Sermon for Pentecost 14B

Sermon for Pentecost 14B

Mark 7:1-23

Today’s Gospel is about traditions. Now, the argument that Jesus has with the Pharisees today sounds very obscure to our ears, and perhaps it is. The danger for us comes when we look in particular at verse 19, where Mark makes an editorial comment and says that Jesus, in this conversation, declared all foods clean. If we were to look at that statement without examining the background of this text, we would think ourselves superior: Oh, those Pharisees are at it again, we would say. We Christians got the right message: what matters is not those ceremonial laws that nitpick at everything, but what matters instead is the moral and ethical laws that Jesus taught. But, before we go down that road, let’s think about our own traditions, and the things that we hold dear. And in order to get us thinking that way, I’d like to play a clip from the musical The Fiddler on the Roof.

Which traditions do we have that we mindlessly follow and don’t even remember how they got started? How about the so-called Christmas tree? I know it’s a little early yet to be talking about Christmas, but if Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, then why do we bring a pine tree, real or artificial, into the house and decorate it? Yes, there are many legends that have sprung up trying to explain this tradition, but there were no evergreen trees in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and Mary and Joseph did not decorate the stable in preparation for Jesus to be born. Yet, if I were to suggest that we not have a Christmas tree in the sanctuary this year, I would get horrified reactions from most of you, and perhaps some of you might suggest that I look for a new call. It’s tradition and it’s simply something that we do at Christmas. And as Tevye tells us in Fiddler on the Roof, these traditions help us keep our balance in life.

The problem, Jesus tells us today, is that we often rely on those human-made traditions to show others how good and pious we are, rather than attending to what is truly important. To pick on another one of our liturgical traditions: in Lent, we do not sing or say the word Hallelujah/Alleluia for six long weeks. This is another one of our Christian traditions that has obscure origins. But, if I completely fast from that word of praise for those six weeks during Lent and use that to show other people how religious I am, and yet do not attend to curbing those evil things that Jesus says come out of my heart, then I am honoring God with my lips and worshiping him in vain; I am teaching human precepts as doctrines.

So I hope that what we take from these two examples is that, human traditions, while important to give our life meaning and honor and balance, are not what’s important about our Christian faith. While we may feel that we are good, upstanding Christian folk who go to church every Sunday, what those on the outside of the Christian church may see is not always what we think we are presenting. A conservative Christian family with 19 children and counting may think they are witnessing to what they believe the Bible teaches. And then what the world sees is one of those adult children involved in sexual abuse and listed on a website connecting people who want to have an affair. And while we in the Christian world will say that they only represent one interpretation of Christianity, the world does not see that. Instead, the world names all Christians hypocrites because of that one bad witness. As another example, we want to be known as being one in Christ, witnessing to our faith to the world. Instead, the world sees us as squabbling among ourselves over traditions that make no sense to them, like apostolic succession, and being anything but unified. And the world names us insulated, concerned only with ourselves, and irrelevant, and wants nothing to do with us. This text from Mark today is not only condemning the Pharisees and scribes in 1st century Palestine, it is also condemning us.

But, while Jesus says that all of these evil things do come from the human heart, even from the human heart who believes in him, he does not say that only evil comes from the human heart. And that, I think, is where we find a glimmer of hope in this passage: we do have potential, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to do good things as well. Martin Luther says that when we are baptized, this baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new person should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” And when Lutheran pastors talk about dipping your fingers in the water of the baptismal font and making the sign of the cross in order to remember your baptism, there is the meaning behind yet another tradition that we have in the church. This reminds us that, even though we are sinners, and even though all of these evil things come out of our hearts, we are simultaneously saints, our sins washed away by the love and forgiveness of Jesus, who died on the cross for us.

The question then becomes, what is this new person to do? What does religion look like for this new person that rises from baptismal water to worship God with more than his or her lips? The Gospel passage gives us an idea of what that looks like: follow the true commands of God, and don’t worry so much over human traditions. The portion of the letter of James that we have today spells it out much more explicitly: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” So then, what does this command from James look like in the 21st century?

I’d like to confess something to you: nursing homes depress me. Now, I want to be clear that I am not criticizing the Powell Valley Care Center. It is a bright and clean facility, and I know many people who work hard to make the Care Center a good place to be. The reason that nursing homes depress me is that, because of costs, seniors are placed two to a room. They have very little space to call their own, and not a lot of privacy. Their lives are often scheduled not according to what they might like to do, but according to what the nursing home dictates. And depending on the person’s relationship with their family and the person’s condition, they may not get to see members of their family as often as they would like. Is it any wonder that so many of us resist going to a nursing home when we get to that stage in our lives? Lately I’ve been hoping that the Lord will take me home before I get to the point of having to be put in a nursing home.

Again, I want to make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that, should you have an elderly relative who can no longer live on her own, that you should allow her to live with you when you don’t have the ability to care for her. What I am saying is this: as well as worshiping the Lord in church on a Sunday morning, our Christian faith obligates us to care for people in need, such as widows and orphans, those who are poor and who are homeless, and those who are on the margins in our society. So if you have a family member who is in a nursing home, visit that family member as often as you can. Bring them some of their favorite things to cheer them up. Advocate for them to make sure they are getting the care they receive. And if you don’t have a family member in the nursing home, visit someone in the congregation, who is your extended family. Currently we have one member at the Care Center, one in the Heartland, one at the Manor, and one still living in her home, all of whom would enjoy receiving visits from anyone in the congregation. Talk to me or talk to anyone on the evangelism committee to find out more about visiting these lovely members.

What else does caring for orphans and widows, or anyone who is in need, look like? I saw a meme on Facebook a couple of days ago that said, “Instead of building megachurches, why don’t we build mega-shelters for the homeless?” Somehow, I think James would approve of that. Places to worship are important, yes. But what would it look like if, instead of building a new place of worship, we Christians would work with the space that we have and then use our funds to provide food and shelter for those in need. Wouldn’t this also be a form of worship? A better expression of our faith, say, than taking a stand on whether or not apostolic succession is a real thing? Providing for and caring for those in need is a visible expression of our faith in Jesus Christ, and is, in fact, the Christian witness that the world needs to see.

In the end, it’s not a question of either tradition or living out God’s commandments. Our lives need both the commandments and the tradition; both the worship of God in church and caring for those in need outside of the church building. Even though Mark tells us that Jesus declared all foods clean, Jesus himself, as a Jew, would have eaten only the foods allowed by Jewish law until the end of his earthly life. That tradition would have helped him to keep meaning and rhythm in his daily life. However, Jesus did not let tradition stand in the way of bringing life, full, whole, and meaningful life, to others. So, we can keep our Christmas tree up in the sanctuary. We just can’t let that Christmas tree stand in the way of living out our faith by caring for others. Let us pray that the Lord would help us to continually discern the difference between human-made traditions and his commands. Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 13B

John 6:56-69

“I didn’t sign up for this.” Throughout many, many movies and TV shows, a character utters this phrase when, in the course of his or her story, the mission that they thought they were on is drastically changed and becomes much more difficult than they thought it would be. I looked for video clips to show you today, but the ones that I found all used language that would be considered inappropriate for Sunday morning worship. The phrase “I didn’t sign up for this” implies that what we did “sign up for” is something that we understood when we got ourselves into it, and something that we were pretty sure we could handle. But the minute that something happens in a way that we don’t expect, or we don’t think we can handle, we back off and say, “Whoa, wait a minute. I did NOT sign up for this. I’m out of here.” Perhaps you have said this a time or two in your life, as well. I know that I have been tempted to say the same thing when something I have not expected to be difficult suddenly turns into a big huge hairy mess.

And this is what happens in today’s Gospel reading. After Jesus’ long discourse on how he is the bread of life, the people who he is talking to start muttering, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And I think that it’s not only what Jesus said about eating his flesh and drinking his blood that is proving difficult for his listeners to swallow, so to speak. I think it’s also what’s implied by that metaphor and by other images that Jesus has used in this chapter of John: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. I am the bread of life. If you remember, the name of God in Hebrew, YHWH, loosely translates to “I am who I am”. By using this “I am” statement, Jesus is equating himself with God. And that is also what is proving difficult for those who are listening to Jesus: the idea that God, the transcendent, almighty God, could come down from heaven and “camp out”—as the first chapter of John says—in the person of a human being, live, and die on the cross for us. If we think about it hard enough, this is a difficult teaching for us, too. My confirmation students over the last two years had a very tough time trying to comprehend that the second person of the Trinity, eternal and timeless, could also be born, live here on earth, die on the cross, and be resurrected. Is it any wonder, then, that many of the disciples who were following Jesus up until this point “turned back and no longer went about with him?” Or, in our modern phrase, said, “Dude, this is way too weird. I did NOT sign up for this! I’m outta here!”

The Christian faith is not easy, contrary to the way many televangelists want you to think about it. There are many televangelists out there who, I think, are little more than con artists. God wants you to be wealthy and to have it all, they say, so just do what I tell you, give me lots of money, and that seed you planted will become a blessing to you and that money will return to you tenfold. What happens when you do what they say and you’re still poor? What happens when you do what they say and you still lose a beloved spouse to cancer? Their answer: well, you must not have believed strongly enough, or, you must not have had enough faith. But those people don’t know the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because yes, Jesus came to earth, camped out among us, died for us, and rose again so that we might have eternal life. But Jesus calls us to follow him even when we cannot comprehend what he’s saying: that he is, in fact, God in flesh, and that whoever feeds upon him will have eternal life. Jesus calls us to follow him to that cross, where he died a hard and lonely death. And Jesus tells us that we, too, may be called to some difficult times in this life, but if we abide in him, he will abide in us, and we will never truly be alone.

The Christian faith is hard, and there will be times when we struggle with what Jesus has called us to do. When we lose a job, when we struggle to care for a husband or wife who has been sick for a long time, when our children or grandchildren are not doing as well in life as we would like to see them, when we are overwhelmed with all of the bad stuff that happens in the world, we want to get mad at God, say, “I didn’t sign up for this!!”, throw in the towel, and find some easier teaching that will get us through whatever storms we face in life.

And here we come to Peter’s response when Jesus asks the twelve if they want to leave him, too. Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” When we read this chapter of John, we don’t know what it was about Jesus’ teachings that prompted many disciples to leave, yet at the same time compelled Peter and the rest of the inner circle to stay with him. Even today, we don’t know what it is about Christianity that causes some to leave and others to become believers. It’s probably best that we not ask, because we can come up with some pretty un-Christian doctrines if we do. It’s best to say that it is the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who stay, stay because the Holy Spirit has mysteriously drawn us to have faith in Jesus, even when his teachings are strange, and even when we may hear of more attractive traditions and beliefs around us.

But what is interesting in this passage is what comes next–this is the first time that Judas is introduced. Judas is going to betray Jesus, and Jesus, in this passage, calls Judas a devil. And the question is—why? If you remember what I said last week, the Gospel of John is different from the other three. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is always in control and always knows what’s going to happen to him, and he accepts it willingly. So, even though Judas will betray Jesus to the authorities, Jesus is the one who willingly hands himself over to them. Judas is named as a devil, even though Peter will deny knowing Jesus, which is just as bad. What is the difference between what Peter does and what Judas does? Well, in John, betrayal of Jesus does not only mean what Judas does in giving the authorities a heads up to Jesus’ whereabouts. In John, people betray Jesus when they do not believe in him as the Son of God, and when they do not believe that they can take part in the abundant life that Jesus brings. And that’s the difference between Judas and Peter, and why the two of them are contrasted in this chapter. Judas betrays Jesus not only by his actions on the night when he leads the authorities to Jesus, but he betrays Jesus by not believing that Jesus can restore him to a relationship with him. Peter, in contrast, does continue to believe in Jesus even when he denies knowledge of him, and thus is able to be restored to a relationship with Jesus after Jesus is resurrected.

And that is the hope that we look for. We may get mad at Jesus, say, “I didn’t sign up for THIS!”—whatever the “this” is in our lives—and walk away. But as long as we keep believing that Jesus is able to restore us to a relationship with him, there is always hope that we can come back. For there is always hope that one day we will say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” When we trust that Jesus loves us—each one of us—enough so that he came to bring abundant life, and that he deems us worthy to have that abundant life, then Jesus is able to restore each one of us to that intimate relationship with him where he abides with us and we abide in him. And it doesn’t matter if our faith is wavering like a candle flickering out—Jesus is able to take that wavering flame and strengthen it, so that we have new life in him.

In our faith journey here on earth, we will have ups and downs. We will have moments of happiness so great that we will think that surely Jesus is present with us. But we will also have moments where we are so low, it is nearly impossible to think that God loves us. There will be moments where we will want to say, “Jesus, if this is how someone who believes in you is treated, then I’m walking away, because I did not sign up for this.” But even in those moments, it is important to remember that Jesus is with us. In our Psalm today, we read that “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirits are crushed.” In this entire bread of life discourse, which we have spent so much time on in worship over the last several weeks, Jesus is saying that he is near to those who trust in him, even when he doesn’t seem like it. He invites us to come to him, to worship him, to feed upon him and to gain strength for the journey. Come and feed upon the bread of life. Pour out your sorrows to Jesus, and know that he is with you, always, giving his life so that all of us may have abundant life in him. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 12B

John 6:51-58

Today’s passage from John is a bit disturbing. It sounds a bit like the monsters that we scare ourselves with, such as vampires who live by sucking out people’s blood. And so, over the years, Christians have tamed this section of John and said, “Well, of course Jesus is talking about Holy Communion here.” And that is well and good to hear the echoes of our practice of Holy Communion in today’s Gospel reading. But, for a moment, I would like us to take off our Christian ears, and hear these words of Jesus with first century Jewish ears. And in order to do that, let’s first hear these words of the Torah. First, from Genesis 9:3-4, as part of the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” And, from Leviticus 17:14: “For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” So, those of you who like to eat rare beef—that’s off-limits according to Jewish law. Now, let’s hear these words of Jesus again, this time as Jewish people might have heard them: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” As Jewish people hearing those words for the first time, we would have been repulsed and horrified: not only does it sound like Jesus is talking about cannibalism, but he’s also talking about violating a sacred law from the Torah. We would have thought he was insane, and, if we had been following him up until this point, we would most likely have turned around and left him.

So, now that we have heard these words with Jewish ears, let’s put our Christian ears back on, but without forgetting how Jewish ears would have heard Jesus’ words. As Christians, then, how do we deal with these words of Jesus? How do we talk about these words to those outside of the Christian faith? Is Holy Communion the only way that we eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood? Or is there another meaning to Jesus’ words besides that of Holy Communion?

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: John is a strange gospel. The other three gospels, while differing from one another, do have the same basic outline of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Not so with John. And so, I wrestle a lot more with John than I do with the other gospels. These readings that we’re getting in these last few weeks are a prime example of what makes John so different from the other three Gospels. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus instituting Holy Communion during the Passover meal that he ate with his disciples, John instead talks about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet during the last meal he ate with them. As we have seen for the last several weeks, John has Jesus talking about being the bread of life and how we feed on him not at his last supper before he died, but instead right in the middle of his ministry, after he has multiplied the loaves and fed the crowds. And so, instead of the bread that is his body being associated with his death, John shows Jesus giving us the living bread, himself, right in the middle of his ministry. We thus need to rethink what eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood mean in the Gospel of John—and it’s not necessarily what happens when we receive Holy Communion.

The key to understanding what eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood mean can be found earlier in this chapter that we have been reflecting on. When Jesus was beginning his discourse on the bread of life, the people asked him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus’ response: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Belief in Jesus is very important in John’s Gospel, so important, in fact, that sin in this Gospel is not defined as violations of a moral code, but instead is defined as unbelief in Jesus. So, I think that, while we may hear echoes of our practice of Holy Communion in today’s reading from John, what Jesus really means here is that, to eat his flesh and to drink his blood is to believe in him as the Son of God. And believing in Jesus as the Son of God means to have life, and to have it abundantly, from the time of our baptism through the time that we die, and into eternal life. Abundant life means that our eternal life starts here and now in this place and at this time.

Beyond that, though, what does it mean to have life in abundance? There are many smaller congregations throughout the country, who, when in danger of closing down permanently, will say, “We just want to survive.” But there is a difference between surviving and thriving. Surviving is to hold on to what you have and to hold it close to you because you’re afraid that if you give it away, then you will be without. We can live that way, but it won’t be much of a life. Thriving, on the other hand, is to trust that God will provide in such abundance that we can give of what we have just as abundantly, thus ensuring that those around us have every opportunity to experience God’s abundant provision just as we have, and trusting that God will continue to provide. By giving us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink, by showing us that he is the living bread from heaven, Jesus shows us that we, too, can give ourselves away and still find life eternal in him.

When I speak of having life in abundance, and of giving ourselves away, and of thriving, this includes material possessions, but is not limited to those material possessions. I’d like to share with you a story of something that happened in my travels during the last few weeks. When I was traveling through Montana with my parents, we stayed in Whitefish for a few days with a college friend of my father’s. He took us up to Glacier National Park early one day, and we drove up the Going-to-the-Sun Road before it got too terribly crowded. We found a parking spot at the top, and decided to hike up through the Alpine Meadow. Let’s just say that that boardwalk trail did not look as hard to hike as it was. The steps climbed higher and higher through the meadow, and the combination of being out of shape and the high altitude was getting to me. At one point, I stopped to catch my breath, huffing and puffing, and there was an older gentleman sitting on a little ledge nearby with a sketchpad, drawing the scenery. My parents and my dad’s friend were telling me I should stop—I must have sounded really bad with the huffing and puffing. I wanted to go further, but realized that I couldn’t make it. The gentleman who was sitting there sketching invited me to sit next to him and wait while my companions continued traversing the boardwalk. Frustrated with myself and nearly in tears, I sat down and began speaking with this gentleman. He gently drew me into a conversation about what I did and where I was from, and I found myself beginning to forget my frustration and to speak eagerly about what I had been called to do here in Powell. I then found out that he was a physicist from Minnesota—an experimental physicist—retired, and had journeyed to Glacier with some of his friends. We were having a nice conversation when my parents came back—not having made it much further themselves before the altitude got to them, I found out!—and I eagerly introduced my new friend, Bill, to them. We went our separate ways and will probably never meet again. But in that moment, Bill gave of himself to offer me the hospitality and the pleasure of his company, and I experienced, as the Gospel of John says elsewhere, grace upon grace. For here I went from feeling badly about myself because I did not have the physical stamina to complete this high-altitude walk to feeling cared for simply because I was who I was. That, friends, is the abundant life that God promises when we feed upon his son, Jesus.

For Jesus is present whenever we give of ourselves to make another person feel loved, simply because that person is who she is, without trying to improve upon her. Chances are, the person sitting next to you already knows his faults, and wants to hear that God loves him regardless. When we feed upon Jesus, that is, when we believe that he is God’s Son who loves us and who gives us life abundantly, then we naturally show that love to those around us who need to hear it. We show the love of Jesus when we give of ourselves to pray for, to visit, and to help those who are sick and those who care for those who are sick. We show the love of Jesus when we give sacrificially of ourselves to feed and clothe others who are in need, thus demonstrating the abundant life that Jesus brings. And we show the love of Jesus when we warmly welcome the stranger who is huffing and puffing, gasping for air, inviting her to come and rest for a while.

In our Old Testament lesson today, we hear the personification of wisdom saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Jesus issues us the same invitation, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Come, eat of this bread, for it is not, in fact, as cannibalistic as it sounds. Come and gain strength from hearing Jesus’ words, and partaking of the bread and of the wine that are his body and blood. Feel the love of Jesus echoing through every word you hear, every scent you smell, and the bread and the wine that you taste. Feel him giving you his life. And then go, share that abundant life with all of those you meet. Amen.