What nourishes you?

What is your daily bread? What nourishes you? Before we roll into this sermon, know that I wish these lessons did not come up during summer. I’d rather we read all this about bread from John during the majority of the year when we serve a big breakfast on Sunday morning. September can’t come quickly enough. We’d be better able to hear this Gospel on a full stomach. This week I was talking with Ellis about the Gospel, and he summarized it this way: “Jesus said, O ye of grumbling bellies.” The heart of this lesson is hunger, but not physical hunger. What nourishes you? What is your daily bread?

Jesus moves quickly beyond the literal hunger of the people. The Gospel of John leads me to believe Jesus wasn’t a literalist about very much. “You’re here because you’re looking for the loaves,” says Jesus. But the Good News is bigger than food. The Good News is deeper than what you see and touch. God’s bread is what gives life to the world. Jesus wants people to move beyond thinking with their stomachs. Jesus could be singing that old song by the band Cheap Trick, “I want you to want me.” Jesus wants the people to long for God, not for bread. So again, I ask, What nourishes you? What feeds your soul? What gives you life? What is your daily bread?

I want to touch on three streams of soul-nourishment, that I believe are critical in the way of Jesus. These three sources of spiritual food will be no surprise to those of you who grew up going to church, but I ask for you to consider them with me again this morning, in light of the Gospel. Ask yourself whether your belly is grumbling. The three I want to touch on this morning are Prayer, Community, and Worship.

First, prayer. We often practice prayer as a series of petitions and thanksgiving to God. Asking is a form of prayer, indeed. But the Christian tradition of prayer has more to offer than a litany of requests and blessings. Jesus actually doesn’t say much about prayer in The Gospels. The disciples memorably asked Jesus how to pray, and he gives them the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” And in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus complains about the long public prayers of the Pharisees. He exhorts his followers to go into their closet, and to pray in secret.

That advice about praying is secret thickens when we consider Jesus’ own practice of prayer. He may not speak much about prayer, but he teaches by example. We see Jesus draw away for solitude a great deal. He often pulls away to a garden, or the desert, or a mountaintop to pray. Jesus sought peace and stillness. Arguably, such peace did not come easily. We’ve just ridden in boats with a crowd of thousands chasing Jesus as he tries to escape across the sea of Galilee. He was in demand as a healer, a preacher, and a generator of bread. Yet, though he was popular, we often find Jesus seeking a place apart.

Thomas Merton once said, “Prayer is wasting time, conscientiously with God.” Prayer is a return, a relaxing, a slowing down. Many traditions teach that the first step in contemplation is to consider our breath. How often do we need to catch our breath these days?

Prayer understood through the example of Jesus is looking for a time to return to ourselves. Prayer is looking for space between the busy-ness of our life to remember that we are not finally human-doings but human beings. We need time just to be. In that space, God will meet you.

I say these words partly because I need to hear them. Over the years I have had fits and starts at the practice of centering prayer, a Christian practice taught by the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating. The goal of Centering Prayer is to quiet all of the busy-ness of our day, to quiet the busy-ness of our minds. The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian.

What practices help quiet your mind and bring you the nourishment of prayer? How do you find the stillness that all of us need? How do you snatch enough quiet to survive the business and busy-ness of our everyday world? Prayer is an important, central stream of nourishment that we need to find that life Jesus talks about. How does your life of prayer feed you, keep you fully alive?

The next stream I want to discuss I have called community. I have to confess, I’m not entirely satisfied with that term. Community seems too easy. We throw the word “community” around in our language, to the point that it can mean very little. Is “community” a geographical region: the “community” of University City? Is “community” a type of education: Community College? For followers of Jesus, “community” describes something more integral.

What is the ecosystem of relationships that feeds you? Just like prayer, I think we have much to gain from being conscious and conscientious about how our relationships are feeding us. Who are the people with whom you break bread regularly? Who informs your worldview? Who is there for you when you are hurting? When you need to celebrate?

Jesus describes his vision of community a bit. He talks about welcoming children and centers the least of these as the gatekeepers to the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ practice again blows these teachings wide open. Jesus’ followers are known as an eclectic bunch. He eats with tax-collectors and sinners. He shares a table with women and outcasts. Notice too, the Pharisees and the Romans are at his table as well. They wouldn’t be complaining that Jesus invited the “wrong people” if the powerful weren’t also gathered. Jesus welcomed everybody.

It’s not that to Jesus those differences didn’t matter. It’s not that Jesus was color-blind, or wealth-blind, or gender-blind. No. Jesus saw diversity. Jesus wanted a diverse community around his table because his table was God’s table. All of these crazy diverse people are God’s people, he says. To God their stories matter. To God their lives matter.

“Black Lives Matter.” That slogan has become forever linked to the movement that began here in the community of St. Louis just short of a year ago. I confess I find the media’s sense of controversy around those words amusing. I’m still waiting for some absent-minded reporter to simply ask one of these absent minded presidential candidates, “Do you think that Black lives Matter?” What are they going to say, “no?”

The talking point for many of the talking heads has been to turn the slogan around. They say, “All Lives Matter.” This is true, but it is a subtle “no” to the movement. The young people, the activists, are asking us to remember that our system has not valued ALL lives. Historically, black lives were sold in this country, in this very state. Still today, Black lives are lost at a disproportionately high rate to violence in our city streets. Still today, in 2015, black lives are ended at a disproportionately high rate by our law enforcement, and by our legal system. Saying “Black Lives Matter” causes us to question whether All Lives REALLY do matter to our community. “Black Lives Matter” confronts the injustice. The words matter.

Yes, all of us have work to do when it comes to integrating our communities. People of every race can work to build a network of relationships that reflects God’s diversity. We can all work to build new friendships. Our souls will all be better fed if we encounter people who look different, think differently, speak differently, vote differently. But we also have to face the systemic nature of exclusion and racism. The power to make a change in our systems rests overwhelmingly with those empowered by those systems. Until we learn to systemically value black lives, we will continue to cut our society off from the potential God has for us. We will continue to waste the gifts God has for us that come from the talented women and men that our society excludes based on race, whose lives end at an alarming rate.

In the midst of all the brokenness in our society, I ask you to consider: what community feeds you? Where do you draw on the multifaceted wisdom and love of God to be found in a diverse community? Where do you find nourishment from people who work to love you fully, and who you work to love fully? Who else could be part of your community?

The final stream of nourishment I want to talk about is worship. Worship is what brings us together this morning. We are part of a tradition that values gathering the community for prayer. See how I just tied the other two streams together? The architects of our tradition were sage when they called the book we share “The Book of Common Prayer.” They acknowledged that something special happens when God’s people hold prayer in common, when we waste time together conscientiously with God.

I admit, coming to worship is not always the easiest thing for me to do. Even though I’m up here in fancy robes, still there are Sunday mornings when I leave my coffee and New York Times behind at my house a bit reluctantly. Yet, almost unfailingly, something about what we do here draws me back. Somehow the fragments of bread and sips of wine become more for me than meets the eyes. Somehow the food that we share, the stories that we tell, the songs that we sing, they become more than the sum of the parts.

When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are fed by God. That’s the faith of the church, and I’ve found it to be true for me. Worship nourishes me, even when I come reluctantly, even when I come tired, and frustrated. Especially when I have come in grief or with anxiety, I have found nourishment in the time we spend together.

When we share Holy Communion, as we are about to do, we encounter Jesus’ invitation to be fed deeply. We are invited to take God into our bodies, into our souls, into our lives more fully. We come to this table to be fed, that through us God might continue to give life to the world.

Where do you draw nourishment? Through Prayer, and Community, and Worship, how does Christ feed you? How could God be your daily bread? Questions to consider for a people with grumbling bellies.

Liturgy for Lent: Saints and Sanctified Time

Mike: Today is one of the most important Feast days for my own faith. March 24th is the celebration of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the Episcopal Church, marking the day of his martyrdom in 1980. I’ve marched through the streets of San Salvador with friends from the Anglican Church of El Salvador many times to remember the archbishop who stood with the poor. Romero has not yet been officially recognized by the Catholic Church, that is coming later this year, but the Episcopal Church added him to our calendar in 2009. I’ve been thinking a great deal about Feasts, Fasts, and the marking of time. Ellis and I are in Mexico, and on Friday we were at Chichen Itza for the Vernal Equinox. We saw the sun’s shadow make the body of a snake down the side of a temple, designed to help the Mayans mark this time of year for planting, and for worship. It was an amazing sight, and it made me reflect on the way we mark time.

Jason: That reminds me, you gave me one of my favorite t-shirts! On the return from one of your trips to El Salvador you brought me a shirt with Romero’s portrait on the front. Romero is definitely one of my faith heroes, along with MLK, Stringfellow, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard and many others. Growing up in the evangelical community, there were certainly role models within the history of the Church that we respected. But we never talked about sainthood. What do Episcopalians think of “saints”?

Mike: Like most things Episcopalian, it is tricky to talk about whether we have “saints.” We definitely have some saints. Francis, Mary, Joseph and the other New Testament Characters, anyone recognized by the Church before the reformation we tend to still call a “saint.” Others, like Romero, are celebrated with feasts, but we don’t necessarily officially call them saints. I think Madeleine L’Engle, the writer, who was an Episcopalian best stated our attitude towards saints. She said she liked to name her own saints, and among them she counted J.S. Bach and Einstein. Certainly the thick volume Holy Women and Holy Men, which is currently in trial use in The Episcopal Church takes this approach. There are lives which point us to the larger life of God, and we celebrate those lives. One day, when the whole Church of Rome, Canterbury, and Constantinople is reunited, we might settle on a single calendar, but for now, I like L’Engle’s approach. I know some clergy colleagues would disagree with me, but I tend to celebrate the saints that are meaningful for me, and leave the other saints alone.

Jason: When I was at Fuller Seminary, I had a class that required us to pick a “mentor” from Church history. You would read biographies and really study whomever you chose. I got way more out of this assignment than I thought I would (I studied Roland Allen). However you approach saintly stature, I think it’s worthwhile to dive in and really study those we revere in order to see what can be learned from their life and work.

You mentioned the Christian calendar. Let’s talk about this. Why do we still need a Christian calendar?

Mike: The whole concept of the Christian calendar gets us into the idea of “sanctified time.” In our modern day, time can feel a bit static. Besides feeling cold as we walk to the Metro to work, or getting a little bit of a vacation when the weather is warmer, our lives tend to have the same rhythm. We work at computers, many of us, and do the same kind of tasks day in and day out. Now with modern supermarkets, we can even eat whatever kind of produce we’d like year round. That wasn’t always the case. The Christian calendar helps us remember that there are seasons in life. That we move in cycles. Next week is Holy Week. It comes early this year because the cycles of the moon dictate when it comes. To calculate Easter, you have to use a “Golden Number” (see page 880 of the Book of Common Prayer). The Christian calendar helps us remember something that our ancient ancestors knew in their bones. We are not in charge of the time.

Jason: Ooh, that’s good, Mike! Let’s stop with that, “We are not in charge of time.”

Enjoy Mexico, brother.

 

Liturgy for Lent: Moments of Transition

Mike: Let’s turn for a moment from Eucharist. I think we’ll still do a supplemental post on Eucharistic prayers, but I want to talk about the other moments in the prayer book. If you look at the order of the services in the prayer book, there’s a sense of order that emerges. After the daily office, services start to line up along the trajectory of human life. Baptism is followed by Eucharist. Next comes Confirmation or commitment to Christian Service, Marriage, Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child, Reconciliation (confession), Anointing the Sick, Ministration at the time of Death, and Burial. I always found it funny that after burial came ordination… I’d like to cover the big ones: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and Burial. The prayer book seeks to accompany the faithful through meaningful transitions in life. In the church make the changes in life the liturgical work of faith.

Jason: During the ‘80’s and ‘90’s it became hugely popular in many evangelical churches to organize ministry around stages of life. Over time, this often became a ministry model of siloed age groups. Households went their separate ways upon arriving at church. On the heels of this era, I think what we’ve learned is that marking stages of life is more important than organizing around stages of life. The marking of stages of life is a very ancient, cross-cultural habit that many are rediscovering. And the integration of age groups in church programing is something we’ve found to be true, at least with young adults, in a study we did the Diocese of Washington last year. Mike, can you take us through how this occurs in the Episcopal Church?

Mike: Baptism really helped re-shape the 1979 Prayer Book. The framers of these liturgies wanted us to see baptism as THE initiation into the faith. It’s pretty obvious from the service that they had in mind adult candidates being baptized at the Easter Vigil. However, baptism is still usually performed in infancy in The Episcopal Church. We baptize babies, and their godparents and parents make promises for them. What is new for this prayer book, and has started to influence other churches is the idea of a Baptismal Covenant (pages 304-305). Ancient Christians had to profess the Creed to be baptized. The Baptismal Covenant returns to that pattern, and adds a series of promises about the Christian life to the liturgical work of the candidates. The idea is that we are a people shaped by our baptism. We return to this Covenant again and again in the liturgical year, to remember who we are as a people.

Jason: I baptized my two oldest children in the Pacific Ocean when they each decided they were ready to choose to live by such a covenant. Infant baptism is new for me. Nonetheless, I deeply appreciate how the Baptismal Covenant is framed in the Episcopal Church. It’s all about discipleship!

As you know, Brooke and I are planning to go through Confirmation. Can you unpack Confirmation a little?

Mike: For years Confirmation has been called “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Dr. Lisa Kimball from Virginia Seminary is part of a Lilly funded grant program to study confirmation across several denominations. She wrote a great post about the potential for confirmation in the lives of young people. Still, Confirmation is one of the biggest issues in this prayer book. Lisa points out in her post the contradictions written into the liturgies of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Part of what gives Confirmation life is that it is a ceremony reserved for bishops.  Confirmations can only be performed by a bishop, and the bishop represents the wider church. For most teenagers, and adult converts, confirmation is their first liturgical exposure to the “big church,” that is to the wider body of believers they belong to.

Jason: Lisa is incredible! Glad you sited her. Going back to that word ‘discipleship’ I like that confirmation takes membership in the church family seriously. It isn’t flippant. This is not a social club. It’s much more than that. It’s a way of life. As a priest, what is one of these stage-of-life marking moments that you appreciate the most?

Mike: One of the gifts of being a priest is getting to preside at weddings. I’ve really enjoyed that part of the work, and I’m really looking forward to where our denomination is going this summer around opening the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. There is one moment in our service that I think captures the sense of a liturgical wedding. Just after the bride and groom consent to take each other as husband and wife, the celebrant turns to the whole congregation. She asks, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” The congregation responds enthusiastically (if the celebrant coached them well at the rehearsal): “We will.” This moment captures the whole idea of liturgy. It helps us to understand that yes, marriage is in some ways a private relationship, but we bless marriages in public because there is a public dimension. We need one anothers’ support and prayers. I remember seeing newly married friends of ours sit on your porch when we used to live in San Diego. They were looking for you advice as someone who had been married awhile. Now that I’m married, I’ve turned to you more than once for pointers. Marriage helps us understand that the big moments in Christian life need the support of community. Marriage is public work.

Jason: After you left the east coast, Brooke and I found ourselves in a new place with zero community. (No guilt trip intended, friend) It was certainly one of the hardest moments in our marriage until we started developing a new circle of friends in DC. It does take a community to build a marriage. I’ve seen isolation kill more marriages than I’d like to admit. What you articulated, Mike, is one of the great gifts of being married within a Christian community. I could go on about this but let’s move on! We’ve talked about some of the happier moments of life that Church marks for us. What else?

Mike: Walking together through illness and death can be a profoundly sacred journey. When people ask why they should join a church, I often want to say “if you don’t, and you end up sick, who will visit you in the hospital?” I often come up with another reason or two to share first, because this comes off a little morbid. But I think it is one of the most important gifts of a faith community. We are a people who acknowledge that this life is finite, that suffering and sickness are real. We have faith that death is not the end of the story, that life continues in God. In moments of sickness and death, liturgy helps makes meaning of confusing and frightening life circumstances. In the burial liturgy we pray the ancient prayer, “Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Praying liturgy together through loss can help us make meaning, and remember our faith.

Jason: Amen.