Stephen King wrote a short story a few years ago entitled Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption which most of you know by the latter half of the title was made into a move back in 1994. It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two convicted men: Andy Dufresne, a white banker who was wrongly convicted of murder, and Ellis “Red” Redding, an African American who was also convicted of murder. Red is the guy who can get things for the inmates and Andy is the quiet brainy ex-banker who becomes the brains of an intricate operation. Andy pulls a stunt which earns him two weeks “in the hole” – solitary confinement. Upon his return in the cafeteria, he sits down with his friends and tells them it was the easiest two weeks I’ve had here. Of course, nobody believes him but he goes on to say that he had “Mr. Mozart for company.” They wonder how he was able to sneak a record player into solitary and Andy replies, “No … it’s here” [pointing to his head] “and here” [pointing to his heart]. He goes on to say that’s what music does – it gets down deep where they can’t get at it and keeps you from forgetting there are better places outside the walls of the prison. It gives him “hope.” Red then tells Andy, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. There’s no use for it on the inside.” Hope is a dangerous thing.

Today we begin a new liturgical year. It is the first Sunday of Advent and every year the first Sunday of the Church year begins with a foreboding reading about the end of all things. We are in the year of Luke and today’s reading takes place in Holy Week. We hear Jesus saying: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Two weeks ago we heard the corresponding reading from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus predicted the end of all things describing a day when “no stone would be left on another.” His disciples then ask “When will these things take place?” Mark’s gospel is believed to be the first written and it was written either immediately before or right after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 66 CE. Temple destruction and its meaning as part of the signs of end times were on Mark’s mind and heart when he told the Jesus story as was the belief Jesus would be coming any day now. Luke, however, was written some 20 or so years after Mark’s gospel – temple destruction is past history. Luke and his community are struggling with the fact that Jesus’ return doesn’t seem as imminent as it did for Mark or even St. Paul. Luke’s concern isn’t so much “when will these things happen?” as much as it is “how do we live this faith right now as we wait?”

We live in a time often described as “already but not yet.” Jesus has already come, lived among us, died, rose and has ascended; but he has not come again and the last chapter has not yet been written by God. We live in that in between time – just like Luke, Mark, Paul, Matthew, John and all the others who bore witness to Jesus as Christ. In this in between time, there have been many wars and rumors of wars. There has been destruction and chaos. But rather than trying to pinpoint the end of all things, Luke give us a message of hope: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus exhorts us not to cower in fear when things get crazy and scary – instead he tells us to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” … in fact, it has already come.

We have seen resurgence in terrorism in the past few weeks which has brought out some very ugly behaviors in some of those who claim to be our leaders and even those who claim to be Christian. I am persuaded that terrorism and violence are not our greatest enemies – fear is our greatest enemy. When we are afraid, we forget who we are and whose we are. We will sell out our values and our beliefs under the false premise that finding a common enemy will somehow make us safer. It even causes us to make enemies out of people who are not. Just as Andy spoke of music being in his head and heart, fear is something which can invade our heads and hearts and really mess up our thinking and actions. Fear is a dangerous thing!

But remember, hope is also a dangerous thing because hope can give you the imagination and spiritual insight to see possibilities beyond the current reality. Our hope is centered in the cross of Christ and the resurrection. It tells us that no matter what and no matter how bad it gets, God is not finished and the final chapter of history is not yet written. This gospel also must be something in our heads and in our hearts: something they can’t take away from you (no matter who the “they” being referred to happen to be). These promises of Scripture need to be in our minds and our hearts so we don’t forget who we are and whose we are – and we dare not let fear into that space!

So when we become anxious over a terrorist attack and begin to fall back into fear, we need to remind each other to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption has already been won in Christ Jesus. When we are tempted to scapegoat Syrian refugees and blame “all Muslims” for the behaviors of a relatively small number of radicals, we need to stand up and lift our heads – our redemption is already here! When violence in our cities tempts us to abandon the civil rights of others, we need to stand up and raise our heads … our redemption is already here!

Jesus Christ is the lord of all time and all history. No matter what happens, no matter how bad things may get, our redemption has already been won by Christ on the cross and because of that, we need not fear anything ever. This is the essence of hope which, at the end of the movie, Andy reminds Red: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” So stand up … raise your heads … live in hope … your redemption is already here.
I’ve noticed something recently about interpersonal relationships. When two parties disagree and begin to debate something, have you noticed that there is a tendency to get the last word in? Think about it, two sides have a disagreement and both try to make their case going back and forth. As one party perceives they are “losing” the debate, the anxieties and tensions rise and it seems to result in attempts by both sides to make sure they get the last word. It’s as if we believe if we get the last word, we’ll somehow “win” the argument. I’ve noticed this tendency, both in myself and others, but in truth I’m finding that those who insist on getting the last word are really just anxious and afraid. I suggest this is the case in today’s Gospel passage.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King and we find ourselves on Good Friday hearing again this exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. I took the liberty of adding the first part of the verse following where our lectionary leaves off – where Pilate asks, “What is truth?” We usually like to let Jesus have the last word in lectionary readings, but today I suggest there is a good reason to give what appears to be the last word to Pilate.

Think for a moment about the setting. Pontius Pilate the Roman governor and procurator with the awesome power of empire on his side is facing off with this upcountry troublemaker from Nazareth, Jesus. Jesus appears beaten and bruised, a man who stands in the place to be judged and yet he is not impressed by Pilate’s display of power … and he lets Pilate get the last word. “What is truth?” Jesus lets that question hang without an answer.

I think this shows Pilate to be what he really is: anxious and terrified. Regardless of how much power he appears to have, he really is nothing but a puppet caught between the power of Caesar and seething anger of the Jewish people who are sick and tired of the oppression of Rome. He’s really far more vulnerable than he appears … and he’s scared.

Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t afraid. He tells Pilate about his kingdom and reminds him that if his kingdom was of this world, like that of Caesar, his followers would be launching an armed insurrection … but they aren’t. Because the kingdom Jesus is ushering in is one that does not derive its power from fear like Rome does but instead derives its power from love. This isn’t to say Jesus isn’t experiencing any existential angst of facing his own death, but it is to say he doesn’t let that get in the way of his plan – to lead an insurrection of love. I’m not talking about a love of sweet sentimentality – I’m talking about what the Bible calls a love “strong as death.” It’s a love Jesus taught in his lifetime – to love God, love you neighbor, and yes even to love your enemies. This is love which is hard but it is the only thing which can overcome anxious fear. This is the truth which Jesus embodies – perfect love which casts out fear. And this is what makes Pilate anxious enough to want to get the last word in … because for all of the worldly trappings of power, Jesus stands before him unimpressed and unafraid.

We are living in a time of widespread anxiety and fear, much of it centering on terrorism and especially the so-called Islamic State. In many ways, we are experiencing the same anxiety of Pilate. As Americans, we have all the trappings of wealth and power but we now realize this will not protect us from those who are intent on harm. Or in the words of Moises Naim, the author of the End of Power: ISIS has breached that perimeter that above all defines strong states: a monopoly over violence. The Islamic State terrorists have nothing to lose because they don’t believe this world has anything good to offer them. Terrorism is the language of those who feel like they have no other voice and so spread fear and intimidation. Fear, whether ours or theirs, is the mechanism which begets hatred, greed, and violence.

Jesus did not come into this world to create another system of domination and oppression based on fear. His entire message was that of love: love God, love your neighbor, love your enemies. He opted out of human fear based power games and launched an insurrection of love. He spoke of losing your life for his sake and the sake of the Gospel – not clinging to this life by any means necessary. Jesus knew and accepted a deep truth: we will all die. He knew his time was short, but he also knew that one day Pilate would die, as would Caesar, and Herod, and all the other tyrants who wield power through fear and exploitation. We will all die. And this leaves us with a question: how will you live in this time between your birth and death and what will that stand for? Will you live this life in a state of anxiety and fear, allowing that to warp your thinking into hatred of those who are different? Or will you live this life in a state of love, even if it means risking your life? What mark do you want to leave on this world?

Today, we are baptizing Miriam Lynne into the family of Christ. She will begin her journey like all of us did – at the font. And in this act of baptism, she will begin a journey to follow the Prince of Peace and become part of his insurrection of love. This love is demanding because when we enter it, we no longer have the luxury to choose who we love. That’s right, Christians do not choose who we love or don’t love because Jesus told us to love everyone … absolutely everyone … and this is very, very hard. We don’t just get to love those who love us back – we have to love even those who wish us dead. We can hate their actions but we cannot hate people – we have to love them. This is hard work … the work of a lifetime and we can only do it with God’s help.

On this feast of Christ the King, how will you respond? Will you join the insurrection of love or be trapped by fear and have the life Christ wants for you stolen away? Which king will you follow – the one of this world or Christ? Which one will get the last word?
One of the most influential books on prayer I ever read was Martin+ Smith’s book The Word Is Very Near You. Martin+ is a priest and the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts. Lou Nutter, a senior saint at All Saints Church in Frederick, gave my husband a copy of this book when we were first married and I read it after he did. In that book, Martin+ talks about how we first come to prayer. He describes something which is very familiar to us – we “assume the posture” of prayer, we trot out our laundry list of things to pray about (usually intercessions for others and petitions for ourselves), and then we wait … and we hear … crickets … and it feels like nothing is happening. When we do this for some time, we get frustrated and some give up on prayer. He suggests when we do this, we have the locus of our prayer in the wrong place – we believe it begins with our initiative. He recommends moving the locus of initiative off of us and onto God. In essence, the fact you felt the need to pray is proof that God has already initiated the conversation with you and you have entered into it. Wow! You mean it’s not all about me?? Oh thank God! That one change in perspective really opened up my eyes to prayer in a whole different way. It’s part of what we hear about in today’s conclusion of the story of Job.

Our lectionary gives us the Sparknotes version of Job and we have skipped a lot and today is no exception. But there was something in today’s portion that looped back to prayer. Did you notice what this conclusion to Job said? “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” What is it about prayer being a part of Job’s “restoration?”

First let me recap for those of you who have missed some of this series. I’ve been saying for the past four weeks the story of Job is a parable – it is a folktale which is similar to a number of ancient Near East stories from Sumeria and Babylon: the story of a person who suffers for no apparent reason. It is our story too, isn’t it? In our lives, we will suffer and at times we won’t know why. Sometimes we suffer because of our own choices and we know it … and sometimes we cannot admit our own complicity in our suffering. But sometimes bad stuff just happens for no apparent reason at all. Sometimes we get a glimpse of why in retrospect, but just as often we will never know. This ending of Job where God thunders out of the whirlwind still leaves us not knowing the reason why Job went through what he did. Rabbi Cushner in his book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” suggests part of the reason is that God is not finished with creation and there are a lot of loose ends still being worked out. I find that plausible. His take on God speaking out of the whirlwind is more like God saying, “Hey! You think you can do a better job than me? I’m still working on all this mess!”

If we remember this is a parable and we are left in mystery, then we can approach the ending in a different way. The narrative says “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends …” I’d like to suggest a different word than “restored” – let’s consider this the “resurrection” of Job. The word “restored” kind of makes it sound like God showed up and said, “Hey, sorry about that. My bad … here’s some replacement stuff and kids.” The truth is, new children cannot replace the ones who died. I find resurrection a more helpful word here because it tells us God moved Job to a different place. Resurrection is never the revivification of what has died – it is moving through death and loss to a new reality. Job is in a new reality because God moved him there … but only after he prayed for his friends.

We are missing a few verses from the lectionary today, so we lose the emphasis on the prayer of Job. After addressing Job, God turns attention to Eliphaz the Temanite (one of Job’s clueless friends). God basically says, “Hey, you three ticked me off! You are clueless about me and you spoke like idiots. You three need to make a burnt offering sacrifice in front of Job and he will pray for you … because you need it!” OK … admittedly that was the AAV (Anjel’s Authorized Version, not available in stores), but you get the gist of it. God again trusts Job to be a righteous person who will pray for his friends. The three friends offer sacrifice, Job prays for them … and then Job is set in a new place after the prayer. God called Job to prayer, Job prays, and then Job is set in a different place – prayer changes the situation.

I couldn’t let go of this because I have experienced something similar in the past month; only instead of praying for my friends, God pulled me into praying for someone who has set himself against me as an enemy – someone who betrayed me deeply. Now I know Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us … but I confess I don’t like that any more than you do! It’s hard for me too.

God called me as is usual when I wasn’t quite awake, you know that half awake/half asleep state we are in at times? I had spent a big chunk of time since this person left my life working through what happened with my therapist and spiritual director. Now I want to be clear, I’m not telling this story because I want to call attention to myself. I’m hoping you hear this is about what God did to put me in a new place, much like Job … but I kind of went with more resistance. I tell you this because I believe in the incarnation and the presence of God working in and through our flawed selves and the only story I have to tell is my experience. So in that state where I wasn’t quite awake, I had a message: “You need to apologize.” My first reaction was, “Are you kidding me?? What do you mean apologize? Did you even SEE what he did to me??” Well, duh, of course God knows what he did! But God also sees what I did and I was caught up short. The message continued, “He may never apologize to you and I know what he did, but you reacted to him in a hurtful way and you are responsible for that.”

OK … fair enough. I did react in a hurtful way. I remember the last time I spoke to this person on the phone. I let loose. I spoke a lot of truth to him … but it was NOT in love. I’d come to the end of my rope with deceptions and lies and I reacted in a way that wasn’t very Christ-like. I think I may have even hung up on him. Now compared to the lies, slander, defamation of my character, and the other evils he directed at me, what I did was pretty small. But God doesn’t care about whether my sin was “lesser” or “greater” – God cares that it was sin … period. God also knew I was stuck and wanting vindication. But what was revealed to me in this call to apologize was that vindication would not look like what I had envisioned. Vindication would not come through his apologizing to me – it would come through owning my brokenness and apologizing. OK … I agreed. Then came the harder request – “before you write the letter, you’ll write an icon … for him as a way to make peace.” I really did not want to do that! I write icons for people who ask me to pray with them. What do you mean write an icon for someone who did what he did? When I resisted, I woke up crying. I hate crying … but I pay attention to it now. It usually means I have something I need to release. OK … an icon it is.

So I wrote an icon and started it at the Chapman Dialogs and I know Bishop Michael Curry’s words on the Liberation of Love were working on me too. Writing an icon is an act of sacrifice … like Job’s friends. It came effortlessly, like it had been pent up trying to get out, and when it was done I really liked it. But I knew it had to go along with my letter of apology which I then wrote. I spoke of my wounded soul and his. I named both of our wounds and how I see we now both struck at each other out of that place of hurt we each have. I told him I was working on this so I wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes in the future. I also told him I did not want to re-enter his life in any way because the likelihood of repeating a destructive pattern of behavior was high and I didn’t need that negativity … nor did he. I wished him peace and healing and told him the icon was a prayer that he might find a way to wholeness. And off it went … through an intermediary … and it was delivered to his workplace.

But here’s where the story gets weird. The very same day this icon and letter was delivered, I received a Facebook message in my “Other” box. Usually those messages are spammy – scams requesting money or guys who thought I was cute and want a date (Seriously? Do they even see that I’m a married priest?? Sheesh!). I did not recognize the name of the sender at first but when I opened the message I was caught short. It was an ex-boyfriend of mine from way back … I mean wayyyy back … 33 years to be exact. He said he thought of me often and wanted apologize for the hurt he caused me. He thanked me for my prayers way back then and said they eventually led him to Christ. Wait … what?? Do you know what my first thought was? “Hey! Who do you think you are barging in on my life after 33 years?” … DOH!!! Yeah … right after I did the same thing to somebody else. Wow. I took a few days to think about this and whether I would respond. I could have ignored it (and I did delete his Facebook friend request) but then I thought, “Where would the grace and mercy be in that?” Clearly, he had carried this burden of what he did for 33 years … and that’s too long. He wanted to clean his side of the street just as I had done. I wrote him a short note. I told him I hoped he understood if I didn’t accept his friend request – it had been too long and we had both moved on. I told him I accepted his apology and thanked him for doing so. I wished him blessings in living the life God had given him to live. He replied: “I understand. Thanks.”

I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of that. I didn’t want to clean my side of the street and apologize for the hurt I caused but clearly something opened up for another person to do the same with me and it lifted a very old burden. I can’t understand the timing on this but prayer moves out in unpredictable ways. In that sense, prayer is a risky enterprise. Prayer moves us to a new place but we don’t always know what the implications of this will be. I rarely understand it, and it doesn’t always work the way I think it will but I know this: it works … for me and for you too.
When I was a visitation pastor at a local Methodist church, I called on elderly members who could no longer get to church regularly. There was one lady named Marie I visited who is now one of our saints in heaven. When I knew her, she had been bed bound for six years. She had a benign brain tumor removed and shortly after had a stroke which left her paralyzed on the left side. She was always in a pleasant mood when I visited – everything was always “fine pastor.” I suspected it wasn’t but like a lot of people, they really don’t want their pastor to know what’s really going on. So one day after I thought she knew me well enough, I asked her a question. I asked, “Marie, do you ever get mad at God?” She grabbed the side of her hospital bed rail with her good hand, hauled herself up to a sitting position and yelled, “Hell YEAH!” It was thunderous. Then she got real. She told me about being furious with a God who would let her rot in a bed for six long years. She said she was sick and tired of being a burden to her daughter and son-in-law. But then she told me she fired her hospice team six years ago because she told them, “You’re all nice people but I’m not going to die yet, so you can leave.” After that, she was honest with me. Some days were good and some just sucked … but it was never a tepid “fine pastor” after that. What does it take to get real? Last week I talked about right relationships being a red thread between the readings from Job and from Mark. I think we’re still on that train because this week it’s about getting real with ourselves and God.

Once again we’re in “one, two, skip a few” land with Job. He’s been hanging out with his boils sitting in ashes and pretty miserable. He has four friends show up to hang out with him and essentially they tell him he must have done something wrong to have all this crap come down on him. Job protests his innocence throughout. And here in chapter 23, we now have Job demanding a hearing before God. I hear echoes of the prophet Hosea in this when the Lord says, “You will call upon my name and I will not answer.” He is also giving a parody of Psalm 139 – “where can I go to flee from your presence?” While the psalmist posits God as everywhere, Job experiences him as the God who has fled and won’t give him a fair hearing. Job is getting real with God. He’s pouring out his complaint – he’s shaking his fist and railing. He’s getting real with God!

In the same way we encounter the story in the gospel today. Now I hate Bibles with headings because those headings are spoiler alerts on a story like this. Most headings say “The Rich Young Ruler” or the “Rich Young Man.” Totally messes up the story! We don’t know he has anything at first, do we? We don’t even know that he’s young. A man runs up to Jesus and kneels down before him to ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus seems a bit annoyed in his initial response, but he tells the man he knows the law and recites several passages. The man says he’s “kept all these from my youth” and then we hear that Jesus looks at him and loves him before telling him to go and sell everything he has and give the money to the poor and then follow him. Then the punch line: “…he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” DOH!

While it seems this is a story about wealth and its evils, I don’t think it’s that as much as it is about soul sickness and getting real with God. Yes, Jesus taught much about wealth and how the more we get the more corrupting its influence is. But there are some clues this man is sincere. Let’s begin with how he approaches Jesus – he runs to him and kneels. In almost every healing story, the supplicant kneels or prostrates themselves before Jesus. This is a humble posture, not one of testing or accusation. He seems very sincere but the problem is he doesn’t recognize his soul sickness – his attachment, or addiction, to wealth and how it is getting in the way of his relationship with God. He needs healing but he doesn’t yet know it. The ensuing conversation about wealth and getting into the kingdom is really more about shedding what gets in the way of getting real, in this case the wealth of this man.

Jesus points to a paradox – when you let go of the things which pull you away from your first love, God, you find you have more than you can possibly imagine. It’s about holding things with open hands instead of clenched fists. What might you open your hands over in order to get a little more real with yourself and God? Maybe it’s letting go of something just for today … and if that works, try again tomorrow. What stands in the way of being real with God and living into the kind of freedom Job and the disciples have? What will you release to be more real? You can do it ... for with God all things are possible.
This week’s Hebrew and New Testament scriptures seem like the perfect homiletic throw down or a game of “stump the chump.” After getting a touch of Proverbs here, a little Wisdom of Solomon there, and a dash (just a dash mind you) of Esther, now the lectionary compilers decide to give us three weeks of Job! There’s nothing like a little levity to brighten up the end of Year B, is there? Then you couple that with Jesus’ teaching on divorce and it’s like a homiletical minefield. But in the midst of the heaviness, I want to consider there is a tenuous red thread: the question of right relationship.

Virginia Woolf once said, “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.” If you’ve read Job before, you probably felt the same way. Rabbi Morris Kosman, the rabbi emeritus of Beth Shalom Congregation in Frederick, once presented a series at the adult forum at All Saints on Job. He told us there is more commentary on that one book than on any other in the whole of Hebrew scripture. I believe it! It is a book that faces the unanswerable questions, “Where is God when everything falls apart?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” These are questions of theodicy. How do we seek God in the dark places of our lives? It is also a book about relationships.

First let’s consider not only God’s servant Job but also the idea he may not have been a real person. His birthplace “Uz” is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible and there’s no corroborating evidence such a place existed. The story even begins like a folk tale: “There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” … “Once upon a time … there was a man named Job.” Sounds like the beginning of a good story, doesn’t it? So rather than seeing this as some historical account, I invite you to consider it is a folkloric parable.

Now our lectionary cuts out most of the first chapter which sets up the story – Job’s seven sons and three daughters are killed prompting Job’s response, “Naked I came into the world and naked I will go. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job does not curse God but instead holds onto God even when disaster strikes. The lectionary portion picks up after this first disaster with the second wager between God and Satan: “Take away everything and Job will curse you,” Satan says. In Hebrew, it reads “the Satan” which translates as “the accuser.” Satan is a servant of the God – the one who strips away the egos and falsities of humanity. Satan has a purpose – to expose the true self. But I do confess the idea this is Job and the Giant Cosmic Wager really makes me uncomfortable (although it would make a great title for a Roald Dahl book – “James and the Giant Peach” – “Job and the Giant Cosmic Wager”). But remembering this is a parable and one about relationships is it possible that God’s wager is really a statement of how much God trusts Job and his relationship with Job? In essence, God is saying, “When the going gets tough Job, I trust you to stay in relationship with me.” This helps explain Job’s response to his wife. While many have been unsympathetic to her because of her telling Job to curse God and die, we need to remember she has also lost her children and now she’s watching her husband suffer too. Maybe she’s just had enough!

Job’s persistent integrity can be viewed as foolish or even a candy-coated prescriptive to how we should respond in times of trouble. If we do that, we do a disservice to the next 35 chapters where Job lays out a pretty serious lament and complaint against God. Job does not roll over and play dead – he comes roaring back against God and against his friends who have lots of advice on what is happening to him. No, this opening to this troublesome parable shows Job who is relentless about remaining in relationship with God no matter what happens, how bad it gets, and how confused and hurt he is. Job trusts God enough to be brutally honest in his relationship with God.

The Gospel reading today is a text which honestly can be cringe worthy. It is often read at weddings and it can, at first glance, feel like an indictment against divorce and divorced persons. Even in the midst of the marriage equality debate, this passage was used to essentially tell heterosexual people to back off because Jesus said nothing about same sex marriage but actually did say something about heterosexual married persons divorcing … again which rubbed salt in the wound of divorced persons. But, what if divorce is not what this passage is about? What if it’s about right relationships instead?

I think a case can be made that divorce is the topic of Jesus’ discourse because that’s the topic raise by the Pharisees. It is the topic but not the issue. Notice how the passage opens up with the words “Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked …” The intention of the Pharisees is to quiz Jesus on the law. “Teacher, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The Pharisees frame this within the context of knowledge of the law. Jesus’ response tells us that while we can follow the letter of the law, law is not the basis of right relationships! Love is the basis of right relationships. This is why the passage ends with Jesus rebuking the disciples for trying to keep the children away from him. Right relationship is rooted in love and love makes a way to open ourselves up to be fully present to others.

Right relationships with God and others is what both of these stories have in common. Trusting God’s presence even when it doesn’t make sense and, as we’ll see next week, even trusting God to lament and pour out our complaint is the model of right relationship Job shows us. Jesus shows us the law isn’t the last word on living in right relationship, especially in his context when divorce was always one sided (only a man could divorce his wife) and women were viewed as disposable property. In our current context, divorce is quite different and I have witnessed many cases where divorce was the event which led to healthier and more respectful relationships between two formerly married persons. That doesn’t always happen, but it happens enough we hear people say, “We’re good friends but we just can’t be married.” In those cases, dissolution of the marriage led to a renegotiated relationship where each of the former spouses could be present to the other in a more loving way than they could when they were married. This once again underscores the point that the law isn’t the last word … love is and love wins.
In the early 19th century, the state of New York outlawed slavery. They emancipated the slaves but not all of them. There was a cut-off date in the law and, if you were born before that date, you would not be granted your freedom. I’d like to think this was born out of a paternalistic concern for older slaves who might to too old to work and make their way in a world of freedom. But nobody asked the slaves if they wanted the law written this way. There was a woman who was a slave in upstate New York – she was big and powerful and still had young children. She could not, however, prove her birthdate and her owners claimed she was born prior to the cut-off date. She could have accepted this news but she didn’t. Instead, she rejected her owner’s definition of her and, gathering up her children, walked off the farm and never looked back. She took a new name in freedom – Sojourner Truth. She went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and feminist arguing for not only the abolition of slavery but also for the suffrage of women. She lived long enough to see the first but did not live to see women, all women, get the right to vote. Sojourner rejected the definition others tried to put on her in favor of a new identity she was called to by God.

Who defines you? That might seem like a strange question but consider we do not leap from the womb with a fully formed personality and sense of identity. Our self-definition comes from the people around us and how we interact with them. Our lives are spent working out this definition – accepting some definitions and rejecting others. Who defines you? Both the Hebrew text from Esther and the Gospel reading from Mark address this question.

I’ve said I have a “love/hate” relationship with the lectionary and today is more the latter than former. This is the one and only time the book of Esther shows up in our lectionary! It’s as if the writers of the lectionary realized they had missed the wisdom literature so they have to put a smattering of it in … and we get the very end of the Book of Esther. Some of you know the story, but a good number don’t and quoting the end of the book is kind of like turning to the last chapter in an Agatha Christie novel to find out “who done it” rather than read the whole thing. So permit me to give you the Sparknotes version of Esther.

Many scholars question whether or not Esther was a real live human being. There is some belief this is a fictional work and there is evidence to suggest this. First, there is no corroborating evidence from other ancient Near East sources documenting a King Ahasuerus. Usually there are other sources that can cross reference nobility from other places. Second, the story line begins in a preposterous way. King Ahasuerus throws a big party and so does his wife Queen Vashti. He demands she come over to his party so he can show her off and she refuses to come. There may be some good reason for this but the king overreacts and his advisors tell him if word gets out all the women in the kingdom will disobey their husbands … the whole thing gets out of hand and Vashti is banished – a pretty extreme response and not very kingly. Then the advisors decide to hold a beauty contest to choose a new wife for the king. There is nothing in ancient Near East literature to suggest this was the way any queen was chosen! So, you see there’s a comic element going on here.

Mordecai, a Jew in exile, puts forth his niece Esther as a contestant in the beauty contest and she wins. She hides her true identity from the king and his advisors, which include the notorious Haman. Now Haman is a “Snidely Whiplash” kind of villain – the kind who tries to undo his nemesis Mordecai and every time he does, it backfires on him. Today we hear about the final backfire – Haman has determined to annihilate the Jews and Queen Esther reveals her true identity to save her people. The very gallows Haman built to hand Mordecai becomes his own death sentence. In the end, we hear of the decree to observe the 14th & 15th of Adar as a feast to remember Queen Esther revealing her true self to save her people – and the Jewish people celebrate this as Purim by eating cookies known as Hamantaschen or “Haman’s pockets.”

The Gospel reading also is about identity and who defines it. John begins by telling Jesus the saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples told him to stop because he wasn’t part of their group! Jesus essentially tells them to quit protecting his brand identity and recognize that anyone who does a work of power in Jesus’ name cannot remain an enemy of theirs. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

But there is a subtext in how Mark is telling this story. This vignette comes on the heels of the conversation about who is the greatest. In the days when the Gospels were written, there were a lot of little communities springing up around the Jesus movement and there were a great variety of understandings of who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection meant. This is long before the Nicene Creed was written or any of the church councils convened. So there’s rivalry between the Jesus groups about which ones are the “real Christians” and who are the posers. Mark is addressing this controversy by weaving the story the way he does. John and the disciples are presuming to define the other person and essentially say his ministry in the name of Jesus is not legit. Jesus responds by saying it isn’t important whether they are part of “our group” or not – what counts is doing the things Jesus told us to do.

We still do this as Christians today, don’t we? Various groups define themselves by defining others with rules of exclusion. The most obvious issue that comes to mind is Eucharistic practice – who gets to receive the Eucharist at any given church? Some Christians practice closed Communion where only their members can receive. I’m not just speaking of the Roman Catholic Church – the Orthodox Churches, Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and some Baptists also practice closed Communion. Who defines who can receive is an example of defining one’s self over against another.

Episcopalians do this too … but in a more subtle way. Sometimes we can get to thinking we are “all that and a bag of chips” and believe that we have the best music and most beautiful liturgical practices. Again, that’s defining ourselves at the expense of other Christians – and Jesus says when we do that we are wrong. Anytime we define ourselves by putting our foot on someone else’s neck, we are not embodying the Gospel.

So who defines you and where do we make the error of defining another at their expense? The truth is there is only one identity which matters to us. It’s our identity as “child of God” … and even more than that: “beloved child of God.” Our human tendency towards striving to be special and set apart is nothing more than vanity and ego. The truth is our best and greatest identity is found in God and being claimed in Baptism as Christ’s own forever. Beloved children of God is who we really are – and that is enough.
His name was Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. If he had lived in the United States, or the UK, Japan, Australia or Western Europe, he might have been starting preschool right about now. Instead, his lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach this week. Aylan, his mother and 5 year old brother all drowned at sea trying to escape the violence in Syria. This picture struck hearts around the world. Over 4 million people have fled not only the Syrian civil war but also the threat of ISIS and their recruiting of children as soldiers. When one embarks on the open ocean in a small boat or enters the back of a tractor trailer truck for transport it is for one reason: staying where you are is more frightening than taking your chances on leaving. It is estimated there are over 4 million people of Syrian origin who have fled the country and that 25% of all refugees worldwide are Syrian. And this isn’t a foreign thing to us here at Grace Church. Our friend Abed who owns the Potomac Street Grill, is from Syria and still has family there.

The response of the world to this crisis has been mixed. Turkey has already resettled 1.6 million Syrian refugees. Jordan has been flooded with them too. But European countries and the United States have been slow to respond. The official word from the Icelandic government last week was that they could accommodate 50 refugees … 50. Seriously Iceland … 50?

This week’s gospel reading shows us a similar desperation and a very rude response by Jesus. In the village of Tyre, which is located in modern day Lebanon and just west of the Syrian border, Jesus enters a house and is hoping not to be discovered. But when word gets out, a Syrophoenician woman comes and throws herself at his feet in humble prostration to beg him to heal her daughter of a demon. Jesus responds in a manner which is shocking: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s right … he not only refused, he called her a dog.

There are scholars who want to refine and clean up Jesus’ intentions and words here. They will tell you this was just a case of Jesus testing the woman’s faith. I’m not buying that. I’m not buying that primarily because it doesn’t do justice to the text or to Jesus. I have trouble believing that the Son of God, who has shown mercy to others, is going to proverbially kick this woman when she is down. That posits a God who is sadistic and cruel – one just waiting for us to be in a vulnerable position so he can stick it to us and test our faith. I rather can find myself understanding this through the lens of Jesus as fully human. If we look at the progression in the Gospel of Mark, we cannot understand his response to the Syrophoenician woman as a typical response to a Gentile in need. Two chapters ago, we heard the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac in the region of the Decapolis. He didn’t have a problem healing him … so why this response to this woman in particular?

I think Mark gives us a clue at the beginning of the reading. “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Why would he leave Galilee and go to the ancient land of Phoenicia? Perhaps, he wanted to get away from the demands of his ministry. He needed a break. He was exhausted. I don’t know about you, but when I’m exhausted, I get a little cranky. Who knows? Maybe his blood sugar was low too! No matter … he didn’t want to be detected for a reason – he likely needed a break. But that was not to be and I think we can gauge the difference in Jesus’ interactions with the Gerasene demoniac and this woman by who initiated the contact. If you recall, the Gerasene demoniac ran up to Jesus, bowed down before him and the legion of demons begged Jesus to be left alone … because Jesus had tried to cast out the demons. From the way Mark tells this story, it appears that Jesus is choosing to engage with the demon possessed man. The man does not ask for anything but to be left alone. In contrast, the Syrophoenician woman makes a demand on Jesus asking for her daughter to be healed. She might not have asked for herself – but a desperate mother will do anything, even endure humiliation, for the sake of her child. Jesus is not in control of this encounter – she has been the agent of action on him not the other way around like it was with the demoniac. She has inconvenienced him and intruded on his private time and he responds rudely. Notice too, that after she gives her retort, Jesus ends the encounter abruptly: “For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.” This is no Hallmark moment and Jesus doesn’t commend her faith or say anything to her other than her desire had been granted. He still seems a bit cranky.

I think it no coincidence that Jesus has a similar encounter with the man who is deaf and mute. He returns to the Decapolis and “they brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.” Who are “they?” Honestly, we don’t know, but now we hear a group (they) are begging Jesus to heal another person. The word begging is link here – both “they” and the Syrophoenician woman beg Jesus on behalf of another. This time Jesus complies and in one of three points in Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus speak in his native language of Aramaic: Ephaphtha! Be opened!

It seems to me these two stories together are telling us something of the nature of ministry and of Jesus’ growing understand of who he is. Rather than clean up Jesus and make excuses for him, I’d rather hold that Jesus did not come into his ministry having all the details worked out. Unlike Athena who sprang fully formed from the mind of Zeus, Jesus is human and his own self-awareness and understanding of what it means to be Son of Man and Son of God is evolving in his own lifetime. He knew the prophesies about Messiah coming to the Children of Israel, but he didn’t quite realize until this encounter that the world, the others beyond his own people, would come to him and yes, make demands of him. He realizes he cannot control when or where the needs of others will arise and when and where he will need to respond. Ephaphtha, to be opened, is a statement not only for the deaf man’s ears and tongue, but also of Jesus’ heart to embrace a new understanding of what the demands of a hurting world will place at his feet.

This is also true for each and every one of us. Today’s admonition from James reminds us that faith without works is dead. Turning a blind eye when the needs are in front of you does not honor God and makes our faith a sham. The Gospel shows the demands of a hurting world are not always going to show up when it is convenient for us. They will come at us when we are tired and cranky – when we believe we have nothing left. It is in these moments where we are called to remember it is not ourselves we proclaim and it is not the power merely within us that will respond but that God will supply what we need to act. Our call is to be opened, ephaphtha! Be ready to see the need and respond.

The Icelandic people did just that this week. After their government said they could only take 50 refugees from Syria, two people went onto Facebook and called Icelanders to action. “Who knows? We might be welcoming your next doctor, or a baker, or a drummer for your band!” Over 10,000 Icelanders heard the call and promised to open their homes, provide for the needs of the refugees, teach them their language, help them with jobs – whatever it took to help their sisters and brothers in need. This is the Christian response! This is being opened to the possibilities in faith instead of fear. This is what we are called to do and to be for the sake of the world … and the next Aylan.
Kim Davis, the court clerk of Rowan County Kentucky, has been making news since the Supreme Court decided that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment also applied to marriage equality for same sex couples. She’s the court clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses for same sex couples because of her understanding of how the Bible views same sex relationships. She holds very conservative Christian beliefs and I support her right to her biblical interpretation. However, as an elected government official, she is to uphold the law not the Bible. She is now seeking an “asylum for her conscience” to allow her to continue to deny same sex couples marriage licenses because of her deeply held religious beliefs and she’s arguing it under First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Of course, that’s only half of what the First Amendment says about religion. The other half of that is commonly known as the “establishment clause” which states Congress will make no law establishing a religion as an official religion. In essence, she wants protection under half of the First Amendment and the right to ignore that her actions are, in fact, an attempt to establish her form of Christianity as the law of the land for anyone who doesn’t share her beliefs. I think she has an uphill battle in the courts.

There’s a spiritually more troubling aspect to Kim Davis’ claim to her Christian faith. While spouting her Christian beliefs, she doesn’t seem to want to accept that her beliefs just might require her to sacrifice something for them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll restate the fact that I completely support her right to hold her beliefs. I don’t share those beliefs but they are just that – beliefs. She is entitled to hold them but holding those beliefs comes with a price – a price she seems to not be willing to pay. These beliefs may come at the price of her job or even jail time. But instead of standing for her sincerely held beliefs and giving up her job, she appears to rather expect same sex couples to bear the sacrifice of her belief system. That would be like Jesus telling his followers to go out and get crucified for him instead of laying down his life for us. There are plenty of Christians who seem to think their faith should cost them nothing at all – not even an inconvenience let alone a real sacrifice.

James exhorts us today to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” He is calling us to not just give our faith lip service but to make it count in our actions. Sometimes those actions require us to make sacrifices to be true to the Gospel. Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees with the truth that outward practices are not what make us clean or unclean – that what goes on in the heart determines this. If pious practices exist only for show and do not result in the conversion of heart God wants, they are meaningless. If you go through the motions but never experience conversion and never sacrifice anything for the sake of the Gospel then you are not a follower of Jesus but rather an admirer.

19th century Danish poet, theologian, philosopher and social critic Søren Kierkegaard spoke of this in a piece entitled “Followers Not Admirers.” In it, he sharply defines the difference as follows:
It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.

Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching - especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible.

Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving not instructing it. At the same time - as is implied in his saving work - he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that It, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of “loftiness.” No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.

What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.

To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. As such, they refuse to accept that Christ's life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended at him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he "says nothing" against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs.

And Christ's life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower. And this can happen very quietly. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. Give heed, therefore, to the call of discipleship!
Kierkegaard goes on to speak of both Judas and Nicodemus as admirers of Jesus who made no sacrifice and took little to no risk for his sake. He concludes his reflection as follows:
Now suppose that there is no longer any special danger, as it no doubt is in so many of our Christian countries, bound up with publicly confessing Christ. Suppose there is no longer need to journey in the night. The difference between following and admiring - between being, or at least striving to be – still remains. Forget about this danger connected with confessing Christ and think rather of the real danger which is inescapably bound up with being a Christian. Does not the Way – Christ's requirement to die to the world, to forgo the worldly, and his requirement of self-denial – does this not contain enough danger? If Christ's commandment were to be obeyed, would they not constitute a danger? Would they not be sufficient to manifest the difference between an admirer and a follower?

The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a "Christian people” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower's life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many - but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.
Christianity without conversion, without sacrifice, is play acting at discipleship. We’re not called to lofty play acting – we are called to follow.
The Rev. Eric Folkerth, a Methodist pastor in Dallas, Texas, posted the following question on his wall last night: “President Carter is 90-years-plus, suffering from Stage 4 Melanoma, recovering from chemo-treatment on Thursday, and intent on teaching his Sunday School class tomorrow morning. So, remind me again, what’s your excuse for missing church?” Yeah … mic drop! Phyllis Tickle, the Episcopal lay woman and prolific writer, is 84 years old and in hospice care for terminal lung cancer. She’s stated her intention to write about the experience of dying and how she sees it as the next adventure. Nelson Mandela held to his Christian faith and conviction in the evils of Apartheid when jailed for so many years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been battling recurrent infections yet even in his hospital room, he welcomed visitors, prayed and shared Eucharist with them. What makes these people approach hardships, illness, suffering and death with such commitment to their faith? Sure, some will say it’s because they are famous that makes them different. I don’t buy that … because they are all just like you and me. They are real people in real situations. What makes some stick with their faith in Christ when the going gets tough while others bail out? Today’s gospel reading is a reflection of this contrast.

Today we finally come to the end of our protracted readings of the 6th chapter of John. It’s been a long six weeks, at least for me as your preacher! This all began with the feeding of the 5,000 and led into Jesus calling himself the Bread of Life and stating whoever “eats me” will live forever. In this discourse he’s run up against the crowd who doesn’t seem to understand but asks questions nonetheless, the Jewish authorities who push back, and today we hear of a third group: “many of his disciples.”

Jesus’ language is provocative and even offensive in challenging long held taboos within the Jewish religious system. He really means this “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” stuff! He’s not kidding around! Ewww! People are now very disturbed by him. Now, his many of his disciples can’t take it anymore. “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Jesus then ups the ante with reference to the Son of Man ascending to where he was before and tells them that some of them do not believe … and so they turn away and leave. They bail out. Now Jesus turns to the twelve and asks them, “Do you want to leave too?” And Peter replies, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

This contrast between the disciples who bailed out and the ones who stayed has intrigued me this week. What makes the difference? I don’t think it was that the twelve had more faith. Let’s face it, when the chips will come down later and this all becomes a matter of life and death at the cross, even these twelve will bail out. But why did they not take offense and walk away when the teaching became difficult?

I think part of the difference lies in the spiritual state of these two groups of believers. One element is the spiritual gift of humility – that recognition that I have limits, my knowledge is imperfect, and there’s always something new to experience and learn so that I might grow. If we get to a place where the teachings and life of Jesus seem easy or that “we got this,” then we are not experiencing humility at all. If we take these teachings seriously, they are hard! They will ask us to give up all kinds of things, even deeply held beliefs. If one lacks humility, there is nothing to be learned and challenging teachings become something offensive to which we will rebel and leave.

Another characteristic of the group which stayed is persistence or perseverance. There is a gift of persevering and persistence they seem to have. This doesn’t mean they won’t fail (they most certainly will), but in the words we say at the AA meetings, they “keep comin’ back” because “it works if you work it.” They know their faith is an action not a possession and they need to work that faith to make it real. This requires persistence, especially when things get hard and there is a temptation to quit.

Humility and perseverance are the foundations of growth in the Spirit and living the Christian life. They are the foundations for living a life marked by falling and failing, forgiving and seeking forgiveness, reconciling and healing. They are the spiritual gifts which mark the difference between the followers of Jesus and those who are fans. Fans of Jesus are content to sit on the sidelines and applaud but when the going gets tough and their faith makes demands, they bail out. Followers make sacrifices, persevere and pray with humility knowing they don’t have it all together. Followers know deep down there is nowhere else to go – that Jesus has the words of eternal life.

What the lives of Jimmy Carter, Phyllis Tickle, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu reflect are those Christian virtues of perseverance and humility. Each of them faced, or are facing, hard truths of life and death – the same hard realities we face too. But their consistent practice of faith – not just lip service but really practicing it within community – carried them to that place where they could face the end of their days with gentleness and confidence is the promises made by Jesus Christ. They are followers of Jesus, not just fans. This isn’t something super human and beyond us. The virtues of humility and perseverance are available to you and to me and help us to become true followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, may we become what we receive and be imbued with humility and perseverance to run the race set before us as faithful followers of Christ.
Have you ever offended somebody? I did … once … a day … at the minimum. Not because I was trying to offend people. I really don’t get up in the morning and think, “Who can I offend today?” But one of the consequences of being ordained is that we have to preach and live an unpopular message. We are called to preach the Gospel which, while it technically means “good news,” it isn’t received as “good news” by everyone. It still challenges our comfortable world view by telling us to let go of our egos, our need to control and dominate, and our possessions. Its message is still offensive and lucky me (and every other pastor), we get to be the messengers.

We are continuing the saga of the Feeding of the 5,000 and its aftermath this week. We still have a few more weeks of this story so hang in there. It’s a challenge for preachers because how much can you say about bread and how long can you milk that? But I suppose the writers of the lectionary put it in August because they knew people would be on vacation and not likely attending every week … so the congregation won’t feel as inundated by bread as the preacher will!

Today we hear that “the Jews” are complaining, in Greek “grumbling”, among themselves about Jesus’ statement “I am the bread of life” and “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” The story is beginning to take an antagonistic turn. If you remember last week, the crowd who followed Jesus to Capernaum after the feeding episode were asking him questions: “What must we do to do the works of God?” and “What sign will you give us?” Now “the Jews” are beginning to attack the motives of the messenger – or at least his credentials. “Who does he think he is? We know he’s Joe the Carpenter’s kid!”

I want to pause here to clarify John’s usage of the term “the Jews.” Sadly, this has been construed in our Christian history to be an anti-Semitic polemic and was used to justify persecution of Jewish people. John is a product of his context and he uses two terms to refer to the people: “the crowd” and “the Jews.” Let’s be clear, “the crowd” were Jews! Who else would they be? But John here is referring to the peasant Jewish people – the working class Jews who were engaging Jesus. When John uses the term “the Jews,” he is referring to the religious leadership (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and temple priesthood) who stood in opposition to Jesus’ message. So when you hear John using these terms “the crowd” and “the Jews,” realize that he is drawing a line between Jews with religious and political power and those who don’t have that power.

So it is clear Jesus is offending the religious leadership who just cannot figure out how some ordinary guy can now claim to have come down from heaven. I mean, if you think about it, it is an audacious claim, isn’t it? Especially if you had grown up with him! You knew his family and friend. You saw him skin his knees and remember when his voice changed and got all squeaky. I mean … he’s just an ordinary guy! So the grumbling begins and they are taking offense.

It’s still hard to believe this, isn’t it? This ordinary carpenter’s kid living an ordinary life but telling us something of God that is extraordinary: simply the fact that God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary. This is still an audacious claim and we live it out every single week here at Grace. We claim and give our hearts to see ordinary bread and ordinary wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ in our own midst. We claim the water of Baptism destroys Sin’s power over us … but it is plain old tap water from Brunswick! We even have to run the faucet to get the rust out of the pipes … that’s how ordinary it is. The Oil of Unction through which we trust the Spirit of God to bring healing and wholeness to our broken bodies and spirits … it’s Colavita olive oil … how ordinary. All of these things are ordinary, but God infuses them with the extraordinary so that we are strengthened and drawn closer to Christ. And if it is true for bread, wine, water and oil, so much more so is it true for me and for you.

We too are very ordinary: ordinary people living ordinary lives. Yet, through the sacraments and our community here, Christ is truly present. Through the ordinary elements of the sacraments, God empowers us as ordinary people to be the extraordinary presence of Christ in a hurting world who needs to experience the Gospel now more than ever. We ordinary people are infused and empowered to continue the extraordinary work of healing and reconciling in the name of Christ. It is an audacious and remarkable claim made on our lives by the Living God and if it is true for bread, wine, water and oil … how much more so is it for you and for me?