Boys will be Boys - Really?
Mark 9:30 - 37
The Rev. Peter Faass
“[Jesus] asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”
Thank goodness no one ever argues about who is the greatest among us anymore - not!
We live in an unparalleled era of greatness attainment; of ruthless manipulation, abusing others to gain what we want: money, status, power, sexual gratification, you name it. Usually it’s some combination of them all. I don’t know about you; I feel as if I need a shower with hot, steamy water and lots of soap after reading the latest news. The behavior of so many people is grimy, especially from those who would deem themselves greater than us. Swamps are not being drained - and pigsties are being built.
For too many, being "the greatest” means being able to satiate every whim when you desire it. It’s the culture of instant gratification. Being great means being powerful, having authority over others, and exercising power through your position, wealth and sexual dominance. This results in mental, emotional and physical violence for those you believe you’re greater than. This cultural understanding of greatness is almost entirely imbued in a male-dominated world . . . like in Jesus' time.
The #MeToo movement certainly has exposed us to the underbelly of our male-dominated culture and the gross mistreatment of women. The continuing revelations of ongoing and unpunished clerical abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church reminds us that those in positions of moral authority can be subject to abject moral failings.
The sports world is culpable as well, and the indecent behaviors are not limited to women (although there’s no shortage of that). Penn State and Ohio State had cultures where people turned a blind eye to young boys and male athletes being raped or sexually molested for years. Do I need to even talk about our elected officials in government who believe their "greatness" entitles them to abuse, manipulate and harm others to feed their greatness?
Our culture is filled with men who have been steeped in a culture of male superiority and dominance from birth. This ethos of “take and do what you want, whenever you want it” is nurtured as an entitlement of gender. This ethos gets distilled in the frequently offered and morally bereft phrase, “Well, after all, boys will be boys (wink, wink)."
A late night television host recently quipped, “If you believe that all this sexual violence we are being made aware of is legitimatized by the belief that boys are just being boys, you should not be able to raise boys . . . or girls. Maybe you can raise a potted plant.”
So much of what we encounter in this desire to be the greatest and the most powerful, regardless of the behavior or resulting cost to others dignity, self-worth and well-being, revolves around children: specifically, how we treat and teach them.
Let’s examine Jesus’ encounter with his argumentative and power-hungry disciples in today’s Gospel, where he cities children as the counterpoint to their inappropriate desires for greatness.
The child of antiquity was a nonperson. If children were useful, it was only to the degree they could perform work. This culture dictated that children should be working, or if they were too young, with their mother (another nonperson.)
In pagan Greek culture, it wasn’t unusual for children to be used for sexual gratification, especially in a mentoring relationship between a man and boy. So, what Jesus does and says with this child he takes in his lap is shocking! He has elevated this nonperson to the status of a role model follower of him.
“Whoever wants to be great must be like this child,” he proclaims. “Whoever wants to be first must be last in the accepted hierarchy and a servant to others. Just like this child.”
Jesus again reverses the world order of the dominant culture. The whole reason for his ministry (in fact his whole life) is to deliver the countercultural message of God’s reign, the path to our salvation. Following Jesus requires a total reversal of status, and it insists we adjust our values to align with that reign.
The most critical way to nurture the values of God’s reign begins with how we raise our children. At Christ Church, we nurture our children in Jesus’ ways as a core value of our faith community. Our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program is the cornerstone of this endeavor.
From a very young age, children in this program are taught the intrinsic value of every human being and to respect the dignity of each person as a beloved child of God. It’s paramount we teach them the value and dignity of every person – as Jesus taught us. We treat children with the dignity they have and deserve.
The goal is that these values become fully woven into the fabric of their lives, especially when they are reinforced in their family life, school, and elsewhere. When that occurs, these values become obvious to their conscience, souls, and hearts. It becomes part of who they are as they become adults.
A person who has these core values hanging as a moral plumb line in their life doesn’t rape someone, or abuse them for self-gratification. They don’t climb over people like so much chattel to ruthlessly achieve through any means possible, power and wealth. They don’t treat others like disposable possessions or property. They don’t lie to save their own skin when they are wrong. They don’t rip children away from their parent and incarcerate them in cages because they believe immigrants and brown-skinned people are sub-human. They don’t justify shooting first and asking questions later because of a person’s skin color. They can’t become white supremacists. They don’t because they can’t. They understand what real greatness is.
The way we treat and raise our children matters because it is a measure of our discipleship to Jesus and the Gospel. If we view children as Jesus does and raise them with his values of dignity and love, it changes the world. It’s why Jesus wants those who accept erroneous values of greatness to become like children. Becoming like a child means loving without prejudice or fear. Doing so transforms us into Jesus’ likeness.
The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, power, and sexual dominance. Perhaps that is one reason why so many resist grace so much. It is often much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. That’s evil at work when we succumb to that belief. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky; it means living counter to the prevailing culture. As Jesus repeatedly teaches, his way to greatness is the only path of true life. That makes it all worth it . . . for our children - and ourselves.
Charlie Buss Funeral Homily
The Rev. Peter Faass
I don’t believe there is anywhere in this 33,000 square foot building that Charlie Buss' hands did not touch over his six decades of being an active member of this parish. Like King Midas, his touch made everything more valuable. Unlike King Midas, this was not a curse but a blessing. Where would we be without his golden touch, without his ability to do so many things? Where would we be without his gifts and generosity?
Charlie was a skilled craftsman, especially in woodworking and carpentry. It was one of many traits he shared with Jesus.
His hands meticulously built the various stations in our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd children’s Christian formation atria. He was the only person in the parish who could install the brass marker plates on the columbarium niches without marring the frontal piece. Of course, he owned this teeny, tiny screw driver that was required to do so. It was but one of his many tools of the trade that allowed him to do such wonderful things. He built the elegant ambry where the reserved Sacrament and Holy Oils are kept in our chapel. For years, he created a unique and enchanting annual Christmas gift out of wood that he then made multiples of and shared with family and friends. Maybe the most well-know of those Christmas gifts is the nativity set that he created as a sort of Busses Rubik puzzle. I love putting that Nativity set out during the Christmas holidays every year. Putting it back after the holidays into the form, which is the outline of the manger; well not so much! It can be very frustrating trying to figure out how those pieces representing the Holy Family and the animals fit back in. I have often suspected this was a bit of a wry joke Charlie played on all of us. Aha, let’s see if they can put it back together again!
He also did mundane carpentry. Charlie fixed off-kilter doors, put shelving up, installed the processional cross holder, worked on the sanctuary parquet floor, and repaired loose kneelers on chapel chairs. He did a lot with great competence and better yet, with joy. Those gifted hands touched so many places and things in this church. He made them holy for us. Charlie holiness surrounds and embraces us.
Charlie was an inaugural member of the Wednesday morning Bible Study I started twelve years ago; initially we met at Panera at the Van Aken Plaza. When Panera moved to University Heights, we relocated to J. Pistone down the street. He was a faithful attendee. Like the mailmen of old, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" kept Charlie from attending Bible Study. Only having an obligation to do some ad hoc legal work prevented him from attending; and even then, he would still come for a portion of the class, dressed in a suit and tie. Invariably, he was the first there. I beat him once, which shocked both of us! When he arrived, he would set the tables and chair, getting us ready for our group. He ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS read the NRSV version of the Gospel lesson we studied. That was his translation, and his claimed role.
Charlie really loved to read. He was also a lector. There was something very comforting listening to him. His strong, steady and gentle voice gave a reassuring measure to God’s word.
After reading the scripture on Wednesday mornings, he was often quiet during the group discussion. He certainly was attentive to the discussion, and occasionally he would offer some insight or idea. But mostly, he was quiet. He was in many ways an introvert, and someone who processed what he heard.
I sometimes thought Chalie’s quietness was the result of some of the provocative things I would say to stimulate thought and dialogue. He may have thought I was a heretic at times, but if he did, he never said so. He was too much of a gentlemen - and a gentle man - for that.
Of course, music was Charlie’s passion. He was a faithful choir member since he was a young boy. He loved the choir and the music of the Christian Church. It is said that he who sings, prays twice. Well, if that’s true, Charlie got a lot of prayer time under his belt. Whether it was Sunday morning worship, the high holy days, Evensong, Advent Lessons and Carols, Caroling at Shaker Gardens or the annual Choir Christmas party, Charlie was there singing his heart out to the glory of God.
Charlie was an avid supporter of our Concerts at the Crossroads series. He and Kerrin always attended our concerts.
He was always the first to arrive for choir warm-up on Sunday mornings. He would dress in his red cassock and cotta and then come and sit in the Good Shepherd room, talking to folks. In retrospect, I think that his early appearances on Sundays were really about him and his partner in crime, Nat Cooke, nabbing cookies from the coffee hour table, before it was actually coffee hour! Who was going to tell these two pillars of the church, that they couldn’t do that?!
Charlie was a long-time participant in the Boar’s Head Festival at Trinity Cathedral every Christmastide. He loved the pageantry, the drama, the festiveness and the costumes! He and Kerrin told me that Boar’s Head made their Christmas celebration complete every year. The event – like all else Charlie was involved in - will be much diminished without his talents and enthusiasm.
Charlie served on Vestry as parish treasurer, and was a valuable member of one of our two teller teams. These teams count and record all the Sunday and other service collections, plus any other income the church receives into our office. He was the main man for making the weekly deposits. This is not the most exciting or sexy work in the church, but like everything he took on, he did so faithfully. You could always count on Charlie. He took his volunteer roles as seriously as if they were a paid position.
More than anything else, I will remember Charlie as Mr. Pancake. You know what I mean, right? For years, he was the heart, soul and face of our annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. At some point, he got the handle Mr. Pancake. Who will forget those suppers with the aroma of freshly fried pancakes wafting through the church like incense? He always organized a team of great volunteers. Our kitchen would be abuzz Shrove Tuesday afternoon with chopping, mixing, frying, setting tables and, oh yes, the sacred task of carefully pouring out the authentic – no ersatz – maple syrup into creamers. It was quite a feast and a labor of love by all involved under the careful tutelage of Charlie. I am really going to miss Mr. Pancake.
I never heard Charlie complain. That’s an astounding thing to say about a lay person in the world of the church. I assure you, there is no dearth of complaining in this line of work. For six decades, he saw a lot happen in the life of this parish, which would lead to complaining and some egregious behavior from clergy and laity alike. He weathered those behaviors stoically, sure in his faith that God would get this parish to a better place.
Charlie also weathered the controversies that our beloved and recently deceased Byrdie Lee spoke about in her writings; intentional racial integration of this parish, Prayer Book revision, women’s ordination, acceptance of LGBTQ folks, the conflict between proponents of various liturgical styles. I don’t know what his stance was on those issues during those tumultuous times (I can make an accurate educated guess), but Charlie never wavered in his commitment to Christ Church and this faith community. That was first and foremost for him. He could have fled to other churches like so many others did. But he didn’t. He put Christ and Christ Church before his own personal needs or biases. That gets him a whole lot of jewels in his crown in heaven.
Charlie really strived to be a friend to all and to accept each and every person for who there where, and where they were on their journey. If that’s not following the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, I don’t know what is. It made him a pastor and an evangelist for the faith.
In our letter to the Romans passage today, St. Paul writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us . . . I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Charlie Buss intimately knew that love of God in Christ Jesus. It was incarnated for him in this parish, in his ministries and in all the people of God he encountered over his years here. That love was worth the world to him, which is why he stayed through thick and thin. Like St. Paul, he knew there was absolutely nothing that would, or could separate him from that love of God he knew here. Such was his faith.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited him at the Hospice of the Western Reserve. It was a Sunday and a Gospel Choir was scheduled to sing in the common room that afternoon. Kerrin and Teri Lynn were there and they left the room to listen to the choir. I found myself alone with Charlie for the first time since he had decided to no longer receive treatment for his cancer.
Charlie was so beloved that his room often resembled a church convention with the number of people visiting. He also had some pretty fun Happy Hours in that room!
He knew he was near the end of his life. I took his hand and asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, or any issues he was concerned about and wanted to discuss. He looked me straight in the eyes, squeezed my hand and said, no. Everything was just fine. So, I asked if we could pray together, which we did. I truly believe that as the end of this earthly journey approached that Charlie was at peace with his life and with all his relationships. That is a wonderful and all too rare state of grace for many on the last leg of life’s journey. I’m glad he had it.
“Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
We mourn the loss of our brother Charlie. He was a faithful companion to us in many lovely ways during our earthly journeys. His departing from us hurts. He will be missed in ways we have not even imagined yet. But we are comforted by the rich and deep experiences of love we had with him. We are comforted knowing that Charlie was a man who heard Jesus’ words and believed them. He also lived them, which of course is the whole point of the Gospel: To live the words of Jesus and build up God’s reign in our lives. Charlie did that. He was a good and faithful servant. Because of that, Charlie does not come under judgement, having lived a life worthy of the name Christian. He has passed from death into life, into that place where there is no longer any pain or sorrow, but only joy and life eternal. That is the promise we have been given in Jesus. That is the promise realized for Charlie. Which causes us to rejoice!
If heaven has any deferred maintenance, Charlie is probably fixing it right now; his trusty tools in hand. I’m sure that the heavenly hosts are pleased to have his voice added to their number. And I suspect there’s a six pack of Black and Tan at the heavenly banquet table just for Charlie. But look out, God, if Charlie gives you one of those wooden nativity sets. I hope you have better luck at putting that puzzle back together than the rest of us.
Byrdie C. Lee Funeral Homily
The Rev. Peter Faass
Social justice activist, anti-racism advocate, recorder of Black history, matriarch of this parish, poet, playwright, historian, public speaker, lector, Eucharistic minister, faithful follower of Jesus, dancer, event coordinator, friend, moral plumb line, confident, companion, self-described, “feisty old lady,”(a feisty old lady, who I will observe, could be as stubborn as a mule!), incubator of ideas, (or as she called herself, “a gooser.”) And maybe her most important role of all . . . biker babe!
What a rich and full life Byrdie Catherine Lee led. As she herself wrote in an essay titled, And Then There Was Time’ I’ve had a wonderful life . . . I’ve done almost everything I wanted to do . . . I’ve met almost everyone I wanted to meet.” That was in 2004. Looking back at the fourteen years that followed, I believe Byrdie would declare, “I have done everything I wanted to do.” Such was the fullness and richness of her well-lived live.
One of my favorite Anglican writers, C. S. Lewis, once wrote, “Die before you die, there is no chance after.” What Lewis was saying is that we should all die to those things that rob us of living fully the precious gift of life God has given each of us: Those burdens, distractions, addictions, hatreds, bigotries, believes and behaviors that are life-killing. Those things which prevent us from loving God, loving neighbor, and loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Die to those things so that you may fully live as God intends you to live. If you don’t, Lewis indicated, you lose the opportunity in death, and then it’s too late.
In word and deed, Byrdie died before she died. Trust me, there was no way she was going to lose her opportunity to live, and live fully.
When I think of Byrdie and her dying to those life-robbing things, Matthew’s parable of the Judgement of the Nations comes to mind. It’s the parable where the Son of Man comes in all his glory and the nations of the earth come before him and are separated into the goats and sheep; the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. The Son of Man addresses the sheep and says to those at his right hand, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
And then the Son addresses the goats at his left hand and he tells them that when they encountered those most in need in the world they ignored them and did not help. But they reply, well Lord we never saw you. We just saw the homeless, the hungry, the thirsty, etc. So, we didn’t think to help them because, well, it wasn’t you. Then the Son says, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’’ And they are accursed because of their indifference and callousness towards the needy and vulnerable.
Byrdie Lee was a sheep through and through. She lived her life at Jesus’s right hand. Such was her faith that she saw Jesus in all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, regardless of who they were. And she strived to help the least among us in every aspect of her life, because that is what her Savior commanded her to do. In fact, her life was a litany of caring for, and shepherding, the least among us. In that same essay And Then There Was Time she wrote, “Everyone touches someone’s life sometimes, and I have deliberately attempted to touch lives. I was a social worker, helping people when they were most vulnerable. A casual remark of mine stopped someone from committing suicide. I have conducted Sunday services in nursing homes and hospitals, and taken Communion to people in their homes. I started an Alcoholics Anonymous group in Vietnam, and adopted a twelve-year-old Yorkshire Terrier just before she was to be put down. I am currently Chaplain of my sorority chapter . . . I am a historian with [an] emphasis on Black history . . .for the past fourteen years, I have worked with high school students . . . [and] encouraged them to dream big dreams, then I work with them to make their dreams come true.”
Whether two legged or four-legged, (and sometimes the four-legged more so) Byrdie’s life was committed to helping and loving those most in need.
She was a sheep through and through.
Earlier this year I visited Byrdie when she was in hospice care at Montefiore. She was feeling pretty good and in her normal storytelling mood. She said she was happy to see me as she wanted to confide in me a story she had not shared with anyone before. It concerned her time in Vietnam as a USO coordinator. Her work during the war was to open and run clubs for the servicemen stationed in Vietnam. She loved serving that way, I suspect in no small part because of her desire to care for the vulnerable. These USO clubs and the temporary relief and distractions from the ugliness of war they offered was invaluable to those in the military, who often struggled with loneliness and homesickness.
Byrdie told me she came to know a number of servicemen who were gay, but of course, considering the time, deeply closeted. She said that while the USO club was a place for them to relax and decompress from the stress of war, just like it was for the straight soldiers, because they were gay they were never totally relaxed or truly felt safe in the club, having to be on perpetual guard hiding their sexual orientation. One day Byrdie decided to address this situation and invited a few of these men to her home for a party. It was a big success because in the safety of her home these men could let down their guard and be who they were. Eventually these parties grew, and she said, whenever they gathered there was singing and dancing and laughter and just total joy. She told me these parties were some of the best memories of her life.
Now picture this scenario. It’s such a wonderful image of what her life was: Byrdie, an African-American woman, who because of her race and gender knew what it was like to be vulnerable and marginalized and all these gay men – fearful of being outed and dishonorably discharged from the military, essentially condemning them for the rest of their lives – here they all are at her house carrying on and just having the time of their lives dancing and singing. The warmth and the joy are palpable. It perfectly captures who she was. It is a beautiful image of the kingdom life that Jesus calls us to. It’s an image that is seared into my memory.
In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us that in his father’s house there are many rooms and he goes to prepare a place for each of us. Well, in the house of Byrdie’s heart, there were also many rooms, and she was tireless in preparing a place for all of us as well. In that house of her heart, we all found a place of hospitality and warmth, laughter and safety, and most of all joy, just like those servicemen. In every way Byrdie was a sheep at Jesus’s right hand. Because of that, she has gained the eternal life promised her.
No one spoke truth to power better than Byrdie. She did so when she worked for the Army in Vietnam. She did so as Director of Housing and Community Development in East Cleveland. She did so in this Diocese. She did so in UBE. She did so in her personal relationships. She did so in the public square of the communities she lived in. She did so in this parish. I will attest to you from personal experience, that when Byrdie Lee came to your office, to as she put it, “fuss with you” you better sit down, be quiet and listen, or else! Not to be too crude, but Byrdie was calling out BS before it was popular to do so. Her ability and willingness to speak truth to power, especially when power had gone astray and become abusive or too full of itself, was without parallel. I believe this is one of her enduring qualities and why Jesus loves her so much. As do we.
In an article she wrote in 2005 titled Christ Church in Living Color, Byrdie recalls her years at this parish. She began worshipping here on the second Sunday of May in 1967. Her article details the various ministries, rectors and clergy who served this parish from 1967 until 2005. She also recalls the various controversies and turmoil that embroiled this parish in those years, especially over social justice issues, beginning with the decision to intentionally integrate the parish in the 1960’s. Byrdie of course, was a vocal proponent of all things that promoted justice for all God’s children. She concludes her essay by saying, “in [Christ Church], as a microcosm of the whole church, we have fought racism, sexism, prayer book revisions, hymn book inclusion, [celebrating the] Eucharist every Sunday, and now homophobia. We have fought liberals and conservatives, charismatics and traditionalists, and questioned what God calls us to do. When I remember what I have put up with in the name of Christ Church, I do not remember “stability” but rather turmoil. I wouldn’t change anything . . . it’s been lonely, sometimes, God, but it has been a great ride.”
Because of her ability to speak God’s truth to power and fight the good fight, Christ Church is indebted to Byrdie for who we are today as a diverse and progressive congregation. It was her passion and witness for building up God’s reign in this congregation over the past 51 year that nourishes and strengthens us to continue to proclaim the life-giving message of the Gospel in this community and beyond. Because of her witness, we do so despite the turmoil and loneliness it may cause at times. Because of Byrdie, we know it’s worth those costs, because the rewards we will reap are far richer. Like her, we wouldn’t change a thing. Because of Byrdie this parish has been, and continues to be, on a “great ride.”
In our opening anthem today we stated that, “In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help?” Paradoxically, Byrdie’s life proclaimed that even in the midst of death - of those things that would deny us life - we proclaim and live life abundantly, because in the gift of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that love and life are more powerful than death. When we ask, “from whom do we seek help?” Byrdie’s life proclaimed that we seek it in Jesus, who is our life.
Her witness to the power of Jesus’ love to heal all our foolish divisions and brokenness is one we are called to take to heart and strive to emulate in our own lives. We honor her and her life when we do so. It is Byrdie’s greatest gift to us.
We grieve the loss of Byrdie. Her death leaves a gaping hole in so many places. I miss her so much: at the Sunday 8:00 service, seeing her empty seat, hurts. Not hearing Carol offer her the Peace and calling her BC, hurts. Not seeing her dressed elegantly, glowing with that radiant smile, hurts. No longer hearing her read the scripture so passionately, hurts. Knowing she will no longer be at my side serving as my chalice bearer, hurts. Not hearing her tell the stories of her life’s rich experiences, hurts. Yes, even having her at my office door wanting to fuss with me, hurts. It all hurts. I miss her so much.
Even in my hurting, I am assured as a Christian that even at the grave we make our song “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” Such is the power of love over death. Our grief, my sisters and brothers, will subside in time. It will be supplanted by the love that Byrdie had for us and that we had for her. Love heals. Love is the way. Love is everything.
In our own time, one day we will rejoin Byrdie in that place where “life is changed,” but “not ended.” I suspect that when we get there, she will make a grand entrance on a Harley; she will be on the ultimate “great ride.” She will smile that radiant smile and wave at us enthusiastically. When she gets off the bike, she’ll remove her helmet and give us warm loving embraces. And then the music will start and we will laugh and sing and dance and carry on into eternity; safe and secure in God’s loving care, forever.
Taking the Life of Jesus into Us
John 6: 56 - 69
The Rev. Peter Faass
For the past three weeks, the lectionary has given these “I am the bread of life” passages of Jesus. We have heard much about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. In today’s reading, he tells his followers, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
These passages can be off-putting, especially when they come so relentlessly every week. They certainly were to some of Jesus’ disciples. In today’s reading, we hear that, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ Such was their offense that many walked away from following Jesus.”
We, too, can find these teachings difficult and be offended. Our being off-put often derives from our literal understanding of these sayings. They sound cannibalistic, making them seem grisly and gross.
Those disciples of Jesus’ who adversely respond do so for a different reason: their objection is based on the consumption of blood taboo in the Mosaic Law. Leviticus 17:14 says, “For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.”
In Jewish theology, the blood represents life. As blood is let and a creature dies, it loses its life. To Jews, blood belonged to God, because God is the source of all life.
Even today, this prohibition against consuming blood is so strongly ingrained in the Jewish psyche that even many secular Jews cannot bear to eat a rare steak or a juicy hamburger. Kosher butchers heavily salt meat to drain every drop of blood from it. It is why Jewish cooking relies on the slow braise and not the hot grill for its recipes: Well-done meat is the goal.
Contemporary Christians of course cannot but help think of the Eucharist when they hear these passages. Our Eucharistic Prayers use this blood and body/flesh language. “Sanctify [this bread and wine] by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son.”
John has no true institution of the Last Supper occurrence as Matthew, Mark and Luke do. These “eat my flesh and drink my blood” passages are as close as it gets, but they get the point across.
I think Jesus understands that his teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood will cause an adverse or visceral response in many. He also hopes that some will take the deep meaning of the Leviticus prohibition about the blood being life originating in God, and understand how he is applying this understanding to his own life. When he says, “you must drink my blood” he is saying you must take my life into the very center of your being. My life, like all life, belongs to God. In other words, we must take Jesus’ life into the very core of our hearts and become transformed. By taking Jesus into us, we ascent to being in him and he in us, therefore abiding in one another, as the text says.
Maybe put more succinctly: By eating his flesh and eating his blood we feed our hearts, minds and souls on Jesus. By doing this, we are revitalized by his life until we become filled with the life of God.
This may be the most important act of the Eucharist: feeding our hearts, minds and souls on Jesus in the sacrament of his body and blood, so that we become filled with the life of God.
Ideally, we do this as a community. Just as the Eucharist creates fellowship with Jesus, fellowship is created with those who commune together in the sacrament. As St. Paul states in Romans (12:50), “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
In the Eucharist, our fellowship derives from the mutual indwelling of Jesus and the believer. The greater community is formed from those who share in Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine with each other.
I love to cook. Some of the recipes that give me the greatest pleasure are the ones my mother and grandmother passed on to me. When I make a big pot of thick pea soup with ham, or am at the stove frying up Dutch apple pancakes, I am filled with the presence of my mother and grandmother. We abide in each other through this meal I am preparing and then eat.
In an essay titled, “Re-creating Our Mother’s Dishes,” theologian Boyung Lee writes, “Even though I was cooking by myself in the kitchen, I was in communion with many people to whom I was indebted for who I am, and to whom I am accountable.”
That’s how I feel when I cook my family’s heirloom recipes. I am reminded as I cook, smell and eat that I am indebted to my forbearers for who I am. I am also accountable to them as a person, because they have given me life literally, and through our cultural heritage and family lineage. I better be faithful to those sacred recipes correctly that they passed on to me, or look out!
This is how it is when we take Communion and eat the meal of Christ’s body and blood. We are reminded of who and whose we are. We remember we are indebted to Jesus through whom we receive authentic and eternal life. We are also indebted to all the communion of saints with whom we have shared this meal over the years. We are accountable to them as well, to continue to take the life of Jesus into us – into our very hearts – and to the live the life God calls us to.
John 6:51 - 58
The Rev. Peter Faass
How many of you are familiar with On the Rise Artisan Bread and Pastries in Cleveland Heights? Awesome place, right? On the Rise is like a foretaste of the heavenly banquet for me. The authentic French baguettes, the epis, the rustic Italian loaves, the cinnamon and raisin bread, that gorgeous round cardamom bread that looks like the sun, the spectacular olive loaf, the Challah, the Pullman.
I haven’t even mentioned the croissants, tarts and cookies! It is dangerous to let me loose in there. I’m told to pick up a baguette for dinner and I come home with an armload of breads and desserts for an army. If bread is the staff of life, On the Rise is its genesis.
On the Rise is opening a kiosk in the new Van Aken food court across the street this fall. Our current food desert in the district is going to turn into a cornucopia of deliciousness.
Jesus said, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Of course, he wasn’t speaking of On the Rise, but sometimes I feel like I have entered into eternity when I eat their food.
Jesus speaks of the bread as his body. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” He continues, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”
The Gospel of John is filled with Jesus making these metaphors:
Of course, Jesus is not literally any of these things (Biblical literalists take note):
He metaphorically functions as these things in our lives when we follow him. He is the door through which we gain authentic life when we pass through it. He is the light that guides us through the dark places in life. He is the Good Shepherd who watches over us through thick and thin. He is also the bread of life which, when we eat it, gives us eternal life.
When Jesus says that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is not being literal either. This is not some grisly cannibalistic ritual we are engaged in, despite some accusations to the contrary. The bread represents his body, his flesh.
In the prologue of John we are told, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus is the incarnate, or in-the-flesh Word of God. Jesus came to earth so that through his spoken and lived word, he could show us how to live as children of God. So, in the context of John’s theology, when Jesus tells us that we must eat his flesh to gain eternal (or authentic) life, we are in fact called to eat and live the received Word of God that he gives to us.
If we are to distill it down to its essential core, the Word Jesus gives us is summed up in the words of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, the distillation of the Law to love God and to love one’s neighbor as one self, and the new commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us. All the rest is, as they say, commentary.
To eat Jesus’s flesh is to eat and live these words; they are the Word that he incarnates. The Collect for the Sunday closest to November 16th speaks to this understanding eloquently. In it, we pray, “Grant us so to hear . . . read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest [the Holy Scriptures], that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”
When we do this, it causes a paradigm shift in our lives, moving us away from a way of life that is life-denying to a way of life that gives us authentic, and as Jesus says, eternal life. By that, he means eternal life here and now, in this moment.
Earlier, I mentioned that the Van Aken district is currently a food desert. That’s a bit of hyperbole. There are some great places to find good food within a short distance from here, although you need to drive to them. That situation promises to resolve itself soon with a wide array of food and drink options across the street. But food deserts exist, literally and metaphorically. In many urban areas like Cleveland, people do not have access to grocery stores that offer good, wholesome, life-giving foods. Options are limited to fast food and junk foods, which are readily available but not wholesome. Consistently eating these foods causes obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. They are life-denying foods. That’s a literal food desert.
There are also metaphorical food deserts. These are deserts where the food of nutritious words are in short supply. The only words available are fast, junky and degrading.
These are metaphorical deserts, but they are no less arid and no less life-denying than the literal ones.
In a commentary on John’s bread passages, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry asks, "How is it that God is trying to feed the world, not on fast food, but on gourmet [food] that gives life?"
When food that's readily available is not healthy, how do we feed the people of God? And more importantly, how is the Bread of Life trying to feed us?
I believe we can transform this current metaphorical food desert by eating the bread that is the Word of Jesus’ flesh. It is through eating, inwardly digesting and living on this bread that the Church offers gourmet food - not fast food - to the world.
This is how God wants to feed the world. This is how The Bread of Life Jesus feeds us, and then has us feed others so that we all gain the promise of eternal life.
Mark 5: 21-43
Rev. Peter Faass
There has been a lot of conversation about civility and uncivility. People taught to be civil in all circumstances feel threatened by what they see as an all-out assault on human and civil rights happening in our nation. Whether it’s the legitimizing of extreme rightwing, white supremacist, neo-Nazi ideology; ripping immigrant children away from their parents as they try to find refuge in our country; or banning Muslims from entering our nation, millions feel imperiled by the disregard not only of decent civil behavior, but by the threat against the very values upon which this nation – celebrating its 242 birthday this week– was founded.
Those who adhere to authentic traditional American and Gospel values struggle with what it means to remain civil in the face of this outright assault. Many feel that the assault is so great (even worse with the impending retirement of Supreme Court Justice Kennedy) that all restraints on civility are over. That it’s time to take off the proverbial gloves in a fight seen as an existential threat to the democratic values of justice and equality (and as a follower of Jesus) to the baptismal values that respect the dignity of every human being and seeking and serving Christ in all people. As a result, we have seen people taunt and heckle various political leaders and their employees in restaurants, movie theaters and at their homes.
Episcopalians especially find themselves in a conundrum. We are polite and non-confrontational to a fault. We get teased about our manners and our passions for polite societal behaviors like correct silverware. But how aghast are we when someone disregards or maligns the dignity of others?
Thomas J. Sugrue is an author and a professor of history and social and cultural analysis. He wrote an article in the June 29 New York Times opinion page, “White America’s Age-Old, Misguided Obsession with Civility.” He writes that the current discomfort and opposition to disruptive and impolite behaviors sees people referring to the civil rights movement of the 60’s and yearning for a less confrontational opposition. “The theme: We need a little more love, a little more Martin Luther King, a dollop of Gandhi. Be polite, be civil, present arguments thoughtfully and reasonably. Appeal to people’s better angels. Take the moral high ground . . . Above all, don’t disrupt.”
Sugrue says that’s revisionist history and mythical thinking. “But, in fact, civil rights leaders, while they did believe in the power of nonviolence, knew that their success depended on disruption and coercion as much — sometimes more — than on dialogue and persuasion. They knew that the vast majority of whites who were indifferent or openly hostile to the demands of civil rights would not be moved by appeals to the American creed or to bromides about liberty and justice for all. Polite words would not change their behavior.”
“King aimed some of his harshest words toward advocates of civility, whose concerns aligned with the hand-wringing of many of today’s politicians and pundits. From his Birmingham jail cell, King wrote: ‘I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.’ King knew that whites’ insistence on civility usually stymied civil rights.” And King’s and other civil rights leaders’ nonviolent yet disruptive proactive behaviors caused President Kennedy to move on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Christians must always hold the plumb line of respecting the dignity of every human being in the center of our lives. As followers of Jesus, it also means entering the Temple and being disruptive, overturning the money lenders’ tables and confronting abusive systems. On this July 4th weekend, we cannot forget the colonial disrupters who tossed crates of tea into Boston Harbor when a system wantonly abused the people.
Today’s Gospel offers two powerful witnesses who respond to seemingly impossible and hostile situations.
“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”
Everything about this woman made her anathema to the society she was in: her condition rendered her permanently impure, an alien, a pariah who by her presence was believed to render others impure. She persisted to meet Jesus, believing in his justice and desire for dignity, health and wholeness for all.
Others see her as uncivil, because she disorders the accepted system. Yet her behavior is rooted in the desire of God’s justice for all people. I think of the parallels to parents who risk everything to bring their children out of violent, gang-ridden and impoverished Central American nations to our nation for a better and safer way of life. They come despite the hostile government beliefs that see them as “less than” and unclean. The migrants disrupt that evil system and push toward our nation’s beacon of peace, freedom and justice.
Jairus, the synagogue leader’s daughter is ill, “at the point of death.” He begs Jesus to come and heal her. So, he goes. “On the way messengers come to say the girl has died. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him.”
Jesus is mocked and derided for believing that good can come out of this seemingly hopeless situation. We can hear them saying, “Who is this snowflake?
Jesus disrupted the systems of death that diminish the dignity of people. His was uncivil behavior because it confronted the accepted norms. He told the people to believe in the face of hopelessness. Out of death and despair, he brought life, because life for all is justice for all.
Both the woman and Jesus engaged in what would have been considered uncivil behaviors. These behaviors denied the norms and beliefs of a culture that believed that not all are worthy, and that the ways of death trump life.
Their faith in justice and life propels them to act. Their actions in the face of seeming hopelessness tell us to be persistent, believe in your cause, and be proactive, even if it means being uncivil.
Sugrue continues: “History is a reminder that civility is in the eye of the beholder. And when the beholder wants to maintain an unequal status quo, it’s easy to accuse picketers, protesters and preachers alike of incivility, as much because of their message as their methods. For those upset by disruptive protests, the history of civil rights offers an unsettling reminder that the path to change is seldom polite.”
It’s not about manners; it’s about justice and righteousness. In the current climate, politeness is a privilege we cannot afford. As followers of Jesus, we must lift our voices and literally say no to the hate that has reared its ugly head in our nation. We must be disrupt, overturning the tables of those who would deny the dignity of every human being. Indeed, who would deny their very humanity? We are called to disrupt the powers that threaten the dignity of human life. We must do it nonviolently, but do it we must. For our fellow sisters and brothers, and for God’s reign.
It’s not about civility. It’s about justice.
Going to the Boundaries
The Rev. Peter Faass
Several years ago, when Christ Church folks went on pilgrimage to Israel, we stayed a few nights in Tiberias at a hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was beautiful. Part of our tour included a trip in a boat that replicated the kind of boat Jesus and the disciples were in during today’s Gospel story about the storm on the Sea. While described as a sea, this body of water is really more aptly described as a lake; in fact, its alternate name is Lake Gennesaret, referring to the town of Ginosar on its northwestern shore.
The Bible says that the Sea of Galilee is where Jesus walked, preached, calmed the storm, and granted miraculous catches of fish, and upon whose waters Peter walked, at least until he took his eyes off Jesus.
Having been there, I find it difficult to imagine a really violent storm imperiling people on this body of water. It’s not big – on a clear day, you can see from shore to shore. It’s not really deep, although at the time we were there, Israel was heavily reliant on the Sea of Galilee for fresh water and the shores had receded dramatically – in places over 100 feet - from overuse.
While the disciples and Jesus (asleep in the stern) sailed the Sea, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” Such was the ferocity of this storm that the disciples feared they’d perish. As several of the disciples were seasoned fishermen and familiar with the Sea, we can deduce that the account is authentic and this was one doozy of a storm.
In the various cultures of the ancient world, water represented disorder and chaos. In the Genesis creation story, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Out of this formless void of water, God begins making order, putting creation together. Creating out of chaotic water is a common creation theme in near-eastern cultures. The mythological and poetic imagery of God triumphing over the raging, disordered waters is something the disciples would have understood. It also makes the answer to their question about, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” when Jesus stills the storm, self-evident. Jesus has God’s power to still the storm; he has the power to make order out of chaos. Jesus has the power to save even in the worst circumstances.
This story reminds us that Jesus consistently puts himself into liminal places. He likes to show up at literal and metaphorical boundaries and thresholds - especially if they are dangerous, or the threshold is considered taboo in the society in which it exists. Jesuslikes to push the envelope.
In the passage immediately following this one. Jesus goes to the opposite, Gentile side of the lake shore. He encounters a man with an unclean spirit – most likely epilepsy - who had been chained in the local graveyard. It is also an area where vast herds of swine are grazing. This is a threshold place for a Jew to be: an unclean graveyard, Gentile territory and amongst unclean animals. Yet Jesus goes there and heals the possessed man. He does this despite cultural taboos and what religious authorities say about him.
In another instance, he goes to a tax collector’s home and he dines with people who were considered notorious sinners. Again, he did so despite prevalent establishment beliefs that this was undignified and unclean. Any time he contacts a person with leprosy or with an uncontrolled flow of blood, he goes to the border of a taboo boundary between what is considered holy and what is believed to defile.
In a culture that disregarded children, Jesus crossed a societal border when he took a child in his arms and stated, “If anyone causes one of these little ones . . . (we might hear, these little ones with brown skin and who speak Spanish) to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly goes to liminal places where insiders have built borders and walls between themselves and perceived outsiders. And each time, Jesus crosses that border, ignoring what others think is right and wrong. He does this so that he can offer healing and compassion to the outsider, the alien, the sick and the despised. He does this to role model that only love is the way in God’s economy.
The Sea of Galilee is such a liminal, marginal place that was a significant physical border between peoples. Geographically it separated Jews, who lived on its western shores, from Gentiles, who lived on its eastern shores. Sociopolitically it separated the humble Galilean fisherman who depended on its fish for a livelihood from the Roman Empire who taxed those fish heavily. The Sea kept populations separate and it fed imperial appetites; appetites which needed to keep people under their control and living marginally, in order to be satiated.
That’s how dividing lines work: they allow us to keep what’s known on one side and banish whatever makes us fearful, unacceptable or what is unknown to the other side of the wall.
Each time Jesus goes to these dividing walls he indicates to us that these separations don’t work and that he intends to tear them down because they are not of God. They are not about loving neighbor as self.
Jesus meddles with borders because he wants to bring order and justice to the chaos and injustice that borders and walls inflict on people. He goes to the margins because the reign of God extends divine holiness and a commitment to human well-being to places and people that we have said were beyond the limits of our human compassion and caring. He goes to the margins to love people that we have said we don’t care about.
Jesus invites us into the boat with him. He is sailing to the borders, to those places where human fear and hatred keep people on the margins. The trip will be chaotic at times. The winds will rough and the boat will be in danger of being swamped by the violent sea. But the boat’s destiny is safely guided by the only One who can and will still the storm and bring order and justice out of the chaos we experience. When we are in that boat with him, we hear his voice saying "Peace! Be still!” It is his voice and love that will tear down all those boundaries and walls in the world that imperil us, so that we all may be one.
Wedding Cake Justice
The Rev. Peter Faass
Five years ago, Anthony and I were shopping for a wedding cake. Yes, that’s already five years ago! Wedding cakes, like other wedding components, express the personal tastes of the couple. For foodies like us, it was paramount to select a great baker for a fabulous, delicious confection. I only wish that the Duchess of Sussex (Meghan Markle) had been around to advise us. Her lemon and elderflower wedding cake sounded scrumptious!
A friend of ours recommended a wonderful baker who makes unusually beautiful and delicious cakes. So, we visited this bakery to discuss their products and prices (I am still shocked by what a decent wedding cake costs per slice!).
When we entered this bakery, we explained to the woman who greeted us why we were there. While I wouldn’t say her response was happy and congratulatory about our pending nuptials, she was reasonably pleasant. Inviting us to sit at a small table, she produced two loose-leaf notebooks filled with plastic-coated photos of various wedding cake design options, cake flavors, fillings, icings and price ranges. She explained that the bakery owner took the wedding cake orders and was in the back of the store, but that he would meet us in a few minutes. She then left to tell the owner we were there.
For ten minutes, we leafed through the binders. I thought, “well people get busy,” so we continued looking. Another ten minutes went by. I asked the person at the bakery counter to remind the owner we were there. She went to the back room and did not come back. The prolonged absence of the owner and other staff at this bakery was deafening and sent a clear message. A few minutes later, I said to Anthony, “They don’t want to sell us a wedding cake because we are two men. Let’s go.” We left.
This past week, the Supreme Court ruled on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. This case involved a Colorado gay couple who wanted to order their wedding cake from a bakery called Masterpiece Cakeshop. Bakery owner Jack Phillips, who describes himself as a devout Christian, refused to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, because in his interpretation of the Christian faith, homosexuality is a sin. By a rather astonishing lopsided vote of 7-2 (thank you so much Justices Kagan and Breyer, and Kennedy), the Supreme Court upheld Phillips’ right to deny Craig and Mullins their wedding cake.
Anthony and I felt their pain and disappointment.
I am not going to comment on the legal aspect of this decision. I am told that it’s not as bad for the rights of same-sex couples as it initially appears. That’s cold comfort, since Ohio LGBT folks really have no rights to speak of. We have an abundance of lawyers in this congregation who can offer more accurate insight into the Supreme Court ruling.
I want to reflect on Phillips’ Christianity, especially as the majority Supreme Court opinion quoted him as saying that his “main goal in life is to be obedient to, 'Jesus Christ and Christ’s teachings in all aspects of his life.'”
So, his refusal to bake this wedding cake begs the question: Is he? Is his refusal to bake a cake for a same-sex couple being "obedient to Jesus Christ and all Christ’s teachings?" I would posit that the answer to that question is a resounding no!
Despite homosexuality being well-known in the ancient world, Jesus never mentioned it. While Jesus talks about yeast and bread, he never mentions wedding cakes (although he – or at least his nudgy mother – had plenty to say about wedding wine). In the Gospels, Jesus clearly sends a message that includes those who others feel are not worthy of inclusion. Today’s Gospel account is a case in point.
Jesus’ life-changing teachings and healings are causing larger crowds to gather around him. He and his disciples are so hemmed in that “Jesus and his disciples could not even eat.”
These growing crowds are no surprise. When someone tells you that you have self-worth regardless of who you are, after being told your whole life you are worthless, this is going to attract a huge following.
The authorities were alarmed by the increasing crowds. What is all this stuff about respect and dignity Jesus is teaching, anyway? Their power structure depends on having worthy and unworthy classes of people. Of course the authorities are the worthy classes, so they feel threatened. In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ feeding and healing on the Sabbath so alarmed the authorities that they, “immediately conspired . . . against him, how to destroy him.” They are not happy campers.
Jesus’s family gets wind of how disruptive Jesus has become and they fear for his well-being, so they try to take him away.
“They went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”
Others accuse Jesus of being Satanic. “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” This is a classic response by those who are threatened by people proclaiming a hopeful alternate message to their own: “They’re crazy!” “They are satanic!”
How often have conservative Christians said that about Episcopalians?
Satan’s got a hold on them
It’s false Christianity!
A member of a door-to-door denominational cult once told me that as an Episcopal priest I was a spawn of Satan. Regretfully both my parents are deceased, so I have no way of confirming this.
Jesus says something which changed everything. His family, more intent than ever to whisk him away come to find him again.
“The crowd tells him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Not only does Jesus resist the intervention of his mother, he renounces their claim on him. He doesn’t do this because he disdains his family, but because they want to keep him from proclaiming the good news of God’s abundant love and inclusion. He can’t abide by this. So, they remain “outside” while Jesus embraces those encircled “around him” in the crowded house.
Jesus redraws the lines of family and belonging, saying that those who do God’s will are siblings and mother to him. Thus, Jesus proclaims a new family. In a culture where identity was bound to kinship and tribal structures, Jesus’ pronouncement of a new family beyond blood or tribal kinship surely elicited gasps of shock. But it also brought gasps of great joy to many, especially people who find themselves estranged from their own families or tribes because of who they were. This still happens to LGBTQ folks in our own time.
Jesus’ new family is defined by “those who do God’s will.” Doing God’s will is about doing the rule of love: loving God, loving neighbor and loving one another as Jesus loves us. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry proclaimed, “Love is the way!”
There is no other way to follow Jesus. Love is the only way to obey Jesus Christ and his teachings in all aspects of life.
In Jesus’ family when you follow God’s will by loving all of God’s children, not only do you get your cake baked for you, you get to eat it, too. That, my friends, is one hell of a wedding feast!
A Great Time to be an Episcopalian!
The Rev. Peter Faass
Well, it certainly has been a great couple of months to be an Episcopalian! Whew, it’s been quite a ride! Who ever imagined that interest in the Episcopal Church, especially in the midst of the downward decline of institutional religion, would be happening in the spring of 2018? On Saturday, May 19 (the day of Meghan and Harry’s wedding), “Episcopalian” was the most searched word on GOOGLE. That translates into millions of searches, and that’s amazing! Based on these past few weeks, I’m sensing we may be seeing the beginning of a new Great Awakening in the 21st Century.
We can mark the beginning of this Great Awakening with the elegant and dignified funeral of former first lady Barbara Bush on April 21st. Her funeral was held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, which is the largest parish in our denomination (over 7,000 members!). Christ Church hovers around 350. Anthony and I checked St. Martin’s website. They have 14 clergy and over 120 staff. At Christ Church, we have one clergy and four staff. St. Martin’s is a big parish!
In addition to the beautiful liturgy, viewers of Bush’s televised funeral were touched by the sight of many Republican and Democrat leaders, past and present, who gathered to honor her. Political differences were placed aside as they treated each other with respect, dignity and even affection. A love for our nation and a desire to honor a woman who served it well bound us together.
Recently, we haven’t been accustomed to that kind of dignity and respect from the political class, much less the understanding that the bonds of being American trumps being partisan. This tableau of political comity offered us hope despite the muck and mire we experience these days, reminding us of the great values of faith and nation that go beyond partisan politics and personal gain. Those values certainly were the plumb line of how Barbara Bush led her life. All this occurred in an Episcopal Church. What better a setting for an opportunity to display what “justice and peace [for] all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being” (BCP p. 305) looks like.
On May 19, the royal wedding fulfilled our American fantasies about royal life, and our secret desires to become a prince or princess. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, preached an earth-shattering sermon about God’s love as the balm to heal our broken world.
He stated, “We must discover love - the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.”
Delivered in Curry’s powerful African-American, Baptist oratorical style, his sermon was a shot heard round the world to 2 billion viewers. Those who had believed that religion was moribund (if not dead) witnessed the revival happening in this Episcopal Church under Bishop Curry – and what he calls the Jesus Movement. Even professed atheists were having doubts about denying a God that was clearly palpable in this charismatic and holy man.
Curry is our LeBron James. I’ll let the delicious irony of that word play stand on its own in the midst of the NBA Finals between the Cavs and the Warriors.
In the midst of the depressing din and chaos we currently live in, when the news always seems to leave a dark pall hanging over our heads, these two services offered a brief Sabbath rest to weary and demoralized people everywhere.
When I say Sabbath rest, I mean more than a break from the demands of life. Sabbath is more than sleeping late and getting “some R and R.” Sabbath is a period of time which is life-oriented and life-giving. The Sabbath is meant to promote life and give hope, extolling God as a liberator from the world’s evil ways. Ultimately, Sabbath is about God’s love.
Life-giving Sabbath restores hope in the midst of hopelessness. What could be more loving than that? We poignantly experienced this in Bishop Curry’s sermon about love, which was so life-giving that it compelled millions to inquire, “Who is this Episcopal guy and what’s his Church about?”
Sabbath as life-giving is the point of what happens in the today’s Gospel of Mark, where two incidents occur on the Sabbath.
In the first incident, the religious authorities condemn Jesus for allowing the disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath to alleviate their hunger. The authorities believed this violated the prohibition to work on the Sabbath. Sabbath as interpreted by the institutional religion had often become life-denying; a dark pall that hung over people’s lives like a claustrophobic shroud. It had become morally atrophied.
Jesus (clearly a better scholar of scripture than the authorities) recalls how the iconic David and his companions ate the bread of the presence when they were famished, even though that holy bread was reserved for the priests. By alleviating David’s hunger, the holy bread became life-giving and sustained the life of Israel’s great future king. Sabbath was literally life-giving, allowing David and his followers to have hope.
In the second Sabbath story, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand. Despite the prohibition to “work” on the Sabbath, Jesus heals him (Jesus does not mock him, he heals him). The religious authorities are aghast that he has worked on the Sabbath.
Jesus contends that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values and meeting greater needs, especially when those needs promote a person’s well-being and restores their lives. Both these stories are life-giving moments, leading us to hope when things seemed hopeless. Jesus conveys that Sabbath is about life, hope and love.
Jesus (and recently Bishop Curry and the Episcopal Church) remind us that God’s life-giving Sabbath love will keep us from deteriorating into a moral vacuum.
As a commentary I read stated, “If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t get to overlook those whose lives are being threatened on a daily basis. If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t get to pass over how the lives of others are being stripped of their worth and dignity. If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t have qualifiers or quantifiers for who deserves abundant life.”
This is what it means to be a part of the Jesus Movement. Proclaim your love of God, your neighbor, and one another as Jesus loved us. They are the message of the new great awakening which has begun in our beloved Church. It is life-giving and it will redeem us from the moral atrophy that threatens us. As Bishop Curry preached, “Love is the way.” It certainly is an exciting time to be an Episcopalian.
 Karoline M. Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
In the World, Not of the World
John 17: 6-19
The Rev. Peter Faass
Seminarians often hear the phrase “to be in the world, but not of the world.” The saying’s roots are found in today’s passage from the Gospel of John and are part of what scholars call Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This prayer occurs on the last night of Jesus’ life, in the upper room where he gives the disciples the humbling act of foot-washing, the Lord’s Supper, and the New Commandment, “To love another as I have loved you.” Knowing that the end is near, Jesus crams a lot of final gifts and advice to his friends.
The disciples listen to Jesus’ extemporaneous prayer. These words are prayed out loud and without written text. Jesus is clearly not an Episcopalian!
We can liken his prayer to a dying parent or spouse who gathers their loved ones close by for a final conversation. This final conversation imparts wisdom, strength and confidence to those who will soon be left behind. The dying person wants to offer strength and hope to those who will need it after their passing.
Jesus prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
Jesus asks God the Father to guide and sustain the disciples once he is gone so they will continue to be in the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ message. He also asks God that they not be of the world, comprised of the immoral practices, beliefs and behaviors that defy God’s word, referred to as “the evil one.”
Professors at seminary impart these same words of advice (to be in but not of the world) to future clergy leaders to fashion their lives in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel, not those of the evil one. This is not an easy task for the clergy or laity.
Christians have often responded, with some confusion, to be in but not of the world. Some have totally removed themselves from the greater culture to avoid being influenced or tainted by it. We have seen this in cloistered religious orders where the nuns or monks either partially or fully remove themselves from any outside contact with the world.
A more recent manifestation has been the conservative Christian homeschooling movement. Parents, afraid of the influences of the greater culture, try to protect their children by controlling what they learn and what they see on television or the internet.
Many mega-churches do the same thing by offering the services of a small city within their church complexes. These churches contain restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, athletic facilities, day-care, ATMs, coffee bars, and shops of all kinds. The goal is to offer an all-purpose alternative (literally a refuge or fortress, depending on your point of view) to the same facilities outside their walls. The goal keeps members from going anywhere else except home for all their needs. This prevents them from exposure to the greater culture, being in the world, but not co-opted by its immoral behaviors.
While these folks are striving to follow Jesus and live his Gospel, they have taken it too literally and have pushed the proverbial pendulum too far to one extreme. Jesus himself was deeply immersed in the culture of his time and often criticized for it. But he met and pastored people where they were.
The idea of removing myself from the world to not be co-opted by it is tempting at times, especially with the daily barrage of craziness we are experiencing. Walking away from all of it is seductive. I keep hearing Dean Martin’s song “Make the World Go Away” in my head when I think this. But if the world went away from my life, it would not be true to what Jesus is asking God for us to do.
Other Christians are just too daunted by the prospect of having to always be on guard against the ways of the world. They toss their hands in despair and throw in the towel. Following Jesus may feel too hard, boring, or weird, especially when others in their social circle or family or workplace don’t think it’s important or valued.
The majority of us compromise our resistance to the ways of the world little by little. The ways of the world whittle away at us, wearing us down. Often, we don’t even realize it’s happening. We straddle the fence over here. We give slightly in another area over there. Next thing you know you’re not only in, but you’re of the world.
This is not the worst thing, as long as you become aware of it happening. One of the best things about following Jesus is that when that evil one does seduce us to be of the world and compromised by it, we can acknowledge it, repent, and be forgiven.
There is a third way - to live by Jesus’ words in the world. I know, easier said than done. Remember, Jesus asked God to protect us, so we do so with God’s help.
We who follow Jesus are different from the rest of the world. Our values and standards (given to us by Jesus) are different. The new commandment is succinct and easy enough, almost facile. Have you tried to love everyone you encounter in your life for even one day? Whooie, it’s tough work. The Beatitudes are elegant, beautiful and hopeful. But when’s the last time you were persecuted, bullied or gossiped about and felt that the kingdom of God was yours?
As followers of Jesus, there is joy in struggling against the tide of the world’s ways; of battling the storm of evil when you know in every fiber of your being that Jesus’ words are the way the life and the truth. When we face the insidious hostility of evil in the world (knowing we are in alignment with the Gospel), we find true joy. This true joy fulfills Jesus’ prayer, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”
Jesus doesn’t want to take us out of the world; he wants us to participate in the victory of his ways in the world. It is in the rough and tumble of life (not the cloister, barricaded in our homes, or in the enclosed culture of a mega-church ) that we must live our Christian faith.
My friends, Christianity is not an easy faith to follow. Despite attempts by some to paint it as a religion for the weak-minded, or worse, as the opioid of the people, it is far from that. It is not a magic bullet or an elixir we drink once and then poof, all is well. The Christian faith is hard, challenging work. But following Jesus saves gives us the strength to do so as he protects us from the corruption of the world. More than anything, following Jesus equips us better for life. It doesn’t magically give us an end to our problems, it gives us the strength and tools to solve them. We face and conquer our troubles. We cannot abandon the world, we encounter it in all its fullness. Our witness to the Gospel diminishes the evil one.
Jesus prayed to God that he had “revealed/made know God’s name” to the disciples. Our work is to name the character and identity of God in the world. The Son made God known to us, and he revealed that God is love. We are to go and do the same.
Being in the world means that the world will, through us, share the knowledge of the God who is love. There is no more important, critical task for us to engage in.
Let’s go forth into the world, confident that Jesus safeguards us as we proclaim his good news and bring about his reign.