With Many Words – Lectionary 09/12/2021

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Sermon Text

           To speak is to wield a deadly weapon. Our tongue is an implement sharper than any sword and its reach stretches far beyond its simple frame. To open our mouth ant to pass air through our larynx is to make a large move toward either goodness or evil. No pitfall is dug more quickly than the one we dig with idle talk, and no mess is harder to clean up after than the mess left in the wake of hurtful words.

The dangers of speech should be plain to us. James spares nothing in how harshly he expresses their effects here. More than just what we have read, we should see how much of our own lives are consumed in the outcome of words. The serpent in Eden did not conquer us through force, but by a few spare words. The pages of a few telegrams were enough to launch a world war. Marriages end, friendships crumble, and even Churches fall when we let our words get way from us. Though actions speak louder than words, it is the multitude of our words that ultimately sinks us. Perhaps that is why Jesus taught us as he often did, not only in simple parables, but in admonitions against wordiness.

To our tendency to tell tall tales and make false promises, Jesus forbids oath taking (Matt. 5:33-37.) The words we speak are lifted up as one of the fruits of either a good or bad life (Matt 12:33-37.) The Lord’s prayer is taught to us so that we do not overcomplicate our prayers, but keep them brief, earnest, and to the point (Matt. 6:7-8.) Jesus builds upon a wealth of wisdom from scripture to make clear time and time again that we are to guard our tongue. It is, perhaps more than any other tool we use in life, the most closely linked to our heart – for good or for ill. The things we say, and how we say them, matter.

There is a tendency for us, when we begin to study passages that speak about how evil roots itself down into our hearts, to respond in one of two ways. Either we direct its lessons outward and try to attack others or we over emphasize our own fallenness to the point of absurdity. The former looks like the impulse many of us likely had as I read our scripture. This impulse take the form of a long list that populates the moment we hear about gossips and people who speak carelessly. We think of them with a dismissive chuckle and thank God we are not nearly so sinful.

The second impulse is antithetical to the first, and more subtle in its danger. We sometimes hear of the wickedness of our heart and decide that we must be completely evil as a result. We decide that, since we are really so dirty and sinful, then there is no meaning to us trying to be good, and all that matters is that we can acknowledge how bad we really are. Yet, the reality sits somewhere between these two ideas. In every person is both good and evil, two trees that feed off of very different streams. As se inspect our own souls, we cannot presume either tree is greater than the other, but we must seek the truth honestly.

The difference between appearing to have found the truth and actually living into is demonstrated, I think, by a Facebook post I saw long ago. The author was responding to someone else they did not name, about how foolish it was to try and be “authentic.” They described what it would mean if they were authentic in their thoughts and feelings. The listed about how they would yell at people who made them angry, that they would tell people they looked ugly when they asked how he liked their hair, and that he generally would be vicious to anyone and everyone he met. To be authentic, he argued, was to be cruel, and we were better off pretending than acting in a way consistent with our hearts.

In a way, he was correct. It is better to not say something cruel even if we think it. However, I hope we can see in his self-examination, an example of something that straddles both extremes of our less productive responses to our own sinfulness. On one hand, the author successfully identified that he was a mean person, and so living into the meanness would be more hurtful than it would be helpful. However, his conclusion was not then that he should change that disposition of his heart, but instead pretend it did not exist. Thus, he could triumphantly say those arguing for “authenticity,” were the real fools, because lies alone preserved society.

We must be more nuanced in our self-examination. Everyone here is a sinner, myself included. Yet, no person here is completely evil, myself included. We all have good and we have bad, the good which God grows within us and the evil we have grown up ourselves. If we are honest when we look in the mirror, we will not think too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but honestly assess both our strengths and our weaknesses. Returning to the idea of “authenticity,” the authentic Christian is not someone who tries to be the best version of who they presently are but is constantly in a state of becoming. We are presently both good and bad, but we must seek to be more good and less bad as time goes on. This goodness and badness is something, again, which we must see in how we speak just as much if not more than how we act.

It is appropriate to draw my example from Facebook, because social media is where much of our daily conversation happens these days. Not just on Facebook, but on Twitter and Tiktok, and to a lesser extent Snapchat and Instagram, we are constantly broadcasting speech to the world. It is in these places that we see ourselves in our most idealized and raw states. On one hand the keys on our phones and laptops give us distance to manicure an image. Our photos can be of us and our things at our best lit and most put together.

We share and write posts that put forth an image of who we hope people see us to be. Contrarywise, that same distance makes those we disagree with seem unreal. Suddenly, the well manicured image we have made disappears as we remove the mask to yell at strangers across cyberspace.

Entire online industries depend on this outrage. Videos of one person “destroying,” another are shared with incredible ferocity. We love to see our opponents humiliated by people we agree with. Every comment and share is an affirmation of the violence which our words work in the world around us. I think that much of the perception which people, especially older people, have of a more sensitive world is actually an acknowledgement of a more aggressive one. Our words cut deeper, our actions that follow likewise are intensified. We go for the jugular of one another the moment the chance presents itself, often to the harm of all parties involved.

These issues are not limited to violent or cruel language, abut also to dangerous falsehoods. Lies spread quickly these days and the faster they fly the harder it is to untangle or stop them. Sometime last year in the midst of one of the many popular scandals that was flying around, I had a loved one say something to me that I knew was untrue, but that I could not satisfactorily debunk at the time. Digging into the matter took me several hours. In that time I found the original quote that was then misquoted elsewhere, then misrepresented somewhere else, that was then lied about in yet another place.

By the time I knew the cause of this lie, I had a full plate of evidence. Yet, in that time those lies solidified in the mind of my relative, they were now part of their worldview. No amount of evidence could change that.

This weekend we observe a solemn remembrance of the September 11th attacks. Much has changed in the two decades that have passed since then. Most striking of all is the change in how we speak of things, sometimes for good and often for bad. I think that our response, literally how we talked about the attacks and what followed, has revealed a great deal about ourselves. To articulate what I mean a bit more concretely, I want us to look at a medium most of us can relate to on some level – namely country music. Though I am personally more a fan of alt-rock and metal, I am too much a West Virginian to not have some affinity for Alan Jackson and Reba.

Alan Jackson is one of the musicians to respond to the tragedy with his song, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning.)” The song is a ballad that captures how it felt to live in a world that suddenly changed faster than anyone could respond to. It captures feelings of sorrow and anger and fear, but it rests on a thoughtful refrain asking us to really think about what it means to live in a world that has been shattered. The other song that was archetypal of our speech following the attacks was Tobey Keith’s, “The Angry American.” Keith had written a battle hymn that dreamt of a fiery revenge against America’s enemies, and glorified those attacks that had already been launched against Iraq and Afghanistan. These two responses capture a variety of valid emotions, but one is rooted in thoughtfulness and carefully chosen words, and the other puts emotions before anything else. For myself personally, twenty years later having only the slightest sense of a world before the attacks, I take much more from Jackson’s words than I do Keith’s. In particular, it is Jackson who quotes scripture, saying that though he knows nothing else, he knows, “Faith, hope and love, are some good things [God] gave us, but the greatest is love.”

Despite my own predilection, I think Keith and his style has won out in modern country and in our disposition as culture. We are more combative than ever and Country music, and indeed most genres of music, now are confrontational when they are not vapid. There is much to critique in Country music, and in rock and pop and any other kind, but perhaps the most distressing thing our musical tastes show is our continued willingness to fight with one another. Though Keith wrote “The Angry American,” about revenge, his later songs were more pointed towards those he disagreed with generally. That tone, dismissive at best and violently oppositional at worst, defines how we speak to one another. Exacerbated by tragedy, our words have torn each other apart more and more over the years.

Before I pontificate on “cultural issues,” or become just another minister complaining about “today’s music.” I want to return to more obvious ways words affect us, but looking at a case study of when my own words got me into a bit of trouble. Once a dear friend of mine and I had a falling out because of five words I spoke without thinking. I was working at WVU, sitting at the Bennett-Lyon residence hall desk, and after a few hours on duty a coworker came down to speak with me. After a bit of back and forth, she shared concerns that my friend was mistaking her friendliness for romantic interest. I shook my head and told her not to worry because, “He thinks everybody loves him.”

Fast forward almost a year. My friend decides to ask a different woman we worked with if she has feelings for him, afraid that she was going to be hurt when he did not reciprocate. She snapped back at him for this. In her response to his question she said that she had heard about him, and the fact that he “thought that everybody loves him.”

It did not take long for him to track those words back to me, and he was rightfully angry. He did not speak to me for several months after that, an impressive feat because we lived in the same building and worked together. The silence broke when he asked me to help him at a food bank. We went and worked and, on the way back, he said this to me (slightly edited to avoid colorful language.) “John, there are a lot of crappy people in this world, but I guess you are one of the least crappy.”

These words, backhanded as they were, began the process of healing. Several months would pass before our friendship looked even passingly like what it once was all the same. The story, unfortunately, does not end especially well. We both went on to separate callings, moved away and fell out of touch. Distance and circumstance worked into the cracks of what we had rebuilt and pushed apart the ruins into nothing. I still think of him, and a few others I’ve hurt in my short life, and the weight of what was and could have been sits heavy in me.

The image of fire that James uses is appropriate because when fire burns a forest down, the same trees that burned are seldom what grows back. When we speak without thinking, we hurt others with wounds we cannot just take away with apologies or gifts. The damage is done and even if the earth should heal, something else must grow in the place of what once was. Our words matter because they are deadly in a way weapons could never be. Lies, insults, even just inconsiderate speech, these all burn away the bonds of love faster than anything else ever could.

What then is our cure? Can there be hope for us? There is always hope, hard won though it may be. Firstly, we must be honest about the damage our words have caused in the past. If we confess our sins before God and one another, we can identify the wounds they have caused.

Next, we must not simply ask for forgiveness, but offer penance for the wrong we have committed. How can we trust those who have hurt us? By seeing them prove they are committed to repairing the damage and healing the relationship that was severed. Absolution is only complete when the damage that was done is healed to the satisfaction of those who were wronged. Sometimes that means things go back to how they were, sometimes that means that they must sadly end, and sometimes that means something new and in-between must take that place.

As a confessed sinner by way of my words, I must acknowledge how James begins our passage. Not all should be teachers, for we are held to much higher standards, and we should be. As your minister, I seek in all things to speak truly, but also kindly and considerately. If I ever breach my responsibility to any of these callings, keep me honest. If you do not wish to speak to me directly about something I have said or done, go through the PPRC, they exist to mediate such trouble. While I strive in all things to be compassion, considerate, and to listen more than I speak, I still a sinner with a speech impediment dependent on God’s mercy. Correct my wrongs.

If we do this together, then we will see growth. If you keep me in line, I’ll try to the same for you. We all must work together to grow, to mind our tongues, and to learn to bless rather than curse. We must reach out to one another and to the world with love and peace on our lips more often than anything else. We will still fight, we will still disagree, but we can do so with love and respect for one another.

That respect means honoring one another feelings, opinions, identities, and backgrounds. That love means seeking one another’s good above self-interest and self-satisfaction. We must avoid petty fights, because we all must agree, it is easier to prevent a fire from happening than try to put it out. Let us seek together to be better in controlling our words and through this exercise together let us someday learn how to perfect every aspect of our conduct toward one another. – Amen.

A Table Set for All – Lectionary 09/05/2021

James 2: 1-17

            My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, 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 says 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: 5-7, 14, 17

5. ἀκούσατε ἀδελφοί μου ἀγαπητοί οὐχ ὁ θεὸς ἐξελέξατο τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ πλουσίους ἐν πίστει καὶ κληρονόμους τῆς βασιλείας ἧς ἐπηγγείλατο τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν αὐτόν

6. ὑμεῖς δὲ ἠτιμάσατε τὸν πτωχόν οὐχ οἱ πλούσιοι καταδυναστεύουσιν ὑμῶν καὶ αὐτοὶ ἕλκουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς κριτήρια

7. οὐκ αὐτοὶ βλασφημοῦσιν τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑμᾶς

14. τί τὸ ὄφελος ἀδελφοί μου ἐὰν πίστιν λέγῃ τις ἔχειν ἔργα δὲ μὴ ἔχῃ μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν

17. οὕτως καὶ ἡ πίστις ἐὰν μὴ ἔχῃ ἔργα νεκρά ἐστιν καθ᾽ ἑαυτήν

Sermon Text

 Preference is a dangerous word. I have many things in life I prefer over another thing. I prefer my coffee sweetened with cream, or in the case of espresso, cut with just a little milk. I prefer the BBC and NPR to other news sources. I prefer hot mix pepper to sweet. All these simple statements of “This, more than that,” make up the basic inclinations of a person’s life. It is natural to develop predilection, but it is also one of the most dangerous tendencies of a person’s soul. This is often the case, something natural and even good can easily become twisted. Beatitude and curse living shoulder to shoulder.

The preferences with which we mark out our life are meant for these small things. They become dangerous if they go beyond the way or substance of how things are done or made and become the feelings we have toward people or groups. Preference is the word we use for things, but the only English work that can convey the same idea toward people is prejudice. Partiality toward one group over another, if it goes beyond matters of taste or honest disagreement, can only be negative. If nothing else, partiality for one thing is nearly impossible to exist without animosity for another.

This does not mean there will not be natural things that endear some people more quickly to us than others. The nature of friendship is often found in a moment of realization which C.S. Lewis captures in saying, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”[1] Shared interests, similar backgrounds, all manner of life experiences, all of these can start us off on a better foot with those around us. The end result of that initial impression is a jumpstart to relationships, it is the ability to hit it off with people we can relate to. It is, all the same, another dangerous precipice of a gift we are given. The allure of people who are too like us creates insular communities; we become unsure how to reach out because all around us are mirrors reflecting our own views backward.

Next month we will look into some of our more destructive habits associated with the preference we show toward certain groups as we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Today, we look at one of the more subtle ways we contribute to prejudice in life – namely, through our tendency to show preference to those who have something to offer us and our ambivalence or outright distain for those with nothing to give us. This is what James highlights directly in our scripture and what we, 2,000 years later, have not gotten much better at rejecting it now than we were then. Our preferences in much of life are rooted in self interest and none are clearer than our preference for the “right,” sort of people.

The early church was initially a group made up almost exclusively of the poor. The disciples were all poor by birth or by choice, and while it did not take long for some well-to-do individuals to join their ranks, the central identity of the Church was impoverished, marginalized, and powerless. As time went on this make-up fluctuated back and forth. While the poor made up the bulk of membership throughout history, the leadership of the church shifted into higher socio-economic levels. This disparity could be remedied by humble ministers and elders, but it had a definite impression on the culture of the Church.

Lest we let ourselves see this development as a purely systemic problem of the church, I invite us to turn back to James and his words, just a handful of decades after Jesus’s ministry. James looks at his audience and sees them giving preferential treatment to the rich in their community. These are not just wealthy church members, but anyone in the community with wealth and power. James points out, bluntly, that the well connected and well off are the same people who actively persecuted the church. Those who were given the place of honor at a Sunday brunch were the same people to litigate the church at the next civil court date. The people of God were chasing after the powerful, the wealthy, and the influential because they saw something “in it,” for them.

Perhaps, I am not being generous enough to our first century siblings. There were likely those in the early church who saw their neighbors with influence as good people to have on their side. Money can pay for a lot of things, filling bellies and providing for those without. Similarly, a high rolling community member joining the Church could solve some troubles of reputation. A local politician or businessperson would normalize Christianity for more people and in a way distinct from others with fewer connections.

These inclinations, though rooted in good intent, ultimately betray those who get out to act upon them. Firstly, wealth and power corrupt more than they heal. To chase after the rich and see them as a means to an end is to invite them to rule over the Church, to recreate society within sanctuary. Power enables those who have it to pursue what they want, and all but the strongest people can resist that. Beyond any negative impact these good intentions might have, to chase after the approval of the rich in this way, ultimately objectifies them. They cease to be people and become line-items; we fail to expand a community in exchange for refining a program.

This all played out on a grand scale in the fourth century when the newly crowned Emperor Constantine legalized all religions in the empire and especially elevated Christianity. Though never fully converting, the emperor gave fortunes to the church, his Christian mother traveled the empire to collect relics, and he gave bishops room to speak in the public square. He was even the one to call the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council since Jerusalem and the moment that marked an imperial Christianity that was intimately tied to money and power.

We today live in a waning period in the history of the Church. As religiosity largely decreases and the size of churches stagnates, we must go back to basics and ask, “What went wrong?” If we look at some of the most common reasons given for people leaving the church, we will see no small part of our troubles coming from who we have shown partiality toward. Since Constantine, and perhaps even before, we have looked to power and money and seen them as the way out of our troubles. We say, “If we only had a bit more money,” or “If only I was the one in charge.” We take these “what ifs,” and pursue them through worldly means.

The purpose of the Church is not to be in charge. Nor to have a great deal of money. It is to “[preach the] pure word of God… and [to see] the sacraments duly administered,”[2] and to gather all the world together in service to one another. Does this sometimes require interacting with secular authority? Yes. Does it require money? Of course! However, neither of those are to consume our focus. They are only truly important to us as they augment our mission. We cannot bring heaven to earth by inviting the ways of the world into the Kingdom of God.

James lays out the situation we find ourselves in plainly. When we deny a spot at God’s table for the poor and those who can offer us nothing in exchange for those who have money and means, we are sinning through prejudice. When we look into our community and see liabilities, strangers, and expenses rather than our siblings, we sin through our lack of moral vision. When our only hope is to stumble upon a wealthy donor to magic away our troubles, we sin through idolatry as blatant as any Asherah.

The truth is that the Church has been trying to be a political organization on one hand and a business on the other for too long. While we must be efficient, responsible, and transparent in our administration of the local church, we must not see it as anything but a mission center of Christ. Here work is done, and people prepared for the Kingdom, little else matters than that. Likewise, though members of a church must be active in politics so as to promote the common good, we are not a partisan institution. Neither should we strive to dominate through legislation when the Spirit provides more power than Babel ever could.

By posturing itself as the worst parts of society, the Church in America has fallen from grace alongside those other pillars. We don’t trust those in political office, nor the Church that often serves their interests in an attempt to gain favor. We don’t trust businesses, they only want to make money, not even usually to render an honest service. The American Church, not quite a political lobby and not quite a business empire, has suffered as much as either in recent decades.

Yet, hope remains. In the same way we as individuals are never beyond God’s grace, so to is the Church universal never broken beyond repair. We have to push beyond where we currently stand into new territory. What would it look like if we privileged the poor around us over the rich among us? What if we, blessed with abundance as we are, truly gave all we could to those who struggle around us? What if the mission of the Church was centered once more on feeding and doing and moved away from simply thinking and praying? A truly alive faith does the work of God wherever the Spirit calls and the Spirit calls from every empty cupboard and rundown house around us.

James asked a difficult thing of his audience all those centuries ago and the same hard work is still in front of us. Can we ignore what people have for us and instead simply see them as they are? The discomfort this lodges in our gut is rooted in a simple realization. The journey from well off church goer to just another person seems like a much further drop to us than we imagine it would elevate those who are unlike us. We see ourselves standing on mountains and all other people standing in deep valleys. Yet, James offers us a means to get over this perceived inequality.

In the midst of his petition for the people to cease their privileging of the rich, James goes on a quick tangent to discuss how judgment and mercy interact in God’s economy of Grace. James says that partiality is a sin in violation of love of neighbor. To sin in this way equalizes us with any other transgressor. This is said, not to excuse the villain, but to convict the saint. We may see ourselves as greater than the least of these, but as James puts it, God has chosen the poor to be heirs to the Kingdom. We are no better than the needy and in truth, we must step down from the crude throne we have made for ourselves if we wish to draw near to the throne God has made among them.

We prepare now to share in the table of God’s grace. Hopefully, the full weight of its observance sits upon us now. We prepare to take thin wafers and sour juice and see in it the body of Christ. We will leave this place invigorated by the Spirit to be the body of Christ. The real test of our faith will be in how we live out our life in the time from now till we next take part in this meal. Will we have seen the face of Christ in those around us? Will we invite them in to sit beside us at this table, not for want of attendance or tithes, but to fulfill God’s will and turn the kingdom over to those it is promised to? The table is set for all, let us see to them receiving not only their invitation, but their full due. – Amen.

[1] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves.

[2] The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church. Article XIII

True Cleanliness – Lectionary 08/29/2021

Mark 7:1-16

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “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.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Sermon Text

Today, I begin my message with something that may seem counter to what we just read. Please, wash your hands before eating. I’ll go further, please wash your hands often and thoroughly. Two years, almost, have passed since this pandemic began and I hope we have some idea about how important soap and hot water are. However, having used public restrooms recently, I know that not everyone took anything away from that exercise.

Now, lest I seem like a pharisee in our story today, I want to look at our scripture a little more closely. The preaching of Jesus attracted attention from all corners of Judea. There were followers of Jesus who believed in violently rebelling against Rome, these were called the Sicarii or “knife-men.” There were the Torah thumping fundamentalists who called themselves Sadducees. Alongside them were the trendier, far more accepting and prophecy loving Pharisees. Even the reclusive and mystical Essenes sometimes made their way out from their enclaves to see what Jesus was about. All flavors of belief and expression were drawn to Jesus because Jesus had something to offer no one could deny. He had truth, and an authority in the way he spoke it, that was irresistible even as it was controversial.

We should see the initial approach of the Pharisees and Scribes, not as antagonistic toward, but likely genuinely interested in Jesus. Pharisees, despite our modern use of the term, were not mustache twirling villains. In fact, Jesus taught many of the same things they did, just in different ways. The disagreement between Jesus and Pharisees was something like a Baptist fighting with a Methodist. Where they differed was important, but where they agreed was equally so. For the Pharisees, individuals decided whether or not they sided with Jesus, except in larger cities where politics and faith were more closely intertwined. When we get too close to judging the Pharisees, remember Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both among them.

The interest of the Pharisees who visited that day quickly turned into disgust as they saw Jesus’s followers. Some among them ate food without washing their hands. This was not a washing to eliminate dirt and grime, but to remove any potential unclean debris. This way a person could avoid accidentally becoming ritually unfit for prayer. This practice of adding precautions against violating God’s teachings is called “building a fence around the Torah.”[1] This term was seemingly coined by Rabbi Akiva, a teacher and likely Pharisee who was born a few years after Jesus’s ministry on earth. When we read that the people washed pans, hands, and foodstuffs, we should see it as an attempt to make sure God’s law was being followed. Even unintentional transgression was to be avoided. By avoiding doing what is wrong though, the goal wasn’t just to avoid trouble, but to eventually become better at being good.

To understand this, let us use a different example. If I wanted to avoid being hurtful to other people, I might start by forbidding certain language from leaving my lips. I do not mean swearing, although honestly most of us are too comfortable with the practice, but instead hurtful talk. Our tendency to abuse others is shown in the way we default to certain terms, “Stupid,” “Thoughtless,” “Dumb,” “Ugly.” Those abusive terms that put down a person rather than promote them to grow. Beyond these are many more that are best left unsaid. However, beyond not saying abusive language, hopefully my careful consideration of what I’m saying will show me how to be more considerate generally. Then, all of a sudden, I’m not just avoiding speaking ill of people, but actively encouraging them!

This practice of “building a fence,” is not in itself bad. Jesus uses this tactic a few times, imploring us not even to hate people, building a fence around the prohibition not to murder. Likewise, we are told not too look at other people like objects (even being told to pluck out our eyes if we cannot learn better!) This builds a fence around adultery. In this way, Jesus resembles those same traditions which are being discussed here. So, why is it that the question of hand washing upsets Jesus here?

The difference seems to come in how stringent the Pharisees who visit Jesus are. Though my reading of the Talmud is likely imperfect, a second century text separates out washing hands before a meal from doing so before prayer. The first is called a “mitzvah,” and the second is called a “choveh,” or obligation. The distinction is made clearer in William Davidson’s translation which adds context so as to read,” [the first] is a [command] by Rabbinic Law, [the latter,] is an obligation.”[2]This suggests that while one is generally practiced as essential, the other is open to some debate. To draw a more easily understood parallel, it is customary and good to yield right of way to the car on your right at a four way stop, it is an obligation to stop at the sign.

Jesus then is not mad at the idea of a tradition, but at the idea that a nonessential tradition is now central to the identity of his critics. Instead of listening to the teachings of Jesus, they scrutinized his followers. For some issues that would be sensible. Many people look down on the Church as a whole for the conduct of Sunday brunch patrons toward waitstaff. Yet, to look at an optional custom as essential is to make what is essential seem trivial and what is trivial seem useless. It is to toss both into a shared pool of hurt feelings and broken hearts.

Lat week, we discussed communion at length. Though I won’t rehash all the details involved, it is strange that we let the outside bits of that rite cause so much conflict. The exact way that Jesus joins us in the meal is secondary to the fact Jesus shows up! The kind of bread and whether juice or wine is used is likewise auxiliary to this. What matters is Christ being with us and us being with Christ. All other materials, though important, must take a back seat to the unity that that table affords us. This is not just true for communion, but every ritual of the Church and every doctrine we teach from the scripture.

The conflict in this scene might have been avoided if the pharisees and scribes had come to this disagreement from another angle. Having seen Christ as a teacher worth seeking out, they should have trusted him in how he taught his disciples. That some of them were shirking a lesser statute was not worth a public dispute, something that was especially serious to begin in the ancient world. Jesus’s response, though perhaps a bit harsh to modern ears, was necessary to counter the critics he faced. By publicly raising this issue, the Pharisees were trying to shame Jesus, to question his legitimacy. The response that Jesus gives is direct, but it cuts through any pretenses we might place upon his teachings.

Jesus does not immediately address the idea of washing hands. Instead, Jesus points to the rationale behind the practice. It is a, “tradition of the elders.” These ideas are not completely written of by Jesus, but he points our how easily misused they are. While the Pharisees before Jesus are questioning hand washing, Jesus points to a custom that has become all too common among Judeans of his time. This is the denial of help to parents by donating money they need to the community. Jesus interprets :honor thy mother and father,” to mean ensuring they are fed, sheltered, and cared for.

Despite this responsibility, when parents become too old to take care of themselves, people would throw their hands up and say, “I gave too much money to the poor! I cannot help them!” Whether or not the person claiming this had really given that much is anyone’s guess. The practice of giving something as “Korban,” was meant to feed the poor in the community. Those who claimed to be unable to support their elderly parents were then creating a different sort of fence, one where people would be uncomfortable pointing out their failure. After all, how can you criticize someone for taking care of the poor? It would be like if I taught you all that it was fine to let your children go hungry or your parents live on the street so you could fund our food pantry. Our responsibility to do one thing, like feed the poor, is dependent upon our responsibility to do other things, like care for our parents. The opposite, it must needs be said, is also true.

Jesus brings up this trading of one responsibility for another to say that it is not external actions alone that defines a person, but the virtues within and the intention behind them. To wash your hands before eating is fine and dandy if it is truly done with the intent to serve God. Likewise, donating money to those in need or to causes that serve them is laudable. The problem emerges when the act itself is divorced from the true purpose. When we give money to look impressive, rather than to care for others, or act holy for clout rather than to please God and live a better life. In this, we fail to meet the expectations this teaching lays out for us.

If I may tell another short story, growing up, I knew a minister who worked with youth. He would guilt us into coming to services, even when we had obligations our parents had set for us. It seemed holy, to want to go to youth group more than visit grandma, but it only bred a misplaced sense of rebellion in us. We did not grow any holier through it, but we sure felt that way.

For us in our daily life, we can take two lessons from our scripture. The first is to interrogate our beliefs and decide which are essential and which are helpful, but ultimately not absolutely necessary. In the Church this is traditionally called “adiaphora,” a word that essentially means, “not worth fighting over.” I define it as a something worth talking about over dinner, but not worth leaving that dinner in a huff about. If it is still important enough to discuss after that, then we first speak with one another personally and seek understanding. By beginning with public disputes (and social media of all kinds counts,) we set ourselves up for hurt feelings.

By seeking to understand one another, we open up a new opportunity, the change to learn together and grow together. The biggest struggle Jesus’s opponent seemed to face was that he had not come to fight them, but to offer them an alternative to the world as it was. IF they had listened, if they had interacted with a bit more grace, more of them may have found their way into the Kingdom after all. By assuming that their differences from Jesus were insurmountable, they lost out on all the teachings that waited behind those minor squabbles.

The second lesson we take from this text is more universal. The things we do, though important, only matter when they produce inner change. The Wisdom we accumulate in life is lived out and grown through us acting out God’s instructions. There must be a two way interaction of one good and another. Many people will not start to do good until they feel they are doing it for the right reasons. Well, to quote Lemony Snicket, “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.”[3] Likewise, we cannot use one good deed to avoid doing another. Instead, if we struggle to be generous, we must give things away. If we struggle to be chaste, we must deny ourselves more. If we fail in anything, we must simply act till we succeed.

By striving to do good, we shall become good, and in becoming good we shall know what it means to be cleansed of our sins. To be truly clean, we must not settle for the way we have always done things but seek out every opportunity to improve upon our personal and corporate methods. God calls us before we are ready, but unlike most callings, God makes us ready by getting us out and active. If we want to know God’s grace, we must live a life full of it. By pursuing what is good, the Spirit will supply all this is necessary, if only we go out and try.

So, let us take a deep breath before we snap back at someone. Let us seek to understand before dismissing their words. Likewise, we must lead ourselves into goodness with goodness. If we love when we do not feel like it, we overtime begin to really mean it. We cannot let excuses or substitutions get between God’s will and our souls. Let us seek to live a Godly life together, for that alone is what it means to truly be clean.

[1] Pirkei Avot 3. Available at: https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.3?lang=bi

[2] Chullin 105 a:13. In The William Davidson’s English Talmud. Available at: https://www.sefaria.org/Chullin.105a.13?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[3] Lemony Snicket. The Ersatz Elevator. (New York, New York: HarperCollins.) 2009

This Teaching is Difficult – Lectionary 08/22/2021

John 6: 56-69

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Sermon Text

 This week concludes our time looking at the tables which God has set for us. Where we began, we come to once again. The communion table is God’s ultimate sacramental gift to us. A sacrament is usually defined as, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” which was instituted by Christ.[1] The United Methodist Church believes there are two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Whereas baptism is a washing we only experience once in life, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, is something which we celebrate again and again. The bread we break, the juice we drink, represents to us more than just a meal. This is something which Christ began at his Last Supper before his passion, and which we faithfully continue until we gather once again to “feast at Christ’s heavenly banquet.”[2]

There has been, across all of Christian history, few teachings less clearly articulated or more hotly contested, than Holy Communion. The many wars and schisms of the Church are often rooted in a variety of problems, but inevitably tied in with all the political and doctrinal disputes are questions about what this meal means to those who eat it. It should be no surprise to us that we read Jesus’s first hints about eucharistic theology in the words, “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” that people immediately respond with the greatest possible understatement by saying, “This teaching is difficult.” The foundational rite of our church is found in this cup and this plate, and we should feel strongly about what it means to us, and the mystery it reveals, but we must also acknowledge there is something unknowable to it.

What I hope to do today is to explain history, but also to lay out why we have talked for so long about tables and how God gives us strength, wisdom, sustenance, and even just good things. More than that, by looking at the progression of Eucharistic theology, I hope we can establish what the basic belief of all Christians is about communion, and what we specifically as United Methodists hold to be true about it. While we will certainly continue conversations about communion beyond this one, truthfully, in two weeks, today is meant to give us the background we need for any future conversations. Today we look at this central aspect of our faith, we seek to know what is absolutely true about it, what is a matter of contention, and what we cannot even entertain.

The first celebration of Communion is recorded in the Gospels, where Jesus breaks bread and blesses wine as part of a celebration of Passover. The Church kept this ritual close to heart, celebrating it at least once more in the presence of Christ on the road to Emmaus. Paul lays out two separate meals that the church celebrated in its early days throughout his letters. The first was the Αγαπη (Agape,) and the second was the Ευχαριστιας (Eucharistias.) The Agape, or love feast, was a celebration of the community. Here people shared food, kinda like a potlcuk, and cared for the poor in so doing. The Eucharist was the thanksgiving offered to God for all good gifts, but especially Christ’s salvific work on the cross. These two rituals eventually combined to form “Communion,” as we know it today. Orthodox churches, it should be said, still have a basket of bread apart from Communion to serve as an αγαπη.

The first celebrations of the eucharist were overseen by apostles and elders. The prayer of Thanksgiving which was offered is recorded in the Didache, an early instruction manual of the Church, is short and direct, and goes as follows.

Lifting Cup. “We give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant, to you be the Glory forever.”

Lifting Bread. “We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and made one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.”[3]

This prayer, obviously different from our modern Great Thanksgiving, would adapt regionally and corporately across the next ten centuries. Eventually, this became the Latin mass as we know it in the West and the Great Liturgy as it is practiced in the Orthodox Church. The center of worship was always in the offering of the Eucharist, as it should be, but that centrality bred a certain worry in the West. For a variety of reasons, Communion became shut off to lower castes of people. First only the bread was given, and not the wine, and then many places stopped giving either to those outside the priesthood, instead simply having people look at the elements and engage in “ocular” communion. While some ministers faithfully administered the sacrament, these concerns naturally led to change.

We in the Protestant Church often cast Martin Luther as the first to see the problems which Western Christianity had developed. Yet, plenty of his Catholic peers had begun to name the many problems the Church was facing. These would be settled, after Luther left, in the Council of Trent, which solidified Catholic doctrine and practice in response to Luther’s reformation. Luther, by formally separating from the Church, initiated the second great schism of the Church, the first being between East and West. Luther took the seven sacraments widely accepted by the church and pared them down to two, baptism and communion. Likewise, he mandated Communion be given fully to all people, not just priests. The Catholic Church would mandate the same, universally, later on.

More than just ensuring Communion was available fully to all, Luther rebelled against an idea that was relatively new in the Church (about 400 years old.) The Church had always believed that Christ was somehow present in Communion, after all Jesus did say, “This is my body… this is my blood.” Yet, in explaining how this was true, the works of Aristotle were brought in and, over time, transubstantiation was born. This took Aristotle’s claim that everything had two aspects – its substance, what it was, and its accidents, what we sensed about it – and applied them to communion. To explain those two concepts further, the art you might accidentally sit on at an art museum, though it looks and feels and acts like a bench, is still art even if it seems otherwise (as the security guards will quickly make known.)

Transubstantiation holds that, in the moment a priest said the words, “Hoc est corpus,” the bread changed in substance to be the body of Christ while staying accidentally bread. It was Jesus, on the cross, that we ate, but it tasted, smelled, and looked like bread. Luther refuted this explanation but believed its core claim. We ate Christ in the Eucharist, but to explain how was to try and explain a miracle. For that reason, Luther preached consubstantiation, the idea Christ was present in this meal, but that we could never truly know how.

Ulrich Zwingli, father of the anabaptist (re-baptizing,) movement that would someday become the Mennonite, Amish, and by a few permutations Baptist movements, not only preached that adult baptisms were the only valid baptisms, but that communion was not an act of God. Zwingli founded memorialism as eucharistic theology. Communion was a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, but did nothing other than remind us what Christ did and fulfill Christ’s command to observe the supper. John Calvin, meanwhile, founded the “Reformed,” tradition, and was a precursor to presbyterian and puritan movements. He taught a middle position between Luther and Zwingli. To Calvin, by eating communion we were spiritually present with Christ, but the bread and juice remained simply that, a means to remember the work of the Spirit.

We fast forward two hundred years or so and look at the foundation of our modern United Methodist Church. John Wesley, an Anglican priest is managing a religious revival taking part on two continents. Philip Otterbein has begun a congregation in Baltimore, Maryland which will be called “the Brethren.” Both write in a world torn between Catholic and Protestant, Puritan and Anglican, Calvinist and Arminian, and increasingly, American and European. As with all aspects of their theology, the two thinkers had to write in a way that honored the truth of all these movements, while still holding to their own convictions. Their writings on communion were no different.

Otterbein is sadly not widely documented. This building was built as a United Brethren congregation, a number of people here were baptized into the Brethren, and as such the roots of this congregation must be traced to Otterbein. While I could not find many statements from Otterbein himself, I found an article that spelled out his eucharistic theology through the materials he used in his church.[4] Otterbein was a reformed thinker, and so he followed Calvin’s belief that communion was a spiritual meal where we engaged with God and drew strength from the Holy Spirit, yet the elements were physically unchanged. Otterbein pioneered the idea of “Open Communion,” allowing any baptized Christian from any church to participate, as long as they were prepared to do so ahead of time and covenanted to be part of the community. To take communion in the Brethren was to commit oneself to the community, to eat the body of Christ and to become the body of Christ together.

John Wesley is much more extensively recorded, and his beliefs are too. Wesley talked about Communion in a way that was not offensive to those who leaned toward consubstantion, but that was not shut off to more Calvinist ideas either. To Wesley, to eat the bread and drink the wine is to physically eat just those things, but to spiritually eat and drink God’s grace, and in so doing to spiritually have eaten the body and blood of Christ on the cross. It should be said that Charles Wesley, the hymn writer and brother of John, leaned more explicitly to the bread and cup being transformed into the body of Christ somehow, but John I think too held that something happened to the bread and wine, just not anything he was willing to tie down to a definite description. Even today, when pressed Methodists usually describe Communion as a “Holy Mystery,” containing the “Real Presence,” of Christ, because we acknowledge it is better to say “I do not know,” than to be wrong about some things.

The next three centuries bring us to today. Our liturgy for communion was written in 1969 with the ecumenical movement and our 1968 merger in mind. It is largely a recounting of the book of Romans, with the words of institution from Luke, and the occasional prayers being at the minister’s discretion. Whereas Wesley celebrated communion at every gathering, it was not uncommon in the Brethren or any protestant group to celebrate only occasionally. This was in part because ministers were over large areas and could only be in some places sometimes. Perhaps on the other side of the Pandemic, we can strive toward a more constant celebration of communion.

I hope you are still with me. Occasionally, I do launch into historical survey sermons, but who can blame me when my undergraduate degree focused on, “historical theology.” In the brief time we have on Sunday, I can only cover so much, but I hope we learned something, and I hope that from here we can have more discussions about this table and what it means to us. More than any theory, I hope we can understand that this table, meant to bring us together, is more often than not a source of separation in the Church. The first-time people leave Jesus’s ministry is in John 6, and it is over the idea of what this meal could possibly mean.

“This teaching is difficult,” but it is important. I talk as long as I have about it, because I think we don’t acknowledge that fact enough. I have had countless conversations with people who tell me they don’t care how communion is done or who does it, and that breaks my heart. Not because I want to shut out those who think or do differently, but because this central ritual of our faith has become a formality to many of us. We eat bread and drink juice because we always have, or we like the moment it gives us to think of Jesus, but we do not see anything more than that behind it. People have fought and died over a ritual we see as simply checking a monthly box.

It seems a shame not to offer communion now, after talking about it for so long, but over the next two weeks I hope we can really think about what this table means. Here we acknowledge we are all sinners, and no one can pretend to be better than any other. Here we submit to Christ, nor to any other leader, and say he is savior and Lord. Here we remember that our salvation was costly, but that God expects only love from us in return. This love transforms us, but in such a way that we and those around us thrive as much as we sacrifice. Christ is really with us when we celebrate communion, however it happens, it’s just the truth. Its not just a memorial meal, it is Christ with us, somehow God comes to dinner.

“Christ our Lord invites to this table all who earnestly repent of their sins and seek to live in peace with one another.” The opening line to our Eucharistic liturgy makes clear why we cannot take this for granted. This is a gift of God that we too often take unworthily as something we “just do.” Let us take time to see the glory of this meal, that as this bread and cup somehow become Christ, we too can become like Christ. Here we rehearse our salvation, and here we are transformed. May God prepare our hearts and humble our spirits, as we wait to gather and feast once again. – Amen.

[1] John Wesley. “Means of Grace,” II.1

[2]  The United Methodist Church’s  Service of Word and Table I

[3] Didache 9

[4] Kenneth E. Rowe. “Otterbein’s Eucharistic Faith and Practice” in Methodist History. 49:4 (July 2011)

The Table of Wisdom – Lectionary 08/15/2021

Proverbs 9: 1-6

          Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the 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.”

Sermon Text

Wisdom as a concept is different depending on who you ask about it. Different countries, cultures, and traditions across the world and across time have defined the concept in similar, but profoundly different terms. For some, wisdom is the realization of how life truly is. Others see wisdom as something which transcends the physical plane and takes on some spiritual existence. Regardless of the particulars which wisdom traditions hold onto, wisdom is always something which interfaces with our mind and allows us to interact with the world in a different way than we would on our own.

Wisdom in the Biblical tradition is discussed mostly in the Old Testament. While the New Testament speaks of wisdom a few times, it is usually in the context of philosophical discussions of what it means to be wise as defined by Greek culture. While I am personally a fan of Aristotle, it does not make sense for us to begin to understand Hebrew wisdom by going to Greece, at least not as our first destination. To understand our scripture calling us to come and eat at the table of חָכְמָה, (Chokmah) Hebrew wisdom, we cannot lose ourselves in Σοφια, Greek wisdom.

But, enough being abstract, what does it mean to be wise? There is a near universal understanding that wisdom is distinct from knowledge. A person can be wise without collecting expertise or miscellanea and while I am a big proponent for learning, and so I will never downplay the importance of always seeking more knowledge and more skills, but I would be lying to say that simply knowing or developing practical skills is the height of human achievement. We have to develop a more holistic approach to how we grow as people and part of that holistic growth is the pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom, across all traditions, is the art of seeing truth in a way most do not.

Specifically, within the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, wisdom can be described as the practical knowledge by which a person can learn to live a good life. This can be literal skills, how to properly steward money or respond to trouble. It can also be more general maxims about life, the lessons we learn and the virtues we develop. There are several books of the Bible that are traditionally considered to be “Wisdom,” writing. The books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, chunks of the Psalms, and even sometimes the Song of Songs are listed as Wisdom writings. These books focus in on the benefits of wisdom, and likewise, the dangers of foolishness.

It is important to note that this is a scholastic association of these books. Nothing in the texts themselves indicate they must be read together outside of their shared themes. However, we must take a moment and acknowledge that the Tanakh, the Jewish composition of what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scripture, includes all these books in one place, alongside Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Lamentations, and Chronicles. These are collectively called, “Ketuvim,” or “Writings,” because they are neither prophetic or a part of the Torah. In other words, though it is modern scholarship that took these books and called them “Wisdom Writings,” their association with one another has been known since the creation of the Tanakh.

So, now that we know where to find Wisdom in the Bible, that is the Wisdom tradition, and why we read them as a structural unit, we can begin to seek after what is behind all this talk of “wisdom,” and “foolishness.” Afterall, to live a good life is one of our chief goals. We in the Church hold, as all people who cleave to scripture do, that in our quest to know God, to see God face to face, we necessarily transform to become better people, wiser people one could say. To become wise though, we must first meet Wisdom personally.

Wisdom, is usually personified as a woman in scripture. This is in part because that name which Hebrew gives Wisdom, Chokmah, is a feminine noun. However, that does not determine gender of an object in the ancient world anymore than it does in modern gendered languages. No, Wisdom is personified as a woman because she is the administrator of the household of God’s people. Though it is difficult to explain fully in anything other than several books, it is fairly accurate to say that a woman of some means in the ancient world ran the day-to-day life of the house she was a member of. Poorer people were more roughly egalitarian, but among the nobility, women held power over the house and men held power over… most everything else.

This means that, in trying to imagine the world as a household, the writers of scripture saw the need to place God as the chief of that house and Wisdom as God’s partner in caring for that house. Wisdom is sometimes described as part of God, an aspect or emanation that we know God through. Other times, especially in Proverbs, Wisdom is named as a creation of God, through whom God created the world. If that sounds familiar, that is because John adapted the language of Proverbs 3:19-20, to describe Jesus (though specifically stating Jesus was not created, like Wisdom was,) as the architect of Creation. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens,” reads Proverbs, and John 1:3 tells us, “All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being…”

We should not take Wisdom and her personification too literally otherwise we have some complicated conversation to start about Jesus that will not fit into a Sunday morning. Wisdom is not a being, not a second God beside God, Wisdom is a concept, and idea, a gift, that we are able to interact with and benefit from. God has created the world for a purpose, and God made the world sensibly, so that we can live a life that is not just empty. God gave to the earth some sense of rationality, not that the dirt may become sentient, but that life may be conducted orderly.

Wisdom runs the world. Or at least, Wisdom should. The Wisdom literature, even in its most critical iteration in the form of Ecclesiastes, wishes to see a world that benefits those who do good. Those who are kind, those who are thrifty, those who seek the good of others, and worship God faithfully ought to do well. That is the dream of Wisdom. Yet, we know the world is crooked. Many times, those who succeed, succeed precisely because they are cruel, or reckless, they seek to hurt others, and they do not care what God says except when convenient. The dream of Wisdom is that we all might become wise, and through becoming wise, we all might live life a little better than we had before.

The call of Wisdom, throughout scripture, and especially in today’s reading, is to come and be made wise. We talked about how Wisdom is distinct from knowledge, yet we must in some way learn how to become it. The word that Wisdom uses in describing those who are invited to the feast are those who already know what to do, and those who, as the NRSV renders it, “are simple.” I don’t like that translation, nor do I like others that render it “naïve,” mostly because I hate when people call me naïve. Naïve suggests an unwillingness to accept what is true, or else an innocence to the point incompetence. No, I prefer to translate this verse more simply. “Come to me, those who do not know, and those who do know, and eat my bread and drink my wine.”

God sets several tables for us in life. The daily bread that sustains us, even in our darkest days. The Eucharistic table which spiritually enlivens us, and reminds us of Christ’s work on the Cross on our behalf. Here, yet another table is shown to us, this one of Wisdom. Again, the food is bread and wine, the two staples of Israelite produce. Yet, where one meal gives strength, and another grace, this meal gives us understanding about the world and how it is to be.

In my digging around to write this sermon, I found a quote that was thrown around pretty loosely defining a Hebraic stance on Wisdom. A footnote led me to look in the Talmud, a massive compendium of Jewish commentary and commentary upon that commentary, written by Jewish sages across time. I often find that, for the Old Testament, you need the Talmud or the Mishnah to understand the interpretation of the text throughout history. Two key passages defined Wisdom, or the person who is wise with two key phrases. A wise person is, “The one who can see the consequences of their actions.” [1]And a wise person is the one who, “learns from everyone.”[2]

As a starting point for us this week, I encourage us to take those two maxims and apply them to ourselves. We should think about what we do, not just one or two steps after we do it, but as many as possible. We have to be willing to anticipate and accept the consequences of our actions, no matter what they are. Likewise, we must learn from anyone we can. This does not mean we esteem all opinions and perspectives as equal – some people lie or seek to harm, and there is no reason to see those who act in bad faith as contributing to a conversation. No, instead we must be willing to listen to those different than us and those with whom we disagree as eagerly as we do those we agree with and are like.

The table which Wisdom has set, is open to all, and around tables conversation must be had. I do not like the common phrase we throw around these days that, “No one knows how to have a conversation anymore,” because I do not think it is usually said with any actual desire to have civil discussion, only to excuse our ideas as normative and anyone else’s as unreasonable. Yet, there is a truth to it. As we have become more divided and striated as a society, we do naturally stop talking and learning from one another. We are backed into a corner we have made and point fingers at other people as though they pushed us there. That cannot be how we go forward, it is certainly no way to learn.

To live a Wise life, is to learn. Not just raw information, but practical aspects of what it means to do good. I know I should feed the hungry, but unless I sit and talk to them, and to those who are serving them, how will I ever know what that looks like. I know I should be better with my money, but unless I give money away and save rather than spend what is leftover, how can I ever develop any sense about what money is meant to be used for? How can I house the homeless, if I’m only ever worried about what they do to property values and liability coverage? How can I love someone, I never talk to, and that I have written off as beyond conversational participation with? To be wise, we must listen to all who are willing to sit with us, we must look to what our actions do to others, and we must trust God’s gift that has brought all things to be.

So come, all that hunger to be good. The table is set, by God and by Lady Wisdom. A table spread with all fare you could ever imagine, at which all sages from all of time have eaten. It is not a table set only for men or women, it is not limited by sex or gender. It is not a table set only for the rich but open especially to the poor. A good life is available to us all if we listen and if we think. The dream of Wisdom is a better world for us now, and for our children, and their children’s children. So let us live into that dream, let us put away all foolishness, and let us glory in God’s gift of Wisdom to all who seek it on this earth. – Amen.

[1] William Davidson. “Tamid 32a” in The William Davidson Talmud.

[2] Pirkei Avot. 4:1.

Strength Enough for Today – Lectionary 08/08/2021

1 Kings 19: 4-8

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

Sermon Text

             Sometimes we reach a point in life where it seems best just to give up. Life can throw trouble after trouble towards us till we just cannot take it. Sometimes it’s a lot of small trouble, a bill deposits later than it should on the same day we need to make a car payment on the same day we forgot to eat breakfast because we were running late for work. Other times just a few things happen alongside a larger one – we snap at someone who bumped into us because the phone call we got that morning was only bad news. Then, of course, comes the terrible potential that we are not facing any combination of bad news, and we have instead suffered world shattering news and tragedy time and time again.

The perspective we take in our life is never static, especially when something goes wrong. Sometimes trouble bolsters us in some way, strengthening our resolve and making us better than we were before. Sometimes it breaks us down and remove any sense of comfort or peace we otherwise could depend upon. We respond to trouble differently at different points in our life and it is only when we begin to scale the mountains that we face that we begin to realize how we might do it.

Our scripture captures a moment in the life of the prophet Elijah in which he, fresh off his triumph over the prophets of Ba’al has landed at the lowest point he has ever been. The triumphant rain of fire that consumed the altars and offerings was initially enough to bring awe and certainty to those who saw it, but this quickly faded in their memory. When trouble began to brew, nothing could be certain. After the fire had burned to cinders, the anger of those in power raged against Elijah and he was forced to flee from them southward. We are not given a timeframe for this journey, but it would have been several days of walking, across over one hundred miles of hills and valleys.

Elijah stops briefly in Beersheba, the southernmost tip of Judah, to allow his servant to stay there. He then walks out several miles into the Negeb desert and this is where our scripture for today picks up. Having tried to end the idolatry that was rampant in Israel, having prophesied and seen the end of a drought, the threat of death was still real enough for him to throw all that aside. Elijah had done nothing wrong by fleeing South, he had work to do that he could only continue if he lived. Yet, after a week or so of travel and a plenty of time to think over the journey, Elijah was running out of energy and hope.

It is unclear if Elijah had any intention when he went out into the desert other than to die. The wilderness was not impassable, several nomadic tribes seemed to permanently inhabit the area, yet it was not the sort of place an individual could easily traverse. Wild animals, poisonous snakes, blistering heat, and overwhelming cold all threatened those who entered the Negeb. To me it seems that, having run away from death, Elijah could not imagine a future that did not end in his execution. Choosing between being killed by Ahab and Jezebel in Israel or dying to the elements out in the desert, Elijah looks up to Heaven and asks that God be quick in bringing about the end of his life.

This sort of thinking is what Elsa Tamez, a scholar of the Old Testament, describes as thinking “when the horizons close.”[1] This is a sort of resignation to the way things are that can be generative, pushing us to do what we can within the limited scope of opportunities we have. It can also bring us to become stagnant, paralyzing us and leading us to wallow in the desperation that sets in. The former, clearly better, is not always our first instinct. We can, however, find ourselves moving toward generative responses to trouble, but only if we are willing to take care of ourselves and accept offered help.

As a culture, we have gotten much better at acknowledging the fact that we are not always capable of acting at 100% capacity. Over the course of, even just this past decade, we have become more willing to discuss our problems openly and allow others to do the same. The concept of “mental health days,” is a testament to our willingness to give space for people to recover from the mundane and exceptional sources of stress in their life. While there is a lot of work to be done, we are much more willing to acknowledge the toll that trauma has upon our life.

The detail that stands out in this text we have looked at this morning is how honest God and Elijah’s interaction is. Elijah is willing to say he does not see a way out of his current situation, God responds by sending an angel to feed the prophet and to command him to rest. The long walk from Israel, through Judah, and into the desert, was enough to exhaust Elijah and to make him hungry, but a deeper purpose was behind this gift which God gave in this moment. God showed Elijah that there was a future, not by pushing him to abandon his worry or his pain, but simply by rejecting his plan for death by offering him life.

The impulse which many of us have when someone we know or love is hurting is to fix their problem. We want to flip a switch and make them better. While sometimes this is easy, removing something that hurts them or adding something that helps, it gets more complicated the larger the problem is. I have known people with chronic pain and chronic depression who have had countless people try to fix them with well-intended, but ill planned words. “At least its not… It could be worse… Be thankful that…” With more acute problems the impulse to fix becomes even worse. When a loved one dies or a friendship ends, “Chin up,” is not good enough.

God, being the perfect companion, does not offer this sort of comfort. God takes the long way round toward our well-being because God knows we must sort out our recovery as we go. When we cry out, God is not always quick to speak, because God is listening to us. God is not always quick to act because sometimes we need to cross a threshold on our own, to really see the other side of it.

This willingness to take time and to give us space to recover is not an excuse for inactivity. God is at work even in silence and in waiting for us to move. To return to our scripture, God sent Elijah an angel to care of him long before Elijah began his journey and longer still before God would speak to him at Sinai. God was preparing Elijah, God was caring for Elijah, God was active in loving Elijah through his grief, through his pain, through all his fear and doubt.

The care Elijah received in the wilderness was by no means extravagant. The food he ate was called “עֻגַת” (ugat) and seems to have been a simple bread that was cooked on top of hot coals. If you were lucky, that meant stones heated by coals, as the NRSV assumes. If not, then it meant the cake was more or less cooked directly upon the wood ash. These were not yeasted rolls, nor a flatbread. These were simple, and they were washed down with just a little bit of water. While last week we saw God lavishing good gifts upon the Israelites, this week our scripture acknowledges that sometimes we see just the simplest means by which to get by.

When I was in seminary, there was a day when a good friend and I were having particularly bad days. This friend, who goes by “Tater,” for reasons I don’t care to explain, had just left the cafeteria where we had picked over some food, but not really found anything satisfying either to taste or to restore our energy. When exactly in the evening this next part happened, I cannot remember, but it saw us going to a lounge on campus to study.

At some point, another friend of ours, named Grace (yes, that one,) brought pepperoni rolls into the lounge. Now, even in the Eastern Panhandle, we there was a reverence for pepperoni rolls. Likewise, Tater came from Big Stone Gap, a little town in Western Virginia that had adopted this tradition just as we had. Tater and I had eaten a meal in the refectory that did nothing to settle our minds or revive our spirits. Yet, in this simple packet of bread, cheese, and meat we found something greater than the sum of its parts. The blend of nostalgia and simple enjoyment these gave was mingled with another sensation. In receiving these rolls, we were reminded that we had a network of support, we had people who loved us.

When something goes wrong in life, it can take time to truly recover from it. The longer a problem persists, the harder it can be to reach that point. Yet, when we are willing to take time to get back to where we need to be, we might just find an all-around better outcome. God could have pushed Elijah back to Israel or chastised him for running, but God saw Elijah as a part of the divine family, not just as a servant to be ordered here or there. God took time to set his prophet back in good health before taking him to Sinai to meet him face to face.

Life is sometimes meant to be a celebration, but other times it is just a matter of getting by. We need rest, we need recouperation, we need to take time to become well. Thanks be to God that we have an advocate in that process. A God who hears us, who cares for us, a God that feeds and empowers us. The way to make it through life is not always triumphant, sometimes it is in asking God for just enough strength for today. Sometimes, it is enough simply to be sustained.

Yet, there is always a future on the horizon. Even when we cannot see it, we can make it past our own present troubles. For Elijah, that meant looking ahead to God’s Mountain and the literal presence of God in a still small voice at its summit. For us, it means trusting that the sun will rise, our sorrow will end, and joy can come back even when every last ounce of it seems beyond us. Let us trust God and give thanks for the strength we are given to make it through, even just to tomorrow. – Amen.

[1] Elsa Tamez. When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes.” (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock) 2006

Tend the Flock – Lectionary 07/04/2021

John 21: 15-19

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Sermon Text

First sermons are a unique experience a person has with a congregation. As I scan the pews to discern reactions and you all listen in intently to understand just what sort of teachings I plan to bring to this pulpit. In normal conversation we would exchange words back and forth, get to know one another through an our responses to one another. Yet, at the pulpit the message is in a singular direction, our exposition of God’s word consisting mainly of my voice. Yet, from my singular voice and my position at this pulpit, I hope we will walk together through the scriptures and in so doing, truly begin to understand what God has given us through them.

Our scripture for today captures a conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus, having died, having been buried, and having risen again, has been with the Disciples several times. This morning, after some fishing, Jesus and Peter are seated together talking over the remains of their breakfast. Jesus looks at Peter and questions him, time and time again. “Peter, do you love me?” The exact form of his question, how he identifies Peter, shifts a time or two, but across its three repetitions Jesus does not waver in the intensity of the question. Twice Peter responds he loves Jesus, twice Jesus asks him to follow through on that love by “tending [Jesus’s] sheep.” Only on the third repetition do we see significant change. Peter despairs over Jesus’ repeated questioning, and Jesus changes his wording. Jesus simultaneously commands Peter to feed Jesus’s sheep, but also foretells his eventual death on an inverted cross decades later.

This exchange, though it barely takes up a paragraph, shows us the moment that Jesus and Peter truly come together again. Peter, as we know, had rejected Jesus before his trial. The triune denial he gave then rebutted by the three declarations of love he makes here. Jesus had been with the disciples for some time, the work of the cross complete, yet the work to bridge the gap between Peter and Jesus, that could only be accomplished by the two speaking together.

The exchange is easy to dismiss as just a callback to Peter’s denial. Jesus, knowing he had been denied three times, asks for Peter to affirm his love three times. That would be a simple quid pro quo. Peter satisfying the damage he had caused between himself and Christ through an equal affirmation. Yet, more than that is happening here. On one hand, relationships are not accounts to be balanced. If we treat loved ones poorly, we cannot just give them good things and cancel out the poor treatment. On the other hand, Jesus does not seem the type to me to take someone’s transgression and treat it flippantly. Jesus must have another reason for asking Peter three times whether or not he loves him.

The answer, at least in part, might be found in how Peter responds. Reading the English of this text, we lose a key difference in what Jesus asks and Peter says. Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me,” using the term αγαπη (agape.) This word is the most commonly used in the New Testament. Peter responds each time by changing the word used for. He tells Jesus, time and time again, “I love you,” using the term φιλέω (phileo.) I do not want to overemphasize the difference between these two words (as we often do in the Church,) but the demarcation of one and the other is important.

What Peter does with each repetition of the question is attempt to go beyond what Jesus is asking. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and Peter’s response can be understood to say, “Love you? You’re like family to me!” In a way, his insistence on using a separate word from what Jesus uses is an attempt to demonstrate how intense his feelings really are. He not only loves Jesus, he sees Jesus as someone close to him, he and Jesus are part of the same community. He wants Jesus to know that the love he feels for his savior is not just your run of the mill affection, it transcends any of that. It is the closest and most vital thing he holds within himself.

Jesus, in his response to Peter is therefore not just rehearsing a threefold rebuttal to Peter’s earlier denial, but is asking Peter to understand what he is truly saying in claiming to love Christ in the way he does. To love Jesus so dearly, is to care for the people Jesus cares for. To love Jesus so dearly, is to risk everything to see the work of the Gospel is completed. To love Jesus, it is to live a life completely oriented toward Jesus and with that, toward the cross. For Peter, the termination of his life’s journey was a literal journey from his fishing boat in the sea of Galilee to an inverted crucifix in Rome. What might it look like for us?

We are blessed to live in a country where we do not know persecution. In fact, we live a country where the majority of people in power and in the population still claim, at least in name, to be in the Church. Theoretically then, we have all the means possible to see the world filled with people living a cruciform life. Love for one another should be the dominate sentiment we see expressed. The word of God, pure and life giving, should be on the lips of everyone of us. Yet, that is clearly not the case. The Church shrinks year after year, Christianity becomes more and more divided month after month, and no denomination, not even a single religion, in all of the United States is growing day by day.

Why is that? It would be easy to point fingers at anything and everything but ourselves. However, as you will learn about me, I do not like to point fingers at anyone other than myself and the institutions I am a part of. It is easy to say, “the media,” or “Hollywood,” or any other number of scape goats for our own guilt have led people from the faith. I do not believe that to be the case. The enemy of the Church is not found outside our walls, it is not found in some grand conspiracy or decadent culture. No, it is found much closer to home. It is found in the simple truth that Jesus sits beside us, asks us time and time again, “Do you love me?” And despite our enthusiastic “Yes! More than anything!” We do not follow that claim with action.

The mistake that Peter made in trying to overstate his love for Jesus, is that he was, intentionally or not, trying to show off his love rather than live into it. He loudly stated again and again, “I love you, Jesus!” But did not address the core message of what Jesus was leading him to. The key to Peter’s confession of faith was not that he could say the word love as many times as he had said, “I don’t know him!” But that he could acknowledge what love looks like. Love looks like caring for one’s siblings in Christ. Love is reaching out to your neighbor and making sure they are well. Love is praying for those near and far, but also reaching out and helping in real tangible ways.

When I heard that this church had a food pantry, I was thrilled. This past Thursday I got a chance to see it in action, although, if I’m honest, I got distracted by some office work part way through. It is that sort of initiative that the Church needs to enact everywhere. However, it is not enough in itself. The second that we are ever content that we have done enough good is the moment that we forget the enormity of life’s struggles, and the needs that must be filled to relieve them. I think Jesus uses the image of sheep because you are never done taking care of a sheep, not for its whole life, in the same way we are never done caring for those around us.

I hope that as we spend time together over the next few years, we can get to know one another. More than that though, I hope we can embody Christ’s love to all the world around us. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the hot and the cold. In whatever forms it takes, in whatever ways we can, we are called to tend to the flock which Christ has called his own. The flock of all people, every soul on this earth. We must love Christ, and not only do so with our words, but in our every action. Christ calls us today, asks us to love him with all that is within us, and if we truly wish to say that we do. We must then take a step out from ourselves and care for this broken world. The flock is all around us, let us tend it well. – Amen.

Making Way for the Kingdom – 06/20/2021

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

Sermon Text

The greatest obstacle to people accepting the Love of God is often the Church. Now, some may quibble with me that anyone who is obstructing God’s work is not truly acting as “the Church,” but I disagree. I am still my mother’s son, even when I do something she raised me better than to have done. Yes, we in the Church, even at our most faithful, can obstruct the grace of God which is meant to freely flow upon all the earth.

The Corinthian Church has, by no intentional design of my own, frequently appeared in our Sunday and Wednesday services. The draw of this congregation to our modern eyes is that they dispel any notion of the early church as being perfect. They are not holy beyond belief, not united in mind and heart. They are as divided and unsure as we are. Yet, like us they are full of faith in God – constantly seeking to do what is right even in the moments they are utterly unsure. There is no pretense of perfection, only the reality that we know about ourselves. The reality that we have room to grow.

The Corinthian Church was struggling to define itself, working not only against pressure outside it, but within it. A group of teachers had arrived from Judea claiming authority that was greater than Paul’s – maybe even than any other apostles. These teachers carried letters of recommendation and were sure to list what exactly made them qualified to assume this position over others. The continued conflict in Corinth built upon previous questions of Apostolic authority which began when some people favored Apollos or Paul, one over the other.

Paul returns again and again in 2nd Corinthians to the idea that he and the other workers of the Gospel are not to be identified by anything but the results of their work. The grand gestures of the “super-Apostles,” were empty shows of boasting and their actions worked to split the faithful again and again. Paul counters the well-manicured image projected by his opposition with the reality of Christian living. The true believer is like an earthen jar that carries treasure, they are like a tent easily torn down. The power of Christ – not the vitality or mystique of its bearer – is what makes an apostle authentic or compelling.

The shift in Paul’s writing from re-establishing the authenticity of his work and the work of his peers toward specific instructions is found in our reading for the day. Paul calls on the Corinthians, once again, not to be lost in factions or prestige, but to rejoin the wider communion of the faith. Paul looks at the grand displays that have defined the Corinthian dissenters and refutes them with the troubles he and the other gospel workers have faced. The defining characteristics of evangelism is not praise and accolades, but in trials and tribulations.

Paul would not have done anything exceptional through this comparison, not compared to his other writings. What sets this apart is his discussion of the grandstanding of his opponents as “[an] obstacle.” The word he uses here “προσκοπη” (proskope) is used here in distinction to the similar word, “σκανδαλον” (skandalon) which we usually translate as “stumbling block.” The latter is usually used to describe something difficult, but inherent to a thing. Some parts of our faith – whether they be the crucifixion, the resurrection, or some point of doctrine – can act as “stumbling blocks,” that people struggle to get over. In contrast, an “obstacle,” is something erected specifically to keep people from accessing God’s grace. The obstacle that he cites here, the one epitomized by his Corinthian opponents, is one of prestige and opulence.

There is much about our lives that, if we live into what Christ asks of us, may seem off-putting to the world around us. Sometimes this will be a matter of simple disagreement, other times it will precipitate into very tangible consequences. For Paul, this meant all the various struggles he had cited in this text. These and many more indecencies have been suffered by the faithful throughout history. Many, today as well as then, follow Paul and before him Christ to the ultimate sacrifice of their life for the sake of the Gospel. For those who face persecution, it is clear how they can choose between respectability and sacrifice. Yet, for us today where we stand – in a comfortable place in a comfortable church – how do we live authentically into our faith so that we do not become an obstacle for those who wish to enter into it?

As we have discussed before, the solution is not to seek out or manufacture persecution. The solution is to be willing to give away the abundance given to us by God (something we will discuss in depth next week,) and to remove any pretense we hold of being above other people. The only things, says Paul, that anyone has any right to be proud of in their ministry is the things they have sacrificed in order to serve God. The indecencies Paul lists made him a pariah to many, he gave up any status he may have had, all for the work of the Kingdom.

When I think to those I know who are not part of the Church, it is seldom the Gospel itself that keeps them from the pews. I would go so far as to say that many people never get so far as truly hearing the Gospel even when it is spoken to them. Are they blocking up their ears? It would be easier if they were. Instead, I believe that we who have received the grace of God have become obstacles to those who might hear of it and receive it. We are obstacles in the incongruity of our high calling and our usual behavior. We are obstacles in our love and worship of a poor, homeless Messiah that somehow has not softened our hearts to the poor and unhoused among us.

If we wish to fully live into the grace filled love of God, then we must not be an obstacle to those who might also receive God’s grace. To “receive Grace in vain,” can be understood in two ways. Firstly, the superficial receipt of God’s grace – an appearance of holiness but nothing more. Secondly, an ineffectual reception of grace – we are saved “but only as through fire.” We do not grow and we do not share the Gospel meaningfully with those around us. The Gospel becomes an empty thing, a badge of honor, and old trophy collecting dust on a shelf.

The transformation required for us to truly know the fullness of the Gospel is to welcome discomfort as a colleague and friend. We must be willing to form tangible connections to the world around us. We must not desire to be respectable or proper in the worldly sense. We must be authentic, holy, and down to earth. We are not rulers or nobility; we are slaves of the Gospel. We serve God only so much as we are willing to shed our benefits in life and hand them off to others.

Paul here has made it plain to us, ours is not a life of fame or glory. It is love lived out anyway it can be. The power of God is given, not for us to become mighty, but for us to make much of Jesus. Our wealth belongs to the poor, our time to the needy, our visitations to the sick and the lonely. Only if we can remove the impression so many have of the Church, the great obstacle that is our conduct, will the Gospel come freely into the ears of all. We must not live as a social club collecting members in order to be more prominent. We must live and share the Gospel, we must make disciples through love and forgiveness, and we must look to God for spiritual guidance. If we keep to that, then God will truly make fruitful the Gospel we so often render inert. – Amen.

Growing the Kingdom – Lectionary 06/13/2021

Mark 4:26-34

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Sermon Text

            The vision which Christ gives us of the Kingdom of God is powerful. Like seeds, it finds its home where we would not expect. Like wheat it grows up out of nothing into a full bloom. Then, from that one singular plant, many more may be born. The reduplication goes on and on, a harvest of one batch producing – not only fruits – but the means for another harvest entirely. Lest the image of wheat proves too specific for us, Christ paints the picture another way. The Kingdom of God is like a tree that, born of something small, spreads out and makes itself large – providing shelter to all that seek it.

These two images are not the only way that Jesus gives us insight into how God’s kingdom grows, but they are often the ones we bring to mind. The idea of the mustard seed in particular sticks with us. It was so compelling an image, that Jesus uses it elsewhere to describe our individual faith. The miniscule seeds of mustard, the fledgling trust of God we demonstrate through faith, these things whisper to us and show us something deeply relatable. Parabolic speech has this advantage for us, we seek after images more readily than words. We cannot say definitively what the Kingdom of God is, but we can say what we it is like.

The deep mystery of faith is that it seemingly works independent of our attempts to grow or squash it. It is grown in us by the grace of God and nurtured by the environment around us. Though we certainly have some part in its growth – some of our greatest backsliding can happen surrounded by Saints and other times we simply stumble into holiness unwittingly. Spiritual growth can come from discipline, but it seems that God holds something that catalyzes our growth. The grace which we receive is the beginning and end of our Spiritual journey and without it we are like grass that withers, trees that never grow beyond saplings.

The personal understanding that we form concerning growth must also be made plain in our communal ethics of the same. If we wish to see the Kingdom of God expand, mature, and shelter all the world, we must not see faith as happening only in our hearts. The work of faith is communal, the Kingdom is defined by a people called to be together and work toward the same divinely appointed end. We have to seek the Kingdom together, because definitionally it is not a monolith. No, the Kingdom is found wherever the Spirit is at work, whenever the seed is planted and permitted to grow.

The seed which is planted is the believer, having received the word they are thrown into the world to go forward and grow. As they mature, they produce fruit, the nutritive aspect of God’s kingdom is made clear. The believer not only brings about other believers but supplies the earthly needs of those around them. The hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the lost find comfort. Grain is grown to sustain life and so the Kingdom meets the needs of those within it. As we grow together, we ought to care for one another. If we cannot do this, we will wither away.

A division emerged in the 1900s in, mainly American, theology over whether the business of the Church was in saving souls or helping the poor. Jesus was clear – it is in both. We cannot tolerate starvation and poverty and we cannot blame the victims of either for their situation. The Kingdom is the grain that sustains all people – it gives the word of God for the soul and tangible aid for the body. To neglect one calling of the Church for the other is to forget how high the expectations really are. Like wheat we must produce abundance, but like wheat we must not keep that abundance to ourselves where it will perish. We must send our bread upon the waters that it may return us after many days.

Yet, the kingdom is not just a place for nourishment, nor is it kept to a single location. Whereas the first parable of today’s scripture can be read to mean that we individually must grow up together and work to produce a harvest, the second casts the entirety of God’s kingdom in a different way. The Kingdom is described, not as multiple seeds, but as a single seed. From this one seed grows the massive sheltering presence which gives a home to all who seek it. Jesus speaks this parable early in his ministry, when the disciples are few. The Kingdom has potential to grow large, but at present Jesus looked out at a handful of early members. The small seed had been planted – now it would only be a little while before it grew.

The last message we shared together spoke of the danger of schism, but here we see Jesus lay out the wonderful alternative to breaking apart. Jesus asks us to imagine a tree, and from that tree many branches spreading out to cover the earth and give shelter to those beneath it. The ideal of differences in the church is that, even if it causes us to part ways, our differences should not stop us from accepting one another. The rise of ecumenical dialogue over the past sixty years has led to a resurgence in our understanding that Baptists, Methodists, and any other denominations are not truly separate – but all answer to one God.

We are beginning, fragile though our understanding is, to see the branches we stand upon all have one source. If we look at our personal convictions and expressions of faith, we can likely see how we ended up where we are. I could not be a presbyterian – I will not ever be convinced of Calvinism. Likewise, I could not be a Pentecostal, the fire of the Spirit does not burn in that way within me. Yet, though I am thoroughly Methodist, I can acknowledge God’s ownership of both groups. I can look to my time working in the D.C. Baptist Convention and to my time attending a Pentecostal Church, and my Presbyterian colleagues and see the Spirit shining through them. We share one source, and if we could only acknowledge that we would accomplish much in this world. I sit on my Methodist branch, another soul on a Catholic one, but our roots are in Christ alone.

The radical nature of this of this is not relegated to denominations or even congregations, we all have unique features as individuals that can bring people in to be sheltered by God’s love. Think of the labels you apply to yourself. For example, I would describe myself as a nerdy alt-rock fan who can best describe their personal aesthetic as “Eldritch Prairie Home Companion.” I like reading, British Murder Mysteries, and science (mostly chemistry honestly.) My politics include – actually no, my manuscript here just says, “Best not get into that on your way out.” So I’ll trust my past self and move on. Still, you get the point. We are all called to be part of the Church and as a Church, as a charge, and as a denomination we offer chances for people to meet God and know God’s love in ways we would not if we all alike.

Now, today we have discussed how these two parables can give us insight into the growth of the Church. On one hand we grow into a source of material and spiritual help to the world, by being that source of help. On the other we grow by being diverse and allowing diversity of personality, viewpoints, and even certain points of doctrine to give shelter to all who seek after Christ. Both these perspectives are dependent, at their root, on God’s grace. If we do not thoroughly apply ourselves to depend on God, then we will go adrift.

Jesus casts the growth of wheat as a mystery. Like the farmer, no one can look at the Church and instantly know what caused it to be as it is. The best laid evangelism and discipleship programs can be overthrown by chance and the most haphazard attempt at service may be the most fruitful. The only definite steps we can take is to live as Christ taught us to. If we do this, then growth will come. Let us feed all the world and let us shelter all manner of people. Let us pray earnestly for God to bring growth to the seed that has been scattered from the hand of Jesus. Let the Kingdom grow from something small to something great. Let God be blessed this day and always. – Amen.

Uniting the Kingdom – Lectionary 06/06/2021

Mark 3:19b-35

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Sermon Text

As is often the case, there is much in our scripture we could discuss. Gathering as we are in celebration of Holy Communion, it seems appropriate that we should investigate the most consistent thread throughout this Mark reading, the idea of unity in the Church. A united household is the only one capable of surviving conflict. This unity testifies that the Spirit of God is good, and that our lives together are defined by the will of God we live out and share with one another. God has called the Church to stand united against evil in this world. The question for us today is whether or not we are united as the Church, and if not, if we can become united.

The story of Christianity is like any history we might survey. It is not often that we can identify true “good guys,” or “bad guys,” within it. Though we certainly try to see a Hegelian spiral of successive narratives, with us standing as victors at the end of that story, history is a human science. The raw data of the past is scattered through the prism of personality and what caused a thing to happen, let alone the goodness of that thing, is difficult to figure out.

In the early days of Christianity there were distinct schools of thought regarding faith. These were usually defined by which apostle or what minister began the church the various groups were a part of. We know Paul and James differed from one another in how they taught about the Gospel, as did Apollos. In Asia Minor the apostle John taught a faith that at times seemed alien to that of the other apostles. Yet, all stayed united by the reality of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. The early conflicts within the Church were focused on people who challenged either of these tenets and that threatened the unity of the Church.

The focus on unity began to degrade over time. With the Edict of Toleration, the emperor Constantine set a precedent that would make Christianity the eventual religion of the Roman Empire. His reign, and that of his successors, eventually lead to a Western shift in the faith. Rome had become one of the major centers of Christianity and political and creedal divisions eventually led to the first major split in Christianity – the Great Schism of 1054. Now Christianity was split along two major factions. Conflict would further splinter Western Christianity as various Catholic factions grew up alongside nation states.

The Protestant reformation solidified these informal separations. Now every country, except those that remained Catholic, claimed their own church. The various churches would then split again, and again, and again. If we were to drive even down the main street of our own town, we will see the evidence of this fracturing. Even Shenandoah Junction, as small as it is, has three churches from three denominations, on each of its three main corners. The house of God is divided, can it hope to stand?

The root of our divisiveness is not unlike what we see in Mark. We see other Christians engaging with God in ways we do not agree with or understand. Perhaps we blame leadership for acting one way or another. Legitimate disagreements are sometimes behind these conflicts, but we historically have the initial impulse, in the midst of struggle, not to try and come together but to threaten to leave. The scribes who saw Jesus did not understand Jesus and so labeled him as evil. Why? Because it was easier to write off him off as a dissident than to figure out what God was doing through his ministry. It was easier to leave him there and fracture God’s people, then come under a banner of mutuality.

The nature of the Church is such that when we disagree on even the simplest matter, we are able to convince ourselves that our side is not only correct, but that the cause we stand for is the difference between salvation and damnation. “The other side” must be in league with the devil because we are clearly in the right. Priests of the opposing faction are labeled as demonic and their leadership as antichrists. We see all wicked things in them and all goodness in us. Whether we divide over matters of Calvinism and Arminianism, sacramentality, ecclesiology, meat eating during Lent, or whatever else may motivate us to part ways, we see ourselves as heroes and the other side as villains. More than that, we will employ our most effective tool to try and persuade the opposing side that they should reconsider.

One of the reasons we default to leaving one congregation to go to another as the Church is because we know it has such a strong effect on our community. People begin to question if they too should leave, the trust the community had built up begins to fracture, soon everything is in question because the community has confessed its willingness to implode if its demands are not met. Oftentimes the damage is done, one group leaves, another stays. Both are dismayed to look at their opposing faction and find out that God is still working the Gospel through them, even as they continue to label them as in league with Satan.

In our division and our accusations, we commit a grand sin. We label those that God has called to serve the world as demonic, and in so doing we accuse the Spirit. Not content with weakening the Church through our actions, we grieve the Spirit directly. Think of all the churches you have known, with rare exception God uses them to do good. With rare exception the Spirit finds a way to take sinners like you and me and make them instruments of peace. I would go so far as to say that it is the schismatic that is the greatest threat to Christianity – more than most any other worldview or disposition.

Jesus defines the family of the faith as anyone who does God’s will. There are plenty of people I know who do God’s will whom I disagree with. Sometimes this disagreement is intense, the issue along a binary, and yet both those who agree with me and disagree with me are servants of God doing what they can to bring about God’s will on earth. It is only in threatening to leave, to destroy the unity of Christ, to end rather than continue these conversations, that we do damage to the Church.

The United Methodist Church is planning to split. That is a wretched thing. We have the chance to do it gracefully, but in setting out detailed plans on how we will split, we have admitted defeat. The Global Methodist Church will not be magically cured of its problems, nor will the Post-Separation United Methodist Church, or any of the other denominations that fracture off of this latest implosion. If we believe our present solution, which is that all parties take their ball, stop playing, and go to their respective homes will fix anything, then we are fools. A house divided cannot stand, and the actions we take over the next few years will divide the Church still further. When the dust settles, when will still have not grown and all our troubles are still there, even if every congregation changed church signs, will we then acknowledge that schism has never saved a single soul?

We gather soon to take the body and blood of Christ. We remember our savior who died for us. We were baptized in one baptism to be a part of one body in worship of one Lord. Can we find in these accidents of bread and wine an unmistakable and unbreakable substance? One savior, for one Church. A Church that is in the world presently broken, divided, and standing but by the grace of God. Let us repent of our divisiveness, let us stand together even in conflict. Let us praise the work of the Spirit even and especially in those Christians who think differently than us. – Amen.