Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sermon: B 12 Pentecost 15th Proper 19 August 2012

1 Kgs 2:10-12,3:3-14; Ps 111; Eph 5: 15-20; JOHN 6: 51-58
Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. AMEN.
Since we’ve been listening to John’s Bread of Life discourse, I’ve kept the image that’s been with these Meditations on my desktop. I don’t know whether it’s the two, egg-brushed shiny loaves with the budded (or bottony) stubby crosses sitting on each, or the brightly colored, geometrically patterned plate itself that draws me in. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” It’s the bright image that reminds me of the double point John makes, of Jesus as the bread of life, while some around Jesus neither sees him, nor the bread, as that which promises and delivers eternal life. The more cheerful and well made the bread and its plate is, in some ways, the harder it is to see it as a mystery, and not just an attractive plate.

This image is a colorfully painted, glazed Mexican ceramic plate with 2 well-baked loaves of bread. No mystery there. There might well be stacks of plates like this, and the loaves without the stuck-on crosses probably appear at the local bakery as rolls and mini-breads. It would be hard to persuade someone with no knowledge of Jesus or his mission that this plate was anything other than a delightful plate of bread, missing cheese, vegetables, or jam and butter. If we are raised to see and understand Christian iconography, people of hope and curiosity, then we see the image demonstrating the sweetness and bright joy of the Eucharist.
 We, however, have often been conditioned, as Christians, to see and feel the weight of our own dreary mistakes, limitations, and outright sins. “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we most grievously have committed in thought, word, and deed. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them intolerable.” Repeating that self-description, we pray with today’s collect for the “grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work.” The collect’s tone, though, reminds us of the old phrase, “We are worms and no man…” While we neither, necessarily earn, nor deserve grace, offering and promising it, is God’s property. For many eons in the church the emphasis was on our unworthiness, and that beginning point for Christian spirituality has put a heaviness on our view of ourselves. More though than that, if we were formed, even doomed, to be sinners, to be sinful, what was God up to? While Christians have always understood the imperfection of any of Creation, compared to the infinite perfection of the Creator, there seemed always to be two questions left on that theologically constructed table. Either the Creator created imperfectly, even poorly, and so wasn’t so almighty perfect as a doer, or the Creator made creation flawed, doomed, limited, on purpose, to preserve the distance, to limit the power and strength of creation from the Creator, and to avoid conflict, competition, or any other sort of guff from that creation. The former is far preferable—that the Creator limited Creation to what was possible for the Creator—than that the Creator was in some way mean-spirited. The collect hints we might well not have grace to receive the fruit of Jesus’ work either unthankfully or thankfully. I think this sets us up for an undercurrent of angst.
In contrast the Psalmist began with “Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart...Great are the deeds of the Lord...they are studied by all who delight in them. The Lord’s work is full of majesty and splendor…The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, doing handiwork of faithfulness and justice. The Lord sent redemption and commanded an everlasting covenant—holy and awesome is the Lord’s name.” There is neither ambiguity nor doubt in this psalm, and as a starting place, suggests a great, secure thanksgiving is owed, easy, and desirable to offer. The author’s of Ephesians, let’s call him Paul’s, “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” offers an appealing response. We are to make the most of our time, “to understand what the will of the Lord is. We are to sing and make melody in our hearts, giving thanks to God the Father, God the Creator at all times, and thanks for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When we start with our own frailties and misses, we can get waylaid from that singing and making melody in our hearts. Instead let’s begin by rejoicing in the obvious. Look and commit to our own inner iMind’s image that plate with its appealing almost brioche-like, tasty bread. Begin enjoying that image’s joy and attraction for us as any appreciating person. Take pleasure in the immediate reality of the goodness offered in the image, wonders of creation in any/all its forms.
We are also, though, attentive to symbols too. We see the careful emphasis on the shiny, or perhaps the shining light on the bread. We’re tuned in, trained to see bread with crosses on it as the bread of Eucharist. We see in the plate’s painted designs—three golden rings around the bread, one of dots, one of an octagon, and one of stylized golden dotted flowers—abstractions of Trinitarian imagery. We might then see the deep blue inner circle under the bread and the outer blue edge of the plate as the extent of Creation, from the skies to the oceans—and seeing those boundaries as good. We recognize the bread as the work of human hands, and see human action in and among the gifts of Creation, blessed by the enveloping rings of the Trinity. Am I seeing too much or making an irrelevant analysis of this plate? I am persuaded that God can only speak to us in languages we speak, and the bread, the design, and the colors send me from the plate’s reality to it as offering the Eucharist in food and symbol.
Those hearing Jesus were invited to hear him saying: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Remember that this part of John’s Gospel was probably written after the Eucharist was already being celebrated in nascent Christian communities, gatherings, and groups. This Gospel was for those participants to outline the faith they were enacting, participating in, and recognizing. It was showing them something they had been told, were living out, and were learning to believe and trust. In becoming people of hope and curiosity, a people of hope, justice, and love, they were learning to relax into this symbol, looking for it, recognizing it, and communicating with and through it. Those not participating in Eucharistic celebrations might well hear this as a form of cannibalism—and some did, and in a way, how could they not? Some people would see that plate as a brightly colored image of Mexican ceramics and baking.
Yet it’s August of the Mark Year, and it’s the third Sunday hearing Bread of Life, time as this week’s mediations to appeal to God for wisdom to understand and deal with this imagery. There is the image itself and, it, as a symbol of the Eucharist. “But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” We are to think of the bread of life as Jesus, himself, in word, deed and reality, not as a simple symbol in the bread, in Jesus, but as a door, a path, and an entry to eternal life— not an image of it, a symbol of that, but Jesus the real-time, real experience of life everlasting. The plate shows all three understandings: bread, Eucharist, and ones of God and all creation eternally.
I was reading a not-connected poem, “Mist Valley” by James Longenback, talking about living into the relaxation of August, and the living into a reality seems to me apposite.
“At the end of August, when all/ The letters of the alphabet are waiting,/ You drop a teabag in a cup./ The same few letters making many different words. /The same words meaning different things.//Often you’ve rearranged them on the surface of the fridge./ Without the surface/ They’re repulsed by one another.// Here are the letters./ The tea is in your cup.// At the end of August, the mind/Is neither the pokeweed piercing the grass/ Nor the grass itself./ As Tony Cook says in The Biology of Terrestial Mollusks// The right thing to do is nothing, the place/ A place of concealment,/ And the time as often as possible.”
That sent me to a way to apprehend the Real Presence: “the thing to do is nothing,” (or here: actually “the thing is to do” is to join in, tasting salvation, the invitation offered, the acceptance of each of us as living, acting, trying, missing the mark, fully acceptable humans,) “the place a place of concealment,” (though here: “the place” is partly public and partly a place of concealment, namely our hearts, minds, and spirit, even if we do this together,) and surely we here would agree in principle with “the time as often as possible,” if we could schedule it. Through prayer, understanding, physical bread and wine, and most mysteriously through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we want to be part of Jesus, his mission, and his eternal life with God, and it’s a promise shown through all creation, guaranteed to us: Good News. AMEN.
©Katharine C. Black      19 August 2012     St. John’s Boston