“Hungry and Restless for God.”

A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

August 15, 2021

Preached at La Parroquia Catedral de la Natividad

in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Lord Jesus, in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, you gave us a memorial of your passion, death and resurrection. Grant that we may venerate the sacred mysteries of your body and blood in such a way that we sense within us the fruit of your redemption. Who lives and reigns with the Father  in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Gift of Finest Wheat

You satisfy the hungry heart

With gift of finest wheat

Come give to us, O Saving Lord

The Bread of Life to eat

As when the shepherd calls his sheep

They know and heed his voice

So when you call your family Lord

They follow and rejoice

With joyful lips, we sing to you

Our praise and gratitude

That you should count us worthy Lord

To share this Heavenly food

Is not the cup we bless and share

The blood of Christ outpoured?

Does not one cup, one loaf declare

Our Oneness in the Lord?

You satisfy the hungry heart

With gift of finest wheat

Come give to us, O Saving Lord

The Bread of Life to eat

Author: Omer Westendorf (1976)

500 hundred years ago, Christians in Western Europe were engaged in a vicious and often bloody conflict over exactly what it was that happened during the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. One group contended that at the words of Consecration, the very reality of the bread and wine were changed into the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Another group suggested that Jesus became present in a very real but mysterious way. They rejected terms like “transubstantiation,” and preferred not to even try to come up with a term or phrase which explained what happened. They had learned to be cautious about the use of philosophical terms, and feared that too much defining created a kind of rigid and narrow view. Others rejected the notion of Sacraments at all. They argued that this was just a symbolic gesture which recalled something which had happened in the life of Jesus. For some of them, the washing of feet which was a part of their celebration was just as important as anything which happened with bread and wine. And finally, there was a quite interesting group which said that what really happened at the Eucharist was the consecration of the gathered community into the Body of Christ.

Each of these groups claimed that their own view was clearly and unmistakably supported by the Christian Scriptures. Each of these groups anathematized and damned anyone else who did not agree with them. And, in some cases, even went so far as to torture, abuse, and kill those with whom they disagreed. I am sorry to say that it was not the finest moment for Christianity!

I don’t think that there is much point in saying much more about Eucharistic theology today, other than that it sems to me that the words of Princess Elizabeth of England, before the death of her sister, Queen Mary, are as good an explanation as anything else I have ever read about this topic:

“Twas God the Word that spake it,

He took the Bread and brake it:

And what that Word did make it,

That I believe and take it.”

Today, I would like to reflect with you on the famous passage from the Holy Gospel According to Saint John, which is often referred to as “The Bread of Life Discourse.” Without focusing on particular and specific words, I would invite us to consider what the passage as a whole might tell us about God, about what it means to be human, and how all of this might assist us in our desire to truly become a Beloved Community—also known as the “Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.”

The first thing which immediately occurs to me is that even before he preaches, teaches, or explains anything to those who are following him, Jesus takes action. He notices that there are hungry people. And he feeds them. Only after that does he engage in a dialogue with them. When we encounter people who are starving, God challenges us to feed them—not to try to convert them, not to try to educate them, not to try to equip them for ministry and service. This is essential. We have to honestly acknowledge that for some, this is all that they will feel they need or want. That is ok. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, protecting widows and orphans, welcoming foreigners and caring for those with any need—these are ends in themselves and need no other justification than that is what Christ has commanded us to do!

It is insulting to speak to someone who is starving about the life to come—it is insulting to them, and it is insulting to God! This is the very thing which Marx and others condemned. This is “pie in the sky” theology—and it has nothing to do with authentic Christianity. First, those who are starving must be fed, they must be cared for, they must be loved. Only then, do we have the right, as Saint Paul would tell us, to “give an explanation of the reason for the hope which is in us.”

Do we know what it is like to be truly hungry? Most of us have never starved. We might have missed an occasional meal or two. There might have been times that we were not able to eat the meals which we might have preferred. But very few of us understand the horror of real hunger pains! Few of us know what it is to fear that we will not find something to eat. Few of us know what it is like to wonder if we will survive. Few of us can even imagine what it is to go to sleep in pain, aching, because our bodies crave a morsel of bread or a sip of clean water. But in our world, even in our country, state, and county, there are people who experience debilitating hunger as a daily reality. A Beloved Community is one in which the gracious abundance which God freely gives is shared so that the needs of every person are met!

There are many kinds of hunger: physical, mental, spiritual. Each of these hungers is valid. God desires to feed all who are hungry in any way–and in every way–with an abundance which will surpass any hunger or longing which they ever experience.

Among the many kinds of hunger, though, there are three which seem to me to be paramount—after the first physical craving for nourishment is satisfied: the hunger for God, the hunger for community, and the hunger for the beauty of creation.

In the passage from the Gospel of John, after Jesus feeds the crowd, they follow him. Some of them are looking for another free meal. But many others are looking for more than that. Jesus engages them. He takes time to speak with them, to get to know them, and to hear from them the longings and desires of each heart. Then, and only then, does he share with them an invitation to go deeper—to lean more, and then to become disciples. Jesus gives us the very model of evangelism. We do not preach to those we do not know. We get to know them first, identify with them, listen to them explain their needs, desires, and longings. Then we share with them the way that God has satisfied our own longings and desires—individually and collectively.

It is all about relationships. Only if we are in relationship with God will we be able to help others to find a way to connect with God. Only if we have prayed, we be able to help others learn to pray. Only if we have read the Holy Scriptures, will we be able to assist others to listen to God speaking through them. Only if we have washed the feet of others will we be able to help them to find ways of loving and serving others in turn.

Above all, we must never try to impose our own experience on others. What has worked for us may not work for them! But we can give them a template and invite them to find ways of using it in their own journey towards God. I will go so far as to say that the hunger and longing for God is the most basic need of the human heart. It is foundational. Without encountering God and experiencing God’s transforming love, I do not think that we will ever really know lasting happiness. There will always be an emptiness, a vacuum inside us! It was Saint Augustine who wrote of this reality so beautifully: “Our hearts are restless, O God, and will find no rest until they rest in you.”

We were not created to be lonely. We were made for relationship. This means that we are called to not only to seek God, but to find and experience God in community. The beauty of authentic community is that it is diverse, inclusive, and comprehensive! Those who are well-connected often feel that it is easy to enter into community. It is often not the case. Some people have been hurt and wounded by community. Some have been exiled, excluded, shunned, and rejected. Some are fearful of giving community another try for fear that they will be rejected again. Some find that they live in large cities and do not know anyone. Some know lots of people, but do not feel that they really have any friends.

True community, beloved community, has the power to heal the loneliness which so many experience. It has the capacity to encourage, empower, affirm, and enable in a way that quite no other entity can ever do. The power of that love, welcome, and inclusion, can be transformative—even life-changing! True community has the ability to help each of us overcome our limitations and liabilities and develop our potential.

A wise monk once told me, community is like carrying a small back full of rough stones. Over time, those stones will rub together as you walk. Eventually, all the rough edges will be removed, and the stones will become smooth. The character and beauty of each of the stones will then be revealed. True community is productive and generative. It produces abundance to share with others. It is in true community that each of us finds our vocation, our calling, our purpose.

When God created humans, we were placed in a garden. Later, we were given responsibility to care for and to nurture creation. It is in that work of tikkun olam, as Jewish mystics call it, of “working to heal and repair wounded creation,” that we become co-creators with God. We experience the beauty of creation, we become creative. We become artists, artisans, craftspersons. We take the gifts of creation with which God blesses us in such abundance and we transform them into offerings for the world. Our act of offering them to God allows them to be made holy, to be made sacred, to become food and drink for those who hunger and thirst.

The offertory prayers used in Judaism and many Christian traditions speak of this “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. You give us bread from the earth and the fruit of the grape. By the work of human hands they are transformed into bread and wine. And you transform these gifts into our Spiritual food and drink.” From creation, from human work, from the outpouring of God’s Spirit, we receive the very Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.

You satisfy the hungry heart, with gift of finest wheat. Come give to us, O saving Lord, the Bread of Life to eat. And then, dear Lord, transform us into bread to be broken for others, and wine to be poured out in loving service to all who long and hunger–for you, for community, and for your presence in creation.

“Get up and eat.”

A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Preached at

Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

August 8, 2021

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Eliyahu hanavi, Eliyahu hatishbi, Eliyahu hagiladi. Bimheirah b’yameinu,  yavo eileinu,  im Mashiach ben David.

Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah of Gilead. May he come, and with him soon, bring the Messiah, the Son of David.

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” The window is located in the Chapel of the Church of Saint Bartholomew in the City of New York.

This haunting song about Elijah the Prophet is one of my favorites. In part, that is because it was one of the very first songs which I learned in Hebrew. It is also, because this is a song about my favorite person from the Hebrew Scriptures. As a child, I remember hearing the story of the very mysterious “death” of Elijah, if we can use that term, in Sunday School. And, over the years, I have delighted each time I have found a new image of the fiery chariot taking Elijah up into heaven.

From an early Christian perspective, and from a monastic one, Elijah was the great exemplar of what it means to be a faithful follower of God. He is called “The Man of God,” and it is clear that he served as the model which Pope Saint Gregory the Great used when he told the story of the life of Saint Benedict. There is something about his story which captures our imagination, and which engages us in a very deep way.

We just heard the account of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ this past Thursday. In it, the two greatest prophets of Judaism appeared with him on the mountain—Moses and Elijah. They advised, him, comforted him, encouraged him-as he was transfigured by the Power of His Father’s love—and then left the mountain to begin his final journey to Jerusalem.

In Jewish thought, Elijah will reappear to bring with him the Messiah, the Son of David. The Gospels which include the account of the Transfiguration want to make sure that we understand that this is what is happening on the mountain. Moses and Elijah present our Lord as the Messiah, and welcome in the Messianic Era. It is, thus, not only God’s validation of the essential reality of who Jesus is—it is the endorsement, the ultimate “seal of approval” by the Jewish faith as well.

Rabbinic Judaism, though, did not—and does not—see in Jesus the fulfillment of the Promised “Anointed One” of God. And, thus, to this day, this lovely hymn of longing and expectation continues to be sung at the Sabbath meal at home, and each year at the Seder—when the door is opened to welcome in the Prophet Elijah.

There are a few themes, that I would like to briefly explore with you today, taken from our First Reading today, and from the Scriptural account of the Prophet Elijah.

Elijah turns our expectations of God upside down! We often think that “seeking God,” is something which we have to do. As a result, we expend a great deal of time, energy, and effort, in trying to open ourselves to God’s presence in the world. Now that is not a bad thing, at all, but it ignores an important fact. Long before it ever occurred to us to look for God, God was already looking for us. We are not left on our own on the quest to find God. God lovingly and graciously gives us numerous opportunities to encounter God. Even if we miss most of them, God has a way of finding us—and almost always at the exact time which we most need God. There is a saying which we sometimes here, “God’s timing is perfect.” I think that we can all testify to a healing, loving, and comforting word, presence, or person whom we have received at moments of pain, suffering, confusion, and uncertainty in our lives. At the moment it happened, we may not even have appreciated how significant this was. In looking back, though, we understand how powerful—and even life, changing this encounter was!

Elijah teaches us that God is not so much found in dramatic things—not in tornadoes, not in earthquakes, not in public spaces—but in the terrifying quiet of the silence in the cave. Thus it is, that we are called to lay aside our own prejudices and stereotypes. After all, they can be an obstacle to us. If we believe that only a true encounter with God includes lightning, brilliant and blinding light, thunder, and trumpets—we may well be disappointed. But, if we allow it, God will come to us in unexpected ways. And here, I think that it is important to affirm, that this is something which God intends for each of us—and not just for a few. God wants each of us to encounter God, and to be transformed by God’s love.

As one brief example of this, Vatican II spoke of the various presences of God which we find at the Eucharist. God is present in the community gathered, God is present in the Word—proclaimed, heard and preached. God is present in the Ministry of those who act in the Person of Christ. And God is found in the broken bread and in the chalice of wine-poured-out.

God is found in the Sacrament of Baptism in which persons are washed in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ—are marked as Christ’s own forever, and are sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit.

God is found in the other Sacraments (or Sacramental Rites for those who prefer that language) in which we are empowered, healed, forgiven, bless and are blessed, and sent forth as witnesses to Christ.

Elijah reminds us that not only is God mysterious, we are mysterious too! We are each created in the image and likeness of God. We are given unique talents, abilities, and gifts. There is no one else quite like us. We have the opportunity to make a difference in a way that no one else can or will. God wishes to use us to affirm, encourage, love, and invite others into Beloved Community. That means that each interaction we have is fraught with potential. It opens the door for us to encounter God—and for others, through us, to encounter God as well. An important thought here is that everyone is important. No one is insignificant. Every single person has worth, value, beauty, and potential. Each person is needed in God’s community—no one can be excluded or left outside!

Elijah challenges us to celebrate our humanity-and not to dismiss, disparage, or apologize for it. I love the very honest conversations which Elijah has with God. He is not afraid to tell God that he is hungry, that he is tired, that he is frustrated, that he is depressed and unhappy. Things have not worked out for him the way that he hoped, or wanted, or wished. The evil Jezebel has put a contract on his life to anyone who will bring him in “dead or alive.” And at his weakest moment he wonders if he has made any difference at all? He wonders if anything he has done matters? I have no reason to think that this is just wallowing in self-pity. Elijah acknowledges the reality of the human condition. This is often what it is like to be human! Elijah asks the questions which each of us will ask—and perhaps more than once in our lives. And yet, despite all that, Elijah takes a nap, has a meal, and gets up and goes on his way. He perseveres—even when there seems to be no reason to hope. In that way, he is a reminder to us of what faith is all about.

Finally, Elijah inspires us to believe that God is active in ways which we do not understand. God has a plan! We are part of this plan, but it is much greater than each of us individually-or of all of us collectively. We see that fully when we hear our Lord Jesus Christ speak of himself as the Bread which came down from heaven. God’s gift to the human family is far greater than anything we can imagine or anything for which we can long. God’s love can fill every hunger, longing, and desire of the human heart. God wants to transform us, transfigure us, and shape us into being Women and Men of God! We need a Messiah, and God has given us one!

What we can not do on our own efforts and under our own power, God can and will do! Elijah has indeed come again. May he come this day, and every day, and open our eyes to see Jesus Christ—the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, the Bread of Life come down from heaven!