Archives for 2018

Tribalism, Pentecost 17 (B) – September 16, 2018

Proper 19

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

The esteemed 20th-century theologian Karl Barth [pronounced “Bart”] reportedly advised preachers to prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and a current newspaper in the other. Obviously, he wanted the Bible to inform us and advise us, for good or bad, about what is going on in our time.

Today, a magazine article satisfies the “news” aspect of Barth’s pairing.

Describing a very troubling dilemma of our time, Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York Magazine (September 18, 2017) about a spirit of “tribalism” in America that has produced an “increasingly dangerous dysfunction,” one that also plagues people around the world.

He identified a prevailing cultural condition that has grown terribly out of hand. It results from what he calls a “compounding combination of… differences into two coherent tribes, eerily balanced in political power, fighting not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Watching this cultural warfare, it seems like almost gladiatorial combat, with Tribe A seeking to destroy Tribe B and Tribe B attempting to destroy Tribe A.

Of course, there is nothing new in this. Remember the Pharisees making Jesus and his followers into their deadly enemies? They tried every means to trick him, to trip him up, to prove he was wrong, and to show that only they were right. If Jesus said it, it must be wrong. If they believed it, it must be right.

This acceptance and embracing of conflict clearly echo in our time. Doesn’t it ring true in almost every aspect of our culture, dividing us into competing camps? Driven by fears and insecurities and feelings of loss and absolute self-protection on every side, this view lures far too many of us into a radical and destructive mindset – one that focuses totally on winning, not seeking right solutions or what is best for all – but winning at all costs.

Sullivan goes on to describe how dramatic this malady is and suggests why it is so easy to become tribalistic. One of the great attractions of tribalism, he contends, is that you don’t actually have to think very much. You only need “to know on any given subject… which side you’re on… A tribal leader calls the shots, and everything slips into place. After a while, your immersion in tribal loyalty makes the activities of another tribe not just alien but close to incomprehensible.”

As an example, Sullivan quotes George Orwell from several generations ago. The great social critic suggested that a function of tribalism holds that, “There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it.” This is a belief that anything done by me – by us – must be okay, and whatever is done by you – by them – must be wrong.

Quite interesting – but quite true. And – quite horrible – because this mentality describes much of American thought and practice in 2018. What tribalism creates, obviously, is an “us against them” mentality. Us against Them. Them against Us. Us against Them. Them against Us.

To offer a remedy, Sullivan quotes Pope Francis. In Colombia, as a fragile peace agreement met public opposition, the Pope insisted that grudges be left behind, saying that, “All of us are necessary to create and form a society. This isn’t just done with the ‘pure-blooded’ ones, but rather with everyone. And here is where the greatness of the country lies, in that there is room for all and all are important.”

Francis urges us to reject the view of Us against Them and instead adopt an Us and Them approach to living in a divided world. Us and Them. Them and Us. This can remind us of something we learned in kindergarten but somehow have forgotten as adults – that is, how to play nice with everyone in the sandbox. Us and Them leads us to communicate and cooperate, to respect and recognize mutual needs.

What a powerful perspective, to be sure. But is it enough? Mustn’t we, here in this place today, reach ever beyond a helpful, but incomplete, Us and Them commitment? Knowing our allegiance to Christ, living out our values as a people of faith, isn’t there more?

And that is where the Bible side of Barth’s pair comes in. We juxtapose the redeeming truth of our Lord, the Good News of God, against the bad news of division we encounter so frequently in our time.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells those who would lay their trust in him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Giving substance to this cross of self-denial can propel us into a reality more likely to transform the Us against Them sickness of our time into something more God-like.

Through the fundamental and essential nature of our faith, we can reveal in word and action a new Us/Them reality. What this can mean is taking up our crosses – in denial and love and giving – to reach a view of Us for Them. Us for Them.

Honestly and realistically, there will not likely be a corresponding Them for Us response – at least not at first. Therefore, it falls on us to show the world the way to overcome the tribalism of Us against Them by showing we are for them and all others, regardless of whether they reciprocate or not.

We dare not forget how Jesus teaches us to take up the cross of self-denial, commanding us to love one another as we inevitably love ourselves. To turn love into more than a noun, making it a powerful verb of caring. To remember that Christian love is the transforming example of the Good Samaritan – love and care given without hope or desire of receiving anything in return, given without strings, given only because of the other’s need. Given – in the spirit of Us for Them.

If we can act with such a faith, maybe we can turn destructive tribalism on its head and live as a different type of tribe – one that Jesus models – one opposite from the divisive and self-serving kind of tribes described by Sullivan in his analysis of what ails our country. Maybe we can become a tribe of Christians – a tribe for others.

Maybe we can be a community of people – who at best are what we already are – the body of Christ, working together with committed allegiance to the same powers of creation that Jesus embodied – rejecting and opposing the harmful and divisive and negative ways of thinking characteristic of tribalism. Putting an end to the winner-take-all mentality that infects our cultural health. Maybe that’s who and what we can be.

What if the [number in congregation] of us here today became such a tribe of Us for Them? What if we few would commit to stopping the cycle of demonizing the other and the insistence that we alone are right – opening ourselves to the value we know the others possess as beloved children of God? Maybe our efforts would begin the change that the world desperately needs. Maybe we can become the pebble tossed into the pond that creates ripple after ripple, transforming a destructive Us against Them culture into an Us for Them culture, consistent with the self-denying challenge of our Lord Jesus.

The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 17 (B).

Learning from Proverbs, Pentecost 16 (B) – September 9, 2018

Proper 18

Episcopal sermon proverbs


[RCL]: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” Is this in the Bible? I hope everyone is thinking—no! It’s a proverb, of course, but one of Benjamin Franklin’s, not from the Old Testament. However, it could have been one as the book of Proverbs is full of earthly and spiritual wisdom.

We may think of proverbs as clever sayings thought up by people like Ben Franklin, who was a master at crafting these sayings. Parents have a million of these sayings at their disposal. It must come with becoming a parent. Sayings such as, “Don’t make that face, it will stick that way.” “Don’t go out with a wet head, you’ll catch cold.” “Little pitchers have big ears.” I’m sure you could add many, many more, and aren’t they fun! For the next three weeks we will be treated to a different type of proverb, these are focused on wisdom – words that are not just clever clichés, but rather those that make us think seriously about how we live in our world and interrelate with each other.

Today, in a very concise and clear set of verses, we consider justice and poverty, which is very topical considering what’s happening in the world around us. As with most proverbs, these get quickly to the point, which makes them very memorable. “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity…” “Those who are generous are blessed …” When we think about the former, we should be reminded that not only do those who sow injustice eventually reap the punishment of calamity upon themselves, but sadly, they also reap calamity immediately upon those they persecute. We might usually think about the justice that will be dealt upon those who do wrong when we read scripture verses like these. But don’t we also wonder sometimes why punishment doesn’t seem to come quickly enough (according to us!) to those who deliberately do evil to others. It doesn’t seem fair that those who are unjust seem to get away with their crime against God’s people. People often say things like, “Why did God allow those young girls in Nigeria get kidnapped and tortured by the Boko Haram?” We may even say things like that ourselves. Why isn’t God’s justice immediate and complete?

Why, indeed, but we must remember one of the great gifts God gave to us as human beings is free will. If God had a finger in everything we do, if God pushed and manipulated us as a puppet maker can manipulate the strings of a wooden puppet, then perhaps the world would be full of nice people going about their business like – well, like puppets. We wouldn’t have to think. God would never cause us to do evil if God was the puppet maker. So we have to remember that we live in a very natural world. We live in a world full of human beings who are all made in God’s image and likeness, but all with the free will to behave as they choose. Too many people today forget that most wonderful section of Genesis where God says, “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.” Part of that is remembering that within God is ultimate and perfect freedom and so we have the freedom to choose to do good or do evil.

Justice will come, but we may not know how those who do evil will be judged or what the outcome will be. It must be enough that we trust God and know that God loves all of us, good, bad, or indifferent. God also hopes that we who try to do good will pray for those who do evil. We will work however we can to show the world that love can overcome hate, generosity can overcome greed, the mystery of prayer can overcome evil.

But, it’s not all grim. We aren’t always faced with evil that we must suffer under or overcome. There is a very positive side to the proverbs. Parents also have those positive proverbs like, “You will always be my baby” or “You’ll understand when you’re older.” In our reading today, we find the proverb that says, “Those who are generous are blessed…” Yes, the generous themselves are blessed by grace, but also those who are the recipients of our generosity are blessed. There is a beautiful interaction there of blessedness. A woman therapist wrote in a blog that as she was waiting in a grocery checkout line one day, she made eye contact with another woman. They didn’t know each other, but they both smiled and, in that moment, the therapist wrote, “I felt such love for her as a fellow human being. There was something beautiful in our acknowledgement of each other.”

We also must know many people who have touched our own lives with love and blessing. So many people touch our lives with their kindness, with the little things that have “made our day” as we so often say. Teachers often are the ones who help us change our lives. Many fall in love with those who have kindled a spark of something special within us. There is so much good in the world if we can only turn away from the news headlines and look into the eyes of our fellow human beings.

The Jewish people use the word mitzvah, which is often translated good deed. And rabbis will tell you that it means more—it comes from the root word tzavta, which means connection or commandment. Connection is a lovely translation. Whenever we share with the poor, speak out against injustice (especially when the injustice is right in front of our eyes), or respond with love to another, we are establishing a connection. That connection is not only between us and another person, but also between ourselves and God.

“The Lord is the maker of us all…” We dare not forget this, but isn’t it a much better mitzvah for us all to look on each other with the same love with which God looks on each one of us!

This sermon, written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz, originally ran in 2015.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 16 (B).

Hypocrites, Pentecost 15 (B) – September 2, 2018

Proper 17

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The church is full of hypocrites. Ever heard that? I hear it all the time. It usually comes from folks who are anxious to justify the neglect of their own religious duties by dumping on church folks. At first glance, it seems a well-aimed attack, too. After all, Jesus is very hard on hypocrites, in fact, he is harder on them than he is on anybody else. We just had a good example of that in the Gospel, where Jesus once more climbs all over the Pharisees and scribes, the official religious leaders of the day. So, if the church really is full of hypocrites, we have a problem—and we should probably fire a bunch of churchgoers, or go out of business, or something.

But before we do that, it’s a good idea to take a minute and look at what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hypocrites. This is one of those words that is surprisingly hard to get a grip on, and that we need to spend a little extra time with. What we usually mean when we use the word is most likely not what Jesus meant when he used it.

Today’s dictionary says that hypocrites are people who are playing a part, people who deliberately pretend to have beliefs and virtues that they, in fact, do not have at all, and which the hypocrites both know they don’t have and don’t particularly want to have. Hypocrites in this sense are people who are faking it and who know they are faking it. The point is deception. (In fact, the word comes from acting a part in a play). Hypocrisy in this sense is really vicious. It’s a misuse of religious faith and it mocks God and his Church. Doubtless, it greatly grieves the Lord. But two other things need to be said about this sense of hypocrisy. First, the Church is not full of this kind of hypocrite and, second, this isn’t what Jesus was talking about, anyway.

About the first thing: It just isn’t true. Most church people, indeed virtually all the church people I know, believe what they say they believe, or they want to believe it, or they are trying to believe it, or they wish they could believe it. And, truth be told, that’s as good at it gets.

In the same way, most church people I know are living by their best take on the moral precepts of our faith, or they are trying to, or they want to, or they know deeply both the struggle that comes with contending with God and the weight of judgment that brings. Nobody gets it right all the time; everybody gets it wrong more often than necessary; anybody and everybody can do better. But outright, deliberate faking the whole business to seem good while planning to be bad—this is rare, and I think we ought to realize that, and say that, and celebrate that. The church is not full of that sort of hypocrite. The church is full of sinners—but that’s another matter entirely—and that’s as it should be.

Now, in the light of all that, I’m not sure whether or not it’s good news that, when Jesus condemned hypocrites and hypocrisy, he was not talking about this, but about something else. You see, the notion of acting a part was a Greek notion, and there are really no Hebrew or Aramaic parallels to this idea of hypocrisy. So, we don’t know what Aramaic word Jesus used that the Gospel writers translated as the Greek word hypocrite. Still, the best way I know to get at what Jesus was probably talking about is by way of an old Zen story.

Once upon a time, the great Zen master Sasha was standing with a friend at the top of a tall tower. His friend looked down the road and saw a line of saffron-robed monks walking toward them. “Look,” his friend said to Sasha, “Holy men.”

“Those aren’t holy men,” Sasha said, “and I can prove it to you.” So, they waited in silence until the monks were walking directly below the tower.

Then Sasha leaned over the tower’s rail and called down, “Hey, holy men.” The monks all looked up—and Sasha turned to his friend and said, “See?”

Those monks were exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about hypocrites. So were the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus does not attack the Pharisees and scribes for pretending to be good when they were really evil. The vast majority of them were not evil.

Instead, Jesus castigates them because their self-righteous convictions about their own goodness had built a smug wall around them, isolated them from the rest of the community, and made them deaf to any further word from God.

The Pharisees kept the law and keeping the law—the moral law and the religious law—is a good thing. We should do that. But to believe and act like your own righteousness in the sight of God comes to you because you keep the law—this is absolutely deadly, and it is the heart of what Jesus means by hypocrisy.

To cultivate within yourself moral virtues and behavior which not everyone around you cultivates is, again, a good thing. Indeed, it’s a distinctive mark of the Christian life. But to believe and act like your own righteousness in the sight of God comes to you because you are more virtuous than most people you know—or more virtuous than some other group, or some specific other person—this is what Jesus insisted was far more evil than the particulars of any individual sinner.

There is only one place to look if we want to find out how good we are, or how righteous we are—only one place. That place is God—God’s absolute goodness, God’s absolute justice, God’s absolute demands, and, finally, God’s absolute love and mercy.

If we look to ourselves for our righteousness, if we look to the things we have done, or the rules we have kept or the law we obey—or if we look to the failings of others (and say, “at least I’m not like them”)—if we do that, if we try to find in ourselves, or in others, the answer to how good we are or how righteous we are—if we do that, then we are who Jesus is talking about when he talks about hypocrites.

To be sure, it’s a good and important thing to obey the law and to live the life we are called to live. None of this talk of hypocrisy excuses moral or religious failing, nor does it mean that the way we behave doesn’t matter. The way we behave matters a lot, for a bunch of reasons. Deuteronomy today talks about how God’s people are to live in such a way that the world around them can look at them and be drawn to God. And Paul talks about how every speck of virtue we can nurture is absolutely essential if we are to live our calling.

At the same time, when Jesus condemns the hypocrites, he is not talking about evil people who pretend. He is talking about well-behaved people who trust in themselves, who consider themselves finished products, and so cannot see or hear either themselves or God very well.

Now, I don’t think the church is particularly full of this sort of hypocrite, either; but we’re far from immune. And Jesus thought it was dreadfully important, so we have to pay especially close attention and keep alert.

Remember Sasha in the tower and those monks. And remember that our trust, and our hope, and our confidence, can be found in only one place—it is never in ourselves—it is always in the love and the mercy of God.

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 15 (B).

Gifts of God, Pentecost 14 (B) – August 26, 2018

Proper 16

Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: 1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84 or 84:1-6; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

If you ever have the chance to visit the Holy Land, you will walk in the footsteps of Jesus and learn about the complicated world in which he lived. You’ll visit the Garden of Gethsemane, the Upper Room, and about fifteen sites claiming to be Lazarus’ tomb. You’ll also likely visit Cana, the place where Jesus is said to have turned containers of water into wine for a wedding feast. At the gift shop, you may even try some “Cana Wedding Wine,” but it is not recommended.

While sampling the “Cana Wedding Wine,” one tourist asked the theologian guiding their tour, “Is this wine from the time of Jesus?”

To everyone’s surprise, the guide answered, “Yes, in fact, this wine is from the time of Jesus Christ because now is the time of Jesus Christ. He is not dead, he is risen.”

It is one thing to hear these words repeated in the midst of a Eucharistic prayer or during an opening acclamation; it is quite another to hear these words in ordinary conversation, and it is something else entirely to think about our lives through our practice of consuming bread and wine during Holy Communion, but that is precisely what the Eucharist is all about.

In the 1940s, a young black woman invited her boyfriend to join her one Sunday at her Episcopal church, and he was hesitant. He was also black and knew that his girlfriend’s congregation was mostly white. This can be an uncomfortable dynamic in the 21st Century—seventy years ago it could have been downright dangerous.

When it came time for Holy Communion, the woman’s boyfriend noticed that everyone drank from the same chalice; people who were not allowed to share the same drinking fountains in public were using the same cup to drink the sacramental wine. Nervously, he followed her to the rail and watched as she took bread. The priest lowered the chalice to her lips and said, “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”

Stunned, the young man experienced the boundary-breaking, bad policy-defying, reconciling mission of the Living God. He drank the wine and was forever changed. This couple married, and one of their children grew to become the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry.

In light of this story of how his parents experienced the Episcopal Church, Curry says, “Communion is a sacrament of unity that overcomes even the deepest estrangements between human beings.” Deep estrangement exists today, whether based on political beliefs, socio-economic statuses, or the different ways we experience the world because of our race, creed, or sexual orientation. We need a way of bridging those gaps, because until we can find unity among ourselves, we will struggle to find union with God.

Jesus says in Saint John’s account that, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” This is, understandably, a difficult teaching for those crowds that followed Jesus. In fact, we are told that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” For many today—especially those that have little familiarity with sharing in the bread and wine of Holy Communion—this continues to be a difficult teaching, one that may often be depicted as archaic or even disturbing and absurd. Any reasonable person can understand this perspective; however, there is always more to Jesus than meets the eye.

Loye Bradley Ashton, in his contribution to the Feasting on the Word series, suggests that the problem here is the lack of a proper understanding of the Incarnation—that we seem to confuse “the body as flesh without spirit with the body as incarnate, flesh with spirit.” Because of this confusion, we tend to consume “the world without appreciating how God has infused creation with the Spirit; thus we use and discard it in crude and materialist ways,” which includes the way we treat our environment and the way we treat each other.

“The ethical imperative at the heart of John’s incarnational theology of the Eucharist is clear,” Ashton writes. “Will we treat the world around us as incarnational or simply as material?”

This is a hard teaching, indeed, as it requires an incredibly thoughtful approach to the world—one that calls us beyond the comfort of routines that satisfy our immediate needs and even our own sense of fulfillment. If we treat the world—the whole world—as incarnational, we will need to include people we despise. Not only will we need to include them, we will need to put our faith in them and in the Living God’s agency in their lives.

By sharing in the Eucharist, we share in an experience of the Living God that breaks down walls. By living Eucharistically, we seek to recognize the Living God in others, and by doing so, we are able to embrace one another as the gifts. Do you remember the exuberance you felt as a child on Christmas morning (maybe you still feel this way) as you opened presents and joyfully or frantically tried to play with all of them at once? What if we treated everything and everyone with that kind of exuberance—as if everything and everyone were a gift?

By living a Eucharistic life, we might find ways to break down the walls that divide us and see those from different backgrounds and those with different beliefs as gifts from the God who created them. This is the way Jesus lived: as if everyone possessed something special that was worth getting to know and worth connecting with on a truly human level.

This is the way Jesus lived, and this is the way we can live. This is the way God lives among us today. Now is the time of Jesus Christ. He is not dead, he is risen. Alleluia!

The Rev’d Curtis Farr serves with the good people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield, Connecticut, as their rector. In his spare time, he chases his dog Eleanor Roosevelt (Elly) around the house as she attempts to make off with one of his Batman comics.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 14 (B).

Living Bread, Pentecost 13 (B) – August 19, 2018

Proper 15


[RCL]: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Even as Jesus is saying these words you can imagine some would-be disciples slipping to the back of the crowd before making a beeline home. Watching Jesus give sight to the blind and making the lame walk would have been amazing, but now he is not making any sense. Just beyond our reading for today, many of his disciples will say among themselves, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” The twelve will stick with Jesus, but many others will fall away. Knowing Jesus as a great teacher is one thing, but talking about your flesh as food and your blood as drink must have sounded like the rabbi had lost it.

Our lectionary, or pattern of readings for Sunday worship, has really slowed down this month. We are on our third out of four weeks in a row on a single chapter of John’s Gospel. It helps to recall this discourse follows Jesus’ feeding 5,000 people as the time for the Passover approaches. With that central Jewish feast in mind, Jesus referring to the bread that comes down from heaven makes more sense. Jesus is reinterpreting the story of the Passover and the Exodus through his own life and ministry.

Jesus has given them physical food but uses that to teach that he can give them spiritual food as well. He said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” He wants those who are listening to him to not just eat some bread and fish and then go home to hunger again. He wants them to develop a spiritual hunger and thirst that he and only he can fill. And to teach this, Jesus uses the Passover story, which was about moving from slavery to freedom, to show how faith in him also moves his followers from death to life.

It is a spiritual lesson difficult to grasp. The words from this gospel are given in the first year of Jesus’ three years of ministry. John’s Gospel, with these Bread of Life passages coming so early in his ministry, makes clear what the other three Gospels only hint at—the Eucharist is not about Jesus’ sacrificial death alone. Our faith is not in Jesus’ death and resurrection alone, but in Jesus’ whole life from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond to an empty tomb in a garden and Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. Jesus’ whole life, rather than the events of the last days of his life, institutes the sacrament of communion.

Everything Jesus did—who Jesus was and how he acted—is part of God’s revelation to us. We are to take Jesus’ whole story and make it part of our story. God took Jesus’ whole life, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to us. We are to let that story of God’s love for us take us, bless us, break us, and give us back to the world.

This is something that happens in the liturgy as we enter the story. We don’t just listen to the words, “Take, eat,” but we actually get up—we come to the altar to actually take and eat the bread that has been broken and given. We enter the story and then we are called to make the whole story a part of our story.

Dom Gregory Dix in his work of scholarship on the Eucharist, The Shape of the Liturgy, wrote, “At the heart of it all is the eucharistic action, a thing of an absolute simplicity—the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before He died….Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.”

The communion that Jesus spoke of in John’s sixth chapter, describing himself as living bread, is something that has woven itself deeply into the human story. Think of all the places you have taken communion, and the people whom you have taken communion alongside—people still living that you don’t see anymore, people now long dead and seen only by God. Imagine all the places in which God has experienced this Eucharistic meal. Jesus is the Bread that Came Down from Heaven, whose presence sustains in every place and situation in which we find ourselves. It is no wonder that Jesus’ command to take, bless, break, and give is so obeyed.

We need this strengthening of the Body and Blood of Jesus encountered in the Eucharist; when we are apart from God, we find it easier and easier to remain apart from God and to rely on other, lesser answers to our deep hungers and thirsts—hungers and thirsts which only Jesus can satisfy. This is where the comparison to physical hunger and thirst helps us as we know that we need the nourishment of food and drink again and again. We may eat a good meal now, but we will need another tomorrow and one in between those two as well. In that same way, we need spiritual nourishment again and again.

There are two important components to the Christian walk. The first is coming to faith in Jesus, for which we have the sacraments of baptism and confirmation to mark us as Christ’s own forever. But coming to faith is just the first important step on what is to be a lifelong journey.

To continue the journey, to really progress in the life of faith, you need some practices in daily life that make this real. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is encouraging all Episcopalians to find the way right for them to consider seven practices for a Jesus-centered life. Central to these practices is worship. The other practices are to turn, learn, pray, bless, go, and rest. For this week, we are just focusing on worship and how Jesus feeds us in the Eucharist just as he promised in teaching, “I am the Bread of Life.” The full seven practices of The Way of Love can be found online at episcopalchurch.org/wayoflove.

[NOTE: This week’s and next week’s bulletin inserts provide more information about the Way of Love: Practices for Jesus-Centered Life] 

I know that I am preaching to the choir, as I am preaching to people who made their way to church this morning for the very Word and sacrament about which I am preaching. But I also know that from time to time, each of us can find ourselves feeling distanced from God. And so, this is a word to the wise that when that happens, know that staying away from the altar is not the way to find healing. Keep coming. Keep asking for and expecting the peace which Jesus alone can give. You need the nourishment you find here as much as you need something to eat and something to drink.

You are also in contact every day with others who have found themselves apart from church. This is the place where God can speak to their hearts through our readings and the sermon and the Spirit’s presence in them in worship. It is also the place where they can receive the bread and wine of communion and so experience Jesus’ very real, sustaining presence in an irreplaceable way: the nourishment you need for your hungry soul.

It is returning, again and again, week after week, for Jesus’ presence in Word and the sacrament of the Eucharist that we are conformed more and more to be like Jesus. And in those times in life when challenges arise and we are not sure we have what it takes, we return again to be sustained by Jesus’ presence. And if we begin to feel unworthy of God’s love, we know that we can always return to the altar, confess, and receive forgiveness. Then through the Christ’s presence in the sacrament, we are fed for the coming week. For Jesus gave us this bread so that we might live. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on church development topics at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 13 (B).

Enough to Raise the Dead, Pentecost 12 (B) – August 12, 2018

Proper 14


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Travel to the city of Rome and go to the basilica named for St. Peter. Near the main entrance, you will find one of the most celebrated sculptures in the world, the Pieta of Michelangelo.

Mary the mother of Jesus is shown seated. On her lap, in her arms, she holds the lifeless body of her son, newly brought down from the cross. You may be familiar with this eloquent work in marble. Perhaps you have stood before it.

Blessed Mary appears quite young. And somehow the body of her adult son rests on her lap without seeming awkward. The Pieta possesses a strange beauty and grace that engages the viewer.

We are invited to contemplate the sorrow that floods her heart. It is a sorrow uniquely her own. Yet it is also universal, the sorrow that arises in our hearts in the face of death when the corpse is a child, a young person, someone innocent.

The Pieta thus presents with sublime eloquence the loss Mary felt when she cradled the dead body of her child, the sorrow that enveloped the heart of our Savior’s earthly parent.

Today’s selection from the Second Book of Samuel is the last in a long series of Sunday readings that focus on David, Israel’s greatest king. This last selection does not recount his death in old age. Instead, it recounts the murder of a young man, the king’s son, Absalom, and the grief that seizes David as a result.

An unforgettable moment in biblical literature confronts us: David the king, deeply moved, retreats to an upstairs chamber, weeps as he goes, and cries out repeatedly, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Absalom is murdered by David’s soldiers because he had revolted against his father, claiming the kingdom for himself. That rebellion must be put down, yet King David tells his forces that for his sake they should deal gently with the young man Absalom.

The royal command is ignored. David’s general and ten soldiers surround Absalom and kill him in the forest of Ephraim. They subject his body to a disgraceful burial, tossing it into a hole in a field, then covering it with a big pile of stones.

David does not celebrate this rebel’s defeat. He remains instead a father. We hear in his outcry a father’s grief at the murder of his child.

Part of what it means for scripture to be inspired is that it contains several levels of meaning. In this portrait of David, the grief-stricken father, there is something more than what happens in history, time and again. We have here also a reminder of what happens inside the Trinity.

The cross brings suffering to the Father as well as the Son. The Son dies a real death. The Father suffers a real bereavement. Together Father and Son are one in the Spirit, and the cross reveals the Spirit as an abyss of sorrow. This is what the Godhead undergoes freely—for us.

If David, a sinful human like us, laments loudly the killing of his rebel son, then the death of Jesus, who obeys the will of God, brings grief past our ability to imagine to the heart of his father. The Father accepts this grief even as the Son accepts his death. They do so freely. Love is the motive.

So, in the Pieta of Michelangelo, we have the image of the sorrow felt by the mother of Jesus over his death.

And in the story from Second Samuel, we have something that points to the grief felt by the heavenly Father over that death.

It is a mistake to suggest that while God the Son suffers for us, God the Father does not. The Father of our Savior knows a unique brand of suffering because of the death of his Son, even as King David experiences heartbreak because of the death of Absalom.

God the Father is not nailed to a cross. Yet God the Father knows the pain of witnessing his Son nailed to a cross. God the Father suffers due to the death of his Son. This is an important insight. It makes a difference regarding practical matters.

Many people choose not to understand God in this way. They can perhaps abide the suffering Son and his grieving mother, but not the suffering Father. Their view of reality demands a strict Father not only at the center of the Godhead, but also in society and personal life.

The Strict Father imposes harsh discipline, using violence if necessary. The Strict Father abstains from tears, even at the death of his child. There is no room to question the Strict Father. Control is the key. The goal in this worldview is for each person to become his or her own Strict Father. Let each be ready to do violence to others, violence to self, in the interest of maintaining control.

Order is abundant, of course, in the Strict Father world. What that world lacks are empathy and compassion. In some of his writings, especially Moral Politics, the American linguist George Lakoff explores the bleak landscape of the Strict Father world.

David crying out in grief at the loss of his rebel son. Mary cradling the corpse of Jesus at the foot of the cross. God the Father left grief-stricken at the death of God the Son. All this constitutes a standing challenge to the sovereignty of the image of the Strict Father.

There are Strict Father versions of Christianity, for sure, but they fall fatally short of the truth of the Gospel. The most authentic Christianity is presented by the tears of David, the tears of Mary, the tears of God. The most authentic Christianity does not surrender empathy and compassion in order to purchase the illusion of control.

Instead, what we find is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ keeps challenging the Strict Father regime in the interest of a heavenly Father who is not afraid to weep.

This challenge takes place not only in sanctuaries but in halls of government and private homes, in public squares and the depths of the human heart. God wants us to surrender our control needs and become as human as he is in Christ. A willingness to weep places us on the road to personal and collective salvation.

Someone may say that this builds a significant edifice on a slim biblical foundation, namely a particular reading of David’s grief. But this theme of the Father who suffers runs through the two testaments.

The great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel finds this God everywhere in the writings of the biblical prophets.

Jesus announces that mourners are blessed. It is possible that the chief mourner of all is God the Father, and that the coming of his reign on earth as in heaven will be the blessing this grief-stricken Father will receive.

Jesus also tells a story about a father and his two sons. Each of the sons turns out to be a disappointment to his father. The younger one leaves and lives a dissolute life. The elder stays back and hardens his heart. Each boy dies in a different way.

But when the moment of crisis arrives for each, the father is there, stronger than grief, welcoming home both the prodigal party boy and the son who had become a strict father. Jesus concludes the story before we know how each son responds. Yet there’s reason to hope that the old man’s tears are enough to raise the dead.

That story is not just about them. That story is about us. Each one of us is the prodigal party boy or a hard-hearted strict father or even something of both.

This Eucharist and every Eucharist is the celebration that God the Father puts on to welcome us home. The only question that matters, and the one that answers all the rest, is this one: Will you partake of the feast of faith? Will you take for your own a broken-hearted God?

We are dead people. Dead rebels. Dead authoritarians. But God sees us not simply as ourselves, but in his child Jesus.

And the tears of God the Father as he beholds the suffering of his Son are enough to raise the dead.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland with his wife Helena Mirtova and serves as priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beltsville, Maryland. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications). Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com. He can be reached at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 12 (B).

To Be Transfigured, The Feast of the Transfiguration – August 6, 2018


[RCL]: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36; Psalm 99 or 99:5-9

Today we’re celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration, so we get to hear, again, this familiar story. In fact, since we also hear the same story every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, this is probably one of the most frequent Gospel readings in the Church’s calendar. We get it a lot.

As a sort of prelude to the Transfiguration, I want to talk just a bit about hermeneutics—which is just a fancy name for how we go about approaching and interpreting the Bible. It’s important stuff, and we need to have some sense of a decent approach to the Bible, and especially to the Gospels, if we’re going to take them as seriously as they deserve.

Too often these days I keep running into the notion that what matters most about stories from the Bible, especially stories that are unusual—miracles, healings, or just plain peculiar stuff, like the Transfiguration—is that you believe it, that you think it really happened in a 21st century historical way. And that bothers me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it trivializes the faith and the Bible by turning them into a sort of believing contest. Second, it impoverishes these special stories by setting them apart from everything else and pretending that the most important thing about them is that they happened. That just won’t do.

Sure, there are all sorts of interesting textual and historical issues with stories like the Transfiguration—it may have been a post-Resurrection appearance that got misplaced in early manuscripts; it may be a theologically inspired parable that developed in the first century; and so on. But that’s not what matters most. At the same time, there is simply no reasonable doubt that Jesus did amazing things, and that life around him was very interesting and full of surprises. But that’s not what matters most, either. We all know that God can do special stuff.

These perplexing stories are really just exactly like the more ordinary stuff in the Gospels—things like Jesus’ teachings, his sayings about himself and about God and about the Kingdom of God. After all, the most important thing about, say, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is not that Jesus actually said those specific words—after all, Matthew and Luke disagree about what those words are. The most important thing about them is what they mean—what they meant for the people, place, and time where they were said, and what they mean for us in this place and time.

It’s not enough just to believe the Bible (whatever that means); we are called to engage the struggle of trying to understand it—of trying to make it real and present for us in ways that matter to our lives and to our world. After all, the strong conviction that unusual things happened a long time ago in a place far, far away really doesn’t say anything at all about our lives now—no matter how hard we believe it. Such unexamined belief is also an easy way out; it’s a way of dismissing the significance of something by simply saying we believe it and stopping there.

Do keep this in mind when you read and when you hear people talk about the Bible.

On to the Transfiguration. This is a story about who Jesus is, and what it is like to follow Jesus, and mostly, it’s a story about hope, real hope. We know that the Church has taught from the very beginning that Jesus is fully a human being, and at the same time, fully divine. These days, with the safety of distance and, alas, of centuries of sugary art and decades of terrible movies, it is pretty easy to think of Jesus as being divine—but we can have trouble with how that fits in with his being fully human. (So, people worry about silly things like whether Jesus could speak English if he were pressed, or if, the week before the Last Supper, Jesus knew who would win the 2020 presidential election.)

But in his own lifetime, and during the lifetime of the apostles, there was no doubt about Jesus’ humanity. People saw him and talked with him and ate with him and watched him live the life of a man in first century Palestine. And, no, he didn’t glow in the dark or walk around looking all Hollywood goofy and godly. So, the Transfiguration was, in the first century, a story about the divinity of Jesus. It was there to remind people that this man they may have known and may have seen was more than just one more charismatic teacher. He was the beloved of God in a unique and powerful way. The full glory of the Father was part of who Jesus—this guy they knew—actually was. That’s one part of what the story means, a part that was probably more important in the first century than it is today.

Another part of what the story means is that Jesus trumps the Bible. Really. Moses symbolized the Law, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, which was the only Bible the apostles or the early Church knew, and Elijah symbolized the Prophets, who made up pretty much the rest of that Bible. So, for the Law and the Prophets to be there, but to vanish, and then for the disciples to be told to listen to Jesus alone, this is one way of saying that, if you have to choose between the Law and the Prophets (the Bible of the day) or Jesus, you choose Jesus. There is a clear priority here—and while the point is not to ignore Moses or Elijah, it is to show who has pride of place. As Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth-century commentator says, “Moses and Elijah appeared beside [Jesus] so that they might know that he was Lord of the Prophets.” We need to remember that, too.

That part of the story was very important to the early Church, as it tried to figure out how to handle the Old Testament, and it’s a very important thing for us to remember, too. (By the way, that’s one reason Peter was not to build three booths—doing that would suggest that Jesus was only equal to the Law and the Prophets.)

A third part of what the story means was so obvious to the apostles and the early Church that they hardly noticed it—they knew it all along, down to their very bones. But it may be the most important part for us. This is the reality that who Jesus really is cannot be known from only one picture, from only one experience, no matter how intense and glorious, or from only one perspective. Coming to know Jesus is not an event, it is a journey. You can’t stop with just one “wow” and assume you’ve got it. Jesus left the mountain, still a mystery and a puzzle to the disciples, who were told not to blab about this partial insight into the Lord.

That’s because even the Transfiguration did not give enough light to see Jesus fully. To see him fully required the whole journey; it required walking the road ahead, all of that road. And it is only by making the whole of their journey with Jesus, a journey they did not anticipate and could not have imagined, a journey that led to Golgotha and beyond, it was only by doing this that they came to realize both who Jesus really was, and how confused and incomplete any attempt to pin him down to any one moment would be. They could no more point to the Transfiguration than they could to a sleeping friend or an executed criminal and say, “This is it, this is who he is, I’ve figured it all out.” That’s why the Gospels have lots and lots of stories and sayings. No single story or saying is enough—no single experience is enough—and no one can know the whole of who Jesus is and what he is about until that person has walked all of his or her entire journey with Jesus.

In fact, the whole Church cannot know fully who Jesus is until the whole Church has walked its entire journey with Jesus, a journey we are still walking, a journey that is far from over.

Again, that first generation of Christians knew that, back then. But we need to be especially mindful of this reality today. The one who stands transfigured before us today, and crucified on Good Friday, and raised on Easter, and who is with his Church forever, this one, Jesus himself, is still leading us along the bumpy road down the mountain—patiently putting up with our wrong turns, our stubborn blindness, and our failures to trust enough or to love enough. We cannot stop at any one place and say, “Here it is, we have it all nailed down” (that’s the other reason Peter could not build a dwelling for Jesus). As long as we are in the midst of the journey, Jesus has not set up a permanent address among us. We don’t know it all, and we pretend to do so at our peril.

The journey of faith, the journey of discovery, the journey of our lives and of the life and ministry of Jesus, these continue. And on that journey, Jesus is both our companion on the way, gradually revealing to us and to our generation who he is and who he will have us be, and at the same time, to use Peter’s words, he is for us “a lamp shining in a dark place,” in our dark places, and in the darkness of the world.

That is where our hope lies; that light will never fail us. No darkness will ever fully overcome us: and this journey of ours, a journey we share with all who are Christ’s, this journey will, at the end of the day, lead us safely home. To believe in the Transfiguration is not merely to talk about history—to believe in the Transfiguration is to dare our own journey with Jesus, and it is to embrace this hope.

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Download the sermon for the Transfiguration.

Contentment, Pentecost 11 (B) – August 5, 2018

Proper 13


[RCL]: Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

How do we know what is enough?

To any normal member of his kingdom, King David would have looked like a man with enough. And yet, King David was not content. He wanted things that were not his to have. He wanted Bathsheba, although she was married to someone else. He wanted the appearance of innocence, although he was guilty. He wanted the moral righteousness to condemn the evildoer in Nathan’s story, but found out he was the man. The Lord God lists the abundance given to David, but then levels this sentence: You weren’t content with my bounty. You added the sword. You needed to use the sword to be content? Okay, here comes the sword.

In our Gospel, Jesus says that the people follow him because he can feed them more bread, although he has more to offer. He wants them to find contentment in him. What is enough?

Before we come back to that question, let’s go on a journey. Maybe you remember journeys like this one, that sound like this: Are we there yet? I’m hungry! I’m thirsty! He’s bothering me! Why did I even have to come on this stupid trip? Why couldn’t you just leave me at home with my friends? When are we going to get there?

Sound familiar?

Perhaps there are families who do long distance drives in tranquility. Perhaps there are families that actually speak peaceably with one another on road trips without the aid of huge data plans and just sticking their faces down in their phones or tablets. Perhaps there are those among us who have not experienced or delivered this parental admonition: Don’t make me pull this car over.

If you are amongst those who have no experience of car trip discord, congratulations! If not, perhaps this next journey will sound familiar as well.

This one took place much longer ago than the childhood of anyone here today. And it’s much more serious than any family vacation. It’s the journey of the Israelites, recently delivered from slavery in Egypt. But the soundtrack is similar: When are we going to get there? I’m hot. I’m tired. I’m thirsty! I’m hungry! Why did I even have to come on this stupid trip? Why didn’t you just leave us back in Egypt?

In other words, the Israelites are whining. The Hebrew word is sometimes translated “murmur,” but it’s the same thing. And we all know how it sounds.

The Israelites have been out of Egypt for all of two months. They have been, fairly recently, delivered from a truly bad situation, an unjust situation, a miserable situation. They were slaves in Egypt. Without dignity, without self-determination, treated as property, they cried out to God. God heard them, delivered them from the Egyptians, brought them in safety to freedom. And now they are in that middle place, the wilderness: no longer in bondage to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, not yet in the promised land. They are fairly new at freedom and they are finding it a challenge.

The people are hungry, and they turn on Moses and Aaron, who are probably hot and tired and hungry too, and wishing the GPS weren’t sending them on such a roundabout route. (Really? Are you sure this is the road?)

The people whine, but more than the annoying sound of the whining, it’s the irrational content that is stunning. “Moses, did you bring us out here to starve us to death? If only we were back in Egypt! Sure, we were slaves there, abused, no better than pieces of property to the Egyptians, but at least they fed us! You don’t love us. Why did we even have to go on this stupid trip?”

Freedom is a challenge. For one thing, instead of just being told what to do all the time, they have to learn a new skill. Complaining they’ve got down cold. Now they have to learn to trust. They have to learn to trust God. They have to learn to open their eyes and hearts and learn a new way of being in the world. They have to learn how to live with contentment.

Now, they were right to be discontent with their old situation. We are never supposed to be content with injustice, with inhumane treatment of anyone. We are never supposed to be content with abuse, cooperation with evil. But here they were, free! But so far away from contentment. It’s like they carried their discontentment with them, dwelling within it like it’s a shelter, like it’s a tent.

That’s the thing about tents—they’re portable. So you can change your setting, your campsite, your whole surroundings and situation, and you can still be hauling around your same old tent. You can still be setting up your same old tent and crawling into your same old tent at night and waking up in your same old discontent, and wondering why things still look bleak and miserable.

Remember those old canvas tents some of us grew up with? The ones that got that musty smell and if you leaned up against them in the middle of the night, that’s where the moisture would come in? Or if it rained, the rain would find the low point on the canvas to come through, and you would wake up in the middle of the night, with water dripping on you from the ceiling? You are free to still be hauling around one of those old canvas tents if you want, but here’s good news: they make new ones now that don’t leak, that don’t smell musty, that are easier to set up and take down, and are lighter weight. But it’s up to you which kind of tent you want to use as your dwelling. Contentment or discontentment?

We aren’t so different from the Israelites, right? Ever stay in a bad situation because it’s easier to stay with the devil you know? Ever settle for less than you could be doing because, well, it’s not great, but it’s tough to make a change, and, truth be told, complaining about it is easier than changing?

The Israelites had just been brought through a huge change. And it was time to learn a new skill. Trust in God.

To feed them, God gave the Israelites the gift of manna, a fine flaky substance that appeared on the ground every morning. It was so peculiar, new, wondrous, that the people ask, “What is it?”—in Hebrew, it sounds like “Manna?” and the name sticks.

The food is wondrous not only because it appears overnight while they are asleep, in this barren place, out of nowhere – or solely out of the abundance of God – but it’s theirs with no work, no slave labor, just grace, here it is.

It is also wondrous because it has special built-in properties to make sure everyone gets enough. Just enough. They have to collect it each day. There’s exactly enough to go around. No more, no less. If they try to hoard it for the next day, it rots. The exception is on the Sabbath when the people aren’t supposed to do any work. On the day before the Sabbath, they can collect enough for the Sabbath too, and it will last.

Like all new things, it takes some practice. Some people hoard, and all they have to show for it is a bunch of moldy manna. Some people don’t collect enough for the Sabbath, and when the Sabbath comes, there’s no manna for them. Trust—says God, trust me—and follow my instructions—they’re trustworthy, too. Trust, listen to me and obey, and you can dwell in contentment.

In Jesus, God took the life of contentment one step further. Jesus was not just someone who gave physical bread, although feeding hungry people is one of the commands Jesus gives and one of the things his ministry on earth was about. He wasn’t content to just make sure people had full bellies and their physical needs met; Jesus came to be bread of life – the source for spiritual contentment as well, the source of joy and contentment in any situation, in plenty and in want, in easy times and in times of struggle and challenge. Don’t be content with physical stuff. Don’t try to find contentment with the things of this world that are here today and gone tomorrow. Seek God’s kingdom. Seek the food that endures for eternal life. Jesus offers himself, and walking with Jesus, feasting with Jesus, eating the bread he gives us, which is himself, we can know contentment wherever we find ourselves. Even in the midst of a desert. Even when provisions seem scarce or we don’t know exactly where the journey leads, Jesus will be our sustenance and guide if we let him. We can dwell in content. We can know what is enough, who is enough.

The Rev. Amy Richter, Ph.D., is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. She and Joseph Pagano,her husband, will teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. She and Joe have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 11 (B).

Take, Bless, Break, Give, Pentecost 10 (B) – July 29, 2018

Proper 12


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

You might be tempted to gloss over the miracle stories about Jesus that are recorded in the Gospels. Taken at face value, most of them stretch our credulity, perhaps further than we are willing to go, and for what? Is it necessary to believe that Jesus really walked on water, or magically multiplied the loaves and fishes? Why do we keep telling these improbable stories?

The story we heard in the Gospel of John today — about Jesus feeding the 5,000 — stands out in the Gospels. The Gospel writers clearly thought this story was important. It shows up in Matthew, Mark, and Luke — since these three share a common source and repeat a lot of material, this is not surprising. But John also includes it, which is interesting, because there’s not much overlap between John and the other Gospels. And on top of that, Matthew and Mark like this story so much that they tell it twice! The second telling is almost identical, except in that version only 4,000 people are fed. The point is, this story about feeding the multitudes was important enough to make it into the Gospels six times. And there are only four Gospels.

Let’s dig in and see if we can discover why the Gospel writers thought this story was so important. To begin: it’s more than a miracle story. In the Gospel writers’ hands, the miracle becomes a parable. The feeding of the 5,000 is a parable about what we are called to do and who we are called to be. If we are going to follow Jesus, at some point, he’s going to turn to us and say: You give them something to eat. And it matters how we respond to his command.

The more you begin to imagine the world of this story, the more you see that it’s not about magic at all. It’s about how we see the world, and what we do with what we already have. In a way, the magic has already happened: God has already given us a world out of nothing, already provided sun and earth and water and seeds—how much more magic do we need? Everything we have comes from God and will return to God.

God provides something out of nothing. That is the basic story of creation, and it is the way God provided manna for his people in the wilderness. But this story is different. Jesus does not make something out of nothing here. No — he takes what God has already provided. He draws out the resources that are already present in the community.

John has altered one important detail in the way he tells the story. In each of the other Gospels, it isn’t Jesus who asks, “Where are we to buy bread?” Instead, that question belongs to the disciples — and in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, when the disciples ask this question, Jesus turns to them and says, “You give them something to eat.”

But of course, the disciples can see that feeding so many people would be impossible. As Andrew points out, all they can find is five barley loaves and two fish belonging to a boy in the crowd. But then, Jesus gets them to see what’s there with new eyes. The disciples are coming from a place of fear, of scarcity: there will never be enough! Six month’s wages would not buy enough bread to feed them! What Jesus shows us is that, whatever we have, whatever God has already given us, is always enough. If we look at it in the right way. If we decide to share. If we let go of our fear and stop holding onto to what’s “ours” so tightly. If we can do those things, we absolutely have enough bread to feed the whole world.

And, it turns out, to throw a really big party. Imagine this crowd that Jesus confronts. Jesus sees a backyard cookout for 5,000 people, a picnic with everyone spread out on the grass, enjoying the sunset on the lakeshore and the cool evening breeze. That’s how Jesus wants us to see the world: 5,000 people on the lakeshore isn’t a problem, it’s a party. Whatever we brought with us is what we have to share, and there’s plenty for everyone, and more left over besides. This is a pretty compelling picture of what the Kingdom of God is like.

Here’s another way of looking at it: this story about feeding the five thousand is the first supper, instead of the last supper. Jesus sat down and broke bread with his friends many times over the course of his ministry, not just that last night in the upper room. It’s important to remember that the last supper is not the only Eucharistic feast in the Gospels. Every time Jesus broke bread with friends, it was a thanksgiving meal (for that is what eucharist means—thanksgiving).

Jesus follows the same pattern at this first supper as he does at the last supper. Here is how Mark records the scene: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” Take, bless, break, give: those are the actions of the eucharistic feast. Jesus wants us to take what we have, whatever it is, whatever’s already here, and bless it: in other words, give it to God. And then break it open, divide it up, and give it away. Joyfully. So that all will have enough.

Jesus does this with bread, every time he shares a meal. And he does this with his life: lives it for God, breaks it open, gives it to us. And this is what Jesus wants with our lives too: You give them something to eat. It’s not enough to simply pray that God will change things, will feed the hungry and clothe the naked. God needs us to participate in this eucharistic action. God is calling us to take our lives, and bless them, and be broken open, and then given away in service of others.

It’s the breaking that can be hard to face. But you cannot be a follower of Jesus without the risk of being broken. Serving a meal to a homeless person or taking communion to someone dying of cancer — sometimes, such an encounter is going to break your heart. It would be easier to stay safe where you never have to face that reality. But we don’t have that option: you give them something to eat.

Take, bless, break, give. No matter how hard or impossible this seems, the end result is worth it: everyone ate until they were satisfied, and when they gathered up what was left over, they filled twelve baskets. This vision is possible. We already have what we need, right here in our midst. The Kingdom is waiting to be born. Will you join in this eucharist?

Amen.

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program (part of Episcopal Service Corps), a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 10 (B).

Sheeple, Pentecost 9 (B) – July 22, 2018

Proper 11


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

What do you suppose are the most prevalent metaphors that we use for God? Likely Father, King, and Shepherd are in the top three, if not the top three. There are, of course, hundreds of names and images in the scriptures for God. The sheer number of images for God present in the scriptures is enough to make the mind reel. That reeling is likely purposefully sought on the part of the writers to shake us from unduly attaching ourselves to one image or another. The piling on of image after image after image for God by the scriptures seems to be a warning to be careful about getting into a spiritual rut. Just as in life, if the only tool we have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, so too with God: if God is only and ever a King, or, take your pick—fire, wind, lover, friend—then our prayer lives get anemic. We need the full buffet of images for God to allow our prayer lives to be well-rounded and exciting. Our need to constantly try on new images for God has recently been explored by the Rev. Lauren Winner in her wonderful book, Wearing God.

Now, having laid the case for looking at the less-than-top-three images for God as a remedy for a boring prayer life, we really ought to examine one of those top three: the shepherd. It is used over 1,200 times in the Bible in reference to God only. It’s used lots of other times in the Bible to refer to actual shepherds, but for God, it’s a very, very popular image. “King” and “Lord” lord over “shepherd,” at around 2,500 and 6,500 uses respectively.

First, we need to understand that these metaphors are simply that: metaphors. No one should think that God is an actual, literal shepherd. God does not own a shepherd’s crook, God does not abide in fields with actual sheep. It’s a figure of speech by the biblical writers to get us thinking about what God is like. But that’s the thing: God is like a shepherd. God is like one who has a crook and knows how to use it. God is like one who abides out in fields with the ones for whom he cares.

Metaphors like this work the other way, too: they are for us in our daily lives. We are meant to bring the metaphors with us, to carry them, as it were. The ancients who heard this language for God would then go about their business and daily lives and — lo and behold! — they would see a shepherdess – and if they were paying attention, they might think of God. They might see the shepherdess painstakingly caring for her sheep. They might see a wayward sheep being brought back into the fold, perhaps forcefully depending on the waywardness of the sheep, and then they might be brought to the threshold of prayer and repentance over their own wayward ways.

This is the power of figurative language for God; it can transform our daily lives into countless occasions for prayer. The problem, of course, is that most people in the modern era are unfamiliar with shepherding.  Shepherding is a way of life in many parts of the world, but for the increasingly urbanized among us, shepherding is really just a quaint and sanitized notion.

Then there is the whole problem that we have with this metaphor and where we stand in it. One of the hallmarks of our post-modern age is a suspicion of authority. We do not want a shepherd, which is probably why the images of king, lord, and shepherd are so prevalent in the scriptures: even though we don’t want a shepherd, we do still need one.

Besides, let’s face it: if you are honest you have a shepherd of some sort or other. Go ahead, get quiet for a moment: what are those forces and individuals in your life who call the shots? Who is the one who forms your life most fundamentally? It might be a desire for perfect health, to be financially secure, it might be to be successful, desirable, or free. We all have these shepherds, probably many shepherds.

But they are false shepherds, because they cannot ultimately give what they promise.

Each of us have these shepherds, and even though we think that we are free, we do in fact serve these shepherds.

Bob Dylan, who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote many years ago in his song, Gotta Serve Somebody, that you:

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

This simply is a fact of life. Just as no one is an island, so is no one free from authority and these guiding influences. This is what arouses Jesus’ compassion for the crowd today: they are like sheep without a shepherd. And he begins teaching them. Of course, they had shepherds, but those false shepherds had led them to seek the real shepherd.

So then, what are sheep? Since we are the sheep in this metaphor that we use for God, we ought to know. You know, don’t you, that there are critics of the church who would call us disciples of Christ, “sheeple.” It’s meant to be a derisive term for the unquestioning following, not so much of Jesus, but of the culture warrior preachers. But in many ways, we act like sheep, we are sheeple. As the Prayer Book says, “like sheep we have gone astray.”

Sheep are not known for their intelligence, but they are quite bright in their own way. While they can easily get their little horns caught in briars or get lost, it seems that most of their brains are dedicated to their flock and their shepherd.

In a flock, sheep will arrange themselves in concentric overlapping circles of sheep with the strongest and biggest sheep on the outside and the youngest and weakest sheep on the inside. We could learn from these sheep in terms of being neighbors to each other.

In addition to their ability as a good neighbor, the sheep is singularly focused on its shepherd. So much so, that the sheep learn the voice of their shepherd, his scent, and even his silhouette upon the sky as the shepherd stands on a hill.  The sheep learn somehow that this one shepherd, in however he calls to them, whether through sight, voice, or smell, is to be utterly trusted – and not only that, but all other shepherds are to be mistrusted, or at least skeptically investigated.

Let’s learn this skepticism from these sheep. Let’s submit all those so-called shepherds who would lead us to the test of the Good Shepherd. Do these things and people that we follow offer life and significance, or are they turning us into a product? Are our shepherds leading us to life or to the slaughter?

Go, be sheeple, follow your one and only Good Shepherd who heals and teaches and then enables us to bring life and healing to our hurting world.

Joshua Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte NC where he lives with his wife Brittany who is a Jedi-level catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atria. 1,2,3,4: They have 1 dog, 2 cats, three children, and 4 chickens.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 9 (B).