Thursday, August 30, 2012

Prayers for an Election

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  Book of Common Prayer, pg 822

As the political campaign season grows ever longer and strikes me as being more akin to something to be endured rather than something which illuminates and inspires, it helped me to read this collect and remind myself why, as a Christian, it matters that we go through this process.

Reading through our collect for a national election, it is interesting to unpack what it contains. The opening reminds us that God holds us to account for our powers and privileges. Consider what powers and privileges you have received from our government for a moment. We spend so much time arguing over particular issues that we sometimes lose our appreciation for the whole.

I have the power and privilege to vote-something my female ancestors a hundred years ago did not have. I have the privilege to walk down a street in my neighborhood and feel relatively safe, to have confidence that the police are there to help me and not to hurt me, to know that the hospital nearby would give me excellent care if I had an accident or a disease. I have the power to speak out freely through sermons and blogs and influence people in how they believe, think, and act. And I have the power to recognize that not all of my fellow-citizens have those privileges, and the ability to take actions to remedy that sad fact, so that when I am called to account for all my powers and privileges, I can stand before God with a clear heart.

We pray in the collect for guidance as a people in our voting. I like that we're praying for guidance for all of us, and that we're not asking God to guide us to a single best candidate but to guide us so that whoever is elected will protect the rights of all "through faithful administration and wise laws." Our governance must be faithful, not to God, but to the citizens, and faith is something that we
understand in the church: doing things in good faith means that you may make mistakes, or try out policies that are unsuccessful, but it is in faithfulness that we honestly look at our work, admit fault, and try harder the next time. A faithful government is one that is willing to change, willing to accept and model sacrifice, and to put the needs of its citizens ahead of its members' individual interests.

Wise laws endure and produce benefits for the citizens, protecting the rights of all, and not just the powerful or wealthy. It harkens in my ear to our baptismal covenant: "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" to which the response is, "I will, with God's help." Our rights, justice, peace, and dignity depend upon those whom we elect. I sometimes wonder what would happen if the members of congress and our political leaders could actually follow that portion of our baptismal covenant just among themselves-if they could strive for justice and peace among themselves, and just respect the dignity of their fellow office holders. Our political life would be far less divisive if they could model that for us. One of thehallmarks of being a Christian is that we believe that things can be different; we believe that people have the capacity to treat one another with dignity, and that divisiveness is not a foregone conclusion.

Finally, the collect closes with the notion that "our nation be enabled to fulfill [God's] purposes." For those of us who advocate for a separation of church and state, and those who acknowledge that the United States is not currently (if it ever was) a Christian nation, viewing our nation as an agent of God's purposes might be alarming at first. But this is a place where scripture is illuminating. In the Hebrew Bible, many nations are used for God's purposes, not just Israel. For instance, it is the Persian Empire that God uses to restore Israel and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem after the exile. What I would envision as God's purposes for our nation-to be an exemplar of justice, peace, equality, dignity, happiness, health and fruitful labor-are well in line with those outlined by our founders and even politicians today.

I invite you to join with me in praying for our nation as we approach this year's election; pray for the candidates and their families; pray for those who will be most affected by the outcome of the election; and pray for a spirit of humility, graciousness, thankfulness, and wisdom to inhabit our elected officials and our nation as a whole.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

You've got the whole world in your hands

Pentecost 13, John 6:56-69, August 26, 2012, Epiphany Manhattan, Jonathan Linman:

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We might be as baffled by all of this as were the religious people and the hearers of Jesus’ own day.

Then he up’s the ante by further saying, “The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

No wonder that many of his disciples complained and said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

We in our own day might say the same thing about our teaching about the Eucharist, that the bread and wine somehow convey Jesus’ true body and blood. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Indeed.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is John’s Eucharistic chapter, as there’s no Last Supper institution narrative in John, just the washing of the disciples’ feet.

Today we conclude several Sundays of focus on John 6. Sunday after Sunday, it’s been bread of life, bread from heaven, bread of life, bread from heaven, bread of life, bread from heaven. Now I know why Jennifer invited me to preach today: to give her a break from all of this bread of life stuff!

I guess the editors of the lectionary decided that it takes several weeks to make sense of all of this about Jesus as bread from heaven.

So let’s claim the opportunity to go deeper. Since we’re talking about bread, let’s look at bread.

[Holding up priest’s host]

Look at what I am now holding: is this bread? Barely: wheat flour and water. The design of a host is evocative, I suppose, of the manna from heaven described in the Old Testament, the flaky substance that mysteriously appeared on the ground after people complained that there was nothing to eat in the wilderness after the Exodus.

So here’s the million dollar question: how can this little thing that barely resembles bread as we know it become Christ’s body, the real presence of Christ in the flesh? And this for eternal life?  It’s hard enough to imagine this as bread, let alone something that carries the divine and can give us a share in living forever.

Let’s start our exploration with this essential proposition or observation: I’ve got the whole world in my hands. And when you hold bread, you do, too.

Think of the host as sign, as symbol. Imagine it and its meanings.

To help you do this, I want to hold up another item which also functions as sign and symbol, and in such a way help you understand, perhaps, how a host can also convey Jesus as bread from heaven.

Here’s my Nano iPod (holding it up). This little thing is about a size of a Eucharistic host, perhaps slightly bigger. But this little thing contains and conveys 432 songs currently, and that’s only 36% of its capacity.

I grew up listening to music first on lp’s and then on audio cassette tapes. Think of how much space it would take in an apartment to contain all of those albums.

But here are 432 songs. And not just that, but songs which are deeply meaningful to me and really are a remembrance of so much that is precious to me, holding so much of my identity.

By extension, then, this iPod is a sign, a symbol of my whole life in music.

E.g.: wedding dance song by Shania Twain AND “Day by Day Your Mercies Lord Attend Me,” sung at my ordination, from Swedish tradition, here offered by a congregation that included the daughter of the pastor who baptized me.

So, with the Nano iPod in mind, let’s return to the host. Look at it, think about it. What I am holding is a sign of the whole creation. It’s wheat flour that had been mixed with water, signs of God’s gracious love to us in creation. Grain and water, two primary symbols of creation that make life possible.

To further our understanding, here’s what a pre-eminent Lutheran liturgical theologian, Philip Pfatteicher, has to say about the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine: “God’s gifts to us, grain and grapes, are returned to him as human labor has transformed them into bread and wine for use in the Holy Supper. God’s gifts of grain and grapes have been harvested, baked or pressed, packaged or bottled, delivered, stored, displayed, purchased, and presented in a world of economic inflation and depression, marketing analyses, price negotiations, collective bargaining, injustice and greed, sacrifice and concern. The elements are rich with suggestive meanings and connections with life in a complex modern world…. The bread, a necessity of life, suggests the wonderful aroma of the bakery and food of which some have too little and others, far too much. The wine, an enrichment of life, suggest the drink which makes glad human hearts and warms and cheers the spirit and also which is the cause of drunkenness, violence and degradation. Moderation and excess, nourishment and deprivation, enrichment and intoxication are all gathered in the bread and wine which are offered to God for blessing and redemption, justice and purification and renewal.” (Pfatteicher’s Commentary on LBW, p. 155).

Think of it. This little host contains so much signification as Pfatteicher suggests. I’ve got the whole world, in a sense, in my hands right now. And again you will, too, when you come to this table of grace.

As an interesting aside, have you ever wondered how these hosts are made and who makes them? There’s actually a great essay about this online. It’s called “Buying the Body of Christ,” by Rowan Moore Gerety. It’s subtitle, “How the communion wafer arrived in the capitalist marketplace.”

‘Turns out that host-making is, like so many things today, big business. Making hosts used to be the domain of nuns and monks in Catholic religious orders. But like so many mom and pop shops, the bigger firms have cornered the market, and driven a lot of the religious out of business.

The Cavanaugh Company of Greenville, Rhode Island now makes 80% of the altar breads consumed in the United States. Like so many food producers, compared to the kitchens in monasteries and convents, it’s a big factory that’s mostly automated. Every three weeks, 18 wheelers deliver wheat flour in 42,000 to 45,000 pound shipments. Their supplier is Archer Daniels Midland, one of the biggest corporations in agribusiness. “The same flour that ends up on altars across the country in the form of hosts could, according to ADM, end up in tortillas, refrigerated doughs, Asian noodles, bagels, and doughnuts at your local supermarket.”

Once again, to drive home the point, we’ve got the whole world in our hands, as this little host signifies all these complex economic relationships in and dynamics of our current world.

And thus far, we’ve only explored the profane meanings of the host as sign of creation, and human involvements therein.

Into this profane world of big agribusiness, God in Christ enters. Just as God in Christ entered the complex world of ancient Palestine.

Here’s the key to understanding how the profane becomes the sacred: Connect this little manna-like piece of bread with God’s Word (“This is my body given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me”), and the Holy Spirit makes this Christ’s body indeed. That’s what we confess and believe.

According to Martin Luther, without God’s Word, the bread, of course, remains bread. But with God’s Word, this thing is enlivened to convey the fullness of Christ’s presence in the flesh, in, with and under this bread, this manna, now from above.

Think of it. God’s word in connection with the bread unleashes all that God is in Christ.

Like the Nano iPod that contains so much of my personal identity in music, this host with God’s word in the power of the Spirit contains all of Christ, and in so far as Christ points to God, it contains all of God, in a fleshly, earthly, ordinary thing.

Once again, when we hold the bread, we’ve got the whole world, the whole cosmos, all of God’s creation in heaven and on earth, in our hands.

Once this little piece of bread is consecrated with the Word, this sign doesn’t just point to Christ, it is Christ, it carries Christ to you with all the blessings offered by Christ:
·         Forgiveness
·         Life
·         Salvation
·         Jesus’ death and resurrection
·         The Last Supper: the past becoming present.
·         A foretaste of the feast to come in heaven: the promised future coming to us now.
·         The presence of the saints in the communion of saints
·         Joy
·         Peace. God’s Shalom.
·         The justice of God’s promised reign
·         The unity of Christ’s church throughout history and throughout the world
·         And the joining in union heaven and earth, things human and things divine. All peoples, us with each other, all of us with God
·         And it’s somehow, some way, as Jesus’ suggests in John’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ flesh. Bread as flesh containing all the meanings and blessings I’ve listed.

It’s all here without limit to its capacity for memory and meaning unlike my little iPod.

Think of it. It’s an amazing thing.

This living bread from heaven will be yours, it’s for you. Given, broken for you. All that Christ is coming to you, for you, personally, intimately, and communally, all of us together.

And when you finally get this gift of life, this bread from heaven, into your tummies, then you’ll have the whole world, in heaven and on earth inside you.

Think of that, the wonder of that, the beauty, the sacredness.

This sermon and its meaning for you will conclude only when Christ is in you sacramentally, in, with and under bread and wine, making you one with Christ and all creation.

Let this be an amazing experience for you. Receive this Eucharist as if for the first time, full of wonder and awe, in the wisdom of child-like adoring faith.

Come to the table today with the words of Simon Peter on your mind, one who did not turn and leave the fold of disciples as some did because they thought Jesus’ teaching too difficult: “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.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bread and Circuses

Sermon from August 5, 2012

There were a lot of reasons Jonathan and I named our son “Nathan”. It is the Hebrew word for “gift,” and it is related to “Jo-Nathan”, “Gift of God,” and it was very obvious to both of us that Nathan was the greatest gift either of us had ever been given. Jonathan would also tell you that the key archbishop in the Swedish church is Nathan Soderblom, but he didn’t really make that connection until after our Nathan was born, so I don’t think it counts.  

But for me, the most important reason for Nathan’s name, is the prophet Nathan, and particularly in today’s story from 2 Samuel. Nathan is the only historical prophet who is successful in all of scripture at getting the monarch to change course. (Jonah gets the people of Nineveh to repent, but his story is self-consciously fictional…) But Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and all the rest of them end up completely frustrated and foiled by human actions contrary to God. The way Nathan does it is by getting David to convict himself—if Nathan had just gone to David and said, “Your majesty, killing Uriah and taking Bathsheba as your wife was wrong and you need to repent,” David would never have responded—we might have had a story more like that of John the Baptist and Herod that we heard a few weeks ago. Nathan has the humility and the creativity and the courage to tell a story… about a poor man with only a single lamb, and a rich man who was greedy and took what did not belong to him. David gets caught up in the story, and is passionate about the conclusion—and then Nathan turns the tables on him and reveals how David himself is the greedy rich man who has stolen what did not belong to him. And David—to his credit—repents.  

And that’s what I’d pray for for my Nathan. That he’d be able to speak truth to power in a way that those in power can hear. Because it’s one thing to be to be hungry for justice and truth and God and Jesus and want to change the world. It’s a more substantive gift to be a passionate person of faith AND one who is able to negotiate power structures in an effective way. We’re called to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” and Nathan—the prophet—embodies that to me. He hungers for—and gets—a converted heart out of his ruler.  

And it’s the heart that is at issue today in the Gospel. Jesus discovers that by feeding the 5000, he has converted their stomachs, and not their hearts, so when they chase after him across the Sea of Galilee and say, in effect, “Why did you leave us and when is the next meal?” he is sorely disappointed. He wants followers with hungry hearts, and instead he’s being pursued by their stomachs.  

Last week we began a series of readings from John’s Gospel about bread, and the theme will continue with lessons about Jesus as the living bread and Jesus as the bread of life throughout August. If you’re on an Atkins diet, August may not be the best month for you, metaphorically. Today Jesus is pursued by that hungry crowd—and remember, that in the first century, hunger was not reserved for a few people, but something most people endured. At the feeding of the 5000, everyone was able to eat as much as they wanted—some of them, perhaps, for the first time in their lives. So now they’re looking for the next meal, and Jesus upbraids them because they’re driven not by faith in him but by their physical hunger—which is not to discount the very real message of Jesus about caring for and feeding the poor in a literal sense. But Jesus is saying that food for the body is only that—and there is more on offer today. Don’t get distracted by the miracle of the five loaves and two fish and miss the point of the whole endeavor. 

And therein might be an interesting link to the recent book and movie, The Hunger Games, which has some connections to both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings today. 

The dystopian nation in which the Hunger Games takes place is known as Panem—the Latin word for bread. The author, Suzanne Collins, named it as such to relate it to the Roman practice of giving the masses “bread and circuses” to keep them docile. Distract the crowds with just enough free bread and some gladiatorial games, and they won’t notice that they’re being oppressed and rise up in rebellion. Panem is made of 13 districts suffering varying degrees of oppression that supply the necessities for a life of ease for residents of the Capital. Each of the districts must annually supply two teenagers, chosen by lottery and known as “tributes”, to participate in the Hunger Games—a bloodbath where the contestants must kill each other until there is only one winner, one survivor, which is compulsory TV viewing for every resident of Panem. It’s the circus, where districts cheer for their representatives, mourn with them when they lose, and celebrate if they win. It’s a wildly disturbing idea for a story… but in the books, the main character, Katniss Everdeen, reflects beautifully about how horrific and unjust it is. And she—as one of the contestants—finds a way to break the cycle of exploitation.  

Katniss and Peeta, the other “tribute” from her district are the last two standing in their Hunger Games… according to the rules of the game, one of them must kill the other. But Katniss doesn’t like the rules of the game—she doesn’t like the very idea of the game—and so to break out of it and refuse to participate the way the Gamemakers insist, she takes the poisonous berries they have already used to dispatch another contestant, and divides them between herself and Peeta and they eat them simultaneously. She decides that it’s better for the citizens of Panem if there is no winner rather than giving them the circus that they want. Rather than having only one of them live, neither of them will live.  

The Gamemakers of the capital can’t afford that—the circus won’t work if there isn’t a victor. So they intrude on the game, and rescue both Peeta and Katniss, beginning a chain of events that will ultimately result in the downfall of the Capital’s regime. 

And it’s that which reminds me of the prophet Nathan. The forces of this world can be oppressive and dark and dangerous; and it is risky to challenge them. But with courage and faith and creativity it is possible. As I read in a little piece on Facebook recently, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, then you’ve never spent a night in a room with a mosquito.” Even the smallest person can bring the powers and principalities of this world to their knees with the right creativity and willingness to sacrifice. Just look at Rosa Parks, at that girl who just got Seventeen magazine to change their policy on airbrushing photos of models, the Tunisian who set himself on fire in desperation and ignited a revolution that has brought about democracy in that country. 

And all that is doubly true for Jesus in the gospels—Jesus does not conform to the expectations that surround him, whether they’re the expectation of the temple authorities or the Roman authorities or even the very crowds that are following him. Jesus is saying very clearly today that the bread he is offering is not the bread of bread and circuses; and the signs he is doing are not glamorous circus-like entertainments to distract people from their misery. Jesus is offering something beyond measure: never being spiritually hungry or thirsty again. Follow Jesus and earthly bread and circuses will have no appeal, because you will have the Gospel. And Jesus has the most creative way of escaping from the violence of this world that there can be: to allow himself to be killed and then to be raised up and deny earthly authority the victory.  

Can we be as wise and creative and brave as Nathan—and Katniss—and Jesus--in dealing with the world? If we’re hungry for God, come and sit and eat and be filled. No games needed. No circuses. No false handouts of bread that will only temporarily satisfy us. The bread of life is never intended to keep us docile or distract us from the misery and oppression in the world; the bread of life makes us ever hungier and more attentive to those things so that we can share the Gospel and bring food to the hungry; to bring clothing to the naked; to console those who are weeping; to liberate those who are oppressed. As Jesus says in the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be satisfied.”