Monday, August 31, 2015

Don't Bother Defending Scripture

For once, I'm partly thankful that Labor Day weekend will interrupt the momentum we've built in our congregation since school started two weeks ago. Have you read Sunday's lessons? James tortures my Calvinist-leaning, Luther-loving soul by writing "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." And Jesus looks at the Gentile woman whose daughter was tormented by a demon and drops a racial slur, saying, "Is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." It's a lectionary nightmare. Maybe it's good that fewer people will turn up on Sunday to hear the preacher struggle with these formidable texts.

Don't worry. I haven't lost my edge. That's just Monday's pessimism creeping in. Of course I'm excited about these lessons. Of course I hope the church is full on Sunday. Give me Grace vs. Law or a Jewish-Gentile controversy over Bread of Life any day! I'm not preaching, but I will enjoy spending the week digging into these texts to try to make sense of them for myself.

This is one of those weeks when my instinct is to try to defend scripture, which, of course, is folly. I want to take James' text and stretch it and bend it and twist it until I can make a claim that faith alone saves. "When James writes about works, he's focused on a description of salvation--not a prescription. Faith alone saves us. But the life of the redeemed is marked by care for the community. Don't confuse his 'faith without works is dead' for 'faith isn't effective without works.' They aren't the same thing." I could write that. I could preach that. I believe it. But why I am trying to pull punches for the bible? Can't we let the bible speak for itself?

My approach to the gospel passage is similar. "Jesus didn't really mean that she was a dog. It was a term used to get the attention of the disciples. He was proving a point. Or, if Jesus wasn't, Mark is. This isn't a story about Jesus' shocking racism. It's a shocking story about a woman's faith and God's surprising inclusion even of the Gentiles." I could preach that. Actually, this time I don't believe it. At some point this week, I'll try to hatch a post on worldwide salvation through Israel as promised to Abraham. But I'm still left with a racist Jesus. You might not like it, but, when Jesus calls the woman a dog--directly or indirectly--he spoke a commonly used racial slur for Gentiles like that woman. What do I do with that? Do I pretend he's my grandmother who was raised in a generation when "colored" was thought to be an appropriate label for a human being? Do I whisper from the pulpit, "He didn't really mean that; he's just from another time?" But why should I try to defend Jesus? That's absurd.

Of course, I'm using the word "defend" to overstate my point. I'm not actually trying to defend the bible--or these two passages in particular--as if they were on trial. It would be more accurate to say that I was excusing them or softening them or, to use a technical theological term whose meaning somewhat breaks down in modern language, apologizing for them. Call it what you will, but I'm still watering it down. Why not let James say something that ruffles my Protestant feathers? Why not let Jesus drop the d-bomb and own it for himself?

This week, I'm going to try to explore the context of these two passages. I want to pick at them and understand them--not to excuse or distract from the challenge that both present to me but to allow their sharpness to hold its original edge. Sometimes preachers are given a gift--tough passages. Sometimes those passages shouldn't be explained away in order to dull their message enough for young children to hear and handle. Sometimes we're supposed to go to church and get cut by the word. May my work this week and the work of other preachers, too, be preparation to hear the sharpness of scripture.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Who Is Ashley Madison?

A few days ago, the headline in our local paper declared that the mayor of a nearby town was on the list of Ashley Madison users that was hacked and then released to the public. All of us were waiting for it. We knew it would come. Sooner or later, a public figure with whom we had a connection would be "outed" as a slimy, philanderous, dirt-bag who had pursued an online affair with the notorious website. We all knew about Josh Duggar, but we wrote him off as a reprobate a long time ago. We needed something fresh and salacious into which we could sink our bared teeth. We needed something closer to home--someone who, as Brian J. Dixon put it in his powerful blog post, was close enough to throw a stone at.

This local sensation will run its course. And so will the international fascination with this public disclosure of sin. In a few months, we mostly will have forgotten why that pastor resigned or why that legislator did not seek another term or why that police chief killed himself. We will have moved on from this tawdry affair and found a new one, and the state of marriage as a lifelong, monogamous, sacrificial union will not have improved one iota. And that is the real shame of the Ashley Madison fiasco.

On Sunday, we will hear Jesus quote Isaiah and say to the religious leaders of his day, "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." The Pharisees and the scribes had found their own religious scandal. Jesus was growing in popularity. People were wondering whether he was the sort of leader foretold by the prophets--the one on whom Israel had been waiting. But his disciples were defying some of the basic religious expectations of that time, and Jesus was doing nothing about it. What sort of teacher--what sort of God-sent leader--can't even get his own closest followers to wash their hands before they eat? And so they approached Jesus to disclose the offending behavior and expected the sort of reaction we all expect from our shamed public figures--a hung head, a contrite apology, a few tears, a leave of absence, and a promise to change. But Jesus didn't give it. He didn't even come close.

With words that eviscerated their hypocrisy, Jesus said, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition," which is a fancy way of saying that their deep faithlessness was masked by their show of religiosity. Jesus refused to accept their premise--that religious uncleanness on the outside indicated religious uncleanness on the inside. "Listen to me, all of you," he said to the crowd, "and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come." Jesus knew what we all know--that sometimes rotten apples look delightful, that sometimes wolves wear sheep's clothing, that sometimes sleazy people act righteous. But the real message behind this encounter with the religious elites is that good people sometimes look bad.

Good, sensible, honest, godly folk sometimes do stupid things. Why? Because even the best among us is, at his or her core, a rotten sinner in need of redemption. The Ashley Madison phenomenon wasn't a secret. This wasn't the sort of thing that only the sleaziest among us knew about. For goodness sakes--the website that invited people to have an affair ran advertisements on television! And you and I watched the shows that made money from it. We may not have signed up (or maybe we did), but we're right there, too. We're part of a society that celebrates casual sex. We are a community that has given up on monogamy. Even if we have a basket full of stones to throw at these latest adulterers, we'd better stop and look in the mirror. We may not have signed up on a website, but we've looked at our coworker. We've flirted with the bartender. We've thought about it. We might put on our dark suit and head to church every Sunday morning with bible in hand, but we might as well put on a scarlet letter and stand in the narthex covered in sackcloth and ashes until our penitence proves we belong back among the least until next Sunday, when it all happens again.

There is no hope in perfection. There is only hope in forgiveness. The only way our society becomes the kingdom of God--a community in which fidelity is uncompromised--is if we acknowledge our true brokenness, confess our sins, and seek God's forgiveness. The institution of marriage and the status of the family and the moral decay of our society will never improve as long as we are pretending that adultery and theft and dishonesty and all the other sins are someone else's problem. They are our problems, too. Take off the mask. Stop pointing fingers. Admit that you are part of the problem of sin and admit that you need forgiveness, too--no more or no less than anyone else.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mixed Motives

Isn't the bible remarkable in the way that you can read a passage you've read or heard 100 times and still hear God saying something new? This morning, as I read Mark 14:1-11, I saw a Markan sandwich that I hadn't noticed before. This seems to be one of those passages in which Mark sandwiches two different episodes together into one passage in order to connect their meaning and say something more substantial than both would say on their own.

Typically, when I read or hear this part of the gospel, my focus falls on the nameless woman. Her act of costly love--breaking a jar of "very costly ointment of nard" and anointing Jesus' head--is the tender moment that captures our hearts. Even Jesus tells us that, whenever the gospel is told, "what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." The drama--the cinematic tension and release--of this story is found here. She does something remarkable, but the disciples can't see it for what it's worth. Knowing their master's simple, unadorned lifestyle, they object to the expense of this gesture and ask how the ointment might have been sold and the money given to the poor. The room grows silent. Onlookers hold their breath. Jesus pauses for a moment and then responds, "You will always have the poor with you, but you won't always have me. You can take care of them whenever you wish, but she has done everything that she could in preparing my body for burial." As the beauty of her gift is highlighted by Jesus, the tension eases, and we leave the scene satisfied that the story has reached a natural, audience-gratifying conclusion.

Only it hasn't.

The bits tucked into the beginning and end of this passage are important: "It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him..." and "Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him." Those parts go together. They make their own interesting story. But they don't really go with what happens in the middle. It's almost as if Mark started to write something, then got distracted by another story, and finally wrapped it up by returning to the point with which he began. Of course, this is no accident.

How do they go together? On the surface, we could say that they are connected through the foreshadowing of Jesus' death in the act of the anointing for burial. It's an anachronistic gesture--Jesus isn't dead yet; how can his body be anointed for burial?--but we understand the loose connection. But I think there's a stronger tie than that. I think we're supposed to revisit the exchange between the disciples and Jesus and allow the unresolved tension and unanswered questions of that moment spill over into the attitude with which we approach Jesus' betrayal and, ultimately, his arrest.

There's something about Jesus' answer to the disciples' objection--you will always have the poor with you--that seems rather incomplete. The disciples' response to her exorbitant "waste" (their word) feels reasonable. It's the kind of thing Jesus might say if the perfume were being used to anoint a rich Pharisee or another person of power. The logic of "you will always have the poor with you" sounds like the sort of justification a selfish person of great means would use to explain why he or she doesn't give more away. But, in this case, it's the argument Jesus makes. And I'm not 100% comfortable with it.

And there's the rub. By the time he gets to Bethany, Jesus has his sights set clearly on Calvary. He knows the fate that awaits him there. He's pressing toward that goal with singular focus. But the disciples are still living in this world. They have to. It's all they know. It's all they can see. And so there is a split that I also feel. Jesus is calling me to have God's kingdom in view, but all I can see is what is in front of me. How will that conflict be resolved?

Jesus' praise of the woman and strange explanation about the poor suggests that his journey to death and beyond is the key to God's kingdom breaking through into the world. It's the only way that all that is wrong in this world--including the plight of the poor--will be made right. But the disciples can't see that yet. And, when Jesus brings them to a crossroads they cannot fully understand, they must choose to follow him down a path they can't see or turn away. Judas' decision to betray Jesus isn't simply a reaction to the woman's lavish anointing, but the contradiction that it represents--the message of ultimate hope through Jesus' death--is the principle Judas rejects. He cannot follow his master into the next world. He is too thoroughly stuck in this one. Thirty pieces of silver are a symbolic anchor to this world. They contrast with the 300 denarii worth of ointment that is freely poured upon Jesus.

We have a foot in this world and a foot in God's kingdom. Of course, those two things coexist, and we coexist in both. God's kingdom is not a magical place in the sky. It's here. It's now. But we still struggle to see it. We still think in limited terms. We still see only the small picture. Occasionally, we get glimpses of God's landscape, and those are the glimpses that give us the courage to follow Jesus to places we do not understand. When this world and God's kingdom are in conflict--when they bump up against each other in ways that don't make sense to me--which way will I turn? Will I be anchored down and unable to see God's kingdom, or will I follow even to places I do not fully understand?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Make Us Blush

This post originally appeared in our parish's newsletter, The View. To read more of what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, click here.
A few months ago, I decided that it might be fun to teach a class on Song of Solomon—a book of the bible that I have never really studied in detail. Although not intimately familiar with the specific images or language found in the text, I knew that it portrayed the relationship between God and God’s people as that of two lovers in pursuit of one another. Usually, God’s love for the world is described as agape—the kind of selfless, sacrificial love that has no boundaries—but Song of Solomon uses eros—the love reserved for sexual passion. Even before I read the text, I knew that it would be a racy series, but I failed to anticipate just how explicitly erotic the class would become.

I have needed an entirely new anatomical vocabulary for this bible study. Sitting in a room with a few men and a bevy of ladies, many of whom are more than twice my age, I have enjoyed the challenge of discussing bedroom behavior in a church setting. Sometimes I rely on metaphor or innuendo to convey the actions of the two lovers, which the author of the Song covertly expresses (let the reader understand!), but, more often than not, the veil behind which the poet hides their physical affection is thin enough for all to see straight through. If you cannot recall the sort of imagery I am describing, take a moment and read Song of Solomon 7:1-9. You might wonder to yourself why such a poem is found in holy scripture.

That question—why is this text in the bible—has been the focus of our class. It has been the greatest and most interesting challenge of the series. Even more difficult than searching for a modest way to discuss this immodest text, that persistent inquiry has left us scratching our heads. Is this merely a poem about two lovers? Does its supposed Solomonic provenance earn it a place in the Hebrew bible? Should we deemphasize its erotic language and read it instead as an image of God’s relationship with Israel? Or should we shift this text forward in history and understand it purely as a description of Christ’s love for the Church?

Personally, I like to think of it as a little bit of all of those things. The Song, after all, is poetry, and far be it from me to restrict the beauty of timeless poetry to a narrow, singular interpretation. Still, I believe that these verses are supposed to stretch us—to press us into a new, broader, deeper understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him. These words are supposed to make us uncomfortable—not merely because they describe in vivid detail the physical encounter of two impassioned lovers but more importantly because they force us to consider the fullness of God’s love in a way that threatens our Puritanical sensibilities.

Consider for a moment the proposition that God loves you no matter what. For my entire life, I have heard those words from parents, teachers, and preachers. I say them over and over from the pulpit. But how do we understand those words to be true? As I attempt to internalize the unfathomable love of God, I invent a sort of divine economy in which my failures as a sinful human being are overcome by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I recognize the limitations of that approach, but it is my best effort in explaining the inexplicable. In that mindset, however, I devalue my lovability and describe God’s love for me principally as a measured trade-off of his Son for my sin. There is value in that sacrificial, cross-centered understanding of agape, but I must also remember that God’s love for me is not meted out in doses of rationality. It is also the reckless, unabashed, all-consuming love depicted in the Song of Solomon.

Like a transfixed lover, God looks upon us with unquenchable love. No blemish, no disfigurement, no distraction can keep him away. In the words of the poet, God says to us, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you” (4:7). Humans in every generation have known that kind of blinding love, but who could think of himself in those terms when standing in the presence of God? Although we might pursue God with such passion, who could claim that God loves her like that? Yet that is the invitation of the Song of Solomon. That is why this strange and erotic book belongs in the bible. These holy verses invite us to consider ourselves as lovable in God’s eyes—not because we are perfect nor because we deserve God’s love but simply because God loves us like that and because his love makes us loveable.
What does the Song of Solomon teach me? It teaches me to allow God’s love for me and my love for God make me blush. Sunday's Track One OT reading (Song of Solomon 2:8-13) is a tiny slice of that blush-inducing poetry. Perhaps the preacher might take the opportunity to make all of us blush when considering the magnitude of God's love for us.

Inside or Outside?

I'll have a longer post on Song of Solomon later on today, but here's a short musing on the gospel lesson for Sunday (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23).

Where do we exhibit true religion--on the inside or on the outside? As my colleague Seth Olson noted in staff meeting this morning, all of Sunday's readings seem to ask a question about true religion. What does it mean to keep all of the statutes and ordinances that God gives his people as we read about in Deuteronomy? In James we are urged to "be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves" since "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." Finally, in the reading from Mark, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his day for "abandon[ing] the commandment of God and hold[ing] to human tradition." Together, these readings beg us to "look at [ourselves] in the mirror" and ask whether we are faithful to our core or merely pretending faithfulness where others can see it.

Are we faithful on the inside or only on the outside? How do we know? Going to church is a good thing, but showing up on Sunday isn't necessarily a sign of true faith. Giving alms to the poor, adopting orphans, and walking the tightrope of a holy life are all laudable things, but to what end? Are they empty practices or evidence of real faith? It's easy to say, "Well, God knows," and I'm sure he does, but I don't think it's a simple as that. I don't think our practice of faith on the outside is necessarily a black-or-white reflection of what is happening on the inside. It's always more complicated than that.

Outside and inside are linked. As Jesus says, evil starts in the heart and is then made manifest on the outside. That's true, but I don't think Jesus would say it's as easy as that. This is, after all, the same Jesus who tells the rich young man to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. It's the same Jesus who says that where our treasure is our heart will be also. It's the same Jesus who urges the disciples to wash one another's feet. These are all "outside" practices that lead to transformation on the "inside." Sometimes it's good to wash someone's feet not because you're feeling humble but because you need to learn humility. The same is true of stewardship. With discipleship, outside sometimes does lead to inside, and the same is true with sin.

My physician tells me to limit my drinking to one drink a day. Why? Not because two drinks will be detrimental to my health but because a second drink is far more likely to lead to a third drink than the first. The same is true for drugs and relationships and the Internet (look for tomorrow's post on the Ashley Madison scandal) and just about any other vice that catches up with us. No one wakes up and decides to be a junkie. Outside practices like that extra drink or that one-on-one lunch with the attractive coworker can lead to trouble.

Jesus' invitation isn't to ignore the benefits or dangers of certain habitual acts. Sometimes habits lead to a change of heart--good or bad. Instead, Jesus is asking us to abandon the practice of judging others by what we see. Just as unwashed hands do not necessarily indicate an unclean life so, too, might ritually washed hands disguise an equally unclean life. Who is to judge? Only those who can see the inside. You can't see that in the mirror, but you can see it inside yourself.

Monday, August 24, 2015


This is one of those weeks when I read the lessons for Sunday and realize right away what I think God is calling me to preach to our congregation. I might be wrong--ask the congregation on Sunday afternoon--but, for now, it seems that the gospel lesson (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) holds great fruit for us. How do I know? Mainly because it makes me uncomfortable, and, when the lesson makes the preacher squirm at his desk, there's a good chance it will make the congregation squirm in the pews.

In this gospel passage, Jesus is approached by some of the religious leaders of their day. They are frustrated (concerned, appalled, confused) by the actions of Jesus' disciples, who, it seems, eat without washing their hands. In the exchange that follows, Jesus brings those religious leaders down from their position of assumed privilege and forces them to confront their own hypocrisy. For the most part, we skip those verses because they're about a confusing concept recorded to us as "Corban," which is actually something biblical scholars aren't sure about. Still, though, the subject of Jesus' criticism comes through. Although I prefer the power of verse 9 ("And [Jesus] said to them, 'You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!'"), the text that we have more or less says the same thing--their fault lies in their blind adherence to tradition.

And that's where I start to squirm. Tradition. Is any word more important in our church? Is any word more important to a clergyperson like me? Of course we want the answer to be yes. "Jesus" is a lot more important. So are "grace" and "love" and "sin" and "forgiveness" and "reconciliation" and "salvation." We might know in our minds that tradition isn't the content of our faith but only the method through which that faith is expressed, but our love affair with the way we do things--our traditions--burns even brighter. As yourself which would be more controversial--questioning the divinity of Jesus from the pulpit or exchanging the altar for a simple table in the middle of the room? Exactly. And that's exactly why Mark 7 begs me to preach on it.

Although I have made it a practice never to mention "the Greek text" from the pulpit, I do study it in preparation for my sermons. This is one of those weeks when the Greek will have a direct influence on my sermon, and those who read my blog may be able to hear those influences in the finished product. The Greek word that is translated as "tradition" is the word paradosis. Over and over, it is translated as "tradition," and there isn't really any wiggle room in that. But the etymology of the Greek word is worth noting. As you can see here, it comes from para, which means "from" as in having come from close beside something, and didomi, which is the verb for "give over." That means that the root for the word "tradition" means "to hand over from close beside." Imagine that. The Latin root for "tradition" isn't far from that (trans + dare = "to give across"), but it carries some etymological connotation shared with "betray," which is another sermon entirely. Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, I'll stick with the Greek and ponder in what ways our "traditions" are merely closely kept things that have been handed over to the next generation.

Last week, someone mentioned to me in passing that he had inherited many sentimentally important things from his mother that have no value except to him. "When I die, I'd guess they will all be thrown away." I understand that feeling. I have it about many things. For example, I still have two soccer goalie jerseys from high school hanging in my closet. They remind me of a chapter from my past, and, even though I can't imagine I'll have an opportunity to wear them (except maybe for Halloween), they still hang in my closet. Shame on me! God forbid one of my children think they were important enough to keep for another generation. Imagine that--our children holding on to something we'd just assume throw away but can't find the will to go through with it. Sound familiar?

As the joke goes, "Do it once, and it's an experiment; do it twice, and it's a tradition." How much of what we do is out of tradition? All traditions have their root in something, but is that something worth holding on to? Last night at EYC, we had an "Instructed Compline," to help prepare the youth to lead the service each Sunday night for the rest of the year. When we got to the Vs and Rs, Kristin explained that those were for "versicle" and "response." In a moment of panic, I worried someone would ask me where those came from. I have an idea that versicle refers to a statement of scripture used as a liturgical call and response, but I can't justify its continued use in the prayer book. Maybe it's time to let that go. Maybe it's time to let a lot of things go.

Jesus doesn't defend his disciples' practice of eating with unwashed hands. Instead, he questions the Pharisees' reliance on tradition. "Do you know what you're saying?" he seems to ask them. "Why is that so important to you? Can't you see what really matters?" Jesus isn't saying we should throw all of our traditions away, but he is asking us to focus on what's important. And, when our love of tradition grows to be out of sync with the content of our faith, we need a realignment of our priorities. Maybe I'll spend the first half of this Sunday's sermon talking about the importance of moving the altar away from the wall (at St. John's it's still fixed as for an eastward-facing celebration of the Eucharist). Then, once everyone is angry as hell, I'll spend the rest of the sermon asking them why they got so upset. That is, unless they've all walked out before the end.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Does This Offend You?

In John 6, after teaching the crowd that he had come to feed the world with the "bread of life," and clarifying for "the Jews" (John's word for his opponents) that his own flesh was the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world, Jesus met with a large number of his disciples, who were uncomfortable with his strange, seemingly un-Jewish message. They grumbled (often translated "complained") among themselves and said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And Jesus, perceiving that his disciples were unhappy, said to them in a nice, parentally sarcastic tone, "Oh, I'm sorry. Does that offend you? Deal with it."

Well, he didn't exactly say that, but he came pretty close. "Does this offend you?" What a slaying statement from Jesus! He doesn't say, "Is this hard to understand?" or "Are you confused?" or "Why is this troubling you?" He strips all of that away, gets right to the real issue, and says, "Does this offend you?" Through the wording of his question, he's letting them (and us) know that the real problem--the real thing getting in the way of our belief--isn't a difficult theological teaching but our own selfish sensibilities. Think about it. Anytime someone asks, "Does this offend you?" they aren't looking for an answer. They're essentially saying, "It's your problem; deal with it."

There's a complicated but beautiful exegesis to be made about grumbling. That recalls for us the Israelites during their wandering through the wilderness. "Have you brought us out here to kill us?" the people grumbled against Moses. They demanded a sign, and God through Moses gave them bread from heaven. Now, Jesus has been asked for a sign (John 6:30). He gave them bread in the miracles of the loaves and fish. Still the people aren't getting it. Now even his own disciples won't get it. Perhaps there's an implicit question in their minds and hearts about what sign Jesus will show them to prove his authority to make these other-worldly claims. Regardless, Jesus jumps ahead and tells them what that sign will be: "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"

In other words, Jesus says that the proof you're looking for is even harder to grasp than the message I'm already preaching. There was legend of Moses' ascent into heaven. Elijah, too, is known to have been taken into heaven in God's chariot. Jesus is ranking himself among the greats of his people's religion--even greater, in fact--and even his dedicated followers weren't willing to hang around long enough to see that. As we read in Sunday's gospel, "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him." They couldn't hack it. They didn't believe. They were offended. They walked out.

Stop and think about that for a moment: Jesus' message was so hard to hear--so offensive--that his disciples started deserting him. But did he care? "What, does this offend you?...It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." Jesus called them out. He didn't sugar coat his message. He didn't backtrack. He didn't flip-flop. He preached the truth and let the people deal with it. And the truth is that the gospel is offensive.

If people aren't getting up and leaving in the middle of church, then preachers like me aren't doing our job. You don't like it? This offends you? There's the door. If your life and your work and your sermons and your ministry and your relationships are fully immersed in the good news of the gospel, let them walk. As Peter said when asked by Jesus whether the twelve would turn and go, "To whom can we go? [These are] the words of eternal life." If the preacher is really preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, people will walk out, but those who seek the truth and true life will stay.

That isn't a good recipe for building a resume. It isn't a strategy for endearing the church leaders to the preacher and her/his message. But Jesus wasn't very popular with the religious authorities either. That's a painful, costly road to walk, but we walk it behind our savior. Take the gloves off of the gospel. Let the sharp word of Jesus Christ be preached. And leave the doors open so that people can walk out--and so that those who seek the truth can find their way in, too.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Shame on the RCL!

We don't have too many weddings in our parish--an average of three or four a year--but for some reason this year has been especially busy. In the last few weeks, I've had four different couples in premarital counseling. As each wedding draws closer, the couple and I spend our last session discussing the service. The couple's homework (yes, there's homework each time) before that final session is to read all of the appointed lessons and choose together which ones are appropriate for their wedding. As I discuss the possibilities with the couple, I always explain that, they may choose the reading from Ephesians 5, which is a wonderful passage of scripture, but I will preach on that passage, and it takes a little bit longer than 5 or 10 minutes to wrestle with that text on a wedding day.

I've been having that conversation a good deal lately, so Ephesians 5:21-33 has been on my mind a lot, and I was shocked, dismayed, disappointed, and distraught to see that, as we make our way through Ephesians in our Sunday-morning lectionary, the RCL skips that passage entirely! When I noticed that this Sunday we will jump into the "armor of God" bit from Ephesians 6, I scratched my head and thought, "Where did 'Wives be subject to your husbands' go? I thought it was in there?" So I went back and checked the old BCP lectionary, and, sure enough, the epistle lesson for Proper 16, which is this Sunday, is Ephesians 5:21-33. You can compare the RCL and BCP lessons here and here, respectively. As I said earlier this week, I'm not preaching on Sunday, and, if I were, maybe I'd be thankful that we leapfrog over this tough part of the bible, but, from where I sit, I think it's a shame that the preacher isn't invited to tackle this bit of the bible.

In what many would call "shockingly outdated" language, Paul writes, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands." Read those words again. Remember that they are in the bible--the same bible that proclaims "there is neither male nor female," the same bible that declares "God created humankind in his own image...male and female he created them," the same bible that instructs "the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." And here's the real question: what do we do with verses like those? How will the church handle them?

We can skip them altogether, which is what the RCL is suggesting we do. Sure, great idea. We'll ignore them--pretend they aren't in there--and trust that people won't worry about that part of the bible. The problem with that, though, is that other preachers are talking about Ephesians 5:21-33, and they are using those verses to subjugate women to the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of misogynistic husbands, relatives, and church leaders. Our silence creates a great vacuum from which there appear to be only two options: accept misogynistic Christianity or reject the Jesus-movement altogether. Surely we have something to say about that, and say it we must.

How do we make sense of Ephesians 5:21-33 in a church that believes in the full inclusion, full participation, and full redemption from oppression of women and their voices in biblical, theological scholarship and leadership? I might not be the best person to ask, but here's what I think.

Some of us might reject this bit of scripture as impossible to transfer from its ancient context into modern culture. That is, some might say that these words of Paul do not and cannot have a place in today's church. They were written at a time when things were fundamentally different and so are not applicable today. We use this hermeneutical approach to read lots of scriptural passages--including the bit about stoning adulterers to death. But I think that's almost as bad as skipping it completely. I think there is good, genuine, gospel hope in these words, and, as reticent as I might be to utter them, I think Ephesians 5:21-33 is an important passage for couples to consider as they prepare for and journey through marriage.

Consider briefly Paul's understanding of the headship of Christ. He likes the body image and repeatedly affixes Jesus as its head. That is the root of the image in these verses: "For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior." Paul makes it clear that no part of the body is indispensable. All are interconnected. Yes, the head takes a role of prominence, but that doesn't mean it's better. Consider 1 Corinthians 12:22-25:
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
I wouldn't conclude from this that the head/man has less honor than the rest of the body/woman, but I would say that this passage shows the headship image used in Paul's understanding of the body of Christ is not about hierarchy as we might initially think.

Going a step further, consider what sort of headship Christ demonstrates in Paul's theology. The exaltation of Christ is principally the product of his humility, as Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-9:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name...
The word "therefore" is a strong statement that causally links the sacrificial humiliation of Christ with his exaltation. For me, this is the core of what Paul writes in Ephesians 5:21-33. He isn't commanding wives to submit to their husbands in blind obedience. He is inviting them to identify their role in the wife-husband relationship as one that benefits from the sacrifice of the husband and so participates in the relationship through sacrificial love. As Paul begins the whole passage in verse 21, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ."

Paul could have reversed the husband and wife images. He could have started with what he says to the men: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy..." But he didn't. I think that's because he wanted to lead his readers down a path of their own expectations before shocking them with the necessary, egalitarian message of a husband's sacrificial love. To the ancient ear--just as to our own--there isn't much surprise to a male church leader declaring that women should submit themselves to their husbands. That was the "easy" part for Paul's audience to read. But then Paul forces them to go back and read the whole thing again when he pulls the rug out from under their feet by saying that husbands must love their wives sacrificially--even to the point of giving up their lives for the ones they love. "Wait, what did you say?" they might have said to themselves. "Let's go back and read that bit again." And then we're drawn into the fuller, mature understanding of headship, which is to say of humiliated, sacrificial connectivity.

Is Paul a misogynist? I had to write an essay on that in seminary. I concluded the answer was "no," but only because I wanted it to be "no." Since then, I've been married and enjoyed married life for almost a decade. I'm starting to learn what Ephesians 5:21-33 really means. And, trust me, it isn't about misogyny. There is real, egalitarian, gospel-centered love in this passage. Let's not skip it entirely.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Fighting Against Whom?

This past weekend, I went to Hayneville for the Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage that honors the martyrs of Alabama. When I lived and worked in Montgomery and the pilgrimage was a thirty-minute drive away, I went just about every year. Now that it takes three and a half hours to get there, I don't make the trip very often, but this year was special. It was the fiftieth anniversary of Daniels' death. We dedicated a historical marker on the spot where Daniels was killed. And Presiding-Bishop-Elect Michael Curry was there as the preacher. Even without the extra hullabaloo, it's a worthwhile trip, and I was glad I went.

Daniels' story--and that of the whole Civil Rights Movement--is a classic tale of good vs. evil. It is a story of the power of God standing up against the powers of this world. As the prayers of the pilgrimage reminded us, the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement were bold to declare the truth of the gospel when brought before the councils and rulers of this world and to die because of their convictions. As a white, wealthy, privileged, Christian man walking that path in a place (town, state, nation) where racism still haunts our lives, I feel the call to declare boldly the truth of the gospel yet I know that, demographically speaking, I represent the authorities to whom that truth must be declared. I feel that disorienting tension keenly, and I find some direction in Sunday's epistle reading (Ephesians 6:10-20).

Paul writes, "Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." I am both slain by those words and heartened by them, too. They remind me that the Christian "battle" is not to be fought against other people but against the Devil himself. The good news, then, is that we are not called to pick up sword against our sisters and brothers no matter how evil they may seem, but the bad news--the truly damning news--is that I and anyone else who stands against the gospel of Jesus Christ is a soldier in Satan's army.

I don't know what it was like to march from Selma to Montgomery. I don't know what it was like to feel the pounding, ripping sting of the fire hoses. I don't know what it was like to lose a child or a spouse or a brother or a sister to racist violence. And I don't know what it was like to know that justice will not be served in this world. But I want to listen to the stories of others because I want to know what they felt so that I can know what it means to put on the armor of God and stand up to the forces of evil.

I imagine that those who felt the blow of the policeman's baton as they tried to walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge knew that they were marching for God. And what armor did they wear? They did not don helmets of iron, nor did they brandish swords of steel. They wore the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. They held the shield of faith. They put on the helmet of salvation. They carried the sword of the Spirit. And those things are not able to deflect the blows of the human beings who are pitted against them, but they are able to protect those godly soldiers from the "flaming arrows of the evil one."

Paul invites us to put on God's armor. He knows that the battle we fight is made manifest in the powers of this world, but the enemy we fight is not of this world. We may be tortured and killed for Jesus' sake, but we win the battle if we are equipped as only God can protect us. You may be able to see the battle gear that God's soldiers have worn and are wearing, but you can see them shining with the light of the Spirit even in the face of violence.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mapping John 6

Twice in the last month, as we have made our way painstakingly through John 6 in our lectionary. I have found myself approaching Sunday's sermon with no clear sense of direction. Thankfully, I'm not preaching this Sunday. (If I were, I'd probably preach on Ephesians 6, which is a powerful passage.) In those moments when I was stuck, however, I finally found direction when I went back and read the whole chapter. This seems like another good week to do just that--reread all of John 6.

It's amazing to see how this conversation begins with the feeding of the 5,000 and continues through the whole Bread of Life discourse with its many layers. Really, it's one long story--too long to read all at once in Sunday worship but intrinsically whole to the point that it shouldn't be broken up in the preacher's mind. We need to see the big picture even when we're preaching on a small part. As I reread the whole chapter, I see a theme that leads us to Sunday's reading (John 6:56-59) as a way (thankfully) to wrap up the whole discourse.

Notice again these specific verses from John 6:

v. 4: "Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand."

v. 22: "On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone."

v. 42: "So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, 'I am the bread that came down from heaven.'"

v. 52: "The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'"

v. 60: " When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This is a hard saying; who can listen to ?it'"

Although the whole story unfolds in a clear progression--first the feeding, then the explanation of the feeding, then the invitation to seek the food that lasts, then the identification of Jesus as that food, then the connection of Jesus' own flesh and blood with that food, and finally the confirmation of that fact--the audience whom John identifies changes throughout. We have "the Jews" and "the crowd" and "his disciples." How they each hear his message is an important focus of this chapter.

From the beginning--even before the feeding of the 5,000--John lets us know that the Passover was near. In fact, to describe it as "at hand" suggests that it wasn't only around the corner but was right upon them--to the point where preparations would have already begun. That implies that the whole exchange--from baskets of leftover bread and fish to the command to eat Jesus' flesh and blood--is unfolding in that context. The reader (and preacher) should ask throughout, "How is this story held in tension with the Passover tradition? How is it informed by the Passover narrative? How might it supplant that story?"

In the exchanges that follow, Jesus pushes the limits. Each time, he gets further and further away from what the traditional Jewish hearer would find comfortable. "Wait, you're telling us that you can feed us better than Moses fed our ancestors? Wait, you're telling us that you are the food that gives life to the world? Wait, you're telling us that you've come down from heaven? Wait, you're telling us that we must eat your flesh and blood?" The portrayed audience at each step is important.

Initially, "the crowd" pursues Jesus and his disciples because they want more bread. They are an innocuous, bumbling group that doesn't really know what it's looking for. But, as the conversation becomes more theologically challenging, the interlocutors opposed to Jesus are identified as "the Jews." We must stop and realize that for John, "the Jews" doesn't mean all Jewish people but a very specific group of religiously, socially, politically powerful people in 1st-century Palestine. They are different from "the crowd." Throughout all of John's gospel account, they are the group that is opposed to Jesus. John likes to use the term "the Jews"--probably because of the anti-Semitic fervor that ran rife in the church in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries--but we should hear that as something closer to "the Jewish authorities" or "Jesus' Jewish opponents." They are the ones who push back on Jesus' radical statements--and of course they do! Given the controversial things he is saying, someone needs to push back.

And then we come to this Sunday's reading. Instead of "the crowd" or "the Jews," John brings this debate much, much closer to home and tells us that "many of his disciples" had some issues with what he had said. Even his closest comrades said to him, "This is a hard saying." And that's where we find ourselves in the story. Jesus' teaching isn't just a challenge for those who are opposed to his message. It is challenging even for his most devoted followers. And, if we aren't perplexed and unnerved by his teaching, we're missing it.

What is Jesus' answer to them? What is his answer to us? Yes, it is a tough teaching. No, I'm not backing down from it. But you have other ways to see confirmation of its truth: "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" Actually, we did see that. Well, we didn't, but his followers did. They saw a confirmation that Jesus is heaven-sent. And, if he really has come down from heaven to give life to the world, even the most bizarre message is gospel truth for us to hear.

This Sunday, keep the whole story in mind. Take a moment to remind us where we've been in the Bread of Life narrative. Lead us to the heightened controversy of last week. Allow us to ask the same question as the disciples--a quiet inquiry among friends. And then remind us that we aren't let off the hook. It is a tough thing to hear, but we hear it from the one who came down from heaven indeed to give life to the world.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

We Are the Body of Christ

August 16, 2015 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
By the time you’ve had your fourth kid, you’ve probably learned to let go of most of the critical whispering that happens among parents at the playground. Their kid never behaves. I hear the teacher had to call his mom to come down and get him. Well, he is a preacher’s kid—what do you expect? That’s just the way it’s done. Parents greet one another with a warm, loving smile and talk about how beautiful and smart and sweet each other’s children are, and then they stab each other in the back as soon as they can pull out their phones and text their other friends about how unbelievably horrible the encounter was. After a while, you learn to ignore it—well, most of it.

There are few labels that get the attention of even the most seasoned parents as quickly as that of a biter. No one wants his kid to be a biter, and no one wants that reputation to get out because it spreads like wildfire and you quickly find that your child can’t get a playdate with even the snotty-nose, potty-mouth kid down the street. In the world of preschool, biting is the definition of bad. Most preschools have policies in place that if your child bites another kid more than once or twice, your child is expelled from that school. But how do you teach a two-year-old that biting is wrong?

Some parents prefer to say an emphatic “No!” and send that child to time-out, but how well can a toddler make the connection between crime and punishment? Other parents spank their child or pop him quickly in the mouth, but that only teaches the kid to hit instead. I’ve heard some parents say that you’re supposed to bite your kid back in order to teach her that it hurts, but that seems absurd. By the time we’re six, we’ve learned that sinking your teeth into another human being is wrong—that we just don’t do that—so why, then, is that exactly what Jesus is telling us to do?

“The bread that I will give for the life of my world is my flesh…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink…whoever eats me will live because of me.” Hearing Jesus tell the crowd that they are supposed to eat his flesh, which is really, truly food, makes me think of grabbing his arm and taking a bite right out of it. But that’s absurd. Sure, we’re called to eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and we partake of his body and blood each week in Holy Communion, but we’re not cannibals…are we?

There’s something about this bread that is more than bread, but it isn’t really meat either. It’s the body of Christ, and, although Jesus did give his flesh for the life of the world, taking a bite of the crucified one isn’t what he meant by “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood.” A few years ago, on a Sunday just like this one, a parishioner, friend, and vegan came to the altar rail and stuck out her hands to receive the bread, but I looked down at her and asked, “Are vegans allowed to eat the body of Christ? Isn’t that against the rules?” I’m not really supposed to make jokes at the Communion rail, but the only way that one worked is because we both knew that it wasn’t really an issue. Even though we say it, this isn’t flesh. But it isn’t just bread either. So what is it that we eat?

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. They are the ones I will raise up on the last day.” Oh, now I get it. This is magic bread. Whoever pops a morsel of this in her mouth and takes a sip of that cheap port wine will get to go to heaven. Well, isn’t that just good news? But, of course, it isn’t because it doesn’t work like that because that’s not what Jesus meant either. Surely we don’t believe that the winnowing fork that separates the heaven-bound from the damned is as ridiculously simple as determining who took Communion at some point in his life. But Jesus says that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life. They are those whom he will raise up on the last day. So, if feeding on the flesh and blood of Christ is essential for salvation but it also clearly isn’t as simple as coming to the altar rail and snacking on a sacrament, what does it mean to feast on the body of Christ?

Last week, I preached about what Episcopalians believe—about the foundation of our faith. I proclaimed that the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is good news for the world, and that there is really no other reason to come to church than to celebrate it. That is the part of our faith that unites us with all other Christians. It’s where we start. But there’s another part—a particular way in which we celebrate that good news—that makes us different from most other churches. It’s the part that helps us make sense of Jesus’ strange, provocative, life-giving words. It’s our sacramental understanding how God works.

We believe that God reveals himself to us in ways that we can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. We believe that God reaches out to us in ways that are not just understood with the mind but also experienced with the body. God comes to us in ways that are real and true and powerful and that, unlike the spoken word, do not depend upon our understanding for us to grasp them. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” How do you wrap your mind around that? You don’t. You simply experience it. You experience the life-giving, sustaining, nourishing, saving body of Christ. And this is where you can find it.

It is a mistake to think that God exists only to be understood by us. It is too small a thing to believe that the sum total of our relationship with God is however much of God we can comprehend. In church, we do more than sit here and talk at you for an hour because we believe there is more to being a Christian than sitting and listening and thinking. We believe that God’s love should be encountered in ways that exceed our capacity for understanding. We believe that as Christians we are a part of something much bigger than a collection of individuals. We are the body of Christ. And it is Christ’s body—yes, on the cross; yes, in the bread; but also sitting in the pews and gathered together around the world in Jesus’ name—that sustains our very existence in this life and brings us to the next.

Communion bread isn’t just bread, and it isn’t all body either. It’s the currency of communion with one another and the whole Christian community and all the saints past, present, and future. And how does that work? It works because it is Christ himself and the sacrificial gift of his body that holds us together. When we come to the rail and receive a piece of the bread and take a sip of the wine we aren’t just eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus in some mystical, unfathomable way. We are participating the body of Christ because we are the body of Christ and this is where we are again united one to another. Something happens here—something we don’t understand but something that is real and bigger than all of us.

Partaking of that body means a lot more than eating a piece of bread. It means living in, dwelling in, residing in, participating in the body of Christ and letting the very real flesh and blood of Jesus be our sustenance. That cannot be limited to what happens here. Kneeling together to receive the bread and wine is only one tiny fragment of our common life. Our communion with one another and with our Lord and Savior must not stop here. This is only food for the journey. Being a follower of Jesus Christ means a lot more than showing up on Sunday mornings.

So come to the rail and be fed. Come and be united with each other as the body of Christ. But don’t stop there. Get up and go from this place and keep feeding on the one who gave his life for the world. We cannot have life apart from him. We cannot have life apart from one another. We are the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is what sustains us.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eat Me!

I supposed it depends on who you ask and whether that person's mind permanently resides in the gutter, but the crude phrase, "Eat me!" has never seemed all that terrible to me. Funny, yes, but not the kind of funny that makes me blush. Maybe that's because "Eat me!" is essentially what Jesus says in John 6:57: "Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me." It's worth noting that, while the NRSV uses the phrase "eats me," other versions like the ESV prefer "feeds on me." I guess they don't have as much of a sense of humor.
Let's stop giggling for a moment and remember what Jesus is inviting us to do. As I wrote about yesterday, I don't believe he means for us to take a bite out of his flesh. But he uses the word "eat" or "feed" on purpose, and he uses it so many times that he must have done so for a very clear reason. What does it mean to eat Jesus?
Food is sustentative. It nourishes. It keeps us alive. We eat it often--so much that most of us take it for granted. Food is enjoyable. It is communal. It is a daily fact. I think that's the image Jesus has in mind. We are to "feed" on Jesus in a real way--as if his flesh were "real" food--so that it sustains us, nourishes us, delights us, and unites us every single day.
Let's be clear here. I don't mean daily Eucharist. Again, my shocking claim: this passage isn't about the Eucharist. Sure, the bread and wine of Communion are a reflection of this passage, but I don't think these words are primarily about that. These words are about being fed in a different way--real, yes; sacramental, yes; but always bigger than what happens in church on Sunday.
Here's the question this preacher will be asking on Sunday: are we partaking of the nourishing, sustaining, uniting Body of Christ as the Body of Christ? How do we do that? (And the answer better be something other than--or at least in addition to--Sunday mornings.) Jesus' invitation is not to the Communion rail. It's to feast on him more deeply than that. May our Eucharistic theology deepen until we recognize it as an opportunity to feast on Christ AND may our Eucharistic theology broaden until we recognize that we feast on Christ in countless other ways.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Really Real Flesh?

As I continue to ruminate in the Bread of Life discourse, I am relieved to have found a direction for this Sunday's sermon, and, although they might not know it yet, I bet the congregation is relieved, too. Like a passenger on an airplane that never lands, no one enjoys a preacher trying to figure out his/her sermon from the pulpit. This Sunday, I'm taking a risk and disagreeing with Jesus by declaring that his flesh isn't really food indeed.

Actually, it would be better to say that I'm disagreeing with a long line of Eucharistically minded theologians who read John 6:51-58 and Jesus' declaration that "my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink" as primarily a prefigurment of Holy Communion. So, take note that I'm not exactly saying that Jesus was wrong--just that most of us have interpreted him wrongly.

Here's the deal. After introducing his audience to the concept that his flesh is the bread of life--that he himself is the "living bread that came down from heaven," Jesus takes it a step further in the direction of the deranged and states (as the NRSV renders it) "my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink." But what does he mean by that? True food? Real food? Indeed food? It kind of depends on which translation (or translator) you ask.

The NRSV, NIV, ISV, HCSB, and several others give us his flesh as "real food." Other translations like the NLT, ESV, NASB, NET, and others tell us it's "true food." Older versions like the KJV, ASV, and ERV tell us that his "flesh is meat indeed." Helpfully, you can compare all of those here. I looked at the Greek for that crucial word (it's "alethes") and also looked at some commentators who point out that that particular word means "real" but doesn't mean "only real" the way the Greek word "alethinos," which could have just as easily been used, means. (Thank you, Raymond Brown.) What's the point? Although I believe we should take Jesus seriously, I think we would be mistaken to take him literally.

His flesh is not really food. It's not. Yes, his body was given for the life of the world. Yes, we are his body. Yes, we eat his sacramentally present body in the Eucharist. But no one sinks his teeth into Jesus' body the way the word "real" implies. We don't. Let's not kid ourselves.

As Neil Patrick Harris has recently declared in a commercial, Heineken Light is the best light beer or you get your money back. To emphasize that claim, he states, "With this guarantee, we are literally putting our money where out mouth is." But then in the commercial he stops, ponders the meaning of those words, and changes his mind. "No, we're not literally. That would... I would not literally do that." 
Perhaps you've noticed, as the video demonstrates, that people like to use the word "literally" to mean "not literally." In fact, to the chagrin of many linguists and grammarists and just plain reasonable people, online articles show that Merriam-Webster now includes that antonym-like definition in the listing for literally. That doesn't make sense? Exactly. Sometimes words don't really mean what they seem to mean. Context is everything.

Yes, we must grapple with what Jesus means by his flesh is food indeed. But let's not take him literally. I literally would not sink my teeth into Jesus' forearm. (And I hope you wouldn't do that either. They kick you out of preschool for stunts like that.) In order for Jesus' provocative words to have any reasonable meaning in the 21st century, we need to abandon pseudo-cannibalism and rediscover a theology of the Body of Christ that isn't as narrow as most readings of John 6.

Learning to Step Aside

This post was originally yesterday's cover article for the parish newsletter at St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

Last night, I had a completely vivid, completely eviscerating dream. Another congregation was preparing for a big service—the kind that requires lots of people and careful coordination—and I knew that they would need some help. I showed up, vestments in tow, ready to offer my services. Despite having organized that same complicated service several times before, I, for the most part, hung back and let others take the lead. Instead of offering suggestions, I merely asked questions to highlight the critical issues that would come up during the service. (How noble of me!) A few minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, I stepped into the room where the clergy were to vest. As I began to get dressed, more and more clergy came in. People I did not recognize were already vested and ready to participate in the service. Suddenly I realized that every necessary role had already been filled. The whole time I was worried that they would need my help, and I was ashamed to discover that in actuality I was the only one who was not needed.

Surprisingly enough, I woke up remarkably refreshed. Although it can be difficult to learn that I am not needed, I find a genuine peace when I am reminded that I am not responsible for solving the world’s problems. In fact, the less and less important I become the easier and easier it is handle whatever challenges life presents. As I become smaller, more room opens up for God to do his work. How remarkable that my own dreams could remind me of something I still need to learn!

In a world in which kindness is usually measured by the frequency and quality of thoughtful words and deeds, it can be difficult to remember that, more often than not, the most loving thing we can do for someone else is get out of the way. Whether we are dropping our infant off at the nursery or sending our child off to kindergarten or saying goodbye to our new college freshman, we must learn to let go. When our neighbor confides in us that her marriage is falling apart, she is not asking us to fix it. If our spouse blows the big deal at work, it is not our job to pick up the pieces. When the pastor’s phone rings at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, usually the best thing for everyone is let it go to voicemail.

A common theme throughout the gospel is humanity’s resistance to our Lord’s call to selfless service. All three synoptic accounts recall the moment when two or more of the disciples discussed among themselves who would be the regarded as the greatest. Typically, I see that discussion as an exercise in vanity, but I wonder whether the disciples’ intentions might have been pure. Perhaps they were debating not who was the holiest among them but who had done the most to help others or who had given up the most to follow Jesus or who was prepared to risk the most in defense of his master. If so, their error was not one of self-aggrandizement but of misdirected zeal. Perhaps the gentleness with which Jesus rebuked them should inform our impression of the scene: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves" (Luke 22:25-26).

As I learned waiting tables during my time in college, the best servers are the ones who are only around when needed. Although always available, they seem to disappear until they are called upon. They know that their reward, expressed as a gratuity, will not reflect their ability to invent reasons to help their customers but their availability to address the needs that present themselves. When Jesus likened the greatest among them to one who serves, he was not encouraging them to put on a superhero’s outfit and fly around saving the day. He was inviting them to hang back, to practice the art of availability, and to acknowledge that truly selfless service begins only when one discards his or her own need to serve others.

Sometimes people come to me with their own problems, but most of the time people approach me because they are worried about someone else. “What can I do about this person I love?” I am often asked. “They need some help, but I don’t know what to do.” My response? “Exactly—do nothing; just pray.” As last night’s dream reveals, they are words I must speak as much to myself as to anyone else. We want to fix the world. We want to help other people. We need to be helpful. When someone we love appears to be in trouble, it is far easier for us to do something than to do nothing. But whose needs are we really addressing when we rush in to help?
The greatest among us will become like the youngest and the leader as one who serves. Take a step back from your own need to help others. Pray that God would give you the wisdom to recognize the line between your needs and theirs. Look for ways to be available to those you love, but resist the temptation to jump in. Remember that God is calling you to a life of selfless service and that a life of selfless service begins when we let go of ourselves.

Monday, August 10, 2015

So Now What?

For the last few weeks, I've fallen into a pattern of sorts. On Monday, I wake up and read the gospel lesson and think, "Bread of Life again? What else can I possibly say about John 6?" Then, on Tuesday, I read the lessons again and calm down enough to figure out a direction to take. Well, it's Monday, and I'm hoping for new insights tomorrow because, right now, I'm still wondering where this is headed.

Although it might be because I'm worn out with John 6, today I find myself on the side of the Jews. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" they ask. Good point. How is that possible? What is Jesus' response? "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." Thanks, Jesus. We got that part. I'm asking how that works. How is it possible that we eat your flesh and drink your blood.

Trust me, I won't be offering a sermon on the history of Anglican Eucharistic theology. If our tradition has anything going for it, it's our history of not defining how the mysteries of Holy Communion work. When people ask me what we believe about the Eucharist, I usually give them the "neither Transubstantiation nor bare Memorialism but somewhere--anywhere--in between" answer. Yeah, I'm not happy with it either. And maybe that's the point. I think Jesus' strategy on this issue is worth observing.

The crowd hears his message and fails to understand it. They ask for clarity--for explanation--and, instead of providing it, Jesus doubles down and amps up the strangeness of his message. They want to understand what he means by "bread of life" and "eat my flesh," and Jesus responds by taking the image even further: "You must eat my flesh and drink my blood!" Yuck.

For me (and this blog), it's a familiar refrain, but faith isn't about figuring it out. We aren't supposed to understand what happens. We're supposed to open up--our mouths, yes, but more importantly our minds and our hearts--and receive. Jesus doesn't give any wiggle room. He doesn't water down the message. He won't let us off the hook. We ask for relief, and he won't give it. Yes, it is a hard truth to swallow (just wait until next week's gospel lesson). But, like many aspects of following Jesus, this is an accept it first, understand it later sort of thing.

Jesus and Nothing Else

August 9, 2015 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Over the last few months, we have had a lot of newcomers here at St. John’s. Some of them I am getting to know pretty well. Others seem remarkably friendly when they shake my hand on the way out the door. Among our newcomers are several people who have come to the Episcopal Church from other, more conservative denominations. As I hear from them about their experience of that transition, a familiar conversation keeps repeating itself. I ask what they think about the Episcopal Church, and they reply, “I really like it here. I feel at home at St. John’s, but it seems like something is missing. I’m still trying to figure out what Episcopalians believe.”

It’s a fair criticism. What exactly do Episcopalians believe? We pride ourselves on welcoming everyone. We define ourselves as the church that doesn’t tell you what to think but allows you to think for yourself. In our efforts to be hospitable, we have opened our theology as wide as our doors. “There’s room for everyone in here,” we say. We don’t pretend that we have a monopoly on all the right answers, and we trust that this is a place where you can find your own. But I worry that we’ve worked so hard on welcoming everyone to God’s table that we’ve forgotten to pay attention to what is being served. By placing so much emphasis on hospitality, we’ve lost our focus on the real reason for being here in the first place. In making sure that everyone has a seat at the table, we’ve neglected to tell them that sitting at the table means feasting on the Bread of Life.

There’s really no easy way around today’s gospel lesson. In this short passage, Jesus says some things that manage to make everyone upset. “I am the bread of life,” he said, “I have come down from heaven to give life to the world.” But he doesn’t stop there. “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him…Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died, but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” In other words, Jesus said, “I’m it. I’m the real deal. I’ve got something that no one else has ever been able to give you—not even Moses. It’s eternal life, and you can’t have it unless God brings you to me because I’m the only way you’re ever going to get it.” It’s that kind of “my way or the highway” language that we open-minded Episcopalians try to avoid at all costs. But it’s worse than that: those words aren’t coming from the mouth of a fundamentalist preacher but from the mouth of Jesus himself! How are we going to deal with this? Are we going to ignore these words and preach on a different lesson altogether? Or will we find a way to embrace that which makes us distinctly Christian—namely, Jesus.

We believe that we have good news for the whole world because we believe that God loves everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live or what you’ve done or what you believe or where you go to church or even if you go to church—God loves you exactly the same as everyone else. And we base that belief on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his earthly ministry, Jesus demonstrated God’s love for everyone—sinner or saint, rich or poor, insider or reject. But the powers of this world—which is to say us and people like us—rejected that message of love and nailed it to the cross. Still, God’s love was bigger than our hate, and he raised his Son on the third day in order to free us from the consequences of own behavior—to set us free from fear, from punishment, and even from death itself. Because of Jesus Christ—and only because of Jesus Christ—we know that there is nothing we can do to alienate ourselves from God and God’s love. But is that the message that we are proclaiming to the world?

For the most part, we are nice, warm, and friendly people. And nice, warm, and friendly is a good start, but how far will that get us? We are an inviting, welcoming, and accepting congregation. And inviting, welcoming, and accepting is a good way to get people in the door, but then what? There a lots of people and places and organizations that will pat you on the back and tell you that you look pretty and pretend that your ideas are good ones, and most of them don’t make you show up on Sunday morning in order to hear it. We aren’t in the affirmation business. This isn’t about hospitality. People don’t come to church looking for a nice way to spend some time on the weekend. People come to church because they want food for their souls, and soul food is exactly what we have to give them.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” That is very, very good news indeed. We have a savior who loves us exactly the way we are. We have a savior who shows us that God’s love has no limits. We have a savior who can set us free from guilt and shame and fear. We have a savior who can satisfy once and for all the deepest longings of our soul. You can’t get that anywhere else. So why would we focus on anything else?
Why are you here? Why did you come to church today? If you’re only here because you want to spend time with some nice, friendly people, you should go somewhere else. You can do better. There are nicer and friendlier people out there. And, if you’re only here because we we’re a welcoming, accepting place that takes all sorts of people, then, again, you should go somewhere else. I promise that there are plenty of organizations more welcoming and accepting than we are. There is only one reason to be here. There is only one reason to come to church—because you want to feed on the Bread of Life, the one who has come down from heaven to give life to the world. We are here because Jesus Christ came and lived and died and rose again so that we might have full, abundant, and never-ending life in the loving presence of God and God’s kingdom. We have come to hear the good news of the gospel. We have come looking to satisfying the eternal longing of our souls. Let this be the place where you can find it. Let that be the only thing that we are about.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Politics and Religion Do Mix

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration—that moment when the face and clothes of Jesus, who was accompanied by Peter, James, and John, shone with the brightness of the sun. Described as the “culminating point of his public life” by the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, this mountain-top experience gave these disciples confirmation of Jesus’ full identity as God among us. In the bright shining, Jesus’ divinity was revealed, and his right place as the expectation, fulfillment, and completion of the law and prophets is confirmed by the presence of Moses and Elijah. Unlike all the other claims for messiahship, which had been made by would-be pretenders, Jesus was the real thing. He is the one pointed to by the law and prophets. And the voice of God the Father confirmed it all by declaring him as his beloved son.

Well, today is also the first presidential debate, and, as this election cycle kicks into high gear, I’m wondering something: if Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and prophets, which is to say the ultimate expression of the public life of God’s people, when will our public life look like God’s kingdom? Sure, I know that, in part, the answer is when Jesus comes back. But Jesus didn’t come to earth simply to tell us that someday things would be better—that someday things would be different. He came to earth to usher in God’s reign—to break through the human-dominated power structures in order that God’s ways would be established now. As followers of Jesus, we are agents of that kingdom. We called to be advocates for change. Like it or not, Jesus was a highly political figure, and, as his disciples, we are called to bring our faith into our politics.

“But politics and religion don’t mix,” you might say. “Our country is founded on the separation of church and state.” How na├»ve! As the Transfiguration reminds us, politics is the perfect place for religion. Where else should we express the values that we hold most dear? Many are already doing it, and they are dominating the political conversation. As I read in the Christian Century the other day, when we say “religion and politics don’t mix,” what we really mean is “their religion and my politics don’t mix.” Are the religious voices in American politics representative of your religion or your politics? Maybe it’s time for us to accept that our commitment to Jesus Christ and his gospel has implications for our public life. Maybe it’s time for us to insist that our understanding of God’s reign break through into our political life.

How will your faith and politics mix in this election cycle?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Better Is One Day In Your Courts

I’ve never seen it in person, but I’ve heard about cardiologists and emergency room physicians having “DNR” tattooed on their chest. The statistics show that, unlike in the movies or on television, most patients who go into cardiac arrest do not survive despite having their chests pounded upon or tubes stuck down their throats. And those who do survive don’t usually bounce back. When the heart stops beating, it has permanent effects on the brain and the rest of the body. The quality of life of a CPR survivor often isn’t so great. Many go on to suffer another heart attack. Almost all have their quality of life diminished in one way or another. Lots of those who see this reality up close day in and day out know in advance that they do not want a team of paramedics pounding on their chest, so they preempt the rigmarole, preferring to die when the time comes, and they have those three magic letters inscribed permanently on their chest.

Many of us, at one time or another, will face or have faced a tough medical decision that revolves around quality of life. Which is better? Which is worse? Would we rather live longer with the consequences of the treatment for the disease, or would we rather die sooner but with a greater quality of life for those last few weeks or months? Occasionally, those choices are easy ones, and physicians give us a clear direction. More often, however, it isn’t so simple.

In a sense, that is the sort of difficult calculus presented to us by Jesus in today’s gospel lesson (Mark 8:34-9:1). “Whoever would save his life would lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it,” Jesus said in words that are familiar to us. But it was the next line that really caught my attention today: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” There’s a quality of life consideration in there, but it’s the quality of the next life that Jesus is talking about.

Back when the gospel was being written—in the second half of the first century—being a Christian wasn’t easy. There was no place in official Roman society for followers of Jesus. Growing tensions between the first Christians and their Jewish counterparts had left the former with no place to worship and no protection as members of a religio licta—an officially sanctioned religion in the Empire. Thus, to be a Christian openly was to risk persecution. They could be thrown in jail. They could have their property taken away. They could be killed. Jesus’ words about losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel were a source of encouragement for those who put everything on the line to follow him. For us, though, they sound different.

No one threatens us for claiming to follow Jesus. In fact, here in the Bible Belt, one is more likely to be persecuted for not being a Christian. Still, though, the invitation to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake is real. And the consequences of not doing so—the loss of a kingdom life—is a reality we face. Those early Christians had to risk everything to follow Jesus, and we are called to do the same. What does “losing one’s life” mean in the 21st century but to give up control? As disciples of Jesus, our lives do not belong to us. We belong to our master. All that we have belongs to God—our money, our house, our family, our lives, our time, our talents, our freedom. Everything that we have and every decision that we make and every second of every day should be dedicated to the work of the kingdom. If you claim to follow Jesus, you don’t get to have it your way anymore. Your way must be God’s way. And, if it isn’t, you can have no share in him.

That sounds pretty costly, doesn’t it? Who wants to sell all that he has and give it to the poor? Who wants to walk through the narrow gate? Who wants to lose his life? Those who follow Jesus do. Not because they’re crazy, and not because they have nothing to lose, and not because they want to impress others—but because the quality of the kingdom life that comes to those who yield everything to God is incomparable to even the richest, fullest, happiest life outside of the kingdom.

Ask yourself this, “Which would I rather have: a day belonging in God’s kingdom or a lifetime of my own design?” Start there—with the end in mine—and let the rest of your life fall into place.