Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Slip Slidin' Away: Listening to the Melody of Our Lives

The older I get the more I try to laugh at myself: my gifts as well as my wounds, the blessings right alongside the anxieties and all the rest. I’m not all that good at it yet, but at least once a day I try to get over myself with a good story that makes me laugh. Not long ago, I came across one about a preacher and his young daughter; she noticed that just before he preached, her dad closed his eyes, bowed his head and was quiet for a few moments. “Why do you do that, daddy?” she asked. “Well, I’m asking God to help me preach a good sermon” he told her. And after a little thought, she asked, “Well, daddy, why doesn’t God do it?”

For me I have found that gentle, self-deprecating humor is one of the ways that God opens my eyes and that’s what I want to talk about with you this morning. Our text from Luke’s gospel says: Jesus sat down at the table with his two disciples. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him…then he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24: 30-31)

So let’s consider how it comes to pass that we have had our eyes opened to the Lord – how we have been awakened and illumined by Christ’s light – and learned how to be more authentic disciples. How does the song from Godspell put it? “To see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly day by day.” That great New England story-teller and thinker, Frederick Buechner, has observed that: At its heart, most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Tillich, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own language, are telling us the stories of their lives, and if you press them far enough, even at their most cerebral and forbidding, you find an experience of flesh and blood, a human face smiling or frowning or weeping or covering its eyes before something that happened once… (so that ) I cannot talk about God or sin or grace, for example, without at the same time talking about those parts of my own experience where these ideas became compelling and real. (Listening to Your Life, pp. 79-89)

And then he writes this and I want you to listen very carefully:

You get married, a child is born or not born, in the middle of the night there is a knocking at the door, on the way home through the park you see a man feeding pigeons, all the tests come back negative and the doctor gives you back your life again: incident follows incident helter-skelter leading apparently nowhere, but then once in a while there is the suggestion of purpose, meaning, direction, the suggestion of plot, the suggestion that, however clumsily, your life is trying to tell you something, take you somewhere… and for just a moment there is the hint of a melody. (Buechner, p. 82)

Are you with me? What does that say to you about how our eyes are opened? Sometimes it is totally mysterious – mystical – pure gift, right? Beyond our control, deeper than our awareness we find… the hint of a melody. Oh man, I love those words: the hint of a melody! Not a full blown symphony, not a complete opera, just the hint of a melody… and our eyes may be opened. (That’s why we included Paul Simon’s song at the start of worship; it is all about real life and trying to discern God’s melody amidst the hard times.)

Well, if old Poppa Buechner is right, and I suspect that he is, most of our discovery and insight seems to happen not at church but during our ordinary, walking around earthy lives, yes? This doesn’t diminish church but reminds us of where real epiphanies and insights take place. Last summer, as Dianne and I stood in the Tate Modern Art museum in London, gazing upon the 10 larger than life painted meditations by Mark Rothko… my eyes were opened to the complexity of God’s grace. When my babies were born and I had the privilege of catching them as they moved into this realm from out of the womb… my eyes were opened. When I saw Dianne standing radiantly in all her hippie-chick finery on our wedding day… my eyes were opened with love.

When I saw Springsteen for the first time – and U2 – my eyes were opened again. Because, to use Buechner’s words, my life was telling me something… and there was the hint of a melody. Once in a bar in Tucson, Dianne and I were in dancing and sharing spirits when the sax player of the local blues band asked his young bass player to share a song – and this kid let loose with an old R n B classic by Isaac Scott called “Feast Going On” – and we both had to stopped dancing in awe because right there in the middle of that smoke filled dive… the gospel was being shared and we were in church! It was incredible! He was singing the Easter message in a bar with real conviction and commitment: “Come on everybody, there’s a feast going on… we’re drinking from the fountain that never will run dry… there’s a feast going on!” Right there – on the dance floor – shaking our booties – was the breaking of the bread… and our eyes were opened. (NOTE: I just found a copy of the very band we saw in Tucson: - and just for kicks, here's the very club with our old friends The Rowdies: - I just LOVE technology!)

Biblical scholars want us to know that studying the Scriptures and Sunday School has its place – after all, during the first part of the story we are told that Jesus did what as he walked along the way with the disciples? He started at the beginning, with the books of Moses, and went on through the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to him as Messiah. (Luke 24: 27) There is an important chronology in Luke’s gospel concerning Jesus, the disciples, feasting and being opened: a) in Luke 9:18 (the story of the loaves, fish and 5,000 being fed) Jesus blesses and breaks the loaves, gave them to the disciples… and everyone was filled; b) in Luke 22: 19 (the story of the last supper) the same action takes place: Jesus blesses and breaks the loaves and shares with the disciples; and now in Luke 24: 30 the same blessing, breaking and sharing takes place. You might even say that as Jesus opened the scriptures for his friends – unpacked and interpreted God’s word – they were made ready for the later opening of their eyes at the breaking open of the bread. I know that sometimes it is only after a whole lot of time has gone by that suddenly an idea or word of Scripture makes sense to me and opens my eyes.

But these same scholars are also quick to point out that “proper understanding” – that is, right knowledge of doctrine and tradition – is not necessary to sit down at Christ’s table. These old boys didn’t have to get it or understand what was going on before Jesus broke bread with them. Table fellowship with the Lord, you see, is not based upon our wisdom, insight, social standing or ability: it comes from the heart of God who is leading us to the feast that is going on. In fact, it was only after the feast started and the bread broken that the disciples got it!

That’s one of the reasons why we proclaim Christ’s radically open table: Jesus didn’t put restrictions on who could or should come to the feast of God’s grace, so we don’t either. Anyway, when we try to come up with a guest list of those who are acceptable, more often than not we get it all wrong. I’ll never forget serving Holy Communion at my first solo gig as a pastor in urban Cleveland, Ohio. It was a great, run down old church in the inner city that I was blessed to serve for nearly 13 years. But on my first Sunday, as I shared the sacrament of bread and cup, I gave it away freely – to everyone – children and adults, members and guests.

Well, the stuff really hit the fan after worship because the tradition of that old place – which had never been discussed – was only to give communion to baptized and confirmed adults! What did I think I was doing giving the elements to children? They don’t and can’t understand what’s going on? What kind of minister was I? This is what we call a “teaching moment” in the church – what others call “conflict” can become a chance to have our eyes opened if you can let go of your anxiety and insecurity long enough.

So we explored what communion meant in scripture and tradition – understanding and appreciating that there are a variety of totally acceptable ways to share the bread and cup with one another that are simultaneously different but equally viable – and we all had our eyes opened a little about the Lord’s Supper. But, being the good Germans that they were – and loving rules and order almost as much as the Gospel – they insisted that only baptized folk be allowed at the table. Applying Popeye’s principle that “sometimes youse wins and sometimes youse loose” we split the difference in order to welcome children to the table. And then the funniest, most ironic thing happened. We were getting ready for Easter – and I had about 13 baptisms to do that day with the street gang in the neighborhood – when little old Leonard – about 83 years old and in charge of setting up communion every time it was shared – came to me and said: “James, I don’t know how to say this but… I don’t think I was ever baptized!”

The chief gate-keeper – man in charge of the sacred elements at that wonderful, mixed-up blessed church for probably 40 years – had never been baptized. So…. on Easter Sunday, along with 13 tough little street dudes – a few of whom were wearing razor blade earrings for the occasion – we also baptized Leonard. It was a great sight: one skinny old white guy kneeling next to the Puerto Rican and Black kids.

Man, there was a feast going on that day! If we are watching – if we are listening – and sometimes purely beyond all our wisdom, reason and intent – our lives will tell us something… and there will be the hint of a melody and our eyes will be opened.

No comments: