Joined as Family
October 7, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
This morning’s gospel reading is an awkward passage, a personal one for many. My guess is, having just heard it, some of you have already started writing your own sermon in your heads that has nothing to do with what I’ve prepared as you remember your particular challenges and circumstances, along with a gamut of emotions, regardless of whether you’re married, divorced, widowed, none or all of the above. The passage is so often used to bludgeon people of faith, it has caused mothers to quietly warn their children, if they have any second thoughts, if they want to change their minds, they’d better do it before the wedding because they aren’t only marrying the person, but joining the entire family.
Jesus’ point seems to be to keep the family together when the Pharisees come with an agenda to challenge him through the difficult question of divorce. Either way he answers, he loses. If Jesus argues against the law like his cousin John did, a criticism that eventually got him beheaded, then Jesus angers Rome and faces the same possible backlash as his cousin. On the other hand, if he agrees with them, following the protocol of the law written by Moses, then Jesus is left to face the many women and children who follow him, having supported a law that leaves them completely and totally disenfranchised and in economic ruin with nothing and no one to protect them. For Moses had written that if a man finds something objectionable about his wife he can write a certificate of divorce and send her off. What the good men of the law conveniently forget is that laws are suppose to be a means to an end, put in place to protect folks from danger and allow for human flourishing—not a end in themselves. So Jesus takes the religious righteous—then and now—back to the beginning when in the midst of lavish and carefully created goodness God pauses and decides that all the goodness needs something else, something more. So God creates them, in God’s own image, male and female, maybe figuring it wasn’t good for either of them to be alone, that they needed companionship, a partnership that was both supportive and mutual, and intimacy that they might form a union that would work for both of them, that they might both flourish, which is the purpose of laws and institutions like marriage. And then, at the end of the discussion, as if to put an exclamation point on what he said, Jesus welcomes the children his disciples try to discourage with blessings that surely lead to their own thriving. Jesus’ answer about divorce isn’t about staying in bad relationships or marriages or living with a mistake; it’s about being in relationship, the creation of family, that we may thrive.
That goes for the larger human family, as well. The only way that folks truly thrive is when we see each other as partners and companions and work together. Jesus seems pretty sure that it’s our own hardness of heart that buys into a mentality that reduces others into commodities, objects, scapegoats for our fears, or peoples to be conquered, as if the world is made to be some kind of macabre sum-zero pie rather than the good place God creates it to be. Time and time again, the human family seems more bent on tearing each other apart in a scorched earth plan, rather than working together for the good of all. This weekend was, yet again, another example between the liberal and conservative lawmakers, but it’s just as evident when the wealthy get tax breaks while services for the poor are impoverished and gutted, and on and on we could go. If we can’t get along and thrive within one of the richest countries in the world, how, indeed, can we do so with the countries outside our piece of geography? For Jesus, through the words of Mark, speaks to all human relationships, inside the home, inside the community, inside the nation, and between the nations, encouraging us to offer community by trading power for partnership, replacing egotism with empathy, and giving worth to folks without a say that we might live out a vision of the Kingdom of a lavish garden with enough for all. God’s intent for the world was that it be “good,” that we might live in integrity regardless of how the “laws” of the nation might allow us to circumvent basic decency, for we have been created for honor and glory, made just a little lower than the angels, that we may live as one family, God’s human children joined in relationship.
That dream, that hope of God, is so important for the world God so loves that Jesus comes to live out by word and deed what being in relationship, rather than putting ourselves first, can look like as he pours himself out, serving others and standing up with and for folks who usually stand alone. Jesus shows us he’d rather die than let the world sacrifice wives and children, the working and not working poor, the foreigner; he’d rather die than let us go to hell in a hand basket. Instead, he goes forward like a pioneer charting a path through the difficult landscape, refusing to back down on the message he was born to bring, that God has a major investment in us and isn’t going to stop until the brokenness in the world is healed, until justice is served, and until the meek get their due. Even suffering and death isn’t enough to stop him. Calling beyond the grave, Jesus invites us to follow him in the difficult job of building relationships in the world. Hopefully, it won’t cost us our lives, but surely in the difficult labor of combating the evil that sells the vulnerable for a piece of silver, and tramples or discounts other folks will cost us something in time, in energy, in finances, or in reputation. There’s always a cost in doing good, but it is far more temporary than the long-term effect of evil. Jesus invites us to come be a part of the good that working together in relationship can do. Come, as a community that supports preschoolers whose voices are small but full of hope. Come, as a community who tutors kids so they can find a path out of situations that dismiss or demean and into responsible jobs with a future. Come as a community that opens its door to folks with addiction problems, but through the help of a God who is bigger than we are, move step by step into happier homes and lives. A community that freely gives its space away, not for revenue, not for fame, not to get something out of it, but because Jesus gave himself away and asks us to come follow his journey as we look for new ways to build relationships, ways that spread like a stone that skips across the waters of baptism until it touches the ends of the world God loves.
Today we gather with Christians all over the world, where all languages and countries sit together, joined as family, celebrating with each other the God who brings us together around an ever expanding Table of grace.
Who Speaks for God?
September 30, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Goodness knows, the last few days we have been witness to bitter contention as to who will speak for us. Who will have the right to interpret and be a deciding vote over our laws and because of that, to some extent, the way we can and will conduct ourselves? Who speaks for us, and who we might speak for is a question we, disciples, like Jesus’ earliest followers, should ponder.
Interesting, the criteria we use when we allow someone to speak for us. I’ve never quite figured out just what the qualifications are other than we want the person or group to share our purposes and understand our perspectives. The trouble is for human beings both are such fluid things. My guess is any one of us is in a very different place than we were five years ago. Just like we can never put our foot in the same stream twice, neither do we stay the same, but are constantly changing. While a few things remain somewhat constant—most of us ask for the same basics, to raise our kids, keep the wolf from the door, enjoy a little down time, and some sort of security against when we can no longer make a few extra bucks when needs arise—our purposes and perspectives are constantly changing. How we accomplish them, what we see as fair and beneficial changes with our age and situations. That’s why at one point in our lives we enjoy the benefits of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, and at another time the advantages and perks of AARP appeal to us. So, to achieve our purposes we belong to communities that represent us, we put ourselves in the position of allowing other folks to speak for us, folks who may have more clout, more power, whether from politics or religion, respect or status, casting our vote for the characteristics, the by-laws, the doctrine of whatever that particular community ascribes to. We put our check in the terms and conditions box, agreeing to the lines and boundaries they ascribe, consenting that we will fit into their expectations, follow their rules, and try to live out their ideals, deserving or not. We allow them to speak for us until they don’t, until we differ to the point of a fracture beyond repair when we take our marbles elsewhere. But depending on what they have going for them and the qualifications we deem important, we allow them to speak for us.
We pay our dues and we follow the rules—that’s how it works in any organization—and the deeper we go into it the more we color inside the lines, abide by their Book of Order. So maybe it’s no wonder the disciples get their panties in a twist when they come across some, likely, pagan dude casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Let’s face it, it’s not been an easy time for them; no wonder the inner circle, the future church organization, is tense. They’re on their way to Jerusalem, they’ve been getting a crash course and haven’t fared too very well. Peter is told to “get behind me, Satan,” and everyone else gets reprimanded with “the first shall be last” when they argue over who’s the greatest. They have consistently tried to cross their t’s and dot their i’s, and now Jesus acts as if there’s no need to get it right by saying to leave the guy alone, if he’s not against them he must be for them. What’s Jesus doing? Doesn’t he get disciples, then as well as now, are only trying to keep his ministry safe and secure, free from folks who have no idea what they’re saying and doing, folks who have no insider knowledge of the creeds, no understanding of polity, and certainly no correct dogma? In a time and place when the church is fracturing over what we believe and who we will accept, where we worry that decency and order are too often ignored, that the structure, theology, and doctrine that guides us and helps us live out our faith is being compromised, doesn’t Jesus get that we’re just trying to keep his ministry from being tainted? Doesn’t he get that after all our work and study we’re entitled to speak for him to the world because we know what he wants? But Jesus says, “Wait a minute,” as if he doesn’t need our well–intended protection to keep God, him, or his church pure. Jesus says “Leave him alone,” warning that when we take it upon ourselves to scold and chastise others who bear the name of Christ but disagree profoundly on issues important to us, when we refuse to make room for folks who live out their faith differently, we might be the cause of tripping up their discipleship, the grounds of their stumbling in their faith, and the reason they question if they are truly a viable member of God’s Kingdom. Let’s be honest, God can work through whomever God chooses, so why put up walls that Jesus came to break down, why choose to be a stumbling block instead of living water and salt? Jesus makes it clear that it would be better for us, so sure we know the mind of God, to drown ourselves with a millstone, rather than to get in the way of someone’s faith. It should give us pause—we who are insiders, who are fully credentialed, washed in the blood and raised in Sunday School—to self-righteously presume we are speaking for God.
So then, if not us, who does speak for God? Who is to stand and make a difference through the name of God? Oddly enough, as if with some weird twist of humor, I think that’s us, too; we do. We who are baptized with God’s vision to see the world with the hope that God has for it are called to be agents of grace. But not we alone. Baptism isn’t an entitlement. Words of truth and healing can come from unexpected places, not necessarily found in church pews, for God heals in many ways and through diverse people. God’s will is done when Esther uses her position and privilege to save herself and her people, the vulnerable, persecuted, and suffering crushed by government. God’s will is done when the pagan exorcist calls on Jesus’ name and casts out a demon and the misery that comes with possession by evil, by drink, by drug. God’s will is done when any of us see someone thirsty or hungry or needing safety and gives them a cup of water, the Bread of Heaven, and the protection of four walls and the Holy Spirit. Anyone who promotes abundant life is on God’s side, regardless of their pedigree. The truth is God is bigger than we think, and God has created all of us in God’s image—people who know Jesus and folks who don’t yet—filling us with unrecognized and unrealized power to forge new and better ways as the God whose circle is radically open, hospitable, and wider than we imagine reminds us that just the time we think it’s wide enough Jesus says, “Nope, make it bigger, enlarge the circle, lengthen the Table, and share a cup of cold water with each other, for there’s work to be done,” and “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.” Whoever doesn’t oppose the redeeming works of God that are profoundly hopeful and healing is part of the good news. Whenever healing and truth are present, God is the source, and when we are part of the good news, we speak for God.
The criteria of who speaks for God seems to be all about attitude, the difference between the desire for authority and the willingness to take on the responsibility, to advocate and agitate for God’s will to be done, working with whomever God places with us whether we consider them one of us or not. For grace is present in all sorts of disguises; only when we recognize that will it be well with our souls.
What’s Greatest Look Like?
September 23, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8
Last week, Jesus was in Tyre, this week he’s back to Galilee, but in both locations, according to the writer of Mark, he wants to be under the radar. Why, we have to wonder? Maybe it’s because the journey to Jerusalem has started, and it’s crunch time as he tries to teach his disciples about what awaits him and the cost of following. He’s now told them twice about suffering, death, and being raised, but they’re not getting it. Maybe hearing that in Jerusalem things will come to a head, their minds flit off to thoughts of glory, not suffering, as they compare notes about who’s most worthy; who’s been witness to the biggest miracles; who’s been the most faithful friend; and who’s the one Jesus can count on to be second in command when he comes into his glory. They spend their time not asking questions that might clear their ignorance, but bickering with each other about who’s greatest.
Questions of greatness never seem to go away. The question today’s Gospel poses is timeless, and maybe, never more timely. Who doesn’t remember Muhammad Ali’s boast of “I am the greatest” as he taunted Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship title in 1964, with 7 to 1 odds—winning the title, boasting that his face was still beautiful, as he turned bragging on TV into performance art, still copied today on a regular basis. From the playground, where some version of “my dog’s bigger than yours,” to the halls of Congress and the lawn of the White House we see folks trying to convince the rest of us they are the greatest. To be seen as “great” seems to be the driving force of society. As the mid-year elections grow closer we’ll be seeing more of such self-proclaimed greatness as politicians, like high schoolers comparing their ACT results, assure us of their superiority over their competitors. Maybe it’s because greatness suggests folks are a cut above the rest when it comes to power, accomplishment, fame, or wealth, the very stuff that seems to allow someone to promote their agenda, influence people, and make things go their way. That’s not to say that the desire to excel is a bad thing—quite the contrary. But the trouble is that our ability to gauge greatness is biased and skewed. We, humankind in general, have shown ourselves to be anything but consistent when it comes to evaluating what the characteristics are that make someone great—which explains why the parents of the kids on the playground touting “my dog’s bigger than yours” run around with bumper stickers that range from “My kid’s an honor student” to “My kid can beat up your honor student.” We are amazingly challenged when it comes to accessing greatness, especially our own. Self-interest seems to overpower any sense of honest self-reflection when it comes to evaluating how to measure what’s truly important and where we fall on the scale. Perhaps we should all be warned what or who determines greatness is best set by some sort of objectivity outside of ourselves. The question of who’s greatest, who’s the best will never grow old because the measure of greatness is always up for grabs.
Of course, we Christians see ourselves differently. We like to see ourselves apart from the dog eat dog competition that is so common in the world. Between our understanding of what Jesus says and scriptures like Nora read from James, we like to think we have good and simple tools to measure how greatness is achieved. Jesus is clear: the first shall be last, be a servant to all. James is equally transparent as he gives us practical wisdom about how to live out our lives in gentleness, mercy, and working together, rather than in sarcasm, bitterness, and competition. We like to think we get it, that we live differently. But do we really? Or are we so entwined, so compromised by the world around us that we simply throw a baptismal covering over the same measurements of greatness the world uses? Think about it. How do we measure success? By numbers? As in butts in the seats or dollars in the plates, members on the rolls, or by what percentage of members actually attend on a given Sunday? Is our metric the “purity” or “holiness” indicators? Do we proclaim ourselves as a “Bible-based church” as if everyone else is based on what? The Koran? The New York Times? Do we say we follow what the Bible says literally? Really? All of it? Or do we make decisions, like everyone else, about which parts, the part that says I shouldn’t be preaching here, as a woman, in a gender-mixed group; or the part that says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; or the part that says that God might be doing a new thing?1 Or is our measurement the spirituality of others, judging behaviors like smoking, drinking, or obesity as sin that the truly spiritual would refrain from? Folks, where’s the love, where’s the wisdom in gentleness, when we take positions and lord them over others as if our understandings, our interpretations, are from God’s mouth to our ears and superior to any other interpretation God might give someone else? Are we, preachers and laity alike, as competitive as the next guy, unable to imagine the success of our calling as truly great unless we can look down on someone else and convince them of our superiority? Too often, we try to blow ourselves up by the false measure of numbers or purity or spirituality, trying to out holy each other just like the disciples on that day in Galilee. If we’re looking with much honesty, in reality the world view and the religious view often seem equally competitive.
Jesus sits down with the twelve, and with us, and invites us to see with new eyes what “greatest” looks like when he snuggles a child in his arms. Maybe, seeing what greatness looks like requires a shift in focus. Maybe it’s about taking our eyes off ourselves and noticing who’s beyond the boundary of me, myself, and I. A shift from competing with the guy beside us to actually seeing and caring for the guy beside us. Granted, it’s risky to consider the meaning of greatness in relational terms, welcoming children and caring for the folks most people would call “nuisances and nobodies”2 rather than in one up-man-ship. It makes a difference that’s none too popular when we look at the world, asking if economic gain embraces the poor and vulnerable? Are children better off? And do our choices bring health or cause irreparable damage to the earth? It makes a difference in how we look at each other, as well, for nuisances and nobodies are seldom convenient. But we get glimpses of greatness if we’re in the right place at the right time. What’s greatest look like? It looks like Betty Jones who, planning to retire after 26 years, upon hearing Susan was pregnant with Bobby, worked another nine months to insure everything was taken care of at the pharmacy and no one was left in the lurch. What’s greatest look like? It looks like a couple, who shall remain nameless, who interrupted their Friday when I got a letter from someone with no food in her house to get groceries and deliver them. My guess is every one of you, at one time or another, has been an example of what the greatest disciple looks like, as you quietly and with great gentleness take care of or welcome someone, never even considering that you also welcome Jesus as well as the One who sent him. Jesus asks us to live out his definition of greatness that’s not about separation, but about solidarity; not about better than, but relationship; not about self-adulation, but the empowerment of others3 A kind of greatness that shows itself in service, sacrifice, humility, and faithfulness, because our eyes look beyond ourselves and see the folks around us.
Disciples, in the 1st and in the 21st century, spend a lot of time and energy arguing about who is the greatest. Maybe now, more than ever, the illusion of greatness threatens our very existence. In times of crisis, while the foolish build themselves up for their own gain, the wise build bridges and find a way to care for one another as if we are one single family; and that’s what it takes to the be the greatest of disciples.
1 I Timothy 2: 12, Galatians 3:27-28, and Isaiah 43:19
2 John Dominic Crossman
3Karoline Lewis, online blog, “Dear Working Preacher,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5223
September 16, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Immediately prior to our Gospel passage, Jesus is in Bethsaida, healing a blind man. Interestingly, it isn’t an instant healing. Jesus puts saliva, spit, on the man’s eyes and lays hands on him. But the guy’s healing is, at best, incomplete. It takes more than one exposure, more than one experience, for the man to see clearly. Maybe that’s why Jesus takes his disciples on to Caesarea Philippi, a center of religious diversity with a grotto dedicated to the Greek god Pan, built at least three hundred years before Jesus comes along, and a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Roma and the emperor Augustus. Maybe Jesus was checking how well his disciples were able to see also?
Jesus’ questions to disciples so long ago aren’t so different with the passage of time. He asks the same questions today, starting with, “Who do people say I am?” While the early disciples answered John the Baptist and Elijah, we tend to call out the Jesus shown to us through the lens of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But let’s be honest, the Jesus presented in each of the Gospels isn’t the same. Matthew offers us a very Jewish Jesus, the new Moses, with his own interpretation of the Jewish Law, but Mark points to a suffering messiah, a very human Jesus sent from God to fulfill Scripture. Luke reveals him as the Savior of the world, well beyond anything Jewish, and John’s Jesus is Divine through and through, who never cries from the cross but mater-of-factly says “It is finished,” bows his head, and gives up his spirit. Each Gospel unique in their understanding of who Jesus is. Of course, Paul’s ideas of Jesus are in our Bible as well, as he adapts Jesus teachings to the different communities he visits. Add to that the generations of preachers creating billions and trillions of sermons, all telling us about Jesus as they form traditions and fashion creeds. Wisdom may call from the streets, but it can be hard to pick her voice out of the crowd. In a chaotic world, we want a definitive answer. We want all the views of Jesus to harmonize, all fit together in a consistent portrait. Like the old TV show, “What’s My Line,” when we’re presented with choices we want to pick the real Jesus. We ache for such certainty; we want to pick the right source so that we know exactly who he is, what to believe, and what’s expected, but everybody we listen to has a different view. Yet, did you notice when Jesus asks the question of his first disciples as to who people say he is, he neither affirms nor denies any of their responses. He just listens as they parrot the certainties of others when he asks, “Who do people say I am.”
To be sure, the first question is just the warm up. Then Jesus asks, ”Who do you say I am?” It’s a hard question, and it’s not meant for Peter alone, but for all of us. “Who is Jesus to you?” Prophet, a good guy with bad timing, an example, or the Christ? When Peter answers, “You are the Messiah,” he only answers for himself, just as we all do. It’s a hard question, a reflective question, a faith question. Sure, we’re taught the “right” answer when we’re asked who is “our Lord and Savior,” whether we’re joining the church or becoming a church officer. We’re trained to have a definitive answer when we affirm our faith with the Apostles’ Creed. ”I believe in the only Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, descended to the dead, seated at the right hand of the Father.” We identify Jesus with terms like Savior, Redeemer, the Way, Truth, and Life, the Bread of Heaven, but if we’re honest, maybe it’s not the kind of question that we arrive at the answer once and for all, but rather a question to be lived with, ruminated on in a continual state of discovery. An answer that changes, hopefully grows and deepens, from the answer you gave when you first joined the church so many years ago. We’re all raised with creeds and traditions of other people’s thoughts. We’re all surrounded with friends and social media who identify Jesus in a variety of ways, when the real question isn’t what they think. The only question that matters is “who do you say Jesus is? Do you know him, do you trust him, do you love him? It’s a concrete question with dynamic, fluid, and inspired answers that signals the beginning, not the end, of evolving answers as you decide “who do you say Jesus is.”
Hidden in Jesus’ question is yet one more, just as hard, just as difficult as the one before it. Behind Jesus’ query, “who do you say I am” sits the question, “who will you say you are?” Trying to answer who Jesus is, giving voice to his identity, forces us to give voice to our own. We can’t answer Jesus’ question of who he is without revealing who we are, or to switch it around, who we are reveals who we believe Jesus to be1 because however we answer who he is forces us to deal, up close and personal, with our own identity and discipleship. Is he just a smart guy with great ideas, worth thinking about but too unrealistic to follow, or is he the Christ, and what does that mean? Some folks want only the wish-granting Jesus of the prosperity Gospel or the confident, political Jesus of the religious right (which is neither religious or right). Peter felt that way when he first answers “you are the Messiah” all the while thinking of a God-anointed king or a judge, all glorious and winning every battle. Yet, in Peter and Jesus’ strange and stinging argument—the kind only close friends can have, where they disagree vehemently yet live to tell the tale together—Peter is confronted with suffering and dying. Like the blind man of Bethsaida, Peter needs to experience Jesus’ touch more than once, but repeatedly, to see more clearly who Jesus is to him and who he will be if Jesus is his Messiah. Like Peter, our understanding changes, and as our understanding changes so does how we live our lives. There’s a risk in how we identify with the Jesus who tells followers that to gain their lives they must lose them, who asks us to deny ourselves and follow him. If we claim Jesus as the Christ then we, by word and deed, live our very lives as a confession of faith, becoming God’s voice crying out on street corners and speaking for the treatment of others that is appropriate for folks made in the likeness of God, putting people above property values, choosing love instead of fear, valuing humility over hubris, generosity over greed, and wisdom over ignorance. How we live our lives answers not only who we believe Jesus is, but who we will be.
Jesus asks us to look at the hard questions, and for all our squinting and studying he’s revealed not by a single flat image, but by the complexity found in each of us as we wrestle, doubt, imagine and debate, not a single static and distant answer of “the” Christ but the living, breathing, confounding answers that fold us into his life, making him “our” Christ even as he shapes us by asking us to live with and into his questions.
1A thought posed in a blog post by Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5220
Discipleship for Dummies
September 9, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
James 2: 1-9, 14-17
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Perhaps, you’re familiar with the big yellow and black “Dummies” books that are so prominent in bookstores. They’re a series of books that cover a gazillion different topics: meditation, the internet, investing, Excel, Spanish or my personal favorite, “Robert’s Rules for Dummies.” I like that one so much I have two copies, one at home and one at the office. I use them religiously before our congregational meetings, whenever we have a guest coming to Session, or when I have concerns that a Presbytery Meeting might turn contentious. But whatever the subject, the books market themselves as “(whatever) for dummies, and a reference for the rest of us,” offering a useful guidebook filled with clear instructions and helpful hints. Easy to follow, yet comprehensive.
All three readings today seem to be taken out of a “discipleship for dummies” book. They guide us, instruct us as to how we, as a people of faith, respond in a world that is anything but godly. The passages are a basic course for being decent human beings, sharing essentials for faith-filled living in such a way that we might grow into being more fully human, as we’re created to be, rather than like animals surviving in a dog-eat-dog world where everyone is competing in a rat race. The readings seem common sense. Anyone in business knows the importance of choosing a good name, a good reputation, even over the bottom line. And who here wasn’t taught at a church school teacher’s knee not to step on the guy who’s down, that translates into the grown up version of beware of systems that work to keep the poor—poor. God seems just as fond of the poor as of the rich. As a matter of fact, we’d better treat everyone like we want to be treated. It appears the very judgments we make as to who’s who when it comes to status, power, or finances might get us judged with the same lack of mercy as we dole out. Who knows, maybe what goes around actually might come around. But our readings aren’t just full of “don’ts,” there are “do’s” implied, as well. Generosity enlarges our spirits, frees us from the narrow confine of self-interest and halts the shrinking of the world into the size of our personal well-being. Whether it’s feeding someone who’s hungry or aiding and assisting in the healing of another who could use some wholeness in their lives in whatever form, helping someone else makes our souls dance. To be honest, there’s always a choice. We get to decide to live as decent persons or as animals stepping on folks on the way up. The writers of Proverbs, James, and Mark know that we all need guidance and point us in the direction of life lived as the people God has called us to be.
Maybe even Jesus needed a little instruction along the way. Jesus, fully human, fully God. But let’s face it, we have a tendency to put our emphasis on the “fully God” part of our doctrine, ending up with a Jesus who never messes up, was never wrong, and always had a good, if not holy, reason for everything he did. So what can we do with a Gospel lesson that reveals a dismissive Jesus who looks at a woman in pain, in fear for her child, and makes a snarky comment more rude than most of us would make? A snarky comment that has no place in the work of a Savior. It doesn’t seem right to give him a free pass with no accountability just because he’s Jesus. Granted, we can come up with lots of excuses for his behavior: that he was tired and needed some time alone, or that he was fed up with requests, or that he was “testing” her, provoking her to prove her belief in him or her devotion to him. But I think it’s more likely that he was simply functioning under the reality of the time and place of his culture. Jesus grew up in a society that looked down on people different than his “tribe,” and the woman was a Gentile (read: foreigner), not Jewish (read: a different faith system), and she was a woman (read: not the gender with the power). Three strikes and she’s out (sound familiar?) The reality is, we tend to forget the “fully human” part of Jesus, who struggles and falters as he grows into who he’s called to be. The Jesus of whom the Gospel of Luke says so clearly after his parents lose him in the temple for three days as a kid that he “increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor.”1 If Jesus was “fully human” as well as divine, then he, like us, was surrounded and maybe even shaped by the biases, prejudices, and entitlements of the culture around him, as he grew into the scope and meaning of the call God had given him. The woman’s response was brilliant as she challenged the One who had spent his entire ministry breaking boundaries—eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, breaking bread with sinners—and whose very disciples had just gotten in trouble for eating with unwashed hands. She challenged him to find a little room below the “open Table” for leftover blessings for her and her kind. Isn’t it interesting that the Jesus who had never lost a verbal confrontation with learned Pharisees or scribes or anyone else in Scripture is wowed into amazement and concedes the argument. In the encounter, Jesus is changed as the woman’s guidance moves him from prejudice to an attitude of inclusion, and he grows with a new understanding of what he’s been called to do, in a call bigger than he imagined, as he finds that there’s enough of him to go around. His encounter with someone he first believes he had no obligation to shifts into the realization he had come to save the world, not just his piece of it. And with his realization, he immediately opens himself to move to another Gentile area, the Decapolis, and heals another Gentile with the words “Be opened,” as the human side of Jesus opens to a little guidance.
If even Jesus grows in his understanding of what actions are required to live out his call, doesn’t it make sense if our faith is alive that our actions might change as we grow in our understanding, as well? For basic Christianity, basic human decency isn’t so basic unless you’re hiding isolated in your happy place, but requires lifelong learning and a willingness to be accountable to God and surely to one another. Jesus’ “refresher course” comes through a foreign woman of a different faith, someone he least expected. So perhaps, we, too, should look around and reconsider who might have something to teach us even as we ask ourselves if we’re willing to learn and perhaps change, like Jesus did. He makes it clear that following God’s way should cause us to question our cultural values, our sense of propriety, and our religious, ethnic, and racial boundaries just as it did him. For the expansiveness of God’s love, God’s healing, and God’s grace won’t be limited by any location, or any civic laws, or any church doctrine. Jesus, fully human, comes to us, not only with solidarity in our joys and pains, but also for the sake of telling us the truth about our attempts to limit God’s promise of abundant life for folks outside our own circles. The reality is, our faith is revealed through our actions. When folks are hurting, like the woman who comes to Jesus, when people are in need of healing, like the Gentile man in Decapoli, when there are hungry and homeless and folks in the midst of tragedy, the offer of “thoughts and prayers” without actions are the empty words of a bogus faith. Faith is nothing if not engaged and enacted; it’s like peanut butter pie without the peanut butter. Call it what you may, in reality, it is something else entirely. It’s not a question of faith versus works, for none of our readings are saying salvation comes through good or moral deeds, but neither are they suggesting that salvation is merely a matter of agreeing with Christian doctrine, for even the demons believed and shuddered in the presence of Jesus.2 Clearly we can believe the tenets of Christianity and still oppose God’s will. But we reveal our faith, our discipleship, through our actions and our willingness to consider, re-think, and be re-made, that our actions may reflect the actions of Jesus as we live out our faith in the world.
In truth, growing in our faith is a process, but if Jesus can continue to show us how to open our hearts and change our actions, and if the Holy Spirit continues to nudge us into the Scriptures that offer direction and guidance even better than the black and yellow Dummies books, then perhaps, even disciples like us can live into our calling.
2Matthew 8:29, Mark 1: 24, Luke 4:34
Faith Seeking Wisdom
August 19, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
More of Jesus being the bread from heaven. Talk about carb overload. Maybe it was because Passover was near and he knew there would be only matzo for eight days, but the chapter that begins with the Feeding of 5,000 continues for 71 verses as Jesus moves from the far side of the Sea of Galilee to the side near Capernaum, to the dock and finally the synagogue. But Jesus keeps returning to bread; he just won’t drop it and let us move on. Being bread, looking forward with words that hint of communion while glancing backwards at manna in the wilderness, hints of coming down from heaven and being raised up. Forwards and backwards, up and down, round and round we go, each time moving deeper and deeper into some kind of divine action that creates a vacuum drawing us all into the center that is God.
Jesus’ words are difficult. They’re hard to grasp for disciples then and now. “I am the living bread and the bread I give is my flesh.” It was one thing when Jesus was talking about being Bread from Heaven, Bread of Life, Living Bread, but let’s face it, now he crosses a line. Now, we’re talking eating flesh and drinking blood, which is, frankly, kind of nauseating. Nobody talks that way. Can you just imagine what the folks around him thought, without centuries of Eucharistic language behind them? Jesus’ claim sounds like something out of an ancient “Night of the Zombies” movie. It’s a heck of way of trying to convey that he is the only food that is truly nourishing, that he, alone, gives life in a world that offers a smorgasbord of possibilities to take in and fill ourselves with, and that we are so worth it to him that he’s willing to give his life, if that’s what it takes, to feed us. Such a claim is so foreign, something we seldom see, especially from leaders. This week alone we’ve witnessed the way the leadership of the Catholic Church once handled past sins (and they aren’t the only ones, as we well know) and our political leaders being much more comfortable sacrificing minions and perceived enemies than taking hits at the cost of their future. Yet, Jesus is offering up his own flesh and blood to sustain us on our journey, friend and enemy alike. No wonder, even Jesus’ disciples are confused and start to bail. His words are a riddle, hard to comprehend, hard to believe. The folks leaving aren’t just the crowds that have hung around for free bread, but the people who have believed in him, who have followed him, and who have given up jobs, family, and friends to do so. But now after all the watching and wondering they’re tired, especially when what they get is riddles. Who can blame them? Who among us hasn’t sometimes wondered if we aren’t believing in vain? If our trust is misplaced, as our faith searches for something / Someone to believe in, as we seek the wisdom that is God? Jesus is surrounded by folks much like us who want to believe, used to believe, are trying to believe, but find themselves baffled by such strange and repulsive words like: eat my flesh and drink my blood.
Yet, Jesus’ words point to relationship, a relationship that gives life. The food Jesus offers isn’t so much about our physical needs, although that’s a part of it, but our spiritual ones. In him we see the character of God, a character that is loving and available to all God’s children, as he points to parallel relationships between God and himself and his relationship to all who believe. Jesus comes as Emmanuel, God-with-us, revealing that God is no longer mediated by covenant, law, or leader, whether religious or political, but that it is Jesus’ flesh and Jesus’ blood that mediate the living presence of God. According to the writer of John’s gospel, faith is never a noun but always a verb, and belief isn’t a thing, but a living relationship with Jesus who invites us to abide in him, be in relationship with him, where abundant life is found. For while there is life wherever, whenever the basic needs to sustain it occur, abundant life only happens when grounded in intimacy, security, and relationship. The life Jesus offers is open to any willing to eat and drink and abide. Any, which means regardless of nationality or tribe, regardless of boundaries or restrictions. Jesus asks his disciples to eat, drink, abide, and live with Gentiles and tax collectors, Samaritans and sinners. Jesus asks his disciples to eat, drink, abide, and live with bread prepared by illegals as we press our lips to a cup prepared by an enemy, and gather in a pew sitting next to someone upset about first amendment rights regarding security clearances on one side, and someone upset about the same because they fear censorship from Twitter on the other—which, to be honest, for some is about as repugnant as eating flesh and drinking blood. Jesus calls us all into a relationship with him which ultimately also means with each other, as well, to be respectful and reciprocal as various perspectives speak to our own. The reality is true food and true drink, one loaf and one cup, might be the only thing that will save us from killing each other off, as Jesus’ words point to relationship with him, with others, that gives life.
The choice is ours. Do you want bread or not? It’s a question to consider and it’s not an easy one. Jesus is opening the conversation when he asks if such teaching offends us, or more correctly in the Greek, if it scandalizes us as it does lots of folks: the crowds, the religious leaders, even disciples who are shocked and disappointed because his words refuse to allow us to just go along with blind obedience and naïve acceptance of what we’d like to believe, but force us to look deeply into ourselves (a good thing that doesn’t happen often enough) and examine our own places of resistance, recognizing that what he asks for is difficult to say, harder to live, and almost impossible to believe. Even his closest friends, his closest disciples, were plagued with doubts and fears, suffered from too much pride or too little courage, yet, like them, our only redemption is that grace upon grace has been promised, as Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “I believe I cannot believe, thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit.”1 The entire chapter of John leads to the question: will you eat and drink a little chunk of bread, and a thimbleful of Welch’s, flesh and blood that saves and gives life? It’s not something to be received lightly, for when we eat and drink we are swept into the work of the Triune God, take part in divine life, live in eternity—past, present, and future—right now. When we take the bread and cup we expose ourselves, revealing lives that are not our own, showing we belong to God in life and death and sharing that we can’t live without God or one another, acknowledging that Christ is the true wisdom of God as we live out Paul’s words to make the most of our time, be filled with good things, and to be grateful. Faith seeking wisdom. Hard as it is, the choice is ours.
A wise man once said we don’t live by bread alone, but we don’t live long without it.2 Jesus says eat my flesh, drink my blood, take me into yourselves as deeply as I can go, let me nourish and become a part of you as he shapes us into who and what we truly are.
You Are What You Eat
August 12, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
John 6:35, 41-51
As you all know, we just got back from a week of study leave at Chautauqua. It’s always a great week: lots of good learning, worship doesn’t begin until 9:15, the classes actually end by five, and there’s no homework. That’s not always true for other study leave experiences. Such a schedule allows for a good dinner out and often evening entertainment for Dave and me. It also allows for a more relaxed pace and time for me to do some people watching. That’s not something I try to do, it just happens, so I couldn’t help noticing two of the housemates who were ten-year-old boys, both brought by grandparents, but very different families. Monday morning, I watched one kid load up on sugar cereal, with marshmallows, his grandparents talking about how picky he was, giving their full approval, just so glad he was eating something, as he talked about how good it was. All the while, boy #2 was looking longingly as his grandmother tried to explain to him, much more politely than I could have, how he had other things, healthy things, to eat. Her words to him sounding ever so much, to me, like Paul’s words to the Ephesians.
Paul’s words to the Ephesians are beautiful, almost poetic. Like a cool drink of water in a barren land, they feed the soul and they are totally countercultural—as countercultural as the grandma, fighting advertisement and peer pressure to keep her grandson well nourished that he might grow into the young man he was created to be. Paul’s words, like her voice, stand in stark contrast with the culture surrounding us. Have you looked at the news lately, read the paper, tried to merge with traffic on a busy highway, or spoken to very many people? Wrangling and wrath prevail. Being away from the news, not doing much driving, and having somewhat limited interaction with many folks beyond Dave, it kinda’ hit me when we got back to the real world that we sit in a broth of contention. Paul starts off the list, “So then, putting away falsehood.” Fat chance. It seems the only sin is getting caught, so we spend how much energy (?) avoiding the questions, instead of just telling the truth, and on his list goes as each admonition seems more unlikely and implausible than the last. We live in a culture and time when the daily offerings of how to behave, how to live in community, are as varied as the cereals in the grocery store’s aisle. There is plenty of choice out there; some of it will grow you up strong and healthy, but an awful lot of what’s out there tastes good for the moment, tempts us with more than the daily allowance of wise cracks and one-upmanship, is made with fillers of rabid individualism, and is formulated to make us crave more. Guess which one gets the advertisement time during all the “commercial breaks.” Maybe it’s no wonder so many people seem to have a loss of purpose, seem unable to find something bigger than themselves, and act like they live in the depths and are God-forsaken. Just as sugar cereal tends to deplete the body, too often our choice of behavior leaves us feeling empty and longing for what might really nourish the soul.
Funny, how Jesus seems to show up when the crowds are hungry. It doesn’t just happen once or twice, but seems to happen on a regular basis. He’s always feeding or eating with someone. “I’m the Bread of Life,” he says. He’s got something to offer, something that nourishes like manna from the heavens, the very stuff God used to cultivate a relationship with the children of Israel and sustain them in the wilderness. Like with the Israelites, it’s a desert out there for us, too. But the bread that is Jesus gives strength to move from simply surviving, filling our bellies one day, only to be hungry the next, to living through a grace that fills the empty spaces and gives us purpose. Look around: the world acts like it’s starving for something, and Jesus offers himself not in some kind of weird cannibalism, but offers himself that we might believe. Of course, that begs the question: Believe what (?) in a time of news and fake news, facts and alternative facts. Just what are we supposed to believe, because when he says it 2,000 years of church history hadn’t happened, 2,000 years of doctrine and dogma didn’t exist, and a lot of what’s been said since he said “Believe” isn’t real believable and certainly muddies the waters. But if we reclaim what “believe” meant when Jesus says it we find at its root the meaning of “giving one’s heart to,” as in moving from a secondhand kind of religion based on hearing about Jesus to a firsthand experience, a firsthand religion of being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ, not the Jesus of the past, of history, but the Christ of the present available to all even now. The reality is we are surrounded by a food desert, and the temptation to take in junk food is high; but Jesus says, “I’m the Bread,” “Take my flesh,” “Eat it,” because life is hard, the journey is long, the path is rocky, and he’s the only thing that truly satisfies. So we get to decide how we want to do this thing called life: famished or fed, strengthened or weak, alone or in relationship1 with the One who nourished Creation into being and who promises we will never be hungry and will never thirst.
If we are what we eat, then all of us who come to the Table are in one way or another called to be bread for the world. Paul’s words warn us that if we can’t tell any difference between the ways of the world and the ways we in the church treat each other, something’s wrong, for we are to be a living sign of God’s promise to the world, both reconciled and reconciling, in imitation of God. The hard part is that God is infinite and, the last I knew, none of us have seen God, but in our relationship with Christ, we have a ringside seat with the only one who has—the One sent to show us how God works—who tells his disciples a little later that whoever has seen him has seen his Father2. So Paul gives the church, then and now, a menu of what living like Christ looks like, a vision of ethical living: offer kindness; speak in sincerity rather than cynicism, building up rather than tearing down; be honest, or at least check things out in Snopes so that we’re not passing lies; speak the truth in love; and work for the good of the whole. Paul’s words aren’t suggesting doormat theology, cute bumper sticker mottos or greeting card sentiments, but radical behaviors that require discipline, prayer, repentance, and a willingness to keep on trying, all of which seems to point us to the God who asks us to live lives less fearful and more merciful, less self-righteous and more aware of God’s grace, less sure of our own abilities and more open to the movement of the Spirit, living out the love God has created us to function in. Living in such a way that almost sounds like heaven on earth, but through the power of Christ working in us is not only possible but inevitable. Living in such a way that will draw others to the love of God as God uses us to offer bread for the world.
We live in a culture and time when the behaviors around us are as varied as the cereals in the grocery store’s aisle, but we are what we eat, and what we choose to take into ourselves impacts everyone around us, even future generations. God feeds the world not with the sugar cereal of life around us, but the love of Christ, the Bread of Heaven, asking us to be part of the feeding, to act with justice, to love tenderly, and to serve one another as we walk in imitation of our God.
1This “trio” comes from an article found in the online blog, Journey with Jesus, written for this week.