The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
Generous God, we who cannot exist without You, grant us Your Spirit that we may live according to Your will . . . !
One of the fascinating things about this statement in our Collect for today – that we cannot exist without God – is that until very recently – toward the end of the previous Century – we no longer have to reach back to another Century to talk about it. We’ve come quite a distance since that moment in the nineteenth Century when one of Napoleon’s scientists was explaining to the Emperor the progress of the exciting new science. The Emperor inquired, “Then where does God come into all this?” and received the famous response, “Sire, God is not necessary to this hypothesis.” Science eliminating God . . . I expect most of us have always had to live with this concept in the secular world in one form or another. I know as a chaplain I am very grateful when the doctors I work with are eager to give thanks for God’s Presence among us in the work we do and the families we attempt to support.
A lot has happened since that conversation with the Emperor Napoleon. Newtonian physics passed into Einsteinian physics . . . both superseded by quantum physics . . . our companions and guides throughout that time the great physicists themselves guiding and growing our awareness and awe . . . from Einstein, Nihls Bohr, the Danish physicist and philosopher – and much more recently the late Stephen Hawking of Cambridge, England, often described as possibly one of the greatest of them all . . .
As we move more and more deeply into the mysterious realms of these sciences, strange and wonderful things are happening . . . perhaps best expressed in a single sentence toward the end of Hawking’s bestseller, A Brief History of Time, first published in 1988. Writing about his search for a unified theory, Hawking said, “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” We hear from Hawking very clearly a question about transcendence . . . going beyond what is known to be our ordinary understanding and limitations . . . Like a spiritual probe or sputnik, Hawking’s question tentatively probes what our Collect unequivocally states: “We . . . Lord . . . cannot exist without you.”
Here is where we must pause to respectfully acknowledge that among the earliest faith traditions possibly known to some of us: Native Indigenous Tribes in the Americas and Canada going back thousands of years . . . (in New Mexico currently the oldest digs identified as 13,000 years ago – and the origins now identified found in South America dating back to more than 30,000 years old) . . .
A lot of culture, tradition and faith practices . . .
Much more recent, the Celtic Christian communities that spread early Christianity across Europe much of which was absorbed into cultures and communities far beyond Europe, and eventually versions of that moved here with the first European settlers beginning in the 15th Century. . . so faith communities that at their very center have a clear understanding, as Hawking might say, of a God at the center of all Creation who breathes that fire into the equations creating a universe of many patterns for us to recognize how best to live together in community. . . in and on this planet . . .
In Native Indigenous this concept is usually called the “Spirit” with a capital “S”– for our alphabet – theirs is different . . . For those of us who have been fortunate enough to learn and experience some of the wisdom within these ancient traditions . . . it is truly a privilege to be able to recognize the profound blessings and respect within these ancient cultures.
In the 1980s the NIH (National Institute of Health) and the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) had studies taking place with the latest ultrasound technology. They were “measuring the vibratory healing rates” of different parts of our bodies to coordinate most effectively with what was then the new use of ultrasound to accelerate healing in broken bones and surrounding areas.
Perhaps some of you have experienced this form of rehab for a broken bone where the ultra sound wand was set to vibrate at a particular level that was scientifically identified in these studies to vibrate at the best level for that particular bone or bones to heal.
What most people don’t know is that in 1985 an additional study was taking place through NIMH at 4 Eastern medical universities: Johns Hopkins, NYU, Columbia, and Yale, in which a Native Indigenous professor who had worked with NIMH on various healing traditions and was also trained in Native Medicine practices, was recruited by NIMH to travel to each of these Universities repeatedly for several months, where, into what was then a highly sensitive microphone recording system feeding into a computer, the Native professor would make the vocal vibratory sound that for thousands of years would be what was required in the Native Medicine tradition for healing assorted broken / damaged bones in the body . . .
so that there was a vibratory sound rate for your broken upper leg and a different vibratory sound rate for your broken elbow and yet another for that meniscus depending on which way it blew out.
What this study originally wanted to learn was how closely these ancient vibratory healing sounds might actually come to the now medically precise ultra sound rehab equipment codes.
Bone for bone, the ancient vibratory sounds repeatedly matched to the tiniest measure the scientific settings in the ultra sound programs – repeatedly because the study went on for months . . . variables were expected from month to month. There were NO VARIABLES.
In Native faith communities there was no question about the Great Spirit as the source of all life within its people and the extraordinary gift of life in and on this planet . . . all waiting to be discovered . . . each in the discovery patterns of our own cultures . . .
The Native Professor, when describing this experience, said that as the study progressed . . . offering such precise matches, he had to do pastoral care with some of the older scientists whose education strictly ruled out God being any sort of “necessary” presence within their science . . . that it was all right to have a private faith-based relationship with God, but not a scientific one.
In the Celtic Christian traditions, according to the Rev. Dr. John Phillip Newell, an author we’ve enjoyed here in some of our book groups, there is an understanding that we are made of God. This is often misunderstood . . . not intended to mean we are God . . . rather, that the wisdom of God is deep within each of us, deeper than any ignorance of what we may or may not know or have done in our lives . . . that the creativity of God is deep within each of us, deeper than any emptiness in our lives or relationships, . . . any negative patterns in our families or our world as we attempt to find our way . . . So that, within us, through this extraordinary gift of God, there is always the capacity to become who God has dreamed us to be . . . individually and in community . . . and that we must never limit God’s generous – although not always recognizable – call to us to follow God’s direction for our lives . . . and which is always greater than any darkness we may be carrying . . .
Our Scripture passages today teach us about God as the source of all life . . . At the center of who we are as God’s people, what we ask from God as the source of our spirituality is how to live a holy and life-giving life . . . for ourselves and in community with our neighbors near and far.
And always, in Christian prayer, our request is not just about seeking guidance for our thinking. We are also asking God’s Grace to ACT upon our thinking . . . that we may recognize God’s direction for each of us . . . individually and as a community.
All through this season after Pentecost, in our prayers and in our Scripture, we are given God’s direction to recognize that our praying for the Grace of God is never complete if we ask only for Grace in our thinking and believing. Every time we pray this for our own lives, and beyond, we also pray for God’s Grace that we may allow God to translate both our thinking and believing into God’s action.
This concept, voiced frequently in our Book of Common Prayer and so many other prayer resources, is essential to a healthy spiritual community . . . what we have been recognizing and experiencing over and over in these challenging times . . . Who is my neighbor and how can we share our cares and concerns with one another . . . our stories . . . our differences . . . our needs . . . our fears . . . always insisting on choosing God’s light overcoming the darkness . . . most especially when we do not have all or any of the answers we believe we need . . . God has the answers so that, when we can truly believe what we are praying in our Collect today, and most every day, asking God to grant to us . . . the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, so that we who cannot exist without God, may, by God, be enabled to live according to God’s will . . .”
In our Old Testament passage we see how contagious fear can be . . . My study Bible label’s fear as “power’s propagandist.” It’s all through the Old Testament, all through the New Testament – the planting and growing of the new Church . . . and is with us now as we seek to find those seeds of redemption that allow us truly to recognize and then act on God’s commandment that we love one another as we would love our own . . . that when one of us or a family or a community is hurting and in need, all of us are hurting and in need of participating in redeeming what has been broken . . . or ignored . . . or concealed . . . or deliberately cast out . . .
In our reading from 1st Kings, the prophet Elijah carries out literally an Olympic contest with the prophets of Baal as Elijah attempts to convince Ahab and all the people to turn away from the evil dominating their lives – for Ahab most especially with his wife, Jezebel, who then threatens Elijah so that, despite Elijah having just conducted this huge demonstration of God’s power, Elijah becomes frightened and defeated – there it is, power’s propogandist. Nor does Ahab step away from all the evil surrounding his life with Jezebel – the familiar power of fear dominates . . .
And yet, God responds in both their lives with angels of kindness and care . . . a clear example of the Source that breathes life into our existence . . . our very being . . . and to whom we, like Elijah, can confess our weaknesses, discouragements and fears to our Creator who can both hear us and minister to us . . . even work through us despite our weaknesses and fears that can cause us to be too timid to both listen to and then dare to follow where God is leading us.
If only we can be courageous enough to listen to and follow God when what is familiar may be giving us a false sense of control . . . of doing and being what is expected . . . perhaps by our own choosing or, in our families or communities, . . . chosen generations ago . . . what we are living with now in our reparations discernment . . .
Our beloved Celtic Christian priest and poet, John O’Donohue, now in heaven, describing our need often times to resist God calling us toward what, at first, may seem like the unfamiliar . . . O’Donohue says that we are “like seagulls in the unsheltered cold and ferocity of the ocean, we often nest out on the cold ledges of famished extremity and neglect to remember the meadow where the flowers await.”. . . that we are somehow trapped remembering . . . a punishing God . . . a scornful community . . . or family members . . . forgetting our generous, loving God longing for us to turn toward that healing meadow filled with God’s Grace . . .
O’Donohue goes on to say, “Naturally, there will be times when truth of heart demands we live on the ledges.” . . . but to force ourselves to remain without God’s support resembles an addiction to misery and that it’s best to welcome God’s compassionate intrusion to haul us off those cold ledges . . .
O’Donohue also says that when we decide to explore our lives through creative expression we are often surprised to discover that the things that almost destroyed us are the very things that want to talk to us now . . . that, yes, the wound or wounds have left their imprint . . . “And yet, after all this time the dark providence of the suffering wants to somehow illuminate our lives so that we can now discover the unseen gift that it bequeaths.” . . . particularly in challenging times like these . . . the uncertainty, the fears, the ongoing bereavement – our own and others . . . with no true end in sight . . . and yet, as we learn to tell our stories . . to stand together on that sacred ground . . . we hear many of us saying, “I am stronger for this “. . . “my prayer life is my rock in ways I could never keep steady until now” . . “memories that once frightened me are now becoming treasures of inspiration and
courage . . .” These are all quotes from our daily prayers . . .
Our Epistle for today in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is telling us that spiritual formation requires a deliberate intentionality that we must “put away falsehood” and “speak truth to our neighbors” . . . and that this “putting away” is a softer version of much more extreme and strident directions in other Epistles and in the Sermon on the Mount to cast out behaviors as well as specific related body parts . . . eyes . . . hands . . . all abhorrent to God when they represent behaviors that, over time, we may have adopted – misconceived as somehow personally essential or strengthening for ourselves . . . for our communities in the eyes of the world, yet a false presence in who God wills us to be.
We are being called to become imitators of God . . . to claim the humility we need in order to shed whatever false presence we may have once believed we needed in order to participate in the life around us . . . a life that grieves God’s Holy Spirit and prevents our living together in community as God’s beloved children.
As our Psalm today encourages, (and the choir so beautifully sang to us & will sing again) “Taste and see” that God is good . . . blest are those who trust in God! (34:1-8) When we trust in God . . . we devote ourselves and, therefore, our lives, individually and together, to seek and follow God’s direction for us all . . .
In our Gospel today our hearts are once again filled as we hear Jesus declare, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry . . . whoever believes in me will never thirst . . . “ and then some of those who are gathered begin to question how can this be . . . isn’t this Joseph’s son, Jesus . . . we know his parents . . . How can he now say that he’s come down from heaven?
In all the Jesus “I am” statements we find our own hesitations . . . doubts . . . fears . . . It might be safer for me to consider him more simply a good man . . . a prophet . . . a teacher . . . a preacher . . . “Joseph’s son” . . .
It is these “I” statements that continually force us to ask, “Is Jesus who he says he is?” “Is he truly the bread of my life?” “Do I live by his light?” “Do I enter through him as the Gate to Salvation, or do I try to keep rescuing myself?” “Do I trust him to shepherd me?” “Do I depend on his Resurrection, or do I keep trying to lift myself up?” “Do I let him be the Way for me or do I keep asking for other directions?” “Is he the truth by which I judge all lesser truths? Is he my life, or do I employ entertainments to bring me life? Do I abide in him, cling to him as a branch to a Vine, and draw all my spiritual nourishment from him?”
Several times in the original Greek John records Jesus’ words with the simple phrase “I am” without any additional nouns or pronouns to follow. Going back to Exodus (3:14) – in response to Moses at the burning bush, God took the name simply “I am.” The Hebrew word used for our English word, “Lord” means “I am.” Since this is God’s name, Jesus is stating his divinity very clearly whenever he says “I am.” He says it to the woman at the well (4:26), to the frightened disciples in a storm (6:20), to Pharisees in reply to their challenge, “Who are you?” (8:24, 28) . . . to the disciples so that they might draw comfort from his divinity when they see his prophecy of betrayal fulfilled (13:19), and to those who arrested him to inform them that he was indeed the one for whom they searched (18:5,8)
And then, the last two statements, especially hint at John’s purposes in recording Jesus’ answer, “I am.” Anyone reading the Gospel in the original language would be unable to miss the irony that those who think they are looking merely for Jesus of Nazareth are actually finding God. And this irony made more poignant by the fact that in the same chapter Peter denies Jesus by saying “I am not one of his followers” (18:17,25). . . (“I am not!”. . .)
Do we truly let ourselves be set free by the fullness of Jesus’ divinity? Is that what we reach for when our choir and hopefully soon again someday, we too, beautifully sing together that He is the bread of life?
How much more thoroughly might our fears be calmed in the storms of our lives if we can allow ourselves to recognize and accept the profound union of Jesus our friend and companion with all the power of God . . . . . . . that we sometimes look for so much less . . .
and yet, be assured, whether we can dare to trust or not, our generous God is always with us . .
Magnificent Concepts . . . God’s gifts of truth woven in and through God’s generous outpouring of spirituality accessible to all in the simplest of moments . . . that Jesus, who is our God and Savior, is telling us that he is our “bread of life,” that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty . . .
To close, let us first listen to this contemporary Native Indigenous reflection prayer on the Spirit written just this past week by Native Choctaw Indian, and retired Bishop of Alaska, Steven Charleston, followed by a simple, gentle Celtic Christian prayer for the everyday . . . that these may help us to trust and enter into this extraordinary gift of life given for us all:
First Bishop Charleston’s reflection:
“Let the voice come in, let it speak to you. I know how busy you are. I know how preoccupied you may be with a host of demands for your attention. But I encourage you to take time to let the voice come in, even for a moment. It waits patiently at the door to your perception, waiting to step over the threshold into the quiet space of your heart. Let it speak to you. It is a voice you will recognize. One you trust for you have heard it before. It has a message for you, one that only you can hear, only you can understand. The voice is the word and the word has no beginning or ending. It is ever present, ever available, ever loving and merciful. Open the doors of your soul and welcome in the word of the sacred, the word that speaks life into being.
and now our Celtic Christian prayer:
Be gentle when you touch bread.
Let it not lie uncared for, unwanted.
There is such beauty in bread –
Beauty of sun and soil,
Beauty of patient toil.
Wind and rain have caressed it,
Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch it.
(Anonymous ~ Holy Island Prayer Book, Ray Simpson)