When we meet Jesus in the Gospel today he is being pursued by those who witnessed the feeding miracle where he transformed a simple lunch into enough food to feed thousands. The crowd wants more, they want a conjuring trick – or do they? These are people who are mostly hungry. No doubt they would like to see another miracle but might it be more pragmatic than that, perhaps they want another good, square meal.
Jesus tells them that he is the true bread. This, of course, is an offer to end their hunger in a different and enduring way. But what does it mean that Jesus is the bread of the world? We are called to the altar, of course, we receive bread and wine to join into the heavenly banquet. We understand that there is real hunger in the world and that we are called to work together to dismantle unjust structures which perpetuate poverty and systematic inequality.
These two things go together. For some the social justice side of the equation, the actual feeding of the hungry crowd, comes easy. For others the holding close of the bread of heaven and entering ever closer on that journey with Christ is their native language, but we are called to both. It struck me that as I was reading around this passage several folks said we should remember not to get stuck on the spiritual meaning of the Gospel and remember that there is real and pressing hunger in the world. Then one commentator noted, abruptly, that, actually as a Church, we are pretty good at social justice – like the crowd which came to Jesus we understand the physicality of our presence in the world, but like the crowd we often stop there, failing to see Jesus for who He really is.
This week has been a week of contrasts for me. I guess I am taking away from several deaths and conversations about death that that line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption is just about right,
“Get busy living or get busy dying”. Isn’t that what Jesus is inviting this crowd to today, to get busy living. And isn’t that a challenge for us?
When we talk about bread we think of something which is a staple, something which is good and nutritious, but the simple fact is that most of the bread which we buy in the store is so processed that it is simply filler in our diet. The bread which Jesus would have known was made from coarsely ground flour. It would have been padded with various grains and even pulses. It would have been dense and heavy and flavorsome. It would have needed chewing and would, indeed, have been a meal by itself.
We have turned bread into something else – we add fat and sugar because we have made the bread itself so tasteless. Bread is simply the holder for our peanut butter, our salad or our cheese – it simply provides a case for the rest of our eating, to the point where we are invited on diets which remove all carbs, including bread.
The symbolism of what bread is to us is lost. Water we get, we need that. But bread is an optional extra in many of our lives and when we do eat it we hide it underneath a variety of flavors.
And if we have rendered our food so much less nutritious and rendered it useless without a cupboard full of additions, what does this do to our view of Jesus as bread of the World?
Get on with living, or get on with dying.
If you ever get to walk into, or even by, a bakery which is making fresh bread you know that it is and experience which envelops you and draws you in. You take an extra breath to savor the scent, you might want a taste, buy a loaf. Where we lived before this the grocery store baked bread on the premises. My children loved the French Bread. It came in long paper bags with a tantalizing clear panel on the front. Despite saying we had to pay first I would often get to the register with chunks torn off and it was not unknown for a whole loaf to disappear on the walk home – I had to buy two if I wanted one to serve with dinner. If we took a detour on the walk home from school we could go by the store and Katherine would often choose a half baguette over candy (not always, let’s be real!)
But that is the sort of bread which Jesus is offering us, the bread of a life which we want to tear into. A bread whose warmth we want to hold onto, whose scent we savor. That is so different from the plastic wrapped, don’t squash me bread with which many of us a familiar.
For centuries bread lasted a day. Feeding a family with bread was a daily task. The fire had to be rekindled, the dough assembled and kneeded and the bread baked. As a child my mother still walked to the bakery each day to buy bread for the day – she refused to succumb to, as she called it, “Plastic Bread”. It can all seem a bit romantic, but bread was something which required daily attention, the yeast was a permanent presence in the house, except, of course, during fasts.
It is no accident that during the Highland clearances in Scotland the sign of a household, or community, which had been eradicated was the extinguishing of the fire. Cold, broken houses where no bread could be baked.
Get on with living, or get on with dying.
Do we come to Jesus the Bread of Life as if this is something we cannot wait to dig into, as if this is something to savor, as if there is a journey worth making, work worth doing, as if this is associated with our very life and the warmth of our being? Is coming to Jesus a daily task of necessity and satisfaction?
When Jesus says to the crowd that he is the bread of life he uses the verb to eat but then he switches to the word “chew”. It is not a pleasant sort of word, we would tell our children off for the sort of chewing which Jesus mentions. It is a rough and ready, childlike word. But just like my children in the store tearing pieces off the loaf, children, especially when they are hungry, are not careful eaters, they stuff their mouths and make a mess.
What we do at the altar has to bring all of this to mind – not to make us disgusted but to remind us of our vitality, the urgency of our need and our utter dependence.
Of course we need to work on giving all people their daily bread but fulfilling this basic level of need only begins to offer a full humanity. There are many who are well fed who are poor. What Jesus offers is a real and significant hope, meaning and purpose. It does not come shrink wrapped and it is not full of chemicals which will keep it fresh for weeks – like the manna in the wilderness it is God’s daily provision for us. We cannot make it small or easy and we must get on with living.
Saturday, July 11, 2015
Proper 10 July 12th
This morning’s epistle moves us out of 2 Corinthians and into Ephesians. Although these are both amongst the longer epistles they are also books which many people know less about. 2 Corinthians, of course, follows on from 1 Corinthians but this Epistle to the Ephesians is a different beast altogether.
Whilst there are a few bits, here and there, in 2 Corinthians which might have been edited, or even added later most of it seems to be Paul. It also seems to be a letter made up from several letters. Ephesians is different. It is not so rushed. It seems to be one cohesive work and it looks like it is a lot later, perhaps into the 80s or 90s before it is written.
As with all these arguments about who wrote what and when there are two (or many more) sides. Without getting too bogged down in things, there are differences between Paul’s emphases and those in this letter. We have seen before that Paul moves his theological stance as time goes on about family and marriage but still, this is a lot of difference.
In the early texts of this letter, there is actually no mention of Ephesus giving scholars the idea that this was a much more general work, designed to be read in many churches in the region to give a firm idea of the faith and doctrine.
As you read through Ephesians there are some bits which you probably will take issue with. But these first few verses are intended to build up the community, reminding them of the promise which they have been given and the share in the inheritance of the kingdom to which they are called.
There is a sense of mystery and otherness, of the space between heaven and earth which they are called to occupy.
If you are theologically minded you might be tempted to get tangled up in some of the language about being chosen. Try not to for a moment. The writer is clear here that Jesus was before the world began and that the believer is adopted into a family which is to live for the praise of his glory.
The Westminster confession, which was the result of the Puritan government in England in 1646 trying to define sound doctrine, is an odd thing to quote but they asked:
“What is the chief purpose of a human being?” and answered, “To enjoy God forever.”
It is an answer which could have come from a medieval mystic, or a modern day teen. It is a uniting phrase across denominations and nations. Thus it fits well with the tenor of Ephesians who purpose is one of unity. All believers are equal, there is no class or distinction between them and all are intended simply to “enjoy God forever.”
There is a lot of talk in our world about happiness but not so much about joy. The way we define the two things is often very different. Happiness has become almost a product, something which we must strive after, something which occurs when we have the right house and car and job. As such happiness has become difficult to grasp, always seeming one step ahead of us, making us feel we are not good enough when we cannot grab it and hang on to it.
Joy is something quite different. Joy is something which we have without even really realizing it. Think of those moments which you might describe as joyful – sunrises, hugs from loved ones, laughter with friends. Joy sort of sneaks up on us and fills us with radiance from the inside out. Joy is what God calls us to.
Perhaps the really telling thing about joy is that you can be joyful even when you are in a situation which should make you totally miserable. With joy it is as if you have a light inside you which will not be extinguished – yes, sometimes it burns low, sometimes you might be afraid it will go out – but you will always return to its light because you know that is what you are made for, to be a vessel of God given joy because, ultimately, God is to be enjoyed.
This is something which we need to be aware of and which we need to apply to our modern living. Increasingly we are invited to take sides in our lives at just about every turn. Our society seems to be becoming polarized even as we think we are becoming more liberal. From whether we support this political party or that to whether we take Advil or Tylenol the message is clear, those who think differently are stupid, insane of downright evil.
But all of us are made to enjoy God – how can that be?
The Gospel today is hard. It tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. It is randomly violent but it is real. We are told that Herod had backed himself into a corner. Apparently, on his own, he quite liked John and enjoyed what he had to say. But John had powerful enemies in the person of Herod’s wife and with careful planning she brought about John’s execution.
The manipulation of those around her by Herodias is palpable, she sets the play, invites the players and then, literally, goes for the kill. But what about Herod, and even his daughter. We might say that the daughter was simply a pawn in this larger movement but Herod, he could have done something. He could have chosen the greater good. But he didn’t, he chose to save face with the people closest to him rather than follow his gut feeling about John.
Perhaps we are not called to such stark choices but I wonder how often we quell the prophetic voice, the voice which asks us to move our moral or political compass, the voice which as often as not is from the margins. How often do we think to ourselves, well I can’t do that because of my….insert what you like house, family, children, job.
These are real tensions for us, but remember we were all made to enjoy God forever, and forever starts now. How can we live in that joy and communicate that joy. More than that how can we truly belong to God unless we are becoming more and more like God – and unless we believe that other are called to the same.
Freedom, grace, adoption, glory. These are not small things and neither are they given to us in order that we can hold on to them tightly and build ourselves a castle. If we are not becoming more like God and exploring with others the truth that we are all made with one purpose then we may as well go home and lock our doors.
Telling our story, as we have seen many times, is not comfortable and does not play well with some of the things which we might well enjoy. But the consequences of conforming to an economy of divisiveness and hate are devastating, (remember Herod) not only to us but to all God’s people, to all those who are called to an equality of love and worship to enjoy God forever.
Sunday, July 5, 2015
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
In today's Gospel Jesus comes home. Like many bright young men before him he is invited to speak to the community. But unlike many young men for him he speaks with authority which is a direct threat to those in leadership in the synagogue.
There is real irony in the fact that Jesus is rejected from his home even as he reads a prophecy, which according to Luke, is about the home that God which is to create for his people, a home of justice and peace , good news for the poor and freedom for those imprisoned.
As we have seen earlier in Mark that Jesus removes some of the old barriers and structures which way round Jewish life. He seems to reject his own family as he invites the stranger in and removes the familiar from the old power systems.
Home is redefined in this passage. Not just the home which is their Jewish religion, not even that central home of the Temple but the whole concept of home . It is to be found in the person of Jesus. It is no wonder Jesus is rejected.
Who is he to say this? The Carpenters son? We know him, we have seen him since he was a child. Why does he have the authority to tell us what the scriptures mean? to claim this for himself ? To ask of questions which we not comfortable answering?
I wonder what Jesus felt as he approached his hometown. He must have anticipated the conflict and allowed himself to let go of the familiar in order to fulfill his mission. But this was not easy. If we allow Jesus to be fully human he is a person who is letting go of deeply formed relationship as he is rejected.
Immediately after this Jesus sent his disciples out on the road. Just as he will no longer find his home where he grew up so they will no longer find a home in stable and static lives. Something new and more important must motivate them now. They are called to find a home, not in bricks and mortar, not in reliance on human relationships, not even in reliance on themselves but to find a home in Jesus. This is both frightening and exhilarating for them.
They are told to go out without anything except the clothes they stand up in. It is to be a journey of complete trust. Jesus even tells them that they will meet opposition but they are not to let it stick to them. They are simply to journey on, trusting that there will be those who are open and responsive to the message.
This is very different to the close and supportive Jewish community and the large extended families with which they would have been familiar. It is tempting to think that Jesus asks big change merely from those in positions of authority when, in fact, he demands from those who are closest to him. A change in life which will shake them to the very core of their existence.
Where do we find our home. Are we relying on things which get broken ? Or are we at homevwith and in Jesus Christ?
Our reading from Corinthians seems at first to be a little bizarre but really it is about where we find our home and that is in the presence of God. Paul uses the language of mysticism to express his own experience despite, in spite of weakness. This sort of experience it's not something we can do of our own will.
We are not sure what sort of problem Paul had many speculate, but that is not the point. Paul's point is not about the nature of imperfection but rather its reality and God's response . It is only by being at home in Christ that Paul can find realfreedom and relief to pursue the ministry to which God has called him. Paul find his true home not in the certainty and prestige of rabbinical Jerusalem but as an itinerant preacher for the Gospel.
So what about us where is our home? St Augustine says our souls are restless until they find a rest in Christ. But rest in Christ does not look like a copy of Southern Living. It is not picture perfect. It is real.
A few years ago a survey was done on church growth. Parishioners were asked what would happen if they brought their friends to church. Many said they did not bring friends to church because friends might not like it. They worried that they would find it strange for odd and that would damage their friendship. But I wonder whether it is less about telling a story of how God impact our lives and more about how we perceive are image as church in the world.
I wonder how many of us have looked up magazine perfect pictures of homes and thought to ourselves it might be pretty but it will never be my life. Jesus did not call disciples who were perfect. He sent them out into the world in a way where they had to rely on him. Yet get too often we think about presenting church glossy product. Yes, we have to be the best people we can be, but if we wait until things are perfect we will be waiting an awfully long time.
It seems less likely that we do not trust the story of Jesus and more that we do not trust ourselves to tell it. Baptism makes each of us members of the household of Christ and we move into a new home in God's presence. But we are not invited in in order to close the doors and windows. In order to keep people out. Neither are we to rely on ourselves in order to achieve some sort of magazine perfection.
In a society which likes to make things look shiny and new from the outside because we do not trust the imperfection of the inside, we must trust that even as fallible and broken people God will use us to invite others home.
We cannot do things backwards. We become hypocrites when we think that we begin to think the story starts with us. The story of course starts with God. We need to spend less time worrying about looking perfect and shiny and devote more energy discovering what it really means to live in God's house. What does it mean when we leave our home and find our home in Christ,because unless we can answer that for ourselves, we cannot convincingly invite others to join us. Amen