Strange Games — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 9:38-50; September 26, 2021

In the 1983 film, War Games, Matthew Broderick plays a young computer hacker named David Lightman. Lightman works his way into the computer system controlling the United States nuclear arsenal. He accidentally launches a game which will lead to an all-out nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union unless the game is stopped.

Of course, no one can stop the game. The film moves toward the inevitable, catastrophic result. In the final moments, Lightman lands on a radical solution. He and the system designer, Dr. Stephen Falken, get the computer (aptly named WOPR), to play tic-tac-toe against itself.

The computer plays more and more games at an accelerating rate. The result is hundreds of “draws.” WOPR then applies this experience to the game of Thermonuclear Warfare. Scenarios flicker across the display in dizzying succession. “What’s it doing?” a character asks. “It’s learning,” Lightman replies.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Over and over, the result of the game is “Winner: None.” Suddenly, the screen is dark, and the room is quiet. “Strange game,” WOPR notes. “The only winning move is not to play.” The crisis is past, and control is returned to the humans. “Dr. Falken,” WOPR asks, “would you like to play a nice game of chess?”

We pick up where we left off last week. The disciples are playing the “greater than” game. Jesus tells them that the only way to win that game is not to play it. The disciples aren’t convinced. John immediately launches into a report on how some of the disciples dealt with a “competitor,” an unknown exorcist who is getting results by invoking Jesus’ name. The disciples tried to stop that first-century copyright infringement, but Jesus tells them they are still getting it wrong.

Strange game. The only way to win is not to play.

It’s clear that the disciples are just not getting it. They argue about who is greater, and Jesus gives them a living illustration of real greatness in the Kin(g)dom. It’s even clearer that they still don’t get it. John reports that the unnamed exorcist is practicing his craft outside of normal channels. Jesus decides it’s time to bring out the heavy rhetorical artillery in order to break through their willful obtuseness.

Jesus continues to sit in the midst of the disciples with a small child cradled tenderly in his arms. He deflects John’s administrative detour and returns to the matter which is literally “at hand.” He points the disciples back to the child as his continuing case study. Eager outsiders must not be rejected, especially when they’re just trying to help by giving the disciples a cup of water to drink in their labors.

Jesus warns his disciples against creating any “faith trip hazards” for the little ones who put their faith in him. Was their constant bickering and their jockeying for position one of the reasons why some community members dropped out of the group along the way? If so, that was a big problem. It would be better to be executed at sea than to be responsible for such a falling away. If only some church leaders in conflicted congregations took this admonition seriously, some church fights might turn out better.

It would seem that a similar dynamic was at work in the Markan community. Imagine, if you will, the gospel account being performed in the presence of such a conflicted community. People on the various sides and in the several factions would sit or stand with one another. Perhaps they glared across the room at one another during worship. They might have refused to meet at the same communion table together. I’ve seen all that and more in contemporary conflicted congregations.

In the midst of that tense situation, the performer of Mark’s script comes to this place. It’s no accident that the text is filled with “you’s.” Just put yourself in the place of those conflictors in the Markan community. Then hear the “you’s” and how they would sound to you. The impact must have been like a spiritual sledgehammer for at least some of the folks. I wonder if some of them heard anything else from the performer that evening.

I find it important to remember that this gospel account is not offered simply to inform. It is presented in order to persuade people to come to put their faith in Jesus and/or to deepen that faith. It is intended to lead people to change their perspective, their worldview, and their behavior. It is a radical, life-changing script that would shake people up. I wonder if sometimes during the presentation, the performer had to stop for a while to allow some of the folks in the crowd do some work of repair and reconciliation before the story continued.

Instead of acting like a bunch of beggars who get to show the other beggars where the bread is, the disciples in Mark’s composition continue to act as if they own the bakery. That unfortunate trend will continue at least through the end of chapter 10. The Twelve had been invited into Jesus’ campaign about five minutes earlier (at least in a cosmic sense), but now they had become the membership screening committee. Rather than inviting all comers in for the party, they were giving the newcomers the boot.

Jesus is teaching the disciples about the suffering, death, and Resurrection which lie ahead for him (and perhaps for them). The disciples are establishing the organizational church in the new Messianic administration, thumb-wrestling over who will occupy which rungs on the ladder of position and power.

In the midst of that argument, they see someone who isn’t even part of the home team. He doesn’t deserve the power he has, in their view, to cast out demons in the name of (by the authority of) Jesus. So, they try to stop him – even though he is accomplishing what they, a few verses earlier, could not. The unnamed exorcist is destabilizing their budding Messianic meritocracy.

The myth of the meritocracy covers up the fact that, as we all know, some of us win the zip code lottery by the accident of birth, and some of us lose that lottery by the same accident. Some of us begin the race of life five yards from the finish line, while others begin that same race a hundred yards away. In such a race, speed has little to do with the outcome. It’s all about where we begin.

Of course, we all know this intuitively. If we, as a culture, acknowledged this openly, we would have to retool everything we do in life. If we acknowledged that “deserving” our power, position, privilege, and property is based on a lie, we would either have to give it up for a better distribution scheme, or we would have to embrace the violence required to maintain the inequality.

Therefore, we tell ourselves stories to justify the system that privileges us. Or we are fed stories that justify the system that oppresses us. In the American system, we hardly think about these stories, and when we do, we who are privileged believe them.

I think the disciples are beginning to tell themselves a story that justifies their assertion that they are “greater than.” They will continue to tell that story throughout chapter 10 of the Markan composition, no matter how many times Jesus teaches them to the contrary. It is perhaps not until after the crucifixion and Resurrection that they can begin to see just how wrong their “greater than” story is for the Kin(g)dom of God.

Jesus advocates radical surgery as a treatment for the disease of the disciples. I want to be clear that Jesus is not advocating any actual amputations. This is figurative, hyperbolic language. No one should begin hacking off limbs or plucking out eyes in response to this text. But the surgery Jesus prescribes is no less painful.

The myth of meritocracy declares that my worth depends on what I control, what I know, what I produce, and what I own. There is no grace in that for me or anyone else. There is no Good News in a system that renders human beings as units of production and property. Fortunately, God regards us as “little ones” who are valued and loved before we can produce or own or think about anything. Our vocation is to regard one another in the same way.

If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That is particularly the case when we are acting as the administrators of the established order. When we church people function in that way, we are on very shaky ground in terms of the Markan composition. If an “outsider” is working toward outcomes similar to ours – especially when it comes to hope and healing – that “outsider” is to be commended, not condemned.

If there is anything clear from Jesus’ ministry in the gospel accounts, it is that when being loving and being right are in tension, love trumps being right. How else can we read “The one who is not against us is for us”? The unnamed exorcist may not be getting it all right, but he is doing the Lord’s work. And that’s enough. Demands for higher standards are like offending limbs and wandering eyes. Get rid of them, not the neighbor.

We live in a time when at least some of us have been trained to view all Truth claims with suspicion. Somewhere behind those claims is likely lurking a desire to dominate. One of those lurking claims is the worry on the part of some Christians that we have too much empathy for our own good these days. Such nonsense!

Assertions of “my Truth” are much more likely to result in sin than surrenders to “too much” empathy. Warning that empathy is a sin takes us into a sort of Christian Orwellian use of language which is hard to manage.

Really. I’ll take “too much” empathy over “the Real Truth” any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I trust Jesus to sort it out if I have loved too much. The game may be strange to me. But it’s not strange to him.

Jesus Isn’t Playing — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 9:30-37; September 19, 2021

Jesus’ disciples remind me of my five-year-old grandsons. I spent a week this summer shuttling two of them to and from a local day camp. The opportunity to overhear their backseat conversations was for me one of the highlights of the week.

There was the usual conversation about toys and teachers, about sack lunches and sports. But typically, they got around to the latest installment of the “My Daddy” game.

“My daddy drives a new car. But my daddy has a big, new truck. My daddy mowed the lawn last night. But my daddy mowed the lawn and power-washed the driveway. My daddy can lift a hundred pounds. But my daddy can lift two hundred pounds.” The bidding on that one rose to a thousand pounds before we arrived at the day camp door!

Photo by sudip paul on Pexels.com

I expected at some point that one of the daddies would be stronger than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Then the other daddy would have to fight daily for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, while masquerading behind the glasses of a mild-mannered reporter.

The conversation was loads of fun for me. But it was deeply serious for the boys. Their verbal jousts substituted for the wrestling matches that sometimes unfold on our basement carpet and, as often as not, end in either tears or triumph (or both).

Who’s greater? The five-year-olds are practicing the skills and building the stamina that they will need for a lifetime of such contests. The pursuit of position, privilege, and power is older than the human species. The compulsion to compare mine to yours (whatever the object of comparison) is one of our deepest psychosocial structures.

The question, “Who’s greater?” drives human history from the halls of kindergarten to the halls of empire.

Who is greater? This need to compare and compete animates our activities. True enough that it seems more visible behavior among the males in the species. I think, however, the gender variation when it comes to comparison behavior is a difference in degree rather than kind.

Comparison, and the jealous envy it produces, is fuel for our late-stage capitalist consumerism in the Western world. We compare stuff and want more. The disciples, however, simply use a different currency. For us, the envy might focus on cars or couches. The disciples compared status and wanted more. For the disciples, the envy focused on honor and shame.

But the question is the constant. Who’s greater?

I know that most Bible translations, including the NRSV, have “greatest” rather than greater. There are good, technical reasons for that translation. But the question in the Greek is a comparative, not a superlative. It’s about establishing my relative position in the hierarchy, not about my absolute worth as a person.

I don’t have to be the best, the greatest, or the highest. I only need to be better than, greater than, or higher than…you. As the old joke has it, if a bear is chasing you and me, I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.

That old joke demonstrates what the question really means. The question lives on fear and anxiety. We fear that there is not enough for everyone – not enough stuff, not enough security, not enough love. The good things in this life, we believe, are in short (and limited) supply. So I better get mine while the getting is good.

I don’t have to be fast. I just have to be faster than you.

Most of us relatively rich Westerners don’t have to outrun hungry bears. But that lack of physical threat doesn’t make us less afraid. If anything, we are more anxious than ever.

The “greater” game is often secret and subtle. The rules change constantly. In our consumer-driven economy, people can make lots of money off my “less than” fears. All I have to do is put the word “limited” in any advertisement, and the response rate will go up. I am assaulted every day with promises of “greater than” – if only I will part with enough cash.

The disciples pass the time on the road to Capernaum playing the “Who’s greater?” game. I suppose it was less irritating than the “Are we there yet?” game. I imagine that Jesus overheard the spirited contests just as I overheard the “My Daddy” debates raging in the back seat.

When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus quizzes the disciples on their conversation. He knows what they’ve been arguing. They know he knows. They answer his question with embarrassed silence.

Jesus tackles the teachable moment. No one can win the “greater than” game in the end. There is always someone better than, greater than, or higher than me. There is always someone who can outrun me. The bear catches us all in the end. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, the one who dies with the most toys still dies.

The only way to “win” the “greater than” game, Jesus says, is not to play at all. He doesn’t propose that we stop running and surrender to the bear claws. Instead, he declares that God is not the bear. God is not a supernatural miser, hoarding the good stuff and dispensing it with an eye dropper. God is not the hungry bear seeking to devour us when we stumble and fall.

The God who sends Jesus among us is the Loving Parent. That Loving Parent embraces us for who we are – not for what we can produce or how fast we can run.

Jesus takes a toddler by the hand and leads the little one into the middle of the muddled disciples. Jesus doesn’t point to the innocence or humility or trusting nature of the child. Those are late-modern romantic fantasies. Real parents will tell you that those fantasies have little to do with actual children.

In the ancient world, small children were not seen as gifts. Instead, children were regarded as economic liabilities with no intrinsic value. They might grow into usefulness if they survived to adulthood. But as toddlers, children around Jesus were often viewed as good for nothing.

A “good for nothing” cannot be “greater than” anything. That little child could not play the “greater than” game. That is Jesus’ point. That toddler is a living, breathing parable of how God regards us. That little child is a living sacrament of the Divine community. We are all “good for nothing” in the end. And God loves you for you – not for what you can produce or how fast you can run.

“God’s Love is not oriented toward ‘what is’ but rather toward ‘what is not’,” writes Tuomo Mannermaa. “That is why God’s Love does not desire to gain something good from its object,” he continues, “but rather pours out good and shares its own goodness with its object.”[i] Mannermaa is drawing out Martin Luther’s insight that the central and most important fact about God is that God gives.

In other words, God doesn’t love us to get anything. That’s the game sinners play. Rather, God loves us in order to give everything. “Just as God has created everything out of nothingness and caused what is not or what does not exist to come into existence-to be,” Mannermaa notes, “in the same fashion God’s Love calls its beloved out of nothingness and surrounds its object with its own goodness and good things.”[ii]

Mannermaa quotes Luther’s words from the Heidelberg Disputation to cap off his point. “Therefore sinners are beautiful because they are loved,” Luther wrote, “they are not loved because they are beautiful.” God brings us “good for nothings” into the beauty of existence for the sheer love of us.[iii]

That’s the point of the living, breathing parable in the middle of the muddled disciples. Who’s greater? Who cares? God knows you’re the greatest before you even draw a breath.

What happens when we begin to trust that Good News and live accordingly? If I trust this Good News, it revolutionizes how I see myself. “How radically must we rework our own self-image,” Antony Campbell asks, “if we accept ourselves as lovable—as deeply, passionately, and unconditionally loved by God?”[iv] The answer is obvious. This Good News requires and facilitates a revolution in how I see – and treat – myself.

What happens when we begin to trust that Good News and live accordingly? If I trust this Good News, it revolutionizes how I see my neighbor. After all, if God loves me “for nothing,” that’s how God loves all of us “good for nothings.” If I live that way, then I must resign from all the “greater than” games we humans play on a daily basis.

That’s going to cause some trouble, which is why this whole section stands under the shadow of the cross.

The cultural system of White Supremacy is the biggest and baddest of all the “greater than” games we White, Western Christians have been playing for five centuries. If we don’t hear in this text the call to dismantle that system in our congregations and communities, I have very little hope for us. Fortunately, God has much more hope than I do.

The cultural system of Consumer Capitalism depends on the oxygen of envy and eats comparison for breakfast. If we are “enough” for God, then we can trust God to provide enough for us. That means learning to be satisfied with enough rather than always hungering for more. That may break the Consumer Capitalist system. Ok.

For me this also applies to my relationship with other species on this planet. I see no reason to limit this ethic to human relationships. Therefore, I do not have the luxury to believe that humans are “greater than” (that is, more valuable than) other species on this planet. That affects what (I mean “who”) I eat, what I wear, and what I throw away.

Who’s greater? Who cares? It’s time to stop playing.

.


[i] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 149-150). Kindle Edition.

[ii] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 152-153). Kindle Edition.

[iii] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Location 156). Kindle Edition

[iv] Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love (p. 4). Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Am I Up for It? Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 8:27-38

Who is Jesus? What do you say?

Let’s begin with who Jesus is not.

Jesus is not White. Jesus is not Nordic. Jesus is not Aryan. Jesus is not American. Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or a Socialist. Jesus is not a capitalist or a communist. Jesus is not an entrepreneur. Jesus is not rich. Jesus is not an individualist.

Jesus is not Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Hell, Jesus isn’t even Christian!

Jesus is not a spiritual star athlete. Jesus is not a warrior. Jesus is not a body-builder. Jesus is not John Wayne or Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

Jesus is not a Gnostic mystic. Jesus is not a Cynic philosopher. Jesus is not a self-help guru. Jesus is not my lover or best friend. Jesus is not Santa Claus with brown hair on a diet.

Jesus is not a mirror in which I can admire my favorite things about myself.

But that is precisely what we expect from Jesus in twenty-first century America. It may be as ubiquitous as Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus that still hangs in most White American Protestant church halls in this country. It may be as blatant as the stained-glass images of Jesus in White Christian worship spaces that uniformly cast Jesus’ skin tone as White.

Our image of Jesus (and by “our” I mean White American Christians generally) can also be as dangerous as the iconography that filled the imagination of Dylann Roof.

Robert P. Jones, the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity puts out a regular newsletter continuing his conversation on this topic. Recently he wrote an article called “Saving our Churches from Dylann Roof’s White Jesus.”[i] Roof is the White Lutheran Christian man “who murdered nine African Americans during the closing prayer of a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015…”

Let’s take some time to say aloud the names of those nine Black Christian sisters and brothers before we move on:

  • Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
  • Depayne Middleton-Doctor
  • Cynthia Hurd
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lance
  • Rev. Clementa Pinckney
  • Tywanza Sanders
  • Rev. Daniel Simmons
  • Myra Thompson

Roof was convicted in the murders of those nine and sentenced to death for his crimes. He appealed that conviction and sentence. That appeal was recently rejected by the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals. Jones highlights information from Roof’s own journal that is filled with “Christian” imagery, including “a full-page drawing of a resurrected white Jesus emerging from the tomb.”

We might think that Roof’s spiritual formation at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Columbia, South Carolina, was deficient and deformed. Jones notes that Roof’s assumed imagination of Jesus as white is not exceptional. Instead, Jones gives a brief inventory of just a few stained-glass windows in established churches that feature an exclusively White Jesus.

“These images perform unacknowledged, but powerful theological work,” Jones writes. “For the skeptics, just a few experiments would likely reveal how strongly many Christians remain invested in the whiteness of Jesus, which is rooted in underlying beliefs about white supremacy.”

Jones then offers a few of those thought experiments to give us a chance to test our own underlying beliefs about white supremacy in our churches and in our White Christian selves. They are worth quoting and then wrestling with for a while. Jones assumes a relatively “evangelical” theological framework in these experiments, but I think many White Christians will register the same discomfort.

  • How would your church react to a move to remove all images of Jesus, including stained-glass windows and paintings, that depict Jesus as someone of European descent and replace those images with more accurate depictions of a Jesus of middle-Eastern descent?
  • How would a non-white Jesus impact the ways White Christians think of a personal savior and the theology of salvation? How comfortable would we be with letting a brown-skinned Jesus “come into our hearts”?
  • How would we react to an illuminated baby Jesus in the nativity scene in front of the church that was Brown instead of White?

Let’s take some time, White friends, to sit with the discomfort of those questions before we move on.

In my pastoral experience, moving to change the images of Jesus in our White facilities would be more than enough to get a pastor fired. Admitting a brown-skinned or Black Jesus into our White hearts would push many White imaginations beyond capacity. And messing with the baby Jesus in that decrepit old cradle/manger? I would have the moving truck loaded and my life insurance up to date.

This may all seem like fairy tales or speculation except for Jones’ final wondering. “What difference would it have made for Dylann Roof, if the Christian formation he received at the white Lutheran church of his childhood had taken place under the compassionate gaze of a brown-skinned Jesus?”

Who is Jesus? What do you say? If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus. That’s worth repeating, if I do say so myself. If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

That is precisely the place we go in the gospel reading from Mark. Jesus challenges all disciples with the question: “Who do you say that I am?” The first Jesus-followers have several false starts. Then Peter gets the right answer. “You are the Messiah!” Go to the head of the class, Peter! We take back all those things we said about your stupidity.

Jesus then orders his followers to shut up about this! Peter has just uncovered the biggest and best news in history. He’s outed Jesus in front of the other disciples. And now, they’re supposed to keep it to themselves? I can’t even keep the Christmas presents in the guest room secret from the grandkids. How in the world were those first followers supposed to sit on this bombshell?

Jesus told them to shut up because they didn’t know what they were talking about. Messiah! Messiah! Messiah! Jesus must have wanted to give Peter the “Princess Bride” treatment. “You keep using that word,” Jesus seems to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Jesus begins to explain what “Messiah” means. He will continue that explanation in our texts for the next few weeks. The short version is shocking: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again…” (Mark 8:31, NRSV). There was no holding back now. This was the straight poop.

Peter gets it right away. He gets what this means. If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is, as Mark tells right off the bat, the reign of God come near and beginning here and now.

This turns the upside-down world right side up. This requires a complete reversal of our assumptions. Dying is the path to life. Serving is the way to lead. Power, position, property, and privilege are useless. Sin, death, and the Devil are not the last words. Losing is winning. Giving is receiving. Enemies are loved. Captives are freed.

The schemes, structures, and systems that depend on an upside-down world will not go quietly. There’s going to be Hell to pay before the end. Even we may be closest to Jesus will do anything we can to avoid Jesus’ conclusion. Let’s take Jesus aside, tell him to shut up, set him straight while there’s still time. Because we know how this could end.

Taking Jesus aside, telling to shut up, setting him straight – that’s what produces a Jesus who is White a Jesus who is Nordic, a Jesus who is Aryan, American, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Socialist; a Jesus who is a capitalist, a communist, an entrepreneur, rich, or individualist, a Jesus who is Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox; a Jesus who is Christian.

Taking Jesus aside, telling him to shut up, setting him straight – that’s what we want to do because the alternative is life under the shadow of a cross. Is that what we really want? Well…

 If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

“Essentially,” Brent Diggers writes, “Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits,” Diggers concludes. “And neither—Easter tells us—does God’s life-giving power.”

When Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts the life-giving reign of God, the forces of sin, death, and evil respond with violence. While that response is not logically or mechanically necessary in the way that a trap closes when the mouse takes the cheese, such violence is the normal and expected response of those forces.

What is “necessary” from the Divine perspective is the mission of forgiveness, live, and salvation, whatever the cost. What is necessary from the anti-Divine perspective is a violent response to maintain the power, position, and privilege of those who benefit from that system.

Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated.

If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus. Every day I wonder if I can be that person…


[i] https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/saving-our-churches-from-dylann-roofs

Text Study for Mark 8:27-38 (Pt. 4); September 12 2021

Minding What Matters (First posted 2/23/2021)

But, turning about and peering at his disciples, [Jesus] gave Peter a dressing down and said, ‘Get out of my face, Satan!” Jesus continued, “For you are not focusing your thoughts on the things of God but rather on things that concern human beings” (Mark 8:33, my translation).

In last week’s “Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines” I focused on what it means to “change one’s mind” when the Kingdom of God begins among us. I noted that this mind-changing experience really is more of a mind-blowing reality. In the current text, we see that Peter’s mind is not properly “blown” and remains focused on all-too-human concerns of power, privilege, and position, concerns of safety, security, and certainty. In his fear, Peter takes it upon himself to begin to correct Jesus and gets a royally humiliating dressing down in return.

I can’t be too hard on Peter. How can he be responsible for knowing what he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know? I’m reminded of the most famous quote from former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But,” Rumsfeld concluded, “there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Rumsfeld was panned and parodied dozens of times for his verbose and convoluted explanation. But he’s quite right. Peter finds himself in unknown unknown territory. “We must understand that in ancient Judaism,” Hurtado writes, “there was no concept that the Messiah would suffer the sort of horrible fate Jesus describes in 8:31. Thus,” he concludes, “Peter’s response in 8:32 is in one sense fully understandable” (page 136). This talk of rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection just made no sense to Peter, and he tried to put a stop to such nonsense.

In Mark 1, Jesus calls for “metanoia” as one of the proper responses to the presence of God’s reign among us. God is on the move in the world, Jesus declares. Prepare to have your mind blown. Peter was neither prepared nor willing. So, he finds himself in league with the Satan, working at odds with the coming of God’s gracious rule.

It is no easier for us now. Metanoia always demands the deconstruction of our favored worldviews which prop up our privilege. “Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together,” James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and,” he concludes, “no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy” (page xv). This is a call to have our white supremacist minds blown for the sake of the Gospel and love of the neighbor.

The verb I translated above as “focusing your thoughts” is “phroneo.” The Greeks spent a lot of time thinking about thinking. They had a number of words to describe different types of thinking. The verb here points to a general context of thinking. We might use the terms “worldview” or “frame of reference” or even “point of view.” So, Jesus is not criticizing isolated thoughts on Peter’s mind but rather his view of reality. As noted from last week, the coming kingdom of God changes everything. We can change our worldview to match, or we can find ourselves opposing the kingdom.

Years ago, I spent a week in a class with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary. He walked us through the inter-textual relationship between Mark 8 and Philippians 2. “Share this framework for thinking among yourselves,” Paul writes to the Philippian Christians in verse five, “which is in Christ Jesus…” (my translation). Paul uses the noun form of “phroneo” for what I translate as “this framework for thinking.” One of Frederickson’s points was that the “things of God” Jesus mentions in Mark 8 are best summarized by the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.

In fact, the whole argument of Philippians could be read as an expansion, a Christian midrash, on Mark 8. Paul’s call to the Philippian Christians is to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). Forms of “phroneo” appear twice in that verse. This behavior means that the readers would “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others better than yourselves” (2:3). That call will find its commentary concluded in Mark 10, as we will read below.

The opposite of this worldview is described in Philippians 3:19. There are many who “live as enemies of the cross,” Paul warns his readers, and not for the first time. He can’t impress on them strongly enough the importance of his encouragement here. “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame,” Paul continues, “their minds are set on earthly things.” The word Paul uses is once again a form of the verb, “phroneo.” Enemies of the cross with minds set on earthly things – that sounds a great deal like the confrontation happening in Mark 8.

If we track the plot from Mark 8 to the climax of this section in Mark 10, we can see that Frederickson is right on target. The disciples continue to focus on human concerns. They are especially anxious about their own power, privilege, and position in the coming kingdom. That anxiety comes to a full boil when James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand when he comes into his royal glory. It’s time for another rebuke and some more teaching.

“It shall not be so among you,” Jesus tells them. God’s rule is about reversal – the least being the greatest and the last being first. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” Jesus concludes, “and to give his life a ransom for many.” That’s the worldview, the frame of reference, the point of view at stake already in Mark 8. The kingdom is beginning in Jesus’ ministry. That ministry puts him on a collision course with the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Those powers will do their worst to Jesus, but Life is on the other side. Those are “the things of God.”

Jesus turns from this difficult conversation to the crowds standing with his disciples. The private call to the disciples now becomes a public declaration of what this journey will cost anyone who comes along. All of this talk of cross-bearing and life-losing might sound abstract and spiritual to us in our current situations. But, Hurtado notes, “it is necessary to emphasize that the words must be taken literally if we are to read them as Mark intended. When Mark’s first readers read these words,” he continues, “they could have understood them only as a warning that discipleship might mean execution, for in their time the cross was a well-known instrument of Roman execution for runaway slaves and other criminals of lower classes” (page 138). The cross was a tool of execution by state authorities, Hurtado reminds us, and following Jesus was bound to get one crossways with the people in power. That never ends well.

Jesus calls disciples to be more than “allies” in God’s reign. Jesus calls disciples to be “accomplices” in the work of the kingdom. I heard that helpful distinction in an ELCA-sponsored webinar on February 10, 2021, offered by Dr. Aja Y. Martinez. In a talk entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege: A Critical Race Conversation for Allies and Accomplices,” Dr. Martinez noted that “allies” are often helpers in anti-racism work but often function as tourists rather than residents.

She noted that it is far more comfortable to stand with the marginalized than to stand against the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. Standing with the marginalized is often the posture of what she termed as “allies.” Standing against the powerful on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable is the posture of what she termed as “accomplices.” If’s far more comfortable to be a helper from a place of strength than to be a partner from a place of vulnerability.

Accomplices, Dr. Martinez noted, put their bodies at risk for the sake of the marginalized and the vulnerable.  Accomplices are in the fight for the long haul and not for the acclaim. Being an accomplice with the Crucified – that sounds a great deal like Jesus’ call to discipleship here in Mark 8.

Finally, however, we should note that none of this is suffering for the sake of suffering. Disciples may not have the privilege of going around the cross. But the cross is also not the final destination. The goal of all of this is New Life, beginning now and never ending. “Mark’s gospel has a stark and simple structure,” N. T. Wright says in The Resurrection of the Son of God, “chapters 1-8 build up to the recognition of Jesus’ Messiahship, and chapters 9-15 build up to his death. But always, in looking ahead to his death,” Wright concludes, the chapters “look ahead to his resurrection” (page 620).

Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated. In the season of Lent, we can and should reflect our path to and through the cross, the places where we are called to be accomplices for justice and focused on the things of God.

References and Resources

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-2223-31.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. “The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past,” in Seminary Ridge Review, Spring 2006.

Hennigs, Lowell. Forgiveness: The Road Home. See the “Books for sale” section of lowellhennigs.com.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

The Sighing Jerk — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 7:24-37

Our text provokes far more questions than it provides answers. The NRSV calls this section “The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith.” It could just as easily be called, perhaps, “That Time When Jesus was a Xenophobic Jerk.”

Or it could be called “The Desperately Persistent and Patient Gentile Mother.” Or maybe we should call it “Not as Smart as You Thought You Were, Eh, Jesus?” Or maybe…well, you get the picture.

What, precisely, is the story here?

In this encounter we can see that both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are each a bundle of intersecting identities. In this context, Jesus is a Galilean Jew in Gentile territory. He is a man interacting with a woman in a patriarchal culture. He is a religious teacher and healer in a place where someone needs what he has to offer. He is a poor man in a part of the world that extracts wealth from his people in order to live in luxury. Jesus is each of those identities and all of those identities.

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The woman – unnamed, of course – is a Syrophoenician Gentile native relatively close to her home turf. She is a woman interacting on her own with a man in a patriarchal culture. She is a mother desperately seeking healing for her demon-possessed daughter who believes that Jesus has what her daughter needs. She is, perhaps, a wealthy woman who lives, at least in part, off the extractive economy that keeps the Galilee and Galileans poor and hungry. The woman is each of those identities and all of those identities.

The woman is perhaps well off and accustomed to being in charge, so her reply to Jesus is based in confidence rather than humility. But she is also in desperate need of what Jesus has to offer, and he’s not a mere peddler of faith-healing wares. So, when it comes to power in this situation, it’s hard to tell which foot the shoe is on at any given moment in the interchange.

All that being said, some of us still have to ask, “Why is Jesus being such a…jerk?”

What if our reading of this text is the problem rather than the solution? David King outlines six varieties of solutions to the problem of Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman:

  1. Jesus is on vacation.
  2. Jesus is playing.
  3. Jesus has a more important mission.
  4. Jesus is bested in debate.
  5. Jesus is racist.
  6. Jesus is sexist.

The first three responses are variations of the theme I would call “Defending Jesus.” The last three responses are variations of the theme I would call “Teaching the Teacher.”

Mitzi Smith reads this text through a Womanist theological lens. She experiences the Syro-Phoenician woman as “sassy.” Smith writes that “sass” as a term is “usually applied to the behavior of persons considered inferior or subordinate, by race, gender, position, class, or age to the person toward the talk, back talk, gesture, and/or attitude is addressed” (page 97).

Obviously, Smith is on to something here. Through this lens, Smith sees the Syrophoenician woman as being considered inferior or subordinate due to race, gender, position, class, or age, as compared to the person being “sassed.” She defines “sass” as “when the oppressed name, define, call out, and sometimes refuse to submit to oppressive systems and behaviors” (page 97).

Smith argues that this Greek, Syro-Phoenician woman with a demon-possessed daughter “bears a triple stigma because of her race, gender, and status as a mother” of such a child. She “experiences racism, sexism, and classism as interlocking forms of oppression. All three forms of oppression are highlighted in the narrative,” Smith contends, “and they impact how Jesus responds to the woman” (page 101).

She argues that Jesus responds to the woman “in a way that betrayed his Jewish male bias.” More than that, he seems to communicate that Jewish lives matter more, at least for now, than do Gentile lives. That’s a potent rhetorical connection that I had not seen previously in this text. Now that Smith has pointed it out, I cannot “un-see” it.

All of these responses, however, assume that Jesus is in the position of social and cultural dominance in the conversation. I think we’d be well served by re-examining that assumption as we read the text. I found the 2010 article by Poling Sun to be very instructive in this regard.

“If the powerful one in this story, however, is not Jesus but the woman,” Sun argues, “or more accurately, not the woman as woman, but the Syro-Phoenician woman who symbolizes and in fact represents the powerful and real colonialism, the story and message would be entirely different” (page 385).

What if Jesus is not just taking a small sabbatical? What if, instead, he is hiding out from the agents of Herod Antipas and the Jerusalem elites until things calm down a bit? If that is the case, then the Syrophoenician woman has blown his cover. When she came in the door and put him at risk, does Jesus think, “Just another Gentile rich bitch coming to take what belongs to us Jews”?

That puts a different spin on his words in the text.

What if we come to this reading seeing Jesus as oppressed rather than powerful? How does that affect our experience of his initial words, and of his actual response?

More than that, what if we begin to see following Jesus as a path away from power? We read the text from a triumphalist perspective where Jesus has all the power (and therefore so do we). But, if Sun is right, that is not the situation It certainly wasn’t the situation for the Markan church. Jesus is one of the colonized, not one of the colonizers. If Jesus is suspicious, defensive, and reluctant, that makes sense. He is testing her sincerity, not her “faith.”

Can we mainline Christian types in America serve and witness from a non-dominant place? We are so addicted to triumphalism in the Western, White church that I’m not sure we can adjust. Can we submit to the leadership and wisdom of our Black, Brown, and Indigenous siblings in Christ to learn real humility in order to be healed? I’m not sure, but I hope so.

This is a significant way into the text and especially into Jesus’ harsh words to the Syrophoenician woman. But I think the story unveils a confrontation of power and power – the cultural, political, economic, and social hegemony represented by the Syrophoenician woman and the world-altering power of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I think it points as well to vulnerability meeting vulnerability – the desperate desire of the mother for her daughter’s healing and Jesus’ awareness that the shadow of the cross extends even into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.

I don’t think that Jesus repents and is converted in the way that the “Teaching the Teacher” scenarios would have it. Sun’s analysis cuts through that conundrum. But I do think Jesus changes his mind about the woman who comes to him in her time of need. He commends her for her “word” of humble, self-effacing wisdom. She relinquishes her power. She “dies to self” in order to save her daughter. In a very real sense, she came not to be served but to serve.

Matt Skinner points to the woman’s response to Jesus’ words as the crowning description of her repentance and, dare we say it, faith. Skinner argues that Jesus does have a change of heart toward the woman because of the nature of her argument as a theological proposal. Even though Jesus is focused on his mission to Israel, there are still crumbs enough for her daughter to be healed, she pleads. Jesus agrees.

The incarnational dimensions of this story, however, go much deeper with a close reading of the story. Both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are complicated. Each is an intersection of both complementary and competing identities. Each is a bundle of contradictions looking for a self to serve as the center. That’s human existence. It’s not clean. It’s not very organized or consistent.

But it’s real.

Both Jesus and the woman experience changes of mind and heart in the story. That’s not troubling to me either. If there are echoes of the Jonah story in the background of this text (and I think there are), then the idea that both the hegemonic power and the Divine power experience repentance and reconciliation is old news.

We may find that news uncomfortable and inconvenient (just ask Jonah), but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Diversity is not a necessary inconvenience to be tolerated. Rather, it is the very glory of God and a gift to be celebrated. Will we bother to get into conversations where we are not the ones in power but rather the desperate supplicants hoping for a hearing? Will we “be opened”?

Be completely opened! And be set free from the previous constraints of the old ways of hearing, speaking, and seeing! Is this prayer really for the disciples? And for us? We have discussed this before, but it’s worth re-visiting here. Most congregations make the claim that “All are welcome.” The real work happens when that claim is converted into a question: “Are all welcome?”

The pragmatic answer in all congregations, in one way or another, is “no.” We generally are not open to persons from a range of socioeconomic situations. We generally are not open to persons from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. We generally are not open to persons from a diversity of gender and sexual orientations. We generally are not open to persons with divergent political views.

Being thoroughly opened is hard work. No wonder Jesus sighed.

Purity Problems — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 7:1-23; 14 Pentecost B 2021

Jesus hits a home run with his feeding miracle, and how do the opponents respond? They launch into a critique of the handwashing etiquette of the disciples. His opponents immediately call his authority into question by pointing to the “bad manners” of his followers.

“Purity in matters of food was as important as anything in postexilic Israelite practice,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “though what is under discussion here is the Pharisaic expression of Israelite custom rather than the Law of Moses. Here Jesus rejects the former in favor of the latter” (page 221).

The primary practices Jesus advocates in this text do not focus on external purity. Instead, the first practice is to honor the full intent of God’s commandments rather than blurring that intent through the vagaries of case law. Exceptions and equivocations can multiply to the point that the heart of the commandment no longer matters. When self-interest drives that process, there is no limit to the possible abuses than can ensue.

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The second practice is to focus on relational holiness rather than physical purity. Jesus focuses on the filial relationship to parents. He then expands that to an examination of the human heart, the source of “evil intentions.” Many of these evil intentions result in the breaking of community, the exclusion of the stranger, and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Defilement has more to do with maintaining community integrity than it does with maintaining bodily purity.

Purity rules are always about people in the end. The story we tell may be about land or food or clothing. But those material things always represent the difference we construct between people: the insiders and the outsiders, the honorable and the dishonorable, the natives and the foreigners, the good and the bad. We humans love hierarchies, and we will fixate on almost any feature of existence in order to establish a pecking order with us at the top and someone else at the bottom.

I lived in Denver, Colorado, for a few years in the early 1980’s. That was the time of the “Native” bumper stickers. Colorado was a popular place for pilgrims seeking their version of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” They (we, for a while) came from all over the country and all over the world to enjoy the skiing and the columbine, the low humidity and high meadows. It was difficult to find someone who was actually born in Colorado and still lived there.

The few folks who made up the aristocracy of birth began a movement expressed on green bumper stickers decorated with a background of mountain peaks and displaying the title “NATIVE.” This designation placed them above the rest of us mere mortals who had the misfortune to be born somewhere else and to feel the need emigrate to God’s country.

There were several edges to this label. “Natives” were, according to some, inherently better than the interlopers and better-suited to their home state. The non-natives were invaders who brought with them all sorts of foreign ideas, customs, and priorities. They (we) were dilettantes who came for the skiing and left when the snow turned to mud. The natives were the only ones really deserving of the best real estate and were deeply resentful of all the outside money that drove up the prices and reduced the inventory.

Non-natives were, somehow, “impure.” Only later did most of us find out that the original idea for the “NATIVE” campaign originated with a transplant named Eric Glade. After a few years the campaign petered out, but the message stuck with me.

It takes very little for us humans to whip up a caste system, out of whole cloth if we need to do so. “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Isabel Wilkerson observes. “It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is,” she concludes, “about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.”

It is one thing to have a system that maps out the relationships in life in such a way as to provide a framework of meaning and purpose. But human beings, over time, find it nearly impossible, I think, to resist the temptation to use that system to establish a caste system which affords advantages to the in-group that sponsors the system.

It was one thing to point out that there were still a few “Native” Coloradans hanging around in the sea of newcomers. That was just a fact. And those “natives” could indeed offer some insights into life along and among the great Rocky Mountains. If the “Native” label were regarded as a gift, an asset, something to be offered up for the good of all, it might have been a salutary thing. But it was claimed as a resentful privilege and a mark of preferred purity.

It wasn’t long before a few people noted the astonishing and immoral presumption in the label as well. The real “natives” of the land weren’t white people who happened to have been born within the boundaries of Colorado. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land long before Colorado was even a consideration. The real natives were the people whose people had been on that land when the ancestors of the pretenders were still expelling the Romans from northern Europe.

Every human hierarchy is constructed on a false foundation. Jesus understands this, names it, and challenges the presumptions of the purity system in Israel at the time. It’s not the covenant itself that he challenges. It is the way the purity system is now used to underwrite systems and structures of power, to serve self-interest rather than God, and to sustain the divisions constructed to uphold the system in the first place.

Purity rules are always about people in the end. No, that’s not quite right. Purity rules are always about power in the end. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, the purity system was based on rules that had meant something quite different in Bronze Age Israel and in Iron Age Judea. Now that system was being used to police the poor, to control women, and to prop up the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. Regardless of their intentions, the Pharisees participated in that caste system, and Jesus challenged that participation.

Jesus emphasizes how God approaches us – through our hearts. He argues that purity rules, at least in the “Traditions of the Elders,” had become the tail wagging the dog of right relationships. These rules had become a tool of the religious/political/economic elite to control the people.

In what ways do we church “insiders” use “traditions of the elders” to control access to our Christian congregations? We may say that “all are welcome here” but are “all” really welcome here? In most congregations, the honest answer is “no.” We exclude people through a variety of conscious and unconscious norms designed for the comfort of the insiders and the repulsion of those who might want to get in.

I don’t think it’s trivial that Jesus takes on the hand-washing practice and expands it into a major theological and ethical issue. If, in fact, the practice originates with the Roman colonizers and is a way into assimilation with the imperial power and status structure, then this is a big deal. Jesus takes his audience and his disciples out of that system and back to their core identity as the people of God formed by Scripture and not by human traditions.

God’s people cannot live inside a domination system, cannot accommodate to imperial powers, without experiencing a defaced and deformed imagination. This is the song that binds together the witness of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Hebrews resist Egyptian imperial power and are released in the Exodus. Israel and Judah embrace forms of empire and are destroyed by empires. Jesus proclaims an alternate reign, God’s kin(g)dom and is executed by agents of the Roman system.

Our own “imperial” system that deforms the Christian imagination has now been outed for what it is – White Christian Nationalism. The evidence of a deformed and defaced imagination is almost too much to catalogue. There is the conjunction of “Christian” and Confederate flags. There is the excruciating whiteness of large parts of the Church on this continent. There is the complicit racism of those of us who wish we could get it “right” without paying a price.

Perhaps the good news here is in the accurate diagnosis Jesus offers. There are no crimes such as “driving while Black,” or “shopping while Black,” or “walking in the park and bird-watching while Black.” Those are made-up things – the Traditions of our Elders that we need to abandon. Knowing this can help us to repent and make repairs, the first steps toward real growth.

Next week, we get some insight into just how difficult and necessary this conversation is for people who follow Jesus. Stay tuned.

“The Flight of a Bumble Bee” — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:59-71

“Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘You aren’t also leaving, are you?’” Following him was challenging, to say the least. Accepting the truth of his identity was much harder. Folks who had come for the free lunch headed for the exits when the Jesus path got steep.

As the fair-weather disciples melt back into the faceless crowds, Jesus looks at his core group and wonders if we’re up for the challenge. “You aren’t leaving also, are you?”

These days (August of 2021 in the United States), the question is a bit different. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” Churchgoers have been away from public worship and other activities for over a year and a half. Now some of us are beginning to return – however halting that return might be. But many of us are not.

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A few months ago, as many as three out of four previous worshipers indicated that they would return to public worship as Covid-tide came to an end. At this point, the actual ratio is more like one in four. Church and denominational leaders wonder frantically, “You are coming back, aren’t you?”

The trend of decreasing worship attendance is not news. The percentage of the American population engaged in regular worship attendance has dropped from around seventy percent at the turn of this century to under fifty percent according to a recent Gallup poll.

“The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference,” writes Jeffrey Jones for the Gallup organization. Even those who express a religious preference are now less likely than twenty years ago to be part of an organized religious institution.

One in five Americans is now a “None,” one who has no connection or allegiance to a religious organization. The Nones are now the largest religious preference group in the United States, according to the pollsters.

Some of the increase in this group is tied to generational change. Younger people are less likely to be part of a religious body than older folks. However, the percentage of older folks with no religious preference has increased more rapidly than the growth of that population cohort overall.

It’s not that some religious groups are growing while others are declining. That was an historical blip in the 1990s that has not held true long-term. Nor is this is a White, middle-class event, although religious involvement among “demographic subgroups” has not declined quite as much as it has among White people.

As a result, thousands of Christian congregations close each year. In large part those closing congregations are in the “middle” in terms of size and available resources.

These trends pre-date the Covid-19 pandemic, but the outbreak and associated measures have accelerated at least some of these trends. Digital worship, study, and meetings mitigated that effect. But one side effect of becoming “podrishioners” is that this has become the preferred means of participation for a number of folks – me included.

“You are coming back, aren’t you?” Well, I’m not sure yet. Here’s an image that makes sense to me.

We have a variety of blooming plants in our backyard, both flowers and vegetables. This year the native bees have worked overtime to facilitate good pollination as they fed on numerous nectar sources. I see them in the giant blossoms on the zucchini and pumpkin vines. They bounce from flower to flower among the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and watermelons.

The bees are busy with the coleus and cone flowers, the penstemon and sneeze weed, the hyssop and black-eyed susans and goldenrod. They move to the butterfly bushes, zinnias, and daffodils. From one blossom to another they flit, getting what they need from each – making a commitment to no particular plant or bed or species.

That’s how I feel about worship attendance at this point. I take in anywhere from two to five online services a Sunday. Some are ELCA, some are not. I can be certain to find the Eucharist as part of at least one of those services each week. I get the standard lectionary in some places, the narrative lectionary in others, a summer series in a third, a month-long focus in a fourth, and whatever the Spirit might dictate in a fifth.

I’m unusual, certainly, both in taking in so many services and in my attention to the study of the lectionary texts. Those who follow my blog know this. I feel closer to Jesus, more fed by the Word of God, and more deeply immersed in the texts themselves than at any time since I was a seminarian.

I like it a lot. I’m not joining the ranks of the Nones. I’m not leaving Jesus.

“So, you are coming back, right?” I never left Jesus. In-person worship and all that other stuff – I’m not so sure. And that’s the problem.

If there’s anything that’s clear about the Bread of Life Discourse, it’s that “flesh” is indispensable. The Incarnation is not a metaphor, nor is it an option. I cannot have an authentic relationship with Jesus and be estranged from his Body.

“Jesus as the Bread of Life cannot be understood as merely metaphor,” Karoline Lewis writes, “but rather as a literal revelation of who Jesus is and what abundant life entails…This promise,” Lewis continues, “hinges on John’s central theological claim of the incarnation. If the incarnation is only euphemistic imagination, then it defies its own logic,” she argues, “To stake an entire theology and Christology on God becoming human requires,” she concludes, “that at every turn the incarnation is completely present” (page 84).

This is one of the dangers of my current Bumble Bee spirituality. It’s a boutique experience where I can pick and choose what I want – like any right-thinking, individualist, neo-liberal, late-capitalist consumer. All the while I can imagine that I’m exercising some sort of freedom simply because I’m “choosing.”

In a trivial sense, the bumble bee is also choosing. But that choosing looks a lot like random bouncing from one blossom to another. I may be able to eat, but am I really being fed?

“When they heard [his words], therefore, many of his disciples said, ‘This word is hard; who shall be able to hear it?’ But, Jesus, because he knew in himself that his disciples were grumbling concerning this, said to them, ‘This scandalizes you, doesn’t it?’” (John 6:60-61, my translation).

Yes, this Incarnational Imperative is hard. I find myself growing rigid in my resistance to it. This imperative trips me up over and over. I begin to get comfortable with my bouncy buzzing from blossom to blossom. Then Jesus reminds me that random snacking will not lead me to the Authentic Bread of Life.

That authentic nourishment happens in community, or not at all. Let me clarify. That’s not a requirement, a quid pro quo. It’s not that I pay for my meal by showing up for worship. This is not a “sermon, then soup” sort of system. It’s not a requirement. It’s simply a description of Reality.

“So, you are coming back, right?” Yes, at some point and in some fashion, I am. Well, sort of. There is no coming “back.” I am certain that the only congregations that will survive in the long run are those that go forward.

I won’t be returning to congregations, for example, that have found hybrid (in-person and digital) worship a necessary evil, to be abandoned as soon as practical. We church folks have discovered things about meeting people in their living rooms and bathrobes that we should not soon forget.

I won’t be going back to congregations that are primarily social societies and potluck parties. If the writer of John makes anything clear, it’s that intimacy matters in the Body of Christ. But that sort of intimacy is not mere familiarity, length of tenure, and association. We church folks need to remember that the Incarnation is about authentic relationships of vulnerability, challenge, self-giving, and hope.

I won’t be going back to congregations that depend on white supremacy and privilege to sustain themselves. If talking about Black Lives Matter and the dangers of American exceptionalism creates problems in a congregation, such a place won’t benefit from my presence. If full equality for people of all identities is not a given in a congregation, then I’ll just be more trouble than I’m worth.

I won’t be going back to a congregation that leaves me the same as when I came in. My presumptions and prejudices, my blind spots and bullheadedness, my racism and sexism and classism, my anxiety and arrogance need a community brave enough and strong enough to call me to new living every day.

This encounter with the God who changes everything creates a “crisis,” to use the language of John – a moment of decision, of judgment. “Given the setting of the feeding of the five thousand and the provision of food and water by God for the Israelites in the wilderness,” Lewis writes, “critical is how God’s people respond to God’s desire for relationship. For the Fourth Gospel, encountering God in the Word made flesh, Jesus, is a crisis moment” (page 102).

The problems we face in the White American churches are much worse than we are being led to believe. Technical fixes won’t do the job. Reorganization won’t do the job. Reshuffling the deck chairs on the denominational Titanic won’t do the job. And the people who point out that nothing less than white repentance and reparation must precede reconciliation and renewal end up on the outside looking in.

So, the end of the Bread of Life Discourse is a tract for our time. Just when we thought we might get out of this Discourse with a happy ending, things go from bad to worse. Peter speaks, he thinks, for the Twelve: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69, my translation).

“So, you are coming back, right?” Yes, I am. It’s hard. But where else could I go?

“Isn’t that Special!” — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:51-58

It’s the same conversation every time we debate frequency of Holy Communion in our congregations. Pastor, when we have communion every week, it’s not “special” anymore. It’s just a thing we do every time we gather. I don’t want to give up that “special” part.

This perspective makes the Eucharist all about what I experience as a consumer. That’s not surprising, Consuming as a one-way transaction defines how we contemporary people view life, and how we regard other people.

I am both fascinated by and disgusted with the response on the part of many people to the withdrawal of gymnast Simone Biles from Olympic events for reasons of personal health. The outcry on the part of some has been, to my mind, inhuman.

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Biles has been described and treated as a commodity to be consumed by a voracious and insatiable pack of sports fans. The sense of entitlement espoused by these folks is astonishing. They communicate a sense of ownership over Biles’ body that sounds like equal parts plantation mentality and meat market.

In their howling disappointment, many have verbally chewed Biles up and spit her out in their disgusted disappointment. This is another installment of the ownership narrative that goes back through Colin Kaepernick to Tommy Smith and John Carlos in 1968. When we regard something or someone as bought and paid for, we expect to get our money’s worth.

There is no mutuality here – only avarice. It shall not be so among us Christians, at least if we’re paying attention to the text in front of us.

“In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available able to be communicated to you in your need,” William Cavanaugh asserts, echoing Thomas Aquinas. “In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist,” he declares, “Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Kindle Locations 622-624).

Our text, therefore, is not an invitation to engage in Reformation debates about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. That would be a distraction. His presence in the meal means that our mutual life is about real life, not about some academic theological debate.

A conversation about Simone Biles as a human being rather than as a commercial commodity is more faithful to this text than the Reformation debate would be.

Remember, the whole dialogue and discourse are anchored in the real hunger and real feeding of a multitude. When we loosen that anchor, as we too often do, then we start drifting toward abstract irrelevancy. If our textual reflections do not lead us to the real needs of real people, then we’re off course.

“If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all,” Cavanaugh writes, “then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ,” he declares (Kindle Locations 620-621).

This is the crux of our text. How do we live as those who now abide in the One who abides in us?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the true Passover Lamb, who was sacrificed for the life of the world. In the Hebrew scriptures, people who made the sacrifice to God would typically eat the meat of the sacrifice (except often for some of the internal stuff that was reserved for God).

This was a chance to dine with God, to participate in a meal with God, to partake of the very life of God and to be taken up into God’s life. Sacrifice was about reconciliation and renewal far more that it was about regret and repentance. The language of participation makes much more sense in John 6 than does any sense of “payment.”

The Son of Man will give to the hungry the food that endures for eternal life (6:27). The one who eats “this bread” will live forever. This bread is Jesus’ flesh which is given for the purpose that the cosmos will have life (6:51). The punch line is in 6:56 – “The one who munches on my flesh and drinks my blood continues to remain in me and I in that one” (my translation).

Eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus, the Messiah, produces a mutual indwelling, a participation in the life of God which comes to us in and through the Son of Man come down from heaven.

Luther notes that in the Lord’s Supper, we receive the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation. My experience and that of many western Christians has been focused solely on the first of those three benefits over the years. The Bread of Life Discourse moves us to focus more on the second and third benefits – life and salvation.

We are called and invited to be filled with the Abundant Life of Christ and to participate in salvation in the here and now.

Yes, it is a very good thing to be freed from the powers of sin, death, and the Devil, through the weekly working of the Eucharist. It is an even better thing to be filled with the very life of Christ for the sake of the world.

As Jesus notes, his flesh is real food, and his blood is real drink. Filled with him, we are equipped and empowered to be the Body of Christ for the life of the world. We can be recipients of, participants in, and partners in the Body of Christ for the sake of the salvation of the cosmos.

As Cavanaugh notes in his book, we are not only consumers of this meal. We are “being consumed.”

Hylen and O’Day argue that the Gospel of John moves the eucharistic reflection away from “the night in which he was betrayed” in order to integrate Eucharistic piety fully into the life of Jesus, into the daily life of the Christian assembly, and into the moment-by-moment life of the individual Jesus follower.

“The discourse in John 6 is the place where institution of the Eucharist is lodged,” they suggest, “because for John, all of Jesus’ life ‘institutes’ the sacrament of the Eucharist, not one particular event at the end of Jesus’ life” (Kindle Location 1671).

Participation in the Eucharist, therefore, does not happen in order to make a few days special. Rather, the Eucharist is the sign that every day is special in the Reign of God. The disjunction between the Sacrament and “normal” life does not exist for Jesus followers.

This fits, of course, with the Johannine emphasis on the Incarnation as the “event” of salvation. The Good News is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension – all together and of one piece – that makes up the Good News that the Messiah, the Son of God is Jesus. What the Word brings is abundant life in the here and now. Thus, the verbs in the Gospel according to John tend to be in the present tense rather than past or future.

“By moving the theological presentation of the Eucharist into the story of the life of Jesus,” O’Day and Hylen write, “John suggests that participation in the flesh and blood, bread and wine, belongs to all the days of Christian life, not just ‘special’” days, because it embodies the possibilities of new life with Christ. The Eucharist is a meal of celebration,” they conclude, “of sharing in the abundant presence of God in the world” (Kindle Location 1679, my emphasis).

What made it “special” was not the infrequency of the sharing. Instead, what made it special was the content of the meal – the living presence of the Lord Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The product of that presence was partnership in the Gospel and a life lived consonant with that partnership.

So, it is in the Gospel of John. We dare not lose sight, this far into the Bread of Life Discourse, of the fact that we began with real human hunger and real human eating and drinking.

If participation in the Sacrament does not result in real feeding of those in need, something is wrong. If participation in the Sacrament does not produce a hungering and thirsting for righteousness, something is wrong. If participation in the Sacrament does not yield a passion for being One Body of Christ in the world, something is wrong.

Perhaps Jesus’ listeners begin to notice and think through the kinds of demands that would be placed upon them if they accept what they are seeing and hearing. We will spend the next section of the Discourse on the resistance to and rejection of what Jesus is saying. Even some of the disciples will fall away, leaving only a remnant of the faithful.

What makes the Sacrament “not special” is not frequent observance but rather the unwillingness to allow the Sacrament to shape us for lives of authentic discipleship. This is likely going to be too hard for many consumer-oriented Christians to stomach (sorry, I just can’t help myself). Will we run from the Table or toward it?

Our answer is what makes the Eucharist “special” in our lives…or not.

Text Study for John 6:51-58 (Pt. 2); 12 Pentecost B 2021

Munching Jesus

Jesus is still working out his interpretation of the gift of manna from heaven, now recapitulated and fulfilled in the Feeding of the Multitude. In John 6:49, Jesus reminds his interlocutors, “In the wilderness, your ancestors ate the manna and died” (my translation). Jesus doesn’t identify the forebears as “our” ancestors because he has repeatedly noted that his origin is from heaven. The bread he brings is more than manna. “This is the bread, which is coming down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and will not die” (John 6:50, my translation).

So far, this is a challenging but not necessarily offensive theological assertion. What Jesus says next, as we noted earlier, will be physically and spiritually gag-inducing for many who are listening. “I am the Living Bread which has come down from heaven,” he declares. “If one eats of this bread, that one will live forever.” That’s still somewhat indirect, so Jesus goes for the kill shot. “And the bread which I shall give is my flesh for the sake of the life of the world” (John 6:51).

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It should be clear by now that specific words in the Gospel of John make all the difference. Jesus does not talk about his “body” at this point. That would be the Greek word “soma.” Instead, Jesus uses the Greek word “sarx,” which means the literal flesh of a person.

Karoline Lewis notes that this vocabulary takes us back to John’s prologue where we heard that the Word became flesh (John 1:14). “That the bread of life is Jesus’ flesh, not his body, not only emphasizes the importance of the incarnation as the principal salvific premise for John,” she writes, “but also reiterates all that Jesus as the Word made flesh contributes to our interpretation of the promise of abundant life and eternal life, so very prominent in this discourse” (page 95).

Previously, Jesus’ debate partners had been “grumbling” about Jesus and his audacious, borderline heretical statements about the manna and his mission. Now, they begin “quarreling” over his words. Note that they are not quarreling with Jesus but rather with one another. This is an additional sign that part of the gospel writer’s concern has to do with the factional infighting that was leading to the rejection and expulsion of the Jesus people from the synagogue.

“How is this man able to give to us his flesh to eat?” they ask one another in John 6:52b (my translation). A major part of the debate is about Jesus’ identity and his authority to be able to do and say what he has done and said in this chapter. If this man is merely the son of Joseph and his mother (not named in this text), then certainly he is neither capable nor qualified to make the claims he has made.

“The offense,” Lewis observes “is that this mere man is making these radical claims about God” (page 95). She notes that this sense of the scandalous nature of the Eucharist is often missing in our worship rites, which have “a marked domesticity about them, as if we have forgotten the radicalness of what Jesus actually did and said” (page 95). Perhaps, as she suggests, we ought to be a bit more astonished about what we claim we are doing in the Sacrament. If we are not astonished, perhaps we might want to have a little think before we come to the table again.

As if the offense is not already enough, Jesus raises the stakes still further. “Therefore, Jesus said to them, ‘As a solemn vow I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves” (John 6:53, my translation). Cannibalism and vampirism – it’s no wonder that pagan commentators heard such words and concluded that Christians were lunatics engaged in savage orgies of blood and gore!

“Jesus’ insistence in John’s Gospel that Israelites eat his flesh and blood in order to have life that befits children of God,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is antilanguage at its most obvious” (page 135). This is not a prophetic symbolic action, they argue, as we would find in the synoptics and in Paul’s letters. Instead, this is “just straightforward antilanguage, which made good sense to the members of John’s antisociety” (page 135). The reason it may have made good sense was discussed in the previous post.

Jesus then makes it clear that he is talking about the most physical and concrete meanings of eating and drinking. “The one who munches my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that one up on the last day” (John 6:54, my translation). Jesus uses a verb that was most often used to describe the way in which animals ate their food.

The verb, “trogo,” means to “gnaw,” “to bite,” or to “(audibly) chew.” It is the happy and satisfying sound our dogs make as they eat their breakfast and supper. At least I assume it is a happy and satisfying sound, based on the enthusiasm with which they eat.

Goppelt, in his TDNT entry, suggests that the move from “to eat” to “to munch” in John is the move from appropriating Jesus in the word by faith to receiving Jesus physically in the Eucharist (page 236). I’m not sure if the text bears up to that close of a reading, but there’s no question that the verb means the physical act of eating real food. But what can this actually mean? Or are we to be as flummoxed as Jesus’ interlocutors (and disciples) were?

Lewis argues that the point is found in verse 56. “The one who munches my flesh and drinks my blood continues to abide in me and I in that one” (my translation). “The larger theological presupposition behind the entirety of this discourse,” she argues, “is the Gospel’s central means by which to articulate a relationship with God and Jesus, that of abiding” (page 96). Jesus provides the Life that will last, both in the Bread from heaven and in his living presence in the life of the faith community.

We come to the crux of Jesus’ argument in this section of the Discourse. “The individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself,” writes William Cavanaugh, “but is taken up into Christ” (Kindle Locations 60-601). “Being consumed” is, therefore, a mutual relationship and reality in the Eucharist, as presented in the Gospel according to John.

“In the Christian view,” Cavanaugh continues, “we do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation – appropriating, consuming, and discarding. In the Eucharist we are absorbed into a larger body. The small individual self is de-centered,” he argues, “and put in the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life” (Kindle Locations 605-607).

Consuming as a one-way transaction defines how we contemporary people view life, and how we regard other people. I have been both fascinated with and disgusted by the response on the part of many people to the withdrawal of gymnast Simone Biles from Olympic events for reasons of personal health. The outcry on the part of some has been, to my mind, inhuman. It is also our culturally typical response to any professional or college athletes who let us down. After all, they get rewarded handsomely. They ought to stop protesting and start producing, right?

Biles has been described and treated as a commodity to be consumed by a voracious and insatiable pack of sports fans. I have no problem using the imagery of predators here. The sense of entitlement espoused by these folks is astonishing. They communicate a sense of ownership over Biles’ body that sounds like equal parts plantation mentality and meat market. In their howling disappointment, many have verbally chewed Biles up and spit her out in their disgusted disappointment.

There is no mutuality here – only arrogance, avarice, and abuse. It shall not be so among us Christians, if we’re paying attention to the text in front of us. “In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available able to be communicated to you in your need,” Cavanaugh asserts, echoing Aquinas. “In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist,” he declares, “Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Kindle Locations 622-624).

Jesus says in John 6:55 that his flesh is genuine comestibles, and his blood is authentic drink. That is not an invitation to engage in Reformation debates about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. That would be a distraction. His presence in the meal means that our mutual life is about real life, not about some academic theological debate. A conversation about Simone Biles as a human being rather than as a commercial commodity is more faithful to this text than the Reformation debate would be.

In his discussion of the text, Cavanaugh returns us to this real food and drink. Remember, the whole dialogue and discourse are anchored in the real hunger and real feeding of a multitude. When we loosen that anchor, as we too often do, then we start drifting toward abstract irrelevancy. If our textual reflections do not lead us to the real needs of real people, then we’re off course.

“If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all,” Cavanaugh writes, “then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ,” he declares (Kindle Locations 620-621). And we thought that Jesus was crazy when he called us to be fine, Christian cannibals!

“The key question in every transaction,” Cavanaugh writes in his introduction, “is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved, and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God” (Kindle Locations 25-26). This is the crux of our text. How do we live as those who now abide in the One who abides in us?

References and Resources

Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Kindle Edition.

Goppelt, TDNT VIII:236-237.

Harrill, J. A. (2008). Cannibalistic Language in the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Polemics of Factionalism (John 6: 52-66). Journal of Biblical Literature.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Miller, Michael E. “Pizzagate’s Violent Legacy.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/02/16/pizzagate-qanon-capitol-attack/.

WAGEMAKERS, B. (2010). INCEST, INFANTICIDE, AND CANNIBALISM: ANTI-CHRISTIAN IMPUTATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Greece & Rome, 57(2), second series, 337-354. Retrieved August 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40929483

Beyond the Gift Shop — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 6:35-50

A few years ago, we visited the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. I remembered the times we went there when my sons were small. Each time we had the same challenge.

There’s a gift shop just beyond the ticket counter. Our sons typically wanted to go directly to that gift shop. It was filled with toys and games, with stuffed animals and coloring books. Never mind that acres of lions and tigers, baboons and bears, snakes and sloths, lay just around the corner.

They wanted the gift shop. They were happy to settle for fluffy stuffed penguins and squirt guns shaped like flamingoes. They were children. Who could blame them?

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We, however, are not children. Yet, we settle for so little in our life with God. This brings us to Jesus’ question in today’s gospel reading. Why, he asks the crowd. Why would you settle for so little? Why would you sprint around the lake for a crust of bread when the Bread of Life is standing right in front of you?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

That is my main thought for today. Are you settling for too little in your walk with Jesus? What are the ways we settle for the gift shop when an adventure awaits us?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

John six begins with the Feeding of the Five Thousand. The crowds pursue Jesus from one shore of the Galilean lake to the other. They long for healing and wholeness, for bread and blessings, and most of all—for Good News. The disciples are afraid they will drown in this sea of human wants and needs. “Send them home!” the fearful disciples demand.

Jesus has other plans. With five fish and two loaves he feeds the churning crowds. The leftovers fill twelve baskets—one for each tribe of ancient Israel.  The disciples are still blind to the meaning. The crowds, however, began to comprehend. “This,” they tell each other, “is indeed the prophet who is come into the world!

The next day, they are back for more. You can imagine that the word has gotten out: Free bread—all you can eat! That’s when Jesus asks the deeper question. Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

Beyond the gift shop is the Good News! But what is that good news? Jesus tells the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’”

Here is the Good News. Jesus fills us with purpose, with peace and with power.We can be part of God’s life-giving mission for the whole world. This is the life “worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” Jesus calls you and me into the greatest purpose possible for human beings.

We can know the peace that comes from depending on God in life and in death. This peace of mind and spirit comes from the Holy Spirit. When we trust Jesus to provide what we need, anxiety dries up and blows away.

We can have the power that comes from the Holy Spirit living in us and through us. That power is expressed in our spiritual gifts. Those gifts are for the good of the body of Christ and for the life of the world. Christians exist in part because the world needs your spiritual gifts for mission and service here.

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

Where do we settle for too little? In the church we often settle for nostalgia when Jesus offers new life. That is precisely the response of the Hebrew former slaves in our first reading. “If only we had stayed in Egypt…” It is a wonderful thing to celebrate, for example, congregational anniversaries. But that is to be a springboard for the future, not a pining for the past.

The grumbling takes on a theological cast in the Gospel of John with the complaining of “the Jews,” representatives of the Jerusalem orthodoxy of the time. Let’s be careful not to slip into some unthinking Antisemitism at this point.

“John’s narrative is written by a Jew, about Jesus the Jew, who is believed to be fulfilling Israel’s divine vocation and global mission as a light to the nations and a blessing to the world,” Paul Anderson argues. “Thus, in no way can the thoroughly Semitic Gospel of John, the most Jewish of the Gospels, be considered anti-Semitic. If anything,” he continues, “John represents a radical view of the Jewish vocation, in that it sees Jesus as the embodiment of typological Israel as a means of blessing the nations” (pages 12-13).

The complaining is not about the amount of bread but rather the supposed identity of the Baker. Unlike the Synoptics, in John the complainers observe that Jesus is the son of Joseph. Of course, we know (wink, wink) that Jesus is the Son of God. The son of Joseph would come from earth. Only the Son of God can come from heaven.

Jesus takes on directly this line of grumbling. “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not keep on grumbling with one another. No one is able to come to me unless the Father who sent would draw that one, and I will resurrect that one on the last day” (John 6:43-44, my translation).

The Holy Spirit never goes backward. That is an important spiritual rule of thumb, so it is worth repeating. The Holy Spirit never goes backward. We can and should identify the high moments in the history of a ministry. We do that to celebrate God’s goodness and grace. But we cannot go back. Our purpose as the church is always to build forward, not to turn back. The Holy Spirit calls us out of nostalgia and into adventure, out of the past and into the future.

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop?

On a personal level, this is the Spirit’s treatment for our “if-only” disease. We can spend personal time and energy ruminating over our regrets and resentments. Or we can respond to the Spirit’s call to move forward. Forward is where the life is!

How does this work out in a congregation? It is clear that our gospel reading has echoes of Holy Communion. I hope you see that Jesus feeds us so that we can feed others. The Lord’s Supper leads to a concern for the hungry around us. Or it is a dead end.

I am so grateful for all the hunger and food ministries rooted in ELCA congregations across this country. Members support food pantries with donations and cash and volunteer hours. They give generously and frequently to many relief and support agencies locally to many such organizations beyond their community. They support ELCA World Hunger efforts and Lutheran World Relief. I am honored to be associated with such efforts.

We hope that members experience Jesus’ welcome at our communion table. The Lord’s Supper leads us to welcome others to the table. Or it is a dead end.

Hospitality is often identified as one of the best gifts of many congregations—especially when it is connected with food. While we will look in more detail at the Eucharist in John’s gospel next week, certainly this week we can look at who is welcome, or not, at the table.

I have experienced and observed an evolution in my thinking and the thinking of other ELCA Lutherans in this regard. We still officially expect the Lord’s Supper to be available only to the baptized. But that is certainly not the practice in many congregations.

The debate is often whether the “Table” (the Eucharist) can lead to the “Font,” (Baptism) rather than insisting that only the “Font” can lead to the “Table.” In my experience, the more a congregation is involved in reaching out beyond the walls of the congregation, the more flexible the congregation must become in this ordering.

When I was involved in weekly ministry with offenders and ex-offenders, I knew that many of the regular communicants had not been baptized. If I had insisted on the “proper” order of things, any number of those folks would not have returned – either to the Table or to Sunday worship.

For the sake of caring in Christ, we exercised (as that congregation still does) a liberal flexibility in this regard. Anyone who comes to Jesus will never be driven away – if we are faithful to what we see and hear in John 6.

The good news is that such a welcome and openness begins with and is applied to – me! I come with all my selfish agendas, intentional misunderstandings, and perverse prejudices. And I still hold out my hands to be filled, expecting a welcome and a feeding. Too often, I simply take that welcome for granted rather than experiencing it as the astonishing reality it is.

Jesus tells the clamoring crowd, “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They respond with hope, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Will that be your prayer as well?

Are you willing to look beyond the gift shop? Let’s pray…