I’ve noticed something recently about interpersonal relationships. When two parties disagree and begin to debate something, have you noticed that there is a tendency to get the last word in? Think about it, two sides have a disagreement and both try to make their case going back and forth. As one party perceives they are “losing” the debate, the anxieties and tensions rise and it seems to result in attempts by both sides to make sure they get the last word. It’s as if we believe if we get the last word, we’ll somehow “win” the argument. I’ve noticed this tendency, both in myself and others, but in truth I’m finding that those who insist on getting the last word are really just anxious and afraid. I suggest this is the case in today’s Gospel passage.
Today is the Feast of Christ the King and we find ourselves on Good Friday hearing again this exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. I took the liberty of adding the first part of the verse following where our lectionary leaves off – where Pilate asks, “What is truth?” We usually like to let Jesus have the last word in lectionary readings, but today I suggest there is a good reason to give what appears to be the last word to Pilate.
Think for a moment about the setting. Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and procurator with the awesome power of empire on his side is facing off with this upcountry troublemaker from Nazareth, Jesus. Jesus appears beaten and bruised, a man who stands in the place to be judged and yet he is not impressed by Pilate’s display of power … and he lets Pilate get the last word. “What is truth?” Jesus lets that question hang without an answer.
I think this shows Pilate to be what he really is: anxious and terrified. Regardless of how much power he appears to have, he really is nothing but a puppet caught between the power of Caesar and seething anger of the Jewish people who are sick and tired of the oppression of Rome. He’s really far more vulnerable than he appears … and he’s scared.
Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t afraid. He tells Pilate about his kingdom and reminds him that if his kingdom was of this world, like that of Caesar, his followers would be launching an armed insurrection … but they aren’t. Because the kingdom Jesus is ushering in is one that does not derive its power from fear like Rome does but instead derives its power from love. This isn’t to say Jesus isn’t experiencing any existential angst of facing his own death, but it is to say he doesn’t let that get in the way of his plan – to lead an insurrection of love. I’m not talking about a love of sweet sentimentality – I’m talking about what the Bible calls a love “strong as death.” It’s a love Jesus taught in his lifetime – to love God, love you neighbor, and yes even to love your enemies. This is love which is hard but it is the only thing which can overcome anxious fear. This is the truth which Jesus embodies – perfect love which casts out fear. And this is what makes Pilate anxious enough to want to get the last word in … because for all of the worldly trappings of power, Jesus stands before him unimpressed and unafraid.
We are living in a time of widespread anxiety and fear, much of it centering on terrorism and especially the so-called Islamic State. In many ways, we are experiencing the same anxiety of Pilate. As Americans, we have all the trappings of wealth and power but we now realize this will not protect us from those who are intent on harm. Or in the words of Moises Naim, the author of the End of Power: ISIS has breached that perimeter that above all defines strong states: a monopoly over violence. The Islamic State terrorists have nothing to lose because they don’t believe this world has anything good to offer them. Terrorism is the language of those who feel like they have no other voice and so spread fear and intimidation. Fear, whether ours or theirs, is the mechanism which begets hatred, greed, and violence.
Jesus did not come into this world to create another system of domination and oppression based on fear. His entire message was that of love: love God, love your neighbor, love your enemies. He opted out of human fear based power games and launched an insurrection of love. He spoke of losing your life for his sake and the sake of the Gospel – not clinging to this life by any means necessary. Jesus knew and accepted a deep truth: we will all die. He knew his time was short, but he also knew that one day Pilate would die, as would Caesar, and Herod, and all the other tyrants who wield power through fear and exploitation. We will all die. And this leaves us with a question: how will you live in this time between your birth and death and what will that stand for? Will you live this life in a state of anxiety and fear, allowing that to warp your thinking into hatred of those who are different? Or will you live this life in a state of love, even if it means risking your life? What mark do you want to leave on this world?
Today, we are baptizing Miriam Lynne into the family of Christ. She will begin her journey like all of us did – at the font. And in this act of baptism, she will begin a journey to follow the Prince of Peace and become part of his insurrection of love. This love is demanding because when we enter it, we no longer have the luxury to choose who we love. That’s right, Christians do not choose who we love or don’t love because Jesus told us to love everyone … absolutely everyone … and this is very, very hard. We don’t just get to love those who love us back – we have to love even those who wish us dead. We can hate their actions but we cannot hate people – we have to love them. This is hard work … the work of a lifetime and we can only do it with God’s help.
On this feast of Christ the King, how will you respond? Will you join the insurrection of love or be trapped by fear and have the life Christ wants for you stolen away? Which king will you follow – the one of this world or Christ? Which one will get the last word?
One of the most influential books on prayer I ever read was Martin+ Smith’s book The Word Is Very Near You. Martin+ is a priest and the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts. Lou Nutter, a senior saint at All Saints Church in Frederick, gave my husband a copy of this book when we were first married and I read it after he did. In that book, Martin+ talks about how we first come to prayer. He describes something which is very familiar to us – we “assume the posture” of prayer, we trot out our laundry list of things to pray about (usually intercessions for others and petitions for ourselves), and then we wait … and we hear … crickets … and it feels like nothing is happening. When we do this for some time, we get frustrated and some give up on prayer. He suggests when we do this, we have the locus of our prayer in the wrong place – we believe it begins with our initiative. He recommends moving the locus of initiative off of us and onto God. In essence, the fact you felt the need to pray is proof that God has already initiated the conversation with you and you have entered into it. Wow! You mean it’s not all about me?? Oh thank God! That one change in perspective really opened up my eyes to prayer in a whole different way. It’s part of what we hear about in today’s conclusion of the story of Job.
Our lectionary gives us the Sparknotes version of Job and we have skipped a lot and today is no exception. But there was something in today’s portion that looped back to prayer. Did you notice what this conclusion to Job said? “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” What is it about prayer being a part of Job’s “restoration?”
First let me recap for those of you who have missed some of this series. I’ve been saying for the past four weeks the story of Job is a parable – it is a folktale which is similar to a number of ancient Near East stories from Sumeria and Babylon: the story of a person who suffers for no apparent reason. It is our story too, isn’t it? In our lives, we will suffer and at times we won’t know why. Sometimes we suffer because of our own choices and we know it … and sometimes we cannot admit our own complicity in our suffering. But sometimes bad stuff just happens for no apparent reason at all. Sometimes we get a glimpse of why in retrospect, but just as often we will never know. This ending of Job where God thunders out of the whirlwind still leaves us not knowing the reason why Job went through what he did. Rabbi Cushner in his book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” suggests part of the reason is that God is not finished with creation and there are a lot of loose ends still being worked out. I find that plausible. His take on God speaking out of the whirlwind is more like God saying, “Hey! You think you can do a better job than me? I’m still working on all this mess!”
If we remember this is a parable and we are left in mystery, then we can approach the ending in a different way. The narrative says “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” I’d like to suggest a different word than “restored” – let’s consider this the “resurrection” of Job. The word “restored” kind of makes it sound like God showed up and said, “Hey, sorry about that. My bad … here’s some replacement stuff and kids.” The truth is, new children cannot replace the ones who died. I find resurrection a more helpful word here because it tells us God moved Job to a different place. Resurrection is never the revivification of what has died – it is moving through death and loss to a new reality. Job is in a new reality because God moved him there … but only after he prayed for his friends.
We are missing a few verses from the lectionary today, so we lose the emphasis on the prayer of Job. After addressing Job, God turns attention to Eliphaz the Temanite (one of Job’s clueless friends). God basically says, “Hey, you three ticked me off! You are clueless about me and you spoke like idiots. You three need to make a burnt offering sacrifice in front of Job and he will pray for you … because you need it!” OK … admittedly that was the AAV (Anjel’s Authorized Version, not available in stores), but you get the gist of it. God again trusts Job to be a righteous person who will pray for his friends. The three friends offer sacrifice, Job prays for them … and then Job is set in a new place after the prayer. God called Job to prayer, Job prays, and then Job is set in a different place – prayer changes the situation.
I couldn’t let go of this because I have experienced something similar in the past month; only instead of praying for my friends, God pulled me into praying for someone who has set himself against me as an enemy – someone who betrayed me deeply. Now I know Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us … but I confess I don’t like that any more than you do! It’s hard for me too.
God called me as is usual when I wasn’t quite awake, you know that half awake/half asleep state we are in at times? I had spent a big chunk of time since this person left my life working through what happened with my therapist and spiritual director. Now I want to be clear, I’m not telling this story because I want to call attention to myself. I’m hoping you hear this is about what God did to put me in a new place, much like Job … but I kind of went with more resistance. I tell you this because I believe in the incarnation and the presence of God working in and through our flawed selves and the only story I have to tell is my experience. So in that state where I wasn’t quite awake, I had a message: “You need to apologize.” My first reaction was, “Are you kidding me?? What do you mean apologize? Did you even SEE what he did to me??” Well, duh, of course God knows what he did! But God also sees what I did and I was caught up short. The message continued, “He may never apologize to you and I know what he did, but you reacted to him in a hurtful way and you are responsible for that.”
OK … fair enough. I did react in a hurtful way. I remember the last time I spoke to this person on the phone. I let loose. I spoke a lot of truth to him … but it was NOT in love. I’d come to the end of my rope with deceptions and lies and I reacted in a way that wasn’t very Christ-like. I think I may have even hung up on him. Now compared to the lies, slander, defamation of my character, and the other evils he directed at me, what I did was pretty small. But God doesn’t care about whether my sin was “lesser” or “greater” – God cares that it was sin … period. God also knew I was stuck and wanting vindication. But what was revealed to me in this call to apologize was that vindication would not look like what I had envisioned. Vindication would not come through his apologizing to me – it would come through owning my brokenness and apologizing. OK … I agreed. Then came the harder request – “before you write the letter, you’ll write an icon … for him as a way to make peace.” I really did not want to do that! I write icons for people who ask me to pray with them. What do you mean write an icon for someone who did what he did? When I resisted, I woke up crying. I hate crying … but I pay attention to it now. It usually means I have something I need to release. OK … an icon it is.
So I wrote an icon and started it at the Chapman Dialogs and I know Bishop Michael Curry’s words on the Liberation of Love were working on me too. Writing an icon is an act of sacrifice … like Job’s friends. It came effortlessly, like it had been pent up trying to get out, and when it was done I really liked it. But I knew it had to go along with my letter of apology which I then wrote. I spoke of my wounded soul and his. I named both of our wounds and how I see we now both struck at each other out of that place of hurt we each have. I told him I was working on this so I wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes in the future. I also told him I did not want to re-enter his life in any way because the likelihood of repeating a destructive pattern of behavior was high and I didn’t need that negativity … nor did he. I wished him peace and healing and told him the icon was a prayer that he might find a way to wholeness. And off it went … through an intermediary … and it was delivered to his workplace.
But here’s where the story gets weird. The very same day this icon and letter was delivered, I received a Facebook message in my “Other” box. Usually those messages are spammy – scams requesting money or guys who thought I was cute and want a date (Seriously? Do they even see that I’m a married priest?? Sheesh!). I did not recognize the name of the sender at first but when I opened the message I was caught short. It was an ex-boyfriend of mine from way back … I mean wayyyy back … 33 years to be exact. He said he thought of me often and wanted apologize for the hurt he caused me. He thanked me for my prayers way back then and said they eventually led him to Christ. Wait … what?? Do you know what my first thought was? “Hey! Who do you think you are barging in on my life after 33 years?” … DOH!!! Yeah … right after I did the same thing to somebody else. Wow. I took a few days to think about this and whether I would respond. I could have ignored it (and I did delete his Facebook friend request) but then I thought, “Where would the grace and mercy be in that?” Clearly, he had carried this burden of what he did for 33 years … and that’s too long. He wanted to clean his side of the street just as I had done. I wrote him a short note. I told him I hoped he understood if I didn’t accept his friend request – it had been too long and we had both moved on. I told him I accepted his apology and thanked him for doing so. I wished him blessings in living the life God had given him to live. He replied: “I understand. Thanks.”
I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of that. I didn’t want to clean my side of the street and apologize for the hurt I caused but clearly something opened up for another person to do the same with me and it lifted a very old burden. I can’t understand the timing on this but prayer moves out in unpredictable ways. In that sense, prayer is a risky enterprise. Prayer moves us to a new place but we don’t always know what the implications of this will be. I rarely understand it, and it doesn’t always work the way I think it will but I know this: it works … for me and for you too.
When I was a visitation pastor at a local Methodist church, I called on elderly members who could no longer get to church regularly. There was one lady named Marie I visited who is now one of our saints in heaven. When I knew her, she had been bed bound for six years. She had a benign brain tumor removed and shortly after had a stroke which left her paralyzed on the left side. She was always in a pleasant mood when I visited – everything was always “fine pastor.” I suspected it wasn’t but like a lot of people, they really don’t want their pastor to know what’s really going on. So one day after I thought she knew me well enough, I asked her a question. I asked, “Marie, do you ever get mad at God?” She grabbed the side of her hospital bed rail with her good hand, hauled herself up to a sitting position and yelled, “Hell YEAH!” It was thunderous. Then she got real. She told me about being furious with a God who would let her rot in a bed for six long years. She said she was sick and tired of being a burden to her daughter and son-in-law. But then she told me she fired her hospice team six years ago because she told them, “You’re all nice people but I’m not going to die yet, so you can leave.” After that, she was honest with me. Some days were good and some just sucked … but it was never a tepid “fine pastor” after that. What does it take to get real? Last week I talked about right relationships being a red thread between the readings from Job and from Mark. I think we’re still on that train because this week it’s about getting real with ourselves and God.
Once again we’re in “one, two, skip a few” land with Job. He’s been hanging out with his boils sitting in ashes and pretty miserable. He has four friends show up to hang out with him and essentially they tell him he must have done something wrong to have all this crap come down on him. Job protests his innocence throughout. And here in chapter 23, we now have Job demanding a hearing before God. I hear echoes of the prophet Hosea in this when the Lord says, “You will call upon my name and I will not answer.” He is also giving a parody of Psalm 139 – “where can I go to flee from your presence?” While the psalmist posits God as everywhere, Job experiences him as the God who has fled and won’t give him a fair hearing. Job is getting real with God. He’s pouring out his complaint – he’s shaking his fist and railing. He’s getting real with God!
In the same way we encounter the story in the gospel today. Now I hate Bibles with headings because those headings are spoiler alerts on a story like this. Most headings say “The Rich Young Ruler” or the “Rich Young Man.” Totally messes up the story! We don’t know he has anything at first, do we? We don’t even know that he’s young. A man runs up to Jesus and kneels down before him to ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus seems a bit annoyed in his initial response, but he tells the man he knows the law and recites several passages. The man says he’s “kept all these from my youth” and then we hear that Jesus looks at him and loves him before telling him to go and sell everything he has and give the money to the poor and then follow him. Then the punch line: “…he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” DOH!
While it seems this is a story about wealth and its evils, I don’t think it’s that as much as it is about soul sickness and getting real with God. Yes, Jesus taught much about wealth and how the more we get the more corrupting its influence is. But there are some clues this man is sincere. Let’s begin with how he approaches Jesus – he runs to him and kneels. In almost every healing story, the supplicant kneels or prostrates themselves before Jesus. This is a humble posture, not one of testing or accusation. He seems very sincere but the problem is he doesn’t recognize his soul sickness – his attachment, or addiction, to wealth and how it is getting in the way of his relationship with God. He needs healing but he doesn’t yet know it. The ensuing conversation about wealth and getting into the kingdom is really more about shedding what gets in the way of getting real, in this case the wealth of this man.
Jesus points to a paradox – when you let go of the things which pull you away from your first love, God, you find you have more than you can possibly imagine. It’s about holding things with open hands instead of clenched fists. What might you open your hands over in order to get a little more real with yourself and God? Maybe it’s letting go of something just for today … and if that works, try again tomorrow. What stands in the way of being real with God and living into the kind of freedom Job and the disciples have? What will you release to be more real? You can do it ... for with God all things are possible.
This week’s Hebrew and New Testament scriptures seem like the perfect homiletic throw down or a game of “stump the chump.” After getting a touch of Proverbs here, a little Wisdom of Solomon there, and a dash (just a dash mind you) of Esther, now the lectionary compilers decide to give us three weeks of Job! There’s nothing like a little levity to brighten up the end of Year B, is there? Then you couple that with Jesus’ teaching on divorce and it’s like a homiletical minefield. But in the midst of the heaviness, I want to consider there is a tenuous red thread: the question of right relationship.
Virginia Woolf once said, “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” If you’ve read Job before, you probably felt the same way. Rabbi Morris Kosman, the rabbi emeritus of Beth Shalom Congregation in Frederick, once presented a series at the adult forum at All Saints on Job. He told us there is more commentary on that one book than on any other in the whole of Hebrew scripture. I believe it! It is a book that faces the unanswerable questions, “Where is God when everything falls apart?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” These are questions of theodicy. How do we seek God in the dark places of our lives? It is also a book about relationships.
First let’s consider not only God’s servant Job but also the idea he may not have been a real person. His birthplace “Uz” is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and there’s no corroborating evidence such a place existed. The story even begins like a folk tale: “There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” … “Once upon a time … there was a man named Job.” Sounds like the beginning of a good story, doesn’t it? So rather than seeing this as some historical account, I invite you to consider it is a folkloric parable.
Now our lectionary cuts out most of the first chapter which sets up the story – Job’s seven sons and three daughters are killed prompting Job’s response, “Naked I came into the world and naked I will go. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job does not curse God but instead holds onto God even when disaster strikes. The lectionary portion picks up after this first disaster with the second wager between God and Satan: “Take away everything and Job will curse you,” Satan says. In Hebrew, it reads “the Satan” which translates as “the accuser.” Satan is a servant of the God – the one who strips away the egos and falsities of humanity. Satan has a purpose – to expose the true self. But I do confess the idea this is Job and the Giant Cosmic Wager really makes me uncomfortable (although it would make a great title for a Roald Dahl book – “James and the Giant Peach” – “Job and the Giant Cosmic Wager”). But remembering this is a parable and one about relationships is it possible that God’s wager is really a statement of how much God trusts Job and his relationship with Job? In essence, God is saying, “When the going gets tough Job, I trust you to stay in relationship with me.” This helps explain Job’s response to his wife. While many have been unsympathetic to her because of her telling Job to curse God and die, we need to remember she has also lost her children and now she’s watching her husband suffer too. Maybe she’s just had enough!
Job’s persistent integrity can be viewed as foolish or even a candy-coated prescriptive to how we should respond in times of trouble. If we do that, we do a disservice to the next 35 chapters where Job lays out a pretty serious lament and complaint against God. Job does not roll over and play dead – he comes roaring back against God and against his friends who have lots of advice on what is happening to him. No, this opening to this troublesome parable shows Job who is relentless about remaining in relationship with God no matter what happens, how bad it gets, and how confused and hurt he is. Job trusts God enough to be brutally honest in his relationship with God.
The Gospel reading today is a text which honestly can be cringe worthy. It is often read at weddings and it can, at first glance, feel like an indictment against divorce and divorced persons. Even in the midst of the marriage equality debate, this passage was used to essentially tell heterosexual people to back off because Jesus said nothing about same sex marriage but actually did say something about heterosexual married persons divorcing … again which rubbed salt in the wound of divorced persons. But, what if divorce is not what this passage is about? What if it’s about right relationships instead?
I think a case can be made that divorce is the topic of Jesus’ discourse because that’s the topic raise by the Pharisees. It is the topic but not the issue. Notice how the passage opens up with the words “Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked …” The intention of the Pharisees is to quiz Jesus on the law. “Teacher, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The Pharisees frame this within the context of knowledge of the law. Jesus’ response tells us that while we can follow the letter of the law, law is not the basis of right relationships! Love is the basis of right relationships. This is why the passage ends with Jesus rebuking the disciples for trying to keep the children away from him. Right relationship is rooted in love and love makes a way to open ourselves up to be fully present to others.
Right relationships with God and others is what both of these stories have in common. Trusting God’s presence even when it doesn’t make sense and, as we’ll see next week, even trusting God to lament and pour out our complaint is the model of right relationship Job shows us. Jesus shows us the law isn’t the last word on living in right relationship, especially in his context when divorce was always one sided (only a man could divorce his wife) and women were viewed as disposable property. In our current context, divorce is quite different and I have witnessed many cases where divorce was the event which led to healthier and more respectful relationships between two formerly married persons. That doesn’t always happen, but it happens enough we hear people say, “We’re good friends but we just can’t be married.” In those cases, dissolution of the marriage led to a renegotiated relationship where each of the former spouses could be present to the other in a more loving way than they could when they were married. This once again underscores the point that the law isn’t the last word … love is and love wins.
In the early 19th century, the state of New York outlawed slavery. They emancipated the slaves but not all of them. There was a cut-off date in the law and, if you were born before that date, you would not be granted your freedom. I’d like to think this was born out of a paternalistic concern for older slaves who might to too old to work and make their way in a world of freedom. But nobody asked the slaves if they wanted the law written this way. There was a woman who was a slave in upstate New York – she was big and powerful and still had young children. She could not, however, prove her birthdate and her owners claimed she was born prior to the cut-off date. She could have accepted this news but she didn’t. Instead, she rejected her owner’s definition of her and, gathering up her children, walked off the farm and never looked back. She took a new name in freedom – Sojourner Truth. She went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and feminist arguing for not only the abolition of slavery but also for the suffrage of women. She lived long enough to see the first but did not live to see women, all women, get the right to vote. Sojourner rejected the definition others tried to put on her in favor of a new identity she was called to by God.
Who defines you? That might seem like a strange question but consider we do not leap from the womb with a fully formed personality and sense of identity. Our self-definition comes from the people around us and how we interact with them. Our lives are spent working out this definition – accepting some definitions and rejecting others. Who defines you? Both the Hebrew text from Esther and the Gospel reading from Mark address this question.
I’ve said I have a “love/hate” relationship with the lectionary and today is more the latter than former. This is the one and only time the book of Esther shows up in our lectionary! It’s as if the writers of the lectionary realized they had missed the wisdom literature so they have to put a smattering of it in … and we get the very end of the Book of Esther. Some of you know the story, but a good number don’t and quoting the end of the book is kind of like turning to the last chapter in an Agatha Christie novel to find out “who done it” rather than read the whole thing. So permit me to give you the Sparknotes version of Esther.
Many scholars question whether or not Esther was a real live human being. There is some belief this is a fictional work and there is evidence to suggest this. First, there is no corroborating evidence from other ancient Near East sources documenting a King Ahasuerus. Usually there are other sources that can cross reference nobility from other places. Second, the story line begins in a preposterous way. King Ahasuerus throws a big party and so does his wife Queen Vashti. He demands she come over to his party so he can show her off and she refuses to come. There may be some good reason for this but the king overreacts and his advisors tell him if word gets out all the women in the kingdom will disobey their husbands … the whole thing gets out of hand and Vashti is banished – a pretty extreme response and not very kingly. Then the advisors decide to hold a beauty contest to choose a new wife for the king. There is nothing in ancient Near East literature to suggest this was the way any queen was chosen! So, you see there’s a comic element going on here.
Mordecai, a Jew in exile, puts forth his niece Esther as a contestant in the beauty contest and she wins. She hides her true identity from the king and his advisors, which include the notorious Haman. Now Haman is a “Snidely Whiplash” kind of villain – the kind who tries to undo his nemesis Mordecai and every time he does, it backfires on him. Today we hear about the final backfire – Haman has determined to annihilate the Jews and Queen Esther reveals her true identity to save her people. The very gallows Haman built to hand Mordecai becomes his own death sentence. In the end, we hear of the decree to observe the 14th & 15th of Adar as a feast to remember Queen Esther revealing her true self to save her people – and the Jewish people celebrate this as Purim by eating cookies known as Hamantaschen or “Haman’s pockets.”
The Gospel reading also is about identity and who defines it. John begins by telling Jesus the saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples told him to stop because he wasn’t part of their group! Jesus essentially tells them to quit protecting his brand identity and recognize that anyone who does a work of power in Jesus’ name cannot remain an enemy of theirs. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
But there is a subtext in how Mark is telling this story. This vignette comes on the heels of the conversation about who is the greatest. In the days when the Gospels were written, there were a lot of little communities springing up around the Jesus movement and there were a great variety of understandings of who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection meant. This is long before the Nicene Creed was written or any of the church councils convened. So there’s rivalry between the Jesus groups about which ones are the “real Christians” and who are the posers. Mark is addressing this controversy by weaving the story the way he does. John and the disciples are presuming to define the other person and essentially say his ministry in the name of Jesus is not legit. Jesus responds by saying it isn’t important whether they are part of “our group” or not – what counts is doing the things Jesus told us to do.
We still do this as Christians today, don’t we? Various groups define themselves by defining others with rules of exclusion. The most obvious issue that comes to mind is Eucharistic practice – who gets to receive the Eucharist at any given church? Some Christians practice closed Communion where only their members can receive. I’m not just speaking of the Roman Catholic Church – the Orthodox Churches, Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and some Baptists also practice closed Communion. Who defines who can receive is an example of defining one’s self over against another.
Episcopalians do this too … but in a more subtle way. Sometimes we can get to thinking we are “all that and a bag of chips” and believe that we have the best music and most beautiful liturgical practices. Again, that’s defining ourselves at the expense of other Christians – and Jesus says when we do that we are wrong. Anytime we define ourselves by putting our foot on someone else’s neck, we are not embodying the Gospel.
So who defines you and where do we make the error of defining another at their expense? The truth is there is only one identity which matters to us. It’s our identity as “child of God” … and even more than that: “beloved child of God.” Our human tendency towards striving to be special and set apart is nothing more than vanity and ego. The truth is our best and greatest identity is found in God and being claimed in Baptism as Christ’s own forever. Beloved children of God is who we really are – and that is enough.
His name was Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. If he had lived in the United States, or the UK, Japan, Australia or Western Europe, he might have been starting preschool right about now. Instead, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach this week. Aylan, his mother and 5 year old brother all drowned at sea trying to escape the violence in Syria. This picture struck hearts around the world. Over 4 million people have fled not only the Syrian civil war but also the threat of ISIS and their recruiting of children as soldiers. When one embarks on the open ocean in a small boat or enters the back of a tractor trailer truck for transport it is for one reason: staying where you are is more frightening than taking your chances on leaving. It is estimated there are over 4 million people of Syrian origin who have fled the country and that 25% of all refugees worldwide are Syrian. And this isn’t a foreign thing to us here at Grace Church. Our friend Abed who owns the Potomac Street Grill, is from Syria and still has family there.
The response of the world to this crisis has been mixed. Turkey has already resettled 1.6 million Syrian refugees. Jordan has been flooded with them too. But European countries and the United States have been slow to respond. The official word from the Icelandic government last week was that they could accommodate 50 refugees … 50. Seriously Iceland … 50?
This week’s gospel reading shows us a similar desperation and a very rude response by Jesus. In the village of Tyre, which is located in modern day Lebanon and just west of the Syrian border, Jesus enters a house and is hoping not to be discovered. But when word gets out, a Syrophoenician woman comes and throws herself at his feet in humble prostration to beg him to heal her daughter of a demon. Jesus responds in a manner which is shocking: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s right … he not only refused, he called her a dog.
There are scholars who want to refine and clean up Jesus’ intentions and words here. They will tell you this was just a case of Jesus testing the woman’s faith. I’m not buying that. I’m not buying that primarily because it doesn’t do justice to the text or to Jesus. I have trouble believing that the Son of God, who has shown mercy to others, is going to proverbially kick this woman when she is down. That posits a God who is sadistic and cruel – one just waiting for us to be in a vulnerable position so he can stick it to us and test our faith. I rather can find myself understanding this through the lens of Jesus as fully human. If we look at the progression in the Gospel of Mark, we cannot understand his response to the Syrophoenician woman as a typical response to a Gentile in need. Two chapters ago, we heard the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac in the region of the Decapolis. He didn’t have a problem healing him … so why this response to this woman in particular?
I think Mark gives us a clue at the beginning of the reading. “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Why would he leave Galilee and go to the ancient land of Phoenicia? Perhaps, he wanted to get away from the demands of his ministry. He needed a break. He was exhausted. I don’t know about you, but when I’m exhausted, I get a little cranky. Who knows? Maybe his blood sugar was low too! No matter … he didn’t want to be detected for a reason – he likely needed a break. But that was not to be and I think we can gauge the difference in Jesus’ interactions with the Gerasene demoniac and this woman by who initiated the contact. If you recall, the Gerasene demoniac ran up to Jesus, bowed down before him and the legion of demons begged Jesus to be left alone … because Jesus had tried to cast out the demons. From the way Mark tells this story, it appears that Jesus is choosing to engage with the demon possessed man. The man does not ask for anything but to be left alone. In contrast, the Syrophoenician woman makes a demand on Jesus asking for her daughter to be healed. She might not have asked for herself – but a desperate mother will do anything, even endure humiliation, for the sake of her child. Jesus is not in control of this encounter – she has been the agent of action on him not the other way around like it was with the demoniac. She has inconvenienced him and intruded on his private time and he responds rudely. Notice too, that after she gives her retort, Jesus ends the encounter abruptly: “For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.” This is no Hallmark moment and Jesus doesn’t commend her faith or say anything to her other than her desire had been granted. He still seems a bit cranky.
I think it no coincidence that Jesus has a similar encounter with the man who is deaf and mute. He returns to the Decapolis and “they brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.” Who are “they?” Honestly, we don’t know, but now we hear a group (they) are begging Jesus to heal another person. The word begging is link here – both “they” and the Syrophoenician woman beg Jesus on behalf of another. This time Jesus complies and in one of three points in Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus speak in his native language of Aramaic: Ephaphtha! Be opened!
It seems to me these two stories together are telling us something of the nature of ministry and of Jesus’ growing understand of who he is. Rather than clean up Jesus and make excuses for him, I’d rather hold that Jesus did not come into his ministry having all the details worked out. Unlike Athena who sprang fully formed from the mind of Zeus, Jesus is human and his own self-awareness and understanding of what it means to be Son of Man and Son of God is evolving in his own lifetime. He knew the prophesies about Messiah coming to the Children of Israel, but he didn’t quite realize until this encounter that the world, the others beyond his own people, would come to him and yes, make demands of him. He realizes he cannot control when or where the needs of others will arise and when and where he will need to respond. Ephaphtha, to be opened, is a statement not only for the deaf man’s ears and tongue, but also of Jesus’ heart to embrace a new understanding of what the demands of a hurting world will place at his feet.
This is also true for each and every one of us. Today’s admonition from James reminds us that faith without works is dead. Turning a blind eye when the needs are in front of you does not honor God and makes our faith a sham. The Gospel shows the demands of a hurting world are not always going to show up when it is convenient for us. They will come at us when we are tired and cranky – when we believe we have nothing left. It is in these moments where we are called to remember it is not ourselves we proclaim and it is not the power merely within us that will respond but that God will supply what we need to act. Our call is to be opened, ephaphtha! Be ready to see the need and respond.
The Icelandic people did just that this week. After their government said they could only take 50 refugees from Syria, two people went onto Facebook and called Icelanders to action. “Who knows? We might be welcoming your next doctor, or a baker, or a drummer for your band!” Over 10,000 Icelanders heard the call and promised to open their homes, provide for the needs of the refugees, teach them their language, help them with jobs – whatever it took to help their sisters and brothers in need. This is the Christian response! This is being opened to the possibilities in faith instead of fear. This is what we are called to do and to be for the sake of the world … and the next Aylan.
Kim Davis, the court clerk of Rowan County Kentucky, has been making news since the Supreme Court decided that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment also applied to marriage equality for same sex couples. She’s the court clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses for same sex couples because of her understanding of how the Bible views same sex relationships. She holds very conservative Christian beliefs and I support her right to her biblical interpretation. However, as an elected government official, she is to uphold the law not the Bible. She is now seeking an “asylum for her conscience” to allow her to continue to deny same sex couples marriage licenses because of her deeply held religious beliefs and she’s arguing it under First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Of course, that’s only half of what the First Amendment says about religion. The other half of that is commonly known as the “establishment clause” which states Congress will make no law establishing a religion as an official religion. In essence, she wants protection under half of the First Amendment and the right to ignore that her actions are, in fact, an attempt to establish her form of Christianity as the law of the land for anyone who doesn’t share her beliefs. I think she has an uphill battle in the courts.
There’s a spiritually more troubling aspect to Kim Davis’ claim to her Christian faith. While spouting her Christian beliefs, she doesn’t seem to want to accept that her beliefs just might require her to sacrifice something for them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll restate the fact that I completely support her right to hold her beliefs. I don’t share those beliefs but they are just that – beliefs. She is entitled to hold them but holding those beliefs comes with a price – a price she seems to not be willing to pay. These beliefs may come at the price of her job or even jail time. But instead of standing for her sincerely held beliefs and giving up her job, she appears to rather expect same sex couples to bear the sacrifice of her belief system. That would be like Jesus telling his followers to go out and get crucified for him instead of laying down his life for us. There are plenty of Christians who seem to think their faith should cost them nothing at all – not even an inconvenience let alone a real sacrifice.
James exhorts us today to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” He is calling us to not just give our faith lip service but to make it count in our actions. Sometimes those actions require us to make sacrifices to be true to the Gospel. Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees with the truth that outward practices are not what make us clean or unclean – that what goes on in the heart determines this. If pious practices exist only for show and do not result in the conversion of heart God wants, they are meaningless. If you go through the motions but never experience conversion and never sacrifice anything for the sake of the Gospel then you are not a follower of Jesus but rather an admirer.
19th century Danish poet, theologian, philosopher and social critic Søren Kierkegaard spoke of this in a piece entitled “Followers Not Admirers.” In it, he sharply defines the difference as follows:
It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.
Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching - especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible.
Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving not instructing it. At the same time - as is implied in his saving work - he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that It, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of “loftiness.” No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.
What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.
To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. As such, they refuse to accept that Christ's life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended at him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he "says nothing" against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs.
And Christ's life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower. And this can happen very quietly. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. Give heed, therefore, to the call of discipleship!
Kierkegaard goes on to speak of both Judas and Nicodemus as admirers of Jesus who made no sacrifice and took little to no risk for his sake. He concludes his reflection as follows:
Now suppose that there is no longer any special danger, as it no doubt is in so many of our Christian countries, bound up with publicly confessing Christ. Suppose there is no longer need to journey in the night. The difference between following and admiring - between being, or at least striving to be – still remains. Forget about this danger connected with confessing Christ and think rather of the real danger which is inescapably bound up with being a Christian. Does not the Way – Christ's requirement to die to the world, to forgo the worldly, and his requirement of self-denial – does this not contain enough danger? If Christ's commandment were to be obeyed, would they not constitute a danger? Would they not be sufficient to manifest the difference between an admirer and a follower?
The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a "Christian people” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower's life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many - but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.
Christianity without conversion, without sacrifice, is play acting at discipleship. We’re not called to lofty play acting – we are called to follow.
The Rev. Eric Folkerth, a Methodist pastor in Dallas, Texas, posted the following question on his wall last night: “President Carter is 90-years-plus, suffering from Stage 4 Melanoma, recovering from chemo-treatment on Thursday, and intent on teaching his Sunday School class tomorrow morning. So, remind me again, what’s your excuse for missing church?” Yeah … mic drop! Phyllis Tickle, the Episcopal lay woman and prolific writer, is 84 years old and in hospice care for terminal lung cancer. She’s stated her intention to write about the experience of dying and how she sees it as the next adventure. Nelson Mandela held to his Christian faith and conviction in the evils of Apartheid when jailed for so many years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been battling recurrent infections yet even in his hospital room, he welcomed visitors, prayed and shared Eucharist with them. What makes these people approach hardships, illness, suffering and death with such commitment to their faith? Sure, some will say it’s because they are famous that makes them different. I don’t buy that … because they are all just like you and me. They are real people in real situations. What makes some stick with their faith in Christ when the going gets tough while others bail out? Today’s gospel reading is a reflection of this contrast.
Today we finally come to the end of our protracted readings of the 6th chapter of John. It’s been a long six weeks, at least for me as your preacher! This all began with the feeding of the 5,000 and led into Jesus calling himself the Bread of Life and stating whoever “eats me” will live forever. In this discourse he’s run up against the crowd who doesn’t seem to understand but asks questions nonetheless, the Jewish authorities who push back, and today we hear of a third group: “many of his disciples.”
Jesus’ language is provocative and even offensive in challenging long held taboos within the Jewish religious system. He really means this “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” stuff! He’s not kidding around! Ewww! People are now very disturbed by him. Now, his many of his disciples can’t take it anymore. “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Jesus then ups the ante with reference to the Son of Man ascending to where he was before and tells them that some of them do not believe … and so they turn away and leave. They bail out. Now Jesus turns to the twelve and asks them, “Do you want to leave too?” And Peter replies, “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.”
This contrast between the disciples who bailed out and the ones who stayed has intrigued me this week. What makes the difference? I don’t think it was that the twelve had more faith. Let’s face it, when the chips will come down later and this all becomes a matter of life and death at the cross, even these twelve will bail out. But why did they not take offense and walk away when the teaching became difficult?
I think part of the difference lies in the spiritual state of these two groups of believers. One element is the spiritual gift of humility – that recognition that I have limits, my knowledge is imperfect, and there’s always something new to experience and learn so that I might grow. If we get to a place where the teachings and life of Jesus seem easy or that “we got this,” then we are not experiencing humility at all. If we take these teachings seriously, they are hard! They will ask us to give up all kinds of things, even deeply held beliefs. If one lacks humility, there is nothing to be learned and challenging teachings become something offensive to which we will rebel and leave.
Another characteristic of the group which stayed is persistence or perseverance. There is a gift of persevering and persistence they seem to have. This doesn’t mean they won’t fail (they most certainly will), but in the words we say at the AA meetings, they “keep comin’ back” because “it works if you work it.” They know their faith is an action not a possession and they need to work that faith to make it real. This requires persistence, especially when things get hard and there is a temptation to quit.
Humility and perseverance are the foundations of growth in the Spirit and living the Christian life. They are the foundations for living a life marked by falling and failing, forgiving and seeking forgiveness, reconciling and healing. They are the spiritual gifts which mark the difference between the followers of Jesus and those who are fans. Fans of Jesus are content to sit on the sidelines and applaud but when the going gets tough and their faith makes demands, they bail out. Followers make sacrifices, persevere and pray with humility knowing they don’t have it all together. Followers know deep down there is nowhere else to go – that Jesus has the words of eternal life.
What the lives of Jimmy Carter, Phyllis Tickle, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu reflect are those Christian virtues of perseverance and humility. Each of them faced, or are facing, hard truths of life and death – the same hard realities we face too. But their consistent practice of faith – not just lip service but really practicing it within community – carried them to that place where they could face the end of their days with gentleness and confidence is the promises made by Jesus Christ. They are followers of Jesus, not just fans. This isn’t something super human and beyond us. The virtues of humility and perseverance are available to you and to me and help us to become true followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, may we become what we receive and be imbued with humility and perseverance to run the race set before us as faithful followers of Christ.
Have you ever offended somebody? I did … once … a day … at the minimum. Not because I was trying to offend people. I really don’t get up in the morning and think, “Who can I offend today?” But one of the consequences of being ordained is that we have to preach and live an unpopular message. We are called to preach the Gospel which, while it technically means “good news,” it isn’t received as “good news” by everyone. It still challenges our comfortable world view by telling us to let go of our egos, our need to control and dominate, and our possessions. Its message is still offensive and lucky me (and every other pastor), we get to be the messengers.
We are continuing the saga of the Feeding of the 5,000 and its aftermath this week. We still have a few more weeks of this story so hang in there. It’s a challenge for preachers because how much can you say about bread and how long can you milk that? But I suppose the writers of the lectionary put it in August because they knew people would be on vacation and not likely attending every week … so the congregation won’t feel as inundated by bread as the preacher will!
Today we hear that “the Jews” are complaining, in Greek “grumbling”, among themselves about Jesus’ statement “I am the bread of life” and “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” The story is beginning to take an antagonistic turn. If you remember last week, the crowd who followed Jesus to Capernaum after the feeding episode were asking him questions: “What must we do to do the works of God?” and “What sign will you give us?” Now “the Jews” are beginning to attack the motives of the messenger – or at least his credentials. “Who does he think he is? We know he’s Joe the Carpenter’s kid!”
I want to pause here to clarify John’s usage of the term “the Jews.” Sadly, this has been construed in our Christian history to be an anti-Semitic polemic and was used to justify persecution of Jewish people. John is a product of his context and he uses two terms to refer to the people: “the crowd” and “the Jews.” Let’s be clear, “the crowd” were Jews! Who else would they be? But John here is referring to the peasant Jewish people – the working class Jews who were engaging Jesus. When John uses the term “the Jews,” he is referring to the religious leadership (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and temple priesthood) who stood in opposition to Jesus’ message. So when you hear John using these terms “the crowd” and “the Jews,” realize that he is drawing a line between Jews with religious and political power and those who don’t have that power.
So it is clear Jesus is offending the religious leadership who just cannot figure out how some ordinary guy can now claim to have come down from heaven. I mean, if you think about it, it is an audacious claim, isn’t it? Especially if you had grown up with him! You knew his family and friend. You saw him skin his knees and remember when his voice changed and got all squeaky. I mean … he’s just an ordinary guy! So the grumbling begins and they are taking offense.
It’s still hard to believe this, isn’t it? This ordinary carpenter’s kid living an ordinary life but telling us something of God that is extraordinary: simply the fact that God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary. This is still an audacious claim and we live it out every single week here at Grace. We claim and give our hearts to see ordinary bread and ordinary wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ in our own midst. We claim the water of Baptism destroys Sin’s power over us … but it is plain old tap water from Brunswick! We even have to run the faucet to get the rust out of the pipes … that’s how ordinary it is. The Oil of Unction through which we trust the Spirit of God to bring healing and wholeness to our broken bodies and spirits … it’s Colavita olive oil … how ordinary. All of these things are ordinary, but God infuses them with the extraordinary so that we are strengthened and drawn closer to Christ. And if it is true for bread, wine, water and oil, so much more so is it true for me and for you.
We too are very ordinary: ordinary people living ordinary lives. Yet, through the sacraments and our community here, Christ is truly present. Through the ordinary elements of the sacraments, God empowers us as ordinary people to be the extraordinary presence of Christ in a hurting world who needs to experience the Gospel now more than ever. We ordinary people are infused and empowered to continue the extraordinary work of healing and reconciling in the name of Christ. It is an audacious and remarkable claim made on our lives by the Living God and if it is true for bread, wine, water and oil … how much more so is it for you and for me?
I met a man when I was living in Orange County who was raised an Orthodox Jew in Chicago. His father was a kosher butcher and during the Great Depression, he worked for his father as a delivery boy taking customers’ orders to them on bicycle. During that time in many ethnic neighborhoods, word got around about families in need and their local grocers and butchers either carried them on credit or sometimes food would just show up (my great-uncle did the same for his Italian community as a grocer in San Francisco). He shared with me about how his father planned to help a particular family in need by doing a mitzvah. The word mitzvah means “commandment” and it is generally seen as the keeping of the Law; but in particular it speaks of acts of kindness and generosity done for others. A mitzvah, at its altruistic best, is done in secret – hence Jesus’ admonition of not letting the right hand know what the left is doing when giving alms to the poor. So this man’s father would give him all the deliveries for his Friday and an extra bundle of meat to be put in the bottom of his pack. That last bundle was to be delivered to this one particular family and his cover for this was to tell them there had been a mistake on an order and that he had been given too much that day; however, since it was so close to sundown, he had no way of getting back to the butcher shop in time to put the meat away and still make it home in time for Shabbat. “It would be a blessing to me if you would take this meat, otherwise it would spoil,” he was to say. Now you know the family could see through that ruse, but it was a way to preserve dignity in a very hard time. Well, after a while the father of this household in need found gainful employment and, one day, my friend walked in on him at the butcher shop with money in hand trying to pay for the “extra bundles” and “father’s mistakes” for the time he was unemployed. My friend’s father was irate: “I will not take your money! You will take away my mitzvah!!” My friend never learned the outcome of that argument … he felt it best to leave while he had a chance.
I recalled this story as I looked at today’s readings because the giving of gift and what we do with gifts appears as a subtext in all of the stories. What is it about the receiving of gifts that is so difficult? Sure, there are specific gift giving occasions when one expects them that don’t seem to bother us much: days like Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries. But what about unexpected gifts – how do we feel about them? If we are honest, they are a bit unsettling aren’t they? Unexpected gifts signal a shift in the dynamics of a relationship.
Unexpected gifts are often a sign of intimacy and connection between people. They can signify a deepening of a relationship and, while that can be wonderful, it does change the dynamics. Temporarily at least, when one receives an unexpected gift, they are in a vulnerable position vis a vis the giver of the gift. Gift giving creates an asymmetry in the relational dynamics and it’s hard to be the vulnerable one – and even harder to admit to feeling vulnerable. And this is where our reaction to being on the receiving end of a gift can take several turns.
One reaction is to start wondering what we have to do to reciprocate. Receiving a gift can make us feel obligated to give something back, right? Or it may make us wonder what we have to do to “deserve” it. It can feel like there are strings attached. Another reaction is to question the motives of the giver. Now we don’t always do that to their face, but the little voice in our head may be wondering about the meaning behind giving this gift. Yet another response is to accept the gift with an attitude of entitlement – of course I should get gifts, because I already deserve it. One way or another, these responses are attempts to rebalance the disquietude felt within us when we are on that vulnerable receiving end of a gracious gift given.
Our readings today speak of gifts and the reactions of those on the receiving end. Our Hebrew text from 2nd Samuel is a follow up to the terrible incident of David’s coveting Bathsheba to the point of having sexual relations with her causing her pregnancy and to cover up his sin, David arranges for the death of her husband Uriah the Hittite. Nathan the prophet is tasked with confronting David with his sin of covetousness. After giving David the analogy of the rich and poor man, Nathan speaks of how God has been so generous with David and how much he has been given. It is said in scripture that David had 300 wives and concubines … apparently he thought he needed one more! David had cultivated an attitude that he deserved what had been given and this entitled him to take whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. His response to having received so much was to take even more.
The writer of Ephesians speaks of us being given gifts for ministry to equip the saints. It is not uncommon for people to feel like they don’t have spiritual gifts. We’ve had this conversation in our Tuesday Bible study recently. But if we view all that we are and all that we have as gift, then we see that our talents and aptitudes have the capacity to build up the kingdom of God. We can often be dismissive in claiming our gifts which is another way of rebalancing the asymmetry of the relationship with God. If I can minimize or deny my gifts, I won’t be called upon to use them. In some ways, I think we fear using our gifts because we fear failure; but if we trust in God, we will often find that which looks like failure ends up being the very thing which God uses to touch others. In other words, the use of our gifts and the outcome thereof are not our works alone – it’s not all up to us!
This week’s Gospel reading is the “extended dance version” of the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 in John. This is the only miracle story which clearly is the same in all four Gospels, but John really expands the narrative. Why? John’s gospel lacks a narrative of the Last Supper insofar as the sharing of bread and wine at the meal – the institution of the Eucharist as we know it. John tells of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. I suppose we can be thankful we have more than just John’s gospel or we’d be washing feet every Sunday … talk about a gift that makes people uncomfortable! It is believed that John uses the Feeding of the 5,000 story to speak of the Eucharist rather than doing it in the context of the Last Supper. Last week you heard that Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it – the four acts of the Eucharist. Today we hear it is the next day and the crowd has figured out Jesus made his getaway to Capernaum. They follow him there and when they find him Jesus pointedly says they didn’t come because of signs but because they got a “free lunch” yesterday. He urges them to seek more than just food which perishes. Notice what their reaction is to the unexpected gift of both the free meal and his invitation – “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Or, “what do we have to do” in exchange for what you’ve offered. The crowd is disquieted by the asymmetry of their relationship to Jesus. His response is to believe in him – to give their hearts to his ministry and message. A simple request, but not so easy for them or us. The crowd still is uncomfortable with this answer and so demands a sign from him. Really? Um … yesterday 5,000 of you got fed off of five loaves and two fish … remember? Apparently, they quickly forget and now begin to question the credentials of the giver by telling him “Hey, that’s nice and all but Moses fed our ancestors with manna in the wilderness … what makes you different?” Jesus’ response is to remind them that God was the originator of that gift of manna, not Moses, and that Jesus not only gave them food in the wilderness yesterday, but he gives himself to them completely as the bread of life. He gives more than bread … he gives his very life for them and for us … and every time we gather at this table, Jesus gives himself again and again. This gift continues and is beyond any price.
That’s where it can get a bit uncomfortable for us. We cannot do anything to earn the gift of the Eucharist. Don’t get me wrong, the Eucharist does move us to action born out of our gratitude to take the gospel into the world in our words and deeds. But it isn’t something we can earn by being good little boys and girls or by any action of our own. It is not something we can control nor is it something to which we are entitled. It is free gift and grace and it will make us vulnerable and it will make us uncomfortable.
The only stance we have left is to receive this gift in complete humility. To let go of any pretense that we deserve it or earned it and place our vulnerable selves at the foot of this altar, in the presence of the living Bread which has come down from heaven to give life to us and to the whole world.