The Claim of the Cross

A sermon for 17 Pentecost Year B Proper 19  from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs                              

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, Amen.

Oh, Peter. He was so close. The Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and he all but raised his hand like Hermione Granger on a double espresso and blurted out The Right Answer: “You are the Messiah.” Dingdingding! Gold star, A-plus, yessssss.

And then, he blew it. When Jesus began to speak of rejection, suffering and death at the hands of the authorities, Peter just couldn’t help himself. “No, no, Jesus, that’s not what Messiahs do.” Jesus’ hissed response, “Get behind me, Satan!” has become a catchphrase for anyone rejecting evil or temptation. What a way to be remembered.

Peter has gained quite a reputation for cringeworthy moments in his spiritual journey. But perhaps we should give him a pass here, because isn’t he actually articulating our own discomfort at Jesus’ words? Like Peter, wouldn’t we sometimes rather focus on the good stuff about Jesus– the life and ministry, the healings and miracles, the Christ at the right hand of God, without having to deal with the pain and messiness of a suffering Savior, and what that means for us as Christians? There are those who find a focus on the Cross—particularly the image of Jesus upon it—to be distasteful; to be too much of an emphasis on guilt and suffering rather than on joy and love.

The other day, wandering around the Nave, I was a little surprised to see this conflict reflected in our own beautiful windows. At both East and West, the central figure in the window is Christus Victor and Christ the King, respectively. These are the largest, most commanding and attractive images, showing strength and glory.

Yet, as Jesus pointedly stated to Peter and the disciples, we can’t have glory without suffering. And sure enough, a closer look yields, on the west, the Crucifixion at bottom center. On the east, we need to hunt a little more. See it? Way at the top. I almost missed it. But notice that Christ’s hand in the center, raised in blessing, points straight at the image of the Crucifixion—an unmistakable connection. (I don’t know if that’s part of the iconography, but there it is.) Peter couldn’t avoid it, and we can’t either: We must let Jesus bear the Cross. And we must try to understand what it means to bear it ourselves.

This past Friday the Church observed Holy Cross Day, the commemoration of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 335. While the Christian household observes times of veneration of the Cross at different points during the year, especially on Good Friday, the Lutherans and the Anglicans observe Holy Cross Day in September. It’s a little jarring, isn’t it, to find oneself pondering the Cross, not in Holy Week when winter still hovers over the bare trees, but in the golden mists of autumn when thoughts of homecoming and new activities seem much more appropriate than meditation on the Cross and the Crucified One.

This disconnect–this tension–is perfectly appropriate when you consider the circumstances under which the Cross became a symbol, not just of the Church, but also of the Empire that tried for years to eradicate it.

After the conversion of Constantine in 312, when he had a vision of the Cross that he believed gave him victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which resulted in his becoming Roman Emperor, Christianity became safe from persecution; its followers free to come out of hiding and to worship publically.

No longer a vulnerable, marginalized, countercultural movement, the Way of Jesus became the religion of Empire, from which some say the faith has yet to recover. Verna Dozier, in her book, The Dream of God, refers to this moment in history as the Third Fall—the first being Adam and Eve in the Garden and the second when the people of Israel insisted upon a king—choosing the kingdom of this world over the kingdom of God. Dozier writes that while many say that 312 was when the church subdued the state, that it was actually the opposite; the state domesticated the church.

The story of the finding of the True Cross bears this out. Constantine’s mother, Helena, oversaw the excavation of Jesus’ tomb, over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now sits. This is where the True Cross was reportedly found and identified as authentic when it was brought near enough to a sick woman to heal her. This simple wooden cross was divided into three parts and distributed to three centers of the faith: One part stayed in Jerusalem, one went to Rome, and the third to Constantinople, it was said, to render the city impregnable through its miraculous powers. The nails were also found, and Helena had them incorporated into the Emperor’s helmet and his horse’s bridle.

Think about it.

A simple wooden cross. An instrument of imperial torture made the protective symbol of that same Empire.  Housed in silver and gold reliquaries. Carried into battle ahead of armies. It’s like incorporating an image of an electric chair into the Great Seal of the United States. The irony is outrageous.

Christianity was now safe from Empire, but at what cost?

How does the irony of Empire and the Cross play out today? What does the Cross say about our Christian identity and how we act in the world? What do people see when they see someone wearing a cross? Do they see a follower of Jesus, or do they see only the irony of a complicit church? Do they see the gold and silver-encased Cross in the halls of power, where faith is measured by prosperity, or do they see the simple wooden Cross standing outside of those halls, calling those inside to see that Gospel faith is measured by surrendering to compassion, forgiveness, and justice?

Or to put it more starkly, how does the Cross save us? In close proximity to power, or in opposition to it?

Isn’t that what the conflict between Peter and Jesus was all about in the first place?

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Peter was able to identify the Messiah, but he had yet to understand how Jesus would turn the concept of the Messiah, and the world itself, upside-down. Peter didn’t understand that an abundant life is one that is given away. He didn’t understand that the way of the Cross is the way of love, not the way of might.

This is what Peter had yet to learn, and frankly what a lot of us need to embrace as well: that Love is the foundational principle of the Cross; God’s transformative love for Creation, for the vulnerable, and for the suffering. A deep engagement with the meaning of the Cross needs to begin here—with Love–not with guilt, but with compassion; because that is the true nature of Jesus’ free and costly gift of himself—to show us that death and evil and injustice do not have the last word—love and life do. We see on the Cross the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all of the marginalized, the forgotten, the Crucified. The Cross calls us to really see them as Jesus does and to love them and to become conduits of healing for each other and the world.

That, friends, is how the Cross claims us and bids us bear it.

The Cross isn’t a magic wand to grant our every wish, nor is it a rod to punish us for our mistakes. The Cross–no matter how it is portrayed in art on walls or in stained glass, or in the jewelry we wear–the Cross, first of all, is what marks each Christian at Baptism, calling  us to bear it with humility, vulnerability, forgiveness and, above everything else, with the Love that is woven into all of Creation.

That is where we begin.

 

 

Thy Kingdom Come; Mark 7

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 

Conspiring with him how to load and bless 

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 

These lines from Keats’ Ode to Autumn capture the sense of burgeoning promise in the season that follows close on the heels of the Labor Day Weekend. In my garden, I have a lot of trees which provide wonderful shade but make growing fruits and vegetables a non-starter. However, our daughter returned from a few days away this last week to a continued harvest of heirloom tomatoes, antique (yellow and round) cucumbers and her first crop of apples, admittedly, only a few apples on her two-year-old trees, but the occasion for celebration and a sense of major achievement, nonetheless. Fruitfulness is the catchword of the season ahead of us. This is not a season that lasts only until the chilly winds of November come creeping[1]. And as we peer into the mists of maturing autumn, what might we catch a glimpse of?

The first Sunday after Labor Day is by tradition Homecoming Sunday at St Martin’s. Homecoming offers a first glimpse of the number and variety of our ministries. Ministries are the lifeblood of parish community and the channels through which our time, talent, and energy flows to advances the coming of the kingdom in real-time. This is a work of nurturing and sustaining hope that echoes in our daily cry – thy kingdom come,  thy will be done, so that heaven becomes in real time, earth.

As the Biblical record witnesses, when viewed solely from a human perspective the making real of the kingdom has always appeared unrealistic. Yet, despite seemingly hopeless odds, it progresses anew in each generation because as followers of Jesus we are continually confronted by a reality which challenges us to throw off the limits of our too small imaginations.

The truth is, where we go, Jesus has gone before. In chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus, so used to being the one who does the confronting being confronted – with startling results.

***

In the second part of chapter 7, Mark reports Jesus, fatigued by his recent confrontation with the Pharisees over the petty ritual issue of his disciples not washing before eating,  slipping away for a few days of R&R in the non-Jewish region of Tyre and Sidon, today part of Lebanon. Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus has left Jewish territory other than to hint at his wanting to go somewhere where he won’t be recognized.  So, Jesus seems more than irritated when his cover is blown by a woman of the town who seems to recognize him. Worried about a sick daughter at home, she can’t believe her luck that this healer, renowned south of the border, should show up in the house next door. So, she makes her request: Sir, will you heal my daughter?

Jesus perhaps wearied by finding that even here he can’t escape the constant demands of people tells her it’s not permitted to feed the dogs with the children’s food. We know that dog and children are 1st-century Jewish code words for Gentile and Jew, and it’s more than a little shocking to hear this kind of xenophobic insult coming from Jesus’ mouth. The woman is however not to be put off by insults. In a rare example of someone turning the tables on Jesus, she replies: Yes Sir, but don’t even the dogs get to lick the crumbs that fall from the children’s table?

Gosh, who is this woman we might be tempted to ask? She’s effectively countered the Master so that it’s reasonable to speculate a pause in the conversation at this point as Jesus takes in her comment. Evidenced by his response, the woman’s words seem to have confronted Jesus to consider new possibilities. His irritation evaporates. For saying that, he tells her, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.

One of the most important qualities we human beings possess is the capacity to learn from experience and open our minds to new possibilities. For some, it would be blasphemous to suggest, as I  do here, that Jesus ever needed to learn from experience and open his mind to new possibilities. But to view Jesus as omniscient is to seriously contradict his being fully human. Confronted by this encounter, Jesus appears to learn in real time in a manner typical of the way human beings learn. The result is that the boundaries of his mission open in the direction of greater inclusion; no longer limited by the assumption of children first and dogs second.

To emphasize the point, Mark tells us that Jesus leaves Tyre, and traveling via Sidon returns southwards, not back into Jewish Galilee, but through the region a little to east known as the Decapolis or ten cities; a regional center of Greek and Roman culture250px-Palestine_after_Herod where dogs and children, Gentiles and Jews, lived side by side. It is in this ethnically mixed region that Jesus performs the healing of a man ( Mark does not mention his ethnicity) whose deafness is compounded by an impediment of speech.

Chapter 7 opens with Jesus in the Jewish heartland, embroiled in petty Jewish arguments. Seemingly fed up, he slips away into foreign parts, seeking an all too brief experience of anonymity. Instead, he runs into a different kind of confrontation – one that challenges him into a more inclusive vision. Having Jesus return via the Decapolis region, Mark shows Jesus throwing off the hitherto accepted limits around his mission. After Tyre, those who were before excluded are now included as Jesus continues the work of reconciliation entrusted to him by God.

The truth is, where we go, Jesus has gone before.

***

Homecoming Sunday in 2018 finds us in remarkably good shape as a community. Compared with four years ago, more and more activity in the parish thrives without direct input from me. When the clergy are no longer at the center of all activity, lay initiatives blossom, driving the community’s development through mission enthused ministry.

I want to strongly affirm this shift as a sign of our growing health. The challenge we face is to move not only into a new way of thinking but to attract the critical numbers to secure and sustain the shift from priest centered to ministry centered practice. Without a growth in numbers, there is an ever-present danger of burnout resulting from operating at maximum capacity, one hundred percent of the time, as increased burden falls on fewer shoulders.

Peering into autumn’s mists what is the mellow fruitfulness we a glimpse? It is not greater enthusiasm. It’s not even more money, though with the pledge drive coming up, I say this advisedly. The mellow fruitfulness we seek is a growing discipleship base.

***

The need to grow directly challenges the comfortable limits we impose on the practice of our Christian faith. Our privatized, middle-class – let’s not upset the applecart – approach to living our faith renders us next to useless in God’s work of advancing the kingdom. The growth we seek fruits when we are less cautious and less respectable and more gospel-inspired in living our faith. That’s not likely to happen unless we allow ourselves to be confronted. Mark shows us how Jesus when so confronted opens his mind to new possibilities. So it must be for our relationship with God.

It is primarily the community of faith that sustains our individual spiritual lives. There is a loose hierarchy of other worthy nonprofit initiatives that constantly claim our attention. Yet, as disciples – it’s the living faith clearly outlined in the promises of the baptismal covenant, promises we all reconfirmed as recently as last Sunday, that claims our highest priority.

This is a hard message for comfortable, secular-humanist-minded Episcopalian ears. For most of us, our religion dovetails so neatly into our middle-class worldview that it is next to useless in preparing us for God’s work of advancing the kingdom. There are too many self and culture imposed limits on the practice of our faith, i.e. lukewarm faith practiced privately.

For instance, we live in a time of rising tensions caused by the vacuum left by the collapse of shared communitarian values loosely based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This past week, a 15-year-old boy lost his life to gun violence on our Providence streets. Americans view gun violence through either a conservative or liberal political lens and not a gospel-inspired one. Gospel-inspired values show us that the death of the innocent from gun violence is just plain wrong, and any attempt at justification flies in the face of the kingdom’s rebuttal of fear with love, selfishness with concern for one another.

To grow our numbers we must become more magnetic because people are attracted to magnetic communities. But magnetism is not a gimmick, a clever promotional strategy. It results when we become more convincing about our faith. Others are convinced by our conviction – expressed in a faith lived joyfully and – here’s the rub – publicly.

The signs of the times require us to be bolder in the way we share with friends and neighbors the value-added quality of a faith lived together in community. Belonging in Christian community should not be our best-kept secret.

So many of us came to St Martin’s by the word of mouth of neighbors and friends who invited us here – a form of show and tell. We practice a form of Christianity that emphasizes that belonging comes before believing, worshiping together takes precedence over agreeing with each other.

So go spread the word without shame or embarrassment. Let’s boldly practice the kind of show and tell that brought some of us here in the first place for the work entrusted to us it the nurturing and sustaining of hope: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, so that heaven is recreated in real time on earth.

[1] A line from Gordon Lightfoot’s the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

To Make a Second Birth

 

There are several fundamental human needs. One is to have enough food and the other essentials to sustain our bodies. Another is someone to love and be loved by. A third is to have a place to belong and a community in which to be recognized and accepted within. In recognition of the Labor Day celebrations this weekend, another fundamental human need is to have dignified work from which the fruits of meaning and purpose flow. Fundamental needs have significant implications for our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives, for we are integrated body-mind souls.

A sacrament is simply an action through which God’s promise to act and to be present is a watertight commitment or covenant. The two primary sacraments [1], the ones that all Christians agree on, are baptism and eucharist. The two primary sacraments of baptism and eucharist speak to our human needs as body-mind souls.

In last week’s A Living Eucharist sermon and blog, I expound on Jesus’ teaching in John 6 from which the sacrament of eucharist developed. This week, at St Martin’s we are privileged to witness the baptism of four delightful young souls. The baptism of siblings and cousins from the one extended family with a long multi-generational association with our community promises us a baptism experience, with a particular N.T. resonance.

The relationship of baptism and eucharist is the relationship of doorway to table. Through baptism, we enter into the household of faith where in eucharist we find sustenance in the physical actions of eating and drinking at the Lord’s table.

***

In the Epistle – the N.T. reading for Pentecost 15, God addresses us through the Letter of James. Authorship of this letter is traditionally ascribed to the Lord’s brother, James, first bishop of Jerusalem, though this is hotly disputed among scholars. I will refer to the writer as the author known as James, who opens his letter to the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem with the words:

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by word of truth, so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

This is an interesting passage from which to expound on the meaning of baptism.

Any exploration of baptism immediately encounters two questions:

  1. Why – as in why do it?
  2. What – as in what happens as a result of doing it?

Why do it?

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. 

James’ opening words affirm that the entry of every human being into life constitutes an act of divine generosity. Can there be no more perfect gift than that of a new life; life as the biological sign of God’s sharing of divine love made real in an act of creation.

It’s unfortunate that the tenor of much of the ancient language, mostly medieval in origin, that we still use in the baptism service is easily misunderstood in churches where the goal is to save individuals from going to hell. In this worldview, baptism into Christ is understood as the antidote to the toxin, transmitted across the generations, of Adam and Eve’s original sin of disobedience.

James’ words can be read as categorically refuting this idea that human beings are born into a morally and spiritually defective state, for which baptism is the necessary correction. The old English verb for baptism is to christen, i.e. to make a Christian. Baptism opens a doorway through which an already perfect new life becomes a member of the Christian community. The early Church Father Tertullian was fond of saying: one Christian is no Christian, by which he meant you can only become a Christian by participating in the life of the community called Christian. It is as members of the Christian community, that we are saved by God’s love.

Why do we baptize? We baptize to make a new Christian. Becoming a Christian means participating in the life of the Christian community. Becoming Christian is to recognize that to be human is to made in the image of God; an awareness that compels us to collaborate with God in the task of making a world that has grown old, new.

What is the result of being baptized?

Returning to the second part of James’ opening lines in his letter:

In fulfilment of his own purpose, he gave us birth by word of truth, so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. 

Baptism is a second birth, a birth by word of truth. Through baptism, we come to belong. From belonging comes believing.

But baptism is not an act of magical transformation. As a stand-alone event, it functions as an initial entry point only. But what really matters is what happens after baptism, i.e. how the baptismal promises are fulfilled by the baptized person, over time.

James says that the gift from above needs to bear fruit. He tells his readers to:

  • be quick to listen.
  • be slow to anger.
  • behave with dignity, self-respect and above all respect for others.
  • walk the walk not just talk the talk (be doers of the Word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves).
  • control your tongues, an uncontrolled tongue is the enemy of true religion and elsewhere he likens the uncontrolled tongue to a forest fire.
  • care for the orphans and widows in their distress.
  • do not allow yourself to be corrupted by the easy utilitarian values of a world held in bondage to the perpetual inequalities of the status quo.

In our baptismal covenant, Jame’s words reverberate. Paraphrasing:

  • be faithful in prayer and be present at the celebration of the Lord’s table.
  • persevere against evil and when we fail don’t let our sense of failure become a barrier between us and God.
  • live the Good News of God in Christ, so that others will look at us and say: I want some of what they have!
  • fight against the systems that perpetuate injustices of all kinds and let respect for each human being be your guide to holy living.

To sum up

Baptism emphasizes belonging over believing. This Sunday, four new young lives will be initiated into belonging within the community we call Christian. It takes a village to raise a child; parents, grandparents, sponsors and the whole community will need to support these children so that nurtured by love, they will have the opportunity to grow into the persons God is already dreaming them into becoming.

[1] As Anglicans, Episcopalians accept either six, or seven sacraments, depending on whether you think marriage is a sacrament. The reason for not accepting marriage as a sacrament is because God is not the primary actor – only the witness to the primary action taking place between the couple to the marriage. But back to the point.

A Living Eucharist: John 6

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

In her novel The River Flannery O’Connor intriguingly observes:

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Can this be a possible explanation for Jesus’ teaching in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel?

Over previous weeks my focus has been on the Deuteronomic historical chronicle contained in I and II Samuel concerning the tensions of government in ancient Israel and to explore its resonances with our own current political climate. This focus on the O.T. lessons has necessitated ignoring Jesus’s growing controversy with the crowd as reported by John in the sixth chapter of his gospel.

Previously in John

Growing numbers of people have begun to follow Jesus into the countryside to listen to his teaching – culminating in an event where his concern for the hunger and thirst of the crowds exposed in the open countryside as evening approaches leads to an event we know as the feeding of the five thousand. It remains a universal truth that if you want to hold people’s attention then feed them; all the more so when people are generally hungry. Having experienced a free and bountiful supper, the crowds begin to realize that Jesus is the man to stick close to.

Spurred by their questions about food, Jesus begins to point out that they have the wrong end of the stick. He tells them plainly, that what he’s offering is not a free meal, but the food of eternal life. He tells them not to labor for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for everlasting life. They then ask, Rabbi, how can we get this food?

To cut a long story short, having crossed the lake at night walking on the water Jesus makes a surprise appearance in the synagogue at Capernaum. How did you get here, they ask? We didn’t see you in any of the boats.  Jesus ignores the question and proceeds to make a series of what are known in John’s gospel as I am statements.

Chapter 6 contains three I am statements, each statement more controversial than the last:

  1. I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never go hungry.
  2. I am the bread of life, come down from heaven.
  3. I am the living bread, and this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Just when the disciples must have been signaling to Jesus to dial it back a bit, he declares:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Teaching that offends

Noticing a growing restiveness, Jesus asks the congregation if what he says offends them? They show that they are more than offended, they are scandalized. They fall over themselves in an attempt to get out of the synagogue and away from this crazy, blasphemous preacher.

His disciples also complain that this teaching is too hard to follow – it is too difficult to accept, they protest. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks them if they too will leave him? There now follows one of those magic moments when Peter breaks through the limits of imagination to tell Jesus:

Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! 

***

Familiarity with the Eucharist deafens us to the shock value of Jesus teaching in John 6. Being good Episcopalians, well-schooled in the use of metaphor when talking about the spiritual life, we dismiss the cannibalistic overtones in Jesus’ language, understanding them as hyperbole – excessive overstatement for the purposes of argument. 

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Anglican-Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Orthodox believe that in the Eucharist, Jesus is really present. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the significance of Eucharistic elements are changed from mere bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. Roman Catholic’s have a complicated theory to explain how this happens while Anglicans cherish the words of Elizabeth I who when asked about it simply said:

I know Christ is truly present though I know not how.

Contrastingly, Protestants believe that the Eucharist is only a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper in which nothing happens to the bread and wine. In this act of remembrance, the connection between the worshiper and Jesus is spiritual, not material.

A middle way

Anglican eucharistic teaching emphasizes the centrality of the real presence. However, it also places emphasis on the process of spiritual connection – the real presence becomes real only when received in faith by the worshiper.

At the invitation to Holy Communion, the celebrant invites us with these words:

Draw near with faith and receive the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you and his Blood which he shed for you …. feed on him in your hearts, with thanksgiving.

As we receive the host and partake from the cup the priest or eucharistic minister says:

the body of Christ – the bread of heaven, the blood of Christ – the cup of salvation.

Note how statements indicating the real presence – the body and blood of Christ are coupled with spiritual metaphors – the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation. Anglican tolerance allows for a range of belief that makes room for both a material and spiritual interpretation, according to the theology of the worshiper. What is a fudge for some is for others, an expression of genius.

The term holy communion points to an action of joining together two separate entities. Literally, com-munion means into a new combined entity which Jesus describes thus:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

This remaining in one another is a comingling of identities that only happens within the context of a larger communal action of the Eucharist; another Greek word which means thanksgiving?

To hear Jesus’ words only as a hyperbolic metaphor, as in O’Connor’s really big caricatures is, however, to seriously miss his point. When Jesus says: I am the light of the world, we have little difficulty in hearing this as a metaphor of association. When Jesus says: I am the bread of heaven, again we hear the metaphorical association and his original hearers understood metaphor well enough. But he then deliberately labors the statement in ways that take it beyond mere metaphorical association.

The bread of eternal life is my flesh which I give [to be consumed] for the life of the world.

This is what his hearers found a hard teaching because they realized that Jesus was no longer speaking in metaphors.

***

To truly appreciate the significance of coming to the Lord’s Table in the Eucharist I want to draw out two emphases in Jesus’ teaching in John 6. The first is his emphasis on the action of eating and drinking. The second is contained in his words: I am the bread of life that has come down from heaven.

Eating and drinking

In John 6, Jesus alienates many who want to follow him because he speaks not of the comfortable distance of spiritualized metaphor but of the immediacy of physical action. In John’s Greek, the word he uses for eating is better translated as chewing with open mouths. Eating and drinking are both actions that emphasize an intimate and raw physicality of the action. We become present to Christ and he to us, not through our spiritual imaginations but in the physical actions of eating and drinking in real time. The result of eating and drinking is ingestion – taking in. As food is ingested through eating and drinking, Christ is ingested into the very fibers and cells of our bodies.

Come down from heaven

Jesus’ teaching emphasizes a public and communal physicality of being present in preference to a more distanced and individual spiritualized distance. Communion –comingling – happens physically in real time. When we spiritualize it we distance its raw physical immediacy. To follow Jesus is to engage fully with this world, not pine for the next.

There is a popular distortion of Christian teaching, all the more regrettable because it is so widespread; a distortion that places salvation as a future post-death event, the promise of everlasting life with God in heaven; pie in the sky when we die. Jesus does not speak of heaven as the future goal of our lives on earth. Christ-centered faith is thus concerned with this life, not the next, and this is exactly how the N.T understands Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus teaches that the realization of heaven – or of hell – happens in this world.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven 

communicates the urgency of the kingdom’s arrival. The kingdom is not imminent, it is not coming someday soon, or at some distant time, it is coming right now in this very moment!

Give us today our daily bread

emphasizes this. Our daily bread is to be eaten now, not sometime in the future.

***

If we are to be authentic followers of Jesus as John and the other N.T. writers present him, our first and foremost priority is to labor for the making good- the repair – of the material world of creation – in real time! It is not to prepare our souls for an eventual escape into the spiritual ether.

Therefore, Christianity is primarily concerned with the physical not the spiritual dimension of life. Participation in the Eucharist is vital for our Christian flourishing as food and water are essential for our physical wellbeing.  Our ultimate hope is not eternal rest but eternal life; life physically remade as part of a world that is in the process of being put to rights by God. Until this process finds its completion in the resurrection of the dead, it moves apace in real time with our participation and collaboration as God’s agents in real time, compelled to live by the expectations of the kingdom.

In the meantime, our focus must be on the real-time seeding, tending, and reaping of the kingdom’s harvest. As agents of the kingdom, we are engaged in an existential struggle with cosmic dimensions – against the systemic forces of evil as St. Paul warns us – that desecrate and corrupt the goodness of God’s creation. We are strengthened for this task by the physical incorporation of Christ, not into our metaphysical souls, but into the very fibers and cells of our bodies.

The Eucharist is where we feed on the food that lasts. The great 20th-century Anglican theologian and mystic, Evelyn Underhill, in her poem Corpus Christi pens this truth with an eloquence that I am incapable of. The full poem can be found at the link above and so I content myself with a more selective citation:

Come dear heart! The fields are white to harvest: come and see, as in a glass the timeless mystery of love, whereby we feed on God, our bread indeed. …Yea, I have understood how all things are one great oblation made: He on our altars, we on the world’s rood. Even as this corn, earth-born, we are snatched from the sod, reaped, ground to grist, crushed and tormented in the Mills of God, and offered at Life’s hands, a living Eucharist. 

Earthen Vessels of Clay

 

Since June, I’ve been following the unfolding Deuteronomic history chronicling the evolution of government in ancient Israel. It’s an increasingly sorry tale as it continues into the books of the Kings. The O.T. lesson for Pentecost 13 opens in the second chapter of I Kings with the statement:

David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David. 

David reigned an astonishing 40 years – remember life expectancy was short in those days – 7 years at Hebron and then after he conquered Jerusalem, and further 30. His son Adonijah was the next in the line of succession but David passes the throne to Solomon, his son by Bathsheba.

The weakness in authoritarian regimes lies in the unpredictability of succession. As the once strong leader begins to fail, in the absence of constitutional processes governing the strict line of succession, factionalism thrives. In David’s last years, anxiety increased about who would succeed him as those who had once been the king’s fixers, his right-hand men, vied to influence the succession.

Before his death, David advises Solomon on how to clear the field by killing the opposition ringleaders to not only clear his way to the throne, but also to settle some of his father’s old scores, the hand of retribution from beyond the grave as it were.

The Lectionary notes the death of David in II Kings:2,10-12, but then it then skips over the rest of chapter 2, picking up again at chapter 3. For us, however, it’s important to know what is happening in the omitted verses 13-46 – quite a chunk, in order to have the fuller picture of events.

Adonijah appears to accept being passed over but then gives Solomon an unexpected excuse to move against him when he manipulates Bathsheba into petitioning Solomon to give him Abishag for his wife. Abishag, you will recall, was the young woman chosen to be David’s last wife, a young woman to warm the old king’s feet in his failing years. For Adonijah to claim her seems to indicate a roundabout way of asserting his rights to his father’s inheritance.

In common parlance, Solomon is doubly pissed. He is pissed not only by Adonijah’s effrontery but also at his mother for allowing herself to become Adonijah’s tool to get to him. Solomon orders Adonijah struck down and killed and then moves swiftly against the opposition ringleaders. Joab, once the commander of the army, seeks sanctuary by grasping the horns of the altar. The Law of Moses allowed a fugitive to seek safety if he could get to the Tent of Meeting and grasp the horns (corners) of the altar. Incidentally, this is the basis of the claim of churches as places of sanctuary, which is currently being asserted to give shelter to refugees fleeing the harsh implementation of immigration law.

Solomon nevertheless has Joab struck down in the heart of the Holy of Holies – take note, Mr. AG. He then deposes Abiathar as high priest, exiling him to his home village. Zadok, a passionate supporter of Solomon now becomes high priest and the way is cleared for what happens next.

Solomon is described as one who loved the Lord and walked in the ways of his father. But he immediately goes to Gibeon, one of the cultic high-places where local pagan deities were worshiped and makes a sacrifice of 1000 burnt offerings. In the Deuteronomist account, it’s all a little odd, for this action clearly indicates unfaithfulness to YHWH. Nevertheless, the Lord comes to Solomon at Gibeon and invites him to make a request.

We then have what’s known as Solomon’s great prayer, which many over the centuries have taken to be the perfect template of prayer. In it, Solomon asks not for power or riches, but wisdom. The Lord is so impressed by Solomon’s request that he throws in power, riches, and long life anyway. For the discerning, there is a sting in the tail here, for God lays a condition on the long-life bit of the gift. Solomon will enjoy long-life as his father had done only if he walks in YHWH’s ways. We need to note that Solomon only lives to the age of 60.

Like his father before him, Solomon is also a complex figure.  Admired by Judeo-Christian tradition as the archetype of wisdom, as the one chosen by the Lord to build his Temple.

Yet, Solomon also went his own way. He married many foreign wives, a thing that was anathema according to the Law of Moses. His first wife was Pharaoh’s daughter, and according to legend even the Candace, the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia) journeyed to pay homage and become the most erotically enticing in a succession of foreign wives.

To add insult to injury, not only was marrying foreign women and insult to YHWH, but Solomon allowed his wives to set up shrines to their gods in the high-places and he even worshiped there himself. He was a brutal monarch, taxing his people ruthlessly and indenturing his male population in the service of the building of the Temple.

His corrupt foreign ways, his worship of pagan gods, his economic oppression of his own people, set the stage after his death for the secession of the 10 northern tribes of Israel, leaving only Judah and Benjamin as a remnant of the Davidic kingdom.

***

In omitting the bulk of chapter 2, the Lectionary has edited the text to emphasizes the identification of Solomon with wisdom, so as to segway in two weeks time from the Deuteronomist history into the Wisdom books of Proverbs, Songs (of Solomon), and Wisdom (of Solomon).

A recurring central theme in the Wisdom literature concerns the way human understanding pales against the grandeur of creation, which itself is the expression of God’s wisdom. Wisdom’s themes explore opposite pairings: righteousness/ unrighteousness, death/immortality, meaning/meaninglessness, hubris/futility, joy/sorrow.

The final judgment of the Deuteronomists on Solomon is mixed. According to their narrative, God gave Solomon wisdom, entrusted him with the building of a permanent dwelling place to house God’s spirit on earth. They also recognized that through his ruthlessness in furtherance of his own ambitions, and the single-minded pursuit of his own pleasures, Solomon ultimately destroyed the legacy he had inherited. Unfaithfulness to God did in the end, cut short his life.

***

Based on the absence of hard archeological evidence, some historians of the period doubt whether Solomon ever existed. Certainly, much modern opinion is that the great Davidic kingdom as presented by the Deuteronomists was anything but great. The Deuteronomic history is the product of a later period. 600 years later, the scribes engaged in a monumental root and branch editing of the Hebrew Scriptures during the Babylonian Exile, had a need to paint a picture an imagined golden age from which to trace Israel’s decline as an explanation for their current experience of having been abandoned by God.

I believe the value of the Deuteronomistic history lies not in its historical accuracy or veracity.

Its value lies in its power to remind us of timeless truths. That the nature of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That human government left to its own devices rests on the principle that power is there to be abused.

In the record of the Deuteronomists description of the tensions between faithfulness to God and the corruptions of worldly power played out between prophet and king, it’s not hard for us to hear some striking echoes of the tensions in our own time. Our society is grinding under the weight of increasingly huge disparities of wealth between the 1% and the rest. Under the pressure of unrestrained corporate greed, we turn a blind eye to the compounding of individual and national debt. Western democracies are increasingly retreating in the face a resurgence of authoritarian-nationalist political instincts riding on the uncertainties and fears of peoples in a time of rapid change.

From Samuel, through David, to Solomon and beyond, we see God’s glory encased in vessels of clay. Solomon is the proverbial everyman, he is you and me.  Like him, we too are creatures of our time and shaped by our culture. The continuing scandals of church child sexual abuse only too painfully reminded us that even our religious institutions while pointing us beyond ourselves are at the same time, all too corruptible and fallible.

Like Solomon, we aspire to love God, but mostly we follow our own counsels. We long to give our full allegiance making Christian faith the unifying story around which our lives take shape, yet mostly, we march to the drumbeat of lesser stories that promise us more than they can deliver. The extraordinary thing is how we nevertheless give allegiance again and again to stories that if we did but remember led to disastrous outcomes last time we placed our faith in them.

The timeless truth, that God challenges us to remember the covenant made with Israel which has now been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only story with the power to shape our times in the direction we truly long for. Like David and Solomon, we too are the earthen vessels made of clay struggling to contain the divine vision for creation. Occasionally we hear God calling us to be better than we currently are and to do better than we have done.

Father and Son

II Samuel 18

The historical chronicle found in the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings is the work of a group of editors known as the Deuteronomists. The Deuteronomistic history covers Israel’s transition from a loose tribal confederacy to a centralized monarchy. We have been following this process in the period addressed in the book of Samuel, one book later divided into two. I Samuel begins with the call of Samuel who is to be the last of the great Judges, the charismatic leaders who arose in times of crisis. II Samuel ends in the final years of King David. The greater part of the books of Samuel concerns the David saga. The Deuteronomistic history explores the core questions that arise when a nation struggles to evolve to meet new challenges while remaining faithful to its founding instrument?

Israel’s core identity is forged in the Covenant (a form of contract) that God and Moses made on Mt. Sinai. In this sense, it’s helpful for us to think about the Covenant as a kind of constitution. In the historical tensions chronicled by the Deuteronomists, we find many echoes to our own contemporary experience as a nation. As in Ancient Israel, we too need to continually evolve to meet new challenges within the opportunities and limitations of our founding instrument, in our case the Constitution.

The Covenant between God and Moses forged on Mount Sinai dictated the kind of society Israel was to be. The terms of the Covenant stipulated that Israel was to have no God but YHWH and consequently in terms of government, there was to be only one king in Israel and YHWH was his name. In the time of Samuel, Israel transitioned from a tribal confederacy into a Near Eastern monarchy, but with a difference: the Covenant confined the powers of the king to the functions of regent. The Deuteronomists had a simple rule of thumb in assessing the success or failure of a king. Did he rule as God’s regent, or did he rule as God’s replacement? Was he a faithful servant or a usurper?

As we know because power corrupts there is a need for checks and balances. Alongside the institution of monarchy, a parallel institution of the prophet arose to call power to account. The prophet was to function as a kind of one-man Supreme Court, whose function was to declare executive actions legitimate or illegitimate according to the vision of the Covenant.

Today’s Old Testament reading concerns the rise and fall of David’s third son, the much beloved and stunningly handsome Absalom. We need, however, to set the David – Absalom relationship within its wider context.

***

The major turning point in David’s life was his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. His lust for her led him to orchestrate her husband’s murder, a murder executed by his ruthlessly loyal fixer, Joab. Enter the prophet Nathan, who calls the king to account and pronounces upon him God’s judgment and sentence. David confesses his sin. He accepts God’s sentence that the sword will never depart from his house. For the Deuteronomists, David’s downfall is also the defining moment of his greatness.

Through genuine repentance, David comes to know the power not only of God’s judgment but also of God’s forgiveness. God does not stop loving David and he knows it. It’s interesting to note that this growing sense of forgiveness does not avert the chain of personal tragedies, the sentence must be served. It changes the way David responds in the face of adversity. David has received both punishment and forgiveness at the hand of the Lord. In response to being nurtured by God’s continued love, we watch David rejecting his personal vanity and lust for power, and we watch him learning to become tenderhearted.

David is transformed by his experience of being forgiven and the evidence for this can be no more clearly seen than in the story of David and Absalom.

***

Last week I suggested that in his seduction or was it really his rape of Bathsheba (as a woman her voice is absent from the Biblical record, so we don’t know how she felt about this incident), David tried to erect a wall separating his personal choices from his public responsibilities. But God will have none of this and rejects the falsehood much parroted in our own time – that a lack of personal honesty and integrity has no effect on the holding of public office. David is forced to live through the consequences of private choices disrupting his public life.

We also seek to build a wall between the practice of our faith and life in the public square. Last week, I noted that when out of a sense of middle-class, liberal squeamishness we practice our faith privately, we ignore the consequences in the public square resulting from our decoupling of faith from action. Whenever someone tells me that politics should be kept out of religion, they are telling me that their faith has nothing to say about the evils perpetrated in the public square of political life. To follow that path renders our faith next to useless.

***

David and Absalom are two case studies on the power of forgiveness. His repentance brings him to realize the limits of his vanity and the glorification of power. In Absalom, vanity and the arrogance of beauty coupled with a grievance-fueled rage and lust for power, consume and compel him to spurn his father’s forgiveness, leading him to sin even more egregiously. So, to the story.

***

Previously, as they say on TV, Absalom murders his brother Amnon to avenge Amnon’s rape of their sister, Tamar. Absalom not only kills Amnon but rages against David for his inaction in failing to punish Amnon for his crime. Following the murder of Amnon, Absalom flees to the north, but under the auspices of Joab, a kind of reconciliation allows him to return to Jerusalem. But although back in Jerusalem, physically, an emotional estrangement between father and son continues for two years before Absalom eventually returns to the king’s house.

David forgives his son, but Absalom secretly spurns his father’s forgiveness. Under the guise of a ruse of needing to fulfill a vow, Absalom goes to Hebron, where he has himself proclaimed king. He raises and an Israelite (northern) army and moves on Jerusalem. David flees the city with only his household, for Joab has forbidden the king to accompany the loyal (southern) army. Before he flees, in the presence of his retainers David makes Joab promise to:

 deal gently, for his sake, with the young man Absalom.

***

We might note an interesting aside, that on his way out of Jerusalem David ascends the summit of the Mount of Olives on his way to cross the Jordan, an ascent that finds an echo for us in Jesus’s journey via the Mount of Olives to the Cross.

***

Meanwhile, Absalom enters the city. His first demonstration of power there is to publicly rape the 10 concubines David had left to look after the palace. This action tells us something of how Absalom views the exercise of power.

images-1The two armies eventually meet in the Forest of Ephraim, where Joab and David’s southern army routs Absalom’s northern army, killing we are told, some 20,000 men. Absalom flees alone. As he does his long hair catches on a low hanging branch, suspending him in midair while his mule keeps moving forward.

The beauty of Absalom’s long, thick hair was the source of legend in those days. Afflicted by vanity the young man had failed to cut his hair in preparation for battle. We cannot miss the symbolism here, caught by his vanity, Joab and his shield bearers separate Absalom not only from his hair but from his life.

When news reaches David, he ascends to his chamber weeping. He cries out:

O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!

Some commentators have wondered, having made Joab publicly promise not to kill Absalom, is David’s demonstrable grief an expression of plausible deniability in the death of his son? This takes the hermeneutic of suspicion too far, missing the fact that since his encounter with Nathan and confession of repentance, David is a changed man whose heart has softened.

God punished David but nevertheless continued to love him. David’s experience of God’s love as a sign of being forgiven led to his own transformation from the man who had lusted after another man’s wife and murdered her husband to get what he wanted, to a man who deeply loves his admittedly, ill-gotten wife, and now grieves for the death of the son who sought to take from him not only his crown, but his life.

 The lust to possess, the pain of rage that feeds a hunger for power, the fragility of vanity that abuses the trust of those we serve, the arrogance of beauty that demands satiation, the rage of the fire that consumes the heart when forgiveness is spurned; these are no match for the power of the tenderheartedness of forgiveness received. God and David – David and Absalom – two stories: of forgiveness accepted and of forgiveness rejected.

David was a man of his time. He lived guided by the stark and usually brutal moral standards of his age. He had seven wives and numerous concubines. He is silent in the face of his daughter’s shaming. He is hardly the role model for modern-day Christian manhood. Yet, his fascination for us lies in his willingness to allow God’s love to transform him beyond the limitations of his culturally shaped imagination.

Are we not also creatures of our age with all the insight and blindness of our culturally formed limitations? How do we transcend the limitations of our shaping at the hands of our time and culture?

Failure and its bitter lessons forged in the heat of repentance is the instrument that breaks us open enough to allow God’s grace to shine through the cracks in our brittle facades.

As Leonard Cohen says in his song Anthem:

Rings the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

I commend to you John Piper’s moving poem Absalom and David

Choices Made: Samuel 11:26-12:13

 

David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord.

Paul implores: 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.

Jesus warns: 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.

***

The doctrine of separation of church and state has led to two assumptions highly favored by secularists and liberals alike:

  1. That the antidote to ‘bad’ religion is ‘no’ religion.
  2. The practice of religion is a personal and private right that has no legitimate voice in the public marketplace of debate and ideas.

The reality is however that while religion may be intensely personal, it is never private. Faith and its expression is always a public affair.

Throughout the Biblical record, the lesson learned ad nauseum is that the antidote to bad religion is not no religion, but good religion. Stanislav Volf uses the terms weak and strong religion in an attempt to avoid the more pejorative connotations of good and bad.

Weak religion is narrow, sectarian religion. Despite the megaphone voice of its proponents, it’s insecure religion, that seeks to impose narrow sectarian interest through force of law upon the body politic. Weak religion must be countered by strong religion – that is, a religiously rooted public interest attitude that embraces pluralism and insists on being heard as one voice among others in the space of civic debate.

***

The catalyst for my revisiting some of these thoughts is the story recorded in the book of Samuel concerning David and Bathsheba. In last week’s portion in the David saga, we heard about David’s covert discovery of Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her house. The sight of her excites David’s lust. He has her brought to him and then commits adultery with her.

Because the Biblical record hardly ever preserves the woman’s voice we don’t know if Bathsheba is a willing participant or not, so we don’t know whether the adultery is rape or consensual. The differentials of power here might give us a clue, however. Having taken and made Bathsheba pregnant, David then engineers her husband, one Uriah’s death, so that she can be totally his. Like men of power, David has a fixer. Joab, commander of the army is David’s chief fixer. While David orchestrates, Joab executes Uriah’s murder.

Today’s portion opens with the only recording of Bathsheba’s voice we have and it’s the clearest indication of her feelings about the situation she now finds herself in. We are told that when she learns of Uriah’s death, she cries out in loud and public lamentation. Her grief at the death of her husband is further aggravated when the child she bears David dies (is taken by the Lord as punishment). The only redeeming element in this sorry saga is that it seems David loves Bathsheba. He comforts her, and together they conceive another child, a son, Solomon, who will eventually succeed his father on the throne. We will get to learn more about Solomon in a couple of weeks.

The focus of the action in this section of the David saga concerns the arrival of Nathan the prophet God sends to speak truth to power. In ancient Israel, the only check on the king’s power was the office of the prophet. Nathan skillfully confronts the king by telling him a story designed to provoke David’s outrage at an injustice committed. Moved by Nathan’s contrivance, David condemns the man in Nathan’s story for his act of injustice, at which point Nathan proclaims: You are the man!  images

David, having condemned himself out his own mouth, Nathan then pronounces God’s verdict:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house, and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”

David does not respond to Nathan with threats typical of a tyrant called to account; threats of retaliatory violence or banishment from future news briefings He simply utters five words of repentance: I have sinned against the Lord. 

Like all men of power corrupted by their autocratic instincts, David has tried to erect a wall of separation between his private (secret) acts and the domain of public affairs. From this point onwards, the rest of David’s reign is the chronicle of his increasing failure to maintain a separation between personal and public affairs as his personal choices have consequences that spill over into the public sphere of his kingship.

God’s verdict: I will raise trouble against you from within your own house, is fulfilled. David’s daughter Tamar is raped by her brother Amnon, and his complicity in Amnon’s crime through his silence and refusal to punish Amnon provokes his first-born son, Absalom. Absalom bides his time and eventually murders Amnon to avenge his sister. There is now only sourness between father and son, king and heir. Absalom flees from his father’s wrath. A deal is eventually struck allowing Absalom to come home. But things are not healed between them and Absalom looks for the opportunity to overthrow his father, but more of that next week.

***

David is remembered as the greatest of Israel’s kings. It is from his line that the prophets proclaimed the Messiah would be born. Being of David’s lineage is for the New Testament writers a crucial confirmation of Jesus identity as the Lord’s anointed one.

David is an autocrat with feet of clay. A strong man with a vulnerable heart. An autocrat, but unlike others who will follow in the long sorry list of Israel’s kingly failures he never confuses the fact that he is king under God, not king instead of God. The Deuteronomist identifies David’s true greatness as lying not in his achievements and power but despite his all too human weakness, in his humility before God. It is with five simple words that David accepts Nathan’s declaration of God’s verdict upon his actions.

***

Biblically rooted Christianity does not recognize a separation between private faith and public responsibilities. Like David, we come to grief when we try to separate the two. In our case, the attempt to keep faith a private affair renders us completely ineffectual as agents for God’s kingdom in this world. For private belief has public consequences. Even if we hide our faith under a bushel and never proclaim it in the market square – this is still a public action against which we will be judged by the promises of our baptismal covenant.

As the Christian Right understands only too well the public expression of faith is a political action. When out of a sense of middle-class, liberal squeamishness we seek refuge in the illusion of faith practiced privately, we fail to proclaim the fundamental connection between what we believe and how we act. This failure has catastrophic consequences in the business of the public square.

Nonaction is nevertheless a political choice made and a negative action taken. The public nature of the Christian faith requires from us the courage to expose and actively resist what Paul identifies as the dark forces of this world – forces of systemic violence and injustice. Our failure to do so will have consequences we may neither desire, nor eventually be insulated from.

The Apostle Paul issues the following plea:

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. 

In John’s gospel Jesus warns the crowds clamoring for another miracle feeding:

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. 

What is the food that endures for eternal life? It’s not a ticket into heaven; it is not the pie in the sky when we die which is a grotesque distortion of Christian hope. No, the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man gives us is:

                                        To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

You don’t have to look too hard to contemplate what this looks like in today’s world, where individuals benefiting from a legal blindness to corporate enrichment at the public expense; where ordinary people languish, and the perpetration of injustice thrives barely concealed behind a barrage of outrageous falsehoods.

                                                    When the proponents of strong religion remain silent, might this not be the greatest falsehood of all?

 

10 Pentecost Proper 12 Year B    29 July 2018

                                           A sermon from the rev Linda Mackie Griggs

2 Samuel 11:1-15; John 6:1-21

 “’This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” 

Kings and prophets; prophets and kings. Biblical images, yet resonant today. Scripture speaks to us in its own kind of timeless language, calling us to respond to a world that, for all it has changed, hasn’t changed as much as we might have expected. Or hoped.

The question we hold when reading a Bible passage is, what is it saying to us right now about who we are and whose we are?

In the context of today’s readings, how does an understanding of the language of ancient kings and prophets uniquely equip us as followers of Jesus to serve in a time of turmoil more closely aligned with the kingdoms of the world than the kingdom of God?

A few weeks back we heard the people of Israel demand from the prophet Samuel,“Give us a king!” And after warning them to be careful what they wished for, he gave them what they wanted, anointing first Saul (who was a bust)and then David, the shepherd boy. Over the past few Sundays, our Old Testament lessons have documented David’s adventures as he defeated Goliath, mourned Saul and Jonathan, danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was restored to Jerusalem, and received God’s promise of a temple and a legacy.

Sometimes you can hear the Deuteronomist author speaking ironically through the text; reminding the reader that there is only One who should rule Israel, and that is God, who commanded, “You shall have no other Gods but me.” When God instructed Samuel to capitulate to the people and anoint a king, God warned them, you will regret putting your faith in kings- they may do good sometimes, but ultimately they will fail you. Yes, even David.

The Deuteronomist opens today’s story by throwing a little shade at David, noting, “in the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle… David remained at Jerusalem.” In other words, he seems to have lost his military touch. He who had made his reputation as a mighty warrior wasn’t on the battlefield because he was staying at home to take care of more important business. No: he was lazing around the palace: He “rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house…”

The story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah is no romance. Not once in this account does the writer say that the two were in love. No; David saw something he wanted and he took her. Because he could; because he was King. And when faced with the consequences of what he had done,.he tried to cover it up by twice giving Uriah leave to make a conjugal visit to his wife, and failing that, he had Uriah, who had been nothing but faithful to his commander-in-chief, murdered in the field.

Please come back next week to find out what happens next, but spoiler alert: It involves the words of a prophet and comeuppance for a king.

A prophet is an intermediary for the Divine. The function of the prophet is to hold principalities and powers to account, to critique unjust systems and to demand change. If the people will insist upon putting faith in kings, then prophets will be called to keep them in line and call them— the people and the kings— to repent. Prophets are the keepers of God’s Vision. Their job is to proclaim the true Kingdom— the Dream of God for all of creation.

In today’s Gospel lesson from John, the people see Jesus multiply the loaves and fishes, and perceive that he is a prophet. But not just any prophet: This is the Messiah foretold in the Scriptures.

And to make this clear John packs this episode with allusions: to Moses (Jesus goes up the mountain to teach; he provides ‘manna’ in the form of bread,) and Elisha (an episode in 2 Kings tells of multiplying bread and fish for 100 people) and to the Tribes of Israel (twelve baskets of leftovers). Any Jewish observer of Jesus’ multiplication miracle or early Christian hearer of this text would draw the connection between Jesus and the prophetic tradition.

And yet. What do the crowds do in the next breath? They try to make him a king.  Like David.  Jeepers. No wonder he headed back up the mountain.  “Give us a king!” Brought face-to-face with the Kingdom of God as Jesus feeds the multitudes, people stubbornly remain blind to the vision of God’s yearning for reconciliation/union with God’s children. They fear taking a leap of faith into the arms of a God who says, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Too steeped in the culture of what they think a king is, they are unwilling to give themselves over to a new vision of kingship; of abundant life and loving relationship in God.

Relationship. That’s the key. There is a fundamental difference in the nature of relationship between kingdoms of the world and the Kingdom of God.

Martin Buber’s 1923 book, I and Thou, described it this way (This may be a refresher for some, but it is profoundly worth revisiting):  On the one hand, a person’s attitude toward another may be as if toward an object; something experienced or used as a separate entity. This is what Buber called an I-It relationship.

On the other hand, a person’s attitude toward another may be as if it is toward something that is not distinctly separate; something that is not simply used or experienced as an object as much as it is understood as a kindred entity. It is a connection from the heart of one being to the heart of another. This is an “I-Thou” relationship. A different, more grammatical, way of putting it would be that an “I-It” relationship is from subject to object, while an “I-Thou” relationship is from subject to subject.

Look at the relationships in our two stories. David sees Bathsheba. He wants to have her. He takes her. He sees Uriah as an obstacle. He removes him. I-It, I-It, I-It, I-It. Subject to object, user to used, every time.

Now, look at Jesus on the mountain. Jesus sees the crowd. He wants to feed them. He invites a child—a child— to share his bread and fish, and connects, I-Thou; the divine within Jesus to the sacred within the child and his small meal. He sets a table of abundance where all have a seat, and all eat until they are satisfied, with “nothing lost.” Nothing left behind. No one left out. I-Thou, I-Thou, I-Thou.

God yearns for an I-Thou relationship with us and with all of Creation. Subject to subject, heart to heart, sacred to sacred, not as consumer and commodity, but as lover and beloved. It is the grammar of Eucharist, spoken at God’s Table.

Think about it— no, scratch that— don’t think about it just do it; come to the Table to be fed unconditionally, the divine and broken in Christ reaching out to the divine and broken in you, offering pardon and renewal, solace and strength, and then sending you out to make those same kinds of connections in the world with everyone you meet— I-Thou, I-Thou, I-Thou. The grammar, not of kings of the world, but of the Kingdom of God.

This is how Jesus calls and equips us. This is the language of the One who comes to us in ways and at times we would not believe possible and says to us, moment by moment, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

loaves and fishes Tabgha mosaic

 

 

 

 

Interstices

Pentecost 9, Year B  22 July 2018

A Sermon from the Rev.Linda Mackie Griggs

(Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” 

As I was thinking about this week’s readings in the context of last week’s sermon and of this past week’s events I realized I had made an incorrect assumption. I spoke about the importance of continually seeking God—of asking the question, “Where is God in this?” as a spiritual discipline. I talked about the potentially world-transforming power of the practice of theological thinking, which would prioritize God over self-preservation and self-interest in our decisions.

That hasn’t changed. But in the process of making the argument I said that it is easy to find God in the beautiful, the good and the true.

Based on some conversations I’ve had lately I’m not sure if I’m right about that anymore. To say that it’s easy to find God in the beautiful the true and the good these days seems glib and naïve. It sounds like a platitude. And I hate platitudes. Platitudes are band-aids. Platitudes don’t heal the exhaustion and the worry and the feeling of helplessness in the face of an endless onslaught of bad and confusing news.

There’s a John Prine song whose refrain begins, “Blow up your TV, throw away the paper…” I can relate to this.

Is it any wonder that today’s Gospel had me rethinking part of what I said last week? This passage is almost claustrophobic. The crowds are everywhere; Jesus moves, and the crowd moves with him; not just following him but anticipating where he’ll be next. It never seems to stop. The disciples are exhausted and overwhelmed. And Jesus says,

“Come away to a deserted place and rest awhile…”

Seriously, Jesus? Have you looked around? We can’t even eat in peace!

Jesus knows. He knows, but he gazes at the milling crowd, and:

“…he had compassion for them, like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.”

Jesus doesn’t follow his own advice to withdraw and rest. Instead, he takes a deep breath and plunges back in.

Why? Why does the Evangelist highlight this tension between a need for rest and the demands and needs of a broken world? Because that is our story. Some days more than others. There’s something we need to notice here, and it has to do with who God is.

Jesus acts out of Compassion. The Gospels refer to Jesus feeling compassion at least eight times. This is crucial: Compassion is not just a feel-good term indicating pity and sympathy. Pity and sympathy can be felt at a distance. Compassion is something done up close—it means to feel with—in the gut. You can’t mail in compassion—you have to put skin in the game. Jesus feels with his people. It is this feeling with that manifests to us God’s very identity. The Incarnate one—the Word made flesh– shows us that God is Compassion.

“Come away to a deserted place and rest awhile.”

How does Jesus’ compassion for the suffering mesh with the call to rest? How do we resolve the tension between rest and the needs and concerns and worries that crowd behind us and run ahead to meet us, and demand that we fix, resist, heal, or listen right now?

A God of Compassion knows this—knows that we are exhausted and anxious. A God of Compassion asks us to remember something: God is God, and we are not. The world is desperately in need of healing in so many ways, but God knows that we are no good to anyone without rest and renewal. Without Sabbath.

“…rest awhile.”

God, who created and liberated, rests. If God rests, how much more should we do the same? But I’m not talking as much about the importance of a Sabbath day, though that is the ideal minimum; I’m talking more about finding Sabbath spaces in a world that seems to be going bonkers.

Walter Brueggemann, in his book, Sabbath as Resistance, writes,

“That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.”

God is God, and we are not. Our call to Sabbath is a call to remember who is in charge, and to remember that our efforts are only as good as our balance—our ability to pause and to be present to God and what God has given us. That’s what Sabbath is: Time to stop. To say that, yes, there is work to be done. It will be there when I return to it, but for now, what I have is enough. I am thankful right now. This is what a Sabbath moment looks like.

Sabbath is not a platitude, it is the Fourth Commandment. The key is to understand that work and rest are not separate entities. They go together. God’s first acts of Creation were not separate from rest; they included it.

What if our work included Sabbath in such a way that the two were deeply interconnected, like when water is poured into a container of sand and flows into all the little gaps between the grains? A Sabbath mentality invites us to let Sabbath seep into the interstices—those tiny gaps– of our work and ministry, cooling the anxiety and softening the edges of cynicism and exhaustion. Interstitial Sabbath takes to heart Jesus’ admonition that the Sabbath was made for God’s children, not God’s children for the Sabbath. An interstitial Sabbath state of mind opens our eyes to see God’s hand in the world about us. It transforms platitude into healing balm and renews us for the work ahead.

This isn’t anything new. Honestly it isn’t a whole lot more than setting the concept of mindfulness in a theological context. The terminology isn’t as important as the practice of paying attention, whether it is to the feel and smell of working in the dirt of the garden, the taste of a good meal, the sight of a work of art that gives you chills, or the sound of a sublime piece of music; all of these are moments that invite us into a sacred pause: This is enough. I am thankful.

Or as a wise person once said to me after a wonderful outdoor concert: “It’s things like this that remind you that the world doesn’t suck.”

And that’s the point. Our work and ministry are important. The challenges of the world are urgent. But attending to them is useless if we don’t have a deep understanding of why we do what we do—why we serve in the world. The beautiful, the good, and the true—these are all descriptors of the compassionate God who created us and calls us into work and renewal. The world needs us, yes; but the world needs us whole. 

I’d like to conclude with a prayer by Ted Loder, from his book, Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle:

O God of the miracles,

            of galaxies

                        and crocuses

                                    and children,

I praise you now

            from the soul of the child within me,

                        shy in my awe,

                                    delighted by my foolishness,

                                                stubborn in my wanting,

                                                            persistent in my questioning,

                                                                        and bold in my asking you

to help me unbury my talents

            for wonder

                        and humor

                                    and gratitude,

so I may invest them eagerly

            in the recurring mysteries

                        of spring and beginnings,

                                    of willows that weep,

                                                and rivers that flow

                                                            and people who grow

in such endlessly amazing

            and often painful ways;

that I will be forever linked and loyal

            to justice and joy,

                        simplicity and humanity,

                                    Christ and his kingdom.       

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑