My final sermon before leaving for Cameroon:
Sermon: Proper 15, Year B
20 August, 2006
Tracy E. Longacre
Episcopal Church of the
Transfiguration, San Mateo
Please be seated.
Good morning. Thank you for having
me. It is a pleasure to be here at Transfiguration once again.
Well. . . I don’t know about you,
but I must admit that my first response to today’s Gospel was, “Yuck! Why did
Jesus need to be so graphic?” Clearly he was trying to get the disciples’
attention. And he did get it. And many of them had the same reaction I did. We
know this because a few verses after our reading today, it mentions that many
people stopped following Jesus.
So why the theatrics? Jesus is
telling us that he is here to feed us, but not just with ever multiplying loaves
and fishes which satisfy our hunger for a day or two, but rather with “the
spiritual food of his body and blood” as we say in the Post-Communion prayer.
He wants us to experience the ultimate satisfaction—not just physical life here
on earth, but eternal spiritual life. And not only is he offering himself as
the food in a very graphic way; he is telling us that we must eat—the original
word is more accurately translated as “chew” or “gnaw”—his flesh, we must drink
Now, we can take this as literally
or metaphorically as we like. That is one of the joys of being Episcopalian! As
a child growing up in a liberal Protestant household with a very
Congregationalist mother, this passage was always taken metaphorically—Jesus is
the Word, as the Gospel of John tells us that the beginning. And so we must
chew on Jesus’ words and on his life example. But now I am Episcopalian and I
have a deep love for liturgy and ritual and I am more comfortable with
mysteries like the possibility that the bread and wine might actually be
transubstantiated. Who knows? And who am I to say? Either way Jesus is using
very graphic language to say that if you want eternal life, you need to take
him in fully. You need to step up and let him in deep, so deep that his life
blood becomes your life blood and you begin to actually embody him.
It is passages like this that got
the early Christians accused of cannibalism, not surprisingly. Some scholars
say that this is just the John community’s way of speaking to insiders, who of
course (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) know that Jesus didn’t literally mean his
flesh or his blood. However, I think Jesus is inviting the comparison to ritual
cannibalism on purpose in order to show that he is heralding a new world order.
What is the purpose of chewing on
Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood? Communion, holy communion. And believe it
or not, ritual cannibalism used to be one of those ways of bringing people together
in a community. It wasn’t about being hungry. It was a ritualized form of scapegoating.
The rest of the community could come together and find harmony by choosing a
common enemy, killing them, and eating them.
Now we here in the 21st century no longer practice
ritual cannibalism. But we still have our own modern ways of gaining communion
at the expense of scapegoats. Since 9/11, for example, we have come together in
an amazing way against terrorists, haven’t we? The thing is that our
tried-and-true way of finding communion as human beings, all the way back to
our ancient ancestors practicing cannibalism, is at the expense of scapegoats.
We are convinced, of course, that we’re much more “civilized” today, but it’s
the same basic pattern. So the problem for Jesus—who wants to give us a Holy
Communion, a completely different way of finding communion—is how to shake us
out of our being so sure about being civilized. We think our ways of finding
communion are just fine, thank you.
Well, my proposal to you tonight is
that Jesus needs to sometimes get disgusting and graphic with us in order to
shock us out of our complacency. He needs to tell us that the only way to find
true life with each other, in a Holy Communion, is to chew on his flesh and to
drink his blood. He makes us think of cannibalism so that he can get his point
across. When we think in these primitive terms, then maybe we can see how the
communion he offers us is truly holy. It is the opposite of what we do, in
fact. We gang up against someone else to find our unity. Jesus offers us a
different unity by letting himself be ganged up on! We scapegoat. He
lets himself be the scapegoat, the Lamb of God, if you will, who comes to take
away the sin of the world. What is the sin of the world? It's our way of
gaining communion at the expense of someone else.
In Africa, years of colonial
exploitation were all about coming together at the expense of someone else. In
the name of “civilization,” white westerners forced people to speak our
languages, do the work we wanted them to do, dress the way we felt comfortable,
in short, adopt our culture and denounce or forget their own. We took away
people’s land, food, systems of governance, rituals, symbols, meaning. And now
we wonder why they cannot be “civilized” like us and hold free and fair
multi-party elections and why so many of them live in dire poverty and die of
diseases like malaria and AIDS. Those miners in South Africa who are infected
with HIV work in those mines to satisfy our
hunger for diamonds and gold. Those poor farmers in West Africa go hungry
because we dump our excess agricultural production in their country so that
they cannot sell their cotton or vegetables to their next door neighbor at a
price they can live on.
I get uneasy thinking and talking about this, don’t
you? I don’t want to admit that my civilization is responsible for such
injustice, for such violence done in the very name of justice and civilization.
But I think it’s the same kind of uncomfortable feeling that Jesus is aiming at
in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus needs for us to be uncomfortable. He needs for
us to be able to see the cost of our civilization, the story told from a
different perspective, the perspective of the victim, the perspective of those
who bear the cost in suffering.
In preparation for moving to
Cameroon for two years, I have been packing up all my stuff. In the midst of
this, I ran across a random piece of paper upon which was typed one of my
all-time favorite poems and one I return to again and again to remind myself of
my real call as a Christian. I will leave you with these words today, by an
Indian poet named Rabindranath Tagore:
I would leave this
chanting and singing and telling of beads. Whom do I worship in this lonely
dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? I open my eyes and see that, You,
O God, are not before me.
You are there where
the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking
stones. You are with them in sun and in shower, and Your garment is covered
with dust. I put off my holy mantle and even, like You, come down on the dusty
Deliverance? Where is
deliverance to be found? You Yourself have joyfully taken upon Yourself the
bonds of creation; You are bound with us all forever.
I come out of my
meditations and leave aside my flowers and incense. What harm if my clothes
become tattered and stained? I meet You and stand by You in toil and in the
sweat of my brow.