Statement in support of our Muslim neighbors

The following statement from the vestry and clergy of St. George’s Episcopal Church, Fredericksburg, Va., has been released in support of local Muslim neighbors who are facing prejudice and opposition as they practice their faith in peace and neighborly love. It is in response to the forum this week in which these neighbors (who have been worshiping in the area for 27 years) were insulted and verbally attacked as they were attempting to have a public dialogue about their plans to build a new mosque. Christ taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. By making that statement, we bear witness to Christ our King who could see faith even in those who were not of his religion (Matthew 15:28). Our Muslim friends have, on numerous occasions, partnered with us in serving community dinners and participating in interfaith prayer events.  That spirit of cooperation bears witness to God’s kingdom where all shall be fed and all shall be free. With Christ as our King, we are empowered to be ambassadors of wholeness in a fractured world. Here is the vestry’s statement:

In recognition that we are all children of God and that Christians and Muslims share a common faith ancestry, and in recognition that we Christians are called to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, and in recognition that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was written in our city of Fredericksburg, the vestry and clergy of St. George’s Episcopal Church extend our support to our Muslim friends and neighbors who are practicing their faith within our shared community. We stand for continuing dialogue that can acknowledge our connections as well as our differences and respect the dignity of every human being.

 

The Clergy and Vestry of St. George’s Episcopal Church:

The Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., Rector
The Rev. Gay H. Rahn, Associate Rector
The Rev. Deacon Carey Dougherty Chirico, Director of Outreach
David Morgan
Earl Baughman
Anne Beals
Ann Smith
Tommy Thompson
Mary Woolls
Peggy Johnson
Peggy Conway
Michael Fray
Meghan O’Connor
Daniel Johnson
Dick Juergens

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Fail Magnificently: A Stewardship Sermon

From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 24 Year B October 18, 2015

Text of the sermon as prepared (may differ slightly from recording): 

It is easy to laugh at Jesus’ disciples, especially in the Gospel according to Mark. They are like a bunch of clowns running around trying to outdo each other and failing miserably. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus asking for the seats of honor when he comes in his glory. They just don’t get it. It’s not about glory; it’s about service. It’s not about the honored place; it’s about honoring God. Ha ha! Those silly disciples.

We laugh perhaps because we don’t understand the importance of honor in that ancient culture. In those times honor was everything. You measured your life by how much honor you could accrue. The scales of life were calibrated in terms of honor and shame, and you did everything you could to tip them in favor of honor. That is not so much how we see things today, so it’s easy to chuckle at the disciples arguing over who gets the honored seats. We have our own scales, though. Instead of “honor” and “shame,” we often weigh the worth of our lives in terms of “success” and “failure.” We praise people who are successful. We avoid becoming a failure or a “loser” (as the younger generation might say). Jesus laughs at all of us, because he has come to reverse the scales completely. He says to seek the role of a servant. Seek the lowest place, the last position, so that you may be first. If you want to become great, be a servant. If you want real honor, be ready to endure shame. If you want true success, then seek something the world would consider to be failure.

This makes no logical sense! Yet, it is a theme that runs through the whole of scripture. God’s people are often the butt of the joke, the least and the last. Even in the glorious days of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the best rulers were the ones who acted like servants. What, then, does it mean to be a servant? What does it mean for us to follow Christ, who came not to serve but to be served and to give his life so that we might be free of these categories of success and failure, honor and shame? We often interpret servanthood in terms of helping others. Helping others is very good, as we focus on the needs of others instead of our own. Helping others can liberate us from selfishness and open our hearts to grace. I think there can be an additional twist, though–another facet to Jesus’ call to servanthood. I think it could be expressed as a call to “embrace failure.” Embrace failure. I know that sounds crazy. The way to free ourselves from worshipping the idols of honor and success is to turn these things upside down. Become a servant. I said earlier that the disciples sometimes look like clowns, but Jesus is the best trickster of all. Jesus comes and tells us that up is down, last is first, and the order we want to see in the world is falling apart. He shows us, like the best clowns, that falling down does not have to be an ultimate tragedy. When the clown falls down, the audience cheers. Failure becomes a success. When Jesus takes the lowest place, when he is lifted up on the cross, that crucifixion ends in resurrection. The failure of Christ to become the earthly king everyone wanted becomes the greatest success story of the world as he rules in our hearts for eternity. Embrace failure. Seek the lowest place, become a servant…this is good news. We don’t have to climb and claw our way to the top. Our call is not to be upwardly mobile but downwardly mobile. What a relief! What a joy and liberating feeling. Many of you know that I went to clown school once upon a time. The lesson they taught us over and over again was, “if you are going to fail…fail magnificently.” When you fall down, really fall down. When you make a mess, make it a big, glorious, hilarious mess. Embrace failure.

I say all this as we embark on our annual stewardship campaign – inviting everyone to make a financial pledge to support St. George’s in 2016. It’s certainly not the time when I want to be making a big mess! But I have to laugh that right now the public radio station is holding their pledge drive. Maybe you are like me and try to avoid listening to them beg for money. You might have even been hearing it on the way to church, and now we are going to talk about money here too! By the way, we have coffee mugs in the back that we will just give you. You don’t have to make a pledge! But the difference between our church stewardship campaign and the public radio fundraiser is that we are not raising funds, we are raising stewards! A steward is a kind of servant, one who cares for the sacred gifts that came from and already belong to God. As we heard in the lesson from Job today, God tells Job, “Where were you when I was laying the foundations of the earth? Are you the one who tends to all this creation?!” We are raising the awareness that our gifts are gifts from and to God as an act of thanksgiving and trust.

Yes, those gifts of money will enable us to continue Giving as One (our theme this year), to GO as one body to all who seek a place to encounter the beloved community, the kingdom of God. They will support the worship, music, learning and sharing, the exploration of serving, praying and caring…all the things that go on here. And while the monetary gifts are important, it is also important that we invite each other to give them as an act of faith and trust in God. We invite pledges as a spiritual practice, not just to make the church budget.

The fear every year, in every church that I have ever been a part of is that the campaign will fail. What if we don’t get enough pledges? What if we don’t real our goal? What if we don’t…succeed? Which program or staff will have to be cut? And the fear that often operates in our hearts as we consider how much to give wonders, “What if I can’t pay my pledge?” “I can’t possibly pledge 5 or 10 percent of my income, because that will cause me to FAIL financially.” These are not necessarily unrealistic fears. I’m not making light of them at all. The good news, though, is that we do not need to be controlled by them. When we are afraid, when we are tempted to run back to the categories of success and failure as the measure of our lives, Jesus is there to tell us: become a servant. Measure your life according to service and love. In the midst of our fear we can still serve. In the midst of our failure, perceived or real, we can serve. I can’t tell you the number of people I visit in the hospital and they feel useless because their bodies have failed them. I tell them, “you can still serve.” You can still serve through your prayer, through your kind smile to a doctor or nurse, through your very presence; you can be a wonderful servant.

Now I am not saying that we should TRY to fail. If you have a test to take tomorrow, I recommend that you study! The point is that when we fail (and we will fail), it is not the end. Ultimately, we face the failure of these earthly bodies, and death is not the end. Even in death, particularly in death, Jesus served. Jesus gave his life, he failed, so that he could reveal to us the way of new life. Jesus gave his life so that we could be free from our bondage. A failure is an opportunity for resurrection.

I do hope this stewardship campaign will be a success. I hope more of us than ever will experience the leap of faith that giving in and through the church can be. I hope our format will be successful as we act as stewards of the pledge card passport folders around our neighborhoods. I hope it will work, but if it fails along the way, then let’s fail magnificently and have a wonderful time doing it. I hope we will receive more than enough pledges to continue and expand the ministry of this embassy of God’s kingdom we call St. George’s. BUT…to truly succeed, to truly sit in the places of glory and greatness…it is not ours to control. God is preparing us to receive grace beyond our imagining. God is preparing us to give in ways beyond our conceiving. We may find that grace in moments of success. We will more likely, I think, find them in moments of failure and vulnerability. We will most certainly find that greatness and grace in acts of love and service, acts of generous giving and sacrificial sharing, whether we succeed or fail. May God give us what we need to receive that grace so that we might be servants and stewards with Christ.

Salty Christians: A Taste of Infinitude

From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 21 Year B September 27
Audio:

 

Text of the sermon as prepared:

At the end of our Gospel passage from Mark today, Jesus gives some perplexing teaching: “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way as he preaches the sermon on the mount, “You are the salt of the earth.” What does it mean to have a salty faith? How are we to live out this call to saltiness? “Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus says, “and be at peace with one another.”

Here are some things we know about salt both in Biblical times and today. Salt is a seasoning for food. It is a preservative to prevent spoiling. Salt is a nutrient necessary for life. Salt is medicinal. This summer I cut my foot on our family beach trip. I went to my sister-in-law, who is a doctor, and asked her what I should do about it. She told me to go put it in the ocean, of course! That salty water heals all ills. Mahatma Gandhi performed one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in modern history when he marched to the Indian Ocean and defied British tyranny by making salt. Gandhi’s salt march makes me think that salt can be symbol of liberation. The Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, once wrote an ode to salt. In his poem he imagines the salt on our tables as connected with the mines deep in the earth, connected with oceans, connected with ancient ships and every meal we eat. He writes, “the smallest, miniature wave from the saltcellar reveals to us more than domestic whiteness; in it we taste infinitude.” In salt we taste infinitude, the limitless connections between all of God’s creations.

When we hear Jesus talking about having salt among ourselves, we can draw all kinds of connections with these images of salt that I have just described. We help to bring out the delicious flavor of the world with our acts of love and compassion. Our commitment to a larger communion, the body of Christ, preserves us against the spoiling of a self-centered world. When we act together as that community of faith, we can be agents of physical and spiritual health and healing. God uses us as agents of liberation and justice. At rare moments, we may without realizing it reveal a taste of God’s infinitude. I was exploring this theme with our guests from Tanzania, my friend from seminary, Bishop James Almasi and his Diocesan secretary, Canon Geoffrey Patrick. They are visiting Fredericksburg for a few days as part of a larger North American trip. Welcome! Canon Geoffrey remarked as we were talking about this passage that salt makes one thirsty. We Christians can be the salt which makes people thirsty for the living water of God. We could spend a long time imagining what Jesus might mean when he says for us to be salty.

The problem many Christians have, though, is that we sometimes get a little bit carried away with our saltiness. It’s not enough for us to bring the flavors of the dish together, we need to dominate the stew. It’s not enough for us to heal the wound, we need to make it sting a little bit. I think of the disciple, John, in today’s Gospel. John, the brother of James: the “sons of thunder.” John and James who will later come to Jesus to ask for the seats of honor when he comes in his glory. John and James who go up on the mountain with Jesus at the transfiguration. That John. He’s a salty sort of disciple, and he comes to Jesus saying that someone else, someone they didn’t know, someone who wasn’t part of their little group, has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The nerve of some people, right?! But don’t worry, Jesus, we took care of it, says John. We told him he couldn’t do that, because he wasn’t part of our group! You can just see Jesus shaking his head, “John, John! Do not stop him!”

Christian faith is not a game with insiders and outsiders. Christian faith is not about who has the most salt or the right kind of salt. I find it interesting by the way that these days in our cooking culture there is a gourmet thing going on with salt. Somehow the food tastes better if the salt was mined from deep inside the Himalayan mountains where it has become infused with nutrients over thousands of years. This is how we sometimes look at our churches. Which church in town has the saltiest music or theology or outreach or youth programs? You’d better believe it’s our church and not that church down the street. We are the saltiest. I’ve been encouraged by the Pope’s visits this week, because he is reaching out across church boundaries, but I can just hear some people saying, “If only he were an Episcopalian!” This is a stumbling block, the kind of stumbling block which Jesus warns against in the Gospel today. This kind of Christian smugness is just the kind of thing that makes a lot of people want to run in the other direction. They can taste the salt, and it turns them off. I don’t know that this is a big problem at St. George’s, because I think we’re trying to live our faith without having to make a big show or tell others they have to do it our way. But to the people who never come to church, we look like a big pillar of salt, and all they see is crusty corrosion. All they see is too much overpowering flavor that’s going to dry up their souls like a slug. They expect us to come out of here saying, “come be salty like us but only if you’re willing to follow our rules and do things our way.” That’s the stumbling block we have to be aware of, the stumbling block of our insider traditions that keep others on the outside and even pushes them away.

One place where I see just the right kind of saltiness is at The Table, our market style food pantry on Tuesdays. We say we are feeding people, but really we are providing a container. We put a bunch of people together, some rich, some poor, and some in between. We give them a bunch of food, some fresh, some canned, some dried. Then the most delicious dish emerges, seasoned by all our gifts. Jesus says to have salt among ourselves, and then he says, be at peace with one another. That word, peace, means wholeness and fulfillment. It means having the perfect amount of saltiness. It means all the flavors come together just so. It means that we do not have to worry about providing all that is needed. God has already provided the salt. If only the disciple John had said to the person who was also casting out demons, “hey where did you learn how to do that–and maybe we can learn from you?” It would have changed the whole equation. What if our guiding principle for evangelism (that’s the “e” word that we in the Episcopal Church are afraid of sometimes) was inquiry not inquisition? Curiosity not curatorial lecturing? God wants us to be at peace, whole and complete, which we can only know when we stop drawing lines of inside and out and realize that God’s grace has drawn a line around us all. We have all been seasoned with grace. We have all been salted with love. We have all been given a capacity to bring out the flavor in each other, to heal each other’s wounds, to proclaim each other’s liberation, to seek the infinitude, the limitless connections in and among and through each other’s lives. We do not need to try to be salty. With God’s help, we may discover each other’s saltiness. With God’s help, we may remove the stumbling blocks, the corrosive pillars of salt, and inspire each other to taste the infinitude; taste and see that God is good.

A reflection on Holy Eucharist liturgy changes for fall 2015 at St. George’s

This Book of Common Prayer found in the Elsie Lewis Room is actually from 1977--it's a "proposed" BCP.  Its use was "authorized...as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer, for a period of three years, as from the First Sunday of Advent, 1976,
This Book of Common Prayer  (BCP) found in the Elsie Lewis Room is actually from 1977–it’s a “proposed” BCP. Its use was “authorized…as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer, for a period of three years, as from the First Sunday of Advent, 1976.”

When I arrived at St. George’s last January, I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of the worship life here. All the Sunday services had a distinct and wonderful energy. People ask me to name my favorite service, and I cannot do it. I love them all. In these first months, I have made a few adjustments and tried a few experiments in the worship services but have left their general structure in place. My sense is that the structure works well. We have a balance of two “traditional” services at 7:45 and 11 a.m. and two “alternative” services at 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. These services include the Holy Eucharist, in keeping with our Book of Common Prayer’s direction that the Holy Eucharist is the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day (Sunday BCP p. 13). We also offer compline, a simple service of chanted prayer, at 8:00 as a wonderfully traditional way to close the day. To offer this kind of variety is pretty unique for a parish our size in the Episcopal Church. Thanks be to God!

As part of The Episcopal Church we are expected to follow the Book of Common Prayer for our worship together, unless granted permission by the bishop to deviate from it. Years ago, the bishop gave permission for St. George’s to offer a service known as “Rite III,” designed in keeping with the BCP’s Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist on pp. 400-401. The prayer book is clear that this is not to take the place of the principal Sunday celebration of Holy Eucharist. St. George’s been using some additional resources for this Sunday service at 9:00 a.m. including “Enriching Our Worship I (EOW I)” a supplement to the BCP approved by the Episcopal Church in the late 1990’s. As we go back to our 9:00 service this fall, we will go back to a similar format with jazz music and alternative prayers. We have changed a few of the words to match what is in EOW, so that we are using words that are used by other congregations in the Episcopal Church that have adopted EOW. We are still people praying “in common” in some form or fashion. A slightly different practice will be saying a creed or affirmation of faith and a confession on alternating weeks. One week we will offer a creed and the next we will say a confession. This keeps the service a little shorter (which is helpful for getting to our classes on time following the 9:00). It also exposes us to the creeds and confession prayers in a lighter way. The 9:00 service was started, partly to reach out to families and people who might find a traditional service too heavy. Creeds and confessions can be hard for some folks. I do not want to omit these parts from the service completely, though, because they are important foundations of our worship life. At the same time, I do not want these parts to become stumbling blocks that make it hard for some people to worship. I hope that alternating their use will be a middle way.

Our other alternative service, Celtic evening prayer and Eucharist at 5:30 p.m. will stay consistent with a few prayers changed for variety’s sake. This service was started as a way to reach people for whom a gentler, quieter worship experience, later in the day, would make it possible for them to come to church. It was modelled after a similar service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond and uses language from the Iona Community in Scotland. Iona is an ecumenical, Christian community dedicated to exploring new ways of sharing the Gospel. Some people have asked why we no longer say the Lord’s Prayer at this service according to the version found in the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer. Our bishop, Shannon Johnston, has been very accommodating of St. George’s requests to have alternative worship. However, he has asked that we stick to the versions of the Lord’s Prayer found in our Book of Common Prayer for any official service of worship. As Episcopalians, the authority of bishops is important. At this point, I want respect his wishes, especially given that he has been so flexible in other ways. I do think at some point we can ask him more about his preference. He is definitely open to dialogue.

Likewise, our traditional Eucharist service, Rite I, at 7:45 will also remain consistent. The language in this service is the closest we have to the original Book of Common Prayer from our roots in England. In such an historic congregation as St. George’s, the fact that we offer this service is a testimony to those foundations. We might occasionally offer Rite I at another time, because we have some folks who really enjoy the tradition but find 7:45 a.m. too early an hour.

Our principal Sunday service is the 11:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist, Rite II. When I arrived here, I became aware that this service had been modified from the language of the BCP, and that these changes were not without some controversy. Some people welcomed language, especially in the Eucharist prayers that reflected more gender-neutrality or inclusion of feminine as well as masculine references to God. Others felt these changes were not appropriate for our principal service, since they did not follow the BCP. I have engaged the congregation and our bishops in conversations about our liturgy, because I am new here and want to understand more. Those conversations are still in process. For now, the response I have received from our bishops is that we should restore our principal service to follow the prayer book. Personally, I wish that the revisions of the 1979 BCP had gone farther to be gender neutral or gender inclusive. However, I am not comfortable editing the prayers of our BCP without some wider guidance from the Church. After all, if every Episcopal parish edited the prayer book on their own, we would risk losing some of our identity as people who worship in common.

At the same time, there is also a “tradition” in the Episcopal Church of pushing the envelope! I did continue the practice of editing the prayers in my first months, because I did not want to make too many changes too quickly. I love our Episcopal Church, because we are a church of the “via media” the “middle way.” I have decided (in consultation with bishops, clergy, staff, and parishioners) to make the following changes for the fall, until Advent (to be reviewed as seasons change and conversations continue). As rector, the liturgy is ultimately my responsibility, though I am thankful to share that responsibility with others. We will use the language of the BCP at 11:00 with a couple of additions where they are allowed. Pastorally, I know that many St. Georgians just want to worship using the prayer book and felt that the previous changes were forced upon them. There are also many St. Georgians who love the prayer book and traditional music but are averse to patriarchal language. There are places in our liturgy where the prayer book gives latitude for the celebrant to insert prayers of his/her choosing. One place is the Prayers of the People. There are forms provided in the BCP beginning on p. 383, but the instructions make clear that adaptations and insertions may be made. We will balance between forms from the book and prayers composed by our own St. George’s prayer guild. Following these prayers, there is a “concluding Collect,” and ending prayer. The BCP says the celebrant may select “a Collect expressive of some special need in the life of the local congregation” (BCP p. 394).

For this season, we will pray using a medieval text by the great Anglican archbishop, Anselm of Canterbury. His prayer makes reference to Jesus as a mother figure (inspired by Luke 13:34; included in the Enriching Our Worship materials). I have chosen this prayer, because I hope it will addresses a pastoral need of those in our 11:00 congregation for language that is not exclusively masculine. Another place where the celebrant has options is the blessing at the end of the service. You may hear me or others using feminine as well as masculine language or simply language that is gender neutral. Again, this is my attempt to find a middle way. I realize that there is no way to make everyone happy. Let us try these changes for a season and keep the feedback coming.

I also want to suggest, perhaps controversially, that if there are words in our prayers that make you uncomfortable, there is no requirement that you say them. If the prayer book refers to God as “him,” I am fine with individuals saying their own word quietly or simply pausing in silence. There are times when I do this myself. Common prayer does not mean we all have to walk in lock step. We pray together in our own voices, our hearts united in common respect and love.

For the fall season we will return to a chanted psalm with refrain at 11:00. This will also mean printing more of the service in the bulletin at the 11:00 service this fall. Many St. Georgians have expressed a preference to print less of the service and ask people to use the prayer books in the pews. This is the time of year when many newcomers arrive. It is an act of hospitality to welcome them with a bulletin that makes it easier to participate. We will ask people to open the BCP from time to time. Of course, you are welcome to use the BCP as much as you want! In future seasons, we may again try using less paper.

In general, these topics need more conversation and study. We have had some of those discussions over the summer, and I look forward to more in the future.

I have written a lot here, and appreciate your taking the time to hear some of the “method” behind our “madness.” I am having a wonderful time at St. George’s, and I hope this fall will be a time of continuing vibrancy in our worship life. The liturgy is where we begin and end and begin again our mission as Christians. The Lord be with us…

Your rector and brother in Christ,

Joe+

I’m Lovin’ the Church

By the Reverend Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA

I recently shared a link on Facebook to a post by Greg Garrett on Patheos.com: “Why I am Still An Episcopalian.” I am so thankful for writers like him who eloquently and succinctly express some of the gifts of our tradition. It was one of those posts that seemed to resonate with a lot of people. Then a day later I got an email from a parishioner in response to my recent sermon (see post here). Her reasons for loving the church were also compelling, and I thought they needed to be shared more widely.

She wrote:

I thought about the “bread” and what it would mean to be willing to be consumed by others and for others. I also envisioned our church as a huge loaf of bread and many hands reaching up to take chunks off to eat. The loaf would never disappear but remain fresh and whole even as many were fed. As I reflected on your thoughts and what it means to be a Christian, I realized a few things. I love St. George’s and being Episcopalian. I love that a large part of what we do is have conversations about what it means to follow Christ and to love our neighbor. I love the fact that we discover the meaning by asking questions, not by memorizing answers. I think that part of our “welcoming” is an invitation to others to join the conversation, to add to the discussion, to discover for themselves what it means to live as a witness to the love of Christ.

I love that people love the church. Let’s keep sharing the love.

The Signs We Bear, The Bread We Bring

From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 13 Year B, August 2, 2015

In this week’s Gospel lesson, the crowds ask Jesus: “What miraculous sign are you going to give us or do so that we may see it and believe you?” What sign will you do? At first we might want to dismiss the crowd – they just want Jesus to perform another miracle for them. They have seen him feed five thousand people and cure the sick already. Signs, though, are important in the life of faith. Many of us have probably asked God for a sign at some point in our lives. We gather here this day and every Sunday and Wednesday at noon to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace. As the church, we are entrusted with these holy signs of God’s love. I believe we are also, as the church and as individuals, invited by God to lift up other signs as well in order to get the world’s attention, to remind the world of both God’s justice and mercy. What signs are we being, are we giving the world that we and they might see and believe?

When I talk about religious signs, our thoughts might flash to the literal sign wavers: “The End is Near – Repent” (or some other negative message I would rather not repeat in this pulpit) or “God loves you” or “John 3:16.” We may think of the church marquee signs that inspire faith with such words as “Don’t let worries kill you. Let the church help!” I was impressed by a picture I saw of an Episcopal church with a somewhat bold financial marquee message which read, “Tithe if you love Jesus. Anyone can honk.” I’m not sure if it got people to increase their pledge, but it was creative. St. George’s has our own “Wayside Pulpit,” and the communications and evangelism commission would welcome suggestions about ways to use that sign to really inspire passers-by. Signs, though, go much deeper than posters, billboards, and bumper stickers.

In the Old Testament lesson we heard today, the prophet Nathan has been sent by God to call King David to account for his many transgressions. He has been sent to be a sign of God’s justice. David’s story is worth retelling briefly. God chose David, a shepherd boy, over all his older brothers to be the next king of Israel. David fought and defeated the giant Goliath with only a sling and a stone. King Saul felt so threatened by him that he tried to have him killed. Eventually God gave the kingdom to David and David promised to serve God. His story is one of the Bible’s examples of how God’s grace can do anything.

But power corrupted David. One day he spied on a married woman named Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop. He used his power and authority to take her into his bed. Her husband, Uriah the Hittite, was a dedicated soldier serving abroad in David’s army. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David tried to cover the whole thing up, and when it didn’t work, he arranged for Uriah to die on the battlefield. Then he took Bathsheba as one of his wives. The scripture refers to her repeatedly as the wife of Uriah to remind us that David broke God’s law in so many ways. David, so faithful in other parts of his story, did wrong, really wrong. God sends Nathan to deliver that message. Nathan could have walked in with a big sign that said, “You are a sinner.” He might have gotten his head chopped off. Instead, he takes a more subtle approach and tells David a story of an injustice committed against a poor man by a rich man. When David reacts strongly against the actions of the rich man, it creates an opening for Nathan to present David with his own crimes. “You are the man!” he cries. Because of the story, David sees his own hypocrisy and is able to hear the truth about his actions. The story is a sign. It gets David’s attention so that David repents on the spot: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Psalm 51, which we said today, is attributed to David after Nathan confronts him about Bathsheba. The verses, “have mercy on me O God, according to your loving kindness,” show David’s contrition and his desire for God’s help. The sign was effective.

God’s prophets have not always been as clever as Nathan. Many prophets have faithfully shaken their fists at the powerful hypocrites without making much headway. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann once noted that “It is permissible to talk about speaking truth to power. If truth is to have a chance with power, it must be done with some subtlety.” Perhaps this is why God sends Jesus. Jesus is so subtle, most people do not recognize him immediately as the son of God. They see him as a teacher and miracle worker, perhaps even a prophet, but Jesus is not a prophet with a sign. Jesus is the sign. Jesus is the one come to show us not only how we have wandered away from God’s path but more importantly how we are called to a new life. Jesus comes to show us what we can become through God’s grace.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” He is the sign of God’s sustenance: spiritual nourishment that can make all our earthly hunger and thirst seem insignificant. Jesus uses the image of bread, the basic food that sustained life in those days, to get the people’s attention and interest them in going deeper.

What signs, then, are we called to bear? There is so much injustice in the world. We can shout about the wrongs and condemn those who do them. How can we, like Nathan, bring a word of condemnation that inspires repentance? What signs might we perform that not only get the attention of the powerful but open their hearts? We live in a world that has been increasingly skeptical of religious people and their signs. If we tell people, “Jesus is the bread of the life,” they might respond, “I can’t have Jesus, then, because I’m on the paleo diet.” Lauren Winner, who keynoted the St. George’s Shrinemont weekend a few years ago, has a new book called “Wearing God…Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.” There is a great chapter about bread as a sign for God. She mentions a study of women with eating disorders: two-thirds of those women who regularly participate in Eucharist reported they received communion less often because they were worried about calories in the bread and wine. What signs do we offer for any people who have been victims of our culture’s love/hate relationship with food and the body? What signs are we offering the Bathshebas of our day, women who suffer unjustly? How can we say, “God loves you” in a fresh and authentic way to any of us who have been victimized? What signs will not further wound but will open our hearts, minds, and bodies to a deeper and life-giving encounter with God? This is the challenge of evangelism in our world.

During the latest General Convention, I saw several posts on social media asking whether Episcopalians were the snarkiest denomination, based on all the cynically witty posts we were making on Twitter and Facebook in response to happenings at Convention. It might seem harmless for religious people to put each other down in amusing ways. Meanwhile people with little interest in faith are scrolling past our posts without a second thought. What signs might we perform so that others see them and actually want to know more about a deeper, abundant, fulfilled life that is only possible through God’s grace?

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” In that statement, he invites us to become bread too. In her book, Lauren Winner talks about asking church people what kind of bread they imagine Jesus to be. Think about it: what kind of bread is Jesus for you? Winner says, by the way, that no one chose the convenient but barely edible wafers we use in communion! Her question makes me want to pose another question: If Jesus is the bread of life, and we are called to be bread too, then what kind of bread do we want to be? What kind of bread-like sign do we want to be, with God’s grace, that nourishes, delights, and invites a table conversation? Perhaps we are rolls gleaned from the sandwich shop to give away at The Table. Are we white or whole wheat or rye? Are we crusty on the outside with a richly textured interior? And we also remember the people who have been Christ-like bread for us. How can we share the miracles they have showed us?

One of the enduring images I have of grace comes from a story a friend of mine told about serving in the Army rangers. Once during a really tough field maneuver, a sandwich miraculously appeared from a superior officer at a moment when he needed both something to eat and a gesture of kindness. That bread and cheese was the body of Christ for him, and the story has stuck with me. Whatever bread we are, whatever sign we bring to the world, God can give us the grace to perform it with the cleverness, courage, and subtlety of Nathan the prophet, Jesus the Christ, and all the evangelists who preach the Gospel and, when necessary, use words. Signs are important. We may not be able to bring manna from heaven. We might, with God’s grace and in hopes of renewed life, give people something good on which to chew.

God Offers Us Fullness

From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 12 Year B, July 26, 2015

Ethiopian icon depicting the boy handing his loaves and fishes Hear again these words from the letter to the Ephesians: “I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.” The writer of Ephesians prays that his hearers will be filled with the fullness of God. In the Gospel story today, Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fish and fills the bellies of 5,000 people. Twelve baskets are filled with the leftover pieces. The good news is that God offers us fullness. God offers us fullness.

What is this fullness that God offers us? The crowd in today’s Gospel lesson keeps following Jesus around. They have seen his healing miracles, and they want to see more. When Jesus is able to feed them with just five loaves and two fish, they proclaim him a prophet and are about to make him a king. The crowd perhaps defines the fullness of God as power to fulfill our needs. When we are sick, God heals us. When we are hungry, God feeds us. When we are afraid, as the disciples were on the stormy sea later in the Gospel story, God comforts us. The crowd wants to seize that power to fulfill our needs. They want Jesus to be their prophet king who will provide whatever they need whenever they need it.

We are not so different from the crowd in the story. Many of us would define fulfillment as having everything we need. Or being able to do the things we want to do. We are looking for prophets and rulers too. We devour the latest books and social media posts about how to be happy, healthy, successful, rich. We form strategies and plans to cure the world’s ills, to create a better society for everyone. We would be really fulfilled if everyone had enough to eat and decent health care, and a meaningful way to support themselves and their family. The American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are mere shadows of the fullness that God offers us.

I have been thinking about one character in the story who is not often discussed but who might hold some key to what it means to know the fullness of God: the youth with the loaves and fishes. This is an interesting detail in John’s account of this miracle. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the disciples gather together the bread and fish from among themselves or members of the crowd. John is the only Gospel story where one person, a youth, has all the bread and fish to himself. It raises the question, why did this boy have all that food? Was he selling it? Was it for his family? It seems like more food than one person would consume alone. We are not told whether the disciples bought the food from him or asked for it or just took it. Can you imagine how he might have felt? Maybe he was thinking: “They are going to take my feast and break it into tiny bits to try and feed this crowd? There will be less than a crumb for everyone…it’s just as bad as throwing all my food away.” Maybe he was feeling honored that his food would go to the rabbi Jesus. Maybe he was just wondering what would happen next. Now imagine how he feels when he sees the disciples collecting the twelve full baskets of leftovers. We presume that he has eaten his fill and is now amazed to see more than he started with. The youth has gone from being full (having five loaves and two fishes) to being empty to being full again and with more to spare.

To be filled with the fullness of God, we, like the boy, are asked to offer the fullness we think we have. We become empty so that God can fill us in ways we cannot ask or imagine. So much of the world’s wisdom about fullness is about adding to what we already have, saving for tomorrow, accumulating more and more until we are finally full and satisfied. God’s fullness is less about accumulation and more about giving things away.

One of my favorite stories about fullness actually happened about seven years ago. I heard it on National Public Radio. Maybe some of you did too. (You can read it here.)  On a cold night in February, a 31-year-old social worker named Julio Diaz was stopping at his favorite diner in the Bronx, New York City, the way he did most nights. As he got off the subway platform, a teenage boy approached him, pulled out a knife, and demanded his money. Without hesitating and with a friendly “here you go,” Diaz gave the boy his wallet. He noticed the boy was not wearing a coat, so he called out to him, “Hey, you forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people the rest of the night, you might want my coat to stay warm.” The teen looked confused. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.” Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, you must really need to money. I was just going to get dinner. You’re welcome to join me if you want.”

The teen and Diaz went into the diner and sat in a booth. This was Diaz’s favorite place, and he was a regular, so everyone there was coming up and saying hello: the manager, the waiters, even the dishwashers. The young man was amazed. “You know everyone here, do you own this place?” “No,” says Diaz, “I just eat here a lot.” The boy wondered, “But you’re even nice to the dishwashers.” “Well I was taught to be nice to everybody, weren’t you?” The young man replied, “well yeah, but I didn’t think people really did it.” Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life, what would fulfill him, and the young man couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. He was just silent with a sad look on his face. Then the bill arrived. Diaz told the youth, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill, because you have my money and I can’t pay for it. If you give me my wallet back, I’d be happy to treat you.” The teen immediately returned the wallet. Diaz paid for the meal and gave the young man $20. Then he asked him for something in return…the knife. The young man handed it over.

I do not claim to have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth. I do not claim to know much about the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. I do not claim to be filled with the fullness of God at all times in my life. In a story like this one, I believe we catch a glimpse of Christ’s fullness; fullness that can live with some emptiness. The love of Christ does not always feed five thousand people. Sometimes it feeds only one or two souls. It is not the number that matters. What matters is our willingness to allow Christ to dwell in our hearts, to give up what we have and allow God to fill us far beyond what we could ask or imagine. To God who offers us that fullness and gives us grace to accept it be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.