Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Eat Me

           "Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me." Before the days of social media, the church’s best marketing tools were t-shirts. Episcopal students at the University of Georgia created one of the more provocative church t-shirts when they translated the before mentioned verse into “Eat me.”
            On the front of the t-shirt was the traditional Episcopal shield with the name of the Episcopal campus center. The back of the t-shirt, however, displayed an icon of Jesus saying, “Eat me.” As you might imagine, the shirt caused quite a stir not only on the campus in Athens but also across the Episcopal Church.
            In our modern-day vernacular, the phrase “eat me” is most often used in the pejorative sense. You don’t say “eat me” to someone without intending to offend them. Even though Jesus isn’t trying to offend, the Jews who heard this would have been quite offended. According to the Hebrew scriptures, one does not eat meat unless the blood has been drained from the animal. That is what Kosher means. Regardless of Jewish purity laws, there is also the issue of cannibalism…       
            Whether you take offense at these words of Jesus or not, the statement is so provocative that we should be left scratching our heads. Why would he say that? He can’t be serious, can he? Make no mistake – Jesus is dead serious.
This saying comes at the end of a very detailed and very redundant teaching on the relationship between the living bread of heaven and the Son of Man. Like a teacher who is trying to explain a foreign concept to her classroom, Jesus makes it painfully clear that he is the living bread from heaven – the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh. And finally, he says, “If you eat me, then you will have everlasting life.”
Jesus isn’t simply calling us to think about things differently. Jesus isn’t simply telling us to engage in a new spiritual practice. Jesus isn’t even demanding that we start acting differently. Rather, Jesus is calling us to take on the life of God by consuming his flesh and blood. And like a change in a physical diet, we will undoubtedly think, act, and pray differently.  
By inviting us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus is calling us to be more than bystanders or observers of the kingdom of heaven on earth. By consuming the flesh and blood of Jesus, we engage in a life-long process of being transformed into living members of the body of Christ on earth.
 In the flesh of Jesus, God is not offering some spiritual escape from this big, bad world. Rather, like Paul said, in the flesh of Jesus we become citizens in heaven who take up our residence on earth. We become resident aliens. God’s salvation project is about the renewal of this earth by making his heavenly reality incarnate on earth. Why else would Jesus say, “eat me,” if God’s salvation project didn’t concern our physical reality?
Kathleen Norris, author of Amazing Grace, says it like this, “It seems right to me that in so many instances in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels salvation is described in physical terms, in terms of the here and now, because I believe that this is how most of us first experience it.” 
Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, the new creation, the kingdom come, thy Father’s will on earth as it is in heaven, is the One who grants salvation to this physical realm. And when we live in him, we, too, become a part of that salvation project in this physical realm.
When we consume the life of Christ, God’s restoration project becomes a part of our DNA. We can’t to help but to think differently, pray differently, and act differently for the skae of Jesus and his kingdom come on earth. Jesus’ flesh is true food and his blood is true drink.
I’ve been doing some reading on how food and drink affect not only our physical health but also our emotional health. In these days of processed foods and pesticides, it is scary to think about all the harmful stuff we put into our bodies all in the name of convenience and mass production. It’s frightening to consider how many of our physical and mental health problems are directly related to the food we eat.
Regardless of your position on the matter, it is hard to argue that what we eat and drink have a direct correlation to how we think and act. As you’ve heard it said before, you are what you eat. Likewise, the spiritual food that we ingest is directly related to how we conduct our spiritual lives on earth.
Unfortunately, too often does the church water down, process, sterilize, and cut corners on spiritual food in the name of consumerism and relativism. Too often does the church encourage spiritual tinkering that allows people to stand at arm’s length to any kind of commitment to Jesus and his kingdom. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve given into this temptation.
Will Willimon says, “Jesus wants all of us and he wants us to have all of him.” Or like John of Patmos says in Revelation, be anything but lukewarm. Either you are all in or you are all out. In the fullness of time, the kingdom of heaven makes no room for the middle ground for the middle ground is eroding away. In the end, only the kingdom of heaven will stand and in our body, we shall see God.
 The spiritual food and drink we are given in the flesh and blood of Jesus might be described as an acquired taste. If you have been consuming processed or sterilized spiritual food, the flesh and blood of Jesus might seem a little too real. If you have been consuming cheap spiritual carbs, then the spiritual food of Jesus might seem like too much work.  
But once the spiritual food and drink of Jesus becomes a part of your regular spiritual diet, then you will want to spit out the other cheap, watered down, domesticated spiritual food. You will begin to crave what is good for the soul. You will begin to seek truth and peace. Your hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied.
Jesus’ flesh is true food and his blood is true drink because he is the One who sacrificed his body and shed his blood and died for a world that was dying of hunger. This passage from John gives me an entirely new theory of atonement to consider. Yes, Jesus died for our sins. Yes, Jesus died to show us that love is more powerful than hate. But Jesus also died to give us the food that endures for eternal life by giving his life for us on the cross.
 Our life in the kingdom of heaven is not marked by consuming what we need to have life.  Rather, our life in the kingdom of heaven is marked by the One who gave his life so that others might live.
Our life in the kingdom of heaven, available when we eat and drink of Jesus, is about recognizing the corrupt and destructive nature of our earthly kingdoms and instead of participating in those kingdoms or even condemning those kingdoms, we are called to life of repentance where we feed the world with the spiritual food of Christ’s body and blood – a food that makes us work for justice and peace, a food that makes us work for compassion and mercy, a food that humbles us, a food that brings renewal and restoration to this world for the Lamb who was slain is risen from the dead. Amen.   


Monday, August 13, 2018

God Helps Those Who Cannot Help Themselves

Benjamin Franklin once said, “God helps those who help themselves.” Like most Episcopalians during that era, Franklin was a self-proclaimed Deist. As a Deist, he believed that God created the universe but does not involve himself in earthly affairs. He believed it was up to us as to whether we sink or swim. I will, without God’s help.  
Franklin was brilliant for a lot of reasons, but I’m afraid he got this one wrong. Like Thomas Jefferson, another nominal - Episcopalian, Franklin and other Enlightenment thinkers, influenced by Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, omitted the parts of the Bible that spoke of divine intervention. And when you take out all the parts about divine intervention, you are left with a message that proclaims, “God helps those who help themselves.”
More than anything else in the mainline American church history this way of thinking severely undercuts the power of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ finds its power in the timeless truth that God helps those who cannot help themselves.  Again and again, scripture attests to a God who rescues a people who cannot rescue themselves.
Today’s gospel lesson echoes the grumbling of the Israelites in the days following their exodus from Egypt. We hear the helpless cries of the Israelites wondering in the wilderness. As we heard in last week’s Old Testament lesson, the people of Israel tell Moses and Aaron that they would rather be enslaved again under Pharaoh than die of starvation in the wilderness.
As the story goes, God gives these helpless Israelites food to eat and water to drink. God goes against every bit of parenting advice and gives into their temper tantrum. God doesn’t rain down manna from heaven because they follow the rules. God doesn’t rain down manna from heaven because they ask nicely.
God doesn’t devise a compromise and agree to meet them halfway between heaven and earth to drop off the food. Rather, God rains down manna from heaven to earth because God is faithful even when we are not, even when we are helpless.
I know what all you parents are thinking because I am thinking it too. If you give into your children’s temper tantrum, then you are destined to create an entitled, self-centered, spoiled little kid who grows up to be likewise. Along the same lines, you might be thinking, if you keep giving handouts to the helpless, then they will never learn to help themselves.
Friends, like it or not, this is the provocative and scandalous nature of the gospel. This is precisely the risk God is willing to take to save us again and again from ourselves. The alternative, I’m afraid, is death. The alternative will eventually leave even the best and the brightest in the dark because eventually even the best and the brightest are rendered helpless, even the best and brightest cannot make it without God’s help – a truth that Paine and Franklin wrestled with on their deathbeds.
God helps those who cannot help themselves. God helps those whom this world regards as a lost cause. God helps those who have given up trying to help themselves. And God wants to help those who think they don’t need any help.
In our baptismal covenant, we make a lot of promises, promises that say, “I will, with God’s help.” I will, with God’s help. We believe in a God who is intimately and actively involved in this world. And we make these promises not so we might earn the reward of eternal life when we die. After all, in our baptism we are promised eternal life now and forever through the death and resurrection of Jesus our Savior.
We make these promises because we believe God can and will despite our helplessness. We make these promises because we can and will only with God’s help. We make these promises because eventually we will drown without them.   
  Speaking of drowning, our daughter Mary Katherine learned how to swim this summer because we motivated her with prizes. At the beach, Jamie managed to convince Mary Katherine put her head underwater by promising her a unicorn floaty. A few weeks later, we convinced Mary Katherine to swim without puddle jumpers by promising her a mermaid tail.
The real reward, for Mary Katherine and for us, is that Mary Katherine is now a swimmer. She is no longer the only five-year-old at the pool with floaties. She can jump off the diving board with her friends. She now possesses a skill that will help her for the rest of her life.
Pretty soon, the unicorn floaty and the mermaid tail will become footnotes in the bigger story. Likewise, the manna from heaven is a footnote in the larger story of God’s plan of salvation. The feeding of the 5,000 is just a parcel of the salvation story.
In today’s lesson, Jesus says, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died…I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” The story is much bigger than the manna, than the feeding of the masses, than the unicorn floaty and mermaid tail. The story is much bigger than we go to heaven because we were good little boys and girls.
The true reward is that God makes us living members of the body of Christ on earth – the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh. As living members of the body of Christ, we live and serve and love the Lord not to earn the reward of heaven but because in Christ we have found that reward on earth. The true reward is that we are called to be agents of peace and healing in God’s story of salvation – on earth as it is in heaven.
Shortly before he was shot and killed in Hanyeville in 1965 during the Voting Rights Movement, Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels described his own experience of discovering the reward of participating in the life of Christ, a life initiated in baptism.
Daniels wrote, “I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God. I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance!”
A week later, Jonathan Daniels received the most prestigious reward that any Christian can receive – a reward that can only be received when one is confident in the truth that the only life that matters if the life of Christ – a life that lives beyond death and the grave.
Daniels gave his life to save the life of another by stepping in front of a shotgun intended for a young black woman. He gave his life for a cause he believed in – equal rights and human rights. Ultimately, Daniels gave his life for the Lord he loved.
It has been said that the blood of the martyrs are the seeds of the church. For me personally, the blood of Daniels inspires me to be more faithful and more confident in the truth that our true reward is found when our lives are hid with Christ in God.
Our true reward is found when we let go of all earthly expectations and worldly desires and cling to the truth of Christ that says, “I am faithful even when you stumble. I am faithful even when you cannot be. I am faithful even when you feel like you have no control over the situation.”
As we begin these last few weeks together, we will undoubtedly be consumed by the unknown. We might even feel helpless over the future. In my experience, when we begin to feel helpless over the future, fear sets in and we try to control that future. We do things that are out of character.
Friends in Christ, remember that God has already prepared a future for you that you can be excited about. In light of the reward and hope given in baptism, hold onto the promises you made to God and each other. I will, with God’s help.
Even when you cannot hold onto those promises, hold onto the promise that God made to you in your baptism – sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Above all, hold onto the truth that God can and God will for God always has. Amen.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Soul Food

            Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
During my time in Birmingham, a colleague and I started Church in the Park at Linn Park. Before we launched the ministry, we canvased the crowds in the park, most of whom were homeless, to see if there would be any interest. Almost all the people we talked to said the ministry would only be successful if we served lunch after worship – one guy was very intent on bologna sandwiches.
I recalled this particular text from John and thought to myself, “Do they not understand we are serving Jesus, not food?” The more I reflected on the comment, however, the more I realized I was really no different.
I went to Bible study in 7th grade because there were Krispy Kreme donuts. I went to Happening because I knew I could eat all the candy I ever wanted. I went to church every Sunday in college because I knew a free dinner awaited me following the service. I became a priest because I knew I would never have to pay for lunch ever again (just kidding)!
There is no doubt that food, especially free food, draws a crowd. Translating the refrain from Field of Dreams, if you have food, they will come. While food is essential for both our physical and mental health, there must be something more to sustain our spiritual health. As someone said, there must also be soul food.
Jesus has no problem gathering the fold into the flock with a free lunch, but Jesus is clear that a free lunch is not the end game. Jesus hopes the crowd will see beyond food. Jesus says, “do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” – that we might pass through things temporal and not lose the things eternal.
Jesus hopes the yearning for a Krispy Kreme donut turns into a yearning to know the fullness of God. Jesus hopes the thought of never ending candy turns into the thought of knowing a love that never ends. Jesus hopes the appeal of a free meal turns into an appeal that says, Lord, have mercy – a mercy freely given by our Savior.
All of this is not to say that God does not care about our temporal reality. In fact, God cares so much about our temporal reality that God is willing to take on our frail flesh and die for us. God knows that this temporal reality so often blinds us to God’s eternal reality, and God’s mission is to reorient us toward that eternal reality through Jesus of Nazareth – a human being just like you and me.
God is not devising an escape plan for all the holy people stuck on earth. Rather, God is sanctifying us through Christ so that this temporal life might reflect the things eternal - thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s not that this temporal world is bad. After all, God looked at creation after the first generations and said, “It is very good!” And then God told us to take care of this world. But instead of taking care of this world, instead of taking care of each other, instead of trying to find the divine life in all things, we fall into the temptation of consuming the things of this world with little regard for the sacredness of it all.
Things start to go sideways when we use this world to serve our needs instead of serving the needs of the world. And so, here we have this Jesus who calls us to see the world from a different point of view by giving us the vision of the kingdom of heaven on earth – a vision that calls us to pursue the things eternal.
Jesus says, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given unto you.” And the paradox of it all is that when we pursue things eternal, we are content with our temporal reality – we realize we have all that we really need.
When I say, we realize we have all that we really need, I do not mean that we will get everything we ever wanted. I do not mean we will get all the material things American culture tells us we need in order to lead a life worth living. I don’t mean everything in life will work out like we hope.
Rather, I mean when we pursue the things eternal, we are no longer so attached to the earthly things we think we need for fulfillment, we are no longer so attached to the temporal things our culture puts so much value on.
Speaking of things our culture puts so much value on, did you know that Apple just became the first American company to exceed $1 trillion in value? This isn’t really that surprising though. The Alvey household shares two Apple TVs, a Mac desktop, and an iPad. We’ve also owned a number of iPhones and iPods over the years. Once you buy one of their products it’s almost like you are sucked in for life. At some point, it’s like you can’t live without Apple products.
Imagine for a minute if our culture was as invested in the kingdom of God as we are in Apple products. Imagine for a minute what our world look like if our worldview was guided as much by the kingdom of God as it is by the worldview Apple products open us up to?
Studies show that people don’t buy Apple products because they offer the best technology. Many would even argue that Apple does not offer the best products. Instead, people buy Apple products because it is a way of life. Buying Apple is a lifestyle.
I think the church should take a tip from Apple. Instead of trying to offer new and improved products and services, we should be offering a different way of living – a lifestyle modeled after Jesus and his followers.
Jesus didn’t come to offer new and improved products for a better life. Jesus isn’t peddling goods that guarantee health, wealth, and happiness. Instead, Jesus is offering a way of life that opens us up to God’s eternal reality in the here and now. Jesus is offering a way of life that models the kingdom of heaven on earth, a kingdom where all are valued and cherished as beloved children of God.
Before we were called Christians, we were called People of The Way. We were called people of The Way because our lives were so radically different from the consumer culture around us. We associated with the sick and lowly. We advocated for the widowed and orphaned. We gladly gave up whatever earthly treasures we had for the sake of the kingdom of heaven – for the sake of the community of God. We compelled people to follow Jesus not by what we had to offer but by the way we lived.
Beloved in Christ, may we live for this true bread from heaven, may we live for the way of Jesus, may we live for the kingdom of heaven and may God bless us and fill us with all good things through the changes and chances of this life until we rest, at last, in God’s eternal changelessness. Amen.