Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2012 ShrineMont Job 42:1-6. 10:17 Mark 10:46-52 “See”

I have had three conversations in the past week where people said, “I’m struggling in my faith.” For each of them, the nature of the confusion or struggle was different. In the end, though, it was simple: they looked up to God, and they just felt like they couldn’t see him.

It’s not an unusual thing. We want to see God, or at least feel his presence, especially at difficult times or turning points in our lives. It would be ever so much better if we just felt that God, like a comforting parent, would be prodding us in the right direction, or saying “You’re fine – keep going.” But sometimes it seems he is nowhere to be found.

Over the past few weeks we have been hearing of the story of Job, the man who was tested in extraordinarily difficult ways. He lost his children, his wealth, and his health. His friends tried to help but really only made matters worse. He stayed faithful to God, but as more and more bad things happened to him, he asked God, “Why aren’t you helping me out here? I’m feeling pretty alone right now.”  God, being an Old Testament kind of God, finally got a little annoyed with Job and said, “Kiddo, I’ve been with you from the start and I’ve been with you all along. Don’t question me.” And Job sat back and said, “I guess I was wrong to ask you questions. You were there all along, although I was so wrapped up in my own problems that I couldn’t see you. I heard, but I didn’t understand. I didn’t see. Now I do.”

Seeing God. It’s what we seek, isn’t it?

In our Gospel today, Bartimaeus is a blind beggar who calls out to Jesus and says, “Hey there, Jesus, help me out here!” I suspect Bartimaeus was like one of those folks who beg on the street corner. We see them every day as we drive to work, and they’re a little annoying with their cardboard signs and sad faces.  Begging is their profession, something that some of us would say that they choose to do for a whole host of reasons. But unlike the folks on the street corner, Bartimaeus had no other option. There was no work for a blind man. It may have been that he was turned out by his family. But I suspect that he was at that same spot every day except the Sabbath, calling out and asking for money from passersby. He may have gotten pretty good at recognizing particular people by the sounds they made: old Joshua had a bad limp, and always walked with his little dog, so the sound of their steps was a step-drag-patter-patter along the hard sand of the road.  When Bartimaeus heard that step-drag-patter-patter, he called out “Joshua, old friend! Can you spare a few coins for a blind man?” Miriam had eight children, and he could hear them talking and fussing at each other from a quarter-mile away. As they approached, Bartimaeus  would call out “Miriam, good mother! Can you give a coin or two to me in thanksgiving for your wonderful healthy children, who all have the sight that I lack?” When he heard the rolling of wooden wheels and the clop of hooves, he knew the Roman centurion was going past, and he didn’t call out – he simply hid himself, because sometimes the soldiers would beat beggars who asked for alms at the roadside.  

But one day, Bartimaeus sensed something different, a different energy around him. He heard people walking on the road, a good crowd of them by the sound of it, people whose steps he didn’t recognize, voices he hadn’t heard before. Yes, there were some of his neighbors in the crowd, but there were newcomers as well. And as they approached, the words left Bartimaeus’ mouth before he even thought of them: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

He wondered if he was possessed by a demon, that he should say such words. He didn’t know this Jesus. He had never met him before. He had learned in the temple that a Son of David would come and be the anointed one, the Messiah, but he had no way of knowing that this man, this stranger, was it. And yet, he knew, and he spoke. He could see behind his blind eyes who this man was.

The religious leaders, those Pharisees and priests, they seemed not to understand who Jesus was. 

They could not see. But Bartimaeus understood and cried out. Even in his blindness, he could see who Jesus was.

Some people near the annoying beggar told him to be quiet, but he cried out again, “Have mercy on me!” And Jesus heard his cry. He stopped stockstill in the middle of the road and said, “Bring him over here.” So the crowd, including those people who had just said “be quiet,” guided him over to Jesus, this man whom Bartimaeus had never before met. And Jesus said “What do you want?” And the blind beggar said, “I want to see.” And Jesus looked at him. Jesus knew that this man who was blind saw him, really saw him, in a way that the religious leaders did not. Jesus healed his eyes, praising his faith, but Jesus knew that his sight was already healed by that faith. Jesus simply repaired the mechanics.

That is the thing about sight. What do you see? When you meet a neighbor, do you see a middle-aged person with a slight limp and graying hair, or do you see the joy in his face that he’s gotten a new job, or the loneliness after the death of a beloved one? When you come to church, even a church like this, to worship God, do you see the cross and the chalice and the cup or do you see the ineffable love and strength of the God who made us? What do you see?

Oftentimes, as Job discovered, it is hard to see God. We have to work to sense him among us, alongside us, within us.

But the gift of Christ in our lives is that we have been given someone who was human like us, someone who talked as we talk, who walked and got tired and enjoyed a good meal. When we see Jesus, though, we don’t only get a picture of a human being. We get a window into what God looks like. We can see God, through Jesus Christ. We are not alone. He is like us, and understands us better than anyone can. He is with us, and feels our joys and our pain better than anyone can. He is in us, and sees the world in which we live with clarity, and sometimes with sadness.

Job had it right. We may have some sense of our Divine Creator – Job talked about hearing God – but it takes a special patience and a special faith to actually see God. And this place helps us see God, doesn’t it? Look up at the blaze of colors in the trees. Look at the water running in the spring. Smell the crisp damp air and see the reds, oranges, and greens of newly harvested apples and pumpkins. God is here for us to see, and for us to seek, if we trust our faith and our senses.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, October 21, 21012 Mark 10:35-45 "It’s All About Me"

I have ShrineMont on the brain right now. I spent four days there this week at the bishop's clergy conference, and we will  be going up to our parish retreat there next weekend. It's a fabulous place, up in the mountains, with the most wonderful trees and mountains and great food.
I can't ever think about ShrineMont without remembering when our daughter was 13 or so, and we were getting ready to go as a family up to our St Peter's parish retreat. My husband and I were talking about some of the activities that we would enjoy, and my daughter looked at us and said, "You don't get it. ShrineMont is all about the teenagers!"

That would have come as a surprise to those of us who enjoyed the adult activities like games and hiking and late night conversations over a congenial glass of wine. But to our daughter, none of that was relevant. It was all about the teenagers, which really meant "it's all about me."

It's all about me. We rarely say that aloud, but I'll bet we often think it. We may not use those exact words, but we feel it. When something happens that inconveniences us, we complain, because, after all, it's all about me and my convenience. When the waiter, who is servicing twleve different tables of customers, is a little slow refilling our coffee cup, we grumble, because, after all, it's all about me and my need for a little more caffeine. Even when good things happen, that little phrase "it's all about me" seems to creep in. Get a promotion? Of course! I deserved it. I'm a good worker. It's all about me. Hit the lottery? It's about time, because it's my turn. and after all, it's all about me!

It's a common disorder, this compulsion to view the world as something simply in service to our own wants and needs. And it seems to be a bit of what James and John are afflicted with in today's gospel. They start off the little kerfuffle among the disciples by asking for special preference from Jesus. They must have gotten that idea from their mother, who had asked Jesus for the same thing earlier in the gospel. I can hear her now: "You boys go speak up for yourselves. You're never going to get anywhere in the world if you don't ask for what you want. He likes you. Go ask him."

And they go ask, because in their minds it really is all about  them, and Jesus says, "you two have no idea what you're asking for." And then the other disciples hear about it and they start saying "It's not fair. Treat us well, too." Because in their minds, it is all about them as well.

And Jesus says, "well, yes, it is all about you, but not necessarily in the way you seek. If you were trying to be a king on this earth, it would be a really exciting thing, wouldn't it? Lots of power and money, people doing what you ask, dancing girls and fancy clothes  and such. But my kingdom is something else entirely. You want to be part of the elite in my kingdom? It means you are willing to be a servant, not a power player. It means you do whatever is necessary to make sure all are cared for and protected, not simply worry about retaining your own power. It's about putting others ahead of you and above you. Can you accept this part of the deal? It will be all about you, but you as a servant, not as the served. So think about this before you say this is what you want."

The disciples, of course, thought they would get kingly glory by being with Jesus, where everyone around them would affirm, "Yes, it's all about them! Aren’t they fabulous!"

But Jesus said what they would hear was more like "it's all about you because it's your responsibility to help me and take care of me."
That's the funny part of this business of following Christ. It is all about us, and it's not all about us. It is when we follow Jesus and recognize that his model of right living is about serving rather than being served. It's not all about us when we get into "needy child" mode, craving attention and needing things to make us feel better or more important. That's just not Jesus'  way.

And this is why this is such a useful passage as we bring our pledges to the altar in few minutes. By committing to give to the work of the church for the coming year, we say "it's not all about us." Each of us might use those funds for a newer car, or a bigger house, or a few new outfits. But we know that while that might make us feel a little more special in the short term, it doesn't help us help others in the way that giving to the work of this parish can do. It is not about us as individuals, it is about us as a part of a larger community, as a apart of the world. It is about us doing what we can to bring God's reign to earth. It is about us recognizing that being a follower of Jesus means we put the needs of the world ahead of our own needs, and that this is the path to eternal glory.

It is not easy. We seem to be wired to think of ourselves first. But Jesus says we have the power to do some strategic rewiring of our priorities, and this is just what we do together today

So as you bring your pledge forward today, know that you are saying "it is all about me. It is about what I can do in my own way to help change the world. It is about what I choose to do for others rather than what I insist on for myself. It is about serving before taking, about God before me."

St Ignatius Loyola captured the essence of what it means to serve Christ and the world in a prayer written 500 years ago:

Eternal Word, only-begotten Son of God, teach me true generosity. Teach me to serve you as you deserve. To give without counting the cost, to fight heedless of wounds, to labor without seeking rest, to sacrifice myself without thought of any reward save the knowledge that I have done your will.

It is all about me, and about you, and most importantly, about God.   


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Labor Interruptus

I've been away for a few days at the diocesan camp/conference center way far away in the woods. It was beautiful there, the trees a Jackson Pollack splatter-fest of color, with drips of Thomas Kinkade gold. From Sunday evening to Monday afternoon, there was work to be done with one of the diocesan working groups. After a very tough week, I found it hard to muster the energy to contribute much except some word-smithing here and there - my inner editor never rests, it seems - and was glad at 3 pm on Monday when I had an appointment for a massage.

Have I told you how much I love my Bishop? He subsidizes these massages when the clergy come up for the clergy retreat, so we can afford them. Now, if only he could subsidize some liposuction, then I'd really be in business.

The rest of the time was a mix of conversations and meditation and writing and reading. Some of these were rich, some were mundane, but they all were blessing because we actually had the time to sit and talk with each other. The meditations for the retreat were sort of meh, but at least time had been carved out to attend to them. Sometimes just being quiet is enough...

Food was solidly in the Southern comfort-food category, although they have gotten better about offering things that are not deep fried. A pity, that. Part of the joy of the place is having a few days of eating really, really, really badly, so that when we come home, we are poised to re-enter the land of good nutrition with something akin to joy.

I had the option driving home the fast way (all highway, with lots of trucks) or the back road. Despite the longer trip, I took the back roads. You see things on back roads that you don't see on the highway.

Here is what I saw:
  • a hay bale with a smiley face painted on it
  • three dead deer by the side of the road
  • several Tea Party signs, some with truly frightening misspellings ("govamint?" really?)
  • a young father with a shaved head and ZZTop beard as well as an amazing collection of facial piercings and tattoos, waiting as his young daughter was dropped off by the school bus, then tenderly taking her hand and chatting with her as they walked up his drive
  • barns that are falling over
  • people selling pumpkins out in front of their homes, with honor jars if no one is there to take payment
  • a house with probably twenty cords of wood stacked nearby - they must be expecting a really cold winter. Time to get out the long johns.

It took me about a half hour longer to get home, but it was worth it. I got to carry a little of the serenity of a few good days in my head and heart a bit longer. I hope that glow sticks with me for a while. it's good to interrupt the work every now and again.

File this under "things I need to do more often."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, October 14, 2012 Mark 10:17-31 “Priorities”

"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "…You know the commandments…'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

We are in the midst of the election season, also called the silly season, since so many silly and improbable things are said by folks on both sides of the political spectrum, but when I read the passage from the Gospel this week, I found myself thinking of a political campaign a number of years ago. It was 1984. The candidates were the Democrat Walter Mondale and the Republican Ronald Reagan. When Mondale accepted the nomination at the Democratic convention, he stunned the audience when he said these words in his speech: Mondale said: "By the end of my first term, I will reduce the Reagan budget deficit by two‑thirds. Let's tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

He said this because he wanted to be honest with the American people, and he was challenging Reagan to be similarly honest. But it seemed the American people didn’t much like his honesty, and so he lost by a landslide.

Like the young man in the gospel story, the American people were shocked by Mondale’s words, and went away grieving, and expressed that grief at the ballot box. Why? We can argue that they did not want their taxes raised because they believed that government was inefficient and bloated and it was wrong to put more money into such a wasteful system. That may or may not be true – this sermon is not about politics. But what was the young man in the gospel so disturbed by, and what were the electorate so disturbed by, when they were told that they needed to part with some of their money? The young man walked away. The electorate walked away. Nobody wants to give up their money.

I can recall the first time that I told one of my kids that if they wanted that particular toy, he would have to pay for it with the money he had saved up from his chore money. “What? That’s MY money! I earned it.” And I said, “Yup, you earned it, which is good. I earn money, too, and it pays for your clothes and your food and this house and all the other things that you need to grow up big and strong. We work, and we earn money from working, and then we use it to take care of you.” A really grown-up argument, of course, and my child should have understood it, right? His response was a long wail “…but it’s MYYYYY money!” Tears welled up in his eyes. I remembered how I felt when I had done the tax return the prior year and tears had welled up in my eyes when I realized that we owed the IRS a goodly sum of money. I felt his pain, but I also wanted him to start understanding what having some money means.

I doubt that the rich young man wailed “but it’s MYYYY money,” but I’ll bet that he was thinking it.

Our friend Darel Gallagher tells his clients that the most power people can have is when and how they give away their money. It feels good, it does good, you can decide where and when the money goes. I think that’s a very valid argument about one’s relationship with money.

But I also think the point that Jesus was making in the gospel, one that we often forget, is that the money can get in the way of living as Christians. If our sole focus is on hoarding it, keeping it safe, protecting it from giving it away, from theft by the government or from terrorists or from your brother-in-law, what energy do we have left to do the work that Christ tells us we should do? And where does our money come from? Of course we have earned it – at least those of us who haven’t inherited it, and I don’t think there are too many millionaire heiresses in the room – and we have worked hard to do that.

But if you follow the trail of how you got to the place where you could earn that money, where does it lead you? You went to school to learn skills, where teachers spent hours preparing you to work in the world. Your parents encouraged you and taught you, may have even paid for private school or college for you. Your employer gave you additional training to help you do your job effectively. And at the beginning, at the heart of it, God was there, having given you your own unique gifts and abilities, before you were a squalling newborn in the doctor’s hands.

When Jesus challenged the rich young man, he was hearing that guy’s subconscious “…but it’s mine,” and saying “no, not really. I lent it to you, to see what you would do with it. And it doesn’t look like you’re doing such good things with it.”

Jesus was saying “everything you have, it all came from the God who loves you. It’s not really yours forever. It’s on loan when you’re here on earth. Get rid of it, and you’ll be free from worrying about hanging on to it. Use it to help others instead of yourself. You can get down to the real work of figuring out how to use your gifts in service to the world.”

We get this skewed view of how the money we have is really important, and it causes us to choose in ways that make Jesus weep. We worry more about keeping than giving, and all of our efforts go into hanging on to the money rather than hanging on to what Jesus teaches us about what is really important.

 Now, I know you may be worrying that this is a stewardship sermon, that it is all about getting you to increase your annual pledge to support the work of the church. Actually, it isn’t. We have told you the many things we do, and how we hope to do even more next year. The ball is now in your court, and on October 21st you will turn in those pledges, and we will do what God calls us to do with the resources we have available.  That’s not what I’m talking about today, at least not directly.

What I am really talking about is priorities. If your first priority is getting and staying rich, like the young man in the gospel, you’re not really listening to what Jesus is saying. If your first priority is having more than your neighbor, you missed the part about giving to your neighbor if she needs it. If your first priority is about gaining the respect of the world simply because you are rich, I have two names for you: Trump. Kardashian. Not high on the respect list for me, and not just because of the hair, or the drama. Their money has gotten in the way of their living good, ethical lives.

Jesus is saying that the most important thing to do is this: obey the commandments, and live them deeply by caring for those in need. If that means giving away all those riches, do it. Do whatever is necessary to have your priorities straight. If you do that, you will eventually be rewarded. The first – the ones who cared more about their bank account than their suffering neighbor – will be last. The last – the ones who said “that person needs this more than I do, even though it means I will be eating mac and cheese this week” – those last persons will be first. And not just on the current year’s list of the world’s richest persons. No, the big list. The eternal list.

Money. It can become an idol, or it can become a tool for the reign of God. How do you use it?

For the record, Mondale was right. Reagan did raise taxes, and we managed to get them paid. And a portion of those taxes did sometimes benefit those in need. I have a hard time getting exercised about giving money for that. It is, after all, what Jesus had prescribed two millennia earlier.


Friday, October 12, 2012

In Honor of our Fifteenth Anniversary... A Story I've Told Before

I share with you a true story:

Brides are crazy. This is a fact, not a judgment.

I know this, because I’ve been a bride.

I was crazy. How do I know? I made my own wedding cake.

You know all those “Baking with Julia” shows on PBS that have famous patissiers tossing off goodies with the venerable queen of the kitchen? Baking a wedding cake isn’t like that, although I did use Martha Stewart’s recipe from that series for the cake (not the filling or frosting or décor – that was Rose Levy Beranbaum all the way).

Here’s what happens.

A week before your wedding, when you are most insane, you buy a lot of sugar, and a very lot of cake flour, and a very, very lot of unsalted butter (it must be UNsalted, not regular butter), plus some other ingredients that require you to go to the extremely special cake and candy supply store way the other side of the universe.

You sharpen wooden dowels in a pencil sharpener to provide the support for the layers, which will weigh as much as Martha Stewart (her pre-menopausal weight, not her pre-jail weight, thank heavens), and then wash them for fear of giving your guests graphite poisoning.

You measure the quantities of ingredients. This is called mise en place but might well be called planning the D-Day invasion. Alternatively, one might call it the Bay of Pigs, at least in my kitchen.

You realize that your Kitchen-Aid mixer, although the ne plus ultra of mixers when you got it several years ago, cannot accommodate the very large quantities of ingredients you are going to have to mix.

You portion the ingredients into manageable amounts for the now-inferior Kitchen Aid mixer, organizing by layer size, since you’re making this cake in tiered layers.

You mix the ingredients, carefully following the directions.

You realize that you haven’t turned on the oven to preheat it, so you turn it on and have to wait.

You realize that you haven’t prepared your baking pan, so you spray it with a little Pam (should have used softened butter, but you forgot to get enough to meet that need), put in the parchment paper, which you didn’t cut as neatly as you wished you had, then spray it with Baker’s Joy . Will anyone know you aren’t using the butter and flour? Will this spell doom for the marriage?

You pour the batter into the pan and are on the verge of putting it in the oven when you realize you’ve forgotten to add the vanilla.

You pour the batter back in the mixing bowl, add the vanilla, re-prepare the pan, pour the batter back in and put it in the oven, praying that the leavening power of the baking powder hasn’t been compromised. (Do soldiers fear the power of their missiles is affected if there is too long a wait before they are fired? I think not. Baking is harder and more unforgiving than war.)

You hover over the oven. The rule about watched pots doesn’t apply to baking, where the art of the hover is finely tuned. You debate whether to open the oven when the timer rings, wondering once again about that faithless thermostat which is usually wrong, and how it might affect the cooking time. You test the cake with a cake tester, which took you ten minutes to find in your cooking tool drawer because it is so small, but it is better than a toothpick because it is EQUIPMENT.

You take the cake out to cool and wonder if perhaps you left it in too long because the cake has already shrunk from the sides of the pan and Rose and Martha told you not to let that happen. Will anyone taste the dryness of the overbaked cake? Will we be divorced by our first anniversary?

You repeat the process for the remaining layers. Timing must be adjusted for each because of the different sizes. But the change in timing is not a linear thing, and besides you’re miserable at math, so all you can do is hover and pray.

The cake layers cool. You drink a cup of coffee. You wish for a stiff shot of scotch, but fear the effect that might have on the cake.

Each layer must be torted, or split into two equal layers, so there is a place for the mousse filling to go. Getting the split even, so that the final assemblage doesn’t look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, requires a few technical tricks (or trucs, as the French patissiers might say). Your powers of concentration are waning, your mother and Julia never taught you the trucs, and one of the layers does not look quite perfectly even. You contemplate making a replacement layer. You burst into tears and jettison that idea.

The cake layers must be frozen, since it is four days before the wedding, and nobody’s recipe will last that long. There are too many other steps that must be completed.

You go to bed.

You rise to face the challenge of the mousse. In a descent into a deeper trough of madness, you decide to make two different kinds of mousse to fill the cake, one chocolate, one not. You are modifying someone’s mousse filling recipe, which is tricky even when sane. You don’t know if the mousse will freeze, which it will need to do to hold the cakes for the buttercream phase.

You make the raspberry base for that mousse. Making the base takes longer than you expect. You think this project will never get done.

You wait for the raspberry base to cool. You do not think of melting the chocolate for the chocolate mousse, even thought this will require a cooling period as well, because you are insane. Rational thought has left the building.

You finish the raspberry mousse, and take out the frozen torted layers to fill, rewrap, and put back in the freezer. You thank the gods of baking and your landlord, who had a big freezer in the basement of the house you are renting. The gods are smiling.

You start the chocolate mousse, melting the chocolate, doing all the whipping cooking tasting adjusting things that one does for the chocolate mousse. It is 7 p.m. and the child wants dinner. How dare she interrupt this process with something so mundane?

You stop and cook dinner for the child. It is 9 p.m.

You take out the layer that will have the chocolate mousse. You fill it, but realize that proportionally there isn’t enough mousse to make that layer the same height as the other layers. It will be ½ inch shorter. You burst into tears.

You dry your eyes, rewrap that slightly shorter layer, and put it into the freezer.

You go to bed.

Waking is not pleasant. Today is the day of the buttercream. This is not your mother’s buttercream, made with confectioner’s sugar, butter, and a little vanilla and maybe warm cream. No, this is a classic buttercream, made with an Italian meringue base per Rose’s Cake Bible ( the chemistry text for those who bake – Rose is the Marie Curie of the field).

This is not only classic buttercream, it is VAST QUANTITIES of classic buttercream. Rose takes pity on you and gives you the proportions of ingredients for a cake the size of the one you are making, but once again the iniquitous Kitchen Aid is unequal to the task. You must break the ingredients into smaller portions (mise en place times two) and pray that the two different batches are the same in appearance, so the finished cake doesn’t look like the Washington Monument, with a demarcation line where work stopped when they ran out of money.

Buttercream completed, you bring up the layers to be frosted. You unwrap each one, dust off any crumbs, and apply what is called a crumb coat of frosting to, logically enough, keep any crumbs from marring the final finish coat. Invariably a few stray crumbs manage to sneak by, but you are on a roll. The cakes, being frozen, take the icing quite well. You finish off each layer by running a hairdryer over it to slightly warm the frosting so you can smooth it. You think that you have truly descended into madness, using a hairdryer on a cake.

You put the layers, unwrapped, into the freezer for a brief time to harden the icing before you rewrap them. You put the leftover buttercream into a plastic tub and put it into the refrigerator. You think little of that act at the moment, but it will be your salvation later on.

After an appropriate time, you once again take the layers out for the assembly. Each layer is on a thick cardboard pedestal. Just layering them without supports will cause them, once the cake defrosts completely, to sink like the lava dome at Mount St. Helens. You hammer in the wooden dowels with a rubber mallet as you construct the layers. This is just as Martha and Rose have taught you. Baking as construction project. The assembly is now almost three feet tall and weighs as much as a six-year-old child. You put it back in the freezer.

You think about what ordering a cake from the supermarket might have been like.

You sigh.

You go to bed.

The prospect of making flowers from an odd substance called gum paste sounds crazy. That’s alright, because we have already established that you are crazy. Gum paste, an amalgam of gum Arabic, sugar, glucose and other household chemicals, gives you a material that you can use to create the most delicate of flowers. You have decided that you are going to make gum paste flowers because Rose talks about them, and you’ve seen them in wedding cake books, and you know you can make the most beautiful things that are just like the flowers in your bouquet. Somewhere, the notion of just getting more of your flowers to decorate the cake, rather than creating an imitation of them, has slipped away, perhaps with your sanity.

You make the alchemical mixture. You start to form it into flowers, many flowers, many different kinds of flowers, each tinted slightly differently. You make gum paste roses, gum paste jasmine, gum paste ivy. You dust them with bits of edible gold dust, a silly thing to worry about since these flowers, though made in large part with sugar, taste awful, and no sane person will eat them.. You use the same sculpting techniques Rose has taught you when you make roses from chocolate modeling clay; at least that tastes like a grown-up Tootsie Roll. This tastes like you might expect from something called gum paste.

At midnight, you are still crafting gum paste flowers and assembling little sprays of them for the cake.

You fear you have developed diabetes from all the sugar products you’ve used over the course of the cake-making. You’ve read somewhere that a chef said he thought all chefs were fat because they absorbed fats through their skin. Perhaps this has happened to you.

You wonder if you will still be able to fit into the wedding dress you made for yourself – another foray into madness.

You put the assembled flower sprays into flat plastic shoeboxes (clean, of course) with tissue paper to protect them and keep them dry.

You go to bed.

You rise the next day, knowing that various relatives are coming to town today. You start the day by making the frightening trip to church with the cake. It will wait there, slowly defrosting for a day, in the huge refrigerator where it will share space with the half and half for coffee hour and the apple juice and baby carrots for the children in Sunday School.

You pray no one will touch it. You leave a sign on the door saying (in a very Christian way, of course) “Don’t touch this cake or you will die a painful, horrible death.”

You go home, take a shower, and dress for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. Your back hurts from carrying the cake.

Your directions to the rehearsal dinner are fatally flawed: one of the key road signs has been stolen. The out-of-town guests drive miles out of their way before finally making it back to the gathering. You are mortified. The children are bored.

You go to bed wishing you had just gone down to Town Hall, gotten a damned marriage license, and went to Bermuda.

You wake up the morning of your wedding, and realize that the sky is blue and you are happy. For some reason this shocks you, perhaps because you are insane.

You dress in casual clothes to go to the church and finish the assembly and decorating of your cake. You do not have any coffee, because you want your hands to be steady.

It is Sunday, and you arrive during the normal Sunday service. The giant refrigerator is in the kitchen where the coffee is prepared for the post-service Coffee Hour. Edgar, the 92 year old man who has made the coffee since the Johnson Administration, is there. His moods swing between charm and curmudgeonliness. He is reasonably sane, though.

You are insane.

The cake awaits you in the refrigerator.

You will take it out and put it on one of the rolling carts, for final decoration and moving into the chapel, where your reception will take place. You reach in to take it out of the refrigerator. Edgar says, “Let me help you, dear.”

“No,” you say.” I’ve got it.”

He helps anyway, tipping the cake into your chest. Fortunately, this is as far as it tips, and you manage to get it onto the cart with no further problem…except for the two roundish dents in one side of it.

You contemplate killing Edgar, but realize this will not solve the cake problem and will distress your guests, not to mention your fiancé, who is opposed to murder on principle.

You realize that there may be enough extra buttercream to address the dents. You smooth it on, put the golden ribbon decoration around each layer, add some additional buttercream edging in swirls and flourishes, gently place the gum paste flowers, glistening with the gold petal dust, on the cake, and carefully move it into the chapel. You manage to safely transfer it to the top of the piano, where it will be displayed during the reception. You say a prayer to Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and Saint Honore, patron saints of bakers, to keep it safe while you go home to prepare for the evening wedding ceremony.

You go to the hairdresser, where Lucien has made a special trip to fix your hair. He makes it excessively poufy a la Priscilla Presley (the early, Elvis years), but you still feel lovely, particularly after the drink of brandy he gives you to calm your nerves. He makes the child look like a little princess, which she is anyway. You go home to dress and put on the makeup.

By now the boys are in their tuxes. They have relented after making cash offers to be spared the indignity, offers which you have refused. You complete your preparations. You are on some other planet now, watching yourself move through the various preparatory steps to making a marriage.

You think this is what hope is, doing this again, loving again after a disaster.

You go to the church, you see your beloved, you know that this is more than hope, it is belief in the essential rightness of this love.

You have the ceremony. The music is lovely, the flowers are lovely, the words spoken are lovely, you remember nothing of it but the quality of the light in the evening.

You are still floating during the reception. The toasts happen, kind words are spoken, people seem genuinely happy for you. People bring you food. You eat, but do not taste.

The time comes for the cutting of the cake. There it sits, in all its glory. The work of a week, of a lifetime, waiting to be sacrificed on the altar of love. You wonder, for a moment, if it will taste good. You cut, with the cake server your mother used at her wedding. You each take a bite.

It tastes sweet. It is sweet. All is good.

Happy 15th, dear PH. Fifteen more 15ths would not suffice.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, October 7 Blessing of the Animals Matt 11:25-30 “Cover Me.”

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

The poet WH Auden once wrote that if he had his way, all books of literary criticism would be banned from libraries, we would all memorize poetry, and anyone wanting to be a poet would have to  “look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden.” [1]To be a poet would not be an academic exercise, in other words. It would be living the experience, particularly by being a part of the natural world. To be a poet would be an experience of all the senses, and all the emotions, that are in the real world.

The same thing could be said of the practice of theology: if I want to be a theologian, one who seeks a deeper understanding of God and religion, I need to experience God with all my senses and all my emotions in the real world. And Auden’s prescription of looking after a pet and cultivating a garden would be equally applicable, wouldn’t it?

Pets. They are a vital part of our lives, and they certainly cause us to use all our senses and all our emotions, in every possible way.

A few weeks ago, several of us were staffing the parish’s booth at Glen Allen Days, telling folks about our church and inviting them to come and check us out. There were lots of folks walking through with their dogs. Big dogs, little dogs, purebreds, mutts – just about every kind of dog you could imagine. So we called out to them and asked them about their dogs, because people always love to talk about their pets, as much or more than they like to talk about their children or grandchildren.  And we talked to folks about this pet blessing, and I’m hoping that one or two of you who are newcomers joined us today because you heard about this service there, and wanted to come and ask for God’s blessing on your beloved pet.

At one point in the afternoon a woman walked by with a beautiful collie. I called to her and admired her dog, who she said was called Connor. The woman had a pink cap covering her bald head. I told her about this service and she said, “I would love to come, but I’ll be in the middle of another cycle of chemo, so I don’t think I’ll be able to join you.” We continued to talk about her illness and the challenge of treatments, and I said, “I’ll bet Connor is a real comfort to you when you’re feeling bad.” She said “Wait a minute…” and pulled out her smartphone. She started scrolling through it as I wondered what she was looking for. She found what she wanted, and wordlessly handed the phone to me. On it was a picture of her, stretched out on her couch, obviously feeling pretty low, and stretched out on top of her, covering her almost completely – Connor was a big boy – was that beautiful collie. “He’s with me whenever I’m stuck on that couch. It’s like he knows I need him.” And her face was aglow with love for Connor, her companion who stayed with her through her hardest moments.

It’s a story I’ve heard so many times before. It’s one I’ve experienced as well. When I’m feeling bad, my cat Spooky comes and snuggles up next to me, comforting me. Time and time again, I hear stories of pets who seem to sense when their owners need a little unconditional love, and offer it by crawling alongside or on top of their human.

And it is that unconditional love, that beautiful comfort, that is the gift we receive from our pets. Even when they misbehave, or do something they shouldn’t on the rug, they still love us, and we love them.

In a world where love almost always comes with strings attached, our pets offer a different equation. Here’s my love. Give me a little love back, nothing more. A treat would be nice, but I’ll still love you. No matter what, I’ll cover you with unconditional love. What would we do without that unconditional love?

In today’s gospel, Jesus says “come all you who weary and are bearing heavy burdens. I will give you rest.” It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Someone would willingly take us at our weariest, when we are tired and messy and broken and angry and confused, and say “hand over all that bad stuff to me. I’ve got you covered.” We would not think it possible, if we hadn’t already experienced the way that works when we came home from school with a broken heart and cried our eyes out into the furry neck of our dog, or when we were terrified at the possibility that we might have an awful illness and our cat curled up next to us and purred, or when we didn’t have the strength to get up because our spouse died and we were depressed and the dog crawled right up in bed alongside us, as if to say “I’m here, you’re not alone. I’ll cover you….”

I’ll cover you, when you need it most, without question, without exception.

In the musical “Rent” a young man tells his lover:
I've longed to discover Something as true as this is,
             So with a thousand sweet kisses, I'll cover you, 
 With a thousand sweet kisses, I'll cover you,
             When you're worn out and tired,When your heart has expired,
             If you're cold and you're lonely, You've got one nickel only,
             With a thousand sweet kisses, I'll cover you, 
 With a thousand sweet kisses, I'll cover you.” [2]

And how can we hear that song and not remember the lick on the face when we walk through the door, the warming purr on our lap, the sweet song when the morning light enters the birdcage? “I’ll cover you.”

We wouldn’t understand what Jesus says – come to me, lay your burden on me, I will give you rest - but for the taste of that love we had already gotten from our pets. We wouldn’t understand how Jesus would love us enough to take on our burden, but for the fact that our pets so often do precisely that. Whether they are aware of what they do, I don’t know – perhaps animal behaviorists can say – but it seems that our pets are willing to be our comforters, with no expectations in return. 
I’ll cover you…

Is that why God made cats and dogs and horses and hens and turtles and such? Simply to show us how God loves us? I think it is more complicated than that…the assumption that animals were put on this earth simply to do something for us is challenged by God’s own comments about the created world. This is interconnected web, this created world. We are all gifted by the things that God created, be they animals or flowers or waterfalls, and each element of the created world has an obligation to support each other element.

So if that is the case, where does this leave us when we contemplate our pets? They give us unconditional love, but what do we give them? Are we capable of learning to offer that kind of love to each other, and to the rest of creation?  Can we cover all of humanity, and even all of Creation, as our pets have so often covered us, with a selfless love? 

Perhaps the answer is found in the Gospel – it so often is. Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you…my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” If we need to learn the lesson of how to love our fellow human beings, we get our first lesson in love from our pets. Our pets, who cover us. Our pets, who love us. Our pets, who give us a kind of love we rarely get from each other. They are our teachers, these dogs and cats and turtles and hens and horses and ferrets and cockatoos and guinea pigs. They cover us, and they teach us and they remind us that the yoke of love is easier than we think. Covering each other, animal or human, is no burden.  It is the gift and the lesson we learn from Jesus and from our pets.


[1] W.H. Auden, “The Poet and the City,” in Modern Poetics, 167-182.
[2] “I’ll Cover You,” Rent, 1996.