“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.
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.
When my kids were little, they attended a faith-based school. It was small. There was no lunch room. The food for snacks and lunch had to be packed at home every day and sent in a lunch box. Human nature being what it is, those lunch boxes sometimes got left at home, or in the car, or on the bus. Then you had a hungry kid and no place to buy food for them. Each of the teachers had a different way of dealing with this possibility, because it did happen.
The kindergarten teacher kept a bowl, and the child who had no lunch box had to take the bowl around to his or her classmates and accept what they wished to give out of their lunch. This happened once when it was Grandparents Day, so my mother was there. She was bothered by the fact that it was voluntary. She felt that no one should be allowed to get away with being selfish, that every child should be made to share some of their lunch. But we all know that acts of generosity are authentic only when they are undertaken of our own free will, so that’s how it went in this classroom. That day and all the days that it happened, the child who forgot the lunch box had enough to eat. Everybody had enough to eat. There was enough. I think of this as a miracle, actually, a human miracle.
Let me explain that. I had a seminary professor who gave us a definition of miracle as an unexpected event that brings us into the presence of God. I really like that. In the case of these kids, it’s unexpected that kids, that anybody, would share their lunch just because some other kid had no lunch. Presumably—although I remember what a challenge it was to pack those lunch boxes—presumably you’d put in there what your kid liked and would eat to get through the day.
We usually think of time as linear, by which I mean that it goes forward in a straight line:, today, tomorrow, next month, next year. For some of us, life might consist of some zigs and zags, but we think of time as just always going forward.
But actually in our lives, there are also cycles, circles, and in some ways, as we’re moving forward, we’re also going through these cycles again and again. So we have the cycle of the seasons. We have that cycle that repeats every year, with new life springing forth in spring, maturing in summer, dying, or at least going into some kind of hibernation in the fall, and resting through the winter. And we begin again with the same cycle when the next spring comes.
In the church, in the liturgical calendar, we have a similar kind of cycle, beginning in Advent, and we go through that period of waiting with longing for God to enter the world incarnate in Jesus. We celebrate his birth. We go through Lent, and Easter, and now we’re in Pentecost. It’s a similar cycle, in some ways, to the seasons in nature, but its purpose is a little bit different. It’s educational, and it’s also meant to remind us that God’s time is eternal. That in some ways, the life of Christ is always happening. All of these things are happening constantly. God is always coming into the world. The resurrection is always happening.
So we also have a cycle in nature of day and night, of waking and sleeping. We go about our lives in the world, and at night, we go home, and if we’re lucky, we sleep. And science is teaching us that that sleep isn’t just a nothing happening time, that even though we’re unaware of it, really important things are happening. Our brains are actually reorganizing themselves. Our bodies are both resting and repairing things that need to be repaired. And hopefully, we wake up refreshed and begin a new day and begin the cycle over and over again.
It’s no secret that I love my electronic devices. They say there’s an app for everything, and I think I have most of them. One of my favorites is a packing list app. You can make your packing list on anyone device you happen to be working on, and you can see it on all the others. You can sort everything according to category—my electronics list is rather long, though some others are short. And you can check each item off as you put it in the suitcase, so you can see what you have left to pack.
Over time I’ve developed a sort of template, a master list, so I don’t have to start from scratch every time. When it’s time to travel I just look at it and decide which things I need and which I don’t, and that’s my packing list.
Chris has a slightly different system. He’s actually in Cuba right now, traveling with the Bucks County Choral Society, singing in a couple of concerts and also touring around. Communications aren’t that great, even in this Internet world, but he’s sent a couple of emails to say that he’s having a wonderful time. But his system for packing is a little different. It involves a lot of wandering around the house on the day he’s leaving, saying, “I wonder what I’m forgetting to pack?” over and over again.
A couple of months ago, I stumbled across some old correspondence between me and John Strong, Kathy’s dad. John had asked me for a copy of a quotation I’d used in a sermon. It was from a book called When Breath Becomes Air, written by a brilliant young brain surgeon who was dying of cancer just as he was finally finishing his medical training.
I guess you could call it a cancer memoir, because it was about the last few years of this man’s life, but don’t get the wrong idea: it was much more about how he lived through that time than about his dying.
The part John asked for was this: “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult—sometimes almost impossible—they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily of act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”[i]
It wasn’t hard to understand why this resonated with John. It was a few months before Jane died—Kathy’s mom—and Kathy was fighting her own illness, and the daily, ongoing balance of life and love and pain and hope must have been very present for John.
It certainly was very much so for all of us in the Strongs’ parish family at Good Shepherd Church. And so it would continue to be right up to the day when Kathy finally lost her fight to live—at least to live in the mortal body that suffered so much these past few years—and we lost Kathy.
So the wind is howling, the waves are starting to fill the boat, and there’s Jesus lying on the cushion in the stern, sound asleep.
When is he going to wake up and do something?
The people with him in the boat are fishermen. They’re seasoned sailors who know what they’re doing out there. They know when things are under control … and they know when it’s time to worry … and right now they are absolutely terrified.
How is it possible Jesus is still asleep?
It’s not surprising that he’s tired. He’s been preaching to a crowd so large they had to get into the boat and push off a little so people could see him from the place where they were gathered on the shore. Then he spent some time talking privately with his closest followers.
And then when evening comes, instead of stopping, he decides they’re going to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and they’re off again. They must have been wondering, why go now, when they could wait and sail by daylight?
Who knows, but Jesus said go, and they went. And now they’re out therein the midst of these shrieking winds, in a boat that’s about 26 feet long and 8 feet wide, with room for 12 to 15 people—small enough to be vulnerable to a storm of this magnitude, which comes up all at once with gale-force winds.
Everyone else in the boat is sure they’re about to sink, and Jesus sleeps on.
When ishe going to wake up and dosomething about it?
They finally go and shake him awake, and he rises to his full height, and rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And that raging storm is suddenly replaced by dead calm, and they know at last that they’re safe.
Bad things happen, even when you’ve got Jesus there in the boat with you, but if you keep Jesus close, and call on him when your troubles seem about to overwhelm you, you can trust that all will be well.
Certainly that’s one lesson we can take from this story. When the storms of life rage around us, if we put our trust in God, we’ll be fine, no matter what happens.
But I have to admit that there’s a question that’s been nagging at me all week as I thought about this story. I kept asking myself why the people in that boat were still afraid—“enormously afraid,”—in the dead calm that followed the storm.
When everything was OK, they were still afraid. When Jesus stood up and ordered the wind and the waves to stop—and they did!—these people who had feared for their lives were actually more afraid then comforted. Afraid, maybe, of this display of divine power breaking into their world.
“Who isthis then,” they asked each other, “that even the wind and sea obey him?”
Who is this man, anyway?
They’ve been traveling with Jesus for a while, but they still don’t fully understand who he is, or what it means to have this kind of power demonstrated among them..
They’re just beginning to know him—I mean, reallyknow him.
And you know what? So are we. Even after all this time, we 21st-century disciples are still like those first followers in so many ways.
We ask ourselves—or should—“Who is this then?” What is this Jesus guy really all about? And that other question—when is Jesus going to wake up and do something? That’s something I find myself wondering about all the time lately, with all of the terrible things that are going on in the world. Why doesn’t Jesus just wake up and make it all stop?
He told people way back at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,”and sometimes I still have a hard time seeing it.
Why do we still seem to be waiting for that promise of a better world? Why does God not care that we seem to be perishing.
In that moment of dead calm, after he ordered the wind and the sea to stop—and they obeyed—Jesus said to the others in the boat, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
I have to tell you that when it comes to making sense of the apparent conflict between the claim that the kingdom of God has come near and the actual sorry state of our world, I struggle just as much as the folks in that boat to have faith.
I share that with them, and another thing I share is that I’m still getting to know Jesus, too. I mean reallyknow him.
What is he really all about? What can we take from his example and teaching to show us a way of being in our world?
You could spend a lifetime learning to answer that one, and it’s a two-step process. It takes study, and it takes prayer.
The prayer brings us into the kind of quiet conversation Jesus had in the boat that day before they set sail, a dialogue of questions and answers between friends, of growing understanding as he spoke to them and answered their question.
It takes the dialogue of prayer, and it takes reading and rereading all those stories about the things he said and did—and studying them in community, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit—to bring all the pieces together and understand this guy …
… who criticized those in power, and said it would be very, very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
…who consistently sought the company of the people on the edges, outcasts, people who were sick and suffering, sinners and tax collectors.
…who cured the sick or pre-existing health conditions, without asking to see their insurance card first, and a photo ID.
… who fed the hungry for free, without suggesting that it was in any way their own fault that they had nothing to eat.
And who told his disciples that their job was to do the exact same work he was doing, telling the good news and bringing comfort and healing to the sick. And who told them that the way to become great was, paradoxically, to be a servant to all.
Mr. Rogers had something similar to say about greatness. He said,
There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.
I apologize for jumping straight from Jesus to Mr. Rogers, but Mr. Rogers has been on my mind since Friday night, when Chris and I went to see the new movie about him, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It brought back a lot of tender memories of watching the show with my kids when they were little, but I was impressed all over again with his apparently simple wisdom, which was just so profound.
You probably know that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and one of the things I really love about him was that if you look at the things he was saying, he was really presenting very basic Gospel wisdom without using the traditional theological language that we use here in church. Which, oddly enough—I know it sound contradictory—oddly enough, that can be a real help in this project of getting to know Jesus better.
It’s no accident, for example, that the show was called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, because like Jesus, Fred Rogers was all about loving your neighbor, and like Jesus, he had an expansive view in a quiet, ground-breaking way, of who that neighbor really is.
And even in his final messages after 911, before he died, he held on to his hope for a better world, which is just what we’re called to do as Christians.
We’ve got to believe that the reign of God is indeed growing,as hard as that sometimes is to see. We’ve got to keep looking for it, and we’ve got proclaim it when we see it, and finally we’ve got to find our own place in it, our own way of living into hope and not into despair.
When Mr. Rogers talked about kindness, he meant more than just being nice to the lady next door. He was speaking Gospel truth in non-theological language. He was talking about the kind of love that Jesus was talking about, that Jesus proclaimed, and he was talking about the kind of lovingkindness of God which we mentioned in our opening prayer today, which is so much bigger than just being nice. Lovingkindness.
And we each have our own role to play in bringing that into the world. First we have to have faith in it, and then we live it.
I have one more Fred Rogers quote to share this morning:
Imagine what our real neighbors would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person. There have been so many stories about the lack of courtesy, the impatience of today’s world, road rage and even restaurant rage. (And, I might say just to update this for our world today, we seem to have lost our sense of civility, and we experience a lot of new kinds of rage, including, for example, social media rage. There is so much rage out there. There is so much anger in our world.) Sometimes, Fred said, all it takes is one kind word to nourish another person. Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone. One kind empathetic word has a wonderful way of turning into many.
I truly believe in that ripple effect. I dream of it spreading and spreading and spreading.
I imagine what our world would be like if it really were based on kindness to every living soul. And where else should we look for the center of that spreading ripple, except in our own hearts?
The New Testament: A Translation. David Bentley Hart.
If any of you have ever had that feeling that your family, your own family, doesn’t really understand you, you’re going to sympathize with Jesus in today’s Gospel. His family thinks he’s gone crazy. He’s been out preaching and curing people and driving out demons, and everywhere he goes, he’s attracting these huge crowds of people, and his family is worried about him. They basically plan an intervention, and when they hear that he’s come home again, they go looking for him. Their plan is to restrain him, to take him away and make him stop what he’s been doing.
But when they get to the house, the crowds are so thick, the family can’t get to Jesus, so they send in a message: “We’re here!” They want him to come out so they can take him away. And he’s not exactly glad to hear that they’re there. In fact, his response is quite insulting. He asks the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and then he points to the ragtag bunch that he’s got sitting around him and says, “These are my mother and my brothers. This is my family.” He turns his back on his own biological family.
So here we are in this morning’s gospel at the very beginning of third chapter of Mark, so it’s still early in the story, and already Jesus is a marked man. The Pharisees and the Herodians are conspiring to destroy him.
And what has he done to make them so angry? Well, first of all, he watched his disciples pluck some grain as they walked through the fields. Presumably they were hungry, and they ate what they picked. People get hungry on the Sabbath, just like any other day. But picking the grain was considered harvesting, and that was considered work, and in the eyes of the Pharisees that was a violation of the Sabbath.
And the Pharisees were there in the synagogue watching when Jesus healed the man with the withered hand. And they thought of that work as healing, too, another Sabbath violation, so now the Pharisees and the Herodians are conspiring to destroy him.
I think maybe for us, it’s just weirdto think that either of these things would be enough to make anyone want to conspire to destroy Jesus. We’re not part of that culture, we don’t get it. Sometimes religious passion can take people in unholy directions, even when they’re basically good people and they mean well.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. ~ Romans 8:14-17
So the Royals continued to be in the news this past week, and Presiding Bishop Michal Curry made the rounds of the talk shows, and for all their gushing over what he said at the wedding, you’d think none of them had ever heard a good sermon before. Which if that’s the case, I’m glad we gave them Michael Curry to make up for it.
One little item in the continuing wedding reporting was the heartwarming rags-to-riches story of Guy the beagle—and I know some of you saw this one. Guy is the little dog who was found wandering in the woods in Kentucky and taken to a shelter where they were going to put him down, but he was rescued and eventually adopted by an actress named Meghan Markle, and last seen riding in a car near Windsor Castle with the Queen of England, who is known for her love of Pembroke Welsh corgis but apparently has some room in her heart for American beagles, as well.
It’s a wonderful story: a little lost dog goes from being homeless to being an adopted member of the royal family, which presumably guarantees a life of privilege and comfort even for a dog.