Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, August 29, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 14

Pentecost 14, 2021
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the first five books of the Bible (called the Torah in the Jewish faith), there are a total of 613 laws given by God to the Hebrew people.  I didn’t count them all, but I did look that up:  613 specific laws to be followed.  In today’s first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is setting the groundwork for the identity of God’s chosen people.  He explains to them why they need to follow all the laws that have been handed down to them.

He says, by observing God’s laws diligently,
. . . This will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

In other words, following these 613 laws reflects back on how good God is.  People will know that God is great because the Hebrew people have these 613 laws, which nobody else has.  You could think of it like how parents  get the credit when their children behave.  We say that well-behaved children come from good parents.  On the other hand, what kind of parent lets their kid run through the grocery store smashing bottles of syrup on the floor?  When our children behave, it brings us honor.  In the same way, if the Israelites follow these 613 rules, God will be glorified.

So, the Law of Moses, as we sometimes call it, has two important functions.  First, it identifies God’s people as being distinctly different from their neighbors.  Only they have received these rules, because of their special relationship with God.  And second, the Law of Moses glorifies God.  Special people, special God.

Now let’s turn to the gospel reading, from Mark.  We’re pretty familiar with this sort of situation by now.  Jesus and his disciples are living their lives, eating food, teaching, healing the sick and so on, and along come the scribes and pharisees to tell them they’re not doing it right.  And by “not doing it right,” they’re specially thinking of those 613 laws handed down to them by Moses.

We heard a few of them in the reading:  For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.

Of course, that little section about not washing their hands is extra uncomfortable for us during this seemingly never-ending pandemic.  But let’s leave that aside.  I just want to be sure we can see where the Pharisees are coming from here.  If the Law of Moses, those 613 rules serve to identify God’s people and to glorify God, then every Jew needed to be following them.  When the Pharisees see someone not following the rules, they know that it reflects poorly on God, like the kid running through the grocery store breaking things.  Follow the rules so God will be praised.

So, we can’t fault the pharisees for their criticism.  They are honestly trying to do the right thing by getting the disciples to follow the rules.  But then we have to ask, what’s going on here?  Shouldn’t Jesus be on the side of the pharisees?  Well, the first thing we have to do is talk about the theological heresy of supersessionism.  I know, you were hoping I’d get right on that.

I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating.  In a nutshell, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity replaces, or supersedes the Jewish faith . . . and, in extreme cases, replaces the Jewish people.  This is dangerous, and this is also heresy.

Hearing that first reading from Deuteronomy paired up with the gospel reading we just heard, if we’re not careful, we can misinterpret that to mean that Jesus has replaced the faith of the Jews with the faith of Christianity.  Again, as though Christianity is the one exclusive religion, and it somehow supersedes the Jewish faith.  And, in fact, this story in Mark has been used to claim exactly that.  And this is called supersessionism.

There is a way of thinking among some Christians that everything in what we call the Old Testament was just setup for the New Testament.  Like the Jewish faith was just a placeholder for the Christian faith.  Supersessionism is heresy.  And anyone who proclaims this is a heretic.  

The Jews did not stop being God’s chosen people when Jesus showed up.  For one thing, Jesus himself was a Jew, as were all twelve of the disciples.  Jesus says he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill the Law.  The Jewish faith informs our faith, and we can only understand Christianity by keeping one eye on Judaism.  One way to think of it is that Christianity is grafted onto Judaism, not the other way around.

So, all that said, here’s what I think we need to look at in this story of Jesus and the disciples and the pharisees.  The word “some.”  The pharisees noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands.  The text doesn’t say that Jesus was eating with defiled hands, or that all the disciples were eating with defiled hands.  But some of them were eating with defiled hands.

So Jesus faces a choice here.  He could throw out the disciples for not following the rules, or make them follow the rules, but he doesn’t.  Rather than make the circle smaller, Jesus makes it bigger.  Rather than judge and exclude some, Jesus brings in everyone.  The Pharisees want to keep some people out, but Jesus has the opposite message:  All are welcome.  Regardless.

Jesus is showing us a new way to live in this gospel lesson.  Expand the circle.  Welcome the outcasts.  Reach out to those in need.  Love God and love your neighbor.  And when we do those things, we show that we are God’s people too, and we also give glory to God.  May God inspire us to keep expanding the circle, until everyone knows and trusts that they are loved and accepted.


Sunday, August 22, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 13

Pentecost 13, 2021
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, for over a week now I’ve had this pain and numbness in my left arm.  Last Sunday afternoon, I went to urgent care and they did an EKG, which thankfully ruled out a heart attack.  I figured the pain would resolve itself, eventually.  By the time I got to Friday, I’d had enough pain, and went to the hospital to have it checked out.  I was compelled by the pain and really had no choice but to go.

Then after dinner that night, my family gathered around the television to watch the latest episode of Ted Lasso, which is quite possibly the best TV show ever created.  No one made us watch that show; we were compelled by our love for it, and nothing was going to stop us.

You can in these two examples the dual nature of compulsion.  Sometimes we are compelled in order to avoid suffering and pain.  And sometimes we are compelled by the sheer joy of something we love.  We usually think of compulsion as a bad thing, especially here in America.  Compulsory anything to be resisted.  But there is another side of compulsion, a side where we cannot help ourselves from doing the thing, no matter what our brain might be telling us.

For example, we think of putting a leash on a dog and compelling her to go where we want on a walk.  (Well, you know, a small dog.)  But if you shine a little red laser on the floor, your cat is literally compelled to chase it.  They cannot stop themselves from doing it.  It’s how they are wired.  Or, we think of someone being found guilty of a crime, and being compelled to go to jail.  But I am sometimes compelled to hold hands with my wife in a gazebo.  Point being, sometimes we can’t stop ourselves from doing something good, or fun, or worthy.  We are compelled.

I was reminded of that duality of compulsion when I was looking at today’s gospel text.  And we’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, I just want to let you know, that we have come to the end of the bread series.  This is the fifth and final Sunday of hearing Jesus talk about being the bread that has come down from heaven, and that the Israelites who ate manna in the desert did not live forever.  It’s been a long run, I know.  Believe me, I know!  Every three years we get this five week series, and every three years, many priests decide to take their vacation in August, rather than in July.  Because there’s only so much you can say about bread, right?  

On the other hand, since Communion is such a central and important part of our weekly liturgy, it really should be the easiest thing to preach about.  You know, in theory at least.  But if you read through the second half of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, where all these readings come from, it does get a little repetitive.  It’s almost the same reading for five weeks in a row.

Jesus keeps saying, I am the bread of life, which has come down from heaven.  Not like the manna that came down from heaven, which your ancestors ate and died.  Those who eat my flesh will live forever.  Then someone questions how this can be true, and Jesus says it again.  Then someone scoffs, and Jesus says it again.  Rinse and repeat.  And then in today’s reading, some of the disciples start grumbling and leave, and Jesus asks the 12 disciples we know if they want to leave also.

And we get that line from Peter who says, ““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.”  And that’s the side of the compulsion that I want to talk about.  Eventually.

But first, let’s go back and look at the other side of compulsion.  The time when the manna came down from heaven like Jesus keeps mentioning.  Do you remember that story?  Back in the 16th chapter of Exodus, Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt.  And they have crossed the red sea and are now wandering around in the desert, and they have run out of food.  And the people begin to “murmur” or “grumble” to Moses and Aaron that they would have been better off back in Egypt, where at least they had food to eat.

And flipping back to John’s gospel, we hear that the disciples are complaining at this hard teaching from Jesus.  But the word that gets translated as “complaining” has an intentional connection to the “grumbling” back there in the desert.  The connection gets lost, because, well, English.  But the words are intentionally similar in origin in order to make the connection:  The people in the desert have the same reaction to the promise of manna as the crowd has to the promise of Jesus being the bread from heaven.  They scoff, they grumble, they complain.  Same reaction to the promise of being fed by bread.

Which leads us back to the compulsion I mentioned.  In the case of the Israelites, following Moses around the desert, where else are they going to go?  They might complain, but they are compelled to stick with Moses.  They have no choice.  It’s not like they can walk away and join up with some other group of people wandering around the desert for 40 years.  Though they may grumble, the compulsion to remain is real.  It’s Moses or death.

Now, let’s cut away to Joshua for a moment.  In today’s first reading, we’re at the end of that 40 years of wandering.  The people have found their homeland, the promised land.  And Joshua is going to die soon, and wants the people to decide which god they will serve.  The reading as assigned jumps from verse 2 to verse 14, but that whole section that gets left out covers everything God has done for the people, from freeing them from Pharaoh, all the way to living comfortably in the land that was promised.  

And then, Joshua says, given all that stuff that God has done for you, freeing you, feeding you, saving you, housing you, you all go ahead and choose which of the available gods you think you’d like to serve.  “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  And, well, given the reminder of everything God has done for them, the people choose wisely and say, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

So, we could say this is the middle ground between the Israelites in the desert and the Disciples in Capernaum.  The Israelites in the desert with the mana were compelled out of necessity; they had no choice.  The Israelites in the Promised Land with Joshua look at the history, and then logically decide to dance with the one who brung them, or whatever that phrase is.  They are not compelled so much as making a decision based on evidence.

Now . . . let’s look at the compulsion of the disciples.  Remember, the set up is similar: Jesus says that there will be food from heaven, just like in the desert; the people listening begin to grumble, just like in the desert.  BUT, whereas the Israelites have no choice but to stick with Moses, in today’s gospel  we heard, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  The twelve did not leave, but some other disciples did.  They all had a choice whether to continue to follow him, and some decided not to.  These others were not compelled out of necessity, as the Israelites in the desert were.  They were not convinced by hearing the long history of God’s saving work to dance with the one who brung them.  They just . . . walked away.

But what about the 12?  Were they compelled by having no choice?  No.  Were they are argued into staying by hearing the history of God’s saving work?  No.  They were compelled from the other side.  Not from fear of death, but from the hope of life.  Compelled not by the law but by love.  Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  The Israelites were compelled by fear: Don’t die.  The Disciples are compelled by love:  Choose life.

We could sum up these five weeks of readings with this idea of flipping compulsion to be a good thing rather than a bad thing.  In the desert, God’s people were eating just to survive, compelled to follow Moses to stay alive, and they still died.  But because of Jesus, God’s people are eating to have life, compelled to follow Jesus out of love, and now have eternal life.  

May God continue to draw us all to follow the way that leads to life.  Not out of fear or necessity, but because we are drawn to the one who is our constant hope, the one who was compelled to lay down his life for us because of his overwhelming love for us:  Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  The one who has the words of eternal life.


Sunday, August 15, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 12

Pentecost 12, 2021
Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Every three years, in the heat of the summer, we get four weeks in a row of Jesus saying that he is the bread that has come down from heaven.  They’re all very much the same, from the 6th chapter of John’s gospel, and we’re in the third Sunday of these four weeks, so there’s one more to go.  I tell you that to reassure you that we haven’t accidentally been using the same bulletin inserts this month.  The idea that Jesus is the bread of heaven is an important concept, so it’s worth placing all this emphasis on it.  At the same time, we get some other really wonderful readings as well.  All things work together for good.  Which is good enough for me.

And speaking of good enough, back when Cristin and I first got married, I had just graduated from college with an English degree, with a writing concentration, and we were living in Massachusetts.  I had it in my mind to continue my education by getting a master’s in English and then to try to write professionally.  I was really interested in the programs offered at Boston College, in Boston . . . obviously.  But as I looked over their requirements and expectations, I realized that I did not have what it takes.  I did not apply to the Master’s program at Boston College because I decided in advance that I wasn’t good enough.

Now, you expect me to say that one day the president of Boston College called me out of the blue to ask if I was interested in working on a master’s degree, right?  But no; that’s not how this story goes.  This is a story about how I made a fairly significant life decision because I decided that I was not good enough.

We all have stories like this in our lives.  The people we never asked out on a date, the house we never made an offer on, the play we didn’t audition for, the promotion we didn’t ask about, all because we decided in advance that we were not worthy of it.  That we weren’t good enough.  Didn’t have what it takes.

We go through life assuming that in order to join something good, we have to be good.  And . . . we’re not wrong about that.  I mean I’m an okay piano player in my own style, but I’m not about to try out for the Cleveland Orchestra.  You might think I do okay as a priest, but you wouldn’t nominate me to bishop somewhere.  (I mean you’d better not nominate me to be bishop somewhere!  No thank you please.)  But the reason we decide we are not good enough to do some things is because . . . well . . . we’re not.  And society makes it very clear that we are correct about that.  But my point is, we often pre-judge ourselves and decide which things in life we are not worthy of.  

In the first reading today, from the book of Proverbs, we heard about Wisdom.  Wisdom, as a character in the scriptures, always takes she/her pronouns.  And Wisdom is also identified with the Holy Spirit.  So many theologians hold that our creeds use the wrong pronouns for the Holy Spirit . . . but that’s a topic for another day.  As we heard, Wisdom has built her house, and she has prepared a banquet.  She sends out her messengers to invite folks to the banquet.  

Now we would expect that Wisdom, being wise, would only invite the wise.  The smart, the discerning, the educated.  Birds of a feather and all that.  In order to eat with Wisdom herself, it makes sense that you would need to measure up; you’d need to be wise.  Turns out, quite the opposite!  She has her servants call out:  “‘You that are simple, turn in here!’  To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed’.”

Wisdom calls not the wise but the unwise.  Not the clever but the foolish.  Wisdom wants to share her gifts with those who need them.  And it makes sense.  How boring would it be for Wisdom to surround herself with people who already know everything?  The whole point of learning something is so that you can tell other people, right?  I learn Bach’s Prelude in C (that’s the easy one) so that I can play it for other people.  We plant flowers around the church so our neighbors can appreciate the beauty of them.  Wisdom invites people to the banquet who could benefit from a little wisdom!

We don’t hear how Wisdom’s feast ends.  We don’t know whether the simple and those without sense declined the invitation, decided not to go because they were not good enough for Wisdom—just like I decided I was not good enough for Boston College.  But if you are without sense, and Wisdom offers you a free seat at the banquet, you should accept that invitation, unworthy though you might be.  Because the very people Wisdom wants are the unwise.

And this is all related to how we view God, I think.  If I ask you to tell me some attributes about God, chances are that somewhere on your list you would include the words “good” and “holy.”  The Scriptures tell us, God is the source of all goodness.  And if God is pure goodness, then it only makes sense that we would need to be good in order to be in the presence of God.  We must be holy for God to accept us.  But the very opposite is true.

Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”  God does not need to seek out the righteous, because they are already with God.  Just as Wisdom invites the foolish, our good and holy God invites the sinners and the unrighteous.  Welcomes the outcasts, and gives companionship to the lonely.  And that is why the Church is the place for sinners.  We are in need of a physician, and that is why we are here.

Some days we will feel wise, clever, righteous, and good.  And that’s great . . . even if it isn’t true.  But on the days when you and I know and admit that we are foolish, ignorant, unrighteous, and unworthy, that is when God is calling us.  Sending out servants to announce the good news, that Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners.  And that means everyone.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”  We naturally focus on the phrase “live forever,” and we naturally want to connect this “living bread” to the Eucharistic Feast we are about to celebrate.  But for today, I want to focus on that word “whoever.”  There are no conditions on the word whoever.  It means anyone and everyone.  No one is excluded.  It is not a particular person or group; it is whoever.  It is not those who behave and lead godly lives; it is whoever.  

And that means it is every single person who ever decided in advance that they were not good enough, or worthy enough, or righteous enough.  It is the foolish and the wise, but especially the foolish.  It is the sinner and the saint, but especially the sinner.  Everyone, everywhere is included.  Even you and me.  Because Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven.  Wisdom calls out to us:  “‘You that are simple, turn in here!’  To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed’.”  Everyone is welcome.  Whoever they may be.


Sunday, August 8, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 11

Pentecost 11, 2021
1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the term “hangry.”  If not, you can probably tell that it is a portmanteau of the words hungry and angry.  The first known use of the word “hangry” was in 1918, which is interesting in and of itself.  Though it seems some folks are more susceptible to getting hangry than others, it happens to everybody, and it really comes down to glucose levels in our blood.  So, in our first reading today, we see something kind of like despair and hunger combined, but as far as I know there’s not a word for that.  I guess it would be “despungry,” or something.

As we heard, Elijah is out in the wilderness, and he says “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  There’s a lot to unpack there.  But, he falls asleep.  An angel wakes him up and says, “Get up and eat.”  And he does.  Then he falls back to sleep.  Same thing happens a second time.  And then he finds he has the strength to go 40 days to Horeb, the mount of God.  Sometimes, we find ourselves getting angry at people, or despairing over whether we can even go on with life, when what we really need is to eat something, just like Elijah.

As we begin our 19th month of this novel coronavirus pandemic, people are tired and angry.  “Tangry,” I guess.  The vaccinated are exasperated with the unvaccinated.  The unvaccinated are tired of people telling them what to do.  Everyone is tired of wearing masks and being isolated from friends and family.  And just like with that term “hangry,” our exhaustion and anger is actually hiding something else.  And the thing that is hiding is fear.

Fear is something that is hard for us to admit, especially here in America.  I mean our national anthem says right in it that we are the “home of the brave.”  Admitting we are afraid is just not our thing.  Just look at the reactions when Simone Biles dropped out of the gymnastics competition.  She was afraid she’d get hurt because of the distractions of mental health issues.  She made a brave and wise decision to drop out.  But we have this ingrained sense that Americans don’t give up, or that Americans need to ignore their fear and anxiety.  And so we respond with anger.  People who couldn’t do a single cartwheel end up judging Simone Biles and typing angry obscenities at her.

Psychologists tell us that anger is a secondary emotion.  Fear and anxiety are primal emotions, and we don’t like those.  So we wrap our primal emotions up in logical rationalizations and turn them into anger.  I’m afraid of getting or spreading the virus, so instead, I get angry at the people who won’t wear masks or get vaccinated.  Then I backfill my anger with a little dose of self-satisfied superiority.  In this way, I can turn my fear into self-righteous anger and go on about my day, all smug and angry.  Some people cover their fear by being angry at China or our Governor, and other people hide their fear behind anger at the maskless and unvaccinated.

When you dial out the lens and see what is really going on here, you can see the obvious progression from fear to anger to pride.  I’m not really angry, I’m afraid.  And I don’t want to admit that I’m angry, so I tell myself I’m the good guy in this scenario.  But underneath it all is fear.  It’s like we all need for an angel to wake us up and tell us to have something to eat.  “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  Hmmm.

And you know where you can find the food for the strength on this journey?  (You expect me to point to the bread and wine on that Altar right now, but no.)  Today, we find what we need in that reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  Think about where you are on the spectrum from fear to anger to pride, and then listen to these words . . .

Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.  . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. . . Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

That’s all really the key, isn’t it?  Put away falsehood and speak the truth, because we are in this together.  It’s okay to be angry, but don’t let the sun go down on your anger.  Choose words that build people up and give them grace.  Be kind, and forgive others as God has forgiven you.  If you and I could hold those thoughts in our minds, if we could follow Paul’s advice, it would give us all strength for the journey.  When you find yourself thinking like Elijah, saying “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors,” that’s when it is time to return to this reading.  Remember that God in Christ has forgiven you.  And then choose words that build people up; be kind and forgiving. 

We don’t know what will happen in the weeks and months ahead.  Just when we thought we’d be returning to normal, it turns out normal is eight months ago, with everything going in the wrong direction.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we can probably see that we are afraid and filled with anxiety.  And that’s okay, in fact that’s normal.  Fear and anxiety keep us safe, at least in small doses.  But no matter where we are headed, as Paul says, we are members of one another.  That has been the overriding theme these past 19 months.  We are literally all in this together.

Remember back in early 2020 when every corporation on the planet was making inspirational commercials saying, “We’re here for you,” or “We’ll get through this together?”  Although those statements were certainly true for us, those corporations were just trying to get us to buy their cars and sign up for their cell phone plans.  They stopped making those commercials after about a month.  And yet, here we all are: still afraid and anxious and not knowing what the future holds.

We’re right back there with Elijah, despairing that we are not so different from our ancestors.  But now let’s all remember to get something to eat, so that we will have strength for our journey.  And here is that nourishment:  Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.  . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. . . be kind to one another . . . forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

That is the food we need for our journey together.  All that advice from St. Paul to the Ephesians.  That’s the food we need.  And, what’s more, Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”  If we stick with Jesus, he will show us the way to the food we need for this journey.  We do not need to be afraid, because Jesus is with us.  He is the bread that has come down from heaven.  And he will show us the way.