people as I could on death row. I dropped my planned schedule every day of the week before Christmas to be with someone in crisis. I was at the hospital Christmas morning
I relished every one of those experiences. And then after that last hospital visit, I did nothing churchy. I was with my family, and when the kids left, Sandy and I spent a peaceful four days at home. I took no phone calls, and that too was good.
The Buddha's disciples once asked him, "Are you a god?"
"No," said the Buddha.
"Are you an angel?"
"No," said the Buddha.
"Then what are you?" they asked.
"I am awake," said the Buddha.
I want to be awake to where God is trying to open my eyes to the truth of what is happening before me. To be awake means rising from the sleep that blinds me to the injustices which the majority of people never see. To be awake means rising from the kind of sleep that misses the love and beauty of those closest to me. To be awake is to be open to the new call of faith every day.
To wake up, reach out, and keep from being Spanish Moss is not necessarily easy. I think it means imagining all the ways we can avoid being copping out. It means imagining not being lukewarm when we stand before God. It means imagining that we were put on this earth to season the world around us with our saltiness and lead the way for others with our light.
Let me shift gears again and close by telling you about a dream I had the day after Thanksgiving. I call it "The Dream of The House That Needed Cleaning Before Sabbatical With Magnolia Sprouts Growing Like Weeds."
In my dream I am in a mansion of a house, quite dark. We have just come back from a trip and the house is an absolute mess. There are lots of people in the house, coming and going. I am trying to clean it up because we are leaving for a four-month sabbatical later that day. I keep finding things overgrown and dirty. There is dirt in the shower, and I'm talking about real dirt here. No one has tended the back yard, and Magnolia seedlings are growing up everywhere.
I think that if I can get the yard mowed, I can keep the Magnolia sprouts at bay and that will keep everything in place for a while. I call Glenn Dickson, the minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church, and ask him to find someone to mow the lawn while I'm gone. The last lawn service I can remember is Adam Williams who in real life last mowed the church yard about seven years ago.
Now here are my interpretations of that dream.
My first possible interpretation of that dream is that Sandy's mom just moved into a new part of The Village called Magnolia Grand, and that made me think of houses and Magnolias. But that would let all of us off the hook too easily.
Second, in a dream a house is often a symbol of our spiritual home, our psyche. At one level I need to get my spiritual house in order before I go on sabbatical this May. I am dealing with this.
On a third level, I worry about the church. The Magnolia trees sprouting in the back yard of my home in this dream remind me of the literal jungle of vines and weeds that is overtaking the outside of this sanctuary building. And I have a plan for that. I have asked UCG men - meeting this Wednesday at 5:30 by the way - to do a macho, chainsaw, weedwhacker, big smacking hacking yard tool workday to clean the underbrush around the Sanctuary here on Saturday, February 11. But don't let me get sidetracked here. That's just the surface symbol of dealing with a level of neglect that creeps up, I fear, in this house of our collective soul, the church. I'm worried that all of us - children youth and adults - need to pay better attention to the spiritual commitments of our lives together in this church.
It's the new year and time to renew. Let's each look at where we are as a church and ask where we're slipping a little, becoming Spanish Moss. It's time for each of us to ask, "Where is my level of involvement, and where does that need a boost?" Our Sunday School, our youth groups, our budget, our care for each other within and outside the church need the salt and light that come through us from God.
I have always believed that the biggest problem facing the institution of the church is not heresy but dullness. So I would always rather risk heresy than getting dull. Let's not meet our maker, whether that is in the form of our God or the faces of our children, with no more to say than, like Spanish Moss, at least we didn't do any harm. Instead let's start the New Year remembering God's call to be salt for the earth and light for the world. Let this be a season for seasoning, a living of light.