What has straw in common with wheat?

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Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 14, 2016

Readings:

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

“What has straw in common with wheat?”

 

Or so asks the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah this morning. What has straw in common with wheat? Jeremiah is railing against false prophets in this passage. He is drawing a comparison between those prophets who truly have the word of the Lord, and those that are just promoting their own agenda. In the middle of this comparison he asks this interesting question: what has straw in common with wheat?

 

It is an interesting question, because the truth is, straw actually has a lot in common with wheat. Straw and wheat are the same plant. It’s a type of grass. When it grows and becomes ripe it is harvested. The seed, or the grain, is separated from the stalk and the leaves. The seed is wheat, the stalk is straw. So really, between one part of the plant and another there is quite a lot in common: it grows in a common field, it has a common look and smell, a common life really. There is so much in common between wheat and straw, and yet only the wheat has life within it. It is only the wheat, the grain, that can be planted again and create new life, and it is only the wheat, that can be crushed, transformed into flour and worked into bread; bread that can nourish us and sustain our lives. Humans can’t live on straw; horses can, their bodies our built to digest it, but ours aren’t. If we could manage to chew it, it might fill us up, but it can’t nourish us. We need wheat.

 

So this is how Jeremiah wants us to look at these two types of prophets and two types of prophecies: they may look alike and smell alike, they may in fact have a lot in common, but at the end of the day only one has the power to give life. Only one can nourish us.

 

So what are these two different types of prophecies or prophets that Jeremiah is talking about? Well the prophets of the true God, and there are many more than just Jeremiah, as he points out, the true prophets challenge God’s people. They preach a word that convicts them, calls them to change, calls them to put aside the false Gods that they have made by their own hands, to put aside idolatry and to return to the one, true, living God, who alone has the power to give life. Those are the true prophets; they may not be a barrel of laughs or much fun at a party, but they are the ones that help us to grow.

 

The other prophets? Jeremiah points out that God is well aware of them. He hears what they preach and yet can’t remember saying it himself. They are preaching from their own imaginations and dreams. They aren’t challenging the false Gods of the people; the people aren’t being asked to change their ways. Since the people are not being continually redirected to the true and living God, they are gradually turning away from him; moving further and further away, until eventually they even forget his name. Now let’s not kid ourselves here: we like these prophets; we like them because they make us feel good about ourselves, they don’t challenge us to change anything in our lives, we don’t have to examine our motives; they tell us that it is ok to stay just as we are: no need to grow, no need to change, no need to repent. Perfect for a party, but perhaps not so good for growing closer to the true God. Their words are straw: filling perhaps, maybe even comforting, but there is no life in them.

 

There is so much straw in the church today. Not just our church, not just the Episcopal Church, but in all churches there is straw; different types of straw maybe, but straw nonetheless. We have a lot of false Gods out there that we keep running after. We have made a lot of false Jesus’s, or perhaps not false, but at least incomplete. We cut out the words of scripture that challenge us. We dispense with any image of God that isn’t warm and fuzzy and we create (to quote the old Depeche Mode song) our own personal Jesus. We have liberal Jesus, the guy who only cares about the poor and the environment and convincing the world to take a big group hug. We have conservative Jesus, the Jesus of family values, who lets you keep your money, but makes you feel compelled to spend it on statues of him playing sports with your kids.

 

The problem with both of these Jesus’ is that they are straw men. They are one-sided caricatures of Jesus that don’t challenge us. They are easy and comforting and they ask very little of us. They aren’t the real Jesus. If you spend enough time reading scripture, and reading all of it, not just the happy parts, not just the warm and fuzzy parts, if you read all of it, at some point you are going to encounter a tough word from God. At some point Jesus is going to say something that you won’t like, and you can choose to either wrestle with it, or you can skip over it, walk away and ignore it and chase after the Jesus that makes you feel righteous without actually having to be better than you are.

 

This morning we get one of those tough words from Jesus. If you think that Jesus is all about peace, love and happiness: you are in for a surprise. If you think that Jesus is all about family values: you are also in for a surprise. This morning, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, says to us:

 

Do you think I have come to bring peace to the word? No, I tell you, but rather division.

 

And it’s not just going to be about one nation against another: it is a division that can separate our very families: the most intimate bonds. That is a tough word to swallow. It isn’t comforting, but if you have lived long enough in this world you will recognize that it is truth. Sometimes following God can mean making choices that you don’t want to make. This is the wheat of our faith. This is wheat because passages that challenge us and make us question our assumptions about ourselves and about God, those passages are the ones that put real life in our faith; those passages are the ones that make us grow. Whenever we read something that makes us question our own righteousness, that is when we are growing in our walk with God. Yes, sometimes we need God to embrace us, to pick us up and to love us in all our brokenness. We believe he does that, and thank you God for doing that, but sometimes we also need a kick in the pants; sometimes we need God to challenge us to do better, to be better. Sometimes we need to be redirected away from the idols of our own making and back to the God who actually saves us. Sometimes we need to be reminded that maybe God doesn’t always make the same choices we do, and just maybe, God doesn’t always vote the way we do. Last time I checked, Jesus was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but we love to pick and choose his words to make him always agree with us. It is so easy to try to avoid being challenged by God, and it has gotten even easier in a world of Facebook, wherein you can just turn off the voices that say things you disagree with. I’m guilty of that too, I admit it.

 

The lesson from this morning’s gospel, and from the prophet Jeremiah, is that if you are looking to God for a pat on the back only, you may be sorely disappointed. God loves us, yes, but he is calling us to be better than we are. He is calling us to be more. Recognizing that is to lay hold onto the wheat of our faith; there is new life to be had in that truth.

 

As Christians we are continually surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to the faith. Saints, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs and martyrs, so many individual stories of people who found in God and in Christ a call to follow; a call to grow and to change; a call to forsake sin and to seek the redeeming love of Jesus. That is what our faith is about: not platitudes and sentimentality, but a God that is willing to suffer death in order to save us from ourselves. This isn’t cheap grace. We can’t turn away from the tough words of Jesus, we must embrace them, because there is truth there that we probably need to hear. That cloud of witnesses isn’t filled with people that had it all figured out; it isn’t filled with people that understood every utterance of God, and it isn’t filled with people that made all the right decisions. It is filled with people that knew that they couldn’t get through this life on their own and that turned to God for help whenever the storm clouds formed on the horizon.

 

We don’t come here to worship a straw man, or a caricature of Jesus: we come here to worship the living God, who sometimes comforts us and sometimes convicts us. Sometimes his words go down like honey, sometimes it is a bitter pill. There always have been and always will be false prophets. There will be ministers and churches that will focus on one aspect of Jesus and not the whole Jesus. There will be ministers that try to explain away miracles and there will be ministers that try to perform fake ones. There will be ministers who choose to skip over any Bible passages where God gets angry, and there will be ministers that revel in God’s anger and direct it at everyone else but themselves. Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, it doesn’t matter, we all have our share of false prophets who promise you peace, even though Jesus promises us quite the opposite. Beware of them, beware of anyone who tries to over-simplfy God, or cheat you of the life-giving wheat of our faith, because what they are selling you is, to put it bluntly, horse manure, and as someone that has been knee deep in it, both figuratively and literally, I can attest that it is mostly straw.

 

 

The blood of the martyrs…A requiem for Orlando

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Sermon delivered at the Requiem Mass for the victims of the Orlando Massacre

Sunday, June 19th, 2016

The early Christian author and apologist Tertullian once wrote that the Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the church. He was making an argument to the Roman authorities that it was futile to keep persecuting the Christians because it only caused them to grow and become stronger.

The valor, the strength and the witness showed by those who were being put to death only served to strengthen the resolve of the living. Furthermore those that were unconverted, witnessed how these Christians would willingly accept death, rather than deny the Christ they knew, and they marveled at it. This must be some God these Christians are worshipping if they are so convinced of his love for them, that they are content to die rather than betray their God.

What these Christians knew, and what made them so resilient, was that their Lord had conquered death. They had the hope and the promise that because they were united to Christ in his life and death, so too would they be united to him in his resurrection. They knew that those Romans could kill their bodies, but that they could never kill their souls. It was by holding on to Jesus, it was by holding on to a God which they knew to be a God of love and forgiveness that those early martyrs claimed the victory. They had victory over death.

So I have been thinking this week about what it means to be a martyr. Christian martyrs are those who have died or been put to death specifically because of their faith in Jesus Christ, but there are other types of martyrs that deserve to be honored as well. I know very little about the faiths of most of the individuals that were killed last week in Orlando. I know that one young man was a gospel singer in his church, only when they found out through this tragedy that he was gay, declined to do his funeral. I know of another young man, a friend of a friend of mine actually, who was there at the club with his fiancé, both of whom were killed and now their love is being celebrated at a funeral service instead of a wedding. I know of a young man who was there with his girlfriend who was killed trying to save her. I know of a woman who was there with her son who died saving him. I don’t know much about what kind of faith each of those people had, or what their beliefs were, but I do know something about what brought them together that night.

You see I grew up gay in Central Florida, not very far from Orlando. Despite what people think about Disney World being there, Central Florida is a very conservative area. I can honestly tell you that I did not know one person who was openly gay, until I went off to college. There weren’t really any support groups or community organizations back then, at least not around where I lived. People still very much lived their lives in secret. Showing affection in public was very dangerous, you could never know how someone was going to react. I know what it feels like to grow up threatened with violence on a daily basis, just because I was different.

When you live in an environment like that you look for places that are safe. You look for places where you can be yourself, perhaps find love, and hopefully be able to express that love for a few moments before going back out into a world, that despite all of the advances that have been made in recent years, can still be very hostile. Now you might think that a nightclub is just a place for drinking and dancing and debauchery, but when you grow up gay in a conservative area, a nightclub can be one of the few places where you feel safe to express your love. I have been to the Pulse nightclub in Orlando with my friends and we went there to relax, enjoy our lives, enjoy each others company, and maybe, just maybe meet someone special. I have no doubt that that it is the same reason that all of those clubgoers were gathered together last Sunday: to celebrate love, to enjoy love or maybe even find love. It was love that motivated those people to gather at Pulse last Sunday, and it was love that motivated many of their actions to the very end.

 

To all of those who were killed in last week’s attack, and I believe you can hear me, you have the victory in all of this. You have the victory, not some evil man with a gun. You have the victory, because it was love that motivated you that night not hate. Our Lord was put to death because of the hatred and intolerance of others, he was put to death because he loved when others hated. To the souls of those killed last week, you were put to death because you loved when someone else hated. And it doesn’t really matter in whose name he hated in. I honestly don’t care about what that one man believed, because I know what I believe.

 

I believe that like the old gospel song says: “Jesus loved me ere I knew him and all my love is due him.” I believe that Jesus loves us before we know him. I believe that love and the act of loving draws us closer to the heart of Christ and of our God. I believe that Christ has won the victory over sin and death and that he offers those of us who unite ourselves to him in love that same victory.

 

We are here tonight to commend the souls of these 49 individuals to God. An evil man might have taken their bodies from us, but their souls belong to God. Death has no more dominion over them. Those of us who are still on our journey must keep on loving and showing love to others, not just to honor those that were killed for love, but for our sake too. So to build on what the Apostle Paul said, we must be steadfast in love, unmoveable in love, always abounding in the work of the Lord, which is love, foreasmuch as we know that our labour of love is not in vain in the Lord.

 

So I say this to the forces of evil out there that think that killing us or spilling blood is going to give them some kind of victory: if you think that hatred is ever going to win over love, let me tell you a story about a man I know named Jesus.

So that the world may know…

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Sermon for May 8th, 2016

Readings:

Acts 16:16-34
Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21
John 17:20-26

 

The first time I ever attended Mass in an Anglican Church, and the first time I ever received communion, was in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was one of those life changing moments that you never forget. I can remember clearly the beginning of the priest’s sermon as well. He got into the pulpit and began by saying:

God can change all things, but history….historians, however, can and perhaps that is the only reason why he tolerates them.

 

Now mind you, I was a history major in college at the time, so his point hit home. Sometimes it does seem like historians are changing history, with their at times wildly different interpretations of what actually happened. Now we know, of course, that historians can’t actually change history. Facts are facts. You can interpret or misinterpret them, you can like or dislike events that happened, there may be large gaps between what you know and what you don’t know, but you cannot change what actually happened.

 

I was reminded of that priest’s opening line this week, when I was reviewing this morning’s readings. I can’t change the Bible, but obviously the committee that devised our lectionary feels that they can. Our second reading this morning, the one from the Book of Revelation has been shortened…twice. Now by now, I am sure that y’all know how I feel about the cutting and pasting that sometimes happens in our readings. It is one thing if it is just a list of names that is being cut out to make the passage shorter, but that isn’t what is happening this morning. This morning there are verses that are cut out because someone either didn’t understand them, or they made them uncomfortable. Let’s take a look:

At verse 14 in Revelation chapter 22 we read:

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.

That is all well and good. It is a nice image of heaven with people washed clean of sin, welcomed into the city and given access to the Tree of Life. But then it goes on. Here is the first verse that our reading skips this morning:

Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

We don’t want to talk about people getting left out of heaven (and no, for the record I do not think the author literally means that dogs are left out…at least I hope not). It seems so much nicer just to talk about all those blessed people and not to think about the idolaters…so this verse gets skipped over.

We continue on with:

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”The Spirit and the bride say, “come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

That is the sort of passage we like: very welcoming and encouraging. We get that verse, but then it goes on and this is the next verse that is skipped:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

Now I hope you appreciate the irony here: Here we have a verse giving a very clear and explicit command NOT to add to or take away from what is written in the book, on pain of losing eternal life, and it gets cut out! Whoever made that decision has a lot more self-confidence than I do.

 

Here is my point in all this: The Bible is a huge book, written by many different individuals, in different times and places and for different reasons. We believe that each one of these individuals was inspired in some way by God and that the writings they left us are worthy of respect and are to be taken seriously. But sometimes the things that are written there don’t make complete sense to us. Or maybe they do make sense and we disagree with something that is said. Maybe the authors don’t see things exactly the way we do, but I believe that it is exactly for that reason that we need to hear what they say. The Bible is meant to challenge us. Our faith is meant to stretch us and make us grow. If we are only exposed to things that make sense, or that we immediately agree with, how are we supposed to ever be better than we currently are? You don’t have to like everything you read in the Bible; you don’t have to agree with everything; you don’t have to accept every interpretation either, but maybe, just maybe you do need to hear it. Maybe a vital part of growing in the faith is to be challenged by it. How are we ever gonna be challenged if we simply cut out, skip over and ignore, the passages we don’t like or don’t understand?

 

Now everything that I have just said about how we treat the scriptures in the church could also be said about how we treat the people in the church. The scriptures are really just people on paper. There are some people in the church, and I don’t mean this parish, I mean the whole church of Christ, there are some people in the church that it is just hard to understand, there are some people that you may not agree with, and there are some people that you may not like. That’s ok, you don’t have to. But it just might be important to hear them. If scriptures are really just people on paper then there is the temptation to treat God’s people the way we treat his words: ignoring those that we don’t understand, don’t agree with or don’t like. But we need those voices.

 

Our own Anglican Communion has been squabbling with itself for some time now over one issue or another. In that sense it is just like every other Christian church. Whenever confronted with someone that we don’t understand, don’t agree with or don’t like, there is always going to be the temptation to silence them, ignore them or exclude them like a Bible verse you don’t want to read. People on both sides do it, liberal and conservative, but we do it at our own peril. We loose a significant part of our own faith formation when we do that, but we aren’t the only ones that loose though.

 

Our Lord’s great prayer before he was crucified and died was that all of his followers should be one. He didn’t say that we all had to understand each other, or agree with each other or like each other. He said that he wanted us to be one, just as he and the Father are one. Not just one within our parish or our denomination, but one across every single division we have set up out of our own stubbornness. One across race and language, one whether we are high or low church, one whether we are catholic or protestant. Jesus’s prayer is that we should be one. Belonging to Jesus Christ should be more important in our eyes than anything else. And it’s not just for our own sake…it is so that the world may know and believe. If we expect the world to take us seriously when we claim that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that salvation can be found by calling upon his name, then we need to show the world that no other name by which we may be called is more important to us than the name Christian. Ever since that first communion in Saint Paul’s Cathedral years ago I have been devoted to the Anglican tradition and I am loyal to the Episcopal Church through which I practice that tradition on a daily basis, but I also remember that it is through being a Christian that I am one with Christ and the Father in heaven, and one with everyone else who follows him and calls themselves by his name, and that is far more important to me, than any other division here on earth.

We are not left behind

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Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension 2016

In the 1920s a man by the name of Albert Brumley was picking cotton one day on his family’s farm in Oklahoma. As he was struggling through the heat, and his sweat, and the prickly cotton bushes, he started to sing a song to himself. It was a popular song of the day called the Prisoner’s Song, about a man leaving his girl behind and being sent off to prison, and longing to escape and be with her again:

 

 

I’ll be carried to the new jail tomorrow

Leavin’ my poor darlin’ alone

With the cold prison bars all around me

And my head on a pillow of stone

 

Now if I had wings like an angel

Over these prison walls I would fly

And I’d fly to the arms of my poor darlin’

And there I’d be willin’ to die.

 

With his back breaking from stooping to pick the cotton, and being surrounded by these dead sharp bushes that poked and tore at his skin, Albert thought to himself: this too is prison. This life with its pains, and struggles and eventual death, this life can be a prison.

 

Albert reckoned that he was in prison of sorts, just like the author of that popular song, and then he thought: If I could escape the wall of this prison, where would I go? He began to think about his devout Christian faith (being raised in the Church of Christ) and how that faith for him not only offered the promise of eventual freedom, but in fact gave him a sense of freedom right then. So when he got back to the house at the end of his long day of toil he sat down and wrote this song…his version of the Prisoner’s Song:

 

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,

I’ll fly away;

To a home on God’s celestial shore,

I’ll fly away

 

I’ll fly away, Oh Glory

I’ll fly away;

When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,

I’ll fly away

 

When the shadows of this life have gone,

I’ll fly away;

Like a bird from prison bars has flown,

I’ll fly away

 

Just a few more weary days and then,

I’ll fly away;

To a land where joy shall never end,

I’ll fly away

 

That song that Albert wrote would become one of the most popular and most recorded gospel songs of all time. Now, not everyone that ever put pen to paper to write a hymn was inspired by God; some hymns are just awful; but I think that Albert was. Albert was because there is something about singing that hymn that actually sets you free, right when you sing it. It isn’t just about thinking of some future day, but in the realization that our lives belong to God, it makes that future day today. If you have ever had the chance to sing that song at a funeral or when you were really struggling or down, then you might just know what it feels like to have your spirit fly. It isn’t just the person being buried that is flying away, it is us too. The amazing thing about this song is that you don’t have to wait until that glad day when this life is o’er to fly away, the moment you sing it you already begin to fly away, you already begin to experience freedom from the prison of this life and you already begin to experience the joy that shall never end. When you sing that song you too are flying away, you are not merely left behind.

 

Today is the Feast of the Ascension, a day when we remember that after our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, he ascended into heaven in the sight of his disciples. Now you might expect those disciples to be distressed or heartbroken that their Lord had left them; that he appeared to fly away into the clouds; but that is not what happened. When Jesus died people went home beating their breasts, but when he ascended into heaven they went home rejoicing, with great joy and they dedicated their lives to worship and blessing God. They were not abandoned or left behind, quite the contrary: a part of them ascended with Christ.

 

Saint Augustine, when he wrote about the Ascension of our Lord said:

 

Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth.

For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.

 

If we have committed ourselves to Jesus Christ, if he already has our hearts, then when he ascends into heaven a part of us goes with him. We are not left behind, we are not trapped in prison, because his ascension has set us free. A part of those disciples flew away with Jesus, he didn’t just take their humanity and their human flesh, he took their hearts, and by gathering all those things unto God, he redeemed them.

 

The life that Jesus ascends to at the right hand of the Father is one of constant praise, worship and adoration and joy. It is that life to which the disciples try to mold their lives as much as possible: imperfectly and in earthen vessels, but still the old Jerusalem seeking after the new Jerusalem.

 

Today we remember Jesus going to his eternal home on God’s celestial shore, but we are not left behind or abandoned: we go with him. We may have to wait a few more weary days until that glad morning when we will be gathered together with Christ and all his saints, but just like singing Albert’s song, we don’t have to wait until then to fly away and be set free.

In Memoriam Donald C Latham

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Sermon given by Father Kevin Morris, Ninth Rector of the Church of The Ascension at the funeral mass of Father Donald Latham, Sixth Rector of the Church of The Ascension, April 24th 2016.

I want to begin by reading you an excerpt from a letter:

 You must understand this: distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!  For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

 

Now here is a question: was I just reading from the 2nd letter of Paul to Timothy describing the Last Days, or the 1st letter of Donald Latham to Kevin Morris describing the Church of the Ascension?

 

You will be forgiven if you are unsure of the answer to that.

 

I actually thought that I was beginning to solve a great theological mystery this week: you see we don’t actually know who wrote the second letter to Timothy. It is traditionally attributed to Paul, but we know that its tone and style look nothing like Paul’s. Who could have written it then? Whose style of writing is this? And then I started to pour over my old correspondences with Father Latham and the light came on! This sounds like something he would have written.

 

I was prepared to announce my Latham hypothesis for the authorship of 2nd Timothy, until I came across one line: “No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldiers aim is to please the enlisting officer.” I realized then and there that Father Latham couldn’t have written this, because although he was quite good at giving orders, he didn’t always like to receive them. He told the story about when he was in the Navy and disobeyed his commanding officers orders by staying up in the signal room during a combat when he was supposed to be in the wardroom, because according to him the view was better. Now it was a testament to Father Latham’s character and personality that nobody would tell him to go back downstairs where he belonged.

 

Thus we get a glimpse of the self-proclaimed old curmudgeon that we remember today. His personality was reflected in the dogs he raised and so loved: He liked to project himself as a Doberman or a Great Dane, but I suspect down inside he was something more of a Dachshund. He was a man with a great capacity to love, but that love was often shown in his appreciation of practical jokes, in yanking your chain or in questioning your mental stability.

 

He had been warned by one of the bishops of this diocese that the vestry of this church “eats rectors for breakfast.” But I am afraid that vestry met its match in Donald Latham. His tenure here would be the highlight of his career, and his love for this place and the people in it, despite his humorous protestations about wretched children and depraved lawyers, was unquestionable. He was a stubborn man, but that also means he loved stubbornly. No matter how many challenges this place presented him with, and no matter how difficult or intimidating some people tried to be, he just kept on loving. It is no easy thing, but it is that kind of love, and that kind of life that God calls us to.

 

One of the peculiar realities of the priesthood is that very often your best friends and your worst enemies are other priests. The legacy that is left to you by your predecessors can be either your greatest asset or your greatest obstacle. Shortly after I arrived in Rockville Centre, I did indeed receive a letter from Father Latham, introducing me to this place and some of its idiosyncracies which he relished. It was the first of quite a few correspondences we have had over these past few years and I am grateful for them, because they are my personal connection to Donald, but they are not the only way, and in fact they are not the primary way that I got to know him. It is the legacy that he left here that was my first introduction to the sixth rector. Sometimes the best way to know someone’s character is to look at what they leave behind. Just like a glacier, it is the landscape left behind when it is gone that is the best testimony to its power and influence. Donald Latham was the rector of this parish for 22 years during a time of great change in the Episcopal church and in the world and what did he leave behind?

 

Well first and foremost he left behind a church filled with Christians (mostly) and you can’t take that for granted nowadays. He left a church that was formed on the solid foundation of classic Christianity. I can step into this pulpit and preach the gospel and not worry about getting shouted down for actually believing in the Resurrection. When we stand up and recite the creed we “believe what we say and say what we believe” to use one of Father Latham’s quotes and I tip my biretta to him for keeping the faith.

 

We are a church that values traditional liturgy. When the Episcopal Church revised its prayerbook in 1979, Father Latham could have insisted that this church change to that dreadful thing known as Rite II (modern language), but he didn’t. And while I am actually jesting a bit, because the modern rite isn’t the end of the world and some of it is just fine, still I am glad that this church decided to hold on to and value traditional worship. It is part of the quirky character of this place and we owe that in part to Father Latham. I would hasten to add here that although he was traditional, he was not utterly immovable. When it was time for women to begin taking more active roles in leadership in the church, he relented, although maybe he needed to be pushed a little at time. Reading over some of his memoirs, he seemed proud that Margaret Waische was the first woman elected to the vestry, although he also seemed a bit proud that two of his Dobermans peed on her once. And he never forgot the fact that is was Carolyn Brancato who petitioned him to allow girls to be acolytes, but she did and he did. The old Doberman could indeed be a daschund sometimes.

 

We are a church that values good music, we value social activities, fellowship and friendship, we value the nutjobs as much as the normal. Those of us who value the character of this church owe a huge debt of gratitude to this man for helping to shape that same character. This man touched a lot of lives. Some of you have come from far and wide to be here and to pay your respects to him. Now you may have come here to honor him, but I am here to tell you that that is not our first and most important task here today. Our first and primary purpose for gathering this afternoon is not to honor the man in the urn, it is to honor the man on the cross. That is the first purpose of every Christian funeral, because it is his death and resurrection that changes the way we grieve. We are people who have hope. We have hope because this is the Church of the Ascension and we know that our Lord ascended into heaven and is preparing a place for us there so that we may be with him. We have hope because we believe just like the author of 2 Timothy that “if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” If you really want to honor Father Latham, then honor the man that inspired him and that he dedicated his life to serve. You may have loved Donald Latham, but it is really the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that brings us together today. It was his word that Donald preached and it was his stubborn love that Donald tried emulate in his own stubborn love for you. The best way you could honor him would be by being the Christians that he helped shape you to be: get up and go to church, pick up those bibles and learn about Jesus, pray, forgive, love, laugh and know that hope that you have in Christ Jesus.

 

Maybe Father Latham didn’t write 2 Timothy, but just for a second, listen to it as if he had:

 

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastnest, my persecutions, and my suffering …but as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with utmost patience and teaching.

As for me, the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Amen.

 

One last thing: in one of my email exchanges with Father Latham he left me this piece of advice: Kevin, stay healthy and humorous. It will get you through all those exasperating days with all those attorneys who pollute the environment. And with that said I would like to invite one of those attorneys forward to offer a few more words about our departed friend.

Take, eat: 4 ways to reclaim the spirituality of our food

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It never ceases to amaze me.

Americans will latch on to any fad diet with an almost religious zeal. The rules can be strict or relaxed, obvious or obscure. Give up dairy and meat? No problem. Give up carbs and caffeine? Easy. Cut out wheat, butter, sugar, fat or almost anything else and people are still with you, but suggest that someone might want to give up one of these items for a spiritual reason, and not merely a physical one, and you’ve lost them completely! “Why would I want to do that?” “I don’t want a religion that tells me what I can and can’t eat.” “Why would God care if I eat ________ (fill in the blank)?” The idea that the physical body and the spiritual body are linked can still seem odd and foreign, even to people of faith, and yet throughout our scriptures and our religious tradition there is an indelible link between our faith and the food we eat.

 

It is a great irony to me that Christians and the Church seem so preoccupied with issues of sexuality (something about which our Lord is recorded to have said very little) and yet spend almost no time contemplating the spirituality of their food, which was an issue and a symbol of great importance to Jesus. Jesus turns water into wine, he multiplies loaves and fishes, he describes the Kingdom of God as a banquet, shows concern for those who hunger, instructs his disciples to pray for their daily bread and ultimately offers his very life to them in the form of bread and wine. Food matters to Jesus; It should matter to us as well. Food should matter to us, not just in the sense of its power to subdue our hunger and sustain our lives, but also in its miraculous power to connect us to the created world, to our fellow human beings and ultimately to God.

 

Christians need to reclaim their spirituality of food, and that goes deeper than just saying grace before each meal (although giving thanks is an excellent practice worthy of being maintained). We need to get serious about what we eat, how it is raised (and who raises it), how it is prepared (and who prepares it), and how it is eaten (and whom we eat it with). This isn’t about latching on to some fad diet or latest nutrition trend; it is about realizing how the food we eat influences our entire lives, especially our spiritual lives, and choosing to do something about it.

 

I think that there are 4 principles that we as Christians need to understand if we are to truly appreciate the influence that what we eat can have over our faith, or relationships and our lives in general.

 

  1. Some fruit is still forbidden

 

This is not about avoiding whatever the current nutritional “bad guy” of the week is; It is about the very simple realization that what you choose to eat affects your life, and the lives of those around you. The story of the fall of humanity begins with a man and a woman choosing to eat the wrong thing. From the very beginning of our scriptures there is an understanding that what we eat can have consequences for us that go far beyond our digestion. To put it simply: some things are not to be eaten, and it isn’t because they are necessarily poisonous to our bodies, but rather because they are poisonous to our souls. When gentile converts to Christianity were first being accepted into the church, there was some debate among the disciples as to whether or not the converts should be forced to maintain Jewish dietary laws. After some discussion, and with some influence of the Holy Spirit, the disciples decided that it was not necessary for gentile converts to observe all Jewish laws; however, they were instructed to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:29). Leaving the issue of fornication to the side, the early church clearly upheld that there were certain things that Christians were simply not to eat. Food that is sacrificed to idols (or that leads to idolatry), and food that comes from animals that are improperly or inhumanely slaughtered are strictly forbidden. How many Christians stop in the supermarket and ask themselves: where is this meat from? Was this animal treated with the respect that a creature of God deserves or was it treated inhumanely and brutally with little regard for the God-given life running through its veins? Is our food culture serving to glorify the God of Jesus and our ancestors or is it serving some other idol (like corporate profit and greed). These are serious questions. I am not a vegetarian, nor do I advocate becoming one, but if we are to fully appreciate the life that our food gives us, then we need to respect the life that it often takes from other creatures.

 

  1. We depend upon each other

 

I love going to the grocery store: it is a little world full of interesting food possibilities, but one thing I have noticed about shopping at the local supermarket is that it is entirely possible to get my food without having any human interaction whatsoever. Even the checkout counter is automated. I can go to the store buy, the food that I want, and go home without needing help from anyone. Once I thought that that was a great convenience, now I realize that it is a huge problem. It is a problem because it is a lie. I do need help from others…lots of others. Buying food from vast corporate supermarkets, it is easy to forget how much we depend upon the work of other people to supply the meals we so often take for granted. You don’t see the farmer who grows the wheat, or the miller who grinds it, or the baker who bakes it; you simply see a loaf of bread. But that bread represents the work of many others, whose livelihood also depends upon feeding us. I live in the suburbs. Even when I grow vegetables in the garden, I am not going to be able to grow everything I need to keep myself fed, and I certainly can’t keep any livestock. We can’t all live on farms, but we can all learn to appreciate that the food we eat comes to us, not simply by our own labor, but by that of countless others. Visiting a grocery store can be convenient, but knowing the farmer, the butcher, and the baker that put their life’s work into your food is far more spiritually nourishing.

 

  1. The ritual matters

 

One of my primary functions as a priest is to preside over a meal. The Lord’s Supper is a highly ritualized meal and filled with symbolism, but it is a meal nonetheless. Now I firmly believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist actually do become our Lord’s body and blood, and I believe that it has the power to strengthen our souls in a way that no other food can, but I don’t stand in front of my church on Sunday morning just distributing it to passersby so that they can skip the whole service. Why? Because the entire ritual of the meal feeds us, and not just the bread and the wine. It is through ritual that connections are made. How many relationships are begun over a shared meal? How much do we learn about what it means to live in a family or in a community by sitting down and eating together? It was over meals that Jesus did much of his teaching and it was a meal that he left his disciples as a way of remaining connected to him. Our food rituals, when we respect and preserve them, can create spiritual connections that death simply cannot conquer.

 

A month before I left home for college my grandfather died. I had always been very close to him and his death was really the first that touched my life in such a personal way. Someone that I had loved deeply was gone and I found myself wanting to hold on to all the things that reminded me of him. While I was getting adjusted to life on my own, I began to miss the foods that reminded me of home and the loved ones that I was missing. I decided to work on a project: I would request recipes from my family members scattered across the country, along with some of their favorite stories and pictures, and edit them into a cookbook. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was this very cookbook that eventually led to my becoming a priest. It still sits on my shelf, now very worn and with a few food stains, but that’s as it should be, as it gets used frequently. Family recipes, traditions, and rituals are the glue that hold us together across generations. They keep us connected to those who have passed before us and help us to know who we are. I often wonder if our faith is formed more by the supper that happens Sunday evening than the one that happens Sunday morning, but in either case I have no doubt that the ritual matters.

 

  1. Beware cheap imitations and short cuts

 

The devil tempted Jesus to turn a stone into bread, and ever since he has been tempting us to turn garbage into food as well. Jesus didn’t buy it and neither should we. “One does not live by bread alone” was our Lord’s response, meaning that it isn’t just the food itself that feeds us. The work, the rituals and the human interactions that go into our food are all part of what make it nourishing and life-giving to us. So many of our diet related health problems stem from the fact that we are convinced that we should have all of the pleasure of food without any of the work of producing it. But the work of producing it is a part of what gives us life and it is also that same work, which helps us keep our appetites in check. Good food, food that nourishes our body and soul, actually takes time.

 

I grew up in a very Southern family and some of my fondest memories are the lessons I had in had to prepare food the old fashioned way. It created a life-long interest in traditional foods and an appreciation for the amount of work that it actually takes to produce a meal from scratch. Maybe the pace of my life will never let me go back to a time when everything was cooked at home, but maybe I can in small ways start to reclaim my diet from the host of food-like imitations that have invaded it. Yes, it takes extra work to actually cook and prepare your own food, but you also reap extra benefits. People like to talk about saving time by not cooking, but think about all that time that cooking does give you: time to pray, time to think, time to talk with your loved ones. Maybe it is fast food that is the real waste of time.There are no short cuts. There are no substitutes. Anyone trying to convince you otherwise is probably working for the other side.

 

What we eat, where it comes from, who we eat it with, and how much work we put into it all affect our spiritual lives as well as our physical wellbeing. Eating is a spiritual act as well as a physical one, and it should give us joy as well as sustain our lives. Food is a gift from God and the preparation and eating of it should glorify God as well. To take the spiritual dimensions of our food seriously will mean making some sacrifices: it may mean caring more about substance than convenience, but then if the old adage that “you are what you eat” is true, isn’t that what we want to be? People of substance? Maybe it is time that we dust off some old traditions, get into the kitchen and start reclaiming the spirituality of our food. It is, afterall, a gift from God.

 

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

(Acts 2:46-47)