Monday, August 27, 2012

12 Pentecost, Year B, 19 August 2012

Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Jesus said: “I am the Living Bread, which comes down from heaven… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

“The Jews disputed among themselves: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

How indeed? It’s a shocking, revolting image if we take it literally. The notion of eating the flesh of another human being crosses into the forbidden zones of human culture; the idea of drinking the blood of another person is equally gruesome. We cannot interpret this passage merely at face value. Something else is at work here.

Jesus is still very much alive as the story is being told; on the previous day, from a few loaves of bread and a few small fish, he has provided enough food for five thousand people. The use of bread as a symbol of life and sustanence is very old. For Jesus’ first hearers, the image of the bread of the ancestors refers to the manna, the mysterious food that had sustained the children of Israel during their 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Any bread, even the most ordinary, is a complex object and symbol, full of meaning. This series of images, from the feeding of the five thousand through today’s passage of the gospel are not “just” about ordinary eating and drinking in any case.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Jesus is no longer physically present among his followers by the time these words were first written down and read aloud. And yet they understood him to be present with them, among them, in their eating and drinking together.

We will hear Jesus say something like that later on, in the Upper Room on the night before his arrest and trial and crucifixion. “Abide in me” he tells his followers “as I abide in you. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit; apart from me you are rootless and fruitless and barren.” (John 15: 4-5)

In that upper room, as John the evangelist tells the story, the bread and wine of the Last Supper are not mentioned. Jesus washes the feet of his friends, and then teaches them what that means for them. As a result of what he has done among them and with them, they will now go and do these things among and with others, who will themselves become the friends and followers of Jesus. They will wash feet, and teach others to do so as well. They will eat and drink together, and teach other table companions how to recognize Jesus present among them as they do so.

Abide in Me, Jesus tells them. Remain and live and flourish, in and through my life growing in and through you.

This “abiding,” this “remaining” is not geographic—because Jesus’ followers did not remain static in the places where he spoke to them. They went out, from that synagogue in Capernum where he was teaching them after the feeding of the five thousand. They went out from that Upper Room, where they ate and drank and had their feet washed, where they talked and questioned and sang and prayed. On the day of Pentecost, they went out from the place where they had been listening and waiting for the power of God to move in and through them. And even so, they continued to abide, to remain in deep contact and relationship, with Jesus and one another, wherever they went.

It is this same call to “abide in Christ,” to remain rooted and grounded in the life of the Spirit of God, to which the writer to the Ephesians calls his hearers. “Be filled with the Spirit,” he says, “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of Jesus.”

Perhaps we need to add a line here, our own interpolation of Scripture.

“And the people of St. Augustine’s disputed among themselves: Giving thanks—at all times? For everything? Really?”

Here as before, a deeper reality is being brought forth into our awareness. The call to give thanks, always and everywhere (as we will say again in the liturgy in a few minutes) is not because everything is always easy and comfortable and hunky-dory. It’s not. Sometimes the circumstances of life are really truly awful—for us as individuals, for us as a community, or a nation, or as residents of planet Earth. We are worried about our children, or our parents. We wonder how we are going to pay the bills, or get through the next electoral cycle, or survive the next natural disaster predicted on the nightly news or the Hysterical Channel. We wonder what—if anything—can be done.

And that fear and anxiety can stop us in our tracks faster than anything else, more than even some imagined potential disaster itself. For it is still and always, FEAR—nothing more or less—that stops our breath, stops our hearts, seizes us with a cold hard death grip that seems unbreakable. We feel unable to move, unable to flee, unable to resist.

And it is precisely in that place, that hell of paralysis and panic and desperation, that we hear God’s invitation in Christ Jesus.

In Jesus’ call to remain and abide in him, in the call to give thanks—always and everywhere, regardless of circumstance or emotion—we receive the tools, as God’s beloved daughters and sons, to break that grip of fear. To say, to those powers and principalities of death and destruction, that regardless of circumstance, we have placed our trust in One who has faced the forces of fear and sin and death, and who in all these things has had the last word.

And what is that word?

Peace be with you. My peace, which is beyond all understanding and circumstance, be with you all.

It is this deep peace to which we are called, brothers and sisters. And it is this peace we are called to carry with us, and to share with those around us. Not a false peace based on domination of the powerful over the powerless; not an imposed peace that forces uniformity upon diversity of persons or points of view. But the peace of Christ, crucified and risen, who holds nothing back but gives himself in every way, that we may take the fullness of himself into ourselves, and so become his body, his blood, his life-force, in this world.

We eat the bread and drink the wine, which we call the Body and Blood, so that we may become the body and blood. We receive the outward and visible signs of the Sacraments so that we ourselves may become sacraments—outward and visible signs of the grace and mercy and peace and love of God in this world.

May it be so for us.

May it be so among us.

May it be so in this world, this place, this day.

Monday, August 13, 2012

11 Pentecost, Year B, 12 August 2012

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2;

John 6:35, 41-51
Preached by Rev. Lou Scales

This particular time of the year makes predictable the images that will fill television, video screens, smart phones, notebooks, laptops, desktop computer screens and radio newscasts. The political primaries and runoffs are, for the most part, finished. As we prepare for the elections coming in November, we will spend much time and energy looking after what this or that candidate says (as compared to what he or she said about similar or different issues 3 or 5 or 10 or 25 years ago.)

As an example of what this has looked like in the past, eight years ago, in the hot summer of the national conventions when, like now, presidential nominations were at stake, one PBS news broadcast reported that there were approximately 5,005 Republican Convention Delegates, approximately 5,005 Republican Convention Alternate Delegates, and approximately 15,000 members of the media covering the words and actions of those delegates and alternate delegates, all present in Philadelphia that year. I don’t know, but I suspect the numbers will be similar in both Tampa and Charlotte this year. I’ll leave you to do the arithmetic and analysis about the extent and depth of coverage. Do I dare speculate that they were (and will be) listening to each other, or were they (and will they be) only talking to each other?

In either case, make no mistake, the words were and are important. What we say, and what we understand are critical to the ways we live and move and have our being. They are the ways we transmit ideas, and feelings and thoughts. They are the ways we provide guidance, orders, admonitions, warnings, praise, condemnation, despair and hope. It is with words that we encourage those who are downtrodden. It is with words we attempt to convey our efforts to solve the mysteries of disease and poverty, of peace and economic prosperity. It is with words that we search desperately for the viable alternatives to hostility and prejudice, hatred and war.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he speaks of falsehood, anger, thievery, evil talk, bitterness, wrath, wrangling, slander, malice, and grieving the Holy Spirit in general. And he was speaking to the Ephesians. Seems as though at times, Paul could just as easily been speaking to the Washingtonians, the Atlantans, the New Yorkers, …do I dare say the Augustans and even those in Columbia County? Paul points accurately to the ways we abuse our communication, sully our civil discourse, and make our basic conversations weapons of bloodless cruelty. Paul’s practical advice to the Ephesians, and to us, is, “This is no way to run a community, a village, a city, a state, a nation.” As you have probably noticed, there is seldom a week that passes without the media informing us of a politician, a city, county, state or federal official, who has come under fire for his or her use of words. Bottom line in some circles – What you say can get you fired.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is discussing the kingdom in terms of his relationship with God, and how what God has provided to Jesus will be made known to those who come to him and follow him. John’s gospel has regaled us with the stories of what Jesus did at the sending out of the disciples, the feeding of the five thousand, his early morning stroll on the Sea of Galilee. Up to this point, the crowd is with him, soaking up the spectacular demonstrations as veritable signs from God that something really big is happening. Jesus, WE might say, is on a roll. Seeing is believing, and even the storm-tossed disciples in the boat could not for long speak of ghosts once Jesus stepped out of the water, into the boat, and told the sea to be quiet.

After being fed miraculously and well with only 5 loaves and two fish, the crowd that followed Jesus catches up with him again, but doesn’t seem to know what it wants from him. Jesus then explains to them his relationship with God, and why Jesus has come into the world. Philip Apol suggests that this is where, in John’s account, Jesus really gets himself into trouble. It’s almost as though, in John’s Gospel, it is what Jesus says, more than what he does, that finally brings him to grief. If only Jesus had allowed the miracles to speak for themselves, he might have avoided significant unpleasantness. His works were getting rave reviews; it was his words that got him crucified.

Words do matter. They matter in the context of interpreting the miracles so that they point to the kingdom of God, not just to themselves as mere grandstand parlor tricks. Jesus was so sure of this that he bet his life the words were necessary.

Words do matter. They matter in the context of how we live together as people of faith in the community of faith. Paul was just as sure that words spoken in love and compassion, words spoken in mercy and hope, words spoken that bring God’s grace to life before our eyes—these are words that bring the Kingdom of God into our midst.

In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we welcome into the household of faith, really, really young people, young adults, and sometimes, those who have the wisdom of age and experience. This celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, as you well know, involves water, oil for anointing, and words. Words we ask the parents and godparents and other sponsors to say on behalf of our baptismal candidates; words we ask them to say concerning their commitment to these children and adults, and their growth in faith; words we, as a parish, as a church, affirm and support as we pledge to uphold them in their new lives in the Christian faith. Some of the things we will say are as old as the church itself. All of the things we say must be as new and renewing as God’s mercy every day.

Once the Sacrament of Baptism is completed, then the real work begins. Those children of God that we baptize in Christ’s name will continue that marvelous journey of growing and learning. And we will be here, showing them and telling them and teaching them. And, trust me, they will learn – for better and for worse.

We will teach them how valuable they are by the ways we regard and respect one another when they are around. They will see us in action; they will hear us in conversation. From us, these brand new Christians will learn compassion and caring, sarcasm and selfishness. They will be able to discern when we say words of grace and reconciliation, or when we say words of judgment and arrogance. We will teach them with our actions, and we will teach them with our words. In all these instances, let us ensure we teach all of them faithfully and well.

Our words and our actions matter in this business of faith, and in this business of living together as God’s people. I believe this, and I today I say it to you in the name of the Father, the Son and The Holy Spirit. AMEN.

9 Pentecost, Year B, 29 July 2012

2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; Saint John 6:1-21

Preached by Rev. Lou Scales

You and I use the term “gifted” in much the same way Webster’s intended, that is, as an adjective, generally describing a person as having a natural ability or aptitude, or more notably describing someone with superior intelligence. With that kind of description, you and I generally think of the child prodigy whose talent and capabilities make them candidates for graduation from high school by the time they are 12 years old, and possessing masters’ degrees by the tender age of 15.

More cynically, we may even think of them compassionately with such observations as, “Oh, the poor dear will not have a normal childhood, no good friends, and will grow up without the normal childhood most of us come to label as good and desirable.” In fact, the most prevalent stereotype that comes to my mind is the somewhat condescending way we discuss “gifted” people as having enormous skills in difficult intellectual areas, but having very little of what we might call “common sense”. While they may be good at rocket science, they don’t possess the common sense, as it were, to “get in out of the rain”. In so many cases, people identified as “gifted” become targets of either our envy or our pity.

If this is, indeed, the case, I wonder what you might be thinking right now of Paul’s words to the Christians in Ephesus in general, and how we think about Paul’s observations and guidance today in particular.

I don’t know, but I suspect if someone asked you if you are a gifted person, you would probably mumble some kind of modest denial, and quickly try to shift the focus of the conversation. And you probably would do this for the very reasons we just mentioned. It would be considered rude and self-promoting to go around describing ourselves as gifted, because in routine conversation, we use the word “gifted” in much the same way we use the word “talented”. Since we generally understand “talented” to mean being better at something than most other people, it is generally prudent to be cautious about identifying ourselves in such a way.

Fr. Frank Wade reminds us that “being gifted in the Biblical sense, is not the same thing as being talented. Not all of us are talented, but by God’s design, all of us are gifted. As you heard earlier, at the reading of the Second Lesson, Paul tells us, “..each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…” Obviously, these examples do not exhaust God’s gift list. There are many, many ways to be gifted by God.

One way to understand these gifts is to see them as the raw material and the tools God gives us for a certain purpose. And that purpose, about which Paul is very clear, is for building the Body of Christ. You see, this is not about how we use our gifts for our own benefit. It’s about how we use our gifts to benefit this community of faith.

Our gifts may well be the obvious ones that come to mind immediately ~ like abilities, aptitudes, interests and enthusiasms. Some are less obvious, like the insights we have gained in growing up where we did, when we did. These are the wonderful insights that may well have been born of hard times. They are the insights we have from enjoying affluence, or enduring poverty; of working for education, or overcoming addiction; of stepping up to take responsibility, or surviving abuse. The GIFTS of our race, culture, economics, religion ~ the gifts of our heritage are all part of what we have to work with in life. And they are gifts.

You may have the gift of being high-strung or laid back; happy, serious, depressed, concerned, anxious, eager, funny, emotional, supportive or confrontive. Some of these gifts are not necessarily ones we would choose, but we have them ~ they are what has been given to us to be about the business of life in this world as God’s people. Who you are, in fact, is God’s gift to you.

Along with those gifts that make up who you are as a unique and wonderfully made Child of God, are the gifts all of us possess in some measure. These are the gifts of time, place and opportunity. It is up to us to use our gifts when we have the opportunity, where we have the chance. I guarantee you, there are many, many priests and pastors who could do a better job this morning bringing this sermon to you.

Only trouble is, they are not here ~ I am. The gift of being in this place, at this time, has been given to me, and not to someone far better qualified. It is, and is, for me, a profound gift of opportunity.

There may well be those who can sing God’s praise in a much richer way than you think you can. But if you are the one with the gifts of time, place and opportunity, it is up to you to use them for the glory of God, and the building of the Body of Christ.

We might think our gifts are meager, and not worth much. We might even wish we had other gifts, or had gifts that were like others we admire. But, my friends, we are who we are, and we have the gifts we have. No amount of wishing for different sets of gifts will change them. There’s a wonderful story from the Talmud about a man named Simon. Simon wanted always to be more like Moses ~ that was his constant worry. He kept going back to the Rabbi and saying, “Rabbi I must lead my life so that I live more like Moses did.” Finally, after many discussions on this, the Rabbi told Simon, “ Simon, God will not ask you why you were not more like Moses. God will ask you why you were not more like Simon.”

We have our own lives to live, and I do not know why you have the gifts you have, and I have the ones I have. I only know we have them for the same reason ~ to build the Body of Christ, which we call the church, to live in service for others, to uphold one another in our journeys of faith. That is the measure of God’s grace we have all been given.

When the disciples set out on the Sea of Galilee toward Capernaum, they did so after having their gifts tested to the maximum extent possible. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had earlier sent them out, two by two, to cast out unclean spirits, anoint the sick and heal them. Upon their return, they had to bury John the Baptist, beheaded as a gift to Herod’s stepdaughter. Then, on their way to a retreat, a crowd of people seeking to hear this Jesus overtook them. One thing led to another, and they managed to take what meager food they had, offer it to God for blessing, and feed five thousand people. Now they were headed for Capernaum, into a headwind against which they could barely make progress, no matter how hard they rowed. Modern day writers would call it sheer irony that the boat ride into the headwinds became the metaphor for the journeys they had just made. They used their gifts of Jesus’ power and their personalities to cast out demons, to heal the sick. But the more they did, the more people kept coming. In today’s language and action, the Apostles did all the things a committed church could and should do – they cast out the demons, they fed the hungry, they cared for those to whom they were sent, they prepared meals for the elderly, and they just couldn’t make any progress on their own, NOT UNTIL JESUS GOT IN THE BOAT WITH THEM.

Does it occur to you that we in the parish do all manner of good things in our communities, but sometimes overlook the basic and fundamental reason for us to do those things? And that reason is the call and the grace of the Risen Lord. The One who so marvelously gives us our gifts must be in our midst as we use those gifts to build the community of faith, to reach out to those who so desperately need to be touched by the grace of God, and the love of Christ.

We must continue giving our selves and our gifts of time and place and opportunity for the service of those around us, and in that process, we must never forget WHOSE we are, and WHO is present with us in all that we do. When we set out to row this ship we call the church out into the headwinds of this chaotic world and all the pain and frustration that is around us, we need to make sure Jesus is in the boat, calming the seas and blessing our gifts to serve the multitudes of people who so desperately need a Savior.