Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Caesar in a Feedbox

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2018
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:2-14

We began this glorious night by singing one of my favorites, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  It’s a great hymn with great theology about just how much love this baby in the manger is bringing to our broken world.  And, at the same time, that song makes a pretty big assumption about how our hearts are faring on this holy night.  The carol begins, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant….” 
If you fall into that category, more power to you.  But I think it’s a pretty safe bet that many of us aren’t feeling so joyful and triumphant tonight, no matter how hard we try for Christmas.  Read or watch the news, and you’ll see children starving in Yemen, and families burned out of their homes in California, and leaders failing to govern in Washington.  In our own lives, maybe we’re struggling to keep relationships alive or watching them end.  Maybe you’ve lost someone in the past year, so this is the first Christmas with that piece of your heart gone missing.  Just the other day, I spoke with an incredibly strong woman who is watching both her husband and her daughter fight cancer in this “holiday” season.  Sometimes, even on Christmas Eve, peace is hard to come by.
And yet, the words from God we heard tonight, the love letters from the King who cares for us more than we can imagine – those words say that, “to us, a child is born,” one who is named “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  The angels themselves declare that to us is born “in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  And that news makes the army of angels proclaim, “Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:11,14)
But what kind of peace does this Savior and Lord really bring us? 
Well, Luke’s Christmas story begins by telling us what kind of peace the tiny King won’t be bringing us.  The story sets his birth in the context of another king’s rule, the Roman Emperor Augustus.  Augustus is the kind of king who rules by force and decree.  In fact, in the strength of his 38-year reign, this emperor brought peace to the Roman world – peace, in sense of the absence of armed conflict.  Now, that’s a blessing.  That absence of conflict, and the prosperity that grew from it, caused the Roman world to hail Augustus with a couple of titles we’d recognize but wouldn’t apply to him:  He was known as “savior” and “lord.”  Those were common titles for this immensely powerful ruler who could snap his semi-divine fingers and command millions of people to carry out his every wish.
That’s the context of our story tonight.  The savior and lord Caesar Augustus has issued a decree that “all the [Roman] world should be registered” (Luke 2:1) so that the emperor could tax, and conscript, and otherwise dominate the provinces and peoples enjoying his peace.  And among the people following his order are Joseph and Mary, making the difficult journey in the last days of her pregnancy to go ... where Caesar told them to go.
It’s no accident that our Christmas story comes in contrast to this kind of saving lordship – lordship as the world defines it.  I think God was saying something very specific:  that the truly divine King would come in the least likely way possible – not as emperor but as a vulnerable newborn, born out of wedlock to parents whose relationship was on the rocks, born on the road with no place to stay, born into a people subject to powerlessness and poverty, lying in a feedbox not filled with golden, glowing straw like we see in the paintings but coated with animal spit.  Later Christian writers would see Caesar as the anti-Christ.  But from the start, God saw Christ as the anti-Caesar.
But why would God choose that path?  In a world where people follow leaders who enforce peace through mandates and decrees and the movement of armies, why would God choose to come to us, and save us, as a baby in a dirty feedbox?
I think it comes down to the same mystery that leaves us struggling sometimes with the reality of our own suffering.  Especially at Christmastime, we might be forgiven for wishing for a heavenly thunderbolt to deal with the issues that beset us.  We might find ourselves praying for a Christmas miracle, and I believe with all my heart that miracles do come.  But the thing is, they often don’t follow the timelines we’d specify or look the way we’d order up on our own.
To me, the miracle of Christmas is this:  That despite everything – despite centuries of people ignoring God’s call, despite fickle hearts that commit when the going is easy but quickly fall away, despite knowing that those being saved would turn against their Savior – despite every way we humans fail, God chose to take flesh, and inhabit our lives, and walk alongside normal, broken people.  And it wasn’t just divine tourism.  God came into our lives to offer us the hope of living in a redeemed world, in a new creation, forever, with the direct experience of human suffering now part of God’s own heart.  We receive the gift of eternal life from the King who reigns through service, the King who rules by giving himself away.  Jesus Christ reigns as Savior and Lord by investing his heart in yours. 
So, the miracle of Christmas is not that God will fix all our problems, because if God did, then we would be pets, not divine children and heirs of eternal life.  God could have made that choice, I suppose.  God could have chosen to play Caesar, invading a broken world with instant salvation.  God could have looked at the mess we make of things, and blown the whistle, and said, “You know, this free-will thing was an interesting experiment, but now it’s time for y’all to get in line.  Love me, or else.” 
That would have been peace, Roman style – the peace of authoritarianism, the peace of empire.  But instead, the miracle of Christmas is that the sovereign of all creation chose another way to save us – not the path of insistence but the path of investment.  God said, “This mess is worth my personal attention.  These broken people are my own children.  The only thing that will change their lives is love, and love can’t be coerced.  Love must be given, like an ever-flowing stream.  And love must be returned for the broken heart to heal.”
And, of course, the miracle doesn’t stop there, at the level of abstraction.  The real miracle of the incarnation, the real miracle of Christmas, is not just that God came as a particular human but that God still comes to a particular human – you.  To God, you are worth lying in a filthy feedbox.  You are worth healing.  You are worth dying for.  You are worth the investment of love that changes a life, because your changed life changes the world the Lord came to save.
I’ve seen it in a million ways, and so have you.  I’ve seen couples make the choice to resurrect a dying relationship.  I’ve seen parents make the choice to welcome lost children with God’s open arms.  I’ve seen brilliant people commit themselves to public service.  I’ve seen wealthy people commit themselves to ensuring that the lives of those without a voice are built up.  I’ve seen people in this church offer their gifts of hospitality or music or leadership or whatever, to serve the people they’ve grown to love.  I’ve seen people here give dearly of time and talent and treasure to educate children in a small town in Haiti.  I’ve seen more than 100 St. Andrew’s members serve and talk with people at the Free Store, just this Saturday, listening to others’ pain, and offering it to God, and providing a warm coat as a sacrament of grace. 
And, as I said, I know of a woman who is watching both her husband and her daughter fight cancer but whose heart looks outward still.  She could certainly be forgiven for not “feelin’ it” this holiday season – maybe even for polite and proper bitterness at the distance of God’s love.  Instead, she told me that, for years, she lived nearby another family that’s now going through their own grief about untimely endings, a Christmas without a mother and a wife.  And so, this woman with the outward heart said, “I made some cookies.  At least I could do that.  I made some cookies, and I brought them over.”  And Love came down at Christmas.
Because love doesn’t happen at a distance.  Love comes in filthy feedboxes.  Love blossoms in broken hearts.  Love heals us to heal God’s world.  That’s the miracle of Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Rough Good News

Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018
Luke 3:7-18

At Fr. Jeff’s ordination on Wednesday, the preacher, the Rev. Dr. James Farwell, began with a great question:  “What did you all come out to see?”  He was asking about the ordination, but the reference was to Jesus asking the crowds about that crazy prophet John the Baptist.  And now, we’ve come out to hear John the Baptist, too, in our Gospel reading today.  It’s not exactly the Good News we might expect to hear just before Christmas.  We’re waiting for the baby in the manger, and John is getting us ready for “the wrath to come” with “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:7,17).  Ho, ho, ho.
Last Sunday, we heard the first part of John the Baptist’s story, as Luke tells it.  Into a particular place and time, this prophet came to do what prophets do:  Speak for God.  That’s what it means to be a prophet.  It’s not about foretelling the future; it’s about telling people God’s word right now. 
So, out in that dry and dusty desert, John began his message with applause lines, red meat for peasants struggling under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  That’s what we heard last week, when John was channeling the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah had brought comfort and hope to God’s people 500 years earlier, when they’d been defeated by the Babylonians and taken off into exile.  They had watched their army and their Temple crumble.  They’d been carted off to a foreign land to serve a foreign power.  But in that historical moment, God had intervened, telling Isaiah to speak words of restoration and hope:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Luke 3:4).  The valleys will be filled in, Isaiah had said, and the mountains leveled, and the crooked paths straightened, and the rough ways smoothed out.  For the people in exile, that wasn’t just symbolic language about the coming of the Messiah, which is how we hear it.  For them, this was a promise that, literally, God would make a road across the punishing desert wilderness between Babylon and Jerusalem because God was about to free the people from exile and bring them home.
So, in last week’s Gospel story, 500 years later, John the Baptist was channeling Isaiah and promising the people that God was about to act again, as in the days of exile.  You didn’t have to be a historian to make the connection.  This time, the oppressors were the Romans, occupying God’s promised land.  And when John said, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6), the crowd heard him talking about the Lord kicking some Roman heinie and putting God’s own king on the throne.  I think that’s what the crowds went out to see and hear:  a fiery preacher telling them that the bad guys were about to get what’s coming to them. 
But then, John the Baptist takes salvation in a whole different direction with the words we pick up in today’s Gospel reading.  After the applause lines about judgment against the bad guys, John turns on the crowd.  “You brood of vipers,” he says.  “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7).  Wait, what?  He’s going after us?  Yeah, and he’s just getting started about their self-righteousness:  “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now,” John goes on, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9)
OK, the folks in the crowd are thinking, that’s not what we came out to hear!  We’re the good guys, John, remember?  We’re the ones struggling under the Romans, with no decent income, and no opportunity, and taxes out the wazoo.  You’re supposed to be preaching the coming vindication, John, not naming what’s wrong with us.
So, after a moment of awkward silence, somebody pipes up with the question they’re all wondering:  Well, “what then should we do?” (Luke 3:10).  I think John’s answer is beautifully, and deceptively, simple:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:10-11)  If you want to get right with God, get right with the person next to you, John says.  Salvation comes from turning toward God by turning toward neighbor.
That question from Fr. Jeff’s ordination, the question Jesus asked the crowds – it’s still relevant for us.  What have we come out today to see and hear?  Well, honestly, most of us have come out to see Christmas coming, right?  Even if we couch that in churchy terms, it’s still about looking forward to the baby in the manger.  To mark Advent here at St. Andrew’s, we use the color blue – in Western art, the color of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  We focus our Advent hearts on expectation, pregnantly waiting for what Jesus is about to do within us and among us.  Filled with hope, we long for the One who will save us and heal us and make us whole.  All that is right and good – and it’s how my heart usually spends Advent, too.
But then comes John the Baptist, God’s inconvenient spokesperson, crashing the Christmas party to remind us what Jesus is coming to save us from.  It’s actually not so much our enemies – whoever we see gaining advantage over us, whoever has wronged us most recently, whatever system gives its breaks to people who don’t deserve it.  Whether we’re white or brown, rich or poor, empowered or excluded, we can probably identify some people or some system that fits those categories, somebody who’s the bad guy.  These days, in our culture, we’re taking that to an art form, with everybody finding some part of the system to blame for their problems and, at the same time, implicitly justifying themselves as the injured party.
Well, out there in the wilderness, beholden to nobody, John the Baptist brings us the rough Good News of holy honesty.  We should look at ourselves, John says, not blame someone else; work on ourselves, John says, not assume we’re the good guys. 
Now, that could lead us to a theologically squishy conclusion:  that God isn’t concerned with the nature of our choices or the character of our society; that any outcome is OK, as long as we’re sufficiently humble about it.  But John the Baptist won’t let us stop there.  God does have a clear agenda.  Those who have more need to share with those who have less.  Those who have the opportunity to game the system need to play by the same rules as everybody else.  Those who have power in whatever form – political, economic, social – those who have power need to exercise it following God’s own model of sacrificial love.
So, like the guy who piped up in the crowd, we might well ask John the Baptist, “OK then, what specifically should we do?”
Here’s another deceptively simple answer:  Start by recognizing that we need saving, and that what we need saving from is sin.  After all, in this season of Advent, we could just as easily have chosen to deck the halls here with the penitential purple we put out at Lent, rather than pregnant blue. 
Even the name of the Messiah we’re waiting for tells this truth about our need to be saved.  “Jesus” is an Anglicized version, of a Greek version, of a very old Hebrew name, Yeshua, which is given as “Joshua” in other parts of Scripture.  Remember Joshua in the Old Testament?  He saved God’s people from their 40 years in the wilderness by leading them into the land and the life of promise.  So, when the angel visits Mary in one Gospel story and visits Joseph in another, and when the angel tells them of this baby about to be born, the angel says to both Mary and Joseph, “You shall name him Yeshua,” what we call “Jesus”; and that name means, “he saves.” 
But, what does he save us from?  In Matthew, the angel tells Joseph it’s about saving people from their sins.  In Luke, the angel tells Mary it’s about saving regular folks from oppression by bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things, and sending the satisfied away.
So, as we wait for the One who will chop down the unproductive trees and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, I think this is what John the Baptist would tell us to do:  Act in ways that save us, and in ways that save God’s world, from sin.  Look into our hearts and question the self-righteous assumptions we make.  Look around us, and see who needs a coat and some food, and then provide it.  Look at the systems we inhabit, and see what’s keeping people down, and then help make changes that offer hope.  Look at the divisions that infect our city and infect our hearts – where some people with light skin see people with dark skin as inherently threatening – and work to build relationships instead. 
That kind of saving action can take many forms, and no one response is right.  In fact, in a big-tent place like St. Andrew’s, we run the gamut.  I know people who volunteer in classrooms and gardens in Kansas City schools.  I know people who help educate children in rural Haiti.  I know people who work to elect candidates they trust to be agents of healing and reconciliation.  I know people who put signs in their yard to protest climate change and its effects on the people of our planet.  I know people who serve as personal shoppers at the Free Store for folks without warm coats.  I know people who show up at rallies to raise the minimum wage.  I know people who helped launch a social enterprise and now prepare people for living-wage jobs as dog groomers.  In each case, I believe, the intent is to help save us from sin – the separation of our hearts from one another, and our separation from God’s intentions for the children God loves.
We will disagree about the right paths, and I think God honors that, so long as we honor one another in the process.  Not every path fits each disciple’s feet.  But God is clear about where those paths must lead, and we proclaim it each time we gather to witness a baptism:  Seeking and serving Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.  And – when we come up short in our work to resist evil and when we fall into sin – repenting and returning to the Lord. 
That’s our Christmas card from John the Baptist:  the rough good news of showing us our sin.  But without knowing that, what are we hoping our Savior will save us from?

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Missionary Zeal, 2018 Style

Sermon for the Feast of St. Andrew, transferred
Matthew 4:18-22; John 1:35-42; John 12:20-22
Nov. 25, 2018

A year ago, as we gathered to celebrate our patron saint, when we pulled into the parking lot, we saw a construction site across the street.  Over the next few months, we watched as a new structure rose out of the dirt and snow, the outward and visible sign of what we’d been talking about since our centennial in 2013 – Gather & Grow, an initiative to reach the people around us in new ways.  You generous people gave $3.6 million to help make that vision real, creating what our treasurer likes to call our “bright, shiny new toy” across the street. 
HJ's Dedication, April 15, 2018
In April, the building was done, and Greg Bentz and I ate our last Burger King breakfast sandwiches with the contractors and architect, after months of biweekly meetings in a cold trailer.  Then, on Sunday, April 15, we all gathered in the snow on the front porch of the new HJ’s to bless the building and open its doors for ministry.
April, May, and June were busy months.  We hired a new staff member, Zach Beall, to be our coordinator of HJ’s and community connection.  We promoted another staff member, Colleen Simon, to be our engagement coordinator.  We promoted Jean Long to build ministry with children, youth, families, and younger adults.  And we called Fr. Jeff Stevenson to help us build pastoral care and one-on-one connection.
But here’s what we didn’t know:  How would you respond to all this?  How would people in the community respond to all this?  We’d been talking for years about being “church” in new ways, being more intentional about reaching out and inviting folks in.  But we didn’t really know what would happen once the shiny new toy and the shiny new staff members were there.
I’ll come back to that in a minute.  First, I want us to remember the model we’ve been following as we’ve walked down this road of gathering and growing. 
No surprise – it starts with Jesus.  In the reading this morning from Matthew, we heard Jesus cast his vision as he sees Andrew and Peter casting their nets.  They were fisherman, small-business men out there earning a living.  But Jesus holds up their daily life before them and helps them see it in a new light.  Don’t just look for fish, he says.  Instead, fish for people.  You have it within you to reach people in ways you haven’t even thought about yet.
In John’s Gospel, we get a different version of Andrew’s call to follow Jesus.  In that story, the call is much more subtle.  Andrew is a follower of John the Baptist initially, and he hears John say, “Look, there’s the Lamb of God,” the one who comes to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  So, Andrew goes off after Jesus, and they spend the day talking.  That’s all it took.  Andrew’s heart tells him to share his excitement with someone he loves – his brother, Peter – and he says to Peter, “We have found the Messiah!” (John 1:41).  Come, and see.  Andrew’s invitation to Peter wasn’t complicated or scripted or awkward.  Andrew didn’t have all the answers to the questions Peter no doubt asked.  Andrew simply wanted to share the fact that he’d found the presence of God through a conversation with this amazing new friend – and he wanted Peter to find it, too.
Later in John’s Gospel, we get a couple more Andrew stories.  I think it’s significant what these stories don’t illustrate.  Andrew doesn’t pronounce deep theological insights.  He doesn’t heal anybody.  He doesn’t preach to large crowds. Instead, Andrew takes individuals seriously, even if he doesn’t know exactly how his actions will play out. 
For example, just after Palm Sunday, as Jesus is riding high, some outsiders come and want to meet him.  Now, these are people who don’t belong – described as “Greeks” in the story (John 12:20-22), they aren’t the folks people think Jesus has come to save.  He’s the King of the Jews, right?  He’s there to gather God’s people, the people of Israel – not the foreigners, not the outsiders, not the folks who don’t belong in church.  So, one of the other disciples brings the curious outsiders up the chain of command, to Andrew, and asks him what to do with them. 
Remember, Jesus is at the pinnacle of his popularity.  He’s just raised Lazarus from the dead and ridden into Jerusalem backed by a big crowd.  Andrew could have been polite and said to the outsiders, “It’s so nice to see you.  Please come back during office hours, and we’ll see if someone can help you then.”  But without hesitating, Andrew simply brings the outsiders to see Jesus.  Why?  Because he’s been there.  Twelve chapters earlier, Andrew was the one who was searching, lost and looking for direction.  He knows that what these outsiders need is for someone to take them seriously enough to open a door to a relationship.  So, he takes them to Jesus and changes their lives.
As we celebrate St. Andrew’s Sunday this year, we’ve got a bright, shiny new toy across the street.  We’ve got a bright, shiny set of improvements on this side of the street, too, after last year’s water damage – new floors, new lights, a renovated children’s chapel, a renovated undercroft, new drainage on the roof, all kinds of improvements.  It would be possible to pat ourselves on the back, and give thanks for the money that you generous souls have offered, and enjoy great parties in our new building, and carry on with church the way we’ve always known it. 
But this is Andrew’s church, a place where his heart is honored.  This is a place where you find something maybe unexpected in a church that folks used to call “the country club at prayer.”  Sometime, walk by the plaque on the wall just to my left, off to the side of the pulpit, and you’ll see it.
From 1956 to 1958, St. Andrew’s planted a new congregation in Red Bridge, a growing neighborhood in south Kansas City.  If you’ve been there, you can’t miss the connection; the building looks like a shrunken version of this one.  In that day, under the leadership of Dr. Earle Jewell, St. Andrew’s was thriving, the third largest Episcopal congregation in the country; and in that day, what thriving churches did was to plant new versions of themselves in new locations.  So that’s what this congregation did, planting what came to be called St. Peter’s church – because Andrew brought his brother with him to let Jesus change his life.  In thankful remembrance of that, the people of St. Peter’s put up a plaque here on our wall, honoring the people of St. Andrew’s for giving them a church home.  But the plaque recognizes more than that.  The plaque names the spiritual gift they saw in the people here – “missionary zeal.”
Today, missionary zeal doesn’t have to look like building a smaller version of us in some new neighborhood.  For us, the spiritual descendants of St. Andrew in a new day – when people don’t trust the institutional church very much, and when church buildings are being turned into restaurants, and when our sister congregations in our diocese are struggling to afford part-time clergy – for us, in a new day, missionary zeal happens in our own backyard.
Last Friday and Saturday, in our shiny new toy across the street, one of the most venerable of our parish groups, the Trinity Guild, put on the Trinity Antique Treasures Sale, a two-day event featuring antique dealers from five states, a pop-up Simply Divine Gift Shop, and wonderful sandwiches.  The event was a risk, honestly.  Trinity Guild hadn’t done that sort of thing before.  But – led by Joey Straube, Jinny Alexander, Cindy Roth, Joanna Martin, and Donna Adam – the members filled the building with antiques, and showed up to provide a warm welcome, and opened the doors … and waited to see what would happen.
Here’s what happened.  More than 400 people came through those doors last Friday and Saturday.  Trinity Guild members had a great time seeing friends and welcoming guests.  But here’s the thing:  They didn’t stop with simply being polite.  They found the outsiders, and they brought them to see Jesus.
I want to share an email I received from a St. Andrew’s member who was there and who has a keen eye for noticing the kingdom of God:  “I was helping at the welcoming table,” she wrote, “and several people came in who had no idea what was happening.  It gave us an opportunity to share the St. Andrew’s story.  One particular woman came in and asked questions.  She said, ‘I’m Catholic, but may I still take Communion at your church?  And can I bring my 24-year-old granddaughters?  And what would they find here?’  It didn’t take long for us to tell her about everything going on, including the young adults’ group.”  This interaction, and the Trinity Guild sale as a whole, was a master class in being the open-hearted community we are – creating the environment for connection, inviting people in, and bringing them to meet Jesus.  St. Andrew would be proud.
Now, it’s important to note that, on the quantitative side, God is doing wonderful things here.  Sunday attendance is up 9 percent so far in 2018.  Forty-five new households have joined the church so far this year.  Last month at HJ’s, in what wasn’t its busiest month, we had 21 meetings or events from outside groups, 14 meetings of St. Andrew’s groups, and 14 worship opportunities, including Morning Prayer three days a week and two community-oriented events combining worship and fellowship.  Thus far in 2018, bookings and other revenue from HJ’s has totaled $37,000, and we conservatively project it at $50,000 for next year.  So, the quantitative side is good, and that matters.
But to me, and I think to St. Andrew, and I think to Jesus – the relational side matters even more.  At the end of the day, our success will be measured one heart at a time.  Whether it’s the ladies from Trinity Guild welcoming an outsider, or Fr. Jeff talking with someone after Morning Prayer, or an inactive member coming back to coordinate projects at HJ’s, or a person who can’t afford wi-fi coming in for coffee and the chance to fill out job applications, or neighbors coming for worship that’s as much about brats and beer as it is about Scripture and prayer, or people coming for twice as many recovery groups as we used to host – all this is part of what church looks like now. 
This new reality is not replacing our beautiful experience here each Sunday morning; it’s coming into being alongside it.  All this, together, is church; because on both sides of the street, through all kinds of ministry, it boils down to the old saying: that church is one beggar showing another beggar where to go to find bread.  That’s missionary zeal, St. Andrew’s style – taking each individual seriously enough to say, “Hey, come with me, and let’s go find Jesus, together.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Building the Muscles of Trust

Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018
Mark 13:1-8

These are scary times – times when many of us feel on edge, waiting for the next shoe to drop.  Every week, it seems, what comes through social media or the news is word of shootings, and fires, and contested elections, and incivility, and mistrust, and dysfunctional government, and, and, and…. 
In the fear and anxiety, sometimes it’s hard to believe that God is in control.  We say we believe that, as we offer the Nicene Creed every Sunday, proclaiming our faith in God the “maker of heaven and earth,” the God who promises us “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”  How do we reconcile God’s sovereignty and God’s promise of new life with each frightful failure or tragedy we see?
Well, if you think things are bad now … let me take you back to a much scarier time – the years 66 to 70 AD.  The Jewish population of Jerusalem had risen in revolt against their Roman rulers.  After some initial success, things went from bad to much worse.  The Romans weren’t known for coddling rebels, and they answered the revolt with massacre and destruction.  The ancient historian Josephus wrote of fires raging, and blood running in the streets, and the Temple in Jerusalem being utterly destroyed.1 
It’s hard for us to imagine the weight of that loss for the Jewish people of the time.  If we watched some foreign power destroy the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the National Cathedral all at once, maybe that would come close.  The Temple symbolized everything the Jewish people trusted – God’s rule in their present lives, as well as the hope that, one day, the divine king would come as God’s viceroy on earth, ruling from the Temple in Jerusalem.  Instead, now the Temple was gone, and God’s people were slaughtered and dispersed – again.
It helps to know that context to get a sense of today’s Gospel reading.  We have to hear this story both as a memory of what Jesus taught his disciples and as a reflection on what Christians decades later were experiencing.  Scholars think the Gospel of Mark was written sometime between 70 and 80 AD – in which case, the Jewish Revolt would have colored everything they remembered and all the stories they’d been told about Jesus.  Once blood had run through the streets and the Temple had been flattened, Jesus’ words about the end times would have seemed incredibly pertinent.
So, what’s he saying here – both Jesus in the story’s own time, and the Jesus whom the Gospel writer remembers 40 years later?  Listen to it again:  “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come” (Mark 13:7).  What’s more, he told his followers they’d run up against false messiahs, political leaders concerned with their own agendas and power.  Don’t let them lead you astray, Jesus said; don’t look for a quick fix for the woes that will afflict you.  In fact, don’t expect the scary times to end quickly at all.  But hang in there, for “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). 
Despite the suffering, Jesus told his friends, God’s work will yet be finished.  For Christ will return in glory, scattering all the pretenders to the throne and gathering the faithful under God’s own rule.  Even though the darkness may seem overwhelming, darkness is not the story’s end – whether you’re seeing the smoke of Jerusalem in 70 AD or the smoke of Paradise, California, in 2018.  “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” Jesus said – and birth pangs bring new life.
Last week, Fr. Jeff preached about the power of small acts, the cascading effect they can have in helping to realize God’s kingdom and set the world to rights.  I believe in that with all my heart.  So, I want to take a step back from that truth about small acts and look at what impels them, because I think that’s where Jesus is taking us in this dark reading today.  In the face of wars and rumors of wars; in the face of one mass shooting after another; in the face of earthquakes and fires and devastation – what’s God asking of us, deep down?
Here’s what I believe is our foundation, the ground of all our difference-making in God’s world.  That foundation is trust – trust that this is, in fact, God’s world and that God’s not done with it yet.
Trust is not easy.  And it doesn’t just happen.  So, to build our trusting muscles, I want to encourage you to do something that may seem radical in our current climate of fear and loathing.  I want you to trust “out loud,” in how you live and what you say.  And here are two outward-and-visible ways to do that.
First, I’m asking you to make a commitment of some financial support for this parish family in the coming year.  Many of you have already done that – in fact, 155 of you, and thank you very much for it.  If you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll take one of the pledge cards in front of you and fill it out today.  You can put it in the plate as it goes by this morning; or take the card home, and give it some prayer, and bring it back next week, when we celebrate St. Andrew’s Sunday.  
So, now that I’ve mentioned pledging, I imagine that, for many of you, your brains have switched into prayerful consideration where to go for brunch or how many touchdowns Patrick Mahomes will rack up tomorrow night.  Preachers say the word “pledge,” and our defenses go right up.  I get that.  I’ve been there.
Before going to seminary, Ann and I were part of the Episcopal congregation in Blue Springs, and I can remember sitting in my car in the parking lot, mad at the church.  I’d gone to a meeting about how to get involved, and it had ended with a pitch for financial pledges.  I felt like they’d pulled a bait-and-switch, and I was steaming.  Ann and I were a young couple with two little kids, and I didn’t make very much as an editor.  And now, the church was telling me I was expected to pay what I saw as a regressive tax – 10 percent from everybody, no matter how much you earned.  Well, though I reveled in righteous indignation about the unfairness of it all, we did make a pledge, but certainly not 10 percent.  And because God has a biting sense of humor sometimes, I found myself helping to lead the pledge campaign the next fall.  Pesky deity.
Soon, Ann and the kids and I were off to seminary.  By the time we were sent to our first assignment, in Springfield, Missouri, Ann was very sick, and we were loaded with debt.  We worried a lot about how we were going to manage that debt on top of the rest of life with two kids.  But we also decided we needed to step into our fear about that deep uncertainty, and we needed to tithe – not just give consistently but work toward giving 10 percent of what I earned, which is what “tithe” means.  Honestly, that sounds more faithful than it was, because part of the decision came from realizing that I couldn’t very well stand up in front of that church and ask them to work toward a tithe if I wasn’t doing it myself.  But, hey, at least a sense of professional obligation got us started.  Now, tithing has become what we do – and not just us, certainly.  There are other faithful souls in these pews this morning who do the same thing.
Giving 10 percent is the biblical standard, what scripture’s witness to God’s heart asks us to do.  But for me, the power of tithing isn’t about meeting a biblical standard.  It’s about trusting God enough to head down the road of discipleship when I can’t even see around the next corner.  That pledge of ours is an outward and visible way to remind myself not to get shaken by whatever scares the living daylights out of me in the moment.  Pledging is an exercise to build the muscles of trust.  And it can start with literally any amount.  A dollar a month?  Go for it.  It’s the commitment that builds the trust.
So, I said I’d suggest two ways to trust God “out loud.”  Pledging is the first one, and here’s the second – one that involves prayer and proclamation.  Once this sermon finally ends, the next part of our worship is saying the Nicene Creed together.  But before we do, I want to confess a liturgical sin: When I say the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed and I’m not leading worship, I change a word from what’s printed in the Prayer Book.  We’re supposed to say, “We believe in God, the Father Almighty”; and “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ”; and “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  But I don’t say “believe” anymore.  The verb I use instead is “trust.” I trust in one God, the Father, the Almighty; I trust in one Lord, Jesus Christ; I trust in the Holy Spirt, the Lord, the giver of life. 
To me, the word matters.  Think about it in terms of a human relationship.  If I believe that Ann loves me, that’s one thing – and a very good thing.  That knowledge brings me peace and comfort and meaning that I don’t get from any other part of my life.  But if I trust that Ann loves me, it takes me one step further.  It empowers me to act – to raise kids when I never thought I’d be any good at it; to uproot our life to go off to seminary; to come to this parish where I didn’t think I’d fit in; to do a job I never saw myself doing.  Knowing love is a comfort.  Trusting love changes your life, rewiring your heart and strengthening you to step out of the darkness and await the light to come.
So, in addition to filling out that pledge card in front of you, I invite you to join me in the liturgical sin of slightly rewriting the Nicene Creed.  In fact, there’s no time like the present.  As you’re able, please stand – and consider taking the risk to start rewiring your heart by changing just one, transformative word in our statement of faith:

We trust in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We trust in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We trust in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son, he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We trust in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

1.       Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book VI, Chap. 5, Sect. 1.  Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/2850-h.htm#link62HCH0005.  Accessed Nov. 15, 2018.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What Does a Saint's Life Look Like?

Sermon for All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

This morning, we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, our annual remembrance of … well … quite a lot.  To me, if you cut to the chase about this holy day, here’s what we’re remembering: that in eternal life, there’s a lot more than meets the eye, both now and later – in this life, and when we die, and when we’re raised with Christ.  All Saints Sunday seems a good time to step back and at least glimpse the fullness of heavenly life – which is an impossible task, sort of like trying to take a picture of the Grand Canyon.  Once you’re far enough away to get the shot in view, you’re miles from the beauty of the detail you wanted to capture in the first place.
But even if we can’t take in eternal life all at once, I think it’s important to try.  And today is a good day for that work not just because it’s All Saints but because of what will happen here in a few minutes.  Three small people will come to this baptismal font – representing the living waters of creation, the cleansing waters that remove our sin, the liberating waters of the Red Sea through which the children of Israel passed from slavery to new life – three small people will come to this font and become followers of Jesus Christ. 
And when they do, they will, by definition, become saints.  That word comes from a Latin word meaning “set aside for holy use,” consecrated for holy commitment.  It doesn’t mean an all-star of the faith, though it includes the all-stars.  A saint is just someone set on God’s path, committed to doing his or her best to follow what Jesus asks us to believe and to do … which we can do only “with God’s help” (BCP 304-305).
So – for the families of those three small people, and all the rest of us pilgrims – we should know what we’ve signed on for, as saints.  What’s this path all about, especially the part we can’t yet see – what we typically call “heaven”?  When we say we hope to “go to heaven,” what does our faith tell us we might expect?
To guide us on the journey, I’d invite you to open your hymnal and take a look at that hymn we just sang – “For All the Saints,” number 287.1  It’s a really long hymn, which is why we’re breaking it up into two sections this morning.  But it also captures nothing less than the Christian hope – not bad work for eight verses.
The first five verses talk about our experience of eternal life in the here and now.  You’ve heard me say this before, and I’ll say it again:  I believe eternal life falls into three stages, and you’re living in the first one now.  When we come to this font and join the company of saints, we start living forever.  As Jesus says in the verses just before today’s Gospel story about raising Lazarus, when Martha confronts him about not showing up and letting her brother die, Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life” – present tense.  “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26) – starting now.
So, these first five verses of “For All the Saints” tell us about the first stage of eternal life we’re in.  Verse 2 names trust in God as the saints’ foundation: “Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might.”  And it names Christ as their leader in a life that’s often not easy, as we well know – he is the saints’ “Captain in the well-fought fight” and “in the darkness drear, their one true light.”  The third verse prays that we might follow the saints’ example in this life and “win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold.”  It’s good stuff, strengthening us for the reality that this first stage of eternal life is no picnic.  In fact, as verse 5 puts it, “the strife is fierce, the warfare long.”  As every saint knows, deep down, eternal life is not for the faint of heart but for those “whose hearts are brave and arms are strong.”
Then, in the next three verses, the hymn teaches us truth that we often get flat wrong about what happens when we die.  We like to say we’re looking toward “life after death,” and that’s certainly true – but it’s also incomplete.  And this hymn helps us get it right.
If our life now is stage 1 of eternal life, stage 2 comes when we die.  At that point, we enter into what the tradition calls “paradise,” a time or state of perfect rest, complete healing, and surprising joy as we drink in God’s presence up close and personal.  It’s what Jesus promised to the thief dying at his side when he said, “This day, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  In “For All the Saints,” paradise comes in verse 6:

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.

And in our church building, we can see stage 2 of eternal life in the amazing window here in the columbarium.  The angel welcomes us into a garden of unimaginable beauty and bids us to “let the peace of God rule in your hearts, and be ye thankful.”  Absolutely.  There are days when I can hardly wait.
But the amazing thing is, stage 2 isn’t the end.  As the theologian N.T. Wright puts it, we still have ahead of us “life after life after death.”2  We still have an entirely new creation to witness and inhabit.  This is what the last two verses of the hymn are about.  It’s the promise foreshadowed by Jesus raising Lazarus.  It’s what Jesus meant when he talked about his second coming.  It’s what’s going on in that stunning reading we heard from Revelation.  It’s the end of the story that’s actually the beginning, again. 
In God’s good time, “there breaks a yet more glorious day,” as verse 7 of the hymn says, when “the saints triumphant rise in bright array.”  The Revelation reading describes it like this:  God speaks the divine Word, just like in Genesis, and unites heaven and earth again, making all creation new (21:3-5).
That new creation includes us.  And it includes the lives we live.  In stage 3 of eternal life, we saints come into the fullness of what God intended for us “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1), with humankind truly, finally reflecting the image and likeness of God.  In the big picture, the last verse of the hymn tells us, that looks like “the countless host” coming “from earth’s wide bounds and ocean’s farthest coast,” streaming through gates of pearl and praising “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” 
But for each of us individual saints – then what?  If all creation is made new, if “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” and if “the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4), what might that look like in terms of what I do when I get up in the morning?  What’s the life and the work of a saint eternally?
It won’t surprise you to hear me say it in one word:  Relationship.  I don’t know, precisely, how that will play out, but we get glimpses of it all through Scripture.  It’s no accident that the next scene with Jesus in John’s Gospel, after what we heard this morning, is a sumptuous dinner he shares with his closest friends – Mary, and Martha, and the disciples, and Lazarus, the no-longer-dead man.  Isaiah describes this life of eternal connection as “a feast of rich food, … a feast of well-aged wines strained clear” (25:6).  Revelation describes it as the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9).  In eternal life, I think we celebrate together, healed – in peace, in joy, in love.
But you know, along with the party, I think there will be work to do.  I wouldn’t presume to know what that might look like, but love doesn’t just happen.  Love takes effort.  Relationships take work to build – especially those we’ve managed to break in this first stage of eternal life.  Plus, there will be an eternity of new relationships to build, as we “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbor as ourselves (BCP 305).  There will be a kingdom of justice and peace to flesh out, in which every human being respects the dignity of every other human being (BCP 305). 
It’s a kingdom we know even now, in our best moments.  It’s the kingdom we know even now, when we love and serve one another.  It’s the kingdom we know even now, when we comfort those who mourn, and feed those who hunger, and lift the lives of the oppressed, and show mercy to those who’ve harmed us, and make peace with those we oppose, and endure persecution for the choices we make, and live pure in heart (Matthew 5:3-11).  That’s the kingdom we pledge to build when we come through those baptismal waters and step into our own sainthood.  That’s the kingdom of heaven – our kingdom – now and forever.

1.       This look at “For All the Saints” is taken from Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 22-23.
2.       Wright, 169.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Save, O Lord, Your People

Sermon from Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018
Jeremiah 31:7-9

This morning, I had planned to follow up our stewardship witness with a lovely sermon tying that Gospel reading about faith (Mark 10:46-52) into our pledge campaign. Specifically, that sermon was about tithing, which is something we don’t talk about enough in the Episcopal Church.
Then yesterday morning happened, and 11 people were killed by a gunman in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Specifically, they were killed because they were worshipping in a synagogue in Pittsburgh – worshipping the One God according to the tradition of their ancestors, who are also our ancestors, by the way. This shooting isn’t just “tragic” or “senseless” or any of the other weary adjectives we find ourselves using, over and over again, as scenes of death spread across our land. This is anti-Semitism in its fullest expression. This is terrorism. This is hate, incarnate.
And appallingly, this kind of violence is becoming routine, like bedsores on a body politic unwilling to move itself. Even here in our heartland, we’ve seen hate-based violence against innocent people because of their culture, or their skin color, or their faith. An Olathe man was shot in a bar simply for being South Asian. People were shot at our Jewish Community Center simply for being there. And of course, if you look further afield, the examples multiply. In Charleston, a white supremacist killed nine people during Bible study, simply for being black. And now, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, life will never be the same. As worshippers gathered for Shabbat services – heartbreakingly, on a day of special joy as they celebrated the naming of babies – a man revealed the heart of hate by shooting innocents because of their faith.
As God’s family of St. Andrew’s, we join the rest of our nation as we grieve the presence of evil. Those feelings may also take their next steps, from grief to powerlessness to fear, as we come here this morning to worship the same God they were worshipping at Tree of Life Synagogue. Not very many years ago, no one could have imagined that coming to church in this country might feel like putting yourself at risk. And yet, I wonder how many of us heard the news yesterday, and watched the reports, and wondered whether we’d be safe in our own house of prayer for all people.
I want to remind you that St. Andrew’s has an armed security officer on site each Sunday morning. I say that in the hope of reassurance, but I also say it with tremendous grief. Almost exactly a year ago now we took that step, following the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. We discussed it in Vestry and heard passionate opposition, faithful church members saying that, because we are God’s people of hope and peace, we must witness hope and peace, rather than reflecting the fear and violence of the culture around us. In the end, we chose to use an armed security service, and I hope God understands why. Certainly, yesterday’s violence reminds us why we made that awful choice. So, know that the security officer will be with us in the weeks to come, too.
You should also know also that we’ve been developing an emergency plan for our congregation, including what to do in situations of imminent threat. We consulted with a local expert from another Episcopal congregation; and our operations manager, Michael Robinette, has experience with this from his service in the U.S. Navy Reserves. The emergency plan will go to the Facilities Commission very soon for review and full implementation.
But even as we grieve and feel powerless, we need to remember the power that reigns over and against the violent choices of a broken world. Millennia ago, the God who created the heavens and the earth chose a people to be a missionary presence of divine love to the world. God made a covenant with Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through his descendants. God called Moses, the unlikeliest of heroes, to lead God’s people out of slavery to a great empire and into their own land of promise. God united those people under Kings David and Solomon; and in its best moments, the nation revealed the blessing that comes when we walk in God’s ways. Over the generations, the people and their leaders erred and strayed like lost sheep, forgetting the Shepherd’s covenant. And eventually, they fell into exile – a consequence, the biblical writers say, of turning to their own ways, and the ways of the world around them, rather than holding fast to the commandments God had given them. “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live,” Moses had urged the people, “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
But even after military defeat and exile to a foreign land – even in the moment when faithlessness carried its greatest cost – the God who is Love promised to bring them home, to make a new covenant, commandments written on living hearts, not dead stone. We heard the promise this morning, in the Old Testament reading that just happens to be appointed for this Sunday. Hear again the powerful love of the Lord who redeemed a people and keeps doing so, over and over again.

Thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob … and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to … gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back … for I have become a father to Israel. (Jeremiah 31:7-9)

Violence may threaten God’s people – in Pittsburgh, and in Charleston, and even here in Kansas City. But racism and anti-Semitism and hate will not have the last word. For our God reigns and will not keep silent. The God of Love reigns, and hate will not endure.
But in that inevitable trajectory, as Love completes its conquest of sin and death, we have a part to play. In God’s great drama, we have lines to speak; and we must not shy away from the truth when evil seeks to confound us. When we hear hate, we must name it. When we hear divisiveness, we must unify – even though that guarantees none of us gets just what we want. When we hear apologies for darkness, we must shine the light on it and chase evil back to its lair. For God gives us the power to be instruments of peace in a violent world. And God expects us to use it.
We may be grieving, and we may feel powerless, and we may even be afraid. But don’t forget the power we wield. In the face of evil, we can speak love. In the face of hate, we can pray for transformation. In a society that seems increasingly to run to the extremes, we can be people of calm and steadfast witness for the holiness of unity and common cause. As the weekend’s tragedy continues to unfold, and as voices then compete to control the narrative, I ask you to join me in prayer:

God of all peoples, faiths, and races, who calls us to love one another as you love us: Be present with those whose lives have been rent asunder in Pittsburgh. Bring holy rest to the dead. Bring your healing to the injured. Bring your peace and hope to their families and faith community. For those who justify hate and use prejudice to foster their own ends, turn and change their hearts. And for our nation, strengthen and encourage the millions of us who long for union to supplant our discord. Empower us to stand and speak as your witnesses, bringing civility to a culture of division and peace to a culture of violence. This we ask in the name of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Come to the Table and Renew Your Vows

Sermon for Aug. 19, 2018
John 6:51-58

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. Last Saturday, Ann and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary.  It’s not a round number, so it’s not particularly noteworthy, I guess.  And it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the marriages of many of you, but still – 28 years is 28 years, as my wife likes to say.  Especially as the fall wedding season gets underway, and I meet with couples about to take the plunge, I feel especially grateful for the love of God that I’ve seen come to life in our marriage. 
A couple of weeks before our anniversary, Ann and I made the trek to Springfield for what’s become an annual family gathering at the church where my sisters and I grew up, Christ Episcopal.  We began these gatherings several years ago to celebrate my parents’ 60th anniversary.  This year – in fact, just a few days ago – they celebrated 66 years of marriage.  I can’t even imagine what that’s like, but I can imagine what underlies it.  It’s love, of course; but by that, I don’t mean a feeling.  I mean a decision – a decision to live out a commitment to something beyond themselves, day in and day out. 
One of the things we always highlight in premarital counseling is what the theologians like to call the covenantal aspect of the sacrament of marriage.  At its core, here’s what I think that means:  Marriage is more than a contract, more than an agreement by two parties that benefits each one.  If I make a contract with someone to replace my driveway, I get a new driveway and the contractor gets my money.  If the terms are met, both parties win.  And the contract is there to ensure it, naming the parties’ obligations and protecting the interests of each.
Where a contract focuses on terms, a covenant focuses on a relationship, with each party pledging commitment to it.  And honoring that deep commitment to the relationship is what keeps the parties together through the tough times.  After all, as every married person knows, spouses always end up falling short; and if marriage were a contract, any sane person would simply note that the terms were broken and make a new agreement with someone else.  But in deep relationships, the commitment overrides the terms.  In fact, the commitment takes on a life of its own, forming you as the marriage goes on, shaping you into someone who gives yourself away rather than someone who meets obligations.  Ultimately, that commitment makes you into someone with the capacity to work a miracle – to live out the impossible vow to love another person with “all that I am and all that I have” and thereby be an outward and visible sign of God’s unconditional love.  Through that mutual commitment, the couple loves each other into submission – not submission to each other’s will but submission to God’s purposes for them. 
So, whether it’s been 66 years, or 28 years, or whatever, an anniversary is a moment to remember the sacramental nature of that covenant, making it real and tangible in a way it can’t be every day.  On an anniversary, we bring the marriage covenant into active and living memory; and in doing so, we bring it to life anew. 
So, you may wonder what all that has to do with our readings today.  Well, to me, the kind of deep relationship people enter into in marriage – that’s the kind of relationship that Jesus is asking us to make with God.  You might think of what Jesus has to say today as a divine proposal.
The Gospel reading today picks up where we left off last week, with Jesus trying to explain to the crowd what it means for him to be the “bread of life.”  He reminds them that, centuries ago, God gave the people of Israel manna to eat in the wilderness.  It kept them going as they journeyed to the Promised Land, but that was as far as their deliverance went.  Now, Jesus says, there’s a new promise, a new covenant of relationship between God and humanity.  And he is its sign.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says.  “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51)  And the crowd’s probably thinking, “OK, great – the rabbi is talking about spiritual nourishment.”  The symbolism of the bread begins to make sense. 
But then, Jesus takes it up a notch and confuses the crowd again.  “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” he says, “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (6:51,55)  Ick.  Did he really say that?  Eat his flesh?  Yes, and not just that:  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. …  Whoever eats me will live because of me.”  (6:53,57).  No wonder some of his followers started walking away afterwards.  There’s a pretty significant “yuck factor” to what Jesus has to say.
The people listening to him don’t get it because they can’t fathom the terms of God’s proposal.  This “bread of life” won’t just keep us alive as we wander from one day to the next.  This bread is literally God in the flesh; and through Jesus’ body and blood, God is offering us God’s own life, eternal life – right here, right now, and forever.  “Just as I live because of the Father,” Jesus explains, “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (6:57).  It’s so straightforward we think it must be more confusing than it seems.  He can’t really mean what he’s saying, right?  Well, yes.  Eat my flesh and drink my blood – take my life into your own life – and I’ll empower you with eternal life. 
OK.  There’s God’s part of this covenant.  What’s our part?  What are the vows we’re asked to make in this eternal relationship?  As the crowd asks Jesus earlier in John’s gospel, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28).
I think what God asks of us is both much simpler, and much more demanding, than we’d expect.  Again, it’s less like a business contract and more like a marriage covenant.  Our part of the commitment is to match Jesus’ commitment to us.  “[B]elieve in him whom [God] has sent” (6:29).  That’s it.  There’s no specific to-do list, no contract to check for compliance.  Instead, Jesus says, remember what you’ve seen the Father doing through me, and commit yourself to it.  Remember, and believe. 
That’s a lot easier said than done, in the midst of life that distracts us with constant input and overwhelms us with impossible expectations.  When all I can see is everything I have to do, how can I remember my covenant with God and actively believe in Jesus?  We need concrete reminders.  We need signs to help us remember who and where we are.  It’s why the crowd asks Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, that we may see it and believe you?” (John 6:30).  Now, the irony is that, 24 hours earlier, the same crowd had watched him feed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish.  What more do you need?  But that was then; this is now.  That day, they were full; but now they’re hungry again.  And when you’re hungry, in whatever sense, it’s hard to remember and believe.
That’s why we’re here today.  That’s why we’re here every Sunday.  That’s why we do basically the same thing here every week.  It’s what Eucharist is all about:  Remember, and believe.
Go back to what you heard in Confirmation class or newcomers’ class.  What happens in Eucharist is called anamnesis in Greek, and it means living memory.  It means remembering, but with flesh and bones on it.  It means bringing a past reality into the present reality as a foretaste of a future reality.  It means making Jesus present in your hands and on your lips, bringing you the power of divine life in the here and now.  It means making eternal life tangible so we can remember and believe.
And from that memory and belief will come the “works of God,” in the sense we’d typically understand that.  Filled with the bread of life, we become the conduits through which eternal life flows.  As Jesus gives himself to bring life to us, so we give ourselves to bring life to each other and to the world.  Nourished with the body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ – bread for a hungry world. 
Every Sunday, we gather to celebrate the anniversary of a marriage – the marriage of heaven and earth, the marriage of Christ and his Church, the marriage of God with each one of us.  So, consider every celebration of Eucharist an opportunity to renew your vows, a chance to remember and believe.  And then, in the power of that memory, recommit yourself as a partner with God in the project of loving the world into submission.