Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Taste & See

John 6:41-51
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

To me personally, John chapter six is one of the most important chapters in the Bible.  Although it may not be as significant as, say, the accounts of the Resurrection, or that day on Pentecost, or even John chapter three for that matter, John 6 is certainly up there.  Like I said, that is my personal feeling.  You don’t have to hold John 6 in such high regard, but I think you should.  We’ll be looking at this chapter next week and maybe the next, so maybe take a few minutes to read it again this week.  The themes we find here have shaped who I am lately [by “lately,” I mean over the past few years].  What Jesus has to say to us throughout this chapter ought to mold who we are as his followers and also as his church in this world.  

Now, having said that, notice I never said I liked John chapter six.  For the record: I do not.  In fact, that’s why this chapter is so important to me: it’s made me work on my faith and how I live it out.  Here, Jesus shows us things about ourselves and about who he is that are alarming and not just a little offensive.  We’ll talk more about that next Sunday at the park; but for today, realize that Jesus is not trying to make friends here.  When Jesus offends people today, it’s on purpose.  Jesus is indeed the Bread that has come down from heaven and the Bread of Life, but he might also have reason to leave a bad taste in your mouth.  

I imagine, you don’t have the same love/hate relationship with John 6; so let us start with a brief background.  John chapter six begins with an interesting version of the feeding of the multitude.  In John’s version, Jesus, the disciples, and the multitude are out in the middle of nowhere.  Apparently, Jesus had gone out into the wilderness to get a break from the religious people—who were actively persecuting Jesus as this point—but it seems everyone (including the religious people) followed out there.  Now, the reason I mention that story is because there are two things about it that set a context for the rest of the chapter.  The first thing is bread.  

I’m sure you’re familiar with that feeding story: it got late so they started they taking stock of their food situation; and apparently, the only  person who thought to bring food into the wilderness was a child.  The only person in the entire multitude with food is some kid with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Now just as an aside, I would point out that, although that is not enough food to feed something like five thousand people, that is a lot of food for one boy.  But as you’ll also recall, Jesus takes that boy’s food and feeds everyone with twelve baskets full of bread left over.  So that story brings into chapter six, this theme of—not only bread—but abundant bread that we will hear throughout the chapter.  

There is another thing that sets a context to John 6.  We’ll talk in more about it next week, but it’s worth mentioning: before Jesus feeds the multitude, he turns his disciple Philip and asks, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  This freaks Philip right out because it’s meant to.  The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus asked Philip this to test him.  Jesus is trying to challenge Philip’s faith and Philip does not pass the test.  The panic-stricken Philip says, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  So another context that runs through John 6 is that Jesus will be testing everyone; and I mean everyone.  He will test the faith of his disciples, the gathered multitude, the religious leaders, and if we’re paying attention, even us.  In fact, if we’re paying attention, we’ll see that, even in our lesson today, Jesus is testing us.  

In our lesson today, John begins by saying, “The Jews began to complain about [Jesus] because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’”  Today, in Washing DC, there is a march going on.  I don’t think I know anyone in that march and I certainly don’t know what the motives are for every participant in that march; but I know there are some in that march would read that verse and say, “See.”  I know that there are some there who would distort that verse to reinforce their prejudice against Jewish people; as though Jesus would ever be okay with that.  Not only would Jesus not condemn or exclude a group of people because of their so-called race, but I think he would prefer we would take his words more personally.  Rather than hearing from Jesus only that which reinforces our stereotypes, I think Jesus would prefer we pay attention to what he’s saying to us.  

John refers to these complainers as “the Jews,” but I should point out that there isn’t anyone in John 6 that isn’t Jewish.  Jesus is Jewish, the disciples are Jewish, the crowds are Jewish, and these complainers are Jewish.”  So what is John actually saying?  Well, he probably means is “Judeans”; he’s indicating that these complainers traveled from the south, where Jerusalem is, up to Capernaum just to keep an eye on Jesus.  They travel all that way, just to complain.  So what John is alluding to is that these complainers represent the Temple; they are from the religious establishment; they are important church-going people.  They are, I’m afraid, a lot like us.  

I know: we don’t like being compared to the religious people in the Gospel story; they’re typically the bad-guys.  We’re not bad-guys; we wouldn’t have crucified Jesus, right?  Well maybe, but in retrospect we would have at least regretted it; but as religious people, we do share their “tendencies”.  If we’re not careful, we risk making their same mistakes.  We would be wise to hear what Jesus says to them as though he is speaking to us.  

John tells us that they complain about Jesus, but what is their complaint exactly?  Is it that he fed thousands?  No.  Is it, as it often is, that he does these things on a Sabbath?  It doesn’t seem so.  Does their complaint even really have anything to do with Jesus saying, “I am the bread that has come down from heaven”?  Not really.  They certainly don’t like it, but their complaint comes down to something else: they know his family.  They say, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know.  And now here he is calling himself bread from heaven.”  They are offended by Jesus, not because of anything he’s said or done.  They are offended by him because they think they know him.  “How could God possibly have anything to say through this son of Joseph?”  

We see in these religious people, something we see a lot in religious people: a tendency to practice a faith without risk.  We have our routines.  We practice our religion this week like we did last week and the weeks before that.  We fulfil our obligations.  We care for the folks we go to church with and we even like most of them.  But do we trust them?  Do we trust that God might say something profoundly new through them?  Would we follow one of these people into a new direction for the church if God actually spoke through them?  Do we trust that God would even speak through them?  

I saw a great metaphor this week when I was visiting our sister church up in Lake City on Wednesday.  They are starting the process of looking for a pastor and I am the Presbytery’s representative to them from the Committee on Ministry.  So this week, as a part of those responsibilities, I went up there to moderate their Session meeting.  It’s funny: in my thirty-some odd years of church work, I can’t say I’ve seen everything, but I’ve seen every kind of thing.  They started talking an issue they were having and a little bell went off in the back of my mind; it was kind of like the sensation you get when you hear the opening notes to a song and you realize, “Hey, I know this one.”  

They were talking about a flower garden on their church grounds and they were having trouble figuring out how to care for it.  Should they ask for volunteers?  Should they try to hire somebody?  Should they just let it go fallow for now?  As they were debating, I asked a question that I thought was terribly insightful.  They didn’t notice how insightful it was and I’m afraid you won’t either; that’s why I’m telling you.  As they were talking about how to care for this garden I asked, “Well, who used to do it?”  They told me about this lady (we’ll call her “Martha”) who used to coordinate everything—she had an entire team of helpers—but then “Martha” had to move away.  I don’t know the “Martha” or the garden in question, but I knew all those things before I asked; I’ve seen it before.  

You see, “Martha” started this garden and this was “Martha’s” baby.  Everyone loved the garden and “Martha” for tending to it; but now “Martha” is gone and no one is brave enough to touch “Martha’s” baby; no one is brave enough to seek a new purpose for “Martha’s” garden; so now, they have an unattended garden, overrun with weeds; and their Session can’t pinpoint what to do.  

I didn’t feel it was my job to make their decisions for them, but the solution to me was obvious and awful.  They don’t need to walk away and let it go wild.  They don’t even need to hire someone to care for it.  What they need is trust.  What they need is siblings in Christ who can trust each other enough to hear God’s calling and mission through this crisis.  Because it’s going to take more than just volunteers; because something is going to go wrong.  It’s going to be my day to water and I’m going to show up and find out you’ve already done it.  Do I love and trust you enough to find out why?  Will I just bail on the project and let you be the new “Martha,” or will I hear your apology and listen to your story; maybe a story about a neighbor, who never goes to church, but likes to tend to gardens, and this was a window.  

I love that garden metaphor because I think it speaks to the obvious and awful truth about being a part of the Body of Christ, the Church: that it is all about our relationship with one another.  Relationships are complicated, and messy, and they can sometimes hurt.  Having the love for one another that allows that complicated, messy hurt to then strengthen our relationships is what makes it worth it; but it takes work.  It takes trust.  Trust in one another, but trusting more in the Bread of Heaven, who nourishes us for eternal life.  A nourishment that sometimes comes in the form of the people you call “your church.”  

Let us not be like the religious people of Jesus’ day.  Let us not be so comfortable in what we think God is doing that we neglect to see it even in those next to us.  Let us have eyes that are open, ears that will listen, and spirits that will be fed by our Risen Savior.  And may the world around us see the life-giving Bread of Heaven alive and at work in us and among us.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Therefore

Ephesians 4:1-16
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Often, when I come up with sermon titles, I do it maybe weeks or even months ahead of time.  I base them on a preliminary study of the Scripture lesson, what I discern might be something God is trying to say to us through it, and something hopefully clever that gives a hint about what the message will be about.  But then sometimes, somewhere along the line, the Spirit changes things on me; sometimes at the last minute.  With that in mind, you can make the following correction to your bulletin: the actual title of this sermon is “Therefore.”  [The original title was “The Adult Table,” because I was drawn to the maturity theme of vv. 11-16.  Clearly, God had other plans.]

I like the word “therefore.”  It sounds a little silly to use “therefore” in casual conversations, but it’s a good word.  Maybe we should throw it into sentences like, “My wife came home from her trip on Saturday, therefore, I spent most of Friday cleaning the house.”  It’s kind of an old timey word, so we use words like “so” instead; but wouldn’t “therefore” have sounded just a bit more classy?  Seems like the only time I regularly run into the word “therefore” is in the Bible, especially in the letters of Paul.  

It’s right there in the beginning of our reading today, where Paul says, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  I had a professor in seminary that used to say a thing that maybe you’ve heard before too: when you see a “therefore,” find out that the “therefore” is there-for.  It’s a cute little pneumonic, but it reminds us that context is important; “therefore” tells us that this is a continuation of something else.  The thing before us is a result of something that came before it; so we ought to look into what that was.  

We will, of course, explore the context of what Paul is saying in a moment, but something related to that comes to mind: we are a “therefore” in this world.  Do you ever think about that?  I hadn’t, really; that’s why the title got changed.  We, who have received the boundless grace of our Risen Savior are now a “therefore” in this world.  Something has set a context for our very lives; something has come before our being here today, together.  That, of course, is the dying and rising of Jesus.  We are, therefore, set free in this world to live the lives we are saved and called to live.  As we are sent into this world, the question we must keep asking ourselves is, as you might expect: what are we therefore there for?  

So what is the context of Paul’s “therefore”?  As the Book of Ephesians enters what is its second half, this “therefore” actually refers to everything that comes before it.  This is common in Paul’s writing style; you’ll find this kind of thing in most of his letters.  Whether he’s writing to help a church with some sort of crisis or he’s just writing (as he is in Ephesians) to help a church be the church, he usually follows the same pattern.  In the first part of the book, he proclaims and teaches the Good News through Jesus Christ alone; and then in the second part, he talks about what you might want to do with this very Good News.  As we’ve talked about in this series, the first three chapters are all about God.  It is God who loves us more than we can imagine.  It is God who has, in Jesus, reconciled us back to God, and not ever anything we could have done to earn it.  It is God, who calls us into a new eternal family.  And it is God’s Spirit that is always present with us to lead us, to strengthen us, and to remind us of our eternal hope.  Three chapters about the abundant, unfathomable grace and love of God; and then three chapters, beginning with chapter four, about what to do with that gift we’ve received.  It turns out, these final chapters of Ephesians are really what the book is about.  That is, again, Paul’s style: the ending, practical part is the point Paul is getting at and the first, theological part is the argument for it.  

This sermon, by the way, the end of this series on Ephesians.  If this seems like an abrupt place to stop, rest assured, it is on purpose.  We end here, for a couple of reasons.  You can think of the first reason like this: remember when you were young and still in school?  Do you remember wondering during class sometimes: will this be on the test?  It’s as if, you’re about to take a test, say, on the Revolutionary War.  You know very well that this test is only going to be about the names of the central figures, the names of the important places, and the dates when important things happened.  It’s a memorization test.  But then in the class before the test, your teacher keeps going on about the theologians and philosophers who shaped the minds of the founding fathers; about the economic and political climates of the day.  Nothing that is helpful for remembering names and dates.  None of that is going to help you choose between right and wrong answers on a test.  But then again, that information might be helpful to those who want to be responsible members of a democratic society.  That is a different kind of test; that is a big picture kind of test.  In the big picture, the dates and names are not nearly as important as the influences and the reasons; but even in faith we do lose sight of the big picture sometimes. 

Sometimes we read the letters of Paul and we get hung up on “part two.”  We read Paul’s instructions about what it means to live as a faithful follower of Jesus as if they are like names and dates to be memorized.  I can’t help but imagine how annoyed Paul, a reformed Pharisee, would have been with us in that.  He spends half a book talking about the free life and grace that we’ve received in Jesus alone, and we focus on the last part like they are rules to follow.  

So we’re stopping the series here, before we can get too distracted; before we start telling each other about how wives and husbands and children ought to treat each other.  And besides, in our reading today Paul shows us all we need to know.  “Lead a life,” Paul says, “worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  Simple.  It’s good to keep it simple, even if rubs against our urges to have rules.  

Speaking of which, I’ve been trying to brainwash you lately.  You may not have noticed because I do try to keep my mind control subtle; but today I’m done being subtle.  Throughout this series, I’ve been throwing a phrase in every week (often several times) in the hopes that it will get stuck in your head like a catchy tune.  My hope is that, as you hear this phrase repeated again and again, the Spirit will stir something in you like it has been stirred in me.  My hope is that this simple phrase will sound to you as a fitting description of who we are.  That we, as a church, are a people who simply seek and serve Jesus.  Simple: we seek and we serve Jesus.  I see that as an adequate and accurate description of our mission.  We may not need it embroidered on our shirts, but we should probably write it down somewhere: we are a church that seeks and serves Jesus.  

We seek Jesus in the ways you’d expect: in our study of Scripture, in our prayers, in our worship, and in our fellowship; and then we serve.  The serving is the “therefore” part.  The seeking sets a context for, simply put, everything we do to “Live a life worthy.”  It’s everything we do, as a gathered people of God, that proclaims and embodies God’s love.  You know, all of those things we wear our shirts to.  It is everything we do as faithful followers of Jesus even throughout our lives.  We serve Jesus as we make every effort to maintain our unity in the Spirit.  We serve him as we use the gifts that we have been given as a church and throughout our lives.  We serve him as we lovingly speak the Truth to one another and to the world around us.  We serve him as we recognize and care for our Savior’s Body, here in this place.  

Being the church that Jesus calls us to be is deceptively simple: we simply strive to seek and serve Jesus.  But of course, it isn’t always that simple is it?  That’s why we return to this Table again and again.  Here we are reminded of the “therefore” that shapes what we do and who we are.  Here we remember the Savior who gave of his body and his blood, so that we might, therefore, be his Body in this world.  

Remembering the love, the mercy, and the life eternal that gathers us here, let us, therefore, live lives that indeed are worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Ask and Imagine

Ephesians 3:14-21
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Like many of you, I suppose, I have more technology in my car than I had in my entire house growing up.  I mean, just the CD player alone, but the computers are faster than the ones that put people on the moon!  It has things like a USB port and Blue Tooth so I can add technology to my technology.  My car has a device built into the dashboard that connects it to satellites in space; in space!  I can plug in an address of anywhere in North America (Canada, US, Mexico), and this device will plot the most direct route to that exact spot.  Not only that, it will show me on a map, right there on the dashboard, a blue line that connects where I am to where I’m going!  Not only that, if I miss a turn for some reason, it will either figure out the best way to get back to my route, or it will figure out a completely new route!  Not only that, I don’t even have to look at the map.  There is a calm, woman’s voice that comes on to tell me what my next turn is and far until I have to make that turn.  And not only that, this device will show me how far I have yet to go until I make my destination and about what time I’ll get there.  

I don’t know if it’s such technological advancements or if it’s just our human nature, but I think sometimes we expect the same service in our life together in Christ.  I believe Jesus has called me to help lead His Church, but I can tell you: He did not give me a Church Leadership GPS.  I think the other Elders in this church would tell you the same.  I’ve heard the Bible referred to by things like “roadmap for life.”  It’s pleasant imagery, but it’s not exactly true.  If anything, it’s more like a compass: it will tell you which way is north; but you still need to figure out your way through the forest.  Don’t get me wrong, the Bible does help with that too, just not as directly as we’d like; God does not guide us turn-for-turn.  The Bible does, however, remind and point us toward the One who can help and guide us.  The Bible reminds us today that, by the Spirit of our Risen Savior, we have access to a source of strength and insight that is beyond all we could ask or imagine.  All we need to do, then, is to remember to ask and imagine.  

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived an emperor named Constantine.  He is remembered in a variety of ways, as history often does, depending on who is doing the remembering.  He ruled from 306 AD to 377 and he’s generally remembered for bringing stability and religious tolerance to the Roman Empire.  Christians remember him fondly for this: it was Constantine who officially ended the state persecution of the followers of Jesus, allowing the faith to freely travel to the ends of the known world.  That’s the good news.  The bad news (possibly) is that he didn’t stop there.  

His mother was a follower of Jesus (many think Constantine was one too), which might explain why he seemed to show our faith a certain favoritism.  In fact, he did quite a lot to not only legitimize Christianity, he also did quite a bit to get us organized too.  You may have heard of the Council of Nicaea, where the Nicene Creed comes from.  Here, they had long discussions about “orthodoxy;” which beliefs about Jesus were in and which ones were out.  Because of what Constantine started, about 55 years later, Christianity would be declared the official state religion of the entire Roman Empire.  

Now, I go back and forth about whether or not this was a good idea.  On the one hand, we weren’t being arrested anymore, we weren’t having our property confiscated, we weren’t being fed to lions and such; so there is a positive side.  The Roman Empire provided an opportunity for the easy spread of the Good News to most of the world; an even more positive side, I suppose.  But as we find ourselves today in a world that is increasingly suspicious and even hostile toward the institutionalized Christianity, I wonder if the last almost-1700 years have properly prepared us for this moment.  Do we even remember how to be the church when we are not the dominant faith?  Don’t get too worked up just yet: we’re still “top of the charts” worldwide; but we also lose ground every day.  Ours is not the state religion it once was.  Even if you like to believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, you have to face the fact that it isn’t anymore.  Do we remember how to be the church without also being an institution?  

You may have noticed, throughout this study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I’ve been pointing out that it was written well before Constantine; probably around 60 AD, so around 250 years before Constantine.  I think, as we read this book, that it’s important for us to remember this point.  Paul is writing to a church before it was anything like an institution.  He’s writing to a church just trying to be the church: followers of Jesus, who are simply striving to seek and serve Jesus.  He is writing to the church before it was the dominant religion in the world; and perhaps he has something to teach us that is more important than being a dominating institution.  

Our reading this morning begins with the words, "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name."  Before the church was “organized,” before it started thinking it had all the answers, before it was an institution, it followed Paul’s lead and prayed for God’s guidance.  Paul prayed that we might be strengthened by the Spirit; that Jesus might abide with us as we are rooted and grounded in his love.  He prayed that we might have an understanding of God’s love that comes from God alone.  Indeed, he prayed that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.  He prayed because he knew that we can only get ourselves so far, but by the power of God, at work in us, we can do “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”  

At our Friday morning men’s group, we talked a bit this week about worship.  We decided that people seem to seek two extremes in worship.  There are those who seek the experience of God.  These are your more-Pentecostal types.  For them, a “successful” worship experience is determined by how it made them feel the presence of God.  And then there are those who seek the knowledge of God.  These are folks who, to be honest, are a lot more like me.  For them, a “successful” worship experience is determined by how it made them think; what they learned about God.  I think we agreed on Friday that neither extreme is really what worship ought to be about, but more a blending of the two.  Good worship is marked by a deeper knowledge of God, but in the way that Paul talks about today: through the experience of God’s presence with us; a presence that teaches us things that goes beyond what we might come to intellectually.  In other words, if our goal, as we seek and serve Jesus, is first to be strengthened and led by the Spirit, the decisions we make together, might surprise us.  The things we find ourselves called to do and be, might or might not be things we’d come to on our own.  

For example, we have a decision to make in a little bit.  We’ve called a Congregational Meeting to answer a question, so we’re going to take a vote (as good Presbyterians should).  Honestly, I have no horse in this race: as moderator, I wouldn’t vote even if I had strong opinions one way or another, but I don’t.  But as members of this congregation, you not only get a voice and a vote, you are obligated to make a choice: yea or nay, it’s up to you.  But let’s talk about that choice: is it a choice between making a right decision or a wrong decision, or is it something else?  As we seek to be the church that our Savior calls us to be, Paul reminds us that there is a different, more important question to be answered.  Beyond making decisions that make sense to us intellectually, beyond making decisions that feel right, today we are challenged to ask, “How can we seek the will of God in this?  What does God want us to do?  What do we imagine God will accomplish through whatever decision we come to today?”  

Today’s vote may not be the most important vote we ever take, but it is certainly good practice.  As we strive to be the Christ’s Church in this world, let us first seek his Spirit’s presence as we pray.  And as we pray, may we see the glory of him who, by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.