After living with the bowl for these last two months, I finally decided to give it to my church and my priest, Father John Rumple of St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Greencastle, Indiana. To do that, I offered to say the sermon today, Sunday December 1st, the first Sunday of Advent. What follows is a poem I wrote about Patra 100 and the text of the sermon I gave about the lesson of the bowl. While given in the context of the Christian Liturgy, I don’t think the message is at all confined to a single religious or spiritual point of view. I like to think I’ve learned from the patra I received and from Lynda’s project in general. I’m honestly quiet relieved to have handed over the bowl as a gift.
Patra, The Bowl that Never Goes Empty
a sermon by Joseph Heithaus for St. Andrew’s Parish, December 1, 2013
Bowl of clouds,
bowl of sky,
silver meanderings of stars,
the slivers left over
of what is broken inside you,
you piece the slivers back,
you accept what’s left,
put it in bowl of yourself,
a bowl empty and full.
you open yourself
to the strange geometry of birth
and death, the architectures of sorrow
and laughter, to all the language
inside you you don’t understand,
the fire from where all things come,
the earth molded for begging,
whatever is received is enough for the day.
I felt called to give today’s sermon as I stood among a hundred or so people on a rainy evening in Washington State in late September of this year. An artist, Lynda Lowe, whom I’ve been lucky and blessed to know, was doing something strange in an art museum, Tacoma, Washington’s Museum of Glass. She was giving away her art as a gift. There was one rather remarkable catch. Each of us who received one of 108 ceramic bowls, were asked to give away the bowls as a gift which, in turn, would be given away again and so on. Each bowl is to go on a journey of giving that will eventually circle back to Tacoma where each bowl and each bowl’s journey will be put on display.
You are about to pass around this vessel, the block on which it sits when displayed, and the little booklet that goes with it because as I stood holding this bowl for the first time, I thought about this parish and this community in which I’ve watched our family grow. I felt, in that initial moment, called to pass this gift onto St. Andrews and Father John.
But I soon grew afraid and thought it might be easiest to send the bowl onto my sister who reminds me very much of the artist Lynda and her friends that I met. I knew my sister would receive the bowl with grace and the appropriate spiritual connection and would give it to the right kind of person—someone like her who would understand Lynda’s intention. I thought about other poet and artist friends, my wife, my oldest son, and got confused as to what to do with it. The gift almost immediately became a burden.
It was something I knew I had to give away, had to share, but I became very unsure about how and to whom I should give it.
When I first shared it with my family, I got angry when a joke was made about it. I put it back in its box and let it sit for a week. I eventually got it out and showed it again to the family and then put it on our book shelf, sometimes looking at it, sometimes avoiding it, but mostly in a quandary about what to do with it. I didn’t embrace it, didn’t enact ceremonies with it, didn’t until a few days ago, take a picture of it.
But a few weeks ago Father John’s sermon asked us to take our cue as a community of faith from the Church at Antioch. It was they who “bucked the system,” who, broke with the set of strict laws that made it very difficult for the Greeks, the Gentiles, to become members of the fledgling church. They opened their arms to everyone – circumcised or uncircumcised, kosher or not. Father John challenged us to break out of our preconceived notions, to question the customs and comfort of the church, and to open it up again as the Church of Antioch did. We are to be a new church, an open church.
I began to think of the discomfort of doing just this—of standing before you and speaking, of sharing my gift. I was inspired. I decided to finally act.
I HAND OVER THE BOWL
This little Patra, this alms bowl for begging, and these words, are my gift to you all.
I give this bowl to each of you to hold and examine. This is a patra. It is made to resemble a bowl monks from various cultures use for begging. In it they receive the offering for the day. The word patra is from Sanskrit and translates as “The Bowl that Never Goes Empty.” Lynda told us this during the ceremony when I first held this little bowl. She also said:
“Whatever is received in the bowl is enough for the day.” I’ll say it again, “Whatever is received in the bowl is enough for the day.”
When Lynda first told me of her plan about a year or so ago, I wrote this small poem for her:
This is another gift
from my bare bowl’s mouth
scatter of sounds
What I want to talk about today is Emptiness and Fullness and how we need to open ourselves to both.
I give this sermon on the first Sunday of Advent and on the Sunday after Black Friday—the greatest shopping day of the year. In our family, this is the Sunday when the stress of the season really begins to ratchet up. The turkey is practically still inside us as well as my growing dread of the work left to do before school lets out, and my dread of the mall. There are those letters to Santa, Jenny and I will have to answer to and all the annual decisions that often enough lead to tension and even arguments—what to get, how much to spend, what kind of tree, where to put the tree, what kind of lights for the tree (the big colored bulbs or the little white ones?). In this holy season for our family, we have three birthdays, our anniversary, as well the crazy week of exams down at the university and the grading that ensues where I inevitably go into hiding for a few days.
We haven’t done enough. We do too much. We hate it. We love it. In this season of light during the darkest time of the year, we are both empty and full. At one point or another I realized that Advent is the root word for ADVENTURE. I often think of this as we negotiate the crazy narratives of this season. It is always an Adventure. Even today’s gospel points to some confusion at the very start. Jesus says, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” In one way, I want to respond, “Wait a minute, I know when the Lord is coming. He is coming in the person of baby Jesus in about 25 days and if we procrastinate in the way we usually do, we will surely keep awake much of the night before his coming wrapping gifts.”
Of course, Jesus is speaking about the coming kingdom, mortality, and judgment. But as I’ve thought about these lines, I’m struck by the intense reality of the words. “Two will be in the field.” “Two women will be grinding meal together.” I love their specificity. I can picture these people. I know them somehow.
So I ask myself, which of them am I? Is the cup I am holding empty or is the cup I am holding full? Do I live in the darkness? Do I live in the light?
The answer is yes to each of those questions. Inside each of us are the two in the field. Inside each of us two women are grinding meal together.
Maybe one is a mother. The other her daughter. They love one another, but so much goes on between them – disappointment, jealousy, rage, forgiveness, grace. There are times when they touch, a hand to the other’s hair, their shoulders grazing as they prepare a meal. When one is sick the other comes and sits beside the bed. There is nothing unusual about these women, but between them are layers and layers of feelings, memories one has that the other has forgotten, kind words and ill words. Perhaps they are my sister and my mother. Neither one is a saint. Neither one is a sinner. Once when I was a boy, they had a fight in our basement that lasted so long, we had to keep our friends away from our house for a few days. Once a few years later, my sister presented my mother a handmade crocheted blanket, white and beautiful. I remember how my mother cried and then my sister too. At this very hour, my sister is at church with my mother having fetched a special hearing aid so that my mom can hear the sermon. They’ll go eat at Perkins or Big Boy. They’ll argue a little, they’ll hug when my sister leaves my mom at her condo.
“One will be taken. One will be left.” Who is to say which? We are intensely complex creatures.
I think one of the keys of faith is accepting our own emptiness and our own fullness simultaneously. I’m not even sure what I mean by this, but this is what I am trying, and often enough failing, to learn from the bowl, the open mouth of it, the invitation of it.
When you hold It, feel its shape and texture, try to read the strange and ambiguous markings on it, the dark colors of it. The bowl I offer to you as a congregation can be seen as advent, this season of gifts, of opening ourselves to light even when the world around us or inside us is dark. We are all empty vessels, fragile things, we carry the potential to contain so much.
That I think, is the most daunting part of living.
The empty bowl has the potential for fullness. It is open. And
Whatever is received in it is enough for the day.
While a beautiful sentiment, it is not an easy thing to practice. What a challenge that is. It means accepting what comes. It means being open, accepting, and finally, being vulnerable.
The day after the ceremony Lynda told me a story. I won’t tell you the details, but as she was making these bowls she experienced a terrible disappointment in her family. She was so hurt, she said, that she almost decided to destroy all the bowls, to give up on her crazy project of love and giving.
Who doesn’t, out of love, experience disappointment, rejection, hurt? It is the strange lot of living. We try, we fail. We give and sometimes we get taken. We try to communicate and are misunderstood. Sometimes I turn away from the very gifts I’ve been given. Sometimes, I too, want to destroy the bowl.
But Lynda didn’t destroy the bowls. She is still hurt. I could hear that in her voice, but paradoxically, she made a gift of that ache. She made 108 beautiful gifts. She inspired me to pass on my gift to you. But sharing our own gifts is daunting. Even understanding our own gifts is difficult. Sometimes it is much easier to hide, to close ourselves off, to protect ourselves from hurt.
This little bowl isn’t the only vessel that can stand as metaphor to remind us to be open, to accept, to be receptive of love–the chalice from which we eat and drink, the baskets we pass at offertory, the various cups and bowls and plates we eat and drink from each day, even the manger we will pull from a box and put in a nativity sometime in the next few weeks. That Christ child with the same open arms he’ll have at his crucifixion and death.
Our bowl, while beautiful, is dark and full of shadows. Its silver rim is chipped in places and doesn’t make a perfect circle. The rim has a notch in it. It isn’t soft and golden and bright like some of the other vessels. We got this one at random. It is Patra one hundred. I picked the number from a bowl. We got what we got—dark and ambiguous, a streak of lightning or a squiggle of silver wind inside it. It is, at best, cloudy. But it is a beautiful object, rich and complicated as our lives.
So is the bowl empty or full? It is both. It is the good news and the bad news.
which reminds me of another story. Tell joke It was the middle of the summer and a man from Butterball had an audience with the Pope. 10 million dollars to change the word bread to “turkey” in the lord’s prayer. a month or so later, for only the weeks of advent. 20 million to make the change. A few weeks before advent, another audience. 50 million to change the words. Pope finally accepts. Good News and Bad News. Good News 50 Million to share with the world’s poor. Bad News We’ve lost the Wonder account.
So we’re left, as always with Good News and Bad News. We must understand the paradox of being full and empty at once. Our journey of faith is to become the patra, the bowl that never goes empty.
But our challenge is in being open as the rim of that bowl to whatever comes. The thing is, we don’t know what is coming or when the lord will come. We ask, as the monks do, to give us our daily bread and to understand that whatever comes is enough for the day. As we begin the season of lent, I think our challenge is make sure that this is the season of giving. Perhaps we need to take our cue from a young girl who is unmarried, pregnant, listening to voices and trying to believe. Mary accepts what comes. Joseph does as well. And think of who they bring into the world.
Thank you for listening to me this morning. Please think of the bowl and these words. I hope they have helped you to open yourself to your own gifts, to open yourself to others. May we all come to some understanding of the messages of this season and of bowl one hundred as we begin the long trudge through the darkest days of the year, as we make our journey toward the light.
I wept as I read. Thank you for your message about duality in open arms.
Wow Joe…you express so eloquently so many emotions and ideas I share. Thank you for putting so much thought and energy into your writing and for sharing it. Connie (I sat next to you at dinner!)
oh and your bowl…..the lightning strike in it….super hero comes to mind…. which I trust you are to many!
I was touched by your honesty about feeling challenged by the responsibility of being the keeper of the Patra bowl. Sometimes it’s easier to GIVE than it is to RECIEVE. At least that is so for me. It is one of my life challenges to accept gifts. I’m always TIT FOR TAT. I have to repay every kindness. I’ve been working on this. Here are the lyrics to a song I wrote some years ago about this.
Giving & Receiving
Words and music Donna Stjerna
I once knew a girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead
When she gave she felt good, when she took she felt horrid
But giving and taking are a circle indeed,
if you give you gotta learn to receive…
open your arms like a basket, open your heart like a well.
Let the gifts come flowing in
And fill your basket to the brim
When your baskets good and full
Pour it out and you will know
That giving and taking…
Are a circle you see…
if you give you gotta learn to receive…
open your arms like a basket, open your heart like a well
Last night I had a dream, I was a sieve
And love was flowing
out of me…just like a river
like a river full of knowing…
that giving and getting are a circle indeed.
If you give you gotta learn to receive
Open your arms like a basket, open your heart like a well.
Fill your bucket from the well
Drink until you’ve had your fill
Then spill it out upon the land
And fill your bucket up again…
Cuz giving and taking are a circle indeed
If you give you gotta learn to receive
Open your arms like a basket, open your heart like a well.
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