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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Drunk As a Skunk, and It's Not Even Noon

"The Court Jester"
Sunday, June 7, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture reading: Acts 2:1-21
Audio recording can be found here: Drunk As a Skunk

Dedicated to Helen Emmons, who passed away one year ago today. Her son, John, sang in church today. This line he sang perfectly sums up the paradox of today's scriptures:

Let me know a song can rise
from the ashes of a broken life

So, here we are at Pentecost. Oh! We’ve been building up to this, haven’t we? 46 days of Lent and the relentless pace of Jesus’ life and ministry, Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, the prayers in the garden, Jesus’ arrest and trials the inexorable march to the cross, the crucifiction of Jesus and the two thieves, and finally, death.

Jesus’ burial, two days of silence, and then the bizarre discovery that Jesus’ body was missing. Angels gently mocking our grief, the re-gathering of the disciples, except for Judas, who hung himself in shame and grief and self-loathing. Was he not also saved?

And then 50 days of Easter, as Christ appears over and over in strange, impossible ways. Life beyond death. Life through death. Life that defies death. A final appearance to the disciples, and then Jesus
ascends into the heavens, never to be seen again…much the way Elijah swept away into the sky on his chariot. Astonished, the disciples stand about numbly, staring after Jesus into the sky. Were they hoping he would return? Were they shocked at his disappearance? Wishing they could go with him? And then another pesky angel, gently mocking, “Why are you staring at the sky? Jesus will return the way he went—on his own time, in his own way. Go back to Jerusalem.” And so they did.

If I was the disciples, or anyone involved in Jesus’ life, I’d swear off talking with angels ever again. They’re nothing but trouble, those angels. Just ask Mary and Joseph. Or Abram and Sarai. Or Jacob. Angels are a known source of hip pain.

Back to Jerusalem they went, those disciples. And they managed to hold themselves together long enough to build community around themselves. The book of Acts is the story of that early time.

So there they were, gathered in fellowship. It wasn’t even 9am, so perhaps they were having breakfast.

“Pass the salt, Peter.”
“Say please, Thomas.”
“Ugh. Please pass the salt, Peter.”

And on it might go on an ordinary day. Perhaps, after the events of the last few years they were sitting quietly, wondering how they were to go forward from here, when their hearts wanted to stay in the past. Perhaps their minds ran endlessly over the conversations, the trips together, the things that seemingly went wrong. “Did I imagine all this? Was it real?”

There they were, all gathered together, not even 9:00 in the morning. When suddenly, a violent rush of wind filled the house where they were staying. Fire danced over their heads—a tongue of fire. What does a tongue of fire look like? How big is it? Is it a little teardrop like a tiny cat tongue? Or is it a giraffe tongue, long, muscular, capable of cracking off a tree branch?

The wind blowing through the house, fire dancing around their heads, and the disciples all speaking at once now. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples spoke in multiple languages as the Spirit gave them the ability, and not only that, they spoke loudly enough that people outside the house heard the clamor. And not only that, but the words were clear enough that outsiders all around could hear the words spoken in their own native languages!

This is so messy! In youth group, we have a tradition of praying at the end of our Wednesday night meetings. We pray a different way each week, and one of the methods we sometimes choose is for everyone to pray out loud their own prayer all at once. It is a Holy Mess, indeed—sometimes you can pick out a name or a short phrase, but mostly 20 people all speaking at once sounds like nothing at all. But here were the disciples, speaking in multiple languages, and people could pick out the words! A miracle, indeed.

So there they were, 11 or so disciples, rattling off God’s deeds of power, loudly, clear as a bell, with fire and wind rushing around them, at 9:00 in the morning. And some people thought it was amazing, and pondered what this might mean, while others laughed at and mocked the disciples, saying, “They are filled with new wine.” Drunk as a skunk, and it’s not even noon. You know how those Jesus followers are. Crazy. Nuts. Cuckoo.

Peter, came forward then to answer that claim of morning drunkenness. It’s probably good it wasn’t me there on that day. I might have said something like, “Whatever, it’s noon somewhere.” Or, “Whatchu lookin’ at?? Move along.” But Peter, the Rock…Peter, the disciple who always got it both right and wrong at the same time…Peter, who kind of liked being in charge a bit…Peter came forward and said, “No, no! These are not drunk! They are not fools! It’s only 9:00 in the morning! No! This is what the prophets foretold. It’s what the angel said would happen. It’s what Jesus told us would be true. We have been anointed to tell you that the time is coming, when men and women will see visions…you will dream and tell the stories…there will be signs and portents of blood and fire and smoke…the sun will go dark and the moon will go red…the Day of the Lord is coming. People get ready!”

Well that clears it up nicely, doesn’t it? We’re back to “ordinary time” next week. Not another high holy day for us protestants until just before Advent in November with Christ the King day—and then we’ll start this cycle again. Almost half a year of “ordinary time”, what will we do with it? And in a sense we’ve had 2,000 years of ordinary time since that first day of Pentecost. Peter said the Day of the Lord is coming! But as far as we know it has not. It’s easy to sneer at those foolish disciples.

We are Presbyterians here, most of us. Our hallmark is that we do things decently and in order. In the Catholic church the “Presbytery” is the office where the records are kept. We are record keepers and paperwork shufflers. We have lists of everyone we have ever baptized, and annual statistical reports filed in triplicate (or now electronically) going back decades. If the Holy Spirit came sweeping through the church office like a violent wind and tongues of fire, we’d be spending our time trying to figure out how to make sure that never happened again! What a mess!

Years ago, at a church I worked at in California, there was a homeless guy who came around on his bicycle for a while. He carried around with him a sack of potatoes and would ask to use the microwave in the kitchen to bake his potato. For a while that seemed fine—it was a small enough request. He was scruffy, this guy, even for a homeless guy. And he was a bit belligerent. Sometimes he would come when a group was meeting where the microwave was, and that was a problem. But it was when he began to leave his leaflets around that we became uncomfortable.

He had a handwritten manifesto, covering the front and back of a single page in tight, cramped lettering, on the salvation of humanity through vegetables. Not just any vegetables—potatoes in particular were important. He was desperate to get us to read it—we were headed straight for damnation with our meat eating ways. Whatever money he managed to scrape together he spent first on potatoes, and second on copies at the local printing shop. He carried the potatoes in his bicycle basket, and a box of 500 copies of his manifesto in his scruffy backpack. He left those leaflets all over the church. Every couple of weeks he would write a new manifesto, but always about the salvation of man through potatoes. He would come into the office and insist that we read them.

Eventually, we asked him to go away.

Drunk as a skunk, and it’s not even noon. My word, people can be fools sometimes! Speaking in tongues. Salvation through vegetables. The things that people do!

I thought after I left California that I would never see the scruffy, homeless potato salvation guy again. And I was right, I never saw that particular one again. But. A few years later I was at a protest on behalf of a death row inmate, and I saw a man walking around with a sign about the way to salvation is through vegetables. I kid you not! This guy was cleaner, and his pamphlets were computer printed with nice photographs. But there he was, insisting on the damnation of meat eaters and the path of righteousness through beets and kale.

What am I saying here? That the meaning of Pentecost is that we should all eat potatoes and beets and kale? Well, no. Not really. Although there is an ongoing debate in this world over our farming practices and the care of animals we eat. But that isn’t what either of these men were saying. Perhaps the meaning of Pentecost is that we should have found a way to let that scruffy old man on his bicycle microwave his potato every day. I mean, have you ever eaten a raw potato? I wish we had found a way. I carry a sense of shame to this day that my discomfort trumped his need to eat. Perhaps the way to eliminate executions in this country is to eat beets and kale? Probably not. I mean it can’t hurt, but why was beans and kale man at the death row protest—what is the connection there?

There is something incredibly foolish about both these men—carrying on with their salvation through vegetable protest. It’s easy to dismiss them as fools, to sneer at their strangeness, to walk away saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I!” We shudder and hope that won’t be us someday. Or our weird uncle Bob, finally off his rocker. Or Aunt Susie who was always a bit strange.

Fools, fools, mad fools! Drunk at 9:00 in the morning!
What are they trying to say?

I think this is the message: there is something terribly, terribly wrong in this world, and the Spirit is pouring out through these men in the only language they know. That old scruffy guy and the middle aged man in a suit, they wander from place to place with their disruptive manifestos, making people uncomfortable, insisting on being heard until they are driven out of town. They are trying to get through to us, and we do not want to hear: there is something terribly wrong when homeless people die on the street for want of care of the human beings all around them. There is something wrong when the state executes prisoners. There is something wrong when young people are dying in the streets in Trenton, while the rest of the county goes about it’s everyday business. There is something wrong in our lives that we are so disconnected from one another.

And in our orderly, decent spaces, how else can God catch our attention except through madness, foolishness, disruptive, insistent people? Fools. Fools for Christ.

The Russians have a folk figure who matches this description—the yurodivy. Iulia de Beausobre wrote a book called Creative Suffering, in which she described this character:

the yurodivy, 'the born fool', so hard to describe to anyone who has not grown up in Russia. It is perhaps best to begin by pointing out what the yurodivy is not. He is not a monk, though there is much about him that might lead the passer-by to think that he was: his speech, intonation, cant phrases, sometimes his clothes, and always his absolute voluntary poverty lend him a monkish air. He is nobody's son, nobody's brother, nobody's father, and has no home. He is as old as the history of Christian Russia and wanders over the whole of that huge country feeling equally at home everywhere. But he settles down nowhere and is usually to be met on the road. As often as not he has a practised trade, but prefers for the most part to live on the people, and in return for his meal and night's lodging will give them a piece of his mind, seldom mincing his words. Though he has no schooling at all, he is always ready to express, in chant and rhyme, his views upon the world of matter and the world of spirit; on Russia, her friends and her enemies, and on infinity; on the past, present and future, and on eternity. And yet he remains somehow lovable, and he is loved; cherished in fact, because he is a living personification of what most Russians take to be true Russia, and in him every Russian is confronted with something of his own essence. 

From a practical point of view, no useful purpose is served by anything that the yurodivy does. He achieves nothing. Yet there must be some strong attraction at work to draw men (and women too), poor creatures most of them, to choose such a rough and comfortless life, manhandled from time to time, pelted by children and set on by dogs. The attraction is found in participation, participation in all the dregs of life. The aim of the yurodivy is to participate in evil through suffering. He makes of this his life's work because, to the Russian, good and evil are, here on earth, inextricably bound together. This is, to us, the great mystery of life on earth. Where evil is at its most intense, there too must be the greatest good. To us this is not even an hypothesis. It is axiomatic.
This describes that old scruffy man on a bicycle perfectly—this born fool with no place to lay his head, wandering through with his nonsensical stories of potatoes. It describes the disciples as they spun about their house, driven by wind and fire, speaking in tongues of the mighty deeds of God—just weeks after their God had been nailed to a cross and murdered. A mighty God indeed, we might sneer!

Fools, fools for Christ—will we dare to follow in their steps? Will we Presbyterians dare to step beyond our decent and in order record keeping, our careful tracking of money and attendance? Will we dare to speak out about what is terribly wrong in our own lives and in the world around us? Will we let the world hear our groans? Will we risk being misunderstood by the world, pointed at and laughed at by those who do not understand our ways?

Pentecost is about becoming so consumed by what God is speaking into our souls that we pour it out, unedited, in any way that we can, longing for our neighbors to hear and understand the truths we are speaking, trusting God to translate into the other person’s native language for us. It is about loving ourselves and one another and strangers enough to listen and believe that in their madness and strangeness we can find the word of God speaking to us.

What does it even mean that we are saved by potatoes? It might mean nothing. Or it might mean that I will never forget that man and the petty cruelty I helped perpetrate by cutting off his access to a microwave. It might mean that in the 15 years since I have done what I can to make up for that. It might mean that every time I am faced with a similar decision, I remember just a little bit more the humanity in the fool in front of me. I may, actually, have been saved by that man’s potatoes.

I’ll leave you with this to ponder. I’ve printed it out so you can have a copy of it.
"Holy madness lies at the junction of a necessity and an impossibility. It responds to the need of truth to communicate itself to the outermost zones of reality, where an almost completely dark night reigns; but it also heeds to the extreme difficulty, not to say quasi-impossibility, of the darkness accepting and receiving this light. Whence the character of extreme paradoxical possibility that can be assigned to the phenomenon of the holy fool. Whence also the extreme sacrificial tension that the holy fool's function entails. The razor's edge of his function is predicated on the acute tension of opposites that us, however, be sacrificially reconciled."  
(~Patrick Laude, "Fools for Christ's Sake" in Divine Play, Sacred Laughter, and Spiritual Understanding) 
Where there is the most evil, the most difficult circumstances, there God’s presence and love can be most deeply felt. What complete and utter foolishness. We are fools to buy into this, God help us.

And may God help us live it out.

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