Reflections on Sugaring and John Spong

Reflections on Sugaring and John Spong

by The Rev. Eleanor McLauglin

If one were to use maple sap, ("the fermented fruit of the vine...the boiled fruit of the Lignum Vitae?) at the Holy Myseries, should it be amber or golden? What happens with the role of Sacrifice in Christian spirituality with a shift from wine

Epiphany 6B
February 13, 2000
Christ Church, S. Barre, E. McLaughlin

In the name of God, Lover, Beloved, the Love that binds, Amen.

Betsy and I made a path last Fall off the upper northern corner of our land, across the neighbor's new leach field, into the woods to connect with an abandoned town road, which in the 19th c. headed west into the hills of Westhampton. I suppose the old road had been kept from underbrush by the farmers who tapped the many ancient maples of the sugarbush which extends up the sides of Little Mountain, on which our farmhouse stands. The 'new' town road, whose paving ends at the height of land is, after all, named, "Maple St."! As winter finally came, we have enjoyed our mile plus walk with the dogs on snow shoes, marveling after the fresh snowfalls at the number of deer prints, rabbit lippity lops and the delicate tail drag of the woodmice or shrew. Those walks, daily, are for me a lovely time of prayer, interrupted by "call-back" practice with Brendan, lured from his wild romps with his dog pack companion Ezekiel to the hot dog pieces that reward an obedient response as I call and whistle thrice, Brendan, "Come" and "Front". Even those exercises to form up an obedient dog have a spiritual core, for like God, I hold out not punishment or harshness, but only the reward of "Good Dog" and hot dog pieces...a kind of Holy Communion for the Creature who desires to be close to his pack where love and nurture are guaranteed to those who heed the final verses of the Book of the Revelation of St. John--"The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come". And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift."(Revelation 22:17) Body-warmed hot dog bits, the Gospel from a dog's perspective.

We never met anyone one on our path in all of those walks since September except once in hunting season when we skedadeled home! I was therefore quite surprised, when early last week, the dogs set up a noise that indicated people. Three men were gathered about one of those century old maples, tapping and setting up the new-fangled long lines of plastic tubing that carry that clear, barely sweet sap down to a covered holding tank on High St. I stopped to was one of those unseasonably warm mornings...easily 40 degrees and barely 9:30. Yes, sugaring weather, tho today at the noon time barely into the low 30's, I'm inclined to believe Martha Varnot when she said swiftly to my report of the beginning of Sugaring in Southampton...they're out too early! As I came back down the hill from the height of land where the snow-machine tracks intersect with my snowshoe trail, I marveled at this cris-cross of plastic tubing. I felt as if my woods had been turned into an ICU...that I was about to bring my hot-dog communion to a "patient, lying etherized upon the table" as Eliot so aptly put it. Only the patient, soaring Maple trees, stood serenely against the black underbrush and grey skies, suffering in winter-wood silence the indignity of these different colored tubes, which also forced me to bend double too many times on my path home.

Yet as is often the case in the silences, I was struck by the powerful spiritual metaphor which this modern, labor-saving, sap-collecting efficiency presented to me. As is often the case in my prayer-walks, I had been mulling over the struggles some of you are having with the ancient, translated into English language of the Nicene Creed...the ways in which the world-view of those early Church Fathers violates our scientific understandings, and even our moral convictions. What can we mean that empowers us to be the Good News for neighbor and stranger by affirming our faith in a God we call Father, when so many human fathers have unconsciously used the male imagery of God in our religious tradition to empower their claims to control the women and children in their lives as if "When God is named Father, all fathers are gods!" Or even "Almighty" can a God who is "almighty" be also Good? For if God is almighty then how does 'He' permit the terrible evils that beset our world? Or, if God cannot do anything about evil, natural and moral...then is God not "Almighty" but powerlessly looking on while Catholic and Protestants kill each other in Ireland, Muslims and Jews in Jordan, Christians and Muslim in Indonesia (all these killings incidentally in the name of G-d or gods!)? Just a sample of the problems some faithful Christian people have with the Creeds and our traditional God language.

Back to the sugar bush. When I stopped to chat with the men, setting up their pariphenalia, the "modern language" of sugaring-off, I related how, when I was a child in Washington, NH, my grandmother used to send me as a 7 or 8 year old, about a mile up the hill in back of us to the sugar-shack, to spend the day in the steam, all the better to get rid of an endless March cold. And Waldo Farnsworth, the farmer, would dribble half boiled-down syrup out of the second tank onto the granular Spring snow for eating...and there was the big jar of his pickles to make space for more sweetness. Now I was not about to tell these guys they need to sell off the pickup, buy a brace of oxen, a sledge, a shed full of buckets (no, I'm not old enough for wooden buckets) and those tin taps with the hook, and the galvanized bucketskirts that kept the rain out. We need to sugar in new ways today, different, labor-saving. Yet, when and if I ever have grandchildren, I shall take them up the hill on their new snowshoes grandma will surely send in the layette, and tell the story of how it used to be...I shall show them the sugar shacks that still boil here in the Hilltowns...they need to have their experience of Maple syrup rooted and grounded in the old, and in many ways, more beautiful, more respectful of the trees, original ways. While we also use new ways, "New occasions, teach new duties" if we would enjoy syrup on our pancakes that we can afford!

So it is with our language for God, our Songs of Faith, our Creeds, yes, even our foundational Doctrines...for they are time-bound. There is no language for God and God's ways with us that is not from the historically shaped mind and heart of the humans who wrote it down. And therefore, if what we say and believe about God with us, God in our time, in your life and mine is to "tap into" the sap of our lives, we need new language, new metaphors, new pictures. But we also need the old ones. In my minds eye, the plastic tubes will not replace the buckets and the shoulder yoke of pails, heavy with the 40 to 1 liquid, that is a sacrament of life to those of us who pray and day-dream beneath those maples today. We need both the old and the new. We need to keep on telling the old stories, for the Gospel of the Good News of Jesus Christ, that God's love for his creatures flows with the inevitablity and the profligacy of the Spring Sap rising. And we need new ways to hear that Good News...I need to be open both to your calls for something new, and your cries for the solidity of the old. God both changeless and changing. Not either or. But both and, All in All. Amen. sap? Fascinating question. Is God different, thinking of the George herbert lines, "Love in that liquour sweet and most divine,/Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine" "The Agonie". Just a further reflection on this homily.



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