August 25, 2021
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “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.”
The working title of this sermon is “How Do We Know When It’s Time to Go or Time to Stay?”
It’s a topic I’ve been pondering for most of the summer, as part of a long-term writing project. I’m trying to better understand and articulate what’s at stake for us, and what God might be doing within and around us, when we need to make a big decision, and in particular, the decision either to go or to stay.
Apparently I’m not alone in this thinking. Surveys indicate that as a result of the pandemic, as many as 30% of the American workforce is considering or has made a change in their vocation,1 that an equal number of people has made or is considering a geographic move.2 You may be among them. Or someone you love may be asking questions like “Do I quit school or go back?” “Is it time to leave my apartment or house and look for another?” “Is it time to leave my faith community for another or perhaps no community at all?” The drop-out rate in religious affiliation is alarming, particularly among young adults. The Barna Research Group published a study about the exodus of young adults who had been raised in the church with the haunting title, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.3 What is it that causes some of us to stay in the faith we were raised in, while others choose to go?
In whatever realm of life, these are big decisions. How do we make them, and how does God show up for us in the decisive moments, if at all?
I tend to believe that if I really listen, in one way or another God will tell me what to do. My job then is to be obedient to what I determine is God’s will in my life. Sometimes, however, God is frustratingly silent on the matter I’m struggling with, or I can’t hear God. Perhaps a part of me doesn’t want to hear, and yet the decision looms. My husband Paul tends to relate to God differently, on the assumption that God is too busy to micro-manage his life, and that God is curious to see what Paul, and all of us, will do at the moment of choice.
Either way, the process of deciding, or to use a term with spiritual overtones, of discerning is rarely immediate or completely clear, at least not for me. A theologian and Episcopal priest named Urban Holmes wrote several books on the Christian life in the 1980s. In one of his books, Spirituality for Ministry, he defined discernment this way: “The ability to intuit God’s will by casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”4 The result of discernment, then, is a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, and willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most.
On the global stage, we are witnessing the consequences of President Biden’s decision to keep to the timeline he established for the withdrawal of American troops and military personnel in Afghanistan. Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that decision, and for that matter, the multitude of decisions our leaders have made regarding Afghanistan in the 20 years since 9/11. Except to state the obvious: the humanitarian crisis is devastating and demands our compassionate response. The grief, worry, and survivors' guilt is palpable among those with friends, family, and former colleagues caught in the chaos. They and countless others are doing whatever they can to help and to advocate. If you are among them, thank you. Later this week, I’ll share the ways we are organizing ourselves across the diocese to assist Afghan refugees who are arriving in our region.
For today’s purposes however, suffice it to say we have many global examples of how our decisions to stay or to go affect other people, and that’s true in every realm of life. Imagine the conversations taking place right now in Afghan homes across that country--do we stay or do we go? How do we stay or go? For them and for us, the process involves making decisions and taking actions whose surety is enigmatic at best. That is to say neither staying or going is always the right decision, nor the same decision for everyone.
I spent a big part of my early adult life on the go. Almost like clockwork, every 2-3 years I made a significant change that involved leaving some place or endeavor for another. I wasn’t always happy about the move. It often felt that I had to leave just as I was learning how to thrive where I was. But the pattern established itself such that when the rhythms of life eventually slowed down a bit, it didn’t feel right, as if something was wrong because nothing was beckoning from the horizon. It took me time to realize that staying put didn’t mean staying the same; that there was a deeper call involved in deciding to stay, and that at certain times, the most courageous decisions we make are the ones that no one sees.
In those years I read a novel by Anne Tyler entitled St. Maybe, which is about a young man named Ian who at age 17 feels responsible for his brother’s accidental death. With the subsequent death of his brother’s wife, he decides to drop out of school to help his parents raise his brother’s three young children. It’s a slow-moving story on the surface, with a lot happening emotionally and relationally within Ian as the years pass.
At one point, Ian tells his minister that he thinks that it’s time for him to go back to school and get on with his life. His minister asks him to say more. Echoing the words of one of the several young women who broke up with him because of his commitment to the children and his church (and the church, made up of every kind of social misfit, plays a sweet role in this story), Ian cries out to his minister, “I am wasting my life!” To which his minister quietly responds. “This is your life, Ian. Lean into it. Accept it for the gift that it is.”
This is your life became a mantra for me as I learned what it meant to stay in place long enough to grow up inside, and to create the kind of foundations that would allow others to thrive. In recent days, I’ve heard resonance of that same sentiment from people slowly coming to terms with some aspect of their lives that is theirs not only to accept but embrace.
We’ve just read, and you have printed in your bulletins, a passage from the Gospel of John. It comes from the end of a long section in which Jesus is expounding upon an event that shows up on all four accounts of Jesus’ life, which biblical scholars would tell us make it a really big deal. The event itself came after a long day of teaching and healing, when after the disciples urged Jesus to send the gathered crowd home, he insisted on providing them food. In John’s version of the story, a young boy offers what he has, a few loaves of bread and some fish, and from that offering Jesus provides food for the multitude, with enough leftover to fill 12 baskets.
In the other three gospel accounts, the message of this story is that God will provide, that Jesus cares for those who are hungry, and that we can participate in Jesus’ concern for others by offering what we have, even when we know that our offering isn’t enough to meet the needs before us. I love this story. Nearly every day, I feel that my offering isn’t enough, but Jesus invites me to offer it anyway and let him do with it what only he can do.
In John’s version, the take-away from the loaves and fishes story is different: Jesus asks those listening to think less of physical food, and he speaks of himself as the food that can sustain our souls. “I am the bread of life. Those who eat my bread and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” It sounds rather strange, put starkly like that. What lies beneath those words, however, is a growing understanding among first-century Christians that even when their physical hunger and other forms of suffering persist, even when their initial expectations of who Jesus was and what he was going to do for them were disappointed, even when they found themselves in situations that were hard or dangerous and it was clear that God wasn’t going to rescue them, even then Jesus was with them. They felt his presence, in a spiritual, mystical way. They felt called to abide with him, to trust in his presence. The question for them became, would they stay with him in this new way, or would they go?
For everyone raised in a particular faith tradition, or who chooses to be a part of one, this is something we’ll all experience eventually. Whenever being part of our tradition, or following Jesus, or belonging to a particular church turns out to be something other than what we originally thought, had hoped for or imagined, or when something happens that causes us to doubt what we once had no reason to question, we come to a moment of decision--do we stay or go?
Some of Jesus’ followers, John tells us, decide to leave. “This teaching is difficult,” they say. “Who can accept it?” While John, the Gospel writer, judges these people harshly, I doubt that Jesus did, or that he harshly judged anyone who chooses another spiritual path, or no path at all. Here’s why: Jesus’ love is unconditional. Such love isn’t withdrawn when people don’t do as we want. Jesus can no more stop loving us when we walk away than we can stop loving those who reject us.
But you can hear the poignancy when he turns to his closest friends to ask, “And what about you? Do you also wish to go away?” He truly wants to know: Then Simon Peter responds with words that can’t help but make us love the guy, “Lord, to whom shall we go? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” They had come too far to turn back now.
Simon Peter and the others had come to one of life’s sweet moments of clarity. They don’t come often, but when they do, they have a settling effect on us. We become increasingly at peace with whatever we decide, no matter what happens next.
Their decision wasn’t merely to stay with Jesus, but to do deeper in their relationship with him. It wasn’t a choice between actively leaving and passively staying, but between two active choices--to leave (a conscious choice, not merely drifting apart and pretending not to notice) or to stay with greater depth and intentionality.
I leave you with this thought: rest assured, wherever you might be in the process of discernment about leaving or staying, that this is a particularly sacred time. Whatever you discern or decide, I pray that God gives you enough clarity to feel settled as you take what is for you is the next faithful step. As you act on your decision, may you be given grace and courage either to go or to stay wholeheartedly. And afterwards, should you begin to question your decision or feel that you need to change it, know that God’s grace will be with you, whatever happens next.
May I pray for you:
Lord, this is a time of change and transition and decision-making for so many on so many levels. Hold these your beloved ones as they discern and decide--give them the gift of wisdom and understanding and assurance of your abiding presence. Help all of us, Lord, who feel the call to follow Jesus to be given eyes to see him more clearly, hearts to love him more dearly, and desire to follow him more nearly, day by day by day by day. Amen.
1 Nearly a third of U.S. workers under 40 considered changing careers during the pandemic - The Washington Post
2 Pandemic Forces Moves for Many Americans, Survey Shows - Credit Union Times
3 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Books, 2001).
4 Urban T. Holmes III, Spirituality for Ministry (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1982), 138.
August 25, 2021
This letter was emailed to diocesan leaders on August 25, 2021
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayer, remembering before God your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
Dear EDOW Colleagues and Friends,
As all in the diocese finalize preparations for the season of ministry before us, I write to thank you for your continued commitment to the health and safety of those in our congregations, schools, places of ministry, and the communities we serve in Christ’s name. Given rising infections and hospitalizations in our region, and concerns for highly contagious variants of the virus, it is imperative that we pay close attention to the instructions and mandates from local public health and civic leaders. In speaking with leaders across the diocese, I am once again inspired by your creativity and resilience.
Several clergy and lay leaders have asked me if diocesan policies will change this fall. The short answer is no. We are all required to follow the guidelines and mandates of our local communities. When those policies change in your region, you are free to relax your own practice as you deem best.
At the moment, there is near uniformity in policy across the four Maryland counties and the District of Columbia, with mandated masks in indoor settings and renewed emphasis on physical distance and encouragement to gather outdoors whenever possible. Churches are no exception. There is particular concern for unvaccinated children, and yet schools are reopening with safety measures in place. I would encourage all who are able to gather children safely in church to do the same.
Regarding in-person worship, I am impressed with the creativity of Eucharistc practice across the diocese. Several have asked me when we might resume sharing Eucharistic wine by common cup, which I raised with epidemiologists in our diocese and at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The unanimous consensus among them was that now is not the time, and thus that restriction remains. The simplest alternative is to distribute wafers only. Some congregations offer individual paper cups; others purchase portable individual communion sets.
I am delighted that singing in church, provided that all are masked, is no longer restricted by health officials. I have enjoyed singing once again in my visitations, and hearing the beauty of choral music!
If you haven’t yet opened for in-person worship, I encourage you to consider it in the coming months. While maintaining an online presence going forwards is a high priority, so is being together, safely, in Christian community. Please reach out to your colleagues or to those of us on diocsesan staff for support and suggestions.
Finally, let me say a word about vaccinations. This week the FDA fully authorized the Pfizer vaccine, and other vaccines may soon receive that same encouraging endorsement. As you well know, an increasing number of businesses and governmental bodies, including the military and school districts, are now mandating vaccinations for their employees and personnel. After speaking with the diocesan chancellor, Mr. John Van De Weert, I am persuaded that as bishop, I do not have authority to mandate vaccinations for employees of our congregations or schools. But vestries, boards of directors, and rectors do have that authority, and I encourage you to consider exercising it if you haven’t already done so. I recognize the concerns some feel regarding vaccinations, but the risk of not being vaccinated, and the cost to the wider community, makes vaccination, in my estimation, both a civic responsibility and act of Christian discipleship.
If you have specific questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us in the diocesan office. While you may speak to any of us, Canon to the Ordinary Andrew Walter leads our COVID response efforts.
Again, thank you for your leadership, faithfulness, and prayers for all those adversely affected by COVID-19. May God bless and protect those working tirelessly on behalf of us all.
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
Bishop of Washington
August 25, 2021
Esta carta fue enviada por correo electrónico a los líderes diocesanos el 25 de agosto.
Siempre damos gracias a Dios por todos ustedes, y los recordamos en nuestras oraciones.Continuamente recordamos qué activa ha sido su fe, qué servicial su amor, y qué fuerte en los sufrimientos su esperanza en nuestro Señor Jesucristo, delante de nuestro Dios y Padre.
1 Tesalonicenses 1:2-3
Queridos colegas y amigos de EDOW,
Mientras nos finalizamos la preparación para esta nueva etapa en el ministerio, les escribo para agradecerles por su continuo compromiso con la salud y la seguridad de aquellos en sus congregaciones, escuelas, lugares de ministerio y las comunidades que sirven en nombre de Cristo. Debido al aumento de las infecciones y hospitalizaciones en nuestra región, y a las preocupaciones de variantes altamente contagiosas del virus, es imperativo que prestemos cercana atención a las instrucciones y obligatoriedades de parte de los líderes civiles y de salud pública en sus localidades.
Varios miembros del clero y laicos me han preguntado si los protocolos diocesanos serán cambiados en este otoño. La respuesta más breve es no. Todos estamos obligados a seguir las directrices y mandatos de nuestras comunidades locales. Cuando esas políticas cambien en tu región, podrás relajar tus propias prácticas como lo estimes conveniente.
En este momento, hay cierta uniformidad en las políticas en los cuatro condados de Maryland y el Distrito de Columbia, con mandatos en el uso de máscaras en lugares interiores y un énfasis renovado en la distancia social, así como la invitación a reunirse en lugares al aire libre cuando sea posible. Las iglesias no son una excepción. Hay preocupaciones particulares con niños no vacunados, pero las escuelas están reabriendo con medidas de seguridad. Les invito a hacer lo mismo a quienes reúnen a niños de manera segura en la iglesia.
Con relación a la adoración en persona, estoy impresionada con la creatividad de las prácticas eucarísticas en la diócesis. Algunos me han preguntado cuándo podremos comenzar a compartir el vino a través de la copa común durante la Eucaristía. Yo he preguntado a epidemiólogos en nuestra diócesis y en el Hospital Johns Hopkins. El consenso entre ellos es que este no es el momento de hacerlo, así que la restricción para su uso continúa. La alternativa más simple es distribuir ostias solamente. Algunas congregaciones ofrecen vasitos individuales de papel y otros han comprado sets de comunión individuales.
Estoy maravillada de que el canto en la iglesia, siempre que todos usen máscaras, no está restringido por los oficiales de salud. He disfrutado cantar otra vez durante mis visitas, así como oír la belleza de la música coral.
Si aún tu iglesia no ha abierto para la adoración en persona, te animo a considerarlo en los próximos meses. Aunque mantener la presencia en internet en adelante es una gran prioridad, también lo es estar juntos, seguros, en comunidad cristiana. Por favor, acércate a tus colegas o a aquellos en nuestro equipo diocesano en busca de ayuda y sugerencias.
Finalmente, quiero decirles algo sobre la vacunación. Esta semana la FDA autorizó completamente la vacuna Pfizer, y otras vacunas recibirán muy pronto la misma aprobación. Como ustedes bien saben, un número creciente de negocios y organismos gubernamentales, incluyendo los distritos militares y escolares, están exigiendo la vacunación de sus empleados y personal. Después de hablar con el canciller diocesano, el Sr. John Van De Weert, estoy segura de que como obispa no tengo la autoridad para exigir la vacunación de los empleados de nuestras congregaciones y escuelas. Pero las Juntas Parroquiales, Juntas de Directores y Rectores sí tienen esa autoridad y les animo a considerar ejercer esa autoridad si no lo han hecho ya. Reconozco las preocupaciones que tienen algunos con relación a las vacunas, pero el riesgo de no ser vacunado y el costo para la comunidad en su totalidad, hace la vacunación, en mi opinión, una muestra tanto del discipulado cristiano como una responsabilidad civil.
Si tienen preguntas o preocupaciones específicas, por favor, no duden en contactarnos en la oficina diocesana. Aunque puedes preguntarle a cualquiera de nosotros, el Canónigo del Ordinario, Andrew Walter es quien coordina los esfuerzos en respuesta al COVID.
Gracias, otra vez, por tu liderazgo, tu fe y tus oraciones por aquellos que han sido afectados por el COVID-19. Que Dios les bendiga y proteja a aquellos que trabajan incansablemente por nosotros.
La Reverendísima Mariann Edgar Budde
Obispa de la Diócesis Episcopal de Washington
August 08, 2021
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.” Then the religious authorities began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:35, 41-41
Good morning, friends of St. Thomas’ Church. It’s wonderful to be with you. Special thanks to your good rector, the Rev. Lisa Ahuja, and members of the vestry for inviting me to preach.
The working title of this sermon is “The Story of Your Life,” an exploration of recurring themes and patterns that you might come to recognize over time, and how you can discover, to your amazement, “The Gospel of your Life,” that is to say, the ways that God, through the loving presence of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, shows up for you, and the ways you are uniquely wired to experience God and to be a witness for Christ simply by living your one, unique life.
Let me begin by asking you to think of times when you’ve heard either yourself or someone else say, “Well, that’s the story of my life.”
Casually, it’s a way we describe how luck seems to fall for us; in my case, for example, why it is that whenever I choose a check-out line in a grocery store, I always seem to wind up in the slowest line. I don’t know why, but it’s the story of my life. A friend once told me of her husband’s “parking karma,” because he always seems to be able to find a parking spot in the most crowded part of the city. It’s the story of his life.
In these arguably superficial yet uncannily true ways, we experience a significant part of who we are. “I never win at anything.” Or “I always seem to win.” “I’m a glass half-empty kind of person.” “I’m a glass half full.”
Our younger son, Patrick, was rather accident prone as a kid, to put it mildly. By the time he reached high school, his friends began to refer to what they called PRIs, or Patrick Related Incidents. In his case, it was more than simply bad luck, although he had plenty, it was also reflective of the fact that he had so much going on in his head at one time that his situational awareness suffered. Accidents became a big part of the story of his life.
These stories we tell about ourselves, or others tell about us, are powerful. They help account for recurring patterns--the things that just seem to happen, time and again, for good or for ill. Once a pattern is ingrained and the story is set in our minds, it takes real effort to change it, even if the data supporting them is suspect, or when what was once true about us is true no longer. One of the liberating aspects of moving to a new place or a new job, actually, is that we get to start over with the story of our life. While some of these patterns and stories are harmless and tend to be exaggerated, others are highly influential, with real implications for how others relate to us.
As I’ve been talking, I wonder if you’ve thought of an example from your life or someone close to you that is akin to what I’ve been describing? Are there any narratives that you’d like to change or you feel are changing? We’ve all been watching the fascinating storyline shift at the Olympics this year, with the highly unusual decision for world star gymnast Simon Biles to withdraw from competition at the final hour, citing concerns for her mental health. She and others like her are insisting now on a new narrative, one that takes into account for sportsmen and women the entirety of their lives, not simply the moments when all eyes are on their performance.
Let’s go deeper now to consider that part of your story that encapsulates, attempts to describe what you love best about you--what you love to do, the things that cause you to lose track of time because you’re so engaged in them, the people who make your hearts sing, the places that speak to you of home, or adventure, or joy. Another way to identify this part of your life is the deep sense of purpose you feel when what you’re doing matters to you, the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction you feel whenever you sense that the gifts God has given you are being put to their use, even when, or perhaps especially when, the effort involved requires real sacrifice on your part. Your dreams are also a big part of this storyline--what you hope for, what you really want for yourself and for others, so much so that you’d give up a lot of other things for that one pearl of great price.
Now that part of yourself--whatever it is--is sacred. It’s your personal connection to the creative, life-giving spirit of God. I would say that God really cares about that part of you. More about that in a moment.
But first I’d like to briefly consider the story of Jesus’ life, not the overarching narrative from birth to death, but rather the animating energy that drove him, the things that people knew about him---the Jesus Related Incidents, if you will. There are several to choose from, but one story about Jesus always rises to the fore--his passion for food.
Jesus loved food, and most especially, to share meals with other people. He’d eat with anyone--tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees--he didn’t care. He loved parties, and at one of them, he personally made sure that more wine flowed freely (and really good wine) after the host’s supply ran out.
It mattered to Jesus that people had enough food, which helped explain why so many were drawn to him. For Jesus walked among people who were almost always hungry--subsistence farmers, fishermen whose livelihoods and often next meals depended upon their night catch. Famine was common in Jesus’ day, as it is now in drought-stricken or war-torn parts of our world.
One of the most cherished memories about Jesus' ministry was the time (and perhaps it was more than once) when he made sure that a hungry multitude did not leave his presence without being fed. As you may recall, he worked with what he had, what people gave him--a few loaves and some fish--to create a banquet enough for many to eat their fill, with food to spare. It’s one of the few stories about Jesus that shows up in all four written accounts of his life, which biblical scholars agree makes it a really big deal.
The other meal recorded in all four accounts was the most intimate one, the one we reenact every Sunday when we gather around this sacramental table--the last supper he shared with his closest friends on the night before he died. It was a time of final words and of reassurance that after he was physically gone, whenever they gathered together to break bread, his spirit would be with them.
What all this focus on food tells us about Jesus is that he really cares about human beings. He knows that we need food--good nourishment for our bodies--to be fully alive. He also cares about feeding souls. For all his love of actual food, he would also remind people that we do not live by bread alone, that there are other kinds of hunger. It mattered to Jesus, and it matters still, that souls are fed. Because we cannot realize the best, most true story that is our life without soul food, that which feeds and sustains the part of us that animates, our spirit and energy, passion and purpose. We can’t run on empty and live that part of your life.
So the first thing I hope you take with you from this sermon is the non-negotiable commitment Jesus has to your physical and spiritual well-being, and not just you, but every child of God on this planet. Anyone called to be a follower of Jesus will be invited into a life of first receiving the food that nourishes body and soul, and then ensuring that others are equally fed, no matter who they are.
You may remember a story about the time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection while they were fishing on the sea of Galilee. They saw him from the boat and made their way to him. And the first thing he did was invite them to eat the breakfast he had prepared for them. Then he took Simon Peter aside for a private conversation to help Simon Peter to get past the guilt he felt for having denied him three times on the night of his arrest. You remember how he asked him three times, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” and Simon Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Each time, Jesus gave him this exhortation, “Feed my sheep.” Feed people. Give them food--nourishing food, for body and soul--in my name.
The second message of this sermon is a bit harder, although equally, if not more important. For it has to do with how Jesus can show up for us in those times when, in the story of our life, a part of us--a really important part--is going hungry. I’m not speaking about physical hunger now, but rather the other ways that we feel the ache of emptiness and lack. He knew it would happen to us; it happens to everyone; it happened to all him: disappointments and failures; dreams lost and roads not taken.
You heard and have printed in your bulletins a reading from the reading from the Gospel of John in which Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life, even going so far as to say that whoever comes to him will not go hungry and whoever believes in him will never thirst. He’s clearly not talking here about physical hunger because any human being alive will experience physical hunger and thirst. It’s the way our bodies work. So what is he talking about?
First we have to consider the text itself. You may know that there is a radical shift in tone in the Gospel of John as compared to the other three accounts of Jesus’ life--in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the other three, Jesus almost never speaks of himself in the first person. He’s always talking about what the Kingdom of God is like, calling people to follow him in a life of radical service to others.
In John, by stunning contrast, written at least a generation after the other three, Jesus can’t stop talking about himself. He talks about himself all the time. “I am,” he says, “the light of the world.” “I am the Way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the bread of life.” In fact, John devotes two chapters to this one idea of him being bread, Jesus being our bread, our soul’s food. This is an extended reflection on the very story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and some fish, as if to say, “Don’t just pay attention to your bodies here. Let Jesus, let me be food for your souls, and food for your souls in the very places where you may not be getting what you want or what you need.”
Do you hear that? Jesus is meeting you in that place of want or need, and recognizing that what you want or need may not come to you in the ways that you desperately pray for. And this, as you know, is a significant shift in the life of faith. Historically, it’s the result of the passage of time, and the realization among Jesus followers a couple generations after the resurrection that whatever it meant for Jesus to return in glory, it wasn’t going to bring about a change in their life circumstances anytime soon. At the same time, they had the sense, a growing sense, of Jesus’ presence with them. It hadn’t gone away; in fact, it had grown stronger with time, albeit in a more mysterious, mystical way. It was as if they didn’t have to wait for Jesus to come back. Maybe he was already here, with them already in spirit and in truth. Whatever that meant for them, it had something to do with Jesus’ presence, in itself, being food for their souls--less focused on what changed externally and more centered on their inner life.
That’s the kind of food Jesus offers still. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the things that we want and need. But he also offers, where we need it most, sources of strength, resilience, forgiveness and grace that can sustain us even when, or especially when, we are experiencing emptiness and hunger in parts of our lives where our needs aren’t being met in the ways that we hope or want.
It’s a challenging shift. I wish it wasn’t necessary, that we could always have our needs met, but it is. The shift involves acceptance and letting things go, experiencing the emptiness inside, and allowing Jesus to meet us there and fill that space. It’s a different kind of food, and we may not want it, at first. We may want to hold out for the fulfillment of our desire. There’s nothing wrong with that. I hold out for as long as I can. But what Jesus says to me and to you, when we’ve run that course is, “Let me feed you in other ways.”
Here is a concrete example of this kind of food. Dear friends of ours, now in their 70s, married young and, as most young couples do, they wanted to have children. It was not to be. Their grief was real and long lasting, but by grace and with time, they found a path as a couple that has filled their lives with children for whom they are a blessing, including our two sons who love them fiercely. One of the couple told me years ago that in conversation with other childless couples, their story isn't always well received. “They don’t want to hear that it’s possible to live a fulfilling life without children, because they still want children,” my friend told me. “How well we understand that.” As people of faith, they never minimized their grief, or pretended that their longing for children wasn’t real. But God gave them another path, another way to live fully. That’s the kind of food we hear Jesus offer us when we need to find another path and experience fulfillment in a different way than what we had hoped, and even when a part of us remains empty.
The African American theologian Howard Thurman writes powerfully of this kind of spiritual food in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Writing as a black man in a deeply segregated, unjust America, in 1949, he asked the haunting question, “What on earth does Jesus have to say to the people whose backs are against the wall--to the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed?”1 He was far less interested in what Jesus had to say to those with power and privilege about sharing their resources and helping those in need. He wanted to know what Jesus had to say to them. He wanted answers for the people for whom this world is constant struggle, perpetual hunger, and stolen dreams. In Jesus, Thurman finds his answers--not in Christianity, but in Jesus, and his promise of inner strength, inner clarity, inner conviction of worthiness and power that enables those oppressed by others to live according to a different narrative, a different life story, born of the unshakeable conviction that they are beloved of God. With that story, they stand up to those who would tell them otherwise and work toward the fulfillment of God’s dream for all. Their immediate hunger for equity and justice may, as yet, go unfulfilled, yet a deep knowledge of their belovedness in God’s eyes, that Jesus is there for them, is food enough to see them through and, to quote Ghandi, a man Thurman deeply admired, “to be the change they wanted to see in the world.”
I leave you with the invitation with which I began: to consider the story of your life. Smile at the more quirky aspects, consider the narratives you are ready to change, and most especially, cherish the deeper story that speaks to the animating energy that is you. It is your gift to all of us, your sacred, God-given, God-inspired life. Jesus longs for you to have all the food you need to live your dreams and gifts into the world. But when they can’t be fully realized in the ways that you hoped, there he will meet you with the Gospel of your Life, the way he meets you in your empty place, holds it with you, and gives you, if you let him, the food of love and mercy, strength and deep assurance that you are beloved child of God. And that my friends, is enough food to live the life that is yours alone, and to live it well.
May it so for you, and for us all. Amen.
1 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (First published by Abingdon President, 1949).
June 17, 2021
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion . . .
If you attend an Episcopal church this Sunday, you’ll hear the story of how Jesus calmed a tumultuous sea with his words. “Who is this,” the disciples ask one another in awe, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Reflecting on this story at our diocesan staff meeting, several of us were just as impressed by Jesus’ ability to take a nap in the midst of the storm. What a necessary skill to cultivate, we realized, in a world in which storms keep coming.
Hazel Monae, EDOW’s Missioner for Equity and Justice, then told us of a book she planned to use in her devotions this summer, which I immediately added to my own reading list: Just Because You're in a Storm Doesn't Mean the Storm has to be in You by Pastor Kirk Byron Jones.
Before Jesus quieted the storm, he quieted himself. This placed him in a position to bring peace to the storm. Through stillness, deliberately resting our souls in God’s grace, we may bring peace to our storms, hushing their turbulent impact on us, and blessing on blessing, perhaps even causing them to offer up surprise wisdom through their contrary winds.1
The image of resting, seeking stillness, even sleeping in a storm is a good one to meditate on this summer, not as an excuse for escapism or complacency, but as God’s promise that we can live with peace at the center of our being even as we are called to purposefully engage the turbulence around us.
We also need the grace to rest in a storm whenever we’re faced with important decisions and we feel pulled in many directions at once.
For example, in our congregations we’re discovering that it’s actually harder to re-emerge from pandemic imposed restrictions than it was to impose them. Church consultant Susan Beaumont writes:
The beginning of the pandemic was overwhelming, but our focus was clear. The boundaries marking what we could not do provided clarity. Now, in-person engagement is returning, and we face another kind of overwhelm--too many options. How do we make choices when some boundaries have been removed, but not everything is possible?2
Beaumont suggests that we need to shift from a decision making mindset to one of discernment, so that we might intentionally engage the Holy Spirit for wisdom. “What needs to happen next,” she writes, “may be larger than the limits of human understanding. We need to be led by the future itself.”
Beaumont’s entire article is worth reading, yet one piece of her wisdom particularly caught my attention. At the end of whatever discernment/decision-making process we engage in, she suggests that we test our decisions with rest. “Before your choice is shared, sit with your choice in stillness and prayer...Ask yourselves if the decision reflects Holy Spirit wisdom.”
In all realms of life, testing our decisions with rest is incredibly helpful. For good reason, we often hear ourselves say that we need to sleep on a decision before acting on it. Not only does rest give the intuitive sides of our brains time to do their work, it affords the Holy Spirit space to speak to us in stillness. Rested, we can face what lies before us with greater strength and less exhaustion.
Again, think of Jesus sleeping in the storm. When he awoke, he was ready and had all of his faculties--human and divine--at full strength. In that moment, he may well have needed more rest than his short nap afforded, as if often the case for us. But as Byron Jones points out, Jesus made a practice of intentionally stepping away from the demands of his life in order to rest and pray. “Without question, Jesus was a mighty engager,” he writes. “He willingly faced life with all of its needs, challenges, and complexities. But the fact of the matter is that Jesus, the mighty engager, was also a master of retreat.”3
In order to live well and do good in a world of constant storms, we, too, need our times of rest and renewal. In some seasons of life, such rest will come only in small bits on the edges of our days; while in others, we are blessed with longer stretches of time. Paradoxically, it takes practice to rest well, especially when we have acclimated to a life rhythm of constant action and crisis response.
After all we’ve been through, this is a summer to practice rest, in whatever forms our lives allow. The storms will keep coming and the important work before us will always demand our best efforts and wisest decisions. Jesus shows us that sometimes the best way to prepare and to respond is by first taking a nap.
1 Jones, Kirk Byron. Just Because You're in a Storm Doesn't Mean the Storm has to be in You: A Meditation for Trying Times (pp. 24-25). Soaring Spirit Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Jones, p. 13.