Tuesday, May 21, 2013

stone soup sermon

preached in the village of Luwala Juk Bil in S. Sudan on January 27, 2013
preached at All Saints Episcopal Church on May 8, 2013

Weh cha moth ne rin ke yechu kritho benydida. Amen.
(I speak to you in the holy name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Once upon a time there was a sad little village. It was sad because the villagers kept to themselves. No one talked to anyone outside their family, because nobody trusted anyone they were not related to. One family had the most delicious potatoes in the world, but they were afraid people would steal them, so they hid their potatoes from their neighbors. Another family had the fattest, healthiest goats in the world, but they hid their goats from their neighbors because they were afraid they would steal them. A third family had the best spices in the world, but they hid them from their neighbors because they were afraid they would steal them. The other families in the village hid their things as well. When they passed each other on the street, they would cross over to the other side of the road so that they wouldn’t have to talk to one another. It was a very sad village.

But one day a stranger came to town. He carried nothing but a stone, a spoon, and a large pot. He walked right into the middle of the village, put the pot down, collected firewood, and started a fire. He put some water from the village well into the pot and began to boil it on the fire.

The villagers were very curious; they didn’t get many visitors, and certainly not ones who behaved so strangely. One by one the villagers came outside to see what the stranger was doing, until the whole village was there. Finally, a little girl got up the courage to ask the stranger what he was doing. He said, “I’m making stone soup.” “Stone soup?” the girl replied. “That’s silly; you can’t make soup from stones—everyone knows that!”

The stranger held up his stone and said, “This is no ordinary stone. It’s a magic stone! When I put it into a pot of boiling water, it makes the best soup in the world.” When he finished speaking, he carefully dropped the stone into the boiling water. The villagers watched as he stirred the pot a few times and tasted the soup. “How does it taste?” someone asked. “It’s good,” the stranger replied. “One of the best I’ve made, but it would taste even better with some potatoes. If only I had some.”

The villagers were very curious, so finally one of the families sent their child to go get some of their potatoes. The stranger added them to the soup, stirred it, tasted it, and said, “Oh my, that’s good. But what it could really use is some meat. If only I had some.” The family with the goats went back to their home, killed a goat, and brought the meat to the stranger. He put the goat meat in the pot, stirred it, tasted it, and said, “This has got to be the best soup I’ve ever made. But it would be even better with some spices. If only I had some.” The family with the spices got them and brought them back. One by one, the villagers brought back things that they’d kept hidden from their neighbors: vegetables, salt, meat, and spices. All of them were added to the soup. As they watched the stranger stirring and tasting, the villagers began to talk with one another, wondering where the stranger came from and whether the stone was really magic or not. It was the first time they’d talked with one another in years.

When the stranger stirred and tasted and finally decided the soup was ready, he asked everyone in town to bring bowls and spoons so they could have some. So everyone in the village tried the soup and agreed that it was the best in the world. They talked and laughed with their neighbors, and realized that life was better when they shared it with one another.

So why did I tell you this story? When I was little I read the story of Stone Soup. Even though it was a simple folk tale, the story had a powerful message. It has stuck with me all these years, and when I read the passage from 1 Corinthians, I was reminded of it.

You see, all of us gathered here have something to bring to the pot. We each have special gifts: for some it’s teaching, for some preaching, for others it’s singing or praying or working with youth or organizing or evangelizing. But if we keep our gifts to ourselves, what good are they? Without lay people, there would be no congregation of believers. Without priests, deacons, lay leaders, and bishops, there would be no one to teach the congregation about Jesus Christ. Both ordained and lay people need each other in order to have a church.

As you may have guessed, the stone in the story about the soup was not really a magic stone. The stranger taught the village that their lives were richer, more delicious, when they shared what they had with each other. The same goes for us: when we hide our gifts, they become useless. But when we come together to worship, bringing the gifts that were given to us by the Holy Spirit, just imagine what we can accomplish together!

May we work together, using our gifts to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a world hungry for some good news.

Nhialic abi wek thiei. (God be with you.)
Dong ke ne door. (Go in peace.)

church members in Luwala Juk Bil, South Sudan

Monday, May 13, 2013

live together in unity

May 11-12, 2013
7th Sunday of Easter, Year C
Today's readings

“Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!" (Psalm 133).  Amen.

Last week Mother Liz talked about the New Jerusalem appearing in the clouds, a vision of heaven coming down to earth, a vision found in the book of Revelation. 

Thematically, this week we find ourselves caught between the Feast of the Ascension (when Jesus went up to heaven after his Resurrection) and Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit visited the Apostles). It is the last Sunday in Easter, but our Gospel passage brings us back to just before Jesus’ arrest. Here we find ourselves at a precipice. 

Today’s Gospel reading from John comes at the end of what is often called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. He is teaching his disciples one last time, and it seems as if he is trying to squeeze in as much wisdom as possible before he goes. In the section we heard today, Jesus is “pray[ing] for his disciples” (v. 20). He urges the disciples to live together in unity, not only with God and with Jesus, but with each other. The disciples are charged with spreading the Good News of God in Christ. If they are going to be successful, then they need to swallow their pride, overcome their differences, and work together. Otherwise, all anyone will see is a bumbling, bickering motley collection of Jesus’ closest followers; they will distract from the message of peace and love they are trying to convey. 

Before we get too comfortable, a closer look at the passage reveals that we’re not off the hook. Jesus even includes us in this message: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (vv. 20-21)! We are called to live in unity as well. 

So what does this unity look like? Humans are predisposed to putting things into categories in order to process information better. There’s a sense of comfort in identifying as American, mid-western, Christian, and specifically Episcopalian. We can feel a sense of unity in situations where we feel we belong, when we are surrounded by people we identify with and understand, and who similarly understand us. But, as the Rev. Canon Anthony Jewiss said, “Unity does not mean sameness. It means similarity of purpose, of intention, of allegiance and of behavior towards one another. It means accepting. For those who believe, it means gathering under the canopy of creation and being part of a great singleness of purpose” (quote found here). 

Last weekend at the Tween Retreat, the 5th and 6th graders explored what it means to be the Body of Christ. During the Bible Study, we discussed how believing we are all part of the Body of Christ influences the way we treat people, both those we like as well as those we do not like. In reflecting on how we treat people we don’t like, one of the youth said, “It’s like that song from Pocahontas: ‘You think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you, but if you walk the footsteps of a stranger you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew’” (“Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s film Pocahontas). Clearly the deeper meaning behind Disney songs is not lost on younger generations. And this youth was right. Christians don’t have the luxury of choosing who to be in unity with. Jesus calls us to be in unity with all people, even people with different thoughts, beliefs, or political leanings. Unity can be a glorious and beautiful thing, but if everyone involved in the unity thinks and looks and believes the same, then unity can become dangerous. It can cause us to look at people not part of the group as different, less than. Think of the fighting between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Of the ethnic violence and genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and lately, Myanmar. Or, in our own neck of the woods, fighting between gangs. Unity that shuts out people who are different is not the kind of unity Jesus is talking about.

A famous example of unity in the midst of differences came in the winter of 1914 (history.com). On a muddy battlefield in France on Christmas Eve, German and British troops were exchanging fire. At midnight some of the Germans stopped shooting and began to sing Christmas carols. The Allies, hearing the music, put down their weapons and joined in the singing. Incredibly, by the morning, both sides had come out of their trenches to celebrate together. They held a soccer match and even exchanged gifts! Although the experience was fleeting (they started fighting again the next day), it provided a glimpse of the kingdom of God. They certainly had differences, but for a short while they recognized each other’s humanity. 

Another way unity can be dangerous is when we think that only people who deserve it can be included. Jesus was constantly hanging out with the outcasts, the people others rejected because of their profession, social class, gender, or diagnosis. He was famous for dining with outcasts and sinners, after all (Mark 2:16; Matthew 9:10-12)!

An example of living in unity and demonstrating Christian love happened more recently. In the wake of the Boston bombings, the Tsarnaev family was looking for a place in Boston to bury their son Tamerlan, who we know as Bombing Suspect 1. None of the cemeteries were willing to let him be buried on their premises. After three weeks of searching, however, a complete stranger came forward and offered his cemetery plot to the Tsarnaev family. According to news reports, the stranger gave this reason for his offer: “This person, I don’t care what a pariah he is, everybody deserves a burial, so I’m willing to make this offer. I also think it would be a nice thing to do in memory of my mother, who did teach me to love thine enemy” (New Haven Register, May 6, 2013). Wow. Now this is more of what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of unity!

Today’s Gospel and the examples just mentioned provide us with an opportunity for reflection. Where in our own lives are we failing to live in unity? Where are we looking down on others? Where are we excluding rather than including? How can we demonstrate the type of unity Jesus is praying for in school, at work, at home, and at church? It’s not an easy way of life (after all, the glory of Jesus was most fully realized in his death and then resurrection). Unity is often countercultural. In an era of extreme political polarization, and in the face of a heated upcoming election, unity can even seem impossible. 

But you and I, we know better. We know that unity is possible. In fact, it happens every week! Each week we have the opportunity to put aside our differences and join together in Communion. We listen to words telling us the story of Christ, who loved us so much that he gave his life for us. “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you.” We remember that we are fractured like Christ, but also like Christ, this brokenness doesn’t last forever; the Body and Blood are a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. We approach the altar knowing that despite our differences and what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God loves us equally and unconditionally. 

Out of his love for us, Jesus says that he will be with us. He ends the prayer for his disciples and us with a promise of love: “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (v. 26). In that spirit of love, I leave you with a poem by Edwin Markham, entitled “Outwitted”: 
                 He drew a circle that shut me out--
                 Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. 
                 But love and I had the wit to win. 
                 We drew a circle and took him in!