Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rest from Labor

A Girl Reading in a Hammock, Robert-Archibald Graafland. Dutch (1875 - 1940)

Thoughts for the Weekly newsletter of All Souls Church, September 2, 2012.

On Labor Day weekend, I often think about “Sabbath,” the idea of taking a holy rest, breathing a few deep breaths before autumn, and basically “unplugging” for a little while to notice the difference in temperature, change in light, and movement of the seasons in the world and in my life.  But this year, in addition to trying to rest from work, I’m also thinking about the various things I “labor on” about.  I’m wondering if I might be able to rest from the things I too often belabor.         

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in several meetings, presentations, and group settings in which one of the leaders or presenters became visibly angry at others who were also in leadership roles.  One person felt slighted and like she was being put on the defensive. In another setting, it was clear the speaker brought different expectations to the event, yet belabored his own agenda.  Because of my own distance from these situations (I was not responsible or in a leadership role) I was able to reflect and notice how the various people perturbed were simply showing things most of us feel inside  and try our best to hide.

As I think about all the various things I’m tempted to belabor (the slow person in traffic, the unprepared person in front of me at the cash register, the person who I think slights or ignores me, etc.), I am grateful for prayer.  Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  I believe him.  If I could not hand over the many things that I tend to belabor, I would be weighed down so much I couldn’t move.  Jesus asks specifically for the heavy burdens, but in my experience it’s often the small things that weigh me down, accumulate, and prevent me from moving freely.  He takes them all.

“Rest from labor,” for me, often means sending up small, short prayers: “God take this anger away.  Smooth over this resentment.  Keep me from belaboring the past.  Free me.”  Christ gives me rest as he takes the weight off and puts it all in God’s hands, hands that made the world and can handle all the world’s weightiness.  I hope we all can find some rest this Labor Day weekend. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Taste of Eternity

Peasant Wedding (detail) 1567, Pieter Bruegel, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

A sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Proverbs 9:1-6, Psalm 34:9-14, Ephesians 5:15-20, and John 6:51-58.

Why is it that food just tastes better sometimes? 

After a long day at the beach, you’re sunburned and tired, but no matter what you put on a grill, it tastes better.

Or in other seasons (that will be here before we know it)—raking leaves on a chilly day, or shoveling snow on a frigid day.  The soup, the lasagna – whatever it is, just tastes better.

Or days like yesterday at All Souls.  At one point there were twenty-one of us cleaning.  In addition to a handful who were outside weeding and watering, pruning, and mowing grass; inside we were repairing things, vacuuming, polishing, painting, clearing out, throwing out, and moving things—we were like a small army.  And so, a little after noon, the food arrived: pizza and some sandwiches, nothing all that special. And yet, as we gathered—tired and sore, with paint in our hair and silver polish under nails, dusty and dirty--- the food tasted better than usual, better than ever, maybe. 

The food tastes better, I think, for at least three reasons.  It tastes better because we come tired, because we come hungry, and because we come in need. 

And it’s those same three conditions that draw us to another table, to another meal, to a meal in which the superlative has less to do with taste than it does with substance.  At this meal, we receive life.  We gain the life of Christ, now and eternally. 

Sometimes we come to Holy Communion tired, tired from what the great prayer calls those things “we have done, and those things we have left undone.”  Sometimes, we approach the altar with a feeling of having had a good day, or a good week.  We’ve done our best.  We’ve thought of other people. We’ve shared.  We’ve offered help.  And so we approach the altar tired, needing a little renewal, a little push to keep on.

But other times, we’ve maybe fallen down a lot during the week.  Things have not gone well—we have mis-spoken and we have mis-stepped.  Maybe we’ve even stepped on others.  And so, again, we’re tired, we’re beaten down, and so we almost limp through the liturgy and reach for the table.  We come tired.

But we also come hungry.  Often we “travail and are heavy-laden,” and we look for refreshment.  We’ve eaten too much of the junk food of the world, and so we look for nourishment, for things are taste like what they are, rather than what chemicals or preservatives have made us imagine.  Some starve for friendship, for healing, for work, for purpose. 

A friend of mine was recently in a car accident.  She’s fine now, but has hospital bills.  The day after her accident, her mother was walking in a parking lot and was hit by a car.  And so now, my friend is dealing with two insurance companies in two states, neither of which wants to pay out.  She has three lawyers—two for the accident claims, and one helping her sort out the estate of her father, who died only four months ago.  My friend hungers for justice. She hungers for vengeance.  She hungers for some relief.

I don’t suggest for a minute that Holy Communion would magically fill her with what she needs.  But I would suggest that Christian community—the mutual hunger acknowledged by prayer and support and love, all of which leads to the table of Christ—can put her on a track to healing and wholeness.  It can gradually and over time transform the bitter taste of the world into one that has texture, and flavor, and sweetness. 

In the last twenty or thirty years, the word, “umami” has been borrowed from the Japanese to describe a kind of “fifth taste,” beyond sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  It’s a pleasant, savory kind of taste.  It’s brothy, and meaty, and mouth-watering. As the Umami Information Center says, it is “subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don't recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.

I think the Bread of Heaven has a kind of spiritual “umami,” to it.  It fulfills a kind of hunger, offers its own taste, and while it satisfies, it also encourages us to want more, to ask for me, to live for more. This brings us to the third condition we bring that makes food so good.  If we’re honest, we bring some kind of need.

I say, “if we’re honest,” we acknowledge a need.  Sometimes we come already full—full of ourselves, full of resentments (against God or other people), full of thinking, or full of emotion.  Sometimes we can come to the altar full of expectations, expectations for which there is not god big enough to meet.

But Christ feeds us most when we approach his table empty-handed, in the humility of saying simply, “I need.”  How we fill in the blank almost doesn’t matter as much as our saying—our praying—our need.  While our culture frowns on neediness of any kind, here at church, in worship, at this Holy Table, we have a place to bring our need—all of it, whether petty or seemingly insignificant, or overwhelming and larger than life itself. 

The Gospel today tells us about a meal, and the first two readings work almost as invitations to the meal.  They speak of wisdom, but it’s a homey, kitchen-table kind of wisdom.  In Proverbs, Lady Wisdom has dinner ready.  “Turn in here,” she says, “ lay aside all the baggage you’ve got.  Leave all that outside, and come in, sit down, eat and enjoy.” 

The Reading from Ephesians continues with the added advice of how to arrive at the feast, what to bring, and how to act.  Don’t be foolish. Don’t drink too much.  “Make the most of the time.”  In other words, leave regrets and expectations behind.  Don’t try to run away from the moment, but live—live fully, live soberly, live NOW, here. 

One of favorite newer hymns in our hymnal is one that sings of this message of Ephesians:

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;
Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;
Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,

Jesus says, “I am the living bread.”  The people of his day worried and wondered what it meant to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  The apostle Paul writes that some misunderstood this to the point that there were rumors about the Christians being cannibals.  The Church ever since has tried to place Holy Communion on the spectrum between completely symbolic or completely literal.  St. Augustine put it well when he wrote, “That which you see is bread and the cup, which even your eyes declare to you; but as to that in which your faith demands instruction, the bread is the body of Christ, the cup is the blood of Christ … these things are called sacraments for this reason, that in them one thing is seen, another thing is understood.”  At its most faithful, I think, the Church has lived somewhere in-between, in the middle, in place of faith, a place of “spiritual umami,” the place in which the Real Presence of Christ is Now—not yesterday, not this afternoon, but NOW. 

I’ve invited you to think about times when food tasted especially good—after a long day of work or an exhausting project.  But just imagine, for a moment, the feast that awaits us after a life well-lived.  Imagine the table, the tastes, the company, the eternal goodness of it all when we meet God face to face with totality of tiredness, a life of hungering for the good, and a need only for God, who greets with a smile, saying, “Life forever begins now.  Bon appetit.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Four hundred and ninety prayers of forgiveness (or more)

Thoughts on the Gospel reading for Year 2, Proper 14, Thursday: Matthew 18:21-19:1

The Gospel reading at Mass Thursday morning was from Matthew, where Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness.  Peter asks, “How often should I forgive?” (Mt. 18:21). And Jesus answers, “seventy-seven times,” or as older scriptures put it, “seventy times seven.” Jesus may be referring to a story in Genesis, or he may be expressing the fullest possible bounds of forgiveness by using the number seven to represent completeness and multiplying it.  Whatever the case, his point is clear. We should pray for those who wrong us, slight us, harm us, ignore us, or belittle us—whether that person be an outright enemy or simply a stranger who annoys.  “Pray for them,” Jesus says.        

But,” I want to say.  But, what about when I’m in the right?  What about the person who stays in the wrong traffic lane until the last possible moment, and then cuts in front of me?  What about the person in the airport security line who brings scissors, knives, and over-sized shampoo, delaying everyone?  “Pray for them,” Jesus says.

And then more seriously, what about the politicians who bend the truth, or who create division in order to win votes?  What about the companies that ignore their workers? What about thieves and thugs and swindlers?  My list of resentments grows and grows and grows. “Forgive them,” Jesus says.  “Pray for them.”

In telling us to pray and to forgive, I don’t think Jesus is necessarily offering us some final, overarching solution to the problem of evil in the world.  Instead, he’s offering us a way to save our souls.  By praying for my enemy, I let my anger out.  I name what’s eating at me and more importantly, I place the offending person in the hands of God, where he or she belongs.  What God does with that person is God’s business, but I’ve done my part, and I’ve moved closer to Jesus.       

This doesn’t answer why people take up guns or plant bombs.  It doesn’t answer why people separate from friends, family, or community.  But it does give me a way to keep myself close to Christ, to remain in community with other believers, and to allow the possibility of forgiveness to exist for others and for myself.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Raised Together

Two friends help another in Zambia.

A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2012.  The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 19:4-8, Psalm 34:1-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, and  John 6:35, 41-51.

Today’s Gospel and the one for next week put a hymn in my head that I can’t get out very easily.   I bet you’ve heard it or sung it somewhere.  It’s often sung at youth conferences.  At other times, it’s sung at a funeral. The hymn, “I am the bread of life” is not the easiest to sing—the words don’t match the notes in the same way from stanza to stanza, and so, a lot of us tend to sort of mumble as we sing the verses.  But things clear up when we get to the refrain.  Everyone sings.  Whether they are on pitch or off, whether they sing well or not so well, almost everyone does their part with the words that sing, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.” 

Christians often make a big fuss over the raising up of Jesus.  In the history of the Church, belief in the resurrection has often been the test for admission to Baptism, for ordination, for being considered a true follower of Jesus Christ.  But in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that the point of his rising is to raise up others, to raise up you and me, that we might walk tall and strong in this life, and that we might join one another in the next. 

Throughout the Gospel stories, the Greek word that we translate as “rise up” [anistemi] occurs again and again.   The man who is healed of a withered hand, the daughter of Jairus, the prodigal son rises up and goes to see his father.

Jesus also uses the same word when he is talking with the disciples about the Son of Man, he says that the Son of Man will be delivered over to the people, mocked, spitefully treated and spit upon, and they will put him to death; but on the third day he will rise again.

In this life Jesus raises up.  He raises up the sick and the wounded.  He raises up those who are brought down low by others.  We are reminded of his raising power in the words of the Magnificat, when the Virgin Mary sings with faith of what God has already done, “He has lifted up the lowly.”  And he lifts up still and he empowers us to be his hands in the word to help lift up others. 

Christ lifts us up in this life, but he also lifts us up into the next.  We believe that through his death on the cross and his descent into hell, he has gone through the very worst of what evil and death can do.  No matter how lonely, no matter how painful, no matter how horrible—Jesus has endured it.  And he has overcome it.  With his resurrection, we are given the power through God to make it through anything death can deal us.  With the power of Christ we too rise to new life, we rise to everlasting life.

Just as wheat rises to become bread, bread rises in us to make us become more like God.  Each time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we are nourished by Christ.  We are fed by his body and blood and made strong and made faithful.  At the beginning of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, the celebrant bids us, “Lift up your hearts.”  And we respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord.”  This is a statement of faith, in a way.  It is a statement of faith that even in our prayers, in as we celebrate the sacrament in this life; we are made one with God.  We are united with Christ through his body and are lifted up into the presence of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. 

The Eastern theologian and catechist, [7th century Byzantine] Maximus the Confessor worked hard to help people understand and believe basic Christian beliefs.  Underlying all of his teaching is his belief that it is God’s intention to raise up all things and to bring them to a new and extraordinary place in the presence and the heart of God.  Maximus wrote, “…it is clear that He who became man without sin will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man's sake. This is what St. Paul teaches mystically [Maximus writes] when he says, '...that in the ages to come [God] might display the overflowing richness of His grace' (Eph. 2:7)."(page 178 PHILOKALIA Volume II) According to Maximus, God is working to bring all thing together and to raise them up. 

In our Old Testament lesson, we read about the prophet Elijah, who was at the point of giving up.  He’s been doing his best, but it isn’t paying off.  Because of his prophecies, Jezebel, the wife of the king, if after his head.  No place is safe. People aren’t listening, and so Elijah feels sorry for himself.  He prays to God to take away his life.  And then he goes and sits under tree and falls asleep.  But an angel wakes him up.  Who knows if this angel is a winged thing come out of heaven, or a woman from down the street with something to eat, or a child who comes by and knows where there’s good food.  Something stirs Elijah.  Something rouses him that is of God, and so it is an angel, a messenger of God who says to Elijah in some way or another, “Get up. Eat. God will provide.”  Elijah is raised up by God, or rather, by God’s messenger. 

That’s the way it works so often.  We are raised up by one another—when we feel the prayers of other people, they sometimes feel like we’re being given a boost, and we are raised up.

When someone offers us a hand or a kind word, and we though nobody noticed how down we were, we are raised up. 

When someone offers another way of seeing a quandary or tackling a problem, we are raised up.

God’s raising work can surprise us.  Earlier this week, I felt like I was running pretty low.  Between a head-cold and the summer humidity, I was moving slowly.  But I was also obsessing on some of the challenges before us as a parish.  A new couple who recently joined the church have decided they are called to attend another church.  A wonderful family who has been involved here for years is moving away.  Another several individuals who have been a quiet, but steady presence in this parish have found jobs in other cities.  And so, between the heaviness of the way I was experiencing the week, and the heaviness of mid-August, I was a little down. 

But Thursday night there was a meeting with some of those who are planning for accessibility and changes to our building.  The facilitator of the meeting asked everyone to say a few words about why they come to All Souls.  What led them to All Souls or why do they stay?  As each person shared his or her story—in simple, unrehearsed, immediate language--, it was everything I could do to keep from crying.  I was witnessing Christ in our midst, revealing himself in ordinary (but extraordinary) ways, ways that I often overlook or ways of which I am simply unaware.  Through other people’s stories, reflections, experiences, failures and successes, I was raised up, I was lifted up, I was set back up to be able to move forward, renewed and strengthened.

Maybe it’s through conversation, through prayer, through political action, or charity;  whether it’s a stranger, a family member, a friend, or a fellow parishioner—the opportunities abound for us to participate in God’s work of raising up all of creation, and gathering us to himself. 

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” 

Let us give thanks to God that we are being raised up, that we can participate in this holy work until we are, indeed, all raised up on the last day.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Reliance on God

Manna from Heaven, Maciejowski Bible, 13th Century

A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Psalm 78:23-29, Ephesians 4:1-16, and John 6:24-35.

I have a friend who plans her meals in a fairly complicated way. It all depends upon leftovers. Her husband only recently died, but even while he was living, he never liked to go out at night. She, on the other hand, volunteers, meets friends, and goes to all kinds of musical and cultural events. And so she eats out a lot, and is always thinking ahead. She’ll order just a little more than she needs with the idea that she’ll take the rest home and use it as lunch for another day. A few years ago, she was with friends at a new, very fancy, New York restaurant. At the end of her meal, just as the waiter was about to remove her plate, she asked him if he could please wrap up what was left. He looked at her snootily and said, “Ma’am, we don’t “do” leftovers.” She didn’t miss a beat. She smiled at the waiter, and said, “Oh, of course not. Just leave it here then, and I’ll nibble a bit more, but do bring the check.” After her table paid the check, she stood up and ceremoniously carried her plate—food and all—through restaurant, out the door, and into the night.

I’ve always admired my friend’s ability to plan ahead. But planning for tomorrow doesn’t always work so easily. It didn’t work easily for the Israelites. We hear about this in our Old Testament Lesson as it recalls the time when the people of Israel had been wandering in the wilderness for some time. They became tired and irritable. They got hungry. And God fed them with manna, this mysterious, odd, flaky-like substance. In the words of the psalmist, “So mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough.” (Psalm 78:24-25).

But the manna was only for the day. It was daily manna and needed to be consumed or it would spoil. If they left it out it became wormy. If it remained in the sun, it melted. This is because the manna was food, but it was more than food. Manna was meant to be consumed with faith. It took faith to rely upon the Lord to lead through the wilderness. It took faith to go to sleep each night trusting that there would be manna for the morrow. Perhaps it’s from that old, ancient story that the prayer began to be formed that would pray for daily manna, or daily bread. When we pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” this is a part of what we’re praying for. Not just bread for right now, but bread for tomorrow, bread of promise, bread of hope.

Biblical scholars like to point out that the grammar of the Lord’s Prayer actually conveys this sense of praying for tomorrow, for bread of the future. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on this in a meditation where he writes about this phrase
“…At least some people in the early church understood [this phrase from the Lord’s Prayer] it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow; "give us today tomorrow's bread". And they've thought that might mean give us now a taste of the bread we shall eat in the Kingdom of God. Give us a foretaste of that great banquet and celebration where the universe is drawn together by Christ in the presence of God the Father. And so … Holy Communion is, at one level, bread for today, it's very much our daily bread, it's the food we need to keep going; but it's also a foretaste of the bread of heaven, a foretaste of enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven, at his table, at his banquet… Reflections on the Lord's Prayer

Today’s Gospel picks up just after Jesus’ miracle with the loaves and fishes, his feeding of the five thousand. But people are still hungry, in a sense. It’s not so much that they want to eat more, but they want to see more, to see more magic, to see more signs, to see more proof that Jesus is God, come to meet them. Jesus tells them, “don’t look to me to feed you. Look for the food that endures for eternal life.”

But the people want more signs. They remind Jesus that God gave the people of Israel that sign of the manna in the wilderness, so can’t Jesus give them something miraculous like that, something really convincing?

But Jesus says, “Look to God for the true bread from heaven. Look to God for the bread that comes down and gives life to the world.” And then Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

If we stay in relationship with Christ, we are fed, spiritually and in every other way. But often we forget. We drift away. It’s often like with an old friend, we forget to return the call, to send the note, to respond to the email. And so time passes, and we get disconnected. We’re surprised when big news happens to our friend and we haven’t been a part of it, until we stop to realize that we’ve drifted, we’ve lost touch.

On this morning’s coverage of the Olympics, the women’s marathon was being shown. As one runner stopped for water, the commentator pointed out how important it is for the runner to drink water before she’s thirsty. “If you’re running a marathon and wait until you’re thirsty to drink water, it’s too late.” Isn’t the spiritual life a little like a marathon, in that way? If we wait until we notice the absence of Christ, if we wait until we feel God’s distance, then it can be too late to feel the strength, the consolation, the encouragement, the faith, we may need. And so we eat and drink regularly, at this table, in this kind of worship.

By taking into ourselves the Body of Christ, we become one with Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. Communion happens to us. Communion overtakes us. Communion is God moving toward us and inviting us closer. Communion is our reaching out toward one another and even reaching beyond the church into the world.

Christ in us gives us the strength we need to fulfill all those ministries Paul writes about in today’s Epistle. It’s Christ’s feeding us that allows us to be those who teach the faith, those who follow in practical ways, those who tell others about faith, those to teach, those who offer care, prayer, and healing, and those who in any way “build up the body of Christ.” “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…” But we eat and drink, of the Body and Blood, so that we might grow up into Christ.

Bread for today is a gift. Bread for tomorrow is our prayer. We are called to live with hope and with faith for whatever is ahead. We have challenges in our personal lives and we may have worries. God invites us to have faith that when tomorrow comes, God will give us the resources we need. We have problems that seem unsolvable, but with tomorrow’s bread, perhaps God will also give us new answers, creative solutions, and deeper insight.

Late summer is a good time for us to think about what it means to live by faith. There is still time for vacation, but plans are already being made for a new year at school, a new program year at church, a new season for business or work of any kind. In what ways, might God invite us to look for “bread for tomorrow?” In what ways are we invited to clear out the cupboards, the hiding places, the storage areas that build up our confidence, and rely on God for strength, for nourishment, for sustenance? Might God be calling us to a new place of faith? Might God be calling us to live a little more closely in touch with him, listening more closely for the new word, looking for intently for that which will feed and sustain and grow the Body of Christ into the future?

Jesus reminds us of the Communion that matters more than any other—the union with him, through his Body and Blood. "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


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