Sermon: Please scream inside your heart (Proper 15, Year B)
Proper 15 Year B (Morning Prayer)
St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lodi CA
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Collect: Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
You don’t have to tell me the irony that is preaching a sermon on Jesus’s bread of life discourse on a sunday when we won’t be celebrating eucharist or having a big coffee hour meal together. It really does seem to go against everything Jesus was saying. First he feeds thousands of people so much there are a dozen baskets of food left over, then he gives a 30-verse speech on how he is the bread of life and how we must eat the bread of life to have life. What can we do with these words, on this day when we aren’t following up a sermon with eucharist, in a year when we’ve had to limit how we eat together, during a pandemic that changed how and when we could join together as the body of christ?
Jesus said “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Regardless of what Jesus might have meant when he said these provocative words, Christians have interpreted this speech to be about the eucharist. Early Christians were aware of how this broke with Jewish dietary laws – I mean, drinking blood?? that’s definitely not allowed. And the suggestion of eating a man’s flesh fueled rumors that Christians were cannibals. But early Christians also knew that the ritual of the eucharist, of eating earthly bread in memory and sign of the heavenly bread, was a sign of wholehearted commitment to the way of Jesus. A sort of “you are what you eat” theology. Jesus puts it like this: because we consume the bread of life, we have eternal life. Because we consume the body of christ, we become the body of christ. Because we are fully committed to Jesus, because we conform our lives so closely to Jesus, it’s as if we actually did eat his flesh, we’re so much like him.
This passage is often cited as the gospel of John’s institution of the Lord’s Supper, though it comes at a different point in Jesus’s life. In our liturgy we use the phrasing “body and blood”, since that is the language used in the other gospels. John uses more visceral language, *flesh* and blood, and the verbs he uses aren’t the sterile “receive” or “partake” that we use with the eucharist now. These are verbs which tell us to engage in *action*. Chewing, swallowing, gulping, however we would translate them today, the idea is one of fully engaging with Jesus. Not only receiving Jesus intellectually, but becoming his body. We are what we eat, after all.
During the protestant reformation in europe, this passage was cited as not just allowing, but requiring laypeople to receive the elements of bread and wine at the eucharist as often as possible. During the middle ages, typically only the priest physically consumed the elements. This was meant to protect laypeople from receiving unworthily, as well as to prevent superstitious use of the consecrated elements. This was a real concern at a time when people didn’t know, scientifically, what made crops fail or diseases flourish. In Britain there’s still a tradition of blessing your barns with a broken loaf of bread at the start of the wheat harvest. Churches even had to put locks on the baptismal fonts because people took the water to magically irrigate their crops. The few times a year people did receive the host, it was placed directly on the tongue so that it could not be saved for superstitious rituals. So, it was a hard won protestant victory that people could receive the elements at each celebration of the eucharist. It meant that lay people were not considered too superstitious or inherently unworthy. It meant a sense of binding holiness and community that being members of the body of christ requires. Christians receive the body and blood of christ because it is a sign of the eternal life given by god, *and* because by sharing in the elements of bread and wine they literally became the body of Christ, the flesh and blood of Jesus in the world.
We need to go all in. With our entire flesh and blood. But that’s so hard right now when there’s still so much danger in gathering our flesh and blood together. When protecting our community means keeping physically separate. When it seems like the procedures and protocols are just a way of restricting and denial, like the medieval clergy restricting the physical elements of eucharist from laypeople. It is so hard. We want the pandemic to be done. We want our people to be safe. We want wars to cease and the earth to be cared for. We want our leaders to be good and kind. It’s all so overwhelming and feels like the end of days. Or, like Paul says in the passage from Ephesians we read today: the days are evil.
It’s been almost two thousand years, and we’ve read these passages so many times we might not feel the urgency of the words like the original audience. Paul was writing at a time when they thought the world was going to end. They thought that Jesus was going to be back right away, before they died. That’s why Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians to remain unmarried if you can didn’t seem so strange: they didn’t think the world was going to be around to raise children in. Paul was writing to a church facing persecution and war in the short term, and even if they survived that, the entire world was ending soon. The days are evil indeed.
Is the world in any less urgency now? The recent climate change news doesn’t seem to be comforting. The recent pandemic news? The recent news from Afghanistan or Haiti? The world seems to be in just as urgent a situation now as it ever has been.
So, what does Paul suggest? How do we “make the most of our time”? Paul wanted his readers to make the most of the time they had before the end of the world. Going out in a blaze of glory – hedonism and drunkenness, is not what Paul has in mind, though that seems to be what people tend to do when confronted with the end. For Paul, hedonism is foolish. Worldly pleasures do not make the most of our time.
It’s not that we should be depressed or stoically accepting either. Worldly pleasures are for the foolish, for those who do not have trust and hope in the will of God. The will of God is for us to have joy and hope. And we can access that joy, that real, meaningful joy through the Holy Spirit. How? Paul says to give thanks to God for everything, at every moment. Thanksgiving is making the most of the time we have during these evil days. And that word, “thanksgiving”, is the meaning of the word “eucharist”. If you look at the headings in the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll see at the top of the eucharist section “The Great Thanksgiving”. When we celebrate the eucharist, we are giving thanks for the bread of life, for Jesus’s life, and for being able to share in it. The consuming of bread and wine, the physical elements, those are a sign of our commitment and shared community. But what we are really *doing* is giving thanks. It’s right there in the word “eucharist”, in the giving thanks to God for the life of Jesus and for the Holy Spirit sent upon us.
But it is still so hard to give thanks when the days are so evil and we are so tired of it. One thing that I think is particularly fitting this week are Paul’s words about singing. Paul tells us to be filled with the Spirit. To sing among ourselves. That the spiritual songs will so fill our spirits that we give thanks to God all the time, for everything.
How are we supposed to do that, when we still are not able to safely, physically, start belting out hymns in church? How are we supposed to do that when being in physical proximity increases the risk of spreading disease? I wish we could all joyously sing together, at the top of our voices. I mean, I don’t have a really strong voice or anything, but I love singing in church. I love hearing people who *can* sing do the descants or harmonies. I love how the mix of voices creates music that really does feel like an offering of praise and thanksgiving. Paul tells us to sing and make melodies in our hearts. In our hearts. Last month a Japanese amusement park opened back up, but the roller coasters had a new rule: Please scream inside your heart.
“Please scream inside your heart” doesn’t mean to be less enthusiastic about roller coasters. It means that your heart is fully engaged and full of excited screams. We might have to change some of our outward signs of excitement. Maybe that means not screaming aloud so that we don’t spread our respiratory droplets. Maybe that means wearing a mask for the same reason. Maybe Paul’s “sing and make melody in your hearts” meant to sing at the top of your lungs to the original Ephesian Christians. But maybe for us that means engaging our hearts even more than we did before since we can’t engage our bodies in the same way. The amusement park “please scream inside your hears” doesn’t say “don’t scream”, it says “please scream”, just….inside your heart. It’s easier to get in the spirit when you can scream out loud, just like it’s easier to be filled with the Holy Spirit with the rituals and songs that are familiar to us. It might seem like we are hearing a lot of “don’t sing, don’t make melodies to the Lord, don’t gather together”, but instead let us think: please sing, please make melodies to the Lord, please gather together…in your hearts. Because it is in our hearts that we can truly give thanks to God. It is in our hearts that we can be fully engaged, fully committed to Jesus. Yes, I wish we could scream aloud on roller coasters and literally break bread together. But engaging our hearts is the more important thing. Singing inside our hearts, thanking God inside our hearts, committing to Jesus’s life inside our hearts. Fully engaging our hearts is something that we *can* do with the physical signs of bread and wine, with the physical actions of singing and gathering. But our challenge today is to fully engage our hearts without the outward signs. It’s hard to get on a roller coaster and not let out a little scream at that first drop. It’s hard not to sing a favorite familiar hymn. It’s hard to keep a mask on all the time when you just want to see someone’s whole face. Our challenge is to eat the bread of life, to partake in the eucharist, to give thanks, in our hearts. Since we’re doing Morning Prayer this morning, we haven’t heard the Collect of the Day yet. Let me do a little bit of foreshadowing. We are about to ask God for the grace to thankfully receive the fruits of Jesus’s life. I dunno. I was hoping, back in May when I made plans to preach this week, that I wouldn’t have to preach about the pandemic yet again. But here we are. We *are* here. That, at least, is something to thank God for. Being here today. The fruits of Jesus’s life include the example of caring and sacrificing for others. We can give thanks for the people in our community who sacrifice a bit of comfort and wear a mask to protect others. We can give thanks for vaccines that protect those we care about. We can give thanks for the people who work to make peace in a world that seems intent on making war. We can give thanks for the ability we have to gather as the body of christ, even if we have to work a little harder to do all this “in our hearts” and not physically. We can give thanks enthusiastically and fully, in our hearts for the bread from heaven, the bread of life, for Jesus.