Archive for August, 2018

A Homily by The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

Sunday, August 26th, 2018

Click here to listen to the full service

1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

Click here to listen to the meditations only 

About 18 months ago, I stood in the trauma room of a busy Los Angeles hospital. For probably the 7thor 8thtime my phone went off alerting me that there was an emergency. I walked in and saw the usual signs of a gang shooting. This was the first night I met Mark, whose name is not really Mark. Mark had been shot twice, looked to be about 15, and was covered in tattoos. As I searched for identifying gang symbols, I came across a tattoo of the rosary on the underside of his forearm. The mixture of religious and gang symbols was not uncommon. After speaking and saying a prayer, he went off to surgery. A few visits, and days later, the DCFS worker informed the hospital that they were out of placement options. Child protective services had nowhere for Mark to go when he was discharged, so they asked us to keep him while they “worked something out.” In the ensuing months, Mark and I had countless conversations.

He openly shared about his life and place in the gang, including the crimes he committed on the streets and even the strategies for not getting caught. Marks whole family belonged to different gangs. A dangerous fact and a harsh environment. When I asked Mark what he wanted to be as a kid he told me, “I never had a choice. The only choice I ever got in life was which gang I was going to choose.”

Over the course of the months, we talked a lot about faith and spirituality. Mark considered himself spiritual but not religious, as so many young people do. He shared how the rosary was a source of comfort and protection for him, which is why it was tattooed on his arm. He would continually ask me for rosaries because he would give them out to his friends and fellow gang members. In fact, the night he was shot, he had given his rosary to a friend, a fact that only reinforced his quasi-magical, or perhaps mystical, view that the rosary was a source of God’s protection.  

As we talked, I discovered that Mark was angry with God. When he was thirteen, his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. He stopped going to school to care for her and prayed every day for her healing. As far as I could tell, she was the only family member that ever cared for Mark, so when she died he lost the most important person in his life. He stopped going to Mass, for all intents and purposes he stopped going to school, and he was “adopted” by a local gang that he would later join. Mark was angry with God for the death of his grandmother. He felt pushed away, belief and trust were too hard, and so Mark walked away. He told me of the bargains he made with God if only God would save her. Good grades, a clean life, perhaps even serving the Church. But they did not work.

I imagine there are those of us who have made similar bargains to no avail. When life and faith do not go the way we plan or pray, it is easy to become frustrated. To be angry. Perhaps even to lose hope. Being angry, mad, sad, sorrowful, full of lament these are all normal feelings and expressions that occur as a natural part of life. Even losing hope can be natural; yet, the stormy waters of despair cut to the core. The loss of hope comes with a side effect of paralysis. Time slows and despair stretches. It is so insidious for its capacity to make people feel trapped. A loss of hope can feel like a loss of life itself.

In these times, one can feel that God has turned God’s face away. It can feel like, either God does not hear prayer or God is choosing not to answer. Sometimes it just feels like we are being pushed away. It can be hard to reconcile our image of God as all loving with feeling pushed away. Our Gospel reading today is somewhat puzzling in a similar vein. In these past few weeks, we have traveled through John chapter six where Jesus consistently calls himself the bread of life and draws the people to him. He fed the 5000 men and countless woman and children, taught from the mountainside, had to avoid being made a king, calmed the sea, and walked on water.

In fact, when Jesus tried to get away from the crowd by traveling to the other side of the sea, the people followed him. He had the crowds following him and eating out of his hands. It is here that Jesus delves into what is known as the bread of life discourse. And at first, the people want the bread that Jesus is offerings. He tells them about the life that it provides and they ask for it. They seem desperate for it and really, who wouldn’t be desperate for bread that provides life and hope. At first, they are willing to believe, based on the wonderful signs that Jesus has done. They believe that he is able to provide them with this living bread from heaven.

Yet, Jesus goes on. He not only has the audacity to say that he is the living bread sent from heaven but also that God is his Father. Jesus calls himself the bread of life from Heaven and reveals his deep and personal connection to the Father. This claim of a special relationship is a cause of complaining, but it does not yet cause the people to walk away. The desperate need for life and hope is still more potent, at least for a time.

Perhaps Jesus was not well versed in the church growth literature of the time. Because it is at this point, a potential climax for his ministry, that he seems to drive the crowds away. The signs, the miracles, and the teaching have brought the people. All is going well for the fledgling community and hope is so much easier to maintain when things are going well. Yet, the tide turns and in the midst of the grumblings, Jesus pushes harder.

 He goes on to use cannibalistic terms, saying that eating the Son of Mans flesh and drinking his blood are now requirements for his followers. You can almost hear the people say “I didn’t sign up for this.”   As they slowly back away. But some of the more ardent supporters, some of those more desperate for this bread, may have thought they had misheard Jesus or that Jesus did not mean what he said. So, verse sixty says “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Perhaps this was an attempt to help Jesus back off on this teaching. It is interesting that John uses the term disciples here. “When many of his disciples heard it…”

When we hear “disciples,” we often think of the 12 but there were many other followers of Jesus, some who were present for most if not all of his ministry. Here we have not just the crowds grumbling and questing Jesus, but his disciples as well. Those who had traveled with him and heard his teaching over time. These people knew Jesus and Jesus knew them. The text says “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”…

Does this offend you? While avoiding offending people at all costs is a hallmark of society, even our abhorrence for giving a reason for offense does not capture the sentiment as it is recorded in Greek. The Greek word is skandalizei from which our word scandal is derived. So, when Jesus is aware that the crowds and his disciples are complaining about him, he asks if his teachings are scandalizing them and then he doubles down. The crowds leave. Most of the disciples leave.

The scandalous radical nature of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood is often lost on those prone to spiritualize this passage. This Johannine passage often gets filtered through the Eucharistic ritual where eating and drinking Christ is a regular practice. The idea of eating another’s flesh and drinking their blood has lost much of the scandalizing nature it held in ancient times. Perhaps though, other scandals can just as easily take its place as reasons why people walk away or lose hope.

Clergy abuses in all shapes and sizes, infidelity and sexual misconduct, financial mishandling, racism, sexism, the abuse of children. We see these across the country and across denominations. Scandals that cause people to question faith and hope. Now, unlike in John 6, Jesus is not causing these scandals through his teachings. Nonetheless, the church is burdened with them. Nonetheless, people are leaving due to failures of the institution and the people who are to be paragons of virtue. Certainty we cannot equate faith with the church and we might maintain that these failures do not occur in my church or our church. Yet, if we are going to hold that the Church is the body of Christ that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, we ought to ask the hard questions. Why and how? We ought to weep, lament, and seek change. We ought to recognize the challenge of holding onto faith in the midst of scandal. The challenging of hope when hopelessness is so much easier.

What do we do when faith breaks down? When the well-worn paths of piety perish? When it feels that God is calling us to the impossible or when despair looms so large that the valley of the shadow of death feels like a permanent dwelling place. What can we do? We can walk away and look elsewhere. Give up on finding ways to incorporate faith into modern life. Giving up that there are deeper meanings and purposes to life. Eschewing hope.

In the text, Jesus turned to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” We do not know if they were the only ones left at this point, but it is significant to note that this is the first time the Gospel of John mentions the twelve disciples as a distinct group. John records some of the early calling stories we find in the Synoptic accounts but here, for the first time in John, they are named the twelve. Perhaps the last 12 still standing.            Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

We don’t know the tone of Peter’s response. Perhaps this was a triumphant proclamation of courage and hope “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Perhaps it was said with a mixture of despair and realization “Lord, to whom can we go?” As if to say they would go somewhere if they could, but they’ve already left their jobs and are marked as your disciples no one else would ever take us at this point. We put our trust in you and now we have no other choice. “Lord, to whom can we go?”

Maybe it was said with a mixture of hope and despair. Certainty the disciples could not escape feeling despair as they watched Jesus and by extension themselves be abandoned by fellow disciples; and yet, they chose to stay which is fundamentally hopeful. The harshness of the teaching certainly would not have been lost on them. The reality that the people would go from trying to make Jesus king to having some try to kill him in the next passage would not have been lost on them. That even in the midst of rejection, even in the midst of hard teachings and hard times, twelve remained. Hope won.

Even a glimmer of hope, the smallest spark, and the dimmest candle stand in defiance to proclaim that all if not lost. Our summer preaching series is titled “Toward a Common Hope.” I love how Boston University’s paper titled their article about the series “The Necessityof Hope InspiresSummer Preaching at Marsh Chapel.” The necessity of hope inspires. Of course, the word inspires is derived from the Latin inspirare, in breath or in the Spirit. Hope is inspired in, by, and through the Spirit. The deprivation of hope in daily life means it has become a rare commodity. The need for hope is why people love stories about those who have beaten the odds or rise to the challenge.  People are so desperate for hope because far too many of us are starved of it. When Jesus says I am the bread of life, what he also says is I am hope.

It would be great if I could stand here and tell you that Mark, that young man I met with for months at the hospital changed his whole life. That he left resolved to get off the streets and go back to school. But I cannot. One day I went to the hospital and he was gone. As he had done in many foster care homes, he ran away. No goodbye. No forwarding address. For all I know, he could have left and been killed in the retaliation that was planned. I have no idea what effect my conversations had with him. What seeds germinated and which ones didn’t. But I choose to trust, hope, and pray that Christ is not done with him. That Mark has the opportunity to find nourishing hope that can only be found in the bread of life.

Even though life is not filled with story book endings, it does not mean that there is no hope. There is a sense in which the hope of Christ, the nourishment of the bread of life can be found in the most unlikely places. Faith and spirituality do not need to fit into neat boxes. Christ is not bound by the walls of the Church or words on a page. My friends hope is infectious. It only takes a little to grow and spread. But we live in a time where we must choose to search for hope. To plant hope. To nurture hope. And to share hope. Dear friends, choose hope.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

The Color Purple

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

Click here to listen to the full service

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:51-58

Click here to listen to the meditations only

(The form of today’s sermon is borrowed from the work of CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, although today’s preacher does not share Lewis’s fuller theology, nor does he believe in a literal devil or devils.) 

My Dear Wormwood,

Again it is my pleasure to write your annual review, you devil you.  No uncle was ever prouder of a nephew than I am of you, Wormwood, given the excellent, successful year you have had making devilry among the good people of planet earth.  As chief representative of the fallen angels in this part of the universe, I have a close relationship with the Prince of Darkness Himself, our Father below.  You may rest assured that news of your various nefarious victories will sink to his hellish level.

         In particular, your work in the United States of America, Wormwood, has been nothing short of masterful. I take my horns off to you, one devil to another, and salute your destructivity.  You have kept them fighting among themselves, morning to night, like children in a marketplace, solely sighting their own interests, assured that the one truth they each hold is the only truth, the only crayon in the box.  Excellent, Wormwood, excellent.  I could not have done better myself, even when I wore a younger devil’s tail.  Keep at it, nephew, keep at it, set them one against the other, a man against his own house, a house divided, rich against poor, red against blue, radical against fundamentalist, communist against tea partier, personal ethics against social justice, doing against being.  Oh the thrill we have to observe such needless hurt!  Good boy.  With this letter I enclose your official promotion, commendation, and ribbon as demon of the year, with special commendation for inciting divisive discord, in particular in the ‘lower forty eight’.  Wormwood—you devil you!

         Now, Wormwood, it would not do for me, your affectionate Uncle,  Screwtape, Superintendent of demons in the near Milky Way, to let you go without a little avuncular advice.  Call it a little devilish Dutch uncle advice, to keep you on your way. Down below they are considering this year, this fall in major proportion, the great hope of a land of the free, and a home of the brave, a community with liberty and justice for all, a place where those who have much might not have too much, and those who have little might not have too little.  Ouch!  It cools the fires of hell to hear such loving rhetoric.  Here are some bits of wisdom, Wormwood my dear nephew, from your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.

         Be most careful, Wormwood, not to let any of these groups you have so carefully set upon each other, with daggers drawn, get Solomon’s idea that wisdom comes from the humility of service, that wisdom is justified by deeds, that wisdom is justified by all her children, that wisdom comes in more than one color.  Make sure the blue stay blue, and the red stay red.  Flee the color purple, Wormwood, with its recognition of dialectical thought, its movement toward full truth, its bow before the sin all share, its willingness to learn the painful lesson of humility within a time of humiliation.  Keep them fighting.  Keep the Presbyterians denouncing pride, and forgetting about sloth and falsehood. Keep the Methodists denouncing sloth, and forgetting about pride and falsehood.  Keep the Lutherans denouncing falsehood, and forgetting about pride and sloth.  Yes. Excellent.  Purple is dangerous to us, Wormwood.  If the blue start seeing that the red have a point, here and there, or at least that real change is real hard and takes real work in real time including actually showing up at the polls on voting day—your cause is lost. Keep them shouting at each other, like children in a marketplace, one group wanting to play weddings and another wanting to play funerals, pipes vs. wails, dances vs. weepings.  Take the purple out of their crayon boxes.  You want gated communities, the demise of public schools, lines of suburban\urban separation, racial disease and distrust, class separations, ideological fences, and a verbal war of all against all.  Tweet by tweet by tweet.  Children in the marketplace, as their Savior, said, yes, Wormwood, well done.

         And keep them discouraged in defeat.  When they lose make sure they lose hope too.  I am worried about far sighted, eloquent, hopeful leaders, like that Mario Cuomo a generation ago.  Remember when he got defeated?   But on the night of his defeat, remember what he said: “I come from a religion where the whole symbol of the religion ended in condemnation and crucifixion. But that wasn’t the measure of the experience…That’s just the way it ended…This is a metaphor for everybody’s life, that it is in the living…that you make your mark.  Sometimes you win.  Sometimes you lose”.   The meaning of life is in the living of life (E Fromm).

         Here is an example.  I hear the good heart, the Solomonic heart and mind, of some of their leaders saying something about children, about the need for education and health care for all children and young adults, across the land, through age 21.    Wormwood, this is peril for us!  Be on the qui vive!  If that country ever got behind that idea, and every child had medical care, education, respect—oh, it worries me.  Why, the natural aristocracy as Ortega called it, would come to the surface.  Keep them pinned down, keep their leaders pinned down, Wormwood, in tragic conflict, in financial red ink, in culture wars.  And be vigilant!  Sometimes they get the idea!  You remember, many years ago, how that 11 year old Boy Scout, Brennan Hawkins, was lost for a month in the Utah mountains, and 3000 searchers looked for four days until they found him!  The lost was found.  Oh, the joy they had in it, too.  It is like the joy a Christian has at bringing a friend, relative, neighbor to church to experience love and faith.  There is no greater joy!  It makes my devil’s blood freeze.  The rescuer said, “I feel relieved and happy.”  Oh Lordy.  See, if they really meant it, if they really chose to live with hope against hope, hoping for what they do not see, and waiting for it with patience, we would be out of business in your part of the hemisphere.  And business has been so good, of late!

         Another example, Wormwood. We head devils hate to hear about people moving from poverty to well-being.  We want a permanent underclass, so that we can then use it to foment division.  We want a few of the people to have almost all the money.  Excellent.  But this country and its churches, especially the Methodists, have always championed social mobility, like that in the churches of Paul, way back when.  His urban Christians were ‘status inconsistent’, and so are the living churches today.  They are vibrant, they are diverse.  Take that Chapel down in Boston there, not far from you, Wormwood, you devil you.  Marsh Chapel. They are of many colors and hues and shapes and backgrounds.  They resemble the globe on a Sunday.  They know—AND THEY LIVE—the universal gospel of the living bread, come down from heaven, with whom to be in communion is eternal life.  Oooh, that bothers me Wormwood, to hear such preaching, that ongoing incessant acclamation of a word of faith in pastoral voice toward a common hope. It is irritating! It really frosts my preserves. See what you can do to keep people from listening on the radio, or, worse, horror of horrors, showing up in worship.  Those Marsh Chapel people are like that Paul of Tarsus, a thorn in MY flesh, that Apostle to the Gentiles, but we got him at last, remember? We need to keep people in their place.  I tell you, nephew, it bothers me when I read about a young woman, Della Mae Justice, who was a 15 year old foster child living in a hut with a dirt floor, until her uncle came and found her and took her into his own home.  He was an attorney in Kentucky.  She said it was like little Orphan Annie going to live with the Rockefellers. Listen to this Wormwood, listen to what she said, and see if doesn’t freeze your blood:

 “It was not easy.  I was shy and socially inept.  For the first time, I could have had the right clothes, but I didn’t have any idea what the right clothes were.  I didn’t know much about the world, and I was always afraid of making the wrong move. When we had a school trip for chorus we went to a restaurant.  I ordered a club sandwich, but when it came with those toothpicks on either end, I didn’t know how to eat it, so I just sat there, well, staring at it and starving and saying I didn’t feel well.”

Her uncle educated her at Berea College, a school set up especially for hard working, children of the poor who want a fine education.  Now she is an attorney in his firm.  Wormwood! Be on the lookout!  This kind of story will find its way into somebody’s pulpit, into to some sermon some Sunday,  if it is not snuffed out.  See who have on our side in the newspapers, and work on it.  

Or, look at this matter of the ‘Queen of Soul’. When one young woman grows up in the church, her dad a preacher, and then she starts singing, and she has a voice from, you know, up there–heaven…pretty soon all those divisions we worked so hard to set up start melting: gospel against rock, jazz against R and B, spirituality against sensuality, and pretty soon have the ‘Queen of Soul’ whose music is universally loved.  I mean it Wormwood, purple can be a sound as well as a color as well as a voice as well as a word.  Keep them all divided up if you can, and get that purple crayon out of their  national, their existential crayon box.  Purple means good hope for a good future.  Get rid of it nephew, Wormwood, you devil you.

Confusion, miscommunication, mistrust—these are your best allies, my shrewd nephew.  And there, I must compliment you:  you have done so much to them through technology and they have hardly caught up 10%;  they have hardly any idea!  But be careful.  Over time they could catch on. They must not be allowed to remember the lessons of the past.  Like that Solomon and his wise, measured understanding. Or that author of Ephesians talking about personal, communal balance and discipline, that ‘keep calm carry on’ malarky. Or, especially, that Fourth Gospel, ever announcing the hope of the presence of the divine.  The last thing on earth our Fearless Leader, the Prince of Darkness, wants is a hope of planetary peace.  Then people would be free, purple crayon in hand, to draw a picture of a nation and a world that can work, measured by the condition of the least, the last, and the lost.

Let me be blunt, Wormwood. When you see a red woman and a blue man determined to think together, learn from each other, and work side by side, and they have lunch at a table adorned in purple, close that restaurant. We just cannot have that kind of synthesis going on. Thesis, yes.  Antithesis, yes.  But no Synthesis. Red we can stand, blue we can handle.  It is the color purple that is our downfall.  We cannot afford that kind of creativity, new creation, new thinking. We can’t have Bob Gates defending John Brennan, on the basis of what is true, right, hopeful and just.  That Gates, that Texas Methodist, always out there doing good for others, now in business, here at a college, there in the defense department–with the red and then the blue, then fixing the Boy Scouts mistake about gays, then, here he is again, supporting John Brennan over against emerging authoritarianism.  Purple, Gates is purple to the core. Beware that kind of person, Wormwood.  That is purple and that is our peril, Wormwood, you devil you.

 Let me be blunter, Wormwood. When you see a church, one of the last places people actually gather if they gather at all, that is both red and blue, and putting on a robe with a purple hue, weaken that church.  A denomination that stands for children, for the poor, for social mobility, for justice, for Biblical, dialectical thought, not just the thunderbolts from far left and right–drain that swamp.  What you have done to the Methodists in the Northeast, eliminating half their membership in a generation, you need to do across the country. Get them so worked up with each other that they just can’t work together.  Have them so entirely invested in resistance that they have no energy, or imagination, or voice, for restoration.  Restoration, that is the purple hope, the purple trouble, the purple hue. Make them angry, not hopeful.  Keep them angry, not hopeful.

I have one specific request, dear nephew.  Keep your eye on that chapel in Boston.  You know, the one on Commonwealth Avenue.  They are growing.  They are building.  They are liberal and yet they are blue and red together.  They love children.  They are learning to tithe.  They are starting to invite.  Work on them, Wormwood.  Make them fear the unknown. Make them tentative.  Make them forget their outreach to students, their welcome to faculty, their mission work and children’s programs.  Make them accentuate divisions, all divisions, gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, class –sweet divisions, sweet divisions. Make them disagree wherever they can.  I will check your work at our Halloween review.  Halloween—what a fitting, a good time for us to be together, Wormwood.

I send you best wishes for all that is predatory and mendacious, nephew.  Remember my theme song, your Uncle Screwtape’s favorite, stolen from Blake, our shared theme song:  When Satan first the black bow bent, and the moral law from the gospel rent, he turned the law into a sword and spilt the blood of mercy’s Lord.

And put your horns, pitch fork and tail into it, Wormwood, you devil you. Hold back that Solmonic wisdom: I am only a little child, and I do not know how to come out or go in.  Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to discern between good and evil.  Hold back that teaching from Ephesians: Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil…sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.  Hold back that Gospel promise in John:  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live foreverWhoever eats of this bread will live foreverWhoever eats of this bread will live forever

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

We are the Bread of Life

Sunday, August 12th, 2018

Click here to listen to the full service

1 Kings 19:4-8

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Click here to listen to the meditations only

“Let there be peace among us and let us not be part of our own or another’s oppression”

When I was a child my parents and I would drive out to my great Aunt Jessie and great Uncle Stewart’s place “in the country”. We were usually accompanied by my cousin, my aunt and my grandparents.  It was a place where my cousin and I were pretty predictable in our actions.  First, we would stop in the kitchen to see if Aunt Jessie was going to make peach ice cream, which also meant that we were going to take turns hand turning it on the front porch.  On the counter there was a large beige earthenware mixing bowl covered with a damp dish towel. 

That was the indication that we were having rolls with dinner. My cousin and I were then given instructions on what fresh vegetables were to be picked for dinner: Kentucky wonder beans, corn, tomatoes, lettuce to name a few.  Returning from our outdoor farmers market, my cousin and I then took a walk down the dirt road to Mr. and Mrs. Mack’s house.  The Mack’s had a real farm complete with a barn, and animals.  Mr. Mack would ride us around on his tractor and let us feed the chickens.  Mrs. Mack would then treat us to fresh squeezed lemonade and homemade chocolate chip cookies.  Quite satisfied we would then run back to the house to begin the churning of the ice cream. My father would take the sealed metal container of milk, cream, sugar and peaches and secure it in the ice cream maker, surround it with ice and top it off with rock salt.  I preferred to churn later in the process as what I really wanted to do was to punch down the dough for the rolls.  I remember my Aunt Jessie saying “give it a good punch”.  My small hand lost in the dough that then surrounded it.  She would then take the back of a dinner knife and scrape the dough off my hand. I would watch her intently knead the dough.  She had arthritis of the hands and I never grasped the full weight of how difficult a task this might have been.  She rolled the dough out on a wooden board that she had spread flour.  Taking a drinking glass, dipping the rim of the glass into flour, she would cut circles of dough to form the rolls.  She would then pick up each circle and fold over the top third of the roll.  Then taking each roll and placing it carefully on a greased baking sheet.  The remaining dough would be gathered and the process repeated until there were two full pans of rolls.  Another rise, then brushed with melted butter and placed in the oven.  The house smelled wonderful.  It was as a young child that I learned that Making Bread is An Act of Love.

Over the years I have made yeast breads but nothing ever equated my Aunt Jessie’s rolls.  But I continue to hold my truth that the making of bread is an act love. I recall making a loaf of challah and my father and I sitting at the dining table, a warm loaf of bread and a plate of butter between us. 

My current love for bread baking came after I read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Bread in the modern context as we have come to know it, is the result of the advent of roller mills that made white flour widely available and of the commercialization yeast in the 1880’s.   While it made life easier it took much of the nutrition out of bread and made bread commercially available for purchase.  It was a staple of the dinner table in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s predictable in color and pretty tasteless, it had preservatives so it had a long shelf life. It must be noted that for most of European history, bread represented more than half the calories in the diet of the peasantry and urban poor according to French historian Fernand Braudel.

But ask any serious two thousand and eighteen, bread maker and they will tell you time and time again, that making bread is an act of love.  My friend Julie Carson, gifted me with starter yeast last year.  Since then I have tended, fed and used the yeast to bake bread. Now that act of love hasn’t been easy and at many times it appears one sided in the yeast favor.   Yeast has popped out of containers moved in mysterious ways along the kitchen counter and made its way onto the floor.  Only to continue to expand in the process.  Julie says this means that I am doing it right.  Baking bread is a gift of love and an abundant, life giving and sustaining gift.

So, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” are we looking at Jesus as boring factory-made bread?  What comes to mind when we hear “I am the bread of life”?

Perhaps some will think of the bread that we used for communion.  In most Episcopal and Anglican churches to commemorate the Lord’s Supper we use the communion wafer.  It’s easy, it’s convenient and it comes in a resealable container of 500 and it has no resemblance to the taste of bread.  Is this the “bread of life” to which Jesus likened himself to? 

Today’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus’ proclamation “I am the bread of life.” Earlier we read the story that has come to be known as the feeding of the five thousand, where many hungry people are feed because there was love and sharing enough for all.  The focus of this feeding story has been on the meal and very little attention paid to the bread itself and what is might signify.  In the same way that the focus on mass feeding has been on the miracle and not on the food itself, so, too, with today’s proclamation that Jesus is the “bread of life,” we usually focus our attention on Jesus rather than on the bread.

But how can we begin to understand what Jesus was saying about himself until we look more closely at the bread?  When Jesus talks about the bread he is looking about a community that is all inclusive.  All inclusive, means all-inclusive because if we don’t include ALL we place restrictions on the way that we live our life in this world.  We get predictable bread.

When I visited South Africa a few years ago I was introduced to a rich dense brad they call Seed Loaf, boasting different seeds and grains which yield a loaf of complex texture and rich flavor.  This is how it was described on the market’s web site “Seed Loaf, our healthiest loaf, is hearty and moist.  Made from white flour, whole wheat flour, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, bran, sunflower oil and honey and yeast.”  This is definitely the sort of bread invoked by Jesus’ claim: I am the bread of life.

The passage from John’s Gospel is a lesson is about love, believe, and abundance.  It is difficult to associate mass-produced bread with the actual kneading and baking of a loaf of bread.  We are all accustomed to a huge aisle devoted to bread in our local market. Abundance, yes. Not so much anything else!

Consider Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Western MA, a small bakery. Berkshire Mountain makes its own yeast and only uses fresh milled flour.   Online orders need to be placed by Sunday at noon to be baked and shipped on Tuesday. They have a sort of cult following of “breadies” and followers of the bread guru Richard Bourdan.  One can order:

Cheese & Herb Bread

Cherry Pecan

Ciabatta

Dark chocolate

Jalapeno and Cheese

Peasant French Pan

Spelt Bread

Visiting the bakery is a bread Disneyland. Driving through small towns in Western MA confused by the GPS, I was on a mission to search out and buy “real bread”. When we finally arrive, I stood in front of a small wall of daily selections speechless and mouth ajar. Here I was with real bread, food for the soul, handmade, made with care, made with love. When the bread is sold out for the day there is no going to the back of the bakery to retrieve additional loaves. No bread comes in a plastic sleeve.

Our lives – our families and friends are enriched – with a diversity of likes and dislikes.  Why not our bread? And to turn that around: When Jesus spoke of himself as bread, as the Bread of Life, is it possible that he was speaking of richness of texture, of boldness and flavor? That he was inviting us to a greater feast in our life of faith?

Jesus’ ministry was built on the rich foundation of many stories of feeding and being fed.  We have one example in Today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible.  I reading from Kings, Elijah sets out on a long journey sustained by the gift of the angel of the Lord: food! Not just once does the angel feed him, but twice.  The angel commands him: “Get up and eat!”.  This wasn’t just any food, but bread.  Elijah “got up and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”

Jesus was well-acquainted with the Exodus story, and would have known the tradition that the Lord God sustained the Israelites in the wilderness with manna – bread—from heaven.  Which is actually not bread as we know it but is a sustainable, edible food that combines morning frost is edible and tasted like bread.

The Exodus theme permeates John’s Gospel, setting up a tension between the manna given from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness and the Eucharistic bread that feeds us in the wilderness of our souls.  Somewhere in the midst of that tension we find the bread of life: not manna from God, not the flesh of Christ, but the Bread of Life, the Bread that brings LIFE.

Now if we continue on with the reading we have those who aren’t quite sure about Jesus’ claim of who and whose he is. Now, bear with me one moment as I am going to change the context of some of the commentaries about this passage. I am going with the phrase the crowd began to complain.  I have been blessed with long longevity on both my mothers and fathers’ side of the family.  Part of this blessing is that I was blessed at an early age with the importance of listening and being with the elders.  Respect was given by me and in turn stories were given to me as an oral history of struggle and triumph.  In my own family, my grandfather moved north for the promise and fulfillment of a good job at the Ford Motor Factory.  The pay was good and steady and moved many African Americans into the middle class. My father’s older brothers went to work at Fords, however my father after his first few months of working at Ford as a welder was pulled aside by a fellow auto worker who said to my father: “this work is not for you, go to college”.  It was a few weeks later that my father fell off a scaffolding and was given the time and space to consider his career path.  His choice to go to college was initially met with a community that wasn’t sure how a college education was going to lead to steady employment and to provide for a family.  Many a neighbor said “you know Wyatt and Christine’s child… “He’s going to college, He’s thinks he better, who does he think he is? 

My father received a PhD and encouraged his younger brothers to obtain a college degree. We have all known a person or two or three in our lives who said “you know what so and so’s child is doing…”.   Do we say that in disbelief or do we say that in amazement for blessings that have been given to that person?  This is not an old conversation.  The writer of John knew the people they were writing to and knew the questions on their heart and minds.

Jesus was baking something new.  Creating the yeast that would break from the plastic container on the counter and flow onto the kitchen counter and onto the floor and carried out the door to feed the people.

This vision of bread given to us in John’s Gospel teaches us that we will be feed that we are enough, that we are loved.

To eat the bread of life in love means that communities come together to have conversations about their differences and support each other when forms of racial hatred are expressed in their communities.

To eat the bread of life in love is to check our privileges at the door and stop for a moment to let the Holy Spirit into our hearts and into our thoughts.

To eat the bread of life and love is to have compassion for one another even under the most difficult of circumstances,

To eat the bread of life means we struggle and wiggle in comfortable and uncomfortable conversation with the other of differing opinions and we stay present.

To eat the bread of life means we don’t discount, belittle or shame the other as we are all “the other” at times.

The author and humanist chaplain, Jim Palmer wrote this week:

My God is better than your God

My religion is better than your religion

My belief system is better than your belief system.

My philosophy is better than your philosophy.

My ideology is better than your ideology,

My ism is better than your ism

My race is better than your race.

My socioeconomic class is better than yours.

My degree is better than yours.

My cause is better than your cause.

My political party is better than your political party.

 

And the wheels on the bus go round and round.

Meanwhile, there is something beneath all those layers that unite all of us together as one.

We are operating out of the beliefs, mindset, narratives and ideologies that are programmed in our heads.  We are divided and separated.  But when we allow ourselves to sink down into our innermost being and common humanity, we discover we are more alike than we are different.  We desire and fear the same things, we are caught up in that inescapable network of mutuality and single garment of destiny, and when we let ourselves go there we know in our deepest self that love goodness, peace, harmony, beauty, solidarity and compassion is what’s most real.

We are one human special and family: there is no real conflict or division between us.

Stop listening to them, Start listening to you.  –Jim Palmer

 To break real bread is messy, crumbs fall everywhere, bread broken by hand is never even, but there is a joy and a love in the sharing with others.

Breaking bread is beautiful.  Breaking bread is messy. Breaking bread is comforting.   Breaking bread is an amazing act of love. 

Let us break, bread together on our knees, or at our table or when we encounter the other or one another daily in our journey.

-The Reverend Dr. Karen Coleman, Associate Chaplain for Episcopal Ministry

A Building Block for a Common Hope

Sunday, August 5th, 2018

Click here to listen to the full service

Acts 10:1-17, 19-24, 27-30, 33-36, 44-48; 11:1-3, 15-18

Luke 6:43-45, 8:16-18

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Our Summer Preaching series is entitled, “Toward a Common Hope”.  This Summer we find we preach against the tide:  given the other preaching of division, exclusion, and isolation that surrounds us, the idea of a common anything is a hard sell.  And while hope is vital if we are to live, and to know what we hope for in detail is essential, hope also requires common action, if it is to be fulfilled hope in the world. 

Nowadays our problem is often that we don’t know what to hope for or know the hope we could have. The chaos just keeps coming, so there is no stability on which to stand or from which to act.  We are so busy and scheduled that it is more than enough to make it through the day.   And often our personal, national, and planetary news is so dire that our hope feels crushed even if we were able at one point to have it.  How do we recognize our hope, encourage one another, and find allies in hope that will help us make the changes that will expand our hope, so that we can go on?

Our story from the Book of Acts recounts one way that a group of people recognized a hope that they did not know they had, and recognized new allies even amongst many differences.  The story also describes an action that we can take to recognize our help us recognize our hope, recognize our allies, and take one action that is a building block for  our present and future common hope.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is known in some circles as The Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, and our story this morning is also known as “The Gentile Pentecost”.  It begins with visions:  Cornelius, a Gentile, sees and hears an angel who tells him to send for Simon Peter, a Christian believer of Jewish heritage, so that Cornelius can be recognized for his devotion and generosity before God.  Simon Peter, also Jesus’ disciple and a leader in the growing Jesus movement, has three visions, all the same:  a sort of sheet is lowered from heaven that contains animals both allowed and forbidden to eat by Jewish dietary laws.  A voice tells him to get up, and kill and eat any of the animals.  Peter refuses to do this in obedience to the dietary laws, and then the voice tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This dictum is further reinforced for Peter when the Holy Spirit tells him to go with Cornelius’s messengers without hesitation, for the Spirit’s own self has sent them.  Peter invites the messengers in for the night, and then goes with them to Cornelius’ home, where a mixed group of Gentile family and friends has gathered.

In Cornelius’ and Peter’s day, this behavior was counter-cultural.  Roman officers did not usually seek to emulate the religious practices of those toward whom they were given military orders.  Nor did they usually invite complete strangers of a different social class and of a populace under Roman rule into their homes amongst family and friends.  As for Peter, Christian believers of Jewish heritage did not mix with Gentiles in their personal or religious lives, and while Cornelius was a good guy, he was also a slaveholder and an officer of the army that occupied and subjugated Israel. Neither Cornelius’s nor Peter’s behavior is within the norm.  Both of them go beyond that:  Cornelius welcomes Peter and his companions warmly, describes their meeting as being in the presence of a God who is God to them all, and he and his family and friends are willing to listen to what Peter and his companions have to say as words that God has commanded them to bring.  Peter for his part has taken his vision and the Spirit’s speaking to heart, and begins his teaching with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

The story of the Gentile Pentecost continues as just that, a time of sign and wonder that echoes the first Pentecost.  To the astonishment of Peter’s companions, the gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all the Gentiles in the room – they begin to speak in tongues, and glorify and praise God for the good news of Jesus Christ that Peter has brought to them. This sign is enough for Peter to decide to baptize Cornelius and his family and friends, and for them all to visit together for several days.  Very unexpectedly, they all are now allies in the common hope they have together in Jesus Christ.  This story marks the beginning of fulfillment, not just of Cornelius vision and Peter’s vision, not just of the sign and wonder and hope of a Gentile Pentecost.  It marks the fulfillment of God’s hope, and of God’s vision of inclusion for the Church’s expansion into all the world.

And, the story of the Gentile Pentecost is also a story of conflict.  The apostles and believers of Jewish heritage in the Jerusalem church had not attended the celebration in Cornelius’ home. They had not had visions, they had not heard voices, they had not seen the sign.  They criticized Peter for visiting with Gentiles and eating with them. But when Peter told them all that had happened from his vision on, including the Gentiles’ baptism, the ones who criticized were silenced.  They were silenced by the enormous new thing that God had done, by a hope that they didn’t even know they had.  And then, “they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

Vision. Voices. Signs.  It’s a bit different now.  We who have been kicking around in the faith for a while now would love to have regular, obvious visions, voices, and signs, with clear directions to recognize what to hope for, tips on how to encourage each other, and ways to find allies.  And that is not to say that we don’t have visions, voices, and signs now more intermittently, or that we may not yet have them.  And, they are no longer frequent.  John Wesley, the founder of my faith tradition of Methodism, wrote that the reason we do not have these things is that we do not have the faith to receive them.  And, even if we don’t have visions or voices, or signs, we still have intuition, gut, imagination, hunch, mother wit, feeling, no such thing as coincidence, hairs on the backs of our necks, and so on. And, if we don’t have even these, we all still have one gift from God, can take one action.  We can practice this gift, this action; with it we can be in cooperation with the Holy Spirit; it can be a building block for a common hope and for that hope’s fulfillment in the world.

Because the larger story of the Gentile Pentecost is actually made of a series of stories.  And in each of these stories, the one thing that everybody does … is listen.  They listen to the voice of the Spirit, they listen to the unknown languages, but most of all they listen to each other’s stories.  And in that way they all hear the Spirit and the unknown languages, and all the stories become part of everybody’s common story. They listen in the broad sense, not only or even with ears, but with an open heart and a willingness to understand. They listen in a way that anyone can do to receive whatever communication that might come to them from another person – with respect and full attention and by any means necessary. Even if they cannot understand the language, listening to it allows for translation, and carries significant meaning. Each of the smaller stories in the larger story – of the Spirit, of Cornelius and of his family and friends, of Peter and of his companions, of the apostles and uncircumcised believers in Jerusalem – all these and all of our stories only have meaning if someone listens to them. 

This is not the kind of listening that many of us so often do, not the kind in which we nod our heads and make encouraging noises while all the while thinking not of what the other person is saying but of what we want to say instead or in response.  Neither is it the kind of listening that demands lockstep ideological purity all the way through all the issues.  Instead it is the kind of listening that allows us to welcome our allies where we find them.  Kenneth Elmore, Associate Provost and Dean of Students at Boston University, noted in an interview given at the School of Theology that if we have one point of agreement with a person, no matter our other differences, we have an ally on that one point, and it is from that one point that we can move to find other points of alliance.  This is an important thing to remember in our time that so promotes division and discord: if the apostles and believers of Jewish heritage had listened to Peter and his companions only with the demand for continued ideological purity, there is a good chance that many of us today would not be listening to this service of worship.  There’s nothing wrong with criticism and disagreement.  They are often a consequence of the Spirit’s work, and they often open up discussion and creativity as the demand for ideological purity does not.  In the church we are all both Gentiles and believers of Jewish heritage at any given time.

My friend Lucy is a Methodist minister.  She tells the story of a time in the middle years of her ministry.  At a conference she was paired for a conversation with a woman who turned out to be a Native American tradition bearer for one of the tribes in New England.  While she and Lucy were much of an age, in many ways they were very different. Aside from the differences in faith tradition, Lucy is very white, and privileged by any of the world’s standards. Her Native American companion, as became clear in their mutual telling of their stories, while privileged in many ways, by many of the world’s standards was not.  Some people would see them as natural adversaries rather than as colleagues or allies.  And yet they shared profound similarities that deeply moved both of them. The elders in both their traditions were beginning to die, so now they themselves were becoming the elders.  The responsibility for carrying their traditions lay a bit heavy on both of them. Had they learned their traditions well enough?  Were they skilled enough in the ways necessary to help pass their traditions along to the next generation?  Were they skilled enough to help their communities face the challenges and use the gifts of their traditions as well as those of the present day?  They found that the joys and sorrows of their callings were much the same, as were the personal challenges and growth they had experienced.  And they found a common hope in the goods they wanted for their communities and in the resilience and adaptability of their traditions.  Neither was converted to the other’s belief system – there was no thought of that.  Further conversations might have revealed areas of profound disagreement and even conflict between them.   And yet in that time as they listened deeply to each other’s story, they unexpectedly realized that they were allies, each working in her own way and in her own community to fulfill a common hope of inclusion and peace. In they listened and then talked together they both found encouragement and strength for their own hopes for what might be possible.  There were no plans for follow-up:  it was not that kind of conversation, and really did not need to be.  Lucy has never seen her colleague and ally again.  And, she often thinks of and prays for her and her community, and even sends money to projects Lucy knows may support their common hope.  Their time together was a time of mutual inclusion and alliance, and Lucy considers it a blessed touchstone in her life.  As we read in the Gospel of Luke, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

To listen is to take action, and the act of listening is a building block for a common hope.  To listen to the truth of another person that brings us joy, to listen to the truth of another person that may make us uncomfortable, allows us to cooperate with the Spirit in its work of inclusion.  As we listen to God and to one another, even in the midst of disagreement and division, we can discover what to hope for or the hope that we could have.  We can find allies on just one point.  And with a common hope and allies, we can begin to fulfill our hope in this place and time.  As we read in the Gospel of Luke, “Then pay attention to how you listen.”  Amen.

—Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students