A while back, I visited a Unity church in the Bay Area. It
was a clear, warm morning and so I wasn’t surprised when the worship leader
started by saying what a beautiful morning it was. “On a morning like this”,
she said, ‘I wake up with my heart full of joy and I just want to say Thank
you, Thank you… to my self.”
I was astonished. Thank you to myself! I was praising God
not my self. Later I talked to the friend whose church it was, and she said,
“Well there’s really no difference.” I beg to differ.
We have been
reading the Gospel of Mark. But today there is a change. We’re in John, beginning
to read John Chapter 6. The next five weeks will be devoted to this chapter
which talks about Jesus as the bread of life. John starts his account of Jesus’
teaching by telling us about the great miracle of the feeding of a large crowd
– other gospellers tell us it was five thousand plus women and children.
Here we see in
physical form the teaching we are about to hear – Jesus feeds the people. Jesus
gives bread which, when broken, multiplies so that when everyone is full there
is more left over than there was to begin with.
What is it with
Jesus and bread?
At the beginning
of the Exodus, the original Passover, the people took unleavened bread because
there wasn’t time to make bread with yeast, and ever since, unleavened bread
has been a symbol of the Passover. In the desert, when they were hungry, the
Hebrews received manna – a bread from a
heaven – to sustain them. Jesus broke bread and fed more than five thousand; he
blessed the bread at the Last Supper and said it was his body; he made himself
known to the disciples on the road to Emmaus by breaking bread. At the very
beginning of his ministry, Jesus told Satan “Mankind does not live by bread
alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Bread is a symbol
of that which sustains us. If Jesus had been born in Asia no doubt he would have described himself
as rice, but in the Middle
East, like here,
bread is the staple. So Jesus is the food which sustains us. Jesus is the Word
of God. We do not live by physical bread alone but by the ongoing creative
presence of the Word of God, of Jesus the Christ, living in our world and
bringing us life in our hearts and minds. Notice that it’s not an either/or –
Jesus did feed the people, he didn’t just teach them. Mankind lives by bread and the word of God.
We symbolize that
here whenever we make Eucharist together. We listen to the word of God in the
scriptures and then we meet with God in the symbolic feast of bread and wine;
Christ’s body and blood given for us, and in the process we are ourselves are
turned into the Body of Christ.
We are what we
eat. As we feast on the word of God and let it digest in our hearts, as we eat
the Eucharistic bread and let it digest in our stomachs, so we are transformed
and become more and more the Christ-like beings that God made us to be. Which
means becoming one with God.
But this is very
different from saying that I am God. When we think or act as if we are God, we have displaced God from
God’s rightful place. We have made an idol of ourselves.
bodies are dependent upon food and water. Starve us and before long we weaken
and die. On a spiritual level we are as dependent upon God for our lives as on
a physical level we are dependent upon food. When we turn our backs on God
again and again we wither as surely as if we turn away from food. It may not
seem that way at first – often people who fast remark on higher physical energy
levels – but as we refuse to listen to the Spirit; as we refuse to feed
ourselves through word and sacrament so we weaken and our spirits become mean,
grasping, and turned inward.
I am not
suggesting that the only way people are fed by Spirit is to come to church. But
there is a special gift that only comes when the people of God gather together
intentionally. I can eat on my own at home and get all the nutrients I need.
But when I gather with others for dinner or another special meal, there is a
joy and a connection that nourishes me in a different way. So it is when I pray
and study on my own – it is good, but it is even better when I get to share the
journey and experience with others.
journey is both solitary and communal. We commune with God in the privacy of
our own hearts, but there are times when God can only fully manifest divine
purpose when we gather together to pray, to worship and to serve. There is
tremendous power in our joining together to praise God.
tremendous power when we come together with hearts full of joy and we say
“Thank you God”.
It seems to be part of human nature to build walls. Walls
between people. Walls to keep people in, walls to keep people out. At the time
that the Letter to the Ephesians was written, probably at the end of the first
century, one of the big divisions, at least from the Jewish perspective, was between
Jew and non-Jew. But this division disappeared within the new Christian church
– we heard, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been
brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has
made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the
hostility between us.”
It had become
clear to the early church that the grace of Jesus’ death and resurrection was
available not only to the Jews, the traditional people of God, but also to
Gentiles. In a similar way, earlier this month the Episcopal Church made it
very clear that, as far as we are concerned, God’s grace is fully available to
gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender and queer people. Since General Convention,
there have been some cynical newspaper reports suggesting that in its death
throes the Episcopal Church is making a last ditch effort to bring in the
crowds, and in the process selling its soul to the wider culture, and by
extension, the very Devil himself.
I am sure that
there were people in the early church who came up with similar arguments when
Peter and Paul began to talk about including Gentiles without expecting them to
become Jews. Today it seems like a no-brainer – of course God wanted us in the
Church – why wouldn’t she? But then it was a highly contentious issue. I
imagine that some people left the Church because of it. Just like some people
will probably leave the Episcopal Church because it is choosing to extend a
gracious arm of hospitality to those who so often feel excluded and unwelcome.
reading shows Jesus at his most gracious and welcoming. The disciples had come
back from their first mission trip and were tired. Jesus wanted to meet with
them and hear their stories. But their attempts to get away together were
thwarted not once but twice. The first time Jesus saw the need of the people, how
they were like sheep without a shepherd, and so he took the time to teach them,
to give them a sense of direction. Then, after they had crossed the lake,
people rushed to bring him all their sick people and whoever even touched the
fringe of his cloak was healed. Jesus had planned a retreat but when people
came he didn’t turn them away; he ministered to them.
People who were
sick or disabled in first century Palestine were often marginalized. They had no way
to support themselves, often they were unclean. Yet Jesus reached out to them
and drew them back into community. He broke down the walls which separated the
sick from the healthy. People who are sick or disabled today often find
themselves on the margins. We are all so busy and active it is difficult for
those who are in pain or who are slower because of physical or mental
difficulties to feel that they can participate or contribute in a meaningful
We often think
about the political divisions of contemporary America, but those are not the only walls that
divide us. We are divided by walls of fear, of ignorance, of circumstance. Many
of the walls are ones that we have built ourselves because we fear being attacked
or hurt in some way.
But in the Body
of Christ we can all be united. Jesus did not erect walls. He did not even
defend himself against the high priests and Pilate. He allowed himself to be
killed and then showed the impotence of death by rising again. In the Body of
Christ we can let down our defenses.
We have all been
saddened and shocked by the senseless and premeditated mass shooting in Aurora this week. It is easy after something
like this happens to feel that we must increase our defenses. But that is not
the way that Jesus demonstrated. The kingdom of God does not come from violence, it does not
come from manning the ramparts and battening down the hatches. It comes when
the people of God open their hands in generosity and welcome, even though that
means being vulnerable. Even though it may be costly.
Because Jesus always comes from love and
as the disciples of Jesus, we too get to come from love. As the Apostle Paul
said, “Love is patient; love is kind; love
is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own
way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but
rejoices in the truth.It bears
all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love
never ends.” (1 Cor 13:4-8a)
Healing comes as we risk opening our own hands in
generosity and vulnerability. We have more in common with those we fear than we
have differences. Healing comes as we stop battling our pain and the pain of
those around us and open to it in compassion and empathy. Healing comes as we
reach out to God acknowledging that we are totally dependent upon the Divine.
Who is God asking you to reach out to today? Where are
the places in your life which are tight and constricted? Where are the hard
places in your heart which need to be softened? Where is the Holy Spirit
prompting you to open your hand in generosity and vulnerability?
It takes courage for us to ignore the promptings of our
culture. It takes courage for us to cross the walls that have been built in our
minds and hearts. But we know that whenever we step out in love, the Holy
Spirit is already there before us.
Let us this week, today, determine to open our hearts and
hands in generous and loving welcome to all whom God sends, and to work to
dismantle the walls which keep us trapped and others out.
Many of you know that I have a dog, Shadow. He’s quite a
nice dog –half German Shepherd and quarter Border Collie – so he needs a lot of
exercise and he loves to play with his ball. He is the first puppy I have ever
had. It hasn’t been an easy year. He’s big and bouncy and demanding. He thinks
he’s the one in charge and if he doesn’t get enough exercise he chases around
our tiny little house, bouncing on and off the furniture, braking things and
scaring the cats. He chewed holes in our relatively new furniture. I took him
to obedience classes and he is
obedient, when he knows I have treats. If I don’t, he doesn’t bother. I started
taking him to agility classes but he was thrown out for bad behavior.
Now he’s about twenty months old and I am finally coming to
really like him. As he is maturing, he’s turning into a nice dog. I even missed
him when I was away. He has adjusted to living with us – he knows our habits
and our moods. He knows what to expect, what’s going to get him treats and
what’s going to make me angry. We are adjusting to him. We have learned that he
sometimes communicates his needs with a body slam. Another dog might look
wistfully at his leash - Shadow body slams.
Training techniques which are meant to teach who’s in charge
have backfired and set us back months. Shadow responds well to praise and to
being able to do things his way. Cesar Milan would be horrified.
It’s been a year of coming into relationship with each
other. Along the way I have learned a lot about myself. It hasn’t been easy –
I’ve threatened to take him back to Animal Services many times. I have been
formed by Shadow just as I have been forming him. He is a different dog and I
am a different human for this year that we have spent tussling with each other.
And when we sit quietly on the sofa together at the end of the day, we really
like each other.
And so it is with God.
In the process of our spiritual formation we go through
times when we’re ready to call the whole thing off and stop dealing with this
radically free Being who seems so demanding. But at other times we are gifted
with such peace and joy and sense of connection and significance that the bad
times fade from mind.
As the Holy Spirit trains and forms us, God has an
advantage. Because, as we heard in the second reading, “God is at work in you,
enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God can get into
our minds and hearts in a way I can never get into Shadow’s. If we allow it,
the Holy Spirit will work with our spirits to train us and form us so that we
can become the Christ-like beings we were made to be.
Benedict created a monastic rule for exactly this purpose.
… we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing
harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the
dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation
of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way
of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt.
7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in
faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering in the monastery according to
His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of
Christ (1 Peter ) and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.
Each one of us
who has enrolled in the kingdom of God and who has chosen to become a disciple
of Christ is in training. We are in the
process of spiritual formation.
Some of that
happens quietly in the solitude of our own hearts and in the quietness of our
personal prayer. But much of it happens in community. We are formed by our
relationships, by the love we receive and by the daily irritations of living
“Do all things,”
says the Letter to the Philippians, “without murmuring or arguing, so that you
may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of
a crooked and perverse generation.” Nothing is more difficult in community than
someone who always gripes and complains. Someone who tends to see what’s wrong
and let’s that fester in their minds so that it slips out in little ways again
does make us want to complain. If you never find anything to complain about in
your experience with St. Benedict’s, I invite you to come further in. I invite
you to participate more deeply in the Body of Christ in this place. You will
not be formed by the community, it will not provide you a “school for the
service of the Lord” unless you make the commitment to serve and worship God in
St. Benedict was
very clear that his monks were not to wander from place to place looking for
somewhere where the grass was greener, but to dig in, and stay even when the
going got tough. That is one of the reasons marriage is such an important
school for spiritual growth; we make a commitment to stay with one person. In a
marriage we are forming each other as we deal with the tensions and difficulties
as well as the joys and pleasures of being together.
pleasure is for each one of us to become more and more Christ-like. As the
aspects of our personalities which hinder God’s work are moved gracefully away,
or sometimes stripped rudely from us through tragedy or confrontation, so God
is able to move in and through us in depth and in power. Imagine being so
connected and so transparent that wherever you go people around you find
themselves having new experiences of God, and being healed.
This will only
happen as we cultivate in ourselves a spirit of humility. One of the longest
chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict is the one on humility. It’s not a popular
concept, but it is an important and vital one as we participate with the Holy
Spirit in our spiritual formation. When Shadow thinks he knows more than me he
does not learn from me. When we think we know more than those around us we may
be arguing with the Holy Spirit.
Humility does not
mean imagining that we are worthless. That is delusion. Humility means knowing
our place in the world and in God’s love. Humility means knowing that we are
100% dependent upon God and that we may not know as much as we think, because
we do not see things with the eyes of the Spirit. Humility is the willingness
If someone or
something makes you annoyed, the way to deal with it is not through murmuring
and arguing but to pray about it. Ask to be shown what you have to learn from
it. Sometimes reality just isn’t the way we want it and so we get to develop
the quality of serenity; sometimes things can be changed in a way that will be
better for everyone. Discerning the difference can be a challenge!
being open to knowing your part in any conflict or difficulty. Humility means
being open to feedback from others. Humility means allowing the Holy Spirit to
train you. Humility means carrying your own cross – not expecting someone else
to and being mad when they don’t.
the Holy Spirit to work in you and in the community around you to transform you
and make you Christ-like.
would be much easier if he had humility!
Let us pray:
God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot
change, Courage to change the things we can, And wisdom to know the difference.
St Benedicts Episcopal Church is a welcoming faith community in Los Osos, California. For over 20 years we have been witnessing to God's all-inclusive love. In this bl;og we share sermons and other ideas in the hope that this will inspire conversation and new thinking about the God who has called us and who is faithful.