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A Matter of Death and Life

Sermon Preached Sunday, August 23, 2015                        
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church                                                              
Proper 16 (John 6)

Today’s gospel brings to an end a 5-week series taken from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.  Among clergy there is a collective groan every three years when we hit this time of year – 5 weeks to talk about Jesus as the bread of life! Oy!  What on earth can I possibly say for five weeks?  I know what I’ll do? I’ll go on vacation!  And so I did – and, if Facebook posts are any indication, so too did many of my colleagues.  But in all seriousness, I think it is critical for us to think about why those who plan out the readings for our churches would make a decision to emphasize this message for 5 weeks.  That’s longer than the time we spend preparing for our Christmas celebrations and as many Sundays as we have in our Lenten preparations for Holy Week and for Easter.  In other words, some people in the church think this is really important.  Jesus is the bread of life.  Pay attention!
Like me, you may not have been here for all five weeks’ of the readings, so I’m going to give a really brief recap:  The first week we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish.[1]  This miraculous story is then followed by a lengthy dialogue between Jesus and those around him.  The dialogue begins when the five thousand seek out Jesus the next day and Jesus calls them up short saying, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. . . . I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[2]  What follows is a lengthy conversation about what Jesus means by these words.  Today’s section of the conversation is the conclusion and offers this summary:
 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. . . . the one who eats this bread will live forever.”[3]
At this time, John’s gospel reports that many of Jesus’ disciples “turned back and no longer went about with him.”[4] They found the teaching too difficult.  Jesus even asks his closest companions, the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Simon Peter, purportedly answering for the twelve says, “No! Of course not” – after all “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”[5]
I wish the gospel writer had given Peter’s response more flesh because as it appears here, it sounds too easy.  But, my brothers and sisters, the question asked of the disciples – “Do you also wish to go away?” – is a question of life and death.  Following Jesus is a risky affair and though it comes with the promise of eternal life it also comes with a guarantee of death.  Jesus will die on a cross and the disciples and earlier followers of the Way of Christ will also be persecuted.
In a 3-day break from vacation, I attended the North American Association for the Catechumenate’s Annual Gathering just outside of Baltimore.  The keynote speaker, The Rev. Paul Hoffman talked to us about the way we order our lives, or more aptly the way the world orders life versus the way in which God orders life.[6]  In the world, we are used to thinking about beginnings, middles, and endings.  We are born, we live our lives, and, eventually we die.  But in God’s order, the end is the beginning.  Christ has died – ending.  Christ is risen – beginning.  Christ will come again – middle.  These words – or something similar – are spoken in every celebration of the Eucharist in our churches - a reminder that our lives are no longer to be lived from birth to death but to be lived instead according to God’s Way - the Way of Christ.  It is why we pray each week that when we eat the bread and drink the wine – the flesh and blood of Jesus - that God might
“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[7]
Let the flesh and blood of Jesus abide in us as we abide in Jesus.  And so we as church arrive in the midst of death – what Paul Hoffman refers to as the chronic illnesses of our age (mediocrity, hypocrisy, racism, sexism, classicism, greed, self-aggrandizement, moralistic deism, you name it).  The church shows up in the midst of this death and destruction and proclaims a new beginning in Christ.  The church shows up in the face of death and proclaims, “Christ is Risen. Alleluia!”  Beginning.  And as our liturgy each week comes to a close and we are sent back out into the world; we are invited to be a reminder to the world – by the way in which we live our lives – that Christ will come again. Middle. 
Why do we repeat this every week?  Because day after day you and I have a habit of practicing our faith as if we don’t really have to die.  As if we do not need God to transform our lives in order to follow the Way of Jesus.  As if our prayers on Sunday morning have nothing or little to do with the rest of our lives.  As if the promises we made at our baptism can be lived out half way.  And so, week after week, we return to our worship – to the sacrament - to be fed again by the body and blood of Jesus to be reminded that we must live in the middle; to be reminded that we have a place where we can bring our inadequacies, our insecurities, our heresies and our sins; to be reminded that we have a place to fall apart, to die again to whatever must die in us; to be reminded of the power of the bread and the wine, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, to transform our lives – to strengthen and renew us – to be sent out once again into the world where we are invited daily to abide in Jesus as Jesus abides in us.[8] 
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ . . . [and] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” 
But there were 12 others who remained because they had come “to believe and know that” Jesus is the Holy One of God.
Where are you on this journey?  Where are we as St. Mark’s on this journey?  What must die in you – and in us -  so that we might live more fully into the Way of Jesus?  And, are you ready to ask God again and again, day in and day out, week after week, to help with this transformation?
So, do we really need 5 weeks about Jesus as the Bread of Life?  Yes, we really do. Because it really matters.  In fact, it is a matter of death and of life.

[1] John 6:1-15
[2] John 6:26, 35.
[3] John 6:56-58.
[4] John 6:66.
[5] John 6:67-69.
[6] Paul Hoffman, “A Baptismal Center for Parish Life,” Lecture at Transforming Congregations through Spiritual Practice: Creating a Discipleship Community: North American Association for the Catechumenate Annual Gathering, Bon Secours Conference Center, Baltimore, MD, July 30, 2015.
[7] Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372.
[8] This is a paraphrase of Molly Baskette’s devotional, “Blessing Everything,” July 25, 2015.  United Church of Christ website accessed online at on August 21, 2015.


A Community . . . Set Apart

I remember this conversation around the dinner table growing up.  My dad, to my brother, “Why do you always go to your friends’ houses on Friday nights? Why don’t you ever have your friends over here?”  My brother’s response, “our house is boring. They all have cable TV. We don’t have anything.” 
This conversation took place early in the year that MTV first aired – 1981.  At the time, MTV actually stood for “Music Television” and, true to its name, it aired music videos 24 / 7.  But this conversation was before the launch. I know because everyone knew that on August 1, 1981 at 11:01 p.m. central time, MTV would launch and anyone who was anyone would be glued to the TV that Saturday night.   And my brother saw our dad’s question as a way to get on board!
And it worked! Saturday, August 1, 1981 at 11:01 p.m. at the Bullock residence?  I sat in front of the TV in the living room watching John Lack announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”  Where was my brother?  Who knows! Probably watching at his friend’s house – after all, our house was still boring!
Have you ever really, really, really wanted something because you knew someone else who already had it?  Have you ever decided to go somewhere for a vacation or do something for fun because a friend or a neighbor had already gone there or done that and told you how fabulous it was?  We like to think of conformity as a unique problem faced by teenagers.  But, the reality is that we all give in to it at least some of the time. And, while much of the time, there is nothing particularly bad about our caving in to the pressure – after all, despite the perils of MTV, my brother and I did, in fact, survive! – the truth is that there are many stories we could tell of times when doing what everyone else is doing proved to be more than a bad idea.   Hence the oft-used expression, beloved by mothers and fathers alike: “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”
Individuals aren’t the only ones who are pulled by the pressures of those around them.  Entire communities can be swayed.  Take this morning’s Old Testament reading, for example. In the 11th and 12th century BCE, the Hebrew people were organized by tribes which were linked together in a confederation.  There was no central government; but, in times of crisis – most often military crisis - the people were led by judges. Each successive judge was chosen by God from a different tribe.  But, as this morning’s text opens, we are told that “all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’”[1]  Everyone around us is ruled by kings.   We would do better if we had a king as well.  We want a king! 
Samuel was displeased, says the text.  God was displeased, says the text.  Why?  Because this request was a REALLY big deal.  It changed everything.  What set Israel apart was their understanding that God alone is king.   As the psalmist writes, “the LORD Most High is to be feared; he is the great King over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2) and as written in the ten commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3).    And so the elders’ request for a king represents a willingness to give up their very identity in order to be like their neighbors.  God called Israel to be a light to the nations, to show the nations another way and the Israelites respond by saying, “No! We want to be like everyone else.  We don’t want to stand out.  We want to conform to the world and the world’s expectations.”
Samuel warns them that this request is nothing short of a return to slavery – the very bondage out of which God freed them from Egypt.  But the people are willing to give up their God-given freedom to be like the other nations.   And so, at the end of the day, the people get their king.  God does not approve; but God permits.  At what cost?  Ultimately the Israelites will fall into the hands of their neighbors – the Babylonians - they will lose their temple and their homeland; they will live in exile for 70 years before returning to their devastated homeland.
Fast forward some 3000 or more years and we arrive here today.  What is the challenge to Christian community today? The challenge to being God’s people set apart to be a light to the nations?  A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the doomsday headlines announcing the steady decline in mainline Protestant denominations.  The Rev. James Bartz, in a 2009 article for the Anglican Theological Review, writes:
 “We have moved from Christendom to post-Christendom, an era more closely resembling that of the early church. . . . the tough question for those of us in the Jesus-following business is not, ‘How do we grow our churches?’ but rather, ‘How do we transform our community?’”[2] 
Too often it seems to me that our answer has been based in a survey of the world around us – what works for the other organizations in our society? How can we be more like them?  And so we cave in to “contemporary consumerism” and promote “private and personal spirituality” over the “more difficult work of forming and sustaining Christian community.”[3]  We have been willing to give up our very identity as community – as God’s chosen people – in order to be like the people around us. Lutheran Pastor Peter Marty writes:
 “The consistent witness of Holy Scripture is that God cherishes the idea of forming a visible body. It is not the spiritual state of individual souls or personal salvation that preoccupies God throughout the Bible. It isn’t even the achievement of a personal state of holiness.  God’s intention is to form a people. . . a community.”[4]
God calls us into community and instead we say, “No.  We want to conform to the world around us that lifts up and prizes individual achievement.” God does not approve; but God permits.  And, at what cost?  Loneliness? Depression? Isolation?  Disconnection?   As more and more people recognize the cost of individual pursuit, the Church, this church – St. Mark’s – has an opportunity to “reverse [our] disengagement from others and to rethink [our] solitary pursuit of God.”[5]
There are glimpses of this in our community already.  Small gatherings where people come together across difference to build and sustain deep friendships, mutuality of purpose, and faithful care for one another.  I see it at the Producemobile where several members of St. Mark’s regularly volunteer alongside others in the community and in that work have come to truly know one another, care for one another, and sustain one another.  But, how do we nurture this type of community – “people willing to foster life in one another”[6]  – on a broader scale?  How do we nurture it at St. Mark’s?  I wish I had an easy answer.  I am convinced that it begins and finds its center in our worship.  Because our worship is the one place where we consistently bring our separate selves together to praise God with one voice.  And yet, I know this is not enough.
Last April Deane Johnson and I brought the youth together for an evening of “Stump the Priest” – an opportunity to ask any question about the Bible, our faith, relationships, the world. To explore the places where matters of faith meet daily life experience.  The questions and their thoughtful responses were powerful: Should we have to believe all the stories in the Bible are true? What should we feel we can trust our friends with? How much should we be exposed to news about the world?  But more than powerful, the conversation with our youth began to build community as we dared to be vulnerable and share with one another, to explore our faith and our lives with one another. 
This summer Andrea and I will host “Faith around the Firepit” in the Rectory backyard on the fourth Friday of each month. In part we will do this because I love alliteration.  But, in all seriousness, my hope is that we will use this time to gather in a casual environment to explore deep questions of our faith and of our lives – to explore together where God meets world, to be vulnerable together, to share together our life experiences: our crises of faith, our times of inspiration, our moments of wonder.  To bring our separate selves together to build and sustain deep friendships, mutuality of purpose, and faithful care for one another – to enter fully into God’s invitation to be God’s people, a people - a community - set apart . . .

[1] 1 Samuel 8:4-5.
[2] James P. Bartz, “Leadership from the Inside Out,” Anglican Theological Review (Winter 2009), 90.
[3] Peter W. Marty, “Shaping Communities: Pastoral Leadership and Congregational Formation,” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, edited by Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 309.
[4] Marty, 307.
[5] Marty, 310.
[6] Marty, 313.


Shifting Ground Is Holy Ground

Sermon Preached May 10, 2015
Easter 6B (Acts 10:44-48)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

When I was a junior or senior in high school, I sat in the pews of First Presbyterian Church in Wausau, Wisconsin on the day that the Session – the Presbyterian equivalent to our Vestry – announced that The Rev. Sheila Gustafson would be our new senior pastor.  I knew nothing about how this whole process worked in the Presbyterian Church.  Pastor Tom had been our minister for as long as I could remember and, our associate, Pastor Bob was in charge of our youth group – and had been in his position for quite a few years as well.  So, when our church announced the new pastor’s name and she stood up to be recognized, the first thought that went through my mind was, “Wow.  I can be a minister.”  Think about that for a moment.  My thought was not about the new pastor, it was instead about the recognition of a whole new possibility for my own journey. 
I had been assisting or teaching in the Sunday School since my freshman year in high school along with many other women in the church.  I participated in the youth group when my mother was one of the lay leaders.  Many of the women in the church served as deacons – a role similar to that in our churches in terms of ministry but different in the sense that it is a lay order, not an ordained order of ministry.  So women in the Presbyterian did a lot of really important things.  But, on that Sunday morning, the ground shifted when I became aware for the first time that women could be ordained.  And the ground shifted within me when I realized that I was called to that ministry and just never knew it was an option.
I know I am not unique in this experience. Many have told me how they felt a call to be an altar server but were told it was “only for boys.”  Many of those are now adult acolytes in Episcopal churches and, I understand, some are now altar servers in the Roman Catholic church as well.  The ground shifts, our minds open, our hearts expand and God’s embracing love is understood more and more.
Last Sunday evening a friend of mine shared a story with me on Facebook.  It is the story of Rich and Eric McAffrey [click here for more recent updates] and their adopted son Jack.  Eric and Rich have been members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral in Orlando, Florida for a while and are raising their son in that community of faith. Recently they felt called to have their son baptized and began conversations with the Cathedral’s Dean for the baptism to take place.  After taking part in pre-baptismal classes with several other couples whose children would be baptized, the sacrament was scheduled to take place on Sunday, April 19.  Family and friends from out of town bought plane tickets to be present for this beautiful sacrament of welcome and new life in Christ.  However, on Thursday, April 16, just three days before the baptism, they received a phone call from the Dean who told the couple that there were members of the congregation who opposed Jack’s baptism because his parents were both men.  He went on to tell them that this wouldn’t be such a big issue if they weren’t the Cathedral Church, but, because it is the Cathedral Church, there would be a lot of exposure.  And so the Dean of the Cathedral offered an apology and turned Jack away three days prior to his baptism.  Now, what caused Rich to McAffrey to share this story so publicly – in a Facebook post last Sunday – was the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which we heard read that day:  the Ethiopian eunuch, reading Scripture with Philip, sees a body of water and shouts out, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"[1]  The ground shifted and Jesus’ command to the disciples to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth was being fulfilled.  For Rich and Eric, the ground shifted as they realized that they were most grievously wronged; as they felt that the Dean’s decision was not about the Good News of Christ but was instead about protecting the image of an institution.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells another store of earth-shifting faith formation.  To fully understand it, we need to back up a bit to get the context. The story begins in Caesarea with Cornelius, a centurion – that is, an officer in the Roman army – having a vision in which an angel of God says to him, “send. . . to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter.” And so, Cornelius sends two of his slaves and one of his soldiers to find Peter.[2]  In the meantime, Peter who has been traveling throughout the countryside with the other believers, is, in fact, in Joppa and, as he is praying, we are told, “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (in other words, a whole lot of unclean food! – yuck!). Then Peter hears “a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”[3]
Now, while Peter is still trying to figure out what on earth this heavenly message from God could possibly mean – you have to remember this is the same Peter who was a little slow on the up take throughout Jesus’ life! So, while Peter is struggling with this bizarre vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrive and call for Peter to come to Caesarea to share his message with Cornelius. So Peter got up and he went. That’s it – he just got up and went. He was not stopped by his knowledge of the law – the law that taught it was unlawful for a Jew, like Peter, to associate with or to even visit with a Gentile, like Cornelius.  But, because of his vision – which now becomes clear – Peter just gets up and goes.  And while Peter is sharing the good news of Christ Jesus with Cornelius, his relatives, and his close friends,
“the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers [that is, the Jews] who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’”[4]
Through the waters of baptism, we understand that Cornelius and those with him who also receive baptism that day, are transformed.  But what I love about this story is that Peter and the Jewish believers with him are also transformed by their encounter with these Gentiles.  While on the surface it might seem that Peter is walking Cornelius across the line of faith, the reality is that both men are already on a journey and, at this time in their lives, their journeys cross and both men are transformed.
I believe that our lives are filled with opportunities to be transformed.  I also know that it is easier to see those moments in other peoples’ lives --- can’t that Dean in Orlando see that the ground has shifted, that God’s love is bigger than human judgement?  Can’t that parent see that clearly their approach to parenting needs to change?  The bigger challenge, of course, is to be open to those moments in our own lives - to be transformed as Philip was by the Ethiopian eunuch’s; to be transformed as Peter was in his vision of the unclean food; to be transformed by the love of Eric and Rich; to be transformed by the articulate vision of the young protestors in Baltimore.  The bigger challenge for you and for me, is to be open to the transforming love of God which is before us all the time if only we will open our eyes to see it, open our minds to explore it, open our hearts to feel it, and open our lives to be a part of it.
Wow, I can be a minister.  Wow, an Ethiopian eunuch can be part of God’s kingdom. Wow, the gentiles have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Wow, two men can be an image of God’s loving embrace. Wow, protestors in Baltimore can be God’s prophets.  The ground shifts beneath our feet.  May we be open to the possibility that the shifting ground is Holy ground and may we find in the shifting an invitation and a welcome from the Holy Spirit.  Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ?

[1] Acts 8:37
[2] Acts 10:1-8
[3] Acts 10:9-16
[4] Acts 10:44b-47

In the News . . .