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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Reflex—or Routine?

Key Passage: John 6:29

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: thanks, gratitude, routine, reflex

November 28, 2019  +  Thanksgiving Day

The American Church in Paris

It is a great honor indeed to stand in this pulpit and to be welcomed in this place, and I am grateful to the Senior Pastor, a friend of many years, for the risk he has taken on today’s preacher. And in the presence of an ecumenical and interfaith gathering, I must also acknowledge—it would be more accurate to say, I must confess—that as the Episcopal bishop now living in Paris I feel no little bit convicted by that anthem the choir sang. 

At least Dr. Herr arranged it so that we didn’t all read that Psalm aloud, so that the full weight of the irony of my being here would be unavoidable. “O how good and pleasant it is / when kindred live together in Unity”—that is how that Psalm begins; and I stand here before you as the descendant of a rather fussy and uncharitable man who could not abide the horror of the idea that a prayer service for Americans in Paris using parts of the Episcopal prayer book was being read by Dr. Seeley while dressed in a black gown.

One hundred and sixty three years later I read through this history and am grieved, and not a little embarrassed, that our separate communities on either side of the Seine arose from such pettiness and trifles. My first years in ordained ministry were spent in a church that came into being before the existence of denominational divides in America, and which —for all those years—has never signed up with any one tribe or other; and believe it or not, in the days I worked there, not so very long ago, the form of divine service on Sunday morning was, yup, large elements of the Book of Common Prayer being used by ministers in black gowns.

If only the Episcopalians here in Paris in the late 1850s had been a more tolerant bunch, we still might be doing that today.

So I stand here only by virtue of the magnanimity of this place and its pastor, and the blessed tendency of time to soften the hard edges of what we once imagine to be our desperately important divisions. I am very grateful to be here.

The apology I need to offer to Rabbi Cohen is much longer, and so to make sure I get us all home in time for dinner I had better begin.

Let me start here: I wonder how thankful you are feeling right now, in this moment. I wonder how thankful you are feeling these days.

I don’t know about you, but gratitude for me these days is hard work. I am relatively new to this job; I am at a long distance from family and friends of many years; I am finding my way in a very different place, and culture, and language. I am trying to solve the nearly insoluble problem of how to live here and keep the Internal Revenue Service happy. And almost every day I wake up and wonder what it will mean today to be in this place carrying the label “American.”

Perhaps you might recognize some of this, too. If so, we both have a lot in common with that crowd trying to get some answers out of the rabbi in that reading from the Gospel of John.

Let’s remember the context of the story. Before the little scene we just heard, Jesus has been teaching somewhere along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, probably near Tiberias. There is something viral about his message, and a lot of people—a lot of people, who, like us, are carrying around a lot of worries and a lot of anxiety—are following him around.

They are not just there for an inspirational message. They are not just there because sermons are pretty much the only form of entertainment for Jewish people in the ancient world. They are there to see whether this guy will deliver. Whether he will make a change for them. Whether somehow he will release them from all the worry, all the hunger, all the feeling of uncertainty that comes from living under the boot of a system that rules by brutality, where violence is random and dignity is a luxury.

Who can blame them for wanting some relief?

Somehow, when all the teaching is done and a great crowd is hanging around the rabbi waiting to see what will happen next, somehow everyone gets fed. It doesn’t start with much, but it ends with almost embarrassing abundance. And when that happens, things turn into a little bit of a frenzy.

The text tells us that the crowd starts agitating for Jesus. They want to make him a king. They want to seize him and make him make more loaves and fishes. Jesus, seeing this for what this is, does the wisest thing possible. He doesn’t decide to join in the Democratic primaries; he runs, as fast as possible, in the other direction.

What happens next is a little confusing. Somehow, Jesus and his closest followers get separated. We don’t know if those disciples finally gave up looking him and decided to move on, or got exasperated and decided to cut their losses, or just what.

What we do know is, those disciples get in the only boat available and head to Capernaum. The winds turn to a gale, and the lake turns into a sea, and just as the boat is about to be swamped, Jesus appears to them walking across the waters of the storm. And the next thing we hear, they have landed at Capernaum, and yesterday’s crowd, having seen that the boat is gone, catch up with them after the journey of a morning at just about this time of day.

You can always tell that the crowds around Jesus are a little embarrassed when they ask dumb questions. This morning, the best question they can come up with is: “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

That’s probably not the question they most want to ask. They already know the answer to that question. Jesus got there sometime between the tumult of the clamoring crowd yesterday afternoon and their all meeting up right here in Capernaum about eighteen hours later.

No, what they really want to know is—can you do that thing with the bread and the fish again? I mean, thanks for yesterday, and if we keep with you—what do we have to do to keep this arrangement going?

If you listened to that story carefully, you sort of get the feeling that this is a dialogue of people using the same words and talking completely past each other. When the people talk about bread, they are talking about food. When Jesus talks about bread, he is talking about the stuff that sustains souls. That is not the uppermost thing on the minds of those eager people.

They are—in other words—pretty much like the hundreds of thousands of people we share this city with. Like the millions of people we share Europe with. They want to find some way of immediately feeding their hunger for food, or fame, or wealth, or security, or followers, or influence, or power.

When Jesus talks to them about sustenance for their souls, they think he’s talking about something else. They think maybe this is the same thing as the manna that they’ve heard about in the old stories in church. What they don’t seem to remember was that even the manna only lasted a day. Jesus is trying to get their sights set on  something that will last a little longer than tomorrow.

At the core of this disconnected dialogue is the difference between a reaction and a virtue, between a reflex and a routine.

For the crowd around Jesus and the crowds outside our doors, the reflexive response to the satisfaction of an immediate need is short, sharp, and superficial.

I’m hungry; here’s the food; thanks. I’m thirsty; here’s a drink; thanks. I’m lonely; here’s some easy intimacy; thanks. The thanks last about as long as the satisfaction, and perhaps not even as long. It’s a reflex, and nothing more.

In her excellent commentary on the Gospel of John in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, Adele Reinhartz teaches us that the most significant way in which Jesus and the crowd are talking past each other is in not understanding what Jesus is offering. The crowd asks what they have to do to get more bread. But Jesus is trying to teach them that the invitation set before them isn’t about doing something; it’s about participating in the life of God through the discipline of faith. That is the life given by the bread of God; it is taking part in the life of God.

That can never be done through a mere reflex. That kind of life takes routine. It takes discipline, it takes practice, it takes the kind of patience and quiet determination that separates sprinters from marathoners.

To say this in different words, it’s the difference between etiquette and ethics. Giving thanks is good etiquette. But living gratefully—that is a matter of ethical choice for faithful people.

So rather than the laundry list of reflexive thanks we tend to stammer through as we go around the table today, imagine what would happen if we took on board as deeply as possible the idea that everything we have, everything we know, is a gift. That we are entitled to nothing, dependent for God on everything, and richly blessed in all things. That, as the poet Marjorie Saiser has written, it isn’t the feast we have to give thanks for; we are the feast, all of our memories and all of our hopes, all of our gifts and all of our mistakes, all of the love we have given and all of the love we have received; all of that, all that we are, is the result of God’s abundant goodness.

What would happen if we took that aboard deeply, and prayerfully—and then made a discipline of living as though it were really true?

I suppose what would happen is that we would finally understand what Jesus was really talking about at noon that day in Capernaum. I suppose what would happen is that we would greet each next child of God not with suspicion, not with calculation, but with thankfulness. Imagine how confused, how disoriented—how disarmed—they would be.

I suppose what would happen is that little bit by little bit, our lives would begin to take shape around our gratefulness to God, and that would mean we would act in the world like grateful people. We would do for others because of what has been done for us. We would walk the way of love because it had been cleared before us. We might even show up here more often to do what grateful people do—return thanks to the giver of all gifts.

I will end where I began, a hundred and sixty three years ago, when the two communities who built these two spires went their separate ways. We might see that moment as a failure of gratitude to overcome attitude, a moment when division and discord seemed somehow righteous.

It cannot be an accident that those two communities of Americans abroad fell so easily into division because their whole country was at that moment falling into irreconcilable tribes. They were only doing what practically everyone was doing at the time—finding a reason to disagree, and break relationships. If the world around us is like that crowd in Capernaum, our country today is like that unhappy and fractious group of Americans in 1858, taking sides over black gowns.

The edition of the Book of Common Prayer that Dr. Seeley would have had on his prayer-desk for the Sunday services here in Paris had been published in 1845. The Episcopalians were especially put out that he was using their service of Morning Prayer, but omitting parts of it. It’s too bad that all of them together did not take more to heart the words of a prayer they would all have been saying before they parted company. It was found on page 23 of that prayer book, and here is part of what it said:

Almighty God, giver of all mercies, we, thine unworthy servants, do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all people. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life...for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we may show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days...

They said this prayer together; and yet they could not find a way to take on the discipline of gratitude.

People grateful for what God has done for them do not easily fall out of community with each other.

People grateful for what God has done for them do not treat other children of God as property.

People grateful for what God has done for them do not appeal to violence, physical or verbal, to assert their interests or their causes.

And people grateful for what God has done for them are the people who bring the transforming power of God’s love to bear on healing the wounds of the world.

Those ancestors of ours were so swept up in the divisions of an America falling into conflict that they fell into conflict, too.

May we, in this day of division and strife, find the grace to realize the depth and breadth of the gifts we are, and the gifts we have received; and the discipline to become, and the courage to be seen, as people of gratitude.

Let us pray:

Thou hast given so much to me,
   Give one thing more; a grateful heart. Amen.