Thursday, December 24, 2015

Selling Christmas with Puppies and Babies

Christmas Eve 2015

Selling Christmas with Puppies and Babies
Elisha Minnette Photograpy
Many Christmas sermons, year after year, warn the listener to beware of trading in the eternal joy and holiness of welcoming the Christ child as the light of the world for all the rushing around, shopping, buying, maxing out and over-consuming that is all too familiar.  We make a valiant try to guard the sacred from the secular. Each year we make an implicit or explicit plea for “less is more.”   Wait don’t rush.  Slow down. Breathe.  Look up. Look around.

Yet, as much as we push back against and lament the over commercialization of the season, the church gathered is also, in all honesty, selling something at Christmas.  With our pageants, angels, shepherds, carols, and candles, we too are selling something that we assume will have universal appeal and an eternal shelf life.  We are selling this: that God came into this world as flesh and blood, sweat and tears, to reveal God’s true essence and nature: love.  Not judgment, rejection, exclusion, punishment, trial and testing, but divine love.  And that moment, what we call the Incarnation, changed everything. What Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah could not do, the child born in tiny Bethlehem of Judea had to do.  He had to be a savior like no other: saving the world, saving the nations, saving our soul, the present and future.  Nearly two thousand years later, you and I are here listening to how it all began.

So, yes, we are selling something at Christmas.  We have a durable, solid, road-tested product to sell to our war-weary, on-edge, fearful and complicated world.   And we can do better.  To whom might we turn to boost our sales forecast for the next year?

Could we learn a thing or two from Madison Avenue? How would Madmen’s Don Draper – the television fictional advertising guru who could literally sell ice to Eskimos – approach the Jesus born in Bethlehem account?  Where would they start?

We know from experience as consumers, that there are two things that sell products on television and print year in and year out. Those two things are puppies and babies.  So I contend that we need some puppies and babies to sell Christmas.

There is proof to back this up. 

There was a recent focus group that showed four images and asked which was most likely to tug on their heartstrings.  (Adweek Media/Harris Poll) Participants were shown images of “a puppy”, “a baby”, “a sweet old lady” and “a sweet old man.”  41% chose a puppy when they saw it in a commercial. One-third said a baby (34%) is most likely to do so.  Not such good news for sweet old lady (3%) or a sweet old man (2%).  Another study by the Marketing Bulletin showed that a cute baby increased the odds by 88% that people would respond to a survey.  A cute animal increased response rates by 42%.

 With this hard fought data research in our pockets, cue the animals and the baby. 

 Joseph went Bethlehem “to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” 

A manger is not the whole crèche but the feeding tough for animals that doubled as a crib for the Christ child.  We can imagine the animals being brought into the ground floor of houses in the cold winter with families sleeping above.  Shepherds too were keeping watch over their flock by night in the fields when an angel of the Lord stood before them with the joy-filled news.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Every Christmas pageant that I know has its core of shepherds and animals.  Outdoor live nativity scenes use any animals they can find to enrich the experiences by adding cows, and donkeys and sheep, chickens, lamas, goats, and rabbits. They remind us the humble beginning of the child born as the Son of God.

Selling Christmas with animals.  Check.

All stories have a beginning, a middle and end.  The Christian story begins with the birth of Jesus to Mary in Bethlehem.  Soon, the Wise Men arrive to worship the child and bring gifts from afar.  We know that the child would grow, learn, and live into this true identity as the fullest expression of God to ever walk on the face of this earth. We know that he would teach and heal, lead and inspire, challenge and provoke. We are reminded by the crosses that fill churches of how his life ended. And each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we are reminded of his resurrection and the promise of our own.    

Yet at the onset, Jesus was, as we all were once, an infant. A child. Vulnerable. Innocent. Needing love, warmth and protection, nurture and guidance.

The Christ child, at the center of this story, is a reminder that we have a unique message to the world that is ruled by might, ego, power and dominance and oppression.  

The apostle Paul puts it another way: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong. 1:27-29

Selling Christmas with a baby.  Check.

 In the run up to Christmas we here at Christ Church have been praying, discerning, educating and advocating for the plight of refugees around the world, and especially for the compassionate response to Syrian refugees.  During this holy season where children are at the center of our attention and hopes, it’s worth reminding ourselves why and when we began to pay attention. 

It began in September with a photo. A three-year old Syrian boy, wearing a red T-shirt, shorts, and Velcro sneakers (the kind that are the easiest for parents to manage). His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he drowned off he coast of Turkey along with his mother and brother.  It was one of those turning point iconic pictures, when the world took notice. And it was before it all became political and partisan.   

For those of us gathered here– for whom a holy child has led us to believe or at least a desire to have more faith – we can and should connect what we believe, how we pray, to what we care about and work for in our world and communities throughout our lives.  The spirit of giving, the desire for peace, the wonder that fills the air, and the hope that abides deep within us on this night, should and must last long past the gifts are opened and the decorations put away.

As it turns out, the true advertising genius of Christmas is not the fictional Don Draper but the most beloved of saints, Francis, who in the year 1223 created the first outdoor nativity scene.   

It is the prayer of St. Francis that reminds us what you and I need to go out from tonight’s service and live, believe, and yes: sell. 

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.



Monday, December 21, 2015

Mary the Most Powerful Woman in the World

December 20, 2015
4 Advent, Year C
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton

Annunciation (1489-1490) Sandro Botticelli
Today I want to talk about what it means to be faithful.
I begin with the larger than life Biblical characters that take center stage in Advent – this condensed pre-Christmas season of waiting and light.   Zechariah, a member of the religious establishment, sings a song of thanksgiving and expectation that his son John would prepare the way for the Lord.  The images his paints for us are poetic and clear – “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” John the Baptist delivers on his promise to shake things up. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He held up a mirror to peoples’ lives and challenged them to consider if this was the best they could do for their own souls and for the lives of those around them. John’s mother Elizabeth makes an appearance on stage when she welcomes her relative Mary for a three-month stay. Two women, one older and well beyond normal child bearing years and the other young, vulnerable, engaged but not married and recently carrying a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Gabriel, the angel messenger from God, crashes almost every big scene of this Advent/Christmas pageant.  He is the God whisperer to Zechariah and Mary -- giving them a clear indication that big things are brewing and their lives would never be the same.

At the close of the year, Time magazine makes a big splash when they choose a person of the year and puts their face on the front cover. It is a practice going back to 1927 when aviator Charles Lindbergh was chosen.   This year they chose German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her leadership confronting one crisis after another in Europe.

National Geographic -- a treasured magazine from my childhood -- this month had a different cover. They too had a picture of a woman.   It was a picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with the caption: The most powerful woman in the world.  The wide ranging article points out that “Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings. Her mantle offers both security and protection. And she is the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten.”

Her song, part of Luke’s gospel this morning, known as the Magnicat, is one that has been set to countless musical setting over the centuries.  Each evening it is sung by choirs in cathedral all over England.   She is known by many titles: The Virgin Mary, God bearer, The Blessed Mother, Mother of God, Saint Mary, Holy Mary, Our Lady, The Madonna.  Paula Gooder writes, “Mary is a character about whom we know a great deal and very little, all at the same time.” (In Meaning is in the Waiting, pg. 137).  Muslims as well as Christians consider her to be holy above all women, and her name Maryam appears more often in the Koran than ‘Mary’ does in the Bible.  She has an entire chapter of the Koran about her.  With today’s climate of growing mistrust and fear when some want to pit one religion against another, wouldn’t it be a good thing to remind ourselves what we hold in common.  For one: Mary. 

Yet even as Mary takes center stage each Christmas, she is to me an inkblot Rorschach test of our faith. The National Geographic article interviewed the New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine who commented,  “you can project on her whatever cultural values you have. She can be the grieving mother, the young virgin, and the goddess figure. Just as Jesus is the ideal man, Mary is the ideal woman.”

I referred to Mary as a kind of Rorschach test because how you think of Mary is often shaped by the religious tradition of your childhood and youth. The Episcopal Church is a church that is easy fit for many who were raised Roman Catholic and for many reasons found their way to our tradition of being the “via media” the middle way between Rome and many Protestant traditions.

Yet, whatever your heritage, Mary is still the dominant person of faith of the birth story. Other characters will fade and fall away over the years. Mary is there when Jesus as Jesus grows, she is present at the time of his ministry, and we read in John’s gospel that she is present at the foot of the cross. 

And Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.

Mary’s God and ours scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

Her words lay the groundwork for what her son Jesus would say later:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (5:5)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (5:6)
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (5:8)
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God. (5:9)

Mary can matter even to those who did not grow up with a particular devotion to her, in that she can show us what it means to be faithful in our everyday lives.

Do we hear and see in Mary’s words humbleness or strength?  Is she a story of scandal or sacredness? Do you see her as submissive or strong?  Innocent or wise?  Lofty or grounded?   

The reason it matters is that all around us the world, culture, trends, voices, shadows hint to us that they know what is best. Best to make us loved, wealthy, happy, and strong, and safe and important.

It matters because we need to know how to filter and listen and sort through all of this and decide how to life a life of faith in a complicated and distracting world.

There are moments and days in our lives when we should be all about waiting – and there are times when the waiting is over and we need to act. Take a stand. Speak up and out. And Mary shows us how to do this. 

We see that in her life: in a moment everything changed.  So too, with us.  Our lives can be turned upside down, inside out, in an instant.

In truth, we should be more open then closed.  More generous than cynical. More trusting than guarded.  More forgiving than withholding forgiveness. And that is not easy.  It never is.  So, Mary, help us.  Show us. 

By December 20th, our pre-Christmas preparations should be well underway.   

If we have done well with Advent this year, we have set the stage for all of us to hear again a story of the birth of something new and life changing. Jesus, born to a woman in a far off, small forgotten town, brings the experience of the eternal God – maker of heaven and earth – to our life and experience. 

The waiting is almost over.  








Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Lessons of St. Louis and Ferguson

With Dean Mike Kinman at the site of Mike Brown's death in Ferguson, MO 
I had only traveled to St. Louis once before this past weekend. What brought me to this gateway city this time was my role as president of the Community of the Cross of Nails in North America -- part of a worldwide network of individuals and churches inspired by the Coventry Cathedral (England) message of forgiveness and commitment to the ministry of reconciliation. 

Members of the board met in St. Louis the weekend of Nov. 13-15, 2015 to encourage the ongoing ministry of Christ Church Cathedral and its dean the Very Rev. Mike Kinman. The Cathedral has been a place of welcome and support to those involved in the peaceful protests after the civil unrest in nearby Ferguson, Missouri that followed the shooting death of Mike Brown by a police officer in the summer of 2014.  In addition, when black churches began to be targeted by arson in and around Ferguson, the Cathedral led an effort to raise $700,000 from 300 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations around the country to help the burned churches rebuild. 
Street-side Memorial for Mike Brown
Board members traveled to Ferguson to learn about the Black Lives Matter movement.  What many of us know and think about this movement that began as #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter reflects in many ways our own background, age, color and politics.  What I wanted to learn was why the often expressed rejoinder to “Black Lives Matter,” namely “All Lives Matter,” stuck such a cord of disconnect with many activists.  What seemed clearer to me was that yes, all lives do matter, but the pain and oppression that is being expressed in the Black Lives Matter movement is a unique cry of a broken society. In our inner cities, especially when black boys and men come into contact with the authorities and come out on the losing end of the encounter, it can and does seem to them that their lives mean next to nothing.   
We visited and stood outside the well funded and fortified Ferguson Police Department -- site of many of the marches and vigils. Like many smaller cities, more and more tax revenue had shifted towards fines and penalties, and subsequent jail time for those unable to pay. This widespread practice has led to growing resentment and a growing divide between the police and the local population.  We also gathered for conversation and a good lunch in a local black-owned business that was one of the few restaurants to remain open throughout the protests and violence of last year.

We went to the street in Ferguson where Mike Brown was shot and later died.  It was a pilgrimage, as we were not to litigate the case or to stand in judgment. We were there to be reminded that his lifeless body was left for four hours to bleed out onto the street before it was finally removed.  To many who watched on that hot summer day, it seemed that his life mattered little.  But it mattered to his family. It mattered to him. His life should have mattered more to all of us.

As we were ready to leave, the dean led us in silent prayer, and seconds after we responded from our Coventry litany “Father Forgive” the silence was interrupted by gunshots fifty yards away.  We could see and hear cars fleeing the scene as some young people ran away by foot. Once we realized it was gunfire and not firecrackers, the group quickly moved behind the apartment building and soon got into our cars a left the area, making sure we drove by the scene to see if there had been injuries or even worse, a wounded bystander. Silence and prayer gave way to the shots of gunfire and violence. Father forgive.  

It was a sobering and surreal moment that reminded us that many cannot simply get into cars and leave, as we did, and that that gun violence is all too prevalent in this country and takes the lives of many innocent.  As the dean commented, “the gun industry has sold the idea of fear to the white population and power to the black population.”  
With German CCN President the Rev. Oliver Schuegraf

The next day: after a beautiful liturgy in the Cathedral Sunday morning when we presented a Cross of Nails at the altar to the Wardens and Dean, we departed St. Louis with a greater appreciation for the racial reconciliation witness and ministry of our newest CCN partner.  Our prayer and hope is that their story will inspire and motivate others in this worldwide network. It certainly inspired me. 
With Dean Kinman in St. Louis

The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Rector, Christ Church in Exeter, NH and

President, CCN-NA

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Getting Slavery out of the People

Today we read from Chapter Ten of We Make the Road by Walking.

Listen to Brian McLaren's fresh take on the 10 Commandments:

1. Put the God of liberation first, not the gods of slavery. 
2. Don't reduce God to the manageable size of an idol -- certainly not one made of wood and stone by human hands, and not one made by human minds of rituals and words, either, and certainly not one in whose name people are enslaved, dehumanized, or killed!
3. Do not use God for your own agendas by throwing around God's holy name. If you make a vow in God's name, keep it!
4. Honor the God of liberation by taking and giving everyone a day off. Don't keep the old 24/7 slave economy going.
5. Turn from self-centeredness by honoring your parents. (After all, honor is the basis of freedom.)
6. Don't kill people, and don't do the things that frequently incite violence, including:
7. Don't cheat with others' spouses,
8. Don't steal others' possessions, and
9. Don't lie about others' behaviors or characters.
10. In fact, if you really want to avoid the violence of the old slave economy, deal with its root source -- in the drama of desire. Don't let the competitive desire to acquire tempt you off the road of freedom. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

We Make the Road: Update

Our group gathers each Wednesday in the Chapel from 11 a.m. to noon to hear 3 lessons from Scripture and to read aloud a chapter from McLaren's book We Make the Road by Walking

The great Old Testaments stories have been our jumping off point.  Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Abram before he was Abraham. 

Each week we begin by sharing thoughts and ideas from the lessons and chapters and then we start sharing stories. 

If people miss a week, that's OK.  You can easily read at home or in the Chapel where we keep a book or two.

The theology that runs throughout these chapters is the invitation to aliveness.  In Chapter three we read: "The universe if God's creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge, and meaning. It runs on the meaning or pattern we see embodied in the life of Jesus." 

You are welcome to join us any week. The format easily allows for folks to come and go as they are able.

On Wednesday, October 21 we will be reading together Chapter Seven: It's Not Too Late.  The sharing is: Share a story about a time when you almost gave up, but are glad you didn't. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Christ Church at 150

Christ Church at 150

Time capsules have long fascinated me. The notion that one could take a memento from the present -- such as a coin, clothing, book, newspaper, or poem and bury it within a cornerstone of a building or deep underground -- with instructions to be opened long into the future by another generation.  Often, no one living when the capsule is buried or hidden will be alive when the time capsule is scheduled to be opened.

If the founders had thought ahead and buried a time capsule, we can only wonder what they might have added from their day?

Parish anniversaries are tricky.  On one hand they clearly provide a moment and festive occasion to look back over the past and lift up highlights, milestones, and accomplishments. They allow us to think back decades and centuries ago and imagine what may have been taking place in our society, culture and church.  They remind us how much tradition and heritage shapes our living faith that seeks to straddle the ancient and the now.

Christ Church was organized as parish in 1865, the year that saw the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a famed visitor to Exeter, and the end of the tragic Civil War. 

Some influences that formed the focus of life and ministry at Christ Church over these 150 years have clearly shifted.  A congregation born from an initial purpose to minister to students and teachers at Phillips Exeter Academy has to adapt to new times. The students of the Academy are not the primary focus of our ministry today. Compulsory church attendance was lifted decades ago. Fifty years ago we relocated from the shadow of the Academy to our current location on Pine Street.

Exeter High School, for years only a few hundred yards from the church -- allowing students to wander over to our classrooms afterschool – moved across town ten years ago. 

We know all too well that the centrality of the Sunday Sabbath in American life is no more. Young families and their children and teens juggle a myriad of choices and demands. 

RiverWoods, co-founded by Christ Church member Rosemary Coffin, is a reminder that Exeter and the Seacoast has become a destination for retirees. We are blessed by the diversity of generations and experiences as we gather each week.  

 If we were to fill a time capsule on this anniversary and bury it deep into the ground with instructions to uncover it 50 or 100 years from now, what might we include and what might we want to say?

I would include pictures – paper and digital of course – of the faces of those who call Christ Church home. 

 I would include something to express our attention to the cares and needs of today: 

v  A picture drawn from a child at Sunday School

v  A quilt or a healing shawl crafted as a sacrament of caring for another

v  A menu from a meal prepared for our overnight guests with Seacoast Family Promise

v  A souvenir from one of recent mission trips to Cuba

v  A copy of the expansive list of names used by our Healing Team uses to pray each week for the sick and those in need of God’s grace

v  An initial working sketch of a rendering of a possible new Parish Hall, as a way to convey that we too are people imaging a time beyond the life cycle of our buildings

v  A recording of our congregation singing a treasured hymn at our fullest and most thankful

v  A copy of the Exeter News-Letter and the Boston Globe from this day

v  Finally I would include a list of those households that call Christ Church their spiritual home.

That would be my list.   What would you include? 

The test of anniversary celebrations is not merely look behind up and mark past achievements and milestones. They must also be about today and tomorrow. They must say something about who and whose we are. We are people of the Resurrection after all. People of the Way.  People on a journey. 

May we give thanks for our founders, pillars, forgotten faithful, children, teens, empty nesters and elders.  We honor our lay leaders, our clergy and the bishops who encouraged and guided our work through these 150 years. 

And may God in Jesus Christ continue to shape and inspire us.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Prayers for Syria and the Growing Refugee Crisis

A Prayer for the Victims of the Syrian Conflict

We pray for those damaged by the fighting in Syria.
To the wounded and injured:
Come Lord Jesus.

To the terrified who are living in shock:
Come Lord Jesus

To the hungry and homeless, refugee and exile:
Come Lord Jesus

To those bringing humanitarian aid:
Give protection Lord Jesus

To those administering medical assistance:
Give protection Lord Jesus.

To those offering counsel and care:
Give protection Lord Jesus.

For all making the sacrifice of love:
Give the strength of your Spirit
and the joy of your comfort.

In the hope of Christ we pray. Amen.

                    -Church of England Prayers for Syria

Thursday, September 3, 2015

We Make this Road: Begin this Journey with others

Next week we begin as a community to spend the next year reading Brian McLaren's We Make this Road by Walking.  Each Wednesday from 11 a.m. to noon in the Chapel we will gather, and we will stay in contact with folks through this blog and on FaceBook.  

The authors begins with this invitation:"What we all want it pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not to just exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid... more awake, more grateful, more energized and purposeful." 

The first part of the journey will be to explore the story of creation.  
Our first texts will be Genesis 1:1-2:3 Psalm 19:1-4 Matthew 6:25-34. As we prepare, consider this question: What is the most beautiful place you have ever seen? What was so special about it? 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sermon from August 16: The Flesh and Blood of Jesus’ Ever-widening Family

I want to start off this morning by playing a version of word association.  I will say just one word, and you – don’t shout out – think of an image that comes to mind when you hear it.  Ready?  The word is: family. 

What came to mind?  The family you grew up with, the family you began with a spouse, your colleagues at work or circle of friends that form a family unit and support system for you when you need it most? We often use the word family to describe what we have here when we are at our best: a church family. Or did you picture an idealized family?  The whole picket fence and 2.3 children so-called life.  Jesus himself also asked a similar question: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?"

As we have gone about our daily lives here, enjoying this beautiful time of the year in New England, millions and millions of people have been on the move around the world.  Refugees.  Migrants. Running through the Chunnel linking France and England. Languishing in refugee camps. Crossing the sea in over-crowded boats.  This year over 2,000 souls have perished in the Mediterranean. The humanitarian disaster in Syria continuing to unfold with millions of people displaced. They come from South Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq and Afghanistan.

To me, one of the ways our faith impacts the way we live in the world is considering what goes through our minds when we see or read stories of these humanitarian crises around the world. Do we go numb or turn away? Do we analyze, rationalize, and politicize? Are we moved: moved to prayer, concern, generosity, action? 

We should care about the plight of refugees and migrants because the God of the Bible cares about them. Men, women and children pick up with few positions and flee. Half the world’s refugees and children.  Children help grandparents. No one is left behind if at all possible. 

What I’m getting at is this: What do some birth parents say to their children and grown children say to parents, siblings tell other siblings of the reason their bond is so visceral, complicated, deep and tight? “You are my flesh and blood.”  You are family.

After four Sunday in a row talking about the Bread of Life, Jesus offends and confusing many by saying: “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 abide in me, and I in them.”

The lectionary seems stuck these weeks: who would not want a break from John’s mystical and confounding words of Jesus.

Four Sundays ago it started with the feeding of the 5,000.  That’s how it began… “There is a boy who had five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.”

Out of scarcity… abundance. What began with little, ended up with much. All present where fed, no one went without.  A foretaste of the ‘all you can eat’ heavenly banquet. There was enough. It is the best of the gospel. It is a message and image that confront our world, where millions go hungry each day. Those blessed with more than enough should share with those without.

One the church groups that we saw on one our recent mission trips to Cuba, who also were  delivering much needed water purification systems to this repressed country, puts a sign over each system that says “Agua viva… Living water.”  Clean water as sacrament: out outward sign of inner life, health and goodness. 

For years I lived just north of St. Augustine, Florida. Known as America’s first city, it was settled by the Spanish in the 1500’s, it is known today for its beaches, and typical Florida tourist attractions.  There is also a park that pays homage to the legend of the Fountain of Youth.  The story is that explorer Ponce de Leon came to the Florida searching for the mythical spring that if one would drink from it or bathe in its waters that one youth would be restored and perhaps they might never die. 

But when does searching for fountains of youth become both an obsession and distraction?  Each day there is at least one truth: we are a day older. 

When Jesus said: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day,” he certainly was not saying that his followers would never grow old and die.

God has a very different take on the Fountain of Youth and the makeup of family. 

In an encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus learned that to be born again or born from above does not require us to return to our mother’s womb. We don’t have to rewind the clock of our lives and start all over to make things right.  We don’t need anti-aging creams, supplements, plastic surgery and Botox to make us feel alive. 

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17)  Christ makes everything new, not young again.

As we think about the eternal life Jesus promised, a beginning place is not to hope and pray that time stands still. A better way is seeing how eternal life is already present and unfolding before us. Jesus spoke of eternity as opposed to immortality, and there is a big difference.

As I remind each youth confirmation class, Christians believe in resurrection and not reincarnation.  We do not believe that we return to this earth and live another life.  We believe in something more – harder to imagine. We believe that as Christ lived, died and was resurrected, so too will we.  We believe in the communion of saints, that those who have gone before are still a part of our lives.

Eternity. Forever. Beyond time.

And the place to begin to understanding that mind-bending promise of an idea, will be for Christians, to take some bread and some wine, do as Jesus did: take, bless, break and share, and become one with Christ. 

A saint of the church once said, (Augustine) when he held up the bread and the cup before the gathered – in the same way we do at the altar today -- behold who you are; may we become what we receive.

Behold who you are.  You and I are God’s family. Flesh and blood. God’s own. Flawed and sinful. Blessed and forgiven.




Monday, August 10, 2015

Sermon from August 9: Taste and see that the Lord is Good

Picture for a moment that stereotyped version of a mother or grandmother whose cure for anything and everything is to offer up an overflowing plate of food. A large bowl of hot Chicken soup, a pile of pasta, mouth watering cookies, meatloaf and gravy.  The food comes with the invitation: “” Comfort food. Soul food. 

Food is what we bring to the homes of those living through times of loss and grief. Casseroles are brought to families too preoccupied to care and cook for themselves – when trips to the hospital take all the time and energy there is to spare.  Casserole as sacrament: an outside and visible sign of concern, connection, caring and love. 

Years back you may remember the quite successful cottage industry of books of collected positive stories of inspiration called: Chicken Soup for the Soul.  I admit that I drew heavily from those series of books in my early years a preacher.  There are now over 250 books in the series, including Chicken Soup for the Pet-lover Soul and Chicken Soup for the Teenage soul. The authors hit on something true: things that are good and lift us up are as good as chicken soup given to us when we most need it… from someone who cares. 

I was speaking with a college professor recently who commented that a common, known language of what could be called the Judeo-Christian worldview – that had been assumed 20, 30, or 40 years ago from students -- no longer prevails.  The baby-boomers and the parents of the 1960’s by in large did not lean on their children to attend church like they had and the battles of prayer in public school are long behind us. We live in a different time. So when great works of literature are cracked open in classrooms today, a teacher cannot assume that students have the same common knowledge of religious and cultural  language to draw upon.

An example could be the expression: “manna from heaven.”

I looked up the phrase “manna from heaven” in the Urban Dictionary, which is a crowd-sourced online dictionary of slang words.  Definition: “A gift that is usually given unexpectedly to someone for free, that is a big deal to the person receiving. It's mostly used for the sake of food.”  The example given is a person describing a great tasting strawberry as “manna from heaven.” 

My question is this: What if you had no idea of what manna from heaven meant? Would this gospel story mean the same or make any sense?

In today’s gospel again, Jesus says I am the bread of life. And then he continues.  “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”

The people who heard these words of Jesus had a common heritage and language. They knew the back-story.  Having been raised with the Exodus story, hearing how God sent Manna from heaven to Moses and the Israelites to sustain them on their journey to the Promised Land, the people were ready and wired to look heavenward for signs that God was with them, that God would deliver and save them if they would keep the commandments. 

In times of scarcity and hardship, manna came from above to give what was needed to carry on for another day. The manna, having been collected from the ground after the morning dew, had to be eaten then and there, less it spoil. 

The prophet Elijah, in the first reading from 1 Kings -- hiding and fleeing for his life -- was touched twice by an angel who told him: “get up and eat.”  God had provided yet again, this time with a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water.  Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. 

The language and image continues in the psalm.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are they who trust in him.”

Language common to our faith is to say: the Lord will provide. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, alone, unsure, down – all those normal parts of being human.

When Jesus says I am the living bread that came down from heaven, he rightly reminds those willing to follow him that the good things of life do not merely fall from above. 

Jesus was saying to those who were ready to hear and see: focus. Focus on what is before you. Tend to it. Not the fantasy or parallel or hidden life of dreams and shadows, but a blessed life of openness, light and truth.  I am before and with you.

Come closer. Imagine a relationship with God that is intimate and real – of this world and not just the next.   

It was Robert Louis Stevenson, who gave us Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who said: “The best things are nearest: breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of God just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain common work as it comes certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things of life.”

God knows -- we spend a great deal of mental and spiritual energy and anguish overcoming and understanding our past. Past decisions, choices, mistakes, wrong turns and dead-ends. We too need strength for the life before us. It is with this in mind that the angels tell us also: “get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much.

Taste and see that Lord is good. Each and every day. May we live into this promise.

August 9, 2015
11 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church, Exeter