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Watching for the Morning of September 9, 2018

Year B

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The ideas about clean and unclean continue in our Gospel this Sunday, only now it is not clean hands that are at stake – and the unclean Judeans among those who follow Jesus. Now it is about those outside the community of Israel: a woman of Tyre and a man in the region of the Decapolis. The woman is clearly identified as a Greek. An evil spirit holds her daughter – an “unclean” spirit. The man is unable to hear or speak; he cannot hear the word or speak God’s praise.

Jesus has gone intentionally to the region of Tyre. From there to the region of Sidon then to the region of the Decapolis. Tyre and Sidon are ancient Phoenician cities.   With the ten towns of the Decapolis they enjoy special privilege as free cities of the empire. Their allegiance to Greek culture and Roman rule is ancient and strong. Tyre and Sidon are ancient seaports and wealthy trading centers. It was the King of Tyre who had the cedar and skills to build King David a palace, and Solomon a temple. It was a daughter of Sidon, Jezebel, who sought to kill the prophets and make Baal the god of Israel. She taught Ahab the ways of true power, arranging for the murder of Naboth to gain his vineyard. Of Tyre the prophet Ezekiel would declare, you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods,” as he announces God’s coming judgment.

These are not the people who deserve God’s favors.

Nor are those in the region of the Decapolis. Mark’s community lives in the throes of the Roman armies marching against Jerusalem’s rebellion, when the cities of the Decapolis would show their allegiance to Rome by expelling or killing their Judean residents.

But Jesus has gone to these places on purpose. He has gone to these “unclean” people on purpose.

Our readings on Sunday will accent the theme of deliverance and healing. And that is what we find in the Gospel account. Isaiah will speak hope to the exiles declaring that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped,” and “the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” as God leads them out from bondage. The psalmist will sing that, “The LORD sets the prisoners free,” and lifts up those who are bowed down.” But the anointing and prayer for healing that we might expect from James awaits another day. James will speak to our favoritism, the special treatment accorded to some (the wealthy) while marginalizing others. And this will bring us closer to the heart of the Gospel. For the narrative in Mark describes more than healing, it describes Jesus healing those outside the community of Israel. Jesus brings the gifts of God to those Israel regarded as unclean. Jesus even compares the woman of Tyre with the dogs of the street.

The gifts of God are for all. As we heard last Sunday, the things that render us unclean are not external things but what comes from the heart, the things we say and do that betray mercy and faithfulness. We will hear this again and again in the New Testament – especially in the book of Acts when God says to Peter, What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” There are no ‘unclean’. The gifts of God are for all.

The Prayer for September 9, 2018

Father of all,
whose ears are open to the cries of every people:
drive out every power of evil,
and open every ear to hear and abide in your Word of life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 9, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 35:3-7a (appointed: 4-7a)
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” – The prophet announces God’s impending deliverance of the nation from their exile in Babylon and their joyful journey home.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
– The poet praises the LORD, a God who comes to the aid of those in need.

Second Reading: James 2:1-17
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
– The author challenges the community not to show favoritism towards the wealthy but to “fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” – Following his teaching about what does and doesn’t render a person “unclean”, Jesus travels in foreign territory and heals two who are “unclean” (outside the covenant of Israel): the daughter of a Syrophoenician and a man from the Gentile region of the Decapolis.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cristo_e_la_cananea_di_Alessandro_Allori_detail.jpg Alessandro Allori [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The bread of life

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Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. (John 6:27)

The message from last Sunday, August 5, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading:

John 6:24-35: When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were beside the sea, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ “ 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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There are things we need to remember as we stand before this passage from John’s Gospel. Last Sunday, today, and for the next three weeks we are reading from this sixth chapter of John.   This chapter begins with the account of the feeding of the five thousand, then explores the meaning of what happened on that mountain.

When I was a rookie preacher, pastors would groan and roll their eyes at these five Sundays. They would joke about this being a good time to go on vacation or assign the preaching to an associate pastor or student intern. They would say things like, “How many times can you say that Jesus is the bread of life?” But the answer to that question, apparently, is “Not enough,” because as many times as we have heard it, we keep chasing after things that perish trying to fill the hunger of our souls.

John gives a whole chapter to this subject, one of only 21 chapters in his Gospel. And it’s not a short chapter; there are 71 verses here, only 11 fewer verses than John uses to tell the whole passion story. This chapter takes up nearly 10% of John’s Gospel. Clearly this subject is deeply important.

As we read through this chapter we see that the problem is that the people don’t understand what happened on the mountain. They don’t see what they’re supposed to see in the feeding of the five thousand.

This is not a narrative about some thickheaded people long ago and far away; this is a narrative about us. Jesus wants us to see, to perceive, to comprehend what happened on that mountain. John wants us to understand that Jesus is the bread that feeds us with true life. Unfortunately, like the crowd, we get preoccupied by our bellies.

Last Sunday we heard the account of the feeding of the five thousand. We can’t go over everything in that narrative, but there are a couple of pieces that are necessary to remember as we go forward. First it was near the time of Passover, the feast of unleavened bread. This is the time when Israel remembered and celebrated how God set them free from Egypt. It’s also the time when Jesus was lifted up on the tree of the cross.

This feast of unleavened bread was tied to the Passover story with the idea that the people had to leave Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for their bread rise. But yeast is also associated with impurity, with falsehood, and this was a period when Israel was to purify itself of all falsehood. So Jesus is not just the bread from heaven; he is the true bread, the pure bread, the holy bread.

Second, in our story of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus – and the people – have crossed the sea and gone to a mountain. You can’t use that language without remembering Israel’s fundamental story of being delivered from bondage and death by crossing the Red Sea and journeying into the wilderness to encounter God at Mt. Sinai.

The feeding of the five thousand is a fulfillment of the Exodus story. It is a reliving and transforming of Israel’s experience with God who fed them manna in the wilderness and made a covenant with them at Sinai. As God freed them, provided for them, taught them, and formed them to be God’s people in the wilderness so, again, Jesus is feeding, providing, teaching and forming us to live God’s true, imperishable life of mercy and love.

If the people Jesus fed had eyes to see, they would see all of this. They would see that Jesus is fulfilling that Passover, fulfilling God’s deliverance, giving God’s true bread in the wilderness, and embodying God’s word, the fullness of the living voice of God. They would see before them the fullness of life, the true life that God intended for us, the life of the garden and the age to come, the life that is enduring and eternal.

And this I need to say again and again: when we hear the words translated ‘eternal life’ in John’s Gospel we are not just talking about life after death – and we are certainly not talking about life in a heaven somewhere – we are talking about the life that is eternal, the life of God, the life for which we were created, the life of the age to come when the world is forever free from its bondage to sin and death, the life of the world healed and made whole – a life lived now that shares in this true, imperishable life of God.

It is a life of compassion and joy and truth and healing and wholeness. It is a life of the Spirit. It is a new wine at the wedding feast, it is a birth from above, it is living water. It is reconciliation and peace and hope and courage and truth and justice. It is the life that vibrates in harmony with God who creates the world in love.

If the people Jesus fed had eyes to see, they would see that Jesus is the fulfillment of Passover, the embodiment of God’s deliverance, the true manna from heaven, the incarnation of God’s word, the fullness of the living voice of God. They would see that what was before them was the fullness of life.

But the people didn’t see this. They saw someone who could fill their bellies.

These are a people who live with hunger. Ninety percent of the population are subsistence farmers. They are dependent upon the vagaries of nature for their existence. They need the rains at the right time and in the right amounts. They need their crops to survive pests in the fields and in the barns. If locusts sweep through the land they will eat the whole crop; you will have no food for the next year.

These are a people whose bellies never get enough. They don’t have a Safeway open 24 hours a day or fresh vegetables shipped in from all over the world. They drink wine because wine is a way to preserve grapes and has calories; they’re not worrying about vintage and labels.

There is no sugar or chocolate, ice cream or cookies, only dates in season. The loaves Jesus uses are made of barley – because barley grows on poor land. But barley has half the food value of wheat – that’s why it’s the food of the poor. We think of Peter as a fisherman, but he was catching fish under an imperial license as a contract laborer for fish that are turned into a luxury product for the Romans.

And these are people who give up to half their crop in taxes and rents – and from the rest they need to save seed for the next year. They live with hunger. What they saw on the mountain was that they could eat as much as they wanted and there were twelve baskets left over. What they see in Jesus is someone who can end their hunger. They say to themselves, “If this man were in charge we would never be hungry again,” and they want to make him king. Let’s have this guy instead of Herod and Rome.

They don’t see in this Jesus their true exodus, their true Sinai, their true bread of life. They see someone who could fill their bellies.

This is the human religious impulse. We understand that there are things beyond our control. Whether it’s fire or storm or the economy or the affairs of nations or the changes and chances of life – the unexpected disease, the sudden accident, the drunk driver, the thief, the stray bullet from a policeman’s gun, the tree that falls on someone out riding his bike. We understand the uncertainty of life and we turn to the realm of the divine for protection. When bad stuff happens the gods must be angry. When good stuff happens the gods must be pleased. So we do what we can to keep the gods happy with rituals and prayers and sacred stones and sacrifice. The most precious thing we have to give is life itself, so humans throughout history have offered up the lives of goats and bulls, captured enemies and even their children. There was a time people would come to church out of a vague sense that it pleased God and kept God on their side.

The human religious impulse is to get the gods to take care of us. And so we when we pray the Lord’s Prayer our attention is on our daily bread rather than God’s name being holy and God’s will being done. We pray for forgiveness and slide over the words about forgiving others. We are focused on ourselves. Our fears. Our hopes. Our desires. We don’t understand the truth to which this bread points us.

Let me be clear. It’s not that God doesn’t care about our fears, our hopes and our desires; it’s that there is so much more. This event on the mountain provides real bread for the hungry. There is real wine to rescue the family at the wedding in Cana. There is real healing for the man born blind. There is real life restored to Lazarus when he is called forth from the grave. But the thing to see is not the wonder of one life restored. The thing to see is the source of life who stands before us. There is true life in his teaching. There is true life in his example. There is true life in faithfulness to him.

If we see only our wants, needs and desires we will miss everything, so Jesus says:

27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.

When the people hear Jesus speak about working for the bread that endures for eternal life – and the word there is ‘into’ the bread that endures into eternity – they respond

“What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

They get stuck on the literal meaning of the word ‘work’ and want to know what are the tasks that God requires of them. What are the ritual obligations? What are the prayers that must be said? What are the deeds that must be done? They want to know what will please God and keep God on our side. But the answer is not about ritual obligations. The answer is a life of fidelity to Jesus. God’s favor does not have to be won, it needs only to be seen and entered and lived: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Here, again, it is important that we remember that this word ‘believe’ doesn’t refer to giving assent to a set of ideas. It is about a life of trust and faithfulness: Daring to live the compassion of God. Daring to live the generosity of God. Daring to live the love of God. Daring to bend to wash feet. Daring to forgive those who sin against us. Daring to live God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Daring to trust that goodness and mercy are the enduring truths of existence. Daring to believe that truth and care of neighbor is our true and imperishable life. Daring to trust and follow this Jesus as the true bread of life.

Amen

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Gaspa_-_Cairo,_venditore_di_pane.jpg By Francesco Gasparetti from Senigallia, Italy (Cairo: venditore di pane) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From grace into grace

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Saturday

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority – as if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief. They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth. It is the cry of despair born of grief. It is the parent or lover who wish they could have died in place of their beloved.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were blamed for Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. However cruel and harsh life in Egypt had been, they had lives and homes there. Now it is gone and they are in a cruel desert: weary, hungry, thirsty, and far from a home of any kind. We can see why they would say it would have been better to have died in Egypt.

What they find in the wilderness is mercy. However easy it may be to mock their faithlessness after the wonders they have seen, this is a story about mercy. God saw. God heard. God provided. There is language in the story about faithlessness and testing, but first we find mercy.

God does not provide them with riches. What God gives is bread enough for the day. But it is enough. And slowly it leads them forward. Step by step it leads them towards their encounter with God at Sinai. Day by day it sustains them until they find rest in a new land.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the promise of life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

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This post is adapted from the post From Grace into Grace in 2015.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWeltchronik_Fulda_Aa88_103r_detail2.jpg By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We come to be the new creation

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Friday

Ephesians 4:1-16

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

This is one of those Bible verses that is too easily brought into the service of the church as an organization. We can hear offices in the institutional church rather than charisms in the community. We can picture persons in authority rather than the multitude of unique gifts, talents and graces that make for a vibrant and meaningful community.

Jesus didn’t come to build an organization. He came to bring the new wine of the feast to come. He came to bring new birth to an aching world. He came to fulfill the promise of the prophets of a day when every heart is turned to God. He came to open eyes, free the bound and gather the scattered. He is the dawn of the new creation, the healing of the world.

The words that matter in this verse about apostles and prophets, pastors and teachers, are these: “until all of us come.” Until all of us come to the unity of the faith. Until all of us come to the knowledge of the Son of God. Until all of us come to maturity. Until all of us come to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Until all of us come.

The church is not an institution with officers; it is a community with charisms. It has not arrived with buildings or priests or sacraments; it journeys towards our wholeness. We are a pilgrim community heading towards the promised land. We are a people seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ. We are mendicants looking to be filled with all the fullness of Christ. We are children of the dawn preparing for the full light of day. We are seeking to grow into the full stature of Christ. We seek to feel his compassion, breathe his Spirit, live his love. We look to embody his truth and life. We come to be born from above, to be delivered from the dominion of death and darkness, to live the feast to come. We come to bring each other into “The measure of the full stature of Christ.” We come to be the new creation.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Porto_Covo_July_2011-6.jpg By Alvesgaspar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Bread from heaven

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Watching for the Morning of August 5, 2018

Year B

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

It takes three hours each day to grind by hand enough flour for a household of five or six. It is a burdensome task passed off to the lowest ranking (newest) daughter-in-law of a family compound. And this is only the last labor in the long chain of plowing, sowing, reaping, winnowing. Daily bread was the central occupation of ninety percent of the population.

And hunger was familiar. We need to remember the food insecurity of the ancient world when we hear about the feeding of the five thousand and all that follows in John’s Gospel. The Biblical narrative is full of references to famine. It is not just the backdrop for great stories like the widow of Zarephath or the journey of Jacob’s sons to Egypt for grain – a journey that has them bowing at the feet of the brother they sold into slavery in fulfillment of young Joseph’s prophetic dreams. Famine and hunger are persistent realities in the Biblical world. Drought, locusts, marching armies – a year’s hope can be lost quickly. And the tax burden at the time of Jesus and tenancy requirements of the landless took half of your crop. So when this Jesus is able to turn five small loaves into food for five-thousand (plus women and children) it is understandable they want to make him king. These were barley loaves – the food of the poor – and there were twelve baskets left over!

Now Jesus has to fight off the crowd. This bread was a sign pointing to something other than our bellies. There is a bread here that is eternal. There is a life here that is imperishable. The new and abundant wine, the living water, the birth from above, the word made flesh – it is here before us in the word and person of this Jesus, bearing to us the life that abides.

Sunday we listen to the first part of Jesus’ encounter with those who ate their fill. He will press us to see beyond our bellies, past our wants, needs and fears, past the perishable to the imperishable, to that life of loyalty to and trust in the embodied Word of God, the living incarnation of God’s voice, the way of compassion and truth and all that is eternal.

In preparation for this word of Jesus we will hear first the story of Israel murmuring in the wilderness, ready to abandon the way of God for the fleshpots of Egypt. We will sing the psalm about God’s faithfulness in providing manna even when the people showed no trust in God. And then, just before we hear the words of Jesus about the bread of life, we will hear the author of Ephesians urging us to live this transcendent life:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

Daily bread is life, but ordinary bread and the life it sustains perishes. Before us stands a bread from heaven, a love immeasurable, a truth enduring, calling us into his imperishable life.

The Prayer for August 5, 2018

Heavenly Father,
you sustained your people through the wilderness
with manna from heaven;
sustain us through the days of our lives
by the presence of him who is the true bread of life,
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 5, 2018

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” – Delivered from bondage in Egypt, but now running out of food in the wilderness, the people cry out that it would have been better to perish with full bellies than follow God into freedom.

Psalmody: Psalm 78:22-29 (appointed 23-29)
“He rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.”
– The poet sings of the faithfulness of God who provided for the people in the wilderness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
– The author begins his exhortation for the community to live in keeping with the grace of God they have experienced in Christ.

Gospel: John 6:24-35
“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” – The crowds seek Jesus after the feeding of the five thousand, but Jesus challenges them to see that the true bread from heaven was not the manna God gave them in the wilderness. The true life-giving bread is present to them in Jesus.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Krzy%C5%BC_w_lesie_-_Grabarka.jpg By Kornelia Głowacka [CC BY-SA 3.0 pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/pl/deed.en)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Trust and allegiance

One thing more from last Sunday

John 6:24-35

File:Jesus at Sumela.jpg28“What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

The texts from last Sunday continue to rattle around in my head but, amidst all the talk about bread and manna, this verse shouldn’t pass by unnoticed. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” What is it that God requires of us? What do we need to do to serve him? What is God’s will for us?

I remember the struggle with the question of God’s will beginning my senior year in high school as I was in a formative period for my faith and wondered if and where God wanted me to go to college and what I should “do” with my life. I spent one summer hitchhiking around the country convinced this was God’s will for me. It didn’t turn out the way I expected, though I won’t say that it wasn’t Spirit led – or, perhaps more accurately, Spirit protected and used.

There were those around me who thought God had a very specific plan for their lives: what they should do, where they should go, whom they should marry, but finding that plan was not simple for me. And then I came upon this verse: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” which, for a long time, I remembered as saying “This is the will of God…”

Americans derive so much of our identity by what we do. It’s the first question we tend to ask a new acquaintance. But the ancient world would ask to whom we belong. What is our family? What is our clan? Americans don’t memorize their genealogies back to Abraham, but in the Biblical world, who you are is revealed by those with whom you are connected.

So while we think about the will of God as what we should do, Jesus answers in terms of those with whom we are connected. The will of God is that we be connected to Jesus (and his community). And the ‘work’ of God – of the work for God – is not answered in terms of ritual obligations but trust and allegiance.

This is not a small conversation. What does it mean to show allegiance to Jesus (and his community)? There are, in fact, lots of things that that we are to do – feed the hungry, shelter the poor, do justice, love one another, love our enemy. But it is the way we embody Christ to one another that is at stake, not whether we become a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker. We are to live our gifts, to follow those passions God has given us – whether it for law or dance of family. But whatever we do, our trust and allegiance is in Jesus and God’s reign of grace and life in and through him.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

The crowd is not quite ready for this. They are attached to their temple (as we are attached to ours, whether temples of stone or ideas.) But in this verse lies a very important and profound element to the question of God’s will for our lives: it is about trust in and allegiance to Jesus.

 

Image: Ceiling of one of the chambers of the Sumela monastery.  File: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJesus_at_Sumela.jpg.  Photo: By Vladimer Shioshvili (Flickr: jesus) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From grace into grace

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Saturday

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority. As if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief.

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth.

Cursed be the day on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?

It is the cry of despair born of grief.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were the cause of Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. They had lost their life and their homes there, however cruel and harsh it had been.

But now they are in a cruel desert. Weary, hungry, thirsty, far from a home of any kind.

“God should have just killed us when we were still in Egypt.”

It is hard to hold to a promise in such times, hard to keep putting one foot in front of the next. Hope doesn’t come easily to the grieving. We see only what is lost not what might be.

In grief we tend to lose the thread of our story. The imagined future that has shaped our lives is lost to us. I remember a widowed woman in a nursing home, in a room she had shared with her husband, bitter that he had left her. “We were supposed to go together.”   They had been a couple without children or friends, but they had always had each other. Now she had lost the story line that had shaped her life.   It is the same with the death of a child or a sibling. One of my daughter’s early comments at the death of her sister was: “She was going to be my maid of honor.” It is the anguish of divorce, the crisis of a lost job or career.

In grief we lose the thread of our lives. The days become a wilderness through which we stumble, because we no longer know where we are going. My mother wanted to trade her life for my daughter’s. We all would have.

The wilderness is still wilderness. What was is no more and what will be is not yet. The people grieve – and God provides. Day by day there is bread enough for the day. And water is found in unexpected places.

There is a layer in this story of faithlessness and testing. But there is also a story of mercy. God provides. God leads. God upholds them even when they wish they had never been born. And the Promised Land comes. Not easily. Not quickly. But it comes.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They bear witness to the promise. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the thread of a new story, of a life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

 

Image: By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A life worthy

Thursday

Ephesians 4:1-16

File:105mm Light Artillery Guns at Military Pageant MOD 45156133.jpg1I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

We set such low standards for ourselves. “I’m only human…” “Well if you had heard what she said…” “Why should I give when no one else is contributing…?”

And yet we seem to lack such charity with others.

We surrender easily to prejudices. We yield to the tantalizing delight of gossip (dismissing what we are doing as gossip). We see the sliver in our neighbor’s eye without ever seeing the mote in our own. We are not far different than those who chant “Death to America” – just replacing the object our hostility. We celebrate the death of “terrorists” without wondering who these people are and whether killing is good or the government is telling us the truth or just naming them all the dead as “terrorists”. We have been made uncomfortable this last year with images of the police being frail and sometimes vengeful human beings rather than the noble officers we want to believe them to be. The haves need very much to believe the system is just and fair; it blesses our privilege as our just reward.

“A life worthy of the calling.”

At the heart of Christian faith is a model of heroic sacrifice. At the heart of Christian faith is a good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. We have been content to receive the blessings of his self-offering without following in his footsteps.

Christ gave everything, but we are parsimonious. Christ welcomed the outcasts, but we are comfortable casting them out. Christ received the foreigner and healed the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter, but we build walls – or want to build walls. We who cheered the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, how do we preach the building of walls in Israel or along our border? And what about the unseen walls that preserve our neighborhoods?

“A life worthy of the calling.”

We bear an honorable name. We bear the name of the Father of all and Redeemer of all. How is it that we permit ourselves to be vain, petty and selfish? We are inheritors of the Kingdom, partakers of the Spirit of God. How is it that we live the vainglories of this world?

“A life worthy of the calling.”

A life worthy of the calling to be children of the kingdom. A life worthy of the calling to be the voice of God in the world. A life worthy of the calling to be agents of reconciliation. A life worthy of the calling to be healers and peacemakers. A life worthy of the calling to seek and do justice, to be mindful of the weak, to life up the poor, to be grace to the burdened and hope for the despairing. A life worthy of the calling to be a city set on a hill, a light shining in the darkness. A life worthy of the calling that none should go hungry and he that has two coats should share with him who has none. A life worthy of the calling of him who is perfect love.

“A life worthy of the calling.”

For a calling it is.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A105mm_Light_Artillery_Guns_at_Military_Pageant_MOD_45156133.jpg. Photo credit: 103 Regt (V) RA/MOD [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Life-giving bread

Watching for the Morning of August 2, 2015

Year B

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

File:340 MS 65 F168 V.jpgThe people come looking for Jesus, but Jesus rebuffs them. It is always uncomfortable when Jesus is rude to people. But they are on the wrong path and he needs to jolt them out of it. And he’s only just beginning.

We are talking about the meaning of the sign of the loaves and fishes. It will occupy us for the rest of chapter 6 in John, which we will read over the next four weeks. And the first part of this conversation is about the manna that sustained Israel during the forty years in the wilderness.

So we will read from Exodus of the people’s complaint and the bread they received each morning. We will hear the psalmist sing how God gave them “the food of angels.” And we will listen as Jesus challenges the people that the true bread from heaven, the true life-giving bread, was not the manna in the wilderness but Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

The reading from Ephesians speaks to those who have received Jesus as the bread of life:

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

In contrast to the unbelieving crowds hunting for Jesus the author of Ephesians takes up the image of the victory parade of the conquering hero entering the city and lavishing gifts upon the people. But our conquering hero is not Caesar returning from war with plunder, but Christ ascending to the father and lavishing gifts for ministry – gifts to bring the Christian community to full maturity in Christ, gifts to bring this life-giving bread to the world.

The Prayer August 2, 2015

Heavenly Father,
you sustained your people through the wilderness with manna from heaven;
sustain us through the days of our lives
by the presence of him who is the true bread of life,
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 2, 2015

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
“Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.” – God provides manna in the wilderness and it is both a gracious providing and a test of the people’s allegiance to God.

Psalmody: Psalm 78:22-29 (appointed 23-29)
“He rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.”
– The poet sings of the faithfulness of God who provided for the people in the wilderness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
– The author begins his exhortation for the community to live in keeping with the grace of God they have experienced in Christ.

Gospel: John 6:24-35
“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” – The crowds seek Jesus after the feeding of the five-thousand but Jesus challenges them to see that the true bread from heaven was not the manna God gave them in the wilderness. The true life-giving bread is present to them in Jesus.

 

Image: Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, ca. 1411-1416.  Limbourg brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons