August 3, 2013, Proper 13, Year C
For this week and for the last we have come together on Saturday evening to sing evensong together. And, as Brent promised us, it is a beautiful service, and all week I have had the Magnificat stuck in my head. There is much good in this service, and many of the local, practical changes that we’ve made – such as bringing in the harpsichord – have made my worship here deeper and I hope that we can continue them. Yet even with this appreciation for this service, as I left church last week I noticed that I was keenly hungry, and this not simply because we eat dinner after church; for I had grown to expect the Eucharist at service, not only materially in my stomach but, I believe, spiritually in my soul as well.
This hunger made me think a bit about the Eucharist, and I hope you all won’t mind a bit of personal history. As a child I never took the Eucharist; I was from a tradition where children did not attend that part of the service but were, instead, at Sunday school. In fact I grew up thinking that communion was not a Protestant tradition at all. The first time I took communion was in Georgia as the oldest member of a youth group for college students, and we sat in a circle in a room just behind the altar and passed a loaf of freshly baked bread around, grabbing as much as we pleased, taking seconds and thirds until the loaf was finished. Apart from this I first took communion at a church service after I had read and studied the tradition objectively in medieval texts. And so, when I was walking up to the altar at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Athens Georgia, I thought that my past experiences and my mentalization of the Eucharist through academic study would ruin it. And I was wrong – dead wrong – and I now count the Eucharist as one of the many true, deep, and beautiful blessings of God.
I deeply love the Eucharistic feats, but for now, for these two weeks, I do not have it, and for that I am sorrowed and hungry. And the table behind me seems emptier and emptier. And so, when coming to these readings, I am asked: in this love am I myself saying to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for years and years: relax, eat, drink, and be merry”? Is this love one of the types of greed that Jesus warns about? Looking to Colossians we find a variety of sins that we all know in our heads and hearts are bad: impurity, wraith, malice, slander, abusive language, lying – but greed, aye, greed there’s the rub. For what is greed? No mere “wrong desire” for Paul separates even these and links greed to idolatry.
But can a love for something deeply good be idolatry? Is it wrong to love good things and to find comfort in them? Is it not good to, after taking of the Lord’s Table, return to our pews and marvel in prayer at the good grace of God? Ought I not feel hungry when for two weeks I may not partake of it? Or, more broadly, what of the common goods of the world as a whole? The simple things we feel come from God? What of the good earth that Father Brent keeps reminding us of? What of a good cup of tea, a worn book and an equally worn chair? What of baking one’s own bread or eating a dinner that a loved one has prepared? Can these good things, loved in the fullness of the heart, be taken in greed? A friend of mine from Mississippi is now in school in Connecticut, and for most of his life he had never seen more than a dusting of snow, if that; and that first winter, when everyone was complaining of the cold, he would tell me how, when it would snow thick and heavy, he would bundle up and go out into the dark nights and walk through the forest or along the covered roads and feel his whole body shiver, then, when it was too much, would rush inside and sit by the fire with his family and in that room feel a peace and a joy: should I warn my friend not to be greedy of such things? For when we sit and listen to the crickets in the blue evening light, the cool wind through the trees, and in us is raised a deep love for God’s creation and we pray a prayer of thanksgiving alone, asking for nothing more – and a car rushes by, its stereo blaring, the sound of God overridden by someone else’s desire, or the phone rings or the neighbors fight: should we not be saddened by the loss of something good and seemingly so holy? Shall we not love good things without worry and without reproach?
Perhaps, but one may also ask: is the evening light mine to decide where and when it comes? Are those good, lonely moments in the snow or the immensity of the sea mine to command? For in the gospel Jesus says, “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” Note the subject here: the land produces, not the rich man. Although he helped it to grow, it is not the man, not we humans, who create the crops of the land, not we who dim the light of the sky, not we who cause the sea to surge. For greed is a clutching, a grabbing, a desire for time to be arrested not only for the thing desired but for us and for the whole world as well. It is idolatry – not in how we view the world – but in how we see our own power within it. In greed it is our will that is the idol, not the sea or sky, not the snow or wave.
As a culture we have learned that we ought not impose our will upon others, but in the readings today both Paul and Christ bid us to not impose our will upon things as well. Indeed this is true freedom: not the ability to do as we please, but the state of being in which we may interact with and enjoy creation to its fullest. For greed is not merely the grasping on of something, the holding tight and close so that we imagine that we are in command of it. It is the falsehood, the lie, that we may be god over something -anything- and dictate its future and decide its present. And in this we attempt to limit God’s Creation, to play at it as if we could actually control it. Besides the pride at playing god greed is wrong because it assumes that the good things we love are good in us alone and that they do not exist with a deep goodness that is beside and a part of their very being. For if the evening is good only because I have loved it then when I am gone it will have lost something essential to it and will no longer be beautiful. But God’s Creation is greater than our hope to love it, and is all the more beautiful because it has been loved for thousands of years past and will be for thousands of years hence – in freedom. In the freedom to last only a few short minutes – or even a moment – to be gazed upon long and full or seen for but a brief moment, to be held in open hands, like one must hold a lightning bug when caught, free to remain and glow an almost unearthly green, free to fly away, leaving us better for it having come at all.
For some of the joy of Creation is in its mystery, its pure otherness that shows itself to us at its own whims, but so too that to which we share our own selves as we would. As Josef Pieper writes: Now, what is meant here by mystery is not something exclusively negative and more than simply what is obscure. In fact, when understood more precisely, mystery does not imply obscurity at all. It connotes light, but a light of such plentitude that it remains “unquenchable” for a knowing faculty or a linguistic capacity that is merely human. The notion of mystery should not suggest that the effort involved in thinking runs up against a wall but rather that this effort exhausts itself in the unforeseeable, in the space – the unlimited breadth and depth – of creation.
In this mystery is not the unknowable, nor is it that which has yet been explored but some day will be: it is all the world before us and all the world within us; it is the potential, it is the impossible, it is the unquenchable. It is Mt. Everest that can be climbed as much as it is Mr. Olympus; it is the trees here in Eugene that children may yet climb and it is the trees around my parents home that have fallen that I may never climb again; it is the statue of liberty for a girl in Oregon, it is Tolkien’s Rivendell for a boy in New Jersey; it is the sun that gives life to our world and the sea of stars of which size is so great that of it we may only dream. In all it is that which may be known but which we do not have to know for it to exist and be loved. We are free in it, for to be bound is not the same as to love.
The song of the Great Thanksgiving is not ours to do with as we please, nor is the Eucharist ours to demand each and every week, even though we sorrow when it is gone and go home hungry. But that hunger, that sorrow is a call – a call to a world that is literally beyond our imaginations, that must be experienced, not merely thought or believed. It is a call to see that the Eucharist is not exhausted in our hope for it, but is a world in itself open and challenging, wonderful and sad.
And so, when Father Brent returns and we may once again partake of the joy of the Eucharist, let us not meet it in desire but experience it in hope. Amen