A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 1:11-18, 23b-28; 2: 18-20, 26
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. Still waiting for winter to really take hold, people are hoping the forecast snows actually come later this week.

Eugene Paulson was in town, visiting his parents. These days, he lives in Mumford, Minnesota, a town a little south of Lake Wobegone, where he’s the pastor of the Lutheran church. That was not the profession anyone would have guessed Eugene would end up in back when he was growing up. He wasn’t a bad kid; not at all. In fact, I’d say he was an earnest kid. It’s just that his father was a butcher who ran his own meat market just a little off Main Street, and everyone assumed Eugene would eventually take over the business.

By the time he was five years old, Eugene was permitted to walk by himself the five or six blocks from home to the market and “work” for his father. Work at that time of his life consisted of accompanying Mr. Paulson across the street to the Chowder House. Mr. Paulson would have a cup of coffee with Winona and take down the order for the next day’s supply of hamburger, steaks, pork chops, sausage, and liver. The waitress always brought Eugene a donut and a glass of milk.

Mr. Paulson wore a white butcher’s apron, even when he went across the street to the Chowder House. Eugene wore one too. His mother made it out of flour sacks, identical to his father’s except for its size. She made him a new apron every year to match his growth. When he put on his apron in the butcher shop, he entered the adult world. And sitting on the counter stool in the Chowder House, being served alongside his father, was confirmation.

By that time he knew the story of the boy Samuel who had been “lent to the Lord” by his parents to live and work in the temple at Shiloh with Eli the priest. Samuel’s parents, Elkanah and Hannah, visited him at Shiloh every year. His mother made him a priest’s robe to wear, an ephod, as he assisted Eli. Every year as he added inches to his height, she would make him a new robe to fit his newly acquired stature. Eugene knew exactly what that robe, that ephod, looked like – didn’t he wear it every time he worked with his father? Didn’t he get a new one every time he had grown another inch or two? Eugene might have been the only person in Mount William who knew what an ephod actually looked like.

Shiloh couldn’t have been that much different from the Paulson meat market. The three-year-old bull that was slaughtered at Samuel’s dedication at Shiloh would become the hamburgers and sirloin steaks at the Paulson store and provided continuity between the shrine and the meat market.

I think it was then that Eugene started identifying himself as a priest.

As years went on, he graduated from the “work” of putting away the donut and milk that accompanied a business transaction to the beginner’s work of grinding hamburger and slicing liver. One of Mr. Paulson’s meatcutters would pick Eugene up and stand him on an upended orange crate before the big, red Hobart meat grinder, and Eugene in his linen ephod would push chunks of beef into its maw. The day he was trusted with a knife and taught to respect it and keep it sharp, he knew adulthood was just around the corner. He was started out on liver (it’s hard to mess up when slicing liver), but in a few years he was participating in the entire range of meat-cutting operations.

“That knife has a will of its own,” old Eddie Nordcrist, one of the meatcutters, used to tell him. “Get to know your knife.” If Eugene cut himself, Eddie would blame Eugene not for carelessness but for ignorance – Eugene didn’t “know” his knife.

Not so much by words as by example, Eugene internalized a respect for the material at hand. The material could be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, or a soul, but when the work is done well, there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of what he would later learn to call humility. It is a noticeable feature in all skilled workers – woodworkers, potters, poets, pray-ers, and pastors. He learned it in the butcher shop.

That butcher shop was Eugene’s introduction to the world of the congregation, which in a few years would be his workplace as a pastor. The people who came into the market were not just customers. Something else defined them. It always seemed more like a congregation than a store. Mr. Paulson in his priestly robe greeted each person by name and knew many of their stories. And many of them knew Eugene, in his priest’s robe, by name. Eugene always knew there was more going on than a commercial transaction. His father had an easy smile and was always gracious, especially with the occasional disagreeable ones: Alicia Conrad, who was always fussy about the leanness of the bacon; Gus Anderson, who made Mr. Paulson trim off any excess fat from a steak before weighing it. Everyone felt welcome. Mr. Paulson gave people dignity by the tone and manner of his greetings.

As I said, the way Eugene came to understand congregational life had its beginnings in the “congregational” atmosphere of the butcher shop. A congregation is composed of people who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged. It must never be a place where a person is labeled. Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus’ name. It is a place where dignity is conferred.

Eugene first learned that under his father priesthood in the butcher shop. He also learned something about work – something that could have destroyed him, something that he had to unlearn, with considerable difficulty as it turned out. It had to do with work, out-of-control work, work as a kind of painkiller.

The focal point of the unlearning was Saturday, the climax of their workweek. And no Saturday was busier than the day before Easter, Holy Saturday.

Large hickory-smoked hams held center position in the displays in Paulson butcher shop. Colorful cardboard cutouts provided by salesmen from the meat-packing companies of Armour and Hormel all showed variations on a theme: a father at an Easter Sunday dinner table carving a ham, surrounded by an approving wife and expectant children. Personally, I preferred steak to ham, but most of the beef was local and there was no company to create colorful advertisements, so the hickory-smoked hams held the focus.

Off to the side of these displays were stacks of the smaller and cheaper “picnic” hams (a picnic ham is not, properly speaking, a ham at all, but the shoulder of the pig). None of the packing companies bothered supplying pictures of picnic hams. They usually didn’t even put their brand names on them.

For the Paulsons, every Saturday was busy, and rather than calling the day before Easter “Holy Saturday,” they might have called it “Busiest Saturday.” It began early in the morning with arranging the great, fragrant hams from Armour and Hormel symmetrically in pyramids. Things only got more hectic from there.

On Holy Saturday customers crowded into the store, responding to the sale signs painted on the plate-glass windows fronting the street. Their purchasing patterns sorted them into upper and lower socioeconomic strata: the affluent bought honey-cured, hickory­smoked hams; the less-than-affluent bought unadjectived “picnics;” the truly poor bought ham hocks.

Penny Doyle is the only person Eugene remembers by name who bought ham hocks – gristly on the inside and leathery on the outside, but smoked and therefore emanating the aroma of a feast. Perhaps Penny thought the aroma necessary for Easter. Every Saturday she came into the store to make a small purchase: pickled pig’s feet, chitlins, blood sausage, headcheese, pork liver. On Holy Saturday, it was ham hocks.

The Paulsons were devout Christian that believed in the saving work of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But between these two polar events of the faith – Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection – they worked a long and lucrative day. Holiness was put on hold until Sunday. Saturday was for working hard and making money. It was a day when the evidence of hard work and its consequence – money – became publicly apparent. The evidence was especially clear on that particular Saturday, when they sold hundreds of hams to deserving Christians – and four ham hocks to Penny Doyle.

While Penny was making her purchases from the Paulsons and did whatever other shopping she did on that Holy Saturdays while she was in town, her husband and two of his brothers – who all lived out in the woods in some sort of communal encampment off of a dirt road off of a dirt road – sat on apple boxes in the alley behind the Pastime Bar and passed around a jug of Thunderbird wine. Several jugs, actually. As Eugene made his backdoor deliveries of steaks and hamburger to the Chowder House, he passed by these men who were almost passed out themselves. Late in the evening, Bennie Wells, son of the bar owner and not much older than Eugene himself, pulled these men into his dad’s pickup truck and drove them back to their encampment and dumped them out.

Years later, Eugene wondered how Penny got back home. Walked, probably. Carrying her small purchases, including four ham hocks. Back then, he would have been very surprised, and somewhat unbelieving, to have known that in the very town in which he worked furiously all those unholy Saturdays, there were people who were not working at all, not spending money, but remembering the despair of a world disappointed in its grandest hopes, entering into the emptiness of death by deliberately emptying the self of illusion and indulgence and self-importance. Keeping vigil for Easter. Waiting for the dawn.

You see, Eugene interpreted the meaning of the world and the people around him far more in terms of the hard working on Saturday than anything said or sung on Friday and Sunday. Saturday was the day for hard work, or for displaying its results – namely, money. If someone appeared neither working nor spending on Saturday, there was something wrong, catastrophically wrong. The Doyles attempting a hungover Easter feast on ham hocks were the most prominent example of something wrong.

It was a view of life shaped by “the Gospel according to America.” The rewards were obvious, and he enjoyed them. Hard work pays off. He learned much in those years in his father’s butcher shop, yet there was one large omission that set all other truth dangerously at risk: the omission of holy rest. The refusal to be silent. The obsessive avoidance of emptiness.

It was far more than ignorance on Holy Saturday; it was weekly arrogance. God was background to their business. Every gospel truth was maintained intact and all the human energy was wholly admirable, but the rhythms were off. Desolation – and with it companionship with the desolate, ranging from first-century Semites to 20th-century Doyles – was all but wiped from consciousness.

It took years for the memory of Penny Doyle and her ham hocks to do its work on Eugene. Eventually he saw in his memories not just the drunkenness and poverty. Eventually he saw in his memories their despair. The Doyles, godforsaken they supposed, drugged their despair with Thunderbird and buried their dead visions and dreams in the alley behind the Pastime Bar, ignorant of the God at work beneath their emptiness, an emptiness Eugene, too, felt but covered up with work. And when he saw this, Eugene was able to see God at work beneath his own emptiness. This is how he was able to clear the ground for God to work – not he. This is how he was able to allow God to be the center of his life. Inappropriate, anxiety-driven, fear-driven work would only interfere with and distract from what God was already doing. Eugene’s “work” assignment was to pay more attention to what God does than what he does. Eugene’s “work” assignment was to spend more time sitting at the counter being real with real people, eating a donut and drinking a glass of milk.

That’s the news from Mount William, were all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] Most of this sermon is quoted directly or modified from “My father’s butcher shop,” by Eugene H. Peterson, publish in the 22 February 2011 edition of Christian Century, pages 28-33. The article itself is excerpted from the book The Pastor: A Memoir, reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. © Eugene H. Peterson.