Jesus didn’t say, “Go forth and clobber”

Preached on 7 October 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year B Thematic track

There’s a church doing an adult ed series this fall called “Clobbering the Clobber Passages.”  Now, their focus is on how certain passages are often used to clobber people because of sexuality and gender.  The thing is, though, that as long as there have been people with more power than others, the Bible has been used to clobber people; to justify oppression, or just plain cruelty.

But I don’t remember Jesus ever telling the disciples to go forth and clobber.  No, Jesus commissioned them, and us, to go forth in his name to proclaim the Good News, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to forgive sins, to raise the dead; to baptize and teach; to be agents of the reign of God.

This morning, our lectionary gives us two readings that are often used to clobber people.  You may have even been on the receiving end of one of those attempted clobberings.  First, there is the Genesis passage in which we find God has created the first human (not man, just human being) and sees that it is not good that the human is alone.

You might remember that in the first creation story, in the first chapter of Genesis, humankind was the last thing God created before the Sabbath.  God created humankind in God’s own image, God created male and female human beings at the same time, and in that Creation story, after each step, God declared the creation good.

In this second story, though, God creates humankind first, and sees that just one human is not good.  So, God begins creating the animals to try to find a suitable companion for the human, but none is satisfactory.  Finally, God creates another human being out of the first.  And the first human being says, “Yes!  Bone of my bones; flesh of my flesh.  This one is just right.”  Only then are they man and woman, male and female.

Now, I’m sure there will be other people who might want to get into word study arguments so they can continue to use this to clobber women; to insist on their inferiority and to justify their subjugation and oppression.  But that brings up some questions:

  • Who gets to interpret the Bible? And who decides?
  • Whose voices are heard and whose count?
  • Who gets to use the Bible to clobber people? To assume the role of judge and declare of certain people that they are permanently beyond the reach of God’s grace and love; to oppress them, to say they deserve to suffer and they don’t deserve help?

To answer that last question – Nobody does.  Nobody gets to clobber people with the Bible.  I would add that no one has to justify their existence to anyone.  No one has to prove their full humanity to anyone who thinks that they get to be the judge or the higher authority on how to interpret scripture.

I thought I was going to just briefly comment on that one.

Today’s gospel is another clobber passage.  And you know, Jesus does, at times, (and in this passage), clobber people.  But who is the object of his rebuke here?  Is it divorced people?  No, he is directing his critique at the Pharisees because they have used their interpretation of the law to increase suffering.

We have to remember that marriage in 21st-century American society is not anything like marriage in first-century Palestine.  For that matter, marriage today is significantly different from what it was even 75 years ago.

So, what do you think Jesus is getting at here?  Do you think this is primarily about condemning people who are divorced?  Let’s look at a somewhat broader view of the story.

In the previous chapter, Mark tells us about Jesus teaching that we must take care not to put up stumbling blocks, between “the little ones, those such as these” and God.  He insists that we welcome the children.

Then, at the end of today’s reading, Jesus again turns to the children – and presumably their mothers and possibly their fathers, who have been listening to him speak; standing in the back, looking on.  They want Jesus to touch their children; to heal them, perhaps? Again, he chastises those who try to keep them away and insists that they come to him.  He welcomes them.  He blesses them.

So, there’s this arc of welcoming and caring for the children and the vulnerable along with warnings about stumbling blocks, trying to keep others away from God.

In the middle of this arc, Pharisees show up and start talking about divorce.  Jesus lights into them; clobbers them, so to speak.  He condemns their hardness of heart in allowing men to divorce their wives, to set them aside to find a new one.  So, it sounds like he’s still teaching about caring for the vulnerable.

Like I said, the marriage they’re talking about is not like our marriages; marriage that we like to think is based on love and for our mutual joy; a joining of two people who freely enter into a legally binding relationship as equal partners.

The marriage Jesus and the Pharisees are talking about is more of a property arrangement.  The woman would be transferred from her father’s care to her husband’s. The man has a responsibility to provide for his wife and children.  To divorce her is to condemn her and their children to a life of poverty and disgrace.  He is reneging on his responsibility to her.  A writ of dismissal only allows her to legally marry another, if she finds a man who is willing take her.

Unfortunately, too many people have been clobbered with this passage and shamed or bullied or “advised” to remain in a marriage that should end.  Sometimes it is even to the extreme of risking the health, safety, or lives of the wife or child.

The sad truth is that even when two people enter into marriage intent on making a lifelong commitment, if doesn’t always work.  There may come a time when it is best to end the marriage.

When that happens, it is painful enough for the people without others clobbering them with the Bible.  It is not for us to put stumbling blocks before someone who is already suffering, keeping from God who is the source of healing.

God does not desire harm to God’s people simply to satisfy a law.  God’s desire is always human flourishing – especially within marriage.

Jesus doesn’t command us to go forth and clobber in his name.  He commands us to love one another; to have compassion for one another; to care for the least of these.  And he also promises to be with us always – especially in our pain and our vulnerability, in our frailty and our fumblings.
Jesus promises to be with us to the end of the age.
Thanks be to God.

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As Important as a Millstone

Preached on 30 September 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year B, Thematic Track

How IMPORTANT is it?  We answer that question dozens of times every day.  Most of the time we don’t really even think about it – it’s a no-brainer.  It’s easy to let go of the little things:  the other driver who wasn’t paying attention and wouldn’t let you in, that homework assignment that is just busywork, but you have to do it anyway, something your boss said at work today. You let it go and move on.

Then there are the gray area decisions.  Do I spend extra time writing that paper for class or do I go shopping with my daughter for things she needs for her prom?  Prom is once in a lifetime, after all, and she will be moving out soon.

But sometimes we face more challenging situations.  Do I just let it go when my friend, or co-worker, or boss makes racist or sexist statements or jokes?

There are ones that seem like there is an obvious answer the other way – of course we can’t let THAT go.  It may be closely tied to our identity or to societal norms and expectations.  It may involve something that seems to be essential to life or even something we hold Holy.

When it comes to such essentials, for what are we willing to let them go?

I think that’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel.  He’s getting a bit desperate and frustrated.  In the course of the story, Jesus is nearing the end. He and his disciples are on the final journey to Jerusalem and the Passion.

It was just a few days ago, at the beginning of this chapter, that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain where he was transfigured.  They saw him talking to Elijah and Moses and they heard the voice from the cloud.  The one that said, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”  Now they’re travelling through Galilee toward Jerusalem.  By the end of the next chapter, they will be at the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Jesus is using these last few days to teach his disciples just what discipleship demands.  And they don’t seem to be getting it!  In his storytelling, Mark sets up a pattern that he goes through three times:

  1. Jesus prophesies his Passion – his death and resurrection.
  2. The disciples don’t understand.
  3. Jesus teaches them about discipleship.

Today, we’re in the middle of the second iteration.  Last week we heard the prophecy of the Passion and the disciples’ confusion.  They were afraid even to ask him to explain.  We heard Jesus teaching that discipleship means serving others in his name – especially serving those on the fringes; those whom society considers of little account, and he brought a child into their midst to make his point.

Today we hear a series of teachings about discipleship, while Jesus is still holding the child:

  • Don’t concern yourself about who’s in and who’s out, he teaches them. When they see a person who isn’t one of them driving out demons in Jesus’ name, he tells them don’t try to stop him.
  • Hospitality and kindness are important. Anyone who so much as offers a drink of water to someone who comes in Jesus’ name will be rewarded.
  • And then he comes to the teaching about stumbling blocks and leading others astray.

In shockingly graphic detail, he tries to drive home just how important this is.  We hear so much hyperbole in public speech these days, we often just ignore it.  But Jesus uses hyperbole to get our attention; to emphasize just how crucial this is.

Living in the kingdom of God, living in eternal life, living in intimate relationship with God – right now, not as a reward after you die, but RIGHT NOW – is worth more than anything!  And you can’t come in if you’re at the door, keeping others out.

Don’t let stumbling blocks remain in your way, he teaches.  And don’t put stumbling blocks in the way of others.  Just in case they don’t get it he talks about drowning with a millstone around your neck and cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes.

This is our invitation into the kingdom.

This is a good time to examine our lives – as individuals, yes, but even more importantly as a community.  It’s important to remember that we are One Body.  One Body not only with other Christians, but One Body with all other people, especially “the least of these” as Jesus so often said, especially the children and those whose voices are often ignored.

So, what are our stumbling blocks?  What gets between us and God?   What do we hang onto so tightly, thinking that it is absolutely essential, when it is actually hiding the Good News.  It gets in the way of the Gospel and keeps us out of the kingdom of God right now.

What stumbling blocks do we put in the path of others – especially the little ones, leading them away from God’s love; making it difficult for them to even hear the gospel?  We cannot live fully in God’s kingdom while others are left out and suffering.

Now, it’s budget season.  It’s stewardship season.
And in case you missed it, it’s election season.
The decisions we make together are important.
They matter.

They are discipleship decisions.

Will we concern ourselves with deciding who’s in and who’s out?  Will we extend hospitality and kindness in Jesus’ name?

Will we be led astray? Or lead others astray?

Will the budget we develop over the coming weeks be one that fosters discipleship?

Will your vote (or your pledge) put up stumbling blocks?  Or will it open wide the doors of God’s Kingdom?  These are hard decisions, but just as Jesus teaches, it’s worth the effort.

And finally, I feel that I need to say something about this week.  I probably won’t do it well, and I apologize for that. However, I think it would be worse to say nothing just because I can’t do it well.

It’s been a traumatic week.  We’ve seen posturing by politicians and pundits and commentators.  We have heard sincere and heart-wrenching testimony not only by those called to testify but by people, mostly women, but some men, telling their own stories.  And we have seen and heard how those stories have been received; how people have responded.

You can’t get away from it.  And that’s what I want to talk about.  This has been a particularly traumatic week for many people you know and love, precisely because it’s nearly impossible to avoid all the coverage.  They may be reliving their own trauma.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, we all know people who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.  Whether you’re aware of it or not, we all know people who have experienced domestic abuse.  And whether you’re aware of it or not, we all know people who have abused or even assaulted others.

Statistically, many of the people here this morning are included in those groups.  And because we are unaware, it’s important that we be sensitive and compassionate in our speech and in our topics of conversation.  Some may not want to hear about what’s happening in the news; they shouldn’t have to.  Others may feel the need to talk; to tell of their own experiences; and they should be able to.

The only way this violence will end is if people can safely come forward to tell their experiences without fear that they will be blamed or shamed and that they will be believed; that we care and that they matter.  Obviously, we’re not there yet as a society, but perhaps there can be some places where it is true and I hope that the church is one of them.

But that’s not enough.  We must stand up, step up, and say, “Enough.”  Demand that it stop, intervene when necessary, and hold people accountable for their actions; for the pain and trauma they have caused other people.  How important is it?  This is not a gray area question.  This is as important as a millstone.

This, too, is discipleship.

That’s all I’m going to say about it, except that I’m here if you want to talk.

As disciples of Christ, we can make a difference.  Thanks be to God.

Practice, practice, practice

Preached on 23 September 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 20, Thematic Track

Have you ever heard a kid boasting to their sibling, “Mom like me best!” or maybe you were that kid?  Or a child whining, “You always get away with things because you’re the favorite!”

One of my brother’s favorite taunts was, “I was here first.”  And sometimes he would add that our parents found me on the porch; that I wasn’t really part of the family.

It doesn’t end when we become adults, though; plenty of adult siblings still play out the old rivalries.  Nor is it restricted to the family.  Oh no, it extends to classrooms and playgrounds and workplaces.  We do love to rank things and rank each other.  It must be human nature.  Who’s better?  Who’s more important?

The church is not immune to this phenomenon, either.  We love to measure and rank ourselves, too.  We measure the “success” of the church by Sunday attendance (yes, we do count), by how many members we have, the number of pledges, the average pledge, the total budget, how many people participate in various programs, and so on.

We categorize churches as family size or pastoral size or program size.  Somehow, we almost always think we should be bigger or “better” or “greater” than we are.  We sometimes focus so much on the numbers that we forget about People and Relationships.

Even the disciples.  Jesus just told them, for the second time, that he is going to die – that he will be handed over to the authorities and they will kill him and that after three days, he will rise.  They don’t understand, but do they ask?  No, they start squabbling amongst themselves about who’s the best.
The best or greatest what, I wonder?

Jesus ignores them, until they get to Capernaum, where they’ll spend the night, presumably.  There, he calls them out, “What were you arguing about?”   Then he turns it completely upside down.  If you want to be first, you must be last; you must be servant of all.”  And lest they all race to the back of the line, so to speak, he clarifies.

“Whoever welcomes a child, or one such as this, in my name, welcomes me,” he says, “and whoever welcomes me, welcomes God.”  What’s important is relationship, not rank.  Life is not a competition, but relationship.  We are invited to deeper relationship with God through each other and especially with those among us who are “such as this child.”

Who is that?  Who are “the ones such as these” among us?  I would think they include anyone who is vulnerable, dependent on others, perhaps less knowledgeable, less skilled, less mature.  When I think of the qualities of a child I think of openness, loving, close to God, in some ways.

And it includes, of course, actual children.  Children are as much a part of the Body of Christ as you and I.   They are not becoming part of the Body; they are not the future of the Church.  They are the present of the Church.  And what a gift they are.

The other part of Jesus’ statement raises the question, what does it mean to welcome them?  Do you think Jesus means that we need to train them to be just like us?
Or maybe he means that we need to learn to be a bit more like them in some ways.

We can recognize that we, too, are vulnerable, dependent, not as mature as we like to think we are.  We can learn to be more open, loving, and close to God.   Welcoming the child, welcoming one such as this child in the name of Christ, is about loving, nurturing, caring for, and building up.  It’s giving of ourselves, and at the same time being open to what they have to share with us.

We welcome the children because God so graciously welcomes us week by week, day by day, hour by hour into God’s unbounded love, welcomes us to this table, this banquet, welcomes into the very body and life of God’s son Jesus Christ.

At every baptism, the congregation vows “to do everything in your power to support this person in their life in Christ.”  That means that we vow to help and encourage them to fulfill their own baptismal vows.

The first baptismal vow is to worship with our community of faith.  We welcome them, the children, in our worship; not we welcome them if they can understand it, or if they can behave like miniature adults.  We welcome them as children.

We seek and serve Christ in all persons, especially in the children, especially in those who are vulnerable, at risk, those who are on the edge because of health or poverty or emotional or spiritual pain; and we allow Christ to shine through us.

It’s not just while we’re in the building, either.  I think Jesus means it about our whole lives.  It’s in the neighborhood, the city, the whole country, even.

You know, in a way, I think we come here, to church, each week to practice our baptismal vows. We practice here so we are equipped and ready to live them when we leave.
We practice:

  • Seeing each other, first, as people, as fellow children of God.
  • Seeking and serving Christ in one another.
  • Breaking bread together, sharing a meal, and by
  • Praying with each other and for each other; praying for one another’s needs and concerns, giving thanks for our blessings, and celebrating our joys.

All this, regardless of education level, economic or social status, political opinions or affiliations, age or sex or race or physical ability.  We come together, as children of God and practice being followers of Christ so that we can go from here and do likewise in the world God calls us to:  See those we meet first as people; as children of God, seek Christ in them and serve; break bread with them, even if we disagree.  We strive for justice and we persevere in resisting evil.

We welcome the children, the vulnerable, those who are dependent (and in truth, we all are), those who need protection and safety, not only in this space, but in our neighborhood, in our community, and in our nation.

Because that’s what the gospel demands of us; because that’s what it means to follow Christ.

And so, we come back here to practice, to learn from Christ how to be the Body of Christ.

 

 

Mission Improbable

Preached on 9 September 2018 at church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 18 (thematic track)

Welcome back!
Welcome home.
Welcome.

Welcome back to church, whether it’s been a week or a season, or a decade.
Welcome back to the choir.  I think I speak for the whole congregation when I say we missed you; we’re glad you’re back.
Welcome back to a new program year, to Sunday School and Bible Study.

Welcome home to those who have been traveling.
Welcome home to those seeking a home.

Welcome.
Welcome to all who are seeking God’s grace; to all who are seeking God’s Word.
Welcome to all who seek God.

Last week, Wes and I took a few days of vacation and went up to Vancouver Island.  On the way home, when we crossed the border, there was something particularly sweet and touching when I heard the Border Agent say those words, “Welcome home,” as he sent us on our way.

This morning you heard different words of welcome in our opening liturgy.  I found this a while ago and thought it would be a good way to begin our new program year. It’s actually the end of the piece.  You’ll hear the beginning of it as our dismissal or sending at the end of the service.

It caught my attention because it encapsulates what we do here and this is a good time to do some reflection on our purpose, our mission and what we will do next.

As I said, this gathering and sending piece encapsulates something of what we do here each week.  We come, bringing ourselves, our whole selves, our joy and pain, our passion and energy, our fear and our longing.  We come bringing the cares and pain of the world.  All this we bring here to lay before and offer to God.

We come to be nourished and nurtured by God’s Holy Word, by the prayers, by the bread and wine of Holy Communion, by this community, it’s love and care and it’s holding us accountable.  We come to pray for the world, it’s pain and problems, and so to transform not only ourselves, but the world.

And we are sent back out to that world; back to the noise and the mess and confusion.  Back to the beauty and joy and majesty of God’s gracious gift in Creation.  We go out to share what we have received here; to never stop sharing.  The gifts God gives us never run out.

It is a bit vague though.  It takes some discernment to figure out specifically what’s next for us in this time and place.  And this is a good time in the life of the parish to do that work.  Now you may be thinking, but isn’t that what the profile committee just did?  Well, yes.

The profile committee is finishing up their work and preparing to turn the profile over to the search committee.  They have done a great job in describing where we are now and a bit of direction for the future.  It’s a snapshot in time; a great starting point for figuring out what’s next.  You see God’s call isn’t a “one and done” sort of thing.  Our call unfolds over our lifetime, and that is true for the life of a parish community as well.

The specifics of our mission change over time; and sometimes they can take dramatic turns.  It appears that was true for Jesus, as we see in today’s gospel, so why wouldn’t it be true for us?

In today’s gospel, we find Jesus way up north, on the coast, in Tyre.  He’s a long way from home and in gentile territory.  Syro-Phoenicia is right there.  Up until this point, he’s been staying pretty close to home in Galilee, crossing the lake several times, but primarily in Jewish territory.  Now he’s the outsider.  He’s trying to get away from the crowds, but it doesn’t work.

Here he is trying to have a quiet meal with his disciples when a woman shows up.  She’s a mother and she’s desperate.  Her daughter is possessed by a demon and she is absolutely positive that this man, Jesus, can help her.  I think anyone who has children can understand her desperation and that she will do anything get help for her child.

Jesus’ response is surprising, though.  He as much as calls her a dog, saying he didn’t come to save the likes of her but to save the children of Israel.  Huh.  But she is desperate.  She doesn’t meekly leave because she knows he can help.  But she doesn’t get into an argument saying she’s as good as they are.  No, it’s like she accepts his premise and then she points out that even the dogs get the crumbs.
“For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter,” he tells her.

Now a lot has been written and discussed and argued about this whole interaction.
How can Jesus be so mean?
Some claim he’s just “testing” her, or that it’s more light-hearted banter.  I doubt the mother thought it was light-hearted.  Others argue that Jesus is showing his humanity – he’s tired and cranky.

People go back and forth about whether the mother changed Jesus’ mind or if he intended to help her all along.  One could also ask if Jesus chose to help her or did God do it without his intervention and Jesus simply told her what had already happened.
When it comes down to it, though, any of those scenarios can speak to us and our own lives and mission.  We don’t have to get our knickers in a knot over it.  What does God’s Word say to us this time?

This story is seen as kind of a turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  Again, people ask what did Jesus know about his mission and when did he know it.  Does it matter?  His mission unfolds and expands as he goes along.  Here we see it expand well outside the bounds of the house of Israel and the territory of Israel – what might have been seen as a highly improbably mission.

Next, we see him go to the Decapolis where he heals a man who is deaf an unable to speak.  This, too is outside of Jewish territory.

Jesus’ mission expands throughout his ministry.  So does ours.  God’s call is continually unfolding before us.  Using the profile as our jumping off point, where is God calling us now?  What is our next “Mission Improbable?”

So, welcome.
Welcome to God’s mission.

What Gives You Life? – Bread of Life Part 5

Preached on 26 August 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 16 (thematic track)

What gives you life?
As we go through our days, we each have a variety of interactions with people, activities and tasks.  Some of them are life-giving.  They build us up, give us joy or satisfaction; they make us feel alive.

Others are life-draining or even deadening.  They drag us down and drain us emotionally and/or spiritually.
What is life-giving one day may be life-draining on another day.

Often, we find our relationships with special people to be life-giving.  Or it may be something we do that truly makes a difference in someone’s life or something that gives us a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction that gives us life.  Even things that are difficult, challenging, and exhausting can be life-giving.

On the other hand, pointless tasks, mind-numbing activities or difficult interactions with people can be life-draining.

In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus and Peter talking about what gives life.  We have come, at last, to the final section of the Bread of Life discourse in John’s gospel.  Today, we see the people’s response.  The reading begins with the last few verses from last week’s reading, where Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood; about abiding in him and drawing life from him.

Today we learn that this has all taken place at the synagogue in Capernaum; no wonder the Jewish leaders are upset.

It seems that it’s all just a bit too much for most of the crowd.  These are people who have been following him.  They followed him to the grassy knoll where he fed them bread and fish.  Then they followed him across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, to the synagogue where he delivers this discourse.  Jesus makes some pretty bold claims, talking about manna and bread from heaven.  He claims to be living bread that has come from heaven; that he is from God, that he is God, and that he will return to heaven.  Then there is the bit about actually eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

They start grumbling (like the Israelites in the desert).  “This is difficult,” they say, “who can accept it?”  Another translation puts it, “This is intolerable!”

At this point, Jesus stops talking about bread and begins talking about the spirit and life.  But it’s all too much.  Many of those who have been following him turn and leave.

So Jesus asks the Twelve if they want to leave as well.  And we hear Peter’s confession of faith.  “Where would we go?  You have the words of life.  You are the Holy One of God.”

Following Jesus, discipleship is hard; the teaching is difficult – but it is life-giving in a way he has never known before.

It’s important to remember that the crowd following Jesus are faithful Jews.  They know the law and the teachings, but they have no experience of the sacraments; they know nothing of the crucifixion or resurrection or ascension of Jesus.  What he is saying is abhorrent to them; it is an offense to what they have been taught.

John’s original audience, however, is seeing this with post-resurrection eyes, with post-ascension eyes.  They have tasted the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  We have the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian tradition and practice.  In fact, it may be so familiar to us that we have become rather blasé about what we do at this table each Sunday morning; about what God does at this table each Sunday morning.
Can we, with Peter, proclaim, “Lord, You have the words of eternal life?”

Going back to where we started, What gives you life?

I encourage you to try the spiritual practice of the examen.  Each evening, spend some time with God in reviewing your day.  When did you feel truly alive? Most loved and loving?  When did you feel at home in yourself?  Aware of God or Christ’s presence?  Give thanks for those times and notice what they were.

Then ask yourself when you felt disordered, drained?  Unloved, unlovable, or unloving?  Did you feel like a stranger to yourself?  Separated from God?  Acknowledge those times.  Note what made you feel that way.  Ask God what you might have done differently, forgive yourself and let it go.

With time, you may notice patterns.

What do you find is life-draining?  Can you eliminate it from your life and replace it with that which is life-giving?
Obviously, there are obligations that are life-draining but that we can’t neglect.  There’s a reason they’re called “chores,” after all.

Ironically, though, as we seek joy and satisfaction; as we seek life we often try to find it in life-draining pursuits.  As Jesus put it, “we work so hard for bread that does not satisfy.”  And then we find that we have no time or resources left for that which does satisfy, for that which gives us life.

Do you notice a pattern of what is truly life-giving?
Don’t forget to include times of relaxation and refreshment.  What draws you closer to God?

This teaching is difficult, the people say.  Following Jesus can be hard, challenging.  But in the end, will we find, like Peter, that Jesus, the Holy One of God truly does show us the way of eternal life?

Living Jesus for the Life of the World – Bread of Life Part 4

Preached on 19 August 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 15, (thematic track)

Today’s gospel is disturbingly graphic.  It’s visceral. My gut reaction is to resist and reject what Jesus says.  Along with the Jews, I ask, “How can this be?”

So, let’s spend some time with it.  Remember, while the lectionary gives us bits and pieces, John’s gospel has a long trajectory with each part further developing what has gone before.

We started this Bread of Life series three weeks ago with Jesus performing a sign – feeding a multitude of people with a small amount of food, five loaves of bread and two dried fish.  We are now in the third week of Jesus’ interpretation of the sign.  It began with a dialogue about his identity; that he is God; the God who provides sustenance in our lives.

Throughout the discourse, Jesus refers back to the time in the wilderness when God brought the Israelites out of the land of slavery in Egypt.  Our lives are sustained through believing in him where believing is about a deep abiding relationship with God.

Last week, we took a detour to celebrate the Transfiguration.  We missed the part with Jesus talking about where he comes from; his Origins.  He is the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world.  He is God; he is from God.  He extended those origins to all whom God sends him; all who believe in him.  They, too, are of God.

Today, he takes it one step further. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he says.  “The bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Just two chapters earlier, he promised the Samaritan woman that he would give her living water.  Just as God gave them manna from heaven and water from a rock in the desert, Jesus gives living bread and living water.

But we have to go back even further – all the way to chapter 1.  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In Jesus, God became a flesh and blood human being.  And the bread that he gives is his flesh – the same word.  The living bread that he gives is his life: birth to death and beyond.  In Jesus, God embraces human life.

John’s focus is the incarnation.  Make no mistake, John is making it absolutely clear that Jesus is as human as you and I.  “How can ‘this man’ give us his flesh to eat?” the Jews ask.  In other words, this ordinary man, this living man, How can he give us his flesh, the meat of his body, to chew?  I did say today’s gospel was disturbingly graphic.

At the same time, John is proclaiming that Jesus is from God; Jesus is returning to God; Jesus is God.  And just as the living Father sent him and Jesus has life from the Father, those who eat his flesh and drink his blood truly have life, eternal life; life from him.

This passage is about as close as John gets to talking about Eucharist, Holy Communion.  And he puts it, not at the hour of his death, but smack dab in the middle of Jesus’ life in a discourse focused on Incarnation – on Jesus’ earthly life – given in the context of a communal meal.

How does this incarnational focus expand our experience of Communion?  When we think about Jesus living for our sake so that we might have eternal life in our own lives.

And what does he mean when he says you must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life in you.  It literally means “chew my flesh like meat.”  The words are so graphic, repugnant, even, it’s clear that he means something deeper.

Perhaps, if we look a bit more closely at the promise he offers we will get an idea.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… so … they will live because of me.

God, in Jesus, fully embraces and engages human life.  Jesus gives us the sustenance we need to truly live.  It’s about more than bread and water and even meat.  If we just think about food or look at it or even if we smell it, we will still be hungry; we will starve.  No, in order to have life, we have to step up and bite into it and chew it up and swallow it.

To have life in Jesus, we must consume him.  This is intimate, deep engagement.  Jesus gives all of himself for the life of all the world. This is where God has chosen to meet us – as Incarnation; living among us.

It is where we meet God.

The promise is abundant life; life in the presence of God here and now and always.  It is Jesus abiding within us; within you, within me.  It is you abiding in Jesus – the whole of your being; nothing held back.

Perhaps Jesus is saying, “The bread that I give, this living bread – my self, my life with you and in you – is as vital to your life as the bread and the fish I fed the crowd.

Jesus living for the life of the world, living bread, living water.

Holy food for Holy people.

Touchstones and Anchors

Preached on 12 August 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Feast of the Transfiguration (transferred)

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. It’s one of the few that we can celebrate on a Sunday.  So, it must be a pretty big deal.  But apart from how cool it must have been – terrifyingly cool – what do you think is the big deal?  Why was it important in Jesus’ life?  In the lives of the three disciples who witnessed it? What does it tell us about God, about Jesus, and about our own life with Christ?

Just a week before this, Jesus asked his disciples, “what’s the word on the street?  What are people saying about me?”  And then he asked, “What about you?  Who do you think I am?”  At that point, Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the chosen one of God.

Then, almost immediately, Jesus told them, for the first time, that he will suffer and die and be raised up on the third day.

All that happened just a week before what we heard today.  Imagine what that week might have been like for him.  Now here it is just a week later and Jesus asks three of his closest companions to come up the mountain with him to pray – to open themselves to God; to listen for God’s voice and guidance.

And God shows up, big time, along with Moses and Elijah.  Jesus is visibly changed before their eyes and the disciples hear God say almost the same words that were heard at Jesus’ baptism.  The same words that Peter proclaimed just a week earlier.
“This is my Son, my Chosen one.  Listen to him.”

Jesus was Transfigured, yes, but for the disciples, this was a Conversion Experience.  As spectacular as this experience was, their conversion didn’t begin and end on the mountain.  It continued throughout their lives.

In Jesus’ life, the Transfiguration is a turning point. He comes down the mountain and sets out to make his final journey to Jerusalem.

It was probably a turning point for the disciples, as well.  While they had been following this itinerant preacher and prophet for some time, now they had some evidence, so to speak, that he truly is the Messiah.  He is revealed as Divine.  They were already quite familiar with his humanity.  For us, I think, it is sometimes the other way around.  We are used to thinking of Jesus as divine, the son of God, but we sometimes have to be reminded that he was fully human as well.

I’m sure that this experience served as a touchstone and, later on, as an anchor for the disciples.  In the chaos they must have felt when Jesus was arrested and crucified, they had something to hold onto; an anchor in the storm.  And then, when they were going about their ministry, proclaiming the gospel, it was a touchstone – something to help them remember who Jesus is and who they are.  They had a story to tell.  We heard it in Peter’s letter.

 

We all experience milestones and turning points in our lives.  Some of them may even become anchors or touchstones for us.  An anchor to help us weather the storms in our lives.  Touchstones to help us remember who we are, whose we are, our place in the world.

Most of us have experienced a certain ebb and flow in our spiritual lives.  Some of us may have had mountaintop experiences of some kind.  But while those are great and can turn our lives around sometimes, conversion is not a singular event, it’s a lifelong process.

All of this is true not only in our individual lives, but in the life of a community; even the life of a nation.  This morning I would like for you to think about it in terms of the life of this parish, this congregation.  This time of transition is a turning point in the life of the parish.  It’s may be an opportunity for conversion; for growing closer to God, listening for God’s guidance.

Remember, God does the converting, but we have to show up, open and willing.  Think about our two mountaintop stories this morning.

Moses goes up the mountain to be with God.  When he comes down his face is glowing – the people know that something momentous has happened.  They pay attention, even though they’re frightened.  And then throughout their journey in the wilderness, he goes into the tent of meeting from time to time to be with God.

Each time, he first removes the veil, he’s open and receptive to what God has to say.   And each time, he brings God’s message back to the people.

Jesus takes his disciples and goes up the mountain to be with God.  And he is transfigured.  He comes away, knowing what he is to do next; he’s focused.  The disciples, too, are changed.  They come down with a surety of their own path and of who Jesus is.  They are strengthened for the journey that lies ahead of them.

What are some of the turning points and milestones in your own life?  They may include moving into your first apartment or downsizing and retirement, the loss of a loved one or the birth of a child or grandchild.

What about the turning points and milestones in the life of this parish?  In what way have those moments continued to touch your life?  Have they anchored you?  Have they been touchstones for you?  Looking back, can you see God in them?

What about times when you know God was acting in the life of the parish – whether it was a mountaintop experience or something small?  Were you changed?  When Jesus came down the mountain, he was focused.  How might God we transfiguring us?  Where is God drawing us to focus our attention, our passion, our mission?

It’s up to us to show up, open and willing.

God transforms us.  Thanks be to God.