A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do, at least in the second half of my life so far, is the summer that I spent as a chaplain in training at a trauma hospital.

Being a chaplain is different from being a pastor. You share a common humanity with the people you serve, but you don’t necessarily share the same faith. And in our humanity, we all have spiritual needs. They might not be religious needs, but your job as a chaplain is to find out in a fairly short time under difficult circumstances: what does this patient need spiritually, and what do I have to do to make sure that need is met in order to support their healing.

So I served in a stepdown unit where the patients were very sick, most of them had just come down from the ICU, but they weren’t even ready for regular hospital rooms. And as I stood outside the room of each new patient on that ward, I never knew exactly what I was going to encounter when I went through into the room.

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Ripple effect

The ripples in this one brought to mind these words by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I will give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Starting over all over again

I spent some extended time this morning in a shared space dominated by a young woman with a relatively loud voice, a heart full of enthusiasm, and—I have to say—a huge lack of self-awareness. Apparently under the impression she was talking to the woman next to her, she regaled all present with an account of the preparations for her imminent return to college, about which she is extremely excited—“because it’s senior year”—but also a little apprehensive—“because, you know, it’s senior year.”

One of the things she’s anticipating most eagerly is taking a journalism course and “preparing articles for the student newspaper!!!” (And the quote wouldn’t accurate without all three exclamation points!!!) Which brought back fond memories of my own days as an ink-stained student wretch.

Coincidentally it happens that that this delightful reminder of those days arrived yesterday by email from a friend and former colleague. This two-page special edition represents my sole venture into sports writing and editing (as “Sports Editor-in-Chief for this issue”). Though I remember working on it, I really can’t imagine how I managed to write the lede article, since to this day I personally know nothing about football. Life continues to be full of surprises.

Which I guess is what struck me most forcefully as I listened. I admit to feeling just a twinge of envy—oh, to be young again! And yet the thing I know now, what this young woman won’t realize for some time to come, is that “senior year” isn’t just a one-time phenomenon, at least metaphorically speaking. It’s something that’s likely to happen over and over again.

Forty-five years after my own departure from college, I’m amazed to realize how often I’ve found myself in that liminal space between what is now and what will be next, feeling anxious excitement about what might lie ahead, along with a bit of regret for what I was leaving behind. But regrets or no, we keep moving forward into the unknown, waiting until future possibilities too numerous to imagine settle into just a few that will prevail, at least for a while.

Until it’s time to graduate all over again.

A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

You can barely see his head peeking above the piano, but by now, I think most of you have probably noticed that this morning’s musician is not Vaughn. Some of you, many of you know—but maybe not all—that this is my husband, Chris, who usually worships with the Society of Friends on Sunday morning, but has been kind enough to come and play the piano for us.

And so that was an inspiration, knowing that he was going to play the piano, to do something different—as they used to say on Monty Python—“Now for something completely different.” And so we picked some hymns that aren’t in the hymnal, some of which you’ve mentioned liking from past singing of them, and some of which are favorites of mine.

And that first hymn that we sang, “Here I Am, Lord,” it’s based primarily on the story of the calling of the prophet Samuel. In the third chapter of First Samuel, the young Samuel is a protégé of Eli and he’s asleep in the temple. He hears a voice, actually three times, calling him: “Samuel, Samuel.”

He thinks it’s Eli. Eli finally figures out that it’s the Lord, and this is the beginning of Samuel’s call as prophet. But it’s a very interesting hymn because woven in—it’s pretty short—woven in, there’s this whole series of Scripture references, including the one that relates to today’s Gospel: “Finest bread I will provide till their hearts be satisfied. I will give my life to them.”

This is the fifth of five weeks that we’ve been reading our way through the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John. All about the bread of life, living bread, the bread that comes down from heaven. It began with Jesus feeding 5,000 and more with five loaves and two fishes. The crowds were so impressed that they followed him. When they didn’t find him in the same place the next day, they jumped into boats and went across the water looking for him.

But as he continued with his teaching about the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven, little by little they drifted away. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

So they’ve gone from 5,000 and more to today where there are maybe 12. It doesn’t say for sure, but it seems like that last dialogue is taking place just between Jesus and the Twelve. And he says to them, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who don’t believe.”

And finally he says to the small group, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s very touching. Of course we know that Peter did wander away. But he wandered back.

He wasn’t there on the night before Jesus died. He did betray Jesus. He came back. A lot of times in the Gospel, Peter sort of gets it not quite right, but this time he gets it exactly right: “To whom can we go.”

So there’s a lot of talk in these passages about belief. And I want to emphasize that it’s not just belief as in believing a fact that might be difficult to accept. The word in the original Greek is πιστεύω. It means to believe facts, but it means more than that. Its means to trust. It means to have a relationship with somebody that’s really unshakable. You know like, if someone who’s your mentor says to you, “You can do it. I believe in you.” It’s not a fact they’re talking about, it’s a relationship. And that’s what this word is all about.

I came across a story on the Internet.[1]So you have to be careful about stories on the internet, but a wise woman said in a workshop I attended last year, she said, “All stories are true and some actually happened.” And whether or not this story actually happened, it is true. I think there’s deep truth in this story.

So it’s a story about a dog who went to church. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a dog in church. I remember being on vacation once in the Adirondacks. It was a summer kind of community. I imagine the priest was a retired guy, probably filling in on Sundays, and his dog came in with him, went up in procession and actually, as I recall, spent the service under the altar. Very well-behaved. Better than some children some that I … know. I was going to say some that I’ve raised, but that wouldn’t be nice.

Well this dog actually isn’t in the procession in the story. This dog is a guide dog. The story is told by a man who goes to see his parents and he’s way out in the country, and it’s this little country church, and when he shows up, the priest again is a retired guy. He’s pretty deaf, and nearly blind, but he gets through the service as most of us more or less do.

And when it’s time for communion, that’s the first time the storyteller notices the dog. The dog is a guide dog, and he leads a man who is blind from the back up to the altar. And when he gets the man to the right place for communion, the dog lies down and waits very patiently, gazing at the altar. The author of the story says, “He behaved with all the ceremony and propriety that you could ask of someone who has to go to church wearing a collar.” What a great line.

So he waits patiently, and when the man has received the bread and the wine, the dog gets up and leads him back to his pew.

And after the service the author of the story’s talking to the man, saying how good the dog was to behave so well. It was as if he almost understood communion when he was there. And the author said, “I don’t think my dog would’ve been that well-behaved.”

And the blind man said, “Well, he brings me every Sunday. We’ve been coming for ten years. He’s been to church more than 500 times, and he’s a Labrador.” The guy says, “They’re good dogs. Their respect for food is very deep. That is why he understands the Eucharist. He grasps it, not at as an idea, but in its real depths, the mystery of it. It is food. He knows that, and sometimes I have felt his hunger. There is holiness in all of God’s creatures.”

So, in a way, the dog was a believer. Not in the sense of accepting certain facts that we say about what the bread is or what the wine is. He understood it in a very holy way. It was food. And this man, his master whom he loved, was being fed.

Many of you—most of you maybe; I’m looking around—if you were raised in the Episcopal Church, you might have grown up on 1928 prayerbook. And you might have known the rule that you weren’t allowed to receive communion until after you’d been confirmed. And then, with the adoption of the 1979 prayerbook, that was changed. And it was Baptism. Because that prayerbook represents a much fuller idea of Baptism, and how it’s incorporation into the community, into the Body of Christ.

And it’s really all we need. There’s no other requirements for coming to communion. But sometimes, parents are a little reluctant, you know. I’ve seen priests that give babies the wine as soon as they’re baptized. A little dip of the finger. Because they are part of the community. Baptism does that.

But parents don’t always want that, and sometimes they’re reluctant even to have their toddlers, their walking babies receive communion. They say, “They don’t understand it.”

They don’t understand it. Well, who among us really understands it? When we say we believe, it’s not about being able to write a paper about for seminary explaining what it is. It’s about that relationship of trust, and love, and knowing that this is the thing that we’ve found—maybe the only thin—that can feed that hunger that’s deep inside of us.

I had a wise mentor as I was preparing for ordination who said that when parents say that to her, what she says to them—in addition to the fact that none of us really understands it—what she says to them is, “What they learn, these children, is that when they put out their hands to God, they will be filled.” Belief as trust and as relationship.

We come to the table because we’re hungry. We come because believe, but even more than, we come because we trust. We come because we’ve found nothing else that can truly satisfy that deep hunger that we’ve experienced. We’ve come, as Peter said so very simply yet truly, because where else would we go?

Amen.

 

[1]Ben Myers, “A Guide Dog at Holy Communion.” http://www.faith-theology.com/2016/09/a-guide-dog-at-holy-communion.html, accessed Aug. 25, 2018.

Hungry for bread

Preparing to preach the bread of life for the last time this cycle, I’m thinking I’ll probably use this story (a-guide-dog-at-holy-communion.html) of a blind man who is led to the communion rail every Sunday by his guide dog, a labrador, who sits patiently gazing at the altar while he waits for the man to receive his bread and wine.

“They are good dogs,” the man agreed. “Their respect for food is very deep. That is why he understands the eucharist. He grasps it not as an idea but in its real depths. It is food. He knows that.”

And then I took a walk and reminded of other creatures who are hungry for bread.

And of my brothers and sisters who are just hungry.

food pantry

Head to head

Still another sweet vacation photo. I really like this one. 
I loved my aunts dearly when I was growing up. They lived far away and we didn’t see them often, but when we did, they totally spoiled us. Many years later I was shocked to learn that our cousins, who also lived far away but in a different direction, had all those same experiences and thought of those aunts and the toys and special places in that house as “theirs.”
It was like discovering that there really is a parallel universe, where other people are impersonating you and claiming what is rightfully yours.

Persistence

Still processing some photos from vacation. This formation, called “The Basin,” is the work of 25,000 years of persistence. It’s 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep and, presumably, getting bigger all the time as the Pemigewasset River continues its labor of grinding down resistance. Water is soft and hard, chaos and destruction, peace and sustenance. It’s life. They say we’re more than half water. Makes sense.

A sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” What a thing to say. Shocking, really.

If I were in charge of the readings we use on Sunday—which in our church I’m not, they’re given to us—there might be a temptation to sort of skip through this whole section. But it’s a very vivid way to say that Jesus himself is the answer to our deepest hunger. It’s an invitation from him to become one with him in a way that is both intimate and life-giving. He says, “Those who eat my flesh abide in me, and I in them.” Abide in me, remain in me. We are in each other.

Every time I read this part of the Gospel, I’m reminded of that saying you are what you eat, you know? It’s actually the title of a diet book from the early 1940s. I doubt that any of us would know the specific details of the diet, but we all know the phrase and we get the point. If you don’t eat well, you can’t be your best self.

Interestingly enough, it also sounds a lot like something Saint Augustine said in an Easter sermon way back around the year 400. He said that when we receive the Eucharist—worthily, with the right intentions—”we become what we receive.” [i] We become the Body of Christ. You are what you eat.

Through the Eucharist, through the living bread that Jesus offers, we are one bread, one body. We become the Body of Christ. We become one with him, and through him with all other believers. I think this talk of living bread, bread from heaven, it’s kind of like poetry. It’s the language of mysteries too deep for ordinary words.

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A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

So why did you come to church this morning? What is it that you hoped to find here? What is it that you’re hungry for?

Maybe some of you didn’t have time for breakfast and you really are hungry, looking forward to the coffee hour. That usually gets me at about 10 of 11, even though I did eat breakfast. But probably, nearly everyone here—I would imagine—is hungry for something. There are some things missing in your life that you’re still yearning for.

For some of us it might be meaningful work, work that is good and work just to support ourselves. For some of us it might be a spiritual hunger for something more. For some of us it might be yearning for a greater sense of peace and security in these times that seem so uncertain and difficult. It might be as simple as good health. But nearly everybody is hungry for something.

So what is it that you’re hungry for?

A couple of weeks ago I was going somewhere south of here and I found myself in the new Whole Foods Market in Spring House. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. Even if you’ve been in a Whole Foods before, this is something else. This is the new world. I was looking for some tea, that’s what I was doing in there. The days of the long, straight grocery aisles are gone, so in order to find what you’re looking for you have to sort of turn this way and that to get through the store. And every time you turn a corner you come across some display of prepared food that looks just incredibly delicious. Artisanal pizza, and baked goods, and hot stuff and a salad bar, and desserts.

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