The Raw Material of Blessing

Sermon for Sunday, October 5, 2014 || Proper 22A || *

rawmaterialofblessingBecause of my peculiar and very frustrating allergy, there’s one aisle of the grocery store I never travel down – the bread aisle. If you read the nutrition information on each and every plastic-wrapped and twist-tied loaf, you’ll find it contains soy flour, which means I can’t eat it. But there’s a happy byproduct of this limitation. Because I can’t eat the store bought loaves, Leah makes our bread from scratch. And, boy, is it good. I’ve watched her make it on several occasions. She starts by activating the yeast in warm water. She mixes the ingredients in the Kitchen Aid, counting the cups of flour aloud so she doesn’t put in too much. She let’s the dough hook work its kneading magic. She waits for the dough to rise, first in the mixer, and then, after forming the loaves, in the pans before putting them in the oven. The whole process takes the better part of a morning.

A group of dedicated women follows a similar process each week to make the bread we use for Holy Communion. What fascinates me about the process is how many steps there are between setting the ingredients on the counter and pulling the bread fresh from the oven. (And this doesn’t even take into account the number of steps needed to make the ingredients in the first place, such as milling the flour from grain or picking the grain from the field.)

When we celebrate Holy Communion, the gifts, which we offer to God and then share with one another, derive from a combination of God’s bounty and human industry. The bread and wine both have their roots in…well…roots. Seeds planted in the ground send roots down and stalks up as the soil, sun, and rain nourish their growth. The grain grows tall and full. The grape grows fat and juicy. Up to this point, their growth has been in God’s hands, as the overarching gift of nature’s cycles, which God wove into creation, promotes their cultivation.

But then a farmhand (or, in today’s less romanticized world of big agribusiness, a mammoth combine) comes along and picks the grain. A vineyard worker picks the grape. And human ingenuity, creativity, and wisdom begin shaping this raw material, this God-given bounty into the bread and wine we share each week.

Do you see what’s happening here? When we offer the bread and wine to God in thanksgiving, we give back to God what was always God’s in the first place, but which changed shape as humans interacted with the raw material of God’s blessing. There are two vital ideas embedded in this thought. First, whenever we give to God, we are really giving back to God. And second, God invites us to partner with God – to use our own unique constellations of gifts – in order to turn the raw material of blessing into nourishment, into justice, into peace, into hope.

Thinking of our giving as giving back keeps us in right relationship with God. When we acknowledge that God is the source of our blessings, we are less likely to attribute the bestowal of a particular blessing to the blessing itself. This erroneous attribution is how idols are made. Idols happen whenever we worship the gift instead of the giver. This way ultimately leads to disappointment because the idol will never give more than itself. And you will find yourself serving it, and you will notice more and more of your life being taken up by trying to make the idol greater than it is. And in the end, you will live a very small life, confined to the goal of making the idol into something worthy of your worship.

You might notice this happening when our relationship with money starts becoming idolatrous. Instead of thinking of money as some of the raw material of God’s blessing, we mistakenly see money as the source of our blessing. Instead of seeing it as a resource, we mistakenly see the amassing of money as the goal. It’s easy to do. Money allows us to live comfortably, after all, and to afford the things we desire. But the more we bend our lives around the accumulation of money, the less time we have to enjoy the benefits it offers. You end up spending too much time in the office, and before you know it, you’ve missed four of your daughter’s soccer games in a row. Call it the Ebenezer Scrooge problem. He lived his life bent on increasing his wealth and by the time the three ghosts are done with him he realizes he never actually lived his life. That’s what idols do. They contort our lives around the wrong goals and reduce us to very small versions of ourselves.

But when we have a proper relationship with money, a non-idolatrous one, we see our financial resources as some of the raw material of God’s blessing. Remember, through human interaction, the grain of God’s bounty become bread. The grape of God’s bounty becomes wine. The same thing happens with our money. The dollar becomes half a dozen notebooks for a classroom at St. Luc’s school in Haiti. The check becomes a hundred juice boxes for WARM’s summer lunch program. The financial pledge becomes fuel for God’s mission happening here at St. Mark’s.

If you’re anything like me, you sometimes have trouble putting money in the same category as all the other gifts God has given us. I’ve always had trouble doing this because money has this ephemeral, transitory nature. We turn it into other resources and these are what we think of as our blessings instead. But when we have a right relationship with money, it goes in the same bucket as all of blessing’s other raw materials.

To symbolize this reality here at St. Mark’s, I’m going to start doing something that I should have been doing all along; indeed, something that most Episcopal churches have always done. During the offertory, the bread and wine come forward and a few minutes later, the money comes forward in the collection plates. Because there’s a delay between these two processions, we might not connect the two. But they are connected. We give the bread and wine back to God in thanksgiving for our interaction with the raw material of blessing. In the same way, we give our financial resources back to God in thanksgiving for and in support of God’s mission here in our midst.

So from now on, I plan to leave the collection plates on the altar as we celebrate Holy Communion in recognition that we give thanks for all the blessings of our lives. When you see me place them to the side of the other gifts we are giving back to God, I hope you will remember that God has given us all that we have and made us all that we are. And God delights in seeing all the unique ways we use the raw material of blessing to further God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.

We give back to God out of the myriad gifts God has showered upon us for two reasons. First, by giving back we stay in right relationship with God. We worship the giver instead of the gift. We live full lives enriched by multitudes of blessings instead of tiny lives in service to lifeless idols. And second, giving back offers us the opportunity to partner with God and use our unique constellations of gifts to turn the raw material of blessing into new and abundant life for all.

*It’s very strange for me not to reference any of the assigned readings for the day in the sermon itself. They were all there swirling around in my head as I wrote, but every time I tried to add them in, I felt like I was shoehorning them in. Perhaps this means I wrote the wrong sermon! Or perhaps it means the readings can influence the preaching without being directly quoted.

Happy Dancing Ewoks

(Sermon for September 5, 2010 || Proper 18, Year C, RCL || Luke 14:25-33)

The rain is so heavy that I feel like I’m driving through a carwash. I can barely see out the windshield, and I keep thinking that I’ve missed Furnace Brook Parkway. But just when I decide I need to turn around, I spot the sign reflecting green in the dim glow of my headlights. I turn left and five minutes later I park across the street from the Coffee Break Café. I make a mad dash for the dryness and warmth of the shop, but the rain still manages to soak my jeans during the ten seconds I’m out in the elements.

The moment I step into the café, however, I forget the dangerous drive. I forget the torrential downpour. I forget the soaked jeans and the English language and my name and how to walk correctly. The woman, whom I planned to meet at the café, stands before me wearing patterned rain boots, holding a steaming cup of tea, and smiling. And I forget everything about myself except for the fact that she is there to meet me – me of all people.

That was a little over five months ago. A little over five months from now, she and I will be married about ten feet over and four feet down from where I’m standing right now – right over there. Leah and I will hold hands, and Margot will direct us to look at one another and speak our vows. I will say, “In the name of God, I, Adam, take you, Leah, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”

In February, I will promise to love and to cherish Leah for the rest of my life. You might have guessed that I’m pretty excited by that prospect. And so, when I listen to this morning’s Gospel reading and hear Jesus say that to be his disciple I have to hate my wife, I’m just downright confused.

Return of the Jedi (1983) 20th Century Fox

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve known that hate is a bad thing. In fact, I learned this lesson during my daily viewing of Return of the Jedi. Near the end of the film, Luke Skywalker finds himself standing before the twisted and evil Emperor Palpatine. The Emperor doesn’t want to kill the Jedi; he desires Luke to fall under the seductive power of the dark side of the Force. Palpatine has Luke’s lightsaber, and he tempts the young Jedi saying: “I am defenseless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey towards the dark side will be complete.”

Even as a young child, I knew that Luke could not give in to his hate because then he would have been corrupted. He would have joined the dark side, and the film would not have ended with smiles and embraces and happy dancing Ewoks. I learned the lesson well. Hate is a bad thing. If you are anything like me, you were brought up learning the same lesson. So how do we encounter these words of Jesus? He says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” How do we obey a command that just seems so wrong?

The first thing we need to do is to make sure that we don’t ignore Jesus when his words sound wrong to our ears. When he says something that makes us uncomfortable, there is a tendency to skip over the offending words. The trouble is, skipping those bits is exactly the opposite reaction than Jesus is going for. When Jesus turns to the crowds and says these words, he employs shocking rhetoric in an attempt to make the crowd understand just what life following him looks like. In Jesus’ day, following spiritual gurus around was something of a pastime, akin today to following the Grateful Dead on tour. Most of the people making up the large crowds were following him because he was a local celebrity. When Jesus tells them that they can’t be his disciples unless they hate life itself, I imagine many of them left to find a less demanding guru.

So we shouldn’t ignore Jesus’ words when they sound wrong. But this still leaves the fact that they sound wrong. Now, please don’t interpret the rest of this sermon as an attempt to explain away Jesus’ tough words. Rather, permit me to reinterpret the word “hate,” and hopefully, when I’m done, the toughness of Jesus’ words will have remained intact.

In between last week’s passage from Luke 14 and this week’s, several verses fell through the cracks. Just before Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks today’s Gospel, Luke narrates Jesus telling a parable. In the story, all the people invited to a great dinner make excuses and fail to attend: “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it”; “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out”; “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” The host of the dinner becomes angry with these no-shows and sends his servants out into the streets to fill his house with all the people who wouldn’t normally be invited to a party.

Right after this parable, Jesus tells the crowds that to be his disciple they must hate father and mother and wife and children and life itself. The three people in the parable who made excuses were obviously not following this difficult command. Instead, they decided that land and livestock and spouse were more important than the great dinner. The word “hate” jolts us with its emotional connotation; but, based on the parable, I’m far from convinced that Jesus desires us to indulge in the emotion of hate. Rather, he uses the word “hate” to show that every person who isn’t Jesus is never meant to take the place of Jesus. Unlike the three people in the parable, those who come to Jesus cannot be his disciples unless they make him more important than everything else. Therefore, becoming Jesus’ disciples means putting Jesus ahead of all the other people in our lives.

Of course, this is incredibly difficult. But the incredibly difficult things that Jesus asks of us also turn out to be incredibly important. With his tough words about hating life itself, Jesus offers us protection from the most common sin in the book: idolatry. In the parable, the would-be guests make excuses to avoid the great dinner. The land, livestock, and spouse are their idols. In our lives, idols are those things that we turn to when we should turn to God. We let our parents, spouses, children, jobs, cars, computers, smartphones, and addictions invade the territory that should be God’s alone. We begin to look to something other than God for salvation. We mistake the creation for the Creator.

This is not bad just because our idolatry breaks one of the Ten Commandments. This is bad because when I set up another person as my god, my idolatry will eventually destroy both the other person and myself. If I made Leah into an idol, I would rely on her for everything. I would run her ragged trying to see to my needs. I would suck the life and the love out of her. And when there is nothing left, I would starve. Sooner or later, every idol ceases to be enough, and it’s usually not until this time that we realize our idolatry.

So let’s go back to those words that Leah and I will say to each other at our wedding in February. In all the good and bad times, I will promise to love and to cherish her. There is absolutely no way to fulfil this promise without the very first phrase I will say during my vows: “In the name of God.” God is the foundation of every healthy relationship. Loving God first is the only way to be able to love another. Cherishing God first is the only way to cherish another. We can only be Jesus’ disciples when we finally rid ourselves of any idea or notion that our ability not only to love, but to exist, comes from nowhere but God alone.

When I wed Leah, I will strive to remember that God formed us in our mothers’ wombs and God brought us into each other’s lives and God knit us together and God will continue to sustain us. God is the beginning, the middle, and the end. Cutting God out of our relationship – indeed, out of any relationship – simply ignores the reality that God is the foundation of all relationships. Cutting God out allows the sin of idolatry to creep in.

Jesus tells us that we must hate life to become his disciples. With this, he sets us the difficult task of putting him before all else. Accomplishing this difficult task means that when we cherish our loved ones, we remember that we are capable of that action because God cherishes us. When we love them, we draw upon the unrelenting outpouring of God’s love. And if we forget everything else – the English language and our names and how to walk correctly – we still remember that God somehow puts each one of us first. And so we thank God and ask for the grace to put God first. Everything else will find its proper place atop God’s sure and steady foundation.