Thursday, September 24, 2009


This week I am doing another Benedictine Experience Retreat, this time at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Our group of 10 people is staying at the Episcopal House of Prayer, an ecumenical retreat center on the grounds of St. John's Abbey. We are just off a quiet road, nestled in the woods, and about a 20 minute walk from the Abbey Church. The weather is beautiful, with just a hint of the autumn colors to come. Each day we live the Benedictine rhythm of Morning Prayer at the Abbey (7 a.m.) Eucharist here in the Oratory of the House of Prayer (11:30 a.m.), Evensong at the Abbey (7 p.m.) and Compline (here at 9 p.m). We also have talks given by monks of the Abbey and the Rev. WArd Bauman, our "abbot" and chaplain of the House of Prayer. Tomorrow we will go over to St. Benedict's, where the Benedictine sisters live, for a talk, noon prayer and lunch.

Today is our "Desert Day", mostly spent in silence, with little of the regular structure and rhythm. It is a time for quiet reading (lectio divina), prayer and, most of all, listening to God. I am not good at sitting still, so I do a lot of prayer and meditation while walking with my guide dog, "Lorelle". I also spent some time on campus this morning gathering some books for further reading and hope to spend some time in prayer at the Abbey Church or the Oratory here this afternoon. Our silence extends through dinner and evening tonight until after breakfast tomorrow morning. Then we will go back to our daily rhythm of prayer, study and work.

This is a grace-filled time! No meetings, no street noise, no TV, no phone calls (almost), very few emails and no liturgical or other responsibilities. It is a time apart, yet with many people and places on my heart and in my prayers. There is no escaping the world; only redirecting our attention, thoughts and prayers to God. But that is the gift of being in the beauty of nature and in silence--to be able to hear the natural sounds and allow the sun's light to filter through the shadows of the trees and to be supported by a little week-long community of Beneditines wanting to find and be found by God.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"For he is our peace; in his flesh
he has made both groups into one..."
(Ephesians 2:14)

Eve of Holy Cross Day,

I Kings 8:22-30
Psalm 46, 87
Ephesians 2: 11-22
Jan Robitscher
St. Mark's Church
CDSP, Berkeley, CA
September 13, 2009

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

Today is Sunday, the Lord's Day, and it is also the eve of Holy Cross Day. Derived from the dedication of church buildings in Jerusalem where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands on September 14, 335. Tradition has it that in the process of overseeing the work, St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, found a relic of the true cross. This date also marked the dedication of Solomon's Temple hundreds of years earlier. But more than the dedication of church buildings or the finding of relics is the focus of this Feast: the cross, which, in many and varied forms, has remained an object of veneration for the gift of Jesus' death and resurrection for our salvation. But it also brought to mind a story:

Several years ago, I watched an ABC Television Special on religion in America. The program featured those large “mega-churches” that resemble shopping malls and seem to attract enough people to fill them. As he toured one of these churches, Peter Jennings noticed that there was no cross to be seen anywhere. When he asked the pastor about it, the reply came, “Oh, the cross might get in the way.” I think I was as startled as Peter Jennings was!

But I have to admit it’s true. The cross does seem to get in the way. While some folks don’t like to see it at all, we see the cross all the time and tune it out. We Episcopalians can’t bear to look upon a crucifix (there is one in this room, but you will have to look carefully to find it!) Instead, we have the cross that is carried in procession, or the ornamented cross over the Rood Screen, the brass cross on the High Altar, or the crosses we wear. We make the sign of the cross and forget it as an instrument of an awful death or its origins in baptism. Maybe we would notice if churches were adorned with a more modern form of execution...

We don’t like the cross because it puts death in the middle of our Alleluias; it reminds us of the betrayal and failure that led to Jesus’ death. In the middle of our successes, it recalls the times we have failed to trust God and one another. We hear Paul’s words that “[God] did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us...”(Rom. 8:32) and this does not fit our image of a merciful, loving God. Or the beautiful Philippians Hymn which tells us that Jesus gave himself completely, even to death on a cross. And we hear Jesus' words, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) This is strong stuff! But if we will look at the cross--contemplate it, gaze upon it--there we will find the Good News.

It is interesting that Christians in the first centuries after Jesus’ death never depicted him suffering on the cross. This was probably not denial (they knew how horrible a death it was) but for their safety, until Christianity became legal. The empty cross, a symbol of the resurrection, did not become popular until the Reformation. The suffering Christ did not appear until around the 6th century. Celtic crosses are particularly striking. In one type Jesus is there, but not suffering. Rather, he is gazing straight ahead with arms outstretched. The hands, however, are much larger--all out of proportion--as if to gather the whole world into an embrace. Jesus said:
"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself."

But what is the Good News of Jesus' crucifixion? Jesus’ self-offering on the cross was the ultimate demonstration of God's forgiveness--that God still loves us in spite of our sinfulness. It restores our trust in God’s ability to redeem even the most awful of failures; it proclaims that evil and death have been defeated. Most of all, it is the ultimate sign of reconciliation. Hear again the words of St. Paul:
But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been
brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace: in his
flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down
the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Eph. 2:14)

How much we need to hear this--and believe it--in the midst of a divided Church, a polarized society and a warring world! It is Jesus' death on the cross, which is beyond all our opinions and politics--that is the source of our peace and reconciliation. To bear the cross, then, is to be willing to suffer for the sake of Jesus (as many reconcilers do), and to take up the call of Paul's words in another letter:

...[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting
the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors
for Christ... (2 Cor. 5: 19-20)

The goal of the Christian life is to be brought to God by way of Jesus’ death and resurrection--and then to bring each other to God--and finally to bring the world to God. Here is the most wonderful redemption of such an awful death!

Look at the cross--contemplate it, gaze upon it-- there we will find the Good News.

Perhaps the simple words of the 19th century hymn writer Walter Russell Bowie put it best:
O love that triumphs over loss,
we bring our hearts before thy cross,
to finish thy salvation.

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

O God, you made is in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth, with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. AMEN.

Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write where many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, nd its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. AMEN.

Images: (1) Celtic Cross by William Burns (ink and color Pencil).

V. Let us bless the Lord.
R. Thanks be to God.

“The Bread that I shall give
for the life of the world is my flesh.”

(Jn. 6:51)

Year B Proper 14
2 Samuel 18: 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
John 6: 35, 41-51
Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
Berkeley, CA
August 9, 2009

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

My encounter with the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which we have over several weeks each summer, began with a poster on the wall of my college dorm room. It had a loaf of bread and a glass of wine and it read:


It was a reference to the Eucharist, and I took it as a personal invitation. But then I encountered the very verses of our Gospel reading today, and especially the last verses--
I am the living bread that came down from heaven.
Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the
bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.

For the life of the world... I was as perplexed as the disciples and wondered: Did the Gospel writer get it right? Has Jesus taken leave of his senses? Today I hope to leave you with the assurance that John did indeed get it right and that Jesus meant what he said in this passage and in the even harder words that follow it, which I will leave to next week’s preacher. My journey toward the meaning of these words continued:

Just after college and graduate school, I made a retreat at the Convent of St. Helena in Augusta, GA. I needed a couple of days of quiet and hoped to write a sermon while I was there on almost this very text (actually next week’s readings). On the bus trip from Atlanta, I thought of the sisters, of the place itself and of the home-made bread that is the hallmark of all their meals--and of the bread they made (and perhaps still make) for the Eucharist--all special experiences. Then my thoughts turned to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel: bread...from heaven...manna...flesh...Jesus... Soon my eager anticipation became a feeling of being overwhelmed by the Gospel passage.

I arrived at the convent in time for Noonday Prayers and lunch. As I entered the Refectory (their dining hall) my eyes caught a large banner on the wall which read:


Moving closer, I read and re-read the banner. Rebellious thoughts arose: “No! Not ALL bread. Only the bread of the Eucharist, duly consecrated.” It was a hard saying, indeed, that was on that banner--every bit as hard for me as Jesus’ words were for his disciples. Not the reassuring invitation of the poster on my dorm room wall. And for the next three days I would be confronted with those words at every meal. I pondered the invitation on the poster and that banner and wondered: Which one is right?

And what do the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading have to do with the banquet invitation of my dorm room poster or the banner on the Convent wall?

Let’s start small. I’ve been thinking a lot about friendships--how they are formed and sustained. Suddenly I realized that, at some point, I have shared a meal with every close friend I have. How I wish I could have this experience with everyone here, but there are people here today who can attest to this. The defining moment of a close relationship is when friends literally become companions--ones who share the bread.

My experience of companions--sharers in the bread--expended when, several years after I made that retreat in Georgia, I moved out here to Berkeley and experienced the hospitality around food that is a hallmark and charism of this parish and, a few years later, began to teach at the School for Deacons. As our own Deacon Ellen (on sabbatical this summer) has said on many occasions, the diaconal call and ministry are bound up in proclaiming the Good News to, praying for, and serving with the marginalized of all kinds. I am still teaching at the School for Deacons and at every class session we are at a Eucharist in which we pray for the needs of the world. Shortly after that I began to help with Hot Meals here at St. Mark’s. “Friend” became “Friends” in a larger way, and I began to understand a little of what Jesus meant when he said:

The bread that I shall give for the life
of the world is my flesh.

The ultimate experience of being a companion is here at this Altar. At one level, it is the way in which we become one with Jesus. That is what Communion means. Certainly this is true for each of us, individually. In that sense, the poster on my dorm room wall was correct:

But it is much more. We don’t have to read far in the headlines--or far from this place--to see a world hurting and so badly in need of the life for which Jesus died. Whether far-away wars in the Middle East or the Anglican Communion divided, or within this very room, we can be aware of the world and each other and know that there are many needs. Community, after all, comes from the same root as Communion. We are what we eat. When Jesus gives himself for us, we become his Body, and we are expected, as St. Paul says so well in our second reading, to give ourselves to others--friends and enemies alike--in his name.

Now if only I could stop here! If only I could wind up this nice Social Gospel sermon and sit down. But it goes on and gets harder.

Jesus’ identification of himself with the bread must have shocked his hearers. Even so, they would have heard the words literally--and they would have heard in them deeper meanings than our English translations can impart. For to Jewish and early Christian ears, “Flesh” and “Blood” meant far more than physical (and separate) parts of the body. “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 at his words, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They didn’t understand how this could be--and we can’t, either. What matters is not HOW Jesus becomes present in the bread and wine of Communion, but THAT he does become present, and gives himself to us each time we come to receive him. Jesus answered the dispute not by explaining HOW he would “get into “the bread and cup, nor did he brush the whole thing off as an empty symbol. Instead, he impressed upon them that if they wanted life--life with any meaning--life for the world--eternal life--they would have to partake of the Lord of Life, himself.

What difference should this make in our lives? Here is where the words of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians speak to us more directly. The Eucharist, as lovely as it is, does not stand apart from our actions in the world. Or, to put it another way, each time we receive Communion, we leave here carrying Jesus within ourselves and to each other and to the world. So, says Paul, to each of us and to the Church:

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and
wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind
to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God
in Christ has forgiven you.

To receive Communion, then, is to become companions in the deepest sense--those who share the bread of life that Jesus gives. But there is that banner:


Besides bringing us individually into union with Jesus, being a companion of Jesus at this Altar also gives us a different world-view. It helps us pray “for the life of the world” and enlarges our definition of “friend”. It helps us see where help is needed and energizes us (as St. Teresa says) to be “Christ’s 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 not only rededicate ourselves to our baptismal vows “to seek and serve Christ in all persons...”-- we ask to see everything through Jesus’ eyes.

In the end, though, Communion is larger than our individual or even our corporate journeys. “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving” and is the way Jesus gave us to remember--literally to re-member--his death and resurrection--the bread of his flesh that he gave for the life of the world--until he comes again.

And what about the poster and the banner? Which one was right?

I think they are both right, but perhaps in unexpected ways. I wonder: What if the poster on my dorm room wall was an invitation not just for me but for all of us?
THE HONOR OF YOUR [plural--all of you--all of us] PRESENCE

What would happen if, instead of reducing Communion to a common meal, we elevated all our meals as mirrors or echoes of the Eucharist? What if, as the banner said,

Come to this banquet at Jesus’ invitation. Come longing to receive the whole person of Jesus. Most of all, come in thanksgiving for his love in giving himself as bread “for the life of the world.” Then, together, let us be willing and ready to carry Jesus from this place into a world both beautiful and hurting, so that all may know the Good News of his love.