Sunday, July 1, 2007

“The bread that I shall give for he life of the world
is my flesh.”
(Jn. 6:51)

Year B Proper 14
Deut. 8:1-10
Psalm 34:1-8
Eph. 4: (25-29) 30-5:2
John 6:37-51ff

Jan Robitscher
Church of the Redeemer
San Rafael, CA
August 13, 2006

O lead my blindness by the hand
Lead me to my familiar Feast
Not here or now to understand,
Yet even here and now to taste,
How the eternal Word of heaven
On earth in broken bread is given.[2]
William Ewart Gladstone
Nineteenth Century

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every preacher has a sermon with a capital “S”--a theme which returns again and again, though in different ways, like facets in a prism. While the Sermon (capital S) might be a passionately favorite topic of the preacher, it is not always easy. So today, God has given it to me to preach on one of the most difficult passages of Scripture. You see, it’s easy to preach on a lesson that tells a story or sings a Psalm. But when we enter the scene right at the climax of Jesus’ “sermon” on the day after the feeding of the five thousand, and hear him saying “The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh”[3] we suddenly wonder if the Gospel writer got it right--or even whether Jesus has taken leave of his senses! Today I hope to leave you with the assurance that John indeed got it right and that Jesus meant what he said in this passage and in the even harder verses which follows it.
For the bread that I shall give for the life
of the world is my flesh.

It starts small. I’ve been thinking about friendship--how it forms and what things sustain it. Suddenly I realized that, at one time or another, I have shared a meal with every close friend I have. Your vicar, Carol can attest to this. We first met briefly while she was working at Guide Dogs (where, indecently, she probably knew “Christmas” as a puppy). When she came to seminary, near where I live, we became friends and often shared cup of coffee or hot chocolate at Brewed Awakening. Then lunch and conversation in the Refectory. Then I invited her to tea at my home. And, of course, we attended seminary Chapel almost daily together. Always, there was bread of one kind or another. We literally became companions--ones who share the bread.

Just after I met Carol, I began to teach at the School for Deacons. Because the diaconal call and ministry are bound up in proclaiming the Good News to, praying for and serving the marginalized, not a class session weekend would go by without being at a Eucharist and hearing of and praying for the needs of the world: “For the poor, the sick, the hungry and those who suffer...for prisoners, captives and all who are in danger...”[4] And about this same time, I began to help with Hot Meals for the Homeless at St. Mark’s in Berkeley. “Friend” became “Friends” in a larger way, and I began to understand what Jesus meant when he said:
The bread that I shall give for the life
of the world is my flesh.

Receiving Communion is more than just the “me and Jesus” experience most of us had in our childhood when we went to church. We don’t have to read far in the headlines to see a world so badly in need of the life for which Jesus died: the tragic fighting in the Middle East, starvation and AIDS in Africa and here, poverty, homelessness, crime, global warming and the Anglican Communion, so badly divided. And we don’t have to look far in this room to be aware of each other and know each others’ needs. Communion and Community come from the same root. When Jesus gives himself to us, we become his Body, and we are expected to give ourselves to others--friends and enemies, near and far--in his Name.

Now if only I could stop here! If only I could wind up this nice Social Gospel sermon to and sit down. But it goes on and gets harder. Jesus’ identification of himself with the bread must have shocked his hearers. After all, Jewish law forbade the eating of food not completely drained of blood and, though there were some abuses of the sacrificial system, cannibalism was unthinkable. Even so, Jesus’ hearers would have understood his words literally--and they would have heard in them deeper meanings that our English translations can impart. For to Jewish and early Christian ears, the words “flesh” and “blood” meant far more than the physical (and separate) parts of the body we know. “Flesh” meant one’s whole person: body, soul, mind and spirit. “Blood” meant the very essence of life itself.

But knowing this did not keep Jesus hearers from disputing among themselves saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” For centuries to come, the Church debated the question in an attempt to explain this bread-become-the Body of Christ. Actually, those Medieval theologians got a bad press, but perhaps it was Queen Elizabeth I who said it best when she came up with an Anglican “Middle Way” of explaining the mystery:
It was the Word that spake it.
He took the bread and brake it,
And what his word doth make it,
That I believe and take it.[5]

And the debate goes on today. Only now scholars don’t debate HOW the bread becomes the Body of Christ, but WHETHER it does. They spiritualize the passage and say that Jesus didn’t really mean those words. Jesus answered the dispute not by explaining HOW his flesh and blood would “get into” the bread and cup, nor did he brush the whole thing aside as an empty symbol. Rather, he impressed upon them that if they wanted life at all--life with any meaning--life for the world--they would have to partake of the Lord of Life, himself. And he speaks to us too. He promised that whoever gathered in his Name to celebrate the mystery of his death and resurrection would find him--all of him-- present in bread and wine. To receive Communion (or, as the Gospel says, when we partake of Jesus’ flesh and blood) is literally to become one with Jesus and to have Jesus become one with us. And it is to become companions in the deepest sense--those who share the Bread that Jesus gives.

What difference should this make in our lives? Communion gives us strength for our individual journeys. It will help me entrust my beloved “Christmas” to Carol today and it will help her entrust me to receive a new dog tomorrow and train with it for the next three weeks and then to let us loose on the world beyond. And I’m sure each of you needs Jesus’ strength for your journey, too.

But it also gives us a different world-view. It helps us pray “for the life of the world” and enlarge our definition of “Friend”. It helps us see where help is needed and energizes us to (as St. Teresa puts it, “Be Christ’s eyes and hands and feet in the world”. It helps us grow as a community, both in our love for one another and in our desire to bring more people here. In receiving Communion, we ask to see everything through Jesus’ eyes. But that’s not all. In a world filled with terrorism and war and the rumors of war, Jesus gives himeslf to us so that we can know that our ultimate safety is found only in God. This is what the Prayer Book Catechism means when it says:
The benefits we receive [from the Eucharist] are
the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of
our union with Christ and one another, and the
foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our
nourishment in eternal life.[6]

In the end, though, the Eucharist is larger than our individual or even our corporate journeys. Eucharist means “thanksgiving” and is the way Jesus gave us of remembering--literally re-membering--in thanksgiving his life, death and resurrection--his supreme act of love for us.

So I invite you to come to this Table. Come prepared by reconciling yourself to God and your neighbors. Come longing to receive the whole Person of Jesus. Most of all, come in thanksgiving for his love. Then be willing to carry Jesus from this place into the world for which he gave his life and for which he rose again. Perhaps the great liturgist Balthazar Fischer said it best:

The table awaits us at which our baptismal life is fed
over and over again. We have every reason to cry out
in gratitude: Alleluia, alleluia![7]

[1] This sermon is adapted from one I preached in September, 1985.
[2] A Eucharist Sourcebook, p. 25
[3] Italics mine.
[4] Compiled from Prayers of the People, Book of Common Prayer.
[5] Norman Fox, Christ in the Daily Bread <> Quatrain attributed to Queen Elizabeth I.
[6] An Outline of the Faith, Book of Common Prayer, pp. 859-860.
[7] Balthasar Fischer, from A Eucharist Sourcebook, p. 39.
"This is none other than the house of God,
and this the gate of heaven."
(Gen. 28:17)

St. Michael and All Angels
Gen. 28:10-17
Rev. 12:7-12
Jn. 1:47-51
Jan Robitscher
Sept 29, 2006
All Saints Chapel

Note: It is rare for a preacher to admit to pulling a sermon
out of the file, but this one has a story: Nineteen years ago
and a newly-arrived doctoral student (that didn’t last long),
I was asked to preach on this Feast on short notice.[1] Well, it
happened again! Fortunately, neither angels nor the essentials
of the Gospel message have changed much in nineteen years.
Here, slightly revised, is what I said:
Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it
all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels
dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let
your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.

That ancient collect, from the Office of Compline, is among my favorite in all the Prayer Book--and so is this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. But it is a curious Feast, dating from the foundation of a church dedicated to St. Michael in the fifth century and expanded to include ALL angels in the 1549 Prayer Book. But what are we really celebrating? After all, we don't think of angels as a part of our every-day experience. Yet we encounter them often in our prayers and our liturgical life, and they come up at regular intervals in our lectionary readings. So we must deal with them... But how?

Most of you are probably familiar with The Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis. You remember, the chronicle of demon Screwtape's replies to his nephew Wormwood who is trying very hard to defeat the new-found Christian life of his human subject. (He fails, thank God!) Well, I have unearthed one of the unpublished letters of nephew Wormwood, who sees this Feast from what might be called a "Via Negativa" point of view. I share it now, with his permission. Only remember that the Devil is a liar, and Uncle Screwtape taught Wormwood very well...

My dearest Uncle Screwtape,

Well, it's THEIR day again! Oh, they call it "St. Michael and ALL Angels, but we deceivers are not deceived. They can't describe them. Even the Sacred Writings are quite vague. But, put simply, angels (as they're called) are messengers--a special order of beings (says the collect for this day) which, when they are not (dare I say it?) singing the praises of God, are intermediaries between God and humankind.

We have tried for so long to confuse the description of these beings: Medieval creations with peaceful (if somber) expressions; chubby cherubs of Baroque art; even human beings (a bishop once asked me, “Are you an angel?”. But alas! those familiar with the Sacred Writings know better. THEY are really such fierce and awesome figures that the recipients of their messages must first be calmed with the words, "Be not afraid".

Though only four of them are named: Michael, Rafael, Gabriel and Uriel, their presence has been felt throughout Salvation History: in Jacob's dream of today's lesson, or his wrestling match with an angel a few chapters later; at the vision which accompanied Isaiah's calling; ministering to Elijah in his moment of despair; announcing the Incarnation to Mary and Jesus' birth to the shepherds; with Jesus at His baptism, His temptation in the desert, His agony in the garden, and as the very first witnesses of the resurrection; finally as the victors-in-Christ over our Leader and us his fallen angels as so--er--beautifully depicted in the lesson from Revelation.

We angels here Below want so much to get those humans on earth to dismiss THEM (and us) as figments of their (or some ancient writer's) worst fantasies! Origen said that angels belong to the proclamation of the Church. We had more success with Gregory of Nazianzus who said that "it is difficult to find the right words in which to speak of angels". Yet even Karl Barth could not entirely demythologize angels, pointing out that, whereas WE (fallen angels) exist for ourselves here Below, THEY, in that horribly beautiful place called heaven,
"...are not independent and autonomous subjects...
merging as it were into their function, which is
wholly and exemplary that of SERVICE." (Church Dogmatics)

And C.S. Lewis (by whose hand your letters, Uncle Screwtape, were published) has this to say:
The commonest question is whether I really "believe
in the Devil". The proper question is whether I believe
in devils. I do. That is to say, I believe in angels, and
I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their
free will, have become enemies to God...and to us.
Satan, the leader...of devils, is not the opposite of
God, but of Michael... (whose name, incidentally,
means "who can compare with God?") (Screwtape Letters)

Or, if these humans who call themselves “Christians” find angels unavoidable, they take them for granted. They confuse them for human messengers--important and even necessary at times, but not angels. I have stumbled upon these Christians' celebrations of this day. In a few moments the familiar words of the Preface will sound again which, in every Eucharist, leads them into the hymn of Isaiah's vision:
Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with
Angels and Archangels (no, not “dark angels”!),
and with all the company of heaven, who forever
sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name...

And their hymns! (Sung:) Angels from the Realms of Glory; Angels, we have heard on high; The angel Gabriel from heaven came; Ye holy angels bright; Christ the fair glory of the holy angels...(or if you prefer the chant version...) I could go on and on--but this angelic music hurts my demonic ears!

I cannot stay in church much longer! For (in Jacob's words) "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

Dear Uncle Screwtape, I tried my best to stifle the joy of these Christians and their "St. Michael and THEIR Angels" celebrations. But I'm afraid it's hopeless. You see, the (dare I say it) Good News is that they keep asking God to send angels to “defend them here on earth” and they keep striving, with God’s help, to make the example of the Angels' reflected glory and service their own. Once that's done, nothing here Below can overcome it. But maybe someday, at the Consummation of All Things, we will give in and surrender ourselves to Jesus the Christ. Then it really will be the Feast of St. Michael and ALL angels.

Meanwhile, Uncle Screwtape, I await your learned response.

Your affectionate nephew,


[1] I owe a great debt to my friend the Rev. Dr. Tina Pippin, who was here on sabbatical at the time and helped me do the research for this sermon.
“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.. and his dwelling shall be glorious”
(Isaiah 11:10)

Year A Advent II
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72
Matthew :1-12
Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
Berkeley, CA
December 10, 2006

Creator of the stars of light
Your peoples’ everlasting light;
O Christ, redeemer of us all,
We pray you hear us when we call.

We have entered the season of Advent, that time of preparation for the comings of Christ, yes, comings: past, present and future. But the image I had again as Advent began a week ago goes back long before Jesus’ birth. It goes back, back to the creation of the cosmos. Perhaps it is what the astronauts on the Shuttle see, or pictures from the Hubble Telescope. It is at once beautiful and terrifying. That’s why Advent would not really be Advent (at least for me) without singing “Creator of the stars of night”.[1] In order to prepare for our celebrations of Christmas we must hear the whole story from the very beginning if it is all going to make sense. That really happens only two times each Church Year: at our annual Festival of Lessons and Carols (next Sunday) and at the Great Vigil of Easter. In the meantime, this little evening hymn which dates from the ninth century[2], Conditor alme siderum, helps us do just that.

We don’t know much about darkness these days. Night is lit up like the day. We can’t even see the stars for the street lights. Even the candles of our Altar and Advent wreath are drowned by the electricity that lights this sacred space. And our nights are turned into days with the noise of Christmas commerce and days are turned to nights in the horrors of sickness, crime and war. So we have to imagine the real, silent darkness--of winter--of the cosmos.

What comes next in our hymn is the whole story of Salvation history in a verse:
In sorrow that the ancient curse
Should doom to death a universe,
You came, O Savior, to set free
Your own in glorious liberty.

A pristine universe and an earth with its creatures and people created in quiet harmony with God soon became a place of disobedience, shame and destruction--the story of Adam and Eve. And God, who called (and still calls) it all good, tried again and again to call God’s chosen people Israel back, producing kings, judges and prophets, great signs and miracles, love songs--anything to woo people back to life in God. Finally, God sent John the Baptist to announce the coming Kingdom and Jesus’ place in it:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven
has come near.” (Matt. 3:2)

God decided to risk taking on human flesh, to be born into our world, and so Jesus came to live and die to redeem us. All along, God knew that we needed a Savior.

Of course, we know the end of the story. We know that Advent, is about “Jesus’ glorious coming to complete his Easter work.”[3] So we celebrate not only Jesus’ birth but his earthly ministry, redeeming death and resurrection. As Martin Luther said, “The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross.” But we also celebrate his presence here. And we look for his second coming, which, says John the Baptist, does involve judgment:
“His winnowing fork is in his hand and he
will clear the threshing floor...” (Matt 3: 12)

Though, as Isaiah says,
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear:
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

Not much has changed. We have ravaged our beautiful earth--our “fragile island home”[4] in the cosmos. We still long for what we already have--a Savior. Yet we live in hope for a time, the time Isaiah describes, when all creatures will again live in harmony with God. And we believe that when Jesus comes again he will bring the final restoration of all things. So our hymn says:
At your great Name, O Jesus, now
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow;
All things on earth with one accord,
Like those in heaven, shall call you Lord.

Which leaves us where we are: right here, at Evensong, at night, in approaching winter, at prayer. We are here to prepare ourselves--no, to ask God to help prepare us--for the celebration of the comings of Jesus.

And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name,
let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon
and the stars, and the Earth with its forests and mountains
and oceans--and all that lives and moves upon them... and all
that we quarrel about and all that we have misused--and to
save us from our own foolishness, from all our sins, He came
down to Earth and gave us himself.[5]

The Good News is that the comings of Jesus--all of them--tell us that we need no longer fear the darkness. The vision of the beautiful and terrifying, dark and silent cosmos with which I started is both the beginning and the end of the story of our salvation. Jesus came to free us from sickness, evil and death, and will bring us to that day where there will be no more cancer, crime or war, and no more darkness, but a restored world in a universe at peace in the glorious light of the Reign of God where the stars sing for joy. For this greatest gift of God’s redeeming love, we cannot help but sing:

To God the Father, God the Son
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Praise, honor, might and glory be
From age to age eternally. Amen.

[1] from a quote of Chrysogonus Waddell, from An Advent Sourcebook, pp 2-3.
[2] The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Vol. Three A, pp. 113-115,
[3] from a quote of Charles K. Riepe, An Advent Sourcebook, p. 12.
[4] Eucharistic Prayer C, BCP, p. 369ff.
[5] Sigrid Undset