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14. Pentecost: Unclean Disciples

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

                                                          2 September 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

“Unclean Disciples”

Based on St. Mark 7: 1-8, 14-23

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Wash your hands before you eat!

How many of us heard that from our parents as children? Well the Pharisees, a group of Jewish reformers who put great emphasis on law, were shocked when they saw some of Jesus’ disciples eat without washing their hands first. But this isn’t about hygiene. The Pharisees’ concerns about cleanliness were not about bacteria, pesticides, or scrubbing off dirt – but about obeying the law. In fact, it is quite possible that the ritual handwashing the Pharisees were so concerned about was just a bit of sprinkling and didn’t do much for hygiene. The laws of the Pharisees declared who was clean and unclean, who was in and who was out. They accuse the disciples of eating with defiled hands, because they are not obeying what the Pharisees call “the tradition of the elders.” David Ewart writes that “The “tradition of the elders” is NOT the teaching of Moses as found in the Bible. It is the practice of the Judean elite which they are seeking to impose as THE one and only correct practice. And, as noted, the amount of water, time and money to follow those practices was beyond the reach of most people. And so most people were seen by the elites as unclean.”[1]

            The Pharisees had decided that their practice was the way. It was the only way to behave, otherwise you were unclean. Does that sound familiar to you? Sometimes we get into that mentality as well, determining that the way we as Americans live is the way the rest of the world should live, or thinking that the way we worship is the right way, and that there can be no deviation from that. But Jesus tells the Pharisees that they have it all wrong. He is bold and calls them hypocrites, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” Drawing from Isaiah, Jesus says that God wants more than lip service of empty rituals. Rituals are wonderful things that can help make meaning of our lives, but when they become so fossilized that doing them becomes more important than the faith they point to, they are done in vain. While the Pharisees may do their rituals and obey their laws, they are far from the heart of their faith, and their hearts are far from God.

            When we become legalistic and rigid about our faith we cut ourselves off from the rich and vast treasure that are the many expressions of the Christian tradition. Not only that, but we seek to control when and where the Holy Spirit can act. When we focus too much on the letter of the law and following the “tradition of the elders” we lose the heart of our faith. Jesus did not practice the insider/outsider religion of the Pharisees – he embraced the outcast. For Jesus what was important was that people were more true to the heart of faith in loving and serving God, than the rules humans have put up like fences around faith. Ron Rolheiser says, “we don’t do God, faith, religion, and the church a favor when our beliefs are narrow, bigoted, legalistic, or intolerant… God, religion, and the churches are, I suspect, more hurt by being associated with the narrowness and intolerance of some believers than they are by any theoretical dogmatic heresy. Right truth, proper faith, and true fidelity to Jesus Christ demand too that our hearts are open and wide enough to radiate the universal love and compassion that Jesus incarnated.”[2]

            Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for their judgment and says to all gathered, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” He tells those around him and tells us, it’s not the lack of washing hands or eating food that isn’t kosher that defiles a person. That’s not what makes you unclean – food just goes into your stomach, not your heart. But it’s what comes out of us, what comes out of our own hearts that defiles. It is not some outside evil that defiles us. It is the sin within us that does. It is our own behavior. Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “Eugene’s Peterson’s The Message as “It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life.”

            Jesus proclaims that “fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” These are all behaviors that come from within us. Certainly there are outside influences that can push us to do such things. But ultimately it comes down to the state of our own hearts before God. We could be following every law perfectly but if our hearts are impure we performing rituals in vain.

            When our traditions and rituals and practices become less about expressing our Christian faith, and more about order, regulations, insiders and outsider, it is time to revision what we are really about. When things like hand washing become obstacles to participation in the Body of Christ, it is time to let them go. In Journey with Jesus, Daniel Clenendin writes, “Given our human propensity for justifying ourselves and for scape-goating others, the purity laws lent themselves to a spiritual stratification or hierarchy between the ritually “clean” who considered themselves to be close to God, and the “unclean” who were shunned as impure sinners who were far from God. Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people considered dirty, polluted, or contaminated. In word and in deed Jesus ignored, disregarded and actively demolished these distinctions of ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.”[3] We must be very attentive to the ways in which we practice our faith may or may not create insiders and outsiders.

            It is all too easy to fall into the same traps as the Pharisees. So often we want certainty from our religious practices. We want something stable and sure. In that effort, traditions get calcified. We forget why we do things a certain way. When asked, often the answer is “Because we’ve always done it that way” or “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Sometimes following the ‘way things are supposed to be’ and following the letter of the law supercedes the compassion, grace and mercy that are supposed to be at the heart of our faith. All too often we lose sight of the heart, because it is so much easier to qualify and quantify physical things like hand washing. Things like that make it easy to determine who is in and who is out. Too many churches have long lists of those who are unclean and unwelcome. But those lists, those supposed exceptions to God’s love miss the point. They get trapped in legalism and exclusivism and miss the entire point. Ron Rolheiser says again “Jesus is clear about this. Anyone who reads the Gospels and misses Jesus’ repeated warnings about legalism, narrowness, and intolerance is reading selectively.”

            We must remember that it is not the exterior practices that can defile us, but what comes from our hearts. Do our hearts show love and compassion to those around us, or do we castigate others for not living the same way we do? Jesus did not come to earth to create yet more boundaries and walls between persons, but to tear them down. So then let us remember the heart of our faith, which is to love God and neighbor. The Good News is this: God has come to us in Jesus Christ to teach us how to love God, each other, and ourselves. Christ our Liberator frees us from the bonds of sin and legalism and exclusivism to find the vast, expansive Kingdom of God where all are welcome at the table, hands washed or not.

 

 

 

           

 

           

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13. Pentecost: A Difficult Teacher

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

26 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

“A Difficult Teacher”

Based on St. John 6: 56-69

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            For the past five weeks we have followed Jesus throughout chapter 6 of St. John’s gospel. We began by hearing the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes for the crowd of over 5,000. Though there were only a few loaves and a few fish, somehow it was enough for all present. As the disciples went away after this sign, Jesus walked on the water to meet them in their boat. The following week the crowd who had been fed returned to Jesus looking for more bread when he proclaimed to them that he was the bread of life that would never run out. He continues explaining being bread of life in the next portion. Finally, last week, amidst people arguing over how he could say such things, Jesus ramps up his rhetoric and says that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life.

            But today the rubber meets the road.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, eventually the bread that Jesus shared would not be enough for those following him. Some of them would turn away and no longer be his disciples. A distinction needs to be made here – these are not his primary disciples who leave, the twelve who would become apostles, but others who had been following him. In any case, Jesus says to the crowd, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” Last week I addressed how surprising Jesus’ language, and how it discomforts us. So it is no wonder then that some in the crowd say, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” If those of us who are Christians struggle with this teaching, of course it is difficult for those hearing it for the first time. But Jesus doesn’t back down, he doesn’t dial down his language – he doesn’t simplify. He says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” Even people who saw Jesus in the flesh had trouble believing. They did not have faith. Remember these are some of the same people who ate the bread and fish Jesus multiplied for their bodily nourishment. But for some of them that wasn’t enough, and they failed to grasp the spiritual nourishment that Jesus offers. Today we marvel at that miracle. Some might wonder how it is possible that they could not believe after such an event. Many people ask for a sign from God, and here was one. But they failed to see that the bread and fish pointed to something much bigger. And after they had their fill, Jesus’ teaching got more and more complicated, and ultimately they couldn’t swallow it. And so we read that “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” They turned back and went to their former lives. It’s kind of surprising isn’t it? That Jesus’ group of disciples gets smaller, not larger. That seems counter-intuitive. In an age of booming mega-churches it goes against the grain of our thinking, especially when the largest church in Missouri has 10,000 members. More does not necessarily mean more faithful, especially when in Jesus’ case when his crowd was larger, not everyone believed.

Reformed theologian Scott Hoeze writes, “It’s sad to see people abandoning Jesus as John 6 concludes. But do you think that precisely such a winnowing out of the crowd was Jesus’ intention all along?  Do you think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in being so provocative in his language about eating and drinking his own flesh and blood?  Surely he was not ignorant of the fact that people would find this gross and offensive.  When in verse 61 Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” you have the feeling that he knew full well that it was offensive, at least to those who were not being granted the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit and at the Father’s behest.”[1]

            When Jesus was told that his teaching was difficult, he didn’t backpedal. He doesn’t go running after those who leave. He lets them go on their way and focuses on the twelve who remain. Jesus in his wisdom, while he might have still been perturbed that some weren’t getting it, knew that the teaching was difficult. Instead of dialing down, Jesus cranks it up. It’s as if he’s creating a pressure cooker atmosphere, putting on the heat to see who will commit. I really do think that Jesus was using this difficult teaching to force a decision. He wants the crowd to know that it’s about more than a free lunch of some bread and fish miraculously multiplied. He wants them to see that it’s not always going to be easy – that they are going to have to accept some difficult things. Following Jesus isn’t about getting your needs met, it’s about the Kingdom of God come near, making the first last and the last first. It takes commitment and dedication, which ultimately the entire crowd was not ready to make.

            Father Rick Morley, an Episcopal priest says,

“Jesus didn’t launch these rhetorical bombshells so that they’d fizzle with time. No, I think it’s clear that Jesus was stirring the pot on purpose. He wanted to say things that challenged people, even to the point of having to decide that they’d have to leave. One thing is clear here: Jesus isn’t about people-pleasing. He’s not about glad-handing, and smoothing out the wrinkles so that everyone can go away happy, and come again happy. But…following Jesus means…sometimes you need to say the hard thing. Sometimes there is no win-win situation where everyone goes home happy. Sometimes people get mad, and they leave, and they never come back. And, all because you said something like, “No, this is God’s Church, and all of God’s Children are welcome here.” Or, “No, their love is a gift of God, and it will be celebrated in God’s Church.” Or, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”[2]

            After the others turn away, Jesus asks the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” I’m no Jesus, but boy can I relate to that. But listen to Peter’s response, “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.” That statement alone is enough justification to refer to its speaker as St. Peter. Lord, to whom can we go.  These twelve had made their commitment. They had left their old lives behind and had no plans to return. They received the Good News from Jesus, they knew the words he spoke transcended their current reality. Like the rest, they didn’t fully understand the message and would often stumble, but unlike the others, had put their faith and trust in Jesus. They were there not merely for some bread or fish, but the very presence of God. To whom can they go? They know of no one else who can so embody God’s promise. They assent to his teaching, even when it is difficult because he has the words of eternal life.

            Jesus gives us the same challenge that he gave to the twelve and to those who left him. Can we take the difficult teaching along with the loaves and fishes, and along the way see that they point beyond ourselves, beyond our comfort to a God in charge of it all? Are we willing to withstand the trials that come with following Jesus? The path of discipleship isn’t always easy. In our United Church of Christ statement of faith we say that we accept the “cost and joy of discipleship.” We commit to going the journey with Jesus. We commit to leaving old lives behind, and finding a new, transformed life with Christ. There will be times when life with Jesus might feel like you’ve been put in a pressure cooker. There will be times when we might want to say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But remember, whatever the risks, whatever the obstacles – it is in Jesus that we hear the words of eternal life. He is the Holy One of God. In Christ we are changed, transformed and given new life. The twelve that remained, they could be thick-headed, slow on the uptake. They were common fishermen and tax collectors. They were simple village people. And yet we still tell their stories today, we still remember their faithfulness. Those who left? Who knows who they are? Really, it’s not whose name we still know, but the faithfulness even in times of trial. The point is that the disciples stayed, because in Jesus they saw the Holy One of God.

            They weren’t perfect, and sometimes they failed. Sometimes they made themselves scarce. But when push came to shove, when the rubber met the road, loaves and fishes mattered little compared to the bread of life that Jesus offered. May we say with them, “To whom can we go? You have the words of life.”

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

 

 

12. Pentecost: Enfleshed in the World

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

19 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Enfleshed in the World

Based on St. John 6: 51-58

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            The words are shocking. Jarring. Disturbing. Disconcerting.

And they come from Jesus. Speaking to a crowd he says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” This should startle us. It should make us uncomfortable. On Monday, the day I begin my scripture study for the week, I was struck by Jesus’ words, and even a little queasy. Jesus is saying we should eat his flesh and drink his blood – not quite words of comfort one would expect. As shocking as his words might seem to us, we have perspective and distance. His hearers had not yet witnessed the crucifixion. We celebrate the Eucharist when we re-member Christ’s crucified body and spilt blood, broken and shed for us, in the symbols of the bread and wine. But those who heard these words for the first time had no Eucharist meal to point to, but just heard the literal words. It would have been even more jarring and shocking that first moment Jesus said “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” The Jewish people were forbidden to eat meat with any hint of blood. In Genesis, God commanded Noah, “Every living thing shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” To drink blood would have been an abomination to the Jewish people. Blood was saved from the animals to be offered in the temple to God. Yet, here Jesus says to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It is no wonder that early Christians were accused of being cannibals, and even today some nonbelievers criticize the Church because of our communion meal where the bread symbolizes the broken body and the wine is the shed blood. British commentators Catherine McIlhenny and Kathryn Turner write that, “Here is a real flesh and blood man saying unless you eat this flesh and drink this blood, you cannot have life within you…it is small wonder that the Jews argued about what he meant. Was Jesus advocating some kind of cannibalism? Was he encouraging a satanic rite of drinking human blood? What did his words mean and how – in culture which honoured the body and held blood to be sacred – how could he mean what he said? Early Christians were indeed accused of human sacrifice – cannibalism – and the drinking of human blood as people heard snippets of their beliefs: “they meet to eat flesh and drink blood”. These accusations were cited as cause for persecution – after all, what civilised society would tolerate such behaviour?”[1]

            If Jesus had meant the words literally, we would all be cannibals and zombies. But he didn’t. He often spoke in metaphors and parables that would shock and jar persons out of their complacency. I’m reminded of William Sloane Coffin’s words, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” We take Jesus words seriously, not literally. So what is he saying here? Is this just foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper? I think Jesus is reminding us of the incarnation here. The incarnation is God taking on human flesh, being part of the world as one of us. St. John’s gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being,” and continues on saying “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” It is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. The Word became flesh. Jesus is reminding us that he is God enfleshed. When he tells the crowd that by eating his flesh and drinking his blood that they will have eternal life, he is foreshadowing that by his crucifixion, death and resurrection we will have everlasting life. United Church of Canada minister Rev. David Ewart says, “John wants us to SEE that God so loves this world of human flesh and blood that the Word, which created that Garden, became flesh and blood light, life, and truth in our flesh and blood reality. When Jesus invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is inviting us to ingest God’s Word, to feast on God’s light, God’s life, God’s truth, God’s love.”[2]

            Love, light and life! Those are comforting beautiful words. Why didn’t Jesus use them? I don’t know particularly why, but Jesus felt the need to talk in a more visceral way, to challenge and shock. Perhaps if he hadn’t used such bold language it wouldn’t have even registered with the crowd. He’s talking about something new and different here. Something that won’t be comfortable for the society. Something that will challenge. Something that will shake up our regular way of thinking. He wants us to see that God is doing something new. He wants us to see how bold it is that the Son of God lives and walks among them and that he will even give up his flesh and blood, his very life for them, and for us throughout all time and space.

                When we partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we make memory of Christ’s nativity, incarnation, life, ministry, passion, death, resurrection and ascension. We make memory that God took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and gave it up for us, in order that we may live. By our prayers and the Holy Spirit, Christ is mystically and really present in the holy meal. By partaking of the bread and cup, we ingest Christ’s Spirit into our very selves. Rev. Karen Campbell, from the Church of Scotland, says, “In the consumption we are celebrating and entering into the life of Christ in all its forms. We are entering into salvation history and carrying the story on.”[3] Christ wants us to participate in his very life – that is why he metaphorically says to consume his body and blood, which are powerful and potent symbols of life.

            Christ wants us to see once again that he is more than yet another traveling preacher or powerful healer or fascinating teacher – but the very bread of life. For those that followed Jesus, they often struggled to afford to eat a bit of bread each day. Jesus says to them and us that his bread does not run out, and it comes without a price. Jesus Christ is the living bread, and when we eat of this bread we have eternal life. We have life that lasts beyond decaying buildings and bodies. We have life in God our very Creator.

            How does Christ call our attention to this life? He calls us with words that are shocking. Jarring. Disconcerting. Words that shake us up and make us uncomfortable Christ calls us out of our comfort zones, out of the narrow, exclusive worlds that we have created for ourselves, to the vast, expansive, inclusive universe God is still creating. So listen for the words that challenge, that call you out of the ruts of the life that doesn’t really last. Listen for the words that lead to life eternal. Listen for the words that make you a bit queasy. Listen for the words that say God is here among us in the flesh. Listen for the words that say, “Take and eat, this is my body, this is my blood, for the life of the world.”

 

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

 

 

 

11. Pentecost: Cutting Down and Building Up

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

12 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

Cutting Down and Building Up

Based on Ephesians 4: 25-5:2

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

            The church at Ephesus, to which the letter of Ephesians was written, was an important congregation. The church is also mentioned in the book of Revelation and was later the site of a major council in the 400s. There is a possibility that St. John and Mary, the mother of Jesus lived in Ephesus and were part of the church there. What is believed to be the last home of Mary is located there, and is still a pilgrimage site today. In the time of the letter, Ephesus was a booming city of 250,000 – one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean. It was Rome’s capital in Asia Minor, and the site of a major Greek temple. The church there was most likely largely made up of Gentiles. St. Paul lived among the Ephesians from 52-54 AD. If he indeed wrote this letter to the Ephesians, which is debated, it was likely while imprisoned in Rome around the year 63. William Loader says that, “Ephesians wants hearers to make the connections between the new relationship they have with Christ, with each other (including with Jews), on the one hand, and real living, concrete behaviour, on the other. It is important to see both aspects. They assume a new state of being which makes such changes possible.”[1]

Throughout the letter to the Ephesians, a central theme is unity. They are told, “So then, you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but citizens in the household of God.” In our passage today, the author says to the Ephesians, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” He continues to urge thieves to give up stealing, and others to not speak slander or do malice. Now this is not advice unique to the Christian faith. You can find such moral teaching in Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and other religions. What does make it unique is how the command continues. The writer says, “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” He later reminds the reader that they are to forgive just as Christ has forgiven them. The Ephesians, and we, are reminded that we are members of one another. That is language that recalls Paul’s letter in I Corninthians when he says that we are all members of the Body of Christ, likening each to a different part of the body. Because we are members of the Body of Christ together, we need to speak truth to our neighbors. The Contemporary English Version of the Bible puts it this way, “We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth.” The Good News Bible says, “Everyone must tell the truth to his fellow believer, because we are all members together in the body of Christ.” In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, it is put this way: “What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.” All this is to say that because we are united together in the Body of Christ, we need to speak truth in love to each other and hold each other accountable in honesty.

The next admonition is familiar, at least in part. Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” In fact, I know more than one couple that uses this adage in their relationship. Notice too though, the phrase that precedes it – “Be angry, but do not sin.” We are actually told to be angry! Too often Christianity gets confused with the niceties of society and Aesop’s Fables. Here we see plainly that anger can be a Christian virtue. There is a place for righteous anger, as long as we don’t let it fester and burn up inside us. Anger can actually be productive in that it can lead us to right what is wrong and to work for justice in an unjust system. Eugene Peterson rephrases it this way, “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry – but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry.”

The writer of the epistle continues by writing, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” What we say matters. Words have power. They can build up, encourage and support – or they can completely destroy. I know that in the most difficult times of my life a few well-chosen words by a friend made all the difference and helped me persevere. Several months ago, I was having a particularly difficult weekend. I saw the light on my answering machine flashing. I was loathe to check my messages. I thought, “What is it now?!” I checked the message anyway, and it was one of our shut-in members with a message of thanks for visiting her. She has no idea how much her words of gratitude meant to me. And of course, we also each have had times when particularly harsh words cut deeply. Such words can cause deep and lasting pain – more than we often know.

The Pultizer Prize winning play Doubt deals with this issue. It is about a priest, Father Flynn, and the principal of his parish school, Sister Aloysius Beauvier who has leveled accusations against him without evidence. From the pulpit one Sunday he tells this modern parable:

“A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man she

hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this, and that night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that the Hand of

God Almighty pointing a finger at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have borne false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what was the result?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’[2]

This modern parable illustrates just how far words can go particularly in regard to gossip or rumors. We can’t retrieve our words once they have been said – they float away, irretrievable like feathers.

In the past two weeks, there has been a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin killing six people and a fire completely destroying the mosque in Joplin. It is no wonder when a local Congressman freely calls those who disagree with him, “Godless,” and the dehumanizing and demoralizing rhetoric so often thrown at those one is in conflict with, that such speech leads to physical actions that destroy and kill. In such a time we should be especially careful that “no evil talk” come out of our mouths. I have been appalled to hear the ways in which so many people have gone beyond civil debate over politics and religion, to vitriolic attacks with no respect or concern, let alone Christian compassion. I have been ashamed of the way people have degraded Governor Romney’s Mormon faith and accused President Obama of being a secret Muslim. It is one thing to disagree on issues and to calmly and rationally debate, but another to descend into a pit of name-calling and cursing anyone who disagrees.

Because we are indeed members of one another, we should not use our words to tear down, but to build up. There is such a great need in our country to build up. So many people are despairing in the midst of all the problems our country faces, that the infighting and baseless accusations across aisles only aids and abets ignoring our problems. Rather, with our speech and actions we should be building bridges to better understand and care for one another. Rev. Kate Huey, Minister for Stewardship, Scripture, and Discipleship in the United Church of Christ national office, says, “If we claim our identity in Christ, if we know ourselves as members of a body, how can we be at war with one another, outwardly or underneath the surface and behind one another’s back? If we truly belong to one another and to the Body of Christ, how can we, for example, hurt one another with angry words and actions? When we act out of anger, we hurt ourselves, in a very real sense, as the members of a body should not and would not hurt each other.”[3] Since we are all members of the Body of Christ we should remember that we cannot simply cast each other aside, but care for each other for the health of the whole body.

In Joplin, Ashley Carter, a student at Ozark Christian College, is building up. CNN reported this week that when she heard that the mosque in Joplin had been burned to the ground, likely because of arson, she said, “I was very saddened. I thought it was very evil. I was pretty discouraged,” Carter said. “Regardless of what you believe, I think everybody’s entitled to loving whoever.”  So she organized a “rally of people coming together, from all walks of life, all religions, a really diverse group of people trying to promote this radical love.” To date, over 400 people have committed to attend on August 25. Ashley says she was inspired by “my love for Jesus. And I know that Jesus calls us to love people.”[4]

This is indeed the kind of speech and action that builds up across divisions. The author of Ephesians reminds us, “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Eugene Peterson continues his paraphrase of this passage saying, “Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love.” Once again, it comes down to love. We should be loving in telling each other the truth, in our dealings with one another and our speech. God loves each one of us. Each one of us are beloved children of God, gifted and created with marvelous potential. And yet each one of us is flawed, and each one of us has said and done things we wish we could gather back up like feathers. Yet, God loves each one of us unconditionally. That is what we should imitate in how we speak to each other. We are told to speak in such a way that our “words may give grace to those who hear.” You see when we imitate God in showing unconditional love, we share God’s grace with those with whom we communicate. Truly may our words be gracious, that we may share God’s love whenever we speak.

+To God be the glory. Amen.

10. Pentecost: Bread for the Soul

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

5 August 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Bread for the Soul

Based on St. John 6: 24-35

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Have you ever been in a one-way relationship? It’s the kind of relationship where you’re the only one putting forth an effort. You express your admiration, adoration, and adulation, showering them with love and support and encouragement, but receive nothing in return. It can be a romantic relationship, or purely platonic. It can be a frustrating, even heartbreaking position in which to be. You can come away from such experiences just feeling used.

            I actually think that’s how Jesus felt after feeding the 5,000 the loaves and fishes. I don’t know about you, but I never really thought about Jesus being or feeling used, until studying our gospel lesson this past week. As I said last Sunday, many of us are familiar with the story of just a few loaves and fishes being enough for the crowd of 5,000. It’s an amazing miracle contained in all four gospels. But few of us are familiar with what happened after the feeding. Fortunately our lectionary, that is the official listing of scripture passages for each Sunday, follows this story closely for the next several weeks and we get to see what the after-effects really were, closely reflecting on the bread of life.

            Our reading today picks up right where we left off. After the feeding, after Jesus walked on the water to the disciples in the boat, after having reached land – who should be on their heels, but the people who had just been fed, who had just been shown a sign of the bread of heaven. Jesus is perturbed. He says to the crowd, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” He knows they are back not to experience God, not for the nourishment of their souls, but their bellies.

            Jesus understands physical hunger. He was fully human. After all in one of his resurrection appearances the first thing he asks for is something to eat. He doesn’t begrudge the crowd having eaten the first time. What he does begrudge is that they failed to see the sign that the feeding pointed to – that Jesus is not some magical baker, but is the Bread of Life himself. They failed to see beyond their immediate need.

            Mennonite minister Michael Danner comments, “Jesus’ miracles seemed to serve a two-fold purpose. On a concrete level, his miracles set people free from tangible burdens. Illness. Social isolation. Physical limitations. Demonic possession. Hunger. On an equally concrete level, his miracles also put God’s power and reign on display. Jesus’ ministry among the people provided tangible proof that, indeed, the Kingdom of God was at hand. The question is, do people have eyes to see and ears to hear one within the other? If they don’t, their relationship with Jesus will become manipulative and exploitive. They will end up using Jesus for bread and miss out on the Bread of Life.”[1]

            My guess is that Jesus felt used here. We don’t often think about how our actions make God feel, do we? But if we truly believe that God wants a relationship with each and every one of us, maybe we would do well to think about how we are living and maintaining our relationship with God. Is it one-way? Do we pray, go to church, do works of mercy and justice for our “Get out of jail” card, to ensure an eternal reward – or is it in response to God’s grace and the relationship God seeks with each one of us? Those are questions we really need to ask of ourselves.

            Jesus continued speaking to the crowd saying, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” How hard it is to focus on the food that does not perish, the living bread, when our bodily needs press before us and we feel and hear the rumble in our stomachs. But spiritual starvation is just as real. We need to feed our souls as well, to partake of the bread of life, to not let our faith and spirituality grow stale.

            The followers ask Jesus what they must do. Jesus’ answer is: believe in the one whom God sent. Jesus doesn’t even say that he speaks of himself. But the followers get where he’s going with this and say “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” I really would like to know who in that crowd had the chutzpah to ask the question. Jesus had just hours ago fed the 5,000 – as much of a sign as they should have needed, and here they have the gall to basically say, “Eh, that wasn’t enough the first time. Do another trick.” But they  don’t stop there. Then  they work the guilt trip angle, saying that Moses gave their ancestors manna, that “‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus reminds them though, that manna was not from Moses but from God, just as Jesus is from God.

            Alyce McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, writes that Jesus is treated almost as a reality show contestant, saying, “Let’s see your act again, Jesus. If it holds our interest, we won’t buzz you, and we’ll vote you through to the next round. They’re treating Jesus like a talent show contestant who has to prove himself to them so they’ll advance him in his career. The crowd’s demand of Jesus … is incredibly insulting. Jesus breaks out of the mold. He demands that this “audience” do some work. To receive the food that will nourish them to eternal life they need to bring belief to the table. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”[2] Jesus challenges the crowd to see beyond their immediate need, to see beyond the miracle, to see the sign of the Bread of Life, to respond by believing in him.

            When Jesus reminds the crowd that it was not Moses but God who gave the bread, he said, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Again the crowd wants to be recipients of what Jesus has to offer them, rather than participate in his work in the world. It isn’t so hard though – to receive the bread of life we only have to believe and live our lives in response to this everlasting bread. This is the bread which nourishes our souls as well as our bodies. This bread never grows stale or crusty – this bread always feeds our hunger for divine connection. It is no coincidence that when Jesus gathered his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, that he broke bread, blessed it and gave it to them saying, “This is my body broken for you…do this in remembrance of me.” Whenever we eat bread for our earthly bodies, we should recall and make memory of all that Jesus Christ, the Bread of Heaven has done for us.

            UCC theologian Bruce Epperley reminds us that “Jesus gives us the bread of everlasting life; soul food and not fast food. Feasting on Christ’s bread gives substance to every meal: apart from the abundant life God provides and promises – the abundance of interdependence and relationship with God – nothing can satisfy.  Nourished by divine bread, we become large-spirited, having the mind of Christ that embraces the body of Christ – not only in the church but in the world – in all its wondrous variety.”[3] We are nourished by Christ’s love and sacrifice and intercession for us. This is true living bread. We should respond as Christ tells us to: by believing in him whom God sent. By the signs, revealing God to us, we can say, “Truly, you are Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior, our Messiah, the Bread of Life.”

            Jesus said to the crowd, “Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This is Good News! We don’t have to go chasing after Jesus for sign after sign to get more bread. He offers it freely if we only just believe. In Christ our souls and spirits are fed and sustained. As we receive Holy Communion today let us remember that it is truly the Bread of Life which feeds our hearts and souls through all eternity.

To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

 

 

 

8. Pentecost: Godly Rest

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

22 July 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

“Godly Rest”

 

Based on St. Mark 6: 30-32

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Shortly after Jesus tells his disciples how they are to go out and share the Good News of God, he tells them “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Why does he tell them this? We hear that already “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” So many were coming to them to be healed, to hear a word of hope, that the disciples didn’t even have time to eat! So Jesus tells them to do what he does in times like these – to go away by themselves and rest. Though we often think of Jesus mainly in the activity of healing so many and teaching large crowds, after such events he would go away to a deserted place and pray and rest, to regroup and rejuvenate himself. He urges the disciples to do the same. Episcopal priest Greg Syler reminds us, “Even as popular and public a figure as Jesus still understood the need for balance between programming and solitude, between time spent with the throngs and meaning gained by being with the inner circle.”[1]

            Jesus’ message to us is essentially the same: rest. What an appropriate time to hear this message. We are mid-way through summer, past the church picnic and barbeque, installation, and now Vacation Bible School. I know all of our dedicated VBS teachers, helpers and volunteers can appreciate a word of rest. Certainly our church life continues with just as important activities as any time of year, though it seems that we have passed some of our more time-intensive and substantial summer commitments.

            Summer is traditionally a time for rest and recreation. But sometimes we end up packing it with so many things that we come to Labor Day just as tired as on Memorial Day. From family reunions, cross country trips, all those summer weddings, taking kids to camp and summer school, baseball games,  to Independence day celebrations and fireworks – these are all good things, but they sure do add up quick – and before you know it, here we are, almost done with July.

            So Jesus’ words to the disciples and to us are well-timed: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” If Jesus needed time to rest by himself, and the disciples did too, we certainly do as well. Jesus really does want us to get away from it all – to pause all the busyness of our lives and simply rest. When we keep going and going without any rest or rejuvenation, we are on a sure track to burnout. I’ve seen it here in the church with dedicate, loyal volunteers who have taken on multiple responsibilities and gone too long without rest or appreciation. It is not only physically and emotionally taxing, but spiritually as well. We need to heed Jesus’ words to take time away for ourselves and to simply rest.

            Rest is a godly value and responsibility. The creation stories of Genesis tell us that after all the activity of Creation, God rested on the seventh day. Daniel Kirk, a professor at Fuller Seminary says that, “Rest is one of those things by which God intends for us to know God’s goodness…In Genesis 1 humans are created to rule and then, it would seem, imitating God in the weekly action of rest. In contrast to the slavery they endured under Pharaoh, God brought his people out, freed them so that they cold serve God–and rest.”[2] As Christians, we believe in the importance of Sabbath rest. But like summer, too often the Sabbath day becomes another time to catch up on everything from the past week. But that’s not what the Sabbath was created for – it was created for our pure enjoyment, for recreation, for lazy afternoons. I think of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife sitting on a Mayberry porch as a perfect example, rocking in their chairs as Barney says, “I think I’ll go home, take a nap, then go over to Thelma Lou’s and watch a little TV.”

            In the midst of our busy lives, Jesus bids us to go rest awhile. Now for some of us it isn’t exactly easy to find rest – for those with demanding jobs where the only vacation day is a day without pay, for those raising a family, for those always on the go, for those who wouldn’t know what to do if they weren’t busy. For all of us, even in those situations, I invite you to find time to rest. Find ways to carve some rest and recreation in your life. If you can’t afford a week away, find an hour, an afternoon, or day  to be unscheduled, unplugged, unconnected from your phone, your Blackberry, your iPad, email, facebook and Twitter. Disconnect and rejuvenate. Find ways to refresh yourself. Your body needs it. Your mind needs it. And your soul needs it. Whatever it is that sustains you, that gives you energy and life. What restores your soul? What makes your load feel lighter? What fills you with life? As many of you know, for me it is theatre. Whatever it is for you – spending time at the river, fishing until dawn, reading a favorite murder mystery, taking a trip, playing with your grandchildren – do it! By all means let it fill and refresh your soul. And take some time to yourself to be quiet, to contemplate, to rest in God’s presence and just listen.           

            There is enough busyness in our world for all of our lifetimes, no matter how long each of us has to enjoy this life. There is always more work to do, there is always something calling at our attention. But remember the same held true for Jesus. There was always another person to be healed, another word to offer. But what did he do? He went away to rest. He told his disciples, and that includes us, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” So in these waning summer days, lay aside whatever you can to find rest. It’s not lazy, it’s part of our responsibility as Jesus’ disciples to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others.

            In closing, I want to share with you the beautiful words of artist-poet Jan Richardson from her “Blessing of Rest”:

Curl this blessing
beneath your head
for a pillow.
Wrap it about yourself
for a blanket.
Lay it across your eyes
and for this moment
cease thinking about
what comes next,
what you will do
when you rise.

Let this blessing
gather itself to you
like the stillness
that descends
between your heartbeats,
the silence that comes
so briefly
but with a constancy
on which
your life depends.

Settle yourself
into the quiet
this blessing brings,
the hand it lays
upon your brow,
the whispered word
it breathes into
your ear
telling you
all shall be well
all shall be well
and you can rest
now.[3]

 

 

 

7. Pentecost: Cost of Discipleship

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

16 July 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Cost of Discipleship

Based on St. Mark 6: 14-29

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Today’s text comes as a surprise. In telling that Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee had heard of Jesus and the disciples’ great deeds of holy power, the gospel of Mark says,that Herod thought that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Wait a minute! Since when is John dead? And beheaded? When did all this happen? We haven’t heard about John since chapter one and it is now chapter six of the gospel. Nothing has been mentioned of John after he baptizes Jesus, except that John that has been jailed. We don’t even know why John was jailed. The gospel writer finally tells us the backstory, almost as an afterthought. It is as if Mark has just noticed the confused looks on the faces of the hearers of the story.

            Herod liked John. Now before I go much farther, lets get this out of the way—this is not the same Herod that went after baby Jesus and had all the infants in Bethlehem murdered, nor is it the Herod who later had St. James and other disciples executed. This Herod, Herod Antipas, was son of the former and father of the latter. Obviously there is something seriously wrong with this family. Nonetheless, Herod Jr. liked John. He was interested in what John had to say, and truly thought he was a holy man. That is until John said something that Herod didn’t like. John challenged Herod for having killed his brother Phillip and then married his brother’s wife, Herodias. The problem here is that as inspired by John’s words as Herod was, he wasn’t willing to be transformed by them, for John called primarily for repentance. John has the prophetic audacity to challenge his ruler, the audacity to challenge the status quo. He directly commands Herod to give up his sinful relationship with Herodias. Herodias has no intention whatsoever to give up her power as the wife of the ruler of Galilee and thusly wants John killed. But Herod reveres John, and even fears him because of his righteousness, and does not want to kill John. So Herod responds like many a ruler to an agent of change, a disrupter of false peace, by banishing John, jailing him. It is important to note though, that the text makes clear that Herod also protected John the Baptist, most likely from Herodias’ wrath.

            On the evening of his birthday, Herod gave a celebratory banquet. A young girl, known popularly as Salome, did the dance of seven veils for Herod’s enjoyment. Like many of the others in the royal court, Herod found the dance titillating and enchanting. But, unlike the others enjoying her dance, he was her uncle. Nonetheless, Herod was so taken with her provocative dance that he told her, “Ask for whatever you wish and I will give it.” Herodias, the girl’s mother convinced her that John’s head was the proper gift. So the girl asked for it. This gave Herod great sorrow—yet he was a man of his word, and ordered one of his officials to behead John.

            That is the story we hear as a flashback from Mark. Herod is still afraid of John even after his beheading, suspecting that Jesus is the resurrected John the Baptist. Ironically, John was thought to be the risen prophet Elijah. So, perhaps according to Herod, Jesus was really Elijah, once removed. The relationship between the cousins John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth is an important and intriguing one. We have very little information about the relationship from the gospels. James Tabor in The Jesus Dynasty, speculates about Jesus and John being partners in a movement.

            There is a striking parallel between the story of Jesus and of John, as well as between Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate. Both Herod and Pilate were sympathetic to these revolutionaries. Perhaps both heard truth in the messages of Jesus and John. But, again neither was changed by the message. Pilate and Herod both find themselves forced to condemn the men. In trying to rid himself of guilt, by saying that he washed his hands of the matter, Pilate finds blood on his hands. Herod, as well is plagued with guilt, and afraid that Jesus is John risen from the dead.

            John the Baptist and Jesus had the boldness and daring to challenge authority. They spoke truth to power to rulers of faith and government. When these rulers said, “Peace, peace; peace and prosperity,” Jesus and John replied, “You say peace, peace, but there is no peace” because there is no justice. There can be no peace when there is no justice. By challenging the status quo, the ruling class, the commonly held beliefs, Jesus and John risk everything, and leave behind any promise of prestige, honor, reputation, and respectability among the elite.

            Rev. John Thomas asked the 24th General Synod of the United Church of Christ in 2003, “Do we love Jesus more than the lure of respectability?” What former UCC President Thomas asks is this: do we care more about being faithful to the call of Christ than the respect and honor and power of the world? Too many Christians often forget that the call of Christ is not to be popular, but to be faithful. Are we willing to risk every earthly pleasure for the sake of the gospel? Or do we care too much about being mainline, mainstream, reputable, conventional, and respectable? Are we willing to take the difficult position that might make us unpopular and excluded; the position that threatens unity? That is the way John the Baptist prepared us for. Anglican John Pridmore says

Calvary is many places. Calvary is Auschwitz, where the frail Franciscan Maximilian Kolbe offered his life for another prisoner. Calvary is the cellar in Kampala, where Archbishop Janani Luwum perished at the behest of the tyrant he had challenged. Calvary is the altar of the hospital chapel in San Salvador at which Oscar Romero was assassinated. Calvary is the dungeon beneath the Machaerus fortress where the Baptist was beheaded. These are famous Calvaries, but there are countless others, where those who will never be canonised died so that “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” might be completed (Colossians 1.24).

            The disciples knowing the story of John the Baptist saw a glimpse of what was demanded them. They had a view of where their discipleship might lead them. The twelve had just begun healing and transforming lives. In the statement of faith of the United Church of Christ, we declare that we “accept the cost and joy of discipleship.” The disciples had just had their first taste of the joy of discipleship, that joy that Jesus brought to their lives and the lives of others. But the story of John tells them of the cost of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and martyr, in 1937 wrote his landmark work The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer in this work writes at length about what the discipleship must cost the follower, bemoaning what he called ‘cheap grace’:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap? …Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

The cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer speaks is the grace that Herod and Pilate desired, and the grace, which many a Christian desires. Herod and Pilate liked what Jesus and John said until they challenged the arrangement of the Kingdom, rearranging it, putting the rulers on the bottom. They wanted grace without turning from the way of sin; forgiveness without repentance. The joy of discipleship is the Christian’s delight, but too many shirk from the cost. The disciples see in John the Baptist and eventually from Jesus where they are being called. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer says:

Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which He speaks as it pleases Him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow Him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and My burden light.”

So with the disciples we hear what discipleship may require of us, what grace costs. Are we like Herod and like what the prophet and messiah say, but want to remain content in the status quo or like the disciple who risks being an outcast in order to be faithful? Jesus bids us this moment, “Come my child, and follow me.” May we be able to say, “Yes, Lord, I know not where you will lead me, but I leave behind my boat and nets and follow only you.”

 

References:

John Thomas: Imagine, a tale of two ships

John Pridmore: This Sunday’s readings: 5th Sunday after Trinity, Church Times

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Testament to Freedom, Discipleship