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Sunday, August 09, 2009

'Living Bread' and Vegetables

One of the wonderful things about being on vacation is that I get to go to other churches and see other kinds of liturgy and hear other preachers.

One of the awful things about being on vacation and visiting other churches is that you sometimes see some liturgy and hear some preaching that is perfectly awful.

The really awful thing is not just because it is spiritually empty, but because it simply does not touch people where they are and nourish and inspire them to do the work of God.

I shall not reveal the location of this morning's experience. Suffice it to say that it was not the worst liturgy I've experienced or the most awful sermon I've ever heard, but both were certainly in the "Bottom 10".

The liturgy was traditional high Anglo-Catholic, and I confess that in the deepest part of my heart, I am an Anglo-Catholic. I love the litugry and the spirituality. I love the theology that directly connects what happens in the pulpit and at the Table and compels one into the world to do the work of God.

There was lots and lots of incense and sanctus bells. Everything was done with with impeccable precision. There was an East-facing altar (I watched in fascination as two of the acolytes moved the 'movable' altar off to the side chapel before the service.). The liturgy was complete with split T-formations, uniform bowing, and grand, swooping altar sensing - all done to absolute perfection.

I have come to know that, more often than not (although not in every case, certainly), just a little bit of gentle pastoral probing will reveal that - whether high Anglo-Catholic, Broad Middle or low Protestant - there is a direct link between such rigid ritual and some secret that the congregation and/or clergy are keeping.

It's just a sense - a hunch - an intuition one gets while sitting there. Sort of the same way one can discern that this - THIS - is a place where people pray.

One also gets a sense when something is not quite right. It's all a bit too precious. It's like the clergy are worshiping the worship instead of leading the people to worship God.

Know what I mean?

I won't speculate here, but my experience teaches me that there's a deep secret - some kind of unspeakable shame - that gets covered up when the liturgy is that precious and that precise and the ritual is that rigid.

What makes me angry is that it's mostly about the liturgy and the clergy, and not the needs of the people. I mean, as I looked around the congregation, no one was really paying attention.

First off, everything was waaaayyyy up there. The 'high altar' was quite high. You could have gotten a nose-bleed, it was so high.

When I looked around (because I found the rigidity of the ritual very off-putting), people were reading the bulletin or looking at the stained glass.

The woman in front of me was reading the Nicene Creed during the sermon, even though she obviously knew it by heart.

She was smart.

The sermon was awful. I mean, okay. It's hard to preach a creative sermon about bread three Sunday's in a row. Year after year. As I look ahead in the lectionary, another sermon about bread is in the offing next Sunday.

When the sermon started with the preacher saying, "You are what you eat," delivered in detached monotone, I knew we were in for trouble.

It went down from there.

Way down.

The good thing was, it only lasted eight minutes. Eight long minutes, but, mercifully, only eight minutes.

The worst part was, despite the fact that there were 'moments' in the sermon of some spiritual insight (although, for the life of me, they escape me now), I didn't believe one word he said. The preacher was absolutely disconnected from what he was saying. He read the words off the page mechanically, without any investment of himself.

Which should not really have come as a surprise. He preached in much the same way he presided over Eucharist. Mechanically. With precision. It was all performance, in the worst sense of that word. Disconnected from himself and the people he was supposed to be serving - feeding - nourishing - strengthening - sustaining.

The task of the priest is to break open the Word in the same way as s/he is to break open the Bread of Heaven and pour out the Cup of Salvation, so that God's people might be fed on both Word and Sacrament.

In the words of the priestly ordination vows, "In all (note: ALL) that you do, you are to nourish Christ's people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and the life to come."

I take those words as serious as a heart attack.

I'm sure he does, too. It's just that, well, in my experience, you simply can't do that while you are hiding behind ritual or form.

Preaching and presiding are two of the most transparent, naked, vulnerable things I do. At times, it can be absolutely terrifying. And, it's always a deep, profound privilege and honor.

And, and, and . . . here's the most important part: You do it all for Christ's people, that they, too, might come to Jesus "just as I am without one plea," and be changed and transformed and be made whole that they might live righteous, holy and godly lives of faith.

Listen, I know that I am not the best preacher in Western Christendom nor am I the best liturgist, but I give it my best shot. Every Sunday. Every time I preach or preside. And, as St. Paul tells us, the work is perfected in the doing.

Well, I found myself praying for my brother, that whatever secret fear he's been hiding, whatever collusion this congregation has in whatever secret they're keeping, might find exposure and healing. I pray that he might find nourishment for his soul so that he might nourish the people God has called him to serve.

As one of my spiritual directors once said to me: "There's a rule in the cosmos: You can't give away what you don't have."

And, I prayed that if that really was his best shot, if that's really the best he can do, that God might find a way to use it as a vehicle of God's grace. God knows, if God can use this broken pot of a vessel to some good, God can do anything.

And, God knows, God can. And does. All the time. Without any help from me. In fact, despite my anger and frustration and brokenness. God knows!

Needless to say, I came home spiritually hungry. I went to the gym where I found myself praying mightily on the elliptical machine, praying for forgiveness for my hardness of heart and asking God to help me to let go of my anger, find something positive to consider in the morning's experience, and become a better person and a better priest to the people I serve.

When I came home, I decided to check out a video clip a dear friend had sent me. I was deeply moved by it. Indeed, I felt as if I were hearing the sermon I missed.

I hope you will check out this video, too. It will be well worth the eight minutes you will spend watching it. Yup. Eight minutes. Just like this morning's sermon.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

I am quite certain this young man is not an Episcopalian. He's not clergy. But he is living out the Gospel with integrity and authenticity and passion and conviction.

The Word of God has clearly been broken open in his heart and he has been broken open by the Word which has moved him to mission and ministry.

I believe every word he says. Indeed, I feel compelled to join him. According to his website, Matthew 25 Farm, the goal at the farm this year is to grow ten acres of vegetables which will potentially feed 20,000 people. They intend to do this "completely by the support of the community which means that everything that we need to succeed will come from donations, loans, and volunteer labor."

There is a link where you can donate money or equipment. You can also "adopt a farm for a day."

That link will also take you to Current and Upcoming Events. This past week they needed help picking beans, along with some lettuce, carrots and even, perhaps, some onions. He figured that it would take about an hour to fill one 5 gallon pale full of beans. I'll check in later tonight or tomorrow to see what this week's assignment entails.

I've already sent this link to my Vestry and the chair of my Outreach Committee and have written up a "blurb" for the Parish Announcements.

I'm thinking there is a reason that my time at the beach has been delayed.

I'm thinking I should pack some jeans, an old tee-shirt, my boots and work gloves and take the four hour ride up to the farm this week. Check it out. Get my hands dirty.

I'm thinking this would be a wonderful inter-generational mission trip in early September for our congregation. I'm going to email my Youth Missioner right now and see what he thinks.

Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." John 6:51.

You know, it's true: God does work in strange and mysterious ways.

Sometimes, even a bad sermon can inspire you to do good things.

Sometimes, 'living bread' can look like vegetables grown by a community of strangers for the poor, who are our neighbors in Christ.


J. Michael Povey said...

Today's Epistle

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yup. I think this video is helping me to do just that.

Elaine C. said...

love it -- thanks!

Jane Priest said...

Haven't watched the video but I am already wanting to check into way past the 8 minutes as I have been trying to convince my parish to use our lot across the street as a community garden.

As for this morning: every time a clergy person walks into my parish, I want to explain to them why things aren't the way I really want them to be. Why my sermon is more of a 5 minute reflection than a full-fledged sermon, why the acolytes don't do this or that, why the music is such and such (although many of these things are getting more standardized). These things are the way they are because I can't just go into a community and change everything right away and yet I know what the potential is. But then again, maybe my community knows what they want and need better than I. Now, all this is different from a non-transparent presence in preaching and presiding but still, I always feel like I want to explain "This isn't really me!"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Joie, I know exactly what you're talking about. I feel the same way. THIS was not one of those situations. This was not an 'off Sunday'. That was as clear as the Iberian nose in the middle of my face.

Марко Фризия said...

"The preacher was absolutely disconnected from what he was saying."

Evem a five-year-old in a pew can figure out when this is going on. And precisely scripted and choreographed liturgy can be (but isn't always) a place where people can attempt to hide their disconnectedness. I am a layperson and sometimes my mind wanders during the liturgy. It's a blessing that Anglicans involve their bodies in worship. Those simple physical acts can nudge me out of being disconnected and distracted. I do try to prepare myself before worship. Sometimes I am surprised because I will feel intense terror, awe, ecstasy, love, gratitude, a sense of being naked and open before God, a sense of being connected with eternity, connected with creation, and connected with "all the angels and saints" (and sometimes a mixture of all of these feelings) during the liturgy. If I feel emptiness or numbness, I still try to have faith and remain focused. It sounds like the priest you are describing wasn't "really there" and wasn't being present. The liturgy (even bare-bones, low- church style) can and should be anything but an "ordinary experience."

Matthew said...

I had a similar experience this past Sunday. The preacher was a visitor -- a United Methodist Pastor while our clergy was unavailable due to vacation. I am aware of that Methodist church and always wondered whether it was more progressive or orthoodox. Well, now I know. He also invoked, "You are what you eat," but then talked about the evils we eat, secularism, modernism and yes, "sexualism." He did not dwell on homosexuality in particular, thank God, but his sermon seemed like an eternity and I was sweating profusely.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

"There's a rule in the cosmos: You can't give away what you don't have."


Anyone say "Commercials"???

the word is "unlizess"

gerry said...


Our parish is experimenting with a garden this summer, we are using a quarter of the Garth to raise salad vegetables for use in our ministries to feed people in need. Right now we distribute 90 "bag" suppers to homeless men on Saturday evenings.

On Sundays we serve a hot lunch to families in need in the dining rooms in Trinity House. We also distribute up to 100 bag lunches.

Attendence in recent weeks has been growing and we have served as many as 100 persons on a Sunday.

Tuesday evenings we give dinner to persons affected by HIV-Aids. Guests include persons with the disease, their families, loved ones, and caregivers.

This new component has the Garth Group which was formed to build a meditation garden on adjacent property raising vegetable that will go into the food ministries.

BTW the Garth was used this past Easter Day for Egg Rolls and Hunts for the Church Nursery and the children of the families joining us for Easter Dinner. The School Age kids from the Church School helped the smaller children hunt for eggs.

gerry said...


We're on the way to Matthew 25 in Vesper. It's just off I-81.

Shall we think about joining forces. We've also got Christ Church downtown; All Saints in Johnson City; another St. Paul's in Endicott and St. Mark's in Chenango Bridge. And +Muthah's Lutherans are just over the hill.

Shall we try for a caravan of Episcopalians?

Think about he says he'll need upwards of 100 people when the crops start to come in.

Gerry Hough

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

WOW, Gerry. How fantastic. I'm committed to some repair/instillation at RB this week or I would go, but my Assistant and I were talking just this afternoon about going up next Monday. Please, please do write and tell us what you found / saw / did.

I'd love to get together with Muthah+ and your congregation and have a work day in early September.

She is coming to RB on Wednesday night to have dinner. I'll talk with her and we'll plan something.

This is so very exciting. Thanks, Gerry.