8 August, 2021- Eleventh Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 14B
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“…and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Bread and body. Bread AS body. Body as bread….this mystery that we’ve been grappling with for…well…a long time. And as I said last week, it’s not something that we can necessarily “get.” It’s not a logic problem that we can work out…bending and stretching it until it “makes sense.” No, this body/bread mystery is not a truth that we can “get” in the sense of understanding…it’s a truth that we “get” only in the sense of receiving it…as a gift.
Which is why Communion is so important. In the Eucharist we embody this mystery…we physically enact this truth. “The gifts of God, for the people of God. Holy food for holy people.” And I always add something that St. Augustine said, “receive what you are.” It’s a line from one of his sermons in which he says: (in a modern paraphrase), “…What you see is simply bread and a cup. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood. […] It is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table. It is your own mystery that you are receiving. You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are. Be what you see; receive what you are.” [source, see also source]. The bread is the body of Christ…you are the body of Christ. Receive what you are. Live the cyclic reality of receiving, blessing, breaking, and giving…become that truth…so that you can speak truth, as the writer of the letter to the Ephesians says.
Like John chapter 6—which we are reading for the next several weeks—Ephesians also centers on this mystery of the body of Christ. And, like John, it’s also not exactly beach reading. Rare is the Episcopalian who says, “Oh, Ephesians is my favorite book of the New Testament.” Like John, it’s also not easy to get. The language is dense, the context is uncertain—it probably wasn’t written to a specific community in Ephesus, most scholars believe its not even actual letter, but a sermon or an exhortation to Christian communities in general…The authorship is disputed—most scholars agree it wasn’t written by Paul. And like much of scripture it has passages that many of us wish weren’t there…The most problematic passages are the ones that for centuries have been used to uphold systems of oppression: how wives and husbands, children and fathers, and yes, how slaves and masters are to relate to one another. Those passages don’t appear in our Sunday lectionary, but they’re there, and we can’t ignore them. As an instruction manual for how to live a Christian life, parts of it desperately needs a revision—but we’ll get to that next week. But we can’t ignore the problematic parts of Ephesians, just as we can’t ignore the awful anti-semitic parts of John—all the talk and claims about “The Jews”…We have to see and acknowledge the the difficult parts of the bible—just as we have to see and acknowledge the different, difficult parts of other humans, and ourselves—not because we have to agree with them…we don’t…we shouldn’t… but because learning how to set limits is part of how we become the body of Christ…We have to see and acknowledge the troublesome parts because they are part of us…part of our history‚who we have been—and sadly still part of our present—who we too often still are.
We can’t whitewash or sanitize the past to make us feel better about who we are now…to make us feel like we’ve come farther than we really have. That’s not speaking truth. And Ephesians today encourages us to “speak truth” but also to not “let the sun go down on your anger” to produce “no evil talk, only what is useful for building up” to “be kind,” to “forgive,” to “be imitators of God.” And that’s not something that needs revision. As one writer puts it, “kindness is never a mistake, that we all make mistakes, and that forgiveness is the key.” [Sprigg Simple Gifts, quoted in New Interpreters Bible, Ephesians 440.] That part of Ephesians needs no revision. That remains true. Not always easy to do, but it is grounded in the truth…the truth of God and the way of Love.
See what undergirds all of Ephesians is the understanding that: “We are what God has made us, created in Christ for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10). All we have to do is be that…be what you have been created to be…receive what you are and become that…with all your gifts…and all your limits.
We’ve recently seen a couple of glorious examples of gifts and limits…of people saying—and demonstrating—not only this is who I am, but also this is the limit of who I can be and what I can do, and that’s ok. I’m talking about Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles. Osaka backing out of the French Open, and Biles pulling out of all but the beam event in the olympics in order to take care of themselves is, in the words of one writer, “revolutionary.” She say, “To have professional athletes — particularly young women of color — articulate their own needs and separate themselves from the financial and social expectations connected to the history of professional sport is revolutionary.
“But perhaps, more importantly,” she goes on, “the actions and words of Osaka and Biles have reverberated far and wide, meaning regular people are able to think, and maybe even one day say, ‘Yes, I too can set limits. I too have value as a person that’s greater than any role I play in society. I too know what’s right for me.’ We should not have to wonder, as Biles did, if our only value is in what we create for the world to consume. What do we value?” [source] And ultimately, that’s the question that Ephesians, and all of scripture wants us to struggle with. What do we value? Who do we ultimately trust? How do we live both for ourselves and for others? How do we live as individual bodies and also as cells within a larger body?
We have know ourselves…and learn to know others…we have to speak truth…we have to embrace truth…the truth of our past…the truth of our present…the truth of our deepest selves…and the truth of others. The truth that “normal” doesn’t exist (or rather that everyone has their own normal), and “it’s OK not to be OK.”
When we start to see others as human beings in their fullness…not as means to one of our imagined ends…not as colorful extras in the biopic of our life…not as projections of our deepest fears and fantasies…not as problems to be solved, or gurus to be followed…but simply as human persons—as holistic, somatic, embodied beings—fully embodied—in all their glorious diversity of shapes, colors, abilities, gender expressions, etc.—When we stop seeing them as abnormal—impossibly perfect saints, extraordinary super-humans, or as disappointing underwhelming less-than-humans—When we can see others—every single other—as whole…as embodied…as vital and necessary parts of our communal body…as tremendously and variously gifted…then maybe we can begin to see ourselves that way as well…or maybe we need to see ourselves that way first…either way if we could do that…if we can begin to understand the truth of who and what we are…individually and collectively…of what we created to be and do…then maybe we’d understand and be able to receive the gift that each and every person is, and we would actually be the body of Christ, and that would be bread for the life of the world. Amen.