As promised, here is another sermon by The Rev Anne K Bartlett. Remarkable in its simplicity yet powerful in its message of sacredness, love and the blessing of baptism--the becoming one in Christ, as one of His own within the family of the true and living God. May you be blessed by its Gospel truth as I was last Sunday [and yes I share the pew I happen to try to sit in every Sunday...there, I said it!]. Please visit us at Trinity Episcopal in Ashland, Oregon
2 September 2007
Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, OR
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett, Rector
In the name of the living God, who is and was and is to come. Amen.
Annie Dillard, one of my favorite authors, tells a story from her childhood about hiding a shiny penny in a tree stump and then drawing chalk arrows and messages on the sidewalk for blocks around: “Treasure this way!” “Don’t miss it!” “You’re almost there!” She would then hide behind a large forsythia bush and watch which people in her neighborhood would play the game and which ones walked right on by, either preoccupied with their own affairs or not wanting to be bothered with the prospect of an unexpected treasure.
Annie Dillard reminds me of how the Holy Spirit works through Scripture and in our lives, leaving us messages along the Way, with arrows pointing to unexpected and unearned treasures, if we’re not too preoccupied or too jaded to respond. And who knows? Why not imagine the Spirit is hiding near at hand, watching if we will become as children again, and let our steps quicken with excitement for unexpected treasure along the path if we but follow Her clear directions.
So let’s see what surprises await us this morning, first in the Scriptures. The prophet Jeremiah is dumbfounded by a people who have stopped asking the question “Where is God? Where is God in my life? Where is God in the life all around us?” Instead they have exchanged their glory of being God’s people for that which does not give life, relying instead on the prizes the culture holds out. Instead of wondering “Where is the Lord,” their question – maybe our question – has become, “What’s in it for me?”
“What’s in it for me?” is the attitude that Jesus was lambasting at the dinner party in the Gospel story. As I’ve frequently observed, Our Lord ate out a lot, and often with the wrong sort of people. Today, however, he is eating with folk like you and me, good religious people, upstanding citizens, but he notices that the guests are scrambling for the best places at the table.
I can’t help but be reminded how we sometimes choose our places in the pews. Some of us like to sit up front. Many of us like to sit in the very back. Newcomers have told me they feel uneasy, queasy because they are sure they must be sitting “in someone’s place.” As if we own our favorite spots! Jesus tells us to stop jockeying for position and instead pay attention to the needs of the other person. “Blessed are you who give up your favorite spot for a stranger. Even more blessed are you who scoot over to the center and let the stranger have the seat on the aisle.” You know, it really is unseemly to ask our guests and visitors to clamber over our knees so that they can have a place with us. Taking the less promising seat is an act of hospitality of the most fundamental kind.
Stories about being at the table run all through the Bible. We are always being fed, or yearning to be included in the party. At Eucharist, we are God’s guests, and Jesus is our host, and there is room for all. The image of the Kingdom is the heavenly banquet, the feasts of all feasts, and it’s always a topsy-turvey toss-up about who is seated where and who is serving whom. Jesus also had words for his host that night. “Don’t invite your rich friends and your family, because they can invite you back, and you’ll get gourmet food and fine wine,” he says. Stop behaving in the old economy of exchange, asking “What’s in it for me?”
Liberate yourselves from the dynamic of mutual benefit, the “this for that” mentality. I’ll pay you this for that; I’ll do this for you if you do that for me; I’ll invite you to my house if you invite me to yours. Instead, operate under the laws of God’s economy, the economy of sacrifice.
Now hold on. Usually when the word “sacrifice” is put on the table, we tend to assume we know what it means: we assume ‘sacrifice’ always entails a loss to us or at least a diminishment of our selves. Actually, the literal meaning of the word “sacrifice” means “to make sacred.” And – get this! –the origins of sacrifice are in food offered to the gods, as an acknowledgement that we are not our own, we do not belong to ourselves, and we are thankful for the sustenance that keeps us alive. So the food of the sacrifice itself became sacred, holy. And the offering of such food was a sacramental act. Which is why, in our Eucharistic prayer, we speak of “offering to God this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” and sometimes we pray that we too may be made a “living sacrifice to God.”
So, the economy of exchange asks: What’s in it for me? But the economy of sacrifice asks: How can I offer myself fully for your sake, no strings attached? Going back to our table talk, the beatitude would be: “Blessed are you who invite those who will never be able to pay you back, for yours is the kingdom of God.” In the economy of sacrifice, we invite others to our tables as we have been invited to God’s table, with no sense of how the others might repay us, but simply to acknowledge the worth and the value of the other. God’s economy of sacrifice – of making sacred – invites us to love and care in ways which draw us outside of ourselves and into union with all creation.
There’s a new book out titled Eat This Bread by Sara Miles, an Episcopalian who belongs to St. Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco, a congregation known for its hands-on service to the poor as much as for its innovative liturgy. Sara describes how they play out this “making all things sacred” way of sacrificial living. During worship, the high round table in the center of the sacred space is the altar, on which the Eucharistic feast is prepared and blessed, broken and distributed. Immediately after worship, the altar cloth is whipped off and replaced with a festive tablecloth, the coffee pot and plates of cookies come out of the kitchen and the table becomes the center of coffee hour, the feast of fellowship. On Fridays, the table is loaded with jars of peanut butter and cans of tuna fish and is one of many loaded with food for the poor, who stream through the open parish doors. Eucharist, fellowship, service: all served at the one table. All is held in God and all is holy.
A couple of years ago I heard of hot new restaurant in the Portland Pearl district. Listen to this. For $30 you can buy a place at a table with 35 people you don’t know. It’s a big long table, simple flowers, very good food, served family-style. You eat what has been prepared; no other choices. The pace is leisurely – no rushing – plenty of time for table talk. The point? To share a meal with strangers and talk with them. That’s all. The man and the woman who cook and arrange for this meal have a young child, who goes from lap to lap. The conversation, they say, often turns to discussion of the things that are giving meaning to the lives of the guests. It’s very hard to get a reservation, because many people are yearning just for this experience. And the ones who have been lucky to go once often want to come back time after time. What are those guests really yearning for? Hospitality and community and a sense that life has meaning and a desire to connect with strangers and find an unexpected treasure in the connection.
Did you know that the literal meaning of “hospitality” is “love of a stranger”. We seem these days, as a culture, to be yearning for what we don’t have: for time to sit and talk about what our hearts desire, time to be in communion with others beyond our own network of family and friends, time to be at table with all ages, time to be hospitable to one another, a chance to lay aside our mistrust of the stranger.
Hospitality is a primary Christian virtue, it is based on the economy of sacrifice, it means to welcome the unknown, especially those on the “margins,” and seek Christ in them; it means to offer food, fellowship, and full inclusion.
Annie Dillard said that many people when they came to the treasure walked right on by the shiny new penny, free for the taking. I guess to most people, when they saw how small it was, of such little apparent worth, it wasn’t worth the bother to stoop and pick it up. But isn’t that how it goes in the spiritual life? That when we can get out of ourselves for even a moment and open ourselves to the possibility that the divine Mystery has stamped upon us the imprint of itself, and that we are participating in a power beyond the pitiful little power that we think we yield, and connection to this Mystery and to this Life and to this Life is being offered to us, over and over again, if we but let go of our pride and our despair and our striving and humble ourselves by stooping to notice and rejoice.
In a few minutes, this congregation is going to have the privilege of witnessing the baptism of Colleen Graves, whom we have come to know and love over the past year. We will have the privilege also of welcoming her into our midst, to travel with us on the Way, to be pilgrims with us. We are here to lean on if you become discouraged, and we know you will be there to lend us a hand when we falter or fall. We’re all in this together, sealed by the Spirit, and made one with Christ. For Colleen to choose to take this step is an act of courage as well as faith. I cannot overemphasize the change that has occurred in our western culture in the past several decades.
Colleen’s friends no doubt find her decision to be baptized to be very strange if not downright incomprehensible. She is daring to do a profoundly counter-cultural act this morning, and I want us all to be aware of that fact. In that respect, her generation of Christians is more like the earliest Christians than any of us ever were. She will pay her own form of sacrifice in order to throw in her lot with Jesus. She knows what she is doing.
You are not alone, Colleen. That we can promise you. And we rejoice in you and your decision, and we thank the Spirit for guiding you and we thank you for noticing the arrows of grace and of promise that have appeared to you on your path and for your courage and your joy in valuing the treasure of grace which is being given to you, this day and always.
Colleen has chosen Jodi and Paul French, who brought her to Trinity and with whom she shares her ministry of music to be her sponsors on this day of her baptism. Will the three of you now please come forward….
And so it was...a glorious baptism, one more Episcopalian, sure, but truly, one more disciple of Christ. And the pundits say the Episcopal Church is losing members. I dunno, at the rate Trinity is adding members, I doubt that the pundits really know what they are talking about.
That said, this will be my last post for a bit with my surgery the day after tomorrow. I hope to recover quickly so I can be up and writing again. Keep one another in love and joy, and show love to a stranger...show them how sacred their life truly is...