Sunday, August 27, 2006

Hard to Swallow

Here's today's homily. The Gospel is John 6:56-69.

* * *

When I was a little girl, maybe seven or eight, my father and stepmother had a fancy dinner party for some of my father’s legal clients. One of the hors d’oeuvres was caviar. I’d never had caviar before, but my father believed very firmly that children should be encouraged to try a variety of unusual food, so he gave me some.

I loved it. I kept going back for more. My father, watching me inhale this very pricy stuff like so much peanut-butter-and-jelly, gently encouraged me to leave some for the guests, but I didn’t take the hint. And so at last, very reluctantly, he used the one tactic he knew would curb my appetite. “Susan,” he said, “did you know that caviar is fish eggs?”

He got exactly the reaction he’d expected: “Ewwwww!” I refused to touch caviar for another seven or eight years.

Many years after that, I took a summer course in liturgy at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Most of the people in the class were working on specific projects. A priest in his sixties wrote a retirement liturgy for clergy. I wrote a liturgy to bless the Family Promise ministry at St. Stephen’s. And one of our classmates, a Catholic laywoman, was determined to produce a version of the Eucharistic prayer that omitted every mention of body and blood.

“It’s disgusting,” she told us vehemently. “How can you even think about that and not get sick to your stomach? It’s cannibalism! No wonder more people don’t come to church, if they have to listen to that!” Although my classmate was using bigger words than I’d used when I was a little girl, her reaction to communion was the same as mine to caviar: “Ewww!”

As today’s Gospel makes clear, my GTU classmate’s objection is hardly a new one. Eating human flesh and drinking human blood were shocking breaches of Jewish dietary law; they must have sounded every bit as barbaric to Jesus’ first-century audience as they did to my twenty-first-century classmate. Jesus lost a lot of followers over this teaching. He was doing a new thing that flew in the face of old laws, and that also evoked a very negative gut reaction. The many people who walked away from him had law, tradition, and instinct on their side.

The few people who stayed had only their lived experience.

They don’t sound any happier about the flesh and blood part than anyone else. When Jesus asks the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter doesn’t say, “Oh, don’t be silly, Jesus! Why would we want to leave? We can’t wait to eat flesh and drink blood!”

Instead, he asks plaintively, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

This short answer suggests a longer one. “We’d leave if we could, Jesus, because this teaching of yours is really hard to swallow. But we’ve been living with you, following you, watching you heal lepers and walk on water and feed thousands of people with a few baskets of crumbs. We can’t deny what we’ve seen. We can’t deny the evidence of our senses or the testimony of our lives. We know you’re the Holy One. And if following you means eating flesh and drinking blood, that’s what we have to do, because there’s nowhere else for us to go. We can’t say ‘no’ to this awful diet of yours without losing everything else you’ve given us.”

This pattern has played itself out many times in the centuries since. It’s an old, familiar story: someone in the church does a new thing that flies in the face of law and tradition, something that makes many observers sick to their stomachs. In response to this new thing, many people walk away, horrified at breaches of law and propriety. But a few others stay -- even if some of them are a little queasy themselves -- because their lived experience tells them that this place, right here, is where they have found healing, miracles, and sustenance: where they have found the words of eternal life. For them, there is nowhere else to go.

This pattern is playing itself out even as we speak in the global Anglican Communion. The American church has done several radically new things, including consecrating an openly gay bishop and choosing a woman to lead our national church. These actions are genuinely offensive to many Anglicans, people of deep faith who simply cannot accept such flagrant disregard for Scripture and church tradition. And if a fair amount of physical nausea seems to be involved, well, that’s part of the pattern too, isn’t it?

It’s certainly true that the ministries of Gene Robinson and Katharine Jefferts Schori represent a huge break with tradition, and with traditional interpretations of Scripture. And it’s also true that the American Episcopal Church is vastly outnumbered by the other churches in the global communion. But this morning’s Gospel proves that tradition, Scripture and numerical superiority are not, by themselves, self-evident proof of godliness. Jesus himself flew in the face of tradition and Scripture, and more disciples walked away from him than stayed.

This is dangerous territory. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that denial of tradition, disregard for Scripture, and numerical inferiority are self-evident proofs of godliness, either. I do think that all of us living in this complicated moment need to honor our lived experience. Where have we found healing, miracles, and sustenance? Where have we found the words of eternal life? Wherever that place is, there is nowhere else for us to go. If we have found ourselves healed by female clergy and fed by gay clergy, we need to keep making our home with them. If we find such ministries horrifying rather than sustaining, we may need to make our homes elsewhere. The bickering over who is being disloyal to whom is beside the point. All of us need to be loyal to the evidence of our senses and the testimony of our lives, trusting that we are all still God’s beloved children. “In my father’s house are many mansions,” Jesus tells us. One suspects that there are many kitchens there, as well. All of us need to go where we are fed.

And we need to remember that tastes and palates change, and that something that once seemed disgusting can come to be a delicacy. I happily eat caviar again, even though it’s fish eggs. I don’t know if my GTU classmate has learned to stomach the symbolism of communion; but if she hasn’t, I pray that she has found some other sustenance on her path to God, food that is more palatable for her. Many of the people who rejected Jesus’ awful diet during his lifetime came to the communion table after his death, at Pentecost and afterwards.

We follow a god who fed thousands from a basket of crumbs, who commanded the parents of a girl he had raised from the dead to give her something to eat, who returned from the grave himself to break bread with his disciples and roast fish on a beach for breakfast. If we know anything about Jesus, it is that he does not want anyone to go hungry.

We won’t be sharing communion at St. Stephen’s this morning, because this is a Morning Prayer service. That’s ironic, isn’t it? But if we find ourselves hungry for communion, maybe God is inviting us into sympathy with the hungers of those around us, the hungers of the world.

Let us, then, feed ourselves and each other. And let us have faith that even if our search for satisfying food seems to be leading us away from each other, all paths will lead at last to God’s heavenly banquet: to the feast where we will sit side by side, and where there will be enough dishes to please everyone, and where no one will go hungry.



  1. So your church does Morning Prayer on Sunday and doesn't serve communion at it? That's definitely different from what my church does. Right now we are eagerly awaiting the recommencement of our Men's Breakfast Ministry next month (it stops in summer). They serve the best breakfast in town and I challenge any restaurant to match it for quality and price ($3.50 for a custom omelet w/ sides and coffee, or free if you need it). Now, how's that for communion? (g)

  2. We usually have Eucharist on Sunday, but once a month during the summer, we have Morning Prayer instead, to give our clergy a break.

    We did have coffee hour this morning, though. No omelettes, but yummy cookies! (Your communion sounds healthier, I agree!)

  3. Thank you for this beautiful message. One of the things that surprised me as I wwent to college last year was that some things that never fed me spiritually before were feeding me, and things that previously did feed me, didn't feed me or at least not in the same way. I'll admit it was alarming at first.

  4. Hi, Nickie! Thanks for mentioning my new carnival on your blog! And yes, changing tastes can be a little disconcerting. When I started going to church at the age of 38, most of my family and friends freaked out a bit, and so did I. But on the other hand, things would get pretty boring if we always stayed the same!

  5. Anonymous11:43 AM

    As an Epscopalian and a lesbian in a committed relationship with children I feel like a rock in hard place. I don't want the churches to "fall out of communion" with one another over "human sexuality" but neither do I want my religion to treat me like I'm some second class sinner (though we do know that Jesus loves his sinners best ;-)). How do you explain to your child that Jesus loves their family, but the church won't openly bless us without the church sounding like hypocrits? The longer we eat at separate tables the harder it is to not see the separateness, the differentness (on both sides). Why can't we eat at the same table and discuss our differences so that we can all learn that we aren't so very different after all?

  6. Hi, Anon. You asked:

    "How do you explain to your child that Jesus loves their family, but the church won't openly bless us without the church sounding like hypocrits? The longer we eat at separate tables the harder it is to not see the separateness, the differentness (on both sides). Why can't we eat at the same table and discuss our differences so that we can all learn that we aren't so very different after all?"

    These are tough questions. I'm not sure how I'd explain it to kids; I think I might tell them that the church is a human institution where people make mistakes, and that the people who act unlovingly towards other people are frightened and ignorant, and that we have to pray for them and try to teach them, and also try to love them even when they don't seem to love us, because that's what Jesus would want us to do.

    There's always been hypocrisy in the church, and caring people have always had trouble explaining it to their children.

    As for "why can't we eat at the same table" . . . look, I'm with you on this, but if you can figure out a way to get the AAC and Peter Akinola to come to the table, please share it with the rest of us! Anybody who can solve that one gets the Nobel Peace Prize, in my book. (The parable of the wedding banquet comes to mind here, doesn't it?)

    Certain parties have made it clear that the price of shared table fellowship is locking particular people out. Many of us aren't willing to do that. All we can do, I think, is say, "Everyone's welcome at God's table," and pray for the ones who refuse to show up because they don't like the company and we're not using the right salad forks.

    I also think, for the sake of kids and everyone else, that at some point it becomes important to emphasize who is sharing the meal with you, instead of obsessing over the ones who aren't. They're in God's hands, poor souls, and we have to pray that in God's good time, they'll grow and learn.

    My bishop, who's about to become ECUSA's bishop, is fond of saying that in biology, growth always happens at the margins. If ECUSA becomes a "second-class" church, we may have more freedom to write our own liturgies and get on with the work of the Kingdom as we see it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.