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The Bread of What Sort of Life?

Here is the audio of the sermon I preached at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Hamden, CT on August 12, 2018:

The Bread of What Sort of Life (rough cut)

Below you will also find the text as prepared for delivery.

I would like to thank my good friends who provided feedback, both as I was writing it and afterwards. I hope to discuss some of their ideas in a follow up post, if I can make the time.


“I am the bread of life”. How many of you have heard verse before? If you were in church last Sunday, you probably heard it. How many of you have heard it so many times before that it has lost much of it’s meaning?

Last Sunday, I was at a folk music festival and went to a small church in upstate New York. “I am the bread of life” was written over the arch leading up to the altar. It was part of the appointed readings for last week. It is for this week also.

Since I was in New York, I didn’t hear what was preached here, but I suspect it was similar to the sermon I heard there, talking about freshly baked bread, about being hungry, maybe even about feeding the hungry. I’ve also read other people’s sermons which were about freshly baked bread.

If I wanted to play it safe, and not worry about repeating what was said last week, I could preach on other parts of the Gospel lesson or one of the other readings. Yet the folks who put together the lectionary thought this was important enough to repeat two weeks in a row, so I’ll expand a little bit on the verse.

As I think about this verse, I split it into three parts. “I am” … “the Bread” … and “Life”.

The phrase “I am” is very important in scripture. It is how God responds to Moses when Moses asks God’s name. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself seven times with phrases that start off with “I am…” The final phrase is “I am the true vine”, which was the Gospel the last time I preached here. “I am the bread of life” is the first of these phrases. In these phrases, Jesus is linking himself back to God and Moses on Mount Horeb.

So, if you were to start a sentence with the words, “I am”, what would you say? Who are you - really? I was thinking about this as I was listening to folk music last weekend. One of the songs that jumped out at me was “I am the one that will remember everything”. It is about orphan refugees being trained to become child warriors. How much are we like orphan refugees, living out painful lives and being trained to deal with that our pain by bringing pain to others? To borrow from a different song, how much are we “living like a refugee”? How much are we remembering painful parts of our lives and perhaps causing pain to others? How much are we like “the least of these” that Jesus talks about, like “the others”, whomever the others might be?

In another song, Dar Williams has a response, “I am the others”. How is God calling us to treat others?

When we talk about “the bread”, we are reminded about manna. Manna is referenced in both last week’s Gospel and this week’s. Remember, God gave manna to the Israelites as they wandered and complained in the wilderness. This continues the discussion from last week, where Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”.

Are we coming to God and to church primarily to have our needs met? Are we seeking some sort of wealth that prosperity gospel preachers talk about? God does want our needs to be met, but God has a much greater understanding of what our needs really are. God wants so much more for us. This leads me to the final phrase part of the quote. “Life”.

What sort of life are we looking for? For ourselves? For our church? What makes you feel really alive? This takes us back to the stories of David we’ve been hearing about over the past few weeks. God took David, that ruddy son of Jesse who’s been out tending the sheep and makes him king of Israel. God defends David from his adversaries. David shows his gratitude dancing before the ark of the covenant even though his wife derides him for this. God has provided for David greatly, but David wants more than is appropriate and seeks out physical intimacy with Bathsheba.

I want to be clear here. What David did wrong was not seeking physical intimacy. Unlike some conservative preachers, I believe that physical intimacy is another wonderful gift that God gives us. What David did wrong was to seek physical intimacy at the expense of others. We don’t know what Bathsheba really thought. The bible is woefully lacking in exploring the thoughts and desires of most of its female characters. This reflects a larger issue of men generally failing to respect what women want. It reflects the overarching issue of power imbalances.

This isn’t just an issue of Biblical times. We still hear it today. As one political media personality put it, “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Power continues to be misused today, and it’s not just politicians. In April, the founding pastor of Willows Creek mega-church resigned amidst sexual abuse allegations. At General Convention this year, the Episcopal Church had a powerful Liturgy of Listening in response to issues of abuse and harassment in the Episcopal Church.

Last week, we heard about Nathan confronting David of his great sin, and I’ve longed to hear people confront some of our leaders today in the same manner. Perhaps the closest we are to such prophets are ones who use the #MeToo hashtag.

I suspect if we really look closely at our lives, there have been times that we have been taken advantage of by people misusing their power … AND … I suspect that we have all taken advantage of other people by misusing our own power. Sometimes, we’ve probably done this without even knowing it. I believe it is something we should always be keeping in mind when we confess our sins.

This week, we hear more about David. He gets the news that his son has died in battle and laments, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” I won’t go into Absalom’s history. It is, like so many of the stories in the Old Testament, complicated. Yet I will say that I cannot imagine the pain and grief of losing a beloved child. It is hard enough to lose even a pet.

How do we respond to such pain and grief? For David, and I suspect most of us, there are things that are more important to us than our own suffering, even than our own lives. - “Would I had died instead of you”.

One year ago today, Susan Bro’s daughter Heather Heyer was killed at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. I cannot imagine her pain and grief. Yet she is calling on people today not to respond with violence. On top of that, I can’t imagine the pain that drives people to hate other people because of their skin color.

Yet I did just read a story that helps me understand a little bit. Ken Parker, an ex-neo nazi put it this way, “I had gotten out of the navy, it was hard getting a job and it was really easy to blame it somebody else, you know people with darker skin.”

This is, I believe, can help us understand today’s gospel lesson. The crowds were asking for physical bread. They were looking for food, just as people are looking for jobs and better lives today. Jesus was talking about something much deeper.

You know, there are these quizzes on Facebook: Would you be willing to live in a haunted house with no modern communications for a month for a million dollars? Todays lesson asks a similar question: Would you rather have a life time supply of bread or have someone love you enough to be willing to suffer and die for you?

Ken Parker’s story continued on to encounter Jesus, the bread of life, when he befriended a black pastor and turned his life around, being baptized and received into a predominantly black church.

Today’s epistle takes it the one step further. It says, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands”. Why is this? It isn’t simply because stealing is wrong or that maybe we need to be doing our fair share of the work that needs to be done. The epistle tells us it is “so as to have something to share with the needy”. That is where we experience the joy of Christ. The epistle ends with “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

This is where we experience true joy, where our lives are most full, when we are living in love, imitating God, and sharing with those in need around us.

In a theology group on Facebook the other day we were asked what sort of church events other than the worship services did people ‘feel the spirit’. I mentioned Dinner for a Dollar. I believe it is in helping with things like Dinner for a Dollar that we are especially close to being imitators of God, living in love, that and deeply experiencing God’s love for all of us.

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

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

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Fallow Lands

After I handed in my penultimate assignment for the summer intensive semester of seminary, a translation from the Hebrew of the first chapter of Ruth, I posted on Facebook about it. A friend and classmate who took the course on Sabbath responded, “Your time of fallow/exhale will be well-deserved”.

It got my thinking of fallow ground. Things still grow in fallow ground, things the ground needs to replenish itself as opposed to things needed for others. Sometimes it might be a volunteer plant grown from the seeds of an earlier plant or that a little bird dropped from somewhere far away.

What will grow in my fallow mind before the next semester starts? I think of my classmates who had it much rougher than I; one who had to take a leave of absence due to a health issue, another who lost a loved one. I wish I could go hang out with them for a little bit.

Others have started posting what they will be doing to celebrate and unwind; trips to Tanglewood and Maine. I wish I could grab my grieving classmate, drive up to Tanglewood to meet another and then the three of us drive up to Maine to gather with a couple others.

I think about my time at the beach. Most years, my family and I head out to Cape Cod for a week. I think of the long walk out to Race Point beach. We would take off our sandals and walk down to the water and I think of Moses and the burning bush.

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

I often quote a piece of Jewish wisdom I heard a couple years ago. The miracle was not that the bush was not consumed. The miracle was that Moses noticed.

As we walk down to the beach at Race Point, we look off across the water. Will we see seals today? Whales? A flower floating on the waves? The miracle is every time we take off our sandals to walk on holy ground, noticing the beauty around us.

My classmates are beautiful. My family is beautiful. My coworkers are beautiful. I am blessed.

I take a moment to look at Exodus 3:5 in Hebrew. וַיֹּ֖אמֶר Qal imperfect third person masculine singular with the vav consecutive of the verb “said”. “And He said…”. My friends who know Hebrew grammar can correct me if I conjugated that wrong. It feels good to read the Hebrew even though for this first word, there aren’t any great insights.

There is a difference between studying something because you have an assignment due and studying something for the love of studying it, even when what you are studying for an assignment is something that you love studying. Now that my classes are over, I can return, more leisurely to topics of interest. I can start preparing for my fall classes leisurely, exploring those areas of most interest to me.

I’m planning on taking Theology 1 and Post Modern Christian Education. I’ve started downloading some of the books for these classes and looking at the prefaces, introductions, and additional resources.

I’ve also been thinking about what I do with my papers so far. Do I put them up online somewhere? Linked to in blog posts? A page of their own? Perhaps a page with papers from some of my classmates, if they’d be interested in sharing? A sort of open journal of my classmates? How much editing do I do of the papers I handed in before making them available this way? Do I share some of them on ResearchGate? I wonder how many of my classmates or professors are on ResearchGate. As I stopped to see what was going on, I found that one of the theologians I stumbled across last fall whom I really like, Musa Dube has followed me on ResearchGate. Maybe I need to up my game there. I find two of my classmates there and see how I can upload my working papers.

Meanwhile, at work we recently had Saichin Jain, CEO of CareMore Health. One of the topics that was discussed was the loneliness epidemic. He spoke about how CareMore was addressing this epidemic. It made me stop and wonder how churches might address this epidemic as well. We talked about it briefly during our dinner ministry last night.

There are lots of other things to think about, read about, and write about, but for right now, I am preparing to be offline for a little bit.

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What I Really Want for my Birthday

I’ve always been difficult to get gifts for. As a child, I always wanted something special, something I couldn’t describe or put a name on, and I was disappointed that I never got it. I grew accustomed to that disappointment and came to expect it on Christmas and my birthday. As an adult, I’ve generally not been one for possessions. If I need something badly enough, then I go out and get it. If I don’t need it that badly, in most cases I’d just as soon do without.

At times, I’ve gotten gifts that have been meaningful or have been something I really needed but hadn’t gotten around to getting. I’ve always appreciated these efforts of my loved ones.

However, this year is different. I have received so many great gifts over the past year. My wife has gotten a great new job that she likes and that makes a difference in the world. My eldest daughter got her Master’s Degree earlier this year and has started her Doctorate. My middle daughter is doing wonderful work to reconnect art to daily life. (Find out more and consider donating on the website for Miranda’s Hearth). My youngest daughter is in Thailand learning about rescuing and carrying for elephants. (Learn more at Loop Abroad). Big thanks to everyone who contributed to her fundraising to be able to afford this trip.

I too, have had a wonderful life changing experience this past year. I started seminary last fall and last month went out to my first summer intensive. I have met some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met in my life. At this time when we look at all that it messed up in the country and the world, the people I’ve met and my experiences at Church Divinity School of the Pacific have brought me great hope and joy.

So, what is left to desire for a birthday present? What I want is for each person reading this post to discover how they are called to help make the world a better place, whether it be through advocacy around prison reform, studies around the nature of gender, reconnecting art to daily life, learning how to better care for all of God’s creatures, or wherever my journey is taking me. What I want is for each person reading this post to feel some of the hope, love, and joy that has made this past year so special for me.

Thank you, everyone.

A Way of Love for Aspiring Non-stipendiary Priests. #GC79 A007 and #MeToo

I pause briefly from my studies in the history of the 1789 American Book of Common Prayer to read the latest dispatches from the Episcopal General Convention. How does The Way of Love that Presiding Bishop Curry spoke about, the Liturgy of Listening in response to #MeToo, and the work of the Committee on Ministry relate to me?

I became an Episcopalian over forty years ago back when I was in college but my relationship with the denomination has been a bit rocky over the past few years.

I had started college believing I was called to ministry and planned to major in religion, go to seminar, and become a preacher. I changed majors to philosophy, dropped out, and ended up working with computers. Yet that sense of calling never left no matter how hard I tried to ignore it or make up excuses about how it just wasn’t feasible for me.

A few years ago during a guided meditation at a conference on poetry and worship at Yale Divinity School I had a strong sense of God telling me that my whole life has been about showing God love and that I really needed to answer God’s call. So I started the process, only to be rejected by the Commission on Ministry. I was never told why and not given any support in dealing with this spiritual crisis.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a college dropout in their fifties who needs to support a family to become a priest.

A few spiritual guides told me that I would not be happy until I went to seminary and taking their advice I searched around for a program that might work for me. I had taken an online continuing education course with Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) which I got a lot out of so I looked to see if they might be a fit for me. I decided to apply for their Online Certificate of Theological Studies program thinking it would be a good opportunity to see online seminary life was a fit for me.

After completing my first two semesters, I headed out to CDSP for a two-week summer intensive. The research I’m taking a break from is for one of those courses. I wandered the campus, met my classmates and professors, and was overwhelmed with joy. CDSP was exactly where I was meant to be. I put in my paperwork to change programs and am now officially part of the Low Residency Masters of Divinity Program. I am still not sure where it will lead, but sometimes it is more important to know you are in the right place heading in the right direction than to know where you are going.

One of my fellow seminarians who is at General Convention share a link to a blog post about the ”Liturgy of Listening”. I made sure to watch the livestream of the liturgy. It was incredibly powerful bringing up complicated reactions.

The wounds I carry from ‘the process’ are very different from the wounds we heard about in the liturgy and I want to be careful not to diminish in any way the stories of those hurt by sexual harassment, abuse, or exploitation, yet as I heard the stories, I thought to myself, “In my own way, #MeToo”.

Another blog post, by the same author, And Then, Silence: Reflecting on the Liturgy of Listening gave me a way of thinking about this that was very helpful. My wounds from ‘the process’ and the wounds of many others that I’ve heard about over the past few years are not as bad as the wounds of sexual abuse. In this context, my wounds are “not too bad”. Yet as the author writes, “Not too bad is a tragedy. We must be better than this.” I hope and pray that the “Liturgy of Listening” will move the church forward in addressing issues of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation. I also hope that someday the church will address the issue of those who feel called the priesthood, especially to non-stipendiary or bi-vocational priesthood and don’t see a way forward.

One way the church can address this is to seriously consider Resolution A007 Establish Committee to Study Relationship of Episcopal Seminaries with General Convention, One Another and the Wider Church. Objections to this resolution can be found in Deans Oppose Seminary Investigation

The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle, dean and president of General Theological Seminary, said a top-down approach would not lead to good results. But he said the plan might have some promise if properly modified.

From my own experiences I can see problems with a top-down approach. Yet starting with a “Liturgy of Listening” to small parishes seeking non-stipendiary or bi-vocational priests and to people that feel called to such a ministry might be part of the modification that is needed.

The church does need to think more seriously and more creatively about how priests are called and formed in twenty-first century America, and Resolution A007 sounds like a very important starting point on our journey together on The Way of Love.

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