blessed are the thin places

Sermon, Fulton United Church of Christ — November 2, 2014

Fall is a time for paying attention – for paying attention to the rhythms of the world around us.

I have been noticing how many people say that fall, that this season is their favorite time of the year. The trees turn colors and drop their leaves; frost starts to coat the grass in the mornings. The air becomes crisp and cold. The season tastes like apple cider and pumpkin spice. Our senses tune themselves to the transitional rhythms of the world. And we see and feel the way life changes around us.

I work at a non-profit agency here in Mid-Missouri, and the other day we began a staff meeting by sharing our favorite thing about this season: apple picking; deer hunting; corn mazes; family gatherings; Halloween.

It wasn’t until our first break that one of my co-workers and I had a side conversation about the topic. B- is a gardener. His flowers had mostly stopped their blooming. He had just pulled out his tomatoes and put his garden to rest for the winter. And he leaned over and said to me: “I didn’t want to spoil anyone else’s fun, but I hate this time of year.”

I wondered why. He said, “Everything is dying.”

I have been noticing signs of this too. The relentless summer brightness has been tempered as the sun’s arc across the sky sinks lower and lower each day, and tonight the sun will set well before 6 p.m. with the time change. The brilliant oranges and rich reds of autumn are replaced by crackly, shriveled brown leaves and bare tree limbs. Creation goes dormant, and sometimes we humans do too, settling in to lower moods and longer sleep.

But it’s not just the natural rhythms that move through death this time of year. The liturgical rhythms do too.

This weekend we observe one of the lesser known portions of the church year, the trio of days known as All Hallows Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.

These holy days can partly be traced back to the very earliest centuries of our Christian faith. The early Christians were a persecuted people, a people subject to violence and even death because of their faith in the risen Jesus. For its first three centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no Christian nations. Governments did not protect freedom of religion. And year after year martyrs were executed because of their faith.

To honor these martyrs and to keep their stories alive, special days were set aside to remember the “saints.” By the late 300s, there were so many martyrs, that one special day was created to honor them all together.

Then things start to get a little fuzzy in the history books. At first All Saints Day happened in the spring. And then somewhere along the way it switched to the fall.

Here’s what some people think happened: October was a sacred time for early pre-Christian religions. The ancient Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain (pronounce sah-win) to mark the end of harvest and the beginning of winter — the time of year when the seasons shift. The ancient ones believed that at that time of the year, the doors of the other world opened and the souls of the dead come to visit our world again. It’s easier to communicate with the spirits at certain times, in certain places, they believed.

And so over time, some historians think that  the Roman Catholic Church’s All Saints Day festival, merged with the Celtic harvest celebrations. Today Halloween, or All Hallows Eve is October 31, and Catholics celebrate their Saints on November 1, and all other souls on November 2. As Protestants, we don’t have saints per se, but we combine these ideas to remember and honor those who have passed away. In life we remember death.

The liturgical rhythms align us with the rhythms of the season, and we enter into a space where we are reminded that life and death are connected.

But in our world today it sometimes seems that we fear death above all else. Advertising dollars and marketing messages would have us believe we need to stay as young as possible for as long as possible. Successful beauty products are “age-defying.” And contrary to our New Testament scripture, those who are blessed are not the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. Today’s reality, says those who are blessed and the strong, the powerful, the wealthy, the happy, the young.

But Jesus words, the words we heard today from Matthew’s Gospel, are not about this Kingdom of Earth alone. They are about the Kingdom of Heaven. And as I’ve preached in other sermons over the past months, in Matthew’s gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven was not necessarily some other world. The Kingdom of Heaven is not only in the future; it touches our present. The kingdom of heaven is not only out there; it is here among us, seen in images like yeast and pearls and fishing nets and landowners.

The Kingdom of Heaven is that place where life and death intermingle. It reminds me of the Celts again, and the idea of they have of thin places. Thin places are spaces where we see through the barriers we build between heaven and earth, the separation we often perceive between life and death is worn thin.

There’s an old Celtic saying that goes something like this: “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” In these thin places we are able to catch extra glimpses of the divine.

One poet (Sharlande Sledge) describes them:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,

Both seen and unseen,

Where the door between the world

And the next is cracked open for a moment

And the light is not all on the other side.

God shaped space. Holy.

Sound a bit like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Last fall, last year about this time I planted two sticks in my backyard. Well, they weren’t only sticks. They were the beginnings of trees. Less than waist-high, no branches or leaves, attached to a dirty ball of roots. The nursery that sent them promised me that these were in fact apple trees, and within five years I’d have my own fruit to pick. It seemed suspect at the time, last November when I stuck them in the ground.

Last week when I put my garden to rest for the winter, I walked by the sticks. They’d become what was promised, now trees with branch after branch, leaf after leaf. They are both taller now than my head.

In God’s reality, in the Kingdom of Heaven, the dead and the living are connected. Sticks are also apple trees. Dry bulbs hold flowers, and in every end there is a beginning. In this space, in God’s space, on this All Saints weekend, death and life are connected and close together.

One of the traditions of the church on this weekend is to remember the names of those who have been saints for you, those who have passed on whom you want to lift up today. In a spirit of prayer, I invite you all to say aloud these names in worship…

This day we remember these and so many others. We remember, we are reminded that the dead and the living are connected. We are part of those who walked before us, and we are part of those who are to come. Perhaps fall should be one of our favorite times of year. Everything is dying. Everything is coming to life. Pay attention, and you’ll see. Thanks be to God.


the promise of bread (sermon)

Rock Bridge Christian Church: August 12, 2012

Today’s scripture is the third of five consecutive lectionary readings from John chapter 6. And with so many things in life, this chapter revolves around food. It begins with the miraculous feeding of five thousand people with only five loaves of barley and two fish. This crowd was properly astonished at such a feeding, and the next day they set off to look for Jesus who in the meantime had walked on water across the lake. When they found him, as might be expected, they asked for more food and Jesus replied…

Scripture: John 6.35, 41-51

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.

What a promise. What a promise.

A couple of months ago I was at a training for board members. The facilitator of the event began by asking each table to come up with a new name for Columbia, Missouri, a name that would reflect our vision for what our city can be and should be. Let me tell you, the visions were grand. The most creative table came up with an acrostic for Columbia: C stands for clean, O stands for Open-Minded, L stands for loving and so on. The table with the folks from the humane society imagined a Columbia where no pets were homeless. And one table summed everything up in just one word: Utopia. Imagine Columbia, Missouri as an ideal place where everyone lives in harmony and everything is for the best.

Equitable distribution of resources, everyone has access to affordable healthcare, no one is hungry, no one is thirsty. Heaven on earth. And all we have to do is believe.

It sounds like a promise that could only be given by a certain kind of person. The kind of person who can walk on water and turn water into wine. The kind of person who can feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The kind of person who can save us from our world and save us from ourselves.

Isn’t this what we hope for, isn’t this the vision of our Christian life – this vision Jesus offers in our text today.

What a promise. What a promise.

And then there’s the reality.

The crowd began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’”

They were complaining about his birthright, his origins with Mary and Joseph much more commonplace than the outrageous claim to be from heaven. But they might as well have been grumbling about the bread. They’d come looking for more food and instead of loaves and fish he fed them a metaphor.

Imagine if instead of Kathy’s fantastic taco salad our RBCC team served plates full of words to the hungry folks who come by Wilkes Boulevard every evening for Loaves & Fishes.

Imagine the complaining then. Words don’t fill hungry bellies.

The other day as I was living with this text, I finally gave into a little grumbling of my own. Perhaps you, like me have had these kinds of quarrels and questions on this journey of faith and life. Pardon me, Jesus, but you were wrong about ending hunger and quenching thirst, you know. Pardon me, Jesus, but you overstepped a bit with these outrageous claims. Don’t you know that over 40% of our elementary school children can’t afford $2.25 a day for lunch at school? And it’s over 90% in my central city neighborhood. Jesus don’t you know that the food bank’s supply of buddy packs can’t keep up with the demand of kids who need food to take home every weekend? And Jesus, open your eyes, can’t you see our land is thirsty and water mains keep breaking as the soil dries out and the corn is not producing and this drought has lasted all summer long?

Grumbling doesn’t just come from people hungry for food. It comes when our hopes don’t meet our reality. It comes when our hunger for justice, our thirst for peace, our longing for wholeness, our vision for a new world encounters the reality of today’s world. For most of us, it’s not bread that we hunger for, but we are starving just the same, short on time or love or energy or meaning. Hungry for clarity. Hungry to live the calling we have been given.

We are overwhelmed by the violent shootings at the Sikh temple and the crowded movie theater. We are frustrated with the ugly political discourse of this election season. Even for the most faithful, our reality doesn’t match the promise. Our heads ache. Our hearts break.

And sometimes all we see is a mess.

One writer tells the story of a group of pastors who gathered for a conference in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The participants were from all over North America, including one rural pastor who was on his first trip to a major metropolitan city. During a lunch break, the rural pastor took a walk outside with one of his colleagues. As they stretched their legs along the busy sidewalk, that noonday mess of an American city, the pastor suddenly stopped, turned to his companion and said, “Do you hear that?” The friend paused and considered the busy, messy noise of the city. “Hear what?” he replied.

Planted along the downtown sidewalk was a small row of trees. At the base of each tree was a circle of flowers. The pastor walked over to one of the trees, knelt down, reached beneath one of the floral clusters, then stood and opened his hand, revealing a small black bug. “It’s a cricket.”

Dumbfounded, his friend replied, “How could you possibly hear that?” The country pastor reached into his pants pocket, took out a handful of coins, and threw them in the air. As the coins hit the cement, people from all directions stopped and looked down. The pastor turned to his companion and said, “It depends on what you’re listening for.”

The central theological theme in John’s gospel is the incarnation, that great mystery of God becoming human, of the divine taking on skin and the Word becoming flesh to live and breath among us.

Jesus from heaven mixes with the ordinary stuff of earth so that the two are woven together into body and image and story. I am the good shepherd. I am the gate. I am the vine. I am the bread. And before long common symbols become the language of faith.

Earth and heaven, Jesus and flesh mix together into a tangle that cannot be separated now that incarnation is part of our reality. And it is everywhere for those who have ears to hear. It just depends on what we’re listening for. It cannot be contained. It is not orderly. And it is everywhere for those who have eyes to see. It just depends on what we’re looking for.

Because sometimes all we see is a holy mess all around.

I am the bread of life.

My great grandma used to bake bread every Saturday, enough bread to feed her family of ten for the week. Flour and water, yeast and a little salt, and the way great grandma did it, always some sugar too. Her practiced hands would mix in water from the well and then knead and shape dough into loaves and perfectly uniform rolls. The flour would dust her apron and sprinkle across the floor, mixing with the dirt of depression era farm. The ordinary elements of bread, would combine each from a different place, the building blocks of sustenance surrounding their family, surrounding our family today, so that everywhere we look, there is something of bread.

The great agrarian writer Wendell Berry says, “We are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

The most common elements, flour, water, salt indeed become the miracle of bread.

The great mystery of the incarnation is less that God came down from heaven and more that the whole earth is littered with bits of the divine. It is less a great event and more ordinary; less from the top down and more of that which surrounds us. It is less a great vision for the cosmic end of hunger and thirst and more the small miracle of every single meal we eat.

Our world is filled with empty bellies and breaking hearts, and our world is filled with small fragments of holy sustenance. The bread of life is closer than we have imagined. It just depends on what we are looking for.

There’s an exercise in self-reflection that I like to do with youth groups when I’m first getting to know them. Each youth silently, alone writes a poem entitled “Where I’m from and what I stand for.”

Consider some pieces of the brilliant work I’ve heard over the last couple of years:

I’m from the creek beside our house

I’m from Minute Maid lemonade and t-shirts

I’m from please and thank you and I’m sorry

I’m from an obscure celestial phenomenon

I’m from 50 feet up a tree

I’m from Prairie Village, Kansas, United States, North America, Earth, the Milky Way, the Universe

Or if you were Jesus you would have said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

I’m from heaven.

I’m from Nazareth.

I’m from the Word.

I’m from ordinary flesh.

I’m from Mary and Joseph.

I’m from God.

I am the bread that gives you life.