Monday, August 20, 2012

"Bread and Wine," August 19, 2012, Pentecost 12B

John 6:51-58
Jesus said, “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.” The religious leaders then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One 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. Just as the living Creator sent me, and I live because of the Creator, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Will you pray with me? Creator of all that is, bless our hearing and our speaking today. Give us grace and wisdom to take in your teaching, your love, your presence in our lives today and always. Amen.

This reading reminded me of a Marsha Stevens song, “Don’t Change Me.” The singer says she wants to be filled and warmed by Christ, blessed and touched by Christ; but she doesn’t want people to look at her oddly, she wants to be “the same only better, free without fetter,” she tells God, “you can fill me but don’t change me.” She wants all the trappings of being a Christian, of being a good person, all the appearance of being a Christian—she has her new Christian t-shirt, her WWJD pin—and even many of the actions—she thinks maybe she should be a pastor—but, she says, fill me but don’t change me. “You can bless me God, but don’t transform me.”

Of course Marsha means the whole song ironically—because changing people is exactly what Jesus is most about. She is reflecting the attitude of people who want to be seen as Christian, but are terrified of what that mean if they really took in the message of Christ and made it part of themselves—if they were changed by it. Jesus healed people—which is change. He changed water into wine and one boy’s dinner into enough for a multitude. He asked a tax collector, Zacheus,  to make him dinner and changed that man’s life. Jesus is about change.

Many of us here know this intimately. We have lived lives in which we did things we weren’t and aren’t proud of; like Paul, we haven’t done things we should have, and we have done things we should not have. And yet, with God’s grace, we have felt that change in us as we welcomed God into our lives. We have been changed, because we have taken in that spirit of love and hope and generosity that is God.

I am sure the people Jesus was talking to were shocked or at least surprised when he talked about eating his body and drinking his blood! After all, taken literally that is cannibalism on the one hand and a violation of the laws of Moses on the hand—blood must be drained from an animal before it is eaten. But Jesus is using a metaphor here—the clearest image possible of taking in something is by eating it. Clothes can be easily changed and besides, they wear out; hairstyles change, jewellery can be lost or removed, even tattoos are literally only skin deep. But when something is eaten—then it becomes truly part of you.

There’s a famous passage in Isaiah in which the prophet eats a scroll of scripture and it tastes as sweet to him as honey. It’s a metaphor for the prophet taking in the words of God, making them a part of himself, sweet and rich and nourishing.

But Jesus is talking about more than sweetness, more than a lovely extra—he is the very basis, the foundation of a full life—bread and wine, the most basic food and drink of his time. We talked about that a couple weeks ago if you remember. Bread is filling and nourishing and relatively inexpensive; it was the staple of the Mediterranean diet of the time. Wine was the main drink, with more or less water added—easy to make from plentiful grapes, when water was not always safe or available. So Jesus is naming himself as the very basics of life—the bread and wine that feed and sustain and strengthen human beings.

More than that, this bread and wine, this substance of who Christ is, is to be taken in, incorporated into our bodies, ourselves. We digest them, not in the literal sense, but in the sense of thinking about them, praying over them, meditating on them, and then assimilating them into the very fabric of our spirits and our souls.

But this is difficult—it is hard to be the person we are supposed to be, to show Christ in us to the world. And so we remind ourselves, at least once a week, of God’s presence in our innermost self through taking the bread and wine of Communion—eating the bread, drinking the cup—taking them, taking God, into ourselves once more, reminding ourselves of whose we are, of what we should be deep inside. We do it all together—because we know we need each other to be able to do this, and to see the Christ in each other reminds us of the Christ in ourselves. I do not know of a single Christian denomination in which Communion is habitually celebrated or taken alone. It is done with others, in mutual recognition and support of our shared identity and struggle and commitment to be the face of Christ, of God, to the world. When we join together in this act of remembering at God’s table, we do it together, sharing the remembrance, sharing the struggle, sharing the strength, sharing our gifts.

In one sense, this is just flour and water baked together, it is just juice from a bottle. But in another sense, it is so much more than that—it is a visible, tangible, symbol of God’s presence with and in us, continually renewed through our presence in community and a shared meal, expressed through our love for and presence with all God’s children.

In this week to come, remember that you carry Christ within you; in your quiet moments, reflect on the joy and responsibility that carries with it. In your busy times, of work and doing and action, be that face of Christ that is part of you. And remember too, that Christ is forgiving, so when you stumble, forgive yourself—get up and begin again.

Above all, know with every part of your being that the love of God which is Jesus Christ is in you, and part of your very being, today and always. In all God’s names, amen.

Monday, August 06, 2012

"Divine Bread," Pentecost 10B (August 5, 2012)

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by God’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Then God said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.
Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before God, who has heard your grumbling.’”
While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of God appearing in the cloud.
God said to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Holy One. ‘”
That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.  When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.
Moses said to them, “It is the bread God has given you to eat.

John 6:24-35
Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Human One will give you. For on him God the Creator has placed the seal of approval.”
Then they asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one God has sent.”
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is the Creator who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Will you pray with me? God, you are the source of all good things—our strength, our wisdom, our hope. Give us the grace to recognise your presence in the everyday things, and the wisdom to be your presence in the world. In all your names, amen.

Manna from heaven. Unexpected, undeserved, showering down on a hungry people.  Even though the Israelites grumble and complain, God gives them the good things they crave, pouring down from heaven.  They have enough to eat—just enough, as it turns out. They find in the next chapter that anything extra, not eaten, spoils. God feeds them out of the divine bounty and compassion, but doesn’t allow them to gorge or waste those gifts. They’ve been wandering in the desert since they left Egyptian captivity, and they want food, real food. Moses kept telling them God had something better for them, and they want to see it. They get it—and just enough. They realise God’s care for them, and are content.

Fast forward several centuries to the first century of the Common Era. Rome is ruling Palestine, Israel is occupied and part of the Roman Empire. The Israelites, in the centuries after the exodus, have become farmers and herdsmen. They have settled down and no longer wander the desert with their flocks. They have orchards and vineyards and fields of grain. They make bread—a lot of bread.

Short history lesson—In Jesus’ time, under the Roman Empire, the main food was bread. It was relatively cheap and easy to make, and it was filling. It was dipped in olive oil or a chick-pea mash like hummus for flavouring, but otherwise, bread and bread alone was the main entrĂ©e of a meal. There might be some cheese or fruit in season, but rarely meat, such as chicken or even more rarely, mutton—sheep—beef or goat. Everyone ate it, in one form or another—finely ground flour made a finer, easier to digest loaf, and was more expensive—and so was only eaten by the wealthy. Brown bread, more coarsely ground, was the usual bread of most people—farmers, artisans, and so on. But whatever form it took, bread was the main thing on every table at every meal.

In the same way, wine was the mainstay drink of the day. Water was not always available in quantity and was needed for irrigation and for the animals—and it was often not safe to drink, although of course the people of the time didn’t know about germs, they just knew that sometimes when people drank water, they got sick and died—so they avoided it, or drank as little as possible. Milk was needed to make cheese, so few people drank it—and it could not be kept, either, in the days before mechanical, reliable refrigeration. Other kinds of alcohol—spirits such as whiskey or vodka, and beer—were more complicated to make, and while people knew about them, they were rarely made. Wine making was simple—tread out the grape juice, put it in containers, maybe add some honey and or yeast, let it sit awhile, and there you are! It was usually mixed with a little water, because it was pretty strong and might be a bit rough.  Of course, wealthy people could afford better wines that did not need to be mixed with water.

So—bread and wine, the main food of everyone.

The people asking Jesus for this bread and wine are thinking literally—sort of a lifetime supply of groceries, as if they won a contest at Sobey’s. But Jesus is not. For him, these are metaphors—symbols of the rich and abundant life available with God, with the Creator. Jesus had a special relationship with God—very close and intimate, yet worshipful at the same time. And so he wanted his followers to experience this same loving and tender and nourishing relationship. The best way he could find, in our limited human speech, to describe this relationship with the Divine was through the metaphor of being fed, of heavenly food, always present, not something rare or unheard of, but something very everyday that had been imbued with a special grace and presence. Something that is always present, even taken for granted, and yet has such power and blessing and grace within that having once tasted it, we don’t need or want any other food.

This, my sisters and brothers, is the foundation of our life as a church community—not only in this local congregation, but as the Christian church. We gather and share a meal of grain and grape, remembering Jesus and his love, poured out for us. This is what gives us the basis, the underpinning, to be and share Christ in the world.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently with people who are not Christian, not religious at all, who do not go to any church, temple, synagogue or mosque, and not because they are actively uncomfortable with it, in most cases. For some, they have drifted away, no longer finding that it feels like a fit, or that it has any meaning for them. Others have in fact been hurt and damaged by organised religion, by the oppression of women in many traditions, or the marginalisation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, or the protection of people—clergy and non-clergy—in positions of  power who abused that power financially or sexually or politically. And there are some people who have never really had an interest in organised religion, who feel they get what they need spiritually in other ways—from a spiritual practice such as meditation or reading sacred texts.

For all these people, I wonder if we, the church, have not failed. Failed to show them the spiritual riches of a deep relationship with the Divine, with the God of Jesus Christ, the One who gives us the very basics we need to sustain life, bread and wine, through the presence of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I wonder if we, the church—I am not so much talking about this congregation, although it certainly bears thinking about—I wonder if we, not as individuals but in groups, focus more on programs and activities and what we are doing in the world than we do on creating and sustaining that relationship with God, with the source of all that is good and sustaining and nourishing, in our hearts and in our souls.

Are we maintaining the very foundation of what we do or are we busily holding programs in a building that is about to fall down from neglect of the foundations? Those foundations—the love between us and God, the relationship each of us has with the Divine, with Jesus Christ, is what gives shape to our worship and to what we do in the name of God in the world. If we do not have those basic foundations firmly set, we cannot be the presence of Christ that we are meant to be. It takes a special, firm, and intimate relationship to be able to speak for and represent another. Sometimes partners will speak for each other and make promises on behalf of the other, but not often—only in the strongest of relationships. A celebrity’s publicist, the person who speaks for him or her, must be as close as a friend, in order to accurately represent that person to the larger world. A company or organisation’s spokesperson who is not intimately familiar with all that the organisation is doing and planning is worse than useless. We who would represent Christ to the world must have that same relationship—that intimacy to know and be able to show Christ to the world with confidence.

But like any relationship, whether it be of partners, parents and child, or friends, it needs support and encouragement to remain strong and healthy. Unlike any of those relationships, it will not, cannot, end. There is nothing we can do to drive Christ away, who does and always will love us. We may turn away in shame or grief or anger, but God is always with us. Even though it cannot end, our relationship with the One who sustains us requires nourishment—and that is the very bread of life and cup of love we share in communion.

This isn’t just a gesture, a weekly reminder of Christ’s resurrection—although it is that too. Most especially, this meal is our means of reminding ourselves of the goodness of God, the means of our very life, now and hereafter. In taking the bread and cup, we taste God’s presence with us, we are fed with the love of the Divine—so much more than we know we need, and enough for all our wants.

In Communion, in this gathering every week—we renew our sense of Christ’s presence with us. In our daily prayers and reading and quiet time with God, we remember Christ’s never-ending love for us. Without these foundations, the building that is the church will surely fall.

This weekly meal with Christ and each other gives us a starting point for creating, renewing, or strengthening that relationship with the Divine—wherever each of us might be in that process of relationship building. Have you ever been in a long-distance relationship? If you have, then you know that such a relationship requires regular, frequent, open, honest communication.  There has to be trust between the partners, and boundaries set and respected. What those boundaries are will be different for every relationship, but they must be identified and recognised and set.

Our relationship with Christ is much like a long-distance relationship, isn’t it? We have, or should have, brief contacts every day—like the texts or emails of a relationship, we may have a prayer time set aside to communicate with Christ, or we may simply recognise the Divine presence in various ways as we go through our day—a kindness done, the beauty of a tree, the full table we share at dinner. Our weekly Communion meal is like that regular Skype or video call we may schedule once or twice a week—a chance to see and talk and share more intimately, with the one we love—our partner or Christ. In a long-distance relationship, there are times when you and your partner are able to be in the same place physically—vacations together, or visits by one to the other. We might think this doesn’t, can’t, happen in our relationship with Christ; that we will not touch him or see him face to face until our eternal life begins. But it does happen—rarely, but it does. Many of us have had the experience of meeting someone—perhaps only for a few moments—in whom we saw Christ. Many of us have had mystical experiences of the Divine presence in ways we cannot explain or even describe, a time out of time, when we knew God’s presence in new ways that cannot be described in human words. 

My sisters and brothers, find ways, even in your busy and crowded life, to renew, sustain, deepen your relationship with your Divine Friend. Whether it is two minutes in the shower as you express appreciation for all you have, or 30 minutes spent reading and meditating before work, or time spent in the evening with your loved ones reflecting on your day and the many ways God has been present in your lives that day---whatever it is that strengthens and builds up your relationship with Christ, I encourage you to do that. Whatever it is, may it deepen your relationship with the Divine and with other people, create a bond of love and contribute to the healing of the world, the building of God’s realm on earth.

In all God’s many names, amen.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

"it is Enough" July 29, 2012 (Pentecost 9B)

2 Kings 4:42-44
One day a messenger from Baal-shalishah brought God’s prophet Elisha a sack of fresh grain and twenty loaves of barley bread made from the first grain of his harvest. Elisha said, “Give it to the people so they can eat.”
 “What?” Elisha’s servant exclaimed. “Feed a hundred people with only this?”
But Elisha repeated, “Give it to the people so they can eat, for this is what the Holy One says: Everyone will eat, and there will even be some left over!” And when they gave it to the people, there was plenty for all and some left over, just as God had promised.

John 6:1-14
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

“It is Enough”

Will you pray with me? Holy One, you provide more than enough for all your children. Teach us how to use your many gifts generously, so that no one goes without—food, housing, education, health care, love, understanding, opportunities. Give us the grace to recognise our own stinginess and the wisdom to become more like you, sharing all that we are and have with all who have need, not only the ones we know and see. Open our hearts and spirits to your teaching today and every day. In all your names, amen.

Enough.  What does it mean to you? We all say we only want “enough,” but what is enough for one person is not enough for another, whether we are talking about food or time or books or money or talent. A single childless person’s “enough” in income is not nearly enough for the family with three children. For a city dweller, one car may too many; for a family in the country, two or three may be enough. And so on. Enough in God’s economy means more than the minimum, not an amount to satisfy basic needs. It means leftovers, abundant leftovers.  Enough, to God, means “more than you can possibly need.”

Which brings us to a question. Do we trust God for that generous “enough?” Even more, do we have confidence not only that there will be enough, but that what we have is more than enough? That we can supply all the needs—the real needs—and have some left over? I am not talking so much about finances, although the concept could be equally applied to money as well, but gifts, graces, talents, abilities.

I am more interested in how well we share—or don’t—our gifts and talents and other resources, like time and energy.  Gifts—those abilities we simply have, not skills we have learned or knowledge we have gained, but gifts. We all know people who have gifts—the person who can sit quietly with a friend, just listening; the person who preaches a sermon so strongly that your life is changed; the musician who can move you to tears with the depth of their music; the person who always knows what to do for those in need. Those are gifts.

Some skills can be learned—bookkeeping, playing the piano, writing computer code, laying tile, leading a meeting—but some of us can go beyond those basic skills to genuine talent and gifts, to creativity. The ones who are gifted go beyond those with skill and talent to create. Many people know how to dive; lots of them are on university diving teams and some of them even are selected for the Olympics. Only a very few, such as Greg Louganis, can create a new dive.  That is a gift. Pretty much anyone can learn to lay tile; that’s a skill. Doing it well, so that all tiles are even and make a pleasing pattern—that’s talent. But creating new patterns, finding new ways to use tile—that is a gift. Everything we do has these three levels of ability—skill, which anyone can learn or do; talent, doing the skill well and excelling at it; and gift, creating something new, going beyond what is known and usual. It’s relatively easy to understand when we think of concrete abilities like tiling or gardening or bookkeeping, but applying that to more abstract or spiritual abilities is more difficult—and yet we easily can recognise those with gifts in those abilities. For example—we all have friends and people we care about; most of us talk to those individuals about what matters to us—struggles, hopes, joys. Some of us feel heard and understood. But those with a gift for hearing others—they are the ones who offer us new insights and understands, who help us know ourselves better. And that is the going beyond, the creating anew, that is a gift.

We are not all stars—Albert Einstein, Archbishop Tutu, Roger Clemente, Bruce Springsteen, Sir Laurence Olivier, JRR Tolkien—but what we have, who we are, is enough. Whatever gift we have, it is enough—it is what God needs us to have, needs us to share.  When we are doing God’s work, when we are called by God to a task or a life, we have what we need, even if we don’t think we do, or don’t even know what our gift might be. There is always a place for us—God knows who we are, and has given us the gifts we have and has a place for us to be, and  to be fully all that we are.

Paul mentions many gifts in his letters to the new churches—some people teach, some lead, some are musicians, some can sit with the ill and dying—all these gifts are needed, and the needed gifts will appear if they are not already present.

In the end, the choice comes down to us—will we share those gifts? Will we be part of that “more than enough?”

And it is indeed part of having those gifts to share them—a gift that is not shared is sterile, useless to everyone, not only the people who might have benefitted but the rest of the world as well. If someone has the gift of counselling, but does not reach out and support others, then not only do those who are in need suffer, but those who depend on them in turn suffer when they are comforted or healed—their partners or children or co-workers. What we do—or don’t do—affects so many other people.

Look around you; think of all the prayer requests in our book each week, the prayer requests you see on Facebook or an email list or hear from family and co-workers and friends, what you see in the news—all the situations that are in desperate need of someone’s gifts, in some way, shape or form.  You can see needs for financial resources, for teachers and carers and listeners and creators of beauty. We can see these needs, and sometimes it is frustrating, because we don’t have that gift and we know it is needed.

But—we cannot control or direct God’s call, God’s gifts to us or others. Just as Jesus eluded the crowd that wanted to make him ruler and wouldn’t go with the disciples in the boat, God goes God’s way, not ours. I wish I had the gift of music, so that I could compose hymns. When I selected the hymns for last week, I had to compromise, because there were no hymns that said exactly what I wanted them to say. If I had the gift of writing hymns, I could create one to fit the need, whatever it was—but I don’t. I can read music, I know the basics—the very basics—of music theory. I could learn the intricacies of music theory, I think I can write lyrics, verses, and theoretically I could put the two together, and have a hymn. So I have the skill, not the talent, And I will never have that creative gift of an Isaac Watts, a Michael Smith, a Shawn Thomas.  A gift cannot be forced, cannot be demanded from God.

What we have to do is use the gifts we do have—use them fully, and as God intends for us, fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives. There’s no point in whining for gifts we don’t have. It’s easy to do. We see the need for those gifts in the church, and no one currently in the church seems to have those gifts, so we wish we had that gift. Sometimes we even try to pretend we do, or that we at least have the skill; and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But, perhaps someone is on their way, someone we don’t know yet who has that very gift in abundance, who will share it generously with the church. The other side of that coin is pretending to ignore the ones we do have.

It may be scary or a venture beyond what we know to share our gifts. We may have to speak to strangers or challenge the way things are. A gift may mean paying a price—in time or energy or finances or simply giving up what we want for what God wants. It’s true of big things—giving up a lucrative law career, as a seminary friend of mine did, in order to answer the call to ministry. It’s true of small things—instead of sleeping late or hanging out at home on a Saturday, we work at a church fund-raising event or maintain the community garden.

Whatever the gifts that are present—in the church, in us, at work, in our community, in our families—they are enough. If we share those gifts, there is more than enough. What we have is enough—God’s enough, which means an overflowing abundance.

In all God’s names, amen.

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...