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Meaning-Makers

Krystal Leedy

May 25, 2014
Acts 17:22-31

She just stands there, eating cake. With her mortar board atop her head, with her robe that revealed her ankles and her blue high heels, she just stands there eating cake. And the plastic fork that she uses for each bite is becoming less and less like a fork as she would chew on the prongs in between bites. She is terrified. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know this day was coming, but this was one of those times where she just stood there in between being a little girl, a cheerleader, a gymnast, a daughter, a friend: where the only real responsibility she had was making a diorama of “The Lord of the Flies” for English class. Where her concerns mostly centered around her social responsibilities and her appearance. Where the expectations were clear and precise measurements of achievement governed her life. Standing between those high school memories all captured in digital pictures and looking forward to the next four years far away from home, far away from the clarity of high school, with real responsibilities like: where am I going to obtain food each day, perhaps more than once a day, so that I do not starve? Or what do I do if my car has a flat tire on I-35 as I am leaving home? Or what if the college workload demands too much of me? And the expectations are becoming unclear and she just stands there, eating cake, hoping that the next couple of steps will somehow make more sense in just a few days when she has to start packing. It’s amazing how just a few moments prior, she was standing in a ceremony, surrounded by her classmates, staring up at the administrators of her high school and the valedictorian who gave a speech about the future looking bright and the amazing experiences that everyone was going to have and how they were all going to change the world, and now, well now she is just eating a piece of cake, thinking about the tears in her parents’ eyes as she waved to them from the floor of the auditorium, and her name, all three names of hers, carefully written on parchment in calligraphy, and the flutter of excitement as she threw her hat up in the air. And she wished she could just have that feeling back instead of what had replaced the flutter of excitement: a rock of fear in the pit of her stomach about what’s next.

Whenever I talk to my UKirk students about graduation, they usually get some sort of twitch or make a face. “I don’t know what I want to do yet,” many of them claim. There’s so much fear about the future that they just end up talking about something else, and heaven forbid if I talk about becoming an adult. In fact, some students say that the word “adult” is the new a-word, and I’m not allowed to talk about it anymore. It’s just so tough to think about the future, to think about what’s next, to imagine taking that next step toward autonomy and independence, mostly because we just don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week or next year. And humans are just so curious about what things mean, what is behind those doors, what risk we will take to explore the unknown and make it known. And that’s part of the problem, I suppose, we’re so afraid of taking risks that we don’t want to go into a situation without all of our bases covered. And some of us are more cautious than others, but having all of our bases covered, just in case, sometimes isn’t an option.

Paul stands in the city center, preaching the good news, and many people dismiss him as they walk around the street preacher. And some stop just long enough for him to talk about this radical Jewish man who was from a faraway place, and as soon as the word “resurrection” is thrown around, they are no longer listening. And Paul makes a face each time that someone ignores him or kept walking to their next destination. And he stands on the rock of the god, Ares, just trying to understand what it means to be Athenian, trying to understand how his message might be heard, and he looks around at the idols present and sees an altar built with the inscription: to an unknown god. And Paul begins to recognize what it is that the Athenians are trying to do, to cover all of their bases just in case they missed a god that they were supposed to worship but didn’t. But they don’t even know who that God is. And it doesn’t seem like they care: they just don’t want to be hit with a fireball from heaven if they forgot to pray to someone. And fear is a great motivator. They were willing to, just in case, pray to a god they did not know. And to the people present, Paul just starts to riff of how this unknown god is something more than just something unknown, this god is more than just a mystery: this is a god we can name, a god that makes meaning out of things. This is the God who made heaven and earth and everything in them. This is a God in which we live and more and have our being. This is a God who is both far away and very close to us. This is a God who makes mundane things meaningful and significant. To an unknown God: not because God is meaningless, but God is so meaning-full and mysterious at the same time that perhaps, Athenians, that’s what you meant to say.

I heard a story once about a faculty member at a seminary, who was observing how her students were worshiping at their weekly chapel services. During communion, as people would come up to the front to receive a piece of bread and juice, those serving the elements would offer the loaf of bread and the cup would be offered as well but the servers would not say anything as they did this. This faculty member watched as the assembly line of communion would quickly and efficiently push people through the line. After a few more chapel services like this one, the faculty member finally stopped and she was offered the loaf, but instead of tearing off a piece of bread, she looked her server in the eye and said, “What is it?” And of course she asked not because she didn’t know what bread was. She knew that the bread was from a grocery store and at the same time it was the bread of heaven and the body of Christ and the nourishment for a broken world, but because someone has to say it out loud so that we are not thinking as we walk up to the communion line: “Get bread, dip in cup, sit down, sing a song,” because that’s what we’ve always done. The ritual means something more than just making sure we have had a snack during the 11:00 am worship service. The ritual means more than that because of who and what is behind the ritual.

We are the meaning-makers, the people of God. We have been making meaning out of symbols for millennia. We can look at water and teach how it stands for something about God. We can look at bread and wine and a table and teach what it means. We can look at the mundane things in our lives and see the spiritual significance in them. We make judgments all the time about whether things have meaning or not. For, we are the meaning-makers who gather together each week around ordinary bread and celebratory drink, around tap water, and paper bound in a book, and we call these things holy, not because we made them holy, but because a Christian worship service is still one of the few ways to see what’s unknown to us: the spiritual things, the things unseen, the unknown God. That’s when our eyes are opened and we recognize what this is, and it’s almost like trying to explain the unexplainable. Our worship is where we make meaning out of these things, where we make meaning out of our very lives. And at the same time our very lives are worship. Much like Paul who takes an altar that was put there in the midst of other household gods, we also take those types of things and teach what is truly behind them: a God who is both transcendent and immanent, mysterious and known, not a God who we worship just in case we forgot one of the other gods. Just in case we got the rain god, the sun god, and the moon god, but we forgot the star god and the star god will get angry and attack us with shooting stars for failing to remember him. Just in case we thanked the food god for the peas, carrots, and squash, but we forgot to thank her for the beans. Just in case we are in danger of the hell-fire because we forgot one god, we just placed an object with a little plaque underneath it “to an unknown god.” We know that fear-based rituals are great motivation to worship, but they do not offer a fulfilling life.

For as much as we laugh at the funny hats and the robes with weird sleeves that have been around for centuries, we mark something significant at ceremonies like graduations. We are not dressing up strangely just in case the graduation doesn’t stick without funny hats. It’s not in order to cover all the bases, it is to make meaning out of things that are important.

We are meaning-makers and we need ways to mark time, to acknowledge the things unseen with things that are seen, and we usually need cake at those times too. Weddings, funerals, baby showers, housewarmings, birthdays, graduations: they all need cake. We need something sweet because all we can taste is the bitterness of being in between. We taste bitterness of what we have lost and the fear of the unknown, the already and the not yet, the fear that resides in the liminal space, where there are very few consolations, except for cake. We need more cake in our lives. We need more opportunities to gather as a community and offer care to those who are in the in between times. When we are joining our lives with others, when we are saying goodbye, when we are welcoming a new life into this world or walking into a new place to call home, we need ritual to remind us that we are not alone in this world and in this place, that even though things seem unknown right now, one day we will know as we are known. We need each other to surround us with love and hugs and benedictions, good words, that call us back to what’s important, the God who gives us life and the worship we offer him with our very lives. And we need order structure and tradition to ground us to the people that have been marking time for centuries. And yeah, we need cake, because life is sweet, even when you don’t know what’s next.

In the name of the God who provides us with everything we need, Amen.