Monday, October 28, 2013

Homily: "The Honey Crisp Apple Communion" (Delivered 10-27-13)

Opening Words

“Welcome Morning”
by Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.

Responsive Reading

“The Peace of Autumn”
by Rabindranath Tagore

Today the peace of Autumn pervades the world.

In the radiant noon, silent and motionless, the wide stillness rests like a tired bird.

Spreading over the deserted fields to all horizons its wings of golden green.

Today the thin thread of the river flows without song, leaving no mark on its sandy banks.

The many distant villages bask in the sun with eyes closed in idle
and languid slumber.

In the stillness I hear in every blade of grass,

In every speck of dust, in every part of my own body, in the
visible and invisible worlds,

In the planets, the sun, and the stars, the joyous dance of the atoms
through endless time.

The title of this morning’s service is “The Honey Crisp Apple Communion.”  I thought about that title, especially the word “communion,” and about what that word means to me.  I want to reflect with you a bit on the ritual of communion.  You very well may have had your own experiences of and associations with communion.  But, I’d like to share my own associations from a Unitarian Universalist perspective.

I grew up attending First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist, in Wayland, Massachusetts.  The church of my childhood celebrated communion once per year, sort of.  On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, during the service, loaves of bread were passed around the sanctuary and the worshipping congregants were invited to tear off hunks and eat.  The bread was perfect, delicious.  The serving of it was inelegant, even haphazard.  There was never any wine.  Not even grape juice.  I’m not even sure it was called communion.  But it felt like communion.

As a part of my church’s youth group, one year we decided to serve communion during our high school youth service, sort of.  It was ice cream communion.  Out we came, carrying trays overflowing with small bowls of ice cream.  I don’t know if there was much theological significance to our invented ritual, except to affirm that life had a sweetness and to insist that joy was important.

While on the subject of communion, I might say a few words about my experience with communion in a Christian setting.  Over the years, having had the opportunity to visit various Christian houses of worship, as well as gatherings of Unitarian Universalists in which communion of bread and wine was served, I’ve gladly taken communion whenever invited to do so.  If you asked me why, my answer would probably have with an openness to experience more than a logically thought through theological defense.  It is not something I need to defend, but allow me to also say that on a relational level, my best understanding of the Christian spirit is that it would never turn anyone away from the table.  On a more theological level, I’m okay with Jesus and I consider communion to be a pure expression of universalism.  On the rare occasion that I’ve attended a Christian congregation where they announce that communion is restricted to only certain classes of people, I’ve often considered just going up anyways, but find myself sitting there feeling angry and excluded.  I stew in the pew.  How rude to eat in front of your guests!

All across the Unitarian Universalist movement the communion that is most routinely celebrated takes on a distinctly Unitarian Universalist form.  Along with most other UU churches, in the spring our congregation holds a ritual called the Flower Communion.  The Flower Communion had its origins in the Unitarian movement in the Czech Republic and in a desire to re-enchant an excessively rational tradition by making space for metaphor and ritual.  In the Flower Communion, each person brings a flower to church.  The flowers are gathered in a resplendent, bounteous bouquet.  Then, everyone receives a flower from the bouquet, different from the flower they brought.

The Flower Communion ritual is distinctly Unitarian Universalist in that the uniqueness of the atomic individual is preserved throughout.  In the Christian bread and wine communion, there is an aspect to the ritual that is concerned with unity and oneness.  Jesus or the church community becomes a part of us.  However, in the Flower Communion, the flowers keep their distinctness.  (If you bring an iris, it stays an iris.  It doesn’t change into a rose.  We don’t believe in flower transubstantiation.)  There may be an occasional tangling of stems, but individual uniqueness is preserved.

UU minister Scotty McLennan serves in an ecumenical and interfaith capacity as the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University in Palo Alto.  In a sermon on communion, he quoted a passage from J.D. Salinger’s short novel Franny & Zooey.   This passage says something very perceptive about the experience of communion.  At this point in the story, Franny is exploring Christianity and trying to memorize a specific prayer.  Zooey recommends a different approach to the religious life:

I'll tell you one thing, Franny. One thing I know. And don't get upset. But if it's the religious life you want, you ought to know that you're missing out on every single religious action that's going on around this house. You don't even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup, which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings anybody around this madhouse. So just tell me, buddy. Even if you went out and searched the whole world for a master, some guru, some holy man, to tell you how to say your Jesus prayer properly, what good would it do you? How [the heck]... are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don't even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it's right in front of your nose?

Anne Sexton’s poem, “Welcome Morning,” is about realizing the consecration of life in front of her:  each morning a chapel of eggs, each morning a trinity of spoon, plate, and cup forming a godhead on the table, each morning a libation of coffee, each morning the holy vestment of the Cannon towel.  Sexton describes a mysticism of the ordinary that allows her to feel present, grateful, and joyful.

The origins of the Honey Crisp Apple Communion began two years ago when a certain member of this congregation waxed ecstatic and rhapsodic about the delicious perfection of the Honey Crisp Apples that had just come into season.  His words struck me as present, grateful, and joyful.

So I imagined this odd little communion ritual, offering a slice of autumnal perfection to all in the congregation.  Asking us to be present to the sweetness of now.  Asking us to be grateful and joyful for the peace of autumn that pervades the world.

At our last Worship Team meeting I asked members of the team to share what this season evoked for them.  The sharing was vivid and crisp.  Those on the team talked about the blazing reds and yellows of fall, the taste of pumpkin and cider, the warmth of sweaters and fleece, and the joyful traditions of this season.

Then the sharing turned.  We spoke of our awareness of the growing darkness, awareness of light and life retreating.  We spoke of family members and friends in the autumn of their lives.  We were aware of transience and mortality.  It’s what Forrest Church meant by religion as is our dual response to being alive and having to die.

Hold this balance.  Be grateful and joyful and present in the sweetness of now.  Be present even as night increases and a chill appears over the horizon.  Let us consecrate this time.  The table is open.

Scotty McLennan writes, “Communion is not just a matter of ingathering in unity. It should also nourish us for an outpouring of love in the world… After the people were gathered to break bread together, and then sent out to feed and clothe and comfort others.”  Go and do likewise.