Pentecost 12 August 23, 2009

Ephesians 6:10-20                               The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley, Bishop of Connecticut (ret.)

John 6:56-69

Have you ever been lost? I mean, physically lost? I can think of one occasion. It would have been forty years ago. I was solo camping and climbing in the White Mountains during the Memorial Day weekend. On my day to return home, the weather turned foggy and cold. Looking at my trail options, I decided to follow one off the barren granite peaks above timberline, stay on that trail for a time, and then bushwack straight off the mountain to where my car was parked. And then it happened; I misread the contour of the peak, and I was lost. Lost in the wilderness of the White Mountains National Forest on a cold and foggy day.

That’s one sort of lostness. This morning, as part of our series on the Holy Eucharist, I want to talk about another, I think much more serious, lostness. More serious; more dangerous. Call it that inner lostness which comes when life doesn’t add up, when we are stricken by the death of a loved one or what happens to our spirit when something bad happens – we flunk out of school or our job is terminated or we are haunted by fear that we will lose our health benefits or our house. Those are challenges which afflict people in most any age or culture. What’s different, isn’t it, is that so many changes have happened in the world society over the past century or so that the culture around us gives us few props to hold us up. It’s not just an event or situation which wipes us out. It’s the fact that most of us believe that we are left to our own devices, alone in a confusing universe. Beyond a few family members – and maybe not even there – we have very little real community. I went to a funeral not long ago. Typically, there were four or five touching remembrances of the person who had died. But most everybody there was a stranger to everybody else – no community – just a mix of people related to the deceased who not long afterwards got into a fierce quarrel over their inheritance. What suddenly struck me on that occasion was that whatever their relationships were, they were not friends, not deeply tied to one another.

Contrast that with the words which open the reading from John’s Gospel we just heard. Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. . . This is the bread that came down from heaven. . .The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Listen to those words: they abide in me, and I in them; they will live forever. That’s what was missing among the family at the funeral. Last Sunday, Fr. John discussed how God took the human flesh of Jesus, blessed it with the presence of the Spirit, offered it up on the cross, and then offered it to all humankind. That is the heart of the communion thanksgiving prayer we participate in each Sunday, living a life that is connected. There is a Greek verb, menein, which is used no less than 118 times in the New Testament, 68 of them in the writings of the evangelist John. It is variously translated abide, stay, dwell, remain. In a word, it says we are connected, connected to God, and thereby connected to one another. Let’s consider what it means.

There was a very touching letter on the Episcopal Church’s website the other day. In the spring of 2008, Jay Hildebrand, a man in his middle years, lost his wife Nora – she had died in her sleep. The bottom fell out of his life. He dragged himself through a year of misery. He and his wife had never been churchgoers, but something possessed him when he was at the bottom of his spiritual pit to call the woman priest who had presided the funeral. She had offered to be of help; at least she would be someone he could talk to. Out of that connection, he found three or four other people who met with the priest to talk about his grief, their burdens, his loneliness. And then he wrote the following:

On April 19, 2009, I was baptized and confirmed – an extraordinarily happy day for me. The next Sunday, April 26, was the first anniversary of [Nora’s] death, the worst day of my life. I wondered why these two Sundays were next to each other. I remembered what Nora taught me: when you pray, you always get an answer. It may not be what you want or expect, but you always get an answer. I have learned this and I did get my answer. Baptism represented my rebirth and reaffirmation of life. My wife’s death is what brought me there. Life has a sacred purpose and we are here for a reason. We may not always understand why or what to do, but there is a purpose. Belief helps to be that guide. Even in death, my wife gave me a gift. It was the gift of life.

“We are here for a reason,” he wrote. He learned that lesson as he met with a handful of other people struggling with the issues of their lives. You might say that together they learned how to have a conversation with God. What most of us have been taught about prayer is that it is very formal, almost distant, words we don’t often use in everyday speech. Sometimes our prayer in church sounds as if we were reminding God about the headlines from the Concord Monitor or The Union Leader or maybe The New York Times. Not those things which keep us awake in the middle of the night. Nor our everyday speech.

Last Thursday on a very muggy evening, a group of a dozen or so people, mostly women, met here in the church at Marge Burke’s invitation to read from the book Lifting Women’s Voices, Prayers to Change the World. In part the book came about because Phoebe Griswold, the wife of our retired Presiding Bishop, has spent the last decade of her life bringing together women – women from the nearly two hundred countries where our Anglican Church is planted, women gathered at the United Nations with other women concerned for the well-being of families around the world.. Phoebe’s prayer in the book begins

I want to hear the voices of women

Reverberate around the world

Not the cries of the mourner and the victim only.

Those too, of course

But also the articulate agendas of women’s passions

For a well, whole and flourishing world.

You cannot fail to recognize that these prayers, many of them written out of situations of poverty, suffering and need, express not only a faith in God’s presence day to day, but a depth of connections across oceans, and cultures, and very different life situations. When I find myself stuck in my own life issues, I try to remind myself of the occasion Roberta and I were visiting a church in a remote village in Tanzania, East Africa. Something like seven hundred people had waited in weather like we have been having this past week for a group of us to arrive – we were being driven by the local bishop over rutted dirt roads to visit this congregation. There, in the early evening, in a mud-brick church before that huge crowd, the Mothers Union, the women of the congregation, told us stories from their village – the lack of potable water, the limited schools available for their children, especially the girls, problems of young people without jobs and husbands addicted to alcohol. And then, as much as to say this was not all they wanted us to take away from them, they showered on Roberta a range of gifts – a bolt of colorful cloth with which they dressed her, a basket of beautiful little pullet eggs, and four live chickens – as much meat as one of their large families might consume in a month – and two of the chickens were delivered onto her lap. Unbelievable! The world’s values turned upside down – we were the recipients of self-giving hospitality, joined together by the one who described himself as the bread of life. Whenever I am really in the dumps, I bring up the picture of God I learned that day, a god with a sense of humor, a god pleased to put two live chickens on Roberta’s lap.

“Abide in me,” Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. . . This is the bread that came down from heaven. . .The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Let me stop there, and invite you to close your eyes and collect yourselves for a few moments. Imagine a time when you were really lost, lonely, upset by what life had dealt you. How did God speak to you in that time? Does God feed you as Jesus fed his disciples, with himself? Are you condemned to go through life alone, or do you know what it is to abide, dwell, stay in God’s love.  

 

 

 

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