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).

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).

Royal Families, Pentecost 8 (B) – July 15, 2018

Proper 10

Royal Families Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Ever wondered, even for a moment, what it would be like to be royalty? Ever indulged in a daydream that you’re really the child of a king or a queen? Did you watch even a few minutes, maybe even just the sermon, of the recent royal wedding and wonder what it would be like to be part of the family?

In today’s first reading and gospel lesson, we get a glimpse into the lives of two royal families. Neither has a happy, fairy tale ending. Both may leave us wondering what it might really mean to be part of a royal family.

The first couple, in our first lesson, is King David and Michal, his wife, who was the daughter of King Saul. If we know the backstory of Michal and David, there’s a line in this lesson that really sticks out. It’s when Michal looks out the window and sees David dancing before the Lord. And then we hear, “and she despised him in her heart.” The line should break our hearts a little because this is not the happy story that their romantic beginnings portended.

Michal was the second daughter of King Saul. Saul had vowed that whoever killed Goliath would obtain his first daughter in marriage. You remember Goliath, the gigantic Philistine warrior David brings down with a slingshot and a stone? But when David kills Goliath, Saul is jealous of David and reneges on his vow and marries the older daughter to someone else.

Turns out that’s good news for Michal, because, the Bible says, “Michal loved David” (1 Samuel 18:20). Michal loved David. When her father Saul finds this out, he decides to use this to his advantage in his hostility toward David. He tells David he can have Michal as his wife – he can marry into the royal family – if David kills one hundred Philistines. [What the Bible actually says is that David is required to bring Saul the foreskins of one hundred Philistines (1 Samuel 18:25), but don’t imagine one hundred Philistines are going to let David get away with just that piece of them.] Saul is certain David will end up the victim of some really cranky Philistines, but David actually kills two hundred. He gets to marry Michal.

Michal loved David. Saul sends his soldiers to kill David, but Michal protects him. She lowers David out the window, then dresses up an idol like David, complete with his clothes and a goat-hair wig, puts it in bed, and pulls the covers over it. Saul’s soldiers burst into the room, pull back the covers, and—no David (1 Samuel 19:11-17).

With David on the run, Saul gives Michal in marriage to someone else. And in the meantime, David also takes a couple more wives.

Michal loved David. But we never hear that David loved Michal.

Eventually, David becomes king and demands Michal back. Maybe it was love after all. Maybe it was just getting back what belonged to him.

We aren’t told when exactly Michal stopped loving David. Maybe it was when they were separated, and she didn’t know what had happened to him. Maybe it was when he took her back from a man who begged him not to.  Maybe it was when she met the other wives he had married in the meantime. What we do know is that day, watching David dance for the Lord with joyful abandon, she sees David and she hates him.

After the dancing, David throws a dinner for all the people, and then, in the section after our reading ends, David goes back to his home. Michal meets him out front and tells him he’s made a fool of himself, dancing like that, so un-kinglike, and in front of the servants’ maids too. David says, basically, “Well, I was dancing for the Lord, the one who made me king instead of your father, and I’m going to do a lot more embarrassing and debasing things than this, but, sure, I’ll be a hit with the servants’ maids” (2 Samuel 6:21-22).

David was a great king, but a great husband? Michal might say not. No fairytale “happily ever after” here.

King Herod, in our gospel lesson, has other troubles in the marriage and family department. He has divorced his first wife and married Herodias, his brother-in-law’s wife. Since his brother-in-law was still alive at the time, this was against Jewish law, and John the Baptist calls him on it. Herod is supposed to be keeping Jewish law, not flouting it. But neither Herod nor Herodias like John the Baptist criticizing their marriage in public, so John the Baptist rots in jail.

That is until King Herod throws himself a birthday party and makes a promise that is supposed to make him seem like a big man, a stupendous, powerful man. He promises to give his stepdaughter whatever she asks because her dancing has pleased him so much. Herodias sees her chance, not to change her husband’s mind about John the Baptist, not to practice good conflict resolution skills and see if they can come to some compromise about John, but to get rid of this meddlesome prophet once and for all. And big macho man Herod doesn’t have the guts to say no, to go back on his word in front of his guests. Herodias tells her dancing daughter to ask for the most repulsive possible dish at a dinner party—John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. So, check out these royal family values: Herodias is willing to use her daughter to get the horrific thing she wants. Herod would rather be taken for a murderer than a fool. The daughter doesn’t seem to have the moral sense to recognize she’s being used to commit a horrific tragedy.

So much for fairytales. Our own families may not include utter hatred or gatherings that descend into murder, but we’ve all had our experiences of people who are supposed to be partners becoming enemies, of people using one another, people feeling discarded, or being manipulated. We know deep in our bones that this isn’t what families are for.

In today’s Epistle lesson, we hear God’s plan for an alternative family, a different kind of royal family in which we are adopted as God’s own children through Jesus Christ. Our inheritance as members of this family is redemption, forgiveness, knowledge of God’s will and God’s desire to gather all things on heaven and earth together in Christ. No divisiveness, no abuse or manipulation. No discarding of people or disregard of feelings. No using of others. Love that endures. Love that shows forth, not in empty promises or dangerous ones, but in praise. In baptism, we have been adopted into God’s family, the ultimate royal family. As members of God’s family, we are loved beyond all knowing and with a love that can reach out in love and service to others, even to the puzzling person we’re seated across from at the dinner table every night.

What happens next in Mark’s gospel, right after today’s lesson, right after Herod’s horrible feast, is that Jesus throws a dinner party. It’s the Feeding of the More than Five Thousand, and it’s completely different from Herod’s feast. There’s no guarded palace, just a beautiful open field where all are welcome. There’s no head table; everyone is a guest of honor. There’s no boasting, just thanksgiving. There’s no pompous vow-making and self-aggrandizement, just simple food, blessed, broken, and shared, and enough for all. No horrible silver platter of death, just twelve baskets full to the brimming with abundant life-giving bread and fish.

At which royal family table would you rather dine? Ours is prepared. The host, the ruler of heaven and earth, awaits with open arms.

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 8 (B).

Hometown, Pentecost 7 (B) – July 8, 2018

Proper 9

Pentecost 7 Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Several years ago, a diocese was celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary. At the time, the diocese had produced a beautiful coffee table book that contained short histories of each of their parishes, along with a generous helping of pictures. At the diocesan convention that year, the book was being sold everywhere and anywhere, between legislative sessions, in the exhibition hall, you name it. There had even been a table set up in the narthex of the church where the convention Eucharist was being held. The book was being sold to folks as they walked in.

When the diocese’s retired bishop took to the pulpit for the sermon, he began with saying, “I’m sorry if you heard the commotion a few moments ago, there was a homeless, long-haired man that got into the church. He was shouting something about his father’s house and he turned over the tables where we are selling our book. Don’t worry, we got rid of him.”

Don’t worry, we got rid of him. Of course, he was kidding, there was no commotion, no long-haired, homeless man. But the bishop also wasn’t really kidding. He was leveling a clear criticism using the story of the clearing of the Temple to critique the diocese’s overzealousness in selling the book. The bishop was afraid that the zeal for the book was getting more energy than the mission of the church.

Don’t worry, we got rid of him.

Where is Jesus to be found? Where do we encounter the Holy? Is it at church? Is it only at church?

Can Jesus be found at church, or do we get rid of him?

Let’s dive into the gospel story to see if there are any hints as to where Jesus can most reliably be found.

The story opens in his hometown, and his disciples follow him. It’s an interesting detail. Jesus is from Nazareth and his disciples are from Galilee. They have walked with him back home. It is an interesting and significant detail; Jesus is returning home, but he’s different in several ways now, not the least of which is that he has followers.

The ones in the synagogue who hear Jesus preaching are astounded. They are into it. They are in awe.

Then the analysis comes on: “Don’t we know this guy; didn’t he install your cabinets?” “That’s right! I know his brothers and sisters, I just saw them at the falafel stand on Wednesday.” Something like that.

After all this wondering and recognition, the next sentence the gospel uses is: “And they took offense at him.” Why do you suppose that was? They were astounded, but when they saw that he was “one of them,” all of a sudden, he is offensive. Jesus then demonstrates a masterful use of the double negative, “Prophets are not without dishonor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And the narrator tells us that Jesus couldn’t do any deeds of power except a few healings. Indeed, Jesus is amazed at their unbelief and it seems that there is some connection between trusting Jesus and Jesus being able to work. This matter of Jesus not being able to work is not the same as praying harder, by the way, but there is a connection between Jesus working and the offense the people feel at his presence and teaching.

Jesus and his followers then leave Nazareth. They leave Jesus’ hometown and enter the villages that presumably surrounded the big city. And then something interesting happens. You would think that given the cold reception Jesus received in his hometown that Jesus would then give them the old razzle-dazzle, he would heal and work miracles. Instead, Jesus heals and then pairs off his followers and sends them out with special instructions. They are to travel light. They do, they preach repentance, they heal, and they call out evil when encountered.

Jesus doesn’t give them the razzle-dazzle, he doesn’t do a deed of power to embarrass the old home locals; he instead authorizes others to go out in his name to heal, testify to God’s love, to call out evil. This is very instructive about how our God operates generally. Never a braggadocious moment, never a moment of old-fashioned power like lightning from above—instead, it’s a new-fashioned power that points away from itself and pours into others.

This is how God operates, and it is something for us to remember as we move through this season after Pentecost: the Holy Spirit is God’s sharing of God’s-self with us: God’s empowering of us for the work of establishing God’s Kingdom, God’s way of living, right here in our own communities.

Besides all this, we see something in the story that is as troubling as it is interesting. Jesus is unrecognized in his hometown. He is recognized of course, but he is not accepted as one who is deeply connected with God. Indeed, once they do begin to recognize him, they are offended by him. And it’s in this offense and un-trust, this unbelief, that Jesus cannot work as powerfully as he would have normally.

This should concern all of us who claim to know who and what Jesus is. The church is the hometown of Jesus, as it were. Are we offended by him? Do we allow Jesus to be Jesus or have we domesticated him into a mere kindly carpenter? The church has, at times, carefully kept Jesus in a safe and contained box, but Jesus keeps leaving the familiar, keeps empowering others, and most importantly keeps showing up in strange places that are not his hometown.

That’s where we will most reliably find Jesus, outside of the hometown. Of course, we meet in this space each week. We come for solace and strength. We certainly believe that Jesus is present with us, especially in the Holy Eucharist; but Jesus is also found outside, in the villages, in the world. Don’t you know that we disciples are always playing catch-up to the Risen Lord? Ever since that day when the women found an empty tomb, ever since then, we have been going to where Jesus has gone ahead of us, into Galilee, into the villages, into our neighborhoods. And once we go there, seeking him in the face our neighbors, he will be revealed, and we just might be empowered to do his work: healing wounds, preaching God’s love, and calling out evil.

Let us go from here, into the villages following Jesus where he has already gone—and not simply following him, but being empowered by him to do his work of love and healing which the world so desperately needs.

Amen.

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 7 (B).

A Beloved Child of God, Pentecost 6 (B) – July 1, 2018

Proper 8


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

Jesus sees beyond the outward appearance to the heart, revealing, as he does so, the very heart of God. A crowd presses in on Jesus, clamoring to see the miracle worker some were claiming to be the Messiah. As he makes his way to Jairus’ home, he is interrupted by an encounter with a woman who would have seemed destined to die unknown, unremembered, unremarked. But this woman showed her great faith in trusting that all she needed to do was reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. Nothing more was required, but nothing less would do.

Clearly, she had heard of Jesus’ reputation as a healer. As we learn from Mark’s Gospel, for twelve years, “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”

A faithful Jewish response would have been to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem, seeking healing by offering sacrifices. But just as with the lepers Jesus made whole, this woman would have been declared unclean. Because of her hemorrhaging, she was no longer fit to be in the Temple—not even in the Court of the Women.

Knowing the state of medicine in the first century, we know she would have eaten every conceivable combination of herbs, applying endless creams and ointments, doing anything someone asked and paying everything she had. A woman of some means now reduced to poverty. But there would have been the other, harsher, side of her malady. Jesus often contends against the perception in the culture of his day that if someone was suffering, this was God’s punishment for sin. The ongoing hemorrhage would have left her increasingly cut off from community.

We know this because we still have diseases that come with a stigma. Fighting cancer is seen as heroic, but less so mental illness, chronic pain, or addiction. As soon as anyone found out that she had been bleeding for five years, seven years, ten years—whatever it was by that point—judgment would follow. The sickness came to define her for everyone who knew how she suffered—that is, everyone except for Jesus. Beyond this, we also know that her standing in society would have been in relation to a man. Just as Jairus goes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter, the way of that part of the world in the first century would require the woman to be in the company of a brother, uncle, or son. Instead, she is presented as without family.

Through her faith that she just needed to touch the hem of his garment, we see how much she invested in this one last hope of healing. Some people spoke of Jesus’ teaching with great authority. Others speculated he was Elijah or one of the other prophets returned. Many hoped Jesus would overthrow the Romans so that Jews could once more rule Israel on their own. But for the real sufferers, cut off from others because of disease, there would have been only one tidbit about Jesus that mattered. His reputation was clear. Wherever Jesus went, he cast demons out of the possessed. Jesus touched people who were blind, deaf, and lame, making them see, hear, and walk.

The most difficult part of her disease was that her bleeding did not just make her ritually unclean, and so unable to worship in the Temple; the religious law of her time mandated that anyone she touched would also become unclean. To have Jesus touch her might bring her healing, but it would have made him ritually unclean as well. She would have to push against a lot of pressure from her society just to reach Jesus.

He would have been difficult to find in those days anyway, as he was always crossing back and forth around the Sea of Galilee and then traveling down to Jerusalem for the festivals. Then she found him that day on the seashore. She gathered with a large crowd of others, all bent on hearing Jesus, many wanting healing as well. An important religious leader named Jairus came to implore Jesus to heal his daughter.

As Jesus started toward Jairus’ house, the woman knelt down, reaching out for the barest edge of his robe and grabbing hold as if touching the very throne of God, as life and healing from the one God flowed through it. And her plan worked. The bleeding stopped. Her body was finally healed after twelve years of suffering.

Then everything the woman planned went wrong. Jesus stopped. He stopped everyone. The whole crowd. Jesus cried out wanting to know who touched him. His disciples couldn’t believe the question; with such a great crowd rushing around, a lot of people had been bumping into Jesus. Jesus kept looking because he too felt the miracle.

There is so much power in this moment as the woman everyone came to ignore became the center of attention. Mark’s Gospel tells us in fear and trembling she fell down before Jesus. How could she not be terrified? In so many ways, everyone told her she was unworthy, cursed by God. And now this—once more, she would be humiliated. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet and recounts her whole story. Twelve years of suffering. Trembling, she tells Jesus the whole truth down to the hem of his garment.

After so many people had cast her down, Jesus lifts her up, looks into her eyes and says the words which make her healing complete. With the eyes of love on her, he said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

“Daughter.” Not an outcast. Not a woman alone in a society that treated you in connection to the men in your life. She was a beloved child of God. In Jesus naming as daughter the woman afflicted with suffering for twelve years, we see the very heart of God. Others may have judged her harshly, but God never forgot her, always loved her, and wanted to welcome her home.

“Your faith has made you well.” Jesus knew what great faith she had come to have that even the very hem of his robe could heal. His disciples were often clueless. The crowds were fickle. But this woman’s faith knew no bounds.

“Go in peace,” he said. Shalom means so much more than a lack of war. This peace is health, well-being, and wholeness. Her body healed, but Jesus was so much more interested in healing her mind and soul—he was interested in complete healing and setting her free from the prison of suffering.

Sickness had defined her. Then Jesus set her free to be a daughter of God. She didn’t continue to follow Jesus that day, at least not physically. She could cut away from the crowd, confident that Jairus’ daughter would be healed, as she began the journey to Jerusalem. Her duty would be to offer sacrifices for thanksgiving for healing. Beyond this would be the simple fact that she would be allowed once more into God’s Temple. Jesus does this so often with his healing. He doesn’t just cure disease but restores people to their community. She wanted, needed, the bleeding to stop, but what she needed more—and Jesus knew it—was to be accepted once again. To have God look into her eyes and call her “daughter.”

So often, people, beloved children of God, are judged by society and found wanting. They are named in various ways as outcasts and treated as less than human. And until all of God’s children, the whole human family, are welcome at the table, we will be falling short of the kingdom of God. For those of us with a seat at the table, we can pray for the grace to see the world as God sees it and the courage to act.

But if you are one whom others have seen as unworthy and judged as lacking, know that God loves you as you are and wants better for you as well. You don’t have to even touch the hem of his garment. You only have to reach out your heart in prayer and offer God your pain and suffering. God wants to take that hurt and give you shalom—the health, healing, and wholeness—he gave to a woman not named in scripture, but whose faith is unforgettable.

This is something we can all experience every time we gather for the Eucharist. In this Great Thanksgiving, Jesus is the host. At this table, all of us are known and loved. In the meal of bread and wine, we are fed. And in this meal, we find ourselves beloved children of God. Then we are empowered to share that same love with others.

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 http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 6 (B).

The Other Side, Pentecost 5 (B) – June 24, 2018

Proper 7


[RCL]: 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

“Let us go across to the other side,” he says.

Why? What’s over there, on that dark shore, with those menacing black clouds? Why do we have to go to the other side when there’s a storm brewing?

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you will remember boggarts. A boggart is a shape-shifting creature that takes on the form of your worst fear. Ron’s worst fear was giant spiders. Hermione’s was having a professor tell her she failed. Harry’s boggart was a dementor.

That’s what’s over there – on the other side – boggarts! Things that take the shape of your worst fears. The people you don’t like. The conversations you’d rather avoid. The places you really don’t want to go. They’re all over there, on the other side.

Mark starts this Gospel with, “When evening had come.” – you see, there’s always a growing darkness in these kinds of stories – “When evening had come,” he said to them, “let’s go across to the other side.”

If this were a screenplay instead of scripture, he might have said, “Let’s go into the cellar of this old house,” “Let’s check out this abandoned hospital,” “Let’s head toward that cabin in the woods.” And one of the disciples would turn to the camera and say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Maybe one of them did, just before they stepped onto the boat, because they knew what was on the other side – or they thought they did. Gigantic Philistines are over there. Mad kings. Gentiles. People possessed with legions of demons. Anyone and everyone who doesn’t like them and everyone they don’t like.

“The Others” are over there, on the other side.

——————–

Mark is writing for a community grappling with how to include those who are different, those who have historically been enemies, those looked upon as sinners, as outsiders…as dangerous.

Mark’s community is wrestling with questions like:
If Gentiles come into this mostly Jewish community, do they have to be circumcised? Do we all have to follow the same dietary laws? How do we accept someone into this community if they don’t read scripture the same way we do? How do we accept someone who looks different? Someone who speaks another language? Who doesn’t fit our boxes of gender, race, or class? How do we live with these others in our midst? Especially if they have a different understanding of how we do things? What if they are fearful, and violent, and want to do us harm?

——————–

Mark’s community is in the midst of a voyage into this dark, fearful, and uncharted territory. Sound familiar? It’s a journey that is always chaotic. How do we live alongside the Others in our community? Do we change them, or do they change us?

It’s a crossing that is never easy, but we make it many, many times in our life. Every crossing feels like sailing in the dark. With all the changes around us, we are sailing in the midst of a storm. How do we cope when the structures and institutions we’ve always relied on to support us can no longer be counted on? When so many of them are visibly shaking under the strain of so much change?

What do we do when our life situation changes, when the wind shifts, and the seas rage, and the resources – the money, the people, the time – that we’ve come to rely on are no longer there? What do we do then?

What do we do when the weapons of terror and hate are raised against our brothers and sisters? “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing!?”

——————–

Jesus makes this sea crossing to “the other side” with the disciples twice in Mark. Both times are at night; both times there is a storm. This time, Jesus goes with them and sleeps in the stern. The next time, he will make them get in the boats by themselves and go on without him. When they get in trouble, he will walk to them in the midst of the storm.

Each time, he gets a little more impatient with them for simply expecting that he will perform a divine act and relieve them of their fear. Mark seems to be telling us that we have to do some work. That we are to learn how to respond faithfully in these situations, rather than simply reacting out of fear.

We are to find the strength and some kind of inner calm that will allow us to endure, and even grow, through these storms. Through faith. Through the faith, the trust, that Christ is here with us in the boat. Christ is with all who suffer. Christ is the peace, and the strength, and the calm that we draw on.

We need to continually seek that inner calm—that courage—because Jesus will keep calling us to go to that other shore.

——————–

What or who is on the other side for you? What are your boggarts? We all have them; there are all kinds of “other sides”. For the young, growing up and becoming an adult is an other side. For those who are older, retirement is an other side. What will I do, who will I be, if I’m not working? The other side might be getting married, or getting divorced, facing an operation, or saying goodbye.

For the many who are well-off, poverty can be the other side. The lived experience of people of color is the other side for many Americans. The lived experience of so many on the margins is the other side for many others.

For all of us, the other side is ultimately death.

We all have other sides, places that we don’t want to go. But that’s where Jesus invites us to go. That’s where Jesus wants us to go. That’s where Jesus is taking us: to the other side, into that foreign territory, to that place we’d rather not go, wherever those “others” are.

Jesus wants us to go there, not because it’s our job to change them. Jesus doesn’t insist on a night voyage on a stormy sea to make an impact on the ones who live across the sea. He does it to change the ones making the voyage. He does it to change the disciples, to change us.

He does it so that we will experience a change in ourselves, so that we will discover that reservoir of hope, that endless supply of peace and courage, that grace that enables us to keep making these voyages. That enables us to open wide our hearts to any and all who seek Christ, to all who are marginalized, to all whose stories we need to hear in order for us to recognize—and more fully participate in— the spread of God’s reign of justice and peace, so that we might one day live together with all our sisters and brothers, in unity.

Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden is the Rector of All Saints Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 5(B).