Sermon for 16B, You Can't Light Your Flaming Arrows Alone
Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6: 56-69 (click on the link for the texts as well as psalm and Hebrew Scriptures for the day)
When I was a pediatric hospital chaplain the staff requested that I, the first chaplain they'd ever really had at the hospital, wear my collar. This set me apart from the rest of the staff rather dramatically--in my black clergy shirt and white collar I sometimes felt like the harbinger of doom. I frequently had to explain to folks that I visited EVERYONE, not just families whose children were dying (and not just Christians). However, despite this rather significant drawback to my uniform, I found that being set apart allowed everyone to clearly identify my role in a crisis. In my clericals, people knew who I was and I could go and be where other hospital staff could not.
But what proved most essential about the collar was the link it provided between me and my community. It allowed me to feel the weight of 2000 years of tradition and the institution of the church accompanying me in what felt like an impossible and unbearable calling. The collar helped me to remember that I was not alone--I stood with God and sought to bring love and comfort. My clericals helped me to feel "strong" when I needed to be impossibly present to the nightmares of other people.
Yet, not everyone can (or, really, should) wear a collar. And I have found, that as a priest whose primary ministry is the care of a two year old, that I still need armor. I think most folk can relate to days when the only thing keeping you together is the right outfit for the occasion and confidence lent by knowing that you look good! Sometimes a uniform of sorts is needed to give us the strength, confidence and endurance that we would otherwise lack.
But, it's not just about the clothes we wear...because as a friend reminded me yesterday, no one can put on armor alone. The liturgy of ordination reflects this as family and friends of the newly ordained are invited forward to assist the new priest in donning the robes and stole of the priestly order--clothing far less complicated than that described in Ephesians! And, I imagine that the complicated pieces of clothing described in Ephesians would have required assistance--the belt, the breastplate, the shield, the helmet, the flaming arrows. Anyone attempting to put all of this on alone would fail miserably!
It was this need for community that some scholars believe John was addressing in today’s Gospel. John, was written around 90 CE and addressed a community in which the fellowship was being stressed and broken. Persecution, expulsion from the synagogues--the early Christians faced major challenges as they lived their faith. Many of these early Christian communities would have struggled under these external pressures and the temptation to walk away when things grew too hard or too painful would have been all too present. In this Gospel passage, John reminds the community that the disciples too faced challenges to their faith...and that some of them chose to walk away when things became too hard.
So, what made them back away in this moment...what was hard about this truth? “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them...whoever eats me will live because of me”. To his followers, the notion of eating his flesh and drinking blood was repugnant and even offensive. Levitical legislation explicitly forbid the consumption of blood and for some of Jesus’ followers this became the last straw--they backed away and left the community. After 2000 years of hearing the Eucharistic language we may not notice the graphicness of this passage...but perhaps it is important to really hear it again--to recognize that we participate in something that sets us apart while uniting us together. Eat my flesh, drink my blood--outlandish, offensive, absurd even.
It is an absurdity that has remained at the center of our life as a church. Architecturally, in most Episcopal churches it is not the pulpit that is the center of our space, nor is it scripture, rather it is the altar. The altar is the place where we break the body and pour out the blood of Christ, the place where we approach to share in this ritual of eating Christ. A ritual that unites us, that nourishes us and indeed, arms us for the work we are called to do in the world. And, it is in the call to work in the world that I am reminded of why I so clearly need this community of the church.
In May 2011, the Minnesota State Legislature voted to put a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot in Minnesota that will read: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage in Minnesota?” In the midst of the attendant uproar, an organization called Minnesotans United for All Families formed a broad coalition of organizations having conversations with Minnesotans about why this amendment must be defeated. Several Episcopal congregations have joined in this coalition and many of our clergy and laity are working hard to defeat this amendment.
Twice now I have gone to phone bank with the organization Minnesotans United For All Families. The first time, I remember taking a few minutes to pray quietly before picking up the phone for my first call (we were calling the voter rolls to have listening conversations around the issue of gay marriage). It was a phone bank night sponsored by the Episcopal church, and knowing that we were all there as people of fait -together made a big difference. I was particularly heartened when I glanced up at one point during the training and saw Bishop Prior standing in the room. That night, while difficult, felt promising. I felt like I was able to be fully present to those on the other end of the line and even felt as if I was able to be a force of transformation to a few. And, I felt as if I was with folk who “had my back”, we had armed each other for these difficult conversations.
I returned almost a month later, feeling confident, I headed right in to start calling. But, this night was different, in fact it felt disastrous...I was easily flustered and sensitive. Every negative comment or hang up felt like a personal affront. My heart still aches remembering my awkwardness and the ineffectiveness I felt that evening. I felt vulnerable and exposed. But, mostly, I felt alone.
And, in retrospect, the only difference was my lack of prayer (or indeed, any time taken to calm and center myself before walking into the storm) and a lack of community that night. I walked into battle without my armor-- but more importantly without anyone to arm me. Without these things, I couldn't find the love of God surrounding me and those I was calling. I couldn’t do it alone. None of us can...we need folks who will “have our back”, we need people who will stand with us in hard times and amidst hard truths.
The authors of the Gospel of John and Ephesians knew that the community, gathered, is stronger than any one of us alone. In our day to day lives, when we are confronted with hard truths and hard choices, knowing that: we have 2000 years of tradition, a community of folks to uphold us, and a God who loves us, can strengthen us in the continuous offering of God’s love to the world. It may not be easy, and we may be tempted to back away but in our presence here, in our persistence in engaging with hard truths, I think we answer the question Jesus poses just as Peter does. "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."