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

Sermon from August 2

Perhaps you have heard a version of this parable wrapped inside a well-worn joke:

There was a preacher who fell in the ocean and he couldn't swim. When a boat came by, the captain yelled, "Do you need help, sir?" The preacher calmly said "No, God will save me." A little later, another boat came by and a fisherman asked, "Hey, do you need help?" The preacher replied again, "No God will save me." Eventually the preacher drowned & went to heaven. The preacher asked God, "Why didn't you save me?" God replied, "Fool, I sent you two boats!"

Replace the main character and the setting and you get a similar lesson: we do not always see in the moment where God is acting, when Christ is most present and how the Holy Spirit is moving throughout our lives. We are prone to misread we mistake silence for absence and activity as substance.  God knows, we are human, and we struggle with setting priorities, shifting through life’s many choices and knowing what really matters most. Where and how do we spend our time, energy, resources, worries, passions, and doubts? We hunger to be fed and filled, yet all around us are temptations and distraction to experience the thrill and trend of the moment – the latest and updated version of whatever that we convince ourselves that we must have.

Part of what we do when we gather to pray and worship is to redirect our very real hunger away from what is fleeting and perishable towards what is everlasting and eternal. Or at the very least, teach us and remind us to know the difference – and to learn where to look for the true bread of life. 

Many believe that the purpose of the entire gospel of John can be found near the very end in the 20th chapter vs. 30-31: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

So when we hear passages about signs from God: take note.

Over four weeks we are camping out in the 6th chapter of John. John speaks a different kind of language from the other gospels.  It cares less about sequential history than he does with painting a larger more expansive understanding.

We get from John the great “I am” statements from Jesus:
I am the light of the world
I am the door
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, the truth, and the life
I am the true vine
And, as we heard again this morning and will hear again next Sunday: I am the bread of life

The 23 times Jesus uses these I am statements in John links Jesus to the God who spoke to Moses in the Exodus story. God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM". 

Hear Eugene Peterson’s translation in the Message of this passage: Jesus says: “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides.”

How are we doing in reading the signs around us and deep within us ? Are we on the right course of knowing the difference between that lasts and what fades away? 

In anticipating of our many anniversary festivities next month, I have been reading our parish history and marvel and the foresight of the founders of this church. Two Academy students, William Waters and Frederick Thompson, walking through the cold on Christmas morning in 1864 to Epping to receive the Bread of Life of Holy Communion. The tireless Caroline Harris, in whose memory our parish hall is named. It is written that she “limited her diet and her comforts” and wrote for friends around New England to raise support for the first church building. They began something that did not fade away. It took root in this community. They and other founders saw a need, sacrificed and contributed, and planted something that lasts today and will live on into the future. When we support the work of a congregation through energy, time and money, we connect with the kinds of choices that Jesus set out to all those who came to him looking for food to eat.

For today then, let me end with a different take of the joke without the punch line.

There was a person who fell into the ocean couldn't swim. When a boat came by, the captain yelled, "Do you need help?" The person said: Well, actually I do. I’m afraid, uncertain, far from home. I lose my way sometimes. Get off track. I am at times lonely, insecure and uncertain.  I fail to see the good things and decent people around me. I need to love and care more, worry and consume less.

And the good news is that the person who fell into the ocean didn’t have to go to heaven to learn this less.  God sends us boats. A lot of them. And lifelines.  And wake-up calls.  And second and third changes, and many more.  

And God in Jesus offers us food – the good kind – that feds our soul.

August 2, 2015
10 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Exeter, NH