This Teaching is Difficult: A Sermon for Proper 16B

This sermon, offered by The Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Madison,Wisconsin, is built around the readings assigned for Proper 16 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

Here is a recording of the sermon

 

Here is a transcript of the recording:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Amen.

Please be seated.

So, this is Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary.  We have a three year series, or cycle of readings, and in Year B, the second year, we read primarily from the Gospel of Mark.  But here, right in the middle of summer, every three years, we abandon Mark for five weeks to read from a single chapter of the Gospel of John.  We’ve been reading from the Gospel of John since July 29th, and on that first Sunday we started, at the beginning of that sixth chapter, with the story of Jesus feeding the 5000.  A few loaves of bread, a few small fish, and well over 5000 people are fed, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers at the end of the meal.

The next week, the crowd has followed Jesus even as he and his disciples and tried to escape to find some time to be apart, and to pray, and to rest, and Jesus turns to the crowd and he says, “The only reason you all are here is because your bellies are empty.  You haven’t followed me because of the sign that points to who I am, and to God’s presence in the world.  You’re here because you want some more food.”  And then Jesus says to them. “Look for the bread that does not perish, but the bread that leads to eternal life.” And he claims to be that bread.  He offers himself to the people as a way of giving them eternal life.

The next week, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” and the people around him say, “Wait a minute.  Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s kid?  We’ve known him all his life.  How can he tell us that he came down from heaven?”

The next week, Jesus says, “My flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed,” and the Pharisees are horrified because consuming blood is against their dietary laws, the laws that set them apart from the other nations, and the very idea of eating flesh and drinking blood sends them into a frenzy.

This week, as all of this comes to a head, we hear some of Jesus’s own disciples saying “This teaching is too difficult.  How can we accept it?” they turned back and they stop following him.

But Jesus is offering them eternal life. Jesus is offering them a way of being in the world that’s suffused with, that is filled with, a sense of the eternal; something that started at the beginning of all things and stretches to the end of all things; a way of being in the world that connects with all of that.  And which, in the words that we here at the end of the service every week, brings the peace of God which passes all understanding.  And yet this teaching about flesh and blood is too hard, and some of Jesus his disciples abandon him.

Now we have a little bit of an advantage over Jesus’s contemporaries, because from our post-resurrection point of view, some 2000 years later, we know what Jesus was pointing towards, and we know what John is talking about, as he conveys these stories.   In the beginning the Word became flesh and that lived among us.  And that flesh living among us gives up its life on the cross, and becomes bread and wine, so that we might be nourished by the flesh that was the word; so that we might be filled, and nourished, and given strength, and commitment, and conviction, to live an eternal life here and now.  So the whole idea about cannibalism, a charge that Rome made against the early church, doesn’t even come into our minds, I hope, as we hear these stories in the middle of every August.  And it seems like a silly thing to say this teaching is too hard and to walk away because of it.

So, while our post-resurrection perspectives gives us that advantage, I have to admit that I also think it causes us a completely different challenge.

Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t know yet that Jesus was headed for the cross when he said these words.  And John’s community was wrestling with the meaning of all of that.  But we know, we know, that eating the bread and drinking the wine, eating the flesh and drinking the blood that is the word that created all things, calls us to follow in Jesus’s footsteps.  Taking that word into ourselves, consuming it, embracing it, allowing it to nourish us, and become the foundation of who we are, calls us to live by that very word. I think that’s way scarier than thinking about eating flesh and drinking blood!

As an example of what I’m talking about…  In just a few minutes when we say the Prayers of the People, Sherry will stand here in the middle of the center aisle at the microphone, and she will pray on our behalf, “Awaken in us a sense of wonder for the earth and all that is in it.  Teach us to guard its beauty and care creatively for its resources.”  Those are great words, and they sound wonderful here in church on Sunday morning, but think about what we’re being called to do in that moment.  Think about what we’re being asked; to pray for the strength to accomplish, and it might seem a little daunting.

We’ll pray, “O God give us power to reveal Christ in word and action.”  The bread and the wine are an outward and visible symbol of an inner and spiritual grace, and we are called to be that same thing to the rest of the world; by our word and action, to make Christ present, and knowable, and real, to the people around us; upholding the marginalized and the oppressed, caring for the widow and orphan, upholding the poor, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison.  Eating the bread and drinking the wine calls us to live that life!  And I think if we really pay attention to what we’re saying, that can be pretty scary.

A little later Sherry will ask us to pray for our elected leaders.  That’s way scary!  And then, to strengthen all of us to be willing agents of God’s compassion?  That’s really scary stuff!

But what’s at stake here, what’s at stake for all of us, is eternal life.  So, I don’t think I can say this often enough.  I, I wrestle with people around this idea all the time.  Eternal life isn’t something off in the future, something in the next life, or in the next world.  Jesus is talking about a way of living here and now, that allows us to sense God’s presence in ourselves, in the people around, us and in the world in which we live.  God is here.  Jesus is telling us that if we can follow in his footsteps, eat his flesh and drink his blood, then we can participate in a life that’s filled with, surrounded by, lit up by God’s presence; a life that is infused with the eternal, and where we will find the peace of God that passes all understanding.

So, some of Jesus’s disciples left him in this moment.  Others stayed.  They said, “We have come to believe that you have the words of eternal life.  To whom else can we go?”  I think, I hope that’s why we’re all here this morning, because we believe that in Jesus’s words are the keys to eternal life.  And all we have to do is follow in his footsteps…

Paul knows how scary and how hard this is too, and in the reading that Dennis offered for us this morning he tells us, “take up the whole armor of God so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm…”  Fasten the belt of truth about your waist… put on the breastplate of righteousness… get some comfortable shoes, so that you are ready to go out and proclaim the gospel of peace.  Take the shield of faith, take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit… So, in the locker downstairs after the service… come down I’ll check out all of that stuff…  Where do those things come from?  How do we find that strength?  How do we find that courage?

The first answer is, here with one another, with the people seated around you in the pews, all of whom are struggling, working, to follow in Jesus’s footsteps; to be transformed, nourished, and sent by the bread and the wine.

The second answer is that bread and that wine itself, because they are the symbol and the sign of God’s ongoing presence.  And when we hold out our hands we are asking to be changed, to be commissioned, to be nourished; to be fed, and to be comforted, and reassured that we are never alone; that God will never abandon us; and that where God calls us to go, God has been before us; and that on the journey to which God calls us, God will be our constant companion.  Daunting, scary, maybe, maybe, but the promise, the promise is eternal life.  The promise is the Peace of God which passes all understanding, the joy that comes from becoming the people God created us to be, the joy that comes from fulfilling our vocation and finding our meaning in the truth that began with all things, and that stretches to the end.

We are offered the opportunity to live in that light.  So, when you come forward this morning, hold out your hands.  Receive your identity.  Receive your vocation, your calling, your purpose, your meaning. Receive who you are.  And know that you are indwelling in God, and God is indwelling in you, and all that you could ask for is yours, in that moment.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

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Make Me a Channel of Your Peace: A Sermon Celebrating the Life and ministry of The Rev. Deacon Susan Mueller

This sermon, by the Rev Andy Jones,  was offered at The Lutheran Church of the Living Christ in Madison Wisconsin at the Funeral of the Reverend Deacon Susan Mueller on August 25, 2018

Here is a link to the bulletin for the service – Susan Mueller Funeral Service

Here is a recording of the sermon

Here is a transcript of the recording.

 

Hear again the words of St. Paul.

“The time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6b-8).

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

My name is Andy Jones. I am the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church here in Madison, and it is a great honor and a privilege to be standing before you all today in this moment.  Twelve years ago, when I came to Madison, a first-time Rector, much further west than I had ever been in my life, a Marylander born and raised, it was also my honor and privilege to find Susan Miller in her office in the basement of St. Andrews; a room that she lovingly called the Hobbit Hole.

One of the great gifts that Susan gave to me was our Monday morning a conversation when I would walk down the steps into her office and I would say “Susan I saw this happening yesterday and this is what I think was going on.”  And she would smile at me, and her eyes would twinkle, and she would say, “Well I can see why you might think that.  But let me give you a little history.”

Susan knew the histories of the people at St. Andrews.  She knew their stories backward and forward.  So many people had come to sit there in the hobbit hole with her, that she knew them, and they knew her, and they knew that she loved them.  That’s why she knew their stories, because they were her family and she loved them.  I’m guessing that’s why all of you are here today; because Susan knew you, and you knew Susan and you know that she loves you.

Susan’s smile, her sense of humor, her laugh, those twinkling eyes, her ability to listen completely and without distraction, to convey total authenticity, and to help you to know that she was completely present with you as long as you sat there with her… those were among her many gifts.  Those were the things that have built this community, the community that’s here gathered around her once again.

Since we started telling people at St. Andrews, a little over three weeks ago, that this moment was approaching, there has been a flood of stories.  People have approached me in my office, in the Narthex, in the stairwell, in the parish hall at coffee hour, they told me those stories, they’ve told those stories to one another.  I’ve heard them being shared. I heard more of those stories being told at the St. Francis House board meeting this past week.  St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center where Bill and Susan met and were married, and everyone there knew and loved Susan, and knows that Susan loves them.

Now there’s lots of rich material from which to draw stories about Susan: sixteen years at Holy Name Seminary, her work with Renaissance Learning, her work as Archdeacon of the diocese and Director of the Deacon Formation Program; having served at St. Andrew’s, Grace, and St. Dunstan’s, Susan touched so many of us and there are so, so many stories.  But there’s a common thread that ran through the stories that I heard. There was something that tied them together.  And that was Susan’s love.

“I remember when Susan sat with me as my parents were dying.”

“Susan’s affirmation, and comfort, and wise counsel, at a moment when I was at the lowest I have ever been, literally saved my life.”

“Susan’s Wise counsel helped me to discover my own vocation and led to my life’s work.”

All of the stories that I’ve heard about Susan have indicated Susan’s deep and abiding love.

Susan didn’t just exercise that great gift in the church and with folks like all of us who find ourselves in places like this on Sunday morning.  Bill told me this last week that Susan would go to the grocery store and complete strangers would know that she loved them.  Children in grocery carts would be the recipients of her love, and joy, and praise, and her delight and adulation.  Bill told me that Susan worked the grocery store like it was her parish.

He also told me that here, in these last years of Susan’s life as the terrible disease that took her from us robbed her of so many of her gifts, that love remained.  And that she worked the Narthex in this building like it was her parish, greeting people, welcoming them, drawing them together.

As I looked at the readings  that Bill and Susan’s family chose for today, looking for a focus in the text, I lighted on something unusual.  Unusual in that we haven’t yet heard it this morning.   Usually or often a preacher will stand up and say “I have chosen for my text this morning…” and they’ll announce something from the Scriptures that have already been read.  My text this morning actually comes from the hymn that we are about to sing.  When Princess Diana was buried many years ago this hymn was sung, and the musical accompaniment that we will hear this morning as we sing his bills transcription of that piece of music.  So as my text this morning I chose, “Make me a channel of your peace.”

If there are any words in this bulletin this morning that describe the Venerable Susan Miller, and I just have to tell you that she preferred venomous to venerable, it is the opening words of this hymn, “make me a channel of your peace.”  Whether she was sitting there in the Hobbit Hole at St. Andrews, or working the narthex at the grocery store, Susan was serving as a channel of God’s peace; reconciling people one to another, reconciling people to God, reconciling people to themselves, and helping them to know that they are worthwhile, and intrinsically lovable, and valued beyond measure in God’s sight.  That was Susan Miller’s gift, the ability to help each and every one of us know that, yes she loves us, but her love is a mix tension of God’s love.  And that she lavished that gift upon us we couldn’t help but understand and embrace the truth that God does love each and every one of us.

So as we stand to seeing this a.m. this morning I hope that you all will hear Susan’s voice and Susan’s prayer in these words.  But I also hope that you will hear Susan’s charge to each and every one of us in these words. We’ll sing these words on Susan’s behalf, and in Susan’s memory, and Susan’s honor, but we’ll also sing them as a pledge to the one we knew and loved so well, the one whose love for us helped us to know God’s love in ways that were truly her gift.  Make me, make all of us, a Channel of your piece.  Let us reconcile ourselves and one another to God, following in the ways that Susan has taught formed us all.

Amen.

 

Make Me a channel of Your Peace                                                                                   Text: Prayer of St Francis; adapted by Sebastian Temple 1928 – 1997

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is hatred let me bring your love
Where there is injury, your pardon Lord
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there’s sadness ever joy

Oh, master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul

Make me a channel of your peace
It isn’t pardoning that we are pardoned
In giving to all men let we receive
And in dying that we’re born to turn around

Oh, master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console
To be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with all my soul

Make me a channel of your peace
Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there’s sadness ever joy

 

 

And the Word Became Flesh: a Sermon for Proper 15A

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on August 19 by The Rev. Andy Jones is built around the readings assigned for Proper 15A in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

 

Here is a recording of the sermon as delivered at the 9:30 am Eucharist.

 

Here is a transcript of the recording:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

So, I would hazard a guess and say that probably everyone in the room has seen this happen to someone else.  And I would guess that for most of us, in fact I would have to say that I hope and pray that in fact all of us, have had this experience.  Now it may be when the conductor’s baton drops for the first beat and that first chords swells out of the orchestra.  It may be when you hit the right button on your car radio and that one song starts to play.  Maybe it happens when you’re walking through a gallery and suddenly you are arrested by a piece of art that you never seen before, or you hear someone reading a poem that takes your breath away and makes you stop.  In those moments there’s something that transports us out of time into a place where everything else just seems to go away, and all we can do sit in that moment and feel the deep connection to the truth to which that piece of art points something; beyond the orchestral piece or that piece of music that was popular the first time you fell in love; that points beyond that painting that’s hanging there on the wall in two dimensions, or the voice of the person reading that poem.  Somehow in that moment we are connected with something bigger, broader, more awesome, even universal or eternal, that we weren’t aware of just the moment before.

We come in here every Sunday and we have a moment just like that together.  It’s that moment when the person behind the altar holds this up (holds up a host).   We call this a sacrament.  And the definition of a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual truth.”  And just like those pieces of music, or that piece of art, or that poem, point to something beyond themselves, this piece of bread points to a truth and a story that stretches back to the beginning and forward the end of time.  It tells a story that’s beyond our imagination and often beyond our understanding.  And so, we have this tangible physical thing to help us to remember that story.

So, what is the story to which the bread points?  We’ll start with some poetry.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said let there be light and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good…” (Genesis 1:1-4a).

God speaks God’s word into the chaos, into the void, and light comes into being.  And six more times over the next five days God speaks God’s word and all that is, is created and comes into being; organized into categories: light and dark, land and ocean, sky and what is beneath it.  God’s word gives life to all things.  And then on the sixth day God said:

“Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness… so God created humankind in God’s image. In the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them…” (Genesis 1:26a and 27).

God speaks and we come into being.  We become, we are, because of God’s word.

So now we shift gears a little bit to song.  In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, some of the earliest Christian writings that are contained in our New Testament, we think written between the years 49 and 51 A.D., Paul captures a song that we believe was part of the baptismal liturgy in that community.  And Paul writes:

 “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7).

And then moving to the beginning of the gospel from which we heard today, the sublime poetry of the prologue to John.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:1-4).

And then a few verses later:

“And the word…”

the word spoken by God through which all things came into being through which all things came to be,

“…the word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).

 

This piece of bread points to an amazing and astounding truth.  A truth that is a stumbling block and an obstacle to lots and lots of people.  That truth is that the God who created all things, God, holy, set apart, separate, different; God transcendent, God whose surely lives somewhere other than this profane world… that God comes among us as one of us, and takes on our flesh!  That word, that word that created all things becomes flesh.

That was a scandalous thing to say in Jesus’s time and it’s a scandalous thing to say today for a lot of people.  But it’s the truth to which we cling, the truth that we proclaim and the truth that gives us hope.  And has John says here in his Gospel the truth that gives us life.

Jesus says to us in the gospel today that his flesh is life, that we have to eat his flesh in order to have eternal life.  Jesus is standing then in the long line of scriptural poets and John is quoting Jesus in this way, pointing back to this truth that this bread represents and makes manifest in our presence.

We need to take in, to ingest, to internalize, to incorporate into who we are the story, the truth, to which this bread points; that God loves us so much that God is willing to come among us, and walk in our midst, and to put Gods self into our hands.

We tell that same story every Sunday as we consecrate the bread and wine.  Listen to the Eucharistic prayer this morning and you’ll hear all of salvation history rehearsed, from the creation through the fall; through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, of Jesus.  And we say those prayers over this bread to imbue this bread with that truth; the truth beyond the physical details of what I hold in my hand.

Jesus wants us to make that truth so much a part of our lives that we never forget it.  The problem is that we walk out of this place and there are signs all around us to point to the opposite: that God doesn’t love us, that God is not here, that God doesn’t really have a hand in the world around us anymore.  And so it’s easy to forget.

In John’s day when he wrote his gospel, we think between the year 90 and the year 110 A.D., there was this conflict in the community.  How important is the Eucharist?  Do we really need to show up every week, and eat this bread, and drink this wine?  And John is quoting Jesus here to remind them how important this is.  To pointed it out, that without this reminder you’ll forget, you’ll lose track, and the joy, and the life, and the hope that this truth brings to you might be lost.  So in order to continue to live in that eternal life you need to gather.  You need to come together, to hold one another up, and to receive this outward and visible sign of the inner and spiritual truth that is yours always.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story.  Because what Jesus wants for us, and what God wants for us, and what our collect today asks for, is that as we consume Jesus’s flesh and blood, the bread and the wine, an outward and visible sign of that liberating life-giving truth, we ourselves will be transformed and become a sacrament to the world in and of ourselves; an outward and visible sign of the truth that God loves all of us, that we are all worthy of dignity and respect, that we are all beloved and welcome in God’s presence, always and forever.

You can’t, you can’t come forward every week and receive this sacrament and not be changed.  After all, you are what you eat… right?   So, when you come forward this morning and hold out your hands to receive this bread, remember what this is.  This is the flesh of Christ.  And the flesh of Christ is the word of God.  And it is the word of God that spoke all things into being, that created all that is, and gives life to the world around us.  Know that that gift, that gift is yours, mine, ours.  It belongs to everyone.  And as you stand up and go back to your seat, and prepare to conclude our time together, and go out into the world, feel that sacrament working within you.  And ask yourself, what can I do this week to be an outward and visible sign of the inner and spiritual grace which is the truth of God among us always?

Amen.