Saturday, September 12, 2009

This Life And Not Another

A Sermon Preached on August 23, 2009 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Portland, Maine.

Proper 16. Year B

So this morning we come to the end of the lectionary's four-week digression from Marks's gospel into an exploration of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, a multi-faceted reflection on Jesus as the bread of life. Unlike the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John's version of the feeding of the five thousand acts as a springboard for a lengthy discourse by Jesus.

The Jesus of John says, "I am the bread of life" and "the bread of God" that "comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Jesus himself is that bread; people are to eat him. John's language gets even more graphic: "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."

Obviously, the Jesus of John's gospel is speaking metaphorically--we are not here being urged to become cannibals.

The historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg suggests that "the imagery of eating and drinking connects to a central religious metaphor for our deepest human yearning: hunger, and the closely related metaphor thirst. "There are those who hunger and thirst for God, for justice, for meaning, for life" Borg writes. "For John, Jesus is the answer to that hunger: Jesus himself is the bread of life who satisfies our hunger. Eat this bread and you will never be hungry: [For Jesus says:]'I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry.'"

And yet, as John makes clear in this morning's reading, his disciples are troubled by this teaching. "This teaching is difficult" they say, "who can accept it?" The gospel narrator says that, because of this teaching, many of his disciples turned away and no longer went about with him. We may wonder about the nature of the difficulty.

The difficulty, I believe, lies in its particularity, in its concreteness if you will. That is, John is not here being vague. Jesus is like eating and drinking--a vulgar comparison. And our yearning for God is like a hunger in the belly. Week after week, the eucharist reminds us that eating and drinking--those most fundamental human acts--are revealing of God's presence in us and among us. It's that simple. Nothing esoteric here, nothing special. And that very ordinariness offends many spiritual seekers, even today.

Which is to say, the spiritual life is not about some other life; it's about this life.

It's not about some other place; it's about this place.

It's not about some special state of mind or heightened consciousness; it's about ordinary, everyday mind.

And it's not about just anyone; as Christians we would say that it's about Jesus and, because it's about Jesus, it's about you and me in all our maddening and exhilarating uniqueness.

It's about nothing special and everything special.

And we secretly wish it were different.

A Buddhist teacher of my acquaintance, Larry Rosenberg, tells the story of a research study about the most frequently used phrases in Hollywood films. The phrase that won overwhelmingly was, "Let's get outta here!" Larry suggests that this finding points to a fundamental truth about the human condition. It's the bumper sticker phenomenon--I'd rather be fishing, golfing, playing tennis...whatever. You fill in the blanks. Wherever we are couldn't possibly be the right place to be. And whoever we're with, there must be somebody out there more interesting, more caring, more beautiful. We hate it that real life is so prosaic, that the spiritual life is so challenging because so mundane. We feel gypped, like we've been sold a bill of goods, and so a lot of us self-medicate or become self-involved or just space out.

The spiritual life is about the quality of attention that we bring to bear on what's right in front of us, however mundane, however boring, however painful, or not:

This lack of affordable health care that adversely effects the lives of millions; this homeless man looking for a handout on the corner of State St. and Park Avenue; this particular hue or cast of light on a distant cloud; this dear friend and co-worker just laid off, seemingly randomly, and for no good reason; this lone birdsong in the woods on a hot, muggy late August morning; this dying person before me, whose breaths come now, but shallow and intermittent.

As a hospice chaplain, I strive to be aware of the quality of attention that I bring to bear on my patients and their families. And often, it seems, I learn from others how to do that best. This past week I sat with a woman as she kept vigil at the bedside of her dying husband. As the patient was Roman Catholic, I called for a priest to come and offer the sacrament of the sick.

For some priests, perhaps because of their diminishing numbers and the corresponding demands placed upon them, this sacrament has become rote, a mere lifeless recitation. But for others it remains vital--a means of conveying life--an outward sign of the grace to be found even in the face of death.

Father Kevin did not stand aloof at the foot of the bed but sat in a chair next to the patient's wife, holding her hand as they recited the prayers. He gently anointed the patient's forehead and hands with holy oil. He addressed the patient and his wife by name and did not neglect to mention their whole family in the prayers. In that the patient could not himself receive communion, Kevin offered it to the patient's wife on his behalf. He punctuated his speaking with silence. He wasn't in a hurry. He hugged the patient's wife before departing, offering his church for the funeral, encouraging her, saying that every Catholic was entitled to a church funeral, no matter how infrequent their attendance at Mass.

In the midst of death, every action of this gifted priest was a blessing of life and a celebration of abiding love, all through the quality of his attention.

"I don't know exactly what a prayer is" writes the poet Mary Oliver, "I do know how to pay attention."

In one sense I regret telling this story, as none of us need be a priest to manifest the sacred; we may all bring blessing to bear on any and every moment through the quality of our attention and the graciousness of our lives.

We can almost catch the glimmer of sadness in his eyes, the wistfulness in his tone of voice, when Jesus asks his disciples: "Do you also wish to go away?"

Peter answered him: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."

To whom then can we go? To what other life can we appeal? The abundant life Jesus promises us is not about some hoped for heaven. It's about eternal life--this life--right now.

And the whole of the spiritual life is this moment lovingly attended to. And the next and the next and the next...



willyh said...

Thank you, David, for this.

Cori Lynn Berg said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this. A wonderful sermon and a great way to start my oridnary day.

David Heald said...

Thanks for your comments, folks!

Geoff said...

Nicely said, Dave. Thanks!

I've sat in Larry Rosenberg's mediation hall during a rare opportunity to sit for a day and found myself LONGING to get the hell outta there and drive down to the Kendall Square Cinema to grab a laaahge popcorn and a flick. So much easier to sit mezmerized in the dark with those waking dreams than to sit and try to pay attention to the breath.

Which brings up an essential point---why must we now CULTIVATE this attention? There is something in the "silence" of wilderness that begs full attention, as on your trip. But here...attention becomes an increasingly scattered and shattered thing. Just shutting things OFF is now a spiritual act. Who follows the edict--"when driving, only drive."? EVERYTHING begs full attention at once.

Well, whatever the reason, there it is. So...we continue.

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