A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
July 30, 2006
Christ Church Cathedral
The Very Rev. Ronald H. Clingenpeel
Kings II 2:1-15
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
A Place at the Table
After the feeding of the five thousand, from last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus sends the disciples away. They are to go in a boat to Bethsaida. He will go and pray. It is not uncommon for Jesus to do just such a thing following a big event. Jesus goes away to pray. We are rarely let in on what those prayers are about, but maybe he is using this time to recharge his batteries. It is a time to reflect on the immediate past events and get his heart around what has just happened. Once he has done this, he is ready to reconnect with his disciples. He is ready to put himself back into that community.
So it is in this story that Jesus decides to join them at Bethsaida by walking across the water in the night time. The disciples have been struggling against the wind and have not made great time getting across the lake. It is in this worn out condition that they have a vision of a ghost walking across the water towards them. They are at once afraid. They are terrified. All of this on top of the struggle to get across disturbed waters. Well, what one of us would not be the same, considering the circumstances? We have just seen him feed five thousand, as if with the turn of a hand. We have been a part of a miracle that Jesus has neither explained or given time to understand. Now, in the evening, struggling against a hard wind, we encounter some sort of mirage walking across the water. Terrified probably does not come close to explaining our feelings.
“Take heart,” Jesus says, “it is I; do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. Once again the phrase from weeks of Gospel readings comes back. Do not be afraid. For some time this theme has wound its way through the Gospel of Mark.
Fear – it is probably the one thing that cripples us most as humans. It is grounded in our personal insecurities. And, it is usually attached to loss. We fear the loss of control, the loss of independence, the loss of money, the loss of relationship, the loss of personal property, the loss of life. Fear – it paralyses us, or causes us to act or react irrationally. Fear – it is the one thing that can cause misunderstanding, or anger, or hatred. Fear is bound to many of the basic problems we encounter in life – racism has an element of fear, as does homophobia. Fear stagnates life itself, because when we succumb to fear, we allow outside forces or people to rule us.
The disciples feared, because they had hardened their hearts. That means they did not want to believe. They did not want changes. They wanted to follow Jesus, as long as Jesus didn’t do too many things to rock their world. As long as he healed a few folks, said some nice things and made people feel happy and comfortable, they were OK. But this miracle of loaves and fishes, and now walking across water – that is too much. It is too much for them to deal with. It is too much for them to comprehend.
Is that not true of ourselves? When we get out of our comfort zone, we allow fear to take over – we allow our hearts to be hardened. Some people can ride a roller coaster and love it. Their level of tolerance is higher than another person. Still, there will come a time when fear does set it – when it takes over. Eventually the ride will have its toll. We all have our own level of tolerance before fear takes over. We will retreat to fear, unless we can be reassured, from either inside of ourselves, or from someone else. Children go to their parents to be reassured when they are fearful of the night or of monsters. They seek that place where they are comfortable and where they will be comforted. And the parent says “don’t be afraid. I am with you. Things are going to be alright.” It may take some time, but it works. It works. “Do not be afraid,” says Jesus to his disciples. “Do not be afraid.”
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” Paul’s words to the Ephesians are very familiar to us. They are the words of baptism (the words that began this very liturgy). They are the words we use to describe our intention to be a people of God and God’s intention that we be just such a people. One body – One Spirit. It is not many bodies working in different directions for personal purposes, but one body, led by the Spirit. It is not about the individual, but about one body in Christ. That is hard, I know. For each of us wants it to be about us. Paul writes that the gifts we are given are meant to build up the body. They are not gifts that each of us owns for ourselves, but they are intended for the common good. When we think or act otherwise, we do nothing to build up the body of Christ. We actually end up working against the body of Christ. Each of us, sharing our gifts, makes the body stronger. Each of us, giving of ourselves, makes the body full. Each of us, giving.
Last week, Canon Nanny spoke of some things that are prevalent in our community of faith. There are budget concerns and questions about where we are going. These are good questions, and things we as a community must address. They are not the problems of a few of us, but the problems we share as the whole. Is the wolf knocking at the door? Not if we as a community don’t let it. She also said some very nice things about me, in particular. As good as that makes me feel, this Cathedral, the ministry we have, and the life we live is not about the Dean or me personally. Being one body means that we all contribute our gifts to the greater good, the bigger picture. It means there is something great and larger than myself to which I am committed. How I give to that, how I share my gifts, how I act will go a long way to live into the one body Christ intends for us. That is true of each and every one of us. It is not about an individual, it is about something greater than the sum of its parts. Paul exhorts us to grow up in every way into Christ, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” One body – One Spirit – One Love – One Lover. That’s what this is about.
In the past several weeks many have said they are feeling left out; or treated as second class citizens; or being dismissed by some of the actions of the General Convention; or by some of the actions certain people have taken since that General Convention. There is pain around this. I understand it, and I know about it, because there are those in this community who have taken the time to talk with me about it.
The Episcopal Church is not perfect. It is as broken as any one of us in this room. It is a product of our life together. Look at this altar. This altar is a table to which we are all called. This table is the place where we put simple things – bread and wine – and pray that God will make them the body and blood of Jesus. We eat from this table, because God invites us to do so. We eat from this table the very essence of God. We eat from this table, not as individuals, but as a body gathered in Christ to meet our God. As Archbishop Geoffrey Fischer once said, it is not so much what I make of God, but rather what God makes of me. That happens here. This is where God makes something of us.
This is God’s table. It does not belong to us. It does not belong to Christ Church Cathedral or the Diocese of Missouri. It does not belong to the Episcopal Church or the world-wide Anglican Communion. This is God’s table. We eat from this table through the invitation of God – not the invitation of a certain priest or the Chapter or a bishop. We eat at this table because God makes it happen. No resolution of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Missouri, the American Anglican Council, or a pronouncement by the Archbishop of Canterbury or anyone else can make this less so. Any priest who stands at the altar of God and says the prayers and pronounces the blessing does so as an agent of God – it is not something we do by ourselves or through any personal authority. When the priest stands at the table and says those prayers and pronounces that blessing it is only by the grace of God. It has nothing to do with who that priest is. It has everything to do with Jesus Christ.
This is God’s table. It is here for everyone. It is here for you if you are black or white, thin or fat, gay lesbian or straight, tall or short, young or old, male or female, angry, sad, hurting, joyful, happy or whatever. It is the only place to bring our pain, our hardened hearts, our fear. It is the one place where we can put our disappointment, our anger, our hurt, our confusion, our depression. It knows no limits or boundaries. It is God’s real presence among us – for us to taste and see, eat and drink, know and love. It is the place where everything is ultimately redeemed. Not out in the world, but at this altar. God does not put limits on who can come, for all are welcome. There is a place at this table for everyone.
And there is nothing in this world that can ever change that – nothing in this world to make it anything else. God’s table is here for each and every one of us.
When we begin to see that this is about Jesus Christ and not about us, we see the bigger reality. For if it is not about Jesus Christ, it can never really be about us. It will only be about individuals vying for power or position or personal gratification. If it is not about Jesus Christ, then we will never be fed. If it is not about Jesus Christ, we will always have problems. If it is not about Jesus Christ, then we will always live in fear. If it is not about Jesus Christ, then we have fallen prey to the evils of this world that move to separate us, cause us emotional division and destroy us.
The Good News is that God has made it about us – not in some selfish, self-absorbed, self-indulged way, but through the Christ who comes to say to us when we are on disturbed waters – “Be not afraid.” The Good News is that God has made it about us through the Christ who comes to us in our fearful darkness and says, “Be not afraid.” The Good News is that God has made it about us through Jesus Christ who comes directly to our hardened hearts and says, “Be not afraid.”
We can either succumb to our fears and the disturbed waters around us or to the hardening our hearts – or we can believe Jesus when he says. “Be not afraid.” When we believe that / when we accept that – things will change – we will change. God will be praised.
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