Sunday, November 02, 2008

Love, Pray, Eat: A Sermon on Psalm 107:1-9, 33-37

“Love, Pray, Eat”
Psalm 107:1-9, 33-37
November 2, 2008

There’s nothing like your body ceasing to function the way it normally does to make you to focus all your attention on bodies. As you all know, I’ve had some adventures involving gall bladder surgery recently… a scary awakening at 3:30 in the morning… a trip to the emergency room in an ambulance, with my daughter and dearest friend following anxiously in a car… a diagnosis with reassurance that nothing need be done right away… only to do it all again three days later, minus the ambulance, plus surgery. Now I’m fine. Modern medicine is a wonder. My surgeon is a genius. My daughter, and my dear friend, and my ex-husband, and the good people of our church, and the good ministers, friends and colleagues of our presbytery… you are all more beloved to me than I can say, and I am truly grateful for your outpouring of love to me these last few weeks.

As I go about the business of getting back to normal, as I learn again to laugh without clutching my stomach, and turn over in bed without wincing in pain, and to drive my car after a ten-day hiatus, and to eat very carefully… as I go about all these normal, sundry activities of my life, my focus is still, intently, on my body. On how it feels, and how it felt. On how tired I am, or how energetic. On whether I am in pain or feel well enough to forget about my little incision. On whether I am hungry, or feeling comfortable and full.

One of the beautiful things about sick time is reading! During my recuperation I read several books, and everywhere I looked the focus was still on bodies! I read a murder mystery starring a female Episcopal priest… naturally, there were bodies in a murder mystery! I read, at the recommendation of one of our congregation, the lovely and moving “Eat, Pray, Love,” and whether the author was scarfing down farfalle pasta with clouds of ricotta cheese in Tuscany or pushing through her meditation with a difficult chant in India, the focus was still on bodies. And then I read the extraordinary “Take This Bread” by Sara Miles.

For Miles, bodies were the source of her conversion to Christianity. In her case, the bodies were those of the poor and disenfranchised… the peasants of Nicaragua, the impoverished people of the Philippines and El Salvador, all the people she interviewed during her career as a journalist and activist. In every case, without fail, she was astounded at the generosity of the poorest of the poor, the way in which they welcomed her to the humblest of tables. She writes,

It wasn’t, of course, what I ate that mattered, though the details of what I was fed have stayed with me, vivid as dreams. The mineral taste of poor people’s tortillas, the thick dough prepared with lime and scorched on an iron griddle. The slippery sweetness of mangoes. The chemical bite of bright red sodas; the funkiness of goat. Handfuls of gluey rice, spoonfuls of milky sherbet, cupfuls of spicy broth. I remember the food of peasants, which always tasted of dirt. I remember the food of the urban poor, which always tasted of cheap grease. People gave food to me, and I ate it all: roots, leaves, animal hearts; raw, canned, cooked or spoiled. [1]

Miles’ experience of eating at the tables of the poor took a radical turn when, on an impulse, this atheist writer walked into a church on a Sunday morning, took communion, and had a bodily experience of Jesus. She began to put together her experience of bodies… of her own hungry body, which was now hungry for Jesus as well as for food, and the bodies of the poor who had fed her. She began to understand the church as a place where people feed and people are fed, and God is in all of it.

Our psalm this morning tells stories of bodies… bodies that have been saved from disaster, bodies that have been rescued from wandering in desert wastelands, and, yes, bodies that were hungry and thirsty but have now been filled with good things. Sometimes it seems like our faith is about anything but bodies. For us Presbyterians, there is a great temptation to make religion about the mind—our Reformed theology, or the thoughts of the preacher, or sound explanations supporting for this program or that event. For many Christians, perhaps beginning with Paul, faith has seemed to have to do more with the spirit, the soul. There’s a loud message out there that Christianity is about denying the body, assuming it to be bad or prone to lead us into sin. And we should take sin seriously—of course—and we shouldn’t neglect our souls, or our spirits, or our intellect, for that matter. All these are good and important components of who we are. But the truth is that humankind first had an inkling of God in the context of being very, very afraid: fearing for our lives. And we prayed and reached out to the one with all power, who might just be able to save these fragile bodies of ours.

The result is a psalm of thanksgiving. “Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good,” our psalm invites us this morning, “for God’s steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1). This is a prayer of gratitude of those who have been found, those who have been saved, those who have been rescued from the unimaginable. This is a prayer of thanksgiving from those whose bodies knew hunger and thirst, and who knew the giddy joy of being filled with good things. This is a prayer of those who have experienced vividly, viscerally, the love of God in their very own bodies.

For the people of the psalm, their fear for their bodies opened them to an experience of the steadfast love of God. My fear about my body opened me to an experience of love: the love of God expressed through the love of so many people, including this congregation, poured out to me in cards, letters, phone calls, meals. When we love someone, we want to feed them; it’s instinctive. If we have had an experience of the love of God, we can respond directly with prayers of gratitude, but the feeding has to take another form. We can’t feed God, who already owns the whole earth. But we can feed God’s people.

I read a poem this week by Edwina Gately:

Often we anxiously seek the will of God,
as if God had gleefully hidden dreams for us
deep in unfathomable places.
As if it were God's intention
that our whole lives be spent
in endless searching for signs and directions
buried in obscurity.
The will of God is that which brings us
peace and fullness of life.
The will of God is the seed of our dreams
ever gestating with possibility
and longing to leap forward
scattering new and surprising blessings
in our gray reality. ~ Edwina Gately

The will of God is that which brings us peace and fullness of life. The will of God is the seed of our dreams. We are in the midst of our Stewardship Campaign, at the heart of which is a plan to meet with and interview all our members to find out what your dreams are for our congregation. How do you see us responding to the love of God? What seeds has God planted in your hearts for our lives together? We gather around the table this morning, a reminder that our faith is about bodies, yours and mine and those of the strangers we have not yet met. Our God has shown steadfast love to us. How will we love, pray and eat together? How will we, who have experienced the saving love of God in our very bodies, tend the bodies of the rest of God’s children? How will we, who have been fed, seek to feed God’s people? The will of God is that which brings us peace and fullness of life. The will of God is the seed of our dreams. Let’s dream together, God’s dream for our church. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), 49.

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