Thursday, August 27, 2015

Living bread in the midst of death . . .

     We have finally completed our quick sojourn through John and Jesus’ teaching that the signs so valued by the Jewish people pointed to Him.  For those travelling these last few weeks: Jesus has one-upped Moses by feeding the 5000 men besides women and children with no intercession and with plenty of leftovers; Jesus has walked on water, again signifying His control, not just over nature, but chaos; Jesus has taken upon Himself the so-called ego eimi, the Great “I AM” that spoke to Moses out of the Burning Bush; Jesus has declared Himself the Living Bread that has come down from heaven; Jesus has prophesied His death; and all this, and a bit more, take place under the theme of Passover.  Truly, these were significant times in the lives of the disciples and Apostles!  This all, of course, followed those signs of power which had attracted them in the first place.  Perhaps they had seen Jesus cast out demons.  Maybe they had seen Jesus enable a cripple to walk, a blind person see, someone with a fever restored, talk about someone unseen sitting under a tree, or any other of the countless signs that convinced them He was Messiah.  Some, as Jesus has criticized in our readings these last few weeks, followed him simply for His ability to meet their material needs.  All, though, had been attracted by something they saw or heard in Jesus.

     Until now. . .

     As I warned last week and we now read today, Jesus’ teaching is incredibly hard.  Those who eat My flesh and drink My blood abide in Me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of Me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors at, and they died.  But the one who eats this bread will live forever.  Imagine yourself in that audience hearing this teaching.  Imagine yourself in this audience, having been drawn to Jesus by some sign or signs that convinced you that He had been sent by God, was possibly the Messiah, and hearing this teaching.  Wait, I’m supposed to be a cannibal?  I have to eat His flesh and drink His blood?  His flesh and His blood are better than the manna in the wilderness?  That came from God.  How can this be?  And why is God performing these signs through this nut?  John tells us that the disciples complained about the teaching and how hard it was.

     Jesus, of course, does not back down from His teaching.  In fact, He pushes it, according to most commentators, telling them His teaching is of the spirit and not the flesh.  I like to think, rather, He is planting a seed in the minds of those who fall away at this time.  He plainly tells them that He will be ascending to the Father.  Imagine struggling with this teaching, falling away, hearing of His death, hearing rumors of His Resurrection, and then hearing about the Ascension.  Might this prophesy be enough to get you to reconsider your decision to fall away?  Think about it.  He reminds the people that unless the Father grants it, they cannot come to Him.  He has already reminded them and us that the Father is dragging them into the boat like a fisher is hauling on a net.  The implication is that the fish will continue to try and struggle out of the net and swim their own way.  He has used an image that most in this port town can grasp.  But they are descended from Abraham and Sarah.  They already belong to God, in their minds, just because of their birth.  Yet here is this prophet like Elijah teaching something else entirely.

     The truth, brothers and sisters, is that neither you nor I truly need to place ourselves in the story to understand the decision by the disciples to fall away.  All of us have felt that temptation to fall away like the disciples of old.  When we are truly honest with ourselves, we know Jesus is true.  Was God not hauling on the nets, how easy would it be for us to swim away!  The world teaches all kinds of false gospels.  At times, their message is like a siren’s song of old.  Who wants to pick up a cross and follow Jesus when we can have it our way?  Who wants to labor endlessly, serving as Christ’s hands and feet in a broken world, when we know we deserve a break today?  For heaven’s sake, all of us gathered here this morning are Americans, I believe.  Jesus is teaching us that service to Him is perfect freedom.  We know that’s a lie, don’t we.  And then this presumptive idea that He has about being the King?  Come on.  Democracy is the real path to liberty and freedom.  Our candidates for president are proof of that.  Why are you all laughing?

     Seriously.  Who hear has not been tempted by the idols of the age.  Ever give up the worship of God who saved you and offered you life eternal for a football game?  I see the squirms here in SEC country.  Ever decide to skip the worship of God who offers you rest renewal because your bed seemed to be calling your name on a foggy, dark morning?  Ever decide to choose the embrace of a lover, not your husband and wife, over the embrace from the hard wood of the Cross?  Ever decide to hedge your bets and place your hope in the money you make, your own strength, your own intelligence, your own will, and not trust God entirely?  Of course you have.  Of course we all have.

     As I was considering a number of illustrations that tied in these last few weeks’ of Jesus’ teaching that He is the focus of history and salvation and the reality of the hardness of His teaching, that we must be baptized into His death and raised into His Resurrection to be His, I was engaging in a number of conversations in my office.  Several people shared with me they wished they were like me and did not struggle with their faith.  After some snorts and laughter, I shared some of my personal struggles.  In fact, I let them in on a little secret: most of us in collars have the exact same struggles.  Many of us try hard to hide them, but all of us live in the hardness of these teachings of Jesus, whether we are good clergy or bad clergy.  Those in our care and cures expect us to be beyond those struggles, and that is part of the reason why a clergy’s failure creates such headlines.  But, imagine yourself praying for healing and, instead, find yourself celebrating a Eucharist at a funeral.  Imagine serving as a mediator between two Christians who, time and time again, put ego over love, and so are never reconciled to one another.  Imagine standing in the presence of true evil with the impotence that comes from knowing your efforts are like a grain of sand on the beach or a drop of water in the ocean.  Imagine holding a hand to someone in need of rescue and them refusing to take it.  Look around you for a moment.  Imagine trying hard to pastor this herd of cats.  We are laughing now.  But my guess is that you each can think of times when you were an unruly bunch and truly tested the faith of your pastor. 

     As I was sharing stories this week along these lines, too many people in my office said they wished there was a way I could share the stories with everyone.  In fact, I laughed out loud the fourth or fifth one because I knew the readings and I understood what they were saying.  I tend to shy away from personal stories in sermons because the focus should always be on Jesus.  I do not want you placing your trust in me; I desperately want you placing your trust in Him.  I promise you I will fail you.  He promises that He will not.  Only one of us has been raised from the dead and ascended to the Father.  I hope to join Him one day in the future, but I will only do so because He made it possible.  But I also understand the idea of sharing with you some of those things that inform my faith.  Sharing my hurts and my fears can sometimes cause people to open up truly about their hurts, their scars, and where they struggle, thereby making me a better pastor to you.

     The story that resonated most with those in the office this week was from my seminary days.  Some of you may have heard it from Clayton and Theresa while they were there.  This might startle you to hear this, but Karen and I only planned on having four kids when we got married.  When Robbie was born we really thought we were done.  All jokes about someone needing to explain to us how this happens aside, we understood and took measures to see that it did not happen again.

     It was the practice of my seminary to place students in small groups that met each week.  The idea was that there would be a mix of first-years, second-years, and third-years that would serve as an accountability group, and later in life, as friends.  During our time there, four of the wives of those in the group became pregnant.  In fact, that year I think we had something like fourteen pregnancies.  It was enough that the single ladies were forced to start drinking bottled water only.  Hey, we thought it was funny at the time, too.

     In any event, our group had two families that were dealing with first babies and two families that were dealing with fifth babies.  Scott & Sarah and Bryan & Lisa were going through all the worries of having a first child.  Paul & Kristti and Karen & I were going through the “what in the world is God thinking” of having a fifth.  I cannot begin to describe to you the wild swings in conversations in our group meetings.  You will likely meet Bryan in a few weeks, so you will better understand our interactions.  But we were all over the place about babies and struggling with this prospect of serving God in ordained life.  It was terrifying, but a good terrifying.  It was exciting.  It was full of promise.

     Then Scott came to the group one day to share with us that their baby, Josiah, had been diagnosed with anencephaly.  In case you are not familiar with the condition, all or part of the baby’s brain is outside the skull.  The medical advice was to terminate the pregnancy.  Many of you work in health care, so you understand the diagnosis and the reasons for the recommendation.  Scott & Sarah discerned that they were to see the pregnancy through.  God willing, Josiah would be miraculously healed.  If not, then Josiah would be born and live as long as God gave him life.  They were trusting that God would redeem their situation and their son.

     You can well imagine the effect on my group.  Paul & Kristti and Karen & I found ourselves in the midst of what mental health professionals call survivors’ guilt.  Bryan & Lisa went from the normal “first pregnancy worries” to their own version of survivors’ guilt and these new additional worries.  Scott & Sarah also had what most of us would think of as a normal reaction.  I won’t share specifics, but you can well imagine the different emotions at play in our group.  Fear, hurt, anger, self-blame, impotence, worry – you name it, we went through it.  And truly, we were probably not as aware of the struggles with those in our group who were not yet married as we should have been.  It was only some time later that I realized their difficulty.  How does one celebrate and mourn appropriately within the same group?

     Josiah was born and lived a few minutes.  He was, of course, baptized immediately.  Scott & Sarah held their precious son as he passed from this life into glory. 

     Then came the wonderful task for our group to plan and participate in a funeral for an infant.  Seminary is supposed to prepare us for clergy life, but this is one of those lessons with which I could have gone without, or so I thought.  People around here comment that George’s funeral was a real blessing, that I handled some difficulties with grace and resolve.  Much of my sensitivity to the emotions and interpersonal play at wakes and funerals come from that year in seminary.  You see, Karen & I, and later Paul & Kristti, had no problems.  Sure, Karen and Kristti went through the hard work of labor, but our babies live.  You know one as David.

     To Sarah’s enormous credit, she made sure Karen was coming to the service with David.  She had heard through the grapevine that Karen was likely to skip the service.  Bringing a newborn to the funeral of another newborn just seemed . . . wrong.  But it was that very wrongness that gave Sarah some hope.  She needed to be reminded that this horrible tragedy was not what God had intended.  She wanted Karen to come to remind her of God’s life-giving promises.  Karen went.  And even among future leaders of our church, she heard the questions, she heard the judgment.  Don’t you think this inappropriate?  What will Sarah think if your baby cries?  You should have stayed away.  Aren’t you rubbing it in her face?  In the weeks and months ahead, we were fortunate to address the pastoral skills of some of those present, some gently.  But it has served a reminder to me that things are not always as they seem to people.  In that way, you have already been blessed by what I learned in that terrible tragedy.

     You’d think, of course, that such was enough for one group of future clergy to suffer.  You would be wrong.

     Right around Bryan’s graduation, Lisa went into labor.  I have to confess that, as a group, we could not wait to see Bryan as a dad.  You will see him and learn a bit of what had us looking forward to it in laughter.  Wait, they poop!  Wait, they don’t bounce?  Our only sorrow was that we were not going to get to watch Bryan learn to be a dad.  That promised to be an adventure!  Unfortunately, we lived another tragedy.

     When Bryan called with the news that Samuel had died, I was so pissed . . . at him.  I was absolutely convinced at first it was some sick joke whose humor completely escaped me.  When I finally understood his seriousness, I was crushed.  Like my group mates, I was just chuckling at the idea of Bryan being a dad.  I was looking forward to the calls and e-mails of “how do you handle this?”  To learn that Samuel had died for no apparent reason made no sense.  I called others in the group to help get the word out among the seminary and headed to the hospital.  I can see to this day the horror in his eyes.  I knew his history and how he had cheated death.  I don’t think we did anything but cry for the first few minutes.  People speak of groaning in the Holy Spirit when there seems to be no words.  I suppose we were at that point.  At some point, I learned Lisa was alive.  Naturally, I wanted to know what had happened.  Babies just don’t die at birth in America.  In third-world countries, but not here.

     Over the next few months or years, their OB send the records to a number of hospitals for M & M, I guess you doctors and nurses call it.  It makes sense that you want to catch your mistakes.  I have no idea how many experts looked at Samuel’s case, but no one was ever able to give a diagnosis.  It just happens.

     Again my group found ourselves immersed in the planning and participation in another infant funeral.  Thankfully, from our experience before, we knew better what to expect of those in attendance and from ourselves.  But none of us could believe we were there.  Again.  We who were supposed to be the future priests in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we who had been set aside by God, were burying a second infant in a semester!  We had to hear the same words as those disciples so long ago.  Eat My flesh and drink My blood and live!  HAH!  Hard words, indeed.  I daresay most of us struggled with this for some time.  I always felt a bit sorry for the members of the next class to matriculate who were dropped into our group.  We were supposed to be talking about the difficulties balancing seminary with family life, of leading unruly vestries, of dealing with spiritual matriarchs and patriarchs of our future congregations, of dealing with clergy killers, and they walked in to our group.  No, in many ways, we were and are just like you and just like Peter.  Only He has the words of eternal life?  To whom else could or can we go?

     I am told by some among you that I speak convincingly of God’s redemptive power and plan.  I should.  We lived it.  Yes, I can speak to you more specifically about my faith journey with God, but it is nowhere as impressive to me as to what He did within our group.  If God can redeem the senseless death of newborns, and the grief of their parents, what can He not redeem?

     Know first of all that both of those couples now have children.  Both have healthy, beautiful, strong children who know and love God with all their strength, with all their little minds, and with all their little hearts.  Cynics among us might say that is only biology.  Given the high number of couples who divorce after the death of a child, I would tend to disagree that it is only biology at play.  But I do recognize that God could give them a ton of children, and still there would be the tragedies of Josiah and Samuel deaths.  No, God does far more than replace things and people that are lost.  He does far more than we can ask or imagine.

     Not too long after Josiah’s death, Scott & Sarah were recruited to join an anencephaly support group for those in the Pittsburgh area.  I won’t bore you with the details or struggles, but you each understand well the concept of the Wounded Healer.  Both were able to share in the pain and suffering of such loss and be used by God to speak His healing promise and His offer of forgiveness into the lives of those in the group with them.  I never saw any of Scott’s conversations, but I heard about a few of them before we graduated.  The impact of those conversations was typical.  Some heard the redemptive message and fought all the harder against the net, refusing to believe that God was somehow not cruel or uncaring—their circumstances defined their relationship to Him; some heard the message and allowed themselves to be pulled into the boat!  It is a cross that neither of them would ever have chosen to bear, but, like Peter, recognized that only the Lord offers such hope and such power in the face of seemingly certain death.

     The beginning of the redemption of Samuel’s death was a bit more improbable.  We might understand a couple’s willingness to put themselves out there in the face of tragedy, but Samuel’s had too big a coincidence and too big an impact.  After our service at the seminary, Bryan & Lisa headed back to their sending parish in CT to inter Samuel’s ashes.  As you can imagine, their home parish was crushed for them.  They wanted to have a service there to provide some closure for the parish.

     There was a site in those days—remember, this was the dark ages of the internet—called Mystery Worshipper.  The idea was that a team went out to various churches and evaluates the worship to help people choose a church that fits their worship style.  It seemed to me to be well done.  Roman Catholics went to Roman Catholic churches; Presbies to Presbyterian churches, Episcopalians to Episcopal churches, and so on.  The idea for us would be that, if we were travelling in NYC and wanted to find a high church or low church, a church with hymnal music or a church with contemporary music, we could read their evaluation and choose.

     Wouldn’t you know it but that the mystery worship team showed up at that parish the day Samuel’s ashes were interred?  Talk about a God-incident!  Everyone was at church.  Everyone there was in the same place—struggling with the senseless death of an infant of a couple they loved, of a couple upon whom they had discerned God’s call.  The first image of the service recounted by the evaluators was Bryan carrying the Pascal Candle and reciting those wonderful words of introduction.  I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.  Whoever has faith in Me shall have life, even though he die.  And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to Me in faith, shall not die for ever.  Imagine stumbling into that scene where a father of a newborn proclaims those words!  Kinda sets the tone, don’t you think?  I think Paul Rodgers preached on the secret things of God, that we cannot know for certain why this happened or how God would be glorified in such a seemingly senseless death.  But that He would, because He had promised.  And in the end, all we can really do is trust His promises.  Bookend that sermon and the Eucharist with a congregation singing Jesus loves me this I know as the little urn was carried out, and you can see how the service made a bit of an impression on the team.  The team admitted at the time it had been, perhaps, one of the singularly most powerful services they had ever attended in a church.  All the cares of the world had been given to God because, in the end, only He could truly manage them.

     There are countless little stories of redemption that spring out of these tragedies.  Over the years ahead that we journey together, you might hear a number of them.  You will, of course, be witnesses to three important ones that are near and dear to my heart.  Those of you who have dropped by the office since the arrival of Karen and the kids have remarked about the energy and excitement of a certain three children that hover around the office pestering Miss Tina.  Not a few of you have wondered at our craziness at having seven children in this day and age.  Now you understand us a bit better.  Like you, we often wonder what He is thinking.  But we also know, know that life is a precious gift to be treasured and offered back to Him.  And so we have raised our kids to remember that and to share in the joy that, in the end, they truly belong to Him, as do each one of us gathered here.

     Brothers and sisters, His teaching is hard.  It is never an easy thing to be taught our limits, our weakness, or our need.  And the world has such easier sounding messages and enticement that we wish, just wish, were true.  But, as Peter reminded us this morning, only Jesus offers the words of eternal life.  Only Jesus offers the means by forgiveness.  That you might know His words were true and worthy of belief, God raised Him that Easter morning so long ago and made it possible for us to share in that glory some day in our future.  Will you keep fighting His net and trying desperately to swim out into the dark and cold and deep, or will you commit yourself to doing all that you can to walk with Him, trusting in His teaching, His love, and His promises, that you will live for ever, basking in and sharing in His glory?  Like those who stood among the shores on in the synagogue in Capernaum, He offers us far more than meets the eye.  It is not at all easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

Grist for the mill, flesh for our teeth . . .

     We are now four weeks into our sojourn through John’s account of the Feeding of 5000 men, besides women and children, and the short, but difficult teaching, that comes after.  A number of you have discovered that we are re-reading some verses each week, as if the lectionary editors were worried we would forget the story, the setting, or the teaching of Jesus within a week.  I suspect we would.  Rather, I suspect we already have, at least until our bit of focus this last month.  Think about how we approach the Eucharist in the Church today.  Some limit the Eucharist only to those who are “members” of the particular denomination.  This despite the fact that Jesus feeds everyone and then explains.  Some choose to limit the “amount” of communion served.  This despite the fact that Jesus tells us that we need to be eating His flesh and drinking His blood to abide in Him and to have Him abide in us.  Some might want to avoid the bread and wine as much as possible, choosing the wisdom or metaphor route of understanding.  This despite the fact that He has specifically taught us that He is the Living Bread or Wisdom come down from Heaven.  I could go on and on, but I see the nods of understanding.

     Before we go any further, let us acknowledge the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus’ claim to be the Living Bread or the Wisdom of God is no less scandalous today than then.  In fact, the way Jesus presents it makes it a bit too graphic, a bit too real.  Seven times in eight verses, Jesus instructs us that to be inheritors of His Promise, God’s Covenant, we must eat His flesh.  Four times, He specifically mentions drinking His blood.  And, just in case we are in the mood to assume He is speaking metaphorically, John has Jesus switching verbs for eating.  Jesus switches from a normal or polite eating verb to one that connotes a bit more grinding and chewing, like a scavenger gnawing the flesh off a bone.  It is a hard teaching.  It is an offensive teaching.  In fact, it is so hard and so offensive that, next week, we will read how many disciples fall away.

     Think of that for a second.  They followed Jesus.  They saw whatever miracles that drew them to follow Him.  They saw demons cast out.  They saw the blind given sight.  They saw the feeding of the 5000 men plus women and children.  They saw incredible signs of power.  Yet at this teaching, they feel they cannot follow Him anymore.  As we spend some time on this today, we should not be surprised if we find it hard, if we find it difficult, if we find ourselves sort of wanting to fall away.  Hopefully, whatever disgust we feel is tempered by the reality of His Passion, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost.  Hopefully, you and I see that Jesus’ words, despite their hardness and graphic nature, are true, and that we must chew on them, think on them, cling to them, even when every fiber of our body cringes or wants only to run away.

     In one sense of the teaching, Jesus’ words are metaphorical.  When Jesus says that the crowd and we must eat His flesh and drink His blood, there is a sense of picking up our own crosses and following Him.  Living a Christ-like life involves suffering, humiliation, loss, and any other incredible worldly negative before the entrance into glory.  Loving God with everything we have and loving our neighbor as ourselves is incredibly hard work.  I get a kick out of people who present Jesus as little more than a peace-loving hippie.  Beneath that soft, warm, loving veneer was the steel of the Father in Heaven.  Our Collect today reminds us that He was not just a sacrifice for sin but an example of Godly life.  How many of us would have been able to take His flogging, the mockery hurled at Him, the punches, the crown of thorns, all of it, and still bear the cross beam of the instrument of our death to the appointed place?  And none of us made all this!  There was a strength there, a will there, to do the Father’s bidding in ways you and I can barely begin to grasp.  Maybe those among us who have run marathons or triathlons or ridden in a Grand Tour or graduated from Ranger or SEAL school or those who have given birth get “it.”  Maybe they understand how the human will can push the human body to incredible feats.  But many of us stop when things start to hurt.  We may push ourselves a bit, but we stand in awe of those who can accomplish incredible things.  And Jesus, the God Incarnate Man Divine, came to do the most incredible thing!  He came to save us when we could not save ourselves, knowing that many would reject Him, that many would mock Him, that many would reject that loving embrace which He offered.  Can you imagine His will, His focus upon work?

     Our lives are supposed to be a fragrant offering to the Lord.  When we gather each time to remember His Passion, His precious death, His mighty Resurrection, and glorious Ascension, we pray to God that we might serve him in unity, constancy, and peace.  But do we really understand what we are doing?  Do we really want to be a cross-bearing servant in a world that, by and large, rejects Him and, therefore, us?  If we are suspicious of being called one of His freaks, can we ever truly be about the work He has given us to do?  Or are we like those in the crowd seeking satisfaction rather than life eternal?  Seeking full bellies rather than the shalom of being reconciled to God?

     If, in one sense, the teaching of Jesus is metaphorical, in another it is not.  We are a liturgical people.  We are a people who primarily gather around that altar or table and remind ourselves of the saving work He has done in our lives and for those in the world around us.  Imitating what He did before feeding the crowd, I pray God’s blessing on the bread, I break it, and I distribute it.  As a priest, I am like Moses, but in another sense I have a much better job than Moses.  Moses distributed the bread that was but a foreshadowing of the fleshy bread that I serve in God’s name!  When we gather around this altar rail, we really believe we eat the flesh of Jesus.  Some of us may have been raised to believe that the bread and wine really become the flesh and blood of our Lord.  Others of us believe it is still bread and wine but the important thing is the attitude and memory with which we consume them.  Most of us give up and just call it a Sacrament or a Holy Mystery.  We can’t explain it, not really.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit and our prayers, the wafers become His flesh and the wine becomes His blood.  And we eat His flesh and drink His blood.  That’s our explanation; that’s our faith.

     More amazingly, we express the very attitude captured by John of Jesus in this passage far more often than we want, don’t we?  I know--all of us come to church because we cannot wait to be here—all the time.  The sun is almost always up.  The temperature is nearly perfect.  We are well-rested.  We are in such a great frame of mind that we cannot wait to give thanks to God for the saving work He has done for the world and for us.  We cannot wait to confess those sins, for which He died, each and every time we gather and have that wonderful pronouncement of absolution.  We cannot wait to spend however much time we spend in prayers for ourselves, our friends, our brothers and sisters in other places, and strangers.

     I said earlier that John uses a different eating word in the midst of this discourse of Jesus.  He goes from a “normal” word for eating to one that is much less refined, like a cow chewing cud or a scavenger getting the flesh and marrow of a bone.  Sometimes that describes our presence, does it not?  Some days we want to stay in bed because we are tired and it is dark and rainy.  Some days we don’t want to waste times praying to God about ourselves, let alone interceding for those we only know barely or will never likely meet.  Some days we come barely paying attention, oblivious to everything but our situation, our needs, and our wants.  Let’s face it, some days we only come because Tina scheduled us and we did not have the foresight to get a substitute and are afraid of announcing our absence to the priest by not showing.  You guys are laughing, but it’s like I tell my kids, “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt!”  We know.  Believe me, we know.  You think we clergy don’t struggle sometimes?  We know.

     But it is precisely in those times where we have to grind our teeth on the bread that has become flesh.   We chew to remind ourselves just what He accomplished for each one of us.  We might like to think we are special.  We might like to think that we would have behaved differently had we been in the story.  In truth, those who heard Jesus’ promise did not have the lens of the Cross and the glory of the empty tomb upon which to focus their chewing.  Yes.  He was greater than Moses.  Clearly.  But why did He resist being made king?  Why did He give such amazing promises in the hard talk of such teaching?  Because what He came for was to fulfill the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah and to all the people of Israel throughout the ages.  He was not just a good man; He was and is the God-Man.  He was not just an amazing prophet; He was and is The Prophet.  He was not just a rabbi; He was and is The Teacher, The Healer, The Priest, The Lamb.  All of salvation history pointed to Him; and all of God’s love and wisdom were incarnated by Him.  And if He is the focus of salvation history, if He was the fulfillment of God’s promises, then all those other teachings are simply wanderings in the wilderness, empty and vain.  And the offer and promise was and is incredibly simple.  Eat My flesh and drink My blood.  If you do this, I abide in you and you in Me.  Unlike our ancestors who ate manna and died, we will live forever in His presence.  We will know Him not as a stranger, but as a friend.  It is an amazing, glorious promise.

     Brothers and sisters, we are nearly through our sojourn of John and his teaching of Jesus’ place in the plan of God’s salvation, in the Church, and in our lives.  Yes, it skirts around the institution of the Eucharist that we celebrate.  We cannot properly come to this appetizer until we learn and understand His teaching from that Thursday evening so long ago.  But we can remind ourselves and those with whom we come into contact just what it is that we eat, what it is that we drink, and who it is that we call Lord at this point in the story.  We serve a God of flesh and blood.  Those in the ANE and, sadly, many in our midst today, served gods who could not hear, could not speak, and could not act.  Yet we are reminded each and every time we read this story in John, each and every time we gather to celebrate our deliverance from sin, each and every time we spend considering His claims and the promises He made.  God, the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, took on human flesh.  For unfathomable reasons to us, He chose to save us even when we could in no wise save ourselves.  Just as He promised, but in a way Israel could never have understood, He came and dwelt among His people, came and taught His people, came and obediently followed the path to glory set out by the Father.  Even more amazingly, He promised that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood will not only live forever, but abide in Him even as He abides in us.  We cannot begin to fathom this holy mystery.  We cannot know the depth of wrath from which we are saved even as we cannot know the glory He has in store for us.  But all of that, all the benefits, were made possible because He allowed His flesh to be broken and His blood poured out, that you and I and all in the world who claim Him as Lord, might share in His eternal promises and mission!

     Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, the path that He has set out for each of us will likely be through deathly shadows and unmitigated suffering, at least from the world’s perspective.  Like the disciples we may find the path difficult to accept.  We might find His flesh difficult to chew or to swallow.  Heck, we might find the fact that His blood cleanses us a bitter drink to swallow, indeed.  Nevertheless, it is the only path that leads away from death, the only path that makes us heirs, the only path that leads those ineffable joys to which we all aspire.



Thursday, August 13, 2015

Joining the crowds in difficult teachings . . .

     No doubt our brothers and sisters who have been listening to sermons on the Eucharist are making all kinds of “stale” jokes today.  Can you imagine?  Five weeks of sermons specifically on the Eucharist.  For those of you who have been gone the last couple weeks, we have jumped from Mark to John for a five week sojourn on the nature of sacrament.  Jesus has fed the 5000 men, besides women and children.  Now, He and the disciples have returned to Capernaum.  In many ways, a parallel teaching has been happening here.  Jesus has been warning the crowd not to chase after the perishable, but imperishable.  More specifically, He has been warning the crowd to follow Him.  And His teaching is proving difficult for people to understand or to accept.

     Two weeks ago, Jesus declared His eminence above Moses by feeding the 5000 men plus women and children without intercession.  He blessed the bread; He broke the bread; He instructed His disciples to feed the crowd until all were satisfied.  There was no intercession with God because, as we all know this side of the Cross and Resurrection, He is God Incarnate.  The miracle should not have been lost on all who saw it, but it was.  Everyone ate from five loaves and two fish until they were satisfied.  Everyone.  And when the disciples collected the leftovers, there were twelve baskets.  The math doesn’t work, but I guess the saying is true that five out of four people are bad at math.

     Last week, Jesus pushed the understanding of the crowd.  Not only was Jesus greater than Moses, as demonstrated by the miraculous feeding and gathering of the leftovers, but He is the bread that has come down from heaven to give life to the world.  The people were hoping for bread in the sense of food.  The Temple leaders expected that the manna was wisdom of God.  Neither the crowd nor the leaders were willing to accept Jesus’ teaching on His own terms.  Neither were they willing to accept His teaching on the work of God.  The work of God, Jesus taught them, was to believe in the One upon whom He has set His seal.  Like many of us, the Jews wanted to earn their salvation.  They wanted to believe they were worthy of a special relationship with God.  They were.  Just not in the way they wanted to be.  They wanted their knowledge of and living in accordance to the teachings of God, the torah, to prove they were special in God’s eyes.  They missed that what made them special was the fact that, of all the peoples of the earth, God had chosen them!  Nothing inherent made them special.  What made them special was the covenant declared by God.

     Jesus’ teaching is difficult, to be sure.  But I wonder at the claims of some theologians and commentators and preachers that Jesus is trying to be obnoxious and cryptic in this section.  There seems to be a desire to claim that Jesus does not want the crowds to “get” His message.  We do such a good job of ignoring God’s message or assuming that it is not meant for us or for being jerks in His name that I truly doubt that Jesus ever tries to be confusing or a jerk enough to drive us or others away.  Part of the reason, I think, that we find this section so challenging is that we do not see the imagery Jesus is using in the way that the crowd did.

     All of Jesus’ teaching, as I shared two weeks ago, takes place in a Passover understanding.  The mountain, the meal, the leftovers all point to the overarching significance of Jesus’ activity and teaching.  Many in the crowd thought that Messiah would bring freedom from Roman oppression.  Jesus came to bring freedom, but not just from Roman oppression.  Jesus came to feed God’s people with God’s bread, but it was not manna or “knowledge” He brought, but rather Himself.  These are hard teachings.  How can this son of a carpenter claim to be the Son of God?  How can this itinerant teacher claim to be of more significance than Moses?  Put differently, their knowledge of Jesus prevents them from having a right understanding of and right relationship with Jesus.  In many ways they are not unlike the demons that Jesus encounters.  They know who Jesus is, but that knowledge does not drive them to accept Him as Lord.  And, if Jesus is to be believed in this teaching and in these encounters, a wrong relationship with Him has eternal consequences.  No wonder they grumble; no wonder they talk so much among themselves!

     Look at our passage today.  They grumble about their knowledge of His parentage.  Does Jesus launch into a discussion of the Incarnation?  No.  He reminds them that they do not necessarily know what they think they know.  Those who think they are special because they are descendants of Abraham or because they worship God are not given any credit for their work or their ancestry.  No one can come to Me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.  The verb in play is the same verb used to describe the haul of the nets of fisherman.  Such an illustration in a port city would be offensive to many.  What do you mean “God is dragging me into the boat”?  I chose to worship Him of my own free will.  Jesus is teaching them and us that they and we must trust Him, but even that initial bit of trust results from the Father hauling on us.  Do we understand this?  Does it make sense to us?

     Look at this crowd in our story.  All who are present were at the feeding of the 5000 men or heard about the feeding of the 5000 men.  I suppose it is possible that others are there because of curiosity regarding other signs, but all have heard of this particular sign.  In the presence of thousands, He fed and collected the leftovers.  The messianic sign of Moses has been given, and does anyone truly understand it?  To use the image of Isaiah, they have eyes and do not see.

     Jesus even goes so far as to meet them where they are, even though the crowds do not ask that kind of question.  They are so focused on what they think they know, we know His mom and dad; we know from whence He comes, that they miss His offer.  For those who are hungry, He offers a bread that will keep them from death; for those who seek the wisdom of God, He offers to teach, in fulfilment of God’s promises.  Yes, His teaching is shocking.  Yes, His teaching is radical.  But the shock and radical nature of His teaching do not obviate its truth.  The people of God want to be restored to an intimate relationship with God.  God wants His people restored.  To accomplish this, the Son of God will offer His flesh.  Now, it is upon those listening to His teaching to “eat” this bread.  Those who hear the Gospel must decide whether to believe and appropriate the gift of eternal life or to remain in the secure “knowledge” and die apart from God’s offered blessing.  For all the complexity of the passage, its message is rather simple.  Do you believe?

     We talk often of the mystery of meeting Jesus in the Sacraments.  Those outward signs of inward and spiritual grace remind us, instruct us, and challenge us in ways we can never truly theologize or explain.  In that, we should be reading John as we contemplate the Passover that Jesus has in mind.  Put in today’s language, if we are scandalized by the idea that eating the flesh of Christ Jesus saves us, how will we ever find ourselves, our sinful selves, ever truly crucified with Him even as our redeemed selves are resurrected in Him?  Admittedly, these passages are easier for those of who come after the Cross and after the Resurrection than they were for those to whom Jesus was speaking in Capernaum nearly 2000 years ago.  But easier does not always mean easy.  We have the focusing lens of the Cross which teaches us that this dying flesh of which Jesus speaks, given as an offering for the life of the world, is true.  But, like the crowds, how quickly are we to forget?  How quickly are we to misunderstand?  How quickly are we to deny?

     One of the reasons I have purposely avoided focusing upon the Eucharist the last three weeks is that Jesus’ and John’s teaching is not just about the Eucharist.  Yes, we see Eucharistic suggestions in the feeding of the 5000 men.  Yes, we understand that His flesh is the bread of life.  But Jesus is taking on imagery in this section of John, imagery and meaning from the Jewish culture, and reinterpreting it.  Jesus is reminding them and us that He is the focus of the Passover meal.  Jesus is the real bread that gives life.  Jesus is the means by which the world is saved.  You and I are reminded of that truth in the Eucharist, but in the other sacraments as well.

     My mind this week has been on two that, quite simply, are privileges in the life of a priest.  The first is Reconciliation.  As I was leading some lay women in the parish to serve as lay ministers for reconciliation this week, I tried to explain to them the thankfulness of those who will hear their words of forgiveness.  I did an ok job.  I also know they will not truly understand my words until they have seen the burden lift from the shoulders of the one confessing across from them.  It is every bit as visible as I am today.  But what causes that burden to lift?  What causes that heart to soar?  What causes one to dare to hope?  The very truth that Jesus explains here.  He gave His flesh so that we might live forever.  He died for our sins so that we could be taught by God, we could be indwelled by the Holy Spirit, so that we could truly glorify the Father.  He laid down His life that we might understand what true love is and share in that true love for ever!

     The other sacramental mystery where the truth revealed by Jesus in today’s passage is on full display is at the time of death.  I once had a professor explain to me that there was no greater privilege, no greater honor, than to be the one called when someone was near death.  At the time, I thought Gavin’s insistence was misplaced.  Surely adult baptisms were fantastic.  Are not conversions what we are all about?  A few weeks later, I had my first privileged encounter.  And then I grasped part of what Jesus is saying here and part of what Gavin was trying to teach us.  I cannot recall the number of “Ministrations at the Time of Death”of which I have been a part.  They blur, but in an amazing way.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, goes through those moments as they near that wall and begins to doubt.  Saints who have entered into glory ahead of me and who will be so close to the throne that I can, at best, hope to recognize the back of their head from where I will be standing go through this, as do those who would describe themselves more “ordinary.”  They begin to doubt that their life was not good enough, that they did not love Jesus enough, that their sins were of such a nature never to be forgiven.  A commentator, whose name slips my mind, I later read called it the “Garden of Gethsemane” temptation of humanity.  There is always that last ditch effort by God’s Enemy to try and steal a soul away.  I suppose, in a strange way, it is a temptation we share with our Lord, though His was of a messianic nature.  I do not care how much of a saint the person was in life, always there is that “prick” of conscience or building fear.  And it is in the midst of that particular effort that we are called to speak these words of Jesus one last time to the sheep of His redeeming.  He gave His life for you and promised you that He would be with you to the end of the ages.  Don’t you remember?  Those who have sat with me and a dying family member will tell you way more words are spoken, but this is the conversation at its most distilled moment.  You have eaten of that flesh and you will share in His promise.

     Much of what has been occurring these last couple weeks and in much of John for that matter, brothers and sisters, has been a re-focusing by Jesus.  Jesus has been teaching those whom He encounters how He is the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation.  Earlier, He told the woman at the well that He was the living water.  Here, He teaches us that He in the bread of life.  In between, He has worked amazing signs, each testifying to the crowd and those who hear the stories that He is who He says He is, the Messiah, the Anointed, God’s Son.  The Jews and Gentiles who hear His teachings are right to feel that their world is all jumbled.  If what Jesus teaches is true, their world will be turned topsy-turvy.  No longer is the focus of worship going to be a specific place.  No longer is the wisdom of God going to be reserved for a few professionals.  The focus of worship will be Jesus.  Where two or three are gathered, He will be in the midst of them.  What He offers is so much better than water to slake a thirst or bread to fill a tummy.  He offers the opportunity to share in God’s love.  Forever.  Like fish in a net we might be trying hard to escape the net He has set for us.  To paraphrase a popular movie, we might have given up on Him for a time, but never has He given up on us.  But to share in these sacramental mysteries, to share in the redeeming love, to drink from that life-giving fount, we must first acknowledge our need for Him and His offer to us.  Then, brothers and sisters, having eaten and having accepted, we become active participants in the redemption of the world by God.  In this sacramental mystery, we become signposts, we become ambassadors, point those whom we encounter to that same spring, that same bread, Jesus, that they might, too, have eternal life!




Thursday, August 6, 2015

Healing for the healers and the world . . .

     We continue with week two in our foray into the sacraments.  Those here last week were a bit surprised I did not talk more specifically about the Eucharist.  I mentioned it, to be sure.  Jesus blesses, breaks, and distributes the five loaves and two fish, much as we distribute the bread and wine during the Eucharist.  Perhaps more significantly, John calls Jesus’ blessing a Eucharist, a joyful thanksgiving!  But, as I said last week, the Eucharist was not the focus of last week’s readings.  John was more interested in telling his audience that Jesus ranked higher than Moses.  Much of what went on last week was Jesus’ claim that He was the Son of Man, the Anointed.  He was the One to whom Moses was pointing; He was the One who had come into the world.  The Eucharist, as you and I understand it, is not formally command by our Lord until the night of the Last Supper.

     Seeing as how we have a small crowd and everyone is Episcopalian and we are introducing a new service today, though, we should spend a bit more time on our understanding of the Sacraments.  If I asked you to define the Sacraments, could you.  An outward sign of an inward and visible grace.  You thought you were done with such quizzes when you were confirmed, did you not?  I notice nearly everyone joined in as we said the definition.  Everybody seems to be able to say the line.  But do we know what it means?  Are we able to describe to people in our lives the nature of the Sacraments?  I suspect, were I to stop and quiz us, there would be some horrible panic.  Don’t worry, we would not be alone.  The idea of the Sacraments caused more than one skirmish in Europe and a number of fights within our own church.

     For example, how many sacraments are there in our church?  I heard a lot of “seven’s” and a lot of “two’s.”  Those of you who said another number can see me in the Parish Hall about scheduling a new confirmation class!  The sevens and twos drowned out all the other answers because that was where the fight was when our church came into being.  If we look at the 39 Articles, yes we have articles of our faith, we can see that our forebears settled on two dominical sacraments.  By that, our founders understood that Jesus only commissioned Baptism and the Eucharist.  The fact that our Lord gave them makes them dominical in nature.  But, more than a few of us have migrated to Advent from RC and Orthodox churches.  Those stated seven because Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Unction are considered sacraments in other churches.  We will not be resolving which tradition is right today, or any day in the future, for that matter, but we will be exploring their role in the Church, as they speak to the truth declared by our Lord today in the Gospel reading.

     Our Gospel reading picks off right where we left off last week.  Jesus has crossed over to the Capernaum by walking on the water, scaring His disciples in the process.  Finding Jesus in Capernaum, they are surprised.  He went up the mountain while the disciples got into the boat.  How could He make it here ahead of them?  So they ask.  What follows is a conversation not unlike the one Jesus had with the woman at the well in chapter 4.  Jesus gives them an answer to a question they do not ask.  Jesus tells them they are looking for Him not because they understand who He is, but because they ate and were satisfied.  Then He gives a warning: 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.  Fair enough.  Who would not want bread that gives eternal life?  So they ask Jesus what they must do to perform the works of God, as if they are ignorant of the torah.  Jesus instructs them that the work of God is to believe in Him whom God has sent.  Naturally, the people are in the mind of the Passover.  Jesus has just blessed the bread and fish and distributed.  There was no prayer to God to feed the people.  Jesus has accomplished this work on His own, laying claim to the idea that He ranks higher than Moses.  But it is a remarkable claim!  The people are unwilling to let the claim go unchallenged.  Show us another sign, and we will believe You are the Messiah. 

     Jesus’ answer is effectively, I have already given you the sign.  But His answer is also far deeper than they realize.  God is the source of the heavenly bread, and Jesus is the One sent by God.  The true manna is God’s Anointed, Jesus!  The crowd’s response is nearly identical to the woman at the well a couple chapters earlier.  The crowd asks for this bread, just as she asked for this water.  Jesus takes on to Himself the role of the dispenser of God’s blessing.  Water and bread were considered life giving symbols of God’s blessing.  Jesus, in His instruction over these two chapters, is claiming to be The Distributor of God’s blessing on the people, both Jew and Gentile!  It is an amazing claim!  A claim that, without the power and testimony of the Resurrection, would be vapid!  We know the rest of the story.  We are not surprised.  We are simply awed by the depth and presentation of Jesus to the people.  Wow!  He really is the life-giving spring.  Wow!  He really is the Bread of Life.  The leaders, of course, will reject His teaching.  But so will the people.

     Why do I share this story in this way today and begin with the brief discussion of the sacraments?  I wonder how quick we are, as the Church that stands in the shadow of the Cross and the glory of the Empty Tomb, to forget His promise and power and desire to do only good for us?  Do we really believe He is the Anointed, sent by God, who wants nothing but the best for us?  Our outward and visible testimony as a parish is that we do not.  I am not a big fan of imposing my will on a parish.  In fact, I am not a big fan of imposing what I think is God’s will on a parish during the first year of a relationship.  There is too big a chance for hurt, for mistakes, for misunderstandings, and who knows what else.  But we are a parish who, I have learned, is slow to lay claim to the benefits of His Passion.  If we look back in Acts, we see the Church laying on hands and anointing, expecting God to work in their midst.  The result was that people came to the Church for healing.  Some chose to join; others chose to walk away.  For all our claim of modern superiority, we are really no different than the crowds about which we read.

     To be sure, at time we at Advent have tried a Healing service.  Always, I am told, it has been a behind the scenes effort.  Maybe it was done at a weekday service; maybe it was done at a weekday service for a season like Lent or Advent.  It does not seem to have been a primary focus of the parish.  Why?  If God is God, if God has taught us to lay on hands and anoint for healing, if there is a need in our parish community and the wider community, and if so many of us devote our lives to healthcare, why is this not a central part of our identity?  Why are we not a parish that expects God to move powerfully among us and heal us and heal our visitors?  Have we accepted the sign?  Have we accepted the Truth?

     After some discussing with the Search Committee, the Vestry, and Liturgy & Worship committee, I agreed to go ahead and launch this service early.  I won’t go into all the details, but the event that caused me to ignore best practices and plunge headlong into this was the Time & Talents work of the Vestry.  My small group all identified healing as a gift, a charism, that I should be claiming.  When I asked why, they had no real concrete answer.  All agreed; yet none could explain.  To me, it sounded much like a Holy Spirit moment.  You see, I have had that charism confirmed far too many times to ignore.  Here was another.  They knew I should be about healing for God, but they did not know the back story.  So, by way of sharing with you and lowering some anxieties, I now share with the parish.

     Some years ago I was called by a hospital to come and do last rites for a man suffering from a brain aneurism.  The nurse calling me said I needed to hurry.  It was after 2am, so this was her way of saying he would be gone by morning and that I could not wait.  I got dressed and headed to the hospital.  When I got there, I grabbed my prayer book and oil from the van.  I headed to the room to give last rites to a man from a neighboring parish (it turned out his priest was on vacation).  When I entered the room, the medical staff cleared out to give me, the wife, and the dying man some privacy.  His wife, as you might imagine, was pleading, crying, acting as one who could do nothing for the man she loved.  She was so sorry I had been woken up, but she had nowhere else to turn.  I opened that prayer book, turned to page 462, and got stuck.

     You have all only known me for seven months.  Have I struck you as someone whose tongue is often tied?  It’s ok to laugh.  I did afterwards as well.  I am a pretty good reader.  Before I was ordained, I was one of those readers that would step in last minute at my parish.  But I found myself unable to say the words, Almighty Father, look on this Your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort him with the promise of everlasting life.  Three times I tried.  Three times I failed.  Then I recognized what was happening.  Still, even though I realized that my tongue was being bound, I was unwilling to give words to the prayer welling up inside of me.  I had a soon to be widow next to me, softly crying and sniffling.  If I prayed the prayer willing up, what kind of sick bastard was I?  I felt a . . . compulsion to pray a prayer of life-giving power in front of a soon-to-be-widow.  My words, I knew, would hurt her immeasurably in the days, weeks, and months to come.  I asked her to step out.  She refused.  I told her I was sorry, but I had to pray a different prayer.

     I wish I had written it down.  Brothers and sisters, to this day it is the most remarkable prayer ever to cross my lips.  I reminded our Lord that it was the season of Epiphany, that season when we celebrate the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles.  I reminded the Lord that He was the Healer and that I stood in a place that claimed to be full of healers.  How cool would it be for Him to act yet again, reminding doctors and nurses where true healing was to be found and manifesting His glory to a world in desperate need!

     I had no sooner got the words out when the man sat up and said, “I’ve got to pee.”

     Brothers and sisters, as your new pastor, I would like to claim that I understood what had happened right at the outset.  I would be lying.  I think the first words right out of my mouth were “holy crap!” or something along those lines.  I had a dying man trying to get out of bed and go to the bathroom.  We needed help.  

     I don’t think the wife understood the significance either.  As I explained that I would get a nurse and he continued to struggle to get out of bed, she pig-piled him.  Between the sniffles and struggles, she was giving him the “you listen here” that only couples who have spent decades together can get away with.  He was giving her the “what is wrong with you” just as well.

     Now I had an elderly man and his elderly wife wrestling on a hospital bed.  I just knew there was a broken hip or concussion headed our way.  So I ran down the hall to find a nurse or doctor.  I found “Susan.”  Susan, I need your help.  He’s up trying to go to the bathroom and his wife is trying to pin him to the bed.  “Father, father, I know you want to believe that God does miracles.  I have worked as a nurse for 22 years.  I can tell you with certainty, God, if he exists, does not heal.”  Great, great, someone needs to tell the patient because he seems to think he needs to go pee.  “Father, he can’t be talking, he can’t be moving.  I’ve seen the scans.  He’s probably already gone.  We just called you because his wife asked for someone.”  Great.  You come tell him he’s dead and does not need to pee and should not be wrestling with his wife.

     Folks, I was literally tugging at her to come with him.  I knew it was a matter of time before we heard the crash of this older couple knocking over equipment.  The whole time down the hall she is giving me the “lecture” about never seeing a miracle, never seeing a sign that could point to a god.  I’m like can we please walk faster!  Finally, we make it to the room.  It takes her a second.  An eighty year old man and mid 70’s year old woman are wrestling on a hospital bed.  But, professional as always, Susan recovered her wits, entered the room, hit the emergency button, and started trying to disentangle the couple.  The cacophony of sounds will stay with me to my dying day.  Susan trying to get the couple to quit wrestling before someone got hurt, the wife telling the husband he will be staying there until a nurse or doctor gets there, the patient fighting mad about having to pee, and the voice at the other end of the button trying to get us to state what response team was needed.  God had acted marvelously, and humanity was confused!—much like our story these two weeks.

     In many ways, though, it is the after-effects of the sign that I want to point out.  After all, how many of us sitting here today tell ourselves that, had we eaten of the fish and loaves, we would have known who Jesus was and never demanded another sign?  Don’t raise your hand; just place yourself in the story.  In mine, there were a couple of interesting take-away’s.  For some months after this miracle, I would be grabbed by a nurse or doctor or someone who had heard about the priest in the green shirt.  The miracle had occurred in Epiphany (and I wore white), but somehow it came to be associated with the green shirt.  Father, would pray over this one.  Father, do you have a minute?  Any time I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital, someone was grabbing me to pray for the desperate, the ones for whom medicine had no answer.  What really disappointed me as a parish priest was the fact that so few doctors and nurses had come to my church in the aftermath.  I’m a parish priest.  One of our job descriptions, whether it is formally acknowledged or not is “grow the church.”  Surely, after such an incredible miracle, and make no mistake—doctors and nurses told me repeatedly for months that they had never seen anything like it--, people would be drawn to the church, right?  I think three doctors and their family units made it to Easter, but none, so far as I know, found their way into a church community.

     I would ask.  Where were you?  Where are you going?  Maybe the sign was for you, why are you not seeking Him?  Over and over I would ask, to no effect.  Then a strange blessing happened.  My parish got well.  Although we were an older parish, I went 26 months or so between hospital visits.  I was not shirking my duties.  No one was getting sick; no one was getting hurt.  We started to notice it.  I wondered aloud what was going on.  One of my intercessors, a lady who will be far closer to the throne than I, pointed out that God was not allowing Himself or His priest to be used.  The sign of healing had been given to healers, and they had rejected it.  Her guess or prophesy was that I would not return until those doctors and nurses had forgotten the sign.  She was right.  Once illness and emergencies return to my cure, most in the hospital had forgotten me.

     Why do I share a downer ending and focus on Jesus’ ignoring peoples’ questions today?  In a few moments, we are going to start a new service at Advent, one of Healing.  I will invite all those who would like prayer and anointing to come forward.  I will anoint with healing oil consecrated by our bishop, lay hands, and pray.  I do not yet know the prayers I will say; I do not yet know the need in this congregation.  But I will pray.  And you and I will expect God to act.

     Here’s the thing.  When we approach our Lord and ask questions, He does not always give us the answers we seek.  He gives us, instead, the answers we need.  In a few minutes, the brave will come forward, hopeful that our Lord will act in their lives.  Some will even come bartering, telling God if He does this they will do that.  Brothers and sisters, God is not manipulated.  God is not a quid-pro-quo kind of Lord.  He is our Father in heaven who wants only great things for us.  You will come and ask for pains to be eased, for disease to be cured, for relationships to be reconciled, for provision, and for any number of other perceived needs.  I will dutiful anoint and pray over you.  In the end, though, we must trust the One whom He has sent, the One upon whom He has placed His seal and His pledge.  We must trust, no matter the outcome, that our Lord wants only good for us and that He is always working to redeem evil in our lives.  But, and we must hear this but, we are not placing our faith in the cured backaches, the wiped away cancer, or even the stalling of death that I shared this morning.  Our trust is in the Lord!  He will act and do what is best for us, whether we know it or not, whether we agree with it or not, and whether the world will notice or not.

     Each week we gather around that altar and pray to God that we receive all the benefits of His passion.  Today, we will begin to claim those benefits, not as timid or frail, but as deeply loved firstborn sons and daughters.  We will approach that throne of grace asking Him once again to do what is best for us because it is in His nature so to do.  We will ask the Healer to heal, not because we deserve it, but because we have placed our faith in Jesus, His Anointed.  The Bread of life and the source of all life-giving water.  But we will do so, and I will remind you in prayers, cognizant of the fact that we have a share in His Son’s ministry.  Sometimes, how we handle suffering is the means by which God reaches into the lives of others.  You and I may desperately want another sign, as did our brothers and sisters in Capernaum 2000 years ago, but The Sign has already been given.  We will trust, as He shows up this morning in power, that the healing He gives us is the healing we need.  Then fortified, and maybe in light of yet another sign, we, many of whom who are healers, will return to the world ready to tell yet again of the wonders the Healer has done.