A Sermon Delivered at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, Sunday, July 28, 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.
by Joseph W.H. Lough
Today’s Readings: Revised Common Lectionary (Alternate Reading)
“More is better.” “More is better?” Not always.
With a show of hands, how many of you have seen AT&T Mobile’s “More is better ad campaign”?
The ad campaign features a boyish corporate executive sitting cross-legged in suit and tie in a circle surrounded by kindergarteners.
“Who thinks two is better than one?” he asks the children. ALL THE CHILDRENS’ HANDS SHOOT UP.
“So which is better?” the executive then asks, “Being able to shoot two lasers out of both of your eyes at the same time or just one laser out of one eye?”
EXECUTIVE: “OK. Two lasers out of two eyes. Why?”
To which one child offers: “Its just fun. OK. One beam, like, does just a little bit of damage. Two beams do a lot of damage. It will make things explode!”
EXECUTIVE: “And that’s more fun? And that’s more powerful, you’re saying?
CHILDREN: “Yeah. For sure.”
VOICE OVER: “It’s Not Complicated. Doing two things at once is better.”
AT&T’s “More is Better” campaign has been wildly popular. The entire campaign has this same boyish corporate executive asking kindergarteners “Which is better, bigger or smaller?” Answer? Bigger. “Which is better, faster or slower?” Answer? Faster. “Which is better, More or Less?” Answer: More. And, as you have just heard, “Which is better, Two or One?” Answer: Two.
It’s not complicated.
Yet, according to today’s readings, it can be very complicated indeed.
In our opening reading, for the sake of his kinsman and his kinsman’s family, Abraham prays God’s mercy upon the people who chose more over less, the people of Sodom.
In our Psalm, God regards the lowly – those who have less – over the haughty, those who believe they deserve more.
By contrast, in our reading from Colossians, members of the community are faulted for believing that self-mortification offers a sure path to spiritual enlightenment; it does not.
And, finally, in our reading from the Gospel, we are urged to petition our Father, quite simply, for our daily bread.
It’s not complicated. But it is.
Today’s readings eventually lead us to the Holy Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood and to the radical self-giving and hospitality embodied in this resplendent feast.
There is no quick and easy, instant, fast-food alternative to this Holy Meal because the Meal Itself – the Body and Blood – the Feast – is not a mere means to some other end: it is the End itself, the Goal. This Holy Eucharist is Life and Life more abundant, so that to seek a detour around it or through it is to miss is it and go away hungry.
Which may be confusing, because our story begins – as many stories of divine promise and abundance begin – in the barren desert. And this may be confusing because it is so easy to mistake this barrenness itself – this absence and deprivation – for the quick-fix, the sure path, the infallible mechanism that will lead us to our goal. It is not and it will not.
And, so, although we may be inclined to fault Lot for having chosen more over less, or to praise Abram for having chosen less over more, we would be mistaken for doing so.
For remember, Abraham’s and Lot’s families have been journeying through the barren desert together. It was to avoid overgrazing and over-cultivation that they were forced to part company. And when Lot chooses the lush and verdant Jordan Valley over the arid and barren coastal plains, it is worth remembering that Abraham would happily have settled in the valley instead:
Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. . . . So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom.
Lot chose more over less, but had he chosen the arid coastal plain, then it would have been Abram moving his tent as far as Sodom.
It is not where you are or where you find yourself but what you do where you are.
Abraham’s superiority to Lot no more consists of his settling in the coastal region than Sarah’s superiority to Lot’s wife consists in her barrenness. All shall be fed. All shall be comforted. All shall be filled at the Feast to which All of us are being called.
Nor does Abraham’s blessing arise out of his moral condemnation of Lot’s conduct or the conduct of those who live in the fertile Jordan Valley. Indeed, far from condemning those in the Valley, Abraham prays God’s mercy upon them:
Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Suppose there are forty-five? Then will you sweep it away? No. Forty? No. Thirty? No. Twenty? No. Suppose there are Ten? No.
Far from arising out of Abraham’s moral indignation over the conduct of the people living in Sodom, Abraham’s blessing would appear to arise out of his and Sarah’s compassion and generosity; the same kindness and generosity that compelled them to feed three total strangers who approached their tents in the middle of the barren desert:
And the Lord appeared to Abram by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”
And indeed according to the rabbis, Abraham and Sarah here washed the feet and served Feast to the Lord himself – the very feast to which all of us also are welcomed and are now moving.
So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to
Sarah and said, “Quick! Three SEE-uhs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
No. Although Abraham’s blessing begins in the barren desert, the desert is not its object, not its goal. Rather do we find ourselves here, in the feeding of the three strangers, right there, directly face-to-face with the feast of the Lord’s Supper.
Which is one reason why, when we hear the Epistle and when we listen to its counsel – see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ – we already know the deceitful philosophy the Epistle has in mind.
It is a philosophy that would pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, . . . with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” It is a philosophy that wants to qualify or disqualify you, “insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by our sensuous minds.”
Has someone said that you can’t come to this table because of what you eat or don’t eat? or because you chose the fertile Jordan Valley over the arid coastal plain; because you live in Sodom and not in Canaan; because you haven’t seen enough visions or haven’t spoken to enough angels?
It’s not complicated. But it is.
Has someone told you that there are seven, or five, or ten or four steps guaranteed to lead you to this Table?
No. There is no fast-food alternative to this Feast.
To be sure, some people want instant Eucharistic feast – now – without all of the fuss of kneading and baking the bread, without all the hassle of having strangers around our table . . .
And so miss the opportunity to Feast at the very table of the Lord.
. . . right away – now – as though there were a dietary formula that could substitute for the care, attention, and simple grace of fellowship around this table; as though there were a Eucharistic drive-through, instant grace – mix and stir – without all of the cutting, pealing, chopping, and waiting, all of the listening and attending that are necessarily entailed by any meal worth lingering over.
But to this meal there is no, no drive-through, no how-to manual or hand-book; there is no Eucharistic Happy Meal. You can’t get this meal by talking to angels or by inducing visions. You cannot get this meal through meritorious acts of ascetic self-denial or bodily self-mortification. Whether you choose the already fruited valley or the still barren coastline. There is no “follow the dots” coloring book version.
So, how do you get there? How will we know we are on the right path?
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
Oh, yes. To be sure. I will admit. The fast-food alternative is much easier. Which of us, in Lot’s place, would not choose the fruited valley over the arid plain? I know I would. The Deli alternative – where someone else does all of the chopping, cutting, kneading, and cooking – is much easier for some than the clamor of the noisy kitchen. And which of us when faced with a loud, boisterous, unruly table of total strangers would not prefer a quiet, candle-lit, corner at some familiar haunt? I know I would.
“Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.”
And so miss entertaining the Lord himself.
It’s not complicated.
Have you chosen the fruited valley? Come. Do you find yourself in the arid plain? Come. Do you like more? Come. Do you prefer less? Come. Do you like fast? Come. Do you like slow. Do you prefer two laser eyes to one? Please, come. Join us. There is plenty for all at this Holy Feast. Amen.