Singing For Your Supper


Notes from

Stewardship Sunday, February 4, 2018

Trinity on Church UC, Kitchener

Texts: 1 Corinthians 9, Mark 1

I chided the crowd today to start: ‘why are you here’?  It was snowy, icy, unsafe, and I had told you last week to spend February ‘shopping’ other downtown churches as part of our transition plan.  You know why you came – and you welcomed each other, as hosts and guests.

This was the last of our Epiphany season tour through Paul’s first letter to the conflicted early church in Corinth, and the first chapter of Mark’s gospel.  Paul has just reminded folks how he never took pay for preaching, and I was confessing with your 2017 income tax receipts that I’m your biggest expense.  Paul didn’t do it for the money – neither do I.  You couldn’t pay me enough!

Sure, I ‘sing for my supper’, (though I am learning to turn my microphone off to sing along with hymns).  I work, and you pay.  Have you never worked for merit pay, bonus or commission?  None of us can be bought for pay – nor is anyone paid what they are worth.  We work at making interactions better, more than client or service provider. We weave fabrics of community, identity, relationship.

Your mother taught you to bring a host a token gift, or ask how to contribute to a meal.  First time in a new home, you bring a plant, or bread and salt – don’t you?  A mentor of mine invites his grandchildren to supper, but they learn they are expected to ‘sing for their supper’, to play the role of a good guest, by bringing a story, prepared to ask about their host, and to know the day’s news.

That’s Epiphany for you – trying to see things differently, newly, from others perspectives – the gospel of the reign of God breaking into the ‘business as usual’ way of the world.  As Bruce Cockburn sings it, ‘the trouble with normal is it always gets worse’.  God forbid my epitaph be ‘he made us think.'  Better that you look back on this year and say ‘we changed then, for the better’.

Paul claims he became ‘all things to all people’, and I prefer to hear that as showing empathy, meeting people on their own turf, accepting their conventions and constraints, so they can hear gospel without ‘noise’. Despite the claim that ‘you had to be there’, or ‘you’ve got to be from here’ – Paul claims to communicate with them, not just exchange in transactions.

Last week I was talking about the language of demonic possession in addiction. People nodded, recognizing the example of something bigger than any of us, but smaller than God. God forbid that only addicts can understand or help addicts, or worse, that only non-addicts can. W5 on CTV last night claimed that 20% of medical workers have substance abuse challenges.  They’re possessed.

I fretted last week that our part of the movement got a bit to narrowly middle class in the last generation, and disrespected talk of miraculous healing or exorcism. Worse, we identified with hospitals, schools, justice institutions, losing track of our identity as sinners. If only the healthy, wise, just could help, those institutions would be as empty as pulpits that excluded sinners as clergy.

Circulating CDs of Mark’s gospel, I pointed out that it contains proportionately far more healing and exorcism stories than we expect, and fewer words of Jesus. We who fix on his sayings are better at ‘talking the talk’, than ‘walking the walk’, and prefer religion that doesn’t demand any change in our behaviour. But why do you come in the snow – to think, or share in becoming better?

With all of our medical technology, are we adding years to life, or life to years? As we add to our quantity of life, are we adding to the quality of our lives? Some diseases are mechanical problems to fix. But much our mortality is a mystery to be suffered, teaching us passion and compassion, and making us who we are becoming, together. That’s why we keep trying.

Mark’s gospel is a short account of what happens when worlds collide: God’s and ours. Jesus bursts on the scene. He rushes about, point of contact between God’s reign and business as usual, an agent of change. Baptized, he’s off to the desert and cared for by the Spirit in one sentence. Back in Galilee, he yanks two pairs of brothers from their fishing boats. Today we learn that they’ve abandoned not only their jobs, but their families: Simon has a mother-in-law!

It’s still chapter 1, 6 weeks into the new year, and the boys drop in on Simon’s mother-in-law, and find her suffering from a fever. Jesus lifts her up, and heals her. She in turn starts caring for the boys. Mark uses the same verb for her care as for the Spirit’s care for Jesus in the wilderness. Isn’t that just like our religious tradition? We make you feel better, and then put you to work!

Are you raised, healed, changed, transformed? From what? For what? Our discourse about healing, medical or religious, is too often focused on the miraculous. We are less likely to dwell on the prudent reduction of risk factors, the public health programmes that save lives. We prefer to direct less of our attention to the slower longer term rehabilitation processes of healing.

In 1979, Henri Nouwen wrote a little book called The Wounded Healer. He reflected on our broken world, our distorted selves, and the challenges of ministering to one another in such a context.  Near the end was the insight that we are all wounded, and that we are all healers. That’s closer to our mantra in this faith community

Since Simon’s mother-in-law, we have always been a community of people lifted up and healed, and called into community and service. And we are always wounded, always part of the healing. If you are waiting to be ready and able, to be competent and equipped, you never start.  This is a life of gifts received and given and shared, of passion and compassion. Always has been, always will be.

The measure of a healing community will not simply be adding years to our life, but life to our years. It will not simply be scored by the quantity of our life, our longevity, but the quality of our life, its passion and compassion. It’s inspiring to visit this or any church community and find the vitality of the ‘super-seniors’, despite their physical or financial limitations!

Religion is not a spectator sport, but an amateur one, and your ministry as wounded healers should not be diminished for not being miraculous or supernatural. But we can learn from the tales of magic, so I quoted one from the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, as Henri Nouwen retold it in his book:

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet, while he was sanding at the entrance of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai’s cave.  He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.’ ‘Where is he?’ ‘Sitting at the gates of the city’  ‘How will I know him?’

‘He is sitting among the poor, covered in wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time, and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time, and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed. If so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment’

So Rabbi Joshua ben Levi went to the Messiah and said to him, ‘Peace unto you, my master and teacher’ The Messiah answered, ‘Peace unto you, son of Levi.’ He asked, ‘When is the master coming?’ ‘Today.’   

Rabbi Yoshua returned to Elijah, who asked ‘What did he tell you?’ ‘He indeed deceived me, for he said “Today I am coming” and he has not come’ Elijah said, ‘This is what he told you: “Today if you would listen to His voice.”’ (emphasis mine)

There’s a movie on Netflix these days, ‘The Good Catholic’, with a rectory of three priests working on why they serve – to be present if God comes. Next week, Transfiguration, we’ll hear the story of Elijah’s succession by Elisha. It’s not my strong suit, but others, this mutual care. My gift, with others here, is more ad-ministration, the work that makes ministry possible, in safer space.

I promised you one bit of poetry in these notes, rather than in the oral version of this reflection. Why did you come today, despite me?  Why do any of us ‘sing for our supper’ and try to communicate rather than relying on transactions of utilitarian exchange to build our identity and relationships? We pray as if it’s all up to God, work as if it’s all up to us, but count on each other playing a part.

Weary in Well-Doing
Christina Rosetti, October 1864

I would have gone, God bade me stay
I would have worked, God bade me rest
God broke my will from day to day
God read my yearnings unexprest
And say them nay.

Now I would stay, God bids me go
Now I would rest; God bids me work
God breaks my heart tos’t to and fro
My soul is wrung with doubts that lurk
And vex it so

I go, Lord, where thou sendest me; 
Day after day I plod and mail
But Christ my God when will it be
That I may let alone my toil
And rest with thee?