“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Great Experiment

A reflection on 1 Thessalonian 5:16-24 for Advent 3B

Some 26 years ago, when I was working in theater, I had my first experience of sushi. Sushi, for those of you who may not know, is steamed rice pressed into a small bite sized cake upon which a thin piece of raw fish is placed. During that time I had colleagues from New York City who came to Chicago several times a year for performances. On one of those trips we went to a local Sushi restaurant on Clark Street called, Happi Sushi. Now, I had never had sushi before, but I was willing to try it. I let my colleagues order the fish and then, with great enthusiasm, dove in.
The required side dishes for proper sushi eating include: soy sauce for dipping the sushi, marinated ginger root for cleansing the palate between pieces of sushi, and this green garnish that looks like mashed avocado. Assuming it was avocado I enthusiastically dipped my piece of sushi into the soy sauce and then into the ground avocado, and popped it into my mouth. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the green stuff was not avocado but horseradish. Japanese horseradish, and very strong. There I sat with a mouth full of fish and horseradish strong enough to make my eyes water, a heat slowly seeping up my face, thoroughly clearing my sinuses and probably cooking the fish in the process.

A few months later I was in NYC working on a show and visiting my friends. One of them took me to Chinatown. I remember sitting in this Chinese diner with carts of food being pushed from table to table. My friend made a number of selections for us, which would be stir-fried and served to us. I’ll never forget that one of the items, a delicacy, was chicken feet. I’m sure I must have looked completely appalled as I stared at the tray full of chicken feet, claws and all. My friend tried to get me to order some but I refused. I couldn’t get it out of my mind where those feet had been – and the little claws….ewww, just too gross.

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, what we will experiment with and what we won’t?
Experimenting describes well what we are about these days. A time of transition always means a time to experiment, a time to try things on and see what fits and what does not, what appeals to us and what does not, what feeds our passions and what does not. We are in the process of a great experiment! I wonder what we will find out about ourselves? This experimental process reminds me of a story:

The local monastery was falling into a state of disrepair. No new monks were coming and the old monks were dying off. The moral of the place was low and people stopped coming for Spiritual Direction and prayer. The abbot of the monastery was in great anguish over this decline. He prayed and worried and prayed some more. One day the abbot decided to take a walk in the woods that surrounded the grounds. In the woods walked an old rabbi, highly regarded as a man of prayer and wisdom. The abbot hoped to run into him. Sure enough shortly into his walk he encountered the rabbi. As he walked up behind the rabbi the rabbi turned. They stood and faced each other for a moment, and then both the rabbi and abbot began to weep. Their mutual despair over the monastery filled their tears. Meekly the abbot asked the rabbi, “Can you give me any advice or direction that will help the monastery thrive again?”

The rabbi simply said, “One of you is the Messiah.” Then the rabbi turned and walked away.
The abbot returned to the monastery and encountered a group of monks who had seen him talking to the rabbi in the woods. “What did the rabbi say?’ they asked. And the abbot responded saying very slowly, “One of us is the messiah.”

The monks began to talk to one another. “One of us? Which one? Is it Brother John? Or perhaps Brother Andrew? Could it be the abbot?”

The monks began to look for the Messiah in one another. They listened carefully to each other’s words, hoping to hear the Messiah’s voice. And as a result of careful listening, of open hearts, and of gracious spirits, slowly things began to change in the monastery. Over time people returned to the monastery for spiritual guidance and prayer and new monks joined the community.

The rabbi, in his great wisdom, directed the abbot to lead his community into an experiment of the imagination. I mean really, just because the wise rabbi said that the Messiah was among them did not mean it was true. They could have just ignored him and continued on. But he piqued their imaginations and a renewed energy was born.

Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, is giving instruction to the Christian community of Thessalonica on what it means to be the Church. In particular these verses we heard today deal with the call to work together for unity; to work toward a place of peace and joy. We are not to “quench the Spirit”- instead Paul reminds us that we are to allow our imaginations to be piqued ….nor are we go off on our own acting independent of each other, as if the arm can function without the torso, or the foot without the leg…no, we are called to work as one. We are to do this in such a way that the Holy Spirit remains alive in us and is not stymied by fear or resistance. Which, I suppose, to push the metaphor a little further, means trying those chicken feet! The Holy Spirit calls us to find out who we are as the Body of Christ, today, tomorrow, and the next day. For just as we are not the same person from one day to the next nor are we the same church one day to the next. In its most simple form this is true simply because people die and new people come.

Therefore discerning who we are is always our primary work. We are living breathing dynamic beings and that makes the church a living breathing dynamic being, one that is always growing, hopefully growing into the fullness of Christ. As the Body of Christ we are on a journey. Experiments usually come to an end, to some logical conclusion. But a faith journey never comes to an end.

As people on the journey we are experimenting, trying things for awhile in order to learn what we like and what we don’t like. In this experiment we are learning a lot about each other. In time we will decide that some of the things we have done in the course of this experiment will be like that green horseradish, which by the way, I’ve come to love, likewise some of the things we are experimenting with we will come to love. Other things will be like those chicken feet, which I suspect that if I tried them once it would also have been the last! Eventually, there will be a smaller range of experimentation – I mean once you’ve eaten raw fish all that’s left is to try the various kinds of raw fish and see which are your favorite: tuna, salmon, shrimp, or some variation there of…eventually we will discover ourselves living in rhythm….Sunday to Sunday, season to season. St. Francis is a healthy community and as such we are learning how to navigate together remembering that a healthy community is adaptive. A healthy community strives to bring all the parts together to make a whole. So let us experiment creatively, let us be a laboratory for spiritual gifts: may we rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, and all the while nurturing the Christ in each of us!