Last year at Thanksgiving, though I didn’t get COVID (thank goodness) the pandemic nevertheless hit me like a ton of bricks. Thanksgiving has long been for me the singular annual holiday unsullied by materialism, commercialism, and culture wars. For me, Thanksgiving is all about relationship—both with God and with one another—and last year for good reason all our relations remained physically distant. Because we love one another, we stayed far apart. I can’t adequately express to you how much that wounded me. My own family gathered only on computer screens over the holiday for a cross-country Zoom, but in some ways that merely added to the sense of loss. Perhaps none of us recognized just how vitally important, and how fragilely precious, the immediate and tactile relationship with family is until it was denied us.
Of course, we aren’t out of the COVID woods yet. But then, we’re never really out of the woods, are we? There is always something lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce. Thanksgiving is about remembering to embrace a posture of gratitude even as the perpetual shadows threaten. And this year, we have so very much to be thankful for. First and foremost, and with a humility that makes me want to drop to my knees and put my face in the earth, I am thankful for COVID vaccines and the women and men who have worked tirelessly to develop them.
I am thankful for a Cathedral family whose faith has not wavered in these long months, who have continued to pray and praise, care for the weak and lonely, and support the ministry of this place in every way.
If you’ll indulge me, I am thankful for my health, and for the way this community cared for me last spring while I recuperated.
I am thankful for my family, both my side and Jill’s, who will be with us in person this Thanksgiving, to break bread on Thursday and watch the Razorbacks beat Mizzou on Friday. (Woo, pig!)
In a season not entirely unlike our own, through the Prophet Joel God rejoices with God’s people Israel that a hugely challenging time is subsiding, and days of celebration are on the horizon. God says:
“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication… The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil… You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”
Several years ago I came across a poem by Texan Dan Stone that speaks this truth exceptionally well, but in our own, more modern context. Each time I read it, I imagine an American prophet not unlike Joel himself, reminding his family of what’s important as light begins to scatter darkness, of what they should remember, and of the blessings bestowed upon them by a beneficent God. Here is Dan Stone’s poem:
Thanksgiving And Thankstaking
We meet here again to share what will become but memories of feelings too soon past that we hold close right now.
Our cause is simple, our purpose gentle, a gathering of good friends sharing a few moments, watching each other grow in body and soul.
With no gifts to wrap, no candles to blow out, no heroes to honor, no resolutions to make.
With no clothes to show off, no rings to finger, no documents to sign, no faces to mask.
With no candy to give, no flags to wave, no cigars to pass out, no thoughts shared without caring.
Just pausing here and now, enjoying the best of each other, relaxing for the moment, ignoring what may come. Recreating pieces of previous meetings, while merging what’s past with what is, as memories of feelings become feelings of memories.
Holding each other close, pushing away the darkness, keeping each other out of the cold.
Thankful for each and hopeful for all, a family of sorts, together.
Recognizing the plain simple joy of getting ourselves outside and getting outside ourselves.
Outside, to remind us that thanks inside may become imprisoned, lacking freedom to be exchanged as thanks given for thanks taken.
So we have returned to this place in our hearts, completing our tour of a year’s offerings, harvesting our thanks by being together.
Same time, same place, same friends, same things, yet all as different as these feelings.
There’s not much I’d rather do than mark these cycles with you.
So, please pass the turkey, and maybe a little of that dressing!!
Isaiah is having a bad time of it. His king—King Uzziah of Judah—has died. Political uncertainty at home couldn’t have come at a worse time. Israel, the kingdom just to the north, has formed an alliance with Syria, and sabers are rattling. Isaiah reacts by going to church—think of our similar reaction on September 11, 2001, when churches were filled. Isaiah goes to the temple to offer his prayers to God, but I wonder if the desperation of his tiny nation’s circumstances renders his petitions hollow. In other words, he likely doesn’t kneel in prayer expecting much of a response other than the echo of his own voice off the temple walls. When we’re honest, do any of us?
Simon is having a bad time of it. The line between subsistence and starvation for a Galilean fisherman is a fine one. Hasn’t it always been that way for small business owners? All night Simon and his crew have fished, hoping the cool night air would lure the fish out of their languor. No luck. In the early morning Simon rows back to the shore to clean distressingly empty nets. There will be nothing to sell this day, and little to eat. To a wife, a family, and—lest we forget—a live-in mother-in-law, he will come home empty-handed. The man Simon sees standing on the bank speaking to the crowd is an added distraction, and a worrisome one. Even in the countryside, the Romans don’t like large crowds. And now the man has walked to Simon’s own boat and stepped aboard so as to be better seen by the people. Simon sighs at his ill luck. His day is going from bad to worse.
The sound that erupts around Isaiah as his eyes are downcast in what he thinks is futile prayer is not his own voice. Of that he’s sure. He raises his eyes, and what he sees takes his breath away. There is a throne, and upon it sits One who is indescribable. All Isaiah can think to report is that the presence of this One seems to fill the whole temple, a space much larger than this church. Around the throne fly seraphs, higher than angels, who leave a trail of incensed smoke in their wake and thunder with praise for the One on the throne. This is God, and for a moment Isaiah is stricken dumb. What do you do when you pray, not really expecting a response, and God shows up?
Simon endures the sermon of the man who has invaded his boat, but then the preacher turns to Simon himself and says, “Let’s go fishing.”
Simon responds, “Master” (and we can imagine a bit of sarcasm in the way he uses the title) “we—who do this for a living—have fished all night and caught nothing.”
“No,” Jesus replies, “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon expects nothing but a wasted day, but with the watchful eye of the crowd upon him, what can he do? He trolls out to the center of the lake and lowers the nets. By the immediate creaking and listing of the boat, Simon knows something is wrong—no, not wrong, but different. The nets fill to bursting. They begin to tear under the strain of what they bear. In desperation, Simon calls to nearby boats for help. The answer to a prayer, he realizes, is sometimes more difficult to bear than the absence of one. And his eyes turn to Jesus with wonder and some fear.
What do we expect when we lift our prayers to God? What do we expect when we come here, to this place, on an autumn Sunday morning? Not a whole lot, I suspect: A liturgy that flows well. A friendly smile from a neighbor and a hand-sanitized handshake from the priest. A hot cup of delicious Cathedral coffee, maybe. And the sense of fulfilled duty that comes from saying the words of the prayers. But most days our expectations aren’t a lot different than those of Isaiah or Simon Peter.
Why is that? Is it part and parcel of the skepticism that comes from our contemporary age? Or, is the nadir of our expectation like that of Isaiah and Simon, whose lives have simply demonstrated to them that more often than not the world wins? Or, might we actually prefer that God stay in God’s heaven and leave us alone? Are we, deep down, a little worried about what might happen if God showed up?
In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may awake someday…[and] may draw us out to where we can never return.”[i]
When God shows up in answer to Simon’s prayer he says, “I call you out into the deep waters, and you will fish for people.”
When God shows up in answer to Isaiah’s prayer, he places a live coal on Isaiah’s lips and compels Isaiah to speak. “Here I am,” Isaiah says, “Send me!”
God shows up, and Isaiah and Simon see God. As Annie Dillard warns, God changes them both and compels them to speak and follow, and they can never return to what they were before.
Sitting in a musty gothic classroom in 1997 at the University of Chicago, a Lutheran friend named Jay Alanis looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Barkley, God is here, doing something with you.”
“No Jay,” I responded, “I’m too much a heathen for God.”
“But Barkley,” Jay pursued with a light behind his eyes that wasn’t his own, “It’s heathens God calls.”
It is prophets. It is fishermen. It is skeptics. It is the down-and-out. It is heathens. It is you and it is me whose prayers God answers, whom God visits and God calls. God shows up and fills our nets at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways. If we call upon God, we’d better be ready for our lives to be thrown off balance and the wings of seraphs to graze our faces. When God shows up, God doesn’t leave us where we are and like we are. God moves us from the shallows in life and into the deep water. God will put a live coal to our mouths, and we’ll find we have to speak.
That’s the hard part, isn’t it? That’s why we claim, with Isaiah and Simon, that we’re not worthy. What will it look like to speak a word of God—of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s son Jesus—not just here but out there? How will our lives change if God pays a visit? Where will we go? What will we give up? How will others look at us differently? In what ways will we be forced to cry out to our brothers and sisters because we admit—perhaps for the first time—that our nets are tearing and we can’t make it without their help? The answer to a prayer, we realize, sometimes may at first seem more difficult to bear than the absence of one.
More difficult and infinitely more blessed. Isaiah finds that the strength given him by God looses his tongue to speak words of wonder, love, and praise. Simon Peter experiences relationship and redemption in Jesus that transforms him from backward, ego-centered, ruffian into the greatest of apostles. In fits and starts, the heathen standing before you meets the saving grace of God that empowers me to tell you I need you and I love you, that I am a sinner but I want to be a saint.
I’ll sit down, and we’ll confess our faith, and we’ll pray. We’ll ask God to meet us here and in our lives. I hope we mean it. You may want to put on your crash helmet.
[i] Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 52-53.
Well, here we are gathered for the Holy Eucharist on All Hallows Eve—Halloween—the day before All Saints Day, when the ghouls and the ghosts romp. It is well-known that I love all things Celtic, and the Celts were preoccupied by this day, when the veil became especially thin and things spooky could pass over from the other side to our world. I was tempted to suspend the lectionary and preach on Halloween, but then I worried that my esteemed predecessors in this pulpit might haunt me for it, so I’ve decided instead merely to open this sermon with a few corny Halloween jokes:
Why don’t mummies have friends? Because they’re too wrapped up in themselves.
Why did the vampire read the newspaper? He heard it had great circulation.
Why did the headless horseman go to business school? He wanted to get ahead in life.
Why do skeletons have low self-esteem? They have no body to love.
There are some real stories from Christ Church Cathedral lore that are worthy of Halloween. The first is, of course, of the body supposedly buried somewhere on our campus. Only Ardell and Canon Logan knew the who, what, and where, and they’re both gone now, so the mystery endures. The second story is of Jean Richardson, beloved wife of beloved Dean and later Bishop Milton Richardson, who upon her very first worship service at the Cathedral, walked up the chancel steps toward the altar, glanced at the stained-glass window above the east choir stalls, and gasped, “What kind of church is this?!?” The window she spied murderously declared—and declares, “Hang all the law and the prophets!” With images of creepy gallows, Mrs. Richardson must have thought she’d walked into a Halloween horror film. Luckily, someone quickly pointed out to her the top half of the window, usually obscured in shadow, which provides the first portion of the quoted bible verse: “On these two commandments…hang all the law and the prophets.”
That’s a relief! Our window quotes Matthew’s version of today’s Gospel passage from Mark, in which a genuinely-searching scribe approaches Jesus and asks which is the most important of all God’s commandments. Jesus answers, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Or, as Matthew says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, our Lord is telling us unequivocally that nothing in all the utterances of God takes precedence over these. They are the key by which everything else is to be interpreted. All else in scripture hangs on what Jesus says today. The scribe agrees, and so Jesus says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
That’s a most interesting coda, from the mouth of Jesus. It is not that following these two commandments is some dogged duty; it isn’t even that fidelity to them earns one’s way into some ethereal heaven. The kingdom of God in Mark’s Gospel doesn’t refer to heaven; it means living in communion with the divine: connecting to God in the here-and-now in ways that grant vitality and light, and then living our lives in light of that reality. What Jesus says to the scribe, and what Jesus means for each and every one of us, is that if we desire to be near the kingdom of God—if we want to encounter the grace, power, and presence of the divine—we must love God with our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength; and we must love our neighbor not just a little bit, not occasionally, and not with some small part of us, but as we love our very selves. When we do these things—when we orient our lives in these ways, toward God and neighbor—then we will have entered into the orientation of Godself, like stepping into and floating upon the current of a river. We will rest our lives upon the kingdom, and that makes all the difference.
I’m glad I didn’t disregard the lectionary today, because this turns out to be one of those weeks when the Gospel and Old Testament texts truly speak to and through one another. We might ask, “What does it look like to love God and one’s neighbor?” And Holy Scripture presents us with the story of Naomi and Ruth.
Naomi travels with her husband and two sons from her home to the country of Moab to escape a famine. There, the men in her family all die. Shellshocked and presumptively alone, Naomi makes plans to return to her home, and she bids farewell to her widowed daughters-in-law. The younger women are Moabites. Despite the deaths of their husbands (Naomi’s sons), they have kith and kin in Moab. If they will look out for themselves and tend to their lives, they will be o.k. And yet, as Naomi departs, Ruth takes hold of Naomi and offers words that, through the eons, still rend the heart and buoy the soul. Ruth says to Naomi:
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die.”
Ruth recognizes that love for God and neighbor is the recognition that the three—God, neighbor, self—are in the end not separate, but the same. Loving God with heart, soul mind, and strength is loving the neighbor. If one does not love one’s neighbor, one does not love God. Loving oneself is loving the neighbor. If one does not love one’s neighbor, then one fails grant the self the joy of such love.
And loving neighbor is not academic or theoretical. It is as it is for Ruth. It is cleaving to the one in need in acknowledgement that we both extend from God and from God’s love. When the neighbor despairs, we despair. When the neighbor rejoices, we rejoice.
There have been times in each of our lives when we desperately needed to hear someone utter Ruth’s words in solidarity with us: “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.” To hear such words means that we are not alone; that we have fellow travelers on this journey with us; who will carry the load alongside us; who will not walk away. To hear such words means we have neighbors. To speak them means we are blessedly near to the kingdom of God.
Ruth is a Moabite. In the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, Moabites are not included as neighbors. The Hebrew scriptures initially ostracize Moabites. Moabites are banned from the presence of God forever. They are anathema.[i] But then the people of God, through iconic Naomi, actually meet a Moabite and discover that Ruth is not only their neighbor, but their salvation. By the Middle Ages, the rabbis had taken Ruth’s speech and turned it into a catechism explaining what it meant to be a good Jew. In other words, against all odds the Moabite became the model for what it looks like to be a child of God. Miracle of miracles. That kind of transformation in understanding, that kind of recognition of our need for one another across all divides, is only possible when we approach Jesus as the scribe and humbly ask the Lord, “As we walk through this world, what is the most important thing of all?” We must love the lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength. We must love God with everything, and that means we must love our neighbor as ourselves. And then, the kingdom of God will be here.
From the sixth through the eighth grade, I was second chair trombone in the Paragould Junior High School band, and I was all-in. I practiced every night. At first, I practiced in the dining room. After the first night, I was asked to move to the study…and close the door. By the second week, I had been banished to my parents’ bedroom at the very back of the house. Apparently, not everyone embraces the beauty of second trombone. More about that to come (I promise).
Did you know that there are three creation stories in the Old Testament? Many Christians are aware of the first two. They appear in the first and second chapters of Genesis. EfM graduates and other Episcopalians who regularly study the bible are aware that these are two separate accounts, from two different and unrelated strands of the Jewish tradition. The first is a hymn (not a science text, by the way), which tells of God’s wondrous creation in a series of stanzas that chart the creation by days. At the end of each stanza, as a kind of refrain, the Genesis 1 hymns says, “And God saw that it was good.” The Genesis 1 creation story is grand, bombastic, and cosmic in scope, like a Wagner opera.
The second creation story, in Genesis 2, is much more localized and down to earth. It is in this second story that we find the Garden of Eden. It is in this second story that God appears as an anthropomorphized character, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.
There is one shared theme for both of these stories: At the culmination of creation, whether grand or intimate, God creates humanity. Genesis 1 says that, on the final, ultimate day of creation, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And God grants humankind dominion over all the rest of creation. In Genesis 2, God creates Adam and Eve and as the inhabitants of Paradise. In both accounts, the creation story turns out to be a story about, and for, people. We are the denouement of God’s creative acts, the center of things, those for whom all the rest is made. To return to where I began today, in the Genesis creation stories we are first chair violin in the orchestra, or if you prefer, lead guitar in the world’s rock band.
It is rare that even biblically-literate Christians are aware of the Old Testament’s third creation story, but it is there, and it may even be more ancient that the stories in Genesis. It is found in Job 38-41, and we read its beginning verses today. To catch us up to speed, Job has been inflicted with every manner of distress and disease. His life has fallen completely apart; his friends claim that he must be at fault (though he knows differently); and he has demanded that God appear and answer for his malady. In Job 38, God obliges.
In the ensuing chapters, God combines the cosmic scope of Genesis 1 with the intimacy of Genesis 2, as God recounts the creation for Job via a series of pointed questions. Today we heard the cosmic part: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, “Here we are”?
A few verses later, God will extol all of God’s beautiful, majestic, tender, and awkward creatures. God mentions the lion, deer, the hawk, the horse, monsters of the deep, and even the ridiculous-looking and acting ostrich as each invaluable and precious. As God speaks, Job undoubtedly awaits the culmination of God’s peroration, a mention of humanity—Job himself—as the apex and center of creation. But the mention never comes. God finishes speaking with no final, culminating day of creation; no Garden of Eden; no mention of humanity at all.
The implication is clear, and Job gets it. After God has finished speaking, Job replies, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I repent in dust and ashes.”[i] Whether or not we grasp the implication, and whether or not we can accept it, is the question.
We have each and all spent a lifetime, and before us humanity has spent eons, both consciously and unconsciously embracing the Genesis creation stories. We believe that we—humanity as a whole and each of us individually—is at the center of things. We believe that we are the apex of creation, that we are the main characters in the story, that our joys and accomplishments deserve accolades and that our pains and sorrows deserve the sympathy of the world. Collectively, this self-regard imperils the natural and social nexus of our world. Individually, it often strains our relationships to the breaking point and leads to very many of our disappointments in life.
This is certainly the understanding of James and John, the “sons of thunder,” in today’s Gospel. They believe that they are at the center of things and that they deserve to be at the very center of the story Jesus is writing. Their only dispute is which of the two of them is the greatest, which one will play lead guitar in the “Jesus saves the world” grand tour. Everyone and everything else is peripheral.
But the creation story in Job tells us that none of this is true. The creation story in Job tells us that we are not at the center of things. God loves us, yes. In God’s eyes we are incredibly precious. We matter. But not more than the deer, or the hawk, or the ostrich, or the earth. We are not first chair violin, virtuosos for whom all else stops when we begin to play. Perhaps we are, instead, second chair trombone.
Second chair trombone matters. If it were removed from the Arkansas fight song, you’d notice its lack. It is a complementary component of the whole, part of a symphony of music that lifts and carries God’s song forward. In a way, second trombone is a much harder part to play. Rather than setting the pace and driving the melody, the second trombone must recede at times, only to bellow forth at just the right moment in support of the whole song. Second trombone must be especially attentive to the other instruments, so as not to overpower or underperform. And, second trombone must reconcile with the fact that, alone, its part makes no sense. Second trombone is not in the center. It is not the most valuable, but it is essential.
This recognition is the cup from which Jesus asks James and John to drink today. It is hard elixir, the toughest medicine to swallow. But drink it, they ultimately will. They will give up the presumption of their elevated self-importance and becomes apostles of the Gospel, serving and sacrificing for it, and speaking its Word of Truth rather than getting in its way.
Will we? Can we? Can we, with Job, acknowledge that we have always assumed a human-centric and self-centered world, when in fact we are not the be all and end all? Can we give up the adolescent dream of playing lead guitar and instead play second trombone? In this stewardship season, as we are each called to support the ministry of this place with our time, our talent, and (now especially) our treasure, can we recast Genesis 1’s badly-translated “human dominion of the earth” as, instead, “human stewardship,” giving up the starring roles for lives of service to God, whose creation is so wonderful as to be beyond our understanding? God does love us, just as God love all of God’s creation. If we can embody a little less Genesis and a little more Job, then the dissonance of our lives will become harmony, and we will play our part in the symphony of God’s song.
I am a lover of myths, both ancient and new. As anyone who has attended many of my classes knows, and as those about to participate in the Anglican Way series will learn, myths are not false stories, but rather stories that express truths so deep that normal declarative or didactic speech simply cannot convey them. J.R.R. Tolkien, the brilliant author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings wove myths as profound as any ever crafted. A devout Christian, Tolkien expresses a divinely-permeated world, Middle Earth, that includes various categories of sentient creatures such as elves and human beings. In some ways, Tolkien’s elves are greater than people. They are immortal, and they have strength that humans do not share. But in other ways, the elves are less than women and men. Their emotional lives are less complex. They are not as fully-formed. And most importantly, they are receding. By the end of Tolkien’s grand tale, the elves will leave Middle Earth, and the stewardship of the world is left to people. The world is theirs to do with as they will, for good or ill.
I’m always reminded of myth generally and Lord of the Rings specifically when I read the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews. Like the best myths, there is mystery surrounding the Letter to the Hebrews. For starters, it’s not a letter at all. It’s something more like, but not quite like, a sermon. Second, no one knows who wrote it. Over the millennia various scholars have claimed authorship for various saints, but all that is pure conjecture. The letter (or whatever it is) begins like the best myths: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…” It is as if Hebrews emerged from the mists, full of power and truth.
And, Hebrews talks a lot about angels and humans in a manner that is reminiscent of those elves and people in Tolkien. As Tolkien clearly loves those elves, Hebrews is preoccupied with angels. The author is clearly fascinated by them. Angels are, he says, creatures close to God and of great power. But angels are also simple creatures. They having nothing at all to with redemption, either the need for it or the receipt of it. And so, they are in one way more than human but, in another, less. Hebrews says, of human beings—of us, “You [God] have made them only a little lower than the angels [and] you have crowned them [human beings] with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.”
Every time I read it, that last line stops me in my tracks. The mysterious author goes on to add, “In subjecting all things to [human beings], God left nothing [in creation] outside their control.” That is awesome and profound. It should make us pause, and shudder at least a little bit. Not to the angels, those heavenly creatures of power and glory, but to us, with our creativity, beauty, hope, and joy—but also with our brokenness, pettiness, destructiveness, and sometimes myopic vision—God has left the stewardship of God’s world.
This reminds me of the story Toni Morrison shared when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993[i] It is another profoundly true myth. Here it is:
“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise… [She] lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
One day the [blind] woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. ‘Is the bird I am holding living or dead?’
Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive. The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’
Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”
Do we understand this myth, this story? Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted God’s whole world. Whether the world lives or dies depends entirely upon how we hold it. There are those who would encourage us to believe the world is there for our use and amusement, that it is in our right to smother it for a laugh, or a dollar, or in order to fulfill our own ego needs. Those people are wrong. It is not in our right, but it is in our power. It is equally in our power—and it is our responsibility—to help the world and its people flourish, fly, and sing, to release the world from the potentially deadly grip in which we hold it.
And so, we ask: What will make the difference? What will determine whether we smother the world or help it to flourish and fly? I believe with all my soul, as the author of Hebrews also believes and contends, that the answer is the Church, and increasingly so.
Daily, the world is more and more atomized. Daily, the barometer of what is acceptable and true is only what I believe benefits me or my tribe. Not so, says Hebrews. You see, the Church exists as a witness to the world of a different vision. We here, who Hebrews says are only just below the angels, are being redeemed and sanctified through Jesus, who is, as we read today, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” In Jesus, God becomes one of us so that, through Jesus, we might understand how to steward God’s world. In the Church, as nowhere else in the world, we find ourselves empowered to release God’s world to flourish. Later in Hebrews the author pointedly says that the Church exists to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”[ii] Think about that: Where else in the whole world do we learn that this is the way to live? How is the world to breathe and fly if we don’t learn it? That is why the Church matters now more than ever. The scholar and preacher Fred Craddock calls it “tenacious faithfulness.”[iii]
We have entered into the stewardship season at Christ Church. We are in the midst of our Every Member Canvass. 2022 promises to be the Cathedral’s most financially challenging year in decades, due to revenue lost to the pandemic. The world is in our hands, and before that, the Cathedral is in our hands. In order to be tenaciously faithful in 2022—in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds—we must support the ministry of this place, and that includes financial support, ideally with a pledge. Your vestry and I have all made our pledges for the coming year. I hope you will join us.
Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted the stewardship of God’s world. We are empowered by the Jesus who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” At this moment, we are blind to what will ultimately be, but we know this with certainty: the future of the world, and of this place, is in our hands. It is in our hands.
The Wednesday Men’s Bible Study has been reading the book of Proverbs this fall. It is a fascinating book in numerous ways. Among them, Proverbs sets up a dichotomy between a “bad woman,” who embodies vice and a “good woman” who is described by a man to his son in the passage we heard read today. While the lector was reading it, I tried to peek through the latticework of the pulpit to see the reactions on women’s faces.
Chapter 31 is the culmination of Proverbs. The wife it describes can be read as the anthropomorphized embodiment of wisdom or as the actual, literal spouse a wise man should seek. There is much in the description of this wife that can alternately affirm or madden, depending upon one’s point of view.
On the one hand, Proverbs’ ideal wife supports her husband. Proverbs says, “She does [her husband] good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”
This ideal woman is also a consummate homemaker. Proverbs adds, “She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household…She looks well to the ways of her household…her children rise up and call her happy.”
On the other hand, Proverbs acknowledges the ideal woman as a person of business and commerce. The writer says, “She considers a field and buys it…She perceives that her merchandise is profitable…She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.”
Beyond her vocation, whatever it may be, Proverbs says that, for the ideal woman, “Strength and dignity are her clothing…She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”
In all, Proverbs offers a comprehensive depiction of a womanly ideal. It praises women highly and in many varied ways. And yet, there’s something about this last chapter of Proverbs that irritates. Similarly, I daresay that, for some, hearing me talk about it has been irritating. The source of that dual irritation is this: Whether or not Proverbs’ description of the ideal woman is well-rounded; whether or not it’s true; it is a description written from a man’s perspective. Remember, both the speaker and the hearer in Proverbs are men. It is irritating, because a man has dictated the ideal of, and for, a woman. A man has defined what a woman should be.
Women in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is in the news. I will leave any comment on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to those far more knowledgeable than me. That is for the policymakers and politicians, not the preacher. But I daresay we all agree that the reversion of Afghanistan to Taliban rule and the resulting plight of Afghan women is a horrifying tragedy. Life for women under the Taliban is the radical extent of men defining what women can and cannot be, of circumscribing women’s existence by a man’s imagined ideal.
The extreme example can illuminate, but it can also obscure all the more subtle ways that men continue to define women, that men create boxes of all kinds into which they attempt to neatly categorize and control women. One need not look halfway across the world to see such attempts.
It is a hallmark of postmodernity that we each create our own story, that rather than a metanarrative into which we are trapped, we can write our own script. This realization is, with fits and starts, liberating people of all categories, in part, by blowing up the categories. Women, perhaps most of all, are discarding the ideals men have for eons set for them and instead determining their own. Despite vestigial attempts by men to define women, women are writing their own stories. This is a good and Gospel thing.
Of course, for Christians of any kind, the writing of the story never merely asks and answers, “Who do I want to be?” but rather “Who does the God of grace and love want me to be?” Blessedly for that, the very book of Proverbs with which we began offers a different, and contrasting, image of womanhood. It is so radically different that some scholars over the centuries have mused whether it might have been written by a woman. It is found way back in chapter eight, where wisdom is once again personified as a woman, but here, unbound by men’s preconceptions, she is free. Halfway through that chapter, Lady Wisdom begins to speak in the first person, owning her own ideal. Lady Wisdom says:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth— when God had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When God established the heavens, I was there, when God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, when God established the fountains of the deep, when God assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when God marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
Lady Wisdom here is so exalted that some theologians even equate her with the Holy Spirt, broadening our previously-limited conception of God to include the feminine. Lady Wisdom is sheer freedom. She is power. She is co-creator. She is, in God’s eyes and in her own, sheer delight. And she is woman.
This is an expansive ideal, an unlimited ideal, an ideal that finds it source not in man’s opinion but in God’s enlivening and overflowing love. When I read it, as a man, it startles me; it admittedly discomfits me; it amazes me what God has in store for women. And it also strikes me as just right. I happen to be married to a woman smarter and better than I am, and I am blessed with a daughter who is brilliant, good, and fierce. My daughter is also a dancer, and when she dances, it is like seeing wisdom in motion. I am reminded daily (and sometimes pointedly by them!) that no one—and especially no man—is to tell them who they are, what they can do, or who they will be.
Of course, elsewhere Holy Scripture puts actual human form on Lady Wisdom, when Eve discerns knowledge of good and evil while Adam dithers, when Esther saves her people from blindly bloodthirsty men, when Mary Magdalene proclaims the Resurrection to those eleven cowering male disciples.
So it is today. So long as there are men and a broken world, I suppose men will seek to define and control women. But just as there is no controlling God’s Holy Spirit, there is no controlling those who stand beside God as God’s master workers, who are daily God’s delight. I, for one, would not begin to try.
I love satellite photos of the earth. I love to see them in daylight and dark, and to attempt to identify points on the earth that I recognize and have visited. It’s not easy, because from orbit the land masses flow together. Mountains and river are discernible, but what is not present in satellite photos—unlike on the maps we draw—are lines.
The world map is covered and crisscrossed with lines, arbitrarily dividing that which, from a bird’s-eye point of view, is one whole. Sometimes the line-drawing on the map is the result of conquest, of one people encroaching upon and overwhelming the living space of another. Other times, as in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, line-drawing is the result of a few men behind closed doors creating new nation states and making often arbitrary but always seismically life-altering decisions for millions of people. The blithe arrogance of those decisions made in 1919 at Versailles is mind-blowing, and the world is still reeling with the consequences today, both in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.
The map is not the only place in which we draw lines. We also draw lines in the proverbial sand, akin to the legendary line William Travis drew at the Alamo. Lines in the sand are artificial, fabricated “Rubicons,” that declare “No retreat, no surrender.” Perhaps there are rare, actual battles in which such lines are unavoidable, but most often in life such lines create unnecessary division that is sometimes impossible to repair.
Irish author Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes, “We are a race that has long sought to break things up, to divide, to separate, to draw lines between things that otherwise have remained as one.” Dochartaigh was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, and she knows of what she speaks. Dochartaigh was raised in the midst of “the Troubles,” with one Catholic parent and one Protestant parent, and her formative years were marked by national, religious, ideological, and family division. She carries in her body and in her psyche the wounds and scars of all those lines.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s writing is a cautionary tale for our own lives, in our own day. In our society, the lines that divide are drawn in increasingly bold strokes. Our tone is increasingly unnuanced, binary, strident, and mutually incriminating. Our tribal identifiers are wielded as barriers to distinguish “us” from “them.” In her Celtic way, Dochartaigh muses an antidote: “I think so much in these troubled days, about what it might mean to live as the birds do, as the moths and butterflies, as we once did ourselves maybe: free from border and barrier—in a place where the veil is so thin that we are reminded what it means to really be here—in this glorious world.”
Dochartaigh’s words read almost like a Gospel saying of Jesus, and Jesus would surely agree with her sentiment. Living in God’s “glorious world” is a gift, and we are called to be stewards of the earth and our relationships with one another. From God’s vantage point, there are no lines. The human impulse immediately to circumscribe what is ours and of us—drawing all those lines—may be the sin from which we need the most redemption.
As witnesses to the world, what might it look like for us to “live as the birds do,” to cross over the lines of suspicion and resentment that seem so indelible in our world but that are, in fact, illusions? What would it mean for us to step through—boldly and in faith—the thresholds that claim to separate us, and through our movement declare God’s truth that we are one people, one world, that flows forth from the One God who creates in love? If we have the courage to do so, then, with God’s help, the lines will begin to blur, and we will begin to see the world as God does: as one blessed creation.
It’s Rally Day, and whether you are here in person or joining worship on livestream nearby or from afar, this is the day we hope you will, well, rally and renew your engagement with the life and ministry of the Cathedral. There is a particular kind of pressure on the preacher for Rally Day. The preacher wants to wake up the congregation from its drowsy summer slumber. The preacher wants to provide a spiritual jolt. So here goes…
Last week the Family Thompson finally watched every single movie or television show offered on Netflix, HBOMax, and Amazon Prime. (That’s only a slight exaggeration.) So, we did the only thing a family can do in this lingering pandemic: We subscribed to Hulu. Suddenly, a whole new list of cinematic offerings is before us. And one of the first things to pop up on the Hulu feed was a new documentary on the history of nudity in film, entitled “Skin.” (Ah! Suddenly the summer somnolence is fading. Did Dean Thompson just mention nudity from the pulpit?!? Yes, I think he did.)
To be clear (and for the recording), I have not watched the documentary “Skin.” But I did read the description, and it mentions Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated feature film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Then I looked at the readings for today and realized that the Old Testament reading is from the Song of Songs, the Bible’s very own erotic love poem. So, maybe an X-rated sermon is just the right thing to jolt us on Rally Day.
But then it occurred to me that I hope to remain dean of the Cathedral for quite some time yet. Plus, the Bishop is on sabbatical, and I’d hate for him to be disturbed with all those calls he’d suddenly receive from Cathedral parishioners. I’ll aim for a PG-13 rating.
Song of Songs really is, on a primary level, a sensuous love poem. It is a about a young man and a young woman brimming with passion for one another. Its language is, in places, ridiculously overblown. Today, for instance, the young woman says this: “Look, my beloved comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.” If my college-age son wrote like that in a creative writing class, the professor would roll her eyes.
Even so, there is something authentic and deeply earnest about the language in Song of Songs, and part of that is its terrible turns of phrase. These young lovers really do yearn for each other. Their love is really real, and, for all that, it captivates us today as it has captivated people for eons.
But Song of Songs also turns dark. In chapter five, beyond today’s reading, the young woman goes out into the city at night to find her lover. And the city turns out to be dangerous place. She gets lost. Plaintively, she says, “I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. Making their rounds in the city, the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the wall.”
What’s happening here needs no translation. The young woman is abused in every way by those who are supposed to be her protectors. She is left wounded and naked.
This all happens in the middle of the book, which makes curious a line from the first chapter, which we read today. In chapter 1, one lover says to the other (in words we recall having heard read at weddings), “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
Do you see what happens here? Do you see why it is curious? At the very outset of the love poem, the lovers declare that all storm clouds have parted, that they have emerged from all trial, and that their world and lives together are now joyous and free. But we know, as the reader, that this is not actually the case. The world continues to be dark, dangerous, and injurious. Either the lovers are completely naïve, or something else is going on here.
There are hints throughout the poem, and especially at its end, that the couple aren’t naïve and never were. But if they aren’t naïve, how can they speak of light and joy at the outset of the poem, when the world around them is actually so ominous and dark?
It’s time for me to share with you a theological term. (This is why I jolted you awake a few minutes ago, so you’d be alert for this part!) The word is prolepsis. Prolepsis means to live now as if some future event has already occurred. To live now as if living in the future.
At first blush, prolepsis can seem like escapism, but it is actually a seminal concept in the biblical witness. Prolepsis seasons Genesis all the way to Revelation. The Gospels are proleptic. So is Paul.
Throughout scripture, those who are burdened, those who face trial, those lost in darkness are called to live as though they are, right now, bathed in light. Part of this expresses a holy defiance, a declaration that darkness cannot win, or, as John puts it, there is a light that darkness cannot overcome. But there is more to it than that. It also turns out, again and again, that something about living proleptically—something about living as if the winter is already gone even when it is still snowing—births the reality we are waiting for.
Prolepsis is, in other words, how we conceive, and gestate, and birth hope. And hope empowers us to act. And our actions light candles in the darkness, until, eventually, the shadows flee before the light. In other words, we are called to live proleptically because doing so births into being the future we so desire.
Living proleptically gives the young couple in the Song of Songs fortitude to endure and courage to act. It saves them. It can save us, too. Despite the one-hundred-degree heat outside, the winter of our world is not over. Pandemic, global upheaval, and civil strife all cast a dark shadow on these days. But we are children of the living God, and our God calls us to live today in light of God’s promised tomorrow.
How do we do that? Well, maybe it’s time to speak and write in the gushing ebullience of young lovers. It’s definitely time to get vaccinated and encourage everyone we love to do so as well. It’s time to recognize that we care for one another; and we care for justice; and we care for our sisters and brothers we find strange and with whom we may vehemently disagree.
We are called to live as though we will be fully reconciled in every way we are estranged, and to act in this world in favor of those reconciliations even when—or especially when—the world shakes its head at what looks like our naivete.
Because when we do this, we will first notice that in our own lives the light begins to peek through the darkness. We’ll then notice that, beyond our own experience, the world around us begins to brighten. Until finally, the future we have chosen to live becomes the real and actual present. Our hopes are realized! And God says to us, “Arise, my loves, my fair ones, for the winter is past. The flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing has come.” Now there’s something for which we can rally.
Today we read the inauguration of David’s young son Solomon as King of Israel, and we read of Solomon’s incredible request of God: not for riches, or revenge against his enemies, or for expanded power, but for “an understanding mind to govern [the] people, able to discern between good and evil.” Solomon’s request pleases God, and God responds, “Indeed, I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”
And thus begins the illustrious career of wise King Solomon, known the world over. Immediately after today’s reading, 1 Kings shares the famous story of two women who come to the king, both claiming to be the mother the same child. In his sagacity, King Solomon commands that the child be cut in two, granting each mother one half a baby. Of course, the real mother recoils at this notion and relinquishes her rights to save the baby’s life, and thus wise Solomon discovers the true maternal identity and returns the baby to its home.[i]
Solomon’s discerning wisdom was so great that tradition ascribed to him authorship of the biblical books of the Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Never mind that Solomon almost certainly didn’t write any of those books. It is a testament to his legendary wisdom that, when an author is needed for the Wisdom corpus in our canon of scripture, Solomon gets the nod.
There’s only one problem with all of this: the real Solomon was not wise. He was a terrible, promiscuous, vain, and tyrannical ruler. Solomon was so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that after building the great Temple to God in Jerusalem—and committing himself to follow God in the mold of his father David—Solomon immediately abandoned the God of Israel and veered toward both abject hedonism and rank idolatry. He mocked the God with whom he’d made covenant and worshiped false gods.
Solomon also conscripted his own citizenry into forced labor for his many building projects, creating a virtually enslaved populace. In a sparsely-populated country, 1 Kings tells us that “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in Lebanon and two months at home.”[ii]
And, Solomon denuded the populace with crushing taxes they could not pay.
In the end, Scripture condemns Solomon with the words it reserves for the worst of rulers. 1 Kings eventually says that “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”[iii]
Once we know all of this about Solomon, then even that legendary story of his wisdom—the one about the two mothers claiming the same child—reads differently. Rather than addressing them as a sage, we can see Solomon as a capricious tyrant toying with the distraught emotions of a mother, desperate to get her baby back. There is horror in that story, when Solomon blithely commands that the little child be cut in two.
Though 1 Kings tries mightily to maintain the notion of Solomon’s wisdom alongside his foolishness, the proof is in what happened immediately after Solomon died. Without his domineering personality to maintain fear and order, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel immediately revolted against Solomon’s son, and the nation of Israel was split forever.[iv] With that knowledge, we go back and re-read with irony God’s promise to the young Solomon. God had told Solomon, “No one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” No kidding. Solomon was truly one-of-a-kind. The kingdom that David had labored so long to create was ripped asunder by the folly of the king legend credits with wisdom.
For anyone interested in either scripture or history, the story of Solomon is endlessly fascinating, but, as this is a sermon rather than a lecture, the question remains, is it also more than that? Beyond what it tells us about the distant past, does it mean anything for our own present and future?
I am a fan of the historian Barbara Tuchman, and her best book is The March of Folly. The book charts several historical events that move from promise to folly: the Protestant Reformation, the British loss in the American Revolutionary War, and the American morass in Vietnam. Tuchman shows in clear relief the markers along the way of each, where the actors could have and should have seen the looming disaster ahead. But those actors had such myopic vision, were so self-indulgent, and were so obsessed with the immediate that they failed to note the bigger picture and marched tragically into doom.
I have often thought that Barbara Tuchman could have added a chapter about King Solomon to her celebrated book. Solomon started with a kingdom that had, under David’s canny leadership, positioned itself as mighty in its own right and as a power broker between larger kingdoms. Solomon must have shown enormous early promise, or else the chronicle of his God-given wisdom never would have emerged. And yet, little by little, decision by decision, he strayed from discerning wisdom. He squandered God’s gift. He listened to untrustworthy voices that whispered not the truth or the good for the kingdom, but selfish motive and what Solomon wanted to hear. And in his comfort, his harem, his indulgences, his brutal exercise of power, Solomon paid attention only to what was immediately in front of him and ignored the long-term consequences of his actions. The result was folly, the destruction of all that had been entrusted to Solomon and all that he held dear.
Beyond a doubt, Solomon’s story, like Tuchman’s book, has much to say to our age and our society beyond historical note. There was a time, I believe, when we were wise, wisdom being defined, at least in large part, as the willingness to compromise for the common good, to seek truth and knowledge without subterfuge, and to embody the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know, all to make the world in which we live —and which we all share—a marginally better place. Our wisdom was surely flawed, but it was something.
Today, too often, we fail in all these measures of wisdom. Compromise for the common good has been replaced by a self-righteous, rigid stridency on all sides, masquerading as virtue. Humility in the face of our ignorance has been replaced by the folly that we are all experts because we have read a few unsourced lines of text on the internet. Worst of all, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced by some with propaganda disguised as fact that seeks to obfuscate and confuse vulnerable people.
In all of this, we think we are wise, but we are too clever by half, and the results are tearing apart our societal bonds. I’m talking about all of us. I’m talking about me.
Collectively, our society is squandering God’s gift and shedding wisdom for folly. And now, finally, the result is death. Every day, because of willful folly in the form of the politicization of the coronavirus and misinformation willfully disseminated about COVID vaccines, people are dying. A pandemic that could have been in its last days is instead, due to overwhelmed hospitals, imperiling even people who need medical care unrelated to COVID, all because we have lacked wisdom.
The question before us is, then, how do we reclaim wisdom? Of us, what does wisdom require? The key is found (as it is always found) in the Gospel. Today, Jesus speaks to a confused crowd who misunderstand, and yet Jesus persists in proclaiming that which gives light and life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not, in his frustration, castigate or denigrate the crowd. He won’t play that game and devolve into folly. He simply speaks, again and again and again, the truth in love. Always the truth. Always in love. He moves people from where they are to a new place. His message is the bread of life.
No matter what the state of affairs today, I believe in the persuasive, transformative, redemptive, wisdom of love. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry wisely reminds us that “Love is not a sentiment. Love is a commitment to the common good.”[v] I believe when the disciples of love—that’s us—act and speak in ways that uplift our neighbors and our community rather than indulge the self, then wisdom will be reclaimed. If ever there were such a moment for such a Gospel it is right now. The biblical work “repentance” means “to follow another path.” It also means “to rise above our own minds,” which includes the mutually-destructive thought processes to which we are prone.[vi] In our relationships, in our politics, in our public health, we can arrest the march of folly and walk instead in the way of God’s wisdom. We—us, here—can become the very bread of life to a starving, ailing world. To be that food, to offer light and life, is our sacred calling in these days. When we hear misinformation touted as fact; when we hear apprehension or fear of vaccines; when we encounter those, from any quarter, who seek to tear down and divide, let us be wise, and speak the truth in love. We are the Body of Christ. We are the bread of life.
One day a man was hiking in the mountains when he came upon an exceedingly hungry grizzly bear. The bear raised up on its hind legs, let out a roar, and prepared to charge. Panicked, the hiker started to run, but he soon realized he’d never outrun the bear. Now, the hiker was, at best, a Christmas and Easter Episcopalian, so he didn’t rightly recall all those good, rich prayers from the Prayer Book, but he did drop to his knees and in his desperation pray, “Dear God, please make this bear a good Christian bear!” To the hiker’s surprise, in an instant the bear stopped charging, dropped to its own knees, reverently folded its paws, and began to pray. Just as the hiker was about to walk on in relief, however, he heard the bear say, “Thank you, Lord, for this meal I’m about to receive…”
It is safe to say that we live in a hunger-obsessed world, and the Gospel lessons last week, this week, and for the next several weeks are all about hunger. Last week, we read the only miracle story (other than the Resurrection itself) that appears in all four Gospels: the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Each Gospel tells the story differently, but they all agree on one thing: A huge crowd has followed Jesus and is hungry, and the disciples are a bit freaked out at the prospect of having to feed them all. What follows may be an example of Harry Potter-like wizardry on Jesus’ part, or it may be an example of miraculous generosity and change of heart on the part of people in the crowd who are hoarding their picnics. But either way, the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel and the extended speech Jesus gives following it—and which begins today—are a theological treatise on hunger.
The University of Michigan Health Science Center describes three aspects of hunger.[i] See if these resonate with you. The first aspect, hunger itself, is described as the “normal sensation that makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs.” Makes sense. The second aspect is “fullness,” which is the “feeling of being satisfied. Your stomach tells your brain that it is full. Normally, this feeling causes you to stop eating and not think about food again for several hours.” That also makes sense. Would that these two descriptors told the whole story! But third, there is “appetite,” which is “a desire for food, usually after seeing, smelling, or thinking about food.” And here’s the coda, say the Michigan experts: “Even after you feel full, your appetite can make you keep eating.”
That’s revealing. At its root, hunger is not only about the need for sustenance. Hunger is about desire, and desire can be an insidious thing. Long after one feels full, desire can nevertheless create an insatiable appetite.
This can be physiological, of course, but it can also be existential. We all know that our hungers, our appetites, our cravings, our desires are about a whole lot more than chicken and dumplings. Our hunger can be for things rational and irrational, healthy and perverse. So, for what, besides food, are we hungry? Success, lust, wealth, esteem in the eyes of our fellows, material possessions, a yearning to be loved, vicarious living through our children, or some obsessive pursuit inexplicable to anyone else: Any of these and innumerable others can be the objects of our hunger, of the gnawing appetite that pangs within even after we know we should feel full.
No one in the past hundred years has understood and articulated this as brilliantly as C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters consists, as many will know, of the correspondence between the demon Screwtape and his apprentice Wormwood. The demons’ project is to encourage, to urge, the voracious appetites that drive us. The demons cultivate our desire to consume, and subsume, and absorb all that is around us so that the world becomes merely food for us, the object of our desire.
Throughout the book, the apprentice demon Wormwood attempts to corrupt his “patient,” a human who, like all of us, struggles with our appetites and desires. There are twists and turns, moments of hope and near-despair, but in the end Wormwood ultimately fails in his task. And as a failed demon, Wormwood then becomes food for his mentor demon Screwtape. In the end, the master says to the apprentice, “My dear, my very dear Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie…Rest assured that…I have always desired you…I think I they will give you to me now…Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.”[ii]
The demons in Lewis’ book are characterized by their fantastical, voracious, insatiable hunger. In other words, they are us taken to an absurd extreme. The demons want to consume anything and everyone—including each other—into themselves. And as always, C.S. Lewis is both entrancing and discomfiting because his fable reads so true. Our own hungers sometimes border on the insatiable, to the point that we, too, may skirt the demonic.
The story of David and Bathsheba, which also began last week and continues today, is the quintessential biblical example of such hunger. Down through Christian history, Bathsheba has gotten a grossly unfair and unjustified bad rap, but make no mistake: David is the demon of this story. His hunger for another man’s wife—that of his friend and companion—is insatiable, and he uses irresistible kingly power to consume his heart’s desire. And the dessert of this unholy meal is Uriah’s murder at David’s behest.
King David, Screwtape, the innumerable, everyday, mundane examples of our own insatiable and destructive hunger…What is the remedy? The world has provided all sorts of band-aids, distractions, temporary existential diet pills that suppress our pangs and cravings. But our faith tells us that there is but one cure. Beginning with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and continuing through Jesus’ long discourse which begins today, Jesus reveals that he—who is the icon and embodiment of the presence of God among us and provided to us—is the bread of life. Reliance upon that bread and nothing else to fill our insatiable hunger, is the only relief from our craving for all those things that can never satisfy.
In our own day, just as when we combat our physical hunger with whatever gimmick or diet fad is in season, we can seek to satisfy our existential hungers with Oprah’s newest secular self-help program, or with new age spiritualities, or with a shallow, smorgasbord dabbling in different religious traditions that doesn’t respect the integrity of any of them. But just as with our physical hunger, when we do so we will repeatedly find ourselves frustrated, disappointed, and binging all over again. “I am the bread of life,” the Incarnate God says today. “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.”
We know this. Our tradition has always known it. Whether we turn to St. Augustine, who famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you”; or to the great mystics of the Church whose desire, greater than any demon’s, found its satiation in God; or to our modern, deeply spiritual twelve-step movement in which recovering addicts acknowledge the necessity of relying completely on a higher power in place of their substance or behavioral cravings; or to my own recent study and teaching about the cessation of clinging and living and loving both fully and non-attached, all speak to a redirection of the heart, the mind, the will, the appetite,to satisfy our hunger only and entirely in God. This is what the feeding of the famished crowd is all about. This is what Jesus means when he says he is the bread of life. This is not about believing the right things, and it is certainly not about moral rectitude and holier-than-thou living. It is about directing our hungers to the source of all and receiving back true sustenance. The only and true satiation is in God, in whom we are filled.