Saturday, August 25, 2012

13 Pentecost Yr B

My nephew and I are often exchanging books to read, we share the same interest in fantasy and science fiction, he’s an English major like me. The most recent recommendation he made was a book tilted The Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin. I went to the used book site I buy books from on the Internet, and learned that this was the first in a series of four books, so I bought them all. As they came I realized that each book was 900 pages long, plenty of summer reading I figured. It's also been made into an HBO series. This is an epic story of Kings and Queens, Knights and courts and battles. Well of course the knights and the warriors don their battle armor, so I’ve actually been thinking about this image of armor and battle for quite a while now. In the fantasy stories there seems to be much romance in knights doing battle. The armor these particular knights put on shows their status, the armor is inlaid with gems, it shows who they are, the house they belong too has a symbol that is represented in the armor, and it shows their allegiance, the king they serve. Putting on this amazing armor however also means they go to do battle on their King’s behalf, and more than likely die in the process.

The people in Ephesus, the audience for this letter, were mostly Roman Gentiles, not Jews. They were warriors and familiar with putting on armor and going to war. These days we aren’t so comfortable with going to war for Christ, there’s been so much abuse in our history. Nevertheless, here it is, and there is a wonderful juxtaposition as well. Paul instructs them to put on their feet whatever will make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. What can we claim from this for ourselves?

The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes that will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. For Paul this is not as much about protection against the powers of darkness as it is dressing in the strength of Jesus. It is not so much about insulation from the evils of the world as it is about taking on the church’s holy calling of reconciliation. I think we must dress ourselves so that we may be ready, protection is not the point, being ready in truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and spirit is the point. How do we get ready? How do we dress ourselves with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and spirit?

We engage in ways that help us learn about where we’ve been, so that we may know where we are going, so that we may know what the work is that we are called to do. In dressing ourselves we engage in theological reflection, which is a fancy way of saying that we must reflect on our life and make faith connections. Theological reflection is simply wondering about God's activity in our lives. Asking ourselves where is God present? What is God calling us to do? By taking time to ask questions about what happens to us—seeing our experiences through the lens of faith—we become clearer about our connection to God. We all ask questions about relationships, our work, our children, our government, and our situation in life. We all reflect, wonder, analyze, think, assess, and discuss with friends as ways of trying to understand our life. Theological reflection simply refocuses all that thinking to encourage a stronger sense of relationship with God, asking, "Where does God fit into the picture?" "What is God calling me to do?" "Who is God calling me to be?"

Part of this wondering process is to find ourselves in the biblical story. You’ve heard me over and over ask the question, I wonder where you are in this story? This is a way to get you to see the biblical story as your story, but in order to find ourselves in the story, we must know the story. So dressing ourselves is to read and study scripture, so that we have a framework for wondering about how God fits into the picture. I encourage you to take the opportunity to study scripture here at St. Andrew’s. There is already a bible study at 5:30 on Tuesday nights, there is an intensive course called Education for Ministry that also meets on Tuesday nights, if these don’t fit for you, I’d be happy to find a time for another group to meet together for study.

Another part of dressing ourselves is prayer. In one sense, the whole reflection process is prayer, because it is intentional quiet time when we are conscious of God's presence in our lives. Yet concluding with an explicit prayer draws our whole reflection into an expression of our deepest hope. It takes all our hurts and joys, all insights and lingering questions into an intimate conversation with God. I have found that people using this process as a personal spiritual journey have deepened their prayer life or sometimes even discovered a prayer life if they had not experienced one before. It also takes the process of reflection from the posture of thinking about God to one of being with God, whether we do that alone or in a group.

And what is it we are getting ready for? We are standing ready as agents of resurrection, we are standing ready as people who are marked as Christ’s own forever for the purpose of being bearers of the kingdom in all places and at all times. Our job then, or the work that we are called to do, dressed in word and prayer, is to proclaim with our lives God’s presence with us. It is to proclaim with our lives that Love wins. If we were actually wearing armor, people would know right away we were warriors. We aren’t wearing armor, we are dressed in word and prayer, do people know right away who we are? Do people know right away that we live our lives as agents of resurrection? Do people know right away that we carry God’s presence with us? How would they know that to see and hear us?

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about healing and reconciliation. As agents of the resurrection, as co-workers with Jesus in enacting the kingdom, it is our job to participate in activities that bring healing and wholeness to this broken and fragmented world. It is our job to give ourselves away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return.

This way is not an easy way, it takes preparation. That’s what’s in John’s gospel today. Many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. Dressing ourselves in our armor and going out to do what we are called to do is not easy work. And it involves risk, a warrior risked death, we risk life. The life that John is all about, the life that is abundant and amazing. The life that brings healing. The life that is the good news, good news that spreads in our families, our communities, our country.

Clothe yourselves in word and prayer, and go forth into the world to show that Love wins.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

11 Pentecost Yr B

The people of the world have been planting the seed, growing the grain, harvesting the grain, grinding the grain, making the flour, adding the yeast, letting the dough rise, punching it down to rise again, forming the loaves, laying the fire, and baking the bread, for as long as stories have been told around those fires.

Every ethnicity has a bread that arose from its particular place, the particular grain grown in its region, baked in the fire. From Mexico there are corn and flour tortillas, from the Middle East there is pita, from Italy there is foccacia, from Scandinavia there is flatbread and lefse. In all of these places people gather and break bread together. Breaking bread together is a powerful symbol of our commonality, our humanity, our unity.

Breaking bread together is one way we experience the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst. We gather here at this table and share a loaf of bread; we share a cup of wine. And something in us changes. We are transformed into the new creation that Jesus promises for us by eating this bread and drinking this wine, we are transformed into the beloved community. I think in this particular case, you are what you eat.

My earliest memory of communion was my first communion, probably when I was around six. I remember kneeling at the altar rail in my white dress and my white veil. I was a little scared, and I remembered that the nuns had told me to look straight ahead, it wasn’t polite to look around, and that I must not chew the host, that would be like crunching on Jesus bones.

As I got older, I attended the mass that was held in the church basement, it was the guitar mass of the liturgical emergence of the sixties and the seventies. It was there that I began to really experience community, I worshipped with those people every Sunday morning, I sang and played my flute in the music group. Our surroundings were part gymnasium, part cafeteria, by no means beautiful, and it is there where I knew I was part of the body of Christ. It was there where I learned that you know we are Christians by our love, it is there that mystical body of Christ became real to me in the breaking of the bread. I knew those people who gathered together, and they knew me. They knew the family I belonged to; they knew my brothers and sisters.

I have spoken about my years as a volunteer on the staff of the Minneapolis Catholic youth center. Whenever we gathered together for retreats, for trainings, for community time as we called it, we celebrated Holy Communion together. We sat on the floor around the altar, we sang together, we stood around the altar and held hands during the Lord’s Prayer, and we fed one another around our circle. We prayed for one another’s concerns, for the families that we were growing up in and leaving to make life on our own. We were nourished to go out and do the work we were called to do.

When Rick and I were married, we began our life together with communion. Our families and our friends gathered together in the rectory, we sat together in the living room in front of the fire, and we read the sacred stories and prayed together, and by then it was actual bread that we broke together. In that bread and in that place, in the power of the life that bread gives, we pledged to live our lives together for all time, no matter what. So far….. so good.

In our home church, St. Luke’s in Minneapolis, we had Tom and Willie, they were baptized in the midst of the community of faith that nurtured us, that held us up, and to which we contributed our time and talent as Sunday school teachers, Rick as a vestry member, and me as the Christian Education coordinator. The bread and the wine were central to what we did together. Our loaf of bread was delicious, it came from a local bakery, there were always leftovers, and the children clamored to get the leftovers from the deacon after we were sent out to do the work we were called to do. It was there that we really experienced what Jesus’ companions on the road to Emmaus said, “Risen lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread.”

The bread and the wine that we share together are bread and wine and so much more. We gather together here in this place, we look each other in the eyes, especially in this wonderful sanctuary where we can really see one another, and Christ is made real to us. Christ is in us and through us around us and over us. We sing together the beautiful hymns of our tradition, and we sing together songs that are new to us, and Christ is made real. We pray the beautiful words of our tradition, and we pray the words that are on our heart alone, and Christ is made real. We share one bread, one cup, bread baked by the loving hands of our brother Ray Bulllinger, and Christ is made real. We are sent out into the world to do the work that God gives us to do, and Christ is made real.

You satisfy the hungry heart, with gift of finest wheat. Come, give to us O saving Lord, the bread of life to eat.

In John’s gospel, we continue to hear about the living bread, the bread that is Jesus. John is making a claim about the radical presence of God in Jesus, essentially John is saying that in Jesus, God provides everything; God’s abundance is made real in Jesus. We are invited to be present in God’s bounty. We are invited to eternal life, all contained in this loaf of bread.

We are changed by the ordinary bread, into an extraordinary community. Through the practice of Eucharist, through the practice of Thanksgiving, through the practice of eating together around the table, we become the community God desires for us to be, filled with the Spirit, singing and making melody to the Lord and giving thanks at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus.

What was comfort food becomes radical presence. And we are filled with God’s soul food, rather than the fast food that only satisfies us briefly. We are filled with God’s radical presence in Jesus, and we are sent out into the world to practice God’s wisdom, we are sent into the world to show forth the Good News, we are sent into the world to live intentionally, sacramentally, as agents of resurrection and reconciliation. We are sent into the world to bear the good news, Love wins.

Amen

Saturday, August 4, 2012

10 Pentecost Yr B

I begin today with a story from Dwight Zscheile's book, People of the Way. Melissa had left the church long ago, in her early twenties. After her daughter was born, Melissa struggled with depression, during which time she also suffered a few miscarriages. At an utter loss, she sensed a leading one day to seek a Protestant church where communion was offered every week. She simply wanted to pray and receive the comfort of the Eucharist. Melissa found an Episcopal church advertising a healing Eucharist and showed up. She remembers thinking, I am defective. I don't know how to mother my child or do anything successfully. Please heal me. I haven't prayed much for the last twenty years, but please help me anyway. The lectionary readings that day happened to be all about bread: manna from heaven feeding the starving Israelites, Jesus as the bread of heaven. What she heard whispered in the liturgy was this: You aren't defective. You're hungry. Eat. (page 43)

We are not different from Melissa. We wander around feeling not quite right, not quite whole. We wander around trying to fill up on that which cannot fill us, that which cannot sustain us, that which cannot seep into the cracks of our broken hearts. We look for something that we believe will make us happy and successful. And we come here, looking for something, just like those in our story today, not quite sure what it is. What we get is Jesus. Jesus is the food that fills us, Jesus is the blood that seeps into the cracks of our hearts and souls and makes us whole. Come and I will feed you. Come, and you will never be hungry or thirsty again. When you eat this bread and drink this wine, you will be healed, you are a new creation, your hunger will be satisfied. That is what the gospel writer John means when he refers to eternal life.

Last week I said that the feeding of the five thousand was a massive picnic in the wilderness. Today we hear Jesus say to them, I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. Not only is the bread Jesus' body, but it is manna from heaven, the bread of angels. The wine is not just Jesus' blood, but the free-flowing drink at the messianic feast, the substance of joy. It will fill you up, like nothing else can.

A loaf of bread is as practical as it is mysterious. It will fill our hunger in so many ways. And as we partake of the bread we become the body, the body of Christ. We become a new creation, we are made whole. We become a community of faith. We are healed, we are put back together, we are re-membered.

As we take the bread into our bodies, and as we are healed, we are formed as followers of Jesus. We come here, week after week, and week after week we take into our bodies the bread of life, we ingest the Word over and over again. Jesus seeps into our very being and fills the cracks and fissures. In this practice, we become the people of God, we become who God creates us to be. Part of the mystery is that the loaf of bread teaches us who we are as well as transforms us into whom we may be. Our practice and prayer surround the loaf of bread with word and action.

As we take the bread into our bodies we become followers of Jesus, and as followers of Jesus we embody God's promise and reconciliation in the world. That is our mission. What does God call us to do? God calls us to embody healing and reconciliation in the world. We are a holy community, sanctified by the presence and Spirit of God, sharing the Lord's meal, and as a holy community, God works through us ordinary people, to do extraordinary things.

We are a witness to the world of an alternate way of living. In the world, the strongest wins, in Jesus' community, Love wins. In the world, the one who has the most wins, in Jesus' community, Love wins. In the world the powerful, the well known, the stars, get the attention, in Jesus' community, the first will be last, and the last will be first. Our identity as followers of Jesus is found in participating in God's life and love for the world, in creating Jesus' community wherever we find ourselves. We care for our own members, and we love our neighbors the same way God loves us in Jesus. We go into the world bearing a spirit of humility, compassion, and mercy, and we bring Jesus' healing wherever we go.

We also receive Jesus' healing from others, we receive Jesus' hospitality from others, and Jesus' body is completed by others, because we don't have all the answers, we don't know it all, we don't have the right way or the only way. There is so much we have yet to learn, so many ways we can be Jesus' body that we do not know yet.

It is I, do not be afraid. You will eat and be filled, you eat and be healed, you will eat and be sent into the world to be Jesus' hands and feet. Our mission is to show others that they too, can feed and touch and heal and love, without fear, without needing to get it right, like Melissa, you don't need to be perfect, because you are perfectly loved.