In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I ’d like to begin this evening by telling you a story, a story that was first told by Will Willimon, who I know is a friend of this parish. It’s actually a Christmas story, which granted is a little strange on the Feast of Corpus Christi to tell a Christmas story, but I think I’m a little bit justified in telling a Christmas story because today, besides being the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, hence the Feast of Corpus Christi, today is also May 31st, which is the Feast of the Visitation, so this is my little way of honoring that, the pre-natal and natal-ness of Mary and Jesus. Speaking of Mary, we like Mary in the suburbs, but you all are different when it comes to Mary, and it just so happens that one of my favorite jokes of all time is about Mary. So I feel like I have to take advantage of this opportunity, because I know folks like you will get it. So one day Jesus was in the temple teaching the people when the leaders of the people brought to him a woman caught in adultery, and asked Jesus in order to test him, to trap him, what should we do about this, the law requires that we stone her. And Jesus stood up and said, Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone, and then all of a sudden a rock comes out of nowhere and hits Jesus in the back of the head and Jesus turns around, looking for the person who threw it, and says, Mom!
I knew you would get it. Thank you for indulging me. Anyway, Christmas, Willimon. The year was 1972, and Willimon was at the beginning of his ministerial career, he was the Methodist pastor in a small town in South Carolina. But as churches did back then, which they don’t seem to do as much anymore, the Methodists shared their Christmas Eve service with the Episcopalians in town, because, no surprise to you folks, Episcopalians know how to do worship on those “high holy days,” and Christmas Eve was no exception. So the Methodists were in the habit of trotting on over to the Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve to get their end-of-year liturgical fix. Willimon was going to participate in the service that night to some degree or other, but the slightly eccentric Episcopal priest, as Willimon described him, was going to preach, and of course, celebrate. So before the service, Willimon was getting into the Christmas spirit with one last cup of eggnog, when the news came. The peace talks had stalled between the warring parties in Vietnam. And so President Nixon had ordered a massive bombing in North Vietnam, what turned out to be the biggest bombing campaign ever by US B-52 aircrafts, who dropped at least 20,000 tons of explosives, most of them on Hanoi. When Willimon heard the news there on Christmas Eve, anger and resentment surged within me, he said. What right had the President to do this to our celebration? What a sick, twisted, ironic way to note the birth of the Prince of Peace – not with the songs of angels unto shepherds but with screaming bombs over bamboo villages. It wasn’t fair. Was a brief cease-fire too much for us peacemakers and peacewishers to ask for? All we wanted was enough time to burn a hopeful candle at the altar of Peace on Earth before the madness resumed. So Willimon immediately phoned his Episcopal colleague. Had he heard? Yes he had. What should be our response? After all, Willimon thought, two of the town’s most influential pastors ought to say something! Would his Episcopal counterpart mention the bombing in his sermon tonight? “I don’t think we ought to let Nixon get away with it,” Willimon said. The Episcopal minister agreed, saying, “we ought to blast him for it.” “A situation like this,” he said, “a situation like this calls for a firm response – something radical, arrogant, even defiant.” Knowing the sentiments of his Episcopal counterpart, Willimon braced himself for what he thought was coming, which was to be a major antiwar tirade. “There is only one thing to be done,” declared the priest. “We must pull out all the stops tonight and praise God as never before.” What? Did I just hear him right, Willimon thought? What did he just say? “What kind of antiwar statement is that?” Willimon asked. “Well, can you imagine anybody up at the Pentagon singing a Benedictus?” was the priest’s only reply. Now eccentric Episcopalians are entertaining, to say the least, but this was almost too much for Willimon. But he went anyway, still feeling resentful, Willimon trudged through the crisp December night to the little church where the organist was already struggling heroically with a prelude, and a congregation of thirty or so waited in silence for that eleventh hour. When that hour arrived, in burst the Episcopal priest, accompanied by two disheveled adolescent acolytes. The priest made a couple of what Willimon thought to be rather awkward bows to the altar, shifted his chasuble and then, leaning over the chancel rail, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, whispered to the congregation, as if letting them in on some secret that only he knew, “Tonight, the Lord God of Israel has come to set his people free.” From that moment on, Willimon said, I couldn’t tell you exactly what took place during the rest of the service. Revelation had caught me off guard, he said, and I was thrown into a kind of “minor ecstasy,” as the Quakers put it. I remember a couple of great old Advent hymns sung with as much propriety as Episcopalians sing any hymn. I remember the passing of the peace and the iron-fisted grip of an octogenarian woman. I remember the smell of the wine and the taste of the bread, and I remember choking clouds of incense which emanated from the incense pot of an overzealous – if not malicious – acolyte. But mostly I remember old Zechariah’s Benedictus sung lustily, off-key, and yet, “arrogantly and defiantly,” by my priest friend, with the rest of us, Willimon said, with the rest of us faint hearts joining in as best we could: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us . . . through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” You see, Willimon said, the peculiar defense of Christians in the face of the world’s darkness is often best expressed through a most relevant kind of holy irrelevance. Willimon thought his “response” to the bombing horror was little better than the horror itself – his hate, his resentment, his self-righteousness, his violence merely echoed back in the face of a violent world. The Pentagon generals and I, Willimon said, the Pentagon generals and I did share something after all: we were brothers in darkness. And then came the eccentric Episcopalian with a twinkle in his eye, defiant, letting the congregation in on the secret of the ages, supremely confident in the face of all evidence to the contrary, accompanied by a small boy swinging a smoking incense pot, leading us all forth from the little church into the midnight air bellowing out “Joy to the World” at the top of our voices to anybody who had ears to hear. The world cannot understand this hope of which we sing on Christmas Eve. In our more worldly moments we do not understand this hope, either. But that night, Willimon said, for one fleeting, radical, scandalous, arrogant, defiant moment, I understood. I saw the utter inappropriateness of all my feeble “appropriate responses” to the darkness. With my eyes opened by incense and my appetite for joy whetted by a little bread and wine, and my hand still aching from the grip of a wise old woman who opened my clenched fist; all evidence in this barren silent night to the contrary, by the grace of God and by my friend’s priestly act, I praised God as never before, and joined with old Zechariah, in singing, The day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
So why did I tell you this story? Well, in many ways, Corpus Christi is just the logical conclusion of what started at Christmas, of what it means that God is with us. When God is with us, things change. We change. You change. Even your eating habits change. You know, it’s one thing to have God born in a stable, it’s another thing to have to eat him. But Jesus is adamant, as we heard in our Gospel lesson, unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you, unless you partake of my body, my body which is broken for you, you cannot be made whole. Our passage ends before we get to see how the people responded. Needless to say, it didn’t go over too well, this is a difficult teaching, they said, who can accept it? Well not them, apparently, because it’s at this point in Jesus’ career when those he had gathered around him start to leave him, when they take one giant step back, away from the crazy man. But not all of them, at least not yet. And Jesus asked them, do you also wish to go away? To which Simon Peter replied, Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. But eventually they left him, too. This meal was bad enough, the cross was even worse. If this meal led to that, that this is the food that promotes that kind of lifestyle, that kind of life that only leads to death, then no thanks. This is all too much, and certainly not the way the world works. Lord knows the world is broken, but broken things don’t fix broken things. It’s broken things that you’re supposed to fix. Believe me, I know this, I’m a three on the Enneagram, and that’s what three’s do, we fix things, efficiently and correctly. This way is not efficient, and it’s certainly not correct, it can’t be correct, and you don’t need to be a three on the Enneagram to know it’s just plain wrong.
But the resurrection says otherwise. The resurrection says yes indeed, this way is correct. The resurrection is God’s stamp of approval on the way Jesus lived and on the way Jesus died, that the cross is none other than the way of life, and this meal, this very odd and strange meal, is the kind of food you’ll need for a life like that. Because it’s a hard life, a difficult life, nothing easy about it. So you’ll need something, you’ll need some kind of sustenance. You’ll need nothing less than God to live God’s life in the world. You’ll need nothing less than Jesus to live his life in the world. And not just that, but you’ll need others living that life, as well, because you can’t do it on your own. You need God to give you life, and you need others who have been given that very same life to live that life with you. And Corpus Christi celebrates where that starts, it starts with a meal, a meal that gives you life, the kind of life that Jesus lived, and continues to live through his people.
But let’s not stop there, not on Corpus Christi, you got to keep pulling out all the stops, and so there’s a procession with the food, we get to take it out into the streets and show everyone what’s on the menu. Now I know you know this, but a lot of Christians think benediction with a procession to boot, is wrong. Food is for eating, they say. Which is true, food is for eating, but, come on, who doesn’t like to play with their food every now and then? The Procession of the Blessed Sacrament followed by Benediction is like a liturgical food fight with the principalities and powers of this world. But nothing is going to look more ridiculous than us out there on Charles Street. One big parade of fools, dressed nicely, of course, but foolish, nonetheless. Completely irrelevant to the world. And yet we’ve been let in on a little secret, just as the Savior came on Christmas to set the people free, the Savior is still right at it, forming a people to show the world that the world doesn’t need to be like this anymore. There is another way, and it is relevant, even though it will be hard to see, in fact, it’s quite foolish in the eyes of the world, but when we start to see the way God sees, when we start to live the way God lives, it’s relevant, a most relevant kind of holy irrelevance.
But you know, I told you this story from Will Willimon for another reason, because, if you haven’t already guessed it by now, that eccentric Episcopal priest with a twinkle in his eye is your Rector. Will Willimon wasn’t the only one who started his ministerial career back in that small town in South Carolina. And I can tell you from seven years of experience as his assistant here at the Advent, and for almost nine years after that as a beloved friend and colleague, not much has changed since South Carolina. He’s the same guy now as he was then. Eccentric as all get out, with always a twinkle in his eye, someone who has spent his entire ministerial career letting us in on the secret of the ages. So I’ve learned a lot from him, from Boss, I still call him Boss. I’ve learned that, if there’s anything we do as clerical leadership, it’s that we set tone. We’d like to think we do other stuff, too, but setting tone is probably the most important. And the tone Allan set, day in and day out, year after year after year, is that we have to let out all the stops and praise God like we never have before. Allan has been the embodiment of I worship, therefore I am. Although I’m glad to see that the sign is still back there in the sacristy Queror, ergo sum. I complain, therefore I am. That feels more like church. Allan loves to worship God with all he’s got, and it shows. It set the tone for this place for a long time, what was expected of us, not expected, wrong word, invited is better. We were invited to join in, to praise God with all we got because God is worth it, God has come to set his people free.
Friends, I think we should heed Allan’s invitation at least one more time, knowing there is still one thing left for us to be done. We must pull out all the stops tonight and praise God as never before.