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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost – August 23, 2009

May every encounter be endowed with the creativity of God, every dialog enhanced with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, every conflict be visited by Christ who is our peace. Amen.

If you are getting tired of these passages about bread that we’ve been hearing, do not fret. Today’s is the last of the four part series. Today, however, we find Jesus claiming to be the bread of life, and he insists that people eat his body and drink his blood. Now this may be a little startling for someone who is new to Christianity but imagine what it must have been like hearing it for the first time in first century Palestine. Hebrew Scripture strictly forbids the drinking of blood so you can understand why the audience began shaking their heads, walking away, and saying, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Jesus had offended their religious sensibilities. That’s the trouble with Jesus. He often tells it like it is and we don’t always like what we hear. This is especially true when he preaches about money or forgiveness of our enemies.

Folks who had up to this point followed and admired and believed him get up and walk away, and given that reaction, it makes sense that Jesus would wonder if the last twelve holdouts wouldn’t want to do the same. “Do you wish to go away?” he asks them. Peter pipes us first, probably giving language to what they were all thinking “Lord, to whom can we go?”

As confusing as all this is to Peter, as hard to digest as the entire notion Jesus has been teaching, Peter has seen something in Jesus from which he cannot turn away. He has seen the face of God in him and, if that meant he would have to struggle with some things that were hard to swallow, than that’s what he would do.

But it is not everyone’s response to things that don’t set well. In my more than 35 years in ministry, I have seen my fair share of those who walk away. Sometimes it is because of a change that was made in worship or other area of parish life. Sometimes it is because of a position that the church has taken on a particular issue. Often it is because things are not going the way that a person wants.

On the other hand, there are times when the best thing someone can do for their spiritual and emotional health is to walk away—especially when the church has marginalized them or not fed them—and to seek out a new faith community that is healthy, nurturing, and that will encourage a person to grow. This usually benefits the person who has come to that community as well as its entire membership. So it matters whether we’re just walking away or walking to something more welcoming and enriching. Indeed, I have moved on from denominations that were less than life-giving. Jesus gives us the freedom to do that—hopefully to find a better place—but even if we choose to walk away from him.

There is, of course, no perfect community of faith or perfect church. We are committed in this community to achieving excellence in how we do church in all of its aspects. We have great passion for radical welcome and hospitality. But excellence is not perfection and neither is St. Paul’s on the Green nor the Episcopal Church at large can ever hope to be perfect.

We Episcopalians have a national church heavy with the usual tiresome bureaucracy that often translates to taking years to enact important changes in policy, but we also enjoy worship so beautiful that it can bring one to tears, a majority of our bishops who fight for social justice, and a church daring enough to elect a woman as its Presiding Bishop and consecrate an openly gay man as bishop of a diocese. It is an institution of people trying to be faithful to the One who started this whole thing in the first place. Sometimes we rise to the occasion and we offend – as we should – just as Jesus did. Sometimes we cower, miss the mark, or walk away.

The late theologian, Verna Dozier, said “If Jesus had gone about the countryside singing songs and praying in front of the crowds as the world says Christians are supposed to do, he would have died in his sleep of old age.” The message Jesus continues to give us is not “a sleeper.” It is meant to wake us up and keep us on tip toe – waiting to see what’s in store next – right around the bend – because of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. She will, in the end, prevail.

In her book Leaving Church, renowned preacher Mother Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflects on what she misses most about parish ministry. High on her priority are children “because they were not old enough to serve on committees or wrangle over the order of worship.”

“The children,” she says “often had a better grasp on what church was all about than the rest of us did. When one four-year-old rode by the church with his mother and her out-of-town friend, he interrupted them by tapping on the window. ‘That,’ he announced to the friend, ‘is where God gives us the bread.’”

In the end, that’s what we’re all about, that’s why we’re here. It comes down to our covenant relationship right here in this place. It’s all about how God gives us the bread and how we give it to one another and how we carry it into the world, connecting with a community of seekers and sojourners who are hungry for that bread and longing to experience God’s unwavering, extravagant love.

It’s about sisters and brothers who have seen the face of God in one another and who will support and accept and, yes, endure one another. And, honestly, to whom can we go – and find all that?

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