Homily for Clergy Pre-Lenten Retreat for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, February 12, 2009. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Notre Dame Mission Center, Ipswich, MA.

Genesis 18:1-15Romans 8:18-25
Psalm 139:1-12 Matthew 6:25-30

“Oh yes, you did laugh”

When I chose the readings for this service, I couldn’t resist including the wonderful story of the Lord visiting Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre.  I don’t think there’s any story in all of Scripture that is so filled with laughter.  Abraham – a hundred years old if he’s a day – is drowsing by the entrance of his tent in the noonday heat when he suddenly sees three men standing nearby.  Abraham doesn’t realize that they are angels representing the Lord himself, but he’s a generous host, so he scrambles to his feet – never mind his creaky back or arthritic knees – and runs to greet them.  Bowing before the strangers, he offers them water to wash their feet, a comfortable spot to rest under the oak trees, and a little something to eat.  Together with Sarah, he sets out to serve his guests a feast.

Then comes the funny bit.  This act of hospitality is met with a promise so patently absurd that Sarah, who is secretly listening at the entrance to the tent, bursts out laughing.  Her husband is 100 years old and she is 90.  They are no spring chickens, either one of them, so how can their pleasant but obviously rather obtuse guests expect the two of them to bear a child?  When in the preceding chapter God made the same promise to Abraham, Abraham found it so funny that he “fell on his face and laughed” [bbllink]Gen. 17:17[/bbllink].  Now it’s Sarah’s turn to enjoy the joke.  Of course, when the Lord asks about it, she denies that she laughed, maybe for fear of causing offense, but the Lord knows the truth, and I can imagine the twinkle in his eye and his wagging finger when he says, “Oh yes, you did laugh” [bbllink]Gen. 18:15[/bbllink].

God’s generosity is unbounded; it’s astonishing; it’s absurd.  For – what do you know? – Sarah does get pregnant.  As we read a few chapters later, her newborn son is named Isaac, which means: “he laughs.”  Sarah explains it this way: “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” [bbllink]Gen. 21:6[/bbllink].  The laughter of disbelief has become the laughter of joy.

The scene of the three angels feasting under the oak trees of Mamre – a scene that ends with such blessing and delight – inspired the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev to write an icon in 1410 that is often called the Icon of the Trinity.  I’m sure you’ve seen it: three figures with golden halos are seated around a table, bending toward a chalice filled with wine.  Rublev portrays Abraham and Sarah’s meal as prefiguring the Eucharist, that sacred meal in which every Christian encounters the triune God afresh.  As the viewer gazes into the icon from the open space at the table, you gradually come to realize that the table has been set for a fourth person.  It has, in fact, been set for youYou are the one who makes the scene complete.  You are the one who is invited to share in the life of God, to share the feast, to share the laughter and the joy.

During this retreat we have been considering what resources Christian theology and practice might offer us in the face of the environmental crisis now unfolding in our midst, and my short list of essential Christian resources would have to include the sacrament of Holy Communion.  

It is here at this table that we receive the simple elements of bread and wine and realize with astonishment that these apparently ordinary things – like Nature herself – are actually filled with God. 

It is here at this table that we learn to eat mindfully, to take God’s creatures of bread and wine into our hands with reverence and a grateful heart.

It is here at this table that we share the one loaf and one cup and discover that a bit of bread can be enough and a sip of wine can fill us.  We don’t have to grab for more; we don’t have to be greedy “consumers” who must constantly replenish ourselves with material things in order to reassure ourselves that we matter or that we exist.   At this table we discover that in sharing what we have, our hearts are satisfied at last.  

It is here at this table that God gives God’s self to us and we in turn give ourselves to God.  There is no greater joy than this, no greater source of laughter.  It’s here at this table that our bonds with God in Christ, with each other, and with all Creation are restored and renewed.

What I just said is somewhat controversial, and I’d like to tell a story that I hope Bishop Bud won’t mind my telling.  Back in 2002, at a clergy day, Bishop Bud came up to me and said that the bishops of New England wanted to issue a pastoral letter on the environment.  It would be the first pastoral letter on the environment ever released by the Episcopal Church, and the first to be released by a Province, rather than a single diocese.

“Oh,” I said.  “Wonderful!”
“And,” he added, “we want you to write it.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yikes.”

I got to work, and Bud and the other bishops pulled together a group of clergy and lay people to help with the edits.  I wrote a draft that included a line saying that in the Eucharist, Christ restores our connection with God and one another and all Creation, received the approval of the committee, and sent the manuscript to the bishops.  Before long I got back an email from Bud.

Tom Shaw and I really like that line, he told me, but we know how carefully this document is going to be scrutinized and we don’t want it to be challenged on theological grounds.  Could you please leave that line out?

I went back to the committee with the edits that the bishops proposed, and Bud was at the meeting.  What do you think?  I asked everyone.

We can’t leave that line out, the people said.  Christ is the one through all things were made.  In his death and resurrection, he restores all things and heals all things and reconciles all things.  That is what we celebrate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. The line has to stay!

I looked over at Bud and he threw me a grin, and we left the line in.  It is part of the pastoral letter, “To Serve Christ in All Creation,” which the bishops of New England released six years ago.

I tell this story to illustrate how theology is often hammered out — in arguments and give and take.  And, God willing, our theology will continue to expand as our understanding of what Jesus Christ has done for us continues to expand.

I can’t think of a better remedy for the anxiety and dread that so often infect our hearts than to share Eucharist together.  More than one activist for social and environmental justice has turned to the Eucharist as an essential – maybe the essential – source of ongoing strength for the struggles they face. 

That has certainly been true for me.  On the morning of my arrest eight years ago in Washington, DC, I shared Eucharist with a dear friend.  As we ate the bread and drank from the cup, we dedicated the day ahead to God.  A few hours later I was in handcuffs and locked in a police wagon, and over the course of a very long afternoon and into the night was transferred from one jail to another, each one more apparently God-forsaken than the last, as if we were making our own small descent through Dante’s circles of hell.  By nightfall the group had been divided into a row of cells that ran along a corridor, and I found myself locked with fellow priest and environmental activist Sally Bingham in a small, dark space supplied with a dirty toilet and two bare, metal bunks painted olive green and etched with graffiti.  We were anxious and tired, and unsure how long we’d be confined.  Our nerves were frayed.

We hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day, so when a guard appeared with stacks of bologna sandwiches and donuts wrapped in cellophane, along with Styrofoam cups of Kool-Aid, I took notice.  I was hungry, but I don’t eat meat and I can’t eat sugar, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Eventually I accepted a couple of bologna sandwiches, which the guard passed through a slot in the bars of the cell, and I asked for a glass of water.  I peeled off the bologna and gloomily studied the meal before me: bread and water.  Basic jail food, I guess, but it didn’t do much for me. 

Just then a friend called out from an adjoining cell, “Hey, watch out.  The bread’s moldy.”

With growing despair I examined my slice of bread.  I couldn’t see anything green on it, but it was too dark to get a good look.  All in all the bread looked fairly loathsome.  I took a quick bite, figuring that if I gulped it fast, maybe I wouldn’t notice my disgust.  But as the bread touched my tongue, I remembered the Eucharist that I had shared that morning with my friend.  I remembered how Jesus gives himself to us in the bread and the wine.  My disgust vanished, along with my sense of deprivation.  I took a second, slow bite of the bread and ate it with reverence.  I took a sip of water.  To my surprise, I suddenly saw that I had everything I needed.  My anxiety slipped away.  I was filled with gratitude and completely at peace.  I knew that I was free.  It didn’t matter that I was still in jail.  It didn’t matter that I had no idea when I’d get out.  None of that mattered a bit.  I was being fed from within, as if a river of joy was secretly flowing through me.

I looked around my cell in disbelief.  No, I wasn’t hallucinating.  I could see that everything was exactly as it was: the same bleak walls and metal bunk, the same rows of bars.  Nothing had budged.  But everything had changed.  It was as if my outward circumstances had suddenly fallen away, or as if they were filled with some hidden radiance.  Everything material seemed to open beyond itself, to be secretly as spacious as the wild Arctic wilderness.  The powers-that-be thought they had imprisoned me but actually I was free. 

I almost burst out laughing.

God greets an old man and an old woman in a meal, and God’s power and mercy spill out in the birth of a baby.  God greets us in the Eucharist, and like Abraham and Sarah before us, we rejoice at the rebirth of hope.  Abraham laughs, and Sarah laughs, and yes, we laugh, too.  Let your souls be fed today.  We have been invited to a feast.