In the name of God who gives us bread and also gives us roses. Amen.
What things will you remember about the last 12 months? The isolation? Eating Christmas dinner with your family via Zoom? The constant fear of getting sick? Masks and hand sanitizer? School via computer?
Scientists tell us that memories are basically electrical and chemical signals in the brain and that “remembering” is when the brain connects some of these signals.
It’s, of course, impossible to remember everything so memory is selective; we remember some things and forget others.
When I’ve met my Blake students years later, they often tell me what they remember: the time that kid brought his pet gecko to class and put it in your tabletop fountain and you didn’t notice it until you did! The time that cool Buddhist monk with the shaved head and yellow robes came to class and then we couldn’t understand his English but we all nodded and pretended we did! The time you had a laughing fit in class and had to leave the room!
Wait, I want to say: What about all I taught you about public speaking? What about that unit on Islam?
I remember my earliest days on the faculty when it was still okay to be a character like Jane Rein, a brilliant Radcliffe-educated AP English teacher, who at the end of each day would put her books and things into a heavy canvas bag and throw it out her second-floor window so that it landed below right next to her car. And a history teacher and coach, Bill Martin, who would barge into your classroom uninvited and ask students questions like “Are you guys bored?” (Yes! They chorused) “Well get over it because your teacher up here is trying to make you all less ignorant!” “Characters” wouldn’t be allowed in schools much anymore which is too bad.
“The greatest illusion about communication,” says the English writer George Bernard Shaw, “is that it happened.” Most of what we see and hear, we never take in and certainly don’t remember, but most often, we do remember specifics and people.
In the first lesson for today, the writer of Acts is specific, noting that 120 people were in attendance and the group casts lots to replace Judas (so the Holy Spirit shows up in a lottery?). In the Epistle, John says that anyone who does not believe in God makes God a liar (arresting word choice there); and in the Gospel we get a glimpse into the mind of Jesus when he prays for the disciples (or us), asking for our protection, holiness and joy. Joy, he prioritizes!
When we hear a sermon, much of the time we don’t remember theological concepts, we remember specifics or personal anecdotes. (stick around for the coffee hour and you can chime in on this). For example, what I remember most from Craig’s sermon last week were two specific things: the fact that he bought one CD with every paycheck, and how hard it has been for him to grieve for relatives “an ocean away” and all of it showing me more about Craig, the person.
From one of Jered’s recent sermons, I remember his admission of nearly being brought to tears on Easter morning in the parking lot, seeing “little Easter dresses” and “smiles crinkling above masks.” I remember because of the dresses and the masks, and because of Jered acknowledging a fragile emotional state.
What sticks with me from my latest sermon (only three weeks ago) is the comparison between George Floyd and Jesus on the Cross: both died in the same way– by suffocation. Anything else I’d have to reread it.
The theology in all these sermons might have been brilliant, the teaching exemplary, but what most of us latch on onto are the specifics and the personal anecdotes. Someone said that courage is making yourself vulnerable in front of people who disagree with you, and that is often what happens in this virtual pulpit every week with as many specifics as we dare present.
Similarly, when we raised money to build the clinic in Kayoro, we emphasized that in the sea of need out there I the world, we would do ONE good thing, and now where there was once a field of wild mint, there is a clinic with a full-time staff and multiple buildings — it’s all in the latest Evangelist.
When I taught Comparative Religion, it became clearer to me that the uniqueness of Christianity in part was because of the personal and specific person of Jesus of Nazareth, through whose life we learn what God is like. This was not true in the same way in the other religions where God is described as more remote and less “specific”.
I think that the Holy Spirit often operates within the realm of the specific and the personal — which is the point of today’s sermon.
Last Tuesday, I went to Trader Joe’s and bought some flowers, — pink lilies, white roses, and some babysbreath. I still had some things I needed for a luncheon I was having on Thursday so I drove to Kowalski’s on Grand Avenue and turned into the parking lot. It was then that I noticed a young man and woman at the exit with a neatly-printed sign: “Struggling. Please help.”
They looked to be in their thirties, possibly of middle Eastern descent, and I was struck by their dignity and the forthrightness of their sign. There was just something about them. The woman was seated in a folding chair, holding a baby.
Before entering the store, I walked over to them and gave them five dollars. I hoped it would help buy bread and milk, at least. I wished them good luck.
Coming out of the store, I put my two grocery bags into the trunk, got into the car and then, almost by instinct, grabbed one of the white roses from the bunch in the back, got out of the car again, walked up to the couple and handed the flower to the woman who smiled and thanked me.
Driving home it hit me: I had essentially given them bread and roses. I usually overthink things, but this action was almost automatic, instinctual.
Much later sitting at my desk at home, trying to work with a set of lessons that seemed impossibly confusing, I understood that this act of compassion had not only gifted me with a sermon idea, it felt second nature to me, probably because it was an extension of my deep interest in gardens, beauty, flowers, roses. That interest was paired with the needs of the couple in the parking lot.
As if the point had to be made further, at the luncheon on Thursday, in honor of our regathering, a friend brought gifts for each of us: large paper cards with bouquets which unfolded as you opened them. One of us got red tulips, one purple iris, one yellow daisies, and my bouquet? White roses.
I think it was Toni Morrison who wrote that an act of compassion is, its best, followed by wonder — that is really seeing the human beings in front of us as the wonderful creations of God that they are. and not just as recipients of our charity. I saw this in the parking lot. They were wonder-ful.
My theological hero Christian Wimans writes that “the meanings that God calls us to in our lives are never abstract though the call may ask us to redefine or refine what we know.”
So when the Spirit calls you to some action, it is usually not “Just be a better person” or “Be more generous,” but it’s “Go and visit your mom” or “write a check to the food shelf at Hallie Q Brown” or “Call Phyllis soon.” Not abstract but personal and immediate. At least this is true for me.
The Creator gives us bread, Scripture, nature, Jesus models the power of love, but the Holy Spirit often brings the roses. She brings us music and art and poetry and an awareness of the pink-blossomed tree, radiant outside the window.
One of the things I remember from St. John’s during the pandemic is statement made by Professor Patrick Schmidt during a coffee hour to the effect that the most important thing the pandemic has revealed is the extent to which poor and black and brown communities continue to suffer disproportionately compared to wealthier white communities and that the structures of racism are unmasked.
Similarly, in the blog on Friday I wrote about the four-month textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 which united dozens of immigrant communities under the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World (led to a large extent by women). The words of their anthem, still relevant, still true:
As we go marching, marching
Unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing
Their ancient call for bread
Smart art and love, and beauty
Their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for
But we fight for roses, too
Our lives shall not be sweated
From birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies
Bread and roses, bread and roses!
How will you know? I think you will know if it’s the Spirit speaking if you are called out of your smallness, if only to show a small kindness to a holy family in a parking lot.
Christian Wimans, My Bright Abyss, 2013.
Sr. Joan Chititser, smallness statement is from her work.