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Sunday, August 19, 2018

But wait!

A Sermon Preached for Pentecost XIII - Proper 12 B
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
August 19, 2018

Note: This is my last sermon on John's 6th gospel. I am fresh out of bread, and what little I have si stale. I have discovered I really only have one sermon about bread . Or, Bread. Which is to say, Jesus. I've just tried to say it in different ways over the past four Sundays in three different congregations. There is a small mercy in that no one congregation had to hear this. Well, except you.

Let us pray: + “The love of G-d is broader than the measure of the mind and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” AMEN.

What in the world is Jesus talking about?
Eat my flesh? Drink my blood? 

I've known many people over the years who have been put off or deeply disturbed and confused by this passage.

Sounds like human sacrifice, doesn’t it?

Well, right. That’s exactly what Jesus is talking about. Well, at least in part. 

But, wait! 

Remember, Jesus is talking to ancient Jews whose culture and religion revolved around animal sacrifice as part of worshipping G-d, to appease whatever anger the God of their understanding may have because G-d once sent them off to slavery in Egypt for hundreds of years and, G-d knows, you don't what that to happen ever again. 

I know. I don't get it either. But, living a fear-based faith has never made any sense to me.

But, wait! 

To understand this, as with anything from scripture, you have to understand the context.

We have to go back to the beginning of the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel. And yes, you may have noticed that we’ve been stuck on this sixth chapter for the last four weeks – and we won’t leave it until the first Sunday in September,.

So buckle up, kids. We’re still talking about bread.

It all began with the Feeding of the Five Thousand – a story we heard at the end of July, just four weeks ago in the first chapter of John’s gospel. Remember?

As the rest of the chapter unfolds, it seems that the crowd has misinterpreted the sign of feeding the huge group with only a little food. 

All of the conversation, since the miracle, has been about bread -- explaining it, defining it, identifying it. 

Turns out, it really has not been about bread at all. It has been about Jesus and who he is. 

The point missed in the feeding sign was who Jesus was. The sign was to point to Jesus. 

Instead they got full of food and went back to how things were before. They went back to the literal level and missed the depth and riches that were right in front of them. 

By the end of the conversation, Jesus is telling them that they ate the wrong thing. They ate bread and fish and they should be eating flesh and blood. 

You cannot hear that on a literal level. It is too deep for that.

It’s not about literally eating the flesh and blood of Jesus. 

And it’s not simply about a symbolic meal.  It’s more than that. Much more.

It’s about coming to know Jesus in his fullness and taking him into your heart and your mind and your soul so that you may be able to live out his teachings.

It's not about changing bread and wine. It's about changing your heart and mind.

So, the question each one of us has to ask ourselves is this: Who is Jesus for YOU? 

We have to get out from under the literal words and beyond the symbols and metaphors and LIVE them.

What does it look like to LIVE who Jesus is for us?  I think this story might help:

The Rev. Bill Coffin, former pastor at Riverside Church in NY City, used to tell of an event that occurred one year during a Christmas pageant. It was Christmas Eve and the pews were packed. 

The pageant was underway and had come to the point at which the innkeeper was to turn to Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, “There’s no room at the inn!”

Never mind that no figure of the innkeeper actually appears in scripture. We’ve all imagined him delivering the message of no room, of in-hospitality to the baby Jesus and his parents. 

And it seemed the perfect part for Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation who had Downs Syndrome.

Only one line to remember: “There’s no room at the inn!” He had practiced it again and again with his parents and with the pageant director. 

He seemed to have mastered it. So there he stood at the front of the sanctuary, bathrobe costume firmly belted over his broad stomach, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. 

They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed, and waited for his reply.

Tim’s parents, the pageant director and the whole congregation almost leaned forward as if willing him to remember his line. “There’s no room at the inn!” Tim boomed out, just as rehearsed.

But then, as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, “But wait!”

They turned back, startled, and looked at him in surprise.

“You can stay at my house!” he called.

Well, Tim had effectively preached the sermon at Riverside Church that Christmas Eve. As Rev. Bill Coffin, the pastor, tells the story, he strode into the pulpit, said, “Amen,” and sat down.

It was, he said, the best sermon he never preached.

Little Tim knew his line. He knew every word of his line. He knew his part in the story of the Nativity of Jesus. 

But, he really lived the Gospel when he stepped out from his part and took the words to his heart. 

He took in the words to his head and when he lived them out, he knew in his heart that something was wrong. And, because Jesus clearly lives in this young boy's heart, he knew what to do - beyond the expectations of his assigned role.

It’s the best example I know of how it is to KNOW Jesus and how it is to LIVE Jesus.

Get out from under the literal words and beyond the metaphors and live them.
Stop living a fear-based faith or whatever part you think you have been given to play and step into the fullness of a life of Christ.

Sometimes, that means stripping away the words of Jesus to get to Jesus, the Word of God. 

You can check out Matthew 25 for more detailed instructions. 

Even so, you don't have to get it exactly right. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be super smart. You don't have to be very young or very old. 

You just have to be who you are and be willing to, as our baptismal prayer bids, to "grow into the full stature of Christ."

I began this sermon with a verse from the hymn “There’s a Wideness in G-d’s Mercy”. I’d like to repeat them so you can hear them:
 "The love of G-d is broader than the measure of the mind and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind."
Please don't be put off or disturbed or confused by this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood. 

Remember that these words were originally spoken to ancient Israeli and Palestinian people.

Remember that it's not just about changing bread and wine. It's about changing your heart and mind. And, when we do that, we can change this old world of ours. 

Try to remember this: When all else fails, hear little Tim say, "But wait!" 

Take Jesus into your heart and try to be loving. Try to be kind. 

Because that is who Jesus reveals G-d to be - loving and kind.

And, in the end, love and kindness will change the world.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Beyond Language and Metaphors

A Sermon for Pentecost XII - Proper 14 B - RCL
The Episcopal Chapel of St. George, Harbeson, DE
August 12, 2018

I want to start by telling you something that Gospel Geeks and Language Nerds and English Majors – past and present – will find interesting. The rest of you may not, but I want you to listen anyway because if you don’t, you’ll miss the point of this sermon and that would be a terrible waste of time on a hot Sunday morning in August, don’t you think?

So, the thing of it is that we are in the third week of five Sundays in a row where the lectionary is stuck on the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel. And, one more time, we hear about Bread. Bread! Five Sundays of BREAD.

So, 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. I am so blessed and privileged to have this resource in my possession – a gift from a dear friend who wanted to spend his inheritance wisely and decided to invest some in my. Thank you, Jesus! (And, thank you, Scott!)

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.

Okay, are you still with me? No one’s fallen asleep, yet?

So, hold that thought for just a minute and listen again to Jesus say, “I am the bread of life.” 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?

Okay, hold that thought because we’re going in a little deeper now. I don’t want to lose any of you because this will all come together, I promise. So, here we go from English to take a sharp right turn into Greek and Hebrew.

“I am . . .” says Jesus. “I am” is a faithful translation of the Greek ego eimi. But the Greek, standing in an earlier Hebrew tradition, is much more than a simple self-identification.

When Jesus says “I am,” even before he follows the phrase with a predicate nominative (did you catch that, English majors?), there are gasps from certain members of his audience.

That’s because this is how God described God’s identity to Moses. Remember? “I am Who Am”. Jesus seems to be saying, “Remember that bread that Moses fed you in the wilderness so you would not die? I’m that bread – that piece of the loaf – come down from heaven. Eat of THIS bread and you not die. You will have life eternal.”

John’s gospel gives us lots of metaphors for Jesus besides bread. Seven in total. 

Jesus is the Light of the World.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd and The Gate for the sheep.

He’s the Resurrection and The Life,

The Way and The Truth

Jesus is The True Vine.

So, I said all of that to ask this. It’s the same question Jesus asked his disciples. He asked,

“Who do the people say I am?” 

And, the disciples said, “Oh, John the Baptist! Or, Elijah! Or, one of the prophets!”

 Jesus asked them: “Who do YOU say I am?”

Who do YOU say that Jesus is? From these seven metaphors, who is Jesus for you? Beyond what may or may not be lost in translation, beyond the seven metaphor, who is Jesus for YOU?

I want to suggest that as you are considering an answer that question, you might want to consider some things about yourself. Because, the thing of it is that, in order to really know yourself in all of your fullness, you need to know yourself in relationship to others.

As far as I can figure out, this is at the center of the reason we come to church. God knows, this is the same reason why some people choose NOT to come to church. Because of who we know ourselves to be in the midst of scallywags and scoundrels and sinners.

Truth of it is, some people bring out the worst in us.

Truth is, those very same people bring out the best in us.

And, we bring out the best and the worst in others. 

Either way, we learn the best and the worst about ourselves in relationship with others.

Let me explain that by telling a story:

My father was an alcoholic. When he drank he was mean. And, violent.  Verbally and physically.

There was so much I didn’t know or, frankly, cared to understand about my father. 

Because, you see, if I knew and understood my father, I would know and understand myself better.

For many years, it was just easier to let my father carry all of that perceived ugliness for me. So I wouldn’t have to.

I remember one day – I was probably around 15 years old or so – and wanting to be out with my friends but my mother had “chores” for us to do. We were cleaning out a room so that my grandmother could stay with us for a while as she recovered from having had a mild stroke.

I was grumpy and steaming with a smoldering resentment, as only a 15 year old who’d rather be anywhere else can be, when I came upon an old photo album. I sat down and opened the album and saw a picture of my father. It was the one the army takes after you finish basic training. He was young and trim and wore a uniform and had a full head of hair under his army hat.

“OhMuhGAWD,” I exclaimed.

“What?” asked my mother.

“This picture of Daddy!” I sputtered. “Look at him! He’s a STONE COLD FOX!”

She looked over my shoulder and smiled wistfully, “Yes. Yes, he was.”

“I don’t EVER remember that Daddy looked like THAT,” I asserted.

She flipped a few pages forward. “Do you remember that?”

There I was. Age 7 or 8. All chubby cheeks, gangly legs and long, disheveled hair, in my PJs, sitting next to my father as he held me close. I looked a bit peaked but he looked, well, strong and young and so very handsome. He was clearly protecting me.

“You had just recovered from the chicken pox, remember? We were so worried about you.”

And then, it all came back in a rush. Now, chicken pox is one of those “childhood diseases” that are spoken of like a rite of passage but, you know, chicken pox was a real misery. 

I was hit with a very bad case – pox in my nose, in my throat, in my eyes, in my ears. I was one massive ITCH. To make matters worse, I ran a fever, which racked my body with shivers.

Mother put cold compresses on me and covered me, head to toe, with calamine lotion. Nothing seemed to work. The doctor said to take some of the baby’s teething medicine – which was paregoric, which, by the way is tincture of opium (OMG!!) – and give me a few drops of it. But, that just made me groggy while I still felt hot and shivery and itchy and miserable.

My father was working the night shift at the factory. It was early morning and he had just come home from work. I hadn’t really slept all night. I think I was whimpering in misery. 

I couldn’t see very well but I sensed my father’s presence. I knew my father’s smell. I could hear his voice but it sounded funny - like he had something in his throat. And, I don’t think I had ever heard him whisper, but he was whispering.

“Oh God,” he was saying. “Oh, Elizabeth. Oh, my baby girl. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”

The next thing I knew, my mother was getting me undressed and my father wrapped me in a large towel and carried me to the bathtub where he gently lowered me into a warm baking soda bath. 

He slowly and carefully cradled me in his arms as he washed off all the old calamine lotion, gently compressing the pox on my arms and legs, my face and eyes and ears. I could hear him sniffling and saying soothing things.

The thought crossed my mind that he was crying but well, that just couldn’t be. Not MY father.

The next thing I knew I was in bed, in new PJs, with new clean bed linen. My father was dotting my pox with a new layer of calamine lotion as he sang softly one of his favorite songs, 

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey. You’ll never know, dear. How much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

That was my father’s favorite song. It was probably the only song he knew all the words. I only remember him singing it when he was drunk. Or, when one of the babies was teething.

But now, he was stone cold sober. And, he was singing it to me. 

For me.  Just for me. To comfort and soothe me. And, it did.

I opened my eyes and though my vision was still blurry, I could see that he was crying. And, I swear, those tears were the most healing thing I have ever experienced in my life.

After he left, I think I slept the rest of the day, which was the first time I had slept in days. Later, for supper, my father brought me some popsicles, which felt so good. I remember that I ate them down slowly, savoring the coolness, as he read me a short story. Then I fell back asleep.

As I remembered that chicken pox story, I sat in that room, at age 15, weeping. I wept because I believed the story I chose to believe about my father because it was easier than believing what that story told me about myself. 

I believed it because it was easier for me to believe that my father was ill tempered and I was not. That I could recognize his violence because I have the same potential in me. And, that I could recognize his tender compassion because I have the same potential in me, as well. 

It's mine to choose what qualities I want to cultivate in myself.

So, I come to you this morning with these two questions:  Who do you say YOU are? Beyond what your family told you about who you are, beyond the narrative you like to tell about yourself, beyond the story you want others to believe about you, who are you, really?

Begin to explore that question as you move beyond the language about Jesus, beyond the bits and fragments of the words about The Word of God, beyond the seven metaphors for Jesus, and ask Who is Jesus for YOU?

What pieces of the Sacred Loaf are you choosing to consume? How does that change you by telling you more about who you were created to be?

Jesus is more than an historical figure – don’t let anyone tell you that that’s all He is. He’s more than the metaphors John gives us. He’s even more than the stories four of His disciples told us about him. 

He is a bit, a fragment of the Sacred Loaf that is God.

And, because he is, in our baptism in him, so we are, too. 

As annoying and aggravating as we can be to each other, we reveal something about ourselves to others and, they, in turn, reveal something about ourselves to us. 

Like it or not.

This is why we can listen to the story of David and his son Absolom and, even  though we can recognize that David was a scallaywag and a scoundrel, we also can hear are are deeply touched by his lament for his son.

We are about to partake in the bread come down from heaven. 

We believe that Jesus is present to us in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine. 

We are about to eat a bit of The Bread, a true piece of the true Loaf of God.

In the mystery of the Eucharistic feast, Jesus shows us more deeply who HE is, so that we may become more of who We are.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”        

Sunday, August 05, 2018

YOU get bread and YOU get bread . . .

 A Sermon for Pentecost XI - Proper 13 B - August 5, 2018
St. Phillip's Episcopal Church - Laurel, DE

Have you seen Oprah in that commercial for Weight Watchers? The one in which she says, almost lustily, “This is joy for me! I. Love. Bread. I love bread. I now just manage it. I don’t deny myself bread. I have bread every day. I have bread every day.”

I half expect her to say, “And YOU get bread. And YOU get bread. And, YOU . . .”

Well, I’m not as passionate as Oprah, but I do love bread. I come by it honestly. My grandmother made bread. So did my mother and aunts.

I love the smell of bread as the yeast causes it to rise in the pan. I love the “groan-whoosh” sound bread makes as it gets punched down in the pan, only to rise again.

I love the way bread feels when it comes out of the pan and onto the floured breadboard to be kneaded and pounded and patted.

I am convinced that heaven smells like bread baking in the oven.

And, I am quite sure that a bite of warm bread, crusty on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, is, in fact, “the bread of heaven”.

Once you’ve had real bread – not that stuff called “Wonder Bread” which only causes one to wonder how that stuff can be called bread – you just can tolerate anything but.

My grandmother loved bread so much she thought the communion wafers they served at church must be an abomination in the sight of the Lord.

She always chuckled when she heard the joke about needing two acts of faith to take communion in the Roman Catholic Church. The first act of faith is that you must believe that the host is the actual body of Jesus. The second act of faith is that the host isn't 'fish food'. 

My grandmother made great loaves of bread at least once a week. It never seemed to last the entire week. She made it more frequently when there were layoffs in the factory or mills or when someone in the neighborhood was sick.

I remember this one time when the factory was on strike. My whole family was involved in union organizing and this was the first test of the strength of the union.

The strike was going on for a long time – longer than anyone imagined it would (13 weeks I seem to recall) – or prepared for. People were hungry. Women and children were showing up at the picket lines, hoping to get a share of the food some were bringing to feed the men.

There were reported tensions and flashes of anger. People were making sandwiches and delivering them to the strike line, only to watch the men give their food to the wives and children.

My grandmother felt called to go and provide food for those men AND their wives and children.

So, we got up very early in the morning to load up my red Speedy wagon which I had gotten for Christmas. In went a huge vat of soup and all those loaves of bread. We covered everything with a large tarp, lashed it down with rope, and off we walked, pulling the wagon the entire six miles to the factory.

When we got to the factory we could see the men walking the picket line, their wives and children were not far away. I was only about 7 or 8 years old but I could sense the tension in the air. I moved closer to my grandmother and held her hand.

The women and children saw us and started to walk towards us, forming a tight, tense ring around us. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces – worried, anxious, hungry faces – some kept looking at the size of the pot and looking around to the size of the crowd.

We had brought a lot of food, but even I wondered whether or not there would be enough.

Just when I figured something Really Bad was going to happen, I heard my grandmother’s voice. She sounded clear and happy but firm and strong. She was asking people to form a single line.

“Get out your cups,” she said, “and don’t worry. We'll have enough. We’ll just add a little water to the soup and we’ll all eat hardy.”

Some people slowly started to move in line, but others seemed frozen in place. Some of the men had left the picket line and had made their way over to where we were.

My grandmother’s voice rang out again, “Don’t worry. There’s plenty for everyone. Besides,” she said, motioning to me to remove the tarp, “we have BREAD!”

At that, even though this was long before game shows on TV, I did my best game show lady and whipped the tarp off the mound of bread.

I will never forget the sound that came from the crowd. It was a sigh of genuine relief, an acknowledgement of a prayer answered, the sound of gratitude mixed with anticipation of relief from the pangs of hunger.

Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray, used to say that "Hope was a song in a weary throat."

I have come to know the sound I heard that day from the people as one of the sounds of hope.

My grandmother served the soup and I broke off pieces of bread to give to the grateful hands that held it as if it were the most precious thing they had ever seen.

As each person came forward, my grandmother said, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus loves you. We’re on the right side of this fight. This is what we're asking the factory owners to do - to share a little of what they have. Don't worry. God will provide. We have to stay together. Don’t lose hope. Keep your eyes on Jesus. ”

The seed was planted in my heart right then and there so that, years later, when I heard a call to priesthood, I knew exactly what I was being called to do.

There is a line in the service of ordination to the priesthood: "In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ's people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come."

Whenever I hear that line, I always remember this moment in the strike like with my grandmother. 

I understood clearly this scene from John’s gospel after the feeding of the five thousand, as well as the scene from Exodus with Moses and Aaron..

The Eucharist we celebrate here is one of hope. It’s one which keeps our eyes on Jesus. It’s one in which we are fed so that we might feed those who are hungry and in need.

Jesus knew two things about the human enterprise. He knew that anxiety is at our very core. That is why whenever something is about to happen to people in the bible, when an angel appears, the first words that are spoken are, “Be not afraid.” Jesus even asks his disciples and his followers, “Why are you anxious?” And, he admonishes people several times, "Oh ye of little faith."

We are born anxious. Ever seen a baby minutes after being born? If that isn’t the very picture of anxiety I don’t know what is. And, what stops that baby from anxiety? Being held and loved. Jesus knew that. Which is why he addressed it so many times.

But, Jesus also knew that the antidote to anxiety was abundance. He talked about that all the time, too. You hear him say it in this morning’s gospel story. There’s always more than enough for everyone.

That was my grandmother’s message that morning on the strike line.

I don't know how that many people were fed that day but no one left hungry. All were fed. 

That is the message of our Eucharistic celebration.

We are blessed to be a blessing.

We are fed that we may feed.

And, not just food. We are fed that we might feed the minds of children and adults with intellect and curiosity and creativity.

We are fed that we might feed the hearts of others with kindness and compassion.

We are fed that we might feed the souls of others with inspiration and light and hope.

The Eucharist is the bread of joy.

It is the bread of hope. 

It is the bread of this world which points us to the bread of life eternal. 

The Eucharistic bread is the leaven in the loaves of our lives, lifting us up from our present reality and expanding our awareness to the lives of our neighbors and our world.

In it and through it, we rise!

It kneads us and plies us and stretches us to feed as we are fed.

So, like Oprah, we can leave the church after communion and say, “And YOU get bread. And YOU get bread. And YOU . . . . .”

We are fed so that we may feed others.

We are blessed to be a blessing.

Come. Jesus is waiting to bless us and feed us.