Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, August 26, 2012 John 6: 56-69 “Metaforo!”

Sick of talking about Bread yet? Yup, me, too. But our Gospel passage once again has Jesus talking about how he is the Wonder Bread to end all Wonder Breads, so we can’t totally ignore it.

Yup, I’m tired of thinking about and talking about the bread thing. But the comforting thing to me in today’s reading is this: the disciples are sitting there saying “We don’t get it. This is hard. How are we supposed to figure this teaching out, much less explain it to others?”

If the disciples, who were right there when Jesus was saying these things, don’t understand it, then maybe I am not such a dope after all…maybe it is just plain hard, despite Jesus’ attempt to get us all to understand by saying he is the bread of life. It’s a metaphor, designed to help us understand some very complex theological stuff. A metaphor that places him as the source of all sustenance and connectedness to our Creator. A metaphor that starts to help us sort it out. Unfortunately, we, like the disciples, aren’t all the way there yet in figuring it out.

A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that describes a something by saying that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object…like saying a politician is a hawk, or a barbecued slab of ribs is heaven in your mouth…or Jesus is bread for us to consume.

Sometimes metaphors are a struggle for us, as Jesus’ disciples discovered. Sometimes they can be helpful.

Fifteen years ago, Roberto Benigni’s film “Life Is Beautiful” showed a man who dealt with his life as a series of metaphors, metaphors that helped explain the riddles of life. When something happened that challenged him and his wife and child, Guido would joyfully cry out “Metaforo!” “It’s a metaphor!” and proceed to translate the riddle of the thing that was happening into a story about what was good. The most complicated riddles that Guido faced were about Italy in the time of Nazism and how he and his family, Italian Jews, were being taken to concentration camps. He used metaphors to translate the horrific things around him and his family into something different, something more joyful. He worked to protect his child, in particular, from what they were facing, by recasting it as a metaphor for something positive. Protecting his son from the vile truth, Guido told his son Giosué that they were just on a big holiday, and he turned the camp into a game for Giosué, claiming that they must win 1000 points to win a real tank and leave. Guido said he must complete "tasks" for the camp "moderators"  (the Nazi SS), while avoiding  impending fate with everything he could offer. At one point, a German officer required a translator. Despite not speaking a word of German, Guido stepped forward and made up the "Regole del Campo" from the German's body language, claiming that tanks, soldiers and such, in fact everything that could be seen in the camp, were part of a giant game of Hide and Seek. Guido said that  Giosué could not cry, ask for his mother or declare he was hungry, because that would cause him to lose the "game", in other words, death. Guido had crafted a story to explain what was happening in the form of a metaphor – this thing that was happening was all a game. In the end, as the camp was liberated and the tanks rolled in to the awful place to free those who were left, the little boy looked up, wide-eyed, and whispered that word that his father had used to protect him: “Metaforo! E vero!”

The metaphor that addressed the riddle of who Jesus was and why people should believe in him was as complicated in its way as the one that addressed the riddle of why good people should be taken to a concentration camp and put to death simply because of their religion. Literal folks could see Jesus as a teacher and healer and possibly God’s anointed one, but could not understand that what he was giving them was spiritual life, not the overcoming of oppression. Literal folks could see the barbed wire and the guards and smell the odor from the gas chambers and identify the camp as a place where evil people killed innocents, not as a game that could be played to survive and actually laugh even as the threat of death hung heavy.

Literal people could not embrace the gift of the metaphor. But it is a gift, and a beautiful one, because metaphor is about possibility, isn’t it? Seeing things differently. Wrapping our minds around something big and complex and difficult so that we can grow in new ways. And that is a hard step for us to take. It was hard for the ordinary people who came to hear Jesus, and in some ways equally hard for the disciples to do, since they had their own view of who they wanted Jesus to be. It was hard for others in the concentration camp to embrace Guido’s metaforo, and they saw Guido as a buffoon, a crazy fool.

But in both stories, who survived? The disciples who embraced the difficult metaphor, knowing that they could not sort it out completely. The child who joyfully accepted his father’s metaphor, despite what was happening around him. A metaphor can carry us to places our minds cannot.

We need tools like metaphors to get us through the difficult stuff, even when they don’t completely resolve the riddles. And so we get another metaphor in today’s readings. Take a look at the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

He encourages the disciples at Ephesus, who were facing the hard work of trying to share what they had learned about Jesus and the Gospel with others. He says “Put on the armor of God… fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

Another metaphor. If we are frightened, if we feel unable to carry on, if we feel that everyone is going to attack us for doing what God wants us to do, we simply strap on the full armor of God.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear that phrase from Ephesians, I think about a saying that became popular among women my age a few years back. If you’re faced with a challenge, put on your Big Girl Panties and deal with it.  Big Girl Panties -  yet another metaphor, akin to that Old Testament phrase “gird your loins.”  Toughen up. Put on what you need to put on.

A friend of mine has a serious chronic illness, one which weakens her very easily. She is retired now, but for a while, she tried to keep on working and found that it was important for her to put on full makeup every morning. Part of that was to mask her paleness and dark circles under her eyes, but another part was putting on her armor to go and do battle…like anther metaphor, putting on your war paint.

And the thing that ties two very different metaphors together – “I am the bread of life” and “put on the whole armor of God” – is not so much a theology of who God is as it is a theology of what God expects us to do.

Take it as a given that we do not fully understand God. God is awesome, and we probably don’t even have all the words we need to describe God, much less understand God. Jesus gives us metaphors to try to help, but in the end, we are still left with an imperfect understanding, and even Jesus knows this. Remember how he says elsewhere in the Gospel of John: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (Jn 16:12)

So the disciples, those who haven’t said, “enough of this mishegoss!” say, “okay, we’re here, we believe in you. We may not understand everything, but we believe.” And they do what?

They get up and go out and start doing things consistent with what Jesus wants them to do.

In other words, despite the fact that the metaphor of the bread didn’t explain it all to them, they say that they believe and then they put on their Big Boy Togas, their armor of God, and go and do the work. What does Paul say? “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

And in doing so, they understand better than any words, any metaphors, who Jesus is and what they are supposed to do. It is the doing that finally takes us to the next level of understanding.

We are people of words. We like to be able to articulate what we understand. We use all the tools at our disposal, like metaphors, to explain things. But in the end, there is belief and there is action in response to that belief.

We may not understand everything about God – I’ve got many questions for our Creator when I get to heaven – and our attempts to try and use language to make God understandable may be imperfect, but the time comes when I – and you – are expected to put on the armor of God and show what God means to us. If we try and wait for the perfect metaphor to explain it all, nothing will get done. That’s just procrastinating.  Whatever thing we do when we put on that armor and share God through our lives and our actions, that is when we will really begin to understand our relationship with the One who created us. God loves us and guards and guides us through the riddles of life. We don’t need a metaphor for that.   


Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Clean-Up

Friday is my day off. This translates into Friday being the day that I tend to all the things that didn't get done during the busy work week. Often, this is also cleaning day chez Mibi.

This is a necessary thing today, since I haven't really cleaned since the gathering of the tribe for my birthday two weekends ago. Some signs of this lack of domestic diligence: the jigsaw puzzle is still unfinished - I moved it from the kitchen table to the living room coffee table, but it sits there on the table reproaching me. At least I should just put the whole danged thing back in the box. Another sign of domestic discombobulation: dust bunnies from the dining room rug, which continues to shred months after we acquired it; piles of laundry, clean but not put away, in the blue bedroom; rings on the countertop that are only visible in certain lights, so that gives me an excuse to ignore them.

So I will spend an hour or so putting things back in order, washing floors and scrubbing the bathrooms, tossing things that need tossing, filing things that need filing.

I used to be more diligent about it - I had happened upon the FlyLady website and discovered that housework was manageable, after a fashion. I've been sloppy about following the system since coming to the Capitol of the Confederacy - life got in the way or something. But the thing about her approach is that it is all done in small bites throughout the week, with an hour on your major cleaning day. I think I can return to that.

The alternative is getting a cleaning service. In the past (when I made much more money than I do as a priest), I had such a service. But what I discovered was that the night before the ladies came, I spent an hour straightening up and putting away, so the cleaning ladies could do their work efficiently. If I could find that hour to do that, it made no sense not to spend the hour in a more focused way, cleaning things.

Today will also be a day to do some work on my first assignment for my Doctor of Ministry (DMin) class, transcribing a meeting with some parishioners about an issue at church. An hour and a half of five people talking over each other, laughing, brainstorming, praying. It will be a delight, but translating it from audio to transcript is dogsbody work.

I'll be doing some additional writing on that project while PH and I are away for a few days of may be the only uninterrupted time at my disposal, so I will use it gratefully. I may even try to do some writing in the car on the tablet computer, if my stomach will cooperate.

...ah, yes...vacation. We went to Ireland for a week in July. It was beautiful, mind-bending, surprising, glorious, but it was not restful. So this coming week is about rest. We will spend a goodly amount of time in the car (got a fun book-on-tape for spaces in between conversation and quiet with PH). We will visit with my brother- and sister-in-law at their new digs in upstate New York (wayyyyy upstate: closer to Ottawa than to Albany) and meander around that part of the world. We will drive over to see StoneMason and his fiance for dinner in Burlington, perhaps stop off at the lake cabin of friends, then drive home. No drama, no stress, just quiet and happy times.

It's another sort of housecleaning, I would say. A housecleaning of the mind and the soul. Dusting out the remnants of worry about a whole bunch of things and letting the sunshine and breeze blow through.

Will the house get completely spic-and-span today? Probably not. It will look and smell better, though, and that's a good thing. Will all the things that are piled up in my head (who needs a pastoral visit, who is going to do such-and-such at church, what does that person want to have a private meeting about, when will I find time to do the DMin reading and writing....etc.) be tossed into a psychic dustbin, never to return again? No, nor should they, but they should not take up more space than they deserve.

Housecleaning is a good thing for the house and for me - it is finite and satisfying. Housecleaning of the soul is not quite as finite but even more satisfying in its way.

Hoping that some breezes sweep through today and next week!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, August 19, 2012 John 6:51-58 "Inwardly Digest"

Perhaps you thought you were done with the whole “I am the bread of life” thing, after a couple of sermons on that curious phrase.


Jesus is once again using this language in today’s passage from the Gospel of John. He said it before, several times, in fact, in hopes that the people to whom he was speaking would grab that metaphor and finally understand what he was trying to explain to them. He thought that talking about that most basic and necessary of foods, bread, would give them an idea of how knowing and believing in him as the Son of God would feed their souls and repair their broken relationship with their Creator.

But they didn’t quite understand, and in their confusion they began to get as frustrated as he seemed to be, and began to push him away. To them, what he said made no sense. Was he offering his own body as food? This was anathema to the Jews, for whom laws about food purity were very complicated and strict. Human flesh was not kosher.

So they knew that cannibalism could not possibly be what he was offering. What could he mean?

Remember how we talked last week about what their hopes and expectations were? How they wanted a king who would conquer the Roman oppressors? And how they thought this Jesus, who could do such amazing miracles and who talked so powerfully about a Creator who loved them and who sent him to teach them about the Creator?

It was hard for them to imagine such a benevolent Creator, given how difficult their lives were. Some of them may have remained faithful. Some of them may have felt that God had abandoned them. And now, once again their hopes were teetering on the edge of being dashed because this Jesus, this son of Joseph down the block, was talking all this crazy talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

What were they to do with this? What are WE to do with this?

Let’s hear that phrase that is so problematic with a different emphasis: “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 the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats THIS bread will live forever."

He was pointing them at the fact that what he was presenting to them was very, very different from the bread with which they were familiar. It was not bread from their kitchen. It was not even the manna which God had given the people of Israel as they wandered in the desert. And when Jesus was talking about offering them himelf as the bread of life through his flesh and his blood, he was saying that his flesh and his blood was something very different. In the words of Martin Luther, it was the word “my” that defined what the word “flesh” meant, not the other way around. “My flesh” - flesh that was Jesus’ flesh was unlike any other kind of flesh, either human or animal. “My blood” – blood that was Jesus’ blood was unlike any other kind of blood. It was something extraordinarily different. In telling them in John’s story that he was giving them his flesh and blood to consume, he was challenging them to see how utterly different he was from anyone and anything they had ever experienced. So consuming him was not cannibalism, it was taking something into themselves so that they could finally figure out who he was and what he was there for.

They were to take him into themselves, to use the words of one of my favorite prayers, to inwardly digest him to feel that ineffable connection with the Divine Spirit.

And isn’t this what we hope for when we come to the communion rail each Sunday, to eat that flesh and drink that blood in the form of bread and wine, seeking an ineffable connection with our God? The priest and author Lauren Winner in her recent book “Still: Nots on a MidLife Faith Crisis,” talks about a moment at the altar rail in a small church in upstate New York.

At the Eucharist, serving as a chalice bearer, she follows along behind the priest, offering the cup of wine to parishioner after parishioner. “Some clasp the cup and guzzle with what looks like relish; some are daintier, more polite, as though handling fine crystal,” and some practice intinction, dipping the wafer into the wine and then consuming “the crimsoned host.” Later, talking with the priest, she learns something about those who came to kneel—particularly about an elderly couple who seemed “fragile as mushrooms.” She learns “he has been afflicted by a wasting disease, an intestinal disease that makes it almost impossible for him to eat—he lives on Ensure and lemonade.” Before, she had only observed that the elderly man and his wife each took a wafer when they were offered them. The wife proceeded to dip hers into the chalice and then eat it. The husband likewise dipped his in, but then handed the round of Christ’s Body to his wife, who ate it for him. Winner writes: “There at the Communion rail, I don’t yet know what illness lies behind this gesture, I know only the couple’s hands and mouths, and that I am seeing one flesh. I have read about this, heard sermons about a man and a woman becoming one flesh; and here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion.”

Like the elderly couple in Winner’s story, we all come to the rail seeking a connection with God. We pray, we argue with God, we turn our backs on him sometimes, and yet we somehow find the courage to wander back up the aisle, up to the rail, needing to be fed, needing to feel the connection, needing some food that we can feel in our bellies as well as our souls. Our bodies may fail. Our abilities to digest that which Jesus offers us may be compromised, but our desire for it does not lessen. This is Jesus’ message, what he feels compelled to say when he repeats that phrase “I am the bread of life,” until we are sick of hearing it. There is one sure way to know him, to feel him so deeply a part of us that his love radiates in every cell of our being. This is what we seek when we come to the rail, in all our imperfection and human brokenness, to take in a piece of perfection that in turn perfects us.

Come to the altar rail. Take the bread and wine, his body and blood, that he offers us as the ultimate gift. Accept it, digest it as well as you can. Know that there is no gift more precious, no food more nourishing than God’s love, and that the sustenance we receive from it lasts beyond any meal we could eat. Eat his flesh. Drink his blood. Be fed and be saved.  


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saturday, Bloody Saturday

A couple of weeks ago we got a letter from Our Friends at the IRS. It seems they were a bit surprised that two clergypeople would actually give something around the Biblical tithe to charity, and that one middle-aged woman could actually have medical conditions that required fairly expensive meds. And then they realized that one of the clergypersons is self-employed, and thus has to pick up the tab for continuing ed, conferences, books, office supplies, and dues to professional organizations himself. Made 'em nervous, I guess.

So the letter arrived, asking for all sorts of documentation to justify the deductions. I procrastinated for two weeks so I could enjoy my birthday in peace (more on that later).

Here's part of  the challenge: some stuff is on auto-bank draft, and there is nothing akin to a cancelled check to show. Print off the bank statements, yes, but it doesn't say to whom the EFT is going. Another part of the challenge is that we don't receive cancelled checks anymore, and we can only get the images online for the past six months, and this request is for 2011 documents.

Still, it was a day of sorting through the files to assemble the proof that they want. Took something like six hours to get all the files in order the way I wanted. Now I have to make photocopies of the receipts and such - maybe 100 pages or so. That's a lot of trees to kill, folks.

I thought about what would happen if they disallowed the deductions. It would hurt us - probably mean another couple of grand to the government - but we would survive. But when I think of the amount of time it will take them to sort through what I am about to send, and the people-cost of that time, it just doesn't seem like a wise return on investment on the government's part.

Or that might just be me whining about spending a Saturday - a rare Saturday-off kind of Saturday - covering my dining room table with all our financial records, a laptop, a tablet computer, and a large cup of coffee, to do something that just seems a little ridiculous to me.

(hoping the IRS doesn't read this and take offense, penalizing me even more than a day of busy-work)

Grumbling, but better now that it is done, for the moment.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Random Dots

  • I have a new laptop. It replaces the one which I dropped on its corner, the one which got me through seminary and the subsequent work. That old laptop paid for itself, having lasted six years, and it was time for it to be replaced anyway. I love the new laptop, but I am having a bear of a time getting files off of the external hard drive which I used for backup. Since the old laptop was well and truly broken when it dropped, we cannot retrieve stuff from the internal hard drive on it. Theoretically, I should be able to restore files from the external backup drive. Practically, it is not working. The files appear to move to the designated folder I've created for them on my laptop, but when I look for them, they cannot be found. So I will break down and go to the Geek Squad guys this afternoon and see what they can do to reveal my stuff and move it over. I have already spent way too much time trying to resolve this myself.
  •  We have another slew of pastoral care stuff happening. The brief respite was a blessing - I was able to get through my vacation and the family visit for my birthday without feeling like I was not attending to parishioners' needs. But now it starts again, just in time for the start of the program year with all the things that it entails. Prayers, please, for a parishioner who just received a difficult diagnosis and for his family as they adjust to what will be a long hard slog.
  • Yesterday was full of special conversations. One was an elderly parishioner who was sharing her complicated life story and asking interesting questions. Another was a lunch with a musician friend who is always full of fascinating ideas. Yet another was iftar (breaking the day's Ramadan fast) with our friends of the Muslim Coalition. There were as many Christians and Jews there as Muslims. Delicious food, rich conversations, ideas for new ways we can continue to work together for the betterment of the greater Richmond community. 
  • Our diaconal candidate has come up with a wonderful way to reach out to our neighborhood and invite new folks to join us for some casual conversation and relaxation in a non-intimidating way. We should start this in late September. It feels like the right thing to try. We are growing - three new people last Sunday alone - but we know there are folks who would benefit from being a part of our parish family, and we would benefit form their presence. This may be a first step.
  • The never-ending saga of what is wrong with my hands may be (slowly) coming to an end. The hand doc, whose first name is encouraging (Joy! really, that is his name), is leaning towards carpal tunnel syndrome as a diagnosis, which is a manageable thing to deal with. The EMG test was inconclusive, but he decided to go ahead with a cortisone shot. This would be both diagnostic (if it fixes the pain and other symptoms, it really was carpal tunnel) and therapeutic (if it fixes the pain, I'll be very happy). I'm cautiously optimistic.

Doug and I are hoping to go to the Maharajah exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts this evening, since this is the last weekend. A little bit of meandering around a different culture, and it may inspire us to go have Indian food for dinner!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, August 12, 2012 John 6:35,41-51 “You Get What You Need”

You may have heard that it’s my birthday. As usual, some members of the family have asked me the most difficult question in the world: “what do you want for your birthday?

Well, gee, what do I want? To be taller, skinnier, less gray-haired…

What do I want? To hit the PowerBall, to get a new car, to own an apartment in Venice, to have an unlimited supply of dark chocolate….

Rationally, I know none of that is going to happen. I may want those things, but they are unlikely, and in fact they are truly not things that I need.

We have lots of wants, don’t we? But “want” is different than “need.”

And maybe we spend too much time thinking about our wants and not enough thinking about what we really need.

That is the case in today’s Gospel.

Remember where we are in the Gospel of John. Jesus has miraculously fed five thousand people with just a couple of loaves of bread and two fishes. Then he has crossed the Sea of Galilee, and they have followed him. He has accused them of following him simply to get more of the magic bread, when they have missed the point. The bread they truly need is the sustenance that he can offer if they believe in him and in his heavenly father. He is the bread they need.

Today, once again, he says, “I am the bread of life.”

And once again, they don’t get it. He is promising them eternal life, eternal sustenance, and they don’t buy it.

Let’s imagine we are these local folks, people who have lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire for several generations. Life is hard. We have been taxed until we have nothing left. We know we are God’s chosen people, but it sure doesn’t feel special. We are the bottom rung of the political ladder. We know we’ve been promised someone sent from God to save us.

And we hear about Jesus and what he can do (Miracles! Healings! Great preaching!) and we wonder if he is the promised one who is going to make our lives different. Someone who can lead us in conquering the Roman overlords.  So we go to hear him preach and teach, and in the midst of his powerful preaching and healing, he feeds us with the most marvelous bread and fish, even though there was hardly any bread and fish to be had. A miracle, to be sure. He must be the promised one!

But then he slips away, across the water, and we follow him, but he seems annoyed with us. “You’re just here for the meal, but you’re ignoring what I have to offer that will really keep you going.”

And then we get aggravated. Who does he think he is? Isn’t he just that guy who was the son of the carpenter, that Joseph? What makes him think he is so special?

We don’t need any arrogant kid from the neighborhood, we want someone who will be our king, a powerful conqueror who will take the nation of Israel and make it the most feared and mighty nation on earth. No more Roman taxes. No more being treated as second class citizens. No more Roman soldiers being garrisoned in our towns and taking all the good food, so that we have barely enough bread to feed the children.

No, Jesus cannot be the promised one, despite that little trick with the bread and the fishes. He’s just a neighbor’s kid, not a conqueror. Bread of heaven? We think not. He is not what we want.

But as the old Rolling Stones song says, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

Those people who dismissed Jesus as a magic trickster, a riddle-maker whom they could not understand were so focused on what they wanted – a conquering king – that they missed that he was in fact what they really needed.

They wanted a king, but what they needed was someone who would repair their broken relationship with their God, who would feed them and sustain them and give them eternal life. Not just bread and circuses to distract them, as their Roman overlords did, but real and eternal sustenance.

And eternal life doesn’t look like earthly political or military victory. It means that we continue to live in an imperfect world, where we don’t always get the things we want. Yes, it is a beautiful world that our Creator has given us, but it is not a perfect world. That perfection, that sense of complete satisfaction, is a mark of eternal life, not of what we experience in the here and now. It is the bread that is more than what we make sandwiches with – it is the sustenance that lasts more than a meal, more than a lifetime.

That is the difficult, confusing lesson that Jesus is trying to teach here. That is why, in John’s version of the story, Jesus keeps saying over and over again “I am the bread of life.” Because with this humble metaphor, he is trying to get the people who are stuck in a sea of wants to look at what they really need. Not a meal. Not a conquering king. No, what they need is what really endures forever. And they can get it simply by believing that they are the beloved of the one who created them. And the one who created them will make sure that they always get what they truly need.

What do you want? What do you need?

For my birthday, I might have listed all the wants I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. The chocolate, the money, the weight loss…all silly, meaningless wants.

But what do I really need? Just like the miracle of loaves and fishes, I have gotten what I really need: my family around me, celebrating our love for each other, my work in this place that means so much to me, my creator who names me beloved and gives me what I truly need. That is what endures. That is my bread of life. Not wants hoped for, wants that do not truly satisfy, but the needs that matter and last.

Thanks be to God who gives us the bread of life, the sustenance that never fails, the promise of eternal life. Thanks be to God who doesn’t always give us what we want, but most certainly gives us what we need.                    


Picture of my birthday cake from Jean-Jacques Bakery in Carytown, Richmond, VA. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Length of Days

Yesterday was a long day. It was supposed to be a relatively light one, with office work, the book group, and then a break before Vacation Bible School.

But an elderly parent of a parishioner was taken seriously ill, so I went off to the hospital to visit, pray, comfort, anoint, and listen to stories. This kind of work is always holy ground, and I love it, but it's intense.

So what was supposed to be a gently work day with two four-hour blocks of activity turned into a twelve hour one.

Not complaining, mind you. I love this work (yes, Mary, say it a few more times like you really didn't mind the long day) and I am glad that I can be helpful. But it was still a long day, made longer because I started a little house project later than I should have, not getting down from the ladder until 11 pm. Foolish me, but it looked good when I was done.

It was quite dark when I went upstairs. No stars to be seen because of the overcast, just a mix of navy and charcoal in the night sky.

So very different from Ireland, where the sun set at 11 pm. We hiked the first night until 10 pm with no problem - the light only started to fade a bit when we got to the road.

And it rose in the morning at about 5:30 am, so the days were long.

We humanoids (to use John O'Donohue's delightful and scripturally accurate word) like to try to tame time by creating systems to measure it. Time, however, defies us and this silliness. Thus we end up with places with very long days or very long nights, seasons when the shift in "official" numerical time is nothing but torment for our circadian rhythms, days when eighteen hours of light is insufficient for the joys that fill them, nights when sixteen hours of dark is a painful neverending abyss.

We do not get to choose the measure of time, as my elderly parishioners often remind me. It evades our attempts to regulate it. As I get older, I sleep less at night, require naps in the afternoon, and wish the days wouldn't go by so quickly. Sometimes I wish the nights weren't so long. I have, however, given up on trying to control it. I simply am grateful for the time, however it is measured, and the glimmers of joy therein.

Into the prayer pool...

In a few minutes, I will go into the sanctuary and preside at our weekly Celtic Eucharist with healing prayers and anointing. I love this service, because of the informality and intimacy and the beauty of the prayers we offer. After folks receive communion, they may remain at the rail if they want to be anointed with healing oil and have a prayer offered for themselves or someone else in need of healing grace.

Some people might find it all a bit too like magic, but the power of touch to heal and comfort is something that has been known (and scientifically documented) for some time. It works for me, and for the people who attend this service, but I understand YMMV.

I often feel like I am entering into a wading pool when I offer such prayers, a pool of warmth and grace.

So today I invite you to join me in the pool. I'm praying for J, who just lost a dear animal companion who was her closest friend, for W, who is elderly and brilliant but appears to be losing his connection with the world around him, for B, who is in crisis in his ministry, for A, who is having a difficult recovery from surgery, and for M, who is, in the words of her granddaughter, in the departure lounge waiting her flight to God.

Who are you praying for today? Come into the pool - the water's fine.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, August 5, 2012 John 6:24-35 “Health Food”

Over the next few weeks, we will hear Jesus say “I am the bread of life” several times. It is enough to make someone following a low-carb diet  despair! But all this repetition raises the question: why does Jesus keep saying this? What is imbedded in that curious message that it is necessary for it to be repeated so that we do not forget?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the idea of bread.

Bread is a basic food – it has been around in one form or another for almost 10,000 years. It spans cultures – there are breads in India (naan) and in Norway (lefse) and in Ethiopia (injera). It was talked about by poets in ancient Rome and Greece, and continues to be a topic of cookbooks – Amazon sells almost a thousand cookbooks on bread alone.

Why? It is a cheap, relatively easy food that provides sustenance. Even the poorest people have some access to the basic materials, and making it, once the grain is ground, can be as simple as mixing flour with water and yeast, either wild yeasts in the air or prepared yeast, allowing it to rise, and baking it.

The ancient Israelites knew about it – the story of the escape from Egypt, when the Israelites fled so quickly that there wasn’t time for the bread to rise, is a familiar one. So, too, when those same Israelites were wandering in the desert nearly starving to death, God responded to their hunger and complaints by raining down manna from heaven. When they were hungry, God didn’t send them pomegranates or garlic or Nile perch, he sent them bread. Bread from heaven, the bread of the angels, as the Psalmist says. When people are hungry, when they need to fill their bellies and feel satisfied, they want bread.

Now all of this sounds sort of academic and formal and, if you are a Bible reader, vaguely theological. But our experience of bread isn’t academic or formal or theological, it is visceral. When you smell a loaf of bread baking in the oven, you don’t think about Moses and manna, or the feeding of the 5000, you think, “I want some of that wonderful-smelling bread!”

Doug and I had that visceral experience when we were in Ireland. Each morning at about 7:45 there was a knock on the door. Owen or Moley or Van or Padraig would come in with a freshly baked loaf of Irish brown bread, or freshly baked croissants. The aroma was luscious. Put a little of the Kerrygold butter on it, a bit of strawberry preserves, and it is heaven on earth.

It didn’t take more than a day for us to become like Pavlov’s dogs, mouths watering at that knock on the door. Here came that beautiful loaf of bread, one for each cottage. Here’s the remarkable thing – there was just enough for each of the five of us, assuming we wouldn’t be greedy.

Pure gift, that bread. A gift of hospitality, like offering someone who is working in your yard a glass of cold water. Like sharing a birthday cake, or a box of chocolates, but extra special because bread fills our bellies in ways that other foods cannot.

We cherished the bread, and we loved the generosity of our hosts bringing it to our very kitchen table each morning. We didn’t have to do a thing. It just arrived. We didn’t have to earn it. It was given out of a hospitable love, and was gratefully received.

Now we understand the power of bread in the story of the Irish cottage and the warm bread each morning. But what does it mean when we think about bread in the context of today’s gospel? What does it mean when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life?”

Jesus was responding to the delighted joy of the people who had witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. They had eaten their fill, even though there had been only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. But they had come to him before that miracle hungry for something else, something that they did not find in their synagogues, something that they did not feel in their relationship with God. They needed sustenance that fed their souls.

Jesus, however, was the ultimate pragmatist. As he always did, he attended to their physical needs as well as their spiritual ones. There had been enough bread and fish to give everyone full bellies, with leftovers gathered afterwards.  Yes, he taught them, but he also gave them the bread that would allow them to digest his message.

And then he walked away from them, knowing that they would seek him out, to ask for more.

And that is when he said he had more bread for them, but it was not the bread that had filled their bellies, that transitory bread, as evanescent as manna, as temporary as a snack. No, he explained. He was there among them not only to give them the bread that filled their stomachs, but to give them bread from the heavenly Father, bread that would fill their souls.

Predictably, they said, “Give us some of this marvelous bread.”

And he said, “I am the bread, the bread that gives you eternal life.”

Do you think they understood what he said? Did they think literally, guessing “is this some sort of weird cannibal thing?” Did they wonder if this was Jesus’ way of avoiding making more of that tasty magical bread they had eaten?

Or did they stop and realize the true nature of their hunger…a desire to be filled not just in their tummies but in their hearts and souls? Did they sense that the very reason that they had come to hear what Jesus had to say, all five thousand plus of them, was because there was a hole, a big empty hole, at the core of them that needed to be filled? Did they hope that this was the man who could fill that hole?

Yes, it was a miracle, this moment. They had been fed in a way that left them fully physically satisfied. No more growling bellies that day, this was certain. But they had also been fed a soul-food of the most satisfying kind. Unlike manna in the desert, this bread would not turn to dust at nightfall, needing to be replenished every morning. This would not be a slice of airy white Wonder bread with little in the way of lasting sustenance.

No, this was like that Irish brown bread, warm from the oven, fragrant with health and goodness. It was enough to feed everyone in the place, and then some.  It would sustain them, and us, through the length of days. It would fill them and us with good things. And that deep and health-filled sustenance would last in a way that would keep us all from hunger forever.