A Buddhist tells this story:
Once upon a time, there was a tavern owner in Mumbai. He had a hard-working bartender, who was always trying to be helpful by inventing new ways of doing things. One hot day, the tavern owner wanted to go to the beach. So he left the bartender in charge while he was gone. The bartender had noticed that many customers ate a little salt after drinking their liquor. He didn’t know why, but not wishing to show his ignorance, he never asked. He thought it might be that the liquor needed salt to taste good, and he wondered why taverns didn’t just add salt to their liquor. He decided that if he did so, the business would make much higher profits, and the tavern owner would be very pleased. So he added salt to all the liquor, not knowing that the actual reason the customers ate the salt was to chase away the aftertaste of the liquor. To his surprise, when the customers came to the tavern and drank the salty booze, they immediately spit it out; they left and went to a different bar. When the owner returned from his day at the beach, he found his tavern empty, and all his liquor ruined.
“In the Name of God the Broken-Hearted. Amen.”
In January of 1991, I was a student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where there is a tradition of Thursday night community eucharists followed by dinner together in the seminary refectory. On the evening of Thursday, January 17, the Rev. Dr. John Kater, professor of ministry theory and practice, was our preacher and he began his sermon with the invocation I have just offered. You see, that was the day “Operation Desert Shield” became “Operation Desert Storm,” and we had all been glued to the TV sets in the common room, the dormitory lounges, or our apartments watching as the US Air Force began a bombardment of Baghdad that was to last for weeks and, eventually, lead into nearly three decades of war in the Persian Gulf region.
There was another American bombing of Baghdad just a few days ago in which the military leader of Iran, Qassem Soleimani, was killed. If the news reports are correct, his death may trigger more armed conflict in the region. So this weekend, as we read in our newspapers about the Iranian general’s death and tonight consider the visit of a group of Iranian scientists to Israel, it seemed good to repeat that invocation tonight.
In the beginning, God said . . . and there is creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh . . . and there is salvation. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is not us but the Spirit who speaks through us . . . and there is sanctification. At the core of our faith is communication and personal relationship, and how we express that is vitally important. It is more than an intellectual enterprise. Choosing, using, hearing, reading, interpreting, and translating our words and those of scripture is a spiritual and existential exercise, as well. To demonstrate this, I have brought a prop to use this morning: this. [Bottle of Mountain Dew]
What is this? I mean, generically what is this beverage called? You might call it “pop” or “soda” or (despite the fact that it is not a cola and not a product of the Coca-Cola Company) if you were from some parts of the American South you might call it a “coke.” If you were from Great Britain or Ireland, you might call it a “fizzy drink.” If a man we have just met describes Mountain Dew as his favorite kind of Coke or calls it his favorite fizzy drink, we will automatically know something about him and we will assume much, much more, and what we know, what we think we know, and what we assume will all color our relationship with our new acquaintance.
When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . . carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.
Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.
While making a presentation at a conference about teaching English as a second language, an expert in the field remarked that one of the difficulties is that there are many instances in English when a double-negative renders positive meaning and this is confusing for non-English speakers. “It’s fortunate,” she said, “there’s no way in English that a double positive can convey negative meaning.”
From the back of the room a voice spoke up, “Yeah, right.”
Now when that story is written, the sarcasm of that double positive giving negative meaning is hard to indicate; in fact, it is impossible. And yet it will probably be understood by a native speaker. For the non-English speaker, however, discerning the sarcasm and humor is difficult. Inflection and tone of voice can and do drastically alter meaning and understanding.
This is a special Sunday for me. Friday marked the 28th anniversary of my ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It was on Sunday, June 23, 1991, that I celebrated my first mass. So I am grateful to you and to Fr. George for the privilege of an altar at which to celebrate the Holy Mysteries and a pulpit from which to preach the gospel on this, my anniversary Sunday.
Now that I am retired, I am filling part of my time studying Irish. In the world of Irish studies, I am what is known as a foghlaimeoir, which is to say “an Irish learner.” The truth is that I have been a foghlaimeoir for over eleven years, but I have not yet progressed to the level of Gaeilgeoir, that is, “an Irish speaker.” Studying Irish is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done; it is both fascinating and maddening, and I think that among the reasons for that are the cultural assumptions which underly the language.
There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Father George has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theology is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise. Back when I was a curate getting the Trinity Sunday assignment, my rector encouraged me with the sunny observation that, listening to a sermon in almost any church on Trinity Sunday, one could be practically guaranteed to hear heresy.
As I started preparing to preach on this Trinity Sunday, however, I thought, “I have an out, a handy escape hatch” because today is not only the church’s feast of the one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, it is also the secular, some say “Hallmark,” holiday of Father’s Day. So, I thought, “I’ll talk about Father’s Day and if the Trinity decides to show up, well … that’ll be fine.”
I retired from active parish ministry as a priest in the Episcopal Church in December 2018 after nearly 29 years in holy orders, more than half that time as rector of one parish. Since then, my wife and I have visited several Episcopal congregations in this and other dioceses on Sunday mornings, not as supply clergy and spouse but simply as visiting worshipers.
In nearly every case, we have been greeted by friendly people, found worship that is lively and engaging, enjoyed sermons that are masterfully crafted and well preached by erudite clergy, and left feeling that we have encountered a loving God in a vibrant community. Oh to be sure, we have been able to find minor aspects to criticize, but these are merely the quibblings of professional church geeks; sharing them is how we amuse ourselves on the drive home. In the main, though, we have been very impressed at how well the Episcopal Church follows the first great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
I’m not preaching this week, but if I were . . .
I often read poetry as part of, and frequently as a substitute for, a homily. This is especially true on “high holy days” when the liturgy and the lessons of the lectionary speak so eloquently that the attempt at exegesis seems at best irrelevant and at worst intrusive, e.g., Good Friday or Palm Sunday. On such days, in such liturgies and with such lessons, the poets seem to get and to give the message so much better than I can.
There are two poems that I’ve used on Palm Sunday which look at the story focusing on or speaking through one of the often-ignored characters, the donkey which carried Christ into the city of Jerusalem. One is Mary Oliver’s The Poet Thinks about the Donkey in which the poet expresses her hopes for the animal. The other is G.K. Chesterton’s The Donkey in which the animal speaks for itself.