Sunday, August 23, 2015

Homily: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 23, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            This morning’s Gospel [John 6:56-69] gives us one of the strangest and saddest incidents in the New Testament. At the close of Jesus’s “bread of life” discourse—a talk that takes up the whole of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel and which we’ve been hearing together in church for several weeks now—we hear that “when many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” [John 6: 60] A little bit later, John tells us, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” [John 6: 66] What on earth did Jesus say that his followers couldn’t accept? Why did so many of them turn away and stop following him?

            As a preacher, I know something about saying things that people cannot accept. One Monday morning several years ago--the day after giving what I thought a rather mild sermon on a social issue in a suburban parish where I was rector--I heard a voicemail message from a drunken parishioner who asked, “Who do you think you are to come in here and tell us what you think?” And just this summer, after I had called for our Lee-Jackson windows to be removed, I read an online story about my statement entitled, “Another Fatwa from the Imam”. (Wrong on both counts.) The National Rifle Association is not likely to name me their person of the year, and I carry the distinction of having been called out by both Franklin Graham and Antonin Scalia. So I know about teachings that people won’t accept. Whenever a preacher ascends the steps of a pulpit and tries to do public theology, someone who disagrees is bound to be offended.

            But something else is going on here. Jesus has not been talking about public, social issues. He has been talking about himself as the “bread of life”: 

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. [John 6: 56-57]


Because you and I are accustomed to talking about Jesus as the Word made flesh, these “bread of life” words do not sound like “another fatwa from the imam”.  But something in them sounded dangerous enough to offend his followers to the point that they would stop going around with him. What on earth could that be?

            I think there are a couple of things going on here.  For one, Jesus seems to be talking about himself in rather exalted language. Imagine yourself to be one of those disaffected followers.  You came to Jesus because something about his life and ministry attracted you.  He was a prophetic teacher, a healer. But then he started talking about himself as the “Son of Man” and the “Holy One of God”. John’s Gospel begins with the claim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  The Jesus movement is not just a personal healing movement.  It’s not just about my personal wellness. The Jesus movement is one with social and cosmic implications.  What Jesus is up to tells us something about the beating heart of the universe.  The kind of love and justice and compassion we see both in and around Jesus show us the final truths about God and us.  Signing on to follow Jesus means committing oneself to heal and bless and change not only myself but the world.

            So if you were someone who started following Jesus simply because you were attracted to what he could do for you, the idea that his movement might be about more than making you feel better might shock and offend you.  And that leads to the second thing going on here:  all this talk of flesh and blood must mean something to Jesus’s original hearers that it doesn’t quite mean to us.  For us to eat Jesus’s flesh and drink Jesus’s blood is not only about taking communion.  For us to partake in the bread of life is not just about sharing the benefits of his company.  For us to drink his blood must have something to do with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship”.

            There have been two times this year when I have been brought close to tears by something I saw on the news.  The first, last June, was when the families of the nine women and men killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston went to court and told the shooter they forgave him.  The second, last week, was when former President Jimmy Carter rather matter-of-factly discussed his cancer and its treatment.  “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” Mr. Carter said. “I do have a deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for.”

            I suppose the common thread in these two stories lies in how powerful it is to see people who not only actually believe what they profess to believe, but who actually act out in their lives the words they profess in their faith.  The families in Charleston and President Carter have many things in common, I’m sure, but for me the chief among them is this:  they understand that following Jesus has implications.  Following Jesus means that you extend to others the forgiveness you ask for yourself.  Following Jesus means that you stake your life on the bet that the promises of God and Jesus are real.  There’s no magic to living a transformative life dedicated to the healing and liberation of the world. All you have to do is act on what you say you believe. Easier, of course, to say than to do, but revolutionary when somebody actually tries it.

            I have been ordained now for almost 40 years, and over the course of my working life I’ve been saddened to observe that some people will only go so far before they fall off and go away. It’s one of the mysteries of church life, really. Those of us who work in the church today have become obsessed with the statistics and demographics of declining church membership and attendance.  We are doing a lot of soul-searching about why people have stopped coming.  We are thinking and brainstorming about how we might better attract younger people to our services. I am sure that there are many things we could do better to make ourselves more relevant to modern life.  But there are times when I wonder if the countercultural claims of the Gospel are simply too much for most people.  Putting gyms and coffee bars in the parish hall will no doubt attract some customers, but let’s be honest about it: following Jesus will always be a minority enterprise. Jesus promises eternal life. He also asks that we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

            In today’s Gospel, after the others have departed, Jesus poses this question to the twelve who remain: “Do you also wish to go away?”—not, under the circumstances, a surprising question. And then Peter answers him: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” [John 6: 67-69]


            Following Jesus entails some risk. It means signing on to some values that push deeply against the culture. It involves a willingness to stand with people who can do nothing for you.  It asks that you find your fulfillment not on your own but in mutuality and communion with others. There is, in fact, a cost of discipleship.  In a self-serving culture, many around you will be confused and offended by what you stand for. They won’t get a life centered around love and justice and not around self-aggrandizement.

            But that life has so much more to it than risk. As Peter says, “You have the words of eternal life.”  Life lived in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the oppressed is neither unrelievedly grim nor entirely self-denying. There is suffering and pain, to be sure, but there is also joy and freedom in standing with those whom in the Beatitudes Jesus calls “blessed”.  The folks who gave up following Jesus did so because they thought they didn’t need him.  The ones who stayed knew themselves to have more in common with the strugglers and sufferers than they did with those who appeared to have made it.  They knew their need of God.  They could say, with President Carter, “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”

            Jesus is the bread of life.  Some people think they don’t need him. Others know they can’t live without him. Our need for God and Jesus is for some a hard teaching and difficult to accept. But for others it’s the words of eternal life. I will go to my grave mystified that some people don’t seem to need Jesus while others can’t seem to live without him. But I know which group I belong to, and invite you now to join me in the grateful banquet of life and hope and justice that gathers at his table. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Homily: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [August 16, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            Fifty years ago this week—August 20, 1965—Jonathan Daniels was shot and killed in Hayneville, Alabama.  Jon Daniels was a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had spent the summer demonstrating for civil rights in Alabama and doing voter registration work in Lowndes County.  On the day he died, Jon Daniels had been released from jail. Along with a Roman Catholic priest and two African American civil rights workers, he approached Varner’s Cash Store in order to buy some cold drinks. A deputy sheriff with a shotgun aimed at Ruby Sales, one of the women in the party. Daniels stepped in front to protect her and was killed. The man who shot Jonathan Daniels pled self-defense and was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

            Several years later, I entered the seminary Jonathan Daniels attended, and I studied with faculty members who had known and taught him.  That seminary—now called the Episcopal Divinity School—has long had a tradition of remembering Jonathan Daniels in its liturgical calendar, and in the last decades the larger Episcopal Church has come to recognize him as well. This past week, my wife Kathy, our Director of Programs Ruth Frey, and I joined Bishop Budde and many church people from the diocese and around the nation on a Jonathan Daniels pilgrimage sponsored by Episcopal Divinity School to Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and finally to Hayneville, Alabama. We spent several days reflecting not only on Jonathan Daniels’ life and witness but also on the ongoing issues of racial justice in America. We concluded with a Eucharist in the courtroom where Jonathan Daniels’ killer was acquitted.

As part of the larger church’s observance of Jonathan Daniels, the cathedral is installing his bust in our human rights porch, and just this week the carving was completed. Following this service we will have a special forum to say more about that installation, and the bust will be formally dedicated at an Evensong in October.

There are so many things to say about Jonathan Daniels, about race, about martyrdom, about reconciliation, and there is so much going on about racial justice in America today that could be informed by his witness.  How do we begin to think about these things?  This morning we get some help from the sixth chapter of John.  This passage nominally concerns the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but there is more to it than that. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says:

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. [John 6: 54-56]


You and I are so used to hearing Jesus talk this way that we don’t really hear how radical these words are. The Torah prohibits Jews from drinking blood. That prohibition lies behind the kosher food laws and the requirement that all the blood be drained from an animal when it is slaughtered.  A Jew would not risk consuming blood and violating the commandment. As the book of Leviticus tells us,

For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. [Leviticus 17:14]


For Jesus to talk to his followers about eating his flesh and drinking his blood seems eminently normal to you and me who use that language when we take communion.  But to a Jewish audience, Jesus’s words must have sounded radical if not openly sacrilegious. Speaking as a Jew, Jesus cannot mean that we are literally to drink his blood. He must be telling us something else.

What I think he is telling us gets not only at who he is but at who we are called to be, too. It amounts to a reversal of all our ideas about power, especially considering the way ancient warfare was practiced. In many places in the ancient world, victorious warriors routinely drank the blood of those they conquered. In telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus turns that equation upside down.  Here we have a Messiah, a king, telling us to drink his blood.  He’s not asking us to risk our lives for him.  He’s risking his life for us.

In the second century, Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  The Christian word “martyr” literally means “witness”. The people we call martyrs are witnesses to a deep truth about Jesus, God, and us. God became one of us in Jesus. Jesus put his life at risk for us. Christianity is not only about loving your neighbor and trying to be good.  Christianity is about this deep, mysterious truth at the heart of the universe.  The one at the center of creation actually risks everything for us. Power—in its pretentious, inflated, pomposity—power is not the operating principle of the universe. Love—in its vulnerable, self-giving, compassionate mystery—is.

Jonathan Daniels was the 28th civil rights worker killed in the earlier days of the movement.  He was neither the first nor the last martyr in the cause of racial justice.  In recent years, months, and days we have seen other martyrs who have put their lives at risk on our behalf:  the nine women and men killed in Charleston most obviously come to mind.  But so do Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and others.  The one we have come to know in Jesus keeps coming back among us in the person of these witnesses. And yet we seem not ever to recognize him.

We are also observing a second fiftieth anniversary this week: the Watts riots in my home city of Los Angeles.  From August 11 to 17, 1965 the city erupted in violence that began when a young black man, Marquette Frye, was pulled over for reckless driving. The incident grew into six days of violence covering 46 square miles of the city.  When it was all over, 34 people were dead.

In 1965 we were saddened when people like Jonathan Daniels (or James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner a year earlier, or Medgar Evers a year before that) were murdered, but we were not particularly surprised. That was the south. But when Los Angeles erupted in rage and violence many (especially whites) were shocked. Los Angeles was considered at the time as the most hospitable U.S. city for African Americans to live in. Reports at the time always referred to the suburban-looking “wide tree-lined streets” of Watts. The racial injustice in Alabama was obvious. The racial injustice in California (and later Michigan, Massachusetts, and even the District of Columbia) was harder to see.

Fifty years later, we have yet to learn all the lessons of 1965. We live in a country that has gutted the Voting Rights Act which was bought at the price of the violence and death we are remembering this week. But some things have changed, many for the better. I have been to Alabama twice now, and each time I go there I am impressed (and frankly a bit surprised) at how intentionally the deep south has come to terms with its own history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and racial injustice. But when I come back home to the north, I am struck with how we continue to live in a kind of racial fantasy land. Jonathan Daniels was murdered doing civil rights work in the south in 1965. But he could just as easily have been killed working for school busing in Boston in 1975. The killings of unarmed black people happen in southern cities to be sure, but they also happen in Michigan, New York, Maryland, Ohio, and California. Alabama and South Carolina have removed their Confederate battle flags. Some northern institutions have yet to do so.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. [John 6: 54-56]


Those Christians who have died in the service of racial justice—from Jonathan Daniels to Clementa Pinckney—have been strengthened and sustained by the example of Jesus—the one who puts himself at risk for us. We don’t follow one who consumes us. We follow one who offers himself on our behalf. As followers of Jesus, as brothers and sisters of Jonathan Daniels, you and I need today to ask ourselves some hard questions. What are we doing—not out there or down there but up here and in here—to come to terms with our own history of racial injustice, with our own personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural racism? Civil rights looked a lot easier when all you had to do was get on a bus and go desegregate a lunch counter in another state. The ongoing work right here is harder and more risky. It asks that we open ourselves up to the questions we would pose to others.

In telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus turns the tables on our usual expectations of what holy figures are supposed to do. He refuses to point the finger at others. He opens himself to the world. In this time and place in America, you and I are being asked to live out that logic in our own lives and work. Jonathan Daniels understood it in his day and offered himself so that our history of slavery, racism, segregation, and oppression might be healed. His life and death ask no less than that you and I do the same--that we put ourselves—our lives, our comfort, our privilege—at risk on behalf of others so that all may live and thrive in an America worthy of its name.

We can’t all be martyrs, but we can all be witnesses. We can offer ourselves in the spirit of Jesus and after the example of Jonathan Daniels. We probably won’t get a saint’s day in the calendar or a bust in the narthex, but the nation we inhabit just might finally begin to live into its promise of justice and equality for all.  Amen.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Homily: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 2, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            Maybe it’s the oppressive southern heat and humidity we felt over the past weeks, but in summer my thoughts always turn to Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern American fiction writer who died a little over 50 years ago.  Flannery O’Connor was a devout “pre-Vatican II” Roman Catholic, and her stories and novels employ highly symbolic characters and incidents to advance deeply theological arguments. In an essay she once described the problem many readers have with symbols and symbolism:

Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader--sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated. They seem to think that it is a way of saying something that you aren't actually saying, and so if they can be got to read a reputedly symbolic work at all, they approach it as if it were a problem in algebra. Find x. And when they do find or think they find this abstraction, x, then they go off with an elaborate sense of satisfaction and the notion that they have "understood" the story. Many students confuse the process of understanding a thing with understanding it. [“The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, from Mystery and Manners]


If you’ve ever taught or studied literature, you know that symbols tend to take on a life of their own.  Even those of us who think we understand how symbols work often want to nail them down and permaplaque them into one fixed meaning.  This is not going to be a sermon about the Confederate battle flag, but I will observe that the disagreements about what that flag means to different people prove Flannery O’Connor’s point.  Some people say that the flag symbolizes racism. Other say it represents tradition.  The point is it represents both and probably a lot of other things besides.  That’s how symbols work.  We don’t understand them by solving for x.  We understand them by opening ourselves to the range of all their possible meanings.

The same could be said for the Eucharist. Today is the first of several Sundays over the course of the summer in Year B which we preachers dread--when we immerse ourselves in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, and Jesus’s famous “bread of life” discourse.  Last week we heard tell of how Jesus fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, a story with Eucharistic overtones occurring in all four gospels.  In today’s passage, the crowd follows Jesus after that feeding and essentially asks him for more food.  Jesus replies that he—not the loaves and fishes--is the bread of life.  God may have given the Exodus Jews manna in the wilderness, and Jesus may have fed five thousand with bread and fish, but these miracles were not really about literal, physical food. As he says to the somewhat peckish crowd,

Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."

Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." [John 6: 24-35]

I have been a priest for almost forty years now, and over the course of my working life I’ve had several repeating pastoral conversations.  One of them always rises near the top. When taking communion, people want to know if they’re understanding it correctly.  They want to know what it means, and they’re worried that when they’re taking communion they’re not making the right mental sense of it.  In Flannery O’Connor’s words, they wonder if they’re properly solving for x.

There are, of course, almost as many ways to understand the Eucharist as there are Christian traditions.  Roman Catholics emphasize transubstantiation, the notion that the bread and wine of communion become the literal body and blood of Christ. (A Roman Catholic priest friend of mine says that the real miracle is believing that those gummy wafers are actually bread.) Anglicans and Lutherans emphasize what we call the “Real Presence” of Christ in the sacrament. The more Protestant Christians  emphasize that the bread and wine are simply a way to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In some ways these sacramental disagreements mirror the scriptural arguments over the meaning and identity of Jesus.  Is he a preacher, teacher, and healer? Is he the Messiah? Is he God incarnate? In John’s gospel, those who pursued Jesus to ask for more bread and fish wanted to get into an argument with him over what it all meant.  But notice that Jesus does not fall into that trap.  He does not lecture them about the nature and meaning of symbols and sacraments.  He merely tells them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." To which they reply, "Sir, give us this bread always."

In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor tells of attending a dinner party with another great writer, Mary McCarthy, whom O’Connor rather derisively called “a Big Intellectual”. Mary McCarthy went on and on about how she had left the church when young and how she now had come to see the Eucharist “as a symbol, and implied it was a pretty good one.” In Flannery O’Connor’s words, here is what came next:

I then said, in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable. [The Habit of Being]


"Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." Perhaps not the most elegant expression of sacramental theology, but you get the point. Just as those who followed Jesus contested with each other about his real identity, so we Christians have argued for centuries about what we are doing when we gather around this table and share bread and wine together in Jesus’s name.  Like readers solving for x, we have focused too narrowly on what the bread and the wine of communion “mean”. We think of these elements as symbols--that they stand for something else—some version of Jesus’s physical and spiritual presence. 

But remember what happens in today’s Gospel. Jesus does not tell us that the loaves and fishes are the bread of life. He tells us that he is the bread of life--“that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."  When we gather together around God’s table and share the bread of life, we are not—symbolically or otherwise—eating Jesus.  We are eating with Jesus. This meal is neither an algebra problem nor a ritual sacrifice.  When we gather at this table we come into the presence of the bread of life, and that means we engage Jesus himself. We almost always mistake the symbol for the thing it represents. The point of this meal is not what happens to the bread.  The point of this meal is our shared fellowship with Jesus. We make him present not only in breaking bread but in our ongoing work of prayer and faithful action in the world. Eucharist is not just a ritual meal.  It is a way of living. 

"Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." You and I think too much. The Eucharist is not a problem to be solved. It is not a set of propositions about God and us.  The Eucharist is a meal, a time together in which we are fed by and with Jesus.  We are not eating Jesus.  We are eating with Jesus. When we gather together around God’s table, Jesus is with us in the room.  Like those who followed Jesus to get more loaves and fishes, and like the Exodus community in the wilderness, we become confused and our attention wanders to the vehicles of Jesus’s presence rather than to the presence itself.  As Flannery O’Connor declared, “this is all I will ever be able to say about it . . . except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable.”

Don’t get distracted, and don’t overthink it.  God invites you to this table, so that you, along with others gathered here and around the world, may bask in the presence of Jesus.  It isn’t about the bread. It’s about the bread of life. Jesus is within and among us. His meal nourishes and sustains us. In his presence we will never hunger or thirst.  If we let them, symbols and sacraments will always confuse us. But if we open ourselves up to their power they can transform us. We will never entirely get it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not about what we think.  It’s about who we’re with and who we are in his presence. Come to the table with Jesus. His presence among us will do the rest.  Amen.