Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fourteenth after Pentecost

 Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (Proper 17B)

Good morning.  After our midsummer interlude in Sunday readings from the sixth chapter of St. John we return today to the rich field of the Gospel of  Mark, which is the principal focal point of “Year B” in our three year Sunday lectionary. 

Back in the spring and early summer we were in earlier chapters of Mark, at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, hearing the first accounts of his teachings, and with stories about dramatic healings of those afflicted with physical and spiritual disease, astonishing miracles, giving rise to all kinds of interest and even fame.  He was making an impression.  People were paying attention.  And we leap into the middle of that here in Mark 7, as we have just heard, as religious leaders all the way from Jerusalem have come out to the countryside to see what this Jesus character is up to.  It’s not unusual for these wild characters to pop up from time to time out in the countryside, and when they begin to stir up a fuss it seems important for the theologically trained and institutionally established leaders to come out and see what’s going on and to do what will usually need to be done to quiet the storm and get things back on track.

From one point of view it might be in Jesus’s best interest to make a good impression on these Jerusalem authorities—but that certainly doesn’t seem to be what happens.  So much for his career.   The Pharisees and Scribes are quick to point out that the followers of Jesus aren’t paying careful attention to the customary practices of Jewish practice and piety.  If we translate it into our context, they ask something like, “why don’t your disciples say grace before they start eating dinner?”

Jesus responds not with a defense of his disciples, and not by saying that it’s not an important thing to say grace--but with a sharp rebuke directed right back at the critics.  I imagine him pointing his finger and speaking with great energy—shifting the focus of the conversation and boldly challenging them for their hypocrisy: so concerned with the outward appearance of piety and religious purity, yet so strangely quiet when it comes to things much more serious.   This must have played well with the locals.  I imagine them not just nodding in agreement but cheering and applauding as Jesus takes on these Jerusalem big-wigs.  “You are so very  careful when it comes to formal ceremonial observance,”  he states, wagging that finger and looking them straight in the eye.  “ Yet so conveniently, so conveniently, you turn a blind eye to the  depths of sin all around you.” 

In a similar encounter recorded in Matthew 23 Jesus uses the phrase “whitewashed sepulchers,” and that seems to be the point here as well.  A whitewashed sepulcher, and freshly painted mausoleum.  All clean and attractive on the outside, but on the inside full of darkness and corruption. A version of what Jesus says in Matthew 7, “why do you focus on the speck in your brother’s eye while ignoring the log in your own?”

It was only a week or two ago that I even heard of this internet social media platform called “Ashley Madison,” but it was no surprise to learn that something like this existed.  The world we live in—to say with some sorrow.  You’ve heard of this?  A place on the internet for those desiring clandestine and secret opportunities for adultery—seeking to explore varieties of these relationships, if that’s what you would call them, while continuing to maintain the appearance of fidelity within their marriages.    In any event, these kinds of stories seem to surface every few weeks.  Internet hackers, sometimes motivated by a desire for financial gain and sometimes just to show off their technological abilities—and suddenly names and e-mail addresses and Social Security information and credit card numbers and in this case the secret betrayals of the unfaithful heart are out in the open for everybody to see.  Governmental leaders, politicians, upstanding citizens, teachers, t.v. stars, clergy.  The small and the great.  In the millions, as I understand it.   And with heartbreaking consequences.  Marriages broken, even already a couple of reported suicides.  What happens when the door on that “whitewashed sepulcher” swings open, and everybody can see what’s going on inside.  

A glimpse of what really defiles.  Jesus asks, “why are we majoring in the minors?”   Not these superficial matters of piety and ceremony that seem to get the authorities all riled up.  Jesus never says that there’s anything wrong with them in themselves.  But how easy, how convenient,  to keep the focus there and so, perhaps deliberately, to miss the elephants crowding the middle of the room. 

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”    That would be an interesting sermon series, don’t you think?  A dozen Sundays—maybe think about it as a way to perk attendance up over a long summer . . . .

A couple of weeks ago on a somewhat different topic I quoted Donald Trump, you may remember, in this interview with CNN that touched for a moment on his religious faith, and that included an odd comment, I thought, especially for even a nominal Presbyterian, that he had never felt any need to pray for forgiveness.  And I just pause with that, and to comment that it may be that for all of us we have developed pretty effective strategies of avoidance, when it comes to the process of seeing things as they really are in our own lives and in the wide world around us. 

I’ve picked up a few pounds this summer, and as I go through the process of challenging the reality that inevitably follows those wonderful scoops of ice cream, I notice that it takes something of a greater effort to convince myself to stand on the scale in the morning.  Part of me would just prefer not to know.   And I guess that’s why some folks will watch nothing but Fox News and others will watch nothing but PBS and MSNBC.  Life is just so much easier when we don’t need to hear or see things that challenge our pre-existing assumptions.   If all my friends agree with me, then it becomes so much easier to tune out anything I may not want to hear.  Just to live safe and secure in my comfort zone.

The stunning and painful irony here in Mark 7, that it is the very people whose office and vocation and ministry it is to communicate to the people the truth of God’s intention for humanity who are instead acting to obscure that truth in a fog of details and technicalities.   I would guess it would be wise for the church and for the commissioned ministers and teachers and leaders of the church and all of us in every generation to pause over this with care.  How sometimes we begin by imagine our job is to be pointing fingers, and then suddenly we discover that what we are first compelled to do is to be taking a hard look in the mirror.  Not a pleasant thing.  With the potential to be costly, in ways that we hadn’t anticipated.  Those Pharisees and Scribes, commissioned with the stewardship of God’s people and God’s Word,  choose the easy path rather than the right path, and so all are wandering  cluelessly into great peril.  And we should not kid ourselves about that.  The peril is great, which is why Jesus is pushing-back here.  It’s not o.k. just to go along to get along, when the consequences can be catastrophic.  Skating on thin ice, but with a smile, since all the warning signs have been removed.  

And so in this moment the one who is the perfect minister of God’s Word and intention hacks into the system and brings to the light of day what they had assumed and hoped would remain hidden forever behind a carefully constructed firewall. There’s a wonderful line in John, Chapter 4, at the conclusion of the familiar story of Jesus and his conversation with the Woman at the Well, when she runs back to her village with the amazing and joyful announcement, “come and see someone who told me everything I ever did.”  We pause perhaps at this.  Does that sound like someone you really want to meet?  But she knows of course that in this case for her the answer turned out to be yes.  To meet the one who knew me through and through, who lifted every secret sin and crime of my life and my will and my heart into the light of day. But then didn’t reject me, but offered me a new way forward, a gift,  a way that would be clean and clear and refreshed in God’s will.  A way of forgiveness and renewal and real joy and peace.  So that I wouldn’t need to hide anymore, so that I wouldn’t need to continue to be a prisoner of my own sin, a hostage to my lifetime of lies and betrayals.  The one who showed me the way of life, not to make me ashamed, but to begin that day a new journey, one that we would walk together. 

Which is what the gospel message has for us this morning.   Not to play games with us.  Not to pull any punches when it comes to the seriousness of our situation.  But not either to churn up our fearful defensiveness or to add even more to the burden of our guilt, certainly not to inspire some spirit of judgmentalism in the way we relate to each other--but instead to offer with sincerity in Christ a way of forgiveness and renewal  and reformation, and real joy and real peace.    

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dr. Robert Carl Block

Burial Office
Robert Carl Block, M.D.
November 1, 1933 – August 22, 2015
August 26, 2015

Jesus speaks to his disciples in the 14th chapter of St. John.  Very familiar traditional words to all of the Christian family:  . . . Let not your heart be troubled . . . . In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. . . .  Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.  He says this in the night of the Last Supper, with the whole story of Good Friday and the Cross about to play out for him and for his friends, and for all of us, at all times and in all places.  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there.  The guiding light of the Easter Candle to show the way. 
I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

And Maryrose, Paula, Diana, Carl, and all your families, friends and loved ones here this morning--simply to pray that the words of our Lord for all of us would shine a bright and steady light.  As we have been caught short by Bob’s death.  Such a short time between this last medical diagnosis and this day—and I know it has been and continues to be so much to take in.  Rich memories and thanksgiving for a life well-lived, of course, but also just the jumble of the unexpected.  Moments of life that we prepare for in one way, but find ourselves not entirely prepared for in so many others.  And so we would continue to encourage one another in prayer, day by day, in the sure confidence of God’s unfailing love and of the victory of the Cross, so that the grave and gate of death becomes for those who rest in Christ a new door opening wide to all the blessings of eternal life.

It is very much for me an honor and a privilege to share this morning in this service for Robert Carl Block, who entered this life on November 1, 1933, and who entered Greater Life this past Saturday evening, August 22, 2015, at the age of 81.  To remember his life in all its richness.  Husband and father—his life of service, in medicine and science, his career in the Navy—of which we would all be very proud, and later in this service we will honor that part of his life and career with the singing of the Naval Hymn, “Eternal Father.”  And then in practice here in Western Pennsylvania for so many years.  Remembered by friends and colleagues.  As we offer together the prayers of the church, not just as we say the words but as we gather the faith and life and witness of the whole Christian family and offer the deepest knowledge and desire of our hearts to almighty God.  As we hear the words of scripture, the psalms, the lessons, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I was and am very much touched by the two readings selected by the family and read by Bob’s grandsons this morning.  The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, with those powerful opening words, “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God . . . .”  And then, “the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones.” Remembering today this man of such deep integrity, such great dedication, and with all that, these words: grace and mercy.  And I’m recalling the quiet sense of dignity that was about Bob, and also his kindness, and his good humor.  I know friends here at St. Andrew’s will have such warm memories of so many mornings in the space of time before the 9 a.m. service, wonderful conversations around the table over a cup of coffee.

And then of course the extravagant words of St. Paul in the 8th Chapter of Romans.  So deeply in the heart of every Christian, the affirmation of faith, our victory in Christ.  Who can separate us from Christ?  “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, to angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In the two decades that I’ve known Bob there has been so much that has impressed me about him, so much about him and about his friendship that I have enjoyed.  His warmth, his generosity.  I recall one very fun conversation over in our Parish Hall when he explained to a group of us all the problems with the lab work on television shows like CSI.  And I would even say just a short while ago over at St. Margaret’s Hospital when he and I were talking about his recent diagnosis, suddenly he began to give me a little lecture on what happens with metastatic cancer.  There were gaps, of course, when he would search for a word.  But when he got going he was drawing diagrams in the air with his fingers and giving definitions in a simplified way for me, his non-medical audience.  It was like going back several years, actually, and just a really touching moment.

Thinking about the interest and enjoyment that he felt in our quieter 9 a.m. Chapel Service here on Sunday mornings, —the great friends over those years.  Not exactly a starry-eyed mystic, perhaps, but a man who knew deeply and experientially the presence and care of God. 

“In my Father’s house are many mansions.”  “Whither I go, ye know, and the way ye know.”  You know where I’m going, and you know how to get there.  Jesus is talking to his disciples about something more than what we might call our religious opinions and theories, our interpretations, our theological positions or understandings of various issues and concerns of the day.  The whole of ecumenical, Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue in some ways at the home front.  Right here in Pittsburgh prayers from St. Andrew’s and St. Scholastica’s and St. Bede’s all rising to the throne of Heavenly Grace.  But of course what Jesus is talking about is a deeper kind of knowing than that.  The kind of knowing that we talk about when we say that a child knows his mother.  It’s about relationship, connection.  About the word we use in the Church with real meaning and sincerity: about faith.  About being in relationship with God deeply and securely.  “You know where I am going, and how to get there, because you and I are going to the same place, returning to the same home, to that mansion that the Father has prepared for us.”  To hear again, I am the way, the Truth, the Life.  No man cometh unto the Father but by me.”

Remembering the prayers we shared just a few days ago, as Bob was over and over again covered with prayer and anointed with holy oil, to hear assurance of God’s blessing.  “The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey: be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Funeral Sentences from the ancient prayers of the Church, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  Thinking how very fragile we are in this short life.  How precious every day is.  And so as we come together hear, to remember, to comfort one another, to give thanks, we might also hear an invitation.  Bob might be an inspiration for us in this way.  Courageously, with a great and open and tender heart, to love one another, to do good work, to enjoy the good gift of the life, the family and friends God has given us.

In the sure and certain hope of life in Christ Jesus, what we all have to be about this morning, with all the sadness that there is—what we all have to be about is to learn to live every day of this short and precious life in the love of God and of one another, serving God and one another, knowing that to be such a privilege.

If you would please stand with me now and we will turn in the hymnal to Hymn #390, where we would sing together the selected hymn, and such a great Christian message on this morning, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

John 6: 56-69 (Proper 15B)

Good morning.  It was toward the end of July, five Sundays ago--the second of the two Sundays that Cathy Brall spent here as supply priest and guest preacher.  Susy and I and my brother-in-law Michael heard the same gospel reading up at St. Luke’s Church in Scituate, at the beginning of the last week of our summer vacation.  Seems like a million years ago!  But I’m sure the story is still fresh in our minds: the opening of the sixth chapter of St. John.  The hour was growing late and a multitude numbering in the thousands, following Jesus into the wilderness, far from their homes and villages, sat down on that broad expanse to feast on the meal that was provided miraculously, at his blessing of that young boy’s five barley loaves and two fish. 

Next Sunday in the lectionary we’re headed back to St. Mark, but this morning we pause one last time, as we’ve moved week by week and are now at the end of John 6, continuing as Jesus and the disciples have moved from the countryside to the village synagogue in Capernaum, continuing in the wake of the miraculous feast,  in this extended, deep, mystical, and we might almost say sacramental exploration of what it means when we pray in the Holy Communion, the “Prayer of Humble Access,”-- “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”   Jesus taking the moment and leading us ever deeper and deeper.

That miraculous meal in the wilderness launching us into a challenging consideration of who Jesus is—and about how “who he is” makes a difference in how we understand “who we are.”  Provoking new questions, new concerns, new possibilities and new anxieties.  All of a sudden it feels like dangerous territory.  Just how much do we want our identity and our fate, our destiny, to be wrapped up in his identity, his destiny?   Not just a question for those in the synagogue at Capernaum,  as almost daily stories in the news continue to illustrate, in the Middle East and Africa, ISIS and Boko Haram and Al Shabab.  --To be one with Jesus.  To be “of his Body.”   To take on his identity.  In Syria and Iraq the ISIS troops when they occupy a new town will put the Arabic letter “N” on the door of the homes of those known to be Christians, to stand for “Nazorean,” the word used in the Bible to describe Jesus.  A terrifying mark to see on your own front door.  Nothing will ever be the same for you again.  Get out of town now, or, as we know, the threat of imprisonment and cruel executions, hangings, beheadings, even crucifixions.  And yet somehow also, a blessing, a benediction, an honor.  A privilege.   That’s what the survivors share in the refugee camps.  To be called by his Name.  They say many of the condemned go to their deaths singing hymns joyfully--like hearing stories of the martyrs on their way to the lions in ancient Rome come to new life in the second decade of the 21st century.

 A privilege, they say:  to participate in him, to be nourished and sustained by the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation.   The fulfillment of the ancient sign, the manna that God caused to rain down upon the Chosen People as they wandered in the wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt.  Fulfilling and surpassing, completing God’s holy work.  Manna is a gracious gift, but with that also a sign and reminder of absolute dependence.  Without me you are nothing—dry bones bleaching in the desert sun.

The imagery is at once both deeply intimate and disturbing, even offensive.  Who are you, Jesus, even to imply that I am nothing without you? That I can’t really live without you?   That’s a little much—a little too much.  The word in our translation here. “Does this offend you?”  Jesus asks.  And apparently so, because as I mentioned last week, anticipating this, many of his followers decide at this point that they’ve had enough and need to move on.  They were perhaps hoping for a second course, more miracles, as I mentioned last week.  A free car for everyone in the studio audience.  But that’s not how this story is going to play out.   This is a decision point, and it seems to be dawning on everyone that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Pointing to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called, “the cost of discipleship.”  The shadow of the Cross already falling across the scene.   It’s a fork in the road.  Either you’re all in with Jesus now, all in, or you go home.  Jesus asks the twelve, who have been his closest companions, and Peter offers his Confession.  “No Jesus, we aren’t leaving.  There’s no place else we can go.   No one else could ever be for us what you have become for us.  “You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

The somewhat eccentric but always very interesting Scottish Presbyterian Biblical scholar William Barclay says this about Peter’s Confession in John 6: 

“Peter's loyalty was based on a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. There were many things he did not understand; he was just as bewildered and puzzled as anyone else. But there was something about Jesus for which he would willingly die. In the last analysis Christianity is not a philosophy which we accept, nor a theory to which we give allegiance. It is a personal response to Jesus Christ. It is the allegiance and the love which a man gives because his heart will not allow him to do anything else.”

We talk about this relational sense of loyalty in terms of faith.  Not simply to believe that what Jesus says is true.  Not simply to believe that in and through Jesus God was and is fully present in the world.  But as we would say, to believe in Jesus. To have him in our minds and in our hearts as we sing the metrical paraphrase of Psalm 23, “I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”  Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling.

So how does this happen, this relationship, this sense of loving and trusting companionship. Of being in it for the long haul. With him and in him,  for better, for worse?   For Peter and those first disciples there was of course the personal presence of Jesus, day by day, walking with him, eating, drinking, laughing, crying--sharing both the great moments of revelation, healing and exorcism and signs of power, and as well quiet moments, sitting in the shade by the side of the road in the heat of an afternoon. For us, Word and sacrament, the testimony of faith, each word of scripture, the waters of baptism, the call to this Holy Table, to receive the Bread of Life, sacred memory of Jesus now stirred within us to new life and fresh witness in the Holy Spirit.

“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.”  Remember those words in the first paragraphs of John as we heard them in the flickering candle light of Christmas Eve Midnight, our eyes on the Baby in the Manger.  They seem to echo again.  In the synagogue at Capernaum.  And here, now.   “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God . . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Twelfth after Pentecost

John 6: 51-58 (Proper 15B)

Good morning!  Our gospel reading begins by repeating the last verse of our gospel reading last week,  John 6:51.  “Jesus said, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’”

The saying causes some confusion, a strong reaction, from those who are nearby.  They’ve gathered around following the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 because they think there’s more to come. If he can do this with fish and barley loaves, what else might be possible?  Maybe somebody remembers what happened at the Wedding Feast in Cana and thinks that there might be a party about to happen, a banquet spread out over the hillside—great stone jars overflowing with fine wines, a feast in abundance of the most exotic gourmet foods.   

A few years ago as I recall Oprah suddenly announced that she was going to give everyone in her studio audience that day a new car.  Maybe something like that!  Hanging close to Jesus, because all kinds of good things seem like they might be about to happen.

There’s actually a long tradition of thinking this way.  Jesus as a good luck charm.  Like praying for a parking place on your way to the symphony or the ballpark.  Sometimes you catch that theme in preaching.  In its most explicit form, “accept Jesus and all your problems will be over.”  Things will get better!  Money, relationships, jobs, health.  The idea that wearing a cross around your neck is almost like carrying a rabbit’s foot.  The storms of life will miraculously give way to sunny days and fair winds.  Blessing upon blessing!  

There are more subtle expressions, sometimes with aspects of Christian proclamation blending in with the self-esteem movement in popular contemporary western psychology.  Our God is a happy God, and he wants us to be happy too!   There’s a funny and telling Facebook piece floating around that shows devotional drawings of ancient martyrs as they are being stabbed, drowned, burned, hanged, crucified, devoured by wild beasts.  As they die their last words are quotations from the Twitter feed of Pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church in Houston, who is perhaps the most prominent currently in this genre.  As the flames rise up, as the ax falls, as the lion leaps, the saint proclaims:   “God is ready to take you to a new level.”   

Note as an aside: Lakewood is the largest Protestant congregation in the United States.  When the Houston Rockets built a new basketball arena, Lakewood purchased the old one, and they regularly fill it with 15,000 in attendance on a Sunday.  Those who aren’t at home live-streaming or catching the service later on cable.  It’s good news, that God is happy, that God wants us to be happy, that he will make us happy, if only we would let him!

But instead of rallying the crowds and winning more and more applause by spreading out before them all the desires of their hearts, Jesus pulls the blanket out from under them, meeting their requests with this hard to understand, metaphysical language, not at all the kind of bread and wine they were hoping for, but flesh and blood, the shocking imagery of death at the altar of sacrifice in the Temple, mystical union, promises not of fulfillment here and now but of some kind of life above and beyond this life, which somehow they can have only if they become one with him.  My flesh is the bread you need.

Hearing this, most all of them are getting ready to head for the nearest exit, as we’ll see just a few verses below,  John 6, verse 66:  “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.”

Which brings me—and I hope you’ll forgive me for this—to Donald Trump.  (And let me pause and say that I’m not intending any kind of political comment here.  I haven’t decided who I might vote for next year—and it’s all way too early.  And besides,  if I were ever to tell you who I was voting for, it wouldn’t be in the pulpit anyway. 

But to say I was intrigued not for political reasons but for theological reasons, when I read a few weeks ago an exchange from an interview that Donald Trump had given to CNN in which I guess some questions about religious belief had come up.  Trump told the interviewer that he believed in God, and that he regularly went to church.  Apparently he’s a Presbyterian, not an Episcopalian, but perhaps you already knew that!  In any event, at some point in the conversation the interviewer asked Trump if he ever prayed for forgiveness.  Something of an odd question, but perhaps it was meant to be a prelude to questions like, “what in particular do you feel  you need to be forgiven for?”  

Interestingly, and not sounding like much of a Presbyterian in this I would say, or any Christian really that I’ve ever known or talked with, but Trump said, no, he hasn’t ever asked God for forgiveness.  At least not directly.  But then he paused, and went on, and said that he does, though, participate in Holy Communion.  And here’s the quote:  “When I drink my little wine—which is about the only wine I drink—and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said.  “I think in terms of, “let’s go on and make it right.”

“When I drink my little wine . . . and have my little cracker . . . and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.   I think in terms of ‘let’s go on and make it right.’” I’m not wanting to be too hard on Trump here.  I think he’s trying to get at something, though he clearly has a problem with the vocabulary.  It’s a perspective that we may hear a lot.  A friend of mine wrote a blog piece recently in which he talked about what we might call the pharmacological approach to Holy Communion.  You take a pill and it makes you feel better.  “A little wine, a little cracker.”

Actually a pretty common way folks talk about Communion, about church in general  sometimes.  Looking for something to make them feel better.  Sometimes people will say, “have you found a church that meets your needs?”  Something worth reflecting on.  I was hungry, and because I was following Jesus I got this great meal of bread and fish.  How cool is that?

And again, not to push back on Trump, but shortly after I read his CNN interview I happened across an article by Faith McDonnell, a journalist who has been writing for some time about the tensions between Muslims and Christians especially in Africa and the Middle East.  And the language struck me quite differently, as she wrote about an interview with a man she calls “Pastor O.,” from a Protestant Church in a smaller town in Central Nigeria.  A mosque near the church had become a center for members of the group Boko Haram.  And I’ll just read a few sentences.

“Reverend O. told how he had been leading a service of Holy Communion when his church was attacked by Muslims from the local mosque.  “I don’t like telling this story because it makes me cry,” he admitted, but added that he thought it was important for us to hear.  He continued that the Muslims had left their mosque and surround the church, where they began stabbing and slashing at people with knives, and committing “all kinds of attacks.” 

“We tried to gather up the children and get them out or hide them,” Reverend O. said.  His voice faltered and he was silent for a moment as a tear rolled down his cheek.  “My daughter was among them,” he told us.  Then he asked the people, “Do you want me to close the service so you can escape?”  After pausing to remove his glasses and wipe his tear-filled eyes, Reverend O. continued, “They said to me, ‘You taught us that Jesus is worth dying for.  This may be our last Communion.  We will take it and die.”    (Shortly thereafter on this occasion soldiers arrived, and the mob was dispersed.  Though of course we know that that’s not always or even usually how these stories end.)

Just a contrast, for us to hold in our thoughts this morning as we approach the Holy Table, about what this meal and what this Christian life is really all about.  Not about what he can do for us, but about who we are in him.  “You taught us Jesus is worth dying for.”  And John 6: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Eleventh after Pentecost

John 6 (Proper 14B)

Ordinarily when we talk about a diet of bread and water we are talking about what we might call the bare minimum.  The exact opposite of what we'd find at the typical St. Andrew's potluck!  What hermits live on as they sit in their wilderness caves.   In a Victor Hugo novel that’s what gets fed to prisoners in the dungeon.  Just enough to sustain life—that’s all.

But here in the early chapters of John Jesus talks about bread and water and moves with it in a different direction.  Back in the fourth chapter Jesus meets a woman of Samaria at an ancient well, and he asks her for a drink of water.   One of the most well-known of all the gospel stories about Jesus.  They exchange a few words, and then he says to her, “you know, if you really knew who I am, you would ask me for a drink—because anyone who drinks from the water of this well of yours will be thirsty again, but the water I would give you would be quite different. 

He says to her, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

And she says, “I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about, but it sounds pretty interesting. Tell me more!”

And  now here in chapter six, as Jesus has just fed the multitudes with the miraculous blessing of that little boy’s five loaves and two fish,  the crowds come to him again, hungry again, looking for more to eat, looking for more bread.  And Jesus says:  you’re looking for the wrong kind bread.  No matter how much you eat of that bread, you’ll be hungry.  I want to talk to you about a different kind of bread.

“I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  Whoever believes in me has eternal life.”  Hear that again: “Whoever believes in me has eternal life.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven . . . .  And I will raise him up on the last day . . . . Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

In one frame of reference a diet of bread and water doesn’t sound like much.  Quenching our thirst for an hour or two, filling our stomach for a short time.  Meeting day to day needs, as they return again and again.  

A hamster on a wheel.  A dog chasing his tail.  Asking us this morning from John’s gospel to the pews of St. Andrew’s Church:  what are we thirsty for, really?  What are we hungry for?  We know how to use those words to point to something other than what we do at lunchtime.   Recognizing the reality that so often we will go on consuming and consuming and consuming even when it becomes apparent to us that no amount of bread and water will fill our hunger, ease our thirst. 

If I can just find the right person, the right relationship; if only I could live in that neighborhood, achieve those educational and financial and career goals.  If only, if only.  The next job, the next boyfriend or girlfriend.  The next house.  The next big sale.  The next award or degree or accolade.  The prize bank account.  The approval of others, cheers and applause.

 John 6, and we would hear what Jesus offers instead.  If we’re ready to put all that down and look for something else.  In Jesus, now, in the midst of this day to day routine life of ours, our thirst and our hunger will be lifted up and transformed to complete what we have been yearning for, to assure us of the fulfillment of God’s promise that has echoed in our ears since the beginning of creation. 

The ancient curse, the consequence of sin, back in Genesis 3, as God speaks to Adam, as the gates of the Garden of Eden are closed and guarded by angels with flaming swords.  “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Words that we hear as ashes are imposed on Ash Wednesday, as we move into Lent on the journey to Holy Week and Good Friday.  As we are ejected beyond the gates of the Garden.  “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

Mankind’s ancient catastrophe, now, now for us, on this summer morning, echoes of Easter, and turned to victory.  God himself stepping in—himself our food and drink, a spring of water welling up to eternal life, the bread of paradise, heavenly banquet, not to keep body and soul together here for a short season, a few days, a few decades, but to lift us, to raise us up to be with him and in him, to welcome us with him to the new Garden.  As the ancient Easter song would say, echoing St. Paul in First Corinthians 15, “as in Adam die, even so in Christ all be made alive.”  About real living.  Not playacting, but with the deepest authenticity.  To be alive as we have never been fully alive before.

The word and invitation of the gospel this morning for us.  To believe in Jesus, as we allow ourselves to turn in our minds and our hearts to him, to turn from the life of the first Adam, with all its sin and brokenness, evil, and to seek a new life with him and in him.  To trust him.  To walk in his way.  Forgiveness, renewal, life eternal.

To paraphrase the Woman at the Well:  that all sounds pretty good—tell me more!

We have heard the story and so the invitation this morning.  To believe in him, to receive in our hearts and minds and lives the gift of his sacrifice in a spirit of repentance and renewal.  That is the one true meal.  Not just bread and water, but real bread, living water.  Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.  Again the Easter hymn.  Christ as been sacrificed for us--therefore let us keep the feast.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.