Fr. Sean Kim
August 25, 2019
An audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years. She has spent those long years bent over and unable to stand up straight. When Jesus sees her in the synagogue, he interrupts his teaching to call her over to him. He lays his hands on her, and she is healed. The woman stands up straight and begins to praise God for the miracle.
The healing of the crippled woman is one of many healing stories in the Gospels. Part of the reason why Jesus attracts such large crowds wherever he goes is because of his reputation as a divine healer, a miracle-worker. I don’t know about you, but I personally struggle with the healing stories. Every time I hear a healing story, I ask myself: Why don’t these healings occur today? Why aren’t the people that I pray for cured miraculously?
If I were a Presbyterian, I could provide a clear answer to this problem, but as an Episcopalian, as is usually the case with theological issues, I’m not so sure. As many of you know, I come from a Presbyterian background, and I know that my lingering Calvinist attachments have been of some concern to Fr. Charles. But I actually think there may be some other closet Calvinists in our midst. The official Calvinist theological position on miraculous healing is that such acts stopped or ceased with the age of the apostles. The technical term for this is cessationism – from the word cease. According to this doctrine, all miracles, including divine healings, are believed to have ceased with the age of the apostles two thousand years ago. In other words, Jesus and the apostles had the power of divine healing. We do not. The story goes that some people came up to John Calvin with a challenge. They told Calvin that the Roman Catholic priests were performing great miracles among the people And they dared Calvin to perform even greater miracles as proof that he was right and that the Roman Catholics were wrong. Calvin’s response: “I will not perform any miracles for you. The age of miracles ceased with the apostles. The miracles were necessary only to establish the foundations of the church. But since that time, the power to perform miracles no longer exists.” Many Presbyterians, as well as many other Protestants today, are cessationists. They believe that miracles existed back in Jesus’ day, but not now.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have Pentecostals and other charismatics who firmly believe in divine healing and other gifts of the Spirit. Some of you may have seen such claims of healings, what we used to call “faith healings,” on television or in person. The Pentecostals and charismatics reject the idea that miracles are limited to the apostolic age, and they believe that we, too, have the power to perform the same miracles.
When we turn to the Roman Catholics, we also find a spectrum of views on divine or miraculous healing. On the one hand, we have such phenomena as Our Lady of Lourdes. Countless pilgrims travel to Lourdes, France, to be miraculously cured by the healing waters, and there are many testimonies of healing. Yet, at the same time, the Roman Catholics also have a tradition of seeing illness and suffering as a virtue. Many of the saints who are venerated contracted devastating, debilitating diseases, and many died young, but their suffering is seen as part of their imitation of Christ.
Confused? So what should we believe about divine healing? What do we make of the healing stories in the Gospels? What is it that we pray for when we pray for healing? There is no clear answer to these questions in Scripture or tradition. But I would like to share with you some personal reflections on these questions. Going back to my Calvinist, cessationist background, I’ve come across some awkward situations in my ministry when it comes to pastoral care. Our Postulant for Holy Orders, Lynda Hurt, has just completed her training for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Saint Luke’s Hospital, where she served as a hospital chaplain. I did my CPE training a couple of summers ago. One day, I was called to the bedside of a dying man. His family had just decided to take him off life support, and he had just minutes to live. The man was surrounded by his wife and three adult children. One of the children, his youngest son, was very distraught, and seeing me in my clerical collar, he cried out: “Do something! Heal him!” I was caught off guard, to say the least, and before I realized what was coming out of my mouth, I blurted out: “But I’m not a Pentecostal.” Fortunately, the family did not kick me out of the room, and I was able to minister to them without any more embarrassing incidents.
As you can tell from this story, divine, miraculous healing has not been a part of my personal experience. My father died of ALS, and my maternal grandfather and mother both died of Alzheimer’s. In spite of all the fervent prayers that we offered up, they suffered terribly and died. Actually, in the case of my grandfather, my grandmother tried to cure him by calling in a Pentecostal healer to our house, but the only thing the healer managed to do was frighten my grandfather with her loud prayers and yelling.
So both my theological and personal background predispose me against believing in divine healing. I know of many Episcopal clergy who have had extraordinary miraculous experiences. I am not one of them. Yet, at the same time, I cannot subscribe anymore to the doctrine of cessationism, at least in its strict form. Medical science has changed dramatically over the years. We no longer believe, as we used to, that the body and mind are separate, and that healing involves only fixing the body. Today we have alternative medicines as well as music therapy, pet therapy, and a host of other ways to address illness. The logic behind all this is that the mind – and spirit – have a profound impact on the body. Healing is no longer just a clinical process treating the body; healing is holistic – it involves the whole person. You have probably heard of studies that show that people of faith live longer lives. So there’s an element of the unknown – mystery – behind healing and health. Then, who am I to deny that miracles can happen? Who am I to deny the countless testimonies of those who have been healed through the power of prayer? Divine healing may not be a part of my personal experience, but it is an integral part of the faith for many of our fellow Christians, perhaps some of you here this morning. We believe in an Almighty God, who can do anything God wills, and the very act of prayer is a request for divine, supernatural intervention. God can heal through natural or supernatural means. It is not for us to limit what God can do. When we pray to God for healing, we open ourselves up to the possibility of divine action.
In our prayer to the Virgin Mary, the Salve Regina, we speak of life as a vale or valley of tears – a beautiful, poetic expression of the trials and tribulations of life. Who is immune from sickness, accidents, and ultimately death? Life is filled with brokenness. But we need not despair. We have the promise of hope and healing in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Divine Physician. As the crippled woman came to him two thousand years ago, let us also come to Jesus and pray for the healing of our whole selves – body, mind, and spirit.
St. Mary the Virgin
August 18, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:20-27, Luke 1:39-56
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
On Wednesday evenings, we have Evening Prayer here in the church, and inevitably, a group goes out to have a bite to eat and perhaps a drink or two. Depending on who goes, we occasionally end up talking about the liturgy in ways that 99% of the planet think are…well…a bit much. I always invite my husband Jay to come eat with us, and while he comes from time to time, I don’t blame him for yawning internally when we start debating whether we’re supposed to turn to the left or the right at the altar and how to properly hold our funny hats.
Likewise, I’m sure that most people (including most of you holy and pious men and women) would yawn and perhaps take a nap were the preacher to get into the nitty gritty’s of the theological implications of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s death. I mean, the details surrounding Mary’s death have been debated from time immemorial, especially since the Protestant Reformation. The name of today’s feast itself is controversial: the Eastern Church calls it “The Dormition [or falling asleep] of Mary” while the Roman Catholic Church calls it the Assumption of Mary. We Episcopalians, as we so often do, have chosen to be vague and simply call it “The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin.” The commonality across all of these is that today, we are commemorating her death.
What do we know of Mary’s death? Nothing from Scripture. But there’s plenty of pious legend surrounding her death from the earliest days of the Church. One account has to do with Mary’s girdle, and by girdle, I don’t mean the modern elasticized garment, I mean a cloth braided belt with a knot at the end, similar to this one. In this account, Mary’s body was assumed into heaven in the presence of all of the apostles except for Thomas who was off in India. Later, when the others told him what happened, he doubted and didn’t believe them, just as he hadn’t believed them earlier when they told him they’d seen Jesus after his resurrection. So Mary appeared to Thomas individually and dropped the girdle she wore at her Assumption down onto him to give him physical proof, just as Jesus had done when he invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Thomas saw and touched the girdle and believed. This apocryphal story presents Mary’s assumption into heaven as a mirroring of Jesus’s resurrection, which leads us to our epistle lesson from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
The Church at Corinth was comprised mainly of Greek Christians, and the Greeks tended to think that the spirit was more important than the body. Some of this way of thinking had come into the Corinthian church, leading some to deny Jesus’s bodily resurrection. St. Paul didn’t mince words earlier in chapter 15 when he said, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Paul says, “No.” Christ’s bodily resurrection not only happened, it’s essential to our faith. Death came from the Adam, the first human being who chose to be disobedient to God, and so the resurrection of the dead also comes from a human being, but this time, from one who committed no sin, Jesus Christ. Not only did was Christ raised from the dead, he will come again to hand over the kingdom to his Father, and to finally destroy evil and death. The destruction of evil and death by Christ at the last day will finally establish the Kingdom of God in its entirety, whereas now, we only experience it imperfectly. Just as Jesus has already entered into his kingdom through his resurrection, so too will we who follow him and enter the kingdom through a resurrection like his. Paul calls Jesus the first fruits of the dead, and links our resurrection to his. He was the first to be raised up, and we will follow.
And that, my friends, is the foundation of today’s feast. The Blessed Mother was not divine, she was a human being like you and me. And like us, her entry into God’s kingdom depends on Jesus’ resurrection. You and I have to wait until the Second Coming of Christ for our bodies to be raised, but Tradition says that Mary didn’t need to wait until the last day. As she was the first disciple of her Son – the first person to say “Yes” to his call – she is the first human being to follow her son in his resurrection. Her risen body is with Jesus’ risen body awaiting that day when all will be made right. Mary’s glory is a foretaste of our glory. Christ’s resurrection leads the way to our resurrection, and as our Blessed Mother was raised, so too will we be raised at the last day.
What will life be like when our bodies are raised, and God creates the new heavens and the new earth? In her song in the gospel of Luke, Mary tells us that in God’s kingdom, things are very, very different. Unlike our world, it’s not the powerful on their thrones, or the proud, or the rich who will be extolled and given a place of special honor. It’s the lowly, the humble, and the poor. In God’s kingdom, the first will be last, and the last will be first. Status won’t be measured by wealth and pride and fancy titles, but by humility, tenderness, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
While we have to wait until the last day to experience God’s kingdom in its fulness, in a moment, we will pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” as our Lord taught us. When we pray these words, we’re asking God to bring the values of his heavenly kingdom here to earth. To disrupt the value systems of this world. To bring heaven to earth. And we’re asking him to use us to accomplish this.
What does this look like for us at a parish church under the patronage of St. Mary in Kansas City in the year 2019?
Friends, we are called to proclaim the life, death, and yes…bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in both word and deed. There is an unfortunate tendency amongst a subset of clergy in the Episcopal Church to say things like, “I believe in spiritual resurrection, but it doesn’t really matter if Jesus’s body rose from the dead.” Or, even worse, “Dead people don’t come back to life. If you believe in science, you can’t possibly believe in the resurrection.” Hear what Saint Paul saith: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Like Mary, we are called to live out the incarnation of her Son by proclaiming the coming of His kingdom. And like Mary, we are not to live our lives thinking that this future kingdom of God is something we’re just twiddling our thumbs waiting for, it began to break into our world on that first Christmas night. When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are telling God and ourselves that we’re willing to forsake our own devices and desires and say yes to God. And praying the Lord’s Prayer means that we’re willing to trust that the Holy Spirit will give us everything we need to fill the hungry with good things and lift up the lowly.
St. Mary’s has a long history of feeding the hungry in our area via the food pantry and hot meal – a good and holy thing – but it is time that we intentionally discern how God is calling us to serve the least of these in Kansas City. To that end, our newly formed Social Justice Committee has met a couple of times and meets again in a few weeks. They’re exploring how we might engage in important issues such as prison ministry, racial reconciliation, LGBT rights, economic injustice, immigration issues, and so on. Please pray for them as they discern how God is leading our parish family to cast down the mighty and lift up the lowly in Kansas City and beyond. And then when their program is published, please pray about how God may be calling you to get involved.
Maybe next year for Mary Day, I’ll bore you to tears with the nitty gritty about whether Mary’s assumption was before or after her death and why that matters theologically. But for now, friends, let us follow the good example of the Blessed Virgin Mary in saying yes to her Son and boldly proclaiming God’s kingdom to a lost and broken world. And let us join with Christians throughout all generations in calling her blessed.
 1 Cor 15:12-14.
Fear is in the air.
Everywhere you look – social media, your favorite news website, or even the street corner – fear is in the air. Fear that the economy will fall back into recession. Fear that you’ll lose your job. Fear that the person you ask out on a date will say no. Fear that your spouse will turn you in you for a younger model. Fear about the current state of the political discourse in this country. Fear that you can’t pay next month’s bills. Fear that you won’t finish an important project at work by the deadline. Fear that God isn’t here beside you as you struggle through this life. Fear that you will die alone and unloved.
Fear is in the air.
Our Gospel passage from Luke begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” This isn’t the first time that we heard these words in the gospel of Luke. This is the same message given to Zechariah when the angel told him his wife Elizabeth was pregnant with Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist. It’s the same thing the angel said to Mary at the Annunciation when she was told she was pregnant with God’s son. It’s the same thing that Jesus proclaims to Saint Peter before he tells him that he will be a fisher of men.
“Do not be afraid.”
In all instances of this phrase in Luke, “Do not be afraid” comes before the announcement of a significant, life-changing event. In this case, Jesus says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is no small matter and is just as daunting of a message as the angel telling Mary that she is pregnant with God’s son.
Out of his own delight, God gives us the kingdom. The word kingdom is not easy for us to relate to. The last time we had a king in this country, we rejected his authority and declared our independence! The kingdom of God refers to an inbreaking of God’s love, peace, freedom and justice into the world.
These inbreakings of God’s kingdom in this world happen in what is often referred to as “thin places.” Thin places are moments in which time itself seems to stand still and the divide between this world and the next is very thin indeed. In these thin places, God’s love becomes tangible to us and we get a brief glimpse of heaven itself. The sacraments are thin places, and particularly the Holy Eucharist, where we are transported in time to the hill upon which Jesus died and we are fed the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. In these thin places, heaven kisses earth.
But thin places are not only to be found in the sacraments. They are also found in the face of the homeless person you see on the street corner. In the cries of the sick person you are nursing and taking care of. And in subtle, everyday things like hugging a child or hearing those repetitive words “I love you” from a family member.
These thin places are all around us, and ever difficult to detect. How do we predispose ourselves to be aware of them? Through consistent prayer, Bible study, silence, contemplation, selflessly serving others, and regular reception of the sacraments of the Church. Without making the time and effort to engage in these sometimes-arduous spiritual disciplines, we aren’t able to put aside our fear and be aware of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom around us.
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, for God is giving you his kingdom of love, peace, freedom and justice.” It is in this context that Jesus tells his disciples to sell their possessions and give alms and make purses for themselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. When we graciously accept God’s loving kindness towards us, when we are intentionally aware of the Holy Spirit working in our everyday lives, when we are sensitive to detecting the thin places that we encounter throughout our lives, it is then that we are led to share that love and compassion with others.
I’ll always remember one of the questions I was asked at one of the many Committee meetings during my ordination process. “When you envision yourself as a priest, what scares you the most?” My immediate response was, “Being around people who are dying and their families. I not only don’t know what to say or do, but I can’t imagine what I would have to contribute to people in such pain and grief.” Less than a year later, in my second semester at seminary, I got word that my co-worker’s 17-year-old son had died. His name was Noah, and I’d known him because his mom had asked me to spend a little time with him as he was struggling coming out in high school, and to boot, he was afflicted with mental illness at a pretty severe level. Noah died because he hung himself from a tree. I was terribly sad when I heard the news, but when his mom called and asked if I’d do the funeral, I had an overwhelming sense of fear wash over me. I called my bishop and told him I’d been asked to do this huge funeral for this young kid who died tragically, and he said to me, “Charles, the Church doesn’t normally asked folks at your stage of the process to do this kind of work, but it sounds like there’s an opportunity here for the Holy Spirit to work through you to help a whole lot of people. God’s been preparing you for this moment, and will give you everything you need to get through it. How will you respond?”
With God’s help, I said yes.
Less than two years later, the 21-year-old son of one of the owners of the bank died of an accidental drug overdose. His dad called me and asked me to do the funeral. And to this day, I think some of the most important parts of my ministry here at St. Mary’s have been walking alongside those who are dying, and then ministering to their family and friends upon their death.
I tell you about my greatest fear coming into the priesthood not to encourage you to face your fears head on, or to assure you that things always get better, or to tell you to always say yes when asked to do something you’re scared to do. I tell you this story because God didn’t ask me to help these people out of the blue. In a sense, I’d been preparing for these moments for my whole life. My imperfect attempts to consistently pray, to study the Bible, to listen to God’s voice…my constant reception of the sacraments of the church, sometimes because I felt so unworthy…God used all of that to make me sensitive to these particular thin places, and to have the courage to overcome my fear and say yes. Inevitably when I do, the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the moments that ensue ushers in God’s love, peace, and freedom where it is desperately needed.
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells us, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms! Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit! Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!” This call to be ready is both about Christ’s coming in our lives today and about his second coming at the last day. The certainty of Christ’s coming is not a cause for panic, but a cause for watchful anticipation for blessing. This call to be ready isn’t a cause to be overly critical of our own sins and failings, but rather to be ready to receive blessings like we could never imagine. To be watchful and ready for thin places in this world, to be watchful and ready for the unimaginable and overwhelming grandeur of being in God’s kingdom in all of its glory in eternity. This call is to be ready for the foretaste of the heavenly banquet when we receive communion in a moment, and to be ready for the heavenly banquet itself in eternity with God.
Friends, do not be afraid! For God, out of his own delight, gives you his kingdom of love, peace, freedom and justice. Be watchful for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the thin places. And be ready for the coming of Christ, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and at the last day.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 335.
 Ibid 338.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13
August 4, 2019
Luke 12:13-21, Colossians 3:1-11
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Our gospel lesson begins with someone coming to Jesus with an estate law question: the man asks him to tell his brother (probably his older brother) to divide the family inheritance with him.
This sort of childhood squabble continues even in our day. In one of the earliest funerals I did after being ordained, I asked the daughter of the deceased, “Will your step-brothers and sisters be coming to the service?” “No,” she responded. “They got all the money when their dad died, and we haven’t been able to stand being in the same room with them ever since. We really don’t want them here.”
In this case, the younger brother gets upset because the law and tradition of the day said that the elder brother receives the bulk of the inheritance. The younger brother comes to Jesus, asking him to solve his problem. “Nope,” Jesus responds. No. Can. Do. The younger brother thinks his request is all about fairness. “It’s only fair that I get half,” the younger brother thinks. But Jesus sets him straight. His request isn’t about fairness. It’s actually about greed.
Those two verses shape the parable that Jesus then tells. A rich man’s land produces abundantly…so much so that he doesn’t have room to store all of his excess crops. So he does something practical: he build larger barns in which to store them. But here’s where the rub comes in. The rich man then says, “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Now that I’ve saved up and feel secure for my future, I can truly be happy.
God’s response couldn’t have been more high-direct. “You fool!” he said. “Tonight you die! And all these things you’ve stored up…whose will they be?” “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” And then the parable ends. No happy ending like the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the parable of the Prodigal Son.
What does it mean to be “rich towards God?” Does it mean, “You can’t take it with you, so be generous with your assets – especially to the Church?” (wink, wink) Does it mean that you and I shouldn’t plan for retirement, or save for a rainy day?
There’s a difference between proper planning and greediness. I think Jesus’s message for us in this parable is this: you have to balance concern for the future with the call to give glory to God by caring for your neighbor – for the poor, the marginalized, and all those in need. This balancing act is hard work, and requires a lot of discernment.
I am not sure if everyone has this problem, but I have a very rich fantasy life. I like to think about the day when I will hopefully no longer have to worry about paying bills, and dealing with constant repairs of an old home. I like to think about what life would be like if I won the lottery.
Jesus’s response to this rich man – “You fool! Tonight you’ll die! So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God” – this response, as jarring as it is, reminds me that I need to stop being distracted by such fantasies. Frankly, the rich man in this story had become so concerned for himself and his comfort that he had forgotten that God had created the land that produced the excess crop. He’d forgotten that really, all the excess crop belonged to God and he was just the temporary steward of them. And he’d forgotten that happiness and contentedness is not found in the abundance of wealth or possessions.
Paul said in our epistle lesson, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
It is only when we surrender our fantasies, whether they be about wealth or financial security or sexual happiness – it is only when we name these distractions for what they are – idols – and lay them at the feet of our Lord that we can truly set our minds on things that are above. It is only then that we can begin to see what contentedness looks like.
What does it mean to be “rich with God?” It means acknowledging who we are – sinners in need of a Savior – and acknowledging who God is – the creator and author of all from whom all good things come. Being rich with God means acknowledging our fantasy life for what it is, and not allowing it to become a distraction as we seek to follow Christ with all that we have and all that we are. Being rich with God means balancing the need to plan for our future with the need to give away our money and possessions to support the poor, the marginalized, and the needy. Being rich with God means knowing in the deepest parts of who we are that money and financial security and possessions will not make us happy. Jesus is telling us in this parable that we find our happiness in setting our minds on things that are above. On Jesus Christ.
Despite not being worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, God’s unconditional mercy and love towards us makes us worthy to come into his presence with a quiet confidence that “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It is from this deep sense of knowing who we are and whose we are that we should approach our money and wealth and whatever it is that captivates our fantasy life. In knowing who we are – that we are buried with Christ in his death, and raised with him in newness of life – we are able to begin to see money and possessions for what they really are – gifts from God over which we’ve been given temporary stewardship. Yes, God provides our daily bread – everything we need – but we’ve been entrusted with the gifts we’ve been given to return some to God and to care for those in need.
Friends, let us set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we too will be revealed with him in glory. Amen.
 This concept is from the Theological perspective for this text in David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
 Colossians 3:1-11.
 Julian of Norwich.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12
July 27, 2019
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
I have to admit to you that sometimes, it is difficult to choose which text to focus on for a sermon. I mean, we have three different lessons – four if you include the psalm – and these lessons are often so beautiful and full of meaning that it’s hard to narrow things down. But this week, when I started reading the texts, there wasn’t a lot of discerning going on for me. The lesson from Hosea contains the word whoredom no less than three times, and Paul talks about circumcision in the second lesson. When I finally got to the Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, I breathed a huge sign of relief and made one of the easiest decisions of my life.
“Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus’s disciple asks him. Prayer is quite an intimate thing. Learning how to pray isn’t quite like learning how to ride a bike, or repair a carburetor. It’s more like learning how to kiss, or perhaps even something more intimate than that. There isn’t only one way to do it, but there are certainly wrong ways of doing it. Sometimes, in the deepest parts of who we are, we worry whether we’re not any good at it at all.
Jesus’s begins his response to this question, “Our Father…”. He’s teaching his disciples – and us – to approach God as one we relate to intimately. Someone who is family. But not just any old family member – one whose name is hallowed, or holy. This Father we’re approaching isn’t one who will let us down like our earthly fathers have done (some more so than others), but a heavenly Father who will never stop loving us, no matter what we do.
We’ll come back to the Lord’s Prayer in a moment, but fast forward to the short parable Jesus tells after it, for the verses following the Lord’s Prayer help us to interpret it. My first read of it left me scratching my head. In it, we are asked to envision a person going to a friend at midnight asking for food to feed an unexpected houseguest. He essentially responds, “leave me alone.”
But the translation we heard makes it difficult to think see that Jesus means to describe a highly unlikely scenario. In Greek, the first three verses of this parable are actually a single question that means something like, “Could this happen to any of you?” The question anticipates a negative answer: none of the people hearing this story would expect to have a friend say, “leave me alone.” A friend who refuses to help in such a situation would violate the cultural standard of hospitality of that day and time and would bring shame – and shame in 1st century Judaism is a very bad thing. Jesus is saying that even if the obligations of friendship and hospitality aren’t enough to convince a friend to provide help in this situation – an idea that’s so ridiculous it’s bordering on the absurd – a friend will definitely respond positively to the request because of the desperate persistence of the one who is asking.
And that brings up another problem with this translation – the word persistence. Frankly, on the surface, this parable makes it appear that Jesus is telling his disciples that they will have to nag God until he gets so annoyed that he finally does what they want. As one commentator said, “The notion that, repeatedly, we must bang on the doors of heaven if we are to catch God’s attention is hardly an appropriate theology of prayer.” And this notion certainly doesn’t make any sense in light of the intimacy of the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer.
The word translated here as persistence is better translated as “shamelessness.” In a world where hospitality was very important, the shameless knocking would tell the friend’s neighbors loud and clear that he’s ignoring the needs of his friend, and rather than suffer the shame that would come from that, he would help his friend in need.
So whose shamelessness are we talking about here? The person knocking, or the one who says, “leave me alone?” In other words, is prayer primarily about what we do and say, or is it about God’s goodness? The text isn’t clear until we continue to the next few verses:
Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
It is because of God’s shamelessness that God provides us everything we need…because that’s who he is. This is what “hallowed be thy name” really means: God responds to our prayer to honor his name even when we act in dishonorable ways. If the parents who are evil respond to their children by providing for their needs, how much more does God provide us that which truly nourishes. God’s provision for us is most evident in the gift of the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, the same Spirit who continues to lead us into all truth and advocate on our behalf to the Father. God’s response to our prayer “thy kingdom come” is the gift of the Holy Spirit who gives us the grace to live out the Lord’s Prayer and bring God’s heavenly kingdom to the lost and broken world in which we live.
So, Jesus teaches his disciples to approach God as someone we relate to intimately. Someone who is family. But the God we approach in prayer is holy – set apart – different than our family members who can and do let us down. God’s response isn’t about how often we nag him, or how badly we want what we’re praying for, or how much faith we have. God’s response to our prayer is to provide us everything we need – our daily bread – because of God’s holiness and because of his love and care for us.
And that’s all great. But how do we pray? What do we do when we don’t know what to pray? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but every single service in our prayer book requires the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. And this is not a new-fangled innovation in the life of the Church. The Church’s earliest liturgical manual, the Didache, written in the first or second centuries, recommends that Christians pray the Lord’s Prayer three times per day. And over the next few centuries as the Daily Office and the Mass developed, the Lord’s Prayer remained at the heart of both public and private prayer. And this only makes sense. For when his disciples asked him how to pray, our Lord gave them this beautiful prayer.
I encourage you to take a few minutes this perhaps this afternoon or later this week to reflect on your own prayer life, not to measure whether you’re praying often enough, or long enough, or to beat yourself up if you end up doing so despite me telling you not to. When you pray, do you expect God to provide material things that you desperately want but really don’t need? How do you approach God? Do you approach him as a loving Father whom you know will respond by providing for your needs? Do you trust him to provide the strength and courage you need to love him and those around you? If you struggle knowing how or what to pray, would praying the Lord’s Prayer a few times each day help to remind you of God’s extravagant love for you?
“Lord, teach us to pray,” his disciple asked him. May we too ask our Lord this question. As Jesus teaches you and me how to pray, may we be lay down the deepest parts of who we are that worry that we’re not any good at prayer at his feet as we enter into a deeper, more intimate relationship with him. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 289.
 Eucharistic Prayer D.
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
21 July 2019
The audio recording for this sermon can be found here.
Recently, I’ve noticed an interesting trend among Christians to identify themselves as either a “Martha” or a “Mary.” If you’re a “Martha,” you’re the busy, active type, involved in various activities of the Church. If you’re a “Mary,” on the other hand, you’re the quiet, contemplative type, preferring to spend time in prayer and devotion. When we read today’s Gospel from Luke, we certainly get that kind of contrast between Martha and Mary; they appear to be two sisters with very different personalities. It also appears that Jesus favors Mary, privileging the life of contemplation over work.
When we delve deeper into the text, however, the story becomes a bit more complex. To begin with, there are certain rules of hospitality to consider. Martha and Mary have invited Jesus over for a meal, and it is their job as hosts to prepare the table. The fact is, both Martha and Mary can’t be sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. Then who would prepare the food? At the same time, if Mary were to join Martha in the kitchen, that would leave Jesus to sit alone by himself. That wouldn’t be very polite either. In the story, both Martha and Mary are doing what they should be doing. Martha takes care of the food, and Mary keeps Jesus company.
The problem for Jesus is not that Martha is busy preparing; it is her attitude. We read in verse 40 that “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.” Martha is stressing out and irritated, and she complains to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself. Tell her then to help me.” But how does Jesus respond? Instead of sympathizing with Martha, he says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.”
What, then, is this “one thing, the better part” that Mary has chosen? Biblical scholars believe that the reason Jesus holds up Mary in this story is not to argue for the primacy of the contemplative over the active life. The reason is actually much more profound and radical. When Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, she is physically assuming the position of a disciple. In first-century Judaism, disciples sit at the feet of their master to listen and learn. Mary is thus no longer just the host engaging in polite conversation with her guest; Mary is claiming her place as one of Jesus’ disciples, a follower of his teachings.
This would have been unthinkable for a woman at the time. Yet, for Jesus and the movement that he began, women disciples formed an integral part of his ministry. The Gospels mention by name several women followers of Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of James and Joses. Women stood at the cross, they were the first to enter the empty tomb, and it is Mary Magdalene who is the first among the followers to encounter the resurrected Jesus. Since then, over the past two thousand years of Christian history, countless women have become disciples and leaders in the Church. And they are only recently beginning to receive the recognition and credit that they deserve. Our seminarian, Isaac Petty, is currently taking a fascinating course on the Early Mothers of the Church. You’ve probably heard the names of such Church Fathers as Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose, but how many of you have heard of the Church Mothers – Macrina, Thekla, Melania, Paula? During the Middle Ages, the monastic life of the convent provided opportunities for leadership and scholarship for brilliant women like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. In the modern period, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Protestant missionary movement inspired thousands of American and European women to fan out across the globe as teachers, preachers, nurses, and doctors – all of them disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church still has a long way to go in realizing gender equality, but at the same time we can rightfully claim a history of women’s liberation and empowerment.
If you would please indulge me, I would like to share a personal example and tell you about my maternal grandmother, Shin Ae Lee. She, too, was a disciple of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Grandmother was born in the early twentieth century into a privileged background. Her family belonged to the old, traditional Korean aristocracy. But like all women in Korea at that time, including high-born women, she was denied any form of education because of the prevailing Confucian patriarchy. She had to teach herself how to read and write. In Confucian Korea, women were valued only as wives and mothers, and even rudimentary learning was considered improper. Moreover, women were physically confined to certain quarters of the house and were not permitted to go outside unaccompanied. Grandmother had a hard life, including the death of three of her children in infancy. During the Korean War, she along with the rest of my mother’s family became war refugees and suffered hunger and grinding poverty. Fortunately, by the time I was born, Grandmother was able to enjoy more stable, prosperous times.
And late in her life, she found her calling to serve as a deacon in the Methodist Church. Grandmother committed herself to working in the various ministries of the church. Her special passion was evangelism. She even partnered with a minister to plant a new church that grew to several hundred members. I was born in Korea and came to the states when I was eight years old. When I was growing up in Korea, my maternal grandparents lived with us. In spite of Grandmother’s busy schedule, she made time to take me to church every Sunday and vacation Bible School every summer. She planted and nurtured in me the seeds of the Christian faith. Grandmother found personal liberation and empowerment in the Church. Like Mary in the Gospel story, Grandmother claimed her identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ in spite of the oppressive patriarchy of her society and culture. But she was no quiet, contemplative type. She had a strong personality, and she was so busy with church work every day that I rarely saw her at home. In temperament, she was a “Martha.”
To return to the Gospel story of Mary and Martha that we began with, Jesus holds up Mary for claiming her place as his disciple, but that doesn’t mean that Martha is to be dismissed. In fact, the Church remembers and honors both Mary and Martha with a feast day, coming up soon on July 29. According to tradition, Mary and Martha represent two inseparable dimensions of the Christian faith. Mary represents contemplation, a life of prayer and devotion. And Martha represents action, a life of good works and helping others. Or to put it another way, Mary embodies the love of God, and Martha embodies the love of neighbor. Christ calls us to follow the examples of both women, minus Martha’s attitude, of course. Our personalities and dispositions may incline us in one direction, but we cannot neglect the other. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to both the contemplative and the active life. In loving God, we love our neighbor, and in loving our neighbor, we love God.
As we look to Mary and Martha as pioneers and models of our faith, I would like to close with the Collect that we pray on their Feast Day:
O God, heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany: Give us the will to love thee, open our hearts to hear thee, and strengthen our hands to serve thee in others for his sake; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p.1875.
 Calendar of the Church Year, according to the Episcopal Church. satucket.com/Calendar.htm (accessed July 19, 2019).
You can listen to Fr. Larry Parrish's sermon here!
The 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper IX
St. Mary’s Church, Kansas City
July 7, 2019
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from Luke we hear the story of the first evangelists, how in the course of his ministry Jesus appoints seventy of his disciples, and sends them out to proclaim the Good News that “ The Kingdom of God has come near…” As Episcopalians this isn’t often how we think about evangelism. No, we would rather not think about it at all, preferring rather that we could just be nice and hope that people would catch on to our low-key Christianity. But when we do think about evangelism it is generally as someone else’s job, where a preacher stands on the street corner telling people about heaven and hell and asking each passerby if they knew where they would go if they were to die tonight, or a well dressed couple going door to door early on a Saturday morning interrupting our coffee and cartoons to ask us if we know about Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading, however, tells us that none of that is true. Evangelism isn’t standing on the street corner scaring people into believing in God, it isn’t going door to door as a salesman for Jesus, and most importantly it isn’t someone else’s job!
Today’s lesson begins with Jesus appointing the seventy, and as the beginning of a chapter may seem like it stands on its own, but like with all things, context is key and to truly understand the significance of this morning’s passage we must go back and look at the few verses immediately before it, which we heard in the Gospel reading last week. In that passage Jesus encounters three people who would be his followers and he has a conversation with each one in which he calls them to follow him and then gives them a pithy saying about what following him means. Luke then immediately goes into this story about the seventy….and you guessed it. Luke is telling us that to follow Jesus means to be an evangelist or to put it in language slightly more familiar to Episcopalians to follow Jesus means to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” These words from the baptismal covenant that we hear and reaffirm anytime a new member is welcomed into the Church and added to the body of Christ remind us that this evangelism, isn’t the job of other people, not that preacher on the street corner, or those missionaries going door to door, not even of bishops, priests and deacons, but all of us who have chosen to follow Jesus. It is a call given to us in the waters of baptism, a sharing in the eternal priesthood of Christ. It is not optional, but an integral part of who we are and to what we are called.
Now that we have determined that being an evangelist is the call of every Christian, the question we must ask ourselves is what are we to proclaim? I mentioned before that our message was not that of the street preacher trying to scare people into believing by telling them stories of heaven and hell. So, what is it? Jesus tells us in this passage, that he sends us out with the message that “The Kingdom of God has come near…” We often think of the Kingdom of God as something that hasn’t happened yet. Something that will be eventually, and even as something that we must help God build, that we must bring about. But, Jesus sends us out with news that something amazing has already happened. That God’s Kingdom has come near.. Jesus tells us that in himself God has come near to all of us. He tells us that God has come down to seek us out, and that no matter how far we have fallen, no matter how broken, unworthy, or dirty we think that we are that God loves us and wants to be with us. The Good News is that Jesus is the way that God does this and that the Kingdom has come, in him. That in his life death and resurrection he has destroyed sin and death and bought our citizenship with his blood. The Good News is that in Jesus we are already in the Kingdom and that he dwells with us . The Good news that we are sent to proclaim is that something has been done for us which we do not deserve and to which we can add nothing. That in the midst of our brokenness and despair God sought us out and claimed us for his own dying so that we might have life.
Lastly, we come to the question of how. How are we to proclaim this Good News? This message of the Kingdom? I mentioned earlier that we are not supposed to be door to door salesmen for Jesus going out in pairs on Saturday mornings. Now I know you might be thinking that the Gospel did mention going out in pairs, and your right it did. But one thing that Jesus is very clear about in our reading this morning is that we are not go door to door but rather that we are to “remain in the same house eating and drinking whatever they provide” It is not explicit in our text, but what I believe Jesus is telling us here is that we are to form relationships with those to whom we are sent, we are supposed to get to know them, to be their friend, to listen to their stories and to meet them wherever they are and to show them through our lives that God loves them. We’re supposed to share our lives with them and let them see through our words and example what Jesus has done for us and how it has changed our lives. We are to invite them to come and see for themselves the Kingdom that is already here, and the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who loved them so much he died for them, and each and every one of us as well.
This mission with which we have been entrusted is not easy and it will make us uncomfortable, and push us to our limits. The world will often try to make us forget our mission, to distract us from what is really important but we must not forget what really matters because while we cannot build the Kingdom we are its Heralds and the only way the world hears the Good news is through us.
In just a few minutes will come to this table and with the whole Kingdom of God, Angels and Saints and our brothers and sisters from around the world we will stand before God’s throne of Grace and make present here and now the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the gifts of Bread and Wine. Let us remember and be thankful for the great gift God has given us and ask for the grace to be faithful laborers in the Lord’s harvest. For the Laborers are few and Harvest is plentiful and the whole world sits waiting to hear the Good News that the Kingdom of God has come near.
 The Baptismal Covenant, BCP page 304
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8, Year C
June 30, 2019
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I lived in France working as a missionary, my boss and his wife were an American couple named Scott and Mentanna. In one of our many discussions about the faith, the topic of “freedom” came up. “For Freedom, Christ has set us free,” St. Paul said to the Galatians in our epistle lesson. What does this Christian freedom mean? Doesn’t freedom mean that I get to do whatever I want to do? How can we be free and still have rules to follow? Mentanna had a small dog named Gidget, and being Parisians who lived in a sixth-floor apartment, they had to walk Gidget around four times per day. She liked to use Gidget as an analogy about Christian freedom. “When we lived in Texas,” she said, “we had a back yard with a fence. Gidget wanted badly to get beyond the fence, but clearly, we didn’t think that was best for her. Was she truly free in the backyard being able to run and play and bark at dogs that pass by, or was the fence preventing her from being truly free? The fact of the matter is this: she may have thought that removing the fence would make her truly free, but she would have run out into the street and been hit by a car in no time. God’s freedom always involves boundaries for our own protection.”
My concept of Christian freedom was shaken a bit when we got our little 30 pound rescue dog named Jake. We already had a doggy door into the back yard, but quickly became concerned when we’d heard Jake barking at passersby…from the front porch. It turns out that Jake has absolutely no problem climbing metal fences.
We’ve had him for 6 years, and still can’t trust him in the back yard by himself. I was reminded of the story of Gidget and the fence, and wondered if Jake’s jail-breaking activities made him any more free than Gidget was.
“For Freedom, Christ has set us free.” What is Christian freedom? Is it permission to do whatever we like? From what is it that we are freed?
St. Paul tells the Galatians to “Live by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” He’s not using the term “flesh” throughout this passage in a negative way, as if the human body is inherently sinful or evil. Rather, “flesh” is often Paul’s shorthand for self-centered living as opposed to God-centered living. He seems to be asking the impossible of us: to resist “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and carousing”…and if that didn’t cover it, “and things like these.” Works of the flesh aren’t just material things, they’re spiritual too: “idolatry and sorcery.”
How in the world are we supposed to resist these and all the other self-centered behaviors? How are we to instead bear the fruit of the Spirit which is love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Not by trying really hard, not by pulling ourselves up by our boot straps…but instead by relying on the Holy Spirit.
“Live by the Spirit,” Paul says, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Living by the spirit means recognizing that I’ve committed to a new way of life, living for the other rather than for myself. Living by the Spirit means recognizing that I’ve committed to living a life of spiritual discipline that includes daily prayer, contemplation, serving others, receiving the Sacraments, and so on. This life of spiritual discipline is somewhat like training for a marathon. You start out by running perhaps a mile each day, then two, then six, and then ultimately all 26 miles. The more and more we spiritually train, the more and more spiritual habits we form that ultimately change not only our behaviors, but our desires.
The desires of the flesh lead us to self-centered action. Wanting sexual intimacy, we pursue fornication; wanting contact with God, we pursue idols; wanting joy, we party too hard. The freedom we have in Christ should lead us to rely on the Holy Spirit who can help us train for the spiritual marathon that has been set before us.
So, to circle back, yes, in a sense, Christian freedom means we get to do whatever we want. But by choosing to follow Christ and submitting to the Holy Spirit, what we want…changes. Training for the spiritual marathon transforms our desires and we want something different. It is as if God’s grace changes our taste buds. The spiritual cravings we have are no longer for the selfish things on the Paul’s naughty list, but instead, we crave to love God and our neighbor.
Let’s talk about Paul’s naughty list. There isn’t anything particularly special or serious about this list of sins, rather it’s a list representing the various sorts of selfish actions human beings are prone to do. I’ve heard sermons that try to analyze this list of sinful activity and make arguments about what each one means, but that really isn’t a helpful exercise because it’s missing Paul’s point entirely. This isn’t an exhaustive list of things to avoid, it’s simply a small portion of the self-centered things that human beings often do.
It is tempting to use our freedom in Christ as an excuse to self-indulge. Paul reminds the Galatians not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
This is what it means to “live by the Spirit.” Either you say yes to the desires of the flesh and exhibit selfish unrighteous behavior, or, by God’s grace, you say yes to the Holy Spirit and display loving, self-sacrificial righteous behavior. This is a choice we have to make over and over again in our lives. It’s a choice that we won’t escape, no matter how hard we try, until we die. It’s the way of life we committed to at our baptism. And despite our desires being changed over time as we form healthy spiritual habits, despite the fact that we desperately want to live by the Spirit…we will sometimes listen to that old menace, our Old Self, the one who had the selfish desires. When we are hungry and presented with two pieces of fruit: one, a selfish desire of the flesh, and the other, a fruit of the Spirit, we will remember how good the first piece of fruit used to taste. And we’ll eat it, despite knowing that it will make us sick, for the memory of the delicious taste sometimes seems overpowering. When we do, until the day we die, there is always the opportunity to choose to live by the Spirit in the next moment, even if in the previous moment we’ve gratified the desires of the flesh. For in the Lord there is mercy and forgiveness, and and despite the bump in the road in our spiritual training, we continue with perseverance running the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Friends, no matter what we’ve done in life, no matter how ashamed we are, no matter how tempting the first piece of fruit is, let us strive to live by the Spirit. For we who belong to Jesus have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Let us exercise self-control and put the needs of others ahead of our own needs. Let us do the training needed to run the spiritual marathon, spending time in prayer daily, reading the Scripture, serving those around us in need, and regularly receiving God’s grace in the Sacraments of the Church. As St. Paul says, let us, through love, become slaves to one another. For in so doing, we find the greatest freedom we will ever know. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 187.
 Hebrews 12:1-2.
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
June 23, 2019
Those of you who were raised in a Protestant tradition can relate to me when I say that I was intrigued by all of the ritual and peculiar practices in the Episcopal Church. And so many of the strange things are made even more peculiar by being referred to by a Latin name.
For example, I remember the first time I learned about the existence of the piscina. The piscina is a special sink that drains into the earth instead of the sewer. In some of the older churches in Europe, it’s a niche in a stone wall close to the altar, but in modern places like ours, it’s a metal sink that looks like every other sink, connected by a pipe called a sacrarium in Latin that leads directly to the ground. A piscina is primarily used for washing the communion vessels after Mass. Why do we need a special sink with a special drain with Latin names? For two reasons: first, the communion vessels have been consecrated (formally set apart) by a bishop for holy use, but more importantly, because there are remaining particles of consecrated bread and wine left on the vessels.
While theologians have been fighting about precisely what happens to the bread and wine at Holy Communion – and how it happens – the bottom line is that we believe in the “real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist”, a doctrine that leads us to reverently consume the leftovers after Mass, and that further leads us to treat even the most minute particles of the consecrated elements with utmost reverence.
In the upper room so many years ago when Jesus said, “This is my body”, he didn’t say “This has or will become my body” nor “This symbolizes my body.” He says, “This is my body.”
And in today’s gospel lesson from John, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Those listening to him got confused and asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” To which Jesus responds, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” It is hard not to hear Eucharistic overtones in this passage.
The Episcopal Church’s catechism says that the Eucharist is the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ given to us in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine. This is the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And despite what my former Baptist friends and colleagues may think, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been believed by Christians since the very beginning. Even a cursory review of the early Church Fathers reveals a deep and universal belief that the that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, with many of the Fathers referring to the consecrated elements as the same flesh and blood that suffered and died on the cross.
It was not until the early Middle Ages that the Church felt the need to further define how the change occurred. Like many dogmatic statements throughout the centuries, the formal doctrine of transubstantiation was formulated in response to a French theologian who, in short, denied the doctrine of the Real Presence. This notion of transubstantiation restated the doctrine of the Real Presence, which is fine, but it but went further in trying to explain how the change happens by superimposing Greek philosophical terms like “substance” and “accident” onto Christian theology. There had never been a need to even talk about how the change happened, and this overreaction on the part of the Church helped contribute to the schism that happened a few hundred years later. Since then, theologians have been fighting about precisely how it happens, but in my view, they’ve continued a discussion that continues to be unnecessary and unhelpful. In the opening hymn, we sang these words, speaking about the Jesus in the Eucharist: “Thou art here, we ask not how.”
Around the same time that the doctrine of transubstantiation was defined, today’s feast of Corpus Christi – the body and blood of Christ – became widespread. It grew out of Maundy Thursday which we celebrated nine weeks ago. On that day, the Church celebrates the institution of the Holy Eucharist in that upper room so long ago. But Maundy Thursday also commemorates the institution of the priesthood, and Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet, making it quite the busy liturgy. Because the Eucharist can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle of the Maundy Thursday, and in conjunction with an increasing number of the faithful being devoted to the Eucharist in a special way, there began to be calls for a special feast solely focused on the Eucharist, and the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted throughout the whole Western church in 1264 A.D.
Fast forward to the Protestant Reformation a few hundred years later. Corpus Christi was abolished in England. Why? Because Corpus Christi had come to represent all of the excesses of medieval Catholicism that disgusted folks like Martin Luther and Thomas Cramner. Many churches celebrated a procession after Mass on this day in which the Blessed Sacrament is placed in a monstrance and carried by the priest under a tent throughout the neighborhood. To give you a feel for the Reformers’ view on Eucharistic exposition, all I have to do is quote Article XXV from 39 Articles of Religion, the original doctrinal statement of the Reformed English Church: “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” Or how about this from Article XXVIII: “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
Remember that the Articles of Religion were formulated in a time when yes, there were Eucharistic processions, but practically speaking, lay people weren’t allowed to receive communion except for a few times a year. The average Christian’s Eucharistic piety was not about receiving the body and blood of Christ for his or her redemption, it was all about gazing upon it – when the priest elevated the host and the chalice during the Eucharistic prayer, and at moments when the sacrament was exposed in a monstrance. The Reformers responded by saying, no, the primary purpose of communion is to eat it, as Christ commanded us to do, but they may have overreacted a bit in response to the Roman excesses of the day. And despite claiming that they never change their minds on matters of doctrine, sometimes Rome comes around to our position on things. In 1971, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission reached agreement on Eucharistic doctrine, relegating the term “transubstantiation” to a footnote, in which it is said to affirm the fact of the ‘mysterious and radical change’ rather than to explain how the change takes place.
On Maundy Thursday, the joy of commemorating the institution of the Eucharist is overshadowed by what we all know will happen the next day: the Lord’s awful death on that tree at Calvary. It is meet and right for us to rediscover the baby that the Reformers threw out with the bathwater when they abolished this great feast of Corpus Christi. And as much fun as a Eucharistic procession around downtown Kansas City sounds, we’ll have to wait until next year, for the canopy or tent we have is in ill-repair and is a bit too somber. Next year’s procession will be grand!
In the meantime, let us rejoice in the great gift God has given us in the Holy Eucharist in which the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ is given to us in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine. Let us sing hymns of gladness, and wear the finest vestments, and use the gold communion vessels. Let us revel in the mystery of what we’re about to behold at this altar – that God would use ordinary creatures of bread and wine to join us with all the saints in heaven and on earth in the eternal banquet of love which began on the hill at Calvary and continues each time we obey Christ’s commandment to “do this in remembrance of me.” Let us give thanks to God that while we may struggle with the mysteriousness nature of the change that happens, in the bread and the wine we are made one body with Christ, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. And as we gaze upon the elements at the elevations in a moment, let us join with St. Thomas Aquinas in proclaiming these words which the schola will sing at the offertory: “Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, having truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind, from whose pierced side water and blood flowed: be for us a foretaste in the trial of death! O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me.” And let our pious gazing upon our Lord in the bread and the wine make us yearn to receive Him just as the deer yearns for streams of water. Amen.
 F.. L. Cross and E.. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1637.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!