Monday, August 20, 2018

Bread of Life, for the World

Yesterday I served at Christ the King (Lutheran) Church and Epiphany (Episcopal) Church, located in Wilbraham. They have recently said goodbye to the pastor/rector who helped the two congregations come together to share ministry and a month from now they will welcome their new pastor/priest-in-charge. It was great to be with them. The readings for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.

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I just love John’s Gospel. When I was a young and idealistic seminarian, thirty years ago, my favorite gospel was Mark. It is Mark who portrays Jesus as a kind of “rebel with a cause” or perhaps more accurately, as a young and fearless prophet who comes to proclaim the breaking in of the Reign of God. 

Over the years, as a pastor, I developed a deep affection for Luke’s Gospel. I especially love his profound witness to the compassion and mercy of God, and for being the only one of the four gospel writers to include two of my very favorite parables, the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.

Matthew’s alright too. Although it has not yet become a favorite of mine, it was a favorite of the early church as a kind of catechumenal document, which is why Matthew comes first even if it’s not the earliest. Matthew’s Gospel was the primary source for Godspell and it is Matthew who gives us the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the beatitudes. So there’s some very good stuff there as well.

But in recent years, perhaps in part because of my affiliation with the Fellowship of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, I’ve been drawn more deeply into the mysticism of the fourth gospel. John’s profound awareness of the meaning of the Incarnation gets to the heart of what I find most compelling about the Gospel at this stage in my journey. 

I love John's prologue, which in a nutshell encapsulates who Jesus is even better than the birth narratives: in the beginning was the Word...and the Word became flesh and pitched tent among us, and we have beheld his glory, full of grace and truth. 

And I love the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee where Jesus first sign is made manifest and water is turned into wine. And not just good table wine, but the very best wine, served last. I love all of those “I AM” sayings in John’s Gospel, where Jesus says: I am the vine, I am the good shepherd, I am the light of the world. And of course the one that comes in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, the one we have been exploring these past few weeks: I am the bread of life. 

One obstacle I had to overcome in order to more fully appreciate the Gospel of John, however, was to figure out how to deal with John’s annoying habit of using the phrase, “the Jews” which we heard yet again today and which we hear numerous times in the sixth chapter. Jesus talks about “the Jews” a lot and it sounds as if he is constantly blaming them (and even scapegoating them) for not recognizing Him for who he is. 

Every time I hear that phrase “the Jews” I feel like nails are scraping on a chalkboard and want to yell, “time out!” I want to remind the gathered community that Jesus himself is the King of the Jews (not of the Christians!) and that his disciples are all Jewish. “The Jews” that John is speaking about are clearly not all Jews in all times and places. In fact, the phrase that is used again and again in John’s Gospel could more accurately be translated into English as “the Judaeans.” Read any good commentary on John or a good annotated Bible and you’ll see that this is pretty established, even if it only gets an asterisk.

As in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus’ conflict is with the temple authorities in Jerusalem; with the religious leaders whom he feels have been colluding with the political authorities, i.e. the Romans. It’s not with all Jewish people. In the synoptic gospels those leaders are usually identified as “the scribes and the Pharisees.” I’ve heard some modern translators suggest that wherever it says “the Jews” we should read “the clergy.” But that isn’t exactly right, either, since the Pharisees were a lay movement. What they are, however, is the establishment: those who have a stake in the status quo. Those who aren’t crazy about what a table-turning prophet from the hills of Galilee is up to!

In Jesus’ day (as in our own day) those in positions of authority—those who are responsible for managing change—are not always eager to embrace radical transformation. Keep in mind, though, that there were some scribes and Pharisees who did get what Jesus was up to. But their role in maintaining the status quo kept many of them (and maybe even most of them) from using their eyes to see and their ears to hear the good news that Jesus came to proclaim.

So they resisted his message. And they resisted him. They pushed back because the status quo was good for them. They were people of privilege, we might say, who wanted to protect that privilege. People who are trying to make change will always be met by some resistance because there are always those who have a vested interest in the status quo. 

So that’s what’s going on when Jesus is talking about being the Bread of Life and that’s what is going on when “the Judeans” push back.

Today is week four of five in just this one chapter of John’s Gospel, which is a lot of time and gives us a chance for a pretty close reading. John deserves that kind of closes attention. You may feel I’ve taken a very long digression because in truth what matters today, the heart of the good news in this gospel, is that Jesus is the Bread of Life. But I think it’s an important digression, precisely because we do have five weeks to reflect on these larger questions. I hope that perhaps when Holy Week rolls around and you are reading from John’s Passion here and you hear the phrase “the Jews,” that you will remember this asterisk from this August Sunday. No one should ever leave here thinking that the “good news” we are here to proclaim promotes Christian anti-Semitism. What John is describing is about us.

End of that sermon, and on to our previously scheduled program! Jesus is the Bread of Life. And not just for Lutherans and Episcopalians and not just for practicing Christians. Jesus says this bread is given for the life of the world. His flesh is given for all the little children of the world, and all the aging boomers as well.

St. Augustine said that we are created with a God-sized hole inside of us. It is simply how we are made as creatures of a God who has created us, male and female, in God’s own image. We are made to hunger for God. But along the way we make the mistake of trying to satisfy that hunger with all kinds of things that are less than God: food or money or success or alcohol or sex or golf or the praise of others or even the church. Even love of family, in the ethics of Jesus, is not meant to come before God. It isn’t that any of these things—food or money or sex or success or church or family—are bad in and of themselves. In fact that is precisely the problem we face: they are good things, even very good things that have a rightful place in our lives. The problem is that we are prone to make these penultimate things ultimate. We are prone toward making them into gods that we think we can control but that, in the end, control us. As long as we try to fill that God-hunger within us with such lesser things, we will be disappointed at best and at worst we will find ourselves trapped in a cycle of addiction.

Only God can satisfy our hungry hearts. I don’t mean the Santa Claus god who is making his list and checking it twice, or the god who is a cheerleader for American international interests or the varied and sundry false gods who are sometimes proclaimed (even from Christian pulpits) as totems whose sole concern is to satiate our ego needs. These false images of God are like junk food for our souls and they will not satisfy our hungry hearts. (And everybody’s got a hungry heart, to quote a great American theologian!)

I mean the true, living God revealed in Jesus. In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus is talking about weighty matters. He is reminding his listeners about “I AM” at the burning bush, the holy One whom Isaiah encounters in the holy of holies, the true and living God who is beyond God. It is that God whom Jesus reveals in his living and in his dying and in his being raised again on the third day. 

Ignatius of Antioch said the Eucharist is the power of resurrection, “the leaven of immortality.”  To eat the bread that Jesus gives us, nothing less than his very flesh and blood, is to participate in the Easter life that makes us truly alive and whole. When we find that this hunger of ours really is satisfied, we are changed for good. Sometimes we speak of transformation as if we can use a big theological word and spiritualize it but as any kid with a transformer can tell you the whole point of transformation is change. The whole point is that we are called to become a new creation.

I hope you all are thinking about that right now and you are are ready for change as you face the next chapter in your life-together. I am a big fan of Nathaniel Anderson. I think he served you well. But you will not serve him well if you stay stuck in the Anderson years, if you become those kind of people I run into all the time who speak of the glory days of their congregation when Pastor Anderson was here. Gratitude to Nathaniel must also be about letting go to press on toward the prize that is ours in Christ Jesus and to remember the One he faithfully served here and now serves in Williamstown, the One who is the Bread of Life for the world.

I am also a big fan of Karen Safstrom. In fact, as some of you may know, Pastor Karen was my Associate Rector when I was still serving as the Rector at St. Francis in Holden. At the time when she first arrived, some folks were a little nervous that this Lutheran pastor might try to make Episcopalians more Lutheran. Talk about change! I explained to them these bonds of affection we Lutherans and Episcopalians have for each other and even more so, our commitment to work together for the sake of the gospel. It took folks all of about a week and a half to realize that Pastor Karen brought a lot to the table. She has remained a faithful Lutheran pastor serving among Episcopalians for six years and you can ask anyone in Holden, young or old, what they think about Karen Safstrom and they will tell you how blessed you all are, and how sad they are to see her go.

She comes in a month or so well prepared to lead you all into the next chapter of your shared life together as Christ the King and Epiphany. But as with Nathaniel, let’s be clear: it’s not about Karen. And it’s not about Luther or Cranmer either. It’s not about Jim Hazelwood or Doug Fisher. It's about Jesus. The thing is, if we mean to follow Jesus, we need to be ready to move forward. Together we let go, and let God. You all have an opportunity here to do that together – to remind one another – and to press on. This community needs you to be the Church together.

Back to today’s reading: I think that we are both “the Judeans” and the “the disciples.” There is a part of us that wants to debate and resist and dig in, because we are part of an established, even if dying, Church. It works for us, more or less. And even Lutherans and Episcopalians can find things to argue about, if it is arguing and debating we seek. And beyond these walls we could keep feeding those Reformation fights about what this Bread of Life thing really means...

Change? Did someone say change? 

But we also all have, by virtue of our Baptism, a call that has been placed on us to follow Jesus. We need to let our inner disciple be heard, that part of us that means to leave the past behind to follow Jesus. 

The Bread of Life that we eat here gives us the strength and the courage to do that. It allows us to abide in him, which frees us up to be living members of a living Body, called to serve the world. May this be so for you as you embark on the next chapter of your journey with Karen.  May you become what you eat: bread for a hungry world.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Profiles in Courage

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing." (Edmund Burke)
Yesterday, Admiral William McRaven called out the President of the United States in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. By all accounts, Admiral McRaven is not a partisan person. Just the opposite. It took a line being crossed in taking away John Brennan's security clearance for him to speak up about what he called "McCarthy-era tactics to suppress the voices of criticism."

In other news yesterday, across this nation there were editorials in about 350 newspapers insisting that a free press is not the enemy of the people. Of course it isn't! The fact that this needs to be said is a testimony to the moral failings of this President. Newspapers get it wrong sometimes, but journalism is an honorable vocation and I am with Thomas Jefferson, who said "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

There have been other critics of this President, on both sides of the aisle, including (early on) both the former Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, and American hero, Senator John McCain. But there need to be even more who are willing to stand up to this bully in the White House.

I have tried to be one of those, writing here and elsewhere since the first Republican presidential debate about what I have seen as serious danger to what John Meacham has called "the soul of America." I recently became aware that I've lost over a dozen Facebook friends in the past eighteen months. I don't usually check such things, but I realized that I am no longer "friends" with those who have "un-friended me" for what I can only guess is about expressing my concerns about this great nation and where we are headed. This makes me more sad than angry.

I have always had political opinions. I went to Georgetown University in 1981 during the first year of  Ronald Reagan's first term in Washington and during my years there as an undergraduate I had a chance to work for my (Republican) Congressman on Capitol Hill. I've never been bashful about sharing my (mostly) progressive opinions. But I have been equally committed, I believe, to listening to others. I like the debate. I like informed debate.

I had a chance to meet the late Senator George McGovern once and then hear him debate the late William F. Buckley, Jr. on stage at Central Connecticut State University, where I was serving as the Protestant Campus Minister. I was like a kid in a candy shop! That day, Senator McGovern shared that when he was in the Senate, his best friend was Barry Goldwater. They agreed on almost nothing politically. But at the end of a long day, they'd have a beer together and talk about their families and find the common ground they did share as Americans. And, as I remember it all these years later, he said that in spite of their political differences, they knew much more united than divided them.

In one sense that sounds quaint and even nostalgic. Yet I can imagine that kind of conversation even today if Governor Romney or Senator McCain or Governor John Kasich stopped by my house. (I'm less and less sure about the spineless Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.) I'd invite them in without a second thought and offer them a hoppy IPA and revel in the conversation. I know that I would do this because I have, my whole life, done the same with my Republican friends who agree with them on matters of policy and vote for them consistently - in spite of my best efforts to persuade them to vote otherwise.

I know that none of us possess all the truth. I believe we discover the truth (or something closer to it) by both passionately expressing what we believe, and by listening to what others passionately believe.

But this moment in our history is not about that. This is not about policy differences between people of good faith. This is about a small vindictive sexist racist man bent on silencing all who disagree with him. A man who spreads fear and lies as weapons toward creating, not a more perfect union, but a more fascist state. Adjectives like "Nixonian" and "McCarthy-era tactics" give even Nixon and McCarthy a bad name. We are living in very dangerous times, and the soul of America is at stake.

And I will not be silent.

Thursday, August 2, 2018


The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edited and Introduced by Isabel Best. Fortress Press, 2012.

On the first Sunday in Lent, February 26, 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in Berlin entitled "Gideon: God is My Lord." The text comes from the story of Gideon found in Judges 6-8. This was the first sermon Bonhoeffer preached after Hitler had come to power. In that moment (and all the way to his martyrdom) Bonhoeffer was clear (even as cathedrals hung swastika flags) that for Christians there is only one Lord. Here is a key passage:
In the church we have only one altar - the altar of the Most High, the One and Only, the Almighty, the Lord, to whom alone be honor and praise, the Creator before whom all creatures bow down, before whom even the most powerful are dust. We don't have any side altars at which to worship human beings. The worship of God and not of humankind is what takes place at the altar of our the church we also have only one pulpit, from which faith in God is preached and not any other faith, not even with the best intentions...only here does faith become, for everyone, not just a children's game but rather something highly dangerous, even terrifying...the call comes to our Protestant are to set the people free from the chains of fear and cowardice and evil that bind them. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

To Bind Up The Nation's Wounds

As a child, I had a fascination with Abraham Lincoln and read everything I could about him, including Sandburg's Lincoln. In the 1980's, as an undergraduate in Washington, DC, I often found myself on The Mall, and invariably I'd end up at the Lincoln Memorial. I almost felt, in that hallowed space, as if I was in his presence.

The words of both the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural are inscribed on either side of the room where Lincoln sits. Both remain extraordinarily precise and relevant, I think. Both were spoken into contexts where just the right word was needed, and Lincoln delivered.

Lately I have found myself returning to the wisdom of that Second Inaugural Address, which at one point I knew by heart. It was offered on March 4, 1865, only a little more than five weeks before Lincoln would be assassinated at the age of 56.

I have come to believe that the severity of the crisis in this nation at this moment in our history is second only to that faced during the Civil War. Unfortunately, we had Lincoln to lead us through that former crisis and now the man in the White House is the one who adds fuel to the fire of deep discord one tweet at a time. In the meantime, we seem to lack serious leaders who might help us to find a way forward; from either side of the aisle, quite frankly. Lord, have mercy on us all.

One way or another, however, this crisis will come to an end. I cannot say whether sooner or later. But either the current president will resign or be removed from office before the end of his term. Or he will be defeated in his re-election bid in 2020. Or, he will finish a second term in 2024. But one way or another, this nation will need to come together again. Perhaps Lincoln's words will once again remind us what that work looks like. And perhaps, in anticipation, we can begin that work sooner rather than later.
With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 
This work calls for all of us to draw on our better angels. I know that I am tempted to demonize those who continue to attend this president's rallies, those who continue to shout "lock her up" and worship the second amendment while ignoring the first. I do not pretend to understand what motivates such people.

What I do know is that the work of reconciliation is always hard. And that the wounds and deep divisions in this nation are very real. And that I'd rather be about binding up those wounds than rubbing salt into them. I do not believe in America First. I believe in the league of nations, and that peace on earth begins with us building peace at home. I do believe that means that the United States has some serious work to do.

May the God of all the nations bless us in this work.