Wheat and Weeds (Sermon from Sunday, 7/23)

Hey, if you’re new here, a heads-up: I’m a youth director at an Episcopal church, and sometimes they let me preach. Here’s a sermon I got to preach on July 23rd. You can find the lectionary texts for the week here (we used Track A). 

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When I first read this week’s collection of lectionary texts, it was a bit of a rollercoaster of emotion. On the one hand, I love Psalm 139 and Romans 8- they have comforted me in times of anxiety and grief, and in many ways are foundational to my theology. But on the other hand, the story of Jacob’s dream is a little boring and confusing, and Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is downright terrifying to me. These texts bring up questions about theodicy and eschatology and ethics, and as a 23-year-old with an English degree, I’m an expert in exactly none of these things. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say or what direction this sermon was going to take. When I’m overwhelmed like this, I usually start looking for the most basic connections between the Scriptures.

So let me start here: on a dark night, in a desert, with one man alone until suddenly he finds that he is on holy ground. Jacob, like his father and grandfather before him, is promised by God that he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. God says that They will never leave Jacob until this promise is fulfilled, and all of the families of the earth will be blessed by Jacob’s offspring. Now, in Romans, Paul says that Christians are the children of God, receiving the spirit of adoption that makes us Abraham’s children, and thus fulfilling God’s promise to Jacob. This is a Christian re-writing of a Hebraic story, of course, but Paul was writing to Gentiles who had until then been on the outside of the ancient rituals that marked them as children of God. To be claimed as children of the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, was to be adopted into a story and family much larger than themselves. It was saying that what mattered wasn’t our pedigree, but our faith.

I find it easier to jump into the gospel reading this week if we start with Paul’s writing in our mind. As I said, my first reaction to Jesus’s parable was “WHOA, calm down there, edge-Lord.” It is one of the Bible stories I struggle with, because of how often this parable and others like it have been used as a bludgeon. It would be easy to use the story of the wheat and the weeds as a way to create in-groups and out-groups: we are the grain, and “those people” are the weeds. The problem is that for me, “those people” start to look like anyone who disagrees with me, anyone who doesn’t follow my exact version of faith.

The idea of orthodoxy has been heavy on my mind this week. If any of you are my friend on Facebook or read my blog, you may have noticed that I accidentally went viral. The contents of my blog aren’t important to this sermon, but the reactions are: my family and I were accused of not having a true faith in Jesus, not adhering to the correct set of beliefs that will get us into heaven, or as one commenter so eloquently put it, “off the road that leads to perdition.” In this scenario, I was one of the weeds to be tossed into the fire at the end of the age.

My immediate reaction to these comments, of course, was to call my mom and rant about why exactly I was a shaft of wheat and not a weed. I wanted to make sure that I was part of the in-group and that they were the out-group. I wanted Jesus to tell me that I was right in holding a grudge against homophobic strangers on the Internet. Needless to say, I felt convicted as I started writing this sermon.

In Jesus’s parable, the master does not tell the servants to uproot the weeds; in fact, to ensure as much wheat as possible is saved, the master nurtures both weed and wheat. In this metaphor, humans are the plants growing up towards the sun, our root systems all entangled. In this metaphor, we the plants do not know who is wheat and who is weed.

I think the pairing of this parable with the passage from Romans 8 is intentional. Romans 8 tells us that as children of God, we are co-heirs with Christ. If this is true (and I believe it is), then our identity as children of God is the core part of ourselves, the power from which everything else flows. If we are co-heirs with Christ, waiting in anticipation with the rest of creation for the adoption and redemption of our bodies, then the parable of the wheat and the weeds is a call to love our neighbors as radically as if we are siblings. We have no way of knowing who, in the end, will be the children of God, because all who are led by the Spirit of God are His children, and therefore our family.

Lest you think I’ve gone all New-Age-y on you, a disclaimer: I’m not sure what heaven looks like, or who will end up there. I was raised too evangelical for any definite answer to sit peacefully in my mind. As best I can picture it, heaven looks like the line from the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’: “when we’ve been there ten thousands years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” I am learning to sit in the tension that comes with hope in things that are not seen.

My study Bible notes that, “the inner testimony of the Spirit is experienced as intense yearning and hope.” This yearning and hope, this testimony to the Spirit of God, is manifested in as many different ways as there are different people in the world. And the power of the Spirit is that it transforms weeds into grain- poisonous, thorny leaves into nourishment. All of creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God– and if, by radically loving my neighbor, by being kind when I could have been sharp, by seeing everyone as a wheat instead of a weed, even one more person is adopted to the kingdom of God, then I think the Spirit has worked through me to ease the labor pains of creation.

This year, one of my roommates introduced me to a poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest. When I think of the slow, nurturing work of the Spirit in our lives, the effort to grow upwards towards the sun with our neighbors, this is the poem I think of:

 

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

 

I am learning to sit in the anxiety of incomplete belief. Learning to strive upwards and extend my roots to grow with everyone around me. I don’t know what happens at the end of the age, but I am convinced that none of us are right. And I am equally assured that we are adopted: we are children of God, and our frail bodies of belief will be redeemed.

Practice Resurrection (Sermon from Youth Sunday, 4/23)

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. -John 20:19-31

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            On the evening of Easter, the disciples were still in darkness. Even after Mary Magdalene had told them that she had seen the risen Jesus, the male disciples were still locked inside their house in fear of the Jewish and Roman authorities. The gospel passage today is a continuation of the gospel on Easter: it’s not a new chapter but rather the epilogue to Mary Magdalene finding Jesus in the garden and being called by name. It seems intentional to me that the disciples’ fear is not really the beginning of the story, but rather right in the middle, after all possible assurances have been made that Jesus is alive.

A friend of mine said this week that usually by Easter Sunday they are pulled out of the funk that Holy Week puts them in, but that this year it has been harder to leave behind that feeling of darkness. The journey through Jesus’s death and resurrection remind us who we are, and sometimes that is a hard reminder. We are a fearful people, even in the face of our greatest joy. The disciples were promised eternal life, and sundown on Easter found them in a room locked from the inside, afraid of death.

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and university professor, writes about her search for “real life” in her book Leaving Church. She writes, “You do not have to [literally] die in order to discover the truth… You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.”

If Lent is a reminder of our humanity, of the ashes that we came from and shall return to, then the Easter season is the perfect time to lose track of who we are. It’s a time to forget that we are fearful, and doubtful, and probably not listening to the women trying to tell us something. Easter is time to let Jesus into our locked rooms, whatever they may be, and rejoice. Easter is a time to lose track of who we think we are and remember that God has made us a resurrection people.

Of course, that is often easier said than done.

Last year for Easter I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, having just spent a month in a tiny village in Swaziland. Swaziland is a landlocked country inside of South Africa. Some fun facts: it’s the last absolute monarchy in the world. It’s population is almost 100% ethnically Swazi. It is one of the youngest countries in the world, with over 35% of the population age 14 or younger, and at the current rate of HIV and AIDS infection, the WHO has predicted that by 2050 Swaziland will most likely cease to exist.

Nsoko, the town where I lived, was less of a town and more of a collection of army barracks, mud huts, a couple of small shops, and a bus stop where 18-passenger vans called koombees would pick you up and, for about 25 U.S. cents, take you 30 kilometers down the road to Matata, a town with a grocery store. If you took a koombee to Matata, you drove through endless fields that were mostly dry and brown. The entirety of southern Africa was—and still is— in the middle of a decade-long drought, and Swaziland is among the countries hardest hit both physically and economically, because it’s main export is sugar cane.

I was in Swaziland for most of Lent, and it was easy to remember that we came from dust, because I was constantly dusty. Orange dirt stained everything, including but not limited to: my clothes, my tent, my journal, and the entire book of Proverbs in my Bible. All month, I helped with feeding programs and taught kindergarten lessons to children who came to a care point run by local grandmothers. Most of the kids were AIDS orphans, being raised by an older sibling or some other relative. In many cases, the food the kids got at the care point was the only meal they would have that day. It was easy to remember that we came from dust.

We left Swaziland for Johannesburg on Good Friday, which, as a metaphor for coming out of Lent, was a little too on-the-nose for me. It was a hard month to leave behind. There are a lot of clichés that I could say about my month in Swaziland (or my mission program in general), but the truth is harder to get a handle on. I did not grow in my own spiritual life because of the poverty I saw around me, although it would be easy to say that. I did not learn to trust God in everything because of the faith of the Swazi people, although it would also be easy to say that. The truth is that on Easter last year, I was still in a locked room. As much as I wanted to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, in his blood poured out for me and for many for the forgiveness of sins, and in his emptying of the tomb, I was fearful. I doubted that the kingdom of God could ever come to earth in such a powerful way that these vast inequalities would be righted.

The doubt and fear might look different for you. I spent a year on an international mission trip. Maybe you spent a year trying to get pregnant, or trying to get sober, or trying to get a handle on your depression or anxiety. Maybe whatever’s inside your locked room is so private, so tender, that you haven’t even said the words out loud. It is easier to lock the doors than to believe against all hope that joy is coming. Clutching tight to all the threads we’re afraid of unraveling is sometimes easier than lying down on that dirt floor basement and waiting to see who we really are.

But I’m mixing metaphors. All of this is to say, this year I have a new sympathy for Thomas.

We don’t know where Thomas was when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, and this is the only story where Thomas plays a starring role, and it’s one of the most embarrassing moments of his life (to put it lightly). The other disciples had seen Jesus together. They had already touched his hands and side, and felt Jesus’s breath on them. And while all the rest of the disciples had finally moved out of the grimness of Holy Week, Thomas would not be moved until he saw proof with his own eyes.

In my study Bible, the note on this verse says, “Thomas refused the apostles’ ‘gospel’ about Jesus.” He refused the good news. I once gave a sermon on this same story and compared Thomas’s reaction to Mary Magdalene’s, how neither of them actually believed that Jesus would do what he said he was going to do. Neither of them believed in the resurrection until they saw it, the difference is how they reacted when they were faced with the truth. We don’t know exactly why Thomas didn’t believe his closest friends, the people he had been living with for three years. It’s easy to say that he doubted God’s abilities.

But I think beyond disbelief, there was hurt. I think a part of Thomas said, “Why would Jesus appear to my friends and not to me? Was I not good enough? Did I not also give everything up to follow him? If this is true, why wouldn’t Jesus wait for me?”

I am very good at holding on to hurt. Like Thomas, I stubbornly refuse the good news of the resurrection, because I want proof. The easiest way to win an argument is to provide evidence, right? There is so much evidence of suffering and of need in the world that it can be hard to listen to people telling us good news. My impulse is to trace the scars of the world before I talk about the joy there is to be grasped.

But ultimately the point of today’s gospel story is that Jesus comes to us in our locked room, in our demands for proof, in our newsfeeds inundated with bad news, and says, “Reach out your hand. Do not doubt, but believe.”

Jesus says, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you. This is the Holy Spirit, who is always with you.”

When Thomas touched Jesus’s wounds, he cried out “My Lord and my God!” It doesn’t say what his posture was, but I like to believe he fell to his knees. Christian tradition holds that later Thomas travelled widely, and died in India while preaching the Gospel.

In a poem called “Manifesto,” Wendell Berry says, “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”

I pray we should all be so bold, as the disciples were, to let Jesus into the locked room. Lie down on the dirt floor. Like Thomas, make tracks in the wrong direction, and come back again. In this Easter season, may we be so bold as to practice resurrection.

The Ministry of the Kitchen Sink

Hey y’all! Today I’m over at the Seattle Service Corps blog, writing about what serving my community looks like these days. You can read my latest post there, and make sure to read all of my roommates posts because they are pure gold.

Here’s the beginning. You can read the rest of the post here.

The other night we were sitting around the table eating sweet potatoes, and Jon was telling a story.

It’s the kind of story that doesn’t resolve; it’s sacred, an honor to carry alongside him, but heartbreaking to hear. It made me angry and sad for him, and I wanted him to know how much he was loved, tell him about the grace I have found in his friendship.

I got up to do the dishes, in the silence that followed his story. I collected the plates.

Letting the Light In

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen

I realized I was queer in a church. Which is incredibly on-brand for me.

Actually, what I realized was that I couldn’t hide anymore.

In my head, I’d been planning on quietly dating whoever I wanted and never telling anyone, and I’d changed the settings on my dating app accordingly. But standing and listening to the liturgy of the Table, something inside me cracked. I realized that I couldn’t come to the table to receive Christ’s body and blood as anyone other than myself- whole, complete.

When I was little, I had an illustrated children’s Bible. In the story of Jonah, it depicted Jonah trying to hide from God in the hold of the ship- but God finds him there, as the light that shines through the small porthole into the dark room. On that page, the Bible simply said, “But God found him there.”

One Sunday, the choir was singing my favorite hymn, and my new community was moving forward to receive the Eucharist. And I sat in a pew shaking, because God had found me there.

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I’m bisexual. That’s the “B” in “LGBTQIA,” and it means that I’m attracted to both women and men. (There’s no percentage system here, like I’m 50% lesbian now- I am all bi, and always attracted to both men and women, all the time.)

I could tell you how I’ve always known this, deep down. I could tell you how hard I fought to pretend I was only attracted to men for twenty-one years, trying to fool myself more than anyone. I could tell you how the first time I said the words, “I think I’m bisexual,” I was drunk in my friend’s kitchen, scared to death because I was leaving on the World Race in a week, scared of who I was and what even saying those words meant. I could tell you about my gay friends whose nice, Christian families rejected them, and how terrified their stories made me of ever acknowledging my sexuality.

I could tell you how I came out to my roommate, and his face cracked into the widest smile, and I knew things would be okay.

I could tell you about the stacks of books and articles I read and hours of conversations I had in college, rethinking my theology, re-learning what it means to love LGBT people, going back and forth around Scripture and context and the original Greek and Hebrew.

I could tell you about the shame I carried for so long, convinced that there was a part of me that God would never quite love.

But in all of these things I could tell you, there was the light trying to get through.

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I didn’t want to come out on the internet. On top of the fact that it’s super cliche, and literally anyone can read this post anytime, and it’s attached to my name forever- on top of all of this, my sexuality should be none of your business. Should be.

But existing as a queer woman is a political act. Like existing as a a woman, as a person of color, a trans person, a disabled person, is a political act. Our very lives are a threat to the powerful, and our freedom is bound up together.

So, as a queer, female Christian, I felt the need to publicly come out to my communities.

Most of my communities are in the South, the region Flannery O’Connor called “Christ-haunted”; and this Christ-haunted Southern spirituality is woven into who I am and how I understand Jesus and the Bible. Several of my communities are in the Methodist church, and the UMC is currently struggling with how to fully accept LGBT people- people like me. The people and churches who shaped me with their love, their presence, and their faith deserve to know me in the fullness of who God created me to be.

These communities always taught me the mission of the church is bound up with freedom for the downtrodden. Where there is brokenness and cries for healing, there is the Spirit.

And when our response to the cries of the LGBT community is rejection, or silence, we are complicit in their suffering.

Sharing our stories, living together in the wholeness, breaks open the darkness.

Hatred, fear, anything other than love and acceptance- it flees at the light that finds us in the darkness, even the darkness we make ourselves. And so I am trying to push the door open a little wider, let a little more light in, exist in spaces I have not been welcomed to.

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I didn’t want to write this post, because this shouldn’t be anyone’s business.

But I needed to write this, because I cannot come to the table as anything other than who I am. And this is me- bisexual, feminist, left-handed, semi-Episcopalian, Gryffindor. Child of God. Loved, as I am.

Over and over, God has found me hiding, and claimed me yet again.

Re-Entry is Hard and I’m Not Okay

It’s been two months since I got home from the Race.

For the first month, I swear, I was fine. I was surrounded by my best friends and my family. Bless the Lord, oh my soul, I ate Chik-fil-a probably four times a week. I preached in church without crying.

To be honest, I didn’t cry at all in that first month. I was caught up in the familiarity of home, soaking in all the love my newly-retired parents and my friends on summer break could give me. Not every Racer is so lucky, I know, to have a place to come back to that fits so well.

This second month has been… different.

For example: I’m standing outside the largest REI in the country. There was a mix-up with my account, and I was embarrassed in front of the cashier and Hilary, my new roommate. Outside, I’m trying not to cry and also calling my mom, ostensibly to figure out the mix-up with the REI membership but mostly because I need to hear her voice right then, so that I don’t cry in front of all the rest of my new roommates, who are now gathered and ready to go. Like a child, I need my mom to tell me everything is going to be okay.

That was the moment I realized I wasn’t doing okay.

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Lately, my journal entries have been strings of questions.

Is it okay that I cry so much now? Should I have moved to Seattle? Am I a coward for being so scared?

I have struggled to find language to explain how God communicates for a long time. It’s easiest to say “and then God spoke,” but God does not speak to me. God is not silent; God is also not audible, and hardly ever like fire or rushing wind or immediate answers, like I and others have tried to make God out to be.

In this season, God is like a seed. Like something small and surprising, nestled in damp soil. God is a thing to be nourished, the point of all my hopes.

So in the silence that always follows my list of questions, I sense the presence of the Spirit: because my faith feels like a field lying fallow, and I hope there is something beneath the surface, waiting to emerge.

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In this second month after the Race, I moved into a new community with five total strangers. (A weirdly familiar experience.)

Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote about being asked to speak, and when she asked what she should speak on, her friend replied, “Tell us what’s saving your life right now.”

Right now, what’s saving my life is these five strangers.

I have one roommate who says profound, deeply-felt words with a gentle voice. One is the most brilliant and passionate person I’ve ever met, and another one is wise and caring beyond his years. One entrusts his story to others with insane courage. And another carries his family history, his life story, and his passions like the sacred things they are.

They are so beautiful. They are so different from me, and they are what’s saving my life right now.

I’m not okay right now. I’m overwhelmed by a lot of things, like REI and my community’s monthly grocery budget and not having to constantly be in the same room with someone. What I’m learning from my roommates is how okay this is, to not be okay. I get to come home anyway.

God is like this, too. God can be a seed and a home, all at once.

Probably, in the next couple of weeks (or months), I will call my mom again just because I need to hear her voice. I might cry in the grocery store (but I really hope I don’t). I will probably have another moment where I am confronted with how hard the Race was, and all the ways it is still affecting me.

But I still to get to come home. And I get to make a home, with the people who are currently saving my life, so that someday I might do the same for them.

I’m Here For the Bread (A Manifesto)

There is nothing to eat,

seek it where you will,

but the body of the Lord.

The blessed plants

and the sea, yield it

to the imagination

intact.

-William Carlos Williams

I moved to Seattle a little over a week ago, after four days of driving until my eyes crossed from staring so long at a distant horizon. Now I live in a white house with five other people. My four boxes of books have been unpacked, and my shoe organizer fell this morning, and I’ve showered every day, and it is so strange, moving through life as if this is normal, as if every time I open the fridge to find all the food still fresh and the power still on, it isn’t a miracle.

Yet it is so normal, waking up to the sound of someone else breathing across the room. Sleeping in a too-short bed, moving carefully through a new shared space, sitting exhausted on a couch and talking until too late in the night over leftover ice cream someone gave us. (Making the joke that in the Surbaugh house, there is no such thing as leftover ice cream.) Starting over again, with new people, in a new place.

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During our orientation week, I caught myself saying, “I’m not here for that.” As in, “I’m not here for that thing I hate.” “I’m not here for the patriarchy. I’m not here for racism. I’m not here for mayo.” Then, the creeping thought: what are you here for, then?

Because it’s easy to define what I’m against, but so often harder to focus on what I am actually for.

I’m here for the bread.

I’m here, in Seattle, starting over again, because of the bread a priest handed to me Sunday morning, the cup of wine he extended to me, which was bittersweet and so different from the grape juice of my childhood. The familiarity of the act of communion in another new church, this time a high-ceilinged cathedral with white-washed concrete walls.

It was so normal and yet so extraordinary, to be offered grace again by yet another stranger, and experiencing it as if for the first time.

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Manifesto means “a public declaration of policy and aims.”

In the last week of the Race, a teammate had me write a letter to myself to read a month after I got home. I opened it this morning:

If it feels like everyone is moving on, and you are standing still; or, if you’re crying too much or not at all; or, you are talking too much about the Race, and haven’t figured anything out, and have even less of a plan than ever: sit down and remember.

Remember the way you leaned into every shovelful of rocks today, the way the muscles in your back ached and the blisters on your palms burst. Remember that you finished a hard task. Remember that you did it with other people. Remember that you have achieved what felt impossible, and you’ll do it again. And again. And again.”

In the constant movement of the last year, it’s been easy to forget what keeps me rooted. What keeps me real, in the most literal sense of that phrase. What keeps me right here, right now, in this place, with these people, in a white house with handmade quilts on the beds.

This is my manifesto: I am here for the bread. I am here for the back-ache and the impossible task and the sweetness of ice-cream on a Wednesday night for no reason at all.

I am here for blistered palms and not having to hold everything in my calloused hands.

The hard work is done with other people.

The new bleeds into the old, the average into the extraordinary, the bread dissolves into the blood of the covenant.

Because my manifesto is really only this: the bread and wine, the tradition my Episcopal roommates call the Eucharist, which they believe is the literal body and blood of Christ, transformed in us. Transforming us. I’m here for the ancient work of the Eucharist, because it’s really the only work I’ll ever be able to do.