Thursday, April 5, 2012

Memory of a Meal

Memory of a Meal
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Maundy Thursday
Northside Community Church
5 April 2012

If you were to look back over your life, and pick out some of your most cherished memories, how much would food feature in them?

Was there a special snack your mom would give you when you got home from school?

Was there a particular menu your family would enjoy for Thanksgiving or for Christmas?

Was your Easter picnic incomplete if your aunt didn’t bring her potato salad?

Do you remember how it felt to scoop pureed vegetables off your baby’s chin with an impossibly tiny spoon?

Do you remember how it felt for friends to bring casseroles when a loved one died? There wasn’t anything they could do to change the sad fact of death, but they did what they could do – they showed you their love with their food.

Food is such a primal fact of life that memories of it can connect us in the deepest possible ways to joy, and to grief.

I can’t think of my grandmother without being flooded with memories and more memories of food. I miss her fried cornbread. I miss her homemade biscuits and chicken gravy on Christmas Eve. I miss her homemade vanilla milkshakes. Mostly, I just miss her.

The year after she died, I spent some time experimenting with recipes for banana pudding, until I finally created one that tasted as close to hers as any I had ever tasted, and it made me want to cry. It was like she was with me, almost. Almost.

From our earliest days, the days before we can even remember, we experience a link between food and love, between food and family. Some of our best memories have food in them.

Some of our worst memories, too. A family fight. A ruined dessert. Food poisoning. Food is meant to be a source of nourishment and nurture, but it’s true that sometimes it is also a source of pain, even shame. Our feelings about food are complicated.

It’s one of the ways I suppose we are different from other animals. Our hunger is more than just physical. Our associations with food are also emotional, relational, spiritual. “To eat is to see, smell, touch, and taste God’s provisioning care.”[i]

Stories about food run all through the Bible. Food featured in the very first sin, of course, but there are happier memories, too. Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers into their tent, and served them a meal – turned out they were angels. God provided manna in the wilderness. Jesus dined with all sorts of people, and took heat for it. He also hosted a simple meal for thousands, out of just some bread and fish. In story after story, there is food.

But you can’t talk about food in the Bible without talking about the central feast of the Passover meal, the celebration of God’s deliverance of God’s people from slavery into freedom. Jesus would have participated in this feast every year, from the time before he could remember. Can you imagine him, a little boy at his mother’s knee, eating the bread, praying the prayers, singing the songs, hearing the story of God’s liberating work in the Exodus? “Why is this night different from all other nights?” the children are asked at the Passover meal. Every year the question is asked. Every year the story is told. The story becomes a part of the memories of those who celebrate. Even now, when faithful Jews gather at the Passover table, they hear and tell the Exodus story again, as if they were there when it happened.

We see this sense of remembering in Scripture itself. In Deuteronomy, we read, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…” and then suddenly the story shifts. What was about an ancestor now becomes about the teller, instead of saying “he” the teller says “we.”  “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted uswe cried to the Lord…. The Lord brought us out of Egypt.” (26:5-8). This is how the biblical story works – the old story becomes our story, as we tell it.

The young grandson of a friend of mine once prayed, “God, thank you for helping us cross the Red Sea.” And he was saying something true. This is how memory of the biblical story works – we weren’t there, but we were. This isn’t just someone else’s story, it is ours. God didn’t just deliver them. God delivered us.

Every year for 33 years, Jesus participated in the Passover meal and heard and told the stories of deliverance. What were his memories of this feast? Maybe he had memories of his mama setting the table, of his father pouring the wine, of his grandmother making the bread. Maybe he also had memories as old as time. As he heard and recited the Exodus story, these became his memories too – memories of a people set free, memories of a people on their way to the Promised Land.

And then, finally, on the last night of his life, he comes to the meal again. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This night would be different indeed. He would be betrayed, arrested, denied, tried, scourged, mocked, and crucified. But first, he would share this meal with his friends. And he would make the stunning claim that the bread and the wine were his own body, his own blood,[ii] given for us.

All four gospels tell us the story of that night. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he tells it again. And for 2000 years, churches everywhere have told it not just on this night, but every single time we gather to share in this meal. We call the retelling of it “the words of institution” – on the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the same way after the meal, he took the cup, blessed it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Drink from this, all of you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

We tell it every time we eat the bread and drink the cup. This story is our story. We were not there that night, but in the telling of it, we were, in a way.

Do this in remembrance he said. He knew the power of memory. He knew how our remembering could put him at the table with us, every time we eat. It’s funny, how divided Christians have become over the centuries, about this meal. People argue over exactly what happens in this meal, and big theological words get thrown around – transubstantiation, consubstantiation, sacramental union. Baptists typically view this meal as “memorial” or symbolic. And we sometimes put the word “just” in front of that – it’s just a symbol, it’s just a memorial. But there’s no reason to put the word “just” in front of something as powerful as a memory and a meal. Something holy happens when we remember. Something hopeful happens when we tell this story again, and eat this bread and drink this cup, and do it together. He is at this table with us, because we are remembering him.

Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians while they were in deep conflict with one another, and one of their big problems was that they had privatized their faith and worship. They had lost the sense that the life of faith is a life of community. [iii] He writes to remind them of the importance of this meal, how by it we have become one body. In receiving the bread and the cup, we are partaking of the body of Christ, together we are becoming the body of Christ. Elsewhere Paul writes, “The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we the many are one body.” (10:16-17)

How is this night different from all other nights? Well, for one thing, Christians all over this globe – separated by language and custom, separated by theology and practice, separated by bias, suspicion, resentment – Christians everywhere are gathering at this table, his table, tonight. His bread and his cup unite us. His body and his blood are what make us one with each other. Tonight, we all remember the same thing – his life, poured out for us. His love, poured out for us.

He becomes powerfully present to us in this meal. He becomes powerfully present through us, by this meal. And it’s worth remembering not only that he gave himself to us, but that he gave himself for the whole hungry world. As members of his body, we are meant to keep giving ourselves for the sake of this world.

What are you hungry for? Connection? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Friendship? Meaning? Comfort? Purpose? What are you hungry for? You will find it at this table. What are you thirsting for? You will find it in this cup. We will find what we are looking for when we come to his table, because he is here, too.

Who do you miss? They are at this table, too. We receive this bread and this cup, three churches, together, an important symbol that all God’s people are meant to gather as one around this gift. That includes that great communion of saints who share in the heavenly feast on another shore. They gather at this table, too. We may look like only a few people here tonight. But imagine multitudes. Because that’s what we are. Multitudes of God’s own people, coming to this table, all of us one body in Christ. You, me, Simon Peter, Doubting Thomas, Mary Magdalene, the Apostle Paul, my grandmother, all our grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith. Imagine Christians in China, Botswana, the Ukraine, Malawi, Mexico, Morocco, India Israel, Palestine. They are with us, too. Some of them under threat of persecution, yet still they come to this table. And there are some who need this table, who need what Christ brings, but they don’t yet know where to find it. And how will they, unless we share the great nourishment we’ve been given? There is room and more room for all at this table. We are meant to share.

How is this night different from all other nights? It is different because of what he did for us, what he does for us, what he gives to us. It is different because in his self-giving love, he invites and empowers our own self-giving love. He makes us one with him. He makes us one with each other. He makes us one in ministry to the whole world. This is not only what we remember. It’s what we keep coming to this table for. To be made whole, and to be made one, and to be made ready to give our own selves in love for a hungry world.

[i] Norman Witzba. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. 180.
[ii] In her article “Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder?” Wil Gafney, Ph.D., who answers that question with the word “maybe,” writes that “there is one aspect of Jesus’ last meal that does not have a parallel in a regular or Sabbath meal, Jesus’ re-identification of the bread and wine with himself, his body and his blood. Jesus’ words would have also been stunning at a seder. They remain extraordinary.” 
[iii] J. Paul Sampley. “1 Corinthians.” New Interpreter’s Bible. 934.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Unless a Grain Falls

Unless a Grain Falls
John 12:20-36
5th Sunday in Lent
25 March 2012

One of my favorite church events of the year is the darkest thing we do. We gather every year on Good Friday, at nighttime, to walk through the story of Jesus’ last hours, to meditate on his crucifixion, and to sit in silence, in the dark, together. The service stands in stark contrast to my other favorite service, which happens on Christmas Eve, and is filled not with silence but with song, not with darkness but with light. On Christmas Eve we rejoice that God has come among us. On Good Friday night, we mourn God’s absence, the death of Jesus at our own hands.

One Good Friday, about nine or ten years ago, Paul and I were hustling around getting ready for the service, which involves a lot of attention to logistical detail. The lights have to go off at just the right time, the candles have to be snuffed out at various intervals throughout the service, readers have to do their readings, in the dark. For a service that is about crucial existential issues such as darkness, anguish, abandonment, death, and emptiness, there are an awful lot of pedestrian details to tend to.

On this particular evening, everything was finally in place, and we were ready to go. But just as I was about to enter the sanctuary to begin the service, a 6 year-old girl stopped me. “Pastor Stacey,” she said. “I understand that Jesus had to die on the cross. But what I don’t understand is why. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Why did Jesus have to die?”

Oh, mercy.

Why, indeed?

What the little girl didn’t know is that she was asking one of the core questions of our faith, one that theologians have wrestled with for centuries. It is the deepest mystery, the darkest center of our faith. What does it mean when we say that Christ died for us? What exactly happened when he did? What happened for God in that moment, and what happened for us? How was anything made different, how was anything made right?

These are questions for which I could have offered elaborate theories worked out by long-dead theologians. I could have used words like “ransom,” or “substitute,” or “sacrifice,” or “moral influence,” or, my favorite, “Christus Victor.” I could have said things that made it sound like the whole thing was some sort of neat equation, that, once understood, was easily assimilated into right living. I didn’t say any of that.

Truth is, I don’t remember what I did say. I just remember her question, and how it hollowed me out. How it drew me up short. How it resonated with my own sense of wonder and longing. I remember finally going on into the service, and listening to the old story again. I remember sitting in the dark.
Sometimes lately, as I’ve been reading current news, I have felt a sense of pressing darkness. Reading the story of innocent civilians in Afghanistan – many of them women and children – asleep in their beds, in their homes – gunned down by an American soldier. I can’t bear it. And I think about that soldier, and what darkness must have taken hold of his mind, his soul, in the moments when he perpetrated such horror. And I think about his family. And I think about all the soldiers on all sides, and all the families, and all the civilians with war all around them. It’s too much.

And then this week, reading and hearing the story of Trayvon Martin, innocent, unarmed, 17 year-old kid, on his way to a friend’s house with some Skittles and an iced tea. Gunned down by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman because the guy thought Trayvon, a black kid in a hoodie, looked “suspicious.” And the gunman hasn’t been arrested because he claimed self-defense, against an unarmed kid. And I listened to the 911 calls, with Trayvon begging for help in the background. And I think about his mama. And I can’t bear it. The darkness, the hate, the fear – I want to look away. I want all of it to go away.

And I know these two stories are just two out of thousands, out of hundreds of thousands, of horrors and hatreds that happen every day.

Where is Jesus, in all this darkness? What did his death do, after all?

Some foreigners came one day to Phillip, one of Jesus’ disciples. They were Greeks, in Jerusalem for Passover. They came to Phillip and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” And Phillip told Andrew, and together they went and told Jesus. And here is how Jesus responded to this request – he told them he was going to die. “We would see Jesus,” they had said. “You want to see? See this: my suffering, my death.”

He tells a little parable. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

What does a seed do, but go down into the dark? It falls down, into the deep, into the dank earth. And it dies. It cracks open and gives itself up. And it does this not for the sake of dying but for the sake of living, for life to spring out of it. And this is how Jesus responds when the Greeks say they wish to see him. Look at this, he says. Look at the seed, how it falls, how it dies.

“We want to see Jesus,” the Greeks say. “We want to see Jesus,” we say. And Jesus says, “Look at the dark. Look at this death.”

We would rather not, truth be told. We would rather make neat theories about what his death does, than to actually look at him there, hanging on the cross. It’s safer to theorize than to ponder the agony of his suffering, the horror of his death. It’s safer to make the cross a puzzle to be solved than to let our own hearts be pierced by his pain and by the pain of the world God loves.

Jesus saw his death coming, and John makes it very clear that he gave himself to it, he was no victim. It was what we came for – to give himself completely, in love. The grain falls to the ground and dies so that the wheat can grow. His death, like that of the seed, is necessary, and it is life-giving.[i] What’s more, in John, “fruit” is a way Jesus has of talking about the life of the community of faith.[ii] The saving power of his death will result in the blossoming of a community of believers who will redefine the meaning of life on the basis of Jesus’ death, on the basis of his self-giving love.[iii] If he hadn’t died, we wouldn’t be here. The seed of his life would fall to the earth, be buried, sit there in the dark, hidden, until it swelled, cracked, and broke open with new life,[iv] blooming into fields of wheat, blooming into a community of the beloved, who would offer their own lives in love, too. 

He speaks of his death in this way – like the necessary self-offering of the seed – but then he moves from talking about what is hidden in the earth to what will be up high and visible, his cross. He says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John points out that he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. And those words are meant literally – he will be lifted up, on a cross, strung up there for all to see, nailed to two pieces of wood, to suffer, to bleed, to thirst, to die.

He was speaking of the manner of his death, but he was speaking also of its meaning, and of its power: he would be lifted up – raised, exalted, elevated over all other powers. He would be lifted up –to show us the very heart of God, impaled upon a cross. This is what we need to see when we look at his death – God, broken like us, broken for us, broken with love, bearing all our sickness and sadness, and drawing it all into himself, and then drawing us all to himself.

In his suffering and death, Jesus absorbed the worst the world could do and he didn’t do any of it back. It was put to death with him. Which is not at all to say that bad things don’t still happen, but that in his death he broke their power over us.[v] He conquered their ability to define us - or our response. In his death, the power of God’s transforming, self-giving love was lifted up over every other power.

We hear the news in our world, of suffering and death, and we want to look away. This is not what we want to see. We say with the Greeks, “We want to see Jesus.” And he tells us where to find him – look at the darkness, look at the cross.

Look at those innocent lives cut down in their beds in Afghanistan. Look at the soldiers, their families, so much pain on all sides of every war. Look at Trayvon Martin, look at boys like him everywhere, under suspicion, under threat of violence, for the color of their skin. Look at so much darkness and you will see God, cruciform. Christ, suffering, dying, but still lifted up, still drawing it all into himself and drawing us all to him, to love. Do not look away from the pain of our world – Christ is in it all, crucified. And Christ must in our response to it all.

The truth of the cross is that ours it not the only heart that breaks over this mad world. God’s own son laid down his life in solidarity with all the pain that ever was and that ever would be. The cross is the form of God’s love over our lives. The cross is meant to become the shape of our love in response.

All the suffering in our world is lifted up into God’s breaking heart. The cross reaches into every hidden place of pain or guilt, its arms span all suffering, all loss, all sin, and all death. The cross reaches all of it, and somehow, somehow will transform it all. Look at such love as this. Be drawn by such love as this. And then let our hearts, like his, crack like seeds that fall to the ground, so that what comes forth is more love, more life, his life, in us.

[i] Gail O’Day. New Interpreter’s Bible. “John.” 714. R. Alan Culpepper. The Gospel and Letters of John. 194.

[ii] O’Day. 711.

[iii] O’Day. 714.

[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor. “Unless a Grain Falls.”  God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering. 64.

[v] Taylor. 64.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Do or Die

Do or Die
Luke 13:1-9
3rd Sunday in Lent
7 March 2010 

We all know the story and the images well by now. On the afternoon of January 12, a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Port au Prince, Haiti, the capital, was absolutely leveled. Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed. 300,000 more were injured. Roughly a million were rendered homeless. It is a devastation we can scarcely imagine.

The next day, a well-known televangelist went on the air and gave an explanation as to why this terrible thing had happened. He said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French … and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story,” the televangelist said, “And the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal. Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”[i]

And so one of history’s only successful slave rebellions got twisted by this man into a pact with the devil, resulting in a curse, resulting in a natural disaster, resulting in unimaginable pain and suffering, including the pain and suffering of thousands and thousands of children. They must have deserved it, right?

It is human nature to look for explanations for why bad things happen. The easiest explanation has always been to blame the victim. There is some psychological comfort that comes from telling oneself that terrible things only happen to terrible people, people who deserve them. The implication is that if we live the right kind of life, we can protect ourselves from calamity. And, conversely, if certain awful things haven’t happened to us, we must be living right.

This impulse seems to be as old as time. It certainly was the case in Jesus’ day. The popular assumption was that misfortune was punishment for sin. This was the way they, like our famous televangelist, made sense of otherwise senseless tragedy. This was the way they preserved God’s character, too – if God is a good God, and a just God, and an all-powerful God, then disaster must be the result of human sin.

One day, some people approached Jesus with some shocking bad news. Pontius Pilate had massacred some Galileans who were in the temple praying. The Galileans had brought their animal sacrifices for their offering, and now their own blood mingled on the temple floor with the blood of the sacrificed animals. They must have done something to deserve it, right?

Jesus responds in no uncertain terms. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No!” And he goes one further. He moves from news of deliberate evil to news of accidental disaster. “What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them?” he asks. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No!”

He says it elsewhere, too. The disciples once asked him about a man born blind – who sinned, this man or his parents? Jesus said neither one, it was nobody’s fault. And elsewhere he says this: the sun shines on the evil and the good; rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Whatever meaning you might make from evil, or accident, or natural disaster, Jesus is clear. It is not about what’s fair. It is not about what’s deserved. It is not about God’s judgment.

Jesus never goes along with simplistic answers to difficult questions. Horrible things happen, and there are no easy or satisfactory explanations. He erases our neat, old equations between catastrophe and condemnation, between tragedy and punishment, between ruin and retribution. He is unequivocal – this is not how God works.

What this means, of course, is that all of us are vulnerable. We are fragile. Life is precarious. At any moment, everything we know could be shattered. It happens every day, to people just like you and me. And all the right living in the world won’t change that.

In light of that, Jesus’ next words are a warning. The Galileans who were murdered and the people who were crushed by the tower – they were no worse than anybody else, and their deaths were not a judgment on their lives. Still, Jesus reminds us, their sudden deaths should cause us to look at our own lives. The clock is ticking on all of us, and we never know when our time will run out. “Unless you repent,” Jesus warns, “you will all likewise perish.” He does not mean we will be killed for our sins. All of us are going to die regardless. The question is how we are spending our lives in the meantime. Jesus is using death as a metaphor for judgment. When the last second ticks for us, how will our lives be judged? The time to repent is now. The time to turn, to take hold of a new way of living is now.

Then Jesus tells this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to his gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

Told in the context of talk of repentance, this is the picture Jesus paints of our sin. This is what our failure looks like. Sin is about something so much more than morality. The tree isn’t doing anything bad, per se. But it is standing there taking up precious space, soaking up sunshine, drinking from the soil, and never yielding any fruit. It gets everything good it needs and does not bear anything good or beautiful in return. It does not give back.

This is too often our story, too. We hear the word sin and we think of a series of moral laws about private virtues. But Jesus consistently shows us that sin is more fundamentally about a failure to do what good we can. We soak up the sun of God’s goodness, we’ve been given so much sweetness and nourishment and light. Do our lives bear generous fruit that reflects the richness of what we’ve been given? Are we giving back joy, are we giving back kindness, are we giving back love? Are we growing into the fullness of our good purposes?

In Jesus’ story, what happens to a fruitless tree is that the owner decides to cut it down. John the Baptist had warned of this, saying “Even now the ax is lying at the roots, poised to strike.” Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t have been surprised. They would have known the popular folktale about a palm tree which did not bear fruit. The owner came to chop it down. The tree itself spoke: “Don’t cut me down! Transplant me to a better place, and I’ll be fruitful.” And the owner said, “Nope. If you haven’t done it by now, you never will.” And he toppled it.

There were other versions of this story of the talking palm tree – in some of them, the tree doesn’t bear any dates; in other versions, the tree does bear fruit but drops it all into a river. But the endings are all the same. The owner gets his ax.

But not in Jesus’ story. The gardener intervenes. He protests: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

After three years of fruitlessness, there is no reason to think that the tree will begin producing now. But the advocate-gardener takes a risk; he makes an extravagant pledge to pour his care on it anyway. In a region where fig trees produced lavish harvests with little care, this gardener vows to go to great lengths for one failed tree. Will his risk pay off? The answer to that is up to you and me.

In so many ways we have not tended the good lives we’ve been given; we have not produced fruit. We stand under the sun of God’s love, rooted in the soil of God’s provision, and yet our lives are too often barren of the sweetness, the goodness, the fullness that they should yield. Even so, the gardener advocates for us. He pleads for us, he lays down his life for us, he feeds us with himself, he drenches us in the outpouring of his love and of his life. What response can we make, but to take hold of what he gives and give back our own lives?

The conversation with Jesus started with the question: is tragedy God’s punishment for sin? Jesus’ answer is a definitive No. He reminds us instead that tragedy can happen to anyone at any time, and with a life as fragile as that why would we waste what little time we’ve got? He invites us to see what life we’ve got as gift, all of it an act of God’s mercy. In light of such grace, he gives us a choice: Repent or perish. Do or die. We can wither where we are, let our lives dry up no matter how much goodness we’ve been given to share. Or we can repent, turn, let the life Christ laid down nourish our roots. We can take hold of our promise. We can let our lives bloom.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Lord of the Broken Nets

Lord of the Broken Nets
Luke 5:1-11
5th Sunday after the Epiphany
7 February 2010

It was an interruption that changed everything.

Interruptions have the power to do that, you know. Most interruptions are mere annoyances – the telemarketer who rings you as you sit down for dinner, the co-worker who stops by your desk just as you are making progress on your inbox, the child who talks over the punchline on your favorite show. But some interruptions change our lives. The phone that rings at 2:00 in the morning. The water that breaks four weeks early. The breaking news that interrupts regularly scheduled broadcasts. One moment changes everything.

For Simon, it had been a night like any other night. He and his fishing partners had spent the whole night fishing. But for all their work, they had come back to shore with nothing. They stood there next to their boats, washing their nets, ready for a hot breakfast and a long nap. And up walks this man who just steps into Simon’s boat, sits down, and starts teaching. A crowd is pressing in on him, anxious to hear the word of God, and so he delivers it, sitting in Simon’s fishing boat.

Luke doesn’t tell us whether Jesus asked permission or offered explanation. He doesn’t say how Simon responded to the interruption. He just says that Jesus got in and started teaching. And Simon and his friends didn’t leave. They had worked all night for nothing, and surely felt bone-tired and ready to go. But they didn’t. And when Jesus was done speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon explained, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” In other words, “We’ve already tried that, it didn’t work.” Some people might’ve stopped at that, turned around, and headed home. But Simon’s head was filled with what Jesus had been teaching. It is clear from the crowds who press in that this man offers a compelling word. Simon is compelled too; he doesn’t turn away. He goes on, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

So they push off from shore and do what Jesus says. They throw their empty nets into the deep water, and pull up a staggering haul. Their nets begin to break. They have to call their partners over from the other boat to help them bring it all up. They struggle to bring up the catch; it fills both boats. And the boats begin to sink.

Can you see it? Can you smell it? Fish flopping everywhere. Nets creaking, straining. Boats tilting, tipping. Tired men groaning, tugging, struggling with their catch. Where there had been nothing, now there is more than they can handle.

It’s the first miracle in Luke that does not involve a healing or an exorcism. Jesus hasn’t commanded the sea or the fish. He has not told the fisherman to do anything unusual. He simply comes to them in the midst of their ordinary work, and tells them to try again, and to go deeper, and they do.(1) What they pull up defies all expectation and brings Simon to his knees.

He knows that what has happened is more than just the best fish tale ever. What he has caught hold of with his nets is a miracle, and he responds to the divine power of it, falling before Jesus and saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus won’t have it. “Do not be afraid,” he tells Simon, “from now on you will be catching people.” And they bring their boats to the shore, and leave them there – stinky fish, breaking nets, and all – and follow him.

What a story! Even so, some of us shy away from it. We have heard this story used towards a kind of triumphal evangelism. We have heard it used as part of church growth campaigns. We prefer to relegate it to children’s Vacation Bible School lessons, so that we don’t have to deal with it so much ourselves. It makes us feel guilty, or uncomfortable, or anxious. We do not want to be, in the more familiar words, “fishers of men.” It is unseemly.

But what if we could set that aside? What if we could let Jesus interrupt our preconceived notions and our well-defended habits? What if we just let him come in, enter our ordinary lives, right where we are? Maybe he comes to us after a long day’s work, when we feel like nothing we have done has made a difference. We are ready to be finished for the day. Try again, he urges. Go deeper, he says, calling us into depths we haven’t explored, spiritually, or emotionally, or in some other way we’re unprepared for. Do we resist, and insist that we’ve already tried and failed?

Maybe he comes in the same way, right here into our church. Some here have worked so long, and so hard, for the sake of this church, and for what? Some days it’s hard to see that any of it makes any difference. We worry. We despair. We wonder what we have to show for all our years and all our work and all our faithfulness. And there he comes. Try again. Go deeper. Do we resist? Do we insist that we’ve already tried and failed? Do we give up? His call to put out our nets into the deep water – that’s an invitation to go farther than we have, to move out of safe water and known places, and see what happens when we let him lead.

If we’re willing to respond to such an invitation, we could find ourselves faced with unexpected abundance and blessing. Instead of coming up empty, the fishers’ nets were filled with a stunning wild bounty. Can we believe that God will lavish abundance on us too, if we risk going further and going deeper than we thought we could? Scripture tells us that God can do abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Do we believe that? Are we willing to risk asking and imagining and seeing where God leads us?

If we really believed in the God we say we trust, then we would know that no net we have is enough. No resource, no ritual, no habit, no tradition, no understanding, is big enough to contain what God means to bring. We can never be prepared for the abundance God means to provide. A boatload of blessing – and more – is available, but it will strain and even break our previous structures.

Maybe that’s what we are afraid of. Maybe we are not afraid of failure, but of success – success in the form of unpredictable abundance and blessing. When Simon confesses his sin, isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ response is, “Do not be afraid”? Jesus knows that this is the way we are. When faced with the possibility of abundance, when challenged by the breakage of our old ways, we are afraid. We want to keep doing things the way we’ve always done, whether they’ve worked or not. Whether they’ve helped us or others, or not.

This past week was the Feast of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. Brigid helped shape Irish Christianity in the middle of the fifth century, when it was still new to Ireland. She was known for her hospitality and generosity. In stories about Brigid’s life, she is remembered as a person who worked miracles of abundance among the poor – abundance of food, or drink, or healing, or justice. She taught that “every guest is Christ,” and though she was not generally known for turning anyone away, she was wise and discerning with how she ministered to those in need.

One day, a man with leprosy approached her saying, “For God’s sake, Brigit, give me a cow.” Brigid told him to leave her alone. Possibly this was not her first time dealing with the man. He persisted. “Give me a cow!” Brigid asks him if she can pray to God to remove the man’s leprosy. “No,” he replies. “I get more this way than if I were clean.” Brigid insists that he “take a blessing and be cleansed.” And he acknowledges that he is, in fact, in a lot of pain. And so she prays for blessing for him, and he is cured. (2)

It’s easier – less risky, less costly, less work – to stick with whatever we’ve got, to do what we’ve always done, than to open ourselves to blessing and abundance that may require something more of us than we expected. Jesus calls us to cast our net into deep waters – to risk moving towards possibilities we cannot yet see, or predict, or understand. If we follow, who knows what wild bounty we may haul in? In the process, there are habits and practices, attitudes and understandings, in our lives and in our church life that will stretch and maybe break, and maybe even sink. Are we up for that? Are we willing to follow the Lord of the broken nets? Are we willing to trade what we’ve got for what he wants to give?

In the end, it was not just fish that were caught that day at Galilee – Simon and his friends were hooked, too. They could not resist the draw of this man Jesus. He would call them into dangerous places. They could not foresee the outcome. But they had experienced a moment of untamed, unmitigated, abundant, amazing grace, and they could do nothing but respond. They left behind the nets, the boat, and the catch. Because in the end, the real grace wasn’t about the gift, but the giver.

God is ready to do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. What is it that you would ask, for yourself, and for this church? What do you imagine? What can you dream? God’s dream is bigger. God’s bounty is wilder. God’s provision is more outrageous.

Everything we’ve got is just a net, or a boat. We have to be willing to let what we’ve got be stretched, be broken. In some cases, we may need to be broken, ourselves. But God will provide more than we can ask or imagine, as long as we’re willing to keep following Jesus, and to go deeper than we’ve gone before, maybe to places we cannot yet see or expect.

And if we really fix our lives on following him, if we really stake our church on him, then we will find ourselves drawing a net of love out into the world and hauling more people towards unexpected blessing and grace. The haul may not look like what “experts” call “success.” It may look like dozens of children from Hikone Housing, coming to know the love and dependability of God because of people here who showed that love. It may look like scores of children and families in Nandasmo, Nicaragua, who are strengthened and empowered by the bonds of Christian friendship with sisters and brothers here. It may look like a new kind of movement to confront the problems of homelessness in this city with courage and conviction, while caring for those who are homeless with compassion and greater resourcefulness. [Maybe it will look like a holy zeal to share the love of Jesus in every way we know how.] Or it may look like something we have not yet dreamed.

Jesus said, “From now on you will be catching people!” Who knows what that catch will look like – all we know to do is throw out our nets, let ourselves be stretched, let our boat be rocked. And keep on following him.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible. “Luke.” Gail R. O’Day. 118.

[2] The Reverend Jan Richardson, Also thanks to her for the phrase “wildest bounty,” which she found in Alice Curtayne’s biography of St. Brigid. Curtayne wrote that Brigid ministered to the poor with “a habit of the wildest bounty.”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Core Reality

The Core Reality
Psalm 19
Third Sunday after Epiphany
24 January 2010

One of the things our boys are learning in kindergarten is that everybody can be a scientist. They are learning to be curious, to be open-minded, and to investigate the world around them. Their teacher tells them that when they encounter something that looks or smells disgusting, instead of responding with, “Eww, yuck!” a scientist says, “How interesting!” It is their new favorite phrase. For them, every day has become an opportunity for scientific investigation, and there is no realm of life that cannot be approached with a scientist’s quest for knowledge.

Our contemporary culture, which excels at compartmentalization, prefers to divorce science from other facets of life. The most famous such split is the supposed divide between science and religion, which are seen to be not just distinct from each other, but in conflict. Science and poetry are also seen as completely separate fields, but this can’t really be the case, can it? There is an inherent poetry in equations, for instance – rhythm, symmetry, something like rhyme, and certainly beauty. When science shows us something new about the human body, or about the earth, or about the skies, we are brought into new awareness of how vast is the mystery of life. It is hard not to be struck by wonder and by awe, at such new discoveries. These are the same responses that poets are going for. And of course mystery, wonder, awe – these also lie at the heart of faith.

A few nights ago, one of our little scientists approached us and asked if, for his birthday, we would let him take a special trip. When we asked him where, he answered matter-of-factly, “To the center of the earth.” When I asked him how he would get there, he had an answer for that too, “A rocket drill.” His brother chimed in, “That sounds exciting. I want to go. I’m dying of curiosity to see what’s at the center of the earth.”

We know what science teaches us about what is at the center of the earth. And of course we know that it would be not only impossible but also unpleasant to attempt to take a little day trip there. But the impulse behind this birthday request is possibly universal and certainly profound – the desire to know what is at the core of reality. What is the center of life? What lies beneath that part of reality we can see? What holds everything together?

Our psalmist has some thoughts about that. He has a poet’s sensibility, a scientist’s quest for truth, and the attentive delight of a child. He starts not by pondering the center of the earth, but by pointing our gaze towards the edges of the universe.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,

which comes out like a bridegroom

from his wedding canopy

and like a strong man runs it course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,

and its circuit to the end of them;

and nothing is his from its heat.

On a January weekend in Michigan, we might not agree with that bit about nothing being hid from the sun’s heat. But even grey skies and barren trees and icy wind tell of God’s glory, though for some of us it may sound more like tiny whispers than like a voice that goes out through all the earth.

The psalmist here is reflecting an ancient belief that the sun, and the moon, and the stars produce a harmony of tones by their movements, and that this harmony is sounded day and night from one end of the earth to the other.[i] The voices of the universe are not in human language – as the psalmist says, “there is no speech, not are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth.” And what they are telling is the glory of God.

The psalmist knew that creation is gorgeous enough in its own right, but there is a gift beyond that gift – what creation teaches us about God. Beauty, power, persistence, whimsy, usefulness, harmony, fierceness, interdependence, wildness – all of these will teach us about who God is, all of these will teach us how to praise God, if we pay attention.

And yet we know we cannot look at creation and see only good; there is tragedy and terror in it too. The horrific damage of the earthquake in Haiti is too fresh on our minds to be glib about how pretty nature is. Creation deals cruel blows. Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Praising the glory of nature does not mean speaking of the beauty of nature alone and forgetting its overwhelming greatness and terrible power. Nature never manifests shallow beauty or merely obvious harmony.”[ii]

How do we reckon with the wild and terrifying freedom of creation? Natural disasters leave us horrified, bewildered, and enraged. They lead some of us to question God, and some of us to question if God even exists. It is the central perennial question of faith: how can God be both all-good and all-powerful and still allow such terrible things to happen? It’s a problem that cannot be settled, not entirely, and not entirely satisfactorily, not on this side of eternity.

But we can learn something from the psalmists about engagement with cruel realities. The psalms speak of God as refuge in times of destruction and distress. The psalms tell us that in response to fire and earthquake, in God’s temple all say, “Glory!” The faithful did not deny evil or tragedy, but even those things led them towards humility and reverence. It caused them to bow before the great mystery of a God who has set such a complex and uncontrollable universe in motion. It led them to respond with praise to the fierce, untamable nature of a God who is beyond our understanding or control.

But God wants more than our reverence; God wants a relationship. The psalmist, who had us looking up to the skies, now directs our eyes toward the Torah, God’s instruction. Like the sun in the sky, the Law of God revives the soul, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes. God’s instruction, which has been built into the very structure of the universe,[iii] has been made more explicit in Scripture.

What the psalmist is trying to help us see is that the same God whose power is proclaimed by the cosmic witness of the universe has also directed a personal word to humanity. The implications of this are staggering. The God who set the stars in the farthest galaxy also address us intimately, warmly, directly. The God who created the whole vast universe also came seeking a relationship with each of us.

God’s instruction, in creation and more overtly in Scripture, is meant to draw us into that relationship. The psalmist declares that what God’s Word accomplishes in our lives is all the good things God wants for us: vitality, wisdom, joy, enlightenment. Creation’s voice goes out over all the earth, and yet we do not hear it. But we have been given this book, and if we listen deeply, we do hear God speaking words of life.

The problem is, we’ve treated Scripture more like rules that we can’t live up to than like a relationship we’re willing to embrace. We find ourselves unable to do the things we know would keep us in harmony with God, or with each other, or with the world, or even with ourselves. We fail, and we hurt each other, and we do great damage to other people and to ourselves. And so the psalmist acknowledges our faults, and makes a petition for forgiveness. A psalm that started at the outer edges of the cosmos bends down now to the one place that matters most to God – the human heart.

Whereas creation is for us music without words, the Scriptures have been for many of us words cut off from music. Not because the music isn’t there, but because in our human limitation we have not been able to hear it, and accept it, and dance with it. So finally, God brought the music and words together for us, in the life of Jesus. His life, and death, and resurrection said the Word we needed to hear, the Word that is already written in the skies, and in our Scriptures, but that we couldn’t seem to see, couldn’t hear – that Word was Love, and only Love.

This is the core reality. This is what holds at the center – God’s love for us, and for our world, from the expanding edges of the universe to the shifting floors of the sea. When we turned away, and our love failed, God’s love remained steadfast.

We look at our creation and divorce it from any sense of reverence and connection with our creator. We look at our Scriptures and we read judgment. We read constraint. We read irrelevance. But the only thing God has ever been trying to say was, I love you. The only thing God has ever wanted is for us to live in the freedom and the refuge of that love, that we might honor and care for each other and our world.

I love you! he tried to tell us through the stars and the moon and the sun and the trees. But we couldn’t hear it. I love you! he tried to tell us again through the Scriptures. But we couldn’t accept it; we thought it was only a law we couldn’t keep. I love you! God told us one more time in Jesus, and tells us still.

In the 14th century, a 30 year-old English woman named Julian of Norwich received the first of several revelations from God. The most famous one, and the one you’ve probably heard quoted, was about a hazelnut. Her visions went on from there, for 15 years, and she continued to ask God what it all meant, when finally she received this answer:

What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.[iv]

Love. If we yield to it and embrace it, we will know more of the same. But we will never know different, without end.

That Sacred Word, the Word that spans the universe and stretches across the pages of Scripture and finally took on flesh to reach down to the depths of our sad dark hearts – that Word is saying just one thing, and always only one thing, and never anything different, only more and more of that one word. I love you! I love you! I love you!

It only says that one thing, and it only wants one thing in return – to shine like the sun over your whole life.

[i] Paul Tillich. “Nature Mourns for a Lost Good.” The Shaking of the Foundations. 80.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] NIB. 750.

[iv] As quoted in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Barbara Brown Taylor. 34.