Monday, October 3, 2022

HOMILY: "Becoming a Prayer"

A Meditation on John 15
Sunday, October 2, 2022


Susan Schnur is an essayist and editor, and one of the first women ever to be ordained, formally at least, as a rabbi in the Jewish tradition.  Way back in 1985—she wrote an essay for the New York Times that I still keep folded up and tucked inside my wallet, wherever I go.

In her essay, she describes sleeping on a sofa-bed years earlier, in the living room of a boyfriend’s family home.  It was something she did from time to time; and she was welcomed every time into the family’s nocturnal rhythms and rituals.  Right there in their living room.  At the time she had her own particular routine—set in motion by a debilitating spinal disease that caused her intense pain, particularly at night.  In her teen years, the disease released its grip; but even so she’d awaken in the hours after midnight, expecting the familiar, the excruciating, piercing pain of her youth.  When there was nothing, nothing but silence and darkness, she’d fall back to sleep, deeply and warmly relieved.

In those last years of high school, she writes, the relief itself seemed to wake her.  And she’d awaken then—even in her boyfriend’s living room—to an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude.  To this day, she writes, “I lie in bed not with the urge to pray…but with the feeling that I am a prayer.”  Isn’t that fantastic?  “I lie in bed not with the urge to pray…but with the feeling that I am a prayer.”  And she takes it all a step farther: “Gratitude,” she says, “is the scar left me by my illness.  I wake to run my fingers along its seam.”  I wake to run my fingers along its seam!  That kind of gratitude.

On one of those nights, awakened to this “overwhelming sense of gratitude,” Susan Schnur found her boyfriend’s father bounding down the stairs, barreling past the couch where she lay and into the kitchen.  Alone.  She pulled herself up, just a bit, and saw him cut himself a slab of rye bread with a big butcher’s knife.  And then, he stood, holding the bread in his hand, in the dining room, under shadows cast by city street lights.   Long after midnight.

“Chleb!” he blurted out in Polish, thrusting the bread into the air. “Broit,” he cried in Yiddish, as he held the bread against his pajama pocket. “Pain,” in French, as he shook it. “Lechem,” in Hebrew, as he kissed it. And “bread,” as he took a bite. And the old man continued, using more languages than she knew existed—thrusting, hugging, shaking, kissing, biting—until he finished with the bread, and went back up to bed.

For all she knew, for all Susan Schnur knew, this decent man lived an ordinary life in suburban New Jersey.  He loved his wife and children.  He checked on his kids in their rooms, perhaps more often than he needed to; he changed the oil in his car every thousand miles; he kept unnecessary dry goods in his basement.  But he lived an ordinary life.  But her boyfriend’s father was also, sometimes, so stunned by the fierceness of his own happiness, that he too was awakened by it in the middle of the night.  He was a Holocaust survivor, she learned in the days that followed, and she writes in her essay that the grief, the pain, the contradictions of his life, and, yes, the gratitude—it all drove him to the kitchen, to the bread box, in the middle of those dark and ordinary nights.  Stunned by the fierceness of his own happiness.


None other than Albert Einstein was known to quip: “There are only two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as if everything is.”  In long shadows cast by city streetlights, that old Holocaust survivor chose the latter: a world in which everything is a miracle; every loaf, a Passover; every guest, an angel.  In that luminous world of light and shadows, most of the house sound asleep, the old man became a prayer.  A sign of gratitude and wonder.  “Chleb!”  “Broit!”  “Pain!”  “Lechem!”  “Bread!”

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus is inviting you and me into the soul and substance of his life, into the soul and substance of his life.  “Live on in me, as I do in you,” he says.  “Abide in my love,” he says.  “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he says.  This is poetry, of course.  It’s the language of lovers and friends, of course.  Not the theology of exclusion and one-ups-manship, but the spirituality of intimacy and connection.  And where it’s all heading, where it’s all going…is joy.  “I tell you all this,” Jesus says, “so that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be full and running over.”  

To draw close to Jesus, to invite his gospel into our lives—is to risk living with this particular kind of joy.  Joy that fills your cup and then runs over.

Now it might seem strange to couple the Holocaust survivor and his hunk of rye bread with Jesus and his poetry, Jesus and his vine and branches.  But the joy, I want to suggest, is the same joy.  The bread of life is the same bread.  The human vocation is the same vocation.  Jesus wouldn’t have distinguished Christian joy from Jewish joy, or eucharistic bread from Passover bread, or Christian community from Jewish community.  These distinctions were meaningless to him.  “Love one another,” he says.  “Love, love, love one another…as I have loved you.”

There’s no such thing as Christian joy, or even Jewish joy—there’s the joy of becoming a prayer, and there’s the joy of recognizing the miracle; and there’s the joy of finding the divine in every furrowed face and every outstretched hand.  There’s the joy of breaking bread with those we love, or are coming to love.  “If you love one another,” Jesus says, “if you bear one another’s sorrows, if you rejoice in one another’s dreams, if you kneel down to wash one another’s feet, if you love one another as I have loved you—your joy’s going to be full.  Full!  Your joy’s going to rise up and run over and fill the world with gladness.”  And that, that’s what it means to become a prayer.  And that’s what it means to become branches of kindness on the vine of grace, branches bearing fruit on the vine of God.  

We’re back to that business about joy, right?  “I’m telling you all this,” Jesus says to his friends, on a dark and stormy night, mind you.  “I’m telling you all this so that my joy may be yours, and then your joy’s going rise up and run over and fill the world with gladness.”   


So I want us to imagine this morning that our holy communion is like a great conspiracy of divine joy.  Not a solemn ritual we’re trying to pack in here before kickoff—but a great conspiracy of divine joy.  Maybe all of this is in place to commission us for gladness.  Maybe the tradition itself isn’t binding us to rules and regulations.  Maybe it’s grafting our branches, all over again, into the one vine of mercy and grace.  God’s vine of mercy and grace.  What kind of joy might dance through our veins?  What kind of joy might quicken our step?  And what if your life is God’s way of filling the world with gladness?

This is the context, after all, of this morning’s reading.  Jesus is at the table with his friends.  He’s just blown them way with his stunning decision to wash their feet before supper.  Their jaws are still on the ground.  And now they’re talking about what it all means, what discipleship means for them now, what kind of ministry and mission they might take on, how it is that he’ll be in them and for them and with them, even when he’s not. 
 “You’re going to live and serve in a world of extraordinary contradictions,” Jesus says at the table.  Storms will roll in from the south and level cities.  And the next day, a beautiful sunset will take your breath away.  Rulers will occupy lands that aren’t theirs.  And then, before you know it, generous souls will get together to repair the broken cities, bind up the broken hearted and put the world together again.  “You’re going to live and serve in a world of extraordinary contradictions.”  
And because God loves you, you can go out into that world with gladness.  And because my love is in you, you can go out into that world with wonder.  And because you are living prayers yourselves, because you are children of God yourselves, because you have been loved and will always be loved, you can go out into that world of extraordinary contradictions with joy.

So let that joy be close to your heart this morning, friends.  As you reach out for that little piece of bread, or you take that gluten-free cracker in your fingers.  Let that great conspiracy of divine joy take up residence in your heart, in your hands, in your hopes.  “Chleb!”  “Broit!”  “Pain!”  “Lechem!”  “Bread!”  We become the prayers of God in a world of contradictions.  We become the friends of Jesus at the foot of his cross.  And we become a beloved and joyful and resilient and imaginative community—broken and blessed like Jesus, and poured out for the great, big, wild and wonderful planet of God.  “Chleb!”  “Broit!”  “Pain!”  “Lechem!”  “Bread!” 

For the world. 
Amen and Ashe.