Joy in Repetition

Homily for Sunday, August 19, 2018
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
John 6:51–58

hummingbird-feedingPrince Rogers Nelson, the late singer-songwriter better known as “Prince,” once said, “There is joy in repetition.”  I was brought to mind of Prince’s words in July when, while visiting my dad in New York state, I watched a hummingbird out his window.  The tiny bird returned again and again to my dad’s feeder, wings abuzz, feathers glinting in the sun, its long beak taking quick sips as it bobbed and weaved around those plastic flowers at the base of the feeder.  Mostly quick sips—playful and teasing, as though flirting.  But then, every so often, it hovered for what seemed like a hummingbird eternity and thrust its beak in deep, taking a long quaff, before flitting off to a nearby branch.  Where it recovered for a few panting seconds… and then returned to the feeder to do it all again!  And then again!  I may be imagining it, but I dare say there was an exuberance—a joy—as the hummingbird perched there on the branch, chest thrust out, proud in his plumage, darting to the feeder again and again.  “There is joy in repetition.”

Our lectionary this summer is kind of like that hummingbird, returning again and again to John 6. We’ve heard from John 6 for the last four weeks; and we will hear from John 6 yet again next week.  This summer, we will have heard from John chapter 6 five weeks in a row!  (The lectionary returns to no other text so frequently.)  In returning again and again to John 6, the Spirit must be trying to show us something.  And I can’t help but wonder if, given this repetition and the imagery Jesus uses in John 6—“I am the living bread that came down from heaven”—[I can’t help but wonder if] the Spirit is trying to show us not merely where we can find the sustenance our souls need, but also the joy.

Ross Gay (poet)

Ross Gay reads at the 2015 National Book Awards (Katexic)

To give some flesh to this sustenance and joy, I will share with you one of my favorite poems.  It is a poem that speaks of a bird, though not a hummingbird but a goldfinch.  It is by contemporary American poet Ross Gay, and while the poem is called “Wedding Poem” and is ostensibly about the bride and groom, the poem just might be about John 6.  Here it is:

“To Keith and Jen”

Friends I am here to modestly report
seeing in an orchard
in my town
a goldfinch kissing
a sunflower
again and again
dangling upside down
by its tiny claws
steadying itself by snapping open
like an old-timey fan
its wings
again and again,
until, swooning, it tumbled off
and swooped back to the very same perch,
where the sunflower curled its giant swirling of seeds
around the bird and leaned back
to admire the soft wind
nudging the bird’s plumage,
and friends I could see
the points on the flower’s stately crown
soften and curl inward
as it almost indiscernibly lifted
the food of its body
to the bird’s nuzzling mouth
whose fervor
I could hear from
oh 20 or 30 feet away
and see the tiny hulls
that sailed from their
good racket,
which good racket, I have to say
was making me blush,
and rock up on my tippy-toes,
and just barely purse my lips
with what I realize now
was being, simply, glad,
which such love,
if we let it,
makes us feel.

Hummingbird-sunflower-Archilochus_colubris_-_by_jeffreyw_-_002

Photo credit: jeffreyw

“Keith and Jen,” the finch and the flower.  Gay describes not only the finch’s “feeding” in sensuous terms—the goldfinch “kissed” the sunflower, ate with its “nuzzling mouth,” ate with such “fervor” that its “good racket” could be heard “oh 20 or 30 feet away”—[Gay describes not only the finch’s feeding in sensuous terms] but also the sunflower’s participation in sensuous terms: the sunflower leaned back, the points on its stately crown softened and curled inward; it admired “the soft wind nudging the bird’s plumage” as “it almost indiscernibly lifted the food of its body” to the finch.  (Gay’s imagery makes me blush!)

In John 6—to which we are returning again an again—Jesus similarly invites us to feed, using intimate, even sensuous, terms:

  • “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my
  • “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man… you have no life in you.”
  • “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Keith and Jen.  The finch and the sunflower.  Jesus and us.  Each “feeds” on the other, in the flesh.

And hopefully… with joy.

This feeding is something we do every Sunday, again and again, in the Eucharist, and I can’t help but wonder if, as Prince suggests, “There is joy in [this] repetition.”  For Jesus, surely, there is joy.  Like the sunflower, he “almost indiscernibly lifts the food of his body” toward us.  Perhaps as we stretch out our hands to receive him, he admires the wind nudging our “plumage.”  He is delighted we are here.

Trinity-Church-1743

Photo credit: Craig Orsini

But do we find joy in this repetition?  As for me, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t; sometimes the Eucharist is quite rote for me, and at other times I find it profoundly moving.  I pray that we may find joy in what we do here “again and again.”  I pray that we may find joy and that on account of what we do here our lives might be lived with a “fervor” that might be heard from “oh 20 or 30 feet away.”  I pray that others out there might see crumbs sailing from our “good racket” in here.  I pray that this good racket might make us blush, as it were, and rock up on our tippy-toes and maybe even purse our lips with what I hope we may come to realize is being, simply, glad, which Jesus’ love, shown us in this sacrament, if we let it, makes make us feel.

Gay’s poem may well be about John 6 and the Eucharist:

Friends I am here to modestly report
seeing in an orchard
in my town / a goldfinch kissing
a sunflower / again and again…

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