Scripture Meditation: Bread of Life

John 6:24-35

Each week another survey is published that speaks of the demise of the local Church. The survey and its pending doom always come from a different perspective but is always based on the same calculation, butts in the seats. The number of people who come to Church is the only real way to quantify success or failure in ministry if your definition of success is how many people come through the door.

What these surveys do not capture is what is essential in ministry. Are we changing lives? Are people leaving feeling different than when they came? Are we living up to the command to “make disciples?” Filling seats is easy; doing the hard work of making disciples is not.

Today’s Gospel from St. John followed along from last week when Jesus fed the 5,000 people who had come out to hear him. The task had been completed, and so Jesus and those with him left to go to a different place. When the crowd realized Jesus was gone, they went looking for him and found him “on the other side.”

The people that followed were not satisfied that Jesus had just fed them from almost nothing; they wanted more. Some of these folx had been following Jesus for some time and witnessed everything that he had done, and yet, they wanted more. They wanted another miracle. They wanted Jesus to prove to them who he really was.

A 20th Century survey would consider Jesus’ ministry that day a success; he had 5,000 plus butts in the seats. But, from a spiritual standpoint, was it a success? Based on the story today, I might think that it was not, but it really is hard to tell. It is really all about perspective.

The people came for more, but more what?

The people followed Jesus “to the other side” for the show; they wanted to see more of his miracles. They were hungry for material possessions, and that is not what Jesus was giving them. They wanted bread, and Jesus told them, “I am the bread of life.” But they did not understand. They wanted proof. They reminded him that Moses had given them the Manna, and Jesus reminded them that it was not Moses that provided the Manna; it was God.

The pandemic has been, or at least it should be, a wake-up call to the Church. For far too long, the Church has been focused on material things and far less time on the spiritual. People have built impressive buildings that now do not fit the mission of the Church, yet we struggle to keep these relics of the past open. Large portions of annual budgets are spent on the day-to-day maintenance of buildings that seat hundreds and now only have a few.

But the results of the pandemic have permitted us to view Church differently. The brick-and-mortar Church building will never go away; there will just be less of them. Church can happen anywhere, including virtually. What Jesus is telling us today is that we have cast our eyes on the material things for far too long; it is now time to fix our eyes on the spiritual.

It’s time to get back to the basics of feeding people’s souls. It’s time to get back to the true mission of the Church, “to make disciples.” Sure, it’s nice to come to a beautiful building, and I have been in my share, but we can no longer afford to keep these shrines to the past if they prevent the future and the mission of the Church.

The great Phyllis Tickle writes about the 500-year rummage sale in the Church. Tickle writes that every 500 years in the Church, a reformation of a sort takes place. The old is discarded to make way for the new. The problem is, we never really know where we are in the process. I believe that we are embarking on another 500-year reformation.

In the 49th Chapter of the Prophet Isiah, we read, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” Thus, we, as Church, have an opportunity to remake ourselves. We have permission to throw off the old ways and embark on a new and exciting adventure.

Jesus told the crowd to stop working for the food that perishes and start working for the food that endures. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Amen.

Sermon: God’s Abundant Presence

The first church I served after ordination was a relatively small congregation in the central part of Massachusetts. The community was approaching the 80th anniversary of its founding, and it had become stagnant in growth. They were holding their own, but the writing was on the wall that something needed to be done and quick.

One day, at a meeting of the other ministers in the town, one of them mentioned that they would start a once-a-month meal that would be served to the community by the folks in the church. Unlike the ones that we had done in the past, this meal would be free for anyone who wished to come. They were going to call them community meals. Community meals were meant to build community. They were not establishing a soup kitchen but rather a place the community could gather and share a meal.

This idea struck a chord in me, and wheels started to turn. I told some of the folks at my church what would happen, and we decided to go to the meal and check it out. It was a simple meal, although I do not remember what was served. There were round tables to encourage conversation, and members of the church served the meals. We sat with folks we did not know but got to know as the night continued. It was a wonderful experience.

The town we were in did not have a homeless population per se but rather an almost homeless population. People were always on the edge and living in fear of falling off. People were food insecure, and many struggled from week to week to put food on the table. So we decided that we would also offer a monthly meal for the community.

I recall that first meal, but just like the meal, we attended I do not know what we served. I would do the cooking, and other folks would pitch in to help serve. We had a simple rule; folks could take as much as they wanted without question and, the folks there to help always ate last. We had about 35 people come to that first meal.

Over the next year, we decided that this meal would be a significant ministry of the church. We increased the frequency from once a month to 3 times a month, and the number of folks that came increased each week. We had an agreement with the local food bank and one of the local grocery stores, and that helped provide the food we needed. We never charged anything, nor did we ask for donations. Most weeks, someone would stick a $10 or a $20 bill in my pocket to help, but the church funded it.

Like most churches, we struggled to make ends meet. Our income did not offset the expenses, and our reserve was dwindling at an alarming rate. The congregation was older, and many were on a fixed income. At this point, the meal had been going on for about three years, and we were feeding on average 80 people a week from our small kitchen in our hall with me and five others helping. At a parish council meeting, a discussion began about stopping the meal due to the cost. I had decided that I would stay out of it, and if the church cut off funding, I was going to find another source. I was astonished when one of the council members, the treasurer, said we had to keep doing the meal no matter what. It is, after all, what church is all about.

Today’s scripture passage speaks of another meal. Jesus has crossed over, and many had come out to hear him speak. His fame had now extended, and many people were coming. Many came to see what would happen next. Perhaps they heard of the healings and other miracles, and they were looking for a show. Many came because someone asked them to come. It did not matter why they came; they were there, and Scripture tells us there were 5,000 men!

Let’s pause for a bit of math. We know it was not just 5,000 men, but the men were the only ones counted. There were families there that day. So, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that half that number 2,500 brought their spouse and half that number had at least one child. We are looking at, conservatively speaking, about 10,000 mouths that needed to be fed. And what did they have? 5 barley loaves and two small fish.

Back to the meal I was serving at the church.

Thanksgiving was coming, and we had decided that we would serve a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner, well as traditional as we could make it anyway. So I organized some sponsors, and we bought five turkeys. Keep in mind we had no idea how many would show up. We served the meal on Thursday nights, so we decided that the week before Thanksgiving would be perfect. Thankfully we had a good size kitchen with commercial equipment so that I could cook all five turkeys at one time.

The food was cooked. Everything was ready. The hour approached, and people started to come in. And come in. And Come in! We very quickly ran out of seats. We set for a few more than our usual 80, figuring it was Thanksgiving. We had people standing in line. We had to ask people, once they were finished, to leave so we could seat more! Some stayed and helped us serve.

There I was in the kitchen, with my five turkeys and a line out the door, wondering how it was all going to work. We picked those birds clean. There was not a scrap of meat left on any of them. But we never ran out. We even had some left. And everyone went away happy. Miracle?  I know it was.

But back our Scripture.

Jesus asked Philip how they were going to feed them? Where could they buy bread for all of these people? Philip responded by saying it would take half a year’s wages just for the bread! A very practical concern. But Jesus ordered them to be seated. He blessed what they had, and it was distributed. Everyone was able to take as much as they wanted, and 12 baskets were left. A miracle? Yes, indeed it was.

But what was the miracle? We like to focus on the expansion if you will you the loaves and the fishes. I used that analogy when I spoke with folks after our Thanksgiving miracle. But I think, I believe that the miracle was something much different.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, knew of the boy with the bread and the fish. Perhaps it was the food that the disciples brought with them. In another place where this story is told, Jesus tells them to feed them from what they have. For me, the miracle was that on that day, on that hill, everyone took care of everyone else and made sure no one went without. Each person shared what they had with others, and there was enough that there were 12 baskets of leftovers.

The miracle of today’s story was not what Jesus did. The miracle of today’s story is what each one did for the other.

Back in the ’80s, or maybe it was the 90’s it was fashionable to wear a bracelet with WWJD on it. What Would Jesus Do? It was meant as a reminder for the wearer to ask the question, in all situations, What Would Jesus Do? But I think it asks the wrong question because, and I hope this does not come as a surprise to anyone here, we are not Jesus! So the question we must ask is, What Would Jesus Have Us Do?

The earliest followers of Jesus were called the people of The Way. This is because they followed the example of Jesus in supporting one another, supporting the outcast, supporting those on the margins and doing it without hope of repayment, and doing it with love. There are countless stories of those who have come before us that gave all that they had to serve others, and they did it because it was what Jesus expects us to do, and they did it out of love.

I am not sure how many of you have ever cooked a meal for 80 people, but it is an all-day affair, and it is exhausting. I remember returning home and falling on the couch, simply exhausted from the physical and mental energy it took to prepare that meal. But each week, we did it. We did it, not expecting anything in return. No one who came to the meals ever came to church with us, which is not why we did it.

Friends, following the way, is a radical departure from what the world wants and expects of us. Following the way means we have to love those that the world wants us to hate. Following the way means we may have to put aside what we want to do in exchange for what God wants us to do. Following the way is an action and a lifestyle of love, unconditional love.

Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church has a saying that I have adopted, and it sums up our lives as those walking the path of the way. “The way of Jesus is the was of love. And the way of love will change the world.” So let’s go and change the world.

Amen.

Sermon: Wherever You Are

Psalm 23
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

My primary ministry occupation is as a chaplain for the Brockton Visiting Nurses Association. I work as part of the hospice team, and along with the nurses, home health aides, and social workers, we provided services and care to people who are nearing the end of their journey here on earth. The medical folks bring relief from pain; the social workers help ensure that the paperwork is in order and help calm the mind of the patients and families. I work in spiritual care, and it is my job to ready the soul for the next phase of that journey.

When I tell people what I do, the most common response I hear is, “that must be so difficult.” I would think working 25 floors above the city of Boston on the steel beams of a new building is difficult. I would think working in fields harvesting the food we eat regardless of the weather would be difficult. Most jobs have their moments of difficulty, but I try to focus on the blessings that come along with my job. In hospice, we have a simple philosophy, ensure that our patients and their families have a peaceful death.

Today we heard the verses of one of the most famous Psalms of the 150 contained in the Bible. Most, if not all of us sitting here this morning have prayed, read, listen to, or sung the words of this Psalm on several occasions. It is, for lack of a better term, the funeral Psalm. But it is also the Psalm that I use when I am sitting with a patient as this phase of their life draws to a close.

As beautiful and as comforting as the words of this Psalm are, the imagery that is used is often lost and misunderstood.

I am not sure how many Shepherds we have with us this morning, but my guess is not many. I am also not sure how many of you have been around sheep apart from a petting zoo. But, again, I would guess not many. The image of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is an image that we are all familiar with but, if Jesus is the “Good Shepherd,” that makes us the sheep.

Now we have all heard, and rightly so, that sheep are not the most intelligent animals that God created. They are herd animals. They are defenseless. They are vulnerable. They are, as I already mentioned, unintelligent. These are not very positive attributes, and it might leave us wondering why the Psalmist and the writers of the Gospels used this image when describing those following God.

Is this the image that we should be focusing on?  No, it is not.

These are the attributes or characteristics that the Psalmist or the writers of the Gospel want us to focus on. The writer of the 23rd Psalm writes about the utter dependence of the sheep on the shepherd. Sheep cannot survive making their own way. Sheep have an absolute dependency on the shepherd. Sheep can trust the shepherd. Knowing this dependence brings into focus the central testimony of the Psalm: the shepherd is faithful.

The world tells us that we have to make our own way; we have to strike out independently. We are told that if we want something, we need to go for it and take it, regardless of the cost or what it might do to others. People, especially those in our way, are disposable, and if they do not serve our needs, they are just a distraction or a stumbling block. In our quest to be individuals, we have become selfish.

But Jesus comes along and stands that on its head. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and not care about others. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and not have concern for others. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus and only look out for ourselves. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we must put others and their needs before ours. If we claim to follow Jesus, then we must love everyone without exception and without condition.

But the Psalmist is seeking to help us understand we cannot do this alone that there are going to be moments in our lives when we cannot see a clear way or when we cannot find the path, and it is in these times that we become utterly dependent on the Shepherd.

One of my favorite spiritual poems is the one called “Footprints in the Sand.” I know some find it schmaltzy and perhaps a little too sugary for their taste, but the image is powerful. You know the poem, so I will not recite it, but it is about walking beside God, two sets of footprints in the sand. There is only one set of footprints at several points along the way, and the narrator of the poem asks God why God left him? The response is that God did not leave the narrator behind but was carrying him. Therefore, there was only one set of footprints, and those footprints belonged to God.

Friends, when things are going well, we lose sight of the need for the shepherd. When life is chugging along, all the traffic lights are green; we find that parking spot right in front of the store, or all the other gifts of life, we forget that other set of footprints. We think that we can do it alone, we do not need any help or protection, and maybe that is true. But walking beside us, as our constant companion is the shepherd.

Yesterday I was trying to organize my shop where I work on various projects. My wife and I buy and sell antiques, so there is always something that needs fixing. I share my shop space in my garage with all the other necessities of life, so we are in a constant state of reorganizing. As I was cleaning off the workbench, I came across several rusty and bent screws. As I picked them up to toss them in the bin, I distinctly heard my father’s voice say, “don’t throw those away, you might need them.”

My father was a saver, and when he died, I inherited his collection of odd nails, screws, and other such things. The voice I heard was not the shepherd’s voice the Psalmist is talking about, but that voice did guide me. I know it sounds funny and maybe a little trivial, but I was guided by the voice of someone who had cared for me and protected me all my life.

Are you walking with the shepherd? Right now, are there two sets of footprints or only one? Are the footprints side by side or one behind the other? God never promised that life would be easy. The promise from God is that we will not have to go through it alone. God is steadfast, and God is faithful.

By the way, I saved the screws.

Amen.

Spirituality of Place

Back in my middle teen years, my mother and I were driving on Route 3A in Hingham. I have no memory of where we were going, but at one point, she pulled our care over and point off into the distance. Just over the tree line was a tower and on the top of that tower was a cross. I had no idea at that moment in time, but that was the start of a relationship with Glastonbury Abbey that has continued for many years.

If you have been reading these pages for any length of time, you know that back in the mid 90’s I was a professed member of the Benedictine Community at Glastonbury Abbey. Glastonbury is a small community of Roman Catholic men seeking spiritual life and living according to the Rule of St. Benedict. As it is for all Benedictine Monasteries, the rhythm of Glastonbury is that of work and prayer. Five times a day, the bell summons the monks to prayer, and in between, they provided hospitality to pilgrims.

Glastonbury is where I received my first formation in praying and reading the scriptures prayerfully. These are skills that I have continued to use in my ministry. Glastonbury was also the place where I first encountered the Church of the East in great depth. I did not know it at the time, but that exploration would lead to my eventual ordination and service in the Orthodox Church.

My years at Glastonbury were years of self-exploration. Long periods of silence lead one to turn inward and explore who you are and what you are all about. Those years were also years of exploring my relationship with God and examining the call that I was coming to grips with. Although my ministry and the place I minister have changed over the years, my calling to ministry has stayed true, and it was those years, alone in my room underneath the chapel, where that call became apparent.

Glastonbury Abbey holds an extraordinary place in my heart for all the reasons I have just mentioned. Glastonbury has also been the place of events that have marked my life. My wife and I were married on the grounds of Glastonbury in the shadow of that tower that my mother pointed out all those years before. Glastonbury is the place where we have laid our parents to rest and will be the place that I am laid to rest when my time comes.

This spring, my wife and I started to attend Mass at Glastonbury. The Sunday morning Mass takes place on the great lawn, which is abundantly easier on our 14-month-old daughter. But it has also given me time to reconnect to the community. Although I am no longer entitled to call myself “brother,” I still feel very much at home and peace when I am there.

Glastonbury Abbey is a very spiritual place, and the monks there open their hearts and their home to pilgrims in search of whatever it is that they are in search of. But, for me, Glastonbury Abbey is a thin place, that place where heaven and earth come very close and almost touch.

I am glad my mother pulled that car over on the side of the road all of those years ago.

God Inspired Joy

Ephesians 1:3-14

Recently I was visiting with a lady who is nearing the end of her life. She was telling me about her life, the joys, the sorrows, and the regrets. Finally, she asked me if I would hear her confession. “Of course,” I said, “it would be my honor.” She shared with me things that she had not spoken of in many years, but she had a smile on her face while she was speaking. She would pause now and again to recall and detail or two; sometimes, she would chuckle a little and say, “oh, I cannot share that.”

When she was finished, we chatted a little more about her feelings of guilt and shame for what she had done, but we also talked about God’s love and God’s grace. I assured her that she is and always has been loved by God and that she is forgiven. She sank back in her chair, visibly exhausted from our conversation. She closed her eyes and sat in silken for a time. It is in these times I have learned just to be still and know.

After a few moments had passed, she opened her eyes and looked at me. Visibly she was the same person who had been sitting in front of me for about an hour but spiritually, she had changed. She looked into my eyes and thanked me. My friend told me that she felt like a burden had been lifted from her and that she was ready for whatever came next. She told me that she knew that she was forgiven, but it was nice to hear it from another and speak of things she had never spoken of. I was honored to have been a part of the next steps.

Today’s passage of Scripture comes to us from the Letter to the Ephesians. The Letter is written, it is believed by St. Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome sometime between 61-63 CE. Although it is written in the form of a letter, the are no personal greetings, unlike St. Paul’s other letters. It is written to “the Saints who are at Ephesus,” but it is believed that St. Paul was writing universally, and as such, this Letter should be placed alongside the Pastoral Epistles of James and Peter.

All of this shows that St. Paul is writing to a much larger audience than the church gathered at Ephesus; St. Paul is writing to wherever the church was and is gathered. This passage is about the love that God has for each of us and for all of creation and the desire that God has that we come to know God and Jesus Christ and to love others just as they love us.

St. Paul writes of the blessings that have been bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus, redemption, and forgiveness of our trespasses. We have an abundance of grace that has been lavished upon us, and all of this has been planned since “before the foundation of the world” (v4). Think about that; God loved us before the creation of the world. Before everything that we see around us, God loved us.

The focus of what St. Paul writes is on the action and actions of God. None of this is brought about by our efforts; it is a gift to us from God. There is nothing for us to do but “live for the praise of his glory” (v12). The Westminster Catechism sums it up best; our “chief aim” is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

These words from St. Paul remind us of the love that God has for us, and the words that St. Paul uses express just what kind of love it is; excessive, tender, and richly abundant. But this is not just about us as individuals. St. Paul tells us that this is about something larger than ourselves. There is constant use of plural pronouns to remind us that God’s blessings are not individual but for the community of Christ.

We are blessed in Christ; we are chosen in Christ; we are destined for adoption through Christ. In Christ, we have obtained our inheritance, and our hope is set on Christ.

We have been offered this extraordinary gift as our own, and we have been invited to share God’s riches and God’s grace. This has all been made possible through Jesus Christ that we might live as God’s own children.

During the visit I shared about, the burdens of one’s life had been lifted from her, not by anything I had done or anything I had said. The grace of God lifted her burdens in that moment of her life. Did I need to be there? Well, that can be a discussion for another time, but her confession was not to me; at that moment, she was speaking to God who loves her very much; I was simply the witness to the conversation and assured of her forgiveness.

God’s grace was present at that moment for her but also for me. God’s grace is a gift that is freely given to us; our task is to share that grace with others this day and every day.

Amen.

Sermon Plagiarism

It has been several months since I have had to preach a weekly sermon, but I write a short mediation on Scripture each week. Each week I spend time reading and meditating on a Scripture passage from the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday. I consult commentaries and other sources for inspiration, and I draw from my own experience. As a preacher and teacher, I believe that each time we put pen to paper to climb in a pulpit, the message must have relevance to the reader or hearer’s daily life.

A new controversy has emerged in the preaching world, plagiarism, and it has given me pause for thought. I have never preached another’s sermon and passed it off as my own, but I have quoted from commentaries and other sources and have not been diligent in citing those sources. In my not citing these sources, it might appear that these words are my own when they are not.

Recently, the Rev. Ed Litton, the newly elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention, has become embroiled in a controversy that has been dubbed “Sermongate.” Some allege Rev. Litton’s sermons are not entirely his own and that he has “borrowed” whole passages from others. Several Youtube videos have appeared comparing Rev. Litton’s sermons with others. His congregation, Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, has removed several sermon videos with the notice that the sermons were removed because some had been “going through sermons in an attempt to discredit and malign our pastor.”

There does seem to be a political motivation afoot to discredit Rev. Litton, as outlined in this article in the New York Times. The more conservative arm of the SBC is not happy that Rev. Litton was elected as President and, it appears, will stop at nothing to discredit him and try and force him to resign. Be that as it may, it still opens the discussion on what is and is not appropriate in sermons.

In the New York Times article I linked to above; several preachers are quoted as saying pulpit plagiarism is “despicable” and “unthinkable,” and one Florida pastor who is also a critic of Rev. Litton is quoted as saying, “This is an issue of morality, and it’s an issue of Christian virtue.” So, I must ask, would any of their sermons stand up to the scrutiny that the sermons of Rev. Litton have?

One thing is clear; I will certainly be a lot more careful when I write, deliver, and then post sermons.

Ruth Graham, “‘Sermongate’ Prompts a Quandary: Should Pastors Borrow Words From One Another?” The New York Times. Accessed July 9, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/06/us/sermongate-plagiarism-litton-greear.html

Listen

A large part of my spirituality comes from my formation as a Benedictine Monk. Although it has been many years since I lived within the monastery walls, the Rule of St. Benedict still speaks to me, and the rhythm of work and prayer are a large part of my life.

Listen is the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict, for listening is of the utmost importance in the spiritual life and other parts of our lives. In his masterful commentary on the Rule, Terrance Kardong writes that “This beginning sets the tone of RB (Rule of St. Benedict) as practical wisdom on how to live the monastic life.” (pg 5). He goes on to write that “The first verse explains the full significance of listening: complete attention of the whole person; good will; implementation.” (pg 5)

“Complete attention of the whole person.” In modern terminology, this would be called active listening. In active listening, one does not listen to speak but listens with the whole person. We listen with our eyes as well as with our ears. We listen with full attention to what the other is saying. We take it in and ruminate on it. Finally, we remain silent and still with our minds given entirely to what the other is saying.

Listening is essential in prayer as well as in human interactions. Most of the time, we pray to give God our laundry list of the things we want. Then, dear God, please pray for so and so and such and such. When we finish, we get up and get on with our day. We do not linger with God. We do not hang around for God’s answer. We are not attentive to that still, small voice waiting to guide us and comfort us on our journey.

In his rule, Benedict explains why we need to listen. “Listen, O my son, to the teachings of your master, and turn to them with the ear of your heart.” There was a double meaning for Benedict in his words. The “Master” is both the rule and God. By listening to the rule, we find a more intimate relationship with God, who speaks and guides us in all we do.

For those of us outside of the monastery, the admonition to listen is just as important. We may not have a rule of life, although this might be a topic for another essay, we can and should listen to God. Prayer, another word for conversation, is a two-way street. Exchanges are not one-sided; otherwise, they would be lectures. We speak, and then if we listen, God speaks.

Listening is a skill that takes time to learn and master. As previously mentioned, listening involves all our senses, not just our ears. We watch for body language and clues. We feel the energy in the room, and we might even taste the sweetness or bitterness of the words spoken.

There is a saying attributed to St. Moses the Black, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Abba Moses was one of the Desert Fathers, and folks would come to him seeking advice. In this case, the advice Abba Moses was giving had been given to him some time before. For the monastic, the cell is their room, the place for private prayer and contemplation. The monastic sits alone and in silence—just the monk and God. At first, it is exceedingly difficult as the mind wanders. We are not used to silence, and we get nervous with too much silence. But sit in silence we must, for it is in the silence that God comes.

Go and find a quiet place and sit in silence with God. Be thankful for those moments of silence and “listen, O my son, to the sound of the Master’s voice.”

Kardong, Terrance G. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1981

A Look Back at 17 Years of Ministry

This will not be my usual Sunday Scripture Meditation, for today is the 17th Anniversary of my ordination as Priest in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I have been ordained longer than I have done anything else in my life, and it has been the most blessed as well as the most challenging.

Ordination day is a bit of a blur for me. I remember it being a hot day at Sts Constantine and Helen Romanian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. The previous days had been spent in the annual gathering of clergy and laity of the Romanian Archdiocese, and I was ordained deacon the day before. The Holy Place was filled with the priests of the Archdiocese gathered around our Bishop and the altar.

At the appointed time in the Liturgy, 2 of the senior priests led me out of the Holy Place and presented me to the Bishop. After I was led, for the first time through the royal doors, those in the center led around the altar three times, pausing each time in front of the altar for a prostration. While the deacon, soon to be Priest, is led around the altar, the chanter, and choir sing psalms, the same psalms sung and chanted at the wedding ceremony as the couple is led around the table.

I knelt at the consecrated altar, placed my hands on it as the Bishop read the prayer of ordination. I recall sweat running down my back, and not sure if it was because it was so hot or because of the immensity of that moment. You kneel alone, but you are surrounded by all of the others who have gone before you and those present with you. Then the Bishop prays:

“The divine grace, which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is lacking, ordains the most devout Deacon Peter-Michael to the office of Priest.  Let us, therefore, pray for him, that the grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him.”

“O God without beginning or end, Who are before every created thing, and Who honors with the title of Presbyter those whom You deem worthy to serve the word of Your truth in the divine ministry of this order: You, the same sovereign Master, preserve in purity of life and in unswerving faith this man whom You have been pleased to ordain through me by the laying on of hands, graciously imparting to him the great grace of Your Holy Spirit, making him wholly Your servant, well-pleasing to You in all things, and worthily exercising this great honor of the Priesthood which You conferred upon him by the power of Your wisdom.

For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and always, and to the ages of ages.”

Following a litany, the Bishop prays the following:

“O God, great in might and inscrutable in wisdom, marvelous in counsel above the sons of men: You the same Lord, fill with the gift of Your Holy Spirit this man whom it has pleased You to advance to the degree of Priest; that he may become worthy to stand in innocence before Your altar, to proclaim the Gospel of Your kingdom, to minister the word of Your truth, to offer to You spiritual gifts and sacrifices; to renew Your people through the font of regeneration, that when he shall go to meet You, at the second coming of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, Your only-begotten Son, he may receive the reward of good stewardship in the order given to him, through the plenitude of Your goodness.

For blessed and glorified is Your all-holy and majestic name, of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now, and ever and to the ages of ages.”

When the Bishop and priests are gathered, they stand around the altar in order of seniority, the oldest serving priest to the Bishop’s right, and so on around the altar. The youngest in ordination stands at the back of the altar. However, after one is ordained Priest, he is considered senior for that time and stands to the Bishop’s right for the consecration. A liturgy book is placed in your hands and the first words spoken are from the newly ordained.

I remember after my deacon ordination, I was serving Vespers that evening. The deacon has a relatively significant role during Vespers as they do during the Liturgy. As I was about to exit the Holy Place for the first of the Litanies, the Archbishop leaned over to me and asked, “you know what to do right?” I answered that I did, and he responded with a grin, “we shall see.”

It is hard to describe the feeling one gets standing at the altar during the consecration of the gifts of God that will be shared with the people of God. Knowing that God can and does work through me, a sinner, is an incredible feeling and experience. My theology teaches me that although the bread and wine do not change in their form and matter, the Holy Spirit comes upon them and blesses and sanctifies them, and Jesus is present in them, and through the reception of these gifts, grace is poured out upon his people. Standing at the altar, I am standing in the actual presence of Jesus Christ. This is a lot to take in.

After the consecration and before communion, the newly ordained Priest is led to the back of the altar. Once there, the consecrated bread is placed in his hands; this is the first time that the Body of Christ is placed in his hands. The Bishop says the following as he puts the Body of Christ in my hands:

“Receive this Divine Trust, and guard it until the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, at which time He will demand It from you.”

Being a priest is a “Divine Trust.” The souls of those that the Priest will shepherd are placed in your trust, and Orthodox Theology is that the Priest will be held responsible for those souls at the judgment. Standing there with the Body of Christ in my hands, the reality of all that has taken place indeed hits home. This is not just a job or a profession; this is a vocation, a calling from God.

Although I am no longer a priest in the Orthodox Tradition, I still believe that the care of souls is a divine trust. I still believe that I will be held responsible for each soul that has been or will be placed in my care. I still believe that the elements of bread and wine or juice become sanctified, holy, and are the real presence of Jesus Christ. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not just some reenactment of an event that took place more than 2,000 years ago.

“Holy Communion is remembrance, commemoration, and memorial, but this remembrance is more than simply intellectual recalling. Holy Communion is a type of sacrifice. It is a re-presentation, not a repetition, of the sacrifice of Christ. Holy Communion is a vehicle of God’s grace through the action of the Holy Spirit. The Church asks God to make them be for is the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” (This Holy Mystery)

There is a transformation of the bread and wine, and if you allow it, there will be a transformation in you.

A lot has happened since the day of my ordination. I have been blessed to have served God’s people in four congregations as well as countless hospice patients and others I have come across in my chaplain work. It has not always been easy, but it has been a blessing.

As I embark on my 18th year, I recall the words of Psalm 110:4 “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.'”

Book Review: Dear England – Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World

Are you a dreamer? Do you have a vision for what the Church can and should be?  Archbishop Stephen Cottrel, the 98th Archbishop of York, certainly does, and he outlines that dream in his new book Dear England – Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World.

The book is written as a letter to England but can undoubtedly be placed in the context of any nation. Cottrell writes after an encounter with a young woman in a coffee shop. On his way to a conference, he had stopped in to grab a coffee before boarding a train. The young woman approached him, and seeing that he was in clericals, asked him a simple question, “What made you become a priest?”

As he was in a hurry, he did not have much time to answer. He had two answers for the young woman, God and because he wanted to change the world. I share this answer with the archbishop, but I am not as eloquent when I answer. The woman answered by saying that most of the Christians she knew fell into one of two categories, those whose faith is a hobby, and the second “embraced their faith so tightly, it frightened everyone else away.” And then she asked, “Is there another way?

The answer to the young woman’s question is what the book is all about.

Written in three parts, Finding Hope, Taking Heart, and Changing the World, Cottrel shares some of his most intimate and private thoughts on where the Church is, how it got here, and with much hard work how it is going to become that beacon of hope it once was.

Peppered throughout the book are nuggets of wisdom that I call “Tweetable” as they are perfect Tweets. As I was reading, I was wondering if he wrote in this style with Twitter in mind.

Although written to and about England, this book rings true with me as a minister in the United States. Archbishop Stephen writes from a position of hope, and the vision he casts of a less inwardly focused church and more outwardly focused is refreshing. He writes of how we must first change our lives before we can change the world. But, in fact, the change we need to make in ourselves will change the world one little place at a time.

The book is pastoral and evangelical. Archbishop Stephen admits the faults and shortcomings of the Church and makes no excuses for them.

In the end, he offers hope, the hope that only Jesus Christ can bring to the darkened world. “It is never so dark that the radiance of Christ cannot illuminate the way, though sometimes the light seems very faint indeed.”

The world may seem dark, and the Church might be on the ropes, but this book comes as a beacon to light the way for the future. “In every moment, in the darkest hour, and in the eye of every storm, we have the opportunity to repent, to turn around, to receive this chance to start again and change direction.”

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: 2021
Pages: 184

Scripture Meditation: Healing Powers

Mark 5:21-43

In my hospice work, I am called upon most days to offer prayers for those placed in my care. Very rarely am I asked to pray for someone’s healing but rather for a peaceful death. I also pray, which usually surprises the folks gathered around; I pray for those taking care of them: the ones who have been there and who will be there. Most of the time, the caregivers are the ones that need our prayers, but we forget about them.

Today we have two prayer stories presented to us in the Gospel of St. Mark. I call them prayer stories rather than miracle stories because the focus should be on the immense faith of the father as well as the woman who comes to Jesus. I have said this before, but it bears repeating, the focus should not be on the actual miracle but on the lesson that the miracle is trying to teach us, and in this case, as in many of the stories, that lesson is faith.

The story begins where the last one left off. The disciples and Jesus have come across after a night of storms. They have survived their harrowing journey and are now safe on the other side. As usually happens, a crowd starts to gather around Jesus. Jairus comes to Jesus and falls at his feet. This is not an unusual occurrence, except that Jairus is a leader in the Synagogue, and as such, he is taking a significant risk of coming to Jesus in this way. His daughter is very sick and Jairus, being the good father that he is, is willing to risk everything to make her well again, so he comes to Jesus. Jesus leaves with Jairus to go and attend to his daughter.

As they are walking to Jairus’ home, a large crowd begins to follow them. Perhaps they have heard what is going on, and they wish to offer prayers along with Jesus. But, on the other hand, maybe they are just following the crowd as so many do not know what is happening, regardless of why a large group follows Jesus.

Here the focus shifts a little. A woman, we do not know her name, only that she has had a blood issue for most of her life. This woman pushes her way through the crowd to only “touch the hem of his garment” that she might be healed. On the surface, this may seem like any other healing story but, if we drill down, we will see how extraordinary this scene is.

In the world that Jesus lived in, this woman would have been a social outcast. Her condition would have made her ritually unclean, and anyone she met would face the same fate. She would have been isolated from the rest of society to maintain the ritual purity that was required. Instead, she had come to a place in her life when she was willing to risk it all for a chance to be healed. Sure, her bleeding was a problem, but she has been isolated her entire adult life. She has no physical contact for years.

Many of us will have a better understanding of this isolation because of this last year. So many of us have been cut off from physical contact with others. We have been prevented from giving hugs to parents and grandchildren. Think about it; we experienced this isolation for a year; this woman isolated her entire adult life.

Mark tells us that she “pushes her way through the crowd” to get to Jesus. By “pushing her way,” she has come in contact with others and has made them ritually unclean. But she does not care. She has had enough and is willing to risk it all for a chance to be healed of her isolation. So great is her faith that all she feels she needs to do is touch his garment, and she will be made whole again.

She touched his garment and, scripture tells us she felt that her illness had left her that she had been healed. She tried to shrink away, but Jesus “felt power leaving” and asked who had touched him. I can almost see the faces of his disciples as he asked this question. How were they to know who touched him? The crowd was large and pushing and pulling as they walked. But Jesus knew, and the woman knew.

Mark tells us that she came forward and “threw herself at the feet of Jesus.” She was all in on this one. She had risked it all pushing through the crowd, and she still had more to risk. She threw herself down, begging to be healed. Jesus looks on her not as someone to be avoided, not as someone who is unclean and unfit to be in his presence. No, Jesus looks upon her and calls her daughter. Jesus looks past her illness to see that she is a blessed child of God. Jesus confirmed what she already knew, she had been healed, and Jesus tells her to “go in peace.”

Someone comes to tell Jairus that his daughter has died and that they are too late to do anything. Leaving the crowd behind, Jesus pressed on to the house. He arrived and found them all gathered around her bed weeping. He told them not to be sad, for she was only sleeping, and they laughed at him. But Jesus took her lifeless hand and said, “little girl get up,” and she rose. She was restored to health because of her father’s faith, who was willing to risk it all for his daughter.

I said at the start that this was not a miracle story but rather a story of faith, and it is, but it is also a story of risk. Both people in this story risked everything to approach Jesus. Their faith was so great that it drove them to forget about the danger of their actions. Instead, their faith moved them to do something extraordinary and outside of themselves.

What is your faith calling you to? What are we willing to risk making that calling a reality? These two had great faith, but scripture tells us that we can do amazing things even if we have faith the size of a mustard seed. So, push through the crowd, take the risk, for God is with us and will never leave.

Amen.

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