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.
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.