Monday, August 31, 2009
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
If someone who had never read scripture came to church tonight, someone who had heard of Jesus and wanted to know more of the story, we certainly would have welcomed him here. He would have been invited to sit with one of you, I’m sure, and we would have helped him find the right service in the prayer book. Perhaps he would have smiled to himself as he heard Wisdom say, in the reading from Proverbs, You that are simple, turn in here! Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. It’s not that he would consider himself literally simple or senseless; it’s that he might have felt we were welcoming him in the same way Wisdom calls out to us all. Turn in here! After we worship together, join us for dinner - come eat of our bread and drink of the, well, tea we have mixed...
We would have helped him find the page for reading the psalm, and when we all stood for the gospel reading, he would have stood up, too. The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, he would have heard me say. Finally, this was the story he came to hear. This was the person he wanted to know - our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you...for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Our visitor, I suspect, would now begin to wonder just what he had stumbled into. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood... Unnerved, he would glance first at one of us and then another, expecting to see us as startled as he was at the words he was hearing, but of course we wouldn’t be, and that would unsettle him even more. If he convinced himself he had imagined it all, it wouldn’t be long before he would hear in the Eucharistic prayer, Take, eat. This is my body, which is given for you... Drink this, all of you. This is my blood... I don’t think our visitor would stay for dinner, the one at the altar or the one after the service, for fear that, with what he would perceive as our penchant for cannibalism, we would be planning on making dinner out of him!
For four weeks now Jesus has been offering us food for thought - bread, to be exact, and lots of it. And if turning five loaves and two fish into a feast for five thousand weren’t strange enough, his words about living bread, bread from heaven, and bread that is his flesh and blood have only made things more strange, curiouser and curiouser. Indeed, along with the crowd these past four weeks we have been following Jesus like Alice following her White Rabbit, wondering just who he is and where he’s going and what he’s muttering about along the way. And like Alice we have found ourselves deep inside a rabbit hole filled with things labeled “Drink Me” and “Eat Me”. This is getting curiouser and curiouser! Alice marvels as she samples the fare and finds herself growing and shrinking and growing again. Just as she thinks she has gotten the hang of things in Wonderland, a new surprise awaits around a corner or up a tree or at a tea party table.
My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink... Eat me... Drink me... Some of those in the crowd took Jesus literally. How can this man give us his flesh to eat? It would be an abominable act in Jewish faith and practice. Yes, sacrifices were made and flesh was eaten in the temple, but these were rams and doves and bulls and pigeons, not people. Not since the time of Abraham, who led his son Isaac to the offering table, had God asked for a human sacrifice, and even then God stayed Abraham’s hand. Eat my flesh? Drink my blood? Live for ever? It was madness.
We’ve heard it so many times, though - week after week we ask God’s blessing upon bread and wine. Send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts, that they may be for us the Body and Blood of your son, our Savior Jesus Christ, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. We come hungry to the table, but hungry for the presence of Jesus Christ not hungry for food. Goodness knows the little wafers we eat are hardly enough to satisfy our stomachs! Instead it is the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace, as Charles Wesley once put it, that more than satisfies our longing to be filled.
Bread and wine, body and blood and heavenly banquets are quite real to us, but we move easily to metaphor when we hear or speak of them. We know that Jesus was no more made out of bread than the wafers we consume are made out of flesh and bone (or bread, for that matter). But they are related to one another in a deep and abiding way, and the life of Christ is conveyed into us, somehow, through that relationship. And so, writes the Reverend Sharron Lucas, “We lift our hands willingly for the morsel of bread that is wise and true, that strengthens us for the journey and affirms Jesus’ promise of life eternal.”
Our liturgies, like the scriptures from which they are drawn, are filled with metaphor, defined by Wikipedia as “a figure of speech that portrays one word or phrase as being or equal to a second word or phrase in some way.” This bread is my body, which is given for you... This wine is my blood. Metaphors are poetic and powerful, painting with words images of things which are otherwise beyond our imagination. The word metaphor itself is something of a word painting, derived from two Greek words, meta meaning “between” and phero meaning “to carry”. A metaphor carries us between one thing and another.
There is a danger, though, in playing with words and meaning this way. We risk losing ourselves in the poetry and forgetting the reality of what is being carried by the metaphor. My flesh is true food, we hear, and our minds are carried by images of bread and wine, not flesh and blood. We risk drifting from metaphor into simile, that other figure of speech in which one thing is portrayed by another using the words “like” or “as”. My flesh is like true food and my blood is like true drink... It is gentler, it is safer that way, lifting us out of Wonderland where nothing makes sense and suggesting that the madness was all made up. The bread is only like his body. “Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream,” said Alice, and she told her sister, as well as she could remember them, all these strange Adventures of hers...
But it wasn’t entirely a dream, nor is a metaphor entirely poetry. There is truth, there is reality in both. And so we return to taking literally Christ’s words to those who followed him, allowing the purest form of the metaphor to carry us between the bread and wine we can understand to the flesh and blood that make far less sense. You that are simple, turn in here, Wisdom invites us all...
Bread is sustenance, as Jesus taught us to pray give us this day our daily bread, give us what we need for life. And flesh and blood are life. And so it is that Jesus, living bread, bread of heaven, offers us his real life, his vitality, his real body, which in fact, as a community of faith, we already are. We are what we eat and drink when we come to this table where we are filled over and again with the grace of God. It is poetic, yes, but it is also powerful beyond our ability to imagine for the meal is offered by Infinite Love, Jesus Christ, who shared our human nature, who lived and died as one of us. He stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.
Jesus’ offer of living bread, of flesh and blood, of eternal life, Eat me, Drink me... It is every bit as shocking and radical as it sounds, as is our willingness to come to this table for bread and wine in remembrance of him. Filled with soul food, filled with Christ, we go back out into a world that becomes for us a Wonderland of strange Adventures and marvelous opportunities and amazing grace, as the poet W.H. Auden describes: He is the way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
We come to this table simple and senseless, for who can understand the power of God? We leave full of metaphor, full of reality, full of strange Adventures, full of grace, full of Christ. Let us pray in the words of an ancient prayer: O food of wayfarers, O bread of angels, O manna of heaven dwellers, Christ: Feed those who are hungry. Do not deprive of sweetness the hearts of those who seek you. Amen.
Artwork: "Bread of Life," by Kelly Ann Timmins; Communion "Bread"; "Bread and Wine," by Glenis Berger De Yong; "This is my Body, this is my Blood," by the Reverend Susan Goff.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Saturday, August 08, 2009
“There’s no use trying,” Alice said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I always did it for half-an-hour each day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was obviously not from Nazareth, where no one, it seems, practiced believing impossible things. Word of Jesus’ miracles and whispers of messiah had reached Nazareth before Jesus did. People were talking about him. Where did this man get this ‘wisdom’ (the kingdom of heaven is like...?!) and where did he get these ‘deeds of power’? Isn’t he Mary’s kid? And aren’t his brothers and sisters all here?
You know how small towns are. Everyone knew Jesus. Everyone remembered when he was a kid, how he and his friends used to chase each other through the marketplace, how he tugged at his mother’s dress when he wanted her to pick him up, how he was learning to be a carpenter, how he was always strangely sensitive to others. Nothing and no one else in Nazareth had changed since he left - why should it be any different with him?
For half-an-hour each day, in the various places we have gathered for vespers, we have been practicing believing impossible things about Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed, the marvelous, transforming, persistent, stubborn, hidden, revealed, wide open, here and now kingdom of heaven. Wednesday morning we even did it before breakfast, and if you count the two parables we heard at that service, the eucharistic prayer with its claims that we are made in God’s image, that Jesus shared our human nature, and that he lived and died as one of us, the affirmation that the bread and wine become spiritual gifts of his body and blood, and the faithfulness of the small congregation in St. Francis chapel that remained through the whole service even though the heavens showered us with showers...well, that’s at least eight impossible things we believed before we even had our toast and coffee.
Now it’s time for us to go home. I suspect - I certainly pray - that we will all be warmly received in our hometowns in something of the same way we were warmly received when we arrived here one week ago. Where is home for you? Charleston? Tuscaloosa? Evanston? Spartanburg? Savannah?
Where is home for you? Our Presiding Bishop began her sermon with this question on the day of her consecration at the National Cathedral? Where is home for you? she asked. How would you define your home? What makes it home? Familiar landscape, a quality of life, or the presence of a particular people?
A familiar landscape...a quality of life...the presence of a particular people... Where is home for you? Many of you have been coming to Kanuga for so long that you have seen friends and family members grow up here. You knew them when they were children running to the Baker Building, when they tugged at their mother’s sleeves to be picked up, when they swam at the little beach, when they held their parents’ hands as they walked to dinner. Every time you return to this familiar landscape, this very special quality of life, the presence of these particular people, they have grown, and so have you, and some things are different, but whether you’ve been here one year or thirty or more, it’s not so impossible to believe that here you are home.
Here are six more impossible things. Yes, Jesus was Mary’s son...and he is the Son of God. Yes, he was the carpenter...and he builds us up day by day. Yes, his brothers and sisters lived in Nazareth...and they live in Charleston and Tuscaloosa and Spartanburg and Evanston and Savannah and anywhere and everywhere and right here. We are his sisters and brothers, but we are not only his family - we are his home. Will we welcome him? Do we believe he can work wonders here?
Wherever it is that we are from, wherever we have lived or journeyed along the way, our true home is in Jesus Christ, in his kingdom that is sown deep in this familiar place, that leavens our lives, that is hidden in plain sight, that gathers the whole world to itself. Jim Callahan writes, “When we really begin to believe that, when we seek God in the ordinary, daily wash of things and find God in nothing more complicated than each other and in God’s beautiful, dangerous, gorgeous creation, ‘mighty works’ begin to happen.” Mighty works. Impossible things. Things like mercy, compassion, healing, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, joy, understanding, and laughter. Things like running up Wolf Mountain, painting your first watercolor, surviving a bee sting, seeing a rainbow, and making toast that crunches through and through.
There’s no place like home. Amen.
Friday, August 07, 2009
Have you understood all this? Jesus asks, searching their faces for the slightest sign of comprehension, and hilariously, the eternally point-missing disciples say yes. Have you understood all this? What will be our response?
The kingdom of heaven is like... Over and over again this week we have heard Jesus try to teach what he has been demonstrating in his life. The kingdom of heaven is like a field sowing wheat...like a mustard seed...like leaven mixed with dough...like a treasure...like a pearl... Have you understood all this?
Tonight’s parable is the last we will hear together this week - Jesus will have something different for us tomorrow night. Tonight the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. The story goes on to describe how the fish are sorted, but let us for a moment notice that the net itself does not judge its contents.
The Greek word used for the net describes a seine, a drag net of the sort that was usually about six feet deep and several hundred feet wide. It had to be positioned by boat and required many hands to cast it out and haul it back on board. In something of the same way kudzu covers everything in its path, so would the net catch everything in its path as it was dragged through the water - not only fish but flotsam and jetsam as well.
In fact, the word “fish” doesn’t appear at all in the original text - we supply it because we presume that’s the primary purpose of casting a net into the sea, but the parable as Matthew has Jesus never refers to fish. The net simply “catches every kind”.
The kingdom of heaven is like this. The other parables we’ve heard have painted for us images of the kingdom hidden in the world like a seed in the ground or yeast in bread. But tonight Jesus is giving us an image of how the world is in the kingdom, and it is simply this - everything, fish and flotsam and jetsam and all, is caught up in it. The kingdom, like a seine, is sweepingly unselective. As far as God is concerned, all are included, all are welcome whether you are a good fish, a bad fish, a piece of seaweed, a shipwreck, or even an old tire.
What then, of the sorting that takes place on the shore, once the net is full of everything under the sea? What of the sorting that takes place at the end of the age, once the kingdom is full of everything under the sun? The Reverend Robert Farrar Capon carefully sorts through the Greek here and notes that the good gathered into baskets and the bad that’s thrown out are not very carefully defined. In fact, what one fisherman (say you or me) might call bad, another fisherman (say, our creative, reconciling, life-transforming, flotsam-and-jetsam-loving God) might call good. Madeleine L’Engle put it this way: “Jesus is constantly trying to make us understand that God’s ways are not our ways, and that God’s love is far less selective and far greater than ours.” Only those fish who can’t bear the thought of being caught up in the kingdom, who flop themselves right out of the net, will find themselves, as Capon writes, “gasping on the beach.”
Have you understood all this?
I have stepped, these past two days, into something of a parable over in Minkler Grove, where my mom and I learned to make these.
Not nets, obviously - they wouldn’t be much good at catching fish, I suspect. But like the net dragged through the sea, these baskets have been woven together and are made in order to hold things, to catch things, to collect things. It is the first basket that I have made.
Now, I do not presume to suggest to you that my basket is like the kingdom of heaven. My basket is more like the contents of the net - beautiful reeds of all shapes and sizes and colors, good intentions and hard work, and mistakes of all shapes and sizes and colors. Another basketweaver with whom I sat today told me that the Kanuga baskets she has made are scattered throughout her home where they catch things of every kind - clutter on bedside tables or kitchen counters, treasures found on long walks, bits and pieces on bookshelves.
I probably won’t have time to make another basket while we’re here, but I did learn from Joe (the basket-making teacher) that I could use the grass-consuming wisteria in my backyard for weaving at home. In fact, he said that even kudzu can be made into baskets! All are included, all are welcome... Have you understood all this?
The truth is, of course, we can’t fully understand, for now, the mystery of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of, says writer Kate Huey, our "seed-planting, fish-netting, pearl-hunting, bread-kneading God." But then, we are not called to understand these things but, rather (and thank goodness) simply to live them. How will we, as kingdom people, make our yes to God? What will be our response? Amen.
Artwork: Photo taken on our visit to the Georgia Aquarium; "Church in the midst of life," by Nancy B. Johnston; Our baskets (mom's on the left and mine on the right).
Thursday, August 06, 2009
The kingdom of heaven is like...Again, the kingdom of heaven is like... I shared at vespers a few nights ago how my dad imagined Jesus being inspired by a field of waving wheat, a scraggly mustard bush, and a woman with a basket of bread as he searched for ways to describe the marvelous and transforming, growing and rising, stubborn and persistent kingdom of God. Seeds, weeds and yeast were common, ordinary, everyday things with which his listeners were familiar.
But treasure? Pearls? In Jesus’ day, and especially among those who flocked to see him and hear him and hope to be touched by him, these were hardly common, ordinary, everyday things. Very little was sparkly or shiny in their dusty lives, very little was valuable other than food and water and shelter.
Who has not, however, as a child (or perhaps even as an adult!) secretly hoped to find a fortune hidden away, a treasure in a field, a pearl of great price? Whether we desire to pay the bills or to purchase playthings, we love the prospect of finding something precious, something worth more than we can ask or imagine...
I’ve been on a treasure hunt recently. In fact, I go on them quite regularly in the living room of our home back in Jackson. I don’t mean the times I’m searching for my car keys, which grow more and more valuable the later I am running in the morning. I mean real treasure hunts, searching for gemstones and silver and gold and pearls - made of plastic, but real nonetheless to the eight-year-old who has collected them. He fills a little box with his treasured trinkets, hides it in the living room, and then sends me seeking.
We play by the “warm and cold” rules - he tells me I’m cold if I’m nowhere near the treasure box, and then getting warmer as I get closer. My favorite part of the hunt isn’t the finding, though. It’s the moment just before the finding, when Charlie, so delighted that the treasure is nearly discovered, will say something like, “You’re so warm you’re really hot and if you look under the pillow on the sofa you’ll be really super hot!”
It used to happen during games of hide and seek, too. “Ready or not, here I come!” I would call out after counting to twenty, and then start looking for him. I usually didn’t have to go far before I heard giggles from behind some curtain or under some table, and so I knew just where I could find him. Charlie delighted in being discovered.
So it is with the kingdom of God, it seems. The kingdom is like a treasure hunt, a game of hide and seek, in something of the same way children’s games are played. The kingdom is hidden, but often in plain sight, so desperately does it want to be found. Its value, though, far surpasses those little plastic pearls and, for that matter, the precious ones as well.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid. Scholars have suggested that the “someone” in this parable was a tenant farmer of sorts, working land that was not his. When he found the treasure he sold everything he had and bought the field for himself, so that the treasure could be his.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found a pearl of surpassing beauty and worth, he sold all that he had and bought the pearl for himself.
The kingdom of heaven is like this. The farmer accidentally stumbled upon his fortune as he went about his work in the field; the merchant’s work was devoted to seeking fortune until he found something beyond his wildest dreams. Both, then, found the shiny, sparkly treasure worth all that they had simply as they went about their common, ordinary, everyday lives. And so it is that the kingdom is waiting and hoping to be found, delighting in being found, hidden in plain sight like a giggling child or a box full of whatever it is we treasure most.
Another preacher has written of this story and its companions, in which the kingdom of heaven is like a big messy field and a stubborn mustard seed and a lump of leavened dough, “these parables are about the hiddenness of the kingdom, and so they teach us about our seeking.” We do not have to look far to glimpse a glint of kingdom life and love - as we break our daily bread together, as we look upon each other’s shining faces, we’re really super hot, and if we listen we might hear the sparkling sound of God’s delight in being found.
For ready or not, God’s kingdom is come, hidden in plain sight, revealed in the course of our common, ordinary, everyday lives, and worth nothing less than everything. Amen.
Artwork: Path leading to St. Francis Chapel; "Pearl of Great Price," by Janice Vancronkhite; "The Hidden Treasure," from www.jesusmafa.com; "Discovering the Pearl of Great Price," by Daniel Bonnell.
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
I have heard that the saying goes, “If you’re going to plant kudzu, drop it and run!” Many of us here are from the southeast, where kudzu covers more than 7 million acres and counting. Once upon a time it was an exotic, ornamental plant brought to the United States from Japan for show. Kudzu’s vibrant green leaves and fragrant purple flowers enticed gardeners, and its deep and complex root system made it ideal for curbing soil erosion and improving topsoil. It was even grown as a crop to feed foraging livestock.
Kudzu does go to seed, but most of its alarming growth occurs as its vines put down new roots into the earth, the tree, the house, the livestock or whatever happens to be standing in its way. In 1953, kudzu was downgraded from a plant to a weed and now, instead of enticing people to grow it, environmental agencies encourage people to get rid of it. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, where my mother lives, there are designated “kudzu control sites” where individuals can experiment with ways to get rid of the vigorous vine.
A weed is defined by some as “a plant that does more harm than good.” A real farmer would never plant kudzu or mustard seeds or darnel, the wheat-like weed planted by the enemy in tonight’s parable. He would pull the weeds as soon as they sprouted, so as not to rob the crop of the soil’s nutrients, or risk the weeds going to seed and so threatening the next year’s harvest as well. Even in a garden, weeds can smother more delicate growth or steal precious sunlight and rainwater.
I am an amateur gardener, just learning to love digging in the dirt and planting things that grow. I spend a lot of time weeding, though, pulling up one green thing to make room for another. Every once in a while I come across something that I can’t identify, though - is it a weed or a flower I have not yet met? Some flowers grow more like weeds - it isn’t kudzu but wisteria that threatens to consume our backyard and perhaps even our house. Still other flowers, like lantana, that I have planted intentionally grow like weeds in other parts of the country. And some weeds are so beautiful I haven’t had the heart to pull them up.
Tonight, Jesus pauses in his telling of parables to return to the one his disciples, the eternal point-missers, call “the parable of the weeds of the field,” the parable we heard at vespers on Saturday night. Simply in calling the parable by that name, though, Matthew shows us that the disciples have missed the point once again, for the story is no more about weeds than it is about wheat.
Parables, writes, the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor, are not like code or allegory. The are more like dreams or poems that whisper images in our hearts and imaginations. Let anyone with ears listen! He would have us hear what the whole story has to say to us, not just any one part. But, like the disciples before us, we tend to be selective listeners.
And so we hear the “parable of the weeds of the field” and wonder immediately, are we wheat or are we weeds, as though the parable were about us at all and not the kingdom of God. We wonder if we will be harvested by angels or burned in a furnace of fire, as though the parable were about judgement and not the grace it takes to grow in faith. Am I wheat or weed? Sinner or saint? Good or bad?Matthew doesn’t say so, but I suspect Jesus sighed and perhaps even rolled his eyes as he launched into his point by point explanation of his parable, which was exactly what the disciples wanted to hear. But let anyone with ears listen, he urged, and I submit to you it was because the disciples had closed theirs.
The truth is, in the fields that are our world, our communities, our families, our churches, our lives, in our own hearts, there is good seed and there are weeds. There is joy and there is pain, there is wonder and there is cruelty, there is dark and there is light, there is generosity and there is pettiness. Sometimes it is easy to identify the things that steal our nutrients, that sap our strength, that compete with our striving to grow. Sometimes it is easy (or so we amateur farmers think) to tell the weeds from the wheat. Sometimes the weeds look better, bigger, more colorful, more hearty. Sometimes the weeds and wheat look so much the same that we do not know whether we are choosing something that will bear fruit. If, then, we try to judge a growing thing, we risk uprooting the good along with the evil. We could even uproot ourselves.
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness, our psalmist said tonight. We cannot see what God sees in the big messy kingdom field, filled with wheat and weeds. Who knows - the One who turned water into wine, loaves and fish into a feast, and death itself into life may very well be able to love a weed into bearing fruit. Let it be until the harvest. Among God’s promises in this parable is the promise that, in the end, that which is good will be gathered to God, and that which is evil will be burned by fire. Whether the fire is designed to punish or to purify, though - who knows. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. Or to quote another southern wisdom saying about kudzu, “Love it or hate it, it grows on you.”
Listen to another parable, dreamed and pieced together by various preachers to tell a mystery. The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who harvested the wheat in his field, ground it fine, and made it into flour. He then pulled up the weeds, mixed them with mud, and made them into bricks. With the bricks he built an oven, a furnace filled with fire, in which he baked loaves of golden bread. The farmer sold his bread in the marketplace, where a young boy with only a few coins bought five loaves which he carefully placed in his bag with two fish, and so it was that bread broken together was the final harvest from the field.... Amen.
Artwork: Kudzu blooming; Lantana in my front yard; "Heal Me," by Roger Hutchison; Jack Anthony, photographer.