“Forged In The Fire” A sermon given at UUCGL on November 4, 2018
Courtesy of a tenacious bacteria by the name of campylobacteriosis, I had a full day and a half in a bed at Union Hospital in Lynn earlier this week with a lot of time to watch Netflix on my iPad.
So first I want to say my thanks to all of you who have been caring and supportive through this adventure: you visited me, you brought me chicken soup, you wrote me kind e-mails and sent text messages and Facebook posts and it was a good thing to be on the receiving end of the care of the church in this way. I am on the mend and I think in a few days’ time I may be back to almost normal. I am so grateful for medical science and especially for the doctors’ ability to identify not only that we need an antibiotic, but to pinpoint exactly which one we need to go to battle against intestinal invaders.
I became enchanted with a show called “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” starring California chef Samin Nosrat, who takes us to gorgeous locales to watch her eat and cook beautiful food with the people in those countries who know and prepare it best, from sea or earth to table. This is a cooking show, but I saw it as a spiritual show, too. In the way that the late, beloved Anthony Bourdain was determined to encourage his viewers to regard cuisines and dishes that might cause us initially to pull back in revulsion as fascinating and potentially delicious and worthy of respect – Samin seems to be on a mission of joy, reverence and gratitude. She genuinely delights in the smallest olive. She sips miso broth and her face goes into ecstasies. She takes a bit of pig fat (“lardo”) and it is as though she has never eaten before, her rapture is so sincere.
Samin’s enthusiasm bothers some more jaded viewers – one commenter wrote, “It’s like she thinks none of us have ever eaten focaccia before,” but I find her inspirational. She reminds us to attend to beauty, to the gifts of the planet, to our local terrain, to stewardship of vegetable and animal life. She reminds us to be prepare food and to eat it in awareness and appreciation, honoring those who have carried on generations of recipes and techniques for growing, harvesting and cooking or preserving.
I greatly appreciate anyone who teaches reverence and awareness. We need more of it.
I do not know what will happen this Tuesday at the polls. I am not so naïve as to think that the ugliness, violence and hatred that permeates our public discourse will resolve any time soon. What I hope for is a more functioning and inclusive democracy. For all those who say that they don’t understand why religion gets “mixed up” in politics, I encourage you to respond with me that politics and religion have always been deeply intertwined in Western civilization. It is not a new thing at all in America and religious communities have always, and should, be among those who speak truth to power and remind elected officials in this country of their obligation to uphold the constitution and serve the people. This is not a monarchy or a theocracy… yet. Our public policies should address the needs of the people – all the people – and do so in a humane way, distributing resources to best serve the common good. The Church must be more than a praying arm of society, or a symbol. It must be an advocate for those forgotten, ignored or oppressed by the powerful.
I saw a Muslim woman interviewed the other day at a vigil held for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting who said, “I think that our coming together like this – where we get to know each other across our differences – it’s the only thing that will stop this madness.” I had to sadly disagree. Please don’t misunderstand. Interfaith gatherings are very important: coming together across differences help us establish important connections and relationships that allow us to have a fast communal response when violence or disaster strikes. These events help us to know each other better, and to care about each other more deeply. They get us to put each other on speed dial, and that is crucial for strategizing and survival. However, I believe nothing will “stop this madness” but stringent gun controls. There will always be peddlers and purveyors of hatred; there always have been. Preventing them from being armed is the only thing that will stop so many massacres in our country.
But we are going to do more than just survive. Here in this place and through this community we are building immunity against intestinal invaders that are not bacterial but spiritual: some of those are despair, paralyzing bitterness, contempt, apathy, and magical thinking. As I watched Samin Nosrat throw a handful of salt onto a dish (she uses way too much salt) to bring out the flavor of the food, I thought of the way that salt and fire and acid and heat transform not just foodstuffs but people. I thought of the expression, “feet to the fire” and thought yes, we are being forged in the hot circumstances of our time.
In cookery, it is fairly well-known what will happen if you add an ingredient to the dish: eg, acid breaks things down, tenderizes meat, heat causes disparate elements of flour, sugar, egg, water, to coalesce into a solid form you can sink your teeth into, al dente, to the teeth. With human life, we do not know exactly what elements to add to a situation to assure an outcome. I think we have seen that the art of prediction has proven most unreliable in the past years, as the factors (or ingredients) that have historically tended to lead to one outcome have turned in the pot or the skillet to something curdled and burnt, inedible.
So let us not predict but plan; plan to stay faithful to our values and to be transformed by these challenges, transformed rather than scorched. UU composer Jason Shelton wrote about the “Flame that burns within” in our opening hymn “The Fire Of Commitment,” and it is this flame that we need to tend very intentionally and with everyone taking their turn stoking the flames. When Moses had his theophany – his revelation — of God in the desert those thousands of years ago, kicking off monotheism, he knew the holy was present because he saw a burning bush where the bush burned but was not consumed. That is holy fire. The fire heats, illuminates and transforms but does not destroy.
I visited Transylvania ten years ago, to visit our church’s partner church in the village of Kadacs. I stayed with the minister and her family in the parsonage and enjoyed the beauty of rural Romanian life. The Unitarians are a tiny minority church in Romania – they are ethnic Hungarians and have been terribly oppressed by the communist Romanian government. Things have gotten a little bit better since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu‘s regime, but the villages are still very poor and there is little opportunity for the young, who almost inevitably leave and often emigrate to another country entirely.
Cows ambled down the main street. Horses pulled the picnic tables for the church picnic into the yard. Shirtless men came in from the fields for pastoral visits carrying chickens. I ate the most delicious bread I have ever eaten in that village: heavy, thick, chewy, spread with butter and cheese, or fresh plum jam. I was obsessed with that bread and I asked how it was made. The women took me for a little walk to the edge of the village where I met a large, warm woman who looked very much like my Slovak great-grandmother, who was wearing a well-worn housedress and apron. She showed me the enormous stone ovens that she tended – and with a long wooden paddle, she pulled out one of the loaves which was covered in a thick, burned brown crust. I thought the bread was hopelessly burned. But, taking a smaller wooden paddle, the woman smacked the crust away – thwack, thwack, thwack! — and slapped the fresh loaf down on a bench, carving into it to hand me the warm piece she had sliced off. She smiled as I chewed the bread in ecstastic appreciation. Through a translator, I learned that this woman tended these communal ovens where all the villagers brought their loaves of dough to be transformed into bread.
It was a metaphor that has stayed with me. I think of the church as that common hearthfire, where all who need nourishment can bring our ingredients together into not only the warmth of community but the fire of commitment, the transforming element to which we offer ourselves as, in the worlds of the King’s Chapel prayerbook, “a living and willing sacrifice.”
I am willing and I am able, for to be hopeless would be so strange…
Here we resist hatred by cultivating reverence, by making art and music, by learning together, by equipping ourselves to be advocates and activists. Here we harness the power of creativity in the understanding that we cannot move into any future – personal, interpersonal, political – without robust imagination that allows us to consider not just where we are, but where we want to be, and with what moral values and practices we want to get there. My friends, our feet are to the fire. As of yet, most of us are still very comfortable, but as the heat rises, may we put ou