Easter 3, Year A, 2014

The story of the Road to Emmaus is one of the most touching accounts of the post-Resurrection Jesus that we have.  Two dejected followers of Jesus, devastated by the death of the man they respected, are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the trauma of the Cross.  Alongside them comes a companion who begins to tell them all about the scriptural basis for the Messiah’s life and death.  They insist he comes home with them and as they break bread together their eyes are opened and they realize their companion is none other than the risen Jesus.  You can almost feel the goose bumps rise on your flesh as they realize with whom they have been talking.  The Road to Emmaus story is our story.  Cleopas could as easily be me or (fill in names from congregation) or you.  The journey Cleopas and his traveling companion go on is the journey we go on every Sunday here at church.

We come in, and we too are overwhelmed by the world. We carry with us oil tankers on fire in nearby Lynchburg.  We carry with us horribly botched executions is Oklahoma.  We carry with us all those who lost their lives and homes in the floods this week.  We carry with us 230 kidnapped Nigerian girls.  We carry with us the painful words of rich men, which expose the ugly racism in our country.  We carry with us our own personal losses, failures and disappointments from the week. We carry with us the worries of our friends and families.  We are weighed down.

And yet Jesus comes along side us, even if we are as gloomy as Cleopas.  Just as Jesus shared the word with Cleopas and his friend, we share the word together.  We remember God’s love for his people by reading aloud the words we have been given in Scripture.  We remember God’s faithfulness to Israel, we remember the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.  We share the stories to remind ourselves that the God of the Universe always reaches out to us and asks us to be in loving relationship with him.  We shake off the false realities we hear all week—that our identity should be rooted in how we look or how much money we make or how smart we are—and we are reminded that our identity rests in being beloved creatures of God.  We are no more and no less.

And then like Cleopas, we invite Jesus to stay with us.  We kneel as we confess the ways we have not been faithful to Jesus.  And in our brokenness, we create space for Jesus.  Intimacy cannot exist without honesty.  Just as a friendship is strengthened by moments of vulnerable sharing, our friendship with Jesus blooms when we are most self aware and honest when we are in conversation with him.  We invite Jesus into the homes of our hearts and then suddenly Jesus takes over and invites us to feast with him.

In Cleopas’s home, Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave bread, the same motions he made on Maundy Thursday and the same motions we make here every week.  Breaking bread is something completely ordinary.  Whether it is pouring out the Cheerios to the kids as you get them ready for school or pulling apart an Albemarle Baking Company baguette that you pass around the table for friends, we break bread together daily.  When we make special meal for someone, it is a way we give ourselves, a way we show our love.  In the same way, in feeding his followers, Jesus extends himself toward them in love.

In the Eucharist, of course, we believe we consume the spiritual presence of Jesus–A Jesus who wants to be so close to us that he becomes part of our very bodies.  In his book With Burning Hearts:  A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life Henry Nowen writes,

Jesus is God-for us, God-with-us, God-within-us.  Jesus is God giving himself completely, pouring himself out for us without reserve.  Jesus doesn’t hold back or cling to his own possessions.  He gives all there is to give.  “Eat, drink, this is my body, this is my blood…this is me for you.

It is in this eating and drinking that Cleopas and his friend’s eyes are opened, they recognize Jesus, they recognize that their hearts burn within them from being in the presence of the holy.  And on Sunday mornings, as we gather around the Eucharist table, your heart may burn within you, too.  After all, for a brief moment you are united with the very Jesus who sat at Cleopas’ table.  For a brief moment you are united with everyone in this room as we share the same body and blood.  You remember that you are holy, too.  You remember that the God of the universe chooses to live within you.

At the very moment Cleopas’ eyes are opened, Jesus disappears.

Isn’t that strange?  For three years, Jesus’ followers hung on his every word, but they never really “got it”.  They were in his presence, but did not have full intimacy with him.  And now, the moment his followers understand, he vanishes.  They do not need his physical presence any more.  His spiritual presence is with them, in the communion they shared.  In his absence, they can have deeper intimacy with him than they did three years in his presence.

The same holds true for us.  We do not need the physical Jesus with us, because we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, who enables deep communion with Jesus and the Father.  The spirit descends on this table and transforms our wafers and port into the real, spiritual presence of Christ.  And that presence lives within you, giving you strength and courage to go out into the world.

We don’t get to stay in the safety of this sanctuary.  We are called to go back into the world.  After their encounter with Jesus, Cleopas and his friend run right back to the dangerous world they were fleeing.  They run back to Jerusalem, find their friends, and tell them the incredible news of Jesus’ resurrection.

At the end of every service here, you hear a dismissal.  Sometimes it is “Go in peace to Love and Serve the Lord!”  Sometimes it is “Go forth in the name of Christ!”  Whatever we dismissal we use, the message is the same.  You can’t stay here.  You must go back into the world, with all of its challenges and loss.  But you do not go into the world alone.  You go with the presence of Christ within you.  And Christ will give you the courage and wisdom you need to face the world with grace and love.  You are a now a Christ-bearer.  You have good news to share.  Go, and may Christ be with you.

Amen.

 

This structure of this sermon is heavily indebted to Nowen’s With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life, quoted above.

Proper 16, 2009, Year B

I am terribly sorry for what I’m about to say.  I do not mean to hurt your feelings, I promise.  But I have to tell you-we are weird.

Normal people would spend a morning like this in bed, or in an air conditioned café with a fresh copy of the Sunday New York Times.  We should be curled up on a couch, puzzling over the crossword puzzle with an iced latte in our hand.  Instead we’re in this overheated sanctuary seated in hard wooden pews.  We’re wearing our least comfortable clothes: stockings, ties, suit jackets and high heels. When I’m done with this sermon, we are all going to say the same words we’ve said the last thousand Sundays, all together in a chant.  After that, we are going to partake of a tiny cracker and some port-before noon!

How weird are we?

Well, we are almost as weird as the disciples.

And we’re not anywhere close to being as weird as Jesus.

In today’s gospel lesson, we have finally reached the end of the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John.

So far, the Bread of Life discourse has been lovely.  The image of Jesus as spiritual nourishment is a cozy, comforting one.  In my last sermon, I talked about Jesus’ coming to us as bread as his way to embrace us. But in today’s passage, Jesus veers off into a very uncomfortable, weird direction.

The word for eating in the New Testament is usually esthioEsthio is a nice, polite word.  Esthio is how the Israelites ate the manna in the desert.  Esthio is how the crowd of 5,000 ate the miraculous loaves and fishes.  But when Jesus tells the crowd that those who eat his flesh will abide in him, he does not use the word esthio.  No, Jesus uses the word trogoTrogo is an awful word.  Trogo means to chomp, to gnaw, to munch, to crunch.  Trogo is how you eat fried chicken or what a dog does to a bone.  When someone is trogo eating you can hear their teeth click and their tongue squish. Trogo is disgusting.

Trogo is an offensive word, and here trogo is paired with an offensive act-eating human flesh.

I get the sense Jesus is messing with the disciples here.  He’s pushing their buttons and making them uncomfortable.  Jesus is reminding them that he is not ethereal.  Jesus is not abstract.  Jesus, the Son of God, is right in front of them, shockingly, in the flesh.

Can you imagine the disciples’ reaction?  I bet they started looking down at their hands at first, and then maybe they started stealing glances at each other. Eventually maybe they start talking quietly with each other and looking at Jesus out of the corner of their eyes.    I bet they started to wonder what they had gotten themselves into.  Who was this weirdo they were following?  Eventually they just flat out confront Jesus.  Some brave representative says, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  Which is a rather polite way of telling Jesus he is a freak show.

Jesus has his audience right where he wants them. They are seriously uneasy. Jesus wants to reorient his disciple’s point of view, but before he can do that he needs to disorient them, he needs to get them off balance.

And boy, are the disciples off balance!  They are probably still shuddering at the image of gnawing, chewing, crunching on human flesh, when suddenly Jesus redirects the conversation.

Jesus asks the disciples, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.”

Woah!  Twist!

The disciples are still over here, worried about cannibalism while Jesus is over here schooling them in what really matters.  He’s telling them that, in this instance, the flesh is not important.  Jesus is saying that what he has been talking about all along how the spirit gives life.

Jesus is reminding the disciples that they have no idea who he really is.  Jesus is telling them that if they are upset now, they would really freak out when they saw him in the fullness of his divinity.  Jesus calls them out for not believing in his divinity.  Jesus reorients them.

Many of the disciples, though, cannot get past being disoriented.  They cannot get past Jesus’ weirdness.  And so, they leave.  We never hear what happens to these disciples who left.  We don’t know if they changed their minds and came back.  We don’t know if they went back to their families.  We don’t know what they thought when they heard about Jesus’ resurrection.  All we know is that Jesus made them too uncomfortable, so they left.

Jesus turns to the twelve disciples who have been his closest allies and asks them, “Do you also wish to go away?’

Now, these twelve disciples may be as weirded out as their compatriots who left, but they are also convinced of Jesus’ divinity. Peter  says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Peter speaks for the twelve and expresses why they are so drawn to him, why they cannot leave his side.  Jesus is the Holy One, Jesus is different from anyone they had ever met.  They may not fully understand what it means that Jesus is God, but they feel something in their gut.  They have an inkling, so they stay with Jesus, even though he’s weird.

We Christians do a lot of weird things.  We have a lot of weird symbols and rituals and music.  Your priests wear weird clothes. We have these weird weekly gatherings we call church.

The God we worship is weird.  He calls us to be together in ways that are too intimate, too different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to move beyond what is comfortable and into what is risky.  He calls us into real relationship, into honestly looking at our lives and confronting the parts of ourselves that don’t live up to our ideals.  He calls us to work through problems together rather than going on cable tv and screaming at each other from a safe distance.  He calls us to love the unlovable, serve even though we are powerful, have faith even when life seems hopeless.

We join with the twelve disciples in worshiping Jesus for the very same reason they did.  We may not understand Jesus.  We may think he is weird sometimes, but we also know he has the words for eternal life.  We know that what Jesus says and did and does makes sense in a way nothing in this world does.

We gather together and engage in all our weird rituals, because nothing normal quite gets at the feeling we want to convey to God.  We gather together and worship weirdly, because we are weird.  We are broken and whole, ugly and beautiful, sinful and filled with goodness.  We know that worshiping Jesus does something in us that we cannot explain, but that is absolutely real.

We worship Jesus, we follow Jesus, because we don’t want to miss anything.  We want to be there for the healing, for the joy, for the peace that only he can bring us.

We follow Jesus because we know he loves us. And that may be the weirdest, most wonderful part of all.

Amen.

All Saints’ Day, Year C, 2007

Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints day, perhaps the most bittersweet day of the church calendar.  Today we honor and pray for those we love who have died in the last year and we contemplate the long line of saints who have gone before us, those who will go after us, and of course, we contemplate our own mortality.

In the very early years of Christianity, the Church would honor the death of every martyr for the faith.  Unfortunately, because Christians were persecuted so thoroughly, soon it became impractical to honor each person martyred and a yearly celebration of the martyrs’ deaths was incorporated into the Church calendar.  Over time, the day of celebration morphed into a commemoration of all the saints.  For a long time, saints were defined as people who were heroically virtuous, but Protestants now celebrate All Saints day as a way to remember all persons who have gone before us in the faith.  The change came as the theology of justification changed-Protestants believe that we do not work to earn our salvation, but that Christ justifies all believers. 

This year, for us at Emmanuel, All Saints Day is particularly poignant, since one of our own saints, Bill Colmery, died unexpectedly of heart failure on Monday morning.  We read his name on the list of the departed, and it seems shockingly wrong for us to see his name there.  Bill was a devoted husband and father, a faithful member of this parish, and a consistent fixture at the Bread Fund, our food bank program.  He was far too young to die, and yet here we are, a mere six days later, celebrating his life along with the lives of the great prophets, apostles and martyrs of the church. 

All Saints day is a reminder that death is not very far from us, that we will all experience death. This is a sobering thought, but ultimately All Saints day is reminds us that death is not the end of the story.

None of us knows exactly what happens when we die, but one fundamental part of Christian belief is that Jesus’ death and resurrection radically changed humanity’s relationship with death.  Rather than just dying, Jesus’ death and resurrection invites us into an eternal relationship with God.  This relationship is not bound by the constraints of time or death. 

So, if we who are alive are in fellowship with God and those who have died before us are in relationship with God, then at some level, we are still in relationship with those who have died ahead of us.

We just celebrated Halloween this week, and many a ghost decked the porches of my more creative and industrious neighbors. We as a culture are fascinated with the dead. We love ghosts, haunted houses, psychics who speak with the dead, but for Christians, none of this is necessary.  We have a connection with our dead loved ones that is far deeper and more real and more profound than any parlor trick.

In every Eucharistic prayer you will hear a reference to the communion of all the Saints.  When we take communion-when we share in the body and blood of Christ-we become physically connected to the communion of all the saints-those kneeling next to us, those praying on another continent and those who are already experiencing the fullness of God in heaven.

We do not know exactly how this communion works.  We do not know at which level those persons who have died are cognizant of those of us still alive.  References to life after death in the Bible describe heaven alternately as a city, as a mansion with many rooms, and always refer to the saints praising God.  We know there is no grief in heaven.  We also know that heaven will have many features of the Kingdom of God that we read in our Gospel lesson today.  The hungry will be filled, the grief stricken will be comforted, and the poor will finally find their place.  We know our relationships won’t be entirely the same-Jesus straightened out the guy who wondered which husband a widow of several men would get to marry-there is not marriage in heaven.  But some kind of relationship will exist, though I imagine it will be centered on God in a way we cannot even imagine.

Our prayer book includes prayers for the dead and Catholics have long prayed to the saints, so maybe there is more of a relationship between the two parts of the communion than we might think.  As a child, I used to ask God to say hi to my grandfather when I said my prayers at night.  For a long time I was embarrassed by this, but upon reflection, I might have been on to something!

I think we have the Biblical and theological freedom to continue our relationships with our loved ones through prayer.  Sometimes as we grieve, we realize there are things we have not said to the deceased that might help if said prayerfully.  Alternately, we may experience a specific joy we’d like to share with a loved one.  While we may feel silly, and there is certainly no proof  that our communications reach our loved ones’ ears, I don’t think there is anything harmful or unchristian about speaking to our friends and family who have gone before us. 

Let me be clear-we make a baptismal vow not to mess around with the spiritual world-so I do not advocate séances, psychics, ouija boards and the like.  The church is not in the business of raising the dead.  Well, Jesus was, and the occasional apostle, but it’s generally wise for the rest of us not to mess around with all of that.

But when we prayerfully communicate with members of the Communion of Saints, we are not trying to raise them from the dead.  We are acknowledging that they have gone before us to a place we are soon to follow and that the bonds between us have not been entirely broken by death.

Acknowledging that we are part of a larger communion of saints than the communion that is currently alive is not a morbid Halloween exercise, but a celebration of the eternal life Christ has given us through his death and resurrection.  Today, as we celebrate the Eucharist together, just imagine who might be kneeling with you, joining with you as you become one in communion with Christ.

Proper 15, Year B, 2006

From our Gospel reading today:  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.

What is eternal life?

Is eternal life what we see on TV?  Will we all float around on clouds, strumming harps, being careful to avoid the occasional filming of a commercial for Philadelphia Cream Cheese?

Is eternal life what we hear in jokes?  Will we have to prove our worthiness to St. Peter as we wait at the Pearly Gates in line behind a minister, a priest and a rabbi?

Is Mitch Albom, author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven correct when he portrays eternal life as one big therapy session?

Well, truthfully none of us know. 

The phrase eternal life is mentioned the gospels twenty five times, but almost always in terms of how to get eternal life.  Characters in the New Testament often ask Jesus, “What do I have to do to gain eternal life?”  In the Synoptic Gospels-that’s Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Jesus says eternal life is earned through keeping the commandments, leaving one’s family to follow Jesus, and of course, giving all your money to the poor. 

Not so easy, huh?

In John’s gospel, eternal life is given in exchange for believing in Jesus and, of course in eating Christ’s flesh and blood. 

But seriously, what is eternal life?

You’ll notice in all three of our cultural examples:  TV, jokes, and Mitch Albom’s book, eternal life begins at death.  Eternal life is something we strive for so we don’t have to die-so we can avoid the ultimate obliteration of our story, our selves.  After all, isn’t that how we envision eternal life?  We picture heaven, right?  Eternal life as a physical place we go as we transition from being alive to being dead.  Whether we imagine a garden or a heavenly city, we see eternal life both as a destination and a reprieve. 

But in our Gospel reading today, Jesus does not say, those who eat my body and blood will have eternal life.  He says, those who eat my body and blood have eternal life.  He uses the present tense.

So clearly, eternal life means more than life after death.  Somehow, we can experience eternal life right now.  In this life!

But we’re still left with the question, what is eternal life?  

Eternal life is not simply an extension of the life we already have.  Eternal life is not just an escape from death.  Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian Poet and Nobel Prize winner wrote,

“In our desire for eternal life we pray for an eternity of our habit and comfort, forgetting that immortality is in repeatedly transcending the definite forms of life in order to pursue the infinite truth of life.”

I think what he is saying, is that we are mistaken if we long for eternal life to be a continuation of the life we have now.  We tend to pray for eternal life that is a similar to this life, because we are afraid of death.  Even if our lives are rich and full of love, eternal life is a different quality of life from every day life-Eternal life is a life of connection to God. 

The one biblical definition of eternal life is found in John 17.  Jesus says,  “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”.

So, eternal life is a relationship, not a time frame or a place.  Eternal life is when we know God and know Jesus Christ.  When we are in relationship with the holy, whether it is now or after we have died, we are experiencing eternal life. 

Eternal life is the moment when God breaks into our dreary, daily routine and fills it with transcendence.  Eternal life gives us a glimpse of our true calling-as the beloved of God. 

The synoptic gospels, with all of their instructions of how to achieve eternal life, actually do describe what eternal life is.  After all, what are the commandments they ask us to follow?   To love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  

So, it turns out even the instructions about how to gain eternal life are about relationship-It’s a little bit of circular logic-in order to gain eternal life, we must be in relationship with God and Jesus Christ; the reward for which will be eternal life which a relationship with God and Jesus Christ. 

Eternal life is clearly all about intense relationship.  So, why do we as a culture minimize the idea of eternal life to make it something cutesy and cloudy?  Perhaps the idea of being in direct relationship with the very creator of the universe is overwhelming for us.  Perhaps the idea of being bathed in the fullness of God’s love is too abstract and intimidating.

But as we share communion today, know you are sharing in a moment of eternity.  As we join with each other and with all the saints who have passed before us, we are opening ourselves to God’s presence.  We are opening ourselves to experience eternal life.

Proper 14, Year B, 2006

Someone in your home is baking a loaf of bread.  For an hour now the warm fragrance has drifted around corners and under door frames and over tables to tease you with its inviting scent.  Despite Dr. Perricone’s warnings about the dangers of simple carbohydrates, you know that when the loaf of warm bread is ready to be sliced, you will be first in line to cut off a large piece, slather it in butter, and slowly savor the way it melts in your mouth.

As you put the bread in your mouth, digestive enzymes begin working, breaking the bread down into smaller, more manageable pieces.  As the bread travels through the stomach and intestines, it is further broken down and becomes fuel and nutrients. Much of the bread literally becomes part of you, providing the energy for your day and some nutrients to help your body function.  Once the bread passes through your mouth into your stomach, eating the bread shifts from a sensory experience to a primal, biological one.

We are disconnected from the nutritional importance of bread, but for many around the world, that piece of bread would literally give them life.  That piece of bread, with all of its nutrients and carbohydrates would fill their bodies with energy, boost their immune systems, and give them hope.

Thousands of years ago, wandering in the desert, God’s chosen people also needed bread.  They had been walking for years, without regular food and drink, and were exhausted.  To make sure they relied completely on him, the only food they received was directly from God.  When God did choose to provide food for the wandering Israelites, he first chose to shower them with manna, a mysterious, heavenly food that resembled, of course, bread.

This manna fed the wanderers, but did not ultimately satisfy them.  After a few hours of eating manna, they were starving again.  And when they became hungry again, God’s generosity completely slipped their mind and they began complaining almost instantly. But still, the manna sustained them for many years.

Finally, after 40 years of wandering and complaining, the Israelites entered the promised land.  The land was rich with food-fruit, vegetables, meat, and ingredients for all the bread they could bake.  The Israelites needed the manna no longer. 

Fifteen hundred years passed, and even though the Israelites complained about the manna while they were in the desert, as a people they never forgot about it.  Manna became a symbol of God’s faithfulness, and the importance of relying on God, rather than your own resources. 

Do you remember two weeks ago, when the gospel reading was about the feeding of the 5000? (Yes, yes you do.)  This is the passage in which Jesus miraculously turns a few fish and a loaf of bread into an abundant feast.  The people who experienced it were amazed, and told all their friends. 

Once Jesus gets off the mountain, people start following him, hoping for a repeat performance.  Maybe they are curious, maybe they are hungry, but they want to see the magic man make some bread!

Immediately before our passage today, Jesus makes a speech to them, explaining that they are looking for the wrong thing.

Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.

They go on to ask for a sign, for Jesus to prove that he is special. 

So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you. What work are you performing?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”  Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.

Jesus is redirecting their curiosity and question.  He is saying to them-if you focus on the bread, you’re missing the whole point!  Neither the manna, nor the feeding of the 5000 are about bread, they are about God-about God’s abundance and faithfulness.  These miracles are about God’s love for his people and the way God looks after us and provides for us.

Jesus is the height of this provision and love.  Jesus is explaining that he has been sent as a new kind of bread-a bread that never runs out, that never will leave us, and that gives us not only life-but life eternal.

Manna and other kinds of physical bread, no matter how miraculous-or delicious–will never satisfy us, never fill up all the places in us that are broken, lonely or grieving. 

Physical bread cannot give our lives meaning, show us avenues of hope, or help keep us off our high horses. 

God sends Jesus to feed us, to be our fuel, to give us the nourishment we need to live lives that are pleasing to God. 

At the Eucharist, we consume the body and blood of Jesus.  Early Christians were accused of being cannibals because of this.  As Episcopalians, we believe that the bread and wine we eat and drink, doesn’t actually turn into flesh, but does contain the full presence of Christ.  When we consume them, we consume Christ.  Just as a warm slice of bread breaks down and becomes part of us, somehow at the Eucharist we consume Jesus, Jesus becomes part of us, becomes incorporated into our mind, and heart, and hands.  As he becomes part of us, we become part of him.

The Eucharist is more than ritual and tradition.  The Eucharist is more than remembering.  During the Eucharist, we take Christ in to our very being, not only our spirit, but into our flesh.  And so the Bread of Life lives on in us, and we in him.

Amen.