Thursday, August 27, 2009

When Scripture Seems Too Challenging

Sermon for 8.23.09
1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Please pray with me: Dear Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our strength and our redeemer.

From today’s Gospel: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

I long for reassurance and for clear answers, especially sometimes when I escape from the world and go to church. I want the “blessed assurance” we receive from the kind of grand old hymns we sang this morning. But there are certainly times when neither easy comfort nor a clear answer comes. I can be patient and trust in God’s fuller mercy and judgment. With Psalm 130, I can wait upon the Lord. There are also times when, like the disciples, I feel my heart sinking as I try to live up to Christian teachings.

Let’s be honest here: Some of Jesus’ teachings are difficult. Think of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew or the even tougher version in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Here are clear directions to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We conclude Scriptural readings with, “This is the Word of the Lord” or “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Have you never thought—and I mean no offense to you or to God—“All very well for you to say!” or “You really have to be kidding!” or “What is the Spirit saying to the churches?” We are, of course, at liberty not to think about it at all as we tuck into a favorite and comforting hymn.

A desire to face some of these hard moments led me to go to a retreat last weekend called “Provocative Grace,” led by the Reverend Robert Morris, an Episcopal priest from South Orange, NJ. “Provoke” is strong language since it’s roughly synonymous with incite or stir up. I can remember hearing the small arguments of my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen. Maybe about what they were cooking or how to raise me: “Don’t be so provoking, Kate,” Grandma would say. The workshop sounded like a more positive application. I was intrigued.

The weekend was held at Adelynrood, a retreat center just below the New Hampshire border in the town of Byfield, Mass. I’ve been there before and love it its calm and holy way of life. It’s run on a volunteer basis by laity, a community of women called The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. It’s a big rambling summer-only structure with wonderful and gracious living rooms and an excellent kitchen. We sleep in tiny bedrooms that are surrounded by generous screened porches. “The Rule of the House,” as they say, wakens us with bells at 7:00 so that we can go out on those porches to pray together. Then there is morning worship. There is no conversation until the breakfast hour that follows. We sing grace before each meal. There is noon worship and then an evening service at 9—both of them also announced by bells. Then there is silence until the next day. Doesn’t sound very provocative, I must admit.

The center was built just after the turn of the last century by a group of women, one of whom, Vida Scudder, was married to my great uncle. Vida was committed to social reform, especially for the women who worked in the mills in places like Lawrence. But she and her friends were pulled together in a special way when one of them, Adelyn, while still a young woman, was diagnosed with cancer. Her friends saw it as their first priority to companion her. After her death, they decided to dedicate themselves to a ministry of presence to those who were ill and ill-treated. That decision led to the founding of their society, often known simply as Companions. They named their retreat center Adelynrood (Adelyn’s cross) in honor of their friend. Over the years, the work and goals of the Companions have profoundly shaped my priorities.

Appropriately enough, the theme of my workshop was the way in which the Jesus of the Gospels “challenges us to find and use our strengths” (18).[1] It’s so easy to think of Jesus’ sayings as rules that are almost impossible to live up to, impositions too idealistic for serious discipleship. And if that’s the case, maybe we have an excuse for giving up. We probably don’t think of God as the giant eye in the sky keeping a book with gold stars and black marks. But deep down we may still feel that since God is the boss, we need to respond with a “Yes, Boss,” mentality. Well, of course, sometimes we need to. But Morris suggests that it may be more useful to think of Jesus’ teachings as “provocations to grow step-by-step, by trial-and-error learning, into the best possibilities of our nature” (17).

This is also pragmatic given the fact that Jesus’ apparently “simple” statements aren’t all that simple. For one thing, they are filled with contradictions: “Judge not that ye be not judged,” he says. And then at another time, he says, “Judge with right judgment.” This is the maddening way wise sayings often work: “Look before you leap,” must be balanced against “She who hesitates is lost.” Obviously, the trick is to be wise enough to know when to use which, how to deal with the paradox.

In an ethical/religious context, the ticket is a willingness to enter into a discernment process so that in fact we become partners with God. Jesus tells us as much when he says, “I don’t call you slaves but friends.” Why? “Because the works I do you will do also. In fact, greater works you will do.” This is the goal of good teachers, good parents, who love admiration but really want the child to surpass them, or at least long for the child to meet them halfway. To continue only in worshipful adoration, with child-like obedience, can be to remain immature.

So maybe the partnership can be a richer exchange, and maybe this is what God longs for. As we hear in Acts, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” There is a kind of synergism to grace, a cooperation. Wesley loved to speak of prevenient or anticipatory grace, that grace that comes before our efforts. Thus our sails are filled with wind, and we also need to do a little steering. We don’t earn love, but we create a place for it to dwell.

We really need to spend quality time with God and with Jesus, practicing, tending relationship through worship, through our imagination, through various practices of prayer, such as chants and silence, through service. There’s not just one way! For years, I’ve turned to the Taize chant, “Be with me, Lord.” Reaching out, with that kind of invitation, suggests mutuality, as much as a cry for help. Falling in love can be almost instantaneous, but truly loving, Morris reminds us, takes a lifetime of growing gradually, “through challenges that unmask our blindness and resistance. Beginning in our interactions with those closest to us, [love] grows strong by facing all that would hinder or undermine its full and complete reign in our lives” (38).

Morris left us with four challenges of his own: to encounter Jesus through the Gospel, really practice going beyond. This is the real meaning of the Greek word metanoia that is usually and too succinctly translated “repent.” Two: to practice using the Gospel sayings as challenges to grow up. Three: to mentor each other as apprentices of Christ. And four: to consider why we matter to God. I hope we can explore such challenges. Together, let us allow ourselves to be incited, provoked by Grace.

Let us pray: May we walk each step
in this moment of grace,
alert to hear you
and awake enough to say
a simple Yes. Amen.
(Prayer adapted from Robert C Morris, copyright 2004)

[1] Quotations are taken from Robert Corin Morris, Provocative Grace: The Challenge in Jesus’ Words (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006).

Monday, August 10, 2009

For the Life of the World

“For the Life of the World” Sermon for 8.09.09
2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4.25–5.2; John 6.35, 41-51

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

I love food. To eat, of course, but beyond that, it’s the variety that makes me happy; its diversity, color, and texture, the smell of herbs and spices, of fresh fruit and veggies. I pour over cookbooks, over possibilities I would never attempt or even order in a restaurant. I’m so impressed that other people are able to pull them off. But I also enjoy my own basic cooking and especially working with someone else in the kitchen. The give and take and sharing of space become a kind of dance. For me, the kitchen is the heart of the house, comfortable and comforting, a place to put elbows on the table and have a really good talk. When I come upon the aroma of bread baking or a simmering soup, I am drawn back into early memories of home and of the life shared there.

All of this, curiously enough, is not unrelated to Jesus’ continuing conversation in the sixth chapter of John. In today’s reading, the people that we’ve been talking about for a couple of weeks have become the Jews who object to Jesus’ claims of a heavenly Father. After all, they know his father was Joseph, and they are loyal to the teachings and law of Moses. How can there be a bread greater than the life-giving manna of the Children of Israel, a ritual greater than the Passover? Jesus is preaching powerful new stuff and we too must admit that it ends with a kicker, perhaps even for us: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

We think of this flesh that Jesus gave as metaphor for his suffering, a way of referring to pain too horrible to consider; we may pull back from connecting that to the loaf that I pull apart on the alter. On the other hand, we know the bread from that loaf, which we quite literally ate and swallowed at the table last week, is a holy meal, “a holy gift” through which we receive Christ’s grace. Our partaking becomes a memorial of God’s “mighty acts in Jesus Christ” through the “remembrance” of which “we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us.” As metaphor and remembrance, the bread and the wine prompt deep devotion, change of heart and life.

On this Sunday, when John 6.51 is the appointed text, we are invited to consider how Jesus’ choice of words illumines that precious and central experience of our faith. To do so, we need some sacramental theology,[1] and that takes us back to food. Jesus is being quite graphic here. He does not say “the bread that I give is my teaching, my words that inspire belief.” He describes his self-giving in terms of his “flesh.” Next week, you will hear that his listeners are horrified.

Genesis starts with God’s command to humankind to eat of the earth, from every herb, every tree that God has so graciously blessed for our use. We must do so in order to live. And simple—basic—though it is, it is a banquet. This image of a banquet goes through the Bible: there is the Promised Land, “the land of milk and honey,” the wedding at Cana, and, at the end of life, the promise of eating and drinking “at my table in my Kingdom.” And thus we say, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

I remind us—myself included—of this because there can be a tendency to think of the spiritual life, the religious life, as one of abstinence or deprivation, the opposite of a secular life of ordinary eating and drinking. I think of those 4th century monks in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts: awesome in so many ways and yet priding themselves on making one loaf do for a year. And then there is the story of the Fall, once again a matter of food. Among all the bounty, there was one tree in the Garden of Eden that was not meant to be eaten. The choice to eat of it anyway, despite God’s command, was a choice to be independent of God’s blessings, to go it on our own.

The point, I think, is that right here and right now, God is the abundant giver. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said it so well, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God/ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed” We turn our back on this vibrant, living world when we divide its God-bestowed grandeur into sacred and secular. We steal from the greatness of God’s world when we separate workday from Sunday. We are hungry beings, but God has provided us with abundant resources to fill that hunger and, moreover, with the ability to thank and bless God for those gifts. This is my understanding of the “dominion” that is lavished on humankind in Genesis: Receiving the world as a blessing from God, we offer it back again and again with respect to it and in reverence to God, transforming ourselves in the process. Our life, both here or hereafter, is life in and through God.

This communion with God is basic Eucharistic thinking. Again and again, we became confused about our identity and about the source and object of our hunger. To relieve that confusion, God sent his son Jesus Christ, the light that shone in the darkness and that all our mistakes couldn’t extinguish. In Jesus Christ, life in its fullness was and is returned to us. What Jesus is proclaiming to his questioners in John is that his Father, God, has sent him to be a new life that will not end. This new life-giving source comes naturally and logically in a new and far superior manna. It might be easier to say that it comes as food and drink provided by Jesus, but he is more direct: the bread that will provide life for the world, he says, “is my flesh.”

God’s gift of life-giving food to the world, not only to one people, is perfected in his son. Jesus ate and drank just as we do, but in him the stuff of this world—his life, his body that people could touch both before and after his Resurrection—was constantly offered to God. Jesus’ sacrament, the gift of his body that we receive from his hands, will lift us up and return us to the relationship that God wanted with us and originally intended. Through Jesus’ life in this world, the world that God created as food for us and as means of communion with Him is returned to us as well, along with some of the wonder and joy and loving presence of that first creation. Jesus’ flesh therefore is the living bread that nourishes the hunger for God in the way we need and long for. All our bread is in fact a symbol of this new relationship, a new way of sharing our kitchen with God, as it were, and with a wonderful diversity of others who seem so different from ourselves. The bread that we break with Christ’s blessing is the new food for our new life in Christ that will be fully realized in the world to come, but that can also be experienced far more fully than we may realize in the here and now.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for making us Eucharistic people, people of your flesh. We thank you for the bread that makes us like you, and like others. Make all our meals holy. Help us to offer ourselves to you and to others this week in the same quietness and hiddenness as you give yourself to us in the quietness and hiddenness of bread and wine. Amen.

[1] I am drawing here upon Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). Highly respected across denominational lines, Schmemann was dean and professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Gifts Beyond Our Understanding

“Gifts Beyond Our Understanding” Sermon for 8.02.09
2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a; Psalm 51.1-12; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Like so many of us, I’ve been picking wild raspberries. I spot a few really ripe ones, but to pick them I often have to move around the thicket, and then I see more. To get them I lift some leaves, and bending over I see others, way deep down. What started out as a mouthful ends up as a tasty dessert. And then, of course, there are all of those half-ripe ones, waiting for me—if I’m watching.

My faith life has been somewhat like that. I am blessed by some encounter or event, and that in turn leads to other. Or maybe it doesn’t—immediately.

Our continuing story from the Gospel of John this morning tells much the same story in terms of bread. In last week’s installment, the people were fed so wonderfully that they wanted to make Jesus king. This week, they notice that he’s somehow gotten to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They follow him right after him and now they’re asking questions. It’s a real exchange that can sound innocent or somewhat suspicious: “Rabbi, when did you get here?” “What must we do?” “What sign do you do that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?” And as a reminder, just to let him know that they know, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Sound familiar, this interior conversation with God: What? When? How? And “Remember the promise that we’ve heard from Scripture and from our pastors?”
I love Jesus’ initial response and it too can be read as annoyed or as loving: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” It’s true that Jesus identifies their motives—pretty base-line survival—but the double “Amen”—yes, it shall be, yes, it shall be—suggests a confidence in God’s care for his people, and therefore a rebuke motivated by gentleness and understanding of their weakness. The bread had satisfied a real need, but it was also a sign for something more lasting, something greater.

The distinction between the bread that satisfies immediately—the deep purple berry all ready to pop into my mouth—and the sign—the berry as yet unripened, the significance that will emerge—has become precious to me. This is the gift that is more than it seems and that is so often beyond our understanding, beyond our ken. This distinction has become precious to me as I put together some events in my own life.

From the time I was a child, I heard a call to ministry. But when I was small, the ministry was not open to women in the Episcopal Church and so I became a teacher, a profession I have loved. By the time I was in my late 50s, the call came again so strongly that I had to respond. Through discernment in my church, I was encouraged to go to seminary and seek ordination. I was 60 by the time I entered Yale Divinity School. I had the time of my life and did well. Nonetheless, people who knew the Bishop’s feelings about age were afraid that I might be disappointed. But I was determined.

My bishop, who had been on Sabbatical when I first started the process, confirmed the fears of my friends. He felt that the church needed candidates under the age of fifty. Unwilling to allow for exceptions, he turned me down solely on the basis of age. I tried some other dioceses, but somehow nothing worked.

It was a bleak day when I finally realized that I would never be ordained as an Episcopal priest, made none the cheerier when my Dean told me to stop banging my head against the wall. Perhaps you can imagine my sense of failure, made all the harsher by the first serious discrimination I had ever personally experienced. What was I to do with my life, with my career, and worst of all, with my burning call? I kept asking, “Why?” I knew I had been hearing God’s voice, and I couldn’t reject that.

Only very gradually, through prayer and discernment and through the enormous support of friends, did I understand that my call and ordination did not have to be the same. Through it all, I kept saying the words that Pam sang to us so beautifully last week, “Here I am, Lord. It is I Lord. I have heard you calling in the night.” I became a Methodist, entered the Candidacy process, and, God willing, will become a licensed local pastor. My call, my passion for divine service, was a sign, not to ordination but to serve God’s people in God’s church as the Conference and you are allowing me to do here.

In a sense I had been banging my head against the wall because I had limited my call through one particular set of actions, one particular path. As I stopped punishing myself, as I listened to God’s continuing voice of affirmation and love, I found myself changing my church and changing my life.

What I realized—and it was not easy—is waiting for us in the exchange between Jesus and the crowd in our reading from John this morning. “What must we do?” asks the crowd. And Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Greek has so many more interesting tenses than English and this verb “believe” is a subjunctive that expresses duration: We must continue to believe. We must not stop believing.

We are impatient with signs and we get confused about them. A sign obviously points to a thing, to something greater than itself. But we need immediate comfort, healing, affirmation, direction. God knows our need as Jesus knew the need of the crowd on the mountain last week. Sometimes the feeding comes very quickly. And sometimes it is a slower process, not—I think—because God wants to test us, melt us down as in a refiner’s fire, but because God’s ways are mysterious to us.

Like the crowd, I was confusing signs and things. The people thought the bread was it. I thought it, the gift, was ordination, and that without it I couldn’t live out my call. But through God’s mercy, my desire for ordination actually became a sign that pointed beyond itself to another way in which God is now letting me serve. The gift beyond my understanding was indeed the service of God’s people in God’s church—but not in the church or the process that had long seemed the only possibility.

I’ve come to feel that the journey from sign to the real gift to which that sign is pointing—whatever it may be—is proof of God’s continuing love. Not only the Gospel stories but the stories that we tell one another help us remember God’s love as both sign and nourishment beyond that sign. The bread that we will share at the table this morning is both sign and gift from our God who provides us with never-failing nourishment, with life, both here and hereafter.

Let us pray in the words that we heard last week from Ephesians: Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.