Years ago in Australia I got to know a couple who regularly had me over for dinner. Ray was on the Vestry of his local parish, and his wife Christine was a wonderful cook and hostess. She had style and grace and understated flair. She held dinner parties apparently without effort, and made you wish you could do it just as well and just as easily. And somehow you could just tell that she came by this talent long before Martha Stewart was ever on the scene.
I was eager both to return the favor of a home-cooked meal, and to impress Christine, so I invited them over for dinner. And although I cannot remember most of what I served them that night, I know that the menu included sugar snap peas – a favorite of mine – probably sautéed in some butter.
The cooks among you will know that sugar snap peas have a sort of a stringy thing that runs down the seam of the peapod. Interestingly, this feature of the anatomy of a peapod is called a “string,” and although it is entirely edible, it is also somewhat tough, makes the snap peas hard to chew, and can get stuck in your teeth. All of these features tend to undermine the enjoyment of the sweetness of a delicious snap pea. The thoughtful and conscientious cook will, therefore, remove the strings from the peapods before cooking and serving so that his guests do not have to deal with them.
I don’t remember precisely what happened in the preparation of that meal. I can’t recall if I was just running late, or if something went wrong, or if I just forgot, or if for some reason I decided that removing the strings from the snap peas was unnecessary. Keep in mind, I was eager to impress Christine – I was certainly seeking her approval, for whatever reasons. And while I can remember no other details of the meal, I can remember this: when I cleared Christine’s plate after the main course, on her plate, off to the side, was a perfect little pile of strings from the sugar snap peas that she had delicately and unobtrusively removed herself before consuming the peas, since I had not seen fit to do so. How she accomplished this without me noticing I cannot say.
Whether Christine meant it this way or not, I felt chastised by each and every little green string on her plate. It was not only that I had not bothered to remove the strings myself – it was also that I realized I had wanted to do so, but had somehow managed not to. So the chastisement of the strings was joined by an inner chastisement of my own, for failing to do what I wanted to do for someone who had treated me well, and whose kindness I wished to reciprocate.
Living as we do in a world that can hardly talk about sins any more, I am introducing the green strings of my sugar snap peas as a way of easing you into the topic. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I think that sin is not a very big topic these days, even among church-goers. I simply do not run into too many people who are worried about their sins. In fact, I think that a great many people consider that sin is a topic that the church would do well to talk about even less than we do (which would not be easy in most Episcopal churches), since any discussion of sin shows you to be out of touch with the current milieu.
Hence, the strings of the sugar snap peas – for if you like, you can think of them as stand-ins for sin. They represent things I had not done but ought to have done, at their most obvious level. But all I have to do is imagine looking at that plate in a mirror in order to see the snap pea strings as things I have done that I ought not to have done.
As Lent begins, I like the snap pea strings as a stand-in for my sins because of the way the strings themselves accused me: piled there on the plate. Christine didn’t have to say a word. I suppose she could have complained out loud, but she is much too genteel. Or, she could have eaten the peas with their strings on. But I rather imagine that Christine saw it as a teaching moment that required nothing to be said. It’s crucial to my understanding of this lesson, I repeat, that I wanted the same thing that Christine wanted – I wanted to serve her string-less snap peas. If I hadn’t cared I’d not have felt chastised, and I certainly wouldn’t be talking about it all these years later.
Lent comes around like clockwork and invites me and you to consider the strings of the sugar snap peas. This holy, introspective season suggests – with more words than my friend used – that we each look carefully to find the things we have left undone that we ought to have done, as well as the things we have done that we ought not to have done. Look for the little piles of green strings. And let’s face it: I’ve done worse than leave the strings on a few snap peas now and then. Maybe you have too.
But you have to start somewhere, and in a world that is dubious about the discussion of sin maybe it’s best to start with the small things. Once we are comfortable admitting the small stuff maybe we’ll have the nerve to move on to the big things – and believe me, it can take some nerve to own up to your sins.
There is a common perception out there, that acknowledging sins is something that could only be required by an angry God in search of appeasement. But here again, my little dinner party suggests a different possibility. Christine directed no anger or judgment of any kind toward me; she simply allowed my work to speak for itself. And of course, I already knew that her aspirations for the dinner were really no different than mine – we wanted the same thing: string-less peas.
I’m not entirely sure that God requires anything more than that. I suspect that God expects our sins to speak for themselves, too – because he is always calling us closer to him, and our sins push him away. And maybe God hopes to use Lent as a teaching moment wherein we may discover that we want the same things God wants. This is not the conventional way of thinking about sin, or about Lent which usually begins with the assumption that our wills and desires must be bent by force in order to comply with God’s will and desire.
But every now and then we begin Lent, as we have this year, with a second story – the story of the rainbow that God set in the heavens as a reminder of his covenant of love. In Genesis, God says the rainbow is a reminder to him that he should never again destroy the face of the earth, never again hold our sins so firmly and harshly against us. It is almost as if we are watching God come to the realization that he wants the same things for us that we do: to live honest, happy, healthy lives.
I have long thought that the story of the Flood and of Noah’s ark was first told when some Mesopotamian child asked her father or her mother where rainbows come from. That lucky child had a great story-teller for a parent, who backed way up to tell of a time when “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil.” And so unfolds the story of the building of the ark; and the gathering of the animals, two by two; and the rain, and destruction; and the raven, and the dove with the olive leaf; and finally the rainbow – God’s sign of his covenant of love to remind us and him that we want the same things, or at least we ought to, yes, we ought to want the same things as God wants for us. And the story has been told all these eons because it’s true, even though it may be completely made up.
But you can’t always find a rainbow when you need one. So sometimes a little stack of the green strings from a serving of sugar snap peas will have to do as a reminder that God wants nothing more than what we ought to want – to be honest, healthy, and happy.
And the things that we have done that we ought not to have done; and the things we have left un-done that we ought to have done need not stand in the way of honest, healthy, happy lives … if we will only ask God to forgive us for them, and hang his rainbow in the heavens again and again, and teach us how to love.
Some day I hope one of my nephews, or some child in Sunday School, or just any kid at all, asks me where the strings on sugar snap peas come from. (Although how this conversation would get started I am struggling to imagine!) And I will tell the story of my dinner with Ray and Christine, and the little pile of strings on her plate. And I’ll say how sorry I was about those strings because I’d meant to remove them. And I’ll say that Christine never held it against me – even invited me to cook with her in her own kitchen after that. And if there’s time, I’ll tell whatever child I’m talking to that it reminds me of an even better story – the story of where rainbows come from – and the point is kind of the same. Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The First Sunday in Lent
22 February 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia