Archive for August, 2021

“Every meal shared,” (Sermon, August 22nd 2021)

On Wednesday August 18th, Muslims around the world observed the day of Ashura. Ashura is celebrated differently between the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities. For Sunnis, the day commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh, and therefore stands for deliverance, primarily from oppression but also in more thematic ways – some also mark it as the day of the Prophet Jonah’s deliverance from the fish.

For Shia Muslims, it is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet, and seventy-two of his friends and family members, at the hands of the Umayyad caliphate in the city of Karbala in Iraq.

I’m on a private WhatsApp group made up of followers and friends of a Turkish Sufi teacher, and at each festival there are always a flurry of posts offering good wishes and reflections – Wednesday was no exception. My friend Shirin, quoting Muzaffer Ozak al Jerrahi as translated by Muhtar Holland, wrote, “Outwardly [Ashura] is a day of misfortune, [but] it is in reality the day that marks the sacrifice made by Imam Husayn in order to teach the community not to obey tyrant or tyranny and, if need be, to offer one’s life in this cause.”

Later that day, my friend Omid Safi, a professor at Duke University, wrote the following,

“How could a religion of justice and mercy have gone so wrong, so quickly? How did the Muslim community go from lovingly gathering around Muhammad to killing his precious grandchildren in less than two generations? And if we are to understand the full meaning of this cosmically significant event, how could the Muslim today kill today’s Hussain? How could the religion of love and justice and mercy be used so savagely in the hands of those for whom it is but a means of domination, violence, and tyranny?”

This hits me hard as a Christian these days. I have all the same questions.

Omid goes on to say, There are events in world history where the significance of what takes place far outstrips its mere historicity. A first-century Palestinian Jew, the son of a carpenter, is hung between two thieves at the behest of Roman authorities, and today over a billion Christians see the crucifixion of Christ as the ultimate symbol of God’s deliverance of humanity from sin. …In all such cases…these events become a symbol, a map, of something fundamental about the nature of universe: that there is sin and it must be redeemed…and that there is injustice and one has the cosmic responsibility to rise up against it. …Christians look not back at the crucifixion of Jesus, but see that act of redemption as shaping their lives here and now. …This is the power of religious imagination, which makes every place a sacred place, and every day a sacred time.”

Omid then references a famous quote:

“Every day is Ashura.
Every place is Karbala.”

I found this reflection so poignant after our discussion last week as we, in the grand tradition of the greatest sages and the unlettered beloveds of God, grappled with the problem of evil.

Jesus explains again to the crowd that the only way they can inherit eternal life is by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This is disturbing enough, but something that doesn’t come through in the English translation is that the word used for “eating” here is different than the one used in the verses we read last week. The word contains violence – one scholar I consulted said it was better translated as “chomping” or “crunching.” YIKES. If we were tempted to avoid the ick factor by imagining a warm, pillowy soft loaf of bread, Jesus never lets us off the hook.

It’s even worse than that, though. Back then, most ancient peoples, and particularly the ancient Jews, believed that blood was the source of life, and therefore belonged to God alone. To consume it was to seek to be, in a sense, like God. It was more than barbaric – it was blasphemous. Remember as well that while we immediately hear Eucharistic overtones in this passage, in the Gospel the Eucharist hasn’t happened yet. This beloved Teacher just suddenly starts talking cannibalism.

Wouldn’t you turn back too?

You can see added nuance in a couple of other phrases: when the crowd says, “This teaching is difficult,” in Greek they’re actually saying, “This Logos is difficult,” a beautiful play on words, because of course Jesus IS the Logos in John.

Likewise when Jesus says, “Does this offend you?” We tend to ascribe a lot of baggage to the word “offend,” especially today. The Greek word skandolizomai is used extensively in the other Gospels, and tends to be translated “stumble,” or “fall away.” It’s used by Matthew in the verse about tearing out an eye if it causes one to stumble, and in Mark’s Parable of the Sower to refer to the one whose faith has no root. There’s a richness here that implies both offense at blasphemy and confusion at Jesus’s words.

But this is directly tied to the same confusion that even his closest disciples, the ones who don’t turn away, experience when Jesus is crucified. Jesus says: ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ Ascension is a direct reference to the Cross, something Jesus alludes to constantly in the Fourth Gospel.

If you can’t handle the idea of eating my flesh and drinking my blood to gain life, how could you possibly understand what I’m about to do?

And do we even understand? So many Christians believe that Jesus had to be crucified because God could only enact salvation through a sinless being. This is one understanding of what happened on the Cross, but it is not the only one. It’s not even the only biblical one. It’s a re-imagining of the scapegoat myth, an ancient belief that we can only be saved by piling our sins and self-hatred onto a sacrificial lamb who will be driven out of the community, thereby cleansing us.

Why is this so often the story of humanity, the sacrifice of innocent lives to a tyrannical or, at best, apathetic God who might as well have fallen asleep or wandered off somewhere, like Joan Osbourne’s lonely “stranger on a bus”?

But that’s the thing. God entered into loneliness to know ours better. Jesus learns hunger and responds by feeding us. Jesus learns trauma to be with us in our trauma. Jesus, like a mother, offers food from his own body to nourish us. This also is stated quite explicitly by John – why else do you think he is so intent on explaining that, at the piercing of Jesus’s side, blood and water, the elements of birth, both pour forth?

Image description: Me, a white person with wide-rimmed glasses and a buzz-cut, wearing a white alb and colourful stole, offering the bread of the Eucharist to a communicant. Photo taken at my first Eucharist (as priest) by Adele Wonnick

Through all of this, God shows us, unequivocally, that They are on our side. They love us so much, that they refuse to only accept us at our best. Indeed, They clothe themselves with our most beautiful – our flesh, our feeding, our justice-seeking, and our yearning for relationship – and yet also accept our most horrific – our rejection, our hatred, our betrayal, and our violence – and not only embody that which is most beautiful but redeem that which is most ugly.

John shows us this in the resurrected Jesus’s return breathing peace with scarred hands and side. We are not to forget what we’ve done, but we are forgiven and then commissioned to embody the same self-giving love and prophetic stance against oppression wherever it is enacted against others.

Every day, we have the chance to remember Jesus’s call to enter into communion with him, not just through the precious ritual of our sacred meal, but through the everyday struggle of trying to leave more peace, more love, more good in the world. And it is a struggle. This is what Muslims mean when they talk about jihad: the struggle between the part of us that would rather be borne along the river of despair and violence and the part of us that seeks to carry the torch of self-giving love, what Sufis call ishq, a love like a purifying fire.

If for our Muslim friends “Every day is Ashura. Every place is Karbala,” for us, beloved of Jesus, “Every Sunday is Easter, and every meal shared in love with others, is the Eucharist.”

“You taught me hunger,” (Sermon, August 15th 2021)

It’s hard to preach on this series of bread of life passages from the Gospel of John in the best of times, but this year it’s particularly hard. I’m feeling some real kinship with the wandering Israelites complaining to Moses about how there’s no food in the wilderness. They didn’t know how long they’d have to go without bread either.

I’ve been privileged to receive communion a couple times since March 2020 – I went to a funeral last summer, I’ve brought reserved sacrament to some people at St. Jude’s, and a couple weeks ago I visited the Cathedral, but none of these things really filled the void, because I wasn’t with you. I wasn’t standing in a circle singing, with my hands out, in the same physical space, hearing your voices, feeling you in that invisible way that humans sense each other. And to be perfectly frank, that made those few small moments of receiving over the last year feel more like crumbs than real living bread.

And yet maybe as we wait with baited breath for the day we can be physically together again, we should wonder and reflect, for when again will we know and share, with such bone deep intimacy, on a worldwide scale, the feeling that made the crowd around Jesus say, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Now we’re not going to get into a big debate about transubstantiation, or consubstantiation, or Real Presence, or what metaphysically happens to the bread during the Eucharist. For the theology nerds, I’m sorry to disappoint. For those trying to manage the weird elasticity of time and pandemic exhaustion, I don’t wanna think about that stuff right now either. Not because I don’t think it’s important or interesting, but because I suspect high-minded theology isn’t what any of us need right now in the thick of it. Never before have any of us experienced something so utterly human and devastating as a worldwide long-term crisis. Individual, yes. National, sure. But not like this. We know in a new way how fragile our lives are, and of course in the last week we have been shown that anew not only in the pandemic but in the news from the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change.

That infamous quote from the site of the Hindenburg disaster never really made sense to me until now. “Oh, the humanity!”

We are mortal, and we sink or swim together, and some of us refuse to even try, and how do we reckon with that?

Some of us reach out to God and say, “Um, are you like, busy or something? ‘Cause we’re kind of freaking out down here.”

The crowd following Jesus after the amazing Sign of multiplying loaves and fish wants to be beside him. He gave them food from something as small and insignificant as five barley loaves, bread of the poor, and two fish, prehistoric-looking tilapia with way too many bones that you can pay too much to pick at if you take a tour of the Sea of Galilee today! He sanctified and multiplied the food of the people, showing them their lives were precious and their food was nothing to scorn. And the whole reason they followed him to end up fed in the first place was because they first saw him healing people. This person, sent by God, heals and feeds. He transforms our fragility.

But the catch here is that he doesn’t transform it by turning us into superheroes. Quite the opposite. He transforms our fragility by taking it on himself, putting it on like clothes.

Image description: A white plate with a homemade loaf of Eucharistic bread, etched with a cross, sits on a dark wood table, with a wine glass painted with grapes and leaves at right.

And that’s where we often, like the crowd, get confused. What do you mean, we have to eat you? It all sounds kind of gross! And like so many of our ancestors we may find ourselves twisting up into knots to understand the metaphor, and complaining about how this abstract language is difficult, while Jesus is standing there telling us, “There is no metaphor. I’m being literal here.”

And then, for just a moment, we get it, and it’s too much.

It’s the same struggle, over and over. He is our Messiah, our Beloved, and Messiahs are supposed to liberate us through power and revolution. Our Beloveds are supposed to stay at our side forever. But this Messiah is not like that. This Messiah is betrayed and convicted by an unjust system and led away to die on a cross. What kind of Messiah is broken and poured out by trauma and Empire? What kind of Beloved leaves us alone to be broken in the same way?

The writer of John tells us what kind of Messiah and Beloved this is: the kind who sought to annihilate the gap between God and humans, not as an avenging angel, but as a lover or friend: by learning, listening, and embodying as deeply as one possibly could, by coming to live among us, in our own flesh. Jesus doesn’t feed us the way we feed our pets, handing down something we didn’t make ourselves from on high to a grateful creature who cannot help but love us. Jesus feeds us the way a good mother does, at great personal cost, with food that is fully human, from her own body, and with nothing expected in return, with the conviction that we deserve the freedom to turn away and grow on our own, if that’s what we need to flourish.

In coming to be among us, Jesus learns what it means to be human, what it means to feel hunger, thirst, exhaustion, annoyance, rejection, pain, and death. And, having learned all of that, it is returned to us, sanctified.

We cry out to God in the midst of our hunger, exhaustion, grief, and fear, saying, “You’ll never understand how hard it is to deal with all of this!” And the response is, “I do. You taught me about hunger. So I will feed you, with myself.

Every time we gather, we remember this scandalous truth. As much as we miss being together with our hands held out, that ritual, like multiplying the bread of the poor, is a Sign pointing to something far greater.

That truth can be distilled down to something very simple, which I found beautifully illustrated in a story shared by Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, the first African American and first woman to serve as senior pastor to Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.

Rev. Jacqui says, “I fell in love for the first time when I was eight years old. I was sitting in the pews at a little Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s South Side. My aunt played the organ there; my dad and uncle were elders and my mom sang in the choir. I was taking communion for the first time, and while the little bread cubes were coming my way, Mom said, “This bread means God will always love you.” The bread was the sticky-honey kind that you scoop out the center to put that amazing vegetable dip in. Without dip, it was amazing! When the little cups of grape juice came by, Mom whispered, “This cup means, “God will never leave you.” What?!?  Bread this sweet, grape juice making my tongue purple like Kool Aid?? With the help of children’s choir and barn dances, Christmas pageants and Sunday School teachers—I was totally in love with God!!”

God loves us so recklessly and majestically that despite ignorance, stubbornness, despair, and refusal to change, at the cost of our neighbours or even our own planet, it will not separate us from that love.

God will never leave us, whether we turn our backs or get lost or deconstruct or rage and scream at the injustices of mortality and hubris. God will be with us whether we are crying in the hospital or singing with tears in church with our hands held out, whenever that may come.

God is waiting for us at our little church, and God wants us to return and be together, singing with hands held out.

But whatever happens, God is also already here.