Sermon for Year A, Proper 14
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
August 12, 2012
Father Eamon Kelly is the vice chargé
Of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center (isn’t that a mouthful).
He is therefore also a regular fixture at the Hotel Notre Dame
Which is attached to the Pontifical Institute,
This whole thing being a stone’s throw from one of the gates of the wall of Jerusalem,
And the hotel where my group of pastors stayed when we visited Israel back in 2009.
Father Kelly walks into your consciousness as if straight out of some 1950s movie,
Where he has just rescued an entire orphanage of boys and girls from the streets
And is now preparing them all for a life of virtue.
He’s tall and handsome, quick on his feet.
A shock of unkempt black hair, a sharp nose, bright eyes.
Always covered neck to ankle in a long black cassock, hands in his cassock pockets.
Shoes shined like mirrors.
Terribly knowledgeable. Highly verbal. Capable of being pretty influential.
Very Roman Catholic, too, and Why not?, he might say.
Speaks with a hard accent of some kind – Welsh maybe? I didn’t think to ask.
Imagine The Thornbirds without Rachel Ward, you’re halfway there.
Father Kelly loves his job.
He thought our group might enjoy a tour of the Jerusalem skyline at night
From the top of the hotel.
It’s a place and a view that feels electric –
That makes you wonder how so many religions can coexist at all in one place
And the whole thing not go up like a powder-keg in an instant –
And he’s there, up on the roof, able to answer any questions you may have,
But also ready to cover the several points he has prepared.
Father Kelly’s timeline of human history seems to be at variance
With some of how I’d come to think I knew it,
But he’s interesting to listen to.
One thing Father Kelly does say, though, up on that roof on that night,
Is memorable whether or not it’s true, and mostly because it isn’t.
He says historically speaking, the beginning of monotheism is the end of cannibalism.
That is, the advent of religions that purport that there is one god rather than many
Is the end of the practice of people eating each other.
I want to raise my hand and note for Father Kelly
That incidents of cannibalism have persisted
From before and throughout recorded history right down to today.
That while these things are perhaps rarer, they aren’t over with.
So no, monotheism didn’t put an end to cannibalism.
That in some cultures, at least I think, they exist still side by side –
Sometimes the one a mandate of the other –
Without anyone giving much thought to it.
That perhaps what it’s really time do do away with
Is this thought of “taming the noble savage”
That gave the Christian European princes of the Crusades and Enlightenment
A cadre of cheap excuses
To burn, plunder, and murder their way through half the planet.
… But by the time I formulate these words sufficiently –
Because I’m a guest here and I don’t want it to sound like I’m picking a fight –
The point is lost and we are busily looking at something else.
Oh well; move on. See the next sight. Israel is like that.
Ever since I made that trip and heard those words,
I can’t seem to hear this section of John without thinking of Father Kelly.
Here’s the substance of the issue.
Thousands of people come to Jesus to be healed,
And while they’re all together, they get hungry.
He feeds them – first with metaphorical soul food, and then with actual bread and fish.
They eat until they’re satisfied in their bellies.
Then they get hungry and come back.
This time he tells them he isn’t some vending machine –
That if they ate him – if they treated him as food,
Meditated on his words, took on his teaching …
In short, if they consumed him and lived like it –
Because it’s still true what your mother said: that You Are What You Eat –
Then they’d never go hungry in their spirits. God would be known and loved.
Because, he tells them, he is the Bread of Life.
I’m the bread, he says. Eat me.
Well, what would Father Kelly say?
This is deeply shocking to the crowd around Jesus – an insult, even.
First Jesus claims he has been sent by God, that he’s in close kinship with the Father,
That he doesn’t do anything without first checking in with the Father.
And that’s blasphemous enough:
A Jew turning himself into a graven image of Yahweh?
(And that’s just the first commandment; what’ll he do with the other nine?)
THEN he has the audacity to build further on this image, to tie this image in together
With the image of the bread, saying,
Eat my flesh and you will know what it is
To serve the Father and be one with the Father in spirit and in truth.
“Eat my flesh”?!
A first-century Palestianian Jew talking this way! Unheard of!
Strict rules about what you could eat or not eat if you were a Jew
Were a massive part of the cultural identity.
Eating something you weren’t allowed to eat,
When you weren’t allowed to eat it,
Was a great way to become ritually impure for long enough
That it would seriously impact your life for the worse.
Eventually, there’d be a good chance of your being banished from society altogether.
Eat flesh? And what is more, eat the flesh of God? The one true God?
Even the Romans listening in would have been a little gobsmacked.
They worshiped a pantheon of gods they’d appropriated from the Greeks before them,
And often sacrified offerings of food to those gods,
But had not been asked to partake in the consumption of the flesh of those gods,
At least so far as I know.
This is a metaphor practically begging for misinterpretation
So as to separate the casual seeker from those who would be undaunted to find its end.
A hundred years after Jesus had come and gone,
After the first few generations of Jesus-believers had come and gone
And Christ had still not returned and things were at their highest pitch of desperation,
Persecutions arose and Christians, as they were called, began to suffer hard.
Their faith was maligned and misunderstood, and the words of Jesus were twisted.
All his talk of eating himself became fodder for those who kept their distance,
And households of churches stood accused of engaging in human sacrifice.
Here’s the thing, though.
People aren’t stupid. A lot of people are perfectly capable of understanding a metaphor.
After the initial shock wore off, as soon as he’d said these things to the crowd,
I’ll bet a number of them grasped perfectly well
Just what it is that Jesus had meant.
Only it must have sounded terribly inconvenient:
If he gives himself for the life of the world and I end up following him,
Then what am I going to be asked to do?
Give myself up, too?
Sure, he has a neat philosophy and is doing good work,
But I have all these real-world obligations, and now there’s no food coming.
Hard to believe we wanted him as our king just last week.
Not only that: is Jesus going to be this scandalous and insulting everywhere he goes?
A guy could get into a lot of trouble for hanging out with him.
Brothers and sisters, when religion plays it safe –
When religion refuses to tweak the conventions of the day
Or to muck about with whatever we think is most sacred –
Then oddly enough, that is no true religion, and God is mocked.
To encounter the expelled and crucified and risen Christ in this place
Means to put him inside our bodies,
Where we must digest him so that we may become him. A wonderful mystery.
Is that a little scandalous? Absolutely!
But it’s how God calls to us – it’s how God beckons us to come.
It may not be what we would want; it’s just the way it is.
The failing of so much of our contemporary theology
Is in believing that if we do this one time, at the level of thought, it’s all taken care of.
That comes from a Enlightenment mindset
Which suggests that you have a problem and then you solve it.
The gift of the sacrament of the Eucharist, however,
Is that we are reminded each and every time we come to the table
That this is a journey we’re on, a daily and lifetime journey, not a once-for-all moment;
A grace-filled, daily journey;
That somehow completing that journey, in this life, is an illusion until this life be done.
Compared to the needs of our society to have everything solved and put away
As soon as we discern that anything is the matter,
This is a revelation.
But it’s also the sort of thing that brings comfort
To all who place themselves under Christ’s banner – you, me, Father Kelly.
So we must come back, and we must come back, and we must come back.
We must consume Christ that we become him,
And so increase in him, and as John the Baptist said, decrease in ourselves.
God is never through with us; there is always much more to be done.
Finally, this image.
In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes the following:
“A contemplative priest will have a deep and absorbing sense of union with Christ
As priest and as offering in the Eucharistic sacrifice –
So much so that his Mass will be going on within him not only when he is at the altar
But when he is away from it, and at many different moments during the day.”
He says, “I write this without being a priest, because I have known it to some degree
Merely by kneeling by the altar as server.
The broken Host lies on the paten.
But the fact that you are in possession of the secret,
Identifies you with the Savior and with what is going on.
And without words or explicit acts of thought,
You make assent to this within yourself
Simply by staying where you are and looking on.”
He says that at that moment,
“Christ develops your life into Himself like a photograph.
Then a continual Mass, a deep and urgent sense of identification
With an act of incomprehensible scope and magnitude
That somehow has its focus in the center of your own soul,
Pursues you wherever you go;
And in all situations of your daily life it makes upon you
Secret and insistent demands for agreement and consent.”
Brothers and sisters, from the taking of the bread to its blessing,
From the breaking of the bread to its giving,
This secret is for all of us, not just for the priest:
That when we consume Christ, he develops our life into himself like a photograph.
…That’s why it matters that we be so scandalous as to eat his flesh and drink his blood,
Be willing to be misunderstood, bearing the cross with him,
Walking in the mysteries he teaches us,
And then walking away from this place sufficiently transformed
That we must go forth and serve him a little more
Until we can come back together and receive him again.
… And again, and again, like breathing, this rhythmic, pulsating cycle of life.