Simple Gifts

Sermon preached April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday
Scripture Readings: I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It is Thursday and my Lenten fast from red meat ends Sunday. I will enjoy my breakfast sausages at our church’s pancake breakfast. We have ham in our refrigerator ready to be cooked for Easter dinner.
I really don’t want to make too much of this fast. It hasn’t been particularly difficult. I have discovered more of the joy of salmon these past weeks, and tried more vegetarian dishes than I might otherwise have. There was that one evening when Julie and I had traveled to the Twin Cities to visit our daughter Beth and we took her for dinner. As we were driving up to the restaurant we were going to eat at Beth said, “This place is known for fantastic hamburgers!” I had a portabella mushroom sandwich.
This being Holy Week, I ought to confess that I have not kept this fast perfectly. From the beginning I said that I would not inconvenience others by my fasting. There has been only one time when I asked for an alternative meal – lasagna was being served for lunch when I was at a meeting in Washington, D.C. and I asked if there was a non-beef alternative. They brought me a plate of spaghetti with a wonderful vegetable marinara sauce. I enjoyed it more than I would have enjoyed the lasagna. But twice during Lent I have eaten pork or beef.
The first occasion happened after my dad died. I knew it would happen. My sister and brother came to town for his funeral and we ordered Sammy’s Pizza. When my brother and sister come to town, we always order Sammy’s Pizza. Our family favorites are the Sammy’s Special which has sausage on it, and beef, mushroom and onion. And so we ordered and so I ate. As I said at my dad’s funeral, while it may seem like my family has a complicated relationship with food, we really don’t. Our relationship with food is a simple one, we like it. Eating Sammy’s Pizza together is almost a bonding ritual for my family, and in a time of grief and healing, you don’t mess with rituals.
The other time I broke my fast was just this past Sunday. My mom has a cousin, Kathy, a woman who lived with us for a time when I was young. My mom’s cousin is the only remaining relative she has on her mother’s side of the family, and Kathy has battled cancer. She has survived it twice, but now it has returned for a third time, and the prognosis isn’t terribly good. Last Sunday there was a fundraising dinner for Kathy at the Blue Max on Fish Lake, a spaghetti dinner, but this time there was no non-beef alternative. I ate the spaghetti.
Maybe I wasn’t as strict as I should have been, but somehow I don’t think apologies are in order. Words of thanks certainly are as you all helped me with this fast, but apologies for my two shortcomings don’t seem to be. Sharing Sammy’s Pizza with my family after my father’s death, eating spaghetti with meat sauce to help out a cousin – these reminded me of the importance of food and of simple gifts.
On the night he was arrested, having some sense of foreboding, Jesus chose to eat with his disciples. To emphasize the importance of sharing simple gifts even in the shadows of life’s deepest challenges, he takes bread and wine and shares them, telling the disciples that in sharing these gifts he shares his life with them. When we share the bread and wine/juice, we still trust that Jesus shares his life with us, too.
There is a second tradition about what happened on the night when he was arrested, that Jesus, to demonstrate love, washed the feet of the disciples. He encouraged them to continue the practice – I guess we find it easier to share bread and juice! Coupled with this tender, caring act of refreshment, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to love one another – that it will be the mark of discipleship.
Simple gifts – a meal shared, bread and wine passed around, feet washed. Simple gifts, gifts which will help Jesus through the dark and difficult days ahead, gifts which will help the disciples through the dark and difficult days ahead.
Life is hard in so many ways and trying to live with integrity, trying to live with compassion, trying to live with love, trying to make the world better, trying to live the love of Jesus, doesn’t make life easier. Sometimes it makes it more difficult. We trust deeply, however, that living with integrity, compassion, love, living to make a positive difference, makes life more worthwhile and ultimately more joyful. We call that trust “faith.”
One shorthand expression we might use for living the Jesus way, the way of faith, is taking up our cross. Often we think of this expression as having to do with enduring suffering. It meant that for Jesus, but the more fundamental reality is not the suffering, it is following the Jesus way of integrity, compassion, love. Our cross is our way of following – sometimes the way is wonderfully smooth and sometimes the way is deeply difficult.
Life is hard even for followers of the Jesus way, and sometimes especially for followers of the Jesus way, so we need simple gifts to sustain us as we take our cross, as we follow Jesus, as we live faith.
We need the simple gift of kind and thoughtful words. Loving his disciples, Jesus loved them to the end, and he expressed that. We need expressions of love and care in our lives. A few years ago I read a book called How Full Is Your Bucket? It may not be the most profound book ever written, but I think the core idea is tremendously important. The core idea/metaphor of the book is this, we all live with invisible buckets, buckets that are constantly being filled or emptied depending on what others say or do to us. We feel better the more full our buckets are. We each also possess invisible dippers. When we use our dippers to fill other people’s buckets, by saying kind things, by shining a light on what is right, by saying and doing things that increase their positive emotions, we find that our buckets fill up as well, and the reverse is true – when we dip into other people’s buckets by reducing their positive emotions, our buckets are emptier. The research used in the book argued that it takes five positive interactions to overcome a negative interaction. And in case you are worried about this, positivity begins to feel less authentic when it reaches a 13 to 1 ratio. Do we ever come very close to that?
David Cooperrider teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In the mid-1980s, Cooperrider and his associates began putting forward a new model for organizational change. Our traditional model of managing change is to begin with problems, analyze and diagnose, then arrive at a solution. Cooperrider developed an alternative model based on a different assumption – “in every organization something works and change can be managed through identification of what works, and the analysis of how to do more of what works” (Hammond, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry). Cooperrider’s approach, “appreciative inquiry” has been used with a great deal of success in a wide variety of organizations.
Shining a light on what is right, accentuating the positive – loving one another in our words and deeds – simple gifts to sustain us as we take up our crosses and live the Jesus way.
Food – and here I would focus on spiritual food, another simple gift to sustain us along the way. What feeds your soul? Christian tradition says that we are fed through worship together, through Bible reading, through prayer and through acts of compassion and justice. Yes. There is other soul food out there as well. For me it is music and poetry and any well-turned phrase that shines a new light into my soul or into the world. It is laughter with friends or just a good conversation. It is being with my family and realizing how fortunate I am that I have such a wonderful wife and children. We need the simple gifts that feed our soul to sustain us as we take our cross and live the Jesus way.
Water cleanses and refreshes. Many of the things that feed our souls also refreshes and cleanses them. Beauty feeds my soul and refreshes it. I love these words from a novel I read eight years ago, or so. Out of all the instinctual needs we humans have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. (Laura Hendrie, Remember Me, 54). We need the simple gifts that refresh our soul to sustain us as we take up our cross and live the Jesus way.
Kind and thoughtful words, soul food, refreshing water – all simple gifts, all needed, and so too is the gift of each other. Jesus might have chosen to brood alone that night, feeling deep inside that evil was about to strike and strike out at him. Instead he was with his closest friends, his students. They ate together and there was conversation and probably laughter. Have you ever had a good meal with wine and no laughter? Jesus washed their feet, and there was love in that place. Jesus symbolically shared his life in bread and wine. We believe he still shares his life. I think we ought also believe that as we share this bread and wine together we share our lives with each other. When he went to pray, a solitary act in many ways, he took some of his friends with him. We need the simple gift of each other as we carry our crosses along the difficult paths of life.
Denise Roy is a mother, a spiritual director and a psychotherapist. In her book, My Monastery is a Minivan she writes about the simple gift of each other. So here I am in this pew. It’s not always comfortable. Community is a mirror, one in which we will see our best face and our worst. A spiritual community is not only the place where we go about the work of transforming the world; it is also the place of our transformation. Sometimes I’d rather interact only with certain people, especially with those who think like me or act in ways I approve of. But growth requires that I move out of my narrow and separate world. The experience of being in a community reminds me of the practice in Korea of washing potatoes. I read that in that country, when people want to wash a lot of dirty potatoes, they don’t wash them one at a time. They put them all in a tub of water. Then they put a stick in the tub and move it up and down, causing the potatoes to bump up against one another. As they bump into one another, the hard dirt covering them is loosened and falls off. It would take a long time to wash these potatoes one by one; by putting them all together, they help to clean one another. This is why I choose to be in a community of faith. When we join hands, our prayers and our lives bump up against one another, and something holy is made in the process (102-103). We need the simple gift of each other as we carry our crosses along the difficult paths of life.
Simple gifts – food and water, kind words, community. Tonight we remember how Jesus shared simple gifts in a dark and difficult time. Tonight we share these gifts with each other, sustaining each other in the Jesus way, the way of faith. Amen.