Going Away?

A Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Year B – Proper 16 – 26 August 2012

John Edward Miller, Rector


Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

            When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

            Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

– John 6:56-69


The Collect

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Barbara Brown Taylor is one of the premier preachers of our time. She has been one of the bright lights of our Church, sharing her many gifts for ministry as a parish priest, author, lecturer, and teacher. Anyone who has read her interpretive writings, or listened as she articulates thoughts from the pulpit, will attest to her power to use words with exquisite precision to speak the truth. However, Barbara Brown Taylor found that, after twenty years as a priest, she was gradually dying – not literally, but spiritually – in that very ministry. While she was acclaimed for her excellence, her spirit was slowly suffocating. Her agony eventually led to her to forego her vocation, and she described her decision in a book she entitled, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.

 In her explanation of why she left her work in the Church, Barbara Brown Taylor was candid and forthright. She said:

 Although we might use different words to describe it, most of us know what is killing us. For some of us it is the deadly rush of our lives; for others it is the inability to move. For some it is the prison of our possessions; for others it is the crushing poverty that dooms our children to more of the same. . . .

On the twentieth anniversary of my ordination, I would have to say that at least one of the things that almost killed me was becoming a professional holy person. I am not sure that the deadliness was in the job as much as it was in the way that I did it, but now I have higher regard for clergy who are able to wear their mantles without mistaking the fabric for their own skin. As many years as I wanted to wear a clerical collar and as hard as I worked to get one, taking it off turned out to be as necessary for my salvation as putting it on. Being set apart was the only way I could learn how much I longed to be with everyone else. Being in charge was the only way I could learn how much I wanted to be in community.[1]

 Once her decision had been made, Barbara Brown Taylor crossed the Rubicon by informing her senior warden and her bishop. As one might imagine, their reaction, together with that of her parish, was filled with emotion ranging from surprise and disappointment to broken-hearted resignation. Her ministry had been marked by nothing less than excellence, and they had dreamed it would continue indefinitely. But that hope was short-lived, and their distinguished rector was leaving.

In the final days of her tenure, Barbara Brown Taylor was invited to a “legendary” pool party held annually by a parish family. It was the kind of party that everyone attended – with lobster and kegs of imported beer and great fun for young and old. It was the rector’s first visit, though, because she was known for refraining from accepting any invitation on a Saturday night. However, having stepped away from her usual regimen, Barbara Brown Taylor went. She recalled being engaged in the evening’s hospitality and merriment. And when the party reached its climax with guests jumping, and being thrown fully clothed, into the pool, someone grabbed the rector from behind and threw her into the deep end.

 For Barbara Brown Taylor, that act was a moment of salvation. As she broke the surface, and observed her parishioners’ dripping faces, her thought was that

I wanted to be human. I wanted to spit food and let snot run down my chin. I wanted to confess being as lost and found as anyone else without caring that my underwear showed though my wet clothes. Bobbing in that healing pool with all those other flawed beings of light, I looked around and saw them as I had never seen them before, while some of them looked at me the same way. The long wait had come to an end. I was in the water at last.[2]     

 On June 19, 1982, the Rt. Reverend Robert Bruce Hall, the 11th Bishop of Virginia, ordained me a priest of the Church. That was thirty years ago, and you helped me celebrate that event this summer with a wonderful party. I am grateful beyond words for your kindness. Not only was the gathering fun – with a Bluegrass band and barbeque, and plentiful libations, and amusing speeches, cannon fire, conversation, and multiple appearances of Miller’s long-gone mustache, but it was for me an occasion for thanksgiving, remembrance, and reflection about the meaning of three decades as a priest.

Some of you were present that day in St. Catherine’s Chapel when Bishop Hall placed his hands on my head, with fellow priests gathered around me to do the same, and prayed that God would make me a priest, as he and the people chanted the hymn, “Come Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire.” Many of the participants in that liturgy have passed on into God’s eternal embrace. I remember all of them and all of that day’s significance, even if my memory is fuzzier that it was when I was 34. 

Less than two years later I was called to serve as rector of this amazing parish. I had been a graduate student helper, and then assistant rector, so the vestry knew me. Even so, they dutifully followed the rules and convened to interview me for the position. It was exciting and challenging and I loved it. There were many questions for me to answer. But the one that has stuck with me all these years concerned the leadership of a parish parson. The senior warden asked, “What do you see as the rector’s role?” I hardly hesitated before replying, because the answer came as naturally to me as breathing. I said, “I see the rector as a player-coach. He is the person who has been trained and authorized to lead, but is at the same time a member of the team, working alongside his teammates to accomplish common goals.”

You see, I have been in the water with you from the beginning.  Ordination, and being installed as your rector, has given me certain credentials for ministry. But my ministry is shoulder-to-shoulder with your ministries. I have never been “set apart” from anyone in this place, or anywhere else. The phrase, “professional holy person,” is totally foreign to me. It is not in my glossary of important terms. What I do recognize as crucial to ministry is the need to remain real, to be a part of the community of faith, and to acknowledge my shortcomings as well as my need for God’s grace at all times and in all places.

And, despite the trend I encounter nowadays, it’s not about wanting to be clergyman. In ministry the operative words are “called to serve,” rather than seeking a job. Reluctance, fear, and doubt usually accompany a vocation. Anyone who desires the trappings of professional priesthood needs to re-read the Bible carefully. Jesus came among us in the form of a servant. Hierarchy, status, and pomp and circumstance were anathema to him. In fact, he became the sacrificial lamb for the principalities and powers of the establishment. But he accepted the cost of saving others, paying the price with his own life. That’s the way of the cross; our gracious God has made it the way of life.

I mourn the departure of Barbara Brown Taylor from the pulpit and altar of the Episcopal Church. Her leaving may have been necessary for her salvation, but it has been our loss, and God’s. But she is clearly not the only one to have headed for the exit. Church attendance has dropped sharply in the last twenty or so years. This is a reality across the board in most Christian denominations. With the exceptions of the new mega churches and the Catholic Church in general, the data tell us that people are leaving church for alternative sources of security, solace, and support.[3] In Barbara Brown Taylor’s case, the choice was to become a religious studies teacher in a small Georgia liberal arts college. She has distinguished herself there as well. Others have found their refuge and strength sports, school ties, and social networking – to name but a few of the plethora of options available to us today.

And it may be that the exodus was more about pleasure and convenience and following one’s bliss than about something annoying or repulsive about the Church. In our text from John’s Gospel, some of Jesus’ disciples left him because of the difficult nature of his teaching. Specifically, they could not digest his saying that, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” To faithful Jews this sounded suspiciously un-kosher, if not utterly abhorrent. Little wonder then that many of Jesus’ entourage chose to pack it in rather than to ponder his meaning.

But for today’s more casual Christians, the reason for going away is often about self-fulfillment, or finding something more entertaining than church, or simply that something feels better than liturgy, serving others, or following a difficult and demanding path. I find that the book of choice for contemporary seekers is far more likely to be Eat, Pray, Love than The Imitation of Christ.

Many have chosen to pursue a different paradigm than the one set by Jesus. Their new vision of what faith entails is focused on personal growth, rather than picking up one’s cross and following our Lord. It’s more about getting than giving. Today’s seeker is more likely to be looking for enlightenment than for opportunities to serve Christ in all people by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Or, like an acolyte once told me, they think of service as “a drag,” and just don’t want any part of it. In any case, the number of people who leave church to shop for fulfillment is significant, and we who have chosen to stay must pay attention to their need for change. In this brave new world of ours, those who ignore the voice of the dissatisfied will risk becoming obsolete.

My teacher Donald Dawe was a very wise man. When I was his graduate student 35 years ago, I was also pondering whether to become an Episcopalian. So I sought his counsel, laying out the pros and cons of my momentous decision. After listening carefully to my analysis, my patient professor said this to me: “Look, John, when you choose a church it’s not a matter of doctrine, or polity, or rules; it’s about whose set of absurdities you can live with.” As always, Dr. Dawe, was right. And here I am.

There are absurdities that we live with. There are defections, lawsuits, and scandals, and headstrong clergy, and smells and bells, and fancy clothes, and ecclesiastical structures that were perfected in the Medieval Period. But for many of us, there is something more important than those things – something that keeps us here, serving, worshipping, and enjoying this fellowship of kindred minds that is like to that above.

The church is an interim measure only. It is not an end in itself; it is not the kingdom of God. The church is a discipline for the time being, a bridge between the already, and the not yet. William Sloan Coffin once wrote that, if Jesus is love incarnate, then the church is “love organized.” We need order, organization, rules, and rubrics, because “all we like sheep go astray.” That’s why the bishop’s crozier has a crook at one end: to snag wayward sheep. But it’s a grave mistake to substitute the structure and its organizing principles for God’s love.

We are called to be loyal to Christ, and to follow him as our savior and Lord. Structures, hierarchies, and religious rules are at best auxiliary means to the proper end, which is Christ himself. It boils down to heeding his words, and depending on his grace to mend our brokenness and shore up our resolve. He said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is the heart of the matter. He beckons us to the compassionate life. He calls us to “go forth into the world in peace; (to) be of good courage; (to) hold fast that which is good; (to) render to no [one] evil for evil; (to) strengthen the fainthearted; (to) support the weak; (to) help the afflicted; (to) honour all [people]; (to) love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”[4]

 That’s enough.

 In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), p. 226-227.

[2] Ibid., p. 20.

[3] James Graham Leyburn (1902-1993) of Washington and Lee University cited these functions of religion in his course on the sociology of religion.

[4] This is a portion of a blessing from the Church of England’s Proposed Book of Common Prayer, 1928.