Sunday, August 23, 2009

Keep Coming Back

Keep Coming Back.
1 Kings 8: 22 – 43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6: 10 – 20; John 6: 56 – 69
August 23, 2009; Proper B16

The I-Help Pasta with Pastors dinner was last night at the Northminster Presbyterian Church on East Alvin St., in Salinas. I was one of about 15 or 20 pastors serving dinner, along with a kitchen cooking crew of homeless guys who participate in the I-Help program.

Hard to believe, but I was the only woman pastor. Before we started serving, we got our picture taken. There I was, front and center, surrounded by a band of brothers. I was asked many times what church I served. Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd got good press last night! Although I was a bit taken aback when someone said, “Oh, that’s that radical church!” I said, “really – wow! Tell me the history.” It turned out that he was talking about the Episcopal Church’s welcome and ordination of gays and lesbians. I laughed in that good natured way I've got - I guess it’s still obvious I come from the Bay Area, where radical has a much different connotation. We agreed to downgrade radical to progressive!

It was a great night – there were Mormons and Nondenominationals and Catholics and Methodists and of course, us radical Episcopalians! At one point, walking through the crowd, with a plate of meat spaghetti in one hand and a plate of vegetarian spaghetti in the other, I looked around and thought – “here is my family – here are my brothers and sisters – these are the people of God.” And my very next thought was – “hmmmm…. We look so incredibly ordinary. There is absolutely nothing romantic about this group. No hazy halos. No particularly spiritual glow.” Well….Gerry and Miryam were there. That was an exception! Gerry definitely has that glow about her! …. But in that moment, looking at all of us with spilled spaghetti on the tables and cake trays and coffee in Styrofoam cups, I kind of tried adjusting my gaze, trying to look with the eyes of Jesus…. But nothing happened. There we were. Eating dinner in a large parish hall, in unspectacular surroundings, unspectacular people. Ordinary.

Except….that we were there. From a lot of different variations of being church. All of us, in one way or another, get up every day and make a decision all over again to try to follow Jesus. To hold hands with the homeless. To go to work in the morning if we have a job, or to pray for work if we don’t. To try to be faithful in the very ordinary routines of life.

But if you were to scratch the surface of that crowd last night, or this group this morning, if you and I were to sit down and talk heart to heart, my guess is that we would find out that we are not the only ones who have wondered at one time or another if this whole faith journey thing is worth it.

I mean, which of us has not - at one time or another -wondered whether we have believed in vain? Maybe it was during the dark of night, when you were by the bedside of your very sick child wondering if he would recover. Or maybe it was in the early morning, waking up alone, wondering why your spouse left you and if he would ever return. Maybe sometime during the day when you’re looking at the help wanted ads, feeling helpless about ending up unemployed and worrying about ever finding a job again. Or, maybe at dusk, stirring the soup for dinner, thinking about the ill will between family members and wondering how things turned out so different than you had imagined or hoped.

If you're like me, you've got to admit that there are plenty of these kinds of times and that occasionally you are tempted to conclude that your faith is maybe misplaced. You might not walk away - but you might find that getting to church is harder, and when pledge time comes around, your pledge shrinks, and you wake up one day and realized that you haven't prayed in some time. And the result is pretty much the same as what happened with the disciples in today’s gospel reading – you’re out the door, gone, onto other things.

“These sayings of yours Jesus are just too hard. The cross cannot be God’s plan. We’re leaving.”

It's tempting to write off those who gave up on Jesus as people who were lazy or unfaithful - but these folks not simply "the crowds," - these are the "disciples." You and me. People who have believed in Jesus, who have followed him, who’ve given up a lot to follow him.

I’m convinced by my own life and the lives of many who have shared their struggles with me – I’m convinced that the picture of the disciples in today's gospel may be not pretty, but it's realistic. The spiritual walk is no cake walk – and at one time or another, my guess is that maybe you too could not quite remember what attracted you to Jesus in the first place.

But this isn’t just a story about leaving – it’s also a story about staying. “To whom would we go, Lord?” Peter responds. “You have the words of life.” Maybe Peter spoke out of courage and faith. Maybe hard headedness. Maybe he was hoping that he could still cash in on the biggest bet of his life. Whatever the reason, he and a few didn't leave.

So what made them different? It’s plain that these were not the smartest guys, or the bravest, or the best. They argued. They complained. They didn’t get it. In Jesus’ greatest hour of need, they got so scared they ran away. Still – as much as they could – they stayed.

So what was different about them? The Rev. Dr. David Lose says that pretty much the only difference was that they had somehow figured out to keep looking at Jesus. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." They knew to keep their eyes on the prize – to keep looking to Jesus.

That is the witness of Christians who make it through the centuries. They simply “keep coming back” – you know the AA term. They keep coming back to the gathered community – the church - to feed on the Living Word of God through the scriptures and the sacraments.

Is church the only place that God reveals God’s self or that God feeds us? Of course not. When Solomon prayed the dedication of the temple, he immediately acknowledged that the temple could not nearly contain God. This world pulses with the presence and activity of its creator: in nature, in government, in family, in work. In all these places, God is present and active, creating and sustaining the whole creation.

And yet each of us knows just how difficult at times it can be to see God. Nature turns violent – I was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and saw first hand the terrifying destruction of winds and water. Governments can go corrupt. The family can be a place of discord and the workplace can be divisive.

When all the things we count on come up empty, there is still the Church – that thin place where we hear the gospel and we celebrate the eucharist, where we are washed in water and fed the food of hope and encouragement. Where we are assured over and over of forgiveness, and acceptance, and meaning and purpose for our lives.

The truth is that church – the gathered community who has been grafted onto the living vine of Christ – feeds us in a way that is simply not available in any other way. Hearing the Gospel proclaimed in the gathered community is not the same as reading it to oneself in the privacy of one’s home. Walking in nature – as wonderful as that is, and as revealing of the Creator as it is – is not the same as breathing in the fragrance of the prayers of our neighbors.

Given the challenges we face, I know that baptism and communion seem like small, even paltry things. And yet, God has determined to be most clearly known through the “weak” word of the gospel of Jesus and his very ordinary band of followers, the church. And this band of followers, the church – what is it, exactly? It is simply those who say “Amen” to this goal – to walk all the way into the Kingdom, holding hands with the homeless, holding hands with our very ordinary neighbors, holding hands with Jesus whether in sickness and in sorrow or in joy and in plenty.

So, I’m glad you got dressed this morning, and got into your car and drove yourself here. The Lord rejoices that you got up, once again, and said – “to whom else would we go Lord. You have the words of life.”

What’s the secret to finishing well? Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and then just keep coming back.


Resource: The Rev. Dr. David Lose, Words of Eternal Life

Monday, August 03, 2009

Eating our way to God

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” “and grow into the full stature of Christ.”

How do we do that? How do we grow and mature into Christ? We eat our way there! We eat the right food and we grow into Christ. And how do we choose the right food to eat? For that, we need to know what kind of hungry we are.

King David was confused. He thought he was hungry for power. His armies attacked and conquered other armies. He amassed victories and wealth and territories and women. But his hunger was not sated. And so, even with all of his wives and concubines, he commandeered Bathsheba. And then when he got her pregnant and he couldn’t keep his hungers secret, he tried to make the problem go away by killing Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. One of his most loyal men.

The prophet Nathan told him a story to wake him up, to wake him up to his true hunger. And David got it. He was powerfully sorry for the mess he had made – but the unintended consequences were set in motion and it wasn’t only David that suffered. Bathsheba’s life was forever altered. Her husband was killed, and the child she carried would also die.

So David fasted. He refrained from eating. He needed to reconfigure his hunger and become hungry again for the truth. For forgiveness. For doing what was right, what was worthy of the calling to which he had been called.

The people around Jesus were hungry. Really hungry. Unlike David, they didn’t have power. Their bellies often rumbled because they didn’t have enough to eat. And now, here was Jesus. He made their twisted limbs straight with a touch of his hand. He spit in the dirt and with the mud made their blind eyes see. He fed them with barley loaves and fish. And he taught them. He fed their minds and their hearts with God’s words. Words that gave them hope. With his words and touch and food he let them know they weren’t forgotten. He calmed their fears. He connected them with their own self worth. And the people were powerfully hungry for all of that he did – and so they tried to take him by force and make him into another King David.

But Jesus wasn’t like David. He wasn’t like the crowds. He wasn’t hungry. The hunger for security that is created by fear; the hunger for confidence that is created by self doubt; the hunger for connection that is created by alienation – these hungers did not gnaw at Jesus. He wasn’t hungry in the same way they were.

But why? After all, he was completely and totally human. The difference? He was filled – full up – with God.

Remember in the desert when his belly was rumbling because of fasting 40 days and nights? The devil came to him - “If you are hungry, turn these stones into bread.” And Jesus said “No, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the Lord God.”

And remember when his disciples went into town to buy food, and they came back and found him talking to the Samaritan woman. She had been drawing water at the well, and he asked her for a drink. When he’d drunk his fill of water, he told her that he knew where she could get water that would quench her thirst forever. When she asked where she could get that water, he said, “I am living water.”

And then the disciples came back with food and asked him if he was hungry he said that he had food that they did not know about. They thought maybe someone had come and given him a sandwich – but that wasn’t the kind of food he was talking about.

The truth is, he hungered like you and me. He needed to eat. But the driving hungers that cause us to act badly, the driving hungers of fear and self doubt and alienation did not drive him. He was filled up with the security and the confidence and the connection that come directly from the Source of all that is.

And so, he fed others without controlling them. He healed others without taking advantage of them. He taught others without ruling over them. He did not need power. He did not need the adulation of crowds. He was not hungry for security and self worth and connectedness because he knew in his DNA that he was God’s beloved. And it was this relationship, this living relationship of belovedness that David hungered for. This was the hunger that had the crowds running around the lake after Jesus. It the same hunger that you and I have.

OK – I’ll make it personal. It’s the hunger I have.

Are you familiar with the psychologist Maslow? He said all humans have a hierarchy of needs that starts out with the basics – food, clothing and shelter. It goes up from there. Well, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is covered in my case. I’ve got the basics. Ascending beyond the basics, I’ve got great relationships, good community, and wonderful work. And up towards the tip of the hierarchy, I’ve got purpose and meaning.

But there’s something more I hunger for and it makes me restless and anxious. And it turns out that that something more will not be – cannot be - filled by anything other than God.

St. Augustine said it best when he said “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” There is a God sized hole in my heart and I believe it’s in your heart, and in the heart of every human being, and nothing else will satisfy.

Until we eat the living Word of the Beloved, we will keep chasing after Jesus to make him into something he will never be – like the king that will give us what ever we think we want. Or we will, like David, try to find satisfaction in ways that set into motion unintended consequences that hurt ourselves and others.

I’m going to continue to make this personal.

I’ve been a Christian for a long time. And I have heard about the words of this gospel many times – Come to me and you will never hunger - and frankly, I have continued to know hunger – and I’m not talking about physical – I’m talking about in my soul.

But what I am beginning to understand is that I inherited a faith tradition that long ago split off the spiritual from the material in a way that is false and un-biblical and the result is that even though I have devoted my life to this faith - I have still been hungry! And I think a good many other people are too. A lot of young adults I talk to have either given up on church or they try other religions that seem more exotic and promising.

But Jesus never made that split. He never isolated the holy and sacred in any one place or any one element. God was in every face he looked into, in every loaf of bread he shared, in the air he breathed and the ground he walked upon. He would not have recognized a tradition that had God present only as living bread in elements offered at a church altar. This meal of Christ's that we share gathered here is to powerfully nurture the Spirit within, grow us up into Christ, and remind us that the bread and wine that we offer here is a concentrated and focused sign of the presence of the same God who feeds us just as powerfully in our daily life, in our daily bread.

A couple years ago I had an experience that was specifically designed to help heal this split between the material and spiritual worlds. It was at a Clergy Wellness retreat put on by the Church Pension Fund. All clergy are invited to participate - I think the basic goal is to keep us clergy well enough to not need our pensions for awhile! There were medical doctors, financial advisers, spiritual directors there. This experiment that I'm sharing with you was led by one of the doctors.

He had us gather for dinner – but this time, we were asked to wait to eat until everyone had gone through the serving line. Then he asked us to simply look at our food. He said that each morsel of food was an ambassador from the cosmos. He told us to pick up a piece of a food, and look at it for half a second, then smell it, and then to put it into our mouth and taste it. Then chew it slowly. He said, "When you are looking at a piece of carrot, it is possible to see the sunshine in it, to see the earth in it, to see that it has come from the whole cosmos for your nourishment." You get the picture. We did this with each bite for awhile – long enough to really really slow down and take in the full nourishment of our food. After awhile, he allowed us to go ahead and eat the rest of the meal as we normally would – but the amazing thing is that most of us were completely full and we’d only eaten a portion of what we had put on our plates.

We talked after about how we eat, but don’t really eat what is right in front of us. Instead we are eating our sorrows, our fears, our angers, our past, our future.

It is easy to think of God as out there – and that if we are to eat the Living Bread of Heaven, it will be here, kneeling at the altar – and it is true – we do eat the Living Word of God here in this time and place. But it is true as well that God feeds us continuously through the sun on our skin and the smiles on our friend’s faces.

The truth is our truest hunger, our deepest hunger, the hunger behind all our other hungers is for God. And God is very, very near at hand. Let us bless the Living Bread and give thanks.