Ways of Knowing
Seventeen years ago this morning, after a brief April shower, the sun broke through just in time to greet almost 250 people who were meeting for the first time to become University Congregational Church. It seemed a good omen after some difficult times, so we sang “Morning Has Broken” and hoped for a bright future together, although the truth is that not one of us could even imagine worshipping some day in a place as beautiful as this one. In that way, and in others, we have been singularly blessed. But the years take their toll and some of the dear faces present on that first joyous morning are missing, so I’m sure that after a while our birthday will no longer be as important as it still is for those of us who have marked it over the years with a special service of holy communion.
I have tried many different ways of setting a mood for our observance of this sacred ritual — from heavy surveys of its theology and its complex history to simple stories of how people like ourselves have found new ways to fill it with meaning. My approach this morning will be different from anything you might expect on a Lord’s Supper Sunday — so personal a reminiscence, and so indirect at first that you will wonder how it can ever find its way back to making ourselves ready for communion, but I promise that it will.
What I’d like to do is talk about how we know things — how some things register in the mind as knowledge, and how other things register in the heart to become part of our emotional landscape. The examples I’ve chosen to illus. this mental dichotomy are taken from a single hour of a single day in the life I spend as a student. So…..on a perfectly ordinary day, once, I was in my study wondering what title to give a bulletin list of sermons for the following month. Hoping they would be a feast and not a fast, and that they would be delivered on the 10th month of the year, the German word Oktoberfest suddenly came to mind — one of those dozens of trivial choices we all make every day.
It was different that day only because once I had made it I decided I would like to pause and refresh my memory about the details of that famous German festival — not only for the pure pleasure of doing it, but to be properly primed when the inevitably curious parishioner came up afterwards to say, “I’m going to be in Germany next Fall. Tell me more about this Oktoberfest .” So I reached for the closest resource book, and as my eyes ran down the page to toward the words beginning with O-K, I was stopped by the word O-K-I-E, Okie.
Most of you would not have felt any compulsion to stop and read that definition, but I grew up in Oklahoma, and the guy from Chicago who married my only sister called her — with great affection all their years together — by the nickname, Okie . On the particular day we are talking about, when I came across her nickname in search of something else, she had already been gone from his life and mine for many years, so I was moved to check my emotional response to that word against the kind of factual knowledge printed in a reference tool.
I read first that the word “Okie” is an insulting name for people who live on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which was news to me, and then I read a definition closer to home — that the word “Okie” was once used to name a migrant worker from Oklahoma. My critical monitor, my mind, told me that the second definition was partly wrong, because although the Depression-era Okies took their name from Oklahoma, they did not all originate in that state. Headed with desperate hope toward the rich valleys of California, they came from several other states as well, from dust-bowl farms in Arkansas and Texas, New Mexico and Arizona — even from southern Kansas.
But this is information that runs around inside the head. If you want the other kind of knowledge, the kind that touches the heart, you would have had to know to those frightened people, as I did — or failing that, you would have to read with a keen imagination John Steinbeck’s epic novel of that migration, The Grapes of Wrath . Read it so feelingly that you identify with Ma Joad, the indomitable matriarch who holds her family together; with her ex-convict Tom who in that long weary exodus finds a new life ; and with Jim Casey, the cynical country preacher who learns on the journey what it means to love. Once identify with those characters, and others in the novel, and the word Okie will never mean just what you found in a dictionary. You will have heart-knowledge.
If you have forgotten how we got where we are right now, I remind you that I am still up in my study looking for more information about the word Oktoberfest , except that I’ve been stopped by the word “Okie” and the differece, once again, between fact and feelings. But I still need to reach the word I wanted in the first place, so I move on — only to find when I get there that the definition is too skimpy. So I walk downstairs to shelves of books in another room and pull out a novel by Thomas Wolfe called The Web and the Rock so I can re-read the chapter where he describes what the famous autumn fair in Munich is like.
I learn again the historical facts, but caught up in his mastery of language, I begin to know by imagination and emotion. He makes me smell the great hall packed with sweating overweight bodies, makes me hear the sullen roar of the crowd, makes me taste the dark, bitter October beer. I am feeling something now, not just reading a dry definition, and emotion drives me to want to know more — to know how the great Germanic festival got started. So I head for some other shelves where the 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica rest in dark-blue dignity, open the one that will have entries under O-K — .and all of a sudden my eyes fall on the name of a small town called Okmulgee, Oklahoma. I’m surprised, because that little town didn’t even make it into the 20-volume American encyclopedia called World Book . What was the name of my birthplace doing in that awesome British collection of important information?
One more digression. One more chance to ponder the difference between facts and feelings. So while my interrupted labors wait a little longer, I read eagerly the paragraph about Okmulgee. Staight facts, like these: “A city of eastern Oklahoma, USA, on Federal Highway 75 and the Frisco and Okmulgee Northern Railways…… population 17,430 (78% white and 19% Negroes).” Of the time when I was in high school Britannica said: “It is the centre of one of the great oil-producing regions of the world. Within an area of 2,123 square miles are some 6,000 producing wells, which supply 16% of the total output of the United States.” I grew up seeing those wells, but we didn’t own one, so the knowledge never really touched my emotional life.
But as Britannica goes on to talk about oil and gas, all of a sudden I begin to smell the old Phillips 66 refinery, which was never completely out of anybody’s mind in my childhood because so many fathers and sons worked there, and because the danger of a fatal explosion was something we lived with every day. And standing there in the living room, by the bookcase, the dry words begin to pass from facts to feelings. I am remembering with the heart by this time, the kind of exercise you will be invited to try in a few minutes.
It happens even more intensely as I read the final entry in that dry, dusty description: “In a square in the heart of the city stands the Council House which was the capital of the Creek [Indian] nation for half a century.” There it is again: just a bare statement of fact — unless emotion and memory transform it. But they did, because I had experienced that courthouse square. On Saturdays, before the afernoon movie started at the Orpheum theater, I would roam the Creek Indian museum where I first got acquainted with arrowheads and pottery, beaded deerskin and moccasins. My nose wrinkles as I smell those musty museum rooms again.
And imagination replays scenes on Saturday nights, through the long Oklahoma summers, when my sister and I would play in that square until our father closed his nearby furniture store at 10. And now the knowledge of the heart strikes even deeper, because I see my sister again and hear her voice…..and as if it were playing on a screen before my eyes I relive the Saturday night when she fails in the dim light to see a piece of barbed wire some workman has left strung up — does not notice in time — this beloved younger sister who could run like the wind — and rips her arm open so that for the rest of her life there is an ugly scar to link the two of us with that night and with our happy childhood together. Just a few lines of neutral description in dictionaries and encylopedias — and by an act of imagination my life passes again before my eyes.
Now, let’s relate all of this to what we are doing this morning. You can go downstairs to our church library and read a long theological essay about communion, Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper — whatever your church calls it. You can catalog more facts than I would ever wish to unload in a single sermon. But facts only make a difference to character when they slip from the head to the heart. Is it possible to make that happen with communion before we share it this morning?
A little while ago you heard Leon Greene read our Scripture text from the Gospel of Luke, with its brief description of what the church has ever since understood to be the institution of the sacrament of communion. You have probably heard them read before, but I want you now to go behind the factual statements and imagine — recreate with imagination — a desperately tired and worried man climbing the stairs to an upper room in Jerusalem with a few of his friends to eat a simple meal by candlelight: a crusty loaf of bread, a goatskin bag full of cheap wine. There is tention in the room, fear of the unknown, a brooding sense that something dear to all of them is coming to an end. Somewhere else int he city, in a Roman barracks, a young soldier may be finding it hard to sleep because he keeps seeing the agonies of death by crucifixion which he has to inflict in the morning. And inside the room, a tiny little clink of silver in the pocket of Judas when he moves…..and a look on the face of Jesus which his friends have not seen before.
So that after a bit he picks up a piece of bread, looks at it thoughtfully, and says, “This is my body, broken for you.” There is no proof they understand exactly what he means, but they accept his invitation to join him in drinking the dark red wine which looks a little like the blood he will spill in a few more hours. Afterwards the soldiers come to arrest their friend, the fatal kiss of betrayal is given, and in the morning one of the crosses on a nearby hill takes away a life so full of love it has been honored ever since.
A few days later, according to the same writer, two of the followers of Jesus are walking along a dusty road when a stranger joins them. The three men talk of odd rumors flying about, and as evening falls the two disciples invite the stranger to join them for supper. As they eat, he takes a loaf, blesses it and breaks it, and their eyes, we are told, are opened. “It is he,” they whisper…..and then he is gone. If it comforts you to take that story literally, then by all means do so. But know that many Christian students take it as one of the most beautiful little parables ever put together — a way of saying to us that wherever we are, thinking of him, and in his name serving others, he will be there, in some way present. We see him, of course, not with the eyes we use to read a book, but with the eyes of the heart.
We shall try now to feel what it was like on that last night when God’s child looked at the broken bread and the red wine and found in them symbols of his life and his love. If you are truly glad for both, and willing to use the high gift of imagination, we invite you to transform what happens next into moments of true communion with the spirit of Him in whose name we are united.