Holier than Chow

Ancient Testimony ~ Matthew 13: 1-9

April 26, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

At the peak of the Incan civilization, in Peru and its surroundings, there were 150 varieties of seed corn. When the Spanish colonized their civilization, they wiped out much of it, so that a civilization of extraordinary vitality and diversity became an impoverished one. My best souvenir from Machu Picchu is this 50-cent strip of seeds, an example of the kinds of corn that were prevalent in Incan civilization. No, you can’t touch it; it is too fragile. But I will put it on our altar table and you can look at it later.

When one people want to destroy another people, they go to its heart. They don’t just wipe out this year’s crops; they wipe out crops. They don’t just wipe out the chow; they go for the source of the chow, which is that thing called culture or civilization. It is larger than any one seed or any one meal. It is the whole megillah, which is a Hebrew word for a scroll, or a wandering story, one that tediously complicated, but, like a culture, finally connected and coherent.

We live in the whole megillah, the scroll and its many complications. We also live in a culture. Culture is that thing that we swim in. Said one fish to another, “I overheard those land people talking about water. What is water?” Culture is water. We are so deeply in it that we often don’t know we are in it.

Jesus also had a lot to say about seeds as the basis of civilization. The Parable of the Sower is one that occurs in three of the four synoptic gospels. Remarkably, it says just about the same thing in all three places. Note a couple of things. One: it is a story about the sower, not the seed. Two: it is also not really about seeds but about four kinds of soil or environments for the seed. One is the wayside soil, where the seed is scattered unproductively. Another is the rocky soil. A third is the thorny soil. The final soil is the good soil, in which things grow and fruit and from which we get food to eat. The final soil is the good culture.

This week I was privileged to hear the president of the UCC culture give an extraordinary speech. He said that we were at a moment of important change in the seed corn, in the way our seed and soil were evolving. We have succeeded, said John Thomas, at creating a culture that has two important crops. One is moral engagement. The other is critical and intellectual interpretation of the Bible. As a culture, we have excelled at both moral and intellectual engagement. Now there are two new urgencies emerging and already growing among us: one is the sacramental presence of God in Jesus; and the second, something renewing from our past, known as evangelical fervor. Both take us toward an integration of heart and head. We have been heady. Both also take us to a place beyond obligation. We have been so obliged as a people to do good and to think good than we have rarely felt good or known passion.

Sacramental presence is something beyond self-loathing. Consider James Carroll’s way of putting this culture in Catholic terms. In his new memoir, The Believer, he curses the church: “A feeling of unworthiness is the core of my selfhood, and I know exactly where I got it.”

Sacramental experience—if not sacramental presence—is a feeling of worthiness at the core of our selfhood. It is knowledge of the holy in the ordinary. This sense of holy chow and worthiness, beyond obligation, is my hope for our new members, our old members, our babies, and all here at Judson.

Protestants and Catholics have both treated the world as a giant home improvement project. We also have the world’s longest to-do list. We are still trying to earn our worthiness, as though the Reformation never happened. A new reformation of the seed and the corn is evolving. To moral engagement and intellectual excellence we add a sense of peace and passion about living. It reunites head and heart. It moves to the land beyond obligation, a land more filled with grace and fun.

Why do I make sure I tell you about these important new evolutions, already happening here among us? Because I think they matter deeply to Judson in its current moment. We are on our way, I think, to a happier and more passionate engagement with the world and its cultures. That, to me, is a very good thing. The moroseness of most Protestantism is just too deadly. I visited a friend in Cleveland who was looking for a church. During this search, he sat through a service that was excruciating; the person in front of him leaned back and said, “It’s usually not this bad. Do come at least one more Sunday.” Then someone made a terrible joke about how the normal services in the normal town are the 9 a.m. Contemporary and the 11 a.m. Boring.

An emerging culture in Protestantism may matter even more to Riverside Church, our partner in mission and our partner in legacy. You can’t have missed that a minority of parishioners at Riverside have exposed the Pastor’s salary package in the Daily News, causing a great moralistic and intellectualistic rumpus during the week of his installation. Surely right thinking and moral action are involved in this affair. Those who decide they were so right in their thinking about what should happen at Riverside clearly decided they had to take action. And yes, I think their passion for their rightness got in the way of what they did. We always have to watch passion, especially evangelical passion. But watching it doesn’t mean we can’t have it. Consider open and affirming evangelical passion and you will get my drift.

What is not present at Riverside is what the Parable of the Sower gives us, which is the long view, the evolutionary view, the viewpoint of the sower and not the seed.

What do congregations like ours and Riverside need, as new seed emerges? We need people who care about the whole as much as they do about the part. We need new members and old members and tepid members and not-so-much members to give a great big damn about the Sower’s project in agriculture and in history. What matters is that no one group gets to be the whole soil, which is what some Riversiders have clearly decided to do.

You’ll want specifics. I have to give the charge for the UCC at the installation this afternoon. I don’t have it written yet. I still have six hours. But let me say that there is a tradition of high salaries among black Baptist pastors of large and mega-churches. I hope and pray that there is not racism afoot here. Also, many people get a lot of money for supervising a staff of 150 and a school. That being said, I’m a fan of more proportionate staff-to-clergy salaries. There is more than one story here. And because a few individuals thought they were better than the whole, we will have to look at the whole megillah.

Protestant culture at its best can think and see. While I am arguing for a broadening of our cultural paradigm, beyond moral engagement and moral inquiry, into a more experienced sacramental presence and a more passionate evangelical sense of urgency, I am not arguing that we lose our two main seeds. We need to live in both paradigms at once—which is like standing on a fence and is also a sure recipe for a hernia.

When we live in an emerging culture, the seed gets better. No one group gets to be so hung up on its own individual rightness that it tries to take out a great institution with a press release. Dirty pool is dirty pool, and it dirties the pool (remember the fish in the water?). It is also sowing the seed in bad soil. It resembles ever so much the Spanish inquisition, because it tries to destroy the seed corn.

We will not always agree here about God or belief or Christianity or even its evolution. I think we will agree that we all need to look at the whole and not the parts. We need members who think about the whole institution and not just their one part. We need to take care of institutions because they carry the corn in baptisms, in memberships, in time. We need to know, deep in our souls, that we are worthy, that we live beyond obligation—and that such un-obliged worthiness is the Sower’s goal, in history, for all people.

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