Flesh and Blood

It is never helpful to split the world into broad-brush, false dichotomies, but there seems to be two kinds of people in this world: those who can handle blood and gore, and those who cannot.  I’m mostly in the latter category.  I hate horror movies, not because I don’t like to be scared (though the older I get, the more I don’t like that either), but because of my weak constitution when it comes to blood and guts.  Even war flicks are too much for me, and as a result, I’ve missed out on classics like Saving Private Ryan.  I chose to do my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training in a tiered-care retirement facility rather than the Level 1 Trauma Centers all of my friends were flocking to.  I’ve resisted the urge to volunteer as a police chaplain, because I don’t want to be the new guy in the corner, puking my guts out.

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It may come as a surprise, then, that one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is the Prayer of Humble Access.  This is an optional prayer as part of the post-fraction in Rite I.  It may or may not be said, with the congregation joining in or not.  We say it most Sundays here at Christ Church, even though in the wider culture, its themes would seem to by fairly unpopular.  For those who maybe don’t know it, I’ve copied it form page 337:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful
Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold
and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather
up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord
whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore,
gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him,
and he in us. Amen.

From the uncomfortable reference to that time Jesus made a racial slur, to the idea that we might be somehow unworthy of God’s grace, a wildly unpopular concept in 21st century mainline Protestantism, to the imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood, this prayer challenges the modern American mainline Protestant at every turn.  Yet, this prayer is also profoundly, if uncomfortably, biblical.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is round 3 of our five week foray into the bread of life discourse.  This week, Jesus doubles down on the idea that the bread that God has given for eternal life is his very own flesh.

There is some comfort in the knowledge that this was as difficult to hear at the time as it is now.  Yet, there is also the ongoing reality that we need the nourishment that can come only from Christ’s own self.  For those, like me, who don’t enjoy blood and gore, this imagery can be hard to swallow, but Jesus is clear that we need to come to the Table, to eat the flesh of God and to drink the blood of Christ, in order to be continually renewed for the ministry to which we are called.

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Spanger

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Nope, not that Spanger

This morning’s God Pause from Luther Seminary, written by Joe Natwick, introduced me to a new word, more a portmanteau, that I had never heard before: spanger.  Just as one can become hangry -hungry and angry – when they have not had enough to eat and their blood sugar begins to drop, the author suggest that those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus can experience spanger – spiritual anger – when we see the world around us falling so short of the dream of God.  Natwick goes on to suggest that the only cure for spanger is a heaping helping of the truth.  That is, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to speak the truth in the face of injustice, oppressing, and degradation.

A quick Google search shows that Natwick cannot take credit for having created the word, spanger, however, he might be the first to use it as a combination of spiritual and anger.  Ironically, according to that ever-trusted resource, wiktionary.com, spanger’s previous use is as a pejorative term to describe a beggar.  Again a portmanteu, this earlier usage comes from combining spare and change, as in, one who begs for spare change.  This older usage, which dates all the way back to 2007, actually creates a scenario in which both uses of the word would work.

“My encounter with that spanger outside the coffee shop left me feeling spanger.”

This rather long introduction can be blamed on the Apostle Paul (or one of his disciples), who, in the letter to the Ephesians gives the Christians there permission to get angry, but with the strong caveat not to fall into sin.  This anger that the author of Ephesians speaks of is that righteous indignation that comes when we look around and see a world full of corruption, violence, and oppression, often under the guise of Christian virtue, that is so obviously not what God had in mind at the beginning of Creation.  This righteous anger should, as Natwick suggests, lead us to action.  It should spur us to speak the truth in love.  It should motivate us to work toward justice and peace.  It is God at work within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that propels us out into the world to break the bonds of oppression, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, classism, etc.

The portion of the letter to the Ephesians that we will hear on Sunday is the perfect response to those who would suggest that Christianity isn’t political.  Christianity, because it is interested in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven, is, by its very nature, political, calling the kingdoms of this world to leave behind selfish desires and to remember the poor, the needy, the orphan, and the widow.  May our spanger over this world being so out of sorts compel us to good work to glory of God.

I’ll give you…

… Something to be angry about!

As our interminable summer foray into John 5 and 6 continues this week, our Gospel lesson doesn’t just start where the last one left off, it helpfully includes the last verse of last week’s lesson as the first verse for this week (then immediately skips five verses that actually help that first verse make sense in context because RCL).  Having taught the hungry remnant of the 5,000 what the miraculous feeding was meant to represent, Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life.  Those who eat of this bread, Jesus says, will never again know hunger or thirst.

If one were to try to figure out the most offensive thing someone could say in the 1st century Jewish context, this was pretty close.  As I noted last week, this “I AM” statement by Jesus, the first of seven in John’s Gospel, would have been fairly obviously blasphemous, unless that person really was the Messiah, the Anointed one of God.  To claim the holy name, that which has gone unspoken even about God in Judaism, for one’s self would have been unimaginable.  Yet, in a very public setting, Jesus was willing to say “I AM.”

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The tetragrammaton – the Hebrew name of God

When confronted by the crowd for making such a bold statement, Jesus essentially says, “U MAD BRO?  I’ll give you something to get mad about!”  Jesus doubles down on his claim – saying twice more “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread.”  He claims that he will raise those who believe up on the last day.  He is even so bold as to suggest that the true bread that gives life to the world is his flesh.

One of the leading complaints about Christianity in the early days was that it was a cannibalistic cult.  Jesus does himself no favors here, and yet, he feels compelled to make such outlandish claims because he knows that all of it is true.  Jesus is “I AM.”  Jesus is the bread of life that God has chosen to offer to the world.  Jesus’ flesh, in the bread of the Eucharistic feast, will be the nourishment of all who come after and the sign by which Christ’s Church will signify the ongoing life of faith.

It would have been hard to imagine Jesus going further off the deep-end than his initial “I am the bread of life” statement, but deeper he went.  All the while, even in this polemical rhetoric, Jesus is offering an invitation.  “If you want eternal life.  If you want the salvation that comes from a relationship with God.  If you want to know life abundant, then believe what I am saying, as outlandish as it may be, for these words which I speak are the true bread that gives life to the world.”

The Bread of Life for All – a sermon

The new cecbg.com is now up and running, which means audio will soon be available.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can read today’s sermon here:


I grew up the child of blue collar folk in a decidedly white-collar community.  Manheim Township was one of the richest tax bases in Pennsylvania.  As McMansions came into fashion, they were built in spades in my school district.  I went to school with the children of doctors, lawyers, and more than a few stockbrokers.  Folks drove nice cars, had vacation homes down the shore, and generally lived very comfortably.  My family lived in 1,300 square foot, post-war house nestled in a quiet, older neighborhood.  My parents both worked hard, but my sister and I knew that we’d never have everything our friends had.  Still, we were always comfortable.  We never knew hunger, and were always sure that our next meal would come.  The same couldn’t be said for some of the kids who rode our school bus, however.

Thanks to some political maneuvering over the years, the Manheim Township School District had come to include two blocks of Lancaster City that sat right alongside the railroad tracks.  The kids who lived in those rowhouses lived very different lives.  My shoes were knock-off Chuck Taylors, theirs were hand-me downs.  My clothes were always freshly cleaned, but theirs obviously were not.  I maybe didn’t have the spare lunch money to buy that Chaco Taco I wanted, but some of them didn’t have enough lunch money to buy anything at all.  Being a self-absorbed kid, I noticed the differences, it was hard not to, but my attention was mostly fixed on my own perceived need.  As I’ve matured in my faith, I often think of those kids and the thousands like them that I’ve met over the last decade for whom the desperation of hunger is a very real thing.

Last Sunday, we heard the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people out of fives small barely loaves and two fish.  In that crowd, there were folk from every walk of life.  Some in the crowd would have been quite well off – religious leaders, lawyers, and tax collectors.  Some likely lived day-to-day existences – farmers, fishermen, and the like.  Many, no doubt, were the poorest of the poor – widows, orphans, and lepers, for example – living at the very margins of society, never knowing when their next meal might be.  For this group, to eat their fill and have food left-over was an unimaginable luxury.  It is unsurprising, then, that the next day, some out of the crowd of 5,000 would be out in search of another meal.

After a rough night on the lake, it would have been easy for Jesus to focus on his own needs.  Yet, as we’ve seen several times lately, Jesus is quick to see to the very core of people, to assess their needs, and to offer grace.  Jesus understood that the remaining crowd had been unable to experience the fullness of the miracle the day before because they knew nothing but hunger.  As the old adage goes, “a hungry stomach has no ears.” They only knew that for a moment, the desperation of living in constant hunger had gone away.  It is no wonder that they went in search of Jesus when they couldn’t find him – they sought him out in the hope that he might be able to feed them another meal.  It is easy to hear this passage as Jesus condemning this group of people for missing the miracle, but I think that it is much more likely that Jesus’ response to their hunger for literal food was compassion, and so he took the opportunity to teach them about what had really happened the day before.  “You missed the sign.” Jesus says, “What you are searching for today isn’t just another bit of bread, but rather, food that will abide – food that will endure – food for eternal life.”

I was struck, this week, by the reaction of the crowd to Jesus’ words.  As I heard the response of the crowd, I could see the faces of the myriad men and women who have come into my office desperate and hungry.  They come for all sorts of reasons and in need of all kinds of things: diapers for their child or the assurance of God’s love; gas to get to work or hope in the midst of hopelessness; money to have the lights turned back on, or someone who will just care enough to listen.  As they tell me their stories and we both come to realize that I might have some resources to be able to help, more often than not, their reaction is the same as the crowd, “what work can I do to earn this?”

Grace is really hard to comprehend.  Grace is antithetical to the American Way.  There is no bootstrap theology in the Gospel, but rather, the stark realization that everything we have is a gift from God, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn it.  For the hungry crowd, it was hard to fathom that someone would just give you food that endures forever.  For those of us who know only comfort, I think grace is even harder to imagine.  Only those who have known desperation can begin to understand grace.  Only those who have cried out in hunger, fear, or despair can begin to know what Jesus is talking about when he says that the only work we have is to believe, and even that, the tradition teaches us, is a gift from God.  It is only those who have known what it is to live in need who can experience what it means to cry out to God and say, “Lord, give us this bread always.”

The good news of God’s grace is that even if we can’t comprehend it, even when we don’t know we need it, we are still invited to receive it.  To the hungry crowd, Jesus is eager to share that all throughout history, God has been in the business of freely giving away the true bread of grace. From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah.  From Moses and the people of Israel to the here and now.  In the person of Jesus, God continues to offer the bread of life.  This bread, which the crowds don’t know they really want, which we often don’t know we really need, is made fully known in Jesus who declares, “I am the bread of life.”  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus on par with God who, when Moses asked for a name from the burning bush, proclaimed the name “I AM,” and it affirms Jesus as having been present when God gave life to humanity.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, the breath of God, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  There is no one out there who isn’t in need of this bread of life.

Four blocks away, there is another set of railroad tracks that draw a dividing line.  On the other side, there live many families who know what it means to experience real hunger.  As followers of Jesus, our response to the grace of God should be the same sort of compassion that Jesus had for the crowd that sought him out.  As we gather today to ask God’s blessing upon a new school year, we pray for our own kids while also remembering those who will attend Dishman-McGinnis, where we will once again have the opportunity to serve as mentors, reaching out with the love of God to children, many of whom have known the real hunger of the crowd in today’s Gospel lesson.  We who have been given the bread of life are called to share it.  And so, let us continually pray that being nourished by the bread of life, we might have eyes to see, hearts to love, and hands to serve.

Open our eyes, O Lord, to see your hand at work in the world about us.  Help us to see the bread of life which has been offered to us, and be thankful. Help us to see those with whom you invite us to share that living bread, and be generous.  Give us hearts of compassion to reach out in loving service that one day, by your grace, the whole world might know the gift of your Son, the bread of life.  Amen.

Bread of Life

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Sunday’s Gospel lesson exposes a comedy of errors on behalf of those who are trying to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  It would be easy to look down our noses at “those foolish Jews,” and ignore the reality that, if we are honest, every Christian struggles to follow Jesus in a similar way.  Rather than reading the story with a chuckle and thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not like those people,” it might behoove us to look at the narrative arc of the story and see that maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from a crowd of people who, while struggle with faith, have traversed the Galilean Sea several times in search of Jesus and his disciples.

The story picks up sometime after the Feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus, having realized that the crowd, misunderstanding what he came to do, was about to declare him their king, retreated to the mountains for some time to reflect and pray.  In the meantime, his disciples got into the boat and crossed to the other side of the lake, and Jesus caught up with them by walking across the surface of the water.  As day broke, the crowds realized that this amazing prophet was gone, again, and they set out in search of him.

When they found him, the one they claimed as prophet and king the day before, they call him Rabbi, which means teacher.  He’s slid back a bit in the hierarchy over night.  They’ve come in search of him, Jesus notes, not to worship or believe, but because bread wears off, and they are hungry again.  “What you need,” Jesus says, “is food that will endure, and that comes only from the Son of Man.”  Somewhat confused, the crowds wonder what they must do to earn this bread.  Jesus tells them to believe in the one whom God had sent, and here’s where things get interesting.

The crowd, numbering 5,000 men, not counting women and children, which Jesus had fed with five loaves and two fish just the day before says to him, “OK, well, what kind of sign will you give us to prove that you are the one God has sent into the world?  Moses gave the people bread every day.”  This is the ultimate in “what have you done for me lately,” and it is so human as to be absurd.  This is the reality of most of us who follow Jesus, and everyone who lives on the fringes of faith.  We might know, deep in our heart of hearts, all that God has done for us, but in this moment, do we have faith?  In the moment of hardship, when a diagnosis comes or when the pink slip arrives or when our lives don’t work out the way we think they should, do we look back on all that God has done for us, or do we, as is human nature, look up and say, “I thought you loved me!”

To the crowd, and to us, Jesus is quick to point out all that God has been doing in salvation history – the true bread that has been given to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the people of Israel – and the bread that God continues to give in the person of Jesus.  This bread, which the crowds don’t even know they really want, which we often don’t even know we really need, is Jesus who in a bold claim, one of seven “I AM” statements in John, declares himself to be the bread of life.  In the Greek language and in Jesus’ Jewish context this declaration puts Jesus 1) on par with God who is the great “I AM” and 2) as the one who gave life to humanity at Creation.  Zoe, the Greek word used here for life, is the thing that animates, the soul, which was breathed into Adam and Eve at the beginning.  For those who are hungry, Jesus offers the very breath of God as the bread of life.

I was hungry, and you fed me

As is the case most mornings, as I got ready for work today, I turned the TV to SportsCenter on ESPN.  Amidst the coverage of the MLB trade deadline and the Mets getting totally blown out by the Nats (baseball has a serious problem) was the story of Lebron James, through is foundation, opening a new public school in Akron, OH.  In the interview with Rachel Nichols, who is one of the best in the game, she noted that one of things that caught her attention was the ways in which this new school was working to change the lives of kids.

RN: As I look around here, one thing that caught my eye just beyond all the academic stuff is that kids will go here for a longer school year and also longer school days. They’re here until 5 o’clock, partly just so they’re in this supported system and not out in the world as much. The other thing was food. That if a kid is hungry, it’s hard to learn, so you guys are giving these kids breakfast, lunch and a snack. How important is that?

LJ: I think first of all, fueling the body keeps the mind sharp. I remember when I was a kid, my attention span — I mean, you can have me for a little bit, but you have to keep me engaged. I think obviously fueling these kids and giving them food and breakfast and lunch and a snack — but just keeping them here under our support, keeping them here under our guidance, giving them objectives and criteria that they can match and not feel stressed and feel like they’re family. That’s what we want to create. We want to create an environment of family and not like a workplace. Sometimes you can get tired. If you look at it like work, you kind of get tired of it. We want to create an environment of family, where you want to always be around your family no matter the good and the bad, you always want to be around that support system. So that’s what we’re creating here.

As I listened to Lebron talk and thought about my own experiences at Foley Elementary and now Dishman McGinnis Elementary, the words of Jesus to the crowd that he had fed with five loaves and two fish came to life.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus speak frankly about the human condition. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

First and foremost, people came to Jesus because they were hungry or hurting or in need of something they thought he could give, but the reason they stayed wasn’t because of a few pieces of bread and salted cod, but because of what else he had to offer.  Lebron James is making sure hungry kids are fed, not simply because feeding them is the right thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do, but because by filling their stomachs, the possibilities for learning open up.  In the same way, we reach out into the community not simply to make ourselves feel good or to have photo opps with our homeless neighbors, but because through sharing the love of God in action, we have the opportunity to share the love of God in word as well.

Every Wednesday at 11am, Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green opens its doors to feed 80-100 folks a free lunch.  Our volunteers don’t stand safely on one side of a service counter, however.  Instead, they are sitting at tables, hearing stories, learning about our neighbors, and, generally, just treating the stranger as a human being.  Our ministry at Dishman McGinnis, in which we might do as little as simply have lunch with a kid, means that for those 30 minutes, an adult who would otherwise have nothing to do with them, cares, and that act of caring can make all the difference in the world.  It isn’t an either/or proposition.  We don’t just feed someone’s body without also feeding their soul with the bread of eternal life, and in return, we too are fed.

The Way of Love

One of the difficulties I had with not actually attending General Convention this year is that, when you aren’t immersed in it 24-hours a day for the 58 days it lasts (a small exaggeration), it can be hard to keep up with everything that is happening.  For example, the worship was scheduled for 5:15 in the evening.  This usually meant that something else was happening here, and I couldn’t tune in to hear some of the most gifted preachers in the church share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I’ll try to catch up, as I am able, but it is slow going. I have, only now, finally found my to Presiding Bishop Curry’s opening sermon on The Way of Love.

I got there by way of the weekly email from Forward Movement, which invited me to engage in the Way of Love, a seven-part way of life to which the Presiding Bishop is calling all Episcopalians.  Over on the Way of Love page, there is a nice, three-minute video introducing the seven practices, but inexplicably, there is no way share that video on blogs or social media.  You’ll have to click this link.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Welcome back!  I hope you enjoyed hearing from the PB about the seven practices of:

  1. Turn
  2. Learn
  3. Pray
  4. Worship
  5. Bless
  6. Go
  7. Rest

My digging into the Way of Love is timely, as it seems that all seven points are represented in some way in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  The disciples are freshly back from their first missionary journey where they have listened to Jesus’ call to go, taken what they have learned, and blessed the many villages to which they have travelled.  In response to their success, Jesus orders them to rest, but when he sees the crowds desperate for more, he turns his attention to them, prays for their healing, and in turn, the crowds will worship Jesus.

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As disciples of Jesus, each of us are called to follow a similar model for our own lives of faith.  As you heard in the Presiding Bishop’s short video, we are invited to turn our lives toward the Kingdom of God, to learn from the teachings of Jesus, to pray for hearts that are open to love, to worship God who is the giver of all good gifts, to take those gifts and bless others as we go into the world with the love of God in our hearts and on our lips, and then to return for rest, in order to be empowered to do it all again.

There is much to learn in the Gospels about this life of faith, but I commend to you this seven-fold model for a way of life.  Following Jesus into the world in the Way of Love will, without a doubt, bring us ever closer to the Kingdom of God.