Children, as those of us who have had or who have been children know, grow in their ability to communicate. Vocabularies grow. Grammars develop. They move from simple one- or two-syllable concepts – such as “Mama” or “Dada” or “NO!” – to more complex ideas.
When my niece was a toddler, she put together two concepts – negativity and certainty – in a way that was confusing to some adults. When asked if she would like to have something, say a food, she would answer, “Not sure.” If she had understood sentence structure or the concept of adverbs, she would have said, “Surely not!” But she didn’t yet understand those things: she understood negativity – “not” – and certainty – “sure” – and put them together in a way that made since to her.
Not to her grandmother, however. My poor mother never did get it that “Not sure” didn’t mean that my niece was undecided, so she would try to convince the girl that liver or broccoli or whatever was something she should try. But “Not sure” did not mean indecisiveness; it meant quite the opposite. “Not sure” meant “Dig-in-the-heels screaming-fit absolutely not; don’t try to change my mind.”
Children often communicate in these unclear ways, ways that often seem like complaints. I especially remember the experience of serving our children an unfamiliar food, or taking them to a dinner where they were given something unlike they would get at home. The nearly immediate response was, “What is this? I don’t like it.”
“How do you know you don’t like if you don’t know what it is?” I would ask.
“I don’t like it!” they would repeat it.
At the end of our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus said to the crowd, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus answered, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This is the beginning of Jesus’ long discourse on bread which takes up nearly the whole of Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John and of which we will hear parts for all of the month of August.
A few verses further on, Jesus will say again, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And he will add, “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
The Jews, John tells us, disputed among themselves as Jesus was delivering this lengthy dissertation on bread. I think we can understand why! The very idea of consuming human flesh is off-putting, even disgusting, and would have been extremely objectionable to the Jews; no wonder they grumbled and mumbled, complained and disputed. Even as a metaphor, the statement demands a lot from Jesus’ followers!
Church-going Episcopalians (and others like us who participate weekly in Holy Communion) are perhaps overly familiar with the metaphor. It’s not that we have somehow explained it away; I don’t think we have. Rather, we have made it routine. Every week we act out Christ’s injunction with some sweet wine and a tasteless little cracker we call a “host.” A couple of decades ago, Monsignor Paul Turner, a Roman Catholic priest in Kansas City, Missouri, quipped that “it’s easier to believe that bread really becomes the Body of Christ than it is to believe that the host is really bread.” Nonetheless, we make these claims, that the host is bread and that the bread is the Body of our Lord, and in doing so we seem to have weakened the impact of this shocking metaphor.
Most of the Bible texts from the Revised Common Lectionary this week present us with the well-worn and comfortable Biblical image of sheep and shepherds. Jeremiah rails against the shepherds of Israel “who destroy and scatter the sheep of [the Lord’s] pasture,” pronouncing God’s intention to come and be the Shepherd in their place. “I myself,” says God, “will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
The Psalmist picks up the ball and runs with it in what may be the most famous piece of Hebrew poetry ever written: “The Lord is my shepherd,” he declares and we proclaim it with him. And then Mark’s Gospel continues down the field with the observation that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
The odd man out is the Epistle lesson, part of a letter claimed to be from Paul to a church in the Asia Minor port city of Ephesus. Not a single sheep or shepherd to be found. Instead we get talk of circumcision, of aliens and strangers, of dividing walls being torn down, and a “holy temple,” the “household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”
It had gone on so long she couldn’t remember a time that wasn’t like this. She lived in constant fear. She wasn’t just cranky and out-of-sorts; she was terrified. Her life wasn’t just messy and disordered; it was perilous, precarious, seriously even savagely so. It was physically and spiritually draining, like being whipped every day.
Many in her situation might have given up, given in, curled up, and died. But not her. She was determined to stay alive. She was, after all, a daughter of Eve, created by God to join her husband as partners with God in conceiving, bearing, and giving birth to other human beings. She had had those children and now she had to look after them, to raise them, to ensure their survival.
But . . . she was going to die. She was convinced of that. If she continued to live in those circumstances she would die. There is simply no doubt about it.
So when she heard that there was even the remotest possibility of liberation, she steeled her resolve, left her home, and sought it out. We don’t know how far she had to walk, what trials she had to endure. We can imagine what it must have been like trudging through the hot, desert sun. Her younger children were with her and as terrified as she was. And yet they pushed on until he was in sight.
Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.” They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times!
But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.
The theme for today’s lessons is clear . . . we are almost “hit upside head” with the concept of Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is the law establishing the mandatory day of rest:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.
Our Gospel lesson relates two of Mark’s stories of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees about Sabbath observance: first, a probably made-up tale about the disciples plucking wheat, and second, a probably true story about Jesus healing a man with a crippled hand in the context of a synagogue Sabbath observance.
So what is Sabbath?
Some of you may have heard of Brooks’s law, which has to do with the time it takes to complete a software project. It’s similar to the general law of diminishing returns in economics. Professor Fred Brooks of the University of North Carolina first proposed the law in 1975; it holds that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” Each additional worker must be trained and adding more workers increases the need for intercommunication between them so that, at some predictable point, the efficacy of adding more members to a task group is cancelled and doing so lengthens, rather than shortens, the schedule.
I didn’t know about Professor Brooks and his law until I started researching this sermon, and I only learned about it because in the early pages of his book he cites the Anglican theologian Dorothy Sayers and her theology of the Trinity. I will come back to Ms. Sayers and her helpful analogy for the Trinity, and later I’ll return to Brooks’s law, but first I want to share with you some of the metaphors for the Trinity, that peculiar understanding of God that we Christians hold and that we focus on each year on this, the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost.
In 2011 a young man in New York City named Gabriel went to a party. While there, he drank some of the alcoholic punch being served. Unknown to the young man, the punch had been spiked with a drug called Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid, commonly called GHB. Prescribed as Xyrem and also called by a variety of “street names,” it is known as a “date rape” or rave drug. It comes as a liquid or as a white powder that is dissolved in water, juice, or alcohol. In most people it produces euphoria, drowsiness, decreased anxiety, excited behavior, and occasionally hallucinations. For Gabriel, however, who suffered from medication-controlled epilepsy, it caused a seizure. Apparently interacting with his regularly prescribed medication, the GHB he had unknowingly consumed caused a fatal convulsion.
Every year, for as long as any of us can remember, on the Second Sunday of Easter the church has told the story of Thomas, Thomas the Doubter, “Doubting Thomas” who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, the poster child for those who are uncertain. But, believe me, Thomas gets a bad rap! He was no worse a doubter or disbeliever than any of the others, including Peter!
Consider this from the end of Mark’s Gospel:
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.
Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while I simply don’t know what to say about a person or an event or a spiritual feeling. On Good Friday, is one of the times when this happens. I don’t know what I want to say about Jesus or his crucifixion or the salvation we enjoy because of his death and resurrection.
When these speechless times happen, I find that turning to poets helps. I find that others have expressed that with which I am having such difficulty. So, today, I want to share three poems with you, actually part of an epic poem, a hymn, and a complete short poem. These aren’t specifically about Good Friday, but they give us some insight into this event, the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what it might mean for us.