Sigmund Freud supposedly said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Known for finding the deeper layers of meaning in everything — especially layers of meaning related to sexual hangups— Freud was saying that sometimes a cigar isn’t a symbol of anything — it’s just a cigar! — rather than what it might more obviously symbolize in Freud’s world.
However, in the Bible, a meal is never just a meal. It is never just a casual get together. It has layers of deep meaning. Who you eat with and who you don’t eat with say almost everything about your worth, your status — where you are in the pecking order. And who you eat with and who you don’t say almost everything about your identity, whether you are you an insider or outsider, to what group you belong. In fact, meals have been microcosms of the larger social order throughout much of history. According to the historian Ingrid Rowland, where you eat, what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat and who you eat with all suggest something about your identity, your community and certainly your social status. (Dan Clendenin’s summary here.) Food has, thus, she says, often been the “all sufficient metaphor for power.” Who has power, and who doesn’t. And what kind of power “builds or destroys human community” (Clendenin). So it’s probably no wonder that the Bible is constantly talking about food and eating and dining and drinking.
This sermon was given by Anna Rich, a lawyer and member of our congregation. An audio version of the sermon is available here. (The audio begins at about the second paragraph below.)
Intro—Why I Am Doing This
Several months ago, right after the Supreme Court issued its decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Sheri mentioned that in all of the time she’s been at First Mennonite Church, we’ve never actually talked about abortion as a congregation. I’m up here this morning because I have a leading that our collective silence on this topic does not necessarily come from a healthy place. Silence certainly doesn’t help us to have difficult conversations when we, or our friends and family, are faced with the common occurrence of an unplanned pregnancy.
So, here we are — in the dog days of summer. We are in the hot, sultry days that (according to Wikipedia) happen during the rising of the star system, Sirius, also know as the “Dog Star.” Greek astrology connected this time of year with heat, drought, thunderstorms, mad dogs and lethargy.
We’re lucky here in the Bay Area. While most of the rest of the country has been suffering from true dog day weather, we generally don’t have such uncomfortable weather here. We definitely have drought, but at least it’s not the 90-degree, 90% humidity weather that I remember growing up in in Ohio. Since many of you have lived elsewhere, I bet you know what I’m talking about. During the dog days, I would feel a little drugged, like I had taken a mild sedative. My brain felt like I was aways just waking from or about to fall asleep.
Our lectio divina group, which meets on Tuesday mornings, has been going through the book of Acts, and I’m getting reacquainted with these amazing stories from the earliest days of the founding of Christianity. Actually, that’s not the right way to say it. At this point, Christianity is still very much a movement within Judaism. The rupture between Judaism and Christianity had not yet happened; it’s still decades in the future. At the beginning, these Jewish disciples of Jesus are doing what the risen Christ told them to do earlier in Acts: that they should be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the process of being witnesses, Gentiles or non-Jews are also joining the Jesus movement.
Early in the morning, around 5am, Mary Magdalene walks alone to the tomb where Jesus’ body lay. She has barely slept since Friday, when she watched — watched! — her teacher, her best friend, her soulmate, brutally murdered. The whole time she stood there, looking up at him, trying to communicate through her presence the unbreakable bond between them, that she was with him, he was not alone, she was there.
This was the person in whom she had experienced the most powerful embodiment of the Lifeforce, Creator, God. And this was the person who had helped her connect to that Lifeforce. Because of him, the veils had fallen away and she saw. She saw the glory of God, the radiant life energy that bursts forth from every branch, every stone, every flower, every person, from her. She felt it inside of her. She had never known herself to be so alive, and so loved, completely, just as she was. She had seen what that aliveness and that love can do — how it can empower an oppressed community, help them imagine new worlds, take big risks, do new things.
This is the fifth sermon in our Lenten series on the Christian mystics called “A Voice to Call Us Home.” An audio version of the sermon is available here.
It came as a surprise to me when, in my early 30s, I felt drawn to becoming a monk. I was, by then, partnered with Jerome and so knew I wasn’t going to really be a monk, but I felt drawn to that life — to its simplicity, to the silence, the solitude, to the focus on what mattered. I was blessed during that time to find Hesed, an urban monastery in Oakland started by a female Benedictine monk that was devoted to the practice and teaching of Christian meditation. I became an oblate, or a committed member, of Hesed. As part of my commitment, I took vows, just like monks do. One of my vows was to what is called, in Latin, conversatio morum — ongoing conversion throughout one’s life, ongoing receptivity to transformation by the Spirit of God— which is really the one thing necessary, to quote Jesus from our scripture for today. Throughout this time, the monk Thomas Merton was my spiritual guide, a man so completely unlike me but someone whom also longed for the one thing necessary, who had also taken a vow of conversatio morum.
This is the third sermon in our Lenten series on Christian mysticism called “A Voice to Call Us Home.”
Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-9
We don’t know much about the woman called Julian of Norwich. We don’t actually even know her name. “Julian” is the name of the church where she lived for much of her adult life, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But we know a lot about her mystical experiences, because Julian was the first woman to write a book in English (or the first woman whose book survived into our time). Called Revelations of Divine Love, her book was about the 16 mystical visions she received in 1373.
This is the first sermon in our Lenten series on Christian mysticism called “A Voice To Call Us Home.“ A children’s story on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, written by Beverly Walsh, follows this sermon.
So, what do you think of when you hear the word “mystic”? What word or phrase or image comes immediately to your mind? I’m not looking for something thoughtful here, just your gut response, your first response. It’s OK if it’s not a positive association. What was that word or phrase?
Growing up in an Amish-Mennonite community in the Midwest, I never heard the word “mystic.” When I did first hear of it, I thought it referred to people who would go into a cave for years to commune with God, or a guru from India who meditated constantly or a monk or nun who would experience religious ecstasies when praying the rosary or some such thing. In short: A mystic was kind of this exotic other. It didn’t apply to anyone I knew and certainly not to myself.
Does this passage ever get any easier? It was challenging to the people who first heard it, in Jesus’ day. It was challenging to the early Anabaptists, our spiritual ancestors, who nevertheless took it seriously and made “enemy love” one of the bedrock principles of their countercultural faith. It was challenging to my pacifist Amish Mennonite community, who tried to live it out in a variety of courageous and very imperfect ways. And it is challenging to me. When I read this passage earlier this week, I thought: “Seriously, Jesus? This is what you’re asking of us? During out Tuesday morning lectio divina, someone said something like, “This passage feels like one mountain after another that I am being asked to climb. I climb one and then I see another in the distance, and then another.” In other words, tiring and maybe impossible.
My husband, Jerome’s, brother was a commercial fisherman. About twice a month, he would depart from Boston and head out to Georges Bank, often traveling several days to get there. It was hard physical labor, and they’d work almost 24/7, with very little sleep. They were tired and wet and cold a good part of the time. Jerome almost joined his brother working on the boat one summer, and I think he might have been glad he managed to find another job. Fishing is hard, exhausting work, even with all the technology fisherpeople have at their disposal.
So, it’s not difficult for me to imagine the physical and emotional exhaustion of the fishermen from our story. They have been up all night, throwing their heavy, wet nets into the water again and again and again. Each time they pull up their rope nets, the somewhat salty water of the Sea of Galilee irritates the cuts and scrapes they undoubtedly have on their hands and bodies. And each time they pull up the nets, they are empty. What would they eat? What would their families eat? And once on shore, they can’t yet lay their wet, weary bodies down and sleep. They have to mend the nets. Fishing is hard, exhausting work, then and now.
For four weeks during Advent, we dwelt in the dark. We encouraged each other to rest there, to embrace it as fertile and magnificent. As the place from which new birth comes.
And then, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary was awakened by an angel, who told her she would birth the Divine into the world. And then, we said on Christmas Eve: The Divine Child has been born! Glory to God in the highest! We ended our Christmas Eve service with this benediction: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.”
And then, today on Epiphany, we sing: “Arise your light has come!” And we tell the story of the coming of the light of Christ to all people through the story of the magi that we just heard. The story is meant to say: Even non-Jews, even these strangers from the East, these astrologers (who practiced magical arts that were seen as dangerous to Jewish people of the time) even they see the star in the sky and know that a Divine Light has come into the world.
This is the last sermon in our Advent series, “Rhythms of Rest.”
Luke 1:26-55 (excerpts)
There’s a painting of this Scripture we just heard that I particularly love. It’s called “The Annunciation,” which is the name for when Gabriel comes to Mary and announces that she will give birth to Jesus. It was painted by the African-American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1898. It shows a very ordinary looking Mary, sitting on her bed. Her blankets look like they were flung off in a flurry of confusion and haste, implying that Mary had been awakened in the middle of the night from her sleep. While the disarray speaks to the shock of the angel’s appearance — who is depicted here as an intense, golden pillar of light — Mary’s face doesn’t show fear. Instead, she looks directly at the angel, curious, perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the intense glory of the angel, but engaged. She is ready, open, receptive.