First my heart

File:Ship of Desert.jpgWatching for the Morning of October 14, 2018

Year B

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

I don’t know how – or whether – our guest preacher on Sunday will weave together the cry of Job with the startling statement by Jesus that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” I am eager to hear.

It is painful to hear Job’s lament. If only he could speak with God, God would surely declare him innocent. But God is nowhere to be found: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”

It is the cry of all who face life’s tragedies. It must be that God is just and faithful, yet here are all these innocents locked in cages, buried in mud, dead on the shore, cut down by random violence or bitter war. Here is the bitterness of a world of lies that go undenied and uncondemned. Here are the tears of the broken and fears of the beaten.

It must be that God is just and faithful, but where is he? If only we could plead our case, would God not set right the world?

That path from the cry of Job to the prayer of the psalm to the promise of Jesus that the first shall be last and the last first is far from simple. It is about God setting right the world. But, first, it is about God setting right the human heart.

Mark doesn’t tell us at first that the man who approached Jesus asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” had many possessions. He is just a man. He is like any of us. He is all of us. And the challenge Jesus sets before him, he sets before us all. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” For we all have our many possessions. We all have things in which we place our trust, convictions we depend on, little lies and deceits that comfort our souls. And the most insidious deceit is that I am better than – better than the rich, the poor, the addicted, the corrupt, the thoughtless, the cold of heart, the smug – and that, whoever “they” are, they are not really my neighbor.

“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

God will set right the world. But, first, God must set right my heart.

The Prayer for October 14, 2018

In your kingdom, O God,
all find shelter and all are fed.
May your Spirit reign among us
that, abiding in your goodness,
we may live with joyful and generous hearts;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 14, 2018

First Reading: Job 23:1-9, 16-17
“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” – Job cries out at the silence and hiddenness of God.

Psalmody: Psalm 90 (appointed 90:12-17)
“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
– The poet meditates on the brevity and sorrows of human life, rooted as they are in humanity’s sinfulness. The poet bids God grant them a proper humility, but also asks God to have mercy and deal with us according to his faithfulness and love.

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
– God knows and will reveal the heart, but the author also declares that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” and urges his hearers to “approach the throne of grace with boldness.”

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – A man comes up to Jesus asking how he can inherit the kingdom of God (be among those to enjoy the age to come when God rules over all). But when Jesus summons him to sell his possessions, give to the poor and come, follow Jesus, he turns away. And Jesus comments on how difficult it is for the wealthy to start living the kingdom. Fortunately, “for God all things are possible.”

First Reading as appointed: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
“Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them.” – In the 8th century BCE, during the reign of Jereboam II, the northern kingdom of Israel grew rich but failed to live God’s justice and mercy. As Assyria rises to power, the prophet Amos cries out against the nation’s failure, warning them of the coming catastrophe, and urging them to turn and live.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ship_of_Desert.jpg By Suvophy06 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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Jesus and the fabric of creation

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Pieces from last Sunday

St. Francis, the blessing of the animals, the creation of Eve, and Jesus on divorce: it all weaves together in our worship and message last Sunday. On the lawn with our pets, in the days after the bitter conflict over Brett Kavanagh, around a table where bread is shared, we speak the reminder that we were not made for division, the promise that the torn fabric of the world shall be mended, and the call to live from that promised future rather than our failed past.

The whole message from Sunday can be found here.

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When we ask God to bless the animals we bring with us this morning, we are talking not just about these individual animals, but also our relationship with them – and we are talking about the whole complex web of life. We want God to bless it all.

We want the world to thrive. We want the whole creation around us to vibrate with life. We want the rains to be gentle and the winds soft and the sunlight warm. We want the crops to grow in season and the fruit of the earth to be bountiful and nourishing. We want the human community, also, to be whole and good, to be gracious and generous, to be kind and compassionate, to be creative and rewarding, to be joyful and peaceable. We want God to bless it all.

And we want that blessing because we know that the fabric of creation has been ruptured.   This, too, goes back to a story about us as humans. This is the story about the “apple.” It’s our fault that the world has been thrown off kilter. It’s on us that the fabric of the world is torn by violence and war, poverty and injustice. It was not God’s purpose that that the human family should be torn by divorce. It was not God’s purpose that societies like ours should be bitterly riven over a president, a senate, and a judge.

When Jesus is asked about divorce, his opponents know full well that divorce is discussed in the Biblical law. Maybe they think Jesus, the Galilean peasant, is too ignorant to know his scripture. But more likely they are trying to frame Jesus. This is a question that will get him in trouble with the king. It got John the Baptist killed because he condemned the king’s illicit marriage to his brother’s wife…

Jesus’s answer to his opponents is brilliant. He dodges the political trap and confronts us with the existential one. It is because of our brokenness, our “hardness of heart”, that all this conflict and division exists in the world. Jesus doesn’t cite the legal code; he points us back to our beginnings. He points us back to a time before the world was torn in pieces and we were divided from one another. He points us back to God’s purpose for us – and, in so doing, he points us forward to the day when the Spirit of God breathes in every breath.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rending and restoring

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Watching for the Morning of October 7, 2018

Year B

The Commemoration of St. Francis and The Blessing of the Animals

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 22 / Lectionary 27

This Sunday we worship out on the lawn, commemorating the feast of St. Francis (October 4) with the blessing of the animals. We will, however, use the assigned readings for Sunday. They fit the occasion, in their odd way. From Genesis 2 we will hear the account of the creation of the animals and the forming of Eve. Psalm 8 will marvel at God’s handiwork in forming humanity. And then Jesus’ opponents will challenge him with a question about divorce.

It is the divorce question that seems out of place for a day when we sit happily on the lawn with our pets. Yet this challenge to Jesus brings before us the wonder and goodness of the creation, its tragic brokenness, and the promise of the creation made whole.

Jesus is confronted by opponents trying to shame him. They want to know his ruling on divorce – most likely to expose his presumed ignorance (he is, after all, just a village faith healer from Galilee). But Jesus isn’t interested in apodictic law; he is announcing the dramatic and transformative reign of God. He turns the question back on his accusers and uses their answer to name the hardness of our hearts. The Torah recognizes divorce and seeks to limit some of its potential harm, but Jesus doesn’t go to the text in Deuteronomy to respond to his opponents. He takes us to the creation story: we were made for unity not division.

We who gather Sunday to hear this word about the profound goodness of the union of man and woman in an Edenic world are painfully aware of the brokenness of the relationship between the sexes. The words of Christine Blasey Ford are in our ears, as are the cries of Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, the two women at the elevator challenging Senator Flake to see and hear them. Social media is full of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport stories. Others are confused – if not bitter – at the perceived threat to young men. Some dismiss all this as the follies of youth in a wayward culture. Others see attitudes of privilege that betray our human obligation to care for the vulnerable. Some see a brilliant mind worthy of the Supreme Court; others a failure of compassion that should not be allowed near it. This tear, this divorce, in the body politic is deep and troubling.

Into this cacophony comes this word about our humanity: it is not good that the human creature should be alone. Sorrows multiply in our alienation from one another. Families are torn. Communities are divided. We assault the dignity of one another, sometimes with tragic consequences. And we assault the natural world around us.

We are created for relationship. We are designed for community. For this reason God brings forth all the creatures of the world. And when none of these prove equal to the first human, a piece of him is taken that, in the other, we might find our wholeness. God makes a companion and partner equal to him.

But the human heart turns from Eden. The relationships for which we were made are ruptured. We end up with broken hearts and broken marriages and people of all ages who fail to recognize the humanity of the other who is before – or beneath – them. We are capable of laughing as their dignity is stripped away.

But Jesus has not come to give new rules to limit the destructive consequences of our hardness of heart; he has come to give us new hearts. He has come to bring the new creation when God reigns in every heart. So, once again Jesus is welcoming children into his presence. Once again he blesses – inviting us to receive his blessing like these children.

The Prayer for October 7, 2018

Holy Father,
who holds all creation in your loving arms,
guard and keep us,
that we may not rend what you unite,
nor reject whom you receive;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 7, 2018

First Reading: Genesis 2:15, 18-24 (appointed: Genesis 2:18-24)
“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” – When all the animals of the world will not do, God creates an equal to the first human.

Psalmody: Psalm 8
“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
– The psalm sings of the wonder of creation and the mystery of humanity’s place as those “a little lower than the heavenly beings” into whose care the world is given.

Gospel: Mark 10:1-16 (appointed: Mark 10:2-16)
“Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” – Jesus is back in public, teaching, when he is faced with a challenge from the Pharisees and turns the table from what is allowed in scripture because of our hardness of hearts to what God will create in us.

Second Reading as appointed: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12)
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and v arious ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
– We begin to read from Hebrews where the author assembles a rich witness to Christ from the Hebrew scriptures.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L%27alba_di_San_Francesco_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Would that God’s Spirit were on all of us

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“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Watching for the Morning of September 30, 2018

Year B

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

It doesn’t seem right to read the second half of psalm 19 about the goodness of God’s law without having read the beginning of the psalm that declares “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The beauty, harmony and order we see in the stars is found in God’s ordering of human life by the Torah/teaching/“law” given to Israel: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul… making wise the simple… rejoicing the heart… enlightening the eyes… enduring forever.” God’s commands to live faithfulness and mercy are “sweeter also than honey” and more desirable than gold.

Into the chaos of this last week, and the wrenching trauma of sexual assault, raging anger, and bitter partisanship, comes this sweet word about God’s gracious ordering of the world.

But our readings, Sunday, start with bitter complaint. Israel is in the wilderness craving meat and imagining that life had been wonderful in the old days. They dream of melons and cucumbers, forgetting that Pharaoh made life bitter and sought to kill their children. Moses, too, cries out in bitterness that God has entrusted him to care for such a people. God answers with the commission of the seventy elders upon whom a share of the Spirit is given. But it is the story of Eldad and Medad to which the narrative drives. They were not with the others when the Spirit was given. They were still in the camp. Joshua would have Moses silence them. But Moses answers instead: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

Where Joshua would seek to control and limit God’s work; Moses wants to see it spread. And so then we hear Jesus with disciples who also want to control and limit God’s work: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He wasn’t on our team. He wasn’t one of us. We can’t allow him to succeed – even though he was freeing people from demons.

We are living in the sorrows of partisanship. And Christians have been brutally successful at tribalism through the ages. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord welcomed all. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord said it was better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be cast into the sea rather than cause anyone to waver in their allegiance to Jesus. And it is better to cut off your hand or tear out your eye – the punishment for lawbreakers still in some parts of the world – than betray God’s reign of mercy and life.

Moses was right. Would that God’s Spirit were upon all of us.

The Prayer for September 30, 2018

Holy and Gracious God,
before whom the least of your children bear an eternal name,
season us with your Spirit
that we may never drive away those whom you call near;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 30, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – Moses cries out to God about the burden of caring for this rebellious people, and God puts his Spirit upon seventy elders to share the leadership. Two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, are not present with the others on Mount Sinai and begin prophesying in the camp. Moses’ aid, Joshua, wants Moses to silence them. Moses wants all God’s people to possess the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 19:7-14
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.”
– The psalm sings of God’s wondrous ordering of the world, beginning with the majesty of creation, and then the gift of God’s law.

Second Reading: James 5:13-20
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”
– The author urges the Christian community to mutual care and absolution.

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – The disciples show their failure to understand the reign of God present in Jesus and he summons them to the radical commitment that the reign of God requires: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_tripping.jpg By Bianca Bueno (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Immersed in a sea of sweetness

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“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…”

The message from last Sunday, September 9, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading. The other readings on Sunday were Isaiah 35:3-7a, Psalm 146, and James 2:1-17.

Mark 7:24-37: Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The texts for this morning are filled with a remarkable sweetness. The proclamation we heard from Isaiah to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” begins a few verses earlier with the words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
….the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
….and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
….the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
….the majesty of our God.

I suppose you can listen to the prophet this morning and hear only a backdrop for today’s Gospel. We read that Jesus opened the ears of a man who could not hear, so we look around and clip out a portion of the Old Testament that speaks about ears being opened. But the Old Testament isn’t just a setup for the Gospel. The story contained in the first three quarters of our Bibles doesn’t just set the stage for Jesus. It is, itself, the living word of God. It is full of the same divine voice we encounter in Jesus. It proclaims a God who fashions a good and beautiful world only to see it broken by humanity’s choices. It proclaims a God who remains faithful to the world, seeking to rescue and redeem it despite humanity’s persistent rebellion. It proclaims a God who again and again delivers from bondage and shows us the path of mercy and faithfulness. It proclaims a God who suffers the sorrows of the world and comes to it again and again with mercy and love. And, in words like those of the prophet this morning, it sings a profound song of salvation full of the sweetness of God’s redemptive work.

There is a challenge to us in the Gospel reading for today – because we are still talking about clean and unclean and the wretched way we treat one another – but that challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness. And there is challenge for us in the second reading when James rebukes the community for giving special privilege and respect to the wealthy while treating the poor like the world always treats the poor. Such is not the “royal law”, James says, and asks that piercing question: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Yet even this challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness for it sees a community transformed from the way of the world we see around us to become a community that embodies the love of God. It sees a community that lives not in the world as it is, with all its bitter words and deeds, but with its feet planted in the world where the desert blooms and frail knees dance in joy, where every heart is healed, where all creation is radiant with grace and life.

Our texts are immersed in a sea of sweetness. Our psalm sings of a God – the living, active, power and presence and love at the heart of all existence – who “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry,” who “sets the prisoners free,” and “opens the eyes of the blind,” who “lifts up those who are bowed down,” who “watches over the strangers,” who “upholds the orphan and the widow.”

This is no small thing we say. We are living in a world where there is great violence, intimidation and deceit, but our claim – the Biblical claim – is that the divine power at the center of all things, the heartbeat that courses through all existence, is life and healing, redemption and release. It is care for the vulnerable and deliverance of the oppressed. It is justice and compassion and fidelity and love. It is not greed and pride and selfishness that carries the world towards its destiny, but generosity, humility and the care of others.

It’s very easy to say that God loves us. The words have become almost trite in their familiarity. But think what these words mean! Ultimate reality is focused beyond itself. The heartbeat of the universe beats for others. The foundations of the universe are compassion and kindness. The power and presence at the beginning and end of time is not detached and mechanical, but passionate for others.

We say this so freely that God is love, but ponder what a profound declaration this is: the source of all life is turned outward; it looks beyond itself. This is a radical thought. The gods of the ancient world were great and fickle powers preoccupied with their own passions and desires. Zeus had children by his daughter, Persephone. The beautiful Leto catches the eye of Zeus and he gets her pregnant. His wife (and sister) Hera, enraged, tries to kill the twins to be born of that union. Zeus turns himself into a swan to seduce and impregnate the beautiful Leda on her wedding night to the King of Sparta (the child of that union is Helen of Troy).

Zeus appoints the mortal, Paris, to judge which of the goddesses is the most beautiful and Aphrodite bribes Paris with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world. So Paris picks Aphrodite, enraging Athena and Hera. Of course, the most beautiful woman in the world is Helen of Troy. Paris kidnaps her as his prize and starts the Trojan War.

The stories are mythic and complex, but throughout the gods are petty and selfish. The God of the scriptures is neither petty nor vain but bends towards the world in love. The God of the scriptures suffers for the world. The God of the scriptures is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

The gods of the modern world are also great and fickle powers. Wealth and power can lift us up and, in a moment, turn on us and cast us down. They do not suffer. They do not show compassion. They do not love.

The God of the scriptures loves.

And the God of the scriptures does not stop loving his troubled world.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”  We are swimming in a sea of sweetness – if we will dare to see it, if we will dare to open ourselves to it, if we will have the courage to live it.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
….whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
….who keeps faith forever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed;
….who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
….8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
….the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers;
….he upholds the orphan and the widow,
….but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10The Lord will reign forever.

We are swimming in a sea of sweetness. And if we are swimming in a sea of sweetness, what does it mean for the way we live in a broken world? Do we yield to the world’s brokenness or walk in the way of sweetness? Do we embrace bitterness and revenge or compassion and grace?   Do we hide in the bushes of denial and deceit or answer the call to come forth into the divine presence? Do we turn and blame or stand and acknowledge? Do we hoard like the rich man building new barns or live with open hands? Is the woman of Tyre unclean or a fellow traveler in the sea of sweetness?

The ideas about clean and unclean that we spoke about last week continue in our Gospel this Sunday, only now it is not clean hands that are at stake – or 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, which the text names specifically as an “unclean” spirit.

Jesus has gone intentionally to the region of Tyre. It’s important we see this in the text. Jesus doesn’t just end up there; he chooses to go to the region of Tyre. From there Jesus goes 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. They were ancient seaports and wealthy trading centers – and there was a long history with Israel. It was the King of Tyre who had the cedar and skills to build King David a palace and King Solomon a temple. It was a daughter of Sidon, Jezebel, who sought to kill the prophets of the Lord and make Baal the national god of Israel. She taught Ahab the ways of true power, arranging for the murder of Naboth when he refused to sell the king his vineyard. The prophet Ezekiel would name Tyre’s pride when he declares God’s coming judgment: “you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas’, yet you are but a mortal, and no god.”

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 showed their allegiance to Rome by murdering their Judean residents or driving them from their midst.

But Jesus has gone to these places on purpose.

There are people bound there, bound by demons and disease. There is grace to be shown, healing to be done. It is to be expected that Jesus would not be left alone there, that people would come for help. There are wounded everywhere.

And so this woman, this foreigner, this outsider, this enemy, comes begging for deliverance for her daughter. And Jesus says what is likely to be in the heart of every one of his followers: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” God’s gifts belong to God’s people. They are for us, not for those people. Those people are unclean.

The Pharisaic interpretation of Israel’s law saw every outsider as unclean. It makes perfect sense, of course, because they do not have the rules that define a holy people. They do not keep the law. They do not possess the rites of purification. They eat unclean foods. They wear unclean fabrics. They walk unclean streets. Their houses are unclean. God owes these people nothing. We owe these people nothing.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

And we should keep in mind that dogs are not kept as cute pets with nice collars and beds and inscribed bowls for their food. Dogs are mangy animals that roam the streets eating all manner of filth.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

But the woman says simply, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She insists that the gifts of God should come to all.

Are the followers of Jesus getting it? Do they understand that those we call dogs without thought or shame are also those for whom God cares? Do they understand there is faith to be found there, bold and daring faith? Do they understand that the gifts of God are for all people? Do they understand it is for the world that Christ has come? Do they understand that there are no limits to the mercy of God? Do they understand that all people are their sisters and brothers?

Probably not. But Jesus keeps trying. So now he is passing through Sidon and on to the Decapolis. And once again there is a person in need, a person in these cities whose evils are so fresh in the minds of Mark’s hearers. These cities whose allegiance to Rome is so fixed and sure. These cities filled with those who are unclean. One of these cities was built over a burial ground and distributed to retired Roman soldiers; everything in it is unclean. The possessed man who lived among the tombs was from one of these cities. That’s why there was a herd of pigs nearby into which his demons fled. These are not holy people. This is not holy land. But when Jesus comes, the people bring to Jesus a man in need. They bring to Jesus a man who can neither hear nor speak and Jesus is willing to touch and heal him.

Do the followers of Jesus yet understand? Do they see that we are the ones who cannot hear and whose speech is troubled?

Do they not understand that it is the work of God to open every ear and free every tongue – that our tongues can be used rightly in prayer and praise and care of neighbor rather than for hate and gossip and words that sting?

The crowd cries out in wonder that Jesus does all things well. He does all that is good. He does good to all. Even out here in the Decapolis. Even in Tyre and Sidon. Even in our own hearts.

The crowd cries out in wonder, for they see that we are surrounded in a sea of sweetness.

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2018. All rights reserved.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H%C3%B6lzel-ChristusUndDieKanan%C3%A4erin.jpg By Adolf Hölzel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dirt

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus (Les pharisiens et les saducéens viennent pour tenter Jésus) - James Tissot - overall.jpgThe message from last Sunday, September 2, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading:

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23: Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
….but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
….teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”… 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

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So we have come back to the Gospel of Mark for our appointed texts. I always like to keep track of the big picture, so I’ll remind you that there are assigned readings for each of the Sundays and festivals of the year. These are used by the majority of the mainline denominations with the purpose of creating a measure of unity across the churches and exposing us to the breadth of the Biblical witness.

The lectionary has a three-year cycle – one year in Matthew, one in Mark and one in Luke. Readings from John are scattered through all three years, mostly during Easter and festival days.

We have just finished five weeks on the 6th chapter of John that told the story of the feeding of the five thousand and talked about the meaning of that sign. Now we are back in Mark’s Gospel.

We left off in Mark’s Gospel right before the account of the feeding of the five thousand so that, instead of reading that story in Mark, we read it in John. The feeding of the five thousand is followed in both Gospels with Jesus walking upon the sea – and we touched on the meaning of that narrative a few weeks ago when we noted that Jesus walks on the sea he doesn’t walk on water. Walking on water is a suspension of the laws of physics. Walking on the sea is a demonstration that Jesus strides above every spiritual power on heaven and earth. The sea was thought to be governed by a god or spirit – and the narrative declares that Jesus is not subject to such spirits; they are subject to him.

You remember how Trump violated protocol when he was late to his meeting with the Queen of England, making her wait, then walked in front of her when they viewed the troops. It could have been nothing, but it gave the appearance that he was claiming to be more important than the queen. The story of Jesus walking upon the sea is like this. It proclaims that Jesus ranks above the spirits that govern the sea.

In Mark’s Gospel, these two stories of the feeding of the five thousand and walking upon the sea proclaim that Jesus is the one who stands above every other power with the authority to dispense the gifts of God. John, of course, sees something even more profound in that narrative. John sees that Jesus is the fulfillment of the story of Moses leading the people through the sea out from bondage into freedom. The bread that feeds the crowd is like the manna from heaven – though the true manna from the realm of God is Jesus himself. Jesus is the embodiment of the voice of God that Israel heard at Sinai. Jesus is also the sacrificial meal that the elders of Israel ate in God’s presence on Mount Sinai. Jesus death is the sacrifice that reconciles heaven and earth. And Jesus is the living word of God present in the bread and wine of communion to teach, heal and redeem us and all creation.

Mark doesn’t explore all of this in his telling of the story. He just tells the story and lets it proclaim Jesus’ authority to dispense to us and to the world all the gifts of God. Thus Mark ends his account with the people from the whole region bringing all who were sick to Jesus and all were healed. This is the setup for our reading this morning. Wherever Jesus goes, people bring to him all those who are sick and they are healed.

It is important for us to remember that what is being told to us here is not that Jesus has magic power over the biomechanics of disease, but that he dispenses the gifts of God. Secondly, the word we translate as ‘sick’ is actually the word ‘weak’. These are people who have lost their power. It can mean everything from those who have lost the strength of their legs or eyesight to those who have lost their courage and hope. It’s talking about those who have lost their place in their communities and their ability to assert their proper role.

This is like the word ‘poor’ in the scriptures, which isn’t a measure of economic wealth, but a measure of honor and place. So widows are described as ‘poor’ even if they have money, because they have lost their place in the community. We reflect this idea, too, when misfortune of any kind has happened and we say “that poor woman,” or “that poor man,” or “that poor child.”

People are bringing to Jesus those who are weak and vulnerable and dislocated. They are bringing those who have lost their power and their place. These are the people who live in fear or uncertainty. These are the people who live with pain. These are the people trodden down by the power of Rome. These are people who have lost their land or livelihood. And from Jesus there is healing; there is power. Through Jesus the face of God shines upon them. Through Jesus the life of God touches them. Through Jesus the power of the Spirit lights upon them. They are healed even from simply touching the fringe of his cloak.

The word we translate as ‘healed’ is actually the word ‘to save’. In Jesus they are saved. It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven; it means their lives are made whole. Their life, their power, their place is restored. Salvation is food on your table and a roof over your head and respect in your community. Salvation is peace in your family and well-being in your home. Salvation is reconciliation with God and the face of God shining upon you. It is peace with God and one another. It is fidelity to God and one another.

And the word ‘to save’ is used in the imperfect tense. In Greek, the imperfect tense describes a continuous action, so being ‘saved’ is not a single event but an ongoing reality. It should be translated “they were being saved.” A new reality was at work in their lives. The reign of God had come to them.

All these people are brought to Jesus and the grace and power of God is restoring and transforming them. They are being filled with hope. They are receiving a future. They are being restored to their communities. Their lives are being made whole. But – and here’s the troubling and fearsome turn – the response of those in power is to challenge Jesus, declaring that he can’t be a holy man because some of his people don’t keep the tradition of the elders. In their eyes this can’t be the one who dispenses the gifts of God because some of his followers don’t follow the rules developed over the ages concerning purity.

It is important we recognize this about our narrative, today. This is not a story about tradition; it is a story about purity. And it is a profound debate about what lies at the heart of Biblical faith. What does God want from us? Does God want purity or justice?

I hope I can convey to you why this is such an earth shattering question – and it is at the very center of Jesus.

The question that is asked in our psalm today is:

1O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
….Who may dwell on your holy hill?

This is a question posed as people are entering into the holy precincts of the temple. You know that there are rules about how women have to be dressed when they go into the Vatican to see the fabulous art that is there. And at an amusement park there is a sign that you have to be this tall to ride the ride. What are the rules for entering into God’s presence in the temple courts?

The answer the psalmist gives is:

2Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
….and speak the truth from their heart;
3who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends,
….nor take up a reproach against their neighbors…
who stand by their oath
….even to their hurt;
5who do not lend money at interest,
….and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

True purity is about our care for one another. Those who are acceptable in God’s presence are those who have shown care and faithfulness to others, who have followed God’s command to do justice and mercy.

The answer the Pharisees give is to take the purity rules in Leviticus and elevate them as the central focus of God’s law. Leviticus contains the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), and the Pharisees read the law as the means to create a holy people. Jesus, however, sees the center of the law in the command – also from Leviticus – to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus sees at the heart of scripture the command to do justice and mercy. He stands in line with the prophets like Micah who said so famously, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

The whole temple complex at the time of Jesus is about ritual purity. Have you touched a dead body? Have you touched blood? Have you eaten the right foods? Did you use the right plates? Did you pour water over your hands before eating? These rules might seem silly to us because they our not our rules, but this is a very important idea – and Biblical faith stands or falls on whether you choose purity or justice.

Every society has notions of what is clean and unclean, what is acceptable and not acceptable. These apply to foods, behaviors, and physical spaces. In the United States we don’t eat dogs or horses or cockroaches. The thought fills us with an almost instinctive aversion. It doesn’t have anything to do with actual cleanliness or uncleanliness, even though we imagine it does; it is a perception learned by growing up in a community.

This notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is related to things being in their proper place. Dirt in the garden is soil; it belongs there. But soil in the kitchen is dirt; it doesn’t belong there. When things are out of place, they render the place “dirty”. Soil on the kitchen floor makes the kitchen dirty. When things, places and people become “unclean” there are rituals to make them “clean” again. In the case of the kitchen, a sweeping and mopping. It’s not enough to get the dirt back into the yard; the kitchen has to be cleansed.

And the thing about purity is that it only works one way. Drop your toast on the floor and the “dirty” floor – however clean it might be – the “dirty” floor renders the toast unclean. The ‘clean’ toast doesn’t make the floor ‘clean’.

“Dirt” is contagious. That’s why it has to be kept in its place. And that’s why people who are “dirty” have to be kept in their place. What’s at stake in this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is not that some of Jesus’ followers are lax about the rules. Some of Jesus’ followers are “dirty”. They don’t belong. So Jesus must be “dirty” too.

The problem with purity rules is the way they intersect with the human community. There are some who cannot keep all these rules. And there are those from outside our community who have a different set of rules.

These rules divide the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between those we perceive as ‘clean’ and those who we perceive as ‘unclean’, those who are “good people” and those who are not “good people”; those who are “normal” and those who are not; those who are “acceptable” and those who are not; those who belong and those who don’t.

Trump rose to prominence claiming that Obama wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t born here. He wasn’t like us. He was out of his proper place. He wasn’t “clean”. And so the country had to be purged of everything he touched.

Ugly things happen when we apply these rules of purity to the human community – especially when we think God is on the side of purity. Then you are not just unacceptable in my eyes; you are unacceptable in God’s eyes.

People with money are better able to keep purity rules. They can wear the right clothes, maintain the right appearance, avoid the wrong side of the tracks. In the time of Jesus, people with money had better access to clean water – and had servants to carry the water – for use in the rituals of cleansing by pouring water over your hands before eating. The poor are not so fortunate. They don’t have the resources. And they get stuck with the jobs that are ritually unclean – like working in a tax booth as did Matthew, or tending the pigs for some Gentile master like the prodigal son. The poor tend to be perpetually unclean measured by the standards of privileged society. And some of these are the people who are following Jesus.

“What kind of person are you, Jesus, to allow such people in your group?” Jesus is being disgraced and discredited as a teacher because he doesn’t make everyone observe the rules of purity. Jesus isn’t a defender of the moral sensibilities of the privileged.

It is a much more profound challenge than we might imagine, because our own purity rules are largely unconscious, and those rules that belong to other societies often seem silly to us. Besides, as Americans, we tend to rebel against social rules and traditions and want to be free of them. But the challenge is serious – and Jesus’ response is an even more profound challenge.

Whether a person is ‘clean’ and acceptable in God’s sight is not determined by the rules of ritual purity, but by the things that come out of the ‘heart’ – our words and actions. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by our failure to care for the well-being of others. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the falsehoods we hold, the lies we tell, the envy we harbor. We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we take advantage of others in the marketplace.   We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the callous things we say and the dirty looks we give to those who are different than us.

We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we fail to “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.”

We are rendered ‘unclean’ not by our pots and absent rituals, but by our very real thoughts and deeds.

But here, before us, is the one who brings the gifts of heaven. Here, before us, is the one who comes to heal and make whole. Here, before us, is the one who comes to forgive and reconcile. Here, before us, is the one who feeds us with the true bread of life and grants us new birth as God’s children. Here, before us, is the one who welcomes us, ‘unclean’ as we may be, and summons us to follow God’s way of justice and mercy.

© David K Bonde, 2018, All rights reserved.

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_and_the_Saduccees_Come_to_Tempt_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_et_les_saduc%C3%A9ens_viennent_pour_tenter_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Decisions, decisions

File:Byzantine fresca from St-Lucas.jpgWatching for the Morning of August 26, 2018

Year B

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lutherans don’t like to talk about decisions. Well, some Lutherans. There is a deep strain in the Lutheran branch of the Christian community that recognizes that the only important decision is God’s decision. It’s not that God’s decision for us strips us of our own will or responsibility; rather that the wonder of God’s grace and faithfulness overwhelms our resistant and rebellious hearts. Can a person swept off their feet by the love of another really say it was his or her own choice? It sounds as self concerned as it is. We are not heroes for choosing God; God is the hero for choosing us. The Biblical record makes clear that we humans have shown ourselves persistently unworthy of God’s faithfulness.

But here we are, this Sunday, with Joshua confronting the generation of those who have taken possession of the land with the challenge to “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And Jesus is pressing the few followers who remain after his offensive talk about eating his flesh and blood, asking, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Choose. Are you staying or going?

The author of Ephesians will urge us to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” and “put on the whole armor of God.” There is a choice to be made in the daily walk of Christian life. A daily choice. And there is an implicit choice, too, in the words of our psalmist who rejoices that “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.” But the poet also acknowledges “Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.” There is a choosing that happens, and the choosing has consequences. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” There is a redemption that surpasses all our sorrows.

So we must choose, even as the beloved must choose whether or not to trust the love that has come to them, whether or not to abide in the love that comes as gift, whether or not to be faithful to the lover who has chosen them.

The Prayer for August 26, 2018

Keep us, O God, in your eternal Spirit
that, when challenged by your word,
we may never turn back from following you,
but always confess and believe
that you have the words of eternal life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 26, 2018

First Reading: Joshua 24:1-3, 13-18 (Appointed 24:1-2a, 14-18)
“‘Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’” – Joshua gathers the people following the forty year wandering in the wilderness and the occupation of the promised land and challenges them to put away their foreign gods and serve the LORD with fidelity.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:15-22
“The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.”
– The concluding section of an acrostic poem declaring God’s fidelity to those who are faithful to him.

Second Reading: Ephesians 6:10-20
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
– The author uses the metaphor of a Roman soldier’s armor to call the community to faithfulness to God.

Gospel: John 6:56-69
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” – The words of Jesus about eating his flesh has revealed that many even among his followers do not understand the meaning of the sign of the bread (the feeding of the five-thousand) and they turn away. Jesus then asks the twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Byzantine_fresca_from_St-Lucas.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And I will raise them up

File:Fountain of Eternal Life (23140323736).jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 12, 2018

Year B

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Again we are in John 6 this Sunday. Again we hear Jesus declare, “I am the bread of life.” And again we are confronted with the inability of the crowd to understand what Jesus is talking about. Indeed, the conversation grows testy, this week. Jesus asserts that he has come from the Father to bring life to the world, but they reject his claim saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus retorts that their fathers ate the manna and died; it did not bring them true life. He is the living bread that brings true life – and then alludes to his death: “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Our first reading on Sunday will tell the story of Elijah fed by an angel, a bread from heaven that sustains him on his forty day journey to Sinai. The psalmist will sing of God’s deliverance and invite us all to “taste and see that the LORD is good.” And the author of Ephesians will urge us to “put away…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” All these texts will lead us back to the words of Jesus, the promise of the resurrection, and he who is the true source of life, the one who brings to the world the imperishable life of God.

The feeding of the five thousand was a sign pointing to the true bread that brings the true and enduring life. But the crowd has not seen in this Jesus the promise of the Exodus and Sinai fulfilled; they have seen only the gratification of their hungers and desires. They look for the bread that perishes rather than the gift of life born from above. They have crossed the sea and met Jesus on a mountain but failed to see in this Israel’s journey out from bondage, through the wilderness, to the mountain where they heard God’s voice and were shown the way of true life. They fail to see in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s work of liberating the world from its primal alienation from the source of life.

They are like their ancestors who died in the wilderness. But those who come to Jesus, who abide in the one sent by the Father, who live in and live out the Father’s faithfulness and love – they shall never perish. The life of the age to come is theirs even now: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

The Prayer for August 12, 2018

O God of truth and life,
draw us to your self,
and feed us on the bread of life,
which is your Word, made flesh for us
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 12, 2018

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-8 (appointed 4-8)
“Then [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” –Jezebel has vowed to kill Elijah for his triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and he flees into the wilderness. There a heavenly messenger meets him and provides bread for his journey to Horeb (Mt. Sinai).

Psalmody: Psalm 34:1-8
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”
– The poet calls upon the community to join him in his praise of God for all God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
– The author speaks to their common life, urging them to live in love, recognizing that they are members of one another in Christ.

Gospel: John 6: 35-51 (appointed 35, 41-51)
“Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” In the conversation that follows about the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, the crowd rejects Jesus claim that he is the bread that comes down from heaven: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus responds that the manna in the wilderness did not truly bring life, for the people died; Jesus gives life that shall never perish.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fountain_of_Eternal_Life_(23140323736).jpg By Erik Drost (Fountain of Eternal Life) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The bread of life

File:Flickr - Gaspa - Cairo, venditore di pane.jpg

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

Bread from heaven

File:Krzyż w lesie - Grabarka.jpg

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