For the last month I have let my Sabbath Day function as the center around which I have organized a week of reading different national literatures. I spent two week reading French Modernists, and a week with nineteenth century Russians. I then spent a week reading 19th and 20th century Irish writing.
This past week I immersed myself in early Irish myths and legends, as well as Celtic Christianity.
Working chronologically, I read the introduction to Jeffrey Gantz’s Penguin Classics Edition of Early Irish Myths and Sagas, and then left the copy in the bathroom for perusing!
Next, on the recommendation of two friends from college, I picked up a copy of Ciaran Carson’s rendering of Taín Bó Cúailnge, the Irish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey (before Joyce literally wrote the Irish version of the Odyssey). The title means “The Cattle Raid of Cúailnge.” I tried to make this a bedtime story for my son, but after three days even he was sick of the violence. When the Ulster hero, Cú Chulainn, not only beheads every opponent he meets but starts using a sling and stones to take off the heads of dogs and birds, my son had had enough. I finished the book on my own – though my son wanted daily updates on the action: Queen Medb of Connacht and her husband Ailill, Medb lover Fergus, and even the Brown Bull, Donn Cúailnge, are all fully developed characters for him.
Another friend mailed me a soundtrack for the week in the form of Celtic Rock band Horslips. In 1973 they recorded music for a stage adaptation of The Taín at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. It’s crazy that I’m humming this stuff to myself now…
Of course, the soundtrack should be updated to include the 2004 single, The Tain, by The Decemberists (my son’s favorite band).
Another companion for the week was the Celtic Spirituality anthology from the multivolume Classic of Western Spirituality. In addition to Irish and Welsh poetry, devotional texts, and theology, I focused on the Patrick Tradition, in particular his Confession and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. The latter proposes excommunication and isolation as a program for ending the slave trade. Awesome! I also re-read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization which I enjoyed much more than I did on first reading. I read it this time a part of legend making rather than as a historian.
I began, but in no way finished, Frederick Buechner’s Brenden: A Novel on the life and voyages of the sixth-century Irish saint. It may be enough for the coming week, Holy Week, to finish this novel of one man’s search for Tir-na-n-Og,t he terrestrial paradise.
Finally, last week my son and I read a children’s book about Isabella Augusta, or Lady Gregory, so I picked up the Penguin edition of her selected writings. I focused on her collection of oral history, particularly the stories of witch/healer Biddy Early, translations of the blind poet Raferty, and one of Lady Gregory’s own plays. Augusta co-founded the Abbey Theater in Dublin with William Butler Yeats – where many years later Horslips would perform a Celtic Rock version of The Taín.
Everything comes around full circle, or perhaps in a Celtic knot.
My take away from this week is the poem of St. Manchan of Offaly. This disciple of St. Patrick outlines a form of Green Martyrdom (simplicity, restraint and renunciation) for the Irish Church as opposed to the Red Martyrdom (red, as in “the blood of the saints in the seed of the church”) of Roman Christianity. I read this the word green in light of modern environmentalism and earth care, and it worked beautifully.
I know that some of the current simplicity movement is a commercial consumer trend. But I am genuinely inspired by the long history of simple living in the church. When Jesus said “our life is not defined by having many things” he inspired St. Anthony, who as a teenager left all his stuff and walked out into the desert to live without stuff. And because he was not consumed with his stuff, Anthony had the spiritual power to give advice even to Roman emperors. And many more are impressed by St. Francis who took Jesus literally when he said “You lack one thing. Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Francis called the giving away of possessions an “ongoing conversion” because it always led him to a deeper relationship with God and with the poor. Father Daniel Berrigan once counseled my family to become “downwardly mobile,” by which he meant moving down on the index of material comfort so that others can have their fair share and renouncing the desire for power, recognition, and advantage. Sallie McFague has recently given brilliant formulation to this in Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint. To this tradition I now need to add the Celtic spirituality of simple monastic communities.
I have copied the poem below from the prayerfoundation website. Commentary on the poem can be found in Cahill, pages 151-155.
St. Manchan of Offaly’s Poem:
(Composed Circa 450-550 A.D.)
Grant me sweet Christ the grace to find—
Son of the Living God!—
A small hut in a lonesome spot
To make it my abode.
A little pool but very clear
To stand beside the place
Where all men’s sins are washed away
By sanctifying grace.
A pleasant woodland all about
To shield it from the wind
And make a home for singing birds
Before it and behind.
A southern aspect for the heat
A stream along its foot,
A smooth green lawn with rich topsoil
Propitious to all fruit.
My choice of men to live with me
And pray to God as well;
Quiet men of humble mind—
Their number I shall tell.
Four files of three or three of four
To give the psalter forth;
Six to pray by the south church wall
And six along the north.
Two by two my dozen friends—
To tell the number right—
Praying with me to move the King
Who gives the sun its light.
A lovely church, a home for God
Bedecked with linen fine,
Where over the white Gospel page
The Gospel candles shine.
A little house where all may dwell
And body’s care be sought,
Where none shows lust or arrogance,
None thinks an evil thought.
And all I ask for housekeeping
I get and pay no fees,
Leeks from the garden, poultry, game,
Salmon and trout and bees.
My share of clothing and of food,
From the King of fairest face,
And I to sit at times alone,
And pray in every place.
For the last three weeks I have let my Sabbath Day function as the center around which I have organized a week of reading different national literatures. I spent two week reading the work of modernist French writing, and a week with nineteenth century Russians. This week and next, and in honor both of St. Patrick’s Day and my Irish ancestry, I am reading Irish literature.
For those readers who have wondered whether I am on a vacation from work – honestly, a little bit of reading each day adds up, especially when the selections are short. Through each of these weeks I have had occasion to reflect on the omnipresence of mortality – my preaching theme throughout Lent.
The last seven days have focused on the poem and short story. After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, Seamus Heaney (Londonderry) brought out a lovely collection called The Spirit Level, (1996). Life and death intertwined in the poem “Two Lorries,” about his mother. William Butler Yeats (Dublin) won the Nobel Prize in 1923, the first Irishman to do so, and could not be missed this week. I even included commentary by Camille Paglia and Harold Bloom on “The Second Coming” and the death of the gentle child making way for the rough beast.
On Saint Patrick’s Day I read “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar (Fingal O’Flahertie Wills) Wilde (Dublin). Wilde wrote this poem out of his experience as a prisoner following the scandal of his relationship with another man. By chance I read this on the same day the Presbyterian Church (USA), the church I serve, finally embraced marriage equality in our constitutional documents. Again, the coincidence of constricting death in the poem and the life-giving liberation of this ecclesiastical decision.
My surprise this week was the discovery of the Louis MacNeice (Belfast, 1907-1963). I was particularly taken by his subtle, shifting images of everyday life and their meaning, as well as temptation to escape into them. I have returned to “Sunday Morning” again and again:
Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar;
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,
And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,
Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.
But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Open its eight bells out, skulls’ mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.
I found several short stories in various anthologies on my shelves which filled my need to short pieces of prose: James Joyce’s “Araby” from Dubliners; Frank O’Connor’s “First Confession” which I first read in college; Flann O’Brien’s horrific, “Two in One”; and “The End” by Dublin born playwright Samuel Beckett.
I began, but have not yet finished, Gulliver’s Travels by the poet and cleric Jonathan Swift. (Swift, also Dublin born, is the only non-modern author of the week). Swift’s pessimism of human nature is famous, and I found it echoed in my semi-final author of the week, George Bernard Shaw, another Dubliner. My wife and I have been reading Shaw’s plays for years, but I had never dipped into The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism & Fascism until now. Shaw wrote this tome at the request of his sister-in-law so that she could have something to discuss at her women’s study circle. She got more than she bargained for, as my copy is over 500 pages long. Shaw had been preaching socialism for over 40 years when he compiled his thoughts in this book, which boils down to inequality as our original sin:
And to outface this miserable condition we bleat once a year about peace on earth and good-will to men; that is, among persons to whom we have distributed incomes ranging from a starvation dole to several thousands a day, piously exhorting the recipients to love one another. Have you any patience with it? I have none.
Finally, my son and I have been reading Leprechauns in Late Winter, a Magic Treehouse Book by Mary Pope Osbourne. We enjoy these introductions to historical periods and personages. This one sets the children Jack and Annie on a mission to “inspire” a young Irish girl named Augusta, who turns out to be Isabella Augusta, or Lady Gregory, the poet, dramatist and folklorist who co-founded the Irish Literary Theater and Abbey Theater with Yeats.
Lady Gregory will be our bridge to next week, which will be filled with ancient Irish myths and legends, with a new translation of The Tain at its center. I thank Amy Davis King for this recommendation.
My actual sabbath day involved a family breakfast at my son’s school, and a trip to the Newark airport for my wife. Back home, I took my son for a hike at Great Hunger Memorial Park in Ardsley. Here we remembered An Gorta Mor. This was the Great Hunger in Ireland which took place in Ireland between 1845-1851. 1.5 million starved outright, another 2 million were forced to migrate. The potato dependent peasantry had nothing to eat even as an abundance of food was being exported to England. The monument honors the Irish who died as well as the Irish immigrants who settled in the Hudson Valley, while serving as reminder that hunger in the midst of plenty remains with us and is a disgrace. While I have Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 on my shelf, and fabulous resources can be found at An Gorta Mor: The Great Hunger Archive.
This powerful memorial depicts emaciated emmigrants leaving a breakdown shelter. Almost all look into a distant future, while an adolescent male looks back. HIs eyes fall upon a tumbled down basket of blighted potatoes that literally become skulls as they fall.
Until next week: Bail ó Dhia ort (the Blessing of God on you)
A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 15, 2015
Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
I ate a meal at the church three times this week. On Tuesday evening, White Plains Presbyterian congregants and community members gathered to learn more about Community Voices Heard, an organization of people working together to change systems that keep communities in poverty. To be honest, I was too full to eat that night, but others snacked as we talked about what people need to survive and thrive in White Plains: affordable housing, access to employment at a living wage, childcare.
On Wednesday night, eleven of us met for the third Soup and Soul Lenten dinner in the conference room. We talked about images of God and read a “Night Prayer” by candlelight.
On Thursday night, volunteers from Hitchcock and White Plains Presbyterian churches and students from the neighborhood ate dinner together in the lower fellowship hall to begin our weekly English as a Second Language classes. Everyone did some language learning, translating Japanese into English or English into Spanish to get to the sought after vocabulary word.
This was not a typical week. More typical is a week in which most of my meals are spent with Will at home or sometimes in a restaurant. I admit there was a moment before each of those evening gatherings that I wished I were heading home to my own table rather than to a common table at church. However, at the end of each night, I went to bed with the words of someone with whom I’d shared a meal echoing into my prayers and expanding my understanding of God.
In today’s text from Mark, when Jesus invites Levi to follow him, the first place they end up is in Levi’s own home, gathered at Levi’s table. Jesus’ invitation to follow, to be a disciple, leads immediately to a shared meal. Around the table are other tax collectors and sinners, people who collect on debts and those who owe debts, sitting together and feasting. It’s a table of forgiveness and inclusion, a table gathering that went against the rules of a hierarchical society and the laws of religious purity.
The scribes of the Pharisees, who are well studied in how table fellowship should occur according to religious rules, are watching the meal, questioning how it is that Jesus is willing to eat with sinners and the unclean and then wondering why Jesus and his disciples are eating at all. Shouldn’t they be fasting to prepare themselves for God like the followers of John the Baptist and the Pharisees? Valid questions.
When Jesus replies he doesn’t dismiss the practice of fasting, instead he elevates the importance of feasting as a way of drawing near to God. In this context, feasting refers not simply to an abundance of food but to an abundance of grace.
Picture the relief and release when people denied access to everyday societal life were offered a place at the table. Imagine the unburdening when the tax collector could offer rather than take. Jesus brought together these table gatherings as a glimpse of God’s pure joy, as a model for us to recreate as disciples and followers.
Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say I feasted three times at the church this week as people of different ages, ethnicities, cultures, and economic backgrounds ate together and shared a couple hours of the day together. The food was good but the community is what earns those meals the title of feast. Each meal in its own way – through sharing spiritual journeys, through sharing hopes about a job search, through planning to act together for affordable housing, through gaining confidence in a new language, through belly laughter and quiet contemplation – chipped away at isolation to reveal new depths of community.
This week in the midst of shared meals, Will and I announced through the Intraweek that we will be moving across the river to the Stony Point Center to join the Community of Living Traditions, a multifaith residential community on that campus. I will continue to serve at White Plains at Parish Associate but we will be living in an apartment near one of the Stony Point Center greenhouses where Will has been spending many hours over this winter. We will eat the majority our meals in the dining hall with the other Jewish, Muslim, and Christian residential volunteers. Meals at home, just the two of us, will become the exception rather than the general rule.
We are excited and a bit nervous. What if after a long day we don’t feel like sharing a table with lots of people? What if we offend someone through a lack of understanding of another religion or of how another Christian resident expresses their faith? What if meals are tense when there are disagreements between people within the community? Our fears are probably not unfounded – all communities face challenges, especially those who share more of their time together. Nor are these fears unique. These “what ifs” are often what make us hesitate to share more of our lives in community.
But our prevailing “what if” is one of hope: What if deep and transformative community grows from a table where a diverse group of people commit to follow God with one another? The story from Mark’s gospel today offers a definitive “yes” to that hopeful question. When we follow Jesus’ invitation to the table here in worship or when we gather together to share in one another’s daily lives, we feast on God’s abundant grace and the table expands. Amen.
So, after spending an entire week reading 20th century French literature (see last week’s sabbath post), I was inspired to spend this past week perusing 19th Century Russian literature: Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Turgenev.
I began thinking of Tolstoy a few weeks ago while reading Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande uses Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych to illustrate the isolation and agony experienced by those who are dying when no one around them is willing to acknowledge the immanence of death. But while this story confronts us with mortality, it raises important questions about life and what makes life worth living. “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” Ivan wonders. “But how could that be if I did everything properly?”
Tolstoy wrote a lot of very long books; Anton Chekhov, on the other hand, was the creator of the modern short story. I read several of these with my son this week, which was great fun. He laughed uncontrollably through “Chameleon” – a story about a people-pleasing, conflict-adverse police inspector. He was alternately amused and saddened by the story of a starving eight year old boy whose mouth made chewing motions as he dreamt of eating food in “Oysters.” Chekov’s own favorite story, “The Student”, would make a perfect Good Friday meditation. (My son also, briefly, wondered what I would look like if I grew a beard like Anton).
Though reading short stories all week long, I began my sabbath day proper late last night with a couple of Chekhov’s plays, Ivanov and Uncle Vanya. I first read the latter in a high school drama class. It was perhaps because this sabbath day was going to end with conference call with colleagues resisting climate change that I was particularly struck by this monologue delivered by the young doctor Astrov:
You can burn peat in your stoves and build your sheds of stone. Oh, I don’t object, of course, to cutting wood from necessity, but why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever. And why? Because men are too lazy and stupid to stoop down and pick up their fuel from the ground. (To HELENA) Am I not right, Madame? Who but a stupid barbarian could burn so much beauty in his stove and destroy that which he cannot make? Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the game is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day. (To VOITSKI) I read irony in your eye; you do not take what I am saying seriously, and—and—after all, it may very well be nonsense. But when I pass peasant-forests that I have preserved from the axe, or hear the rustling of the young plantations set out with my own hands, I feel as if I had had some small share in improving the climate, and that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I will have been a little bit responsible for their happiness. When I plant a little birch tree and then see it budding into young green and swaying in the wind, my heart swells with pride and I– (He sees the WORKMAN, who is bringing him a glass of vodka on a tray) However — (He drinks) I must be off. Probably it is all nonsense, anyway. Good-bye.
This was nearly 120 years ago. The changes that horrified Chekov would be reversible, given time, while today we are facing irreversible planetary change. Astrov’s speech reminded me of a short essay my son wrote last Sunday about the ambiguity of being human. I was really proud of his reflection.
The bulk of my Sabbath day was spent all by myself, sitting quietly in the sun and reading Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. (I also spent two hours reading in Hastings Tea Room, just a block from our new home). I was completely absorbed all day, almost like being on vacation. I finished reading just in time for my conference call.
It will be a busy week coming up, and I don’t expect much time for reading, but post-Easter I am considering a few more national literature tours.
Any suggestions for me? Countries and authors please…
When I got home from a long day yesterday, my eight year old son asked if he could read to me an essay he had written. His creative writing journal had prompted him to write everything he knows about being human. Here is his response.
Being human means having to eat, drink, and sleep. It means you have family and have a personality and are passionate about things. We talk and play.
But we also think that we are civilized, while in the eyes of most animals we are not because we chop down their homes and scare them away; we poison their air and water; we destroy their life.
Human beings are the creators of destruction and violence, and yet we think that we are perfect and strong almighty rulers of earth. We are just like the tiniest cell; yet we are also the biggest bomb.
The day began at 5:30 AM when we got a text from the school district announcing that there would be no school today due to “inclement weather.” It was actually a quite beautiful snowy day as seen from our new apartment, made more beautiful by the fact that we no longer have to shovel. The photo above is of the park behind our apartment, our new “back yard.”
For most of the day my spouse was working quietly in some corner of our home, and my son had another boy over for a play date. I spent some time helping a friend grieve, helped get the laundry done, and took the two boys out in the snow storm for lunch at Five Guys Burgers. Supervising a play date takes more time than might be imagined; nevertheless I managed to finish several reading projects that I began after my sabbath day last week.
You may recall that as we are settling into our new home I am rediscovering books that have been packed away for years – I spent most of my last sabbath day reading the autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre. Well, this kicked off a week of reading French authors. I followed Sartre with André Gide, discovering that I had two copies of The Immoralist on my shelf. Gide won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, his writing contributing to anti-colonialism. It was a disturbing book of life and death and desperation.
Last night I read a dozen of Victor Hugo’s poems and this morning finished his most famous short story, “The Last Days of Condemned Man.” I had completely forgotten that I had read this story before, but with each page I not only remembered the story, an argument against capital punishment, but was overwhelmed with a flood of memories. In 2004 Noelle and I spent a few weeks in Paris and picnicked one afternoon at the Place des Vosage, where Hugo lived while writing Les Miserables. I read the story while lounging on the grass, imagining the whole things taking place within the confines of this park – the windows of the prison, the chaining of the galley-slaves, the scaffold of the guillotine. I remembered the complete relaxation of our day there, with nothing to do but sit in the sun, enjoy bread and cheese and a bit of wine, and share some good books. After lunch I remember reading to Noelle from The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. What a wonderful place to re-visit during today’s snowstorm.
With what time I could find between other activities today I continued to poke around a few French authors. Simone de Beauvoir occupied most of my morning, flipping through the dozen of her books I have on my shelves, but her novels are all longer than I am up to tackling this winter. I finally settled down after lunch to read Albert Camus’ The Stranger. (Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957). I had not read this book in twenty-five years, but like Hugo’s story it brought me back to where I first read it, in this case Decatur, Il where I went to college. The main character Meursault is particularly vulnerable to the heat, and when he spends a day at the beach with his new girlfriend and his “best pal” Raymond, he lays down with his cheek against the hot sand and falls asleep (right before committing the murder at the center of the book). I read this short novel in one sitting beside Crystal Lake one summer after sailing a regatta. I vividly remember that it was a hot day similar to that described in the book, but that I could not stop reading long enough to seek shade for myself. The connection made a strong impression on me. The photo below is Crystal Lake, another nice place to visit on a snowy day.
Which brings me to this evening. Good friends came over and joined us for dinner tonight, sharing stories of adventure we had not heard before. Today was also WORLD BOOK DAY, so over dessert we enjoyed a game of twenty-questions: Who is the only author to have published books in all ten categories of the Dewey Decimal system?
I thank Oliver Tearle over at Interesting Literature for the answer to this question and for 30 more interesting facts about books today. Check out his blog – it is always worth reading.
So as this WORLD BOOK DAY draws to a close, I ask YOU: What are YOU reading?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2015
Mark 1: 40-45
God of Grace, we are provided today with a seemingly simple narrative in our Scripture. Help us to hear it with some of its complexity and challenge, that this story may be your word to us. Amen.
* * * * * * *
Our scripture reading this morning addresses hurting and healing. It is embedded with controversy, though it may not appear so at first. Jesus’ healings were dangerous because they empowered people who had been left out of the community.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that when Jesus heals a leper there is more than a “medical miracle” happening. It is an example of how God restores the community and its members to wholeness. Listen for the word of God: Mark 1: 40-45.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
We are used to thinking of ourselves in the role of Christ, those who bring healing to the world. After all, we are called to be imitators of Christ. But what if we are the leper; the ones in need of healing? How do we do that?
How do we as hurt and broken people, pastors, leaders, congregations, seek the healing of Christ for ourselves and for one another?
When I used to act out this story of the leper’s healing with confirmation classes, every year the social miracle astound would astound us more than the medical one. To be made whole by being welcomed, included, by belonging – physically healed or not – would amaze us. To be embraced, not on any terms or conditions, but as we are.
I remember when my mother-in-law was undergoing radiation after her breast cancer surgery in 1993. She stopped going to church. Not because she stopped needing church. She needed it more than ever. But because as she was losing weight and losing her hair and developing a sallow complexion, she thought her presence would ‘bring down’ others; that her presence would make uncomfortable the people who came to church to be ‘lifted up’ and inspired. A colleague of mine tells a story about a friend who, after leaving the doctor’s office upon hearing his positive diagnosis for HIV, walked down Madison Avenue in a daze; the only word he could think of was “unclean.” And he comments, “It was bad enough to know he was ill, but quite another to feel the social ostracism he might suffer, not only from people who didn’t understand his illness, but also from his friend who he believed would now look down on him.”
Though my title is “Community,” this is not a ‘church membership’ sermon, or ‘go get those lost ones’ or a ‘notice who is missing and call them’ message. Of course, people who have been away for a while from the church need welcoming too. Rather this is a “let’s look at ourselves honestly” sermon and consider what it might mean for us as individuals and as a congregation to come before God for our own healing. No games – not trying to be the martyr that inspires others. No conditions – not self-righteously demanding that others change if they want to be truly part of the body of Christ.
What if being here meant opening ourselves to pain, to hearing about pain, to hearing about brokenness, mistakes, the ugly stuff we often want to be clean of. The stuff some of us, frankly, come to church to escape from.
Jesus didn’t just walk up to this man with leprosy and heal him. The man came before Jesus and asked him to make him clean. Jesus made him clean. Jesus restored him to community because he asked. What might we be able to be for one another? What might we be able to be and do for the world? What might we discover about God? If we asked Jesus to make us clean – to restore us to community?
Let’s be honest. Some of us are really angry, we may be angry about our job or things in our family and act out of that anger here in the church. Other times we’re angry at the church and let it be known. But when a member is angry, we don’t stop loving them. Someone’s being angry doesn’t make them any less a part of Christ’s body. And as the body of Christ we seek ways to listen for what is true in the midst of that anger and to support our friends as they learn to hold and use their anger in ways that don’t harm others or themselves.
Let’s be honest. Some of us here are really depressed. We may be depressed about our lives, about a relationship, about our future. We may be depressed because we are running through savings with health care bills – or lost our jobs and there’s very little on the horizon. Some of us have lost the sense that God loves us more deeply than we could ever imagine. And some of us desperately need to know and experience that love from the folks in this room. But too often our depression is dressed up with a smile, or a joke, or a platitude, because we fear telling others how terrible the pain really is. We even fear telling others – hey, I’ve been seeing a therapist about this. And we worry – can we be vulnerable? If people know that I’m depressed, will it be used against me? Will someone think I’m crazy or not fit to serve on the church council or to teach our children? But someone’s being depressed doesn’t make them any less a part of the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ we support one another when we feel desperate and alone, knowing that these feelings happen to most of us at some time. And sometimes depression can be so deeply devastating that we need one another to believe for us, to help us get help, and to believe in us. So we refuse to lose hope and continue to love even and especially when others cannot love themselves.
Let’s be honest. Some of us are in relationships that are broken beyond repair or straining under weight that they cannot bear. Some of us feel like our marriage, a friendship, the nurture of our children has become a burden that we can no longer carry – and that there’s no help and no hope. Others of us are addicted – to alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling – or we’ve really screwed things up, we’ve had an affair, we’ve deeply hurt another, we’ve committed a crime. And we are ashamed. We worry that church is the place where “families” go or “good people” go and that, because of what we’re going through, we no longer belong in church. But being in broken relationships does not mean you are no longer a part of the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ we reach out to one another…
Let’s be honest. Some of us are mourning. Some of us miss loved ones who have died so much we don’t know where to turn. Some of us have had miscarriages. Some of us feel that a part of ourselves has died and that we’ll never ever be able to love or hope again as we did. Some of us cry, long and hard. Some of us just feel hard inside and out. And so we come to church straining for some real sense of resurrection – some experience of God’s beloved care for us in life and beyond. Yet grieving and longing for a sense of resurrection that we may not yet experience does not make anyone less a part of the body of Christ. And as we as the body of Christ share our memories, our hopes, our experiences, we share in the communion meal together with the saints in heaven and we long together for the full presence of Christ.
Now I’m not suggesting that we have no distinctions between the private and the public. That beginning immediately we indiscriminately walk around baring our souls to anyone and everyone. No. I’m not advocating “exhibitionism,” I’m advocating healthy risk. I’m asking us to share honestly about ourselves– about not only the difficult things but the truly amazing things – because sharing both involves risk. Each of us must make decisions about what to share, when to share, and with whom – a small group? A prayer minister? A pastor? A friend in choir? A member of the bible study? A youth leader? Part of the role of a pastor is to support members of a congregation in taking as much risk as is appropriate so that we can build a trusting, caring community, capable of receiving and sharing God’s healing.
I invite you to join me in making our church a place of welcome, a place where we can ask to be healed; to be restored to community, that all who belong and all who are or feel exiled may experience and share God’s transforming love.
Just look who gathers at this table!
Following the sermon we sang Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table! by Tom Troeger, which includes the lines:
Look who gathers at Christ’s table! Hear the stories that they bring.
Some are weeping; some are laughing; some have songs they want to sing.
Others ask why they’re invited, burdened by the wrong they’ve done.
Christ insists they all are welcome. There is room for everyone.