Sunday, September 26, 2010

Small Favors from a Big God

The texts from the lectionary reading for today included Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; and Luke 16:19-31.


One of the biggest perks of living in New York City was the grocery stores. I know for many this wouldn’t seem like such a big deal. For me, however, this was huge! When I moved back for my final year of seminary, all I talked about for weeks before hand the fact that I would be able to purchase fresh mozzarella. It was on the top of my grocery list. The day I arrived, my parents and I went shopping, and I made them insalata caprese for dinner—sliced fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and fresh basil drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.

And, oh, the olive oils! My favorite grocery store had a tasting station set up—sliced baguettes with dishes of olive oil set out, just waiting for a discerning palette to choose the right flavors for a dish. Why all the options? Because while we generally think of olives as being either “green” or “ripe,” there are literally hundreds of different types of olives—each with their own unique flavors and characteristics, which are also impacted by the region of the world in which they were grown. After sampling 8 or 9 of the 12 or so olive oils available for sampling, I picked one with a light, fresh, very green flavor. Perfect for dipping or salad dressing, but light enough to cook with.

And fresh mozzarella and olive oils were just the beginning. For me, there times when a simple trip to the grocery store was akin to visiting paradise. And it’s all because I like to cook. If I’m totally honest with you, given the right conditions, I LOVE (with a capital L-O-V-E) to cook. It was while in New York that I also discovered that I enjoy extending hospitality to others. During my last year in seminary, rarely a month went by that I didn’t end up hosting a dinner party—and at least half of them happened by accident.

Planning a dinner party was pure bliss—making up a menu, shopping for ingredients, setting the timer on my phone to remind me of the precise moment to start cooking one dish or pull another from the oven. Curried-Pear chicken, broccoli, steamed rice, chai-spiced cheesecake. Bacon wrapped dates stuffed with gorgonzola, braised veal in a white wine, tarragon-cream sauce, oven roasted asparagus, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, flourless chocolate torte with raspberry sauce and chocolate ganache, garnished with fresh whipped cream, raspberries and mint. Pears, dried cranberries, gorgonzola and candied walnuts on a bed of organic baby greens and a fresh vinaigrette; mushroom risotto with cremini and shiitake, aged parmesan, freshly grated, and finished with chopped parsley and white truffle oil. Those were just the parties I planned. More often than not, a friend would find me cooking in the kitchen, comment on the aromas, and I would say, “I have so much! I’ll be eating left-overs for a week, at least. Please join me!” And often they would bring a side dish or beverage. Mostly, I was just thrilled when they brought another friend.

And Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, the last chance for indulgence before the fasting of Lent. My friend Lucas led chapel that day, and titled it “The Seven Lively Sins.” He asked me to make a batch of fudge for the gluttony booth. While the other six booths haucked their wares, I was to encourage people to give into their sweet tooth and try a bit. Never one for a simple (or single) batch of fudge, I showed up with chocolate fudge, chocolate-orange fudge, chocolate-peanut butter fudge, caramels, cheesecake with optional strawberry or raspberry toppings, French silk pie, and turtle French silk pie with caramel sauce and pecans in the bottom. Union’s board of directors was in chapel that day—and I was rather pleased when I realized one or two of them didn’t make it to any of the other booths, and most of them stopped by again before leaving the chapel at the end of the service.

And May Day—a holiday seemingly unknown outside of the Midwest, but a tradition I was determined to share with my friends. More fudge, caramel, peanut butter cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and truffles—milk chocolate with a fluffy peanut butter filling; dark chocolate with key lime white chocolate filling; semi-sweet chocolate with passion fruit filling (that I was able to make from actual passion fruit!), and popcorn balls for the kids at church. All of it made from scratch, by hand, with so much joy and laughter.

The stark contrast to this truly delightful and sensuous fare was the reality that met me every single morning as I took my dog for a walk. Less than a block away, on the steps of the church next door, two men spent the night…spent every night. Every morning I would get up, put on my shoes, and a leash on my dog, and I would head out to the park, walking past these sleeping men. What struck me most the first time I walked by, and continued to astound me every time after, was that they took their shoes off when they slept. There they were, their feet sticking out from beneath the blankets and cardboard boxes with which they had covered themselves; their shoes sitting just next to their sock-clad feet. It somehow made them very human to me.

As I walked through the park each morning, I would pray for these two men; a practice I continue with some frequency today. I do not know their names. I do not know their stories. But in my last year at Union, I came to know to expect them each and every morning, sleeping soundly as I passed at 6:00 each morning.

I do not know what time these men got up to start their days. They were usually gone, however, by they time I got back from my walk over an hour later. Church personnel showed up at 8:00, and I can only imagine they were careful to leave before anyone “official” showed up. There were numerous times as I passed by that I longed to invite them to dinner. I have all sorts of excuses as to why I didn’t—I didn’t want to wake them up and rob them of their last moments of sleep; I shared common living space and didn’t know if my floor mates would be comfortable; I lived in the building next door and had never spent a night homeless, sleeping on the cold, hard, marble stairs of a church, and I didn’t know if I would be comfortable; they were strangers and I didn’t know if I would feel safe.

After weeks of thinking about and rejecting the idea of inviting them to dinner, I thought, “I’ll bring them some food!” But my routine was so structured that I never set foot in the kitchen before my walk; I never remembered at 6:00 in the morning the thought I’d had the day before. It would all come rushing back as I passed them, once again, on my loop past the church. But, all of the dishes I cook are so messy, I justified to myself.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! I had finally found the solution—easy, delicious, border-line nutritious. I could make them the night before, pack them in a paper bag, and drop them off as I passed by. But, gluten-intolerance prevents me from eating bread. So, I simply didn’t own it. And when it came time to buy groceries again, well, I had my list for my weekly groceries, my dinner parties, candy for my neighbors. Bread never made the list. It simply wasn’t part of my routine. And in making up my list, I had forgotten about those two men, again. I would feast sumptuously with my friend and forget that in just 12 hours, I would be walking past men who had nothing to eat at all.

St. Augustine defined sin as “cor cuvum in se,” that is, “the heart curved in upon itself.” The root of all sins, the nature of sin itself, is having a heart that is curved inward, closed off to the rest of the world, seeking its own protection and good, at the expense of others. It is a type of blindness—this seeing only one’s own needs and desires as legitimate, or of ultimate importance.

The more we consume to meet our own needs, the more we become consumed by our own needs. We turn inward, seeking only to have our own needs met, and we become blind not only to the needs of others, but often times to the very existence of others. Jesus understood this when he told the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Paul got it when he told Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

And it often starts in such small ways. We lead busy lives, and we have so much to get done. We make our lists, and focus on what “needs” to get done. So often, we forget to look up, to look around, to see the people around us, and acknowledge their needs and the part we might play in meeting those needs. We create a chasm between us and the world, and ultimately between us and God, by focusing too much on getting what is ours, we become apathetic to the needs of others.

It is just a short step from apathy toward the needs of others, from a failure to see them, to seeing them as object that either aid or hinder our pursuit of getting what we want. No longer invisible, they become objects that we use if useful and discard if not. From this, all kinds of evil are perpetuated, evil which eventually leads to our downfall as well.

Instead, Paul encourages us to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.” In doing so, we are storing up treasures in heaven, putting down a deposit that will ultimately be redeemed. This may look like foolishness to some. But God is faithful, and makes good on His promises.
The prophet Jeremiah was commanded by God to purchase land at a time when Israel was under siege. Their land was going to come under rule of Babylon. Knowing that the land he was about to purchase would be stolen from by the armies of Babylon, Jeremiah bought it anyway. He was faithful to the word God had spoken, trusting in that word, and in the promise that God would redeem the land, returning it to the Israelites, and that once again, houses, fields and vineyard would be bought.”

God makes a similar promise to us. That in doing good, being rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, we are also laying down a deposit, storing up the treasure of a good foundation, so that we might take hold of the life that is really life. In turning our hearts outward, unfurling them to the light of the Son, in seeking to meet the needs of others, we find that God meets our needs, in beautiful and often extraordinary ways.

The life that is really life is one in which relationships are central. Investing in people may not bring us monetary wealth, but it does enrich our lives in ways that often exceed all of our expectations. Neighbors become friends, classmates become a support network, co-workers become a community. And if we’re lucky, we get to share a meal. As a wise man once said, “I’ve never had a meal that made bad company better, but I’ve had many bad meals worth eating because of good company.”


This is, perhaps, one of my better sermons. Having written, and preached, only five, I hope they continue to get better. So many people at the end of the service commented that their stomachs were rumbling by the end of the sermon. I guess I left them all hungry for more. (Get it?)

Church, of course, was followed by a time of fellowship. It went really well. The family hosting this morning was wonderful, the treats they provided delicious. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) commented that they were looking forward to the week when I would decide to host fellowship. More than one said they thought the sermon could only have been made better had I handed out chocolates to the raptly attentive crowd.

I was feeling good, and a little overwhelmed by so many kind and gracious words. As the crowd began to depart, I excused myself to use the ladies' room. Then, I grabbed my shoulder bag, indicated to my father that I was ready to leave, and headed out of the church.

It was as were standing outside on the sidewalk that my father commented, "You may want to check the back of your skirt. After using the ladies' room, the hem of my skirt had gotten caught the waistband of my panties! And I had proceeded to walk out of church, mooning almost every member of one the most highly respected families in my church.

Somehow, having adjusted my skirt to its proper position and heading to the car, I found myself feeling neither embarrasment not humiliation. Rather I was grateful. You see, at the last moment this morning, I made and impulsive wardrobe change. I switched from a thong to a full brief. Sitting in the front seat of my father's car, I couldn't help but smile as I thanked my very big God for small favors.

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