This is a special Sunday for me. Friday marked the 28th anniversary of my ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It was on Sunday, June 23, 1991, that I celebrated my first mass. So I am grateful to you and to Fr. George for the privilege of an altar at which to celebrate the Holy Mysteries and a pulpit from which to preach the gospel on this, my anniversary Sunday.
Now that I am retired, I am filling part of my time studying Irish. In the world of Irish studies, I am what is known as a foghlaimeoir, which is to say “an Irish learner.” The truth is that I have been a foghlaimeoir for over eleven years, but I have not yet progressed to the level of Gaeilgeoir, that is, “an Irish speaker.” Studying Irish is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done; it is both fascinating and maddening, and I think that among the reasons for that are the cultural assumptions which underly the language.
Five weeks ago we began our month long journey through the world of bread with what Presbyterian scholar Choon-Leon Seow called the “remarkably mundane” story of food for the hungry, the feeding of the 5,000. In the context of that story, we considered the need for budgets and plans, the need to be sure that one has enough bread to the crowd, enough materials to build a tower, enough resources to fight go to war or fight a battle. The metaphor of bread reminds us of the need to plan ahead.
The next Sunday, as Jesus launched into the long discourse on bread which is the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, we looked at the origins of the metaphor in our faith tradition with the unleavened bread of the Passover and the gift of manna, the bread from heaven given in the desert of Sinai, and how in the faith of the Hebrew people the bread of affliction, the bread of slavery in Egypt, was transformed into the bread of justice. We heard Jesus extend this metaphor with the graphic, almost disgusting, image not merely of eating symbolic bread but of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. How, we wondered, can we work with this disturbing metaphor in our modern world?
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.”
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!
In 2014, Evie and I were privileged to join a group of other pilgrims from Ohio and Michigan and spend not quite three weeks in Palestine and Israel visiting many of the sites we hear about in the Bible, especially the Christian holy places of the Gospel stories. One of those was a hilly place overlooking the Sea of Galilee called Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, a village had been there for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage.
The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called Mensa Domini (which means “the Lord’s Table”) and also known as The Church of the Primacy of Peter.
A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today and a graphic of that picture of loaves and fishes is on the front of your bulletin.
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.”
Yesterday, July 14, was the 185th anniversary of the preaching a sermon which is said to have been the beginning of the Catholic revival in the Church of England. The sermon was preached at St. Mary’s Church Oxford by the Rev. John Keble, Provost of Oriel College and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The sermon marked the opening of the Assize Court, the summer term of the English High Court of Justice. The Assize sermon normally would have addressed matters of law and religion, but in the summer of 1833 the Parliament of the United Kingdom was debating whether to abolish (or in the language of the time “suppress”) some dioceses of the Anglican Church of Ireland which, at the time, was united with the Church of England. It was an entirely financial issue in the eyes of Parliament, but Keble and several of his friends believed this to be an encroachment of the secular establishment upon the religious and an altogether wrong thing, and so it was this portending legislation that Keble addressed in his homily, which he titled National Apostasy. He began with these words: