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The Crow of the Rooster

The Crow of the Rooster

“For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.” John 6:64

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

14B Pentecost – August 26, 2018

Much as I love our little chapel here by Singing Beach, Emmanuel Church is not the church that most people associate with Manchester-by-the-Sea. Let’s admit it, the oldest and most prominent church in town is that of our Congregational brothers and sisters, First Parish Church. A classically beautiful “small town New England” church, First Parish has a commanding presence in the heart of Manchester, overlooking the harbor and right next to Town Hall. Easily the tallest building within miles, its soaring white steeple draws our eyes to the heavens. And it’s not just the sight of First Parish that attracts our attention, but its sounds too. The rhythm of our days are punctuated by the tolling of its bells on the hour, and every now and again its bell tower treats us to gorgeous hymns to the praise of God. A living monument to our Puritan heritage, the church is a wonderful presence in our community and has been since its founding in 1716.

What I did not notice until very recently, though, is what sits atop the First Parish steeple. Have you ever noticed? Above the bell tower, above the clocks, at the pinnacle of the steeple, where many churches might have a cross, instead sits a golden rooster. It is, of course, a weathervane; technically a ‘weathercock.’ And we see them on lots of buildings, especially churches, throughout New England and beyond. And to be honest, I always thought these weathercocks were just a quaint bit of Americana, more decoration than anything else.

But in fact, far from being merely ornamental, the rooster was put there by the good people of First Parish in 1809 to send a message. Among the most ancient of Christian symbols, the rooster recalls St. Peter’s denial of Christ before his Passion. You remember the story, told in all four gospels. Before his final entry into Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his death at the hands of a betrayer, and more than that, he tells his disciples that all of them will in fact abandon Jesus in his time of crisis. Upon hearing this, Peter is stunned, telling Jesus, “Though everyone else may abandon you, I will never fall away.” Jesus says to Peter, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter protests: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”

And then, of course, as Jesus is arrested, and the Romans begin to turn up the heat, the disciples scatter, just as Jesus predicted, and we see Peter cowering in the courtyard outside the Temple. A servant girl comes up to him and says, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But Peter denies it, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And then another servant girl passes by and says to the crowd, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again Peter denies it: “I do not know the man.” And then finally a third girl confronts him, saying: “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” But Peter shouts angrily, “I do not know the man.” And as soon as he does, the rooster crows, convicting Peter of his betrayal.

Today’s gospel reading – which is the concluding section of John’s long “bread of life” discourse – is also all about human betrayal, and ever so subtly foreshadows Peter’s ultimate denial of Christ. As you remember from last week, Jesus has been teaching his disciples that he is ‘the bread of life’ sent from heaven, and that his body will be broken and his blood spilled for the sake of all humanity; but we hear today that the crowd finds this teaching too difficult to believe. Jesus sees that there are many who doubt. And so he turns to the Twelve, and asks them point blank: “Will you too fall away?” Then Peter, ever eager to please, but naïve about the true costs of discipleship, tries to assure Jesus: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One.”

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The Living Bread

The Living Bread

“Jesus said, ‘I am the the living bread that came down from heaven.’” John 6:51

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 12, 2018

Over these past few Sundays, we have been winding our way through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, listening to Jesus teach about bread and how God feeds us when we least expect it. We have heard Jesus remind his disciples of God’s faithfulness in feeding manna to the Hebrew people during their forty-year wandering in the wilderness. We have watched Jesus feed five thousand from just a few loaves of bread, creating abundance where before there was only scarcity. And last week we heard Elijah’s famished cries of desperation answered by an angel who offers him bread when he was at his weakest.

But as we listen to Jesus this morning, we hear something new. We hear that the bread we really crave is not the bread that keeps our bodies going, for that is a bread that will not endure, just as our bodies will not endure. No, our deepest hunger is not that our bellies might be filled with the bread of this world, but that our hunger for meaning, purpose, and a deep connection with God might be fed by a lasting bread. And when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is promising just this.

Jesus’ words today are both simple and utterly mysterious at the same time. He says: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Whereas the bread of the Passover seder is a mere symbol of past deliverance, the bread of life is something else. No mere marker of a distant past, the bread of life that is Jesus sustains us in the here and now and carries us forward into an uncertain future. Jesus is promising his disciples that he will be present to them anytime they share this bread in his name. And so, following the example he set at the Last Supper, at the center of Christian worship is Holy Communion, one of the great sacraments of the Church.

During the Reformation, of course, wars were fought over just how ordinary bread and wine can invoke Christ’s presence. The Church of Rome believed that the bread and wine of the Mass literally become the actual body and blood of Christ in the Eucharistic meal at the point of consecration by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Reformers disputed that, believing Christ to be present, but not physically so. And if you want to read about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and the many other theories of Eucharistic theology, I have some books I can lend you.

Suffice it to say that it is a sad commentary on our brokenness as God’s people that, rather than merely accepting with deep gratitude Christ’s presence in this holy meal, instead we killed each other over how it happens, each side more interested in being right than in being grateful. It should be enough, I think, for us merely to accept in faith and thanksgiving that somehow in this bread and wine the risen Christ is with us, near us, a part of us, and we a part of him.

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Elijah and His Secrets

Elijah and His Secrets

“Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’” 1 Kings 19:4

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 12, 2018 – 12B Pentecost

 

I first met the prophet Elijah in San Francisco. Sure, I had read about Elijah in the Bible before, but I had never really encountered him in any meaningful way until Pat and I were invited to a friend’s house for what was my very first Passover Seder. The year was 1981 and these friends lived near the Presidio on the west side of the City.

The Seder meal, as I’m sure you know, is a ritual re-enactment of the Passover story from Exodus, told as much through the symbolism of food and drink as anything else. Each food on the Seder plate symbolizes some aspect of the story of the Hebrew people’s liberation by Moses from captivity in Egypt: A roasted lamb bone represents the Paschal sacrifice itself, bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, haroset (which is a mixture of wine, nuts, and apples) represents the mortar used by the Jews in Egypt, a sprig of parsley represents the freedom of new life beyond slavery. There is also matzah — a cracker-like unleavened bread — that represents the bread the Israelites took with them when they fled Egypt, unleavened because they were in a rush and had no time to wait for the bread to rise. And then there is salt water, too, representing the tears of the slaves.

All of this is rich enough in symbolism, but for me the moment of high drama was when a cup of wine was poured and placed at the center of the table, and then an empty chair moved to the head of the table, right before the host went over to the front door to welcome a mystery guest. As the host opens the door with a grand gesture, the special, if invisible, guest is then invited to take his seat at the head of the table before the Seder can properly begin. And that special guest, as you may know, is none other than the prophet Elijah.

Why Elijah? Well, if you take a look at the very last book of the Old Testament, which is the Book of Malachi, and then read the very last verse of that book, you will see written these words: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and final day when the Lord comes.” Both in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Elijah is the forerunner of the Messiah, the messenger whom God will send to announce the coming of the Lord at the end of the ages. And for this reason, within the drama of the Passover Seder, Elijah has an exalted place.

Of all the prophets in the Bible, Elijah is the fiercest and most faithful. Elijah lived 800 or so years before Christ’s day, at a time when the once-united Kingdom of Israel had divided into two kingdoms and idolatry was rampant throughout the land. Ahab was then king in the northern kingdom of Israel, and Jezebel was his ruthless queen. Ahab and Jezebel were notorious for promoting worship of Canaanite gods, including most notably Baal, and it is Elijah whom God recruits to remind the people that the only true God deserving of their loyalty is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

And so, in one of the most memorable showdowns in the entire Bible, Elijah fearlessly agrees to a competition on Mount Carmel that pits him against 450 of Baal’s loudest prophets to see who can bring an end to the drought that had plagued the kingdom for three years. Baal’s team is up first, and they pray and pray, and offer one sacrifice after another, but to no avail. Elijah then takes the stage, makes his own altar and prays to the God of Abraham, and sure enough, God responds to Elijah’s pleas, proving once again God’s unrelenting fidelity to his people and bringing humiliation on Ahab’s reign.

This showdown on Mount Carmel is Elijah at his boldest and most courageous, but he had a tender side too, as when he visits the widow at Zarepheth, and shares a simple meal with her. And then, when the widow’s little boy becomes ill and dies, Elijah is the one whom God compassionately empowers to breath life back into the little boy, in what is the very first episode of a resurrection in all of Scripture.

While these two stories of Elijah’s ministry are perhaps the most famous of his prophetic career, today’s quiet and less dramatic story about Elijah’s wilderness experience is my favorite Elijah story, both for what it reveals about Elijah’s humanity and about God’s compassionate care. Today’s lesson, ironically enough, immediately follows Elijah’s smashing victory on Mount Carmel. Having humiliated King Ahab by outgunning the prophets of Baal, the ever-jealous Queen Jezebel vows to get revenge on Elijah, sending him fleeing into the wilderness.

As Elijah sits down by himself under a solitary broom tree in the wilderness, panicked that Queen Jezebel’s murderous army will soon catch up with him, Elijah becomes disconsolate, seeing no way out and beginning to doubt himself. This is Elijah at his most vulnerable. “It is enough,” Elijah says to God. “Take away my life,” he pleads, “as I am no better than my ancestors.” And then, exhausted from his journey, and depressed by his predicament, Elijah collapses into a deep sleep.

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