Monday, August 31, 2015

Love received is love to be shared. (Sermon for Sunday, 8/31/2015

Sermon notes for Proper 17B (8/31/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Love received is love to be shared.

Life is short and we have not too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind! (Ameil’s Journal, Henri-Frédéric Amiel).

These are powerful words by the 19th century Swiss moral philosopher, Henri-Frédéric Amiel, and carry as much Gospel truth as any words of scripture. They bear the very teaching of Jesus to “love one another” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the narrative of Genesis 12, God calls Abram to go from his own country, from his father’s house to a new land. God makes this promise to Abram,

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

“I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” How those two actions are bound together, woven almost as if one continuous act: the act of our being blessed and the act of our blessing others.

For most, being blessed and blessing is first experienced in the embrace shared by parent and child. I am filled with awe and wonder at the Facebook posts and pictures shared by Derek of himself, his wife, and his new baby. Can anything fill one’s hearts more earnestly? Little children are so intent with their expressions of physical affection and to be the recipient of such opens your heart. I was walking with Molly, my niece, at my daughter’s cross country meet this past Saturday. Molly suddenly reached up and touched my forehead. She might very well have been reaching up for a butterfly or some other thing that caught her fancy. I, however, choose to recognize her reaching up as an act of blessing. Molly was giving me a blessing! So I blessed her back and we went on our way.

Love received is love to be shared.

The first lesson for today, from the Song of Songs, is a compelling expression of giving and receiving love. Over the centuries, the Song of Songs has been assigned allegorical interpretation by both synagogue and church alike. Such religious allegory assumes the song refers to the love of the Lord for the people or of Christ for the Church, a view supported by the marriage themes in both Old and New Testament. While the allegorical interpretation has much to recommend it, at its heart the song refers to the love between humans. It is an ancient Jewish love poem with imagery as simple as the blush of first love, ignited by the holding of a lover’s hand for the first time. Listen to the excitement in this poet’s words at the approach of her beloved, “The voice of my beloved! Look: he comes, leaping…bounding…gazing…looking…"

And then, he calls out, "Arise my love…come away … the time of singing has come.”

Such an emotional response to love’s arrival is echoed in today’s Psalm, “My heart is stirring with a noble song” (Psalm 45:1). It is not just in Psalm 45, though, for the Psalms are filled with the language of the heart or the soul or the very being of the person responding to the Lord’s acts of blessing and love.

Love received is love to be shared.

The author of the epistle of James builds on the theme of reciprocated blessing and love. Over time our religious practices get complicated, just like our relationships. We can find ourselves more concerned with the performance of religious rituals and practices than with their underlying purpose. We find ourselves at a distance from the religious passion – the blessing and the love – that impelled our religious choice in the first place.

So James reminds us that we need to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers” (1:22). Moreover, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17). This is a gift that we are given, from above – the motivation and compulsion of the Spirit to join God in the act of self-giving love. Love should not be an accomplishment to be recorded or the chore of ministry. No, it should be the natural response of one beloved to another.

It is quite simple when the heart of the beloved is truly led by love. It isn’t until complications set in - complications are born of fear – that it I gets cumbersome and weary. And those.

In his first epistle, John writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18) and “We love because he first loved us” (1:19).” The acts of love, blessing, and kindness, and so many other virtues become natural when we are in the right kind of relationship – one motivated by the shared is love of the other, recognizing that we have first been loved by God. So, when we replace trust with fear…when we replace models of separation with models of unity (as an aside, reflect here on our broader national issues of racism, immigration, equal pay for equal work, and income inequality)…when we replace seeing a stranger with seeing the image and likeness of God, then acts of love and blessing cease to become a chore and become an extension of the Spirit dwelling in us.

Love received is love to be shared.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Grushenka tells Alyosha the parable of the onion.
Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away. (Book VII, Chapter 3).
There is insight in this story that echoes the wisdom Jesus teaching in our gospel for today. Jesus has been accosted by the Pharisees, who for all their earnestness and concern for the purity code, have traversed far from what James would call religion that is “pure and undefiled before God.” The Pharisees became distracted. These too-well-practiced religious practitioners became so concerned with the purity code that they forgot the most important commandment. They cared deeply about their religion but forgot to care deeply about their neighbor.

What Jesus calls us to is simpler. Jesus calls us understand that what matters is from something inside, from our hearts, form the temple of our being, from that place where the Spirit dwells. It is that that will transform and quicken the heartbeat of our lives and the lives of those we encounter. Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “Love God and do as you please.” If we truly love of God and remain filled with God’s love then what pleases us will also undoubtedly please God. The Muslim mystic, Rumi, speaks similarly, “Look inside and find where a person loves from. That’s the reality.”

Love received is love to be shared.

"Life is short and we have not too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind!"

and May the Divine mystery who is beyond our ability to know but who made us, and who loves us, and travels with us, bless us and keep us. Amen.

Monday, August 24, 2015

My flesh is true food and blood is true drink

Sermon notes for Proper 16B (8/23/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

A friend in my youth who rose up the ranks of CCD (Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine), a fancy name for Sunday school, left the church as a teen and, to my knowledge, never returned. His disillusionment started, I think, when began to ask questions of the nuns who taught our confirmation classes. One memorable event occurred during a lecture (discussion were not encouraged in this particular class) about the Lord's Supper, when my friend asked the nun how the Eucharist was any different from ritual cannibalism.

“What a disgusting question! We are here talking about the most blessed sacrament…such beauty…and you reduce to some primitive ritual.” Thus ended the discussion.

The sacrament of holy Eucharist seems, at times, like a refined expression of religious devotion. The altar table is set with its starched linen, the gold-plated chalice, and the silver accoutrement – so wonderfully and adoringly set by the Altar Guild. Your rector speak the institution narrative with the deepest reverence, calls the epiclesis with wonder and awe, and sings the doxology in mellifluous tones :). There is a soothing dignity to the ritual.

Occasionally, however, the imagery of the sacrament comes slashing through the refinements, smacking us in the face with its realism. Once, when I repeated the familiar words of distribution, “The body of Christ," a small girl suddenly loudly proclaimed, “Ew, yuk!” The old ladies looked on with shock and awe and the old men snickered and I was caught a bit off guard. That is the reality of the imagery that faces us in today Gospel lesson from the end of John 6.

In his Gospel account John does not make use of the Last Supper discourse – the so-called words of institution (see Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). John’s account of Jesus’ Passover with his disciples is different, with scenes of Jesus washing feet and foretelling of betrayal and death. Nonetheless, John does have striking Eucharistic imagery, perhaps even more potent imagery than the other Gospels. Indeed, in his sixth chapter, John shows Jesus speaking of himself as “the bread of life” that has “come down from heaven,” inviting his hearers to partake of this bread – palpable and evocative images that recall the manna of the Exodus.

Then, in verse 51, the image turns, appearing much more earthy, striking, and a little confrontational. Jesus says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews ask the obvious, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Maybe they want to give Jesus a chance to explain. Certainly, he must have misspoke. Surely, Jesus meant to say something else. After all, eating flesh appears in the Hebrew Bible only as a metaphor for great hostility and drinking of blood is an abomination forbidden by God's law.

So they ask for clarification. But Jesus responds by repeating the image and in still more explicit terms. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:53-56).
So what's going on here?

First, Jesus employs imagery here that forces us to confront the absolute reality of the incarnation. No more abstract, disembodied notions of “abiding,” “vines & branches,” and “sheep and shepherds.” Jesus now uses starkly corporeal language, from which we cannot escape. The implications of the incarnation are clear: Jesus is flesh and blood just like you and me. John the Evangelist wants his reader to be assured that Jesus is no a disembodied spirit, no Gnostic phantasm. This means that when the disciples and the Pharisees, when Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, when crowds encounter Jesus, they encounter the flesh and blood of the God who became one of them. This means that when we encounter Jesus in this story, we encounter Jesus who became flesh and blood for us. The imagery certainly gets our attention.

Second, hearing the expression “flesh and blood” would have indicated to the Jewish listeners at the time “the whole person,” similar to the English “body and soul.” So when Jesus uses the Hebrew idiom ‘flesh and blood” he means his whole person. We ought to receive the fullness of Jesus and to that we entails receiving his flesh and blood. This, then, is an expression of an intimate relationship between Jesus and Jesus’ disciples. It is no unlike the earlier expressions of relationship: Jesus is the shepherd and we are sheep. Jesus is the vine and the branches. Jesus abides in God and we abide in Jesus. The consummation of the body and blood of Jesus is an expression of the deepest intimacy that we have with our Lord.

Third, while I deeply believe those first two points are true (particularly from a literary point of view), the language used by Jesus beginning in John 6:51 demands something more. The imagery is pressed the limits of imagination, expression, and common meaning. At some point we just have to take it very seriously and quite literally as an expression of the indissoluble participation of one life in another. For those who choose Jesus, Jesus’ life clings to their bones, coursing through their veins. An indissoluble union is asked for and made. It is the ultimate communion (a coming together) of Master and disciple, of Savior and saved.

Today’s hearing has been a summation of the past five-weeks, a mini-course on the Eucharist. But it’s not an easy lesson, is it? The disciples who walked with Jesus have even declared, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” These women and men were not strangers to Jesus. Some of them had been with Jesus for two years, amazed and astonished by his teaching. They witnessed Jesus make the blind see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. Lepers were restored and those possessed were liberated. They saw or at least knew of the water becoming wine at Cana and just the previous day had seen Jesus feed a crowd of five thousand with five barley loaves and two small fish (probably sardines), then they saw Jesus walking across the sea. But what Jesus said now was just too much.

And they were right! This is a hard story for us too! It does sound like cannibalism. Even after two-thousand years of praxis, wherein the Church fulfills the command to “do this in remembrance of me,” seeing and believing that the bread and wine become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, it is a still hard. It is hard to understand and accept that the Creator of the cosmos, the Savior of the world, the carpenter form Nazareth, is hidden under the appearance of simple food on the altar. It is hard see that the Eucharist is Word broken, Jesus the Christ, the eternal son of God.

Jesus is teaching is hard. But should that surprise us? Jesus never pretended that his teaching would be easy. We are told to forgive seven times seventy times. We are told to cut out our eyes and cut off our hands if they lead us to sin. We should turn the other check, deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and sell all that we have. Jesus taught us to lose our lives in order to save them and sacrificing ourselves as the greatest sign of love.

So, “Who can accept it?” Simply, the one who want to – the one with faith. That’s what we see in Peter’s response in verse 68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.” Jesus had watched many of his disciples turn back after the difficult teaching about his body and blood. “Do you also want to leave?,” Jesus asked the twelve. Peter’s response was one of faith and trust. The teaching wasn’t any easier for Peter than for the thousands of disciples who had just abandoned Jesus and it wasn’t any easier for the Twelve than for us. The whole idea seems only fathomable in light of the Passover meal that he would share his disciples when Jesus would take bread and wine into his hands, and totally change them into himself as he said, “This is my body: take and eat,” and “This is the chalice of my blood: take and drink.”

Nevertheless, Jesus had the words of eternal life. Peter trusted Jesus and so put faith in Jesus’ words. We believe this difficult teaching because we believe in him and believe in Jesus and trust in Jesus’ revelation of the Father.

Many attempts have been made to explain this mystery.

The early church simply affirmed that the risen Christ was with them at their celebrations of the Lord's Supper.

The middle ages saw the rise of some rather laborious attempts to explain how and even when (the exact moment) Christ was present in the sacrament. Theories such as transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and transignification, among others, sought to identify the substance of body and blood over against the elements of bread and wine.

Protestant reformers held to the notion that the bread and wine (or juice) in the Eucharist are purely symbolic representations of the body and blood of Jesus, the feast being merely commemorative.

Anglican theology, growing from the Caroline divines, insists on the “real and objective” presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the bread and wine not disappearing but the Body and Blood nevertheless real and present, neither being diminished. In this Anglican theology,, the details of how and when remain mystery

Yes, Christ's presence is real in the sacrament of holy Eucharist but the manner and means of that presence remain a mystery. The mystery is not like that of a magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat, a feat which we can examine and understand. But the mystery that is present at Christ's table is forever beyond the reach of explanation. It is rather a mystery that we know in truth but do not fully understand. It is a mystery of love that we experience. Where does it come from? How is it sustained? How is it accomplished? We may never know but such is not less real for our lack of understanding or explanation. It is nothing less than the mystery and the power of Jesus made real and made available.

Our cerebral approach to religion often assume that the most important religious truths can always be reduced to words. But some things are beyond words. And sacraments are vital, in part, because they take us where words cannot go.

One of the great blessing of my life is bringing communion to those who are dying. It’s called viatacum, Latin for “on the way” or “for the journey.” I’m able, through the Church and this ministry that God has entrusted me with, to bring holy sustenance, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, for those making the final part of their earthly journey. There is a deep and wonderful connection that is made when this happens that goes beyond understanding and words to the experience of God’s grace and comfort.

I recall giving viaticum to Patricia. When communion was being made, these herons stood outside her window on the fence, tall and noble, all looking our direction. I don’t know but I think they recognized the presence of Christ. And Patricia – seemingly in a far off place, unrecognizable and unrecognizing, agitated and unsure – grew calm, with a serenity overcoming her as she took the communion, the Bread of life and the Cup of salvation. She could not communicate with those around her but she was communicating with the Lord she knew so well.

We had communion with Glad Joiner just a few days before she died. She wasn’t able to remember much when we started the service, dazed and lackluster. But when we started to pray the Lord’s Prayer, she perked up and prayed right along. And then she was ready, with her hands cupped and outstretched, for communion with her Lord and Savior.

I used to visit a woman who suffered from dementia. She didn’t remember me when I arrived and couldn’t hold the point of our conversation long enough for it to make any real sense. But when she put the cup of blessing to her lips, she would smile, “Thank you, Father, for bringing me Jesus.”

When I distribute communion to the littlest of the children, those for whom theological explanations are about as incomprehensible as astrophysics, I revel in the joy they express at receiving the blessings of the table. I am convinced that they know true communion, maybe not expressed in words, with Jesus and the Church.

We may not know how Christ is fully present in the meal. Such close love is always a mystery. But Jesus’ presence is no less real for all of our inability to understand and explain. What we can do is seek the mysterious blessings of the table and receive the palpable gifts of a palpable God.

O God, let us be patient with all that is still mysterious and beyond the reach of our limited minds. Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The food come down from heaven

Sermon notes for Proper 15B (8/16/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

For generations in the Episcopal Church, members would receive Holy Communion only after they were confirmed, sometime around 13 years old. It was thought that by this age individuals would be well prepared and were suitably old enough to claim the faith for themselves, thus ready to comprehend the deeper meaning of eating the holy meal of the body and blood of Jesus. Some, however, wanted communion earlier and began to adopt the Roman Catholic “age of reason,” thus offering the first communion at age seven or eight. This view recognized that children of such an age could perhaps understand enough about the Lord’s Supper for it to have meaning for them. Others still believed in the rightness of the Orthodox tradition where the baptized, even babies, received communion upon their baptism. What is the proper age? When is old enough really old enough?

A story from a friend of mine might prove instructive (at least it was for me). A priest in the Roman Catholic Church, Peter abided by his bishop’s directive to give communion to children only after they reached first grade, when they and their parents had received adequate instruction. Every Sunday, Peter’s five-year old nephew would come with his parents to Peter’s church. Every Sunday, his nephew would come forward to the altar at communion time, with his hands cupped and lifted to receive the body of Christ. Every Sunday, Peter would reach his hand down, touching his nephew’s head for a blessing.

Now, one day as Peter was reaching down his hands, his nephew pushed them away. Defiance on his face, the child shook his fist at him, “You give bread to everyone else! Why not me?”

I learned a lesson from that story when I heard it. You see, Peter’s nephew was able to understand that he was being excluded. Now, since he was old enough to sense the exclusion, imagine the understanding and sense of inclusion he would had being fed by Jesus along with the rest. I think that this might give credence to those who desire to open the table to all who come, to anyone who wants to eat of the bread life and drink from the cup of salvation. I think it’s the same theological perspective as baptizing infants: It’s not about what we initiate but what God initiates in us.

I think that feeding children the bread of heaven at the earliest age is a wonderful way to know the love of God and to feel the inclusion of the Christian community. It’s powerful to imagine children who have no memory of when they did not eat at the table of the Lord. It’s like the reality of a good parent’s love, the absence of which a child should never experience.

As to what children understand or when they are able to understand it, who knows? But I do know this, if we communicate children early, when the time comes they will understand – the sacrament of inclusion and belonging, the sacrament of love and self-giving. 

Jesus told us earlier in this monologue on the Bread of Life in John chapter 6, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Over the centuries, the “food that endures for eternal life” has been taken on a number of interpretations:

First, the food has come to be understood as “knowing God’s word.” When Jesus went into the wilderness, after fasting forty days and forty nights, Satan tempted him to turn stone into bread to feed his incredible hunger. Jesus responded, “It is written, ‘One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). This means that we must strive to know and understand, to treasure and put into practice all the words that come from the mouth of God.

Second, stemming from the first, the food has come to mean “doing God’s will.” Responding to his disciples who demanded that he eat, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Therefore, just as we must strive after knowing the word of God, we must also strive after doing God’s word, i.e. doing God’s will. That’s why it’s not surprising that just a few verses earlier in the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus announces, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day” (John 6:38-39).

Finally, the food that has come down is the Eucharist. This is the food prophesied by the daily miracle of the manna during the Exodus. God rained down manna each day to feed the people of the covenant as they wandered in the desert before coming to the Promised Land. God now rains down Jesus, the Living Bread come down from heaven, our spiritual food in the Eucharist.

All three of these interpretations, of course, go hand-in-hand in the celebration of Holy Eucharist.

We begin our Holy Eucharist, of course, with God’s word, uniting our story with the story of God in the sacred scripture. We hear the story. We learn the story. We enter the story. We become the story. It’s not really about any particular story or any particular combination of words. There is a lot more that could have been told but was left out, at least according to John (20:30). No, it’s not about the particular stories or words – those are important lessons but the real impact comes when we see the deeper connection with the Word that flowed from the mouth of God at creation, that was spoken to the prophets, and that came down from heaven, sent by the living Father, to be born of Mary. This is the Word that we must know, the words of sacred scripture will help lead the way.

Our Mass ends with a sending, reminiscent of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go therefore…” (Matthew 28:16-20). We are sent to do the will of God: making disciples (Mathew 28:16-29), sharing stories and breaking bread (Luke 24:13-35), washing each other’s feet (John 13:1-20), loving our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37), and loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44), among much more. From beginning to end, the Bread of Life Discourse resonates with the tones, subtle and obvious, of Passover and Eucharist. Indeed, there is great and undeniable significance found in the promised abundance of abiding and eternal life, found through Jesus, shown in his life and death, offered for us and to us. But there is equal significance in the needed appropriation of that gift, the ways in which and by which the life and death of Jesus are woven into our own being in the world. 

The lesson from Wisdom today demonstrates some of that by showing a deeply inviting hospitality. Lady Wisdom prepares a great feast, setting her table, available to all those who seek insight into her ways and paths. The picture awakens in me the hospitality of Abraham by the terebinths of Mare, when he laid out a feast for the angelic visitors in the desert. It was there, in the midst of their hospitality, that Sarah and Abraham were made the promise of their inheritance – their eternal life through their son Isaac. It wasn’t because of their hospitality that the covenant was made and it’s not because of our hospitality that eternal life is given, but hospitality sure makes it easier to see the Lord and hear the promise.

The banquet of Wisdom and the scenes of feeding and giving in John 6 haunt us haunts us their abiding hospitality, allusions to God’s gifts and declarations of God’s love. The manna in the wilderness, God’s hospitality to the Israelites on the long journey through the inhospitable places, is where the People of God came to terms with their departure from Egypt and their deliverance and the invitation to freedom. The inhospitable desert is where they learned new things about God’s hospitality and looked forward to life in the world to come of the Promised Land.

May all our Eucharists show forth to ourselves and to others the hospitality of our God in the long journeys of life. May our lives grow ever deeper into the self-offering of our Savior Jesus, so that we can offer ourselves and the fruits of our lives and labors to others in his name.

And finally, after the Word is spoken but before we are sent, the Eucharist is made and shared. It is our Manna, our Bread of Life. The second century church father, Irenaeus, said it this way: “The word of God, Jesus Christ, on account of his great love for mankind, became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”

Feeding on the body and blood of Christ is life-sustaining nutrition, food for the soul. By faith, we eat the bread and drink the wine, thus enabling the process by which Christ penetrates our beings and nourishes our lives. We are what we eat. And so In this sacrament, God’s very life comes to us and in us. We have union with God, re-called to the truth that this union with God through Jesus, the Christ, is the connecting link for us with all that is good and true and holy.

It is here that we have the awesome privilege of receiving the Word made Flesh, God’s daily spiritual manna, in the Eucharist. We become one body with Christ in the Eucharist, restoring us and making us one with the Word and able to accomplish his will. United with Christ our head, we become his hands, his feet, and his heart in the world.

In the end, the living bread that sustains us should always be our quest: Jesus, whose prayer, mind and deeds show us what to do – Jesus whose flesh and blood instill new life within us – Jesus who lives in us that we might live forever.

 “Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work and to follow in the blessed steps of his most holy life.” (from the Gathering Collect, Proper 15, BCP 232).

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Bread of Life

Sermon notes for Proper 14B (8/9/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Note: The last section, "Edith Stein," was not preached in the homily on August 2. I decided to include some reflections on Edith Stein after reading some of her writings this morning during my devotions. Saint Edith Stein (Saint Benedicta of the Cross) has her feast day on August 9 but I put off reading her until this morning, August 10. I only wish I had remembered last week so that I could have brought forth some of her beautiful poems on the Eucharist`during my homily on the Bread of Life. I hope that you enjoy them now.

There is no food more universal or more essential than bread. Bread, in one form or another, is beyond question the most basic form of food in practically every human society, past or present, so much so that it is often called "The Staff of Life." Humans have been enjoying a form of bread since the Neolithic age when cereals were crushed then mixed with water to form a paste which was then baked on a hot stone. Fossilized cakes of bread have even been found in a number of ancient archaeological sites. A food that has long been a staple in most civilizations, bread has quite significant cultural, social, and religious significance.

In Bible terms, "bread" is sometimes used to refer to food in general and is also often used symbolically. The very first foods mentioned in Genesis were seed-bearing fruits and every plant yielding seed (Genesis 1:29). The very stuff of sustenance, humanity’s basic foodstuff, was bread. When God pronounced the curse on the man in Genesis 3, God said, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground." (Genesis 3:19).

Bread is the very core of life. What does bread mean to you?
  • Is it a dark English brown bread, chewy and sweet. You might still taste the whole oats mixed into the dough. A bit of marmalade spread on top makes it quite pleasant with a cup of English breakfast tea.
  • Perhaps what comes to mind is the Scottish bap, a soft and airy roll. Quite the opposite of its people, both are filled with the goodness of life.
  • Maybe you think of a French baguette, snapped in half and shared with a friend over a bowl of caffe au lait.
  • Or maybe you consider the quintessential Belgian croissant: soft, flaky, and buttery.
  • Possibly, you will consider the heavy and hardy German pumpernickel, slathered in butter and slightly sweet from the whole rye berries inside.
  • Maybe a Yiddish bagel comes to mind. Boiled and baked, dense with flavor, they are especially good with a smear or some lox with cream cheese.
  • Maybe you want an Irish potato bread, which is more potato than grain. Fry it in bacon fat for a great comfort on a rainy Irish day.
  • An Austrian rye bread with sunflower and pumpkin seeds might be your thing, crunchy and delicious with a glass of beer.
  • Maybe, like me, you think of an Italian hard roll. The crust of that bread might break a tooth but once inside…put it this way: When God looked over all that he had made and saw that it was good, God could very well have been noticing the Italian hard roll. That is some goodness.
  • In Florida especially, one might think of a Cuban bread with its bleached white flour and pure, unadulterated lard!! I tell you, though, eat that bread with a cup of dark black, slightly sweetened Cuban coffee, and you have a fine breakfast.
  • Perhaps you recall New England’s Anadama bread, the friendship bread from Ammish country, a southern beaten biscuit, some country cornbread, a muffuletta from New Orelans, a San Francisco sourdough, or Boston’s scali bread.
  • Maybe you recall your mother-in-law’s recipe for rolls in the oven: one part butter to one part everything else. Thanks Molly!

Yes, bread in all its forms is important to our lives and to our living. In Christian terms bread is a vital and important metaphor. Searching for the word "bread" in an online bible yielded me 325 matches (NRSV on Indeed, Jesus’ own ministry was built on the rich foundation of many stories of feeding and being fed.

In today's reading from 1 Kings, Elijah has set out on a journey on which he will be sustained by the gift of the angel of the Lord: bread! Not just once, but twice does the angel feed him, commanding him: “Get up and eat!” The food that Elijah was given was bread, with which he was able to go “in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8)

The book of Exodus reminds us that when the Jews were lost and starving in the desert God fed them with manna, the bread from heaven. For forty years, they could neither plant nor harvest but God "gave them food from heaven in abundance" (Psalm 105:40). That was the wonderful manna, which miraculously “rained down on them,” the “grain of heaven…the bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24-25).

Years later, when God became man in Jesus the Christ, born of Mary, the Jews challenged Jesus to give them a sign, such as Moses had given when he called for God to send the manna (John 6:30). Note the astounding response given them by the Lord Jesus:
‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ (John 6:32-33).

Then the people clamored for the bread to which Jesus responds,
‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ (John 6:35, 47-51).

As with Elijah in the first reading and like Israel in he desert, God realizes that the journey would be too much for us if we were not nourished. But for us, in the final culmination of divine revelation in Jesus, God does more than send an angel with a hearth cake and jug of water. God even does more than rain manna down from heaven. Now, God’s own son Jesus gives himself as our food and drink so that we can be strengthened for the journey of each day toward the mountain of God, not Horeb but the celestial Jerusalem.

The Lord in the Eucharist makes it possible for us to see divine goodness and to taste it in the supreme gift. In the New Testament Jesus uses bread as the ultimate sacrament, his body blessed and broken and shared. After more than two millennia this is still a reality – a memoria practiced in Holy Eucharist each Sunday. Today as we prepare to receive this greatest of gifts, the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus the Christ, may it be for us a strength to remain faithful to the journey, courageous to the end.

Christ gives his flesh for the life of the world, eternal life that not even the gates of hell can prevail against. And we thank God for allowing us to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. This is the “living bread” come down from heaven so that we may eat of it and not die.

August 9 marks the anniversary of the death of Saint Edith Stein, also called by her Carmelite name 
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. In one of her poems, entitled “I Will Remain With You,” she pondered the great goodness of God incarnate that she could taste and see. She wrote how she drew her very life, each and every day, from the sacrifice of Jesus, every day. Pondering the heart of Jesus’ love in the Holy Eucharist, she wrote:
This Heart, it beats for us in a small tabernacle
Where it remains mysteriously hidden
In that still, white host.
That is your royal throne on earth, O Lord,
Which visibly you have erected for us,
And you are pleased when I approach it.
Full of love, you sink your gaze into mine
And bend your ear to my quiet words
And deeply fill my heart with peace.
Yet your love is not satisfied
With this exchange that could still lead to separation:
Your heart requires more.
You come to me as early morning’s meal each daybreak.
Your flesh and blood become food and drink for me
And something wonderful happens.
Your body mysteriously permeates mine
And your soul unites with mine:
I am no longer what once I was.
You come and go, but the seed
That you sowed for future glory, remains behind
Buried in this body of dust.
A luster of heaven remains in the soul,
A deep glow remains in the eyes,
A soaring in the tone of voice.
There remains the bond that binds heart to heart,
The stream of life that springs from yours
And animates each limb.
How wonderful are your gracious wonders!
All we can do is be amazed and stammer and fall silent
Because intellect and words fail.”
In her eassy, “Before the Face of God,” she writes eloquently about the communion that is created when we partake of the Eucharistic feast.

We are made members of the Body of Christ by virtue of the sacrament in which Christ himself is present. When we partake of the sacrifice and receive Holy Communion and are nourished by the flesh and blood of Jesus, we ourselves become his flesh and his blood. And only if and insofar as we are members of his Body, can his Spirit quicken and govern us…We become members of the Body of Christ not only through love…but in all reality, through becoming one with his flesh: for this is effected through the food that he has given us in order to show us his longing for us.”
The Holy Spirit wants to enliven us but in order for that to happen we must remain in communion with Christ in his body. The letter to the Ephesians describes some of the ways we cut ourselves off from communion: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice…” (Ephesians 4:31). And then there is the description of how the Holy Spirit seeks to quicken us: “ kind to one another, tender-hearted, 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” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2). The Holy Spirit seeks to help us to imitate God in the way we treat each other, living in love and sacrificing ourselves in love of God and others as a fragrant offering to God.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Dio era li. Dio e la.

Sermon notes for the Baptism of Bruce Joseph Barbree (Proper 13B, 8/2/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

St. David’s is a baptizing church! Today we will baptize another, Bruce Joseph, welcoming him into the household of God. And you all should know by now that I love a baptism. Today I am reminded of a story of another Joseph, a boy in the church of my childhood who was baptized at age five.

"Can you see the cross? …on my forehead?" Joseph, age five, would ask Fr. John. Every week, week after week, Joseph would go to Fr. John, who had baptized him. "Can you see the cross?...on my forehead?” Joseph was talking about the chrismation. This is the ritual at which we mark the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized with the sacred oil of chrism, a special oil blended with perfume, used for consecrating persons unto the Lord. After baptizing with water, pouring it over the head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we take that sacred oil, having been blessed by our bishop during Holy Week, and we chrismate. With oil on our hands, we mark the sign of the cross on the forehead, saying, "Bruce Joseph, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever."

"Yes, I see the cross," Fr. John would always answer. At five years old Joseph was aware of what was happening at his baptism. He was well aware of the oil on his head, able to sniff and smell perfumed chrism, all the way up until bedtime. The next morning, though, he couldn't smell it anymore because his mother made him take a bath. So Joseph kept on asking, “Can you see the cross?...on my forehead?”

"Yes, I see the cross," Fr. John kept telling Joseph. And Joseph would walk away, still wondering about it all. I wonder if Joseph still wonders. I still wonder: Is it true for me? Can you see the cross on my forehead? What does it mean to be "marked as Christ's own, forever"?

"Can I see the water?" Rachel was nine, inquisitive as nine year olds are want to be from time to time. Fr. Rob, "Can I see the water?" I had baptized Rachel a year previously. In my preparation of Rachel and her parents, I spoke about the waters of baptism and how the water would be poured over Rachel to wash away the stain of original sin. “Like my mom makes me do after I play in the mud?” Rachel asked. “Well, sort of I replied. The bath that your mom makes you take and the baptism you will have both wash you clean. But I am guessing that your mom will make you take a bath again, maybe even today.” As mom was shaking her head, I continued, “You will have to take another bath because you use up the water for your bath. The waters that I’ll use for baptism, they stick around forever.”

“Can I see the water?” Rachel would aske. I guess my metaphor was a little tricky because every Sunday Rachel wanted to see the water. Luckily we used to keep baptismal font full of water all the time – a sign of our common baptism in the worshipping community.

Then one Sunday she asked again. “Well….uh….um,” I stuttered on the first Sunday there was no water in the font. “Well Rachel, the font needed repairs so we had drain it.”

She gasped a little and replied, “Does that mean that I have to be baptized again?”

“Oh, no.” I answered. “The water, well, it was just a sign, a way to demonstrate God’s love, God’s welcoming…it’s that love that is forever.”

“Oh, well, why didn’t you just say that in the first place,” Rachel said, with obvious relief. 

I wonder: Do we still see the water? Even if we can’t still the waters of our baptism, do we still believe that the water is there…being poured over us, each and every day. Do we live as though we have brought into the family of God?

"Hai visto la mia candela battesimale?" Nadia was a ninety year old that day when I went to visit her in the little village of Monte Nerodomo – the dome of the black mountain. Nadia was my grandfather’s cousin.

"Have you seen my baptismal candle? I light it every year on my birthday,” she said as she pulled out little candle. It was just a nub of a candle, not more than an inch left. “Non molte piu volte per illuminare questo” (Not many more times to light this.) We had a cake. She put that little candle in it. She blew it out and we opened our presents. She gave us presents. “What am I to so with more stuff?” she would say. But we gave her a present too, bringing her twenty-something year-old great grandson down from near the Austrian border on the train so she could meet her newly born great-great granddaughter.

That evening I sat with Nadia for a bit. “You are a good boy, Roberto,” she told me. “I am glad you will be a priest.”

“Grazie Donna Nadia,” I replied.

“Do you know why I put my baptism candle in the cake?” she asked. I nodded certain with the certainty of one who was sure. “Yes, yes, I can see that you do,” she continued with a little smile on her face. “It reminds me of my baptism and that I am God’s daughter. But more than that it reminds me that because I am God’s daughter, God will look after me. And it reminds me that God has brought me through it all and that all my family and friends, they were God’s special children as well.”

She went on to share some stories – and I’m a sucker for a story. I put those stories together with other stories that she had told in me in past visits: Sad stories of life in Italy during the Great Depression, during Mussolini’s reign of terror. Tragic stories of her how her aunt and uncle had died, leaving two babies. Hopeful stories of how her parents had taken those two babies in and raised them her brothers. Ironic stories like the night the barn caught fire and scattered the sheep and how she went to look for the sheep and found a lost boy instead, who would later become her husband. Lonely stories of a husband dead now twenty years and friends lost, she being the last of her generation. And Joyful stories of her wedding to that shepherd boy and of the births of her eldest daughter and of her great-great-granddaughter, and of every birth in between. She could recall the story of each and every birth.

The amazing thing was that each story and often several times during the story, she would proclaim, “Dio era li. Dio e la.” (God was there. God is there.) For Nadia, God was in the midst of it all. “God never forced himself,” she once told me, “but I wanted God there. Sometimes God was on the edges, I will admit, and sometimes God was at the fore. Whenever I invited God – and it was most of the time if I can admit that without so much pride – God was always there to celebrate with his daughter and to cry to me as well.”
I wonder, how do our stories end? “Dio era li. Dio e la.” Is God in our story? Do we invite God into our story?

All right, lets baptize Bruce Joseph, but first some advice:

First, remember this date: August 2, 2015. Remember the date of your baptism. To know the date of your baptism is to know a blessed day. This is a blessed day where God has welcomed you into God’s very own story. So, remember this day and remember that God loves you with an everlasting love, despite your limitations, your weaknesses, and your sin. And when the time comes, invite God into your story.

Second, keep wondering if the cross is still there? Question, every day, if you still where the cross of Christ. Ask, "Can you see the cross? …on my forehead?" In just a few moments we will make our baptismal covenant. That is, at the least, a good place to start – or perhaps it’s a good place to finish. Either way, in those five statements we see what it means to be marked as Christ’s own forever.

Third, while you may wonder, please know and understand that the water is always there. The water that is a sign of the love of God is always there. This baptism thing is not just a one-day event, it’s a lifelong thing. This baptism thing is not just today for you will be baptized now into the household of God, as a child of God, with all of these here today as your brothers and sisters. You will be baptized and made Christ’s own forever.

I Am the Resurrection and the LIfe

Sermon notes for the Funeral of Carroll Copp "Bud" Philllips (7/30/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

I had my first contact with Bud Phillips back in 2000 when I was a young priest at St. Joseph Catholic in downtown Lakeland. The Phillips’s didn’t worship there but even as a young priest I had the need of hardware store. I remember what needed fixing – my TV shelf had mysteriously detached itself from the wall. Rather than tracking down our handyman, I took it upon myself to fix the shelf. Having been in Lakeland only a short time, I went to the only hardware store I knew – the one down the road by the Publix, in that shopping center where Edward Scissorhands was filmed. And that was all I knew of Lakeland at the time.

“Can I help you find something?”

I think all of us who have entered Crowder Bros. Ace Hardware can recall that question being asked, perhaps by more than one helpful face. I related my dilemma. A few heads got together. They open this drawer, then that one, then another. They pulled a few items off the shelf. The man who first asked if I needed some help handed me a little paper bag with a few numbers written on it, a few brackets, and a packet of some plastic gizmo. I took the items with a smile and a nod, not wanting to admit that I was as clueless as I really was. 

“That should get you through. Is there anything else,” he said with that famous Crowder Bros. smile.

When I got back to the rectory, with a screwdriver in hand and the handyman following me up the stairs to my little room, there in that bag was everything that the handyman needed to fix my little shelf.
What service! I honestly don’t know if it was Bud who helped me that day; but I consider that my first encounter with the man I would come to know a few years later when I entered ministry at St. David’s Episcopal. You see, the service and the smile and the courtesy and the pride and the demeanor of the hardware store – it is the one and the same with man.

Carroll Copp “Bud” Phillips began his earthly pilgrimage on March 10, 1929, a second generation Tampa native. His earthly pilgrimage variously found Bud at Augusta Military Academy, the University of Florida, and in service with the United States Coast Guard. His earthly pilgrimage would grow, becoming larger fifty-six years ago when Carolyn joined him on his way. Then came Beth, Bruce, and Andrew. In 1973, he had made the long pilgrimage from his hometown in Tampa, from his family’s wholesale hardware business, to Lakeland, joining John Crowder on the retail hardware end in founding Crowder Bros. ACE Hardware.

Now, today, we accompany Bub on the last stage of the pilgrimage of his earthly life. It was an earthly pilgrimage that included also baptism in the waters of new life where Bud was welcomed into the household of God, confirmation in the Spirit where Bud took his place in the community of the faithful, and Holy Eucharist where Bud had a foretaste of the eternal feast. I had the pleasure of sharing the most Holy Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Bud on the Monday before he died. I believe that it was truly a viaticum for Bud, a meal of strength for the final phase of his journey. What a pleasure it was to share with Bud the bread of life and the cup of salvation – the promise of eternity given for us. Now we continue that pilgrimage in this St. David’s Episcopal Church, where Bud worshipped week after week for more than forty years. We assemble to pray to God for the pledge of our inheritance, the gift of eternal life with God and all the saints.

Listen again to those words of eternal life that we hear in the Gathering Anthem. They are the words spoken by Jesus to Martha:

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.

Those words are a beautiful commentary on the faith that Bud confessed and also a great consolation for us at his death. With those words, Jesus reveals that the resurrection is not so much about a fact or even about the event. It’s not, in other words, about a confession or about understanding history. Rather, the resurrection is more so about a relationship. The resurrection is about a relationship with Jesus. “I am the resurrection,” Jesus tells Martha. Jesus is the Resurrection. So, for us to experience the resurrection – for us to experience the gift of eternal life, we must respond to this relationship. Jesus offers us loving friendship. He promises that whoever lives in him, even if he dies, will live. When Jesus tells us that those who believe in him will have eternal life, belief is not about an assent to some heady principle or intellectual statement. Belief is about adhering to Jesus, abiding in him as he abides in the Father.

We give great and wonderful thanks that Bud took these words seriously. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and that after he had been “in the tomb four days.” Jesus demonstrates his power over life and death. But what Jesus has in store for us is so much more than what Jesus did for Lazarus. Jesus resuscitated Lazarus from the dead but Lazarus would die again. The resurrection and life that Jesus is and that Jesus offers to us is so much more, greater than resuscitation to continued mortal existence. Indeed, what Jesus promises is a resurrection to eternity, a life that never ends, where you “shall not die forever.”

“Do you believe this?” Jesus wants Martha to seize this truth and he wants to seize it as well. Martha responds, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Martha trusted and was willing to abide in Jesus. In John, chapter 14, we hear the promise again when Jesus implores, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” We all have the opportunity to reaffirm that faith and to trust in that promised life as Bud did: in Jesus, the way and the truth and the life.

The reading from the Book of Revelation heard today points to that same life, the eternal life imagined in the quintessential “a new heaven and a new earth.” The image points to an eternal wedding banquet, a feast of love greater even than the love between Carolyn and Bud – and that was a mighty love, indeed. “See, the home of God is among mortal,” John writes. “He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” You see, eternal life is a relationship with God whose love and life is forever. It is a place where Jesus “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” In this new heaven and new earth, death itself is vanquished and the first things will pass away. In the new heaven and the new earth everything will be made new with a place will be prepared for us, a place to which Jesus will come and will take us – will take Bud – “so that where I am, there you may be also.”

I am always struck by the twenty-third psalm. It is at once highly romantic and very brutally honest. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” That is, I shall not go without, I shall not lack. We have it all, with the Lord as our shepherd! This was the faith of Bud. This is the faith of the church, a faith never wavering. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; they rod and they staff, they comfort me.” Bud walked through a dark valley at his the end of his earthly life, but he never walked alone. His wife walked with him. His children walked with him. His church walked with him. But more than all that, the Lord walked with him. Bud lived in the sure and certain hope that comes from faith, from the determination he received in a relationship with One who triumphed even over crucifixion. Bud believed in the One who brought him through the waters of baptism, in whose name he was anointed with the oil of confirmation, and in the One who preparest the Eucharistic table before him. Today in the midst of our mourning, we remember that the Lord is our Shepherd, too, and even if we’re stumbling in the dark valley, the Lord is with us to guide us just as he guided Bud.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness; for your tender mercies' sake. Amen.