Jesus, the self-offering way: Jonathan Daniels and Inward Digestion

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and with the comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

The prayer I just read comes from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Prayer book tradition. Those are the words from 1549. In The Episcopal Church, we read a modern version of this Collect, the prayer we pray at the beginning of the service, toward the end of November. But when I read today’s Gospel, today’s very strange Gospel, this prayer came to mind.

I remember the words of this prayer from being a kid serving as an acolyte at church services, because the image is so strong. Let us “inwardly digest” the scriptures, “inwardly digest” them, I thought? As a kid, that struck me as odd. Maybe it strikes our acolytes as odd. The image comes from Scripture. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet eats a scroll given him by God and licks his fingers afterward. But to twelve-year-old me, that we would ask God to help us “inwardly digest” our scriptures struck me as odd.

Kids can be quite literal. My mother likes to tell the story that when I was three or four years old, my she left me in the car for just a few seconds with a cake she had baked for my grandfather’s birthday. She just needed to run into the house for a moment, having left something behind on the kitchen counter. Everything would have been fine, except that before she went into the house she told me the kind of cake she had baked. The cake was a pineapple upside down cake. By the time she returned to the car, I had turned the upside down cake right side up. My mother has never baked that kind of cake again.

So as a very literal minded child, this image of “inwardly digesting” was strange. The image is powerful, but to get past the “weird,” we have to grow up a bit. We have to see scripture as more than literal.
In the early days of Christianity, rumors spread through the Roman Empire that Christians were cannibals. Christians claimed to gather each week to eat the flesh and drink the blood of their savior. Cannibalism, it turned out, wasn’t popular. You can see where their fellow citizens got the idea, but the accusations came, and fanned the flames of persecution.

John 6, this chapter we find ourself so deep in this week, the chapter we have been reading for so many weeks in the Church, is difficult. It should catch us off-guard, make us pause. Jesus says, “eat me.” Even the disciples, in the next few verses will say simply “This teaching is difficult.”

Still, the invitation, however strange, is profound. Jesus invites us to eat his flesh, to inwardly digest HIM. Jesus OFFERS his flesh for the life of the world. Jesus offers his life to us, that we might have life. The words are gruesome, there’s no way around how gruesome the words are, but at their heart is a profound offer, an offer of life, an offer of sustenance.

It’s such a profound offer, that we remember it each week around this table. “This is my body, given for you.” “This is my blood, shed for you.” Those words, they are still pretty gross if you take them literally. If we’re paying attention, they should still cause us to pause. There’s another phrase that follows in the Eucharistic liturgy. “Do this in remembrance of me.” I think we need to pause with that one a little more as well.

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Maybe you’re like me, and you always assumed that “Do this in remembrance of me” meant, “come to church. Receive the Eucharist.” Before seminary, I really thought that’s what the words meant. Then I had a professor ask, “What is the ‘this’?” My liturgy professor in seminary was a feisty Roman Catholic nun, a sister of St. Joseph. She convinced me there was more at stake in the Eucharist. “What is the this?” she asked.

Sister Koernke wanted all of us priests in training to ask whether Jesus had more in mind when he talked about offering his body and blood. When Jesus said “do this” did he not mean, “I’m offering my life for the world. My followers follow me by offering their lives for the world, just like I do.” It’s a radical vision. That’s what’s at stake when we walk up to this altar rail each and every Sunday. What is the “this” that we do?

Following Jesus can put you at odds with the world. Following Jesus can put you at odds with you friends, and your denomination, and your political party. Following Jesus can get you in trouble. Daniel Berrigan, the famous Jesuit activist, likes to say, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” Christ-following is costly, he wagers.

This week The Episcopal Church remembers the fiftieth anniversary of a martyrdom. When we talk about martyrs in the church, we often mean centuries ago. Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School (then the Episcopal Theological School) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March of 1965 when he heard news of Dr. Martin Luther King calling students to join him in Selma, Alabama. At first, Daniels didn’t think much of the call, but something happened during a service in the seminary chapel. He heard words from Scripture anew. Daniels wrote about the experience later:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat…Then it came. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” I knew then that I must go to Selma.

Daniels went to Selma and stayed in Alabama through the rest of the Spring Semester, and into the summer. The seminarian made people angry. He upset the status quo. He marched with those who were risking their lives each day for civil rights. You have to know, he wasn’t particularly welcomed by the Episcopal Churches in Selma. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was partly addressed to the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama who wasn’t integrating his churches, and had asked King to quiet down. While he was in Alabama, he tried to integrate one of the parishes, against the will of the rector. Jonathan came to Alabama to march, and to stand with Dr. King.

Eventually Jonathan was arrested with some other protesters. After six days in jail they were released unexpectedly. No one had arranged transportation, so they walked over to a nearby grocery to make a call and wait for a ride. As the protestors came up to the front door, a man appeared with a shotgun and pointed it at Ruby Sales, a 16-year-old black girl. Daniels pulled her out of the way just as the shot was fired. The seminarian died instantly. His killer was later acquitted by a jury made up of only of white men.

Jonathan Daniels in his own day was a divisive young seminarian, and today is face is carved in the ceiling at the National Cathedral in Washington, in a group of modern day martyrs. He is remembered in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church. Jonathan Daniel’s didn’t set out to be a martyr. Thankfully most people of faith don’t end up martyrs, but Christians are followers of Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was put to death for his preaching.

Jonathan Daniels' bust in the National Cathedral.
Jonathan Daniels’ bust in the National Cathedral.
I don’t think Jesus just wanted all his followers to offer their lives so dramatically. Often “do this” is slower. Sometimes offering our lives means dedicating ourselves to education, or health care, or doing our best to make sure that day in and day out people get a fair shake in our justice system. Often “do this” means making room in your life to volunteer, to engage the political process, to help a neighbor struggling to raise kids on her own. There are a lot of ways of “offering your life.” There are many ways to put your flesh on the line, to have skin in teh game. There are people in this congregation who have put a lot of blood, and sweat, and tears into their work, paid and unpaid. When you make sacrifices for life of the world, that’s following Jesus too. That is also offering your life.

I think this self-offering way of life is what Jesus really has to offer our world. We live in a society that is pretty selfish. We think a lot about ourselves. We take a lot of selfies. We live in a society that is extremely violent. We live in a society that often seems to reward greed. The way of self-offering isn’t popular.

There is an old Cherokee legend about a Grandfather teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” the old man says to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”

What will you choose to inwardly digest? Will we feed on anger, greed, division and violence of the world, or do we choose the self-offering way of Christ?

I have to confess, I am still learning this way of Jesus. If my sermon makes this choice seem simple. I can tell you, it’s not. Choosing what to inwardly digest, choosing to “do this” and to offer our lives for the world, really these are decisions we make cumulatively. We choose the way of Jesus in small ways each minute each and every day. I often make the wrong choice. We all do. It’s why I think it is good to come here to church, to confess our sins, to say our prayers, and to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the words of scripture. It’s why I come here, to be fed by the One who offered his life for the world. And I come to hear again and again, his invitation, to offer my life as well.

Code-switching and Preaching: knowing your context.

Preaching, at its best, expresses the Gospel in a specific context. Code-switching helps us to understand the contexts in which we preach. My previous post focused on the danger of code-switching into “preacher voice.” Before we can understand others’ contexts, before we can hear another’s code, we have to know our own. My undergraduate thesis supervisor, Orlando Espín, would often tell me that to understand another person’s context, you first have to know your own. You have to own that you speak with a particular code, based on culture and history, if you are to approach preaching with another code in mind.

In order to preach the Good News the preacher must know the specific people among whom she ministers, know their language, know their history, know their code. In traditional writing terms, you have to know your audience. I have to confess, I worry sometimes that preachers are writing more for their “followers” online than for the people in the pews. Our social network following tends to be naturally less diverse than a congregation (and that’s saying something). “Will my friends click like?” should be the last question a preacher worries about as he works on a sermon. There is danger in preaching to our Facebook friends. When we so constrain our sense of context, a sermon can become an “insiders” game.

Seminarian sermons tend to be laden with theological jargon. Seminarians live and breathe the context of academic theology. You can tell a good seminarian sermon when the multisyllabic theology words are limited and translated for the congregation. A great seminarian sermon gets a laugh out of that translation, because they know the congregation well enough to make them laugh. A preacher who knows her congregation well is in the business of translating tradition to a specific context.

Our task in the pulpit is not to teach the people to speak as if they had a seminary education. The work of the preacher is to make the Gospel available to the congregation. How can ancient stories and teachings come alive in a particular context? Code-switching helps us approach an answer. We have to learn to speak in the various codes of our congregation.

I was incredibly fortunate in my first call to parish ministry. I had the chance for four and a half years to preach among the people of St. John’s Lafayette Square, a historic congregation just across from the White House. Part of St. John’s vibrancy comes from the diversity of its members. I often found myself preaching in English in the morning and in Spanish in the afternoon. After a few sermons crashed and burned, I learned that I had to translate more than the words to preach in Spanish. I needed to think through the metaphors I used and stories I told, the emphases I looked for in the text. What preached in the morning among English speaking lawyers and government officials often fell flat with day laborers and recent immigrant families.

Code-switching is about more than speaking a language. Code-switching is about knowing the stories and history, art and poetry. Speaking about race in Washington is always tricky. Preaching about race at St. John’s got me in trouble a couple of times. A vestry member, a prominent figure in Washington’s black community, pulled me aside after a particular sermon to let me know I had made some assumptions I shouldn’t have made. I disagreed with his conclusions about some particular points in my sermon, but came to the realization that I had some homework to do. I asked him out to lunch.

I didn’t preach about race for awhile. I spent time with this parishioner, and with some other members of the black community at St. John’s. I got to know them better, to know their stories and passions. When the fourth of July came around, I was assigned as the preacher for the preceding Sunday. At St. John’s, this is a big day. They bring in a pipe and drum, and sing a number of patriotic hymns. The danger in this particular Sunday is American Triumphalism. It can seem in the liturgy like we are identifying America with the Kingdom of God, as if our nation were the fulfillment of God’s dream. I knew I had to say something about our nation’s ongoing struggles. I had to talk about race. I also knew now, I couldn’t just speak for myself. Hearing a white young man talk about injustice in his own words wasn’t enough. I needed some support. I leaned on Langston Hughes. Hughes was once Washington resident, a busboy at a big hotel, and I centered the sermon on one his poems:

O, let America be America again–The land that never has been yet–And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath–America will be!

The vestry member, who was a poetry buff, congratulated me on my sermon that Sunday. “Anytime you use Langston Hughes in a sermon, you’ve got me.” I’ll say, I didn’t think the sermon was perfect, but what I learned from the experience was that I could get a lot farther by listening to the people with whom I preached. I could communicate more effectively if I incorporated poets, writers, and songs that had meaning for the members of my congregation. I had to diversify my reading and listening to preach effectively. I had to listen. It takes time to learn to find the grace, the Good News, operating in another cultural context. It takes a lot of listening to the members of your congregation who have found that grace in the work that has given them life. I had to learn to listen with them. Listening doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a talker. I’m still learning to listen.

I know that if I want to be a great preacher, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time listening to the people among whom I am called to preach. It is rumored that Karl Barth said the task of the theologian was to open both the Bible and the newspaper. I would say that the task of the preacher is to open up the Bible and to open up the stories told round the kitchen tables of the congregation. Bringing the Good News to the people means knowing them, knowing the hymns they love and the assumptions that make them angry. To be a good preacher is to allow your congregation to show you how God has found them in their particular context. To effectively preach is to code-switch for the sake of Gospel in the multiple contexts of your congregation. I dare say, when I have approached preaching this way, I have been surprised by God’s grace. It turns out that God appears in ways I couldn’t have dreamed up on my own.

Where do we begin? A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

The Dome at St. John's Church. Still not retractable
The Dome at St. John’s Church. Still not retractable

Where do we begin? I find myself focused this morning on beginnings. “In the beginning,” the first words of the Bible. Really, the first word. “Berishit” in Hebrew, just one word. “In the beginning.”

Mark’s Gospel also centers on a beginning. Mark, as usual, wastes no time. John announces “one is coming after me,” and lo, he comes. Jesus appears in the wilderness of the Jordan, to be baptized by John. This is Jesus’ IPO, his initial public offering. Jesus is all grown up and the ministry begins with baptism.

Beginnings are radically important. I work with twenty-somethings a great deal in my work as “Missioner for Young Adult and College Ministry” for The Episcopal Church. And twenty somethings are understandably about the most ANGSTY group of people you’ll ever meet. At least I was an angsty twenty-something. If you’re honest, I bet you were too.

Twenty somethings are angsty, because they are at the beginning of their adult lives. They are making a lot of really important decisions for the first time. I love working with twenty-somethings because every choice matters a great deal. Think about it, the decisions you make in your twenties shape your whole life. Where to work, who to marry, where to settle down. These are huge decisions, and a lot of these tracks begin in your twenties. So twenty-somethings can be an angsty bunch. Now, I don’t want to leave out those of us who have survived our twenties, because I know I can still be angsty, especially when I’m facing an important beginning.

Beginnings are important. Beginnings matter. Where do you begin?

Had he lived, Dr. King would have been 86 years old this week. He was killed at forty. Imagine if all he accomplished had only been the beginning of his work. Imagine if Dr. King could’ve come to Ferguson this summer to exhort our region to nonviolent witness. Imagine if Dr. King could have come back to this Cathedral last summer, 50 years after his first sermon here, to remind us that we must “learn to live together as brothers, or perish as fools.”

Throughout his ministry, Dr. King asked us all to consider our beginnings? Where do you begin? The pragmatists of his day wanted Martin to slow down, to consider the deep divides of race and class, the intractability of racial bias. Two Episcopal Bishops in Alabama signed an open letter addressing Dr. King’s visit to Birmingham in 1963. They saw Dr. King as an outsider, and asked him not to protest in their streets. After the protest he replied to their letter with a letter of his own. He wrote them “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King’s letter would become legendary, and Dr. King’s letter is all about beginnings.

Dr. King’s letter explains that he doesn’t consider himself an outsider. He begins somewhere else. Dr. King wrote famously “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He goes on “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Dr. King could have been talking about baptism. King’s framework was informed by Christian Baptismal theology. He was taught, in church, that we are all tied together in one body.

Dr. King’s letter was partly addressed to a couple of Episcopal Bishops, and it has been read by many more Anglicans. I would love to ask the former Archbishop of Canterbury whether MLK’s letter influenced his own teaching on Baptism. Dr. Rowan Williams wrote that baptism involves us in “solidarities not of our own choosing.” Both Dr. King and Rowan Williams talk about the inconvenient beginning that we face. We don’t choose our solidarities. We can’t escape our network of mutuality.

Baptism is the sacrament of beginning, and baptism reminds us that we all begin in the same place. We are all, all of us, children of God. We all belong to the created order. We belong to creation. Baptism reminds us where we start. You can’t choose your family. We keep trying. We keep trying to separate ourselves one from another. We keep trying to say to one another: you don’t matter to me, and we exclude one another to our peril. “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or [we will] perish like fools.”

Today as we baptism Gloria Dean, we go back to the beginning. We remember the Church’s teaching that we all begin in the same place. We will pledge ourselves again, in the Baptismal Covenant to work for justice and peace. We’ll promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Those promises are tied to baptism because they are where we begin as Christians. We begin by understanding that we are all, all of us, created in the image and likeness of God. Not some, all. Not just the “good” people. Not just the white people. Not just the so-called straight people. Not just the men. Not just those whose biological sex matches their gender identity. Not just the English-speaking. Not just the American citizens. Not just the able bodied. Not just the rich. Not just the powerful. Against every division we have invented and enforced in our human society, Baptism invites us to return to God’s beginning. We are all created in God’s image. We are all, all of us, loved by God. That’s where we begin.

I like to call this little story from Mark “Jesus’ IPO,” his Initial Public Offering. This is where Jesus begins in Mark’s Gospel. It seems Jesus’ first public act is sorta passive. Jesus’ first action verb? Jesus HEARS. He HEARs the voice of God. Before he acts, he hears.  Before he heals, he hears.  Before he teaches, before he stirs up trouble, before he calls disciples, before he walks on water, before everything else Jesus hears God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”

“Well pleased with WHAT?” we might ask. We want a public record. We want to see a resumé. We want to weigh accomplishments. WHAT had Jesus done that was PLEASING to God at this point? In the Gospel, nothing. BEFORE he acts, he hears. BEFORE he does anything of note, before he does anything worth writing down, he hears this voice of love and affirmation. Jesus doesn’t do ANYTHING to merit God’s love. God starts loving Jesus, accepting Jesus, before he gets anything done. God doesn’t wait for Jesus to act before he announces his love, his approval.

Friends, this is the Gospel: before Jesus does anything he has God’s love and approval. Before we do anything, we have God’s love and approval. We don’t merit God’s love. We don’t win it through good behavior. We begin our lives loved and accepted by God. We spend our lives, at least I have spent a good part of my life, trying to let go of my own stuff to accept God’s acceptance, God’s love. You are already loved, already accepted by God.

My former church in Washington had a beautiful dome. The church was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the first great American architect, designer of the US Capitol. My former rector liked to joke with the congregation that he wished he could get permission from the Historical Society to make the dome retractable. I see some shudders from the history buffs. Don’t worry, I’m sure it was just a sermon illustration.

My rector didn’t want a retractable dome because he wanted to be like the Dallas Cowboys. He didn’t want a retractable dome so that he could try to lure the St. Louis Rams to DC. (Though “the Rams” is a better name for a team than the one they continue to use for the team in Washington).

My rector wanted a retractable dome for baptism Sundays. He also wanted a Steven Spielberg sized special effects budget (which somehow he could never convince the vestry give him). Every time there was a baptism, he wanted the dome to open, and a hologram of a dove to float down over the font, and a deep voice to come over the loud speaker: “This is my beloved child, with this child I am well pleased.”

The words God speaks to Jesus, God speaks to every single one of us. This is where we begin. The sacrament of baptism is a sign of God’s love for us, a sign of our inescapable network of mutuality, a sign of the solidarities not of our choosing. Baptism is a sign that we are one. We are all united as children of God. We exist because God loves us, all of us, into existence.

As a city, as a region, as a country we find ourselves asking “Where do we begin?” And so, I think we are asking the right question. Whether we are in our twenties, and have our whole lives ahead of us, or we are in our eighties and have the whole rest of our lives ahead of us, we are invited this morning to examine our starting point. We are invited to question where we begin with one another. Do we start from the divisions the world creates, or do we begin with the common identity we all share as the beloved children of God.

What if the work of Dr. King was just the beginning? What if the work that started in the streets of Ferguson this summer is the continuation of Brother Martin’s work? How do we begin to see one another, and to treat one another as God’s beloved children? Where do we begin?