In Ghana, as in many West African countries, the Christian churches have some very different traditions. Our diocese had been in a companion relationship with the Diocese of Accra in Ghana and several people I know have been over there to visit. The first thing they noted is that worship takes as long as it needs to take … which usually means several hours! They don’t have that “Thou shalt not preach past kick off” rule there. Another tradition is how they give their offerings. They don’t just sit in the pew and wait for a plate – they dance their offerings up the aisle. That’s right, they dance. Now I know if I tried that here at Grace Church I would likely be preaching to an empty house next week, so rest assured we won’t try that here. But what they do at the offertory is everyone, and I mean everyone, leaves their pews by the side aisles, goes to the back of the church, and one by one they dance forward with their offerings. Of course, money is offered, but other things are offered too – a farm tool for blessing, a bolt of cloth for a dress, food for those who need it. One of my friends who witnessed this noticed that some would dance forward and prostrate themselves in front of the altar or even lay their torsos on the altar for a period of time, and then return to their seats. When my friend asked one of the members what was happening, she was told, “They are offering themselves to God – it is all they have to offer.” They offered themselves because they had nothing else to bring.
Today’s gospel reading is popularly known as the story of the Widow’s Mite from the old King James translation. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and we are now back in Holy Week. Our Church year takes us to Holy Week twice: once in the spring when we observe Holy Week and the events in the life of Jesus and once in the fall between All Saints Day and the Feast of Christ the King when we focus on the teachings of Jesus during that week. So Jesus is now in the temple and to understand this story, we need to encounter it within the context of the whole chapter which begins with two other teachings. The first is when Jesus is asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus asks for a coin of the realm and inquires, “Whose picture is on the coin?” The response is, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answered (again from the King James), “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesars and render to God that which is God’s.” Now if we stay with a surface reading, we can get caught up in all sorts of machinations about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God which is sheer foolishness. It all belongs to God … even Caesar belongs to God! So Jesus’ point is that nothing really belongs to anyone – it’s all God’s.
The next query comes from the Sadducees who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They ask Jesus about a hypothetical woman who marries a man but he dies before they have children. So she marries the man’s brother, in compliance with Levitical law, and he dies without having children. And she does this seven times over (yes, it’s the “One Bride For Seven Brothers” story – not to be confused with the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” story). The Sadducees ask, “When she dies and gets to heaven, whose wife is she?” Jesus proceeds to tell them they don’t get it because people are not given or taken in marriage. Essentially, this is a property question! In first century Palestine, a woman was property of her husband or father. Jesus tells them that she’s nobody’s property – she and her husbands belong to God.
Now we enter the Temple complex and Jesus is sitting opposite the treasury and watching how people are giving their money. Our English translation omits the word “how” but it is in the Greek texts. As people entered the Temple complex, they passed by the treasury box which a large box with a funnel-shaped opening on the top so that people could throw their coins in and they would filter down into the box – rather like tollbooths on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You would hear the sound of the coins as they were thrown into the treasury. Now I have traveled a bit and brought with me some “coins of the realm” of various countries: a Pound Sterling from Great Britain, a couple of 10 Franc coins from France, a couple of 2 Deutschmark coins, and two Austrian 10 Groeschen coins (mind you, these predate the Euro). Now in the case of the Pound, Franc and Deutschmark coins, they are substantial, heavy coins. The more they are worth, the heavier the coin. This was true in the Roman Empire too – a denarius was a substantial coin but lighter in weight than a talent which was worth more. So let’s say the Pound, Franc and Deutschmarks represent the wealthy throwing in their offering – it sounded like this (drop the coins on the floor) a pretty substantial sound. Then along comes the woman with her two lepta, much like these aluminum 10 Groeschen coins, and she throws them in (drop the coins on the floor) … did you hear the difference? Jesus did! He heard the difference as well as saw it. Two lepta were not even enough to purchase a pigeon for the minimum temple sacrifice (that required eight lepta). In essence, she had nothing … and she threw it all in. And Jesus tells us this widow gave more than anyone else because the rest gave out of their abundance – they gave out of what was left over – but she gave everything she had. In English it says, “everything she had to live on” but the Greek says “her whole life!” She put in her whole life. She laid down on that altar!
And this is what God asks of us – to offer and present our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God – because we don’t own anything. It all belongs to God and what we give back is merely an acknowledgment that we understand this truth. God does not want our leftovers – our leftover time after everything else comes first, our leftover talents when we’re all tired out from what we’ve wanted to do, or our leftover treasure. God wants all of us – body, soul, and possessions – to be utterly dedicated to God’s work and people. God wants each of us to lay down on that altar and may we have the grace and humility to do just that.
We all have “firsts” in our lives that we will never forget. Maybe it’s your first job, or your first car, or your first love. I will never forget the first time I had to preach this text. It was 2006 and I was a seminarian intern at St. Thomas’ Church in Hancock, Maryland. The reason it’s indelibly stamped in my mind is because of what happened one week before I was to preach this text we often know as Blind Bartimaeus.
The Sunday prior to preaching this text, I had an encounter with one of our parishioners which presented me with a challenge. Her 16 year old son had retinitis pigmentosa – a degenerative eye disease that would eventually result in complete blindness. She had this too, but her son’s form was much more aggressive and progressing very rapidly. With tears in her eyes, she told me of taking her son to the eye doctor and the doctor breaking the news that her son would never be able to drive a car because his eyesight had degraded so quickly. Knowing her son, he was taking this news better than his mom who felt horrible about having passed this disease along. Of course, this was not her fault – but it still felt that way. After she finished pouring her heart out to me, and with teary hugs we parted, I thought to myself, “Oh great! Next week I have to preach about the healing of Bartimaeus!” I just knew this could bring up all kinds of theological issues like why Bartimaeus was healed but this wonderful young man was losing his sight. My seminary education at Gettysburg taught me Greek and I went back to the original language of the text and poured over it hoping to find something else that would preach. What I found astonished me. I found out this isn’t primarily a healing story.
The first clue we get that this is no ordinary Markan healing story is that we know the name of the man being healed. None of Mark’s healing stories name the person receiving the healing: it’s the blind man, the deaf mute man, the woman with the hemorrhage, Jairus’ daughter, the paralytic lowered through the roof. But right away, Mark tells us this man’s name: Bartimaeus.
As Jesus is leaving Jericho, heading for Jerusalem and the cross, Bartimaeus cries out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Hold it right there! Mark’s gospel has no birth narrative. We have no knowledge of Jesus’ lineage or origins – he just shows up to be baptized, then is driven out into the wilderness where he’s tempted, then calls disciples and starts his ministry. In Mark’s gospel, we have no indication that Jesus has a Davidic connection until … the blind guy points it out! Don’t you just love the irony here?
Well, Bartimaeus’ colleagues try to shut him up, but he’s not going to be silenced – he cries out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks and tells his disciples to “Call him here.” “Call him here” – call him – the same thing Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry, the very same verb is used – “call him here.”
The disciples then go to Bartimaeus and say, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” These three phrases have echoes in other parts of Mark’s narrative. “Take heart” is the same verb in Greek that Jesus used when he was walking on the water towards the disciples in the boat and they were afraid of him. “Take heart. I AM. Fear not!” he told them. “Take heart” or “have courage” is phrased the same way in both places. “Get up” or “rise up” is the Greek verb which also means “resurrection” – Bartimaeus is about to be raised up to a new life. “He is calling you” is the story of all the disciples – Jesus called them.
So Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps up and goes to Jesus – apparently without assistance so it does call into question how blind is blind. Jesus then asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” The essence in the Greek is a bit deeper – more like, “What is your deepest longing?” Or “What is your heart’s desire that I can do for you?” Bartimaeus’ reply in Greek is an idiomatic phrase and idioms are the hardest thing to translate because they often lose some of their richness in the translation. We hear in English, “My teacher, let me see again.” Bartimaeus actually calls Jesus something like “My beloved teacher” and then says, “that I might lift my eyes.” Yes, an idiom meaning to regain sight, but for Jewish hearers there is an echo back to Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
Jesus’ reply is another idiom, “Go; your faith has saved you.” Yes, we translate that as your faith has “made you well,” but the Greek uses the salvation verb – your faith has saved you. Mark then says that immediately, Bartimaeus “lifted his eyes” which we translate as receiving his sight; however, it is a cryptic phrase and to what degree his sight was restored is a bit enigmatic. What is rock solid is what Mark says next, Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way” or in Greek, “in the way.” We clean that translation up to make sense in English, but the phrase “followed Jesus in the way” has another meaning. The early Jesus movement was known as “the Way” or “the Way of the Nazarene.” To follow Jesus “in the way” meant Bartimaeus became a disciple!
This is no ordinary healing story at all – it is a call story. Jesus does not initially reach out to Bartimaeus, rather Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus in his own need, out of his own poverty. Jesus, in turn, calls Bartimaeus in spite of his poverty and need – perhaps even because of his poverty and need. Jesus didn’t wait for Bartimaeus to have his act together or even to behave appropriately before calling him. Jesus called him in the midst of his brokenness, poverty and need. He called him because of his emptiness … and his faith.
What was true for Bartimaeus is true for us. Jesus doesn't wait until we have our act together to call us to be disciples. He calls us right now in the midst of all the broken stuff in our lives. He calls us and spite of and even because of our need, our poverty, and our weakness. Because it is only through our weaknesses that we can really and truly connect with others to bring them the hope and healing of the gospel. It is in our need and poverty that we are able to make space for another who needs to hear what Christ is doing for us. His words to Bartimaeus are also words to us: “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.”
Posted to my Facebook wall about a year ago: “OMG!! You’re a PRIEST!!” (shouting all the way in all caps). “Um … yeah,” I replied. For the record, this was posted by a friend of Stuart Wright, our HR director for the diocese, whose name is Jeff. Jeff lives in Richardson, Texas and we’ve never met IRL (in real life). Stuart posted something about faith and Jeff and I had a lively exchange of ideas around what Stuart had initially posted. Eventually, about 20 postings deep, Jeff went over to my Facebook page and saw the picture of me, Stu and the girls in front of St. Mark’s, Lappans … and I was wearing my white chasuble. This prompted the OMG posting from Jeff to my wall. Jeff then said that he was a “recovering Catholic” and seeing a “chick in a chasuble” was a bit of a shock. I told him I understood. Then he said, “So what do I call you?”
“What do I call you?” I can tell you this is a question my male colleagues never face. “What do I call you?” After 36 years of ordaining women and we still don’t know what to call them? Really??!! It is one of those strange but true things. There are still very few female clergy in the Episcopal Church and many denominations don’t ordain women at all. Arthur LaRue and I had lunch a few months ago at Beans in the Belfry and sat outside since the weather was so nice. Several young mothers emerged from the restaurant with their children in tow and one turned and said, “Are you a minister?!” I said, “Yes. I’m the priest at Grace Episcopal Church.” (I was wearing my clerics, so it was a little obvious). She apologized for interrupting but said, “I’ve never seen a woman in a collar before. What do we call you?”
“What do we call you?” I confess in my more mischievous moments, I reply, “Why isn’t it obvious? ‘Your majesty!’ It does have a lovely ring to it doesn’t it?” But more often than not, I just tell people they can call me by my baptismal name and if they insist on an honorific, Mother or Pastor is just fine. What you call me doesn’t change who I am in God’s eyes and it doesn’t change my call to be a priest. And honorifics really don’t seem to have much place in the kingdom if we take today’s Gospel reading seriously.
Today we hear of the upward mobility plans of the sons of Zebedee. They seem to have been sleeping through the events leading up to this encounter. We are just on the heels of several teachings about letting go: Jesus telling the young man to sell all he has and give all the money away to the poor, becoming like children (who have nothing), predictions of his own death, invitations to take up our cross and follow him. And now, after all of this, James and John demand that Jesus “do for us whatever we ask of you.” Really?! Whose agenda is at the forefront here? And what’s on James and John’s agenda are seats of power when Jesus is in his glory. They want the titles, the corner office with the view, the high-backed leather chair and mahogany desk!!
Jesus tells them they don’t have a clue what they are asking … and knowing the rest of the story as we do, we know they don’t have a clue! Jesus asks if they can go the distance: to drink from the cup he will drink from and to be baptized with the baptism he will receive. Of course, they answer “Yes, we are able” and if we’re honest, we don’t believe them. I’m not sure Jesus believed them either. How could they know what they were getting themselves into? How can any of us know what we’re getting ourselves into?
After this, the other disciples get word of James and John’s attempt at a power grab and start squabbling among themselves. We can almost hear it, can’t we? “Who do they think they are? They’re no better than us!” Jesus then calls them together and reminds them how things are different in the kingdom. He tells them the Gentile rulers lord their power over others and act as tyrants – but it is not to be so with you. When we hear the word “Gentile” in the Scriptures, we often think this refers to someone who is not Jewish. That’s only part of the meaning. Gentiles were those who did not know God – people who had no grounding and understanding of the God of Israel. He’s saying essentially Gentiles, people who don’t know God, use power and prestige to establish themselves as gods (small “g” gods). And those of us who know God, the real God, are not to be this way. Jesus is giving his disciples an alternate vision of what it means to be human. He’s giving them an exit ramp from the systems of oppression humans tend to set up in the world. And it’s an exit ramp for the rat race of our day too!
We live in a post- 9/11 world where the American dream has turned into a nightmare for many of us. We wax nostalgic about how wonderful things were before the attacks of 9/11, before the collapse of our economy in the great recession, and we wonder how we will go back and recapture that way of life. If only our taxes were lower, our economy would turn around and everything would be fine, right? We’ll just pass gambling and pay for our schools … that will work, right? And in the midst of this, we’ll magically create lots of new high paying jobs, right? “Gee Wally, if we just work harder, we’ll make it!” … right? Well, I don’t know about you, but we’ve tried some of these so called “fixes” already and they aren’t really working all that well. It really doesn’t matter what your political leanings are, the old paradigms are not working because we have experienced a seismic shift in our culture and our way of life has been radically altered. This paradigm shift has forced us to live on less and reprioritize where we spend our time, talent and treasure. Our culture has been living in an unsustainable way for generations – over-consuming and passing along the bill to the next generation. But the chickens have come home to roost and the rules about how to live have been obliterated. And if it feels like you are working harder and can’t seem to get ahead it is because the system is stacked against you.
Over and over, Jesus tells us this striving after the ways of the world is the way of those who do not know God – the Gentiles. But it is to be different for the disciples, for us, who know God. We are to forget, to eschew, the titles, the perks, the corner office, the crazy pace, the unsustainability of worldly power and privilege. We are to be servant of all and master of none. We are to pour ourselves out in self-forgetfulness for only in forgetting the ego of self can we truly engage with others in love. And this love is costly – it demands much from us but conversely gives much to us. It is the costliness of laying down our lives for each other and for the sake of the world. This past week, I was blessed to hear Dr. Walter Brueggemann speak at our clergy conference. He’s one of my favorite curmudgeons of theology. He said that too many Christians think, “I don’t mind dying for Jesus, but I’d rather not be inconvenienced.” Jesus is telling us that our lives are to be one big, fat inconvenience if they are to have any meaning whatsoever! We will be inconvenienced. We will be called to lay down our lives – our priorities and their perks and prestige – all of it has to go for the sake of finding a real and meaningful life. But in losing this life for the sake of the Gospel, Christ tells us we will find a life beyond our wildest imagination – a life that matters and one which lasts.
I had a seminary professor who was just like John Keating – the teacher portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society. Remember that movie, especially the scene of Robin Williams standing on the desks of the students and proclaiming Carpe Diem? Well Rick Carlson was John Keating for us at Gettysburg Seminary. He’d get up and say the most outrageous things and we loved it. He taught our Summer Greek course in 2004 and his passion and skewed sense of humor was the only thing that got us all through the living hell of noun declensions, parsing verbs and their conjugations.
One day as we were going through our vocabulary, we ran across the word doulos. In our text book it said the word meant slave or servant. Well this lit Rick’s fuse and he went on a tear. He told us we should NEVER translate this word as “servant” because in our context and culture, to be a servant has a voluntary connotation and being a doulos in the first century Roman Empire was NOT voluntary in any way shape or form. I’ll never forget him saying, “If you were a doulos, you were a slave. Somebody owned you Jack!” Somebody owned you Jack! That still rings in my ears. Who or what owns you? Who or what claims you?
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the story of a young man’s encounter with Jesus. I really don’t like our modern Bibles because many of them have headings that are spoilers. If I learned anything from my time in LA hanging out at the Comedy Story, it’s how to deliver the punch line. The headings in our Bibles totally mess up the punch line Mark intended because they call this the story of the “Rich Young Man.” This totally messes up the impact of the story. Look at it again … Mark does not tell you the man is wealthy initially. All we see is a man who comes up and kneels before Jesus and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus reminds him only God is good and then basically says, “You know the drill” – you know the commandments and then he rattles off some of God’s top 10. The man replies in essence, “I’ve been doing all that since I was a kid!” Jesus looks at him and loves him. He really does love him … but he also sees his spiritual illness. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” It is now that Mark delivers the punch line: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He had a lot of stuff.
What owned him? His stuff … he couldn’t imagine letting go of his property … and he turns away from Jesus. I think it’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t run after him to renegotiate the deal. There is no negotiation with God. This man had placed his trust in his stuff and the security it provided him. And when we misplace that trust, we enter into unhealthy attachments to the object we now trust. Those objects can take many forms: people, ideas, things. Those unhealthy attachments have a name … addictions.
I’ve been revisiting one of my favorite books by Gerald May entitled Addiction and Grace. I usually read it about once a year as a chance for me to reflect on my addictions. We often only narrowly define addiction in terms of drugs or alcohol; however, as May points out, to be human is to be addicted because we constantly find ourselves placing ultimate trust in things other than God. Some addictions are just more socially acceptable and subtle than others – but they are still addictions. Mine tend to be over things like achievement, over-functioning, the sense of security my investments falsely give me, my need to be in control, and my daily caffeine fix. The man in today’s story was addicted to his stuff, his need to be in control and likely the false sense of security which possessions tend to provide. He walks away from Jesus instead of confronting his addictions and reorienting his trust back to God.
Addictions enslave us … we are not in control of them. They own us, Jack! The paradox of this is that our awareness of our addictions reminds us that God is God and we are not. When we are brought up short by Christ with the thing we lack, the object of our addiction, we fight back … or like the man, we run. Fighting back and running are what we’d rather do because we don’t want to give up our attachments – and there is no gospel, no good news in that.
The good news is that we have another option. We can admit we have misplaced our trust and we can let our addictions bring us to our knees … and that’s exactly where we will be met by the unmerited, unearned love of God we call grace. Unless we confront the question, “Who owns you Jack?” and admit that we let lots of things lay claim to us and we are not in control of our addicted selves, we will not find grace. This question needs to be revisited over and over through the course of our lives because if we avoid it, we will live our lives as fearful, addicted, spiritually dead people. Christ calls us to be spiritually alive and he claimed each and every one of us in baptism where we were marked as his own … forever. In the midst of our messy lives, in the midst of our addictions, in the midst of our dying … we are Christ’s own, bought with a price, and nothing can change that – absolutely nothing.
So who or what owns you … Jack? As we begin our focus on stewardship this month, I want you to think about what things or people or ideas have laid claim to you. To whom or what have you given your trust … and how does it now own you? To what or to who are you addicted? What are your barriers to freely giving yourself to God in Christ? Where are you being called to step into trusting God more? Remember, Christ owns you! Giving up things we can’t imagine living without, those addictions which try to claim us, is possible – for with God, all things are possible.
Today’s lectionary readings make me very happy that I am an Anglican – especially the Gospel reading from Mark! In the early 17th century, England was in the midst of a civil war which had strong religious overtones. The Puritans, who found their voice under the leadership of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, advocated for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and did their very best to destroy it through abolishing the episcopacy, destroying and defacing Anglican Churches and outlawing the Book of Common Prayer. The Puritans also advocated for the “bare reading” of the Holy Scriptures saying it was unnecessary to have clergy interpret the texts because “bare reading” of the Scriptures was all one needed to understand them. In response, one of our most noted Anglican divines, Richard Hooker said, “Bare reading is bare feeding for starving souls!”
Certainly there are passages from Scripture which can be taken at their face value. When Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” – well, he was pretty clear (and no, he didn’t stutter!). But today’s reading from Mark is a perfect example of a text which, if taken as a “bare reading,” can be terribly misunderstood and even do positive harm.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce is known as one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus and if we take it on its surface and only deal with it on a literal level then we open up all kinds of painful issues. First is the nature of divorce itself which, regardless of the circumstances, is always painful because it involves the death of a relationship. God grieves when divorce happens because real people – his very real flesh and blood children – are hurt. And then, when we speak of divorce, we are forced into looking at the flip side of the coin which is marriage – and that has certainly been a hot topic of conversation in our culture. What constitutes marriage? Is marriage “one man and one woman” as some would have us think? And if so, how do we explain King David and his 300 wives and concubines? And if we dig a bit deeper, we find marriage defined as a rapist and his victim, a man and his wife and his wife’s property (other female slaves), or a man and any woman he takes as the spoils of war. Clearly, the Biblical definition of marriage is checkered at best. And how do we understand this in light of the questions surrounding other relationships which bear some of the marks of marriage? What about same-sex couples who, by operation of law, are barred from the civil protections marriage provides me and my husband? What about elderly couples who, because of financial considerations, cannot get married without plunging into destitution? These are all very real issues which cause pain and suffering to real people. And if we only take this Gospel at a “bare reading” level, we continue to heap abuse and hurt on God’s children. I believe this is an abuse of Scripture and I strongly believe there is another layer of meaning behind this teaching.
If we were to travel back to first century Palestine, we would find that marriage was a very different arrangement than what we experience in the 21st century in the United States. When children were toddlers, their parents began the process of arranging for their marriage – often to a distant cousin of the same tribe in order to consolidate family wealth and provide for the parents in their declining years (this is what 1st century Palestinian “social security” looked like). This contractual arrangement was known as betrothal and it was just that – a business arrangement. Generally, this isn’t how marriages happen in our modern culture.
So in the midst of this cultural understanding of marriage, the Pharisees come to question Jesus about whether it is “lawful” to divorce ones wife (notice the legalistic language of questioning the lawfulness in light of the contractual business nature of marriage). At this time, there were two schools of rabbinic thought on this. The first said it was lawful if the woman was guilty of adultery. The second was much more lenient and gave all kinds of conditions under which a woman could be put out by divorce, including “burning the bread” (sorry ladies, if you burn the toast, you are out of here!). Instead of giving into either side, Jesus lifts the question to a whole new realm: it isn’t about a business dealing and the lawfulness of a contract – it is about people … real flesh and blood people … and especially women! Who stood to lose the most in the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ day? Women! To be put out of one’s home by divorce was a disgrace to the woman and her family. Women were often left destitute and their prospects for remarriage were very limited. Jesus goes on to say that if a man remarries, he commits adultery against his wife. This is radical because if a man remarried, the crime of adultery was considered to be a shaming of the woman’s father and male family members, not against her. If anything, Jesus is elevating the status of women who were often considered “non-persons” at this time and place.
This helps us understand the tie in with the teaching about the children coming to him. Children are also relegated to “non-person” status – even in today’s society (which is why it is so easy to cut education and Head Start from our national budget … after all, children don’t vote, do they?). Jesus elevates both the status of women and the place of children through these combined teachings.
So rather than see this as a teaching about divorce, I’m persuaded that divorce is merely the “presenting issue” and the real underlying teaching has to do with who the non-persons in our society are and how we treat them. Jesus came to save the last, lost, little, least and lifeless – and those who are pushed aside into non-person status fit most of those categories.
The faces may change, but there are always those among us who are considered “non-persons.” In our day, it is the homeless, the physically or mentally ill, those with crippling addictions, children, the poor and hungry, the elderly, the developmentally disabled – all of these people are precious to God and yet they are those often relegated to non-person status in our culture. Our baptismal vows call us to seek and serve Christ in all persons by loving our neighbors as ourselves and to strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being. If we move beyond the bare reading of this passage to see it is about how we treat the last, lost, little, least and lifeless, we can see a broader call and implication for our own lives. Christ did this work of reconciliation and healing in his day – and the work continues for each of us, here and now.
What an amazing and glorious day! We are so blessed at Grace Church to welcome Vilhelm into Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church this morning. It is a magnificent reminder that we are part of something much, much bigger than ourselves and our little town. We are part of the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints who span not only the globe but also span all time and space. And today we celebrate the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels which is a reminder that we are part of an even bigger fellowship which includes beings beyond our human understanding.
Our popular culture has an obsession with angels. Everything from Hallmark cards and ornaments, to bumper stickers telling us to “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly,” to movies like “Angels in the Outfield” and “Angels in America” to TV shows like “Highway to Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel.” Of course, we talk about angels in the Church too but we often only think of them within the context Christmas. That’s why I love the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels – it gives us a chance to explore the wider world of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
The Bible (including the Apocrypha texts) refers to angels and archangels 393 times. Five angels are named within these texts: Michael (whom we heard about today and whose name means “Who is like God?”), Gabriel (the quintessential Christmas angel who appeared to Mary and whose name means “God is my Champion”), Raphael (whose name means “Healer of God” from the apocryphal book of Tobit), Uriel (“Light of God”) and Jeremiel (“Mercy of God”) both appear in the apocryphal text of Esdras. Islam also speaks of angels and it is said the Quran was revealed to Mohammed by the angel Jibriel (Arabic for Gabriel). Our word “angel” derives from the Greek word angelos which means “messenger” or “emissary” and can refer to either a heavenly being or a human being.
This leads me to pause this homily for a brief “theological service announcement.” There are misconceptions about angels in our culture and I would be remiss as a priest if I didn’t address two of the most common ones. The first one comes from a movie which will start showing on television continuously in … oh … about 8 weeks. That’s right – the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” marathon. [How many of you have seen “It’s a Wonderful Life?”] Most of us know this story of redemption where an earthbound angel named Clarence Oddbody who tries to earn his wings by helping the distraught George Bailey see all the good in his life – and we know that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” That’s good Hollywood, but poor theology. Angels do not earn their wings – this isn’t the Air Force or United Airlines. Meritocracy is not how things work in the Kingdom of God. The Bible says some angels have wings like the six-winged seraphim in Isaiah’s vision or the winged cherubim with four faces Daniel saw. But just as often, scripture says angels look … well … a lot like humans: the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre and the two men in the tomb tell the women Jesus is alive are certainly angels … but they don’t seem to have any flying gear. We can surmise that angels either have wings or don’t and perhaps this is why the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us to always show hospitality because some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Heb. 13.2).
The second common misconception is that humans become angels when they die. This one is a hard one to address when it arises because it is often said at funerals – especially funerals of children or those who die tragically. It’s usually said by a well-meaning friend or family member who’s trying to bring comfort and meaning to a senseless loss: “God must have needed another angel and that’s why …” Funerals are obviously not the time to address this. Instead we clergy bite our tongues (and I think I have a row of permanent teeth marks to prove it) and we wait … for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels so we can talk about it. For the record, we do not become angels when we die. I can no more turn into an angel upon my death than I could turn into a giraffe right now. People and giraffes are different species – so are angels and humans. When I die, scripture promises I will be taken into God’s presence to serve God as a transformed, resurrected human … not an angel. In fact, we humans enter God’s presence with something angels do not have: a tested faith in God. Angels never know what it is like to live apart from the full presence of God, but we do and in this life must walk by faith and not by sight. So when we enter God’s glory it is with a faith which has been tried and tested in ways that angels don’t quite understand. So now you know and we can return to our regularly scheduled homily.
All this talk of “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” might be a bit hard to swallow in our post-modern, evidence based scientific culture. We might be tempted to rationalize away their existence by categorizing them as colorful metaphors of ancient people. Most of you know me well enough to know that I tend to be a pretty rational, logical person and I confess that I cannot see angels directly … but I do know people who can and I believe them. Let me tell you about two people who’ve told me about their encounters with angels.
I was pregnant with our youngest daughter when Claire was only three years old. Now we all know how long pregnancies are for adults, let alone three year olds, so Stu and I decided to wait until the pregnancy was obvious to tell Claire about the new baby coming. So we were extremely careful not to talk about the “b-a-b-y” in front of Claire (we didn’t even spell it in front of her). One morning when I was about 10 weeks into the pregnancy, I was pulling on my stretch leggings (because my pants were starting to get uncomfortable) and Claire came into my bedroom and patted me on the stomach. I said, “Yeah, looks like I’m getting a little fat, huh?” She just smiled and said, “No, it’s not fat, it’s just the baby in your tummy.” I was dumbfounded … “What?” Claire looked a little exasperated with me … “It’s just the baby in your tummy.” I asked, “How do you know about that?” She said, “I just know these things. And I know where babies come from too.” (This ought to be good, I thought). “Really? Where do they come from?” “They come from God Mommy.” (Good answer!) “And God is sending us a girl baby – I’m getting a sister!” Hmm … “Well honey, we don’t really know if God is sending you a sister. We might have a boy baby.” Claire was adamant, “NO! God is NOT sending us a boy baby! I’m getting a sister!” … OK …
When Stu got home that evening, Claire ran up and threw her arms around him. As Stu hugged her, I said, “Guess who knows about the b-a-b-y?” He looked at me and said, “Did you tell her?” “I didn’t tell her, I thought you told her!” At that point Stu looked at Claire and asked, “So who told you about the baby in Mommy’s tummy?” Claire was very matter-of-fact, “The Angel.” I about fainted … but she was very clear. The angel told her God was sending us a girl baby – and she told people about this very plainly … for about two years. One day when she was about 6 years old, I asked her if she remembered the angel who told her about God sending us a “girl baby” and she said, “No Mommy.” The memory may have faded for Claire, but I am blessed to hold it for both of us.
In my time as a hospice chaplain, I observed that when people come to the end of life, they often are living in between this world and the next. When death is near, they often see long deceased relatives and friends. But just as often, they see people they don’t know – one patient asked me about the “shiny people.” I believe these people they do not know are quite likely members of the heavenly hosts and one of my patients had such an encounter. Jean was from England. When she was enrolled in hospice I visited her and she told me much about her life and her family that was factual – she had six strokes and could not walk, she was married to her second husband Charlie who has Alzheimers, she had two sons, she was a stalwart member of the Church of England who loved the Book of Common Prayer and the old hymns, and she didn’t understand her youngest son and his wife who attend one of those “happy clappy churches” – “they don’t use a prayer book, imagine that!” But about ¾ of the way through our first visit, she turned and said, “Oh, excuse me, did you get that list I gave you last week?” I turned and looked … but there was nobody there. At least I couldn’t see anyone there. Her son chalked it up to medication – I wasn’t so sure.
One day as I entered her room, Jean was lying in bed and staring at the wall with a very troubled look on her face. I said, “Jean, you look like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. What’s troubling you?” She said, “It’s that staircase.” I said, “Which staircase?” She said, “That one … the one right behind you.” I looked behind me and saw a wall … but I said, “Oh … THAT staircase. What’s wrong with it?” (I didn’t really see the staircase … but she did and that was most important). She said, “The man at the top of the staircase says I have to go up the stairs. I’ve had six strokes and I can’t walk. I can’t go up those stairs. And he says Charlie has to go up the stairs too and he’s in a wheelchair. We can’t get up the stairs!” I asked, “Did the man at the top of the stairs say you have to go right now?” She looked up … “No … not right now.” I took her hand, “Well, then you don’t have to worry at all because when it is time for you and Charlie to go up the stairs, God will strengthen your legs and you will run up those stairs and be light as a feather.” She said, “Really? How do you know?” I said, “Jean, I know because God will never ask you to do anything that he won’t give you the strength to accomplish.” She looked upward towards the top of the staircase and said, “Well … that’s a relief.” I asked her later if she knew the man at the top of the stairs, she said, “No. I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
St. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of holy death and the dying. Was he the man at the top of the staircase? I don’t know – perhaps he was. What I do know is this man came to give Jean a message. Four months later, Jean ran up the stairs – light as a feather, unburdened and free. This is our hope and the hope we baptize Vilhelm into today: that one day we too will run up those stairs and join the saints in light and live in the company of angels.
When I was in seminary we had a panel discussion in our class on rural ministries and it was comprised of retired Lutheran pastors who had served small churches. All of the pastors were male – not unusual given their average age. During the course of the discussion, the topic of clergy wives came up. Now given they were all men, the term “clergy wife” was exclusively used and wasn’t much of a surprise; however, for the female seminarians (who were the majority of the students in the class), it was a bit challenging. We heard all about how congregations have expectations of clergy wives: they will bake cookies for the bake sale, teach in the Sunday school, join the Lutheran Church Women, sing in the choir and, if she plays the organ, they even get an organist out of the deal! These pastors referred to this sort of thinking as the “two-fer” call – as in you get “two for one” when calling your pastor. Now in all fairness, these pastors did say that the expectations for clergy wives were often steeped in ridged gender roles and sometimes quite inflexible; however, they all went on to extol the virtues of their respective wives and all of the things they did in the parish to support their husbands – and they made it clear they could not have been effective in their ministry without the support of their wives. Upon leaving the classroom after that presentation, one of our fellow female seminarians asked me, “So what do you think about all those clergy wives?” I replied, “Are you kidding me?! I’m getting me one as soon as I can!! I don’t need a husband … I NEED A WIFE!”
That evening at home, Stuart and I talked about our days and I told him about this panel discussion. I said to him, “It was the consensus of the female seminarians that we don’t need husbands, we need WIVES!” Stu replied, “What do you think I am? I AM the rector’s wife … or at least I will be!” Now I laughed at that initially, but he called me out. “Who bakes the cookies in this house?” Oh … he had me on that one – I only do that at Christmas. “And who cooks most of the dinners around here?” OK … he had me on that one too – I’m a utilitarian cook … he cooks for the joy of it. “And if you open up every cookbook your mother ever gave us, to whom did she give them??” OK … that was three for three because all of them have “To my cooking buddy Stuart from Mom” written in the front cover. I conceded … I already HAD a rector’s wife (and someday when a church calls me to be a rector, then it will be official … right now he’s the Priest-in-Charge’s Wife). And I have to admit, he’s good at it. So much so that some of my male colleagues have said they will be sending their wives up so my “wife” can teach them how to care for a priest!
“A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” This passage from Proverbs is probably one of the more well-known sections of this book. Proverbs is part of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Wisdom texts – which also includes Job, Psalms, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and the apocryphal books of Wisdom, and Sirach. These texts are devoted on how to live a wise and faithful life and often are full of practical advice. The author of Proverbs is giving an extended lesson to his son. So we must begin by realizing this “capable wife” emanates from a position of male privilege and patriarchy. Ancient Jewish culture had strong gender role expectations for both men and women (not unlike what our pastor friends found in their congregations). And I don’t know about you, but reading this exhaustive list of what a capable wife does … well it made me TIRED! I was ready for a nap after just reading this list! She “seeks wool and flax” and weaves cloth; she rises while it is still night and provides food for her household; she considers a field, buys it and plants a vineyard (and probably makes the wine too!); she is a business woman who makes linen garments and sells them; her children and husband call her happy (I’d call her exhausted … but who am I?). This woman is doing all things, at all times, for all people! We call this … over-functioning, don’t we? And it is tempting to fall into this idealized standard which no woman, or man, could possibly live up to.
It is possible that our poet author of Proverbs is ascribing to this capable wife the very virtues of Lady Wisdom which he extols. It is no small thing that wisdom is personified in both Hebrew and Greek as a feminine quality. We also need remember that the Holy Spirit is also personified in both Greek and Hebrew text with feminine names. So our Scriptures speak of God’s Spirit which imparts Wisdom as part of the femininity of God – even in the midst of a patriarchal culture.
We still live in a patriarchal culture which affords particular privilege to men but at the same time also binds men into rigid gender expectations which limit their expression of what it means to be male. Patriarchy is a part of our sinful nature which hurts both women and men. God’s Spirit placed into our holy writings the seeds of respect and honor for both feminine and masculine and when we dig just a bit deeper into this passage, we find some things which address the patriarchy of our own day – especially in what Proverbs 31 does not say about the capable wife.
First, nowhere does it say that the wife’s value and worth are derived from her husband. She is a woman of her own worth and value and although later Christian tradition would try to make a woman’s identity a consequence of her husband and her status dependent upon him, this just isn’t in the passage. This capable wife is her own person and, if anything, her husband’s reputation is dependent upon her qualities, not the other way around! This woman’s worth is a result of her own thoughts and actions – there is no indication of her being submissive and demur. She is pursuing her own ends rather than obeying orders and doing so for the good of herself and her household. The writer praises her for being purposeful – we might even say she’s being praised for her headstrong ways.
Second, this wife is not extoled for childbirth and child rearing. In the ancient world, bearing children and rearing them was a key status credential for women. The writer only makes a passing reference to her children rising up and calling her happy – he does not say anything else about motherhood as her primary or sole identity. The passage has a lot to say about this woman’s generativity (she “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” and “provides”), but her generativity is a result of her intellect and wisdom not her biological functions.
Finally, this passage says absolutely nothing about her appearance. Not one word! It says nothing about her age, her body shape, her clothing, her make up – it says nothing about all those things with which our current culture is so obsessed. Our culture tells women and girls that their core value is based upon physical beauty – and a standard of physical beauty largely promulgated by magazines with Photoshopped images of models creating a standard of “beauty” no woman could ever achieve. We obsess about this. We have and epidemic of eating disorders because of it. We spend way too much money on plastic surgery and make up because of it. The world tells us that our worth is based on impossible images and that which will not last but the poet says rightfully, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain…”
Our common life is woven with painful realities of the cultural expectations put upon us based upon gender as well as other aspects of our transitory and fleeting earthly nature. The good news is we are called to a different, and dare I say peculiar, way of life – one grounded in our real worth as God’s beloved children and not one based on our biology, what we look like or our social status. Our identity in God, who we really are, is something which cannot be taken from us – it is the one thing which endures forever.
Mark’s gospel narrative holds two interesting things in tension. On the one hand, Mark’s vocabulary is quite limited compared with other gospel writers and with other New Testament texts. On the other hand, he does some pretty sophisticated things with his narrative constructs to link ideas and images together. One curiosity to me, is that Mark is the only gospel writer who preserves several of Jesus’ words in his native tongue which was Aramaic. Matthew, Mark and Luke all quote Jesus’ words from the cross in Aramaic: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?). In addition, Mark preserves two other Aramaic phrases: after healing Jairus’ daughter he says, “Talitha cum” (“Little girl, I say to you get up!”) and the phrase we hear in today’s gospel “Ephphtha” (“Be opened!”). Now when writers do something out of context, like quote foreign languages, it makes me wonder … why? Why these phrases? Could there be a connection between them? As I prayed with these phrases, it seemed as if they link together as part of the pattern of our Christian life.
The first Aramaic saying in Mark is Jesus’ words to Jairus’ daughter, “Talitha cum / Get up.” These are really the first words to anyone who begins the life of faith. They are the Aramaic counterpart to God’s words spoken to Abram in Genesis: “Lech lecha” – “Get up and go.” God called Abram to get up and then to go to the land God would show him. Likewise when we are called to follow God, we have to get up, get on our feet (literally and figuratively) and be ready to go where God leads us.
The second phrase is from today’s reading: “Ephphtha / Be opened.” As Jesus opened the ears and loosened the tongue of the deaf mute man, this word is also one of invitation to us as we follow Christ: Be opened! The Christian life is one where we begin the journey to discover who we really are in God. This is different from who we think we are – that’s largely a construct of our ego, for good or for ill. The journey of our faith is to peel back the layers of our life experiences and beliefs in order to discover who we really are from God’s perspective. We cannot do any of this work unless and until we allow ourselves to be opened.
There are Christians who have no trouble getting up and beginning the journey but being opened is hard. To be opened means to risk. And what we risk is being open to transformation: we call it conversion in the Church. Some folks have said the scariest word for Episcopalians is “evangelism” but I disagree. The scariest word is “conversion” because conversion means the death of one way of being so another way can be born. It is the cycle of death and resurrection. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls you, he bids you come and die. That is conversion. Dying to our own selfish needs: our need to be right, our need to protect our prideful egos, our many and varied addictions (and we all have them … some are just more socially acceptable than others) – dying to all of this is what conversion means. But we cannot be converted until we are opened. We must be opened to the possibility of a greater life in the risen Christ than what we know today. If we refuse this call to be opened, especially to the change conversion brings, then all we will do with our faith is hide behind our religion and mistake religiosity for falling into the hands of the living God. Religion is only a means to move towards God – we dare not use it as a cheap substitute for God.
Once we take seriously the call to “get up” and “be opened” we move into conversion. There are two places I find where we tend to resist being open. The first is right after the call to get up. We feel called by God, but we really don’t want to let God do the leading. We’d rather remain in charge of our lives and let our egos rule the day. The other time is right after conversion where we may be tempted to thing we’ve somehow “arrived” at our final destination. Conversion is a lifelong process of being made anew – over and over and over. When we experience a conversion and we find ourselves changed, we can be tempted to close down and defend our new position lest we be called to yet another conversion. Ephphtha! Be opened! It is a constant reminder of the importance of openness to God’s Spirit at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances.
As we engage in this process of conversion, we can often encounter the third of Jesus’ Aramaic sayings: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? / My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We find this in conversion because to change always means something about us must die. And death brings out Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christian mystics call this point the dark night of the soul. It is that place where the death brought about by conversion is very real, the grief is real, and we may not be able to discern the presence of God, and a way forward isn’t always clear. True conversion of the spirit will always take us there at some point and even life itself will take us there whether we want it to or not.
There is a story told of a professor at Virginia Seminary who, upon the death of his wife, became extremely depressed. This professor and priest would come to the Eucharist at the seminary chapel and when it was time to stand and recite the Nicene Creed … he sat silently. For months on end he sat and could not bring himself to profess his belief in God. Finally, after many months, he began to emerge from his grieving process. One day, he spoke at chapel and explained that while he was in the despair of his grief, he found he could not stand and recite the Nicene Creed because he wasn’t sure if he really did believe in God. However, he found himself carried by the seminary community at that point. “You said the creed for me when I could not say it for myself,” he told them. In that space where he felt so abandoned by God and so alone, it was the Church through the seminary community, who carried him until he could stand on his own again.
None of us can do this journey of faith in a vacuum. We are not independent, discreet entities of existence. We are a community where our actions impact the real lives of others. It’s been said there are no “Lone Ranger” Christians and I think this is very true. Our faith journey inevitably moves us from getting up to being opened to being converted – to dying and rising over and over and over in the course of our lives.
Talitha cum, Ephphtha, Eli, Eli lama sabachthani? Get up; be opened; my God, my God why have you forsaken me? – all of us can connect with one of these Aramaic phrases right now. Wherever you are on your journey and whichever phrase speaks to you, know this: you do not journey in this life alone. You travel in the company of the saints here on earth, with this community here at Grace Church, and with those who have gone before who continue to intercede for you, in the company of angels, and always in the presence of the Living God.
In my time as a hospice chaplain, I conducted many funerals and some were rather … colorful. I had a very interesting encounter at one of my graveside services with an evangelical lay pastor who ran a trucker ministry up and down I-81. The deceased was one of my patients and the family had asked me to do a graveside funeral; however, this lay pastor let me know that the deceased had “come to Christ and was saved” through his ministrations. Now I believe strongly in the “make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ” model of evangelism. I was glad the deceased, who had a very hard and painful life, had heard the word of the gospel and come to believe. This was all good.
But as our conversation progressed, the lay pastor began to lecture me about the scriptures and how the King James Bible was the only authoritative word of God and all other translations were of the Devil because “they took words out and changed the meaning of God’s word.” Well, at this point the lay pastor was showing his ignorance of linguistics and his own prejudice towards the King James Bible. Standing at a graveside really didn’t seem the appropriate venue for a theological debate, but that didn’t seem to stop him. He proceeded to point an accusing finger at me and said, “You ARE going to preach God’s word from the King James Bible, aren’t you?” I wasn’t going to argue, “Of course, I have no objection to that.” He continued to point at me and said, “You DO READ the King James Bible for your learning, don’t you?” … “Well … no,” I replied. He had a stunned look on his face. “I prefer to read the scriptures in Greek and Hebrew,” I told him, “I find the original languages to be rich and enlightening myself.” He didn’t know what to say to that … so he walked away.
One of the things we humans tend to do is confuse the means with the ends. As I vowed at my ordination, I do believe the Holy Scriptures to be the word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation. But note what this does not say: it does not say all things in the Holy Scriptures are necessary to salvation. There is some really weird stuff in the Bible, if we're completely honest. The Scriptures are a tool for us, inspired by God, written by humans to instruct us and form us into Godly people. But when we confuse them with God or think God only speaks in Elizabethan English, then we have a problem! It is called idolatry.
In today’s encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus takes them on for confusing the means with the ends. The presenting issue is the tradition of washing hands which, interestingly, is not commanded in the Torah at all. Now for us in the 21st century, eating with unwashed hands seems to be not just unwise but unhealthy too. But remember, this all happened long before germs and bacteria had been discovered! The washing of hands and other vessels as Mark describes, was a tradition that developed over time in the Jewish community. It came out of the oral tradition which was codified in the Mishnah and then in the Talmud … but it is not in the Torah.
This tradition was born out of a desire to make all aspects of Jewish life holy. We often refer to this as the hallowing of time. The intention was to draw your mind and heart to God even through the most mundane activities – like washing hands or pots and pans. We have similar practices in our tradition: the use of the liturgical forms in the Book of Common Prayer, the practice of reading the Daily Office, the various pietistic practices like crossing yourself or genuflecting that we exercise in worship. All of these come from our tradition and can draw us closer to God.
If we believe that only our outward behaviors are what make us Christian, we have mistaken the means for the ends. This is what Jesus is pointing out: one can do all the right outward actions and still have a sinful heart which unleashes the unholy. We all have sin in our hearts – this is the truth. This is why we cannot merely look within ourselves to save ourselves. If we could have somehow “evolved” our way into being better, don’t you think we would have done it by now? If our traditions are merely a pietistic show which allows us to dodge the sin within us and mask it in religiosity, we are perpetuating sin in the name of God and this is most dangerous. If, on the other hand, our traditions move us to unmask and confess the sin within us that it may be healed, then our traditions are moving us towards God and not a false religiosity.
Jesus said, “… there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile.” It is important to note that the sin inside makes us unclean and confusing the means for the ends is sinful. But also note that what comes from outside us conversely has the power to save us – namely God’s very self which is transcendent and wholly Other. This God comes to us through Means of Grace: Bread and Wine/Body and Blood, the Scripture and the prayers.
It may appear somewhat paradoxical to say that our outward traditions and behaviors both are and are not important. They are certainly not important if the behaviors and traditions are merely a false face on a corrupted heart. They are not important if they become litmus tests for who is a “true believer” and who is not. If, however, the behaviors and traditions are moving us to more honesty and shaping our hearts to be more inclined towards the true religion James speaks of – caring for the most vulnerable among us and keeping ourselves from the corrupting influences of the world – then the behaviors and traditions have a purpose: to draw us closer to God and shape us into more Christ-like people. It’s often been noted that behavior proceeds belief – we behave our way into new beliefs. This is captured in one of our Anglican traditional sayings: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi – the law of praying is the law of believing or “how we pray shapes how we believe.”
So it isn’t whether we read a particular translation of the Bible, use the Book of Common Prayer, pray the Daily Office, cross ourselves or genuflect which makes us Christ-like. But if these practices help us be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, to be doers of the word and not just hearers, to care for the most vulnerable among us and resist the corruptions of the world, the flesh and the devil, then we will honor God with both our lips and our hearts.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying, “You are what you eat,” right? We are what we eat … and that might be pretty disturbing for some of us. What do you put into your body by eating and drinking? For that matter, what do you put into your mind through words and images? What do you take into your body through all of your senses? I ask because what we take into us changes us – for good or for ill.
In today’s episode of the extended dance version of the Feeding of the 5,000 as told by John, Jesus now moves into some very provocative language. We tend to spiritualize what he says and those of us who have been Christians for a long time can easily gloss over the shock and awe of what his words mean: “ … unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” Let’s drop our tendency to over-spiritualize this – this sounds like cannibalism! This is shocking language.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, references to eating someone’s flesh are seen as hostile actions. (Psalm 27:2, Zech 11:9) Ezekiel pronounces the judgment against Gog by stating they will be sacrificed on the mountain of Israel and the birds and wild animals will eat flesh and drink blood. There are also prohibitions on the drinking of blood in the Torah. The only positive references to eating flesh and drinking blood are in the Eucharistic language of the New Testament. Jewish people hearing these words would be scandalized by them!
And yet, the consuming of the meat from sacrificed animals was commonplace in both Jewish and Greco-Roman religious praxis. The meat from sacrificed calves, goats, and lambs was part of the diet of the priestly class in the Jerusalem temple. So when Jesus uses this language, he is both scandalizing his hearers and foreshadowing his own life becoming a sacrifice which will reconcile the world to God.
Up until this point in John’s narrative, Jesus has placed his emphasis on believing in his discourse: “whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” “whoever believes has eternal life” “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We are often tempted to reduce belief to an intellectual assent to a series of propositions or ideas. This really isn’t what belief is. The Latin word for “I believe” is credo which more accurately translated is “That to which I give my heart.” It is more closely related to trust rather than the ability to understand or comprehend. Belief is not a head trip even though we are tempted to reduce it to this.
Jesus’ words today move from giving our hearts to action: “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” Through this language, Jesus says giving our hearts is the first step, but it is not enough. We must put our convictions into actions: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Jesus is telling us, “You are what you eat!”
My father tells the story of when he and my mother joined the Episcopal Church. They had participated in an ecumenical progressive dinner in 1974. Several churches participated and a different course of the meal was served at each church. During the various courses, the clergy of that particular congregation would tell the diners a bit about their church and traditions. There was one participant who asked every clergyperson this question: “What is the center of your worship experience?” The ministers of the more Protestant churches answered, “The preaching of the Word of God.” When this question was posed to Father Mac Stanley rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, he replied, “The Eucharist is the center of our worship. We are centered on the Sacrament.” This got my dad’s attention … and within two weeks, we were worshiping at St. Michael and All Angels.
There is a temptation to take the Eucharist for granted – after all, we have it every Sunday and sometimes even in the mid-week as we did this past week. Yet Jesus was clear this mystical meal is about his abiding in you – his becoming a part of you – as you eat his flesh and drink his blood. It is a physical act with very real physical consequences. You are what you eat.
Jesus commanded us to make disciples through baptism and to receive the Eucharist. These are the only two sacraments explicitly commanded by Christ because they are necessary to our salvation. They are the means by which we die to ourselves and then live for Christ, continuously being nourished by his Body and Blood. This is why we worship in the way we do because what we take into ourselves matters. Through the hearing of the word, through our participation in prayer, through hearing music and singing praise to God, through the smells of incense, and through the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of Christ’s Body and Blood, we are formed into the mind and likeness of Christ so that in the words of our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer, we may be a “reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.”
You are what you eat. You are what you choose to take into you and what take into you forms you into who you are. The Eucharist is a mystical feast of communion and community – it builds us into the Body of Christ as a living sacrifice for the sake of repairing the world. You are what you eat. What you take into you matters. Of what will you choose to partake?