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Sunday, September 19, 2021

One small wish

A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE

and simultaneously broadcast live on FaceBook Sirach 26:10

Pentecost XVII - Proper 20B - September 19, 2021

 

When I lived in Maine, my family was very involved in foster care. We took in foster care children, mostly on a short term, emergency basis. That might mean a weekend or a few weeks and, depending on placement opportunities, those few weeks might suddenly become a few months.

 

I’m not going to try to romanticize it: Foster care was hard work. It was a work of the heart and mind, soul and body. It was impossible, at times – especially around the holidays. But mostly, it was humbling. Over time, we learned that what foster kids want is not what we think they want. What many of us think they want are X-boxes or smart phones, expensive sneakers, sports bikes or dolls.

 

Those things are relatively easy to attain but it’s not the thing they want – they want what the thing represents: That they are special enough, loved enough – in fact, enough – that someone will give them the “things” that represent that love, that special status.

 

Some of those kids in foster care wanted us to think they want those things because it is embarrassing to admit the truth of what they really want. It’s humbling to think they might not ever be deserving what they really want: a home, a family, love. So, they don’t – well, rarely – ask for that.

 

I remember one teenaged kid – I’ll call him “Ronnie” – we had for a weekend because there had been some crisis in the group home with the foster parent and all the kids had to be placed in other homes. In the midst of this turmoil, the news came that one of his favorite uncles had died in a car accident. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ronnie felt he couldn’t attend because he didn’t have proper clothing.

 

Ronnie had been in and out of foster care for much of his childhood. He had moved around a great deal, and didn’t even have a suitcase. Instead, every time he moved, all of his possessions were dumped into two large, black garbage bags. Imagine the message that gave about your worth.

 

"I don't really own even a shirt and tie or dress shoes," he said. "I was going to be seeing some of my old family members, and it was kind of embarrassing to not have a suit when everyone else would have one. If I could make one small wish, it would be that I would have something to wear so I wouldn’t embarrass myself or my family at my uncle’s funeral."

 

His caseworker said that she was unable to justify buying him a suit because it was considered a “nonessential expense”. Nonessential. I’m sure in the Land of Bureaucrats and Red Policy Tape, and forms that need to be filled out in triplicate and certified and stamped by a Notary Public, anything that might help the still-forming self-image of a young teenage boy would be considered pretty “nonessential”.

 

But, that ‘nonessential expense’ was the one small wish of this young teen: He did not want to be an embarrassment. It took a lot of humility – indeed, maturity – for him to admit that. As I think about it, aren’t some of our most important small wishes that which seems “nonessential” to others? And, doesn’t that take a lot of humility to admit, especially as grown ups?

 

I remember talking with one of the nuns who taught at the Catholic school where we sent all our kids – the public school system was so bad it was out of the question to send the kids – so we paid the tuition our of our subsidy. Sister knew what we were doing and gave us a bit of a ‘discount’. She listened very carefully and asked me about how much I thought a suit might cost. I did some quick math in my head and told her the number, to which she nodded and then crossed her fingers as her eyes sparkled with hope.

 

Later that morning, Sister called me to say she had received a gift from an anonymous donor and if I would please come by the office and pick up the money she was certain I could find a new suit, shirt, tie, socks and shoes for young Ronnie and still have him back at the convent before the end of the day so another Sister would tailor it for him so he’d look especially sharp for his uncle’s wake and funeral.

 

Ronnie was with us for just a week, but that week changed his life and ours. Indeed, when he left us, he was getting ready to move in temporarily with the widow of his uncle who died. She and he had had some wonderful conversations about the man they both loved and admired, at the end of which, she said she knew exactly what she was to do – something her husband had said was his “one small wish” – to take Ronnie in and give him a home.

 

“I was always resistant to that idea,” she said. “I don’t know why. I really don’t. I guess I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle you. You always looked so . . . lost . . . so . . . scared and sad. But now, you look like a young man who knows he’s going somewhere. And, I want to be part of that journey.”

 

I thought about Ronnie as I considered the lessons for today. The lesson from Proverbs is a recitation of the teachings of the mother of King Lemuel – thought to be King Solomon whose mother would have been Bathsheba. Which sorta makes me giggle. If you listen carefully you’ll be able to hear the ancient wisdom of something that became a hit song in the 60s, by the Fabulous Miracles: “(My Momma Told Me), You bettershop around.)”

 

“A capable or noble woman,” taught Bathsheba, “. . . . opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.”

 

I think there are two or three women in this story of Ronnie who fit that description. Bathsheba adds, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

 

Somebody give Bathsheba an “Amen.”

 

As for the Foster Care Case worker, it still makes me wince as I remember her saying – with a straight face – that she could not justify the cost of getting a suit for Ronnie because it was deemed “an unnecessary expense.” St. James writes, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

 

I suspect what St. James, the brother of Jesus, knew was that to “ask wrongly” is to not ask out of a sense of humility, a place of truth, a knowledge of our own poverty, that “one small wish”. Ronnie knew how to do that. So did his uncle. And, eventually, his aunt.

 

Somebody give James an “Amen.”

 

As Jesus was passing through Galilee, he heard his disciples arguing among themselves about who was the greatest among them. Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

 

As I think about Ronnie, I find myself wondering what ever happened to him. One of the really hard parts of foster care is that you often lose touch with them as they move through ‘the system’. He only spent one week of his life with us and yet so much happened to change his life and ours. I have prayed that his life with this aunt worked out for both of them.

 

I suspect it did as both of them were answering the “one small wish” of someone else. I have come to know that those “one small wishes” are the prayers that reach closest to the heart of God.

 

I have come to hear the words of Jesus we heard this morning as the “one small wish” from the heart of Jesus deep into to our hearts. If we worked to give Jesus his wish, just think of how different the world would be. If we were as generous as we know how to be and spend lavishly on what others might consider an “unnecessary expense” to build up the self esteem and self confidence of a child, how different might his – and our – future be?

 

The one small wish from the heart of Jesus is this, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

 

Might we be able to do that? Might we consider being servant first and put our own needs after someone else’s? Might we listen for the “one small wish” that’s in our own hearts and be humble enough to ask for that?

 

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

 

Somebody give Jesus an “Amen.”

 

Amen.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Savory, Sweet Crab Cheesecake

 

Savory, Sweet Crab Cheesecake

 

The first time I had crab cheesecake was at GaidosRestaurant in Galveston, TX, which has a beautiful view of the Gulf Coast. It was amazing – the view and the meal.

This is not that recipe.

It is one I cobbled together from several recipes and it is as close to that amazing crab cheesecake as I can make it without the actual Gaidos recipe in front of me. It’s an experiment and, based on the feedback I’ve gotten, it’s pretty darn good.

 

I will say this at the beginning and I’ll repeat it several times: It’s really, really important to make this crab cheesecake the day before you need it because it needs to stay in the refrigerator for 24 hours before it is served. The taste will be fine. If you don’t refrigerate it well, the consistency will be like a quiche. You want the consistency to be like cheesecake. Refrigerating it for 24 hours (or, at the very least, 4) will guarantee that.

 

This can be used as an appetizer, or part of a cheese platter, or as the main course with a side salad, with or without tomatoes, with a light dressing.

 

Prep: 20 – 30 minutes for prep

Oven temp: 325 F.

Cook time: 1 hour and 10 minutes to cook.

Equipment: One small and one large bowl, a 9-inch spring form pan, large whisk, a few spatulas, and a large sheet pan.

 

Ingredients:

 

For the filling

3 T EVOO (Extra virgin olive oil)

1 ½ cups finely diced sweet* peppers of various colors

½ cup finely diced sweet Vidalia onion

1 pinch salt

Garlic (I used a whole entire bulb), crushed or diced

4 large eggs

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 ½ tsp. kosher salt, or to taste

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1 pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste

(I also added 2 T Old Bay Seasoning)

1 T white sugar

1 cup crème fraiche (or sour cream), but crème fraiche adds a lovely nutty taste)

3 (8-oz) packages cream cheese, at room temp. (Note: temp is very important)

½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

3 T chopped parsley

1 pound lump crabmeat.

 

For the Herb Cracker Crust

4 ¼ ounces plain crackers, finely crushed by hand

¼ tsp. Italian seasoning

4 T (half a stick) melted butter

 

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 F (165 Celsius).

Generously butter a 9-inch spring form pan

 

Start the filling: Heat olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Sauté peppers and onions with a large pinch of salt until onions just start to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for 2 more minutes. Turn off heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

 

While the pepper mixture is cooling, prepare the crust: In a small bowl, combine crushed cracker crumbs, dried Italian herbs, and melted butter in a mixing bowl. Stir until the crumbs are coated.

Note: I crushed the crackers with my hands; not to worry if they don’t look like breadcrumbs or finely crushed graham cracker crumbs for a regular cheesecake. However, you may use Italian seasoned breadcrumbs in place of the crackers.

 

Transfer the buttered crumbs into the prepared (heavily buttered) spring form pan and press down into an even layer. Set aside until needed.

 

Continue the filling: Combine eggs, flour, kosher, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, Old Bay seasoning, and sugar in a large mixing bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the crème fraiche (or sour cream), cream cheese, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and mix until smooth. Stir in the parsley and cooled pepper mixture until evenly combined. Gently fold in the crab meat until well dispersed.

Note: Please make sure the cream cheese is at room temperature. If not, be prepared to be stirring this sucker for the next hour. No joke.

 

Transfer cheese mixture into the prepared spring form pan. Tap the pan gently to settle the contents and place on a baking sheet. The pan will be quite full.

 

Bake 60-75 minutes in the lower center of the preheated oven until the top is golden brown, the center seems loose, but a skewer poked into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edges and carefully remove the ring.

 

Cheesecake should be thoroughly chilled in the refrigerator before serving, at least 4 hours but best if 24 hours. This cheesecake can be served at room temperature but it will not have the classic smooth, firm cheesecake texture, and will be more like a very light cheese quiche – which is fine, I suppose, but it's a completely different meal.

 

Note: You can use hot peppers instead of sweet or a combination of both. I used water crackers for this but any cracker but a sweet cracker will do. Or, you may use Italian seasoned breadcrumbs.

 

I much prefer crème fraiche for its nutty flavor but sour crème works just as well.

 

It’s really important to finely dice the peppers, onion and garlic. You want the peppers tiny and colorful.

 

So, I’m told that this can be made without crab but used with crumbled cooked pork and/or bacon and eliminating the Old Bay seasoning and substituting, instead, sherry, but I can’t attest to it.

 

I’m also told this is delicious with chopped shrimp in place of the crab, with either Old Bay or sherry, but I can’t attest to it.  

 

Some recipes I saw recommended serving this with cocktail sauce. I think it’s totally unnecessary.

 

You can also make this vegetarian, using just vegetables and eliminating any shellfish or meat.

 

Enjoy!

Sunday, August 29, 2021

What comes out of the body

A Sermon preached at St. Paul's, Episcopal Church
Georgetown, DE
Broadcast live on Facebook, Sirach 26:10
Pentecost XIV - Proper 17 B
August 29, 2021

I have always been fascinated by this discourse of Jesus with his disciples about what is defiled and what is holy. It comes, of course, after the feeding of the five thousand and five weeks of the various ways that Jesus describes himself as The Bread of Life – that which goes into the body.

The question I hear Jesus asking, the question under the question about rituals and traditions, is one about faith and behavior. I hear Jesus asking: How does what we say we believe inform and shape the way we live? Jesus pushes us to live authentically, with integrity, even if that challenges traditional beliefs and ancient rituals.

I want to share with you a story I recently heard which I think illustrates the point Jesus is making here. It’s the story of a woman in Israel whose name is Idit Harel Segal. She is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, who told her to live meaningfully and by Jewish tradition, which holds that there is no higher duty than saving a life.

Now, you’d have to have been living in a cave all your life not to know that Israel is a land of perpetual conflict. After centuries of harsh battle and cruel wars, the blood of Israel and Palestinian people have soaked the land to the extent that many now doubt whether anything could grow after being planted there.

A kindergarten teacher from Eshhar in northern Israel, and a proud Israeli, Ms. Segal was about to turn 50 and she had chosen what she felt was a gift for herself: She was going to give one of her kidneys to a stranger. Inspired by the teachings of her grandfather, she hoped that her choice would set an example of generosity and live out a central tenant of her Jewish belief by sacrificing a part of herself and saving a life.

Christians will recognize this as a central teaching of Jesus, the Rabbi we follow, who said, “There is no greater love than this, that a person lay down their life for his friends.” Ms. Segal, however, was doing one better: she was laying down her life for a total stranger. She contacted a group that links organ donors and recipients, launching a nine-month process to transfer her kidney to someone who needed one.

Well . . . the old saying in many churches is to be very careful what you pray for. Turns out, that someone was a three-year old Palestinian boy from the Gaza Strip.

Let that sink in: A 50-year old Israeli woman donating a kidney to a three-year old Palestinian boy.

Ms. Segal wrote a letter in Hebrew to the boy: “You don’t know me, but soon we’ll be very close because my kidney will be in your body,” (The news article I read stated that the family asked not to be named due to sensitivities in the Palestinian community over cooperating in any way with the Israelites.).

A friend translated the letter into Arabic so the family might understand, but I think the love in Ms. Segal’s heart is easily understood in any language, “I hope with all my heart,” she wrote, “that this surgery will succeed and you will live a long and healthy and meaningful life.”

What unfolded over the months between Ms. Segal’s decision and the June 16th transplant caused deep rifts in her family. Her husband and the oldest of her three children, a son in his early 20s, opposed her plan of undergoing a major surgery that was not medically necessary.

Her father stopped talking to her. 

To them, Ms. Segal recalled, she was unnecessarily risking her life. “My family was really against it. Everyone was against it. My husband, my sister, her husband. And the one who supported me the least was my father,” Ms. Segal said, “They were afraid.”

When she learned the boy’s identity, she kept the details to herself for months. “I told no one,” Ms. Segal recalled. “I told myself if the reaction to the kidney donation is so harsh, so obviously the fact that a Palestinian boy is getting it will make it even harsher.”

You may know that Israel has maintained a tight blockade over Gaza since Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes Israel’s existence, seized control of the area in 2007. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since then and few Gazans are allowed to even enter Israel.

For Ms. Segal, that gift that had sparked such conflict in her family accomplished more than she could have hoped for or imagined. Her kidney helped safe the boy’s life and generated a second donation. On the same day his son received a new kidney, the boy’s father donated one of his on – to a 25 year-old Israeli mother of two.

Ms. Segal said she honored her grandfather in a way that helps her cope with the grief of his death five years ago. The donation was an act of autonomy, she said, and she never waivered. And eventually, her family came around – another gift, perhaps, in itself.

She said her husband understands better now, as do her children. And on the eve of Ms. Segal’s surgery, her father called. “I don’t remember what he said because he was crying,” Ms. Segal said. It was at that time she told him that her kidney was going to a Palestinian boy.

For a moment, there was silence. And then, her father spoke, “Well,” he said, “he needs a life, too.”

Wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles!

Sometimes, that’s exactly how miracles happen – by following one’s faith even if it leads to breaking through barriers of tradition and moving past expectations of behavior.

Now, a very narrow reading of this passage by modern, nit-picking Pharisees might say, “Well, a kidney came out of a body and Jesus said it’s only things that come out of a body are what can defile.” Yes, evil can come from the human heart; it’s important to remember that so does love.

Jesus knows our capabilities and potentials for good and for ill. Jesus is asking us to choose love. He is asking us to always make choices for the good and not out of habit or impulse or being a prisoner of tradition. He is telling us that the value of our old traditions is not worth as much as the good we can do by breaking them in service of others.

Those are dangerous words, conveying dangerous thoughts and, in the institutional church as well as all the other institutions in life, change feels like the greatest danger. I’m remembering the seven last words of a dying church, “We have always done it that way.”

I’m also reminded of something Bishop Jack Spong used to say often, “The church will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy.”

Jesus is asking us to consider what traditions we have that are no longer serving the good. What human tradition do we need to abandon in order to hold onto the commandments of God? How can we live our lives of faith with greater authenticity and truth? What illusions of safety must we sacrifice in order to find new life? New vitality?

In seeking the answers to these questions, we may upset the carefully balanced apple carts of our religious faith. People may feel anxious and afraid and their impulses will be ones of protection and preservation. Some may stop talking to us.

I only know this much to be true: Miracles can and do happen when let go of human tradition and hold true to our faith. And those miracles will inspire other miracles.

As we’ve learned over the past 5 weeks, Jesus is the Bread of Life. When we abide in him, He abides in us. When we live our faith – when we are doers and not just hearers of the word – what comes out of the body is love and truth and authenticity.

And that, my friends – love and truth and authenticity – is part of the miraculous stuff – no matter the particularities of faith – that allows strangers to give of themselves to save the lives of others, even across differences of belief and boundaries of faith. 

As one of my favorite theologians once wrote: "But the gospel doesn't need a coalition devoted to keeping people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors and shouting, "Welcome! There's bread and wine! Come eat with us and talk! This isn't a kingdom for the worthy; it's a kingdom for the hungry."

Or, as St. Paul's website says, "Everyone welcome. No exceptions."

Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Where else would we go?

 

 

“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously live broadcast via Facebook Live
Sirach 26:10

 

His name was John. He was a doctoral student in one of the first classes at University of Lowell to train and credential the fairly new and rapidly growing paramedical profession known as physiotherapy.

 

A scientist at heart, John had a lot of questions. Lots and lots of questions, as I recall. As a new graduate, newly ordained priest and new university chaplain, my seminary days could still be seen clearly in the rear view mirror. Even so, his questions challenged me, probably more than they would challenge me today.

 

It took me a while to lower my natural defenses and realize that he was not picking on me, to see if, as a woman, my IQ and credentials passed muster. He was just curious, is all. Seriously curious. Dead-seriously curious. I confess that, sometimes – not often but sometimes – I cringed when I heard him knock at the door of my office. There were days when I welcomed his questions and other days when … well … I didn’t.

 

I remember clearly the Sunday afternoon we had a conversation about this very gospel reading. “Are we supposed to understand this literally or metaphorically?” he asked, demonstrating that he had, in fact, heard me that time when I had made this distinction in reading some of the sayings and teachings of Jesus.

 

“Oh, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Jesus was speaking metaphorically here,” I responded, “but then again, I’m an Episcopalian. We've never met a metaphor or paradox we didn’t like.”  John was quiet and thoughtful. “Yeah, I don’t think so, chaplain,” he said. “I think he was being quite literal. Besides which,” he added, “Jesus is just about The Worst salesman – evangelist, I think is the term you use – I’ve ever seen.”

 

“How so,” I asked, happy for the opportunity to stall off the inevitable difficulty. If I had learned nothing else in seminary, I learned that there are just some questions that are unanswerable. I would love to be able to say, “Right! Here’s the answer for you,” instead of “Well, in this passage, Jesus has just handed us a paradox wrapped in an unsolvable conundrum placed in the middle of a Rubric’s Cube that you will wrestle with for the rest of your life.”

 

“Look,” he said, “At the beginning of this sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has fed 5,000 people. That’s amazing. He literally had the people eating right out of the palm of his hand. He could have had 5,000 newly baptized, newly commissioned Christians right then and there.”

 

“He could have told a few more engaging stories or dropped some pearls of wisdom,” he continued, “but, no! Instead, Jesus launches into this long, convoluted whatever-the-heck this is about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Which – are you kidding me? – is just flat-out creepy!”

“No wonder his followers started grumbling: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”,” he said. Many turned away and went home, never to be seen again. And, Jesus just let them go! He didn’t try to explain it or break it down for people.”

 

 “I understand why even some of his disciples ‘turned back and no longer went about with him,’” he said, “Jesus even asked his 12 disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?”

 

John shifted in his seat, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well, I’m not Peter. I mean, I want to know more about Jesus and I think a lot of his teaching is really good and important and can make me a better person, but, you know, I can and will go other places. I’m not that kind of Christian, much less an Episcopalian. I’m not locked into this Jesus-guy the way you are, but I admire your faith. So, what’s the deal here? How am I supposed to understand this?”

 

I started by explaining to him that I had always heard Peter’s response differently than I had understood it to have been traditionally explained, which is Peter’s loyal, unwavering declaration of Capitol F.A.I.T.H.

 

Instead, in my religious imagination, I saw a man every bit as exasperated as John was, standing right before me, saying with great exasperation, “Look, Jesus, I don’t understand you any better than these people who are leaving you in droves. There are lots of other guys in Palestine, claiming to be The Messiah who knows The Truth. But, honestly? You’re the best game in town. I’ve come to believe that you are the Real Deal. So, what other choice do we have?”

 

I think what is taught by some scholars as “Peter’s Confession of Faith” has deep resonance for people in our time and culture who don’t understand everything Jesus is saying and have more unanswered questions than answers. We also have lots more choices for spiritual enlightenment as well as opportunities to learn ethical behavior.

 

Even my little backwater town of Long Neck has Transcendental Meditation groups, a Yoga Spirituality Center and a group of Christians and Jews who study the Kabbalah together. There’s even a local someone on Facebook who sits zazen and just chants and moans for 15 minutes. That doesn’t float my particular boat but I understand she does have a bit of a local following.

 

We have all these choices and yet we keep coming back to Jesus. Maybe that’s because, even though his words are sometimes confusing and perplexing, we’ve heard something – one thing – that rings true. Maybe because, when we make our way to receive communion, even though we’re not at all sure what EXACTLY is happening, we feel his presence – however inexplicable – and we feel more at peace, more aware, more connected, more alive than we do anywhere else.

 

Something about Jesus, something about his teaching, something about the mystery of the Incarnation, keeps bringing us back, even if we don’t always understand exactly what that is.

 

I explained all of this to John and he listened carefully and respectfully before he answered, “Well, you know, I think this reading just crossed a line for me. I’m giving it my best shot but, you know, I’m beginning to think this is just not for me. I don’t know if it’s Christianity in general or being Episcopalian in particular, but, well, thanks for your time, and I wish you all the best.”

 

I didn’t see John for more than two months after that. I admit that, even though I knew it wasn’t me, I felt a complete and utter failure. I did take heart when I began to hear from a few of my brother clergy in town. John had been spotted visiting the Methodists and the Lutherans, and had even stopped in at both the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church in town.

 

Maybe, just maybe, all was not lost.

 

And then, early one Sunday evening when I held the service of Holy Eucharist at the University of Lowell, I saw John walk in. He took his usual place – fifth row back, on the right – said all the prayers, sang all of the hymns and listened intently to the lessons and my sermon.  I sought out his face in the congregation to see if he was saying the words of the Nicene Creed. He wasn’t. For some reason still mysterious to me, it made me smile. Still does. I guess seeing integrity lived out like that will always warm my heart.

 

But, when it was time for Eucharist, much to my surprise, John came forward. I was dying to know what had changed for him since our talk. What had he learned from the Methodists and the Lutherans and our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox churches?

 

I had six-dozen questions floating around in my head when he appeared before me in the communion line but I didn’t ask one. Instead, I just looked him square in the eye, reached down to a place of deep truth in my soul, opened my mouth and said the truest words I know, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” and placed a broken piece of pita bread in his hand.

 

At the end of the service, I greeted John at the door. “Good to see you again, sir,” I said. “Good to see you, too,” he said a little sheepishly. I took a deep breath and even though I told myself I shouldn’t say anything more, I heard myself say, “I was afraid I’d never see you again.”

 

At which point, John just shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands by his side and just smiled a quiet smile. That’s exactly the posture I imagine Peter had when he said to Jesus, “Well, Lord, to whom can we go? There are lots of other guys in Palestine, claiming to be The Messiah who knows The Truth. But, honestly? You’re the best game in town. I’ve come to believe that you are the Real Deal. So, what other choice do we have?”

 

Well, that’s not exactly what Peter said, of course, but it’s close enough to the truth to be good enough for me. And, in the end, being close enough to the truth is probably as good as it gets in this life before we move onto life eternal where we will stand face to face with The Truth – and know.

 

And then, all the unanswered questions with which we have been struggling all our earthly lives – all the conundrums and paradox and mysteries – will finally have answers and there will be a loud CLICK and all the colors on the Rubric’s Cube will all line up properly. Until then, we’ll just partake of the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven, and struggle along. Together.

 

Because, honestly, when you think about it, this really is the Best Real Deal in Town.

 

Amen.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Bread of Heaven: To Infinity and Beyond

A Sermon preached at. St. Paul's, Episcopal Church
Georgetown, DE and simultaneously at
Sirach 26:10 Facebook Page
Pentecost XII - Proper 14 B
August 14, 2021

 

So, the thing of it is that we are in the third week of five Sundays in a row and the lectionary is stuck in second gear on the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel. And, one more time, we hear about Bread. I have to scratch my head and ask what were the lectionary authors thinking?

 

I confess that it was out of a mixture of boredom and curiosity that I looked up the word “Bread” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Turns out, the word we’ve been using all this time for bread is not the ‘original’ word for ‘bread’. That word was, from the Teutonic, ‘hlaf’ or loaf. 

 

The word ‘bread’ actually comes from the word ‘brod’ meaning ‘piece’, ‘bit’, or ‘fragment’. In fact, the word we use for ‘bread’ to mean a loaf of bread didn’t come into full use until around 1200.

 

So, hold that thought for just a minute and listen again to Jesus say, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world.”

 

Makes you sort of wonder what he really meant and what got lost in the translation, right? I know I heard “I am the bread come down from heaven” a little differently after I learned of the origins of the word ‘bread’.

 

So do you suppose Jesus is saying that he’s a ‘piece’ of God? A ‘bit’ or a ‘fragment’ of God come down from heaven? So that one might partake of that morsel from heaven and not die?

Is Jesus using this metaphor of ‘a bit of the loaf’ to explain his identity to the people? I’m not a Greek or Latin or Hebrew scholar, much less fluent in Aramaic, but that’s how I’m hearing it. Jesus is a ‘a bit of God come down from heaven’ – which gives me a new perspective on this passage.

 

Is it any wonder then, that Jesus tells us that when we eat of this bread, it’s not so much that the bread is changed; it is that WE are changed. Something in us is bound to be changed and transformed when we are fed, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”

 

That transformation sometimes happens at once. Other times, it happens over several years. I can tell you from personal experience – my own and those whose stories I’ve been privileged to hear – that Jesus changes lives. That’s because that little bit of the bread of heaven is love incarnate. And, love in any form changes everything.

 

I believe that with my whole heart and my whole soul. I believe that what we believe informs what we do and who we are and how we see the world as well as how we see ourselves and others.

 

I want to begin to do that by telling you a story of a Hospice patient I cared for long, long ago in another galaxy far, far away. I'll call her "Martha," a 71-year old woman with End Stage COPD. Her husband - I'll call him "Joe" - was, at the time, 81 years old.

When I heard that “Martha” and “Joe” had just celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary, I congratulated them and then asked, “Tell me a love story. Tell me how you met.”

A lovely man with a wonderful sparkle in his eyes, “Joe” looked at his wife and they exchanged a lovely, knowing smile. Suddenly, they were both teenagers.

She looked down at her lap, shyly and he giggled a bit before he said, “You know that cartoon character? What's his name? The guy in the space suit? Oh, yeah, Buzz Lightyear. Remember him? Remember how he always says, 'To infinity and beyond'? Well, he got that from us!”

He laughed and slapped his knee and said, “That's what we said to each other after I asked her to marry me and she said yes."

"'I love you to the moon and back. To infinity and beyond!'”


And then, he looked at his wife, and she looked at him, and for a moment, they had a lovely moment. There was electricity in the air. I heard it softly crackle. So did their two daughters who were sitting by me.

They both smiled broadly as one leaned into me and said, softly, “Aren't they somethin'?”

We had a wonderful visit and, after I said a prayer, “Joe” said he would walk me to the door. It was all of ten feet from the bed but I've learned that there's nothing to be done with a man of that generation than to let him be the gentleman he was brought up to be.

We got out on the porch and “Joe” took hold of my elbow and said, “So, do you believe in 'infinity and beyond'?”

I'm a good Hospice Chaplain. I know Medicare regulations state that I am not to 'proselytize'. Unless pressed, I'm not to state what I believe. Rather, I am to support the patient and family's belief system.

So, I smiled gently and said, “I think 'infinity and beyond' is a wonderful concept that must bring you great comfort and hope.”

I was just mentally patting myself on the back for such a good, innocuous response when he pressed again on my elbow, looked me square in the eye and said, “No, I asked you if YOU believe in 'infinity and beyond.”

I considered myself pressed into an answer.

“If you are asking if I believe in eternal life, my answer would be 'yes'. I do. And, personally, if I didn't, I don't think I could do this work.”


“Joe” sighed deeply and you could see the weight drop from his shoulders. “You know, I've always said I believed that. For 51 years, I've said I believe that. Because I’m a Christian and I believe that Jesus is the Bread come down from heaven. But now . . . you know . . . now that the end (cough). . . now that . ..  the end . . . is near . . . . "

He cleared his throat and wiped the tears from his eyes. "Now . . . I'm not sure. I mean, I need to believe that . . . she needs to believe that . . .  WE need to believe that, if we're going to get through the next few days and weeks, and . . . Oh, God, might it be possible? . . . the next few months."

I held his hands in my hand, looked him square in the eye and said, "I believe anything is possible. And, everything is possible. Things I couldn't even ask for or imagine. My faith teaches me that 'life is changed, not ended'. Science teaches that, too. 'Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.' I learned that in the 6th grade, I think."

 

Joe looked up at me, his eyes brightened and he said, excitement in his voice, "That's the first law of Thermodynamics! Huh!" he said as he looked away and then looked back at me, his face beaming broadly, "I just never heard it connected to faith."

He giggled a bit and said, "That's quite a sucker punch to atheists."

"Well," I smiled at him, "I can't prove anything, you know? I mean, if I were to make this argument in a court of law, I'd probably lose. Badly. Perry Mason would be shaking his head in dismay."

"But, that's not faith!" Joe said. "Faith is not just based on facts. It's what you choose to believe!"

"Yes, of course," I said. "And, I hope you continue to chose to believe in 'infinity and beyond'. Because you're right. As Christians, we choose to believe what Jesus tells us: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

 

Choosing to believe that will help you get through this last part of your earthly journey together. Before one of you goes on ahead. Until you meet again."

"Beyond infinity," he said.

"Where love lives," I said.

"To the moon and back," he said.

"Right, because life is changed, not ended."

"And, energy can neither be created nor destroyed," he said.

 

Here’s the real mystery of our faith: That piece of God come down from heaven? That piece of God that Jesus identifies as himself? That is love. As we sing in that great hymn, Jesus is Love Incarnate. Love Divine.

 

It has the power to heal broken hearts and relationships that began in love. It has the power to lift a fallen spirit and make the impossible seem possible. It has the power to change lives in this world and as we transition into life eternal.

 

Or, as my friend Joe would say, “Love incarnate, love divine takes us to infinity and beyond.”

 

Amen.

 

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Living Bread

 A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Georgetown, DE

and live streamed via Facebook Live Sirach 26:10 

Pentecost XIV - Proper 14 - Year B

August 8, 2021

 

Sometimes, we can let the rules get in the way of meaning. Sometimes, some of us think that because we believe we have the “true presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist, we’re the only ones to have “the living bread come down from heaven,” which then can be given to only a select few and only in particular circumstances.  

 

I’ve told this story before. Maybe you’ve heard it. I think it bears repeating:

 

I was a newly ordained priest at my first call as Chaplain at University of Lowell, in Lowell, MA. One of the first mission projects I created was to establish a weekly Eucharist at the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center. I had carefully trained a handful of students how to lead worship and, together, we had decided that two of them would come with me to the Center, on a rotating basis.

 

The third floor of the Center was a 'locked unit' - pretty much a human waste basket for all those people who had been released from psychiatric facilities - where they would stay for a few weeks, be released to the streets for a few weeks and then, readmitted again after a brief stopover at the Lowell Police Station and the City Jail for some obtuse, vague charge as 'disturbing the peace'.

 

I had secured permission to provide a service of Holy Communion, as it would be advertised, making sure the staff knew that I would be bringing in bread (or, hosts, if need be) and wine.

 

"Nope," they said, "can't bring in anything - not hosts, not bread - from the outside. Especially not wine."

 

"Okay," I said, "Can you provide me with a few slices of bread and some grape juice?"

 

"No bread," they said, "We had a 'suicide-by-stuffing-bread' last year. No bread on the ward. And, no peanut butter. That's even worse."

 

"Okay," I said, "No problem with the peanut butter. How about some saltine crackers and some grape juice?"

 

"Deal," they said, "We keep them in packages of two - no 'stuffing' - and you can just open up as many packages as you need."

 

Imagine my surprise when I appeared for that first service and found waiting for me some graham crackers and grapefruit juice. Graham crackers. And, GRAPEFRUIT juice!!

 

"It's all we had," they said without apology, adding, "It's the end of the month. Supplies are low."

 

In I went, to the locked "Recreation Room". I heard the door lock behind me and realized that I was alone in the room with two terrified students and about 25 people who were in all sort and manner of 'altered states' of consciousness.

 

People were walking around nervously, pacing, smoking, muttering to themselves, occasionally shouting out obscenities.

 

I set the table, yelled out what was about to happen, and asked people to take their seats.

 

No one did.

 

I started anyway - said a few, abbreviated opening words, one of the students read the first lesson, the other led the psalm. I went right to the gospel and then said a few words about it.

 

To my amazement, some of the folks actually sat down and were listening to me. The room was not exactly quiet, but the din had certainly decreased a few decibels and was now a dull buzz.

 

As I started to say the Eucharistic Prayer, one woman in the front - Helen, I'll never forget her - spoke up.  Helen's eyes looked like the last 20 or 30 years of her life had witnessed some pretty rough roads. Makeup clung to the deep wrinkles and lines in her face, her eyelids were a bright blue with a crooked line of mascara outlining them, and her lips were a misshapen bright cherry red.

 

She looked like a tragic clown in a very painfully human circus in this "Recreational Room".

 

"Hey, are you allowed to do that? I mean, being a woman and all," she asked in a gravelly voice and then took a long drag on her unfiltered cigarette.

 

"Yes, I am an ordained Episcopal Priest," I said, sounding every bit like a newly ordained and slightly insecure Episcopal Priest.

 

"Yeah, sure you are" she said, taking a drag from her cigarette, "and I’m the Queen of Sheba. Well, I can't take communion. Divorced, you know."

 

"Sure you can," I said, "Everyone is welcome at the Lord's Table."

 

She looked at the oblong utility table where I had set out the starched, white corporal, and had the shiny silver paten and chalice, raised an eyebrow of suspicion, shrugged her shoulders, and lit another cigarette from the one she had almost finished.

 

I got through the Eucharistic Prayer and marveled as most of the people in the room seemed to be paying close attention to what I was doing. Perhaps a memory from childhood or an earlier day was awakened, and they recognized this as a holy moment.

 

Even after the words of institution, the mood in the room remained solemn. As I prepared to distribute communion, Helen called out, "Hey, shouldn't we be singing something?"

 

“Sure,” I said. “Why don’t you lead us in one of your favorite hymns?” 

 

Oh, do be careful what you ask for. I asked her to sing. And so, she did.

 

She leaned back her head, closed her eyes and started singing in the most reverent tones I've ever heard, "She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. . . ."

 

By the third verse, about a dozen or so people joined her. "She'll be driving six white horses, she'll be drivin' six white horses (big finish) WHEN. SHE. COOOMMMES!!"

 

You know what? In that moment, when the absurd met reality, and the profane intersected with the sacred, I knew that Jesus was already there, in that locked Recreational Room, on the third floor of the locked ward of the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center, in Lowell, MA. He is the bread (or, in this case, graham cracker) come down from heaven.

 

And, I had this epiphany. Jesus was fully present to us, but not just in the graham crackers and grapefruit juice. I had already figured that out. My epiphany was this: We hadn’t brought Jesus to church. We had only just brought the church to Jesus.

 

The ancient church did not meet in a building they called “the church”. They understood themselves to be the church. They celebrated Jesus in their midst in their homes.

 

And that, my friends, is really what it means to “Invite. Welcome. And, Connect.” Which I’m sure our guests will agree. The heart of this and every program of evangelism is about living out our baptismal vows and “seeking and serving the Christ in others.”

It’s about knowing that when you invite others to church, you are inviting them into a mystery: you are inviting the Christ in them into the church, the Body of Christ. You are inviting them to be in the presence of the living bread come down from heaven.

 

It’s about seeing in the other person the Sign of the Cross and not a dollar sign (meaning, a potential pledge unit). It’s about looking not on the outward appearance – who they are, how they dress or speak or what they believe – but at the contents of the heart.

It’s about knowing that everyone has suffered – is suffering – will suffer and that Jesus calls us into community with each other, because we need each other. That's how we heal.


It’s about connecting the Christ in you with the Christ in others and knowing that, when two or more are gathered together in his name, Jesus has promised to be present.

 

And, Jesus will be there. Is there. The “living bread come down from heaven.”

 

Even at the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center in Lowell, Massachusetts. Even here. In church: where everyone is (mostly) of sound mind and body and well dressed.

 

Author Rachel Held Evans, in her book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” wrote: “This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more.”

 

Amen.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

I love bread

 

“I love bread”

A Sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Georgetown, DE
and simultaneously broadcast on 
Pentecost X - Proper 13 B
August 1, 2021 

 

Have you seen that commercial for Weight Watchers – now known as WW (Which I’ve always considered an unfortunate change because it sounds like ‘Double You. Double You.’ Which is not exactly a good image for a weight loss program.)?

 

Anyway, the commercial features Oprah Winfrey enthusiastically and practically salivating as she proclaims, “I love bread!” The purpose of which is to say that you CAN eat bread on the WW plan and still lose weight.

 

Well, if you love bread, you’re going to love the next three weeks of gospel lessons as they are all from the Gospel of John and are “all bread all the time”. 

 

Yes, for four Sundays in a row, we hear Jesus say he is “the bread of life,” and “the bread come down from heaven,” and claim in two successive readings that “who ever eats this bread will live forever,” before we return to Mark’s gospel and hear the Pharisees complain that Jesus and his disciples had really bad table manners, eating with “defiled hands.”

 

So, I guess we need to pace ourselves through this metaphor of bread, right?

 

I want to start this week by joining my voice with Oprah’s and proclaim, “I love bread.”

 

When I was a kid, my grandmother made great loaves of the stuff every Thursday for the rest of the week. As she got older, she found that it was too much work for her aching, arthritic hands and arms and only made a small batch – just a few loaves a week. After my grandfather died, she stopped making bread all together. I’m not sure why but that’s what happened.

 

But, there was a ‘bread man’ who came to our neighborhood once a week. He had a large truck, the back of which was covered with a large, canvas tarp and filled with baskets of hot Portuguese bread – hard and crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.

 

One of my favorite memories of my childhood was the day The Bread Man came. He always came on Tuesday and Friday, but my favorite day was Friday.

 

He would arrive shortly after we got home from school for lunch – back in the days when schools would close down for an hour and everyone went home to eat lunch – and we would race down the stairs, our hands sweaty and tightly closed around the two quarters Daddy had given us to buy two loaves of bread.

 

The Bread Man would lift a warm loaf out of the basket, holding it with a white dishtowel and place it into the dishtowel we had brought. We would then race back up the stairs and put the loaves on the table, waiting for Daddy to break it open for us, clapping our hands together as we applauded the steam that rose from the white, soft inside. 

 

My youngest sister, Diane, always squealed with delight when that happened because she thought that was the Holy Ghost rising out from the center of the bread.

 

Daddy would then slather butter on the hunk of bread and usually place a piece of fried fish or half a cod fish cake or, sometimes, a fried egg into the center of the pool of melted butter in the bread and pass it down for each of the four of us kids to eat.

It being Friday, and being practicing Catholics at the time, we did not eat meat on Friday. Which was just fine. Who needed meat when you had warm bread and butter? Actually, we didn’t even really need fish or eggs. Just fresh, warm bread and butter, please. That’s all we really needed to fill our bellies and warm our souls before going back to the afternoon session of school.

 

I think that’s the point Jesus is trying to make with this metaphor of himself as bread. You really don’t need anything else when you have Him.

 

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus had just fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. That night, the disciples see him walking on water. The next day, those same thousands gather again to be fed. Jesus then offers them salvation – eternal nourishment – rather than just temporary sustenance. 

 

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

 

I think I understood this spiritual concept of the church as a child because of my experiences at the kitchen table of my youth. In my experience, even little ones in church get this. They know. They understand more than we give them credit for.

 

In one church I served, there was a ministry of baking communion bread. Folks would sign up on rotation to make fresh bread. It was different every week. Some made a beautiful round loaf – which I can tell you, from personal experience, is NOT the best kind of bread for communion.

 

Yes, it tends to be very crummy, but there is another complication. I remember holding up the loaf to break and discovering that the crusty outer layer made it almost impossible to break open with arms extended. 

 

So, I brought the loaf closer to my chest, but even then I struggled.

It took a few seconds but it seemed like long minutes of struggle until I finally tore open the bread. Looking up at the congregation and seeing some looks of shock on some of the faces, I realized that I was a bit winded and had actually broken a sweat as I lifted the torn bread and proclaimed, “The Body of Christ!” 

 

Wrestling with the Body of Christ, I discovered, does not make good spiritual optics.

 

There were a few times when, for whatever reason, the person responsible for the bread that Sunday was unable to bake bread and had rushed out to the store to purchase some. Typically, it was pita bread. Which was fine. Until the Sunday I noticed a lovely fragrance to the bread and realized someone had hurriedly chosen the garlic and rosemary pita. 

 

There were some very interesting expressions at the communion rail that morning.

 

My favorite was when someone brought in the Hawaiian King Bread. There were lovely smiles on the faces of the communicants that Sunday as they placed the sweet bread into their mouths. 

 

I’ve often thought, since then, that we should make that our official communion bread.

 

But, no matter the size, shape or flavor of bread, the kids always knew that this was the Body of Christ. It was their responsibility, after the service, to come to me to get any left over consecrated bread and bring it outside to scatter it on the protected, raised flowerbed in front of the church to feed the birds.

 

Without any instruction from me, they always formed a very solemn procession line, taking turns as to which one of them was to actually carry the bread out in a white linen purificator. 

 

Rain or shine, shoes, sneakers, snow boots or flip-flops, they processed quietly and reverently, fully aware of the honor they had to carry the Body of Christ to feed some of God’s Holy Creatures. 

 

I’m told that a few of them even repeated, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” as they scattered the bread.

 

They knew. They understood the metaphor – and the reality.

 

I sometimes wondered if their parents understood as much and as deeply as they did what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the bread of life.”

 

So, yes, I join with Oprah when she says, “I love bread.” I do. It remains my favorite food. 

 

I still love a childhood favorite, especially this time of year: sliced peaches on bread slathered with butter. 

 

But, the bread I love the most is the bread that will never leave me hungry or wanting, the one that is manna from heaven and gives life to us that we may feed each other as well as the rest of God’s creation.

 

My favorite image of the church is this: The church is at its best when it is one beggar telling another where he found bread. 

 

With all due respect to the chief gurus of the church, that, for me, is the very definition of church vitality. 

 

That, my friends, is how the church grows.

 

The church grows and is vital when you understand yourself to be a beggar who has found bread and is willing to find other beggars and tell them where you found bread.

 

In the words of one of the blessings we often say in our home as grace before a meal: “God, bless this food we are about to receive! Give bread to those who hunger and give hunger for charity and justice to those who have bread.”

 

Or, you can simply shorten it and say what we call The Oprah Blessing, “I love bread.”

 

Amen.