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Sermon for August 9, 2015: Bread for the Journey
A white, middle-aged, well-off Christian man, a wealthy African-American retired football player, and a female Episcopal deacon get on a plane. Since they are seated together, and the plane is delayed, they strike up a conversation. The white man – Josh – sells computer security systems to large companies. The African-American man – Dean – travels around the country doing endorsements. The female Deacon – that’d be me – is on her way home from an interfaith seminar on Interim Ministry.
Because I am sitting in the middle, I have the opportunity to subtly glance at what each of my seatmates is doing on their personal media devices. Josh is playing endless rounds of “Candy Crush,” between which he checks his email. Dean is scrolling through a news feed. I watch to see what interests him and notice that he mostly stops for sports stories, but is also following the progress of several police investigations into the shootings of unarmed black men by police. When they are forced to put away their devices for the serving of the drinks, I ask them about themselves. He has three children and is happily married. Dean has two children and several grandchildren. We start talking about family. Josh opines that it’s important that his wife stays home with their kids but also that it’s great that they have a Christian “community” that supports them. He enthusiastically describes his “mega” non-denominational church and how his activities there shape his moral and political values.
After a while, there is a lull in the conversation and Josh turns back to his media device. I covertly watch as he re-posts a Facebook message which reads, “Homosexual marriage is an act of terrorism.” I ask him if he is against gay rights. He says, “I don’t hate gays. I just hate their sins.” I nod and turn toward Dean, who is reading a post on his phone encouraging black people not to trust white cops and to video all of their interactions with them. Dean nods pensively, but doesn’t forward it.
Eventually our drinks come and we start to chat again. Dean and Josh enthusiastically talk about companies they have both worked with, the quality of different hotels, the benefits of being frequent travelers, and if they might work together on a promotion for Josh’s company. Dean finally asks me what I do and I tell him I am a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. Dean asks me if that’s the one, “like
Catholic” and I say, “Sort of, but not exactly. The Catholic church doesn’t ordain women.” Josh says, “Yeah, well, our pastor says they have to listen to the pope and not think for themselves.” I turn and ask Josh if his church ordains women and he quickly says, “Oh no!” in a tone of horror. This leads to a lengthy conversation about the role of women in both the modern and ancient church. At this point, it’s clear that Josh and
I are working hard to play nice, but our differing views are pretty obvious.
Dean intervenes and says, “Look, I don’t go to church much myself. I was always traveling but my wife always took the kids. I can see how it benefits the family.
The church my wife goes to has some female pastors now and they’re okay – women are the ones that make sure families get to church anyway. I just believe in the bottom line of Christianity.” When I ask what that is, he says, “you know – the Golden rule.”
So I say I agree – love God, love your neighbor. Josh agrees too: the bottom line for Christians is to love your God and your neighbor. The plane lands and we all part friends – at least superficially.
It seems like a happy ending. Three Christians with different ideas about church can agree on at least one thing: Christianity is about love. And if we had been being totally honest with one another, this encounter would have made me feel optimistic about Christian unity- but we weren’t. Because during the time the three of us were making civil conversation, Josh forwarded at least two Facebook posts that I thought of as hateful – and I internally judged him for it. The truth is that it’s hard for most of us to be overtly hateful to someone sitting next to us – but it’s easy to hate people we don’t have to look in the eye. In this case, our civility was merely a façade for our deeper and probably truer feelings. I thought Josh was hateful. He probably thought I was sinful. And Dean really didn’t have much invested in religion at all other than how it affected his business plans.
I’ve had a lot of experiences like that one. In order to survive social encounters I have hidden my true self, hedged about my real feelings, and superficially made nice while allowing my fingers to express my anger through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Texts. But I can’t blame our technological age for this kind of behavior, because our scripture readings show us that God’s children have been “hating on” each other for millennia.
In today’s Hebrew scripture, we find Elijah cowering under a tree in the wilderness. He’s being chased by Jezebel, who wants him killed for prophesying against her – and he’s tired of being hated – and tired of running. He would rather die than get up and take more abuse, but when he asks God to let him die, an angel appears, feeds him, and tells him to keep going. And because he has eaten the bread of God and gained strength from it, Elijah is able to move forward.
Paul’s disciples in Ephesus also seem to be having trouble moving forward – in their case because they are too busy fighting with each other. Paul tells them that they have to learn to get along. To be honest with each other. To be kind to each other. To help one another. Why? Because that’s what Jesus did for them. What a waste Christ’s sacrifice would be, says Paul, if the people he died for don’t use his life and death as an example of how human beings should get along, but instead use his death as an excuse to fight with one another.
What a waste indeed – a waste we should be familiar with. Because more than one thousand years later, instead of using our Christian beliefs to find common ground with others, we use them to argue about the differences between us. Like the Corinthians, we cannot seem to put away our bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice – especially toward other people of faith. How is it that we have come so far from what Jesus wanted us to be?
I think we’ve simply lost focus. We’re taking so many selfies that we’ve lost the big picture. The big picture is not people of different faiths. The big picture is not people without faith. The big picture is not “other” Christians. The big picture is
Jesus said to the people, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And when he said it, the people around him had no idea what he was talking about. How can a man be bread? That not only doesn’t make sense, but it’s a disgusting idea. It’s cannibalism. And, by the way, the idea of eating flesh would have been just as shocking to the crowd around Jesus as it is to us. Drinking blood was considered even more repulsive, because eating bloody meat violated Jewish dietary laws. Jesus chose a deliberately vulgar idiom to explain the saving grace that was to come from his sacrifice to demonstrate that he recognized the base nature of human beings. Jesus was telling us that he knows that we are more interested in ourselves than our fellow humans, that we lie to ourselves and to one another – that we praise God with our mouths while typing evil with our hands – and that he still accepts us as we are. Jesus never said, “Be kind to one another,” and then I will forgive you. Jesus loved us first –knowing that we would be mean, judgmental, and self-absorbed – he loved us first so we would know how to be tenderhearted and forgiving by imitating him. Jesus gave himself to be the bread- the bread that represents his very essence – so that we could learn to absorb its goodness, not because the people believed, but because without it they couldn’t believe. He did not wait for those around him to be kind to him or to one another. He did not preach and teach until they were ready to accept his sacrifice. Jesus gave himself without regard for how his gift would be received. He gave himself as an example of the good humanity was capable of. He gave himself because he believed in the saving power of God. He gave himself because he was the saving power of God.
But it is up to us to accept that saving power. Like Elijah, we have to eat of the bread of life that has been provided for us by God so that we will have the strength to get up and walk on – even in the face of cruelty, hypocrisy, and unbelief – that of others and of ourselves.. Like the Ephesians, we have to put aside our bitterness in order to build up and give grace to others. If we want justice in this world, we have to bring it about. If we want truth in this world, we have to tell it. And if we want love in this world, then we have to be that love. But first we have to accept the gift of life that will give us the strength to do those things.
We do it by sharing in the essence of Jesus Christ through symbolically eating and drinking of him. When you take communion, you acknowledge that you are part of the body of Christ – of both the unruly humanity he died for – and of the kingdom of God that he lives for. You are being offered the bread of life. If your spirit is hungry, take it. If your heart is heavy, revive yourself through it. If you are weak and tired, gather strength from it. And when you are filled, go out into the world, no longer merely human but purified, powerful, and perfected, and feed God’s people – feed them in the name of the one who gave himself to be the true and saving bread of life.
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