Today was my last Sunday at the church in Midland that has "adopted" me while I've spent the last year here with my dad. Several weeks ago, Father Liggett asked me to preach today and below is the text of my sermon – imagine it with all of the appropriate voice inflections and hand gestures …
August 23, 2009
12th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
When Father Liggett first asked if I would like to preach today, I almost said an immediate no, but something stopped me and instead I said, "let me pray about and think it over and I'll let you know". I went home and as I read over the readings for today, asking for guidance, I knew almost instantly that my answer would be yes. Most of you know that I'm heading off to seminary and that I'm not being sponsored by the Diocese of Northwest Texas but instead by the Diocese of West Texas. I am very blessed to currently have two church homes: the church I have attended for the past 8 years in San Antonio, St. Thomas, and here, St. Nicholas, and I'll take this brief moment to say thank you for letting me become a part of your community in this short time. You have made me feel at home and loved and I will always be grateful. I will see you in between semesters and will keep you posted on my progress through seminary.
In my "other" diocese, the Diocese of West Texas, each year Bishop Lillibridge introduces a theme for the year and various events within the diocese focus on that theme. This year's theme? Abide in Me. And that phrase kept going through my mind as I focused on the readings so I felt that I could have at least a few things to say. You see, I'm not afraid of speaking in front of people, but what I don't have is the confidence to speak on theological matters. So I guess I'd better start working on that, don't you think?
One thing I discovered is that I've somewhat misunderstood the meaning of the word Abide. I've always thought it to mean to live within, as in God lives in me, and that's not entirely incorrect but the true meaning of the word is more complex. Webster defines it as: to wait for, to remain fixed, and to continue in a place.
In the Old Testament reading, Solomon dedicates the temple built as a fulfillment of God's promise to King David, yet he knew that even the house of the Lord could not contain God. The Israelites looked to the temple as God's abiding presence; his continuous steadfastness; his faithfulness to them, where they could find reassurance of his promises.
This past week, my dad and my son and I returned from a trip to Washington, DC and as we were walking around the monuments, I began to wonder, in light of our country's economic difficulties, about the expense of keeping such places running but I quickly told myself it was worth it because being in DC and watching my son experience it for the first time, seeing the monuments that sit as a reminder of how this country was built and defended and protected, reminded me of the promises and hope that this country was built on and it gave me a renewed pride and hope in my country. I can only imagine that is what the temple did for the Israelites.
In the Letter to the Ephesians we hear about putting on the armor of God, surrounding ourselves with God's strength so that we can stand firm, so that we can abide in, remain fixed in, our faith. If we fill our heart and mind with the Word, our faith will be steadfast.
In the gospel, Jesus tells a shocking way to abide in him; it is a message that some of his followers find so difficult to comprehend that they choose to walk away from him. John is the only gospel in which Jesus uses the metaphor of eating his flesh and drinking his blood to describe the type of relationship he desires with us and it is also the only gospel that doesn't have an account of the last supper. John's description of Jesus' body and blood as our life source is not buffered by the metaphor of bread and wine and for the Jews listening to him at the synagogue being told to drink blood would have been impossible to hear. Blood was synonymous with life and life belonged to God and that is why the Torah explicitly forbids consuming blood. And, I have to admit as I'm sure some of you do too, that it is a difficult passage to hear even as Christians in the 21st century. At the surface, the literal meaning, it just flat out sounds gross.
So, as we are with most of Jesus' words, we are challenged by this passage to look beyond the literal meaning to the deeper layers of wisdom that lie beneath the actual words and it gives a whole new meaning to the old adage "you are what you eat". Jesus didn't want to have just a type of leader-follower relationship with us, a relationship based on a list of dos and don'ts. Jesus' desire is to be in such a close relationship with us that it is as if we have consumed him. A relationship so intimate that he abides in us and we in him. It's not a relationship that is based on a one time or even "once in a while" event, but on a continuous intake of him.
This type of active and continuous relationship with God was a difficult concept for many people listening to Jesus to grasp. God was somewhere else, the temple, heaven, out there, not within them, not a part of their every thought and movement. The picture I have in my mind when I think about this is Tevia from The Fiddler on the Roof. When he talks to God, he gestures and speaks as if God was away from him. The conversation is never turned inward and it always seems to be a negotiation of sorts. But Jesus talks of a relationship with God that is personal, within us. Take a second and think of the person you are closer to than anyone else, maybe your spouse or your best friend or a relative. When you and this person are not physically in the same place you still feel close to them, don't you? You feel their presence. This is the type of relationship God wants with us, why he sent his son. Jesus gives us the difficult instructions to eat of his flesh and drink his blood and then tells us that these words are spirit and life so that we can let go of our lists of dos and don'ts and seek to live in him.
In the post communion prayer we give thanks for being spiritually fed through the sacrament of his body and blood. This sacrament is the outward and visible sign of the relationship we have with God through Jesus. It is the nourishment our soul needs to survive just as our bodies need food. It is how we show that we are living members of God's son. It is a relationship Jesus tells us we must be intentional about. Jesus wants us to abide in him, to stay fixed in his continuous presence.
And when we face the difficult teachings of Jesus, do we walk away or do we answer as Peter did, "to whom can we go?" because we know that through our relationship with Jesus we have come to know God?