Monday, October 21, 2013

What is the bird doing in church?

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on October 20, 2013, St. Luke's Sunday and the annual Children's Sabbath (Proper 24C):  Psalm 121 and The Children's Charter for the Episcopal Church

          I was thinking, “I have had this conversation way too many times.”  We were sitting in my office, two parents and myself with their two children, one a young girl of four or so and the other a newborn boy.  They had been members of the parish for only a few months.  We were meeting about the baby’s impending baptism.  But we were talking about his father’s concern about his daughter’s receiving communion.

          The family had come from a parish where children did not receive Communion until the age of seven or eight when they had a “First Communion” class.  That alone was still somewhat shocking to long-term Episcopalians who had grown up in a church where no one received Communion until they had received Confirmation.

          What had happened was that little Ann had been coming to the Altar rail each Sunday, and dutifully done as she had been instructed and, under the watchful eye of Mom or Dad, folded her arms across her chest to signal that she wanted a blessing.  But a couple of Sundays before our meeting to talk about her little brother’s baptism, Ann had been in church alone with her father, and as I stepped in front of them, Ann’s father was distracted by someone who had stumbled on their way forward and Ann did fold her hands across her chest, but with a smile as wide as it could be, held out her hands.  I smiled back and gave her Communion.

          Dad was now telling me how troubled he was by what I had done.  He kept saying, “But she does not understand what is happening.  She does not understand what is going on and does not know to show the proper respect.”  My response was that knowing she was there to be fed was a long way down the road to understanding about as much as we can about a mystery.  He was not buying it.  “She was only imitating other people,” he said.  She doesn’t know enough to have a relationship with God.”

          Exasperated and tired I did something unhelpful.  I asked Ann, “Do you know what is happening when we have the bread and wine in Church?”  I regretted it as soon as it came out of my mouth.  She was shy and just froze.  Her father left feeling vindicated in his opinion.

          But Ann, it turns out, had heard the question perfectly well, and, during the week, she had drawn an answer to the question and given it to her parents, and they had her give it to me the next Sunday as they arrived for church, which she did quite proudly.  She had drawn a crude table with a man who was obviously meant to be a priest behind it.  There were candles on the table, about the same proportion of the candles on our Altar table.  There was a cup of sorts, and a little mound of something that was obviously bread.  All by itself that would have been a very lovely picture for a four year old to draw.
          But there was something over my head.  I looked at it for some time and finally decided it was a bird.  I said, “Ann, what is that.”  “A bird,” she said.  OK, I deserved that.  “What is the bird doing in church?” I asked.  “Oh,” she said, “that is the Holy Spirit, coming down to be in the bread so that we know Jesus is here.”

          I looked at Ann’s mother, “Did you…?” She shook her head.  “Where?”  She shrugged her shoulders.  I looked at Dad. He held up his hand.  “I know, I know, I get it,” he said.  And not only did Ann receive Communion from that day forward, but so did her baby brother on the day of his Baptism a couple weeks later.

          Children do have a relationship with God.  It is actually quite easy for them, which is probably why Jesus suggested that we all need to become like them if we are going to be able to comprehend and enter the kingdom of God.  For me, that is mostly about imagination. Imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts to us but we, tragically, learn not to trust it.  “It’s only your imagination.” At some point as we are growing up we become convinced that only seeing is believing, and it is our equivalent of being thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

          And it creates a huge problem, because without imagination how can we possibly believe in a God whom we cannot see.  Without imagination how can we ever possibly be, as the hymn says, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”[1]

          “I look my eyes to the hills,” says the pilgrim psalm we said or sang a few minutes ago.  What would have those pilgrims have seen there, going to or leaving from Jerusalem?  They would have seen the shrines of other gods, which were numerous in those days, very popular and almost always found on the hilltops.  They would have offered a much more “seeing is believing” kind of religion.

          But the pilgrims ask, “Where does my help come from?”  And they know the answer, “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”  But there was the problem, and why those shrines to rival gods stayed in business.  The God of Israel could not be seen, nor could he be controlled.  It was too easy not to understand his ways, and he was proud of it. Through the prophets he bragged, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways.”

          Barbara Brown Taylor writes of this dilemma. She says,

The reality in front of our eyes is not deep enough to contain its creator.  When we sense God’s presence, we glimpse another reality, one that we may enter only by the door of our imaginations.[2]

          Which says to me that we need our children in the church. We need them not only to grow up and continue to be the church.  The children of this or any parish are not our future.  They are our present.  And we need their imagination, which has not yet undergone the suppression that most of ours has, to show us the way to God.  The last attribute of the Children’s Charter of the Episcopal Church says

The church is called to encourage children’s ability to show and share God’s love and grace in the church and in the world.

          That is not a sweet sentiment.  It is the truth.  And more than the truth, it is vital to our own journey of faith, because we think that we have to teach children about God’s love and grace in order for them to share it, but that is not the truth.  We need to find ways to encourage a faith which is as natural to a child as is their imagination.

          Some Native Americans call imagination—this ability to see more than we can see—“looking twice” at the world.  You look once and you see what you see, and it alone can be wondrous.  But Jamake Hightower, a Blackfoot Indian, says, “You must learn to look at the world twice if you wish to see all there is to see.”[3]

          In our Christian tradition we have a word for this as well, “Sacrament,” which is not just the name for rites that we conduct or the primary symbols that we use, but is a way of looking at the world.  "The world is alive with the glory of God,” wrote the great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.  But only when our imaginations, like those of children, are enabled to look twice.

          I know that sometimes in church, children can be distracting, and it frustrates us when they do not seem to be paying attention and aren’t learning quickly enough how to be adults in church.  And we do, of course, need to pass on our tradition to them, or it will be no tradition at all.  But we also have to admit that being an adult in church is not all that it’s cracked up to be, that it means, among other things, that we have a harder time seeing what is really going on here than they do.

          “And a little child will lead them,” said the prophet.  And sometimes we need to let that happen.

[1] From Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Love divine, all love’s excelling.”
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), p. 44.
[3] Quoted in Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), p. 45.

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