Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon; 14 Pentecost/Proper 17B; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

After a five week detour through John and a steady diet of the bread of life, we are once again back in Mark.  So the first thing I want to do is to get us reacquainted with this gospel.  I won't ask if you remember our last gospel lesson from Mark, because that would be mean.  But I will take some time and remind you of where we are.

The last time we heard from Mark, Jesus had gone to his hometown but was unable to perform any deeds of power there.  Then he sent out the disciples on a mission of preaching and healing.  Upon their return, Jesus took them on a mini-retreat to a deserted place for debriefing.  They didn't get much chance to do that as the crowds tracked them down and Jesus then spent the rest of the day teaching them.  This led to Mark's version of the feeding of the five thousand.

Following that, Jesus and the disciples crossed over to the other side of the sea to the territory of Gennesaret where Jesus healed the sick in the market places.  Those healings in the marketplaces were significant, I said, because Jesus was giving notice that the kingdom of God did not see people as part of a transaction but as valuable people of God simply by their existence.

That brings us to today.  The Pharisees make their way to the region and marketplaces of Gennesaret to look for ways to get Jesus in trouble.  They notice that some of his disciples didn't wash their hands before eating.  This act had nothing to do with cleanliness and everything to do with ensuring one was ritually clean.  In basic terms, it was a way to make sure you didn't have cooties; because over time, a tradition built up that one could by defiled by touching unclean things.  So you would wash your hands to purify yourself ahead of time.

Episcopal theologian Elizabeth Webb pointed out something I want to focus on.  Mark says that the Pharisees do not eat anything from the market place unless they wash it.  Again, this washing had less to do with hygiene and everything to do with ritual purity.

Elizabeth Webb points out that this phrase can also be read as, “When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they purify themselves.”  This interpretation puts a different spin on the story.

In the first, people wash things from the market in order to ensure they didn't come into contact with ritually impure items.  In the second, people purify themselves after coming into contact with impure things.

The problem generated by both interpretations is addressed by Jesus.  He tells the Pharisees that they have become so concerned with purity rituals and issues that, yes, they may be clean and pure on the outside, but they are rotten on the inside.  They look good to those around them, but they are not all that pure where God is concerned.  By focusing on outward purity, by focusing on traditions people have elevated as law, they in fact miss what is really important to God – to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly before God.

The Pharisees had focused their attention on outward appearances while behaving in ways that brought shame and dishonor to God.  They were so focused on purity that they subordinated, or ignored, the ethics and morality of God.  A religion that emphasizes piety and purity over ethics and morality is what Jesus was attacking, and it is one in which I want no part.

It's easy to attack Pharisees from two thousand years away.  Sitting where we are with the hindsight we have, they are an easy target.  And speaking of target, it's not just the Pharisees of Jesus' day who act this way.

A few weeks ago, Target stores announced they would no longer label their toy and bedding sections for boys and girls, but just as “toys and bedding.”  Immediately after this announcement, Franklin Graham called for a boycott of the store by all Christians because the stores were going against divinely ordained gender assignments of God.

The hue and cry that followed from “traditional” Christians covered everything from Target going against the will of God to thinking that if boys and girls didn't know what toys and bedding were for boys or girls, they might get confused and turn gay or transgendered.  Comments against Target included:
This is covering up the fact that they are atheists.
Boys and girls are different – stop trying to push your agenda on the rest of the country.
Target management must not have had mommys or daddys.
Just another part of the feminist plan to neuter our boys.
I know a little girl who refuses to play dress up – she's going to have a rough time finding a husband.

Aside from the issue that these and all other outraged Christians think their children are going to be contaminated and confused because a store doesn't tell them what toys they should play with and and what kind of sheets they should be sleeping on, the real issue for these people is that Target doesn't follow the traditions of their elders in specifying gender labels for toys and sheets.

These people are doing exactly what the Pharisees of Jesus' day did – when they come from the marketplaces they feel the need to purify themselves because they might have been contaminated.

But here's the thing:  nothing from the outside can defile you.  You, nor your children, will become defiled or contract cooties by shopping for toys or bedding in non-gendered aisles.

What will defile you, though, is that which comes from within you.  The effort people have made to be outraged over this, and their willingness to spout off all kinds of hateful comments are what is defiling.  None of those comments or attitudes have anything to do with worshiping God, doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly or respecting the dignity of every human being.  It is those comments and attitudes that are defiling because they are based not only in hate, but they are based on the belief that ritual purity trumps the law of God.

The focus on ritual purity allows one to declare others impure.  It allows one to develop a sense that you are better than others because you follow the traditions of your elders.  It allows one to draw lines between who is in and who is out.  And if we can clearly delineate who is pure and who is impure, then we can more adamantly defend ourselves and demonize others.

This is what Jesus is attacking – the notion that piety and purity are what God is looking for.  If we focus on that, then we might be more apt to spew defiling comments upon others.  If, however, we focus on the ethics and morality of God – justice, mercy, kindness, love – then there is no way we can be defiled before God.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

It's Late August

It's late August, but this will do:

Monday, August 24, 2015


Went grocery shopping yesterday after services.  Grabbed the wrong keys and locked ourselves out of the house.

Made contact with a friend who has a key, and he unlocked the door for us while we were out.

Finished grocery shopping, loaded the car, went to leave, and the battery was dead.  Called a friend and asked them to come get our groceries and I'd deal with the car later.

One of the passersby whom Mrs. Ref asked if he had jumper cables, and had said no, came back by with a pair of jumper cables he had just purchased.

Our friend showed up just as he was coming by.  We transferred groceries.  The car started.  We got home and unloaded everything.

Called for a new battery this morning and got that fixed.

Came into the church and was just notified that our main sign had been vandalized.  Some young twerp decided it would be a good idea to spray paint over the word CHURCH.

Can I go home now????

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon; 13 Pentecost/Proper 16B; John 6:56-69

Work for the food that endures for eternal life.  Believe in him whom God has sent.  I am the bread of life.  Eat my body.  Drink my blood.

These are some of the things Jesus says to the crowd in the second third of Chapter 6.  The first third of this chapter is John's version of the feeding of the 5000.  The rest of the chapter is Jesus discussing this whole bread of life thing.  It is in this discourse where Jesus says these things that are hard.

The Lectionary has good and bad points to it.  One of the good points is that we are given a good chunk of Scripture to pull from over the course of three (or six) years.  It keeps preachers from constantly pulling from their favorite verses, and I am constantly surprised at how often the randomness of the Lectionary matches with exactly what is needed that day.  But the Lectionary also has it's problems, and one of its biggest problems is that we only hear snippets of the whole story on any given Sunday.  We need to be careful not to think that the Lectionary is a complete recitation of Scripture, and we need to understand that what might appear to be a stand-alone story is really only but one small piece of a larger story.  Today's gospel is a perfect example of this latter problem.

Today's gospel opens with, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood; the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  Almost immediately after that we hear his disciples say, “This teaching is hard, who can accept it?”

We might get the impression that what they think is hard is the idea of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood.  And, yes, that is the sort of thing that might tend to freak people out.  The comic Eddie Izzard does a very funny, and very irreverent, skit on the particular topic.  We need to remember that eating Jesus' body and drinking his blood, although hard to grasp, is not the only reason the disciples complain.

Remember, Jesus fed 5000 people and then crossed over the sea to the other side.  It was after this crossing that Jesus begins the bread of life discourse.  It was after this crossing that Jesus begins talking about the food of eternal life, him being the bread of heaven and of life, him coming from God, believing in him, and eating his body and drinking his blood.  Verse 59 states, “He said these things while teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.”

It is verse 60 that lets us know that when the disciples heard this teaching that they declared it difficult.  It wasn't just the body and blood part, it was the whole thing.  It was working for eternal food that was difficult.  It was seeing Jesus as equal to God that was difficult.  It was seeing Jesus as the way to eternal life that was difficult.  It was eating his body and drinking his blood that was difficult.  All of this was difficult to grasp, understand and believe for many of his disciples.

So they left.

When they heard things that made them uncomfortable, they left.  When they heard things that challenged them, they left.  When the mystery couldn't be explained, they left.  When they didn't get the answers they were looking for, they left.  When Jesus wouldn't play by their rules, or couldn't be boxed in, they left.

And what about you, do you also wish to go away?

We have the same choice today as those disciples had 2000 years ago.  That choice is to stay or go.  Jesus doesn't force anyone to stay.  He doesn't hold people hostage for God.  But neither does he forcibly remove people from his presence.  We make the choice to turn back because we are hearing things that we think are too hard.

Jesus asked Peter, “Do you also wish to go away?”

I find Peter's answer – 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 – to be as inspired and profound as the words Thomas will speak to Jesus after touching his hands and side.

Peter asks a good question:  To whom can we go?

Personally, I’ve been doing this too long to go anywhere else.  Leaving now would create a void in my life too big to fill.  But that can't be the only reason to stay – a fear of creating a void.  There has to be something more compelling than fear.

For me, the answer lies in Peter's statement, “You have the words of eternal life.”  The words of Jesus challenge us to break down systems of inequality and injustice.  The words of Jesus challenge us to include those whom society or religious leaders would exclude.  The words of Jesus give us hope and comfort.  The words of Jesus draw us ever deeper into the unexplainable mystery that is God.

Over the past five Sundays we have been engaged in the bread of life series.  We have heard the story of the feeding of the 5000 and the following discourse from Jesus on where/how we obtain eternal life.  We have heard the objections and the promises.

And now, as with those disciples of Jesus, we need to make a choice.  Are we willing to be challenged and shaken out of our comfort zone by the words of Jesus?  Will we believe the promises Jesus has made?  Will we believe Jesus has the words of eternal life and that he is the Holy One of God?  Or will we find these teachings to be too hard and choose to leave?

We have come to the end of the bread of life series and Jesus' question is there for us to consider:  Do you also wish to go away?

Where you go from here is up to you.


Friday, August 21, 2015

Top Not Top Ten Comment

It's Friday, that means that ESPN does their Not Top Ten plays of the week.  These are almost always humorous, tend to show the lighter side of sports, and remind us that even players at the elite levels can look like any other Saturday afternoon hack.  And, as with anything on ESPN, these are run multiple times throughout the day.

The plays today featured a video of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll getting run over by an official during a preseason game:

The first time I saw it, the announcer said, "The ref's gotta look where he's going there."  Um . . . NO!!  Pete was in the white where coaches and players are not allowed.  The second time I saw it, a different announcer said, "The Hawks need a get-back coach."  Now that's more like it.  Players and coaches DO NOT belong in the white.  If you are and we run into you, it's a foul -- 15 yards in high school.

Football season is here.  Let's remember where everybody belongs.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


I'm officiating at the funeral of a (yet another) long-time parishioner on Saturday.  She was days away from her 97th birthday and died roughly six months after her brother.  His death hit her hard, and she deteriorated quickly after that.  She had quite the life, did well financially, never wanted to be recognized for either her money or her charity and was a red-headed spitfire until the end.  I remember one visit I paid to her shortly before her death when she was giving the staff hell.  I gave her a stern talking to and that took care of that.

The funeral is Saturday.  The place will be packed and I pray I preside over the service in a way that the family finds meaningful.

May her soul, and the souls of all the departed, rest in peace.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sermon; 12 Pentecost, Proper 15B; John 6:51-58

Jesus said, “I am the living bread.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh.”

This, of course, caused some consternation among the people.  How can this be?  How can he give us his flesh to eat?  And rather than say something like, “It was a figure of speech,” Jesus goes off on a cannibalistic homily that does nothing to minimize his words and everything to cause his disciples to begin wondering if they had made the right choice.

Chapter 6 of John has generated a lot of discussion for a few thousand years as to its meaning.  Some take it to be a dissertation on faith.  Others take it to be the foundation for Holy Communion.  And there are plenty of other interpretations and meanings to be found because this is, after all, John.

I want to spend time looking at the sacramental aspect of this passage.  If we understand this passage to be a forerunner or explanation of Holy Communion – Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life; Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him – then I think we need to look at the entirety of Chapter 6.

The official position of this church is that all baptized Christians are welcome to receive Holy Communion.  It doesn't matter in what part of the Christian alphabet you were baptized – TEC, RC, UMC, PCUSA, ABC, SBC, AG, ELCA, LCMS, NALC, LCWS, AMEC – if you were baptized in water in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, you are welcome to receive Communion.  And there are no age requirements; baptized means baptized and that means eligible.

Many of us remember a time when that was not so.  Reception of Communion had to wait until one was Confirmed; which for most of us meant 13 and at which time you now understood what happens at Communion.  But be honest . . . how many of us understand exactly what happens at Communion?  The argument against this practice arose in conjunction with the development of the 1979 BCP, and it went something like this: Do we make a child understand how nutrition works before we feed her?  No, so why make people wait until Confirmation before they can receive Communion?

As with both biological and adoptive parents, we begin feeding our children as soon as we welcome them into our household.  We can worry about education later.  And, if we are looking at Chapter 6 as a whole, this is exactly how Jesus is operating.

One of the problems I have with some feeding programs, or with places such as Gospel Rescue Missions, is that they often subject their recipients to a mandatory church service of some kind before they are allowed to receive food.  These particular programs either want to drive home the fact that the food is being provided by a Christian organization, or they want to try to convert as many people as possible.

Notice, though, how Chapter 6 is laid out.  Jesus talks a lot about the bread of life.  He tells people to work for the food that endures for eternal life.  He basically equates himself to God.  And today he explicitly tells people they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life.  He is instructing the people that it is only through him that eternal life can be granted.
But this may be the most important thing to notice about this chapter: all of that talk about the bread of life, eternal life, equating himself to God and eating his body and drinking his blood all comes after they have been fed.  Jesus doesn't make the crowd sit through a long dissertation about God, or on the meaning of what they are about to receive.  The crowd gathers, food is found, people are fed.

In other words, feeding takes precedence over instruction.

Another thing to notice is that Jesus doesn't really instruct the people.  He doesn't give a presentation on how to be part of his movement.  He doesn't even ask people to come to understand the meaning of his body and blood.  What Jesus does is to make this less of an instruction manual that people need to understand, and more of a series of promises in which he invites people to believe.

I will give you the food that endures for eternal life.  Do you believe me?
If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have eternal life.  Do you believe me?

As I said, the official position of this church is that all baptized Christians are welcome to receive Holy Communion.  Through baptism one is recognized as a member of the household of God.

What this means, of course, is that if you are not baptized you are not canonically eligible to receive Communion.  It means that you need to express an interest in baptism and then, as the bulletin says, speak with me after the service about being baptized into the community of faith.  In other words, we need to have a conversation and instruction about this whole baptismal thing before you are eligible to receive that holy food.  Which, by the way, is totally not how Jesus did it.

Feed the people, then we talk.

Aside from having a theological conversation about whether or not this church should continue to restrict Holy Communion to baptized Christians, this should get us thinking about the holy mystery that is the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

Eat my body.  Drink my blood.  Believe in the promise that this meal provides the food that endures for eternal life.  By partaking of this meal, by receiving the bread and wine that is body and blood, by receiving holy food, we are participating in the promise Jesus made of being with us always.  Those who eat his body and drink his blood abide in him, and he in them.

Eat my body.  Drink my blood.  It's not cannibalism.  It's a promise that, for as long as we turn to Jesus for nourishment, he will abide in us and we in him.  And in that act we will live forever.

The challenge for us, as it was for Jesus and his disciples, is letting people know this is a good thing.