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Sermon for November 11, 2007

Well, I thought I’d do something a little different and share with you a letter from my family in Jericho Springs, MO. You might enjoy hearing about some of the happenings at the Jericho Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about them before. My Great Aunt Georgia is a long-time member there. In fact, my family has been attending there for generations. Anyway, it’s a place like most other home churches–muddling through the same old issues and made up of the same old wonderful people, with a few colorful characters and one or two certifiable nut cases thrown in–my family excluded, of course. Anyway, here’s the letter.

Dear Matthew,
I woke up a few days ago craving apple butter, and I don’t know why. It’s not like I eat the stuff, ever. But it was a powerful hankering, and I figured I’d better not fight it. You go around fighting hankerings, and you’re just begging for trouble. By the next day, I was standing in my kitchen coating two slices of Wonder Bread toast with the stuff. And it was good. I’ve been flat-out eating it. Every morning I wake up and think, “Who am I? How did I get here? Hey, I have apple butter!” Within minutes I’m prowling downstairs, looking like a rabid wolverine with apple butter foam smeared all over her mouth. How does a person just suddenly desire obscure condiments? I remember a similar situation years ago with deviled eggs. I just couldn’t get enough of those tasty little suckers. Your Uncle Slim nearly had to perform an intervention during that one.

I like to mix my food together. Even as a kid, I’d routinely shove everything into the middle of the plate, and toss it like a salad. It made for an unpredictable and often delicious surprise. I’m a natural born mixer.

My sister Molly, on the other hand, would see this happening and react like she was viewing a grisly crime scene. She is the type who requires at least an inch-wide barrier between every item on her plate. If, through some unforeseen series of events, a green bean happens to flirt with the gravy, the meal is ruined. May as well just toss it all in the garbage.

Your cousin, Daryl Bob Broadfoot, would become ill if he saw you put cream in your coffee and didn’t stir it in right away. He’d sit there with beads of sweat popping out on his forehead, then finally crack beneath the pressure: “Stir it! For the love of all that’s holy, stir your coffee!!”

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I guess it’s good to know a little about your family history.

Do you remember Sunny from the Jerico Springs Progressive Church? Her real name is Sunshine. She always acts like the whole world is constantly putting her down with their eyes. She decided to change her image, so she’s been strutting around the county wearing a Hillary Clinton jumpsuit o’ power, hoping to get some respect. She comes over to the farm every now and again, and we watch the stories together in the afternoon. One day we began seeing commercials for the so-called KFC “Famous Bowl.” It was a mixture of mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, cheese, and chicken, I thought: yum. When Sunny saw it, her lower jaw retracted and she hollered, “Dangit, that’s disgusting I wouldn’t feed that slop to a starving mutt.” I guess she’s not a food mixer.

That’s been several months, and I never found myself in a situation where I was able to sample that delicious-looking bowl of “slop.” There are only two known KFCs in our area, and both are pretty far off the beaten path. They’re in parts of the county you only visit when you need a propane tank filled or a cow butchered.

To be honest, I’ve never felt a strong urge to visit Kentucky Fried Chicken. Until last week, that is. I was out running errands one day, and the commercial suddenly began playing inside my head. Without realizing what was happening, I’d whipped the steering wheel violently to the right and was headed for KFC in Chigger Falls.

I was under the impression there are now two bowls: one with chicken on the top, and another with country fried steak, or somesuch. But the KFC in Chigger Falls only offered the chicken variety. Not a problem, since I’d planned to go with the classic version anyway. But where’d I get such a notion? Had I dreamed it? Sweet fancy Moses, please tell me I wasn’t dreaming about country fried steak bowls!

A teenage girl met me at the take out. She looked like Mortician Adams in a visor hat and she wore the expression of someone smelling gym socks that’ve been suffocating under the laundry pile. She passed my lunch to me through a window and thoughtfully included a packet containing a wet wipe and a spork. I peeked into the sack with anticipation. The plastic dome over the bowl was fogged-up and dripping with the condensation of brown gravy.

When I got home our dog Loverboy sniffed the bag of food and his eyes almost popped out of his head. I’d never seen such a reaction from that hound. He began prancing on his tiptoes and turning tight circles in the middle of the floor, shaking like Janet Reno on a hayride. I hoped he wouldn’t just give in to the chicken frenzy and make a leap for my throat. But he was right, that thing was putting off one spectacular aroma, and I couldn’t wait to get at it. I sat down at the dining room table, broke the seal on my spork bag, and lifted the dome off my lunch. That’s when my stomach sank like a cement row boat. The Famous Bowl appeared to have already been eaten at least once. It looked like a pipin’ hot bowl of Alpo covered in cheese. No wonder Loverboy wanted it so bad.

But, of course, I ate it anyway. The chicken was tender and tasty, not the kind with the hard breading that tears holes in your gums, or anything like that. The gravy was delicious, and there was so much salt and fat, my heart is still cutting in and out – and it’s the arrhythmia of love.

I got thinking about all my food cravings and then I began to wonder if Jesus was a mixer or a divider. Pastor Sanford at the progressive church read a strange gospel lesson the other day. Jesus had just been bickering with the Pharisees about what makes a person unclean. The Pharisees had a problem with people eating unblessed food with dirty hands. Jesus said “Ya’ll listen and get this straight. It’s not what goes into a people’s mouths but what comes out of it that debases them. What comes out of the mouth springs from the heart.” Right after that, Jesus meets up with a woman who’s not from Israel. She’s a gentile, and Jesus is not supposed to be talking to her. She wants Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus just ignores her. The disciples gather ‘round Jesus and say, “Tell her to scram.” I expect Jesus to ignore them, and reach out, and fix her problems all up. Instead Jesus says, “I was only sent here to fix my people. It’s not right to take bread from children and throw it to a hound dog.” She’s a pushy woman, though. She’s not giving up without a fight. She says, “Yes sir, but even a hound dog gets some scraps from the table.” Then Jesus says, “Ma’am, you’ve got a lot of faith. You may have whatever you want.” The gentile woman’s daughter is healed in that instant.

Now what do you make of that? Is Jesus a mixer or a divider? We all know people who are dividers. They think religion is all about keeping themselves pure and holy. They want to make their faith about giving to the church and being a member of the Bible reading circle and serving on the church board. That kind of religion is far too easy.

I think Jesus caught on to that lesson when he was learning what it meant to be the Savior. Yeah, you read it right. I don’t think being a mixer came to Jesus automatically. I don’t think Jesus had his act all together right from the beginning. He had to learn like the rest of us do. That’s part of being human. Jesus was changed when he met that pushy woman. He chose to act in compassion when no one would have faulted him for moving on. He chose to listen and to heal, and to change his mind.

It’s hard to love the unlovely and the unloveable. It’s hard to help the needy at the cost of ones own time and money and comfort and pleasure.

Maybe this woman taught Jesus something about heart-stopping passion. Maybe when she was done, Jesus felt the arrhythmia of love. And when he felt it, he learned a little bit more about what it would mean him to be the Savior of the entire world. I dunno. Just a thought.

There will always be dividers. And I’m not talking about food anymore. Most politicians are dividers. They thrive on discord. Makes it look like they’re actually doin’ something. If people started getting along, they would be out of a job. Divide and conquer. It happens in families. It happens in our village. It even happens at the Jerico Progressive Church. I’m so glad Jesus learned a different way. Without his gamble on grace, we would never be challenged to be mixers like he was. You know I’m not a gambler, but it’s the best phrase I can think of. When we open our arms to others, we take a risk. We don’t know whether the other person will understand, or whether our actions will be appreciated. But embrace is grace, and grace is always a gamble.

I’m done preaching. That’s your job, anyway. I think I’m going to turn in early. Last night around midnight my phone rang. It was one of those sounds that sends a tiny chill up your spine. If a person’s calling that late at night, something must be wrong. Visions of dead relatives danced through my head. Massive heart attacks, head-on collisions, hot water tank explosions . . . my mind cranked up in a hurry. It was just Sunny, wanting me to help her remember all five members of the Brat Pack. And if you think I’m joking you’d be terribly wrong. For the record, I could only come up with four. I always have a mental block on that British lady’s man – Lawford was it? Anyway, It’s been my experience that a person needs to be wide awake before she’s able to pull names of entertainers out of thin air.

Write back soon. Love,
Aunt Georgia

With thanks to Jeff Kay at The West Virginia Surf Report for making me gut laugh!

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