Thursday, August 20, 2009
Monday, August 10, 2009
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
We Southerners are very particular people. We’re particular about our traditions, we’re particular about our Ice Tea, and we’re especially particular about our food. You know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s only the proper way to make potato salad, devil an egg, or even fried chicken. Food here in the South is more than just sustaining life, it’s a way of life. It’s a way that we show hospitality and share with one another the fruits of our labor. Now living in England for seven weeks showed me a different side of food. The English are not exactly known for their cuisine, you can only live for so long on fish and chips! Before long, Mary and I were reminiscing about food. Ah, comfort food, the stuff that reminds you of home, of something familiar, of family. Hers was chicken and dumplings and mine was pecan pie and fresh tomatoes! Everywhere we went, we would somehow say to one another, “don’t you miss having such-and-such…” We were in West Yorkshire talking about Southern food. We didn’t go over there for the cuisine, but somehow that follows you. Inevitably, it seems, that you miss the comfort of things you can have easily only once they have disappeared.
Bread is the food that is woven throughout our readings this morning. In the Old Testament lesson we learn from Moses why Israel spent forty years wandering in thedesert. Forty years! Moses tells them that this was in order to humble them, and that in all that time the LORD was there leading them---never allowing the clothes on their backs to wear out or even their tired feet to swell up. They were given manna to eat, a strange new food, in order to teach Israel that they could not live on solely, “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Israel lacked the comfort of a home and the comfort of familiar food. And only by God’s grace did Israel survive the long ordeal. Their reward, however, was great. The land God was setting aside for was filled with olive trees, honey, figs, wheat, barley. The land was so rich that the flowing streams of waters were fed by deep wells—wellsprings that will not dry up. This place, this land is where Israel will lack nothing, where they can eat bread without scarcity. This is the gift and promise of God, so long as the commandments are kept.
Bread takes on an even deeper philosophical meaning in John’s Gospel reading. Jesus boldly proclaims, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven. Surely this is not the comfortable food that the disciples,much less even today, we can stomach reasonably. What an astonishing statement. “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.” Consider this familiar statement heard every Sunday: “take eat, this is my body which is given up for you.” I wish the disciples’ reaction to this statement was recorded, probably more eyebrows were raised in the Upper Room than we can imagine. And yet we listen to all this as though we have heard many times before. Nothing seems odd to us about claiming one’s body as food. Yes, intellectually, we know that Jesus is clearly talking about something beyond the daily need of food; perhaps he’s clever at metaphor. But, if we cannot live by bread alone and at the same time we’re to eat the living bread from heaven, then what are we supposed to be eating?
It’s no coincidence that the language of food is used to help us understand in the most basic of ways our need for sustaining life. Feeding the stomach is important; feeding the soul is critical. Bread is one of the most staple items in just about every diet. Christ as the living bread from heaven is the gift from God to the world—just as the promised land was a foretaste of heaven on earth for Israel. All this, however, presupposes our complete and total dependency on God, or as the psalmist writes, “taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are they who trust in him.” You cannot simply feed your stomach and ignore your soul. You’ll surely die. And yet this heavenly bread is not comfort food—it’s not intended to satisfy our sense of building a comfort zone. It is to feed our souls and to spur us to action for the Kingdom. I am afraid that we hear those words so many times, “take eat,” or “give us today our daily bread,” that we use them as a sense of comfort rather than a call to action for Kingdom. The reality is that the Christian life is not a life of comfort. Even here, in this house of worship, there is no safe side of the altar or even a safe pew to hide from the call of Christ to work for the Kingdom. To eat this living bread, to partake in the life of Christ is dangerous work. And yet the rewards, the joy, the freedom of love which this life offers is truly awesome.
The words of Jesus are radical indeed. This bread is subversive to the established powers and principalities of this world. It subverts all the things in this world that are fleeting and flawed, things like power and greed. This bread is celebrated more times than we recite the pledge of allegiance, more times than we pay our taxes, and more times than we vote. The power of Christ is threatening to the powers because they live on bread alone. When we gather to break this bread and celebrate Jesus as the living bread taken, blessed, broken, and given to us and to the world, we are putting our trust in his Kingship and sharing in the powerful nourishment needed for body, mind, and soul. It’s easy to think that we eat Christ in the sacrament, but really it is Christ who consumes us. Hear again the words from this morning’s Collect, “Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.”
Our joy and our comfort comes from knowing that Christ has made a complete and total claim on our lives, and that we cannot exist otherwise. Our hope is that by sharing in the bread of life, we can be partakers of the Kingdom and serve as Christ’s hands in the world today. We live dangerously as Christians, but we live protected by God’s love and grace which is sustained every time we gather as the Body of Christ. Our comfort comes from trusting God, trusting in God’s ability to nourish us with exactly what we need, never going hungry. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Amen.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Ephesians 4:1-7. 11-16
Building a rich life of prayer is more like an adventure, a journey to the heart. I sometimes wonder that the reason we neglect to seriously address this critical part of the Christian experience is because we are afraid that we will be found out—found that we cannot or do not pray or even believe that we lack the theological language to express our feelings and emotions, fearing our simple ways of the heart before the throne of the Almighty. I want to be a priest who prays. So often I see in parish profiles that parishes are searching for dynamic, visionary leaders—someone who can preach and help move a congregation to grow. We seem to take for granted that all of this should come automatically. It doesn’t. Only if it comes from a life deeply rooted in prayer.
Prayer is the essence of the Christian life, and we see that modeled in this morning’s gospel from Mark. Last week we heard the story of Our Lord feeding five thousand hungry souls, a miraculous action that still astonishes us today. And now this week we see the reflective side of
Jesus: “and he went up on the mountain to pray.” The model, we learn, is that of action and reflection—a paradigm of movement and rest. Which one comes first, well, that seems to be a chicken-and-egg question. The point is that Our Lord takes time in his earthly ministry to be alone and to pray. We see this pattern again and again. To go up to the mountain symbolizes a lot of the movement of the Gospel story—a movement of ascent, up to the heavens, the language of resurrection. Mark does not give us the content of the prayer and we can only presume that in that act of prayer there was more movement of descent, God indwelling in the recesses of the heart than could ever be reported. There is nothing wrong with the language of resurrection, for it’s a critical component to our story and our common life. However, we seem to have lost the language of Pentecost, the language of Incarnation—God descending to us, God desiring to be in an intimate relationship with God’s creation. The language of spirituality, and I would be willing to wager that most books on Spirituality, neglect this essential descending movement of prayer.
So, we cannot climb mountains and think our way into heaven. God came down to us first, descending into our hearts and stirring us to work for the Kingdom. The action part of the model comes out of and is informed by, a rich life of prayer. The Christian life is not about doing good works in order to obtain heavenly salvation, the point is to be the hands of Christ, the mouth of Christ, and the visible and embodied love of Christ here and now. All this flows out from the totality of our life being consumed by Christ in prayer. I suspect this is what the Gospel passage is pointing us towards. “Speaking the truth in love,” as St. Paul says in today’s epistle, is only possible through intimacy with Christ in prayer—a total and complete dependency upon God as the strength and source of our action. Thus, prayer is at the very heart of all ministry—a piece of equipment that every saint and sinner needs.
If then prayer is at the heart of our common life in Christ, it must also be work. For this reason, we come up with a lot of reasons to avoid or put off praying. “There’s no time for praying, I am way too busy.” Believe it or not, this is heard more than you would imagine in our seminaries these days. There’s always a vestry or committee meeting to attend, a church fundraiser to organize, the altar brassware needs a good polishing, the Vacation Bible School needs my help—and these are just some of the more common Christian excuses. The call of God to prayer is deep and we need to get past our limitations that we place on God, for God is not interested in how pretty our altars look, how concise our bulletins are, or even how well we think we worship. God is interested in what is in our hearts, the very substance of our souls. When we descend with the mind into the heart, there we find God’s presence that was instilled in us from our creation. There we find our integrity and authenticity, there we see our sinfulness
If prayer is work, then prayer is also dancing. With each beat, each rhythm of the heart, God calls us onto the dance floor to be in intimate relationship. God’s love comes to us in prayer: we do not have to have a heightened vocabulary or even much experience of prayer, all we have to do is go out onto the floor and be guided in our footsteps.The dance is both vigorous and slow, close and yet far apart, strange and somehow very familiar. It is work and yet is also rest—it is the most intimate way in which God comes to us
So, then, we as church have our work and our fun cut out for us: we need to talk openly about our life of prayer—our struggles, our disappointments, and our breakthroughs. The community, the body of Christ, is the ultimate support group and is necessary in prayer. No book can offer you this, it is experiential and embodied in flesh, not paper. When we allow ourselves to be consumed by the risen Christ, we can with our minds descend into our hearts and find a wellspring of the living presence eternally inside of us. Prayer is the vehicle to wholeness, the means for us to remember that it is “not I, but Christ who lives inside of me.” Being spiritual or religious is completely meaningless unless it is dependent upon prayer. What ever your language, your style, or situation in life, pray. Pray and pray always that God is the source of your ministry and the foundation of your being. God can teach us to pray, we only need ears to listen. Amen.