Sermon: Propler 16 RCL B – “Bread of Heaven, Part IV”

Two Jewish boys were trying to outdo each other on how far back they could trace their family lineage. The first said, “My family can trace our ancestry back almost two thousand years to the great Rabbi Akiva. So how far back does your family go,” he asked the second.

Without missing a beat, the second boy says, “I don’t know. My father told me that all of our records were lost in the flood.”

Family trees. Family reunions. Family photos. Families that are happy, dysfunctional, dysfunctionally happy, extended, small and so much more. No matter what type of family you have—good, bad, or indifferent—you did not become a member by choice and you’re stuck with the one you’ve got.

The word “family” describes our biological family, but is also good to describe a group of individuals who have a common thread, so it is often used as a way of describing the Church. You are my Church family and the comedian Les Dawson describes you well: “Families are like fudge – mostly sweet, with a few nuts.” And you know who you are.

Not only family, the Church is also described as the Body of Christ, describing our unity and how we need one another. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” And a little further on, “There may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We do not exist for ourselves, we exist for the Body. Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was quite emphatic on this: “Individualism therefore has no place in Christianity, and Christianity verily means its extinction. The individual Christian exists only because the body exists already. In the body the self is found, and within the individual experience the body is present.” This unity is the fulfillment of Jesus’ great priestly prayer recorded in John’s Gospel: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

We have this unity, but it is a unity that can exist at different levels, that is why when Paul speaks of the Body of Christ, he speaks of the body of all believers, but also about the Body of Christ as the local church; so we can say that contained within this church of St. Matthew’s, we are the Body of Christ, while still being a part of a greater body. As that body of St. Matthew’s, we gather as any family gathers, but in this family, there is a true dependence on one another, which means this body of St. Matthew’s has all that it needs to be the church in this place, but it cannot be that church without you. We have a dependence on one another, therefore we have a responsibility to one another. As St. Paul teaches, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

However, in order for this body to be real, something more than just nice words, then we must have a common thread running through us all, and we do, Jesus. We have him, not just in our profession of faith, but as we said last week, we have his real presence in his body and blood that we receive in the Eucharist, and it is this Eucharist that provides a real and tangible common thread, binding us together.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We abide in him and he abides in us, therefore, we abide in one another. St. Francis de Sales preached, “We are all nourished by the same bread, that heavenly bread of the divine Eucharist, the reception which is called communion, and which symbolizes that unity that we should have one with another, without which we could not be called children of God.” This has been the belief of the Church since the very beginning. The Didache is a first century liturgical book and at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, while holding the bread, the priest would say, “As this piece of bread was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom.” God’s Kingdom in heaven and God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Have you ever been to a wedding where, toward the end of the ceremony, the couple lights a unity candle? They’ve got a large candle in the middle and smaller ones on each side. The two smaller ones are burning and the bride and groom each take one the smaller ones and together they light the candle in the center. The interesting bit is what comes next: do they place the smaller candles back in their stands still burning or do they blow them out first. Did they light a flame together, but maintain their own separate flames, or do they extinguish their individual flames and truly only exist as one. (I once heard that the couple left the smaller ones burning, but after moment, the bride leaned over and blew out the grooms. To that, someone said, “During the marriage ceremony two become one — on the honeymoon they discover which one.”) Seriously, in the end, there should only be one flame and the same is true for us as the family and body of Christ, made one through Jesus who gave himself for us all.

Today, as you come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, remember that we are the family of God, the Body of Christ, and recognize that we truly need one another. Without you, each of you, we are diminished. With you… with you we become a flame that can set the world on fire with the love of God.

Let us pray: Lord God, you have built in heaven and on earth a single Church of truth and love and Holy Spirit; one family and communion, whose temple is the Lamb, One body indivisible, here and beyond: the body of Your dear Son. The unity of holy Church, its might, its Gospel, proceeding from Your unalterable will, is truth and love and Holy Spirit. Its ministries stream from your heart. We pray Lord that we might become this Church in this place: a beacon to the lost, a salve for the wounded, and a family for all. Jesus, in your name. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 15 RCL B – “Bread of Heaven, Part III”

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

A Rabbi was sitting next to an atheist on an airplane. Every few minutes, one of the Rabbi’s children or grandchildren would inquire about his needs for food, drink, or comfort. The atheist commented, “The respect your children and grandchildren show you is wonderful. Mine don’t show me that respect.” The Rabbi responded, “Think about it. To my children and grandchildren, I am one step closer in a chain of tradition to the time when God spoke to the whole Jewish people on Mount Sinai. To your children, you are one step closer to being an ape.”

When it comes to how we were created, whether you hold to the story of creation or the theory of evolution, it is still going to be a mystery. As the Psalmist states, “I praise [God] because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and it all is a great mystery. Think about your breathing: maybe I’m just a bit on the weird side, but if I think about my breathing, about having to take a breath, then I find I have to keep thinking about it. It is like the automatic process stops, because I made it a conscious action rather than allowing it to remain a sub-conscious function. Speaking of our brains: our brains are able to process 11 million bits of information per second, of which only 40 to 50 can we be consciously aware. A lot happens in the background that we never give a thought to. Imagine if you had to make a conscious decisions to take every 22,000 breaths that a human averages every single day or the 100,000 times per day the heart beats… “beat, beat, beat, breathe, beat, beat…,” then Scarlett Johansson walks by “(fast) beat, beat, beat, beat, beat…. breathe.” I’m sure scientist can explain parts of it, but behind it all is a great mystery.

Today, we continue with the Bread of Heaven / Life discourse from John’s Gospel and in today’s verses we find some of the most difficult passages of Scripture (and I want to read this part for you again): Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 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.” As we will read next week, this teaching was a show-stopper for many. Jesus goes too far. We’re not cannibals. We’re not vampires. And for the Jews, for meat to be kosher, there can be no blood. Jesus manages to offend everyone and he knows it, because he will ask, “Does this offend you?” I’ve no doubt that it still offends many today, but here is the truth: each Sunday when we partake of the Holy Eucharist, we truly receive the body and blood of Christ.

Over the years and still today, there are many who want to ease this teaching, to make it easier on the stomach, by stating that the bread and the wine are merely symbolic of the body and the blood, but it is our belief that this is an error. Why? Because Jesus did not say, “Take eat, this a symbol / representation of my body” or “Drink this wine (and he certainly didn’t use Welch’s!) Drink this wine and pretend it is my blood.” No. Jesus said, “This is my body… this is my blood.” Why? Because a symbol cannot bring you forgiveness of sins nor can a representation give you life eternal. If it is not the body and the blood, then we are simply participating in a charade. It is true, the consecrated bread and wine maintain their appearance, but through the Holy Spirit (at the epiclesis—when the priest holds his hands over the bread and the wine), they are no longer only bread and wine, but are transformed into the body and the blood.

We’ve discussed this before: Jesus told the disciples, at the institution of the Holy Eucharist on that first Maundy Thursday, to do these things “in remembrance of me.” That word remembrance is translated from the word anamnesis, which means to “make present.” “Take, eat: This is my Bod, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” “Do this for the anamnesis of me… do this and make me present.” Not a representation or a memorial of me, but a making present. A true and real presence.

The big question: how does this happen? How does the bread and the wine become the body and the blood? How were we created? How does the mind work? How can you regulate your breathing or beating of your heart? How can we know the depths of the sea or the heights of the heavens? The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “There’s no shame in admitting what you don’t know. The only shame is pretending you know all the answers.” How does the bread and the wine become the body and the blood? I don’t know. I only know that it does. How do I know that? Grace and faith. I’m going to let my friend Thomas à Kempis help me out here:

“God can do more than man can understand… Many have lost devotion because they wished to search into things beyond them. Faith is required of you, and a sincere life, not a lofty intellect nor a delving into the mysteries of God. If you neither know nor understand things beneath you, how can you comprehend what is above you? Submit yourself to God and humble reason to faith, and the light of understanding will be given you so far as it is good and necessary for you… Be not disturbed, dispute not in your mind, answer not the doubts sent by the devil, but believe the words of God, believe His saints and prophets and the evil enemy will flee from you…. Go forward, then, with sincere and unflinching faith, and with humble reverence approach this Sacrament. Whatever you cannot understand commit to the security of the all-powerful God, Who does not deceive you…. If all the works of God were such that human reason could easily grasp them, they would not be called wonderful or beyond the power of words to tell.” (TAK IOC Bk IV.18)

I don’t know how the bread and wine become the body and the blood, but through grace and faith in God we know that they do. We do not need to know how everything works in order to believe that they are true.

Finally, I know for some of you, I’m preaching to the choir, but I’m not so naïve as to believe that this teaching is contrary to what others of you hold to be true. Therefore, today I only ask that we all truly and faithfully meditate upon the words of Jesus and the teachings of the church and of those that have gone before us, for that act alone signifies that what we do in the Eucharist is far more than simply eating a wafer of bread and having a sip of wine.

Let us pray:
Jesus, our God,
You art infinitely good and perfect.
We love You above all things
and with all our hearts.
We desire to receive You in Holy Communion
that we may love You more and serve Thee better.
Come to us and strengthen us,
so that we may never be separated from You on earth
and that we may live with You eternally in heaven.

Sermon: Proper 14 RCL B – “Bread of Heaven, Part II”

Sermon: Proper 13 RCL B – “Bread of Heaven, Part I”

Needs vs Wants: it seems basic enough, but just so we’re all on the same page—a need is something that is required in order to survive whereas a want is something we do not need, but desire. A few examples:

  • I want to look like brad Pitt in Fight Club, but I need chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes.
  • I want to read more books, but I need to get through all 147 episodes of The Walking Dead.
  • I want to go to bed at a decent hour, but I need to scroll through social media until 2:00 a.m.

Maybe I’m missing the point. Let’s try a couple more:

  • I want a fancy car, but I need reliable transportation to and from work.
  • I want to be popular, but what I need are strong stable relationships.

You see the difference. And this is where we left off last week in our discussion on the Bread of Life. Our wants (we talked about cravings last week) are not always what we need, because what we need more than anything else and the only thing that will satisfy and fulfill our physical and spiritual hearts is this Bread of Life. If that is true, what purpose does it serve? What does this Bread of Life do for us?

Today in our lesson from 1 Kings, we read about the Prophet Elijah, but it is one of those lessons that drops us down in the middle of a story without much explanation on either end. It began, “Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree.” That’s nice, but why did he go off into the wilderness and why did he say to the Lord, “I’m done, just kill me now?”

At the time, Ahab was king over Israel and his wife was Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel did evil in the eyes of the Lord by worshiping the gods Baal and Asherah. Unable to tolerate this, Elijah said to King Ahab, “summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” Ahab did and it was on Mount Carmel that we have the episode of the dueling prophets.

Elijah challenged the prophets: he and they would both have the opportunity to sacrifice a bull, but then—and this is where it gets interesting—each was to call down fire from their god/God to consume the sacrifice. So the prophets of Baal did just that. They set up the altar, sacrificed the bull, and started calling out to Baal. Nothing happened. Elijah taunted them, “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” Still nothing. After awhile, Elijah said, “Step aside, boys.” He set up the Lord’s altar, placed the sacrificed bull upon it, drowned it in water, then called on God, and “the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” The people were amazed and feared the Lord and when Elijah called on them to kill the false prophets, all four hundred and fifty of them, they did. Yet, all this mighty display of power did nothing to turn the hearts of Ahab and Jezebel. She called for the death of Elijah and Elijah ran… now we are at our reading today.

Elijah ran for a day into the wilderness, fell down under a tree, and asked the Lord to kill him. He had done all he knew to do, had demonstrated the power of God, yet the people did not turn, but instead sought his life. He was done and could not go on, yet the Lord was not done with him. The Lord wanted to see him on Mount Horeb, the mountain of the Lord.

Mount Horeb is also known as Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses encountered God in the burning bush and where he also received the Ten Commandments, but in order to travel for forty days in the wilderness, Elijah needed food for the journey, so twice an angel of the Lord brought him bread and water. When he arrived at Mount Horeb, he went into a cave and rested for the night, but the following day, the Lord called to him: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then there was a great wind, followed by an earthquake, followed by a fire, but the Lord was not in any of those. Then “came a gentle whisper” and Elijah encountered God.

What purpose does the Bread of Life serve? What does it do for us? Just as the Lord fed the bread to Elijah to sustain and prepare him for the journey, the Lord feeds us with the Bread of Life. It is food for the journey to sustain us in the wilderness while we seek to encounter our God on the mountain. It is what provides us with a supernatural spiritual strength in the face of the enemy that seeks to destroy us. And this Bread is Jesus.

“I am the bread of life…. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

I want to stay home in bed, drawing the sheets up over me because I just can’t go back out into the wilderness of a world that seems to care so little… I want to hide, but what I need is the Bread of Life that will nourish my soul and my body, giving me strength and courage in knowing that my God allows me to truly make Him a part of myself. It’s not just me against the Jezebel’s and forces of evil of the wilderness. It is the power of God working in me.

I want to close my eyes to the injustices I see around me because there is nothing I can do about it, but I need to be an instrument of transformation in my world, my community, my family, my own life, but to do this, I need the Bread of Life to fortify my resolve and provide the daily sustenance I so desperately need.

I want to climb under a broom tree and just have it all go away, but my God needs me to go further than I ever thought I could and to be renewed into the image of His Son, so God gives me himself and makes it possible.

Sir, give us this Bread. Give us this food for the journey. Give us yourself that we may have abundant life in this world and eternal life in the world to come. And God does give us all this and more. When we hold out our hands to receive him in the Eucharist, God speaks to our soul and says, “Take, eat: This is my Bod, which is given for you… given that you may have food for the journey. Given that you may have abundant life. Given that you may have life eternal.”

Let us pray: Lord Jesus, you are the bread of life, the manna which sustains us in the wilderness of our daily lives. Without you, we hunger for righteousness but will forever be found wanting. Sustain us, O Lord, and keep us in your graces through the vessel of your most holy body and blood. Amen.

Sermon: Proper 13 RCL B – “Bread of Heaven, Part I”

Photo by Nadya Spetnitskaya on Unsplash

While visiting a big city, Betsy, who suspected her husband of cheating on her snuck off to visit a fortune teller of some local repute.

In a dark and hazy room, peering into a crystal ball, the mystic delivered grave news. “There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just be blunt: Prepare yourself to be a widow. Your husband will die a violent and horrible death this year.”

Visibly shaken, Betsy stared at the woman’s lined face, then at the single flickering candle, then down at her hands. She took a few deep breaths to compose herself. She simply had to know. She met the fortune teller’s gaze, steadied her voice, and asked her question. “Will I be acquitted?

When it came time to preach this sermon, I just couldn’t tell that joke: adultery, murder, divination… no. Not good sermon material.

Jesus had been teaching and performing miracles in Jerusalem at the Temple and from there he made his way north to the lands surrounding the sea of Galilee. If he went all the way up to Capernaum on the north shore, he would have travelled about eighty miles. After some time, he crossed over the sea and it is there that we have the feeding of the 5,000. Following this, the disciples—without Jesus—take a boat back to Capernaum, but on the way they encounter a storm and it is then they see Jesus walking on the water.

The following day, the people wake up and look for Jesus, thinking that he should still be nearby, but when they can’t find him, they also cross over to Capernaum where they do find him. This is where our Gospel reading begins today with the people saying to Jesus, “Umm… you were over there with no way of getting over here. How’d you do that?” Jesus doesn’t answer that question, but only tells them why it is they were looking for him: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

These words are the beginning of what is known as the Bread of Life Discourse, consisting of thirty-seven verses. It is such an important teaching, that we will hear from these verses for three more Sundays.

It begins with the people asking Jesus a series of questions: how did you get here? What is the work of God? What sign will you give us? What work are you performing? And then someone says, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” In saying this, they are throwing down the gauntlet on Jesus. If you want us to believe you, why don’t you pull this particular rabbit out of the hat. To that challenge, Jesus said, “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.” And the people are like, “Yeah, yeah…give us that bread.”

The people are still thinking about their empty stomachs and Jesus could have given them what they wanted, but Jesus did not need a crystal ball to tell them what would happen if he did. He only needed to look at their history.

The Israelites had made the exodus out of Egypt and were wandering in the desert. They grew hungry and complained against God, so the Lord said, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” And he did. He gave them manna to eat.

Our Psalm today speaks of all of this and concluded with:

They ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.
(Psalm 78:29)

God gave them everything they craved, but they weren’t ever happy. They weren’t ever satisfied.

“The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!’” (Numbers 11:4-6)

Yes, Jesus says to those listening. Moses did feed them with the bread from heaven, but after awhile, they weren’t satisfied. So he gave them quail, but guess what? They eventually weren’t satisfied with that either. Moses could have gone on and given them cucumbers, melons, Kobe beef, and Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, but in the end they would still be grumbling and would always want more.

No. Jesus did not need a crystal ball to know how it would all play out. So, he says, instead of seeking after something that you will later be dissatisfied with, why not seek after that which will satisfy you now and for all eternity. Seek after the bread which will give you life eternal. And what is this bread? Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus said, I—God—am the one thing that will satisfy you completely. Follow me and believe in me.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, God can give and fulfill our every craving, but like the Israelites, we will grow tired of it, because what we crave is not what we need. It is not what will sustain or fulfill us. If you think about it, you know it’s true. We may occasionally find some peace, but there is a restlessness within us. An itch. A craving. However you want to refer to it, and it is really never satisfied. What is the remedy for such cravings? In the first paragraph of his Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo, speaking to God, wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

When he says that our heart is restless, I believe he is referring to both our physical and spiritual heart, our entire being which will remain restless until it rests in God alone. And it is a restlessness, a craving, that can only be satisfied and nourished with the true Bread of Heaven. Our response in hearing this can be the same response as those who were listening to Jesus: “Sir, give us this bread always.”

And Jesus does. “I am the bread of life.” We receive this bread of life physically in the Eucharist and spiritually through our faith. If we can truly receive this bread then we are truly free. Free from the empty cravings that draw us away from God.

I would like to tell you that I have reached such a level of perfection, but I think we all know that would be a lie. It is not easy and it is always a struggle. It is God’s grace alone that fills in the gap, but that does not mean that we don’t work to lessen that gap. Strive, body and soul, to be satisfied with God alone. Seek to find peace in him. Yes, Lord, give us this bread always that we might find rest in you.

Let us pray: Father in heaven, you have made us for yourself; our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Fulfill this longing through Jesus, the bread of life, so that we may witness to him who alone satisfies the hungers of the human family. By the power of your Spirit lead us to the heavenly table where we may feast on the vision of your glory for ever and ever. Amen.

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