Friday, November 18, 2011

The Great Hall

I'd been there before, but the sheer size of the place still overwhelms me.  You see its towers dwarfing the city around it as you approach through the narrow, medieval lanes.  It's easy to forget what century it is until you see the ads for cell phone service in the windows of 17th century buildings.  But even so there is an eerie feeling of having been on a long, long journey of several generations and finally coming home.  And that home is Canterbury, the religious institution in England with the longest uninterrupted history.  Augustine of Canterbury established it in 597.

In the high middle ages it was a place of pilgrimage, not just for the fact that it is the mother-church of the Anglican Communion, but because it is the site of a church-state conflict gone horribly wrong in the 12th century.  Thomas Becket was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.  A strong-willed prince of a man, he ran headlong into the strong-willed Henry II over the rights of the church.  Back and forth they went for several years.  At one point Henry is supposed to have said in utter exhasperation, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"  Whereapon 4 rogue knights, seeing an opportunity to gain favor with their sovreign, murdered Thomas in the Cathedral.

T. S. Eliot in his artful play on the story called "Murder in the Cathedral" puts these poignant words in Thomas' mouth, "Herein lies the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason!"

Thomas' temptation, as Eliot creates it, is, knowing that his death at the hands of the political powers is highly probable, to respond with a humble submission to his fate just as Jesus had done--proving himself thereby more honorably humble than the recalcitrant king!  Poignant words because in a sense they resound throughout this ancient church even to this day.

In doing interviews, my son Landon and I found that most of the people there had not come as pilgrims.  Many of them were not even religious.  They came out of an interest in history, to see this thing everyone talks about, to see ancient architecture, to wonder at the hoary halls.  They came, doing the right thing, but for utterly the wrong reasons!  We resorted to asking people if they had come for religous reasons before asking for an interview!

In another more sublte way Canterbury does the right thing for the wrong reason.  The Nave walls are lined almost continuously from back to front on both sides with large marble slab monuments to military accomplishments around the world in the name of the English Crown.  Some of them had only oblique references to God, a few had none at all.  These seem to culminate a thread of thought that goes back all the way to the 14th century Black Prince.  Edward of Woodstock was the eldest son of Henry III and would have become King except that he died a year before his father.  He was an exceptional military leader of the English against the French, especially at Crecy and Poitiers (the French would obviously emphasize "black" rather than "prince.")  He became very popular because of this and is burried in the Cathedral.  Until the recent act of parliamant that allows a non-Anglican to assume the British throne, there has always been a blurry line between issues of state and issues of church, matters of earth and matters of heaven.  To do the right thing for the wrong reason...

But under all that confusion is the Undercroft.  Down there the hoary ages still hang in the air.  Ancient columns still seem to echo the chants of the Benedictine monks who have worshipped there through the centuries.  Modern monuments to social justice issues feel strangely at home with the peeling smoke of distant candles.  Here somehow, the undercurrent of the Spirit is still flowing, deep and cool and strong.  Perhaps this foundation is the key to this church's longevity after all.....

Altruism is officially DEAD!

An add on TV this morning showed a couple of ribbons marking out a Christmas gift (mind you, this is still pre-Thanksgiving.)  A gift card of the kind afixed to such packages appears in the intersection of the ribbons and the words, "To:" and "From:" magically appear on it.  Then between the two words in italicized letters these words write themselves:  "Get a wow from everyone!"  Texas Lotto tickets sprout from behind the card like magic.

Like magic we now give in order to get--to get a wow.  It's not in the giving, it's in the getting.  And the ones who get the most are the people who profit from the Texas Lotto, and the people who lose are the ones who can't afford to buy the tickets but do anyway.

It's official.  Altruism is dead!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving is Remembering

When Israel entered the Promised Land God warned them:  "Do not forget."

Do not forget!  When your wealth increases, and your power increases, and your satisfaction with life increase, do not forget where it all came from.  Do not forget the provision of God in the wilderness, for the abundance of the Promised Land comes from the same generous hands.  Gratitude is the fruit of a good memory.

It behooves us, therefore, to remember where our bounty comes from.  Take, for example, what is going to weigh our tables down this afternoon.  Let's start with the centerpiece of it all, the turkey.

Contrary to popular belief, turkey is not manufactured in the back rooms of the HEB store.  Turkey actually comes from a farm.  The farm got the turkey from a breeder.  The breeder got the turkey eggs from breeder hens and toms, who ultimately got their original turkeys from a Native American who had the turkeys as domesticated birds.  The Native Americans got the turkeys from the woods, which is ultimately where all our turkeys come from.  When you sit down to carve the great bird remember that it is a fruit of this North American continent on which we live.

Let's go to the dressing.  Now, there are two kinds of dressing, and they take us two different places.  There is bread dressing, which is wheat based.  The wheat comes from farms in the northwest, cultivated by huge machines they used to call tractors, but now look more like monstrous transformer toys.  They plant sections and sections of wheat that produce enough to feed the world.  But wheat was originally domesticated in the Fertile Crescent 11,000 years ago or so.  When you spoon out your dressing remember that it is the fruit of the cradle of civilization, come to us from half a world away.

Then there is cornmeal dressing.  Corn is also one of those early grains, it is the most widely produced cereal grain in the western hemisphere.  It was domesticated in central America, probably about the same time as wheat.  Remember that when you shovel in that wonderful cornmeal dressing you are receiving a gift from southern Mexico.

And then there are the spices.  Spices span the globe.  Literally thousands of herbs and spices go into our foods from every corner of the earth.  Most of the spices we use in dressing come from Italy and around the northern Mediterranean.  When you taste their subtle flavors remember to give thanks in Italian!

Mashed potatoes come from us not from either Idaho or Ireland.  They come to us from Peru.  When Landon and I were in Lima last summer we went to an open air market.  I asked one lady in a stall to tell me about all the potato varieties she had for sale.  She quickly ran through at least a dozen and apologized because there were so many more she did not have for sale!  When you drown your mashed potatoes in gravy remember the high mountain air of the Andes and give thanks to the Incas.

I could go on.  Green beans were first bred by Calvin Keeney in Le Roy, New York in 1894.  Pumpkin is a product of Native American horticulture of the eastern seaboard.  Pumpkin Pie originated when colonists cut off the top of pumpkins, scooped out the seeds, filled them with milk, spices and honey and roasted them over hot coals.  And the full feeling—it  comes when the sugar in your blood reaches thresholds that tell your glandular system to stimulate you to stop eating!

Our Thanksgiving bounty comes to us from literally everywhere.   It comes from places of origin around the globe, it comes from the dawn of civilization to just a hundred years ago.  In a sense, when your "remembering" goes back this far, it catches up all of creation, and places it beautifully on your table, thanks to the incredible bounty of the One who created it all in the first place.

There is another time when we do the same thing.  When we gather around the table of the Lord each Sunday we recognize the bounty of the Lord in our creation and redemption, and we make "Eucharist," we give thanks.  Every meal in your house is a shadow of the Great Meal we celebrate here.

Let us eat, then, and be thankful!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sheeply and Goatly

Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Killeen, TX

Sheep and Goats…sheep get to go to heaven, goats have to go to the other place.  I'm so glad I'm a sheep…..

Isn't that the meaning of this passage?  That's how we normally think about it, right?  The sheep are the people who are saved, who are on their way to heaven, and the goats, well, poor guys, they drove so fast to the ball game that they missed the ticket office.  Sorry, but, that's not me....

 Seems to me that telling the difference between the sheep and the goats is really pretty important, don't you think?  I mean, I know I'm a sheep, and I know you're a sheep, at least.....

The tricky thing is, sheep and goats are sometimes hard to tell apart.  A sheep says, Baaaa...." a goat goes, "Baaaa....."  A sheep eats grass and shrubs, a goat eats grass and shrubs.  Rams have horns and billy goats have horns.  A sheep poops little round black balls, a goat poops little round black balls.  I know what you're thinking:  Sheep have wool and goats don't.  But some sheep don't have wool, and some goats do!  I have a suspicion that if you shaved a sheep and a goat down to the bare skin nobody in here could tell which was which.

But Jesus makes it very clear that there is a huge difference—the difference between heaven and not-so-heaven.  It must be that the differences that matter are not on the outside, but on the inside.  Sheep have 54 chromosomes, goats have 60.  And....oh, yeah, this is a parable, not a biology lesson.  The differences don't really hinge on physical  differences.  They hinge on something else.  It seems they hinge on what sheep do compared to what goats do.

I saw a herd of goats once when I was a kid in Ecuador.  They were feeding along the inside of a narrow draw, nibbling whatever they could find.  It was a sandy draw with steep sides, and some goats found a little ledge with some grass on it.  They promptly formed a line and moved down this ledge eating everything to the ground.  But the ledge got narrower and narrower until finally, to maintain footing, they were leaning against the wall beside them.  Finally, it gave out completely.  The first goat jumped up on his back legs and spun around to face the next goat square on, and pushed by and forced him off the ledge!

 I've never seen a heard of sheep do that.

Sheep and goats really are different.  Goats are smarter than sheep.  They think about things and work the angles on them,  they try and push and get ahead by their own incessant will, like in the Old Testament reading when God says He'll judge against the ones that push with shoulder and flank and butt the weak ones and keep them from the grass and water.  Goats are smart enough to think they can figure it out by themselves.  Goats, for the purposes of this parable, are willful.  The goats in Jesus' parable did all the things that the sheep did, but they did them willfully, not willingly.  They fed the hungry and clothed the naked and visited the prisoner and tended the sick because they could manage a personal advantage out of it.  They did not do it "for the least of these, my brothers."  They did not meet the Lord in the face of the weak.  They met their own ambition.

Sheep, on the other hand, are lost without a shepherd.  European explorers in the 14th - 18th centuries had a habit of releasing goats on deserted islands and returning later for a stock of meat.  All it took was a billy and a couple of nannies,  And a year later there would be 46  of them!  Cabrito for supper!  It was so successful that in many places their descendents have become a plague that costs millions of dollars to control.

They didn't release sheep.  If they came back a year later for sheep all they would have found were fat coyotes, all dressed in Armani wool.  The only exception was New Zealand, that, at European contact, hosted no land-based predators.  It is the only place in the world where the natural environment is so benign that there is actually a population of feral sheep! 

So sheep, for the purposes of this parable, are willing rather than willful.  They do what they are led to do, the go where they are led to go, and they thrive only when under good care.

There are two very important differences between willfulness and willingness that are important for us this morning.  First, whereas the willful are often well provisioned, only the willing are grateful.  There are people who still say, “Give my hard-earned money to the church!  Are you kidding?”  “Charity begins at home, I take care of my own.”  “I'm a self-made person, I deserve what I've got.”  It is an attitude of pushing ahead, of forging one's own way, of working the angles.  It's willful and it is goatly.

On the other hand, the sheep looks at the pasture it didn't make, and the stream it didn't channelize or dam, and the shepherd standing watch, and is full of gratitude.  This is willing and it is sheeply.

This morning we are bringing in our pledge cards.  This is a sheeply action, full of gratitude, willing to do what is right in the face of the needs of the Kingdom.  And I'll give you the bottom line.  10% registers in God's books as "full gratitude."  My wife and I tithe to the church, and then give elsewhere as well.  It can be done,  How grateful are you?  How willing?

Secondly, whereas both the willful and the willing are surprised, only the willing are pleasantly so.  The goat who is always working the angles is surprised when his efforts to control the other goats fail.  I know, because I've been there myself!  You find yourself trying not to say things like. “"Don't be such a horn-head, that patch of daisies is for Grass-breath over here!"  And, "Oops, ledge ran out, careful, I’m comin' back through!"  Sooner or later our willfulness proves inadequate to the challenges of life, leaving our goat-hood in a considerable crisis.

On the other hand, the willing depend on the greater vision and wisdom of the Shepherd.  When things don't go as expected, it's OK.  Thomas Merton, on the drive to the Monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, writes that he was incredibly aware of two things within.  On the one hand an overpowering desire to enter the monastery, and on the other a complete peace if for some reason he were not accepted.  Iif he had been rejected his plan was to join the Army.  The willing steps onto the green pasture and says, “Wow, this is incredible!  The shepherd must love me so!  I wonder what is coming next?”

“I wonder what is coming next?” expresses a sense of expectancy, whose personal work is not to bring about the surprise, but to be as quiet and attentive as possible so as not to miss it when it comes!  Today is not only Thanksgiving Sunday, Christ King Sunday, Parish Meeting and Parish Thanksgiving Meal, it is also the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost, and the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent.  (Yes, the year has shot by us like a patriot missile!)

Our theme during Advent this year will be "Expectancy, Preparing for the Great Surprise."  Next week we will introduce a little meditation aid that will help you build that sense of expectancy during Advent, and assist that willing sheep-hood within.

Yes, I can be a sheep, and you can be one, too.  By loving one another and the needy of the world for Him as He has asked us to, with humble and open hearts, our wonderful surprise will be to see him in the very faces of the ones we love on His behalf.