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.

facebook-cover-do-this-in-remembrance-of-me-Super-bread-wine-christian-wallpaper-hd_850x315

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.

Liturgy for Lent: 8 Essential Actions for Eucharist

Mike: In the last post, we poked the bear. Jason, you asked whether the Eucharistic prayers needed to be read verbatim. People responded, a lot.

Jason: Thanks to everyone for the feedback over social media. It’s nice to know that this is a dialog that folks care about.

Mike: I’m convinced we need to be able to adapt the language if we don’t want liturgy to become a museum-piece, but I was persuaded by Jason in the first post on Eucharist that actions often speak louder than words. Today, with the help of the “Order for Celebrating The Holy Eucharist,” we present eight essential actions for Holy Eucharist.

Action 1: Gather in the Lord’s Name

Mike: Gathering the Community, in my opinion, should consume more of our energy than worship planning. “Change the liturgy (or music) and they’ll come” has been our default for too long. Our congregations still don’t reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods in terms of race, class, gender, orientation, and age. We have work to do in gathering the community.

Jason: Mike and I frequently talk about how important community organizing skills are for leading congregations. If we intend to minister to our communities we need to first know them. Building community from the outside in will change the face of our congregations.

Hack (from Mike): Who is leading worship? Maybe your congregation isn’t that diverse, but do you have a few young people, a few people of color who you can invite to serve, to read, to join the choir to put on the fancy robes? Model the diversity you hope for your community up front. It says to people in the minority: there is a valued place for you here.

Action 2: Proclaim and Respond to the Word of God

Mike: Eucharist always involves hearing and responding to scripture. Eucharist always involves hearing a lesson from the Gospel proclaimed. After the proclamation, there are very few rules about what the response to the text looks like. A lot of Episcopalian friends of mine probably get nervous that the prayer book is encouraging dance, talk, and other forms of art, to respond to scripture, but here it is, from 1979.

Jason: There’s a reason why we read passages from all over the Bible every week. Those that composed the framework of our liturgy–as well as those that compiled the canon of Scripture–believed that these books “harmonized” with each other. That is to say, they sing the same song, participate in telling the same over-arching story.

Hack (from Jason): If you’re providing a homily, don’t get bogged down in one passage, and don’t avoid the hard one’s. Ask yourself what the common message is across each of the passages for that day. And don’t forget that this precedes the Eucharist. How might these passages lead us to prepare us to come together around the Table? Keep it simple. Tell stories. Be practical. If you can do that then you’ll come across smarter than those trying to sound smart.

Action 3: Pray for the World and the Church

Mike: Eucharist always makes room to pray together, to give thanks together. There are official forms for the prayers of the people. They can be adapted. There is a list of categories of required prayer on page 383 that can be really helpful when writing or adopting prayers.

Jason: This can be such a meaningful and engaging aspect of the service for me. It can also be an invitation for those that need attention to hijack the service. Offering clear direction and encouraging brevity is really important here.

Hack (from Mike): In a smaller congregation, I used to write out prayers for each of the categories in the Prayer Book and cut them up on slips of paper, with directions on each slip. When it came time for the Prayers of the People, the prayers would bubble up from around the room. This also helped people feel invited to pray out loud for their own needs.

Action 4: Exchange the Peace

Mike: The peace can be really embracing, or very isolating. In some congregations, peace can become “half-time” lasting upwards of ten minutes. Newcomers greet their neighbors in the pew and then feel isolated while conversations happen between long time friends. Peace is meant to be sacramental, a sign of God’s love shared in community. Attention to the outsider is important.

Jason: Remember the theme song from, Cheers? We all want to be known. By name.

Hack (from Jason): Make it a point to offer the peace and learn the name of one visitor at every service. But don’t stop there. Introduce them to at least one other person. Outsiders are more likely to return if they are genuinely welcomed and feel as if they are known on that first visit.

Action 5: Prepare the Table

Mike: This is a moment of transition. We prepare the table by presenting our gifts of bread and wine, and our gifts of money. We offer all that we have and are to God in Eucharist, and here when enact the offering.

Jason: Many traditions have unintentionally embedded a lot of guilt into preparation to come before the Table. I think that confession, which comes earlier, is a great leveler. We’ve all fallen short of who we are intended to be. As I said before, no one is better than the other as we approach the Table. At the same time, we all bring gifts of the same worth. How to acknowledge this best seems to be a case-by-base basis. You have to know your community, your context.

Hack (from Mike): I wonder whether we might expand the use of the offering plates. Yes, money should be offered, but what about pledges of time, requests for prayer, email address changes, newcomer cards. The congregation I belonged to in Tegucigalpa included some Garifuna, a culture that blends African Diaspora and Indigenous ancestry and tradition. Garifuna women often danced the offering plates forward. Could a size-able minority make such an offering of culture in your congregation?

Action 6, 7, and 8: Make Eucharist, Break the Bread, Share the Gifts of God

Mike: Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican monk and liturgist agreed with Jason. Action is key he said. Dix said that in scripture and ancient practice there is a four-fold shape to Eucharist. Four actions: Take, Give Thanks, Break, Share. “Take” was covered above when the presider receives the gifts and prepares the table. “Make Eucharist” is about Giving thanks. Eucharist directly translated means “Good Thanks.” The people respond with Amen! (My Hebrew professor said the best translation of Amen was “True that.”) The bread is then broken and shared. We’ll do a supplemental detail post on the traditional elements of the Eucharistic Prayers, but I thought Jason you’d like the focus on action here.

Jason: After this, we pray “… Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart …” This is so important! What we just celebrated is intended to shape how we go back into the world. The Grace we have just participated in is what we are to be to our loved ones, neighbors, colleagues, enemies. Connecting the worship service to our everyday lives seems to be a critical aspect in making it actually worthwhile. Why would I participate in this weekly ritual if I didn’t think it mattered to the rest of the week? Everything that follows the “ministration of Communion” is intended to communicate this. But make sure that it is.

Hack: in our next post, we’ll talk about the Eucharistic prayer in detail, and hacks to make it come alive throughout the week for people.

 

 

Liturgy for Lent: The Eucharist: Too Much Structure?

Mike: We talked in the last post about the WHY of Eucharist. Now I think we should talk about the HOW. You’ve expressed to me a discomfort with how much structure we have. I think we need structure. I think it helps sometimes to think of liturgies like poetry. Different kinds of poetry have different rules, different ways of rhyming, different lengths of lines, different rhythms. You can break iambic pentameter every once in awhile, but you can’t throw the structure out entirely and have a recognizable sonnet. Jason, as someone who grew up in evangelical circles, how does all this structure around Eucharist strike you? Does poetry help as a metaphor?

Jason: Sort of. Like you said, I did grow up around informal, impromptu and abbreviated liturgies in celebration of the Lord’s Table. In the Episcopal church, the Liturgy of the Table can be beautiful! Yet, it often feels lengthy and insincere. As I hope our last post makes clear, this practice means a lot to me. Because of that I would like those that lead us into the practice to feel the same way.

Mike: I think you’re right, authenticity and sincerity are key. I wrote a post about preaching a few weeks ago when I railed against “preacher voice.” The only thing to me worse than “preacher voice” from a pulpit is the fake sounding “stained-glass voice” that some priests use when celebrating. That said, the Eucharistic Prayers that you’re worried go on too long are usually officially approved texts. I’ll give you that some of the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer and especially in the supplemental Enriching Our Worship do feel too long to me. I don’t often use them for that reason.

Jason: Does this mean that everything in the service, with the exception of hymns and homilies, are to be read verbatim? As a priest, then, how do you make this feel genuine?

Mike: Officially, yes. The Book of Common Prayer is an authorized liturgical text. The printed words are our Common Prayers. We are meant to use them verbatim each week. The other side of the coin is the old adage that the rubrics (liturgical rules) are there to protect the people from the whims of the pastor. I’ve been in services where I’ve wished they would have stuck to a book, because the prayer that the pastor made up made me uncomfortable. I think to make liturgy feel genuine, the prayers have to be “Common” and still somehow the priest has to own them for herself. That means some adaptation, but I’m pretty conservative about how we go about the adaptation. I think we need to make any big changes together in dialogue, with more than just my opinions being heard. (Shocking, I know.)

Jason: I feel like I should make clear that I deeply appreciate reciting and praying the same things week to week. But I also feel a tension with doing things with sincerity of delivery, in terminology that people actually understand and a length folks can tolerate. Make sense?

Mike: It does make sense. I have to admit, I have a love/hate relationship with our structure. I love the predictability and consistency of the Prayer Book, but sometimes the metaphors, especially for God, are a little old-school. Our Reform Jewish sisters and brothers just released their new prayer book. In their new book they have prayers that address God as a “Holy Presence who spreads Her wings over you.” The linked article talks a bit about another supplemental book The Episcopal Church has just released for Daily Prayers. In our next post, let’s talk a little bit about what some Episcopalians (mistakenly) call “Rite III,” the outline of “An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist” that allows for experimentation with liturgy for the sake of honoring a specific culture or context. This “Order”/Outline also distills the essential elements of the Eucharistic Liturgy.