Beautiful, useless things…

Standard

There is a beautiful little box that sits on my desk. It was a birthday gift from my husband. On the lid is a painting of the church where I was ordained and on the inside there is a lovely photograph of the altar. It is a work of art and it is precious, but it is just big enough to hold my rosary. For all intents and purposes, it is completely useless, and that is exactly why I wanted it.

I think it is time that we started defending and treasuring beautiful, useless things.

I learned so much from the rector of this parish during my brief time there as a young priest, but of all the things he taught me, the lesson that has endured the most is that beautiful things are to be treasured, simply because they are beautiful.

Little painted ceramic boxes, baroque vestments, ornate reliquaries, classical mass settings…these things have value simply because they are beautiful. God delights in beauty…after all, he invented it.

We live in a world where usefulness is an idol. We are taught to value things, even people, by their usefulness. What can I DO with this? Is this thing or person good FOR something?

I do it to myself all the time. I am never happier than when I have had a productive day. I love to feel useful and when I don’t, my self-worth suffers greatly. I regularly fall into the trap of making usefulness my greatest good. I think we all do from time to time.

Even the Church is guilty. I can’t tell you how many Diocesan functions I have been to where a parish’s value has been directly tied to how useful it is to the local community. We are taught over and over again that if we don’t provide some sort of service to society (whether it is a food pantry, a day school, or a shelter) then we don’t really have a reason to exist. We are told that our buildings are only valuable if they are useful.

But look at the world that is created when use means more to us than beauty:

We look at the mountains, and only see resources to be mined.

We look at empty land, and imagine how we might develop it.

We look at another person, and think of what they can do for us.

This is a world that has no use for the young or the elderly. This is a world that has no use for art and poetry. It’s a world that has no use for love. It’s a world that has no use for God.

I don’t want to live in that world.

This little box sits here on my desk as a constant reminder that I don’t have to live in that world.

I can live in a world filled with beautiful things that have value simply because they are beautiful, and for no other reason. I can live in world created by a God that delights in beauty. I can worship a God that creates beautiful things.

Maybe then I will be able to value myself, not for my usefulness, but simply because I am another beautiful thing that God created. Maybe I will be able to start seeing others that way too.

This little box and the little church painted on its lid remind me that there is something very holy about beauty. It cannot be used, only admired. It can only be loved, and nothing else. I wonder if God looks at us that way, like so many little beautifully painted boxes: something he has no actual use for, but delights in, simply because we are beautiful.

This little box also reminds me of the little alabaster jar that held the ointment Mary of Bethany used to anoint the feet of Jesus. The room was filled with the beautiful fragrance of that oil, but not all of the disciples appreciated it. “Couldn’t that costly ointment have been put to better use?” Judas asked. But Jesus defended the beautiful thing that she did for him. He could see the beauty in her devotion and she could see the beauty in his love.

Of course, as Christians we are called to care for God’s children in the world, but I do wonder sometimes if we are engaging in ministry because we recognize the beauty in others, a beauty we first saw in God; or are we simply trying to keep busy so that we feel useful? Are we worshiping the idol of usefulness and failing to raise our voices in praise of the God that loves beautiful, useless things?

In a world where ultimate sacrifices are made to the God of use and utility, don’t we have a calling to proclaim another way? Maybe a part of our calling as the Church, is treasuring the beautiful things that the world has no use for.

I think it is time that we started defending and treasuring beautiful, useless things.

The Voice in the Desert

Standard

Sermon for August 12th, 2018

Readings:

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Elijah was one of the greatest prophets that the Israelites had ever known. Throughout the ages he has been revered by the Jewish people. Even today if you attend a Jewish Seder on Passover, you will likely find a chair and a cup reserved for Elijah. Elijah was so famous and important in Jesus’s day, that many people thought that Jesus was Elijah come again; some others thought that John the Baptist was Elijah come again. On the mountain of the Transfiguration, when Jesus’s appearance miraculously changes before the eye of Peter, James and John, It is Moses and Elijah that appear on either side of our Lord. So I don’t think that we can underestimate how important Elijah is to the history of our faith.

 

In the first Book of Kings, Elijah bursts onto the scene. We know very little about where he comes from or his background. What we know is that at that time the Kingdom of David had been split into two rival kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel in the North, where Elijah is working, and the Kingdom of Judah in the South. And the Kingdom of Israel, where Elijah is, was being led by a King named Ahab. Ahab had married a foreign princess named Jezebel, and instead of being faithful to his own God, the God of Israel, he had started to worship her God Baal. The prophets and priests of Baal were brought into the kingdom. Altars and shrines to Baal were setup, and the people began turning away from the God of Israel.

 

This troubles Elijah greatly, so he challenges the prophets of Baal to a public duel. He invites them to make a sacrifice to their God, Baal, to lay an animal on a pile of wood, but not to set fire to it. They should then call upon their God to ignite the offering. Elijah would do the same with his God, the God of Israel. The God that was able to send fire down upon the offering would indeed be the true God. Just to make sure there was no accusation of trickery, Elijah had water poured all over his sacrifice. The prophets of Baal tried their hardest, but alas, nothing happened to their offering. Elijah then cried out to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and his sacrifice burst into flames. His God was proven to be the true God. The people were amazed and the prophets of Baal were put to death.

 

You could say that Elijah was amazingly successful. He had done a great thing for his God. He had made a name for himself as well, but his success would be short lived. Because Elijah had also made for himself a very powerful enemy. The Queen Jezebel did not take kindly to her prophets being bested and killed. She vowed to have Elijah killed. So Elijah has to go on the run. And this is where we find him in our reading this morning.

 

After a day’s journey in the wilderness, Elijah, who had just experienced a powerful miracle; saw the power of his God; had his ministry publicly affirmed, this same Elijah succumbs to one of the most painful human emotions: despair. Elijah is experiencing a setback. He had been victorious, now he is on the run. Perhaps he thought that his victory over the prophets of Baal would move him up the corporate ladder. Perhaps he thought that King Ahab would be grateful for his correction and would promote him to chief prophet. Perhaps he thought that once people witnessed the power of the God of Israel that they would be unlikely to backslide again. But now all of these dreams of Elijah came crashing down around him. His brief moment of victory had turned into a failure. He wants to die.

 

He says to God: “take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Think about what Elijah is really saying there: “Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” In order for life to have meaning for Elijah, he needs to be better, or better off, than those that came before him; Elijah wants to be making continual, uninterrupted progress in his life. He wants to see his fame, and his ministry, and his 401k grow. He should be moving up the ladder, not running for his life. He shouldn’t be worse off than his ancestors. Elijah sees God’s blessing in progress. If he is not progressing, then he just doesn’t want to go on. God might as well take away his life.

 

And then an angel visits him, touches him and simply says: “Get up and eat.” And there was food. Elijah ate and went back to sleep. The angel touched him again: “Get up and eat. You are going to need food for this journey.” So Elijah eats again. And the food gives him the strength to keep wandering in the desert for forty days. And eventually Elijah comes to Mount Horeb, the mount of God, and he hears God speak to him: “What are you doing here Elijah?”

 

And Elijah says to God: “I have tried to serve you, but I have failed. The people just won’t listen, and now they are seeking my life.” And God says to him: “Go, stand on the mountain, and wait for me to pass by.” And Elijah goes and stands on the mountain. First there comes a great wind, but God was not in the wind. Then there was a great earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there came a great fire, but God was not in the fire. Then after the fire, a still small voice, almost like a profound silence. And Elijah knew that God was in that small voice, that silence, and he covered his face. And God asked him again: What are you doing here Elijah?”

 

And Elijah again said: “I have failed. I have tried to get your people to serve you, but they won’t listen and now they want to kill me.” And God says to him: “Go. Go back to the work you have been called to do, and on your way you are going to anoint new kings, and you are going to anoint a prophet to take your place when your time is over. I will take care of the rest.”

 

So Elijah goes back to his ministry, and back to calling people to faithfulness to the God of Israel, until the day that the Lord takes him home in glory. Then his junior Prophet, Elisha, picks up his mantle and carries on his work.

 

I have so much sympathy for Elijah sitting under that broom tree. It is so easy to get caught up in the idea of progress. It’s a great idea: if we work hard and do the right things that our lives will just get better and better. For some people that is what hope is all about: things just getting continually better.

 

The 20thcentury loved the idea of progress. One of the most popular pavilions at the 1964 World’s Fair was Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, where you go from one decade to the next in the 20thcentury and see how much better things kept getting. In between each scene they sing the song: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow.” I admit I love that ride, it’s still at Disney World and it is a classic, but I would be lying if I told you that I thought that’s what the world is like: things just getting better all the time. Perhaps that ride would be better suited to Fantasyland than Tomorrowland. No one can look at the 20thcentury and claim that it was a time of continual and uninterrupted progress, and I doubt that many of us could look at our own lives that way either. Life comes with ups and downs; it comes with successes and failures; progress is often followed by setback. If we think that God is only present in progress, then we are setting ourselves up for despair. Where was God when Elijah was running for his life? He was there feeding him in the desert; giving him the strength to endure his temporary exile. When Elijah’s efforts resulted in failure, what did God instruct him to do? Start over and make arrangements for the work to go on when your time is through.

 

Elijah’s ministry began with a tremendous success, and God showing himself in a spectacular public display of fire, but Elijah quickly learned afterwards that God is also present in the still, small voice, in the silence that can be found in the desert of despair.

 

Our hope as people of faith; our hope as Christians, is not that things are just going to keep getting better all the time; our hope is that even when times are bad, that God will feed us and sustain us; our hope is that even when we feel like we have failed, God will give us the grace to start again.

The Gifts of God for the People of God

Standard

Sermon for August 5th, 2018

Readings:

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Food. Bread. Eating your fill. Hunger

 

The Gospel readings over the last couple weeks have been largely focused on Jesus feeding people and today we heard again about food, bread, eating your fill, and hunger, not just from the Gospel, but also from the Book of Exodus and the Psalm. It has not escaped my attention that while the scriptures have wanted to talk about God feeding people over these last few weeks, my life outside of the pulpit has been largely concerned and preoccupied with finding a way to feed my husband.

 

For those of you that don’t know, Keith had a procedure done in June, and one of the unintended consequences was that a tiny little hole opened up in his esophagus, allowing fluids to get into his lungs. If you have ever had something go down the wrong pipe, you have an idea of what that feels like. Well it has been a solid month of doctors and hospitals and procedures trying to locate and repair, and repair again, and regrouping and rethinking what to do, to make it so that he can eat again. The doctors are now pretty confident that his body will heal itself (as our bodies are miraculously capable of doing), but it must be allowed to rest, so for the next month he will have to take his food as a liquid through a tube directly into his stomach. I do want thank you all for your prayers and concern; it has meant a lot to both of us. Hopefully after a month, his throat will heal and he can gradually go back to eating normally again.

 

I can tell you from personal experience, that your relationship with food changes when you are no longer able to just bite into whatever you want. If you diet is in some way limited, it’s like your other senses get heightened. You start to notice every single thing people on television are eating. You can smell a slice of pizza from miles away. Every crunch of a potato chip rings through the air like church bells on Easter Sunday morning. When you can’t have food, you start to think about it a whole lot more. At one point this month, Keith, who was watching ads about food while unable to eat, made a comment about how food obsessed our culture is and I have been reflecting on that a lot these past few days. I do think we are obsessed as a society, but not really with food…we are obsessed with consumption, and there’s a big difference.

 

We don’t really want to talk about or think about all that food is in all it’s glory and mystery; what we want to do is to focus all our desire and attention on the shortest (and what I would argue is really the most meaningless) part of the whole food exchange: the act of eating itself; consumption, or more specifically, taste. All we really want food to be is a cure for hunger and a pleasurable sensation; We care a whole lot about the couple of seconds that the food is in our mouths, we care about filling our bellies a few times a day, but do we really think much about what our food means to us apart from that? I don’t think we do. We want food to be good to eat, but we don’t really want to think about everything else that it is. I think that is the original human sin.

 

If you think back to Genesis, the serpent convinced Eve that the forbidden fruit was one thing, and one thing only: good to eat. He convinced her to overlook what eating it would mean to her relationship with God. He wants her to ignore where the food comes from, or who gave it to her; he doesn’t want her to think that eating it will have any consequences. He tells her: “surely you will not die. In fact, you will become wise like God.” The devil convinces Eve to disconnect her food from the one who gives it. The devil doesn’t want us to realize that our bellies belong to God too, perhaps because he knows how easy it is to lead people by their stomachs.

 

Hunger is a powerful force. Hunger will lead you to do and say things that you never thought you would do or say. Hunger can turn you away from God; Hunger can turn you against your neighbor, if you let it.

 

That is what the Israelites realized in the desert. They were complaining to Moses and Aaron and they were saying that they would rather have faced the Eqyptians, than face hunger. That is one scary enemy, hunger. To think that people would rather be slaves than be hungry. They had disconnected their food from God; Food, or rather the consumption of food, filling their bellies, had become another idol drawing people away from living in relationship with the one true God. What the Israelites were forced to reckon with during their sojourn in the desert is the idea that food comes from God. God made it abundantly clear to them through the miracle of the manna that he was feeding them; the fine, flaky bread was a product and a symbol of their relationship with Him; seeing this manna made them realize that all food comes from God. Eating is about so much more than just a few seconds of pleasant taste. It is a life-giving act; you cannot separate your food from the one who gives it, because food is about relationship as much as it is about nutrition. All the food the Israelites had ever eaten, all the food that they would ever eat, it all came from God. Food is about so much more than just taste and consumption. Food is about life and our relationship with the one who gives life. If you ever wonder why the Bible is so concerned about food all the time, I think it is because the Israelites learned a valuable lesson in the desert: food can either draw us closer to God and to each other, or it can drive us apart. Undoubtedly this is why fasting is such an important spiritual practice: it keeps the devil from using hunger as a tool to enslave us.

 

If we only think of food as something good to eat, if we don’t think about where it comes from or the relationships it represents, then it becomes an idol, just like any other. We cannot disconnect our food from the one who gives it. If I have a choice between being in relationship with a farmer or being in relationship with a head of lettuce, I am going to be in relationship with the farmer. The lettuce may feed me for a day or two, but eventually it will wither and rot. It is having a relationship with the farmer that will continue to feed me from one season to the next.

 

So it is with God. We cannot worship the bread without giving honor to the one who makes the wheat grow. Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him for a piece of bread; he wants us to have a living relationship with the one who makes the wheat grow. Food is not just about having a full belly; it is about so much more. Food is about life and giving honor and praise to the one who gives life. We dare not separate the two.

 

What if we stopped looking at food as just something to be consumed and started seeing it for all that it really is? What if we really appreciated how our food connects us to God and to each other? I wonder if the world might look a lot different than it does today.

 

What if this meal, this little piece of bread and this little sip of wine, which we are about to take, forced us to stop and think about all the other meals we take for granted? We know that this meal at the altar connects us to God in a very special way; but what if it can also remind us of how every other meal connects us to God, and to each other?

 

Maybe this meal isn’t meant to fill our bellies as much as it is meant to fill our lives with gratitude for the fact that all food, whether it come from the dollar menu at the local drive thru or whether it comes from the pharmacy in a bottle, all food comes from God. If we really appreciated where our food comes from and how it shapes our lives and our relationships, then no meal should ever be taken for granted.

 

Every meal would begin with the simple recognition that these are the gifts of God for the people of God.