Aug. 2, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Aug 2, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

The Desert Presence

August 2, 2020

A few weeks ago Luke, Carolyn and I visited the high desert of central Oregon. Our stay was enhanced by a full-service Fred Meyer at the turn-off, where we picked up our online grocery order. We drove on to a lovely home overlooking the Deschutes River, where we could read on the deck in the morning and float the gentle currents in the afternoon.  After that there were thirty miles of sun-dappled bike paths winding through the lanky lodgepole forest.  Ours was a trek into the desert without deserting any creature comforts at all.

But the desert we enter in scripture today is an eerily different place, a kind of non-man’s-land of searing dawns and frigid night-falls, craggy hills and arid arroyos, and a fearsome terrain of beasts inhaling the breeze for scent of some prey.

As our Gospel opens Jesus turns his face toward the desert, because he needs to get away. He is crushed with grief over the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, at the hands of a deceitful king. Jesus must step back from this tragedy to find his way forward, for both himself and for the people he’s been sent to lead. He instinctively pulls a beached fishing boat into the water, and resolutely rows toward a stretch of totally deserted shoreline. Deserts like this are where God’s people have headed for centuries, to listen for God’s voice, and learn what they are to do.  We remember the nomadic patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who herded their wandering sheep through the desert; we remember Moses leading the Israelites through such wasteland for forty years, as they groped their way toward the Promised Land.  We recall Prophets like Elijah and John the Baptist who fled into the desert to escape violent and faithless kings.  Jesus now strains at the oars to reach the desert’s barren solitude.

Meanwhile his friends and followers grow frantic to find him.  One of them spots his lone silhouette receding toward the far shore; they start loping along the coastline to overtake him, catching up with Jesus just as he beaches the boat. We can see his shoulders slump as he realizes that now he will not be alone.  He must once again put the needs of others before his own.  Jesus wades into the crowd and loses himself among the people, offering comfort to this one and healing to that one, as the sun slowly sinks in the western sky.  His disciples grow restless and their stomachs start growling. They fidget with the knotted napkin holding their daily barley loaves and dried fish. Little do they know that they are about to discover why the desert is the chosen place for encountering God.

Disciples: Jesus, send the crowds away while there’s still enough light to find a village, and buy food for themselves.

Jesus: They don’t need to go away.  You give them something to eat.

Disciples: You mean these five fist-sized barley loaves and two dried carp?

Jesus: Bring them here to me.  And all of you out there, have a seat on the grass.  Make yourselves comfortable.

What happens next, out there in the desert twilight, with the Milky Way stretching overhead, is… they celebrate Eucharist together. Just watch and listen, because this is what we’ve followed Jesus into the desert to learn.  Jesus lifts the bread toward heaven as an offering to God.  Next he prays the ancient thanksgiving-blessing over it. Then he breaks the bread open so it can be shared.  And finally he gives it all away to everyone.  It’s just as Katherine does at the altar when she’s with us on Sunday mornings.

It’s what we, as Jesus’ followers, are told to do whenever we are in need of God’s presence.  When life is good, we need to draw close and say thank you.  When life is tough, we need to turn toward God and whimper “Help me!” Whatever our situation, scripture counsels us to come away with Jesus, and prayerfully join with him in uplifting the bread, thankfully blessing it, breaking it to share, and then giving it to all who are present with us.

But every so often it happens that the path to blessing in the desert is blocked. There can be obstacles like COVID-19 that shutter our church for a season, and leave us to pray through our screens.  On top of that, the day’s celebrant might turn out to be an Emeritus Rector, whose advancing years prevent her from mingling with other maskless volunteers in the church. Yes, sometimes we must all fast from celebrating Eucharist together.

The hardship of missing Communion is hardly new to Christians. Back in the fifth century, as barbarians were overrunning congregations, the saintly Bishop Augustine lamented the fate of those left without the sacrament. His heart swelled with compassion for their faithfulness, and with confidence in God’s eternal concern. In prayer Augustine came to see, that the essence of Communion lay finally not in the bread and the wine, but in the real spiritual presence of God among his people, made real to them through their own faith. Rising from his knees, Augustine was able to assure everyone that their heartfelt desire to receive the sacrament, conferred the grace of the sacrament.

In the legacy of St. Augustine, subsequent generations have turned his assurance into a prayer. I invite you to join me in praying it now:

“In union, Lord God, with the faithful gathered at every altar of your Church where your blessed Body and Blood are offered this day, I long to offer you praise and thanksgiving: for creation and all the blessings of this life, for the redemption won for us by the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ; and for the means of grace and the hope of glory. Since I cannot at this time receive communion, I pray you to come into my heart. I unite myself with you and embrace you with all my heart, my soul, and my mind. Let nothing separate me from you; let me serve you in this life until, by your grace, I come to your glorious kingdom and unending peace. Amen.” Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved.

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