Sermons

Pentecost 21/Lectionary 29B, Mark 10:35-45

James and John, sons of Zebedee, also known as the sons of thunder, came to Jesus with a bold, perhaps thunderous, request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

That’s quite something, but you know what? I applaud their shameless honesty. Because if we are honest with ourselves, many of our prayers can end up sounding like “Lord, please do for us whatever we’re asking you to do.”

Such prayers understandably emerge often from the circumstances of our acute suffering. If that’s the case, pray those prayers. God will sort it all out. But purely self-centered prayers can also come from our lesser angels, for we enter into the life of faith with many mixed motivations informed by the old, sinful Adam in us. We sinners are prone to a tit for tat kind of spirituality driven by what faith in God can do for us.

Again, let’s be honest with ourselves – some of what motivates our church attendance has a lot to do with our expectations of what we personally might get out of being here.

Pastors are not exempt from this dynamic. In fact, pastors might be more prone to self-serving professional motives than many. Given our fallen state, we enter into pastoral ministry and other forms of leadership in the church in part so that we can be personally fed and egotistically puffed up in one way or another. Religious leadership is very seductive in these ways and can attract a lot of the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

Which brings us back to James and John, among the circle of the closest disciples and leaders. Jesus asked the sons of thunder what they wanted. Again, they were shamelessly honest and asked something over the top in keeping with their nickname. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

That’s quite a request indeed, again revealing the glory seeking that is often behind the motivations to go into public religious leadership.

Jesus was also shamelessly honest in his reply to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus then basically asked them in response: are you able to suffer the things that I am about to suffer?

James and John offered an impetuous, unthinking response: “We are able.”

Jesus then prophetically responds in essence, yes, they’ll undergo suffering in Jesus’ name, but it’s still not Jesus’ authority to grant them to sit at his right or left in glory.

This whole exchange provoked the ire of the other ten disciples who took offense at James’ and John’s pompous request.

In response, Jesus then claimed another occasion to teach the disciples. He said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers are domineering and lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

Gentile rulers, namely the Roman emperors and their governors, were indeed ruthless in their exercise of raw power. They were truly tyrants. Jewish people in Jesus’ day knew this full well from their communal first-hand experience under Roman imperial oppression. Jesus knew tyrannical rule from his time on the cross, a tool of deadly humiliation by those in power.

We’ve seen tyrants throughout human history. And it’s shocking to me today to see how many people in populist, nationalist movements are attracted to authoritarian leaders, so-called strongmen – and yes, they are almost always men….

Jesus, of course, teaches about a different way of leadership. In contrast to the Gentile rulers lording it over their subjects as tyrants, Jesus says, “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Then in reference to himself, Jesus concludes: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many.”

What does this servant leadership look like in particular? In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, this leadership has the shape of a cross. That Mark refers here to Jesus giving his life as a ransom for many is yet another pointing to the Passion, the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the atoning effects of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross in love.

But we also see poetic expressions of such servant leadership in the servant song in today’s first reading from Isaiah, passages made famous to many of us by Handel’s Messiah. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) Reading aloud these words, I cannot help but hear the music of Handel which adds to the depth, poignancy, and gravitas of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the suffering servant.

The author of Hebrews, today’s second reading, also reveals the nature of Jesus’ servant leadership, conceived in terms of the priestly nature of Jesus’ ministry, where it reads: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7) Christ, as our high priest, a mediator between God and humanity, interceded and intercedes on our behalf, and did and does so with empathy, in suffering with us, expressed in loud cries and tears.

This is what it means for Jesus to exercise servant leadership.

But today’s encounter with Jesus in Mark does not end with what Jesus did. No, Jesus calls James and John and the other disciples – and ultimately us – also to the life of servant leadership.

Here’s what Mark reports that Jesus said to James and John: “The cup [of suffering] that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism [of martyrdom] with which I am baptized, you will be baptized….” These words echo through the centuries to us today, we who claim to follow Jesus.

Here’s the thing, engaging again in a moment of reality therapy: How can broken, sinful people who are still beguiled by the ways of worldly power and glory ever hope to be imitators of Christ in servant leadership in how we go about the business of leadership in the church and in the world?

We, of course, cannot do it on our own. That’s the bad news. The good news is that in Christ, we have help. Jesus endured the baptism of his death on the cross which was transformed into the reality of resurrected life. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and thus receive as a gift Christ’s power in en-Spirited sacramentality, to take up the cross to follow him. In short, Christ Jesus leads the way to and opens the door for the possibility of our servant leadership.

Moreover, when we drink from the sacramental cup, we take in what Christ did when he drank the cup of his own suffering. Because Christ drank this cup, we are emboldened to drink from this cup as well, empowering us when we suffer in Jesus’ name. Likewise, when we eat the bread, which for Jesus was bread of tears on the eve before his death on the cross, we receive from Christ what enabled him and us to persevere through a vale of tears.

Think about what happens when we eat and drink at our meals. Whether it’s meat or vegetable, we take into ourselves in dead form what was a living organism. We ingest all of its nutrients, everything that made for its life and vitality. We cannot live without consuming, eating and drinking, that which once also was alive, even if we are vegans. In meat and vegetable, we consume the energy of the sun in the form of carbon, the energies of which make all of life possible.

Eating and drinking, therefore, even commonly understood in our ordinary, everyday life experience, shares in dynamics that parallel and suggest death and resurrection.

How much more so when it is Christ’s very self that we consume. Christ is the cup from which we drink. In drinking from this cup, we take on the energy of the Son – not the solar entity, s-u-n, but the Son, s-o-n, of the living God.

Wow. That is quite something. So, we are not left without the means through which we can be empowered to engage in servant leadership in our ministry and mission.

Another way of putting it is perhaps this: We are what we eat. When we eat and drink Christ, we incorporate his very presence and power which makes it possible for us, even feebly, to offer ourselves to others in loving service.

Still more, that which is foreign to us, alien to us, apart from us, in drinking and eating, we take in, incorporating that otherness into ourselves to become what had been foreign to us, and then to do what is foreign to our nature, namely, to serve and not to be served.

In this sacramental case, it is God’s alien righteousness, a righteousness not our own, which is Christ’s gift to us, that which we eat and drink.

It’s a marvel. So it is that we proclaim, “for as often as [we] eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26)
Then we also proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Thus, through sacramental means in being bathed in the water of baptism, and in eating and drinking in Holy Communion, we can approximate becoming in fits and starts the servant leaders Christ calls us to be precisely because we take on, incorporate Christ’s very powers, his very dynamism, into ourselves so to do. Again, we are what we eat. Or we become what we eat – as Luther said, little Christs for the sake of the world.

Thus, in the length and breadth of Christian history, countless saints immersed in word and sacrament have offered to the world their servant leadership in Jesus’ name, servant leader saints like Martin Luther King, Jr, prophet for justice and martyr; Elizabeth Fedde, Lutheran deaconess who served the downtrodden in Brooklyn; Perpetua and Felicity and companions, martyrs; Oscar Romero, martyr; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr; Jan Hus, martyr; Bartolome de Las Casas, servant of justice for indigenous people; Florence Nightingale, servant in nursing; Dag Hammarskjold, servant in diplomatic service – to name just a few of those whom we commemorate in our Lutheran calendar of commemorations, persons who offered themselves in loving service in Christ-like fashion.

Thus, too, in Christ, and in communion with countless servant saints, we go out into the world enabled, empowered by word and sacrament to lead in our own fledgling versions of serving. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Pentecost 19/Lectionary 27B, Mark 10:2-16

Today’s gospel reading does not give us any room to avoid saying something about marriage and divorce.

When asked by the religious leaders, the Pharisees, if it was lawful for a husband to divorce his wife, Mark reports that Jesus ultimately rooted his own teaching in what we heard in today’s first reading from the second creation story in the book of Genesis where it states that a man and a woman become one flesh in marriage.

Listen again to how Jesus puts it, paraphrasing Genesis, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Then Jesus in Mark adds this zinger by way of conclusion about divorce: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In short, don’t get divorced.

That teaching hits very close to home for me. I think most of you are aware that I am a divorced man. The dissolution of our marriage, which we undertook carefully, in conversation with spiritual and psychological counselors and with our respective bishops and families, was what we discerned was the best course of action for us. It was an amicable separation that continues to allow for effective teamwork in the parenting of our son.

However, that said, the reality of our divorce weighs heavily on me to this day. In fact, there is not a day that passes that I do not feel the burden of the decision that we made, especially as it pertains to the added complexities of my trying to be a faithful father to our child.

My own particular expressions of human brokenness and sin fall heavily on my shoulders.

But when it comes to Jesus’ challenging teachings, there is not one of us in this room, or in any Christian or mortal assembly anywhere, that can escape the full weight of the divine law and its claims on us.

For several weeks earlier this year our Monday evening Zoom Bible Study engaged the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus’ teachings are relentless and leave no one off the hook.

Just to give an example, listen to this one from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22) And it goes on and on like that for several chapters. The weight of the Law falls heavily on each one of us in our own ways according to our particular sins of commission and sins of omission.

Because of the difficult teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels, I am so very glad that today’s gospel reading does not end with Jesus’ subsequent teaching that divorced people who remarry commit adultery!

Thanks be to God that the scholars who put together our lectionary readings included the verses about people bringing their children to Jesus so that Jesus might bless the children by laying his hands on them.

In the spirit of “children should be seen and not heard,” and assuming that children are at the bottom of the totem pole and the end of the line, the disciples spoke sternly to the people who were bringing their kids to Jesus.

The good news is that Jesus was indignant about the disciples’ seeking sternly to turn the people and kids away. I am heartened that Jesus’ indignation can ultimately be a source of good news for us, of gospel and not just law!

Here again is what Jesus had to say: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the dominion of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the dominion of God as a little child will not enter it.” Then Jesus took the little children “up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

At first glance, that only little children can receive the dominion of God seems like a proof text for our practice of infant baptism. But, of course, we cannot leave it at that.

For us adults, metaphorically speaking, what might it mean for us to receive and enter the dominion of God as little children? What might it mean for the dominion of God to belong to little children? What’s so significant about being a little child? Or being like a little child?

A couple of Sundays ago we first saw Jesus in Mark extol the virtues of a little child. Today we have an opportunity to go deeper.
Little children are:

  • Largely helpless on their own. They are radically dependent and need the loving care of parental others.
  • Immensely receptive, sponge-like in their capacities to learn loads of new information with innate curiosity. The German phrase that Luther uses in the Small Catechism, that is usually translated “what does this mean?” is was ist das? This German phrase is better understood as a child’s question, “what’s that?” – giving expression to the little child’s innate curiosity.
  • Resilient and strong – I remember my amazement when I first held my son, Nathan, as a day-old infant and just how strong he was when he arched his back.
  • Innocent, pure, uncomplicated, unburdened by decades of complexities and layers of things we adults add to situations, relationships, circumstances.

In short, when you add together all of their qualities, it seems to me that little children are quite capable of faith, of trust, in its most elemental and primal and visceral forms.

That is to say, Jesus teaches in Mark that to receive and enter into the dominion of God, faith, conceived as trust, is prerequisite, and little children are well poised for faith, to be trusting. It’s in their nature. And all of the qualities I listed about what it is to be child-like serve the ultimate end of faith, of trust.

Faith makes for the open door for our entry into God’s dominion, God’s reign. Or as we Lutherans are fond of saying, we are justified, made fit for entry into God’s dominion, by God’s grace as a gift, effective through faith. In short, it’s justification by faith.

Thus, adults are called upon to confess that when it comes to God and things divine, we never escape being little children. We are invited to acknowledge this reality in greater humility. We do well to allow the carefully constructed façades of adulthood be stripped away that we might become more child-like.

In fact, the process of growing older does a lot of that stripping away for us as we return more and more to child-like status. In my late father’s last years, when Alzheimer’s disease robbed him of vitality and capacities, he became more and more child-like, even to the point of enjoying the company of a stuffed animal whom he named “Buddy.” I saw this as charming, and not a cause for pathos, as dad was giving expression to the child-like qualities that make for receptivity to the dominion of God.

But even in years of health and vitality, Jesus, recorded in Mark, invites us to claim our status as little children in the eyes of God.

Again, I am much relieved that these grace-full verses about receiving the dominion of God in child-like faith follow immediately on the heels of the devastating-to-me- law-filled teaching about divorce. In acknowledging honestly my sin-stained frailty, I am freed by mercy to claim my radical dependence on God and God’s forgiveness and grace.

But there’s additional good news in today’s readings. The author of Hebrews, in our second reading, extols the virtues of Jesus Christ in language that sounds both like a hymn and a creed. “We do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:9)

Then the author concludes: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” (Hebrews 2:10)

And here’s the wonderful, life-saving kicker: “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…” (Hebrews 2:11b) Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. Jesus is not ashamed to call us siblings.

Because Jesus is not ashamed of us – as divorcees, as sinners of all manner of other stripes – we are freed from being ashamed of ourselves, shamelessness being another quality of little children!

In Christ’s shamelessness for us we can claim without shame our own child-like dependencies and ultimately child-like faith in all humility, honesty, simplicity, and more.

What a healing gift for our shamed and shameful world, that we are able in Christ and by his Spirit, to engage each other in renewed child-like simplicity, receptivity, trust. Communities marked by such child-like qualities are leaven in the loaf of our wider society, inviting others also to rediscover their child-like qualities that soften the edges of our cruel, adult world. Maybe then we can finally learn how to play nicely together as all God’s children.

So, when you come forward to receive with thanks the Eucharistic gifts in bread and wine, Jesus’ very self, I invite you to imagine you’re being fed by our Mother Christ, as the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, would put it, appropriately, faithfully, offering female, matronly images for Christ. Claim the orality of receiving into yourself the sacred bread and wine as an adult version of the child at the mother’s breast to receive all the nourishment needed for growth and flourishing. Imagine yourself cradled in Christ’s loving arms with his hands laid on you in blessing.

And when you leave this room and pass the water-filled font, remember that this vessel with its water is the womb that gives us all birth as God’s children. And with that awareness go back into the world in renewed child-like faith to be leaven for the healing and thriving of all of God’s children. Amen.

Pentecost 18/Lectionary 26B, Mark 9:38-50

One of the gifts of the Bible is its realism, that its stories reveal so much honest truth about the human condition. Today’s readings are no exception.

In the first reading for today from the book of Numbers, Moses is burned-out by the burden of trying to manage an unwieldy rabble of a flock, the Israelites. Just when Moses is ready to throw in the towel and quit, the Lord instructs Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel to share with Moses the burden of leadership.

There were criteria for identifying these leaders and proper credentialing was needed. But Eldad and Medad did not exactly obey these instructions about who was eligible to gather and where, and they went about prophesying on their own apart from the tent of meeting. Joshua, son of Nun, an assistant of Moses, caught wind of this and reported to Moses, “My lord Moses, stop them!”

Thus, we see the honest truth about the all too typical and painfully human dynamic of the in group and out group. Who is included? Who should be excluded? Who has the authority to speak and who doesn’t? There are all kinds of permutations of this very human dynamic.

We see the in-group vs. out-group reality in today’s gospel reading as well. The disciple, John, said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Once again, it’s the us vs. them thing. During my years as an undergraduate major in anthropology, I was taught about the evolutionary importance for survival of a clearly identified in-group, a tribe, with clearly delineated rules for who procreates with whom, who can safely live in the confines of the village, and who would be excluded and considered the out-group, the other.

This ancient dynamic continues to this day. And while it has healthy functions, the in-group/out-group dynamic is also corrupted by human sin and brokenness.

Honoring the importance of tribe can easily devolve into tribalism. We see this manifest in the blowback reactions in many nations to the recent realities of globalism – especially populist movements of nationalism in many countries.

Tribalism easily becomes xenophobia, fear of the outsider, the other, and racism, and is a major locus of human sin, and the ills of society.
I marvel at how much of my current suffering revolves around the divisiveness of our age. We see the us vs. them energies on TV and social media and read about it in the papers. We experience divisiveness at school, at work, and even in our churches. These realities make for daily burdens that I carry. I feel their weight. You also undoubtedly know of such burdens.

Jesus, of course, breaks open all of this. Jesus says in Mark in response to John’s desire to stop the other casting out demons in Jesus’ name, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” And then Mark reports that Jesus offers that quotable quote that has found its way into popular discourse: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

In last Sunday’s gospel, we saw how Jesus welcomed the child in the midst of the disciples, children being at the bottom of the totem pole. This week we see in Mark that Jesus welcomes one perceived by John to be an outsider, the other, the stranger. Jesus makes a witness against xenophobia, fear of the other, the outsider, the one not among the twelve and others explicitly following Jesus. Jesus sees the perceived outsider as an insider. It’s all quite radical from a more typically human point of view.

But here’s the thing. Jesus is not the only one doing this. Moses offers welcome, too, in today’s story in Numbers. Concerning Eldad and Medad whom Joshua wanted Moses to stop from prophesying, Moses retorted, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

Reading the scriptures from a Christian viewpoint, from the vantage point of Jesus Christ’s teaching and ministry, the vision of the dominion of God is inclusive. It is multinational, multicultural, multiracial. It is ecumenical. It is unity in diversity.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the intersection where all of the world and its troubled peoples meet. In our human brokenness, the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross draw the whole world to himself and ultimately to God with focus on the pronouncement by Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Then the empty tomb three days later inaugurates a new reality in which the xenophobic us vs. them dynamic does not have the final word. Then on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to proclaim God’s deeds of power in the languages of all the nations, and this proclamation births a new order that is the church, a universal church that has come to include folk from all people across the globe.

In the waters of baptism, we share unity in Christ with all the baptized, a life-giving torrent that breaks down walls that divide. This is a unity that persists and insists foundationally, objectively, even as the gospel is proclaimed in a wide and wild diversity of languages and cultures and nations. Again, it’s unity in diversity.

[As an aside, I have this ecumenical fantasy that somehow all the churches of a particular city would share one, single place of baptism to signify this unity that we have in Christ. What a lovely witness that would be to our divided world!]

Indeed, us vs. them, the in-group/out-group dynamic is short-circuited by the unifying waters of baptism. But we also share unity at the holy sacramental table – one bread, one cup – which is why we Lutherans practice a generously open invitation to Communion.

But this side of the consummated reign of God, our communion is imperfect, our unity is not complete in our practice. There does indeed persist the problem of false prophets doing their thing in Jesus’ name, a reality which Jesus himself names. In final words of warning in Matthew’s gospel, it is reported that Jesus said, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.” (Matthew 24:4-5)

So how do we tell the difference between those genuinely acting in Jesus’ name and those disingenuously? Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16a) You will know them by their fruits.

We get a good glimpse of the genuine fruit that comes from Jesus Christ in the marks of Christian community described in today’s second reading from James. There we read that the fruit of genuine Christian community includes: cheerful songs of praise; intercessory prayer for those who suffer; elders of the church who pray for the sick and anoint them with oil; confession of sins to each other with the assurance of forgiveness; reconciliation with those who wander from the truth. When we see these things happening in Jesus’ name, we can be assured of the authenticity of Christian witness.

But here’s another mark, another fruit of genuine Christian community: our wounds, our bodies, our selves, that are maimed in one way or another. Because of the ongoing struggle between tribalistic ways of the old Adam, and the radically inclusive ways of our being new creations in Christ, we suffer, we end up wounding each other and ourselves, and thus, we enter into life in the dominion of God wounded and maimed. At least that is what Mark suggests when he records Jesus’ admonitions that are central to today’s gospel passage: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” And so, too, with our feet and our eyes (cf. Mark 9:43-48).

Because of the ongoing claims of human sin and brokenness, we inevitably perpetuate the age old us vs. them problems and we get maimed. But the good news is that we enter into the life of God’s dominion even with our wounds, even as Jesus still displayed his own wounded hands and side on the other side of the resurrection.

Thus, in Christ, he who died and he who was raised, despite our trials and tribulations, our faith is awakened, quickened, renewed and strengthened such that we can seek to fulfill Jesus’ exhortation that concludes today’s reading from Mark: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In our mission and ministry as a church, we get to be salty, seasoning and preserving the life of the world even as we seek peace with one another and pursue it.

In Jesus’ name, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are salty and seek to do the things that make for peace, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Pentecost 17/Lectionary 25B, Mark 9:30-37

Picture the scene: Jesus and the disciples were walking on the road, passing through Galilee on their way to Capernaum.

Jesus spent some of this time teaching them, again saying to the disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Mark reports that the disciples did not understand any of this, but were afraid to ask Jesus for still greater clarity.

Picture the scene: Jesus and the disciples walk along on the road. In my imagination, I see Jesus walking ahead of the disciples, who were following him as a group, perhaps at a distance. I imagine long periods of silence.

But then I hear eruptions of disputes among the twelve, maybe in hushed tones so that Jesus would not hear exactly what they were arguing about.

Once they reached the destination in Capernaum, Mark reports that Jesus asked them what they were conflicted about. They were silent in response, but it seems that Jesus discerned rightly that they were disputing among themselves about who among them was the greatest.

All too typically human. But competitiveness about greatness seems to be a particular scourge of our own day and age in our society. We live in a celebrity culture. Cultural lore focuses on the achievements of great individuals with exceptional gifts, or over- the-top chutzpah. Often, in our heart of hearts, we applaud and even unconsciously aspire to such greatness in our own ways. On social media we clamor for likes and thumbs up emojis.

At least I confess to that at times. Maybe striving for notoriety was part of what drew me to working in the bishop’s office in New York City. The desire for public recognition is part of what motivated me to publish a book.

Indeed, celebrity culture finds its way into the church. We have our TV preachers, and our prominent pastors who get a lot of notoriety. The modest pastors of local mom and pop shop churches cannot compete, even as members may hold them to higher performance standards because of the preachers they see on TV or now the internet.

The explicit and more often implicit pressures to achieve status – even in the church – create a huge burden to carry. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing.
When Denmark was named the happiest country on earth a few years ago, 60 Minutes did a segment and asked Danes what advice they had for their striving, competitive American counterparts. The advice they gave was lower your expectations! Then you’ll find greater satisfaction in life!

The letter of James, today’s second reading, explores the spiritual psychology of the passions about greatness and their ill effects: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind…. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (James 3:16; 4:1-2a)

This aptly conveys the striving, craving human condition. Then in the time of James and now.

What is the antidote to all of this? What waters can put out or at least diminish or control the fires that rage within and among us?

Here’s how Mark reports that Jesus addressed the disputes among the disciples about who was the greatest. In the house at Capernaum, “he sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” (Mark 9:35-37)
Picture the scene. I have no idea where Jesus got the little child…. But he put the child among the disciples. And then Jesus cradled the child in his arms. It’s a lovely image. Intimate and compelling and inviting.

The child for Jesus becomes the incarnate illustration of one who is last of all. In ancient human hierarchies, women and children were at the bottom, the last in line. Which is exactly where in line Jesus instructed the disciples to locate themselves. (By the way, I hate standing in line, especially when I’m last, and I am not proud to say that I expend too much energy in the Safeway grocery store finding my way to the checkout with the shortest line… It’s a sinful game that I play….)

But Jesus instructs the exact opposite, using the child as the embodied example.

What does a child convey? Vulnerability. Radical dependence. Direct, unfettered, uncomplicated access to basic human needs without all of the encumbering ways in adulthood we find to make what we need and desire more complex and hidden.

And we’re instructed to welcome such children, a welcome that Jesus embodies by taking the child in his arms. Again, picture the beautiful scene.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” Jesus said in Mark.

We’re months away from Christmas, but recall that we are presented with Jesus as a child, the Christ child, born of mother Mary. In this child is the vulnerability of God. God placed the Christ child into our midst in ancient days and still does so during our liturgical Christmastide.

The vulnerability of the God-child has the effect of getting us in touch with our own vulnerability and is thus an antidote to the striving fires that rage within us. The presence of a child in a room tends to draw all eyes, taking people out of themselves at least for a moment, thus, calming the greatness-seeking cravings within us.

Thus, as the prophet Isaiah prophesied, “A little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

So, it’s a powerful image when we baptize infants and children, vulnerable, dependent beings who can only receive in the most primal, visceral ways the grace given them at the moment of baptism, pouring water over them that puts out or at least diminishes our raging fires in and among us.

Picture the scene: every infant and child we baptize becomes a little Christ to us, if you will, a re-incarnation of Christ as we are baptized into him, into his death and resurrection. Think of it! Picture it. Every child at the font is the Christ child in the manger. Each baptized baby is in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. We usually think of the priest or pastor as the stand in for Christ – but in baptism it’s the children in our midst.

As we witness these sacramental mysteries, we also can see ourselves as infants, as children, as vulnerable, radically dependent and in need of being taken into loving arms, as Jesus did with the child in the presence of the disciples, as Jesus does with us at the font and in our lives in Christian community. What is our striving for greatness but a longing for love? In Christ, we receive that love!

So it is that we also cradle Christ Jesus in our uplifted palms as we receive the bread at the sacramental table. Then in the act of taking that sacred gift into ourselves, the cradle we offered in our uplifted palms to receive the living bread becomes the occasion for Jesus to cradle us, embrace us, with sacred, loving, real presence.

Picture the scene – no, let us re-enact the scene in a few minutes! But I want to recall to you one of my elderly, homebound members in the congregation I served in Pittsburgh. I’d visit Joe in his home to offer Holy Communion, and he would present me with his upturned palms in such a way as to communicate his deep desire for Communion with Christ, the desire for Christ’s sacramental embrace. I shall never forget the way his hands expressed so clearly and vividly a faithful posture for our humble, needy reception of Christ’s very self. It was beautiful. Picture the scene. Recreate the scene here!

As beautiful as this all is, our sinful selves still too often crave the uglier scenes – of envy, strife, competition, war, the very scenes played out again and again in the world as seen on TV and social media and more. The enemies of the prophet Jeremiah, as indicated in today’s first reading, devised schemes to “destroy the tree with its fruit” cutting the prophet off from the land of the living, so that his name would no longer be remembered. (cf. Jeremiah 11:19b). And so, too, enemies of the divine commonwealth seek its destruction still today.

But in Christ Jesus, it would not be, and will not be. The tree of the cross bore its fruit and birthed in the harvest that was the empty tomb life everlasting, carried by a name that is above every name that is still remembered and extolled and praised, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

With our raging fires under control, if not extinguished, by Christ in the word and in the sacraments, our cravings for greatness are relativized and calmed, and we can more willingly take our place at the end of the line in patience and humility, and then can present ourselves as “servant of all,” as Jesus instructs as recorded by Mark.

And in this is true freedom, genuine liberty. Remember Luther’s paradox that a Christian is a perfectly free sovereign, subject to no one, but also a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all. We are freed by Christ from our strivings to be for the other, to welcome the other into our midst, to cradle them, especially those most vulnerable and dependent, the children and the child-like.

In this Spirit we devote ourselves to welcoming all the world’s children, and the childlike realities in all who are find themselves at the end of the line. And in this we all discover healing in Jesus’ name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Pentecost 16/Lectionary 24B, Mark 8:27-38, 9/12/21

Jesus’ question recorded in Mark’s gospel echoes through the centuries: “Who do people say that I am?”

As we are in the midst of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and right here in Arlington, how we answer the question about Jesus’ identity says a lot about how we engage and endure our troubled times. We continue to suffer the effects of what was unleashed in nation and world 20 years ago.

“Who do people say that [Jesus is]?”

The answers given by Jesus’ disciples were these: John the Baptizer; Elijah; or one of the prophets. Jesus as the return of John the Baptizer makes some sense in relation to Herod’s paranoia that the one whom he beheaded had returned. Elijah was expected to come again to usher in the messianic age. And certainly, Jesus’ teaching ministry had resonances with the prophets who went before him, the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and so many others.

The question has been asked throughout the centuries – who do people say that Jesus is? In 1985 the late, great and formerly Lutheran scholar at Yale, Jaroslav Pelikan, published his classic tome, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. In 18 chapters, Pelikan explores how Jesus was viewed in different ways depending on the epochs of Western culture. Century by century, here are Pelikan’s designations for Jesus according to how each century of Western culture viewed Jesus: Rabbi, Turning Point of History, Light of the Gentiles, King of Kings, Cosmic Christ, Son of Man, True Image, Christ Crucified, Monk who Rules the World, Bridegroom of the Soul, Divine and Human Model, Universal Man, Mirror of the Eternal, Prince of Peace, Teacher of Common Sense, Poet of the Spirit, Liberator, Man who Belongs to the World.

It’s quite the exhaustive listing. Each century has tended at least in part to create Jesus in its own image – or at least to emphasize attributes of Christ consistent with cultural themes.

Think also of the myriad images of Jesus portrayed in art, each portrayal emphasizing certain aspects of Jesus’ identity in attempting to visually portray who Jesus is.

But then Jesus poses a second question to the disciples that is piercingly personal: “But who do you say that I am?”

This question, too, echoes through the centuries to this very room on this very day. So, I ask you, who do you say that Jesus is? Seriously, reflect on that for a few moments – especially taking into account our very troubled present time. [Pregnant pause for reflection]

Here are some possible contemporary contenders for summarizing who Jesus may be to some: Friend; Role model; Coach; Cheer Leader; Cruise Director; Co-pilot; Object of Romantic Attraction; Muse; Companion; Sibling. And on and on this list could go. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it’s true that we have a tendency to imagine Jesus the way we want him to be.

In Mark’s narrative, it’s Peter who offers an answer to Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am.” Peter proclaims, “You are the Messiah.”

This seems to be the right answer, but even so, Mark says that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

It seemed for a moment, the window was opened and the lights turned on, only to have the window slammed shut and the lights turned off again. A flash of insight, but then mystery again.

Jesus, according to Mark, understood the Messiah, the anointed one, in a particular way when Mark reports that Jesus taught the disciples that “the Son of Man [there’s another designation for Jesus!] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Messiah means the one anointed with oil, just as Hebrew priests and kings and prophets were anointed with oil to mark the beginning of their leadership and service. But Messiah as one who suffers and dies would not have been in the popular imagination. Nor is it, perhaps, in ours.

With Jesus as Son of Man, as Messiah, but one who suffers, dies, and is raised, the window of insight is open again, and the lights are all on. For Jesus “said all this quite openly” in contrast to how Jesus’ words and deeds are otherwise shrouded in mystery and silence elsewhere in Mark’s narrative.

Here’s where we see the beacon shining on the end and outcome of the narrative, the culmination on the cross and in the empty tomb.

Again, this was not a desired or hoped for understanding of being the Son of Man, the Messiah.

So, it was natural for Peter to rebuke Jesus, saying in other gospels, “God forbid, this must never happen to you.”

But then Jesus rebukes Peter, with more revealing insight in the familiar words, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

But who wants Jesus to have to go through such suffering?

And it’s not just Jesus who will suffer, but also those who follow Jesus! “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark reports that Jesus concludes the discourse in today’s gospel reading with these searing words: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Ouch. The burden weighs heavily on our shoulders. Who among us can be a faithful disciple – especially when the going gets rough as we are experiencing today and have been for some twenty years or more?

Where does this leave us? Jesus in Mark brought some clarity about the nature of who he was and is as one called to suffer and be killed, promising a similar fate to those who follow, and then we have the warning from James about the dangers of what we say and how we say it.

Does it all end with paralysis, and non-redemptive suffering and misery in mystery?

It’s interesting that I usually find the good news in the New Testament gospel reading appointed for the day. But today, I find the good news in both the first reading from Isaiah and from the day’s psalm.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is among the prophetic passages about the suffering servant, about whom we Christians cannot help but see attributes of Jesus, the one who suffers, dies and is raised.

This suffering servant has been given the “tongue of a teacher who knows how to sustain the weary with a word.” (cf. Isaiah 50:4) Sustaining the weary with a word – that’s exactly what we need in times like these. And this is the exact opposite of the teachers that James warns us about.

The suffering servant of Isaiah can teach in helpful, life-giving ways because the suffering servant has God’s help: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced… and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (Isaiah 50:7-9)

The good news is that Christ, God’s and our suffering servant, is for us, is our help, Emmanuel, God with us, suffers in companionship with us, our salvation – and precisely what we need now in a world ravaged by tumult.

Thus, we’re back in the light of day and can see with clarity. And in this light, the light of Christ, the one who suffers, is rejected, dies, but who is raised by God, in this light we are liberated, freed from our deadly paralysis and what ails us.

In Christ, into whom we are baptized, and whom we consume in bread and wine, we thus burst into song, a song of praise extolling our God in Christ:

1I love the LORD, who has heard my voice,
    and listened to my supplication,
2for the LORD has given ear to me
    whenever I called.
3The cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me;
    I came to grief and sorrow.
4Then I called upon the name of the LORD:
    “O LORD, I pray you, save my life.”
5Gracious is the LORD and righteous;
    our God is full of compassion.
6The LORD watches over the innocent;
    I was brought low, and God saved me.
7Turn again to your rest, O my soul.
    for the LORD has dealt well with you.
8For you have rescued my life from death,
    my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling;
9I will walk in the presence of the LORD
    in the land of the living. (Psalm 116:1-9)

We who are enduring times like these need a divine savior like this.

And with this song of praise and deliverance on our lips, we engage in God’s work, with our own Holy Spirit-aided hands, of lifting our neighbors up out of the pits they have found themselves in and we see the truth of Jesus’ wisdom in Mark that “those who lose their life for [Jesus’] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Who do we say that Jesus is? The anointed one who suffers, is rejected, is killed, but who is raised again from the dead to usher in the power of God that makes for the healing of our broken world – exactly the kind of Jesus we need in these troubled times.

May our words and deeds faithfully and consistently proclaim this kind of Christ during this season of remembering and making sense of the tragedies of 20 years ago. Amen.

 

Pentecost 15/Lectionary 23B, Mark 7:24-37

The Bible’s stories in the gospels consistently reveal that Jesus did amazing things during his earthly ministry. But the Gospel of Mark also consistently suggests that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know about the great things he did.

This effort to diminish or obscure Jesus’ deeds of power is a unique feature of Mark’s Gospel compared with the other Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.

Just look at the obscuring secretiveness in today’s reading:

  • “[Jesus] entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”
  • In attending to the deaf man, [Jesus] “took him aside in private away from the crowd…”
  • After Jesus healed him, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one…”

But in reaction to Jesus’s command to tell no one about the healing, Mark reports that “the more he ordered [the crowds to say nothing], the more zealously they proclaimed it.”

It strikes me that Jesus’ command in Mark to tell no one about the amazing things he had just done may be an excellent reverse psychology evangelism strategy. If we order shy Christians who are reticent about proclaiming Christ to keep silent, maybe then they’ll tell everyone they know!

What’s going on in Mark when it comes to Jesus’ many exhortations to his followers to keep silent about his miracles and wonders? Why does Jesus do this?

Maybe Jesus knew well our human psycho-spiritual make up. For the finite, broken, sinful Old Adam in us is inevitably drawn to the shiny objects of impressive deeds.

As we heard for several weeks this summer on John 6, humans tend to hunger for the bread that goes stale rather than longing for the bread that makes for eternal life. And as we’ll hear next week, when Peter rebukes Jesus for predicting his coming suffering, Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33b)

But when it’s all said and done, the good news for us is that Jesus’ mission is not about the shiny objects of impressive feats to which we are drawn. Put another way, the good news is that Jesus is not, in fact, a Marvel comics superhero!

That Jesus’ mission is focused in more transcendent directions is abundantly clear in the trajectory of the narrative in Mark’s Gospel. Most everything about Jesus in Mark’s narrative remains obscure and hidden until the revelations about the cross and the empty tomb. With the news of Jesus’ resurrection that’s when everything else begins to make sense.

Which is to say, the miraculous healings are not ends in themselves. Rather, they ultimately serve to point to Jesus’ resurrected life beyond the cross and the tomb.

Thus, in the light of the resurrection, we see ourselves in the Gentile woman in today’s gospel who proposes to eat the crumbs from under the table of the chosen when we are given the little piece of sacred bread as gift for our healing from the sacramental table.

So, too, from a resurrection viewpoint, we see ourselves in the story of the man who couldn’t hear or speak, but whose ears were opened and whose tongue was unleashed. Just as Peter’s mute silence was ended on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit unleashed Peter’s silent tongue to give birth to the proclamation of the mighty acts of God in raising Jesus from the dead, we, too, are given the ears of faith and the power to use our liberated tongues to proclaim the gospel.

When Mark reports, “immediately his ears were opened, his tongue released, and he spoke plainly,” so, too, we are liberated to proclaim resurrection life in Christ and not just gossip about the great all you can eat buffet we just enjoyed.

Moreover, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can recognize that the prophecy from Isaiah in today’s first reading is fulfilled: in Christ, “Here is your God.” In Christ, “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy.”

Isaiah then continues with words that from the vantage point of Christ’s resurrection evoke themes of our baptism into Christ: “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”

Further still, because of Christ’s death and resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit given us thereby, we can begin to fulfill James’ instruction about keeping true religion. “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you say to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

In Christ, in the power of his resurrected life given to us by the Spirit in the means of grace in our communal life together, we are liberated from our captivity to sin to begin in fits and starts a living faith active in works of love for our neighbors as James would have it.

Indeed, it’s true that faith without works is dead. But it’s also true that faith without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is also dead in a way, and reduced to social service that can easily lead to burn out without the energies of the Holy Spirit propelling us on. That is to say, when it’s all said and done, faith without Christ cannot do good works for very long at all until we run out of our own steam, leading to paralysis and deadly inertia.

So it is that week after week we enter this room, passing by the font of water that calls to thankful remembrance the baptismal waters that broke forth in the desert sands and wilderness of our lives. When we dip our fingers into that pool, we tap into the sacred energies of renewal in our burned-out lives.

So it is that we turn the attention of our unstopped ears of faith to this spot where the tongues of our readers and of our preachers are unleashed to tell of the mighty acts of God in raising Jesus from the dead. And thereby, our faith is renewed for our loving works in and for the sake of the world.

So it is that we come back to this table again and again to eat the sacred crumbs that make all the difference for renewed life and energy in serving our neighbors.

So it is that we share in God’s work of revealing the enlightened clarity of resurrection promise in a world obscured by the shadows of sin and death.

So it is that our works of mercy clearly reveal God’s love in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Pentecost 14/Lectionary 22B, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel reveals some of the classic problems with religion.

First off, there’s the tendency in religions – all religious traditions – to be preoccupied with purity. The Pharisees and the scribes, that is, the professional religious authorities, noticed with grave concern that some of Jesus’ disciples ate food without first washing their hands. Of course, we know this to be best hygienic practice, but it’s also true that Jesus’ disciples were violating religious purity laws by eating with defiled, that soiled, hands. “For the Pharisees, and all the Jewish people, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” (Mark 7:3)

A religious preoccupation with purity has caused untold damage to humanity. Because if you maintain a notion of what is pure, you necessarily also define what is impure, unclean, defiled. The pursuit of purity quite easily devolves into a rooting out of impurity, of those who are deemed unclean. Then you get heresy trials and inquisitions, witch trials, and tragically also, at the most extreme, genocide.

Given the gravity at what is at stake, Jesus was very good at confronting purity preoccupations, for example, when he routinely ate with tax collectors and sinners, that its, those considered unclean, impure. Here’s what Mark reported he said in response to the religious leaders’ objections: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘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.’” (Mark 7:6-7)

This brings us to another set of problems with human religiosity: the tendency to pay lip service to faith traditions and rituals, thus revealing a hypocritical disconnect between that which is taught and that which is lived, as well as the common human pitfall of mistaking human traditions for divine law. Because of our tendency to mess it all up, religious faith is ever in need of reform and renewal.

Every attempt at reform in Christian history has something to do with trying to retrieve true religion from the human tendency to pay lip service thus rendering our religiosity superficial, and making religion corruptible. Most all of the monastic movements and religious orders that developed through the centuries sought to reform corrupted spiritual practice. The Reformation in Europe that birthed our own Lutheran tradition was a movement seeking to recover true theology. And the list goes on and on.

But we humans never get it right, at least not for very long. Even reform movements end up needing reform. True religion always loses – hence the ongoing attempts at reform that have driven the story of Christian history. There’s a Latin saying that expresses this dynamic, this reality, appropriately: Ecclesia semper reformanda est. That is, the church must always be reformed.

As usual, Jesus cuts to the heart of the problem. And the problem does indeed have to do with the heart.

The reality, as Jesus observes in Mark, is that the human heart is corrupt. That’s the law, the rule, when it comes to human nature and religion. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (Mark 7:21)

In biblical understanding, the heart is the core of who we are, the seat of our will, the organizing and integrating principle of our energies and passions. And alas, as Jesus rightly identifies in Mark’s reporting, the human heart is stained by sin and thus gets us into trouble. So it is that Jesus offers a long list of sins of the heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly….

Because the sinful human heart gives rise to so much trouble, even within the church, the author of the letter James devotes the bulk of that letter to the call to practice what we preach. Here’s how it is stated in today’s second reading: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22) Great counsel to address the problem of religious hypocrisy.

But how do we become faithful doers of the word when the sinful heart always cuts off at the pass our efforts to do good, to be faithful to religious precepts in our actions? That’s the problem with the letter of James for Lutherans – the author doesn’t explore the dynamics of how sinful humans can be doers of the word. The author only instructs that this should be so.

What James doesn’t talk much about is Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh who comes from outside of ourselves to redeem what is inside of ourselves. That there’s very little of Christ, and virtually nothing about the cross and the resurrection in James, is one of the reasons why Martin Luther was tempted to exclude the letter of James from the canon of scripture.

When it’s all said and done, in order for there to be any movement toward faithful and true religious thought and practice, our hearts of stone need to be broken open. That’s what Christ does.
In fact, Christ breaks our hearts. That’s what the cross does. That’s what the divine word does to us in revealing our brokenness. When that happens, God in Christ has something to work with.

With broken open hearts, God in Christ draws us in the power of the Spirit more deeply into God’s word in communal worship and the sacramental visible words that the divine word may dwell with us, abide in and among us.

That’s the communal, sacramental, word-soaked, word enriched environment in which we can learn the sacred word by heart. When we learn holy words and stories by heart, when we memorize them, for example, we incorporate those texts and stories into the very core of who we are, that is, in our hearts, which also means in our bodies. Then, in the power of the Spirit, we can draw on these words and stories in the heat of our lives when the going gets tough, thus opening up greater possibilities of practicing what we preach.

In this, in Christ, dwelling, abiding with the word, is our only hope of being doers of the word and only in the power of the Spirit emanating from the means of grace.

Thus, we Lutherans commonly sing our prayerful song at the time of the offering, when we present our gifts, ourselves, quoting Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”

Thus, in fits and starts we continue in the Spirit-led work of reformation of human hearts. Always forgetting, ever corrupting. But in Christ, remembering baptism, being fed at the table each week with Jesus’ very self, ever starting anew again every day.

This is crucial work when it comes to the integrity of the witness of the church to the world. For the human capacity to corrupt religion drives people away in droves. The failure to practice what we preach is the anti-evangelism strategy that keeps many from even considering church.

Thus, seeking to be doers of the word in and for the sake of the world is central to the mission that God has entrusted to us. That’s part of the divine wisdom revealed in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy: “You must observe [the statutes and ordinances] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)
May it be so among us in our imperfect ways, that others may see some consistency between what is preached and what is practiced – for Christ’s sake and for the healing of the people and nations. Amen.

Pentecost 13/Lectionary 21B, John 6:56-69

I had promised you someone else in the pulpit today. Alas, Dr. Lowell Almen, retired Secretary of the ELCA, sends his regrets. He was not able to travel because of an unexpected health issue. So you have me for yet another sermon on Jesus’ difficult teaching in John chapter six.

Throughout this chapter, John reports that Jesus has been making the case while teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum that he is the bread of life that comes down from heaven and that this bread is his flesh and that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will live forever.

All of this is a challenge to take in and comprehend to say the least. Indeed, John reports that Jesus’ own disciples, not just the religious authorities, had objections. The disciples complained and said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Jesus’ replied to them: “Does this offend you?” Jesus was aware that he did not have universal support among his followers, and was aware even then of the one who would betray him.

John reports that many of Jesus’ wider circle of disciples “turned back and no longer went about with him.” Then addressing the twelve, Jesus asked, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Jesus forced no one to follow him. If fact, relating to Jesus centered on the invitation: “Follow me.” Not a command, but invitation. People could choose to follow him or choose not to follow him.

Which raises the whole question of the nature of choice when it comes to religious faith. And behind that all of the philosophical and theological questions concerning human free will, and the extent to which human beings have free will.

One of the founding principles of our nation is freedom of religion – and perhaps freedom from religion. There is not an officially established state church or religious tradition in our country.

And freedom of choice is a flash point in the current political climate. When it comes to the pandemic, freedom of choice is invoked in relation to wearing masks or not. Then there are approaches to abortion rights couched in the language of “pro-choice.”
But the question of free choice is a complicated one when it comes to Christian faith.
Yes, in the religious climate of our nation centered on individualism and the freedom to choose, whole Christian traditions have emerged in this country that focus on individual agency when it comes to faith – as in, “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”

I happen to believe that the old sinful Adam is quite seductively active when it comes to social and religious perspectives that reduce human agency to individual choice, where it’s all about me and what I want apart from other communal and relational dynamics and considerations.

So, let’s delve into what today’s readings reveal about the nature of choice when it comes to faith, to choosing God, to following Jesus, who invites us to affirm that his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink.

Today’s readings suggest a more complicated set of dynamics related to choice in connection with faith than simply “I choose to accept.” There’s a lot more going on before we get to the point of assent.

In today’s first reading, Joshua had gathered all the tribes of Israel and presented them with a choice to serve the God of their ancestors or the idols of their choice. Joshua indicated that he would serve God. The people likewise gave their assent: “Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.”

Seems pretty simple and straightforward, doesn’t it? But let’s look more closely at the story. Before the people made their choice to serve God and not idols, they recounted their memory of all that God had done for them. Here again is what the people remembered: “for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. The Lord protected us along al the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who live in the land.” (Joshua 24:17-18a) Only after rehearsing out loud all that God had done for them did they reveal that they would serve God and not idols.

In short, their choice, their assent to serve God was based on and emerged from the activity and agency of God in their communal lives. It didn’t come out of the blue from their own individual proclivities.

So, too, in today’s gospel reading from John, the decision to continue to follow Jesus was more involved than simply individual free choice in the moment.
Recall that Jesus concludes about those who chose to follow him and those who went away: “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” That essentially repeats what John reports elsewhere in this chapter about the centrality of being drawn by God the Father when it comes to belief in Jesus and his teachings about his being the bread that comes down from heaven.

Thus it is that we have Simon Peter’s response to Jesus asking whether or not they also wished to go away. Simon Peter’s asked rhetorically, “Lord, to whom can we go?” Then Simon Peter concludes, based on the wealth of experience of encounter with Jesus: “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

Simon Peter’s reply suggests a whole lot of story of encounter along the way before the decision – the dynamics perhaps of being drawn by the Father, belief granted by the Father. It’s as if Simon Peter was saying, “how can we help but say yes given all that we have experienced and come to know about you, Jesus?” “Lord, to whom can we go?” is not an expression of desperation but grace-filled clarity based on everything that Jesus had been doing in their presence.

The good news in all of these dynamics is that when it comes to faith, it’s not all about us and our choice, but about God and God’s agency and activity, that our assent, our yes, is an important part of the equation, but that our yes is itself a gift of God, a result of our having been drawn by the Father. That’s the good news.

The bad news, in fact, is that radically free choice, or the perception of it, can be quite the burden, causing anxiety, terror, even. What a relief to know that the burden of our choices is relativized by the sovereign realities of God’s grace and the claims of divine grace in our lives.

Many of you may have seen the classic foreign film from Denmark back in the 1980’s, “Babette’s Feast.” It’s based on a lovely short story by Isaac Dinesen. One of the main characters, a Swedish general, struggles with his life’s choices, but during the feast on which the movie centers, to me, a parable of the Eucharist, the General receives the gift of clarity and stands to make a speech before those gathered at the table. Here’s what the General says, and to me this speech reveals the point of the whole story, and it’s is a lovely expression of a Lutheran theology of grace:

“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. [We], my friends, [are] frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble. We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace… makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

What matters is not our choice, but God’s gracious choice for us in Christ Jesus, the bread that comes down from heaven. How can we help but say yes? That’s my take as a Lutheran pastor, and as an anxious sinner, on the questions of freedom of choice when it comes to our faith.

So it is that we, too, drawn by God, confess as we come to the table of divine grace, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Thus it is that we are fed and clothed, too, well-protected by the full armor of God, and given gracious gifts with the coming of the Spirit in baptism. Here’s what we are given to echo the words of the author of today’s passage from Ephesians – we are clothed with: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the capacity to proclaim the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.

Thus, we are well-prepared to engage the sacred work entrusted to us in and for the sake of the world, the work of contending with the “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) – all part of God’s ongoing mission to continue to choose God’s creation in grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. Amen.

Pentecost 12/Lectionary 20B, John 6:51-58

Let’s do a little thought experiment to begin. Imagine that you have no acquaintance with Christianity, that you are hearing today’s gospel reading for the first time. Imagine your gut reaction to these words of Jesus recorded by John: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)

There may be a couple of words that come to your mind when you hear about eating flesh and drink blood: cannibals and vampires.

So it is that the radicality of Jesus’ discourse found in John 6 deepens in provocative extremity. Indeed, those encountering Jesus’ teaching back in the day raised the undeniably natural question: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Great question. Jesus’ teaching in John about flesh eating and blood drinking might be softened, depending on the Greek word used for flesh or body. I suppose the Greek might have been ‘soma,’ from which we derive the English word somatic – this is a word that might suggest body in a more philosophical or spiritual manner. But no, the Greek word in John is ‘sarx,’ that is, a Greek word that really does refer to flesh and blood in a literal sense.

The use of this particular Greek word makes Jesus’ teaching in John even more radical: how can mortal flesh, flesh that ultimately dies and decomposes, make for eternal life? How can such literal flesh be the source of living forever? How can such flesh be true food, and blood that is also made from ‘sarx,’ be true drink?

Moreover, mortal flesh is associated with sin, the law, the rule, of corrupt human nature. How can the locus of such sinful, broken mortality be the womb for giving birth to a resurrected life without sin and mortality?

Well, in Jesus Christ, the word of God became flesh to dwell among us full of grace and truth. That’s the whole point. The word chosen in the Prologue to John’s Gospel is the word that has to do with mortal flesh, ‘sarx’. It’s not the spiritualized, philosophical word for body.

To help make the point, recall that Paul writes this in 2 Corinthians: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

God’s descent into flesh in Christ is the source of our liberation from the sinful, mortal claims of the flesh. In Christ, flesh is redeemed. In Christ, flesh finds resurrection. In Christ, mortal flesh finds eternity.

In eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood, sacramentally speaking, we also eat and drink Christ’s cross, Christ’s death, and Christ’s resurrection, incorporating into ourselves all that Christ is, all that Christ did, and all that Christ does.

That’s the divine truth that John focuses on, such that Jesus’ flesh is indeed true food, and his blood true drink.

Unredeemed mortal flesh wants a good lunch. In the resurrected flesh that makes for eternity in Christ, we get much, much more than good eats.

But it’s all so mind-blowing. Today, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, happens to fall on the day of commemoration of Mary, Mother of our Lord. Perhaps this coincidence helps us make some further sense of all of this flesh eating and blood drinking in today’s gospel from John.

Think of human pregnancy, giving birth, the bond between mother and child, the bond between Mary and Jesus. There’s a lot of sharing of flesh and blood in the whole wondrous process of pregnancy and giving birth. This is common human experience that’s not so very far off the flesh eating and blood drinking described in John’s gospel.

There’s a whole lot of orality in the early years of human life. The child at the mother’s breast involves in significant ways eating and drinking the flesh of their mother. What is mother’s milk, but the creation, the fruit of her flesh, her sarx? That nutritious milk finds its way from mother’s bloodstream into our bloodstream for our health and vitality and growth.

We don’t think of cannibals and vampires when we see the beauty of the enfleshed bonds between mother and child.

Our union with Christ in the Eucharist is more in keeping with the fleshy maternal bonds between mother and child than the sordid visions of horror films that depict cannibals and vampires….
All of which does indeed bring us to the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, where we confess that we eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood.

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Still a great question, the metaphysics of which Martin Luther never sought to solve or explain. Rather, Luther emphatically insisted on faith in Christ’s promise and its fulfillment: this is my body, this is my blood. Trusting this promise to be true.

So, we are left with the wonder of it all, the mystery, that in faith our simple meal at the sacramental table is the fulfillment and enfleshment of Jesus’ promises made throughout John chapter 6. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”

It strikes me that the first reading for today from Proverbs makes for a great invitation to Communion: Wisdom “has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant women, she calls from the highest places in town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’” (Proverbs 9:2-6)

Thus, we lay aside the drunkenness of mortal flesh and in Christ, in the Spirit, we are enabled, empowered, and moved to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among [ourselves] singing and making melody to the Lord in [our] hearts, giving thanks to God, the Father, at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20)

Thankfully singing our songs, we prepare both sacramental and ordinary tables to feed a hungry world with the bread that still comes down from heaven, even Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, as we give birth to this divine word anew like Mary in our lives of loving service to our neighbors. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Pentecost 11/Lectionary 19B, John 6:35, 41-51

John reports that Jesus said this to the crowd – listen to these words again: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And then Jesus concludes that whoever eats the bread that he provides will not die.

Taken literally and at face value according to a plain reading of the words, what Jesus says, what Jesus promises in John, is simply not true. Even believers in Jesus experience hunger and thirst. Some hunger and thirst periodically and in modest ways. Others in chronic and catastrophic ways. And then everyone without exception, even believers in Jesus, die. That’s the plain, literal reality.

Plain, literal interpretations of Jesus’ provocative sayings have a tendency to short-circuit our minds, to defy our sense of reality. How can Jesus make such outlandish claims which are clearly not in keeping with ordinary human experience of realith? It’s beyond our common comprehension.

Thus, if we want something other than an experience of mind-blowing, radical cognitive dissonance, it’s clear that we need to engage what Jesus says in John in ways beyond the plain and literal readings.

Recall that the sixth chapter of John begins with Jesus providing dinner enough for five thousand people with leftovers to spare. Stomachs were filled to satisfaction. But as the narrative in John progresses, as we are encountering in this series of Sundays focused on this one chapter in John, we see a shift from the bread we eat for routine meals to a different kind of bread.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.” If Jesus himself is the bread, and Jesus comes from the eternal abundance of God, then indeed those who come to him for this particular bread will never be hungry and those who believe in Jesus, the heavenly bread, who also gives himself as the fruit of the vine, will never be thirsty.

Jesus does not run out. Jesus does not become moldy or stale. Jesus does not run dry. Jesus is forever. Always. Everywhere. Jesus is made known by the Spirit that proceeds from the Father, and from Jesus’ own lips when he breathed on the disciples after the resurrection in the closed room imparting the gift of that same Spirit.

This same Spirit of Jesus is everywhere, all the time, reliably active in what we call the means of grace – the proclamation of the word, the bath which is baptism, and the sacred meal at the sacramental table, along with confession and forgiveness in our holy encounters and interactions with each other.

Thus, Jesus provides something akin to, but also transcending, what we heard in today’s first reading where Elijah went forty days and forty nights on the food given him by God. That’s remarkable. But Jesus offers more and for eternity, not just supplies for forty days and nights.

So, indeed, if Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven, then those who eat the bread and drink the fruit of the vine do not hunger and thirst, at least in the ways of our ordinary hunger and thirst at meal times.

But what about our ordinary hunger and thirst – especially those who suffer such hunger and thirst catastrophically in famine? What good is the bread of eternity if we don’t have bread enough for right now each day to satisfy our bodily needs?

With focus only on heavenly bread, we run the risk of reductionistically spiritualizing the words of Jesus reported by John, speaking of hunger and thirst only metaphorically. But remember that Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand provided an abundant spread of ordinary food. Remember, too, that the bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is his flesh. That is, Jesus does not denigrate or ignore bodily needs. Furthermore, remember that in John, Jesus is the word of God made flesh, full of grace and truth, which honors human embodiment and ordinary needs for daily bread, heavenly and otherwise.

So, we are called to have in mind not just sacramental eating and drinking but also our usual meal tables and how the grace given in the sacrament inspires Christian people to be about the literal feeding of the hungry, even as Jesus fed people in ordinarily satisfying ways. There is an intimate link between the table here in church and the food preparation tables at the Arlington Food Assistance Center in South Arlington where Nathan and I have been volunteering this summer. One table’s abundance leads to the other tables’ plenty.

Thus far, I’ve addressed Jesus’ promise that in him we neither hunger nor thirst. But what about death and the promise of Jesus reported by John that those who eat the bread that is Jesus will not die, but live forever?

 

Yet, we do die. That’s true. But Christian death, enveloped as it is sacramentally by baptism and the Eucharist, means that even in death we share in the life of the Trinity. Even in death we enjoy the eternal embrace of the living God in Christ in the power of the Spirit as we await the day of resurrection. That Jesus, we confess, descended to the place of the dead means that there is no place, even in death, where Jesus has not already gone before.

The eternal life we enjoy even now, according to Jesus in John, persists as gift of grace even in death. We are not forsaken. We are not left alone or orphaned. Even in death.

But you know what? This is all still quite mind blowing. Outlandish still according to human logic and standards and typical experience.

Then there’s also common experience of the failings of the church and of Christian people who persist in disappointing imperfection. Just look at the letters to the churches in the Christian scriptures, for example, the passage for today from Ephesians. That the author has to exhort the hearers to good behavior reveals between the lines that there was a lot of bad behavior in the early church. In today’s reading it’s clear that the church in Ephesus struggled with liars, those who had issues with anger, thieves, people who were bitter, slanderers, those who were unkind, unforgiving, who in short did not live up to the ideals of Christian love.

All of this diminishes our capacities to receive the truth of Jesus that in him we will neither hunger, nor thirst, nor succumb to the multiple ways of death. Thus, we might languish in cognitive dissonance. Or many simply leave the church and Christianity altogether.

However, the effect of having our minds divinely blown is for some not a turning from God, but a turning to God in faith.

And here, I cannot help myself but to turn to the end of John chapter six to what is the appointed gospel passage for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost on August 22. Just a heads up: I am not preaching that day. We’ll have as our guest in the pulpit, The Rev. Lowell Almen, a dear friend who will be visiting me here and who was for twenty years the Secretary of the ELCA. I have it on good authority that he is likely to focus on that day’s second reading from Ephesians.

So, I feel free to go where we will end up in John 6. In this chapter, John reports that Jesus goes on and on about his flesh being the living bread that comes down from heaven and that when we eat his flesh and drink his blood we don’t hunger, we don’t thirst, and we live forever.

Religious authorities understandably disputed Jesus’ claims. Even the disciples exclaimed, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Some of Jesus’ followers departed, never to return to following him. Jesus then asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

That’s when Simon Peter gives the punchline, which also forms the basis of one of our sung gospel verse acclamations in the liturgy: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And Simon Peter adds, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (cf. John 6:56-69)

There is something about difficult teaching that can drive us into the arms of our merciful God in Christ.

Perhaps this is what Jesus refers to in today’s gospel as being drawn by the Father. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (John 6:44a) It may be that the confounding logic of God draws us in.

Thus drawn, we feebly struggle with the law, the rule, of the logical confines of the human mind, even as we are drawn in grace and in faith to confess with Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

And in that confession of faith we endeavor with thanksgiving for grace given to feed the world with the same bread that comes down from heaven, who is Jesus himself – even as we also seek to provide a good lunch to the world’s hungry people. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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