Presiding Bishop's sermon at Christ Episcopal Church, Dearborn, Michigan
Proper 25, Year C
Christ Church, Dearborn, Michigan (Executive Council)
28 October 2007
The Executive Council is meeting in a hotel not too far away, and usually when we meet in hotels we're not the only group there. When we met in Chicago last year there was a convention of North American Roman Catholic nuns. This time it's a missionary Baptist gathering. I was walking through the convention center yesterday morning, and some of the doors to the meeting rooms were open. One group was hearing about family ministry, and from another room came a booming voice talking about prayer. He said, with the wonderful cadence of the best of Baptist preaching, "fasting and prayer go together like red beans and rice."
And of course, he's right. Fasting is enriched and made meaningful through prayer, and prayer becomes deeper when it's connected to some kind of fasting. And the combination of beans and rice is significant -- in order to get a complete protein, you have to eat them together -- either one alone is incomplete, and a healthy diet needs both. The same is true for prayer and fasting.
But the more I thought about that image, the richer it became. There's a wonderful irony in comparing fasting to eating. Particularly when you think about the emotional aura around red beans and rice -- it's not just survival food, it's the kind of comfort food you bring out for a feast, like those great and abundant images of the heavenly banquet. In a deeply real sense, we can't know the gift of either fasting or feasting without the other -- the feast that comes at the end of Lent is a greater joy when we've really fasted. The daily evening feast in the month of Ramadan is spiced by the discipline of fasting through the sunlit hours. Prayer is deepened through fasting, both the prayer of desire and hunger, and the prayer of gratitude at being filled.
Yet I am also struck by how we might often hear words like that about red beans and rice. And maybe around here we'd have to say, prayer and fasting is like a latte and biscotti. And then I can hear some voices saying, "well! That can't possibly be right! When you fast you certainly shouldn't be thinking about eatingâ¦!" and then maybe comes the subtle reminder that we can't get ever get it right -- or we can't ever get it completely clean and pure -- even when we try.
We are human beings, and, as the Orthodox say, we're human beings trying to become divine. We are the image of God in earthen vessels. And as long as we don't forget that mixed reality, we're going to do just fine. That's what both Jeremiah's rant and Jesus' parable are all about. When we assume either that we've already got it all right, or if we forget that we are bearers of the divine image, we've missed the point. The folks Jeremiah is chiding think that all they have to do is get their liturgy right, that the rest of the week doesn't really count.
The parable is even more direct. You know, the Pharisee starts off just fine, "God, I thank you." If he'd stopped right there, we wouldn't tell this story told about him. It's the next part that's problematic, when he has to pump himself up by judging the people around him as greedy, or vow-breakers, or unjust or -- worst of worst -- enemy collaborators. The enemy collaborator -- and that's the biggest problem with being a tax collector in that society -- he comes to the temple, and he has the chutzpah to address God, but not in a way that judges himself in relation to anyone else. And his behavior is judged appropriate -- he gets to go home to dinner without any spiritual indigestion.
It is the tax collector's hunger, along with his prayer, that sets him right. The first pray-er isn't hungry, he's already full. He hasn't the capacity to enjoy the feast that is set before him.
It's a lot like that old story about the disciple who goes off seeking a guru. When he finally meets him, the guru offers him a cup of tea. The disciple holds out a cup, and the teacher starts pouring tea, and keeps pouring and pouring. Finally the student asks, "why don't you stop? There's tea all over the floor." The teacher responds, "well, you are like the cup -- you are too full to receive any more. Come back when you have room."
There's a connection in this parable to what comes immediately afterward -- the part we didn't read this morning. Jesus is inundated with children, and when the disciples complain, he says, "let the children come. If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, you have to learn to be like a child." Children can be judgmental and competitive, but they also know when they're hungry -- and they are far less able or willing than adults to squelch or hide that hunger.
How would the response have been different if the Pharisee had prayed, "thank you God. I really don't like myself very well, even though I try to live right." The prayer that he did pray made wasn't very honest. And perhaps that's a place where those children who just left can help to lead us.
Help us, Lord, to be honest enough to claim the image of God in which we are made, and help us also to be honest enough to acknowledge our hunger to see you more clearly through that image. Help us get out of our own way when we forget that the image we bear is neither more nor less than the image in our neighbors, and that you love us all equally -- as best beloved. Help us to enjoy the great feast that comes in seeing you in the diversity of images all around us. Remind us that we need both beans and rice.
Maybe that image seems most poignant right now because of the fires in southern California. When I spoke to people in the Diocese of San Diego there on Friday, I heard that the fire department from Tijuana had come to their aid, but had not been recognized in the media or in public expressions of gratitude. All of the California and Nevada fire departments had been thanks, but not the one from Mexico. They asked that we as a church might offer some public recognition for their cross-border service. I also heard that people and congregations in New Orleans, who have received help in the last couple of years from others, are already sending funds and offers of assistance to those who are suffering another kind of displacement. The feast of red beans and rice is being made real, even in the midst of tragedy.
That feast is the dream that was behind the demonstrations yesterday. Our hunger for a world that can remember and recognize the image of God in all our brothers and sisters is the only thing that will eventually bring us to the feast.
I remember visiting a parishioner in a nursing home several years ago, who wore a t-shirt that said, "Jesus loves you, but I'm his favorite." My sisters and brothers, we're all Jesus' favorite -- all we have to do is recognize it. And there will be great joy and feasting when we do.