Monday, August 31, 2009

Small World

You may have noticed the widget that is down the right hand column of this blog - Feedjit, which tells us where the various folks who have come to this page came from. It has become one of my favorite things to do, to look who's coming from where and how, to read this blog. If you click on the real-time version of it, you get extra information, such as whether they got here through a link from another blog or whether they did a google search for something that pointed them in this direction.

So I wonder what the person from Saudi Arabia did when he/she Googled "modes of transportation" and got a link to a post I did on the subject when I was in - surprise!- Qatar, just over the border from Saudi. And the various and sundry people who Google sermons on specific pericopes and come to one of my sermons on the passage. I'm wondering, snarkily, if they are simply lifting from the sermons wholesale or just getting a few ideas...I'll pray for the latter, because the sermons aren't all that fabulous. Lots of traffic from the Phillipines, for some reason, but also from Europe. Very cool. And in the listings, I can see locations of friends and family who are now spread much further from me than they used to be, in the Dakotas, in Ontario, in Georgia, in the UK, in parts of this commonwealth.

For a long time, I thought (like Julie Powell in "Julie and Julia") that no one read this blog, because I got very few comments on the posts. This lovely little widget has given me an insight on how far it, or bits of it, has traveled.

So for those whom I may have inadvertently offended, I beg forgiveness. For those who have disagreed with me, let's love each other anyhow. For those who read and found some small thing that warmed them in some way, thanks be to God. And for the little things that surprise us, like widgets that open a window on the world, yes!

And I do love your comments, when the spirit so moves you. This is a conversation, although sometimes it feels like a monologue.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Night

We had three dear friends over for dinner tonight - my wonderful Church Music prof (I was his teaching assistant) and his partner, and my thesis advisor, who has miraculously morphed into my friend.

I cooked an Indian feast: samosas, tandoori chicken, dal, saag paneer, bhangan bartha, pilau, paratha, and then broke the Indian lock on the menu and made Panna cotta with raspberry coulis for dessert. The food was well-received, and the conversation was sheer delight. I do enjoy intelligent people with generous reminds me of how I would like to be, when I sometimes forget. Much laughter, lubricated with some good wine, much talk of fascinating projects and interesting places.

I'd gladly cook a feast every weekend to have dinner partners like this at my table. And of course, PH did a great deal of work on helping get the house cleaned up and did the grilling of the chicken (for those who care about such things, it was a tandoori riff on beer can chicken), and did most of the cleaning up afterwards.

Other good thing about the meal: enough leftovers to feed us for a couple of days. Sweet!

Today's Sermon: "Washing Up" James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

When you go into the bathroom here at BR Middle School, you’ll notice several signs giving detailed instructions on proper handwashing, including the suggestion that you keep sudsing until you’ve sung the Happy Birthday song twice through.

When you go into the restroom at the chapel atBig Old Seminary the message is similar, although more overtly theological. There, the signs say “Baptize a bug!”

And now the Church of England has just sent out a communique explaining what precautions all parishes should take to protect communicants from the H1N1 flu. The short answer is that, should a pandemic occur, all priests should use lots of hand sanitizer, no one should shake hands or hug, and there will be no common cup of wine at communion. Priests and lay ministers who offer a service of Laying On of Hands should use the Purell between each touch…

It’s a pretty grim scenario, and a necessary one – the Diocese of Virginia and your Vestry are thinking about what we should do to prepare – we certainly wouldn’t want to be guilty of spreading the flu virus when we are trying to serve God’s people through the sacraments.

But how do we align those very good, reasonable and necessary directions about good hygiene with today’s Gospel?

Jesus really tears into those Pharisees who complain about the disciples not washing their hands before meals, doesn’t he? He calls them hypocrites, and uses a quotation from Isaiah to say just how wrong they are. Dissing someone by throwing a Bible verse at them…that doesn’t happen much these days, does it?

What’s going in here?

Suffice to say it’s not about good hygiene. It’s not about Jesus saying you shouldn’t wash your hands before you eat. It’s about looking at what’s really important.

Jesus talks about how the Pharisees worry so much about the laws and traditions that human beings had constructed to define what is clean and unclean that they forget what truly defines purity and impurity.

In a way, it’s a little like that old design edict of the Modernist school: Form follows function. The form of a thing, its rules, if you will, is driven by what it is supposed to do. An automobile that is supposed to be fuel-efficient is designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. Its form, its design, is a result of what it is supposed to do. That’s why a Prius looks like a Prius, and for that matter, why a Hummer looks like a Hummer. Making something pretty or elegant and shiny just for ornamental purposes that have nothing to do with its use is considered wasteful.
So how does this apply to this Gospel reading? Jesus is telling those Pharisees that they are overly worried about the form and forgetting the core function. They are so hung up on the hand-washing rule that they are forgetting about the primary responsibility: loving hospitality. And hospitality is the hidden message in this story – the Pharisees were always talking about the rules of purity, about the washing, about eating with the right people. In this part of the Gospel of Mark, it is early in Jesus’ ministry, but he has gotten some recognition as a teacher and healer of great power. No surprise, then, that the Pharisees come to challenge him – he is working their turf, so to speak. So they attack him on legal grounds. And he is calling them out, telling them they are hypocrites, that they are misguided in their teachings. And no sooner does he finish excoriating the Pharisees, saying “you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition,” than he turns around and starts instructing the crowd who has been following him, the crowd with whom his disciples have been eating, with those unwashed hands.

What does he say? It’s not about that which goes into your body – the food that these Pharisees might say is unclean, for example. It’s about that which goes out of your heart that can defile, that might be unclean. He uses a very earthy description of what the human body does with the food we eat, and what comes out of us and goes into the sewer – no, he doesn’t mince words. And that serves as an example of the ugly things that can come out of us, out of our hearts. Evil intentions, he calls them. And there’s a laundry list of the many things that can come out of us that are defiling:

Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

And in case we shake our heads and say that we wouldn’t do any of these things, consider this: how often have you had a jealous thought about a co-worker and turned that jealousy into a snide bit of gossip? Have you ever told a friend that you wouldn’t be able to join them for dinner because you had a work project to complete, when the truth was that another friend who was more fun invited you to join them? Have you ever taken something that wasn’t yours? It sounds harsh to call them evil intentions, but perhaps we need to be honest about our sins, and we are all at one time or another guilty of some of them. What comes out of the heart with evil intentions is what defiles.

Our hands might be washed, but if our hearts aren’t clean, it’s a pointless exercise. If we worry more about the form of our lives than we do about the function, we’re missing the point about how Jesus commands us to live. And the outcome is worse than swine flu; we’re talking about our souls and eternity, after all.

So after this very dark picture of all we can do wrong from the Gospel, what are we supposed to do? Sit quietly in a corner and do nothing except pray, so we won’t be guilty of any of those bad things? Few of us have that luxury.

The cure isn’t washing hands….we find it in the wise words of the Epistle of James. This epistle is a collection of moral teachings, how to live as Christians until the Second Coming. One of my teachers rightly said that James is more interested in the walk than the talk. And what we hear from James today is precisely that. If Jesus’ words in the Gospel are an accusation of an illness of the soul, James prescribes the cure. “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers. Be slow to anger…If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for the widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

In James’ instruction, being a good religious person is very simple indeed: you take care of those in need and you try not to be seduced by the world by praying and studying God’s word.
If you’re worried about whether touching one of those needy persons is going to make you unclean, defiled in the language of the Pharisees, you’re focused on the wrong thing, on a human-defined law of physical purity, not on what God calls you to do. If you’re thinking that you’ll do something for a needy person because it will make you look good in the eyes of your friends, you’re focused on an evil intention, pride, rather than doing what God wants you to do.
And there’s another possibility that we should spend a moment untangling: if you do something for someone in need because you think you have to do this to win salvation, rather than out of love for God and another of God’s creatures, you’re missing what being a Christian really is.

Bear with me while I unpack this a bit.

If you’ve been coming to our Adult Forum series on Church and State, you’ll remember that Martin Luther espoused a theology of “justification by faith,” a theology that is central to Paul’s Epistles. We are saved because we believe in God and in Christ saving us by dying on the Cross. Luther opposed a theology of “justification by works,” or being saved by doing a whole lot of good works. So it’s no surprise that Luther didn’t like the Epistle of James – he called it “a right strawy epistle” - because in his reading, James was saying you’ve got to do good works to be saved. And a quick reading of what we hear from James today might suggest that. But other scholars make the point that James is closer to Luther, and the apostle Paul, than it might seem at first glance. Yes, we are justified by our faith, but here’s how we as Christians are called to live in the here and now until Christ comes again.

Form follows function. The form of our lives has to follow the function of our belief in God and what God expects of us, just as the form of our liturgy follows the function of our belief in God and in Jesus’ story. The practicality of washing hands only becomes something for Jesus to complain about when it becomes the central focus, when it supplants the disciples sitting among the crowd of people who are following Jesus and breaking bread with them, when it distracts from the sharing of the bread and the word and the hope of healing. It’s not about the hand-washing rules, it’s about paying more attention to the handwashing than to the people and the bread and the moment of community.

So we work at listening and translating that hearing into doing, and doing it rightly. We may risk breaking human rules to honor the teaching that we receive from God. At its heart, though, James is right. It is simple. Love God. Love one another. Express that love through works of caring, of mercy. And pray. Always. Pray without ceasing to be, if not unstained by the world, at least cleansed of its distractions, and from those things that defile.


Friday, August 28, 2009


A friend who now lives far away mentioned on FB that she is suffering from terrible insomnia.

My heart aches for her. It is a miserable thing, being unable to sleep. I've had bouts of it, particularly when I was worried or depressed, and I've had times when - because of medication - I simply could not get to sleep or stay asleep without sleeping pills. It's better now, for which I am profoundly grateful to God and my doctors.

Occasionally, once again, I wake at 2 or 3 am with the middle of the night Restless Thought Syndrome, and wander into StrongOpinions' bedroom to watch the wasteland that is 2 am television or read a bit. Sometimes I'll knit, sometimes I'll pray, sometimes I'll simply stare at the ceiling in the dark.

But it is a lonely thing, this not being able to sleep, and the dark hours are not kind to the spirit.

So please say a prayer for her, for sleep, for peace of mind about whatever troubles her, for her soul's rest.

Memento Mori

For a beautiful and deeply moving reflection on death and eternal life, I commend to you Fr. Rick Lord's commentary on the death of his father here.

“Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior whom you have prepared for all the world to see.”

Random Dots of Friday

  • StrongOpinions has posted her lovely, slightly rusty 1973 Datsun 280Z on Ebay. Thanks be to God. It is a 10-day sale, and we sure hope she finds a buyer among the Z enthusiasts out there, because it is sitting out front of our house. She definitely doesn't need it in Brooklyn.

  • Vestry meeting last night was miraculously on schedule, ending at 9:05 pm, thanks to some adroit management by the Senior Warden. Good folks with very very different styles of getting things done, which sometimes frustrates those who have other styles of getting things done. Group process is still group process, isn't it?

  • Still no clarity around the various positions to which I may be called. They are so very, very different. I'm hoping my visit to the Windy City next week and to the Garden State in two weeks will lend some clarity to it. I don't know if the process for the position hard by Mr Jefferson's Academical Village will move quickly enough to make it a possibility, but you never know. Prayers, please, to have patience and for the wisdom of God to be revealed.

  • I opened up one of the utility bills and saw written in large letters along the bottom *****FINAL BILL****. What the???? So I called up and discovered that someone else had tried to open up utility service in her name at our address, which automatically threw us into final bill status, and then called back to say she had given them the wrong address. We had received several items of mail addressed to our address, but with this individual's name. What kind of espece d'idiot doesn't get the new address right? Oh, well, it got fixed with a phone call, and I presume she's dyslexic or something.

  • The sermon is not done yet. The Adult Ed program is not complete. And still I procrastinate. To work.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Road Trip Part Deux

...and now I have a visit to the northern reaches of the Garden State for further interviews for a rectorship there.

C'mon, Lord, stop snickering. Tell me what I'm supposed to do here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Yup, no surprise that these are two of my grandkids...

Road Trip

Looks like I'll be going out to the Windy City very soon for an in-person interview. Yes!

Update: I'll be going on September 2nd. Please keep me in your prayers as I continue discerning God's will.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

today's Sermon: John 6:56-69 "On the Path"

Sermon for August 23, 2009

Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "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."

When we come to the communion rail to receive the bread and the wine, it’s such an intimate act. We take the body and blood of Christ into our own bodies. In that moment, there is no greater closeness, no greater vulnerability to our God. We are touched and touching God.

But even as we sense the intimacy of that moment, we need to remember that this is not a solitary act. The very word “communion” bespeaks something that happens among a group of people. The word “communion” comes from the Greek koinonia, which actually means “community.” Our sharing of bread and wine in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is a communal act. We do not share communion alone.

In fact, in 1552 Book, Archbishop Cranmer required that there be “a good number to communicate” for a valid sacrament of Holy Eucharist. For him, and for us, the Eucharist becomes an act of proclamation with visual aids.

Why do we do this act in community?

One way of seeing this proclamatory act is to remember that it memorializes the Last Supper. Jesus did not institute this act alone, he did it in community…he instructed his disciples to do this in remembrance of him, as a sign of the new covenant (Luke 21:14-20). He expected them to continue following this order to remember him, and to remember what they did not at that time know – that he was to die and rise again in glory.

Another way of seeing it is somewhat more mystical in tone. It is what happens to us as a result of receiving the bread and wine. We are transformed by the word made visible. Our participation in the Holy Eucharist changes us and helps us feel that communion with God, and with the entire Body of Christ. That is why communion makes no sense as a solitary act in an empty church – it is about transforming us as members of the Body of Christ.

When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are given eternal life. That is the message we have been receiving from the Gospel of John for several weeks now. We’ve heard that phrase “bread of life” over and over again, until we’re a wee bit tired of it. But John keeps repeating it because he knows we need to hear it. Think about what happens in today’s passage…some disciples complain that this is a difficult teaching, and some even leave. But the twelve remain. They have finally understood it. Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks plaintively, “do you also want to leave?” And Peter replies, “We cannot leave. We understand now. We can only have this eternal life through you, through your words. You are the Holy One of God.” Through the repeated message, and through the repetition of the receiving of the Eucharist, we finally understand. This is God, and this liturgy is the way to know God.

Liturgy – a word that can be translated as “the work of the people” – is a visual expression of what we believe. The words and the actions are our credo. And doing this together is essential.
The image that works for me in understanding this is that of the labyrinth.

Many of you have had the experience of walking a labyrinth. Labyrinths as Christian symbols date back to medieval times, with one of the first being at the Cathedral at Chartres. You pray before you enter. You follow the path of the labyrinth, round and round in ever smaller circles. A spiral, leading inexorably toward the center. You pray as you walk. Perhaps you stop periodically along the path. Perhaps someone else is one the path, and you slow down to let them continue, or you pass them. No matter. Everyone finds his own tempo as they walk and pray the labyrinth. Round and round, the circle tightens, until at last you are in the center, at the core. You pray, you meditate, you commune with God…and then you step back out onto the path, and wend your way out in the widening spirals to the edge, and step back into the world.
This is a useful image for us as we try to understand what our participation in the Eucharist is, and how it relates to other relationships beyond that which we have with our God.

We may, when we kneel at the communion rail, think we are in that tight center, at the core, one on one with God. But we could not have gotten there without walking the outer circles, the wider more expansive ones. Perhaps at the center we are one on one with God, but the next arc of the spiral path may be those with whom we kneel at the rail – the old friend who we’ve talked to about something that troubles us, the stranger whose children are the same age as ours, the person who shares the task of setting up each Sunday. This close-knit circle widens a little further, and we are part of all those who are with us at Saint Gabriel’s, some newcomers, some old friends, some strangers, and those of us who are part of making this service on a given Sunday. A community of faith and love and mutual support, all of us holding each other together as this limb of the Body of Christ.

But that isn’t the sum total of the labyrinth. Go out further on the spiral path and we see that we are part of a larger community that includes our mother church, where this bread and wine we will receive today was consecrated, and beyond to other churches in our region, and indeed our Diocese, where our Bishop has supported us in pastoral care by allowing us the privilege of Deacons’ Masses and where the Commission on Congregational Missions supports us and prays for us. And the next arc of the spiral shows us walking the path with the whole of the Episcopal Church, even the whole of the Anglican Communion, and beyond that all followers of Christ. We might even consider the possibility that the outermost arcs of the path include all humanity, all God’s creation.

We cannot find our way to the heart of the labyrinth without walking, and being part of, those outer rings. We cannot focus only on our relationship with God to the exclusion of all those elements of the Body of Christ, even all those elements of God’s creation, that help move us toward the center. We do not do this alone.

And this is the true miracle of this day, and this service.

The liturgy, this deacon’s mass, is unusual. We do not consecrate the bread and wine here – since I am a deacon and not a priest, I cannot yet do that – but we receive the gift of consecrated bread and wine from St James, so that we can move to the center of the labyrinth, to that moment of “take, eat this in remembrance of me.” We don’t have the ability to do it alone. We need the larger community – St James, the Diocese – to make this happen. We are held and guided in love as we walk the path to Christ, to communion, with our gracious God and with each other, when we celebrate this meal.

So, having been given this gift, what do we do with it?

The writer Annie Dillard said “Sunday congregations are like children with chemistry sets mixing up batches of TNT. They are blind to the power that they hold in their hands.” We receive the power of God’s love in this sacrament. We have the option of remaining in the center of the labyrinth, alone in contemplation with God, or walking out through the spirals again to the larger community, to the larger world. If we take that walk, carrying the power of God with us, we radiate it beyond ourselves to everyone we meet on the path. Having been transformed by the love of God, we can act in ways that demonstrate what we believe and what we want to share to those who stand outside the path. We invite them to taste and see as well, to taste and see how good this communion is.

This is not a thing to keep to ourselves. This is not a solitary and intimate tete-a-tete with the Divine, it is a raucous joyful banquet meant to be shared, a dance around the brilliant spirals of the labyrinthine pathway. And we do it with others because dancing alone is a lonely thing. We celebrate today with joy, we dance, we sing. Christ is brought to us in a new way. Let us share the feast.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Five: Rules

Jan posted an intriguing Friday Five at RevGalBlogPals:

"After a family vacation with our four children and three additional "partners," I am more aware of rules, spoken and unvoiced. Expectations are not always clearly expressed, but are still expected. . . . unbeknown to all unless one is not fulfilled! So how about writing about rules in your families and workplaces? Choose one or more for each category, especially if one seems odd or funny to you now."

1. Formal rules in family of origin

You go to church on Sunday. Even my father, who was usually hung over on Sunday, went to church, but he rarely made it before the noon or 1 pm Mass. I wonder if that late Mass was designed for Irishmen like my dad, or for priests like my uncle, who was also usually hung over on Sundays. Nothing like living in the middle of a Brian Friel play.

2. Unwritten and unspoken rules in family of origin
Only mom cooks in the kitchen, and don't get in her way or question the menu. Said uncle would often call on Sunday at 2 to ask what my mother was serving for Sunday dinner. If it was beef, pork or lamb, he'd come, often bringing another priest whose housekeeper was off on Sunday afternoon. If it was chicken, he didn't. It finally got to the point that when the phone rang at 2, my mother would simply pick it up and say "beef" or "chicken." She never complained directly to my uncle (one doesn't do that to a priest, even if he's your brother-in-law, son't you know) but made sure the rest of us knew she was unhappy. And insofar as the first part of the rule goes, I didn't learn to cook until I moved out of the house and went to grad school and had my own apartment. Now that I understand the meditative aspects of cooking, I think I get why she jealously guarded her privacy int he kitchen as she prepared meals.

3. Formal rules in current family or workplace

The cookee is never the cleanee (this translates into me cooking and PH cleaning, except when there has been a dinner party and there's too much cleaning up for one person).

4. Unwritten rules in current family or workplace

A member of this family is allowed to have a meltdown periodically and is supported in said meltdown, not criticized or fixed. That is not to say that help isn't offered; it just lets the person who is suffering be able to express that without judment. Most of the time...

5. When was a time that you became aware of different rules in different places/families than your own?

When I saw the mother of a friend beat her with a stick when we had made a mess int he kitchen. I got an occasional whack on the bottom (very occasional) but nothing like what I saw there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Strong Opinions is home for a few days, prior to getting going on her next year at the Ivy in the Big Apple. Her body clock is 180 degrees out from PH and me - she sleeps until noon and then is up and hanging out with friends until midnight. She seems pretty good, despite a cold, and is focused on her work for the coming year. She still surrounds herself with some pretty dysfunctional friends - I suspect she believes that all poets/writers must to this - but her plan for school/work/life for the near future is sound. Let's hope she actually follows the plan.

The job front is the Land of a Thousand Questions, none of which I can answer. I got an acknowledgment of information received from one place - a pleasant change from those employers who simply swallow your material into the maw and say nothing - and have heard not a peep from anyone else lately. August, don't you know?

I'm torn between packing for the move which will come at some point to somewhere, and reading as many books as I can while I have the time, and finishing knitting a sweater for a newborn little burrito of a friend.

In the meantime, there's a sermon to finish, a customary to write for the Altar Guild for the deacon's mass, and an Adult Ed session to complete.

I think I may knit.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Planning ahead

I'm thinking about this Sunday's sermon, since it's our first "deacon's mass"* service and I want the sermon to really speak to our parish's situation. I'm finding that the image of the labyrinth, with the spiral from larger community in to that one-on-one moment at the communion rail receiving Christ's body and blood is an interesting one to play with.

Key things I'm interested in conveying:
* although the moment of receiving communion often feels intensely personal, it cannot be fully realized except in community;

* our liturgy is a physical and verbal expression of what we believe, and this parish, in this time of transition, is in an "in-between" state. This particular liturgy is a gift of grace - a liturgical expression of who, what and where we are;

* God reaches out to us (through the gift of God's Son in the sacrament) even as we reach up for God - once again, relationship is key.

Now, how I get from those thoughts to a finished sermon will probably take me through Lee Mitchell, Howard Galley and Patrick Malloy, and maybe Justin Martyr and Hippolytus, via Annie Dillard (“Sunday congregations are like children with chemistry sets mixing up batches of TNT. They are blind to the power that they hold in their hands.”) and to Chartres and the labyrinth. Or not.

Writing sermons is also like being a child with a chemistry set. Sometimes I make sparklers, and sometimes it just blows up in my face.

Any thoughts to add to the mix, friends?

* In the Episcopal tradition, the consecration of the bread and wine may only be done by a priest. However, in special circumstances, and only with the consent of the bishop, a deacon may preside at a liturgy using pre-consecrated elements, eliminating the eucharistic prayer and fraction, but distributing the bred and wine as would normally be done in a serice of Holy Eucharist. It is rare because the church believes that it is the memorial of that supper and the words of institution that should be the focus, remembering Christ's sacrifice for us, and this service might seem to gloss over it.

Because the Good Lord Really Does Have a Sense of Humor About Himself (I Hope)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Monday Sabbath

It is almost noon. I am still in my pajamas on the couch. I didn't sleep well last night. This is my Sabbath.

Of course, it is not uninterrupted...I've handled a bunch of emails and have looked at the lectionary for the next couple of weeks, thinking of what directions the sermons might take on the coming Sundays.

Dear friends came over for dinner last night, and I suspect that my Monday torpor is in reaction to the excesses of food and wine, and processing some of the conversation (they both work in advocacy for health care reform).

No news from any part of the job search world. That's okay. I've got enough percolating in my brain right now.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


For my various and sundry relatives and friends who are helping their collee and grad school age children set up their apartments:

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Today's Sermon: Feasting at the Uncomfortable Table John 6:51-58

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”

This is one of the most uncomfortable images in the Bible, and I can’t tell you the number of times that non-Christians have said to me, “so what about this 'eat my body, drink my blood' thing? Are you guys cannibals?” It’s hard imagery for us to engage, and we’re tempted to turn away, and look instead at the more palatable readings, like Solomon’s prayer, or the psalm…but there is some value in struggling with uncomfortable texts, just like there is occasionally some value in eating that which is unfamiliar, at a table that makes us uncomfortable.

A few years ago, I had a feast, a barbecue really, on the sands alongside the Persian Gulf. The sky was that rich satiny cerulean blue you see on saris from India, and the sand was creamy and smooth underfoot. In the water, little luminescent fish actually leapt and danced across the tops of the waves. There were chairs under the tents, and a majlis, an entertainment room with floor-level cushions and a sheesha, a waterpipe for smoking sweet tobacco was in the corner. But it was the food that I want to tell you about today, on this day when we again talk about Jesus as the bread of life.

In the US, we like our pork barbecue, smoky baby back ribs, pulled pork sandwiches - it makes me hungry just to think of it. But when you are in a Muslim country, pigs are not on the menu. The barbecue meat you’ll find more often than not is lamb. The lamb most likely was chosen and butchered in the souk just a few hours before, and it had been trucked out to this spot past the sand dunes and the wadis to serve us as part of a seashore buffet – something for the rich Americans to talk about when they went home again.

May I tell you it smelled fabulous? Beyond fabulous. Smoky, flavored with za’atar, with wild oregano, sumac. And there were the usual side dishes - hummus, tabbouleh, grilled peppers, amazing bread. But it was the lamb that was the centerpiece. We lined up with our plates to serve ourselves. And some of the meat was recognizable – hunks of leg of lamb, lamb shank…but there were some other things that bore no resemblance to what you find wrapped in plastic at Harris-Teeter. And when we enquired, we found out that they were …how shall I put this delicately? …parts that we Americans rarely ate. “But madame, these are some of the most delicate and delicious cuts of the lamb,” the guide told us. Was I brave enough to try them?

I took a little bit. Just a taste. My fear of being impolite was counterbalanced by my fear of eating something yucky, by my fear of becoming ill. My plate was filled with the things I could recognize, with just a little bit of the more exotic stuff, the organ meats, part of the head…could I handle this culinary adventure?

Well, I figured I had managed the Turkish style porta-potty, I could certainly manage a little bit of odd meat that I was assured was delicious…

So I ate. Some of it was tasty. Some of it, not so much. But I took the risk, because my curiosity and manners compelled me to. And eating it had a twofold effect on me: first, I learned I could eat some stuff that had sounded pretty awful, second, it told our guide that I was willing to enter into his world, his culture, in a way I might not be comfortable with. When I looked in his eyes, I saw him differently, and he saw me differently as well.

There’s often a high risk-reward ratio in eating unfamiliar things. It can be a transformative moment.

That’s something that the prophets knew. Part of some of the stories of the prophets was the requirement that they eat the scroll on which God’s words were written. The Hebrew word for scroll is the megillah, as in “he ate the whole megillah…he ate the whole big complicated thing.” For example, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, we have just such an instruction – eat the scroll, eat the whole thing. Consume the word of God, digest it, make it a part of you. And you don’t get to choose which parts of the scroll you eat, what words you eat…you eat the whole thing. This is not an intellectual exercise, it’s a physical one. You’ve got to do something very visceral, very real, you eat it and it becomes a part of you. It transforms you.

So Jesus is instructing the disciples and us to eat the whole scroll…remember how the Gospel of John begins? Jesus identifies himself as The Word…the Word of God. Jesus IS the whole scroll… Jesus himself. And he uses the metaphor of eating his flesh and drinking his blood – a radical concept for Jews who believed that the blood was unclean – to drive home the same point as the prophets’ stories…you have to eat the whole thing, the whole Word, absorb it into your own body and soul like the barbecue on the beach, like the scroll itself…you have to feel it in your belly, digest it slowly, incorporate it into you fully. This is what communion is…becoming one with Jesus, becoming one with the Word, understanding it on a level beyond simply reading it on the page. When we do that, it transforms us even as it feeds us. It gives us the ability to digest the difficult parts, gives us the grace to accept that not all of the Word will be comprehensible to us in our lifetimes, gives us the sense that we are joined together in this communion with Jesus, with all those who take the bread and the wine, even if we don’t always understand how we could possibly be connected.

This feeding, this digesting…it is a gift of love, isn’t it? A gift that says, “I know that God is difficult for you to understand. I’ll help. I’ll help by becoming like you, a human being, flesh and blood, living among you and talking to you. And I’ll give you what you need, what you crave, a way to feel that love that my Father has for you, a feast of that love.”

That gift of love, that feast, is the way we connect with the Divine each Sunday. It is a meal delivered with love and by love, to help us know the love God has for us. And it recalls the imagery of Jesus as mother that was so commonly used by monks in the 12th Century, monks like Bernard of Clairvaux and Anselm of Canterbury. Jesus work in awakening our souls, in Anselm’s writing, is said to be like childbirth. Bernard and the English monk Aelred both talk about the nurturing aspects of Jesus, using imagery of nursing. And that reminds me of one of the delights of this past week, visiting our Parish Administrator, L, and her husband J, at the hospital and seeing their newborn son T. What a gorgeous baby! Perfect in every way, pink, round, healthy. What a joy to see this child, so cherished, and so responsive to that care and love in his obvious health!

Contrast T, then, with a baby who did not come into the world with such love and support, who did not have parents to coo and nurse her and hold her in their arms…the diagnosis was “failure to thrive.” The baby, at more than four months, weighed no more than little T did at birth; her prognosis was not good. The nurses at the orphanage where she lived doubted she would survive. But she was taken in to the home of a couple who longed for a child. She was fussed over, cared for, loved, fed in a thousand different ways…she lived, and she grew, and she thrived.

It was that feeding of body and soul that made all the difference for the baby, as it does for us. We are fed, body and soul, when we come to the communion rail, and we respond to the nurturance by thriving in love.

That’s the miracle of this strange banquet to which Jesus invites us. Yes, the words sound strange - “eat my body, drink my blood” – but the result of this nurturing feeding is twofold. First, it fills us and feeds us and gives us a way to connect with a God who is beyond our comprehension. Second, and just as important, it reminds us of the great love of God the Father and of Jesus Christ, that great sacrifice for us, not only to feed us but to save us from all the imperfections that plague us and our world.

This odd and unexpected meal is not flesh and blood in the physical sense. We still taste only bread and wine. But what we feel when we are fed is the sustenance that does indeed bring eternal life; it does bring the opening of the door into knowing God through God’s love, God’s nurturance, God’s constant care for us with the comforting food at the uncomfortable table.

May we be fed, and may we share that food, and that knowledge, with others, all our days.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Big Deal

I drove down to the Capital of the Confederacy this morning - relied on a mix tape of Latin music (Tropicalia with Caetano Veloso/Gilberto Gil/OsMutantes, Afro-Cuban jazz (Francophila), and a podcast of Morning Prayer to get me there reasonably awake. It was a worthwhile, albeit exhausting, trip - 90 miles of Nascar driving south then 90 miles of the same back (until I ran into the traffic jam in Occoquan about 12 miles from home). For the traffic jam, I listened to some Paolo Conte, a great Italian jazz singer who expresses existential angst better than anyone except Lotte Lenya. And there is no existential angst like sitting in stopped traffic on Rt 95 just below the Mixing Bowl.

Our Bishop Coadjutor okayed me doing Deacon's Mass at Saint Middle School, given our unique circumstances. It really is quite a marvelous thing - I will pick up consecrated elements from the mother church early Sunday morning and we will conduct a service in which I can preside over the whole thing, front to back, and distribute the consecrated elements. In the Episcopal Church, this is very unusual, and I am grateful that he saw the need and trusts me with it.

We also had a good discussion about my job situation, the options in play, what we all think about that, what we will pray about...nothing conclusive about anything, but very supportive. I really like this guy, the more I talk with him. We didn't have time to chat about the deployment process, but we agreed to meet again very soon about that.

So I didn't solve all the problems of the world in one hour, but together we fixed a couple of them, and for that I am grateful.

And I didn't hit any other vehicles on the highway, nor was I hit. I am grateful for that, too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Assorted Birthday Stuff

I had a relaxing, wonderful day, including lots of great cards and FB messages, a trip to the Day Spa for a massage and a mani/pedi, and a delicious dinner with PH.

When we got home, PH gave me my present, a "New Clergy Starter Kit." It is labeled as having "everything the new clergy person needs for ministry success in every setting: traditional parish, mission parish, can't-make-up-its-mind-parish, thinks it's better than the neighboring parish, no-profit, with they could make a profit, educational institution, ignorant institution. Yes, this new clergy starter kit contains all the essentials for transitioning smoothly from the cloistered academic halls of a seminary community to the harsh, competitive world of clerical work."

Wonder what is in it?

1.Hearoes for Heroes - the essential survival tool for long meetings of vestries, boards, task forces, committees, and collegial support groups. (The box contains a packet of Hearoes ear plugs.)

2. Post-it notes for when you don't really care to send the very best. Use for passing notes while Hearoes are being utilized. (Post-its that say "I couldn't give a s**t if I tried.")

3.Extra-strength relief for when the Hearoes don't work well enough. Take two and make a pastoral call in the morning. (A bottle of generic excedrin).

4. UnderArmour thinks they've got something special? These foundation garments are fire-and-brimstone proof, scorn repellant, criticism deflecting, and spilled-communion-wine resistant. As a bonus, they give your backside extra traction on those slippy metal folding chairs when the post-potluck kids program drags into its second hour and you start to fall asleep. (Contains a pair of granny pants that have been sprayed with black rubberized paint. I kid you not.)

5. Clerical collar that finally dares to tell the truth about your relationship to your vestry, board of directors and/or bishop. (A steel chain link dog collar.)

6. And last but not least, Extreme Faith: senior warden questioning your piety? Board chair doubting your evangelical fervor? Bishop skeptical of your devotion? Carry this Bible and show them you've got EXTREME FAITH. That's right. Faith that can move mountains is for wimps and liberals. Your faith is extreme. Now you've got the Bible to show it. Wave this two-pound hunk of blessing around and let them know what doubters they all are compared to you and your EXTREME FAITH. (A "contemporary English" version of the Holy Scriptures, with a picture of a kayaker running the rapids, a guy rappelling down cliff, and a snowboarder doing an X-games style grab on the cover. Sigh.)

What more could a woman ask for?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


As you know, there are two places for which I am shortlisted. Things have gone silent with both of them. I am attributing that to other kinds of busyness to attend to, the mid-August blahs or some such thing. I will hear something from each of them at some point, if for no reason than to tell me they've decided to go in a different direction. "Going in a different direction" is the new euphemism for "we're giving the position to someone else." I don't think they will both go off the rails, but only God knows.

In the meantime, I've gotten a request for a written response to a series of questions from another church in search, one that has intrigued me for a long time. So over the next couple of days I will try to write answers that are
a) deeply spiritual
b) intellectually stimulating
c) witty and charming.

Or not. In any case, I hope at the very least my answers will be honest.

In other news, tomorrow is my birthday so I am taking a Sabbath day and using the spa gift card that my children and grandchildren gave me for an ordination present. Then PH will take me out to dinner at a new restaurant in town. I'm planning on wearing something elastic.

On Thursday I will go for a meeting with my Bishop, a friendly chat asking if I can do Deacon's Masses at Saint Middle School, talking about my job situation, suggesting he might want to rethink the job placement process for graduating seminarians...should be interesting.

A Blessing

I went to visit Parish Administrator in the hospital. She just had a baby. I got to hold said beautiful baby and give him a blessing. Mom and Dad (and me, too, a little) shed a tear of joy.

Oh, my. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Today's Sermon: John 6:35, 41-51 "Feeding All God's Sons and Daughters"

We hear again about bread this week. A repetition of Jesus’ words: “I am the bread of life,” followed by some instructions about what that means.

Bread. The Bread of Life.

For those of you who work downtown, you may want to take the opportunity to see bread in action in a fresh way every Tuesday at 1 p.m. That’s when the Church of the Epiphany holds Street Church in Franklin Park, at the corner of 14th and I Streets.

A group of volunteers set up a small folding table, with a basket full of bread and a carafe of grape juice, and then they fan out into the park, inviting the homeless people to come over under the trees to share a brief service of Holy Eucharist followed by a sandwich lunch. Everyone gets a name tag, and everyone gets a paper that has the service on it.

Some of the attendees are regulars, who also attend the early Sunday morning service and breakfast called the Welcome Table at Epiphany. Some are poor workers in the area, the man who shines shoes at the Metro, the woman who sweeps the foyer at the office building nearby. Some are just people passing through, from places like Idaho and Oklahoma, with nowhere in particular to go, with no one in particular to care for them. Some mumble to invisible voices, some sing loudly, some don’t speak English. They may be coming simply for the promise of a PB&J and an orange, or they may be coming for a moment of connection with God and with other human beings in the midst of a difficult life.

I was there this past Tuesday, standing next to a transvestite named Kim who said he was from Hawaii, who wouldn’t sing because he didn’t like the sound of his own voice, but who recited the Lord’s Prayer with deep fervor. By him was John, a regular, whose gig beautiful baritone voice seemed a mismatch to his slight scarred body. To my left was Charles, newly arrived from California, with a long red beard and an old-fashioned courtesy and a single small backpack to live out of.

There were volunteers, older folks from South Carolina, several people from Epiphany, a group of youngsters with guitars and an electronic piano to provide some music. A cluster of people from the office buildings, curious and quiet, watching this motley band pray and praise God for a moment of bread, of feeding the soul and the body.

An odd mix of people, to be sure, connected by one thing – they wanted to be fed.

I wonder how the people to whom Jesus was speaking were hoping to be fed? Remember how they had come across the lake to Capernaum, following Jesus – we talked about that last week. He told them to expect something different from bread and fish, to take the food that he offered, the food of eternal life.

This week, we hear their confusion and response: Isn’t this that kid from down the block, Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s son? How can he say that he’s come down from heaven? So Jesus patiently explains it, as last week he explained that he was a different kind of bread. This is not the same kind of food from God as manna in the wilderness. It is a teaching of God that Jesus brings, the teaching that makes our relationship with God possible. And it is that loving relationship with God that brings us eternal life.

Relationship…it’s a hard thing sometimes to be in a relationship. We have to work to understand each other, we have to forgive the misunderstandings, we have to accommodate the different needs of the one with whom we are in relationship. In a way, Jesus models perfect relationship. He loves us dearly, to the point that he will do anything, even die, for us. He tries over and over again, to teach us. He is patient and loving with our mistakes and misunderstandings, and he keeps on teaching us, even when we are slow students. I doubt that many of us could meet that standard of relationship.

In fact, our human relationships are often marked with sadness as well as joy, with anger as well as love, with pride as well as disappointment. I would expect that everyone here today could tell a story of struggle with relationships.

That kind of struggle is exactly what we hear about in the Old Testament reading today – the death of King David’s son Absalom, and the king’s great grief.

The fact of the death alone would be enough to illustrate the awful challenges we face in relationships…but there is more to the story. Absalom is killed by David’s warriors in the course of a battle – Absalom has been trying to stage a coup and overthrow his father. And yet, even in the face of Absalom’s treachery, David first asks his generals to deal gently with Absalom, and when he hears of his son’s death among the trees of Ephraim, he weeps bitterly.

Relationships can be a struggle.

I thought of that as I stood under the trees of Franklin Park the other day, alongside the transvestite and drug addict, as we prayed and waited to be fed. Somewhere in these persons’ lives, a relationship was broken. Perhaps a parent died, or was herself an addict. Perhaps a person’s sexual orientation caused their family to turn them out. Perhaps they served in the military and their experiences broke their soul in some deep and painful way. A loss of a job, an illness, something happened…relationship was broken.

But still some kind of relationship with God, tenuous, perhaps, but still there, some kind of relationship remained. So we stood together, singing “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome,” reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, asking for a renewal of that relationship with our heavenly Father. All of us, standing under those trees on a hot August day, were hungry. Wanting to be fed. Asking for renewal of relationship with God, through Jesus, through the sacrament of the Eucharist which reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice and the meal which memorializes it. And the service itself, with its moment when unlikely people wished each other God’s peace, was just such a renewal – not just with God but between human beings, some of whom hadn’t had a kind word or a loving gesture from another person in quite some time. The distribution of bread and grape juice was a tangible reinforcement of those relationships, especially our relationship with our loving God. And God was reaching out to us, by feeding us, to strengthen the relationships.

Because that’s the really beautiful thing – we don’t have to do all the work. Especially when we feel weakest, most hungry, most broken. God reaches out to embrace us in relationship by feeding our bodies and souls, drawing us in, helping us recognize God in ourselves and in those around us.

But once we’ve gotten that gift, we are compelled to turn around and use it, to pass it along to others who need it, too. To take the gift of the bread of life and share the meal.

That doesn’t necessarily mean going to Street Church and handing out sandwiches, although that might be a good thing for you to try.

It doesn’t necessarily mean evangelizing in the office, although working with others in a way that Christ would approve of is definitely better than engaging in office politics or gossip.

It doesn’t necessarily mean giving money to everyone who asks for it, although it is a surprisingly liberating thing to do, according to those saints who’ve tried it.

What it does mean is to know that relationship with God is an active and reactive thing, that it means work on ourselves and with others, and we don’t necessarily get to choose how we live that out.

So here’s the challenge: are you willing to look into the eyes of everyone you meet this week, and look for God in them? Are you willing to be fed and to feed all God’s sons and daughters around you? You may be surprised by the God you find there.


Want to learn more about Street Church? Want to help? Click here .

Friday, August 07, 2009

Sundry Delights

I was summoned to the home of one of my parishioners this morning, with the caveat "don't worry - it isn't a problem" but with no further guidance. So I hied myself westward the 40 or so miles to the land of Saint Middle School, and to the lovely home of said parishioner.

Turns out she had some fabric she wanted to use to make me a stole. Fun, with drawings of children of many ethnicities, talking about peace and love, lots of bright colors. We hope it will be done in time for the "Blessing of the Backpacks" Sunday in a few weeks. She is yet another of the gifted people who are a part of this parish.

I spent much of the rest of the morning completing the PowerPoint for the Adult Forum for Sunday. This is the second week of talking about the relationship between church and state over the course of history - this week we'll be talking about Constantine, who made Christianity a religion sanctioned by the state. After a couple hundred years of persecution and martyrdom, what do you do when belonging to your religion is finally no longer subversive?* Fascinating stuff.

Then another delightful parishioner took me to lunch at a restaurant I hadn't tried before. Delicious, great ambience, wonderful conversation. Just pure pleasure.

And now I'm home on a beautiful afternoon, waiting for PH to have "date night" with me. Blessings abound!

* If you think you have to do something really special to show you are honoring Christ's sacrifice for us, you go into the desert and live as a hermit. The beginning of monasticism...

Thursday, August 06, 2009


I've been working part time for the better part of a year as a research assistant on a project related to congregational conflict. We are now in the phase when we interview individuals in the congregations we are studying.

In an interview last night with someone who has a long history with his church, one of his comments really struck me.

I had asked him what this congregation meant to him, why he stayed after all these years.

He said, "I have witnessed moments that were just breathtaking, a manifestation of people living out their faith. I have looked around on a Sunday morning and I see J, who is struggling as F ages and becomes more ill, I see D, who is at the end of life and who is so supported by the people around her, I see T, who was so embraced and prayed for and welcomed back after he was incarcerated...these people live their faith in such a quiet and solid way. I can't imagine going to another church."

Breathtaking. It's a stunning word, one that we rarely hear used about churches. And it has nothing to do with the liturgy, or the great music, or the physical space.

It has to do with the community.

The light that shines is in the care and the welcome and the lack of judgment and the actions within this community and toward the larger world.

How to build breathtaking community?

I suspect it's about modeled behavior, from the lay and ordained leadership first, then spreading through the whole place.

The person to whom I spoke told of a time when the back-door communication network (read: gossip) drove how the church dealt with its differences. By creating structures of openness and forums in which to share ideas, eventually they overcame the clique-ish conversations that fed difference.

The person also spoke of an ethos of suspending judgment and supporting in love those who were struggling, even as this congregation sought to help each person to grow into the best version of himself or herself.

Choices have been made that are not necessarily about making this the hippest or coolest or most slick church. These choices recognize that each congregation has its own history and identity, and those need to be honored as well. Yes, they'd like to grow, and they are, slowly. But they won't sacrifice who they are and what they are to each other simply to pump up the numbers. Their growth is organic.

Differences are, in fact, celebrated. Everyone doesn't have to share the same likes or dislikes. Different activities feed different parts of this faith family, and no one feels like they must participate in everything...or for that matter, anything beyond Sunday worship.

I'm still chewing on what makes for a breathtaking faith community, but I am more and more convinced that it is not about the externals. It is about what John the Evangelist said in late life, according to Eusebius: "Little children, love one another."

It is about saying that, and meaning it, and living it in community. And when you see it, it is indeed breathtaking.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

What Really Matters

For those days when I need a little reminder of what is truly important, Nina Simone reminds me. TOH to Renita Weems for sharing this video.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Shaking my Head

I just finished filling out the forms for the criminal background check for one of the jobs I'm shortlisted for. Of course, they want to know everything about you including whether you double-parked the night of the prom and whether you forgot to return a library book in 6th grade. One of the forms to be filled out is to authorize a credit check.

I understand this - a priest who is in money trouble could abscond with the collection plate one Sunday or something. Probably couldn't get very far on the cash, but it's a concern.

I can joke about it because we have been meticulous about living within our means and our credit is sterling.

Imagine my dismay, then, when the phone just rang and it was a debt collection agency. "No, not now," I thought - "I don't want to battle a spurious debt while I'm trying to get a background check cleared!"

No, it wasn't for me.

It was for the brother of my ex-husband. I haven't been married to my ex for 15 years. The brother lives on the opposite coast. I haven't seen him since my adult kids were in braces.

"Do you know how to contact him?"

Not likely. Oy.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Invitation To The Dance

The Search Committee from the parish several hours north of here came to Saint Middle School today. Four brave souls who headed south armed only with GPS and address and had to search last night for the hotel in the new development whose streets are not yet on that GPS service...bless them!

They received the usual Saint Middle School love-fest welcome, enjoyed the service, did not fall asleep during the sermon, and participated in the Adult Forum (relationship between church and state from Jesus' time to the present - today's session was about Jesus and the early church). PH and I and the visitors went to lunch for a longer conversation - not a formal agenda, but lots of back and forth - that lasted almost three hours.

I think they like me. I like them. PH felt welcomed as well. Having a husband who is ordained in another denomination means we need to check such things out carefully. I really like their diocese, which is one of the most progressive ones in the nation.

I expect they will ask me to come up there for a visit in the next couple of weeks. I also expect I will go visit the other active prospect, a nonparochial job also out of state, in the next couple of weeks. I have no idea what will happen here, but it felt extraordinarily affirming to have this meeting today and to be shortlisted for the other position.


Some people prepare for this kind of thing by going away on retreat. I do, too, sometimes. this time, though, PH and I went two states north to visit his brother and his family prior to their departure from the country again - they work overseas. Quiet mornings with a cup of coffee, time to read some Scripture and some lighter fare, good conversation with people whom I respect and love, a chance to help out with a couple of tasks that required our attention, good food and wine...and a few ridiculously joyful moments with this:
It is a Marshmallow Blaster - you can shoot marshmallows up to 40 feet with it. to see two people with PhDs from prestigious schools, one a dean, another an ordained pastoral counselor, shoot marshmallows into each others' mouths...well, it was priceless.
And of course, I shot a few marshmallows myself.
Life is good.

Today's Sermon: John 6:24-35 "Bread and Circuses"

A couple of decades ago, in a fit of insanity, I agreed to run for statewide political office. It was a wild ride for someone whose prior political experience had been limited to some fundraising for my favorite congresswoman, and some advocacy work for women-owned small businesses. The state in question was Rhode Island, the smallest state in the union, where politics is conducted at the retail level. You go to parades and shake hands, you go to Rotary meetings and speak, and you go door-to-door to meet folks and ask for their vote. I knew that part of the fabric of the political process was to go to the high-rise senior housing projects in the northern part of the state that were home to elderly French-Canadian immigrants…those housing projects had been a pork barrel project of a former congressman who, in the fine tradition of Rhode Island politics, went to jail for corruption.

Rhode Island politics – you gotta love it.

I knew I had to go to these projects and present myself to the senior citizens, wonderful folks who had worked in the mills, until the mills went away. And I thought I’d do well, since I spoke some French, as many of these folks did. But I decided to check in with one of the grand old men of Rhode Island politics to check out what the protocols were for these visits. “Doughnuts!” he barked at me. “Doughnuts! You gotta bring a few boxes of doughnuts, and some cans of coffee as well. They will not listen to you if you do not bring the doughnuts.” So I hit Dunkin Donuts before my first foray into the wilds of the Pawtucket Section 8 housing…five dozen assorted, heavy on the chocolate frosted….and I was glad I did, because the forty or so residents of the first building would not have paid the least bit of attention to me if I had not brought the doughnuts. When they first wandered into the room, in fact, the very first thing they did was look over to where the refreshment table was to be sure I had brought the goodies. They nodded, a few of them headed over to the table to grab two glazed to keep them properly fueled for a political conversation, and we began. I do not know how many votes I earned that day, but I do know that if I had not brought the doughnuts, I would have lost them all. Now, for them, in the moment, it might have been about the doughnuts, but for me, what I was hoping was that they would hear my message, about a whole lot more than just a box of pastries.

Food and politics….it’s an old combination. Back in the 1st Century, the Roman poet and satirist Juvenal wrote about the habit of the politicians to give out food to keep the people under control. He talked about the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a means of gaining political power through populism. “We used to sell our vote to no man, but now we have abdicated our duties. The populace who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now holds back in their participation in public life and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”[1]

“Bread and circuses,” a cheap way to get the favor of the people…it was no compliment. Juvenal wrote that at about the same time that the Gospel of John was written, interestingly. “Bread and circuses.” It was a practice that continued into more modern times – in the 19th Century, the Spanish called it “pan y toros” – bread and bullfights…the same idea. Keep the people fed and amused, and you can control them. Today we get doughnuts and parades and YouTube…the same rules seem to apply.

Our Gospel story today follows the story of the feeding of the 5000 in the Gospel of John, and it seems some of the people who were at that event have now followed him across the lake to Capernaum. Jesus asks them why they came. Are they just looking for a little more food? A few more miracles? He wants to make sure that they realize that his time with them, healing and teaching and feeding, is not simply bread and circuses…those events across the lake were another thing entirely. A whole lot more than mere loaves and fishes. He wants to be sure that they don’t mistake him for a politician trying to gain their favor with a free lunch, or a magician doing tricks…he wants them to understand that it is about something else entirely. And he explains it in a very interesting way. He starts off by telling them that if they are looking for some food, they are focused on the wrong thing. If they think Jesus is just about the free lunch, they are mistaken. They have work to do, to earn a different kind of food, the food of God. Well, this just gets them confused…after all, they say, God gave the people of Israel food before, right? Manna? When they were wandering in the desert? Is it not alright to look to God for food? So Jesus tells them again…God did give them bread, but there is even greater sustenance that comes from God. “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Jesus tells them to think big. These are hungry people, but they are hungry for things they may not even realize yet…their hunger is deeper than manna could fill. How could they not ask the question: “How do we get this bread?” Think about it: if all they really wanted was the bread and the fish, there are probably easier ways for them to get it than following Jesus across the lake. No, even if they cannot articulate what they think is going on in their hearts and souls, they sense there is something in this man, this Jesus, that they need. Perhaps they do not know yet who he is, but they want something of what he is. So they make the journey across the lake to him, and they engage him in conversation, not even knowing what they are asking for…and he responds with a remarkable and cryptic statement: Jesus says “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

“I am the bread of life.” A powerful claim, and a hidden manifesto. In Greek it’s ego eimi…I, I myself. A literal translation of the Greek would be “I, I myself, am the bread of life.” A great big underline under the word “I.” Imagine someone pointing at his own chest and widening his eyes as he says “I…I’m the one, I myself, am the bread of life.” There’s that much emphasis in the phrase. And it’s a clue to the people who would have heard that gospel passage in John’s community…because that phrase “ego eimi,” that “I, I myself” recalls a much earlier self-identification, all the way back in Exodus 3:14. Moses is standing in front of the burning bush, having a conversation with God. Moses says, “if I go down and tell the people who has said I’m in charge now, who should I say you are? What’s your name?” And God says, “I am who I am.” I am I myself. And the translation of that phrase from Hebrew into the Greek of John’s day is what? Ego eimi. So when Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” he’s saying, “I am God who is the bread of life.” He’s telling them he is not a politician or a magician…he’s God come down to them to give them more than just some bread and fish. He is not offering them bread and circuses. No, he offers them something that will fill them more than food. Something permanent, something that will give them eternal life. Not bread and circuses, but that which endures beyond time. And here’s the promise and the challenge for us as well. What kind of bread are we asking for when we pray? Doughnuts or the bread of life?

Sometimes I think of my past life in banking. Small business owners often came in asking for a loan for their enterprise. They’d have carefully calculated the absolute smallest amount they possible could to keep the business going, or to buy that one piece of equipment…they’d walk into the meeting with a request for $15,000, and worry that it was too much. They’d be shocked to think what was going through the banker’s mind; “Why is this woman only asking for $15K? Outside of the fact that I’m not going to make any money on a transaction that small, she could grow so much faster, and with fewer cash flow crunches, if she asked for a larger amount. With her sales, her business could easily support a $100K loan, and it would mean she could hire two more people and expand her product line and increase her sales.” The business owner was asking for doughnuts, when what she needed, and what the banker wanted to give her, was a much more substantial meal, a banquet. Granted, talking about small business banking these days might make us all laugh…but there is a wisdom there. Dreaming of a banquet instead of doughnuts may not be greedy, if it yields something more lasting, healthier, stronger. So why just ask Jesus for the little things, the doughnuts, when he can offer you so much more?

Why not pray for the bread of life, the promise of eternal salvation, when we will never be hungry or thirsty again? The fact is that Jesus does not want to give us bread and circuses, he wants to be our bread of life. Do not sell yourself short. Do not sell Jesus and his generosity short. In a few minutes, as we bless the bread and wine in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, we will hear those words again:

Sanctify [this bread and wine] by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.

Remember Jesus’ words: Ask big, pray big, and know that he is there for us. Amen.

[1] Paraphrase, Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81