Saturday, August 4, 2012

Once Upon a Time...

Here is the sermon I preached last Sunday at Fairfax Community Church. It ends with a poem that I think I may have posted on this blog before. The text is John 6:1-21.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in a lovely little cottage made of gingerbread and candy. She was always asleep. One day, she woke up, and the candy had mold on it. Her father blew her a kiss, and the house fell down. The girl started running, and she realized she was lost. She was on a crowed street, but the people were made of paper, like paper dolls. She blew them all a kiss goodbye, and watched as they all flew away.
Strange as that story may seem, it's one of my favorites. It's from the TV show My So-Called Life, which was tragically canceled after being on the air for only one season when I was in high school. The story was written by Angela Chase, the main character of the show, as an assignment for her English class. Their regular English teacher was out and Mr. Racine, who always wore one white sock, and one black sock, was their eccentric substitute teacher.
The story may not seem to make any sense, but it's filled with emotion. As Mr. Racine says in the episode when the story is read out loud to the class, 'It does better than make sense. It makes you feel." To this day, My So-called Life remains my favorite TV show of all time, in no small part because of that story.
Stories are important. They help us make to sense of the world, help us to process the way that we feel about things; they record the great events of our lives, even though they sometimes do this allegorically. Stories can help us to understand things that are sometimes too complicated for simple explanation. I think this is why Jesus told so many parables. He was trying to share things that our minds could only grasp in story form. Stories have a way of conveying multiple levels of meaning, with fewer words, almost like a secret code, but a code that's alive and breathing. Stories survive us. They're around long after we're gone, telling succeeding generations about who we were, what we stood for, what we believed.
Our scripture reading today tells us the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. Later in the story Jesus walks on water, and his disciples are afraid because they think he's a ghost. These stories are filled with mystery and wonder. We're transported back to an ancient time, when miracles happened and gods walked the earth. These stories are filled with magic.
I was drawn to talk about this passage today precisely because of that magic. I've gone to church almost every Sunday of my life, and I have to admit that I can't remember 99.9% of the sermons that I've heard, but I distinctly remember two different sermons about this passage. The first one was about the feeding of the 5,000 with the fives loaves of bread and two fish that a little boy had given them when they were wondering about where to find enough food to feed so many people. They were up on a mountain, there were no stores nearby, and even if there were, what store was going to have enough food for 5,000 people? Can you imagine if you were one of the disciples, and a little boy had come up to you with his little bag of food to help feed everyone? It's so precious, it's so sweet, but ultimately useless, because what is five loaves of bread and two fish against 5,000 people? And so, we come to the miracle. Jesus blesses the loaves, and he blesses the fish, and they pass the food around, and everyone gets to eat as much food as they want. And after everyone has eaten their fill, they collect all of the leftover bits of food, and they fill twelve baskets, full of food! It's a miracle! Five loaves of bread and two fish fed this horde of 5,000 people and multiplied to the point that they had leftover food, more food left over than the amount of food they had started with in the first place!

But, what happened here? Exactly what kind of miracle had taken place? Did the food actually multiply, as the writer of this story seems to imply, or did something else happen? The person who gave this sermon said that what really happened was that all 5,000 of the people had actually brought food with them, that a person in that time and place would never go on a journey without bringing along some food, because there was no guarantee that you'd be able to find food along the way. And, because there was no guarantee that you'd be able to find food along the way, you wouldn't just give your food away. You'd keep for yourself, to make sure that you had enough food to eat for that day, and perhaps for many days to come. So the real miracle was the fact that Jesus had somehow convinced the people to let go of their food, to share their food with each other, and come together as a community. I'm not going to say definitively one way or another whether or not this is what really happened, because even though it's certainly possible that this is what happened, it's just not in the text. I makes for a good story about Jesus inspiring compassion and building community, but just I think the story looses something when we look at it this way.
The other sermon that I heard had to do with Jesus walking on the water, and maybe some of you have heard this before, but the person that gave that sermon said that the disciples only thought they saw Jesus walking on the water, and he was actually just walking along the shore, or maybe he was walking in the shallows. Why do we do this? We take two wonderful, magical stories, and we suck all of the wonder out of them. It's part of our nature, I guess, to try to make sense out of the things we encounter. We can't allow things to be wondrous, or mystical, because we've been taught that there is always a rational explanation. It's even worse now with all of our scientific advances and the level to which we educate ourselves. We've stopped believing that there could be things that are too mysterious or wonderful for us to understand. We don't believe in magic.
I've always believed in the power of story, and recently, I've actually started to talk about it. Sometimes when I'm feeling down or burned out, I'll actually think to myself, "I need story," and it doesn't matter what form it takes, it can be a movie or a novel, a TV show, or even a comic book, it doesn't even have to reflect my life at all, as long as the story is good, it will make me feel better. It will somehow get inside of me and let me know that everything is going to be okay.
And, I don't think I am alone in this. Stories are pervasive, we're surrounded my story. Storytelling has endured since the dawn of humankind, and it's not going anywhere. God has given us an incredible gift. Our minds are capable of such rich and wonderfully creative stories, and we've been given language to share and record them. This may be stretching the definition of magic a little, but I do think that stories are magical, that they heal, they are the tools that God has given us so that we would be able to create out of nothing, tools that everyone so that we can connect with each other.
And with that, I would like to leave you with a story from my life. The title of this story is: Weed Seed.

In the time before,
When children were playing in the shadow of a seemingly benevolent tyrant king,
And their mother was too afraid to do anything about it,
The creator of all the world decided to bestow unto us a gift,
The gift of indestructible resilience in the face of insurmountable odds,
And now that tyrant has decided to become a father,
And although it is far too late to erase the damage done through years of negligent abuse,
And the fragile earth has been unmercifully scorched almost beyond repair,
My siblings and I have decided,
That although our gardens may be too infertile to bear fruit,
We will collect all the seeds of our experience and see what we can grow.
But what came up,
Was weeds,
But what is a weed but a plant growing where someone decided they didn’t want it?
So we have to decided to want them,
We have decided to embrace them all,
Making our gardens lush and beautiful,
Where my mother’s pink flamingos and windmill sunflowers have a place to call home,
And my father is free to harvest his kumquats, and loquats, and jujubes,
A sparkling musical waterfall that mists when the wind blows,
Splashes gracefully into a colorful koi pond that,
In the sunlight,
And while we are all working in the garden,
Trying to grow as much as we can,
There is still the inevitable weed that needs to be pulled.
Not the weeds that we have embraced as our own,
These are the overbearing kind of weeds that grow way too big!
Hogging up the sunlight,
With their long sharp thorns and serrated leaves,
With sticky brown sap and bright red fruit,
That looks pretty,
But is far too bitter to eat.
These are the weeds that need to be pulled.
These are the weeds that threaten to overrun the garden,
So with heavy gray suede garden gloves,
We grab these at the base and we pull,
But the roots of these weeds are deep,
And if you leave even the smallest bit of root in the ground,
The weeds will come back bigger,
Threatening the serenity our sacred space,
But as long as we are diligent,
The gardens remain lush and vibrant,
And the views from the house will be stunning and beautiful,
And even though sometimes,
The house itself is just a bit too dark,
And even though sometimes the house is just a bit too quiet,
And even though sometimes you can sometimes hear the echoes of the past threatening to overcome your fragile sensibilities with overwhelming force,
You can always escape to the garden,
Where the sunshine falls and wipes out all of the shadows,
Even the seemingly benevolent tyrant ones,
And you can like your weeds,
And you can eat red fruit,
And you can hold your stomach and grimace through the pain,
Because, even if the nourishment is poisonous,
It’s better than starving to death.
And since the fruit that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,
We have somehow managed to eat it and survive,
My siblings and I have made a pact,
That we will one day raise our own generation of gardeners,
And their gardens will be lush and beautiful,
Filled with fruit trees, vegetables and flowers,
Not weeds,
And our mother will no longer remain silent,
But her laughter and singing will,
Fill the gardens of her grandchildren,
Even though we have to eat red fruit to ensure this future,
Even though our hands will be stained brown by sticky sap,
Bloodied by sharp thorns,
We will eat the fruit,
So that they will never know the taste of bitterness in their mouths,
And we will stain our hands,
So that they will never know the chill,
Of the shadow,
Of a seemingly benevolent tyrant king falling over them,
And we will bloody ourselves,
So that they will never have to plant weed seed for lack of anything better to plant,
For we will have eaten all the bitter red fruit,
And we will grimace through the pain for them,
And we will not leave even a single,
Sticky red weed seed to threaten the serenity of our sacred space,
And we will bask in the sunlight.


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