Sunday, August 30, 2015

14 Pentecost

August 30, 2015

James 1.17-27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I had hoped—honestly—that now, in our Gospel readings, we had moved away from all that bread imagery we’ve been hearing over the last several weeks, that we would get a break this morning. Maybe some nice, sweet Gospel reading about lambs or miracles.  But…no.

Instead, we get this reading from the Gospel of Mark. One of those finger-shaking scriptures.  That list Jesus lays out at the end of the reading for today is a pretty strong and straightforward one.  And most of us can feel pretty confident we’re free and clear for the most part.

After all, most of don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, aren’t purposely wicked, are deceitful, don’t slander A few we might not really understand:

avarice (which is just another word for greed)?

licentiousness (which just means immorality, being immoral)?

And folly? What’s so horrible about folly? I’m guilty of that all the time.

But then, there are a few we find might actually hit home a bit, such as Envy and Pride.  All right. Yup. I stumble with those. I do.  

What it is especially apt about this morning’s Gospel reading is that Jesus takes these ugly things we are capable of doing and uses them to engage fully the Pharisees and the scribes. He takes their condemnation of him about cleanliness and keeps the conversation going regarding cleanliness.  He simply takes the conversation up a notch.

You are worried about what defiles the hands.  I am concerned with what defiles the heart.

The heart, for Jewish people of Jesus’ day, was truly the center of one’s being.  From the heart everything emanated. The heart directed the mind.  It directed our thoughts.  If your heart was pure, then you were pure.  If your heart was evil, then you did evil.  If your heart is full of darkness, you live in darkness. Because where your heart leads, your actions follow.

But one we could easily add to this list is one we might not want to admit to. And the only reason I even consider it in this context is because of our reading from the Epistle of James today.

 “Anger.”

 Now, if we did add this to the list, then this would win the prize with me. Now most of you know me as a pretty laid-back kind of person for the most part.  I don’t seem to fly off the handle very often.  Except when I drive. Luckily, few of you have ever driven with me. And those few of you who have, you don’t anymore.

I am an impatient and grouchy driver. And the things I say—well, let’s just say, it’s best left between me and Jesus.

But I don’t think there have been too many people who have actually seen me completely lose it with anger. Once or twice.  But we all live with anger and every so often I am forced to confront my own.

When I do, I find myself experiencing anger in all its force.  Anger can be all consuming.  When it boils up from within, all other senses seem to shut off.  I see red. Like, glaring red.  It rages and roils and knocks me—and anyone else around me—around, and in the midst of it, I find I am not only angry, but almost scared by my own anger. Because it can be powerful.

Now, there is such thing as a kind of righteous anger. By righteous here, I’m not talking about self-righteous. I’m not talking about superior kind of anger. I’m talking about “right anger.” And there really is such a thing.

Anger at injustice. Anger at oppression and racism and sexism and homophobia and all the other ugly things out there.  Such anger can motivate us and move us forward toward seeing justice and equality.

But…in such cases, we need to be very, very careful with our anger. I need to be careful with my anger Because anger can be a powder keg.  It can become something more—and something uncontrollable.  

Which only, of course, leads me back to our reading from St. James for this morning.  This past week, our reading from James been a special scripture that I have lived with:

“…be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

He’s not saying you can’t be angry. Just be careful with your anger.  By being slow with our anger, we kind of control it. Anger is something that needs to be confronted and dealt with.

But uncontrolled anger needs to be systematically slowed, because it is like poison in our systems.  Anger can destroy us and those around us.  And, as St. James says, “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” If we think that by acting out in anger we will gain something, we won’t.  The anger may motivate it, but it cannot guide us or sustain us.  If we think about our heart as the center of our being—as the center of ourselves, we find that anger truly can poison the heart and therefore the whole system.  

When we continue to harbor anger in our hearts, we become a slave to anger.  And if we are slave to anger, we can let love flourish.  And if we cannot let love flourish, God cannot come and dwell within us.  We block out God and we block out the Kingdom of God.

Anger does not help the Kingdom break through into our midst.  We are not helping build up the Kingdom when anger rules us. So, these words of James speak strongly to us this morning.

“Be quick to listen, be slow to speak”

We know how speaking sows the seeds of anger.  And if we’re speaking, we are not listening.  And sometimes, when we listen—truly listen—we find that anger can be defused.

“Be slow to anger”.

I have come to conclusion that it is simply impossible to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves when we allow anger to rule and flourish, when the storms of anger are raging within us.  Anger prevents love.  It stifles love.  It kills love.

Yes, we can be angry at injustice, but we can’t let it kill love. We can angry at wrongness, but we can’t let it dominate our lives and come between us and our relationship with God and one another.

One of the best books I’ve ever read about anger was a book called Anger by the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. There are so many incredible nuggets of his wisdom in his book, but one of the best is one in which explains that we do allow, at times, the seeds of anger to be watered within us and that when we do that, our anger will grow into unruly weeds.

He also goes on to say that essentially each of us have a wounded child within us. And it is this wounded child, with her or his unhealed wounds, that often feed our adult anger.   Because when we’re angry, and we’ve seen this happen, we do often act like wounded children. We cross our arms We get grumpy. We stomp our feet. We throw a tantrum.  I love that image!

Another wonderful image he uses is that when we allow anger to fester and grow, our very selves become battlefields between good and evil. 

Thay’s advice to us is that we must work hard at now allowing the seeds of our anger to be watered.  We must strive, he says, to cultivate the seeds of peacefulness and love within ourselves. We must nurture our wounded child and help her or him to grow up.  And we most definitely must not let war rage within us. Because when it does, we are the ones who continue to be hurt the most by our own anger. We are the ones who are most hurt by our anger.

So, in addition to Thich Nhat Hanh, let us listen to St. James from our epistle reading today.   Let us use his words as our own personal motto.  Let his words speak in us.  Let love squeeze out those festering seeds of anger within us. And let us banish from our hearts—the center of our very beings—anything that prevents love from reigning there.  Let us banish from it those vices—both easy to banish and difficult to banish—so that the pureness and holiness and wholeness of Christ can reign within us.   And if we do, God’s love will settle upon the very center of our being and give us a peace that no anger can destroy.


Friday, August 28, 2015

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Add caption
My latest, THE DOWNSTAIRS TENANT, and the anthology, NORTH DAKOTA IS EVERYWHERE (in which some of my poems appear), on display at the Institute for Regional Studies at NDSU 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Simone Weil

On this day in 1943, Simone Weil died. She was truly one of the spiritual "greats."

Sunday, August 23, 2015

13 Pentecost

August 26, 2012

Ephesians 43.15-22; John 6.56-69

+ This is a very fortunate time to be at St. Stephen’s. For the first time in our almost sixty year history, we have a great thing happening at this moment No, I’m not talking about our memorial garden being installed this coming week. At this moment, we have three people—three!—who are heeding and discerning the call to ordained ministry.

Of course, William Weightman is well into his seminary education and will soon be taking chaplains’ training.  William, as we know, is seeking ordination as a priest and will, hopefully—and God willing—be ordained and serve a congregation.

And of course, John Anderson and Jessica Zdenek are beginning the very early process of those tentative early steps toward—God willing—ordination as deacons to serve St. Stephen’s.  Of course, for John, who was ordained in the United Methodist Church, this isn’t all that strange of a calling, though it is different.

Such discernment is never easy and we need to remember to keep all three of these brave people in our prayers.  As an ordained minister myself, I commend them and, at times, I pity them. Ordained ministry is NOT easy. It is not for the light-hearted.

I can’t help but use the analogy of these beginning steps toward ordained ministry of newly hatched turtles. You know those turtles whose mothers bury the eggs in the sand. The babies hatch and then make a mad dash for the sea. But to get from where they hatched to the water, they have to overcome exhaustion and seagulls swooping down on them and all kinds of other sorts of difficulties. Not all of those baby turtles make it to the water. And those that do, still have another set of issues in the water—sharks and whatever else is waiting for them there.

Sorry for William, John and Jessica for being a bit dark about this. But as one of those baby turtles who also made a mad dash for the sea, I speak with some experience.

Now, should these three people make it to ordained ministry, on that wonderful day when they are ordained, they will be making some promises. On that day, they will kneel before a bishop in a church, and will say before God, the Bishop and the Church, this promise:

“…I solemnly declare that I do believe the holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation…”

That vow is good for all of us who are ministers, not just ordained ministers. And, if you really listen, it’s a statement packed with meaning.

I believe the scriptures to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation.

All of it? you may wonder. However they—and each of you—may interpret that statement, what we are really professing here is that through the scriptures God does speak to us. God’s very Word comes to us through these scriptures. Which makes these scriptures incredibly powerful.

We get an echo of this importance of the Word of God in our Gospel reading for today. In it, we find Simon Peter answering that question of Jesus, “Do you wish to go away?” with strangely poetic and vibrant words.

Peter asks, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

For all of us as followers of Jesus, the Word (which we find contained in scripture) is essential.  And powerful.  It not only directs our lives, it sustains us, and feeds us and keeps us buoyant in the floods and tempests that rage about us.  The Word is the place to which we go when we need direction, when we need comfort, when we need hope as followers of Jesus.  The Word is essential to us because, through it, God speaks to us.  The Word is essential to us because it is there that we hear God’s Spirit directing us and leading us forward.

The irony for me, however, is most poignant when I listen to those detractors who use the Word in cutting ways.  We of course hear them all the time.  People who use scripture to support their homophobia or their political beliefs or their condemnation of others. Because scripture is so powerful, people who do so are playing with fire. Or maybe dynamite might be the better image.

I have always warned parishioners and students to be careful of using Scripture as a sword, because, I say: remember.  It is a two-edged sword.  If you use the Word to cut others, trust me: it will come back and it cut you as well.  It is just that powerful. And frightening.  It can destroy, not just those the one who wields it wants to destroy, but it can also destroy the one who wields it.

However—and this is a big however—if we use the Word to affirm, to build up the Kingdom of God, if we allow the Word to be, in our lives, the voice of Christ, then we in turn are affirmed. As Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning: “take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

That sword of the Spirit is an amazing weapon.  That sword of the Spirit is essential for all of us who are ministers.  It is a powerful device that carries more strength and influence than any of us probably fully realize.  And because it is so powerful, we need to use very, very carefully. It like handling a loaded, sensitive machine gun.

We need to use it not in anger, not in hatred, not in oppression, but in love.  When we wield this sword of the Spirit in love, we find love being sown.  When we wield this sword in compassion, we spread compassion.  When we wield this sword to shatter injustice and oppression, we find justice and freedom.  When we wield this sword as a way to clear the way for the Kingdom of God, we find that we too become a part of that building up of the Kingdom.

We too are able to clearly hear Jesus’ voice in our lives.  Those words of eternal life that Jesus speaks to us again and again in scripture truly do break down barriers, build up those marginalized and shunned and, in doing so, we find the Kingdom of God in our midst.

When a Benedictine monk or nun makes a profession of vows they pray a wonderful prayer.  Their prayer is:

“Accept me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my expectation.”

I love that.

“Do not disappoint me in my expectation.”

This is our prayer as well as followers of Jesus. This is the prayer of all of who are called to be ministers—whether as lay people or as clergy.

“Accept me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my expectation.” 

We too have prayed to be accepted according to God’s Word.  The sword of the Spirit has swiped the veil of separation from us and has made us one.  And none of us, in this oneness, in this kingdom of God in our midst, is disappointed in our expectation.

When all are seen as one, when all are accepted, then our expectation will be fulfilled.  But we need to keep listening, to keep straining our ears for Jesus’ words to us.  We need to keep listening so God can speak to us—so the Word can speak to us and through us.  When God speaks to us, we respond.  When the Word comes to us, we then need to engage it.  This is what prayer is—holy conversation. And as the Word is spoken to us, as we hear it and feel it, our response is the same as those who heard the Word spoken to them by Jesus.

“Yes, Lord, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

So let us hear those words of eternal life.  Let us embody that Word in our lives.  Let us share that Word through the good we do in this world. And when we do, people will know.  People will know who we follow.  People will know that the Word we embody in our very lives is the Word of that Holy One of God.



Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Prayer on the Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels

50 years ago, Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels was shot in killed was shot and killed in Hayneville, Alabama, while saving the life of another civil rights worker. The Episcopal Church commemorates him on this day. Here is a prayer I wrote over ten years that appeared in the anthology, Race and Prayer: Collected Voices, Many Dreams.
 
 
A Prayer on the Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels

 

Holy and loving God,

help us to see ourselves

            as You see us—

these people we are

            beneath our colored flesh.

Burn away

with a purifying fire

the cataracts of ignorance

            and prejudice

Take from us

our small-mindedness,

our sometimes inbred need 

            to see with human eyes

            and not with our true sight—

that vision you have set within us.

 

Replace the violence that grows within us

when we are frightened

and challenged

with the peacefulness

            and the love you have shown to us

in Jesus, our brother and our friend.

 

Help us to embrace color—

to see, in our various tints,

the holiness of our flesh.

 

Love us in all the colors of our skin—

in our reds,

in our blackness,

in our yellows

in our browns

and in our whiteness.

 

Love us for the fire

of compassion and truth

that burns within us—

stronger than all flesh.

 

Love us for the life within us—

            for the frail breath that is with us today

            and gone, in an instant, tomorrow.

Love us for the blood that courses

through all our veins—

the same-colored blood

that was drained from Jesus’ veins.

 

We ask this of You—

most holy

and loving God—

whose very presence in our lives

is one of light

and life

and, yes, of color—

who, in Jesus, was one of us.

 

In the Spirit

You have given us,

make us, truly,

One.

 

 

 

“A Prayer on the Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels” originally appeared in the anthology, Race and Prayer: Collected Voices, Many Dreams, edited by Malcolm Boyd and Bishop Chester L. Talton. Published in March 2003 by Morehouse Publishing.

 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Promoting my book The Downstairs Tenant


I was subtly reminded this week that I dropped the ball in my promotion of my book of short stories, The Downstairs Tenant. To be honest, when the book came out earlier this year, I was dealing with some other issues as well being a bit overworked, so, very sadly, I did not do much to promote it. However, please do purchase a copy (or copies), give copies to friends and family, consider it as a Christmas gift.  Because it is a book of fiction, it is a bit different than my books of poetry, but that even makes a bit more unique.
https://epayment.ndus.nodak.edu/C22800_ustores/web/product_detail.jsp?PRODUCTID=5983&SINGLESTORE=true

Sunday, August 9, 2015

11 Pentecost

August 9, 2015

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

+ This past week  there were two very important historical anniversaries. On Thursday, of course, was the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. We commemorated that event as part of the Eve of the Transfiguration Mass here at St. Stephen’s on Wednesday evening.  And today, of course, is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

Not very people know this, but I actually wrote a book about the bombing of Hiroshima. As in, it was actually published. The book, Cloud, was actually a two act, full-length play, based on the Japanese dramatic style called Noh, and was published in 1997. I think two people read it. I don’t think it’s in print, though I did see that copies of it are being offered for sale for a couple of hundred dollars. (I don’t get to see any of that money, since someone already bought the book at some point.)

But my book came out of the fact that I have been a life-long pacifist.  Now, I’m always careful to say that. In some places, my saying I am a pacifist does not win me many friends. But, luckily, I am very fortunate to serve at a congregation that prides itself on its commitment to the cause of peace.  And, as we all know, St. Stephen’s is known as the sort of token, “Peace and Justice” congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota.  That Peace Pole outside is not just for show.

I know that many of us here this morning are pacifist.  And I know that many of us are not. And I actually empathize with those who are not.  I think there is a valid argument for “just war.”

My reasons for being a pacifist are personal—they are very similar to the reasons I am vegan. I simply feel morally apprehensive about killing anyone, even in self-defense.  For me, being a pacifist is a fine thing to be when nations rage and we are at war with each other.  

Being a pacifist for me is easy when it means standing up against what I view as unfair wars.  However, I have discovered, being a pacifist means more than just striving for peace in the larger world—the world “out there.”  Being a pacifist, means striving for peace in my own life and in my own relationships.

And here is the area in which I will confess I have failed as a pacifist at times. As you know—I know this is a surprise—I am a headstrong person.  And one of the things I have had to work hard not to do is to curb what my tongue says. I have a “gift” at being able to strike hard with my words. And I can say that, again and again in my life, every single time I have gotten in trouble with church authorities or parishioners or fellow priests, it has been as a result of my tongue.

It is the words I have said that have consistently gotten my in trouble. The fact is there are people out there who do not like me or do not accept me for who I am and what I am and what I represent to them. And I have not always been kind to those people. Many people here this morning have felt that same way—whether it be because they are GLBT, liberal, conservative, agnostic, catholic, or whatever….

What I have learned for myself is that in those situations, that I am called on the most profoundly to be a pacifist.  Being a pacifist for me means being a pacifist in all aspects of my life. Being a pacifist means seeking and striving for peace in every area of my existence.  Which, let me tell you, is much harder than it sounds or one can even imagine. It is difficult for any of us to admit that there are people out there who do not like us, who hate us, who want the worst to happen to us.  And it’s even more difficult when we realize they hate us either for who we are or for who they perceive we are.  And let’s not even get started on those friends or family who we feel have betrayed us or turned their backs on us, or now ignore us.  Sadly, that’s just a fact of life.

More likely than not, there will always be people out there who simply don’t like us. There will always be friends who just don’t want to be friends with us anymore.  What matters most is how we—as individuals, as Christians, as followers of Jesus—deal with those situations.  Do we deal with them with peace in our hearts?  Probably not.  We most likely deal with them in anger.  And I can tell you, countering anger and hatred with anger and hatred never, ever  works.  It simply involves two walls going up against one another. And nothing gets resolved.

In my own life, I have found that sometimes peace and kindness and legitimate caring for that person who hates me does make all the difference.  Peace and kindness and legitimate caring.  Not acceptance, mind you. Not acceptance of their hatred or small mindedness. Not acceptance of their prejudices. Not acceptance of the fact that they have turned away the gift of friendship.

But love of them, as a fellow human being, a fallible human being, a broken human being, just like me, just like all of us. And, more often than not in my life, that counter offense of love and kindness does more to break down barriers than anything else.

It certainly does much more than a counter offense of anger and hatred and negativeness.  Of course, it doesn’t happen in an instant. Sometimes it takes years and years. But it does, more often than not, win out. Peace always wins out in the end.

And peace is our prerogative as Christians. We, as followers of Jesus, do not have a choice in this matter. As followers of Jesus, we are agents of peace in this world. We are agents of love and kindness to our enemies—to those who hate us, to those who refuse to love us or show kindness to us.  We are called by Jesus to love, and when we love, there can be no room in our hearts for anger or hatred.

Now, I will say this, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, is one of the most difficult scriptures I have ever had to deal with in my life as a Christian. Every time I heard or read it, I feel myself convicted. In the mirror of this scripture, I feel inadequate. I see my own guilt staring back at me.  St. Paul lays it on the line:

“Be angry,” he says. “But do not sin.”

OK. Yes, I can do that.

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouth...”

Shoot! I was doing so well. This is hard.

“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit…”

We grieve the Holy Spirit when we let those negative, war-like words out of our mouths. When we backbite and complain. When we bash others when others aren’t there. What harm can it do? we wonder. They can’t hear it. But the Holy Spirit hears it. And those negative words do make a difference. Those words make war.

 “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” Paul writes, “and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

But, then, as though to drive home his point, he puts before us a challenge like few other challenges.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

“Be imitators of God,” Paul says to us.

Be imitators of the God of love we worship.  Be imitators of the God of love who loves each of us fully and completely.  Be imitators of the God of love who loves us for who we are, just as we are, even when we lash out with our angry words at others.

For me, this has to be the most difficult thing about being a follower of Jesus.  There are days when I want to be angry at those people who have wronged me and hurt me.  There are days when I want to get revenge on them and “show them.”  There are days when it feels almost pleasurable to think about “getting even” with those people and “putting them in their place.”  It’s so easy and it feels so good. And it makes the pain of betrayal less. That is certainly the easier thing to do—at least for me. But driving that anger and hatred and frustration from me is so much harder.

Being an imitator of God—a God of radical acceptance—is much harder, much more difficult.  To be an imitator of the God of love takes work. Hard, concentrated work.   But, in the end, it’s better.  

Life is just so much better when the darkness of anger is gone from it.  Life seems so much less dangerous when we realize everyone is not our enemy.  Life is so much sweeter when we refuse to see a person as an enemy who sees us as their enemy.  Life is just always so much better when peace and love reign.

Yes, I know. It seems so Pollyannaish.  It seems so na├»ve.  It seems as though we are deceiving ourselves.  But, the fact is, it takes a much stronger person to love.  It takes a very strong person to act in peace and love and not in anger and fear.  It takes a person of radical strength to be an imitator of a God of radical love.  The strength it takes to maintain peace in a time of strife is more incredible than anything we can even imagine.

I have had more than one former enemy become my friend, or at least my acquaintance, because of the effort to maintain peace rather than to antagonize.  Not always. But a few times, peace has changed people’s hearts.

Peace can do that.  It can change people.  But it has to change us first.

We, as followers of Jesus, as imitators of God, need to rid ourselves of the thorns and brambles of hatred and anger so we can let the flowers of peace blossom in our lives.  

But it begins with us.  It begins with us seeing ourselves for who are—loved children of God attempting to imitate that God of love.

So, let us be true followers of Jesus in all aspects of our lives.  Let us strive to imitate our God of peace and love in everything we do.  Let us let peace and love reign in our hearts and in our lives.  Let that peace and love overcome all that anger, the hatred, the frustration that seems to reign in most of the world.  And when we let peace and love reign, we will find that it permeates through us.

Everything we do is an act of peace, is an act of love to others. And that is what being a follower of Jesus in this world is.  That is the sermon we preach to others.  That is the message of Christ’s love that we proclaim in our very lives. That is true evangelism.  And that is what each of is not only called to do by Jesus, but commanded to do by him.

“Live in love as Christ loved us,” Paul says to each of us.

When we do, that love will change the world.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

10 Pentecost

August 2, 2015

Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78.23-29; John 6.24-35

+ Have you seen those wonderful Snickers commercials from a couple of years ago? You know the ones. One of my favorites is the one in we see Betty White playing football with a bunch of young guys. At one point, poor Betty gets tackled. One of the guys then comes up to Betty, and says, “Mike, you’re playing like Betty White out there.” A young woman—Mike’s girlfriend, we presume—  then comes over to Betty and gives her a Snickers bar. She eats it and magically she turns back into—Mike. We then see Abe Vigoda gets tackled.

At the end of the commercial we hear, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

I love that commercial!  Actually my favorite one is the one with Aretha Franklin and Liza Minella in which the punch line is, “Jeff, every times you get hungry you turn into a diva.”

Been there, been that.  Let me tell you.

But we all know that feeling. We are not us when we’re hungry. We do get grouchy and snippy when we’re hungry. We mumble and we complain. And we’re unpleasant to be around. We are not “us” when we’re hungry. We too do it when we’re hungry.  Which explains my attitude all the time. After all, the jokes goes, all I live off is grass and twigs—ah, vegans!  

Those commercials and that line could very well have been used on some of the people in our scriptures readings for today.  Certainly today, we get some complaining in our scripture readings.

In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures—from Exodus—we find the Israelites, in their hunger, complaining and grumbling.  In some translations, we find the word “murmuring.”  Over and over again in the Exodus story they seem to complain and grumble and murmur. To be fair, complaining and grumbling would be expected from people who are hungry.

But in their hunger, God provides for them.  God provides them this mysterious manna—this strange bread from heaven. Nobody’s real clear what this mysterious manna actually was.  It’s often described as flakes, or a dew-like substance.  But it was miraculous.

Now, in our Gospel, we find the same story of the Israelites and their hunger, but it has been turned around entirely.  As our Liturgy of the Word for today begins with hunger and all the complaining and murmuring and grumbling and craving that goes along with it, it ends with fulfillment.  We find that the hungers now are the hungers and the cravings of our souls, of our hearts.

Now, this kind of spiritual hunger is just as real and just as all-encompassing as physical hunger.  It, like physical hunger, can gnaw at us. When we are spiritually hungry we also are not “us.” We too crave after spiritual fulfillment.  We mumble and complain and murmur when we are spiritually unfulfilled.  We too feel that gaping emptiness within us when we hunger from a place that no physical food or drink can quench.  In a sense, we too are like the Israelites, wandering about in our own wilderness—our own spiritual wilderness.

Most of us know what is like to be out there—in that spiritual wasteland—grumbling and complaining, hungry, shaking our fists at the skies and at God.  We, like them, cry and complain and lament.  We feel sorry for ourselves and for the predicaments we’re in.  And we, like them, say to ourselves and to God, “If only I hadn’t followed God out here—if only I had stayed put or followed the easier route, I wouldn’t be here.”

We’ve all been in that place.  We’ve all been in that desert, to that place we thought God had led us.

I know that in my case, I went so self-assuredly.  I went certain that this was what God wanted for me.  I was sure I had read all the signs.  I had listened to that subtle voice of the Spirit within me.  I had gauged my calling from God through the discernment of others.  And then, suddenly, there I was.  What began as a concentrated stepping forward, had become an aimless wandering. And, in that moment, I found myself questioning everything—I questioned myself, I questioned the others who discerned my journey, I questioned the Spirit who I was so certain spoke within me.  And, in that emptiness, in that frustration, I questioned God.

And guess what I did then?   I turned into Betty White. Actually I turned into Maria Callas. The Diva.  I complained.  And I lamented.

Lamenting is a word that seems kind of outdated for most of us.  We think of lamenting being some overly dramatic complaining.  Which is exactly what it is.  It was what we do when we feel things like desolation.

Like hunger, few of us, again I hope, have felt utter desolation. But when we do, we know, there is no real reason to despair.

As followers of Jesus, we will find our strength and consolation in the midst of that spiritual wilderness.  We know that manna will come to us in that spiritual desert. And that manna, for us, is the Eucharist.  The Eucharist sustains us and holds us up during those desolate times.  All we have to do, when we can’t seem to do anything else, is partake of the Eucharist.  And when we do, we know that God’s presence in this “bread of God” will be there for us.

This Bread we share and the wine we drink is the very “bread of God.” This is what Eucharist is all about. This is why the Eucharist is so important to us.

I have been recently downsizing a bit at the Rectory. I have way too many books and, every so often, I have to sort them out.  This past week, as I was going through my books, I came across a book I bought years ago and never read. It was Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell.

Now, I love Rob Bell. So, I don’t know why I never read this book. I think, for some reason, I just didn’t like the title.  But I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading through the book, that it is about the Eucharist.  And there was a wonderful passage Bell shares. He posts several difficult questions, any one of which we have no doubt asked at some point in our journey.

“Where was God when I tested positive?
Where was God when I was suffering?
Where was God when I lost my job?
Where was God when I was hungry?
Where was God when I was alone?”

“The Eucharist,” Bell says, “is the answer to the questions.”

Where was God? God was right here. Right here, with us. And continues to be.  No longer can we accuse God of being distant. Because, God has come to us.  God came to us in Jesus. And continues to come to us in this meal. Again and again.

Here, we truly do eat the Bread of angels.  Here, we do partake of the grain of heaven.  This is our manna in our spiritual wilderness.  In this Eucharist, at this altar, we find God, present to us in just exactly the way we need God to present to us.  

In our hunger, God feeds us.  

In our grumbling and complaining, God quiets us. After all, when we are eating and drinking, we can’t complain and grumble.

And unlike the food we eat day by day, the food we eat at this altar will not perish.

When we are hungry, we not really “us.” But in this meal—in this Eucharist—we truly do become us. The real us. The us we are meant to be.

In this Eucharist, in the Presence of Jesus we find in this bread and this wine, we find that our grumbling and murmuring and complaining have been silenced with that quiet but sure statement that comes to us from that Presence we encounter here:

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In the echo of that statement, we are silenced.  Our grumbling spiritual stomachs are silenced. Our spiritual loneliness is vanquished.  Our cravings are fulfilled.  In the wake of those powerful words, we find our emptiness fulfilled.  We find the strength to make our way out of the wilderness to the promised land Jesus proclaims to us.

“I am the bread of life,” he says to us.

This is the bread of life, here at this altar. And, in turn, we become the bread of life to others because we embody the One whom we follow.  

“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

So, let us come to the bread of life  Let the One we encounter in this Bread and wine take from us our gnawing hunger and our craving thirst.  And when he does, he will have given us what we have been truly craving all along.

Amen.