As we’ve commented, this fall is a time when our lectionary readings reveal Jesus showing himself at his most challenging. Just to remind you where we’ve come from, before we talk about where we are:
Last week Jesus left his disciples “exceedingly astonished” by teaching that not even a moral pillar of society, a man who had it all economically, socially, and spiritually, had the slightest chance at entering the life of God without giving up reliance on his skills and achievements and relying on Jesus instead. When the man walked out on that offer, the disciples were not happy. (I mean, he could have been a potential big donor. An important supporter of the ministry. And Jesus won’t compromise the message to keep him happy.)
You’ll remember that Jesus commented to the disciples, “It’s so hard for people like that to enter the Kingdom.” And at this point they can’t contain themselves: “If not him, Jesus, who?” And Jesus, true to form, cheerfully replies, “Nobody. Nobody can enter the Kingdom. It’s impossible. Except with God.” What can you say? He is so confident in his Father that he just has no fear.
So as we come in today, the disciples have been trying to process this event. And their conversation eventually morphs into a hypothesis. It’s the kind of hypothesis you come up with when you try to fit Jesus and his message into your preconceptions about religion.
So here’s their hypothesis: all this security that makes Jesus so completely confident, all these resources he acts like he has, and that he seems to think so outweigh money and achievement that you could drop those in a second if you only understood -- maybe all those riches and power and security are going to show up. Maybe Jesus is going to be crowned King, and reign in glory, and they’ll be the Cabinet. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen.
And so two members of his inner circle, James and John, want to call the best seats. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now there is going to be glory. There are going to be infinite resources revealed. But it’s not going to happen in a way that fits their preconceptions about religion. The Son of Man is going to be glorified, all right, but glorified by being lifted up on a Cross, by showing the lengths to which God will go to give himself to us. Glorified not by collecting glory, but by giving it away, liquidating his assets and pouring them out over us in love.
Not exactly what James and John were thinking of. But you can’t blame them; we all think like that without God’s help. As Jesus says it’s impossible to enter the Kingdom for us. We have to let God bring us in. Without God, we all turn everything back to how it affects us, what we think we and others deserve, how we will benefit. We think that’s normal, because we think sin is normal. But as I said a couple weeks ago, Jesus knows what’s actually normal, what God originally intended.
Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ request is gentle, but also comical in its level of understatement: “You do not know what you are asking.” They don’t know that the way they interpret Jesus, according to their preconceptions about improving yourself and managing your own resources – all of that comes from being trapped within the worldly system that Jesus came to save us from. And so Jesus tries to tell them. He tries to help them imagine how it is, in God’s system, God’s kingdom, which, remember, he has already launched and is already available.
Jesus tries to explain, as he does over and over, that the way God does things isn’t the way this fallen world does things. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. He came to give his life away, a ransom for many.” With God, the primal movement is not inward, it’s outward. It’s not about what comes to me, but about what I let go. It’s not about who respects me, but about giving honor and opportunity to others. It’s not about safeguarding our blessings, but about being a blessing to others.
This principle is all through the Bible, and it baffles me how often churches act as if it weren’t. In so many churches you would swear someone just cut all those pages out of the book. In so many churches the attitude is like, yes, that’s what’s in the Prayer Book and the Hymnal and the Bible, but once we walk out of Mass into the parish hall – never mind walking out of the parish hall into the parking lot – once we leave the service we are going to act as if God were very limited in his abilities and very narrow in his priorities, and we need to ration our resources and make sure we don’t get too involved, because apparently the Holy Spirit has been kidnapped and tied up in a closet somewhere.
But all those pages are in the Bible, and God knows what he’s doing with this infinite blessing stuff, and the most heartstoppingly beautiful example of that is Jesus. The way he emptied himself on the Cross for us is so beautiful that when we really see it, when it really connects, it opens up the opportunity to feel all those other things that have taken over our priorities being drained of the power we mistakenly thought they had. We thought we needed them, but that was just the way the world did things. The way God does things is different. Acclaim is just acclaim. Time is just time. Money is just money. In Christ, we can have them, or let them go. He is enough for us.
You don’t have to believe that, of course. Christianity is hard to believe. And the Episcopal church is, thank God, a safe place for people who aren’t yet ready to believe it, a safe place to ask questions and dip your toes in the water of Christian life. But it’s not meant to be a place that encourages you to stay in the shallows forever and never go past your toes, either. It’s meant to help you learn to swim. God the Holy Trinity is an infinite ocean of joy and creativity and love and the sooner you strike out into the depths the better your life will be. And the better the lives of others will be, because as you become secure in God’s blessing he will be able to use you to bless others.
God is always seeking to give more and more out of his infinite resources -- even to us Episcopalians, who so often hold back, lingering right on the shoreline in case some better option comes along. Who so often can’t be bothered to realize how much God is offering us because we’re far more motivated by trying to hold on to what we’ve got.
But when we do open our hands, when we do even start to look at Jesus and let go of trying to deserve and control and plan, when we swim instead of backing away from the beautiful big waves, we’re filled with blessing. And the same blessing spills out from us, and we say “Is that how Christianity works? Why did I miss this for so long?”
You don’t have to believe that. But I want to tell you, it’s worth a try.
saw in the News-Gazette recently that a local grocery chain is cutting back its hours because of staffing problems. That reality of “this is the best we can do under the circumstances” has really become part of life, hasn’t it? The MTD is having to make all kinds of service reductions, too. And you have that sentence we’re all used to now: There are supply chain issues. These have become the routine experiences of life post-Covid, where we all regularly accept that this is the best everyone can do under the circumstances.
The theological equivalent of “the best we can do under the circumstances,” probably, is something we’ve all been living longer than any of us can remember -- existence in a fallen world. That term, fallen, comes from the Christian claim that the world no longer works the way God intended it to. That nature, relationships, systems, everything around us and within us, has been distorted by what we Christians call the Fall. But in this case, we’ve gotten so used to the distortion we often treat it as normal. But it isn’t, or at least Christians believe it isn’t.
However you read the picturesque story about Adam and Eve itself, our narrative as Christians claims that the universe that originated from God mirrored his perfect justice and love. It was a world in which for example there was no racism, no sexism, no disease or decay, no lies or betrayals. That’s what originated from God. But people said “no. We don’t trust you, God. We know better than you what’s good for us.” And thus began the decay of God’s universe in favor of a universe shot through with human self-centeredness. From that rupture in love, that rupture in trust, the ripples of distortion spread. And in Christian theology, we call that the Fall.
So living in this fallen world means that we are often faced with the best everyone can do under the circumstances. The things we deal with in life often express not God’s full dream for us, not his ultimate purpose for society, not his vision of what’s normal, but the best everyone can manage amidst the abnormal distortions human sin has caused. I mean, God sees sin as abnormal, whereas we see it as normal. No wonder we miss the point.
There’s an interesting instance of that in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees come with one of their attempts to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him. In this question, they are referring to an existing political controversy about King Herod’s family, but they frame it abstractly, asking whether a man can divorce his wife. Jesus starts by referring them back to the law of Moses, one of the ways God helped his people deal with the reality of a fallen world before Jesus came. What did the law of Moses say, Jesus asks.
It actually doesn’t directly say anything, but there is one passage, Deuteronomy 24, which is about remarriage after divorce. It just assumes, given the circumstances of a fallen world, that there are going to be divorces. That passage, which the Pharisees turn to because they have nowhere else to turn, takes for granted that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, that sending away a spouse is common and unremarkable, and takes for granted that the husband should write up a document testifying to the divorce for the wife’s protection.
That’s not a Biblical command, but this passage assumes that’s how it works when divorces happen. Given the circumstances of a patriarchy. Given the circumstances of broken relationships. Given the circumstances of a subsistence economy for most people. Given the circumstances, that’s the best Deuteronomy can do right now – at least provide for the poor woman economically. Our culture also assumes that there are going to be divorces in a fallen world, but we have extremely different ideas about what the process should look like. And when Jesus pushes them, the Pharisees go to that passage because they have nowhere else to go.
But the astonishing thing about Jesus is that he has somewhere else to go. He goes not to the Law that addresses life after the Fall, not to the sad realities of a broken world, but back before all that. Because he knows what God’s normal is, what the world is like without sin and shame. Yes, he says, "Moses wrote you that law because of the hardness of your hearts. To help you manage the circumstances of a fallen world. But I can let you in on my experience, the experience of a world that isn’t fallen." Jesus says to them and us, I have a cure for hardness of heart. I have a cure for the Fall.
It’s just audacious. But it’s why he came. Jesus didn’t come to assist us in muddling through as we make the best of a fallen world. Having him in your life does help with that! But God came to earth in person not to improve our muddling somewhat, but to cure the Fall. Jesus’ role is to open the door for us to share with him in living God’s original intention. To open the door to the new creation, which begins the moment he enters the world and will continue until the great last day when God’s designs are perfectly realized and the universe is set right.
So Jesus just changes the terms of the discussion. He does it here, he does it all over the place. Jesus repeatedly says things that clearly set a stricter standard than the Law. Why does he do that? Because he’s rooting his answer in God’s vision before the Fall, before sin entered the world. When things were normal. Jesus gives these shocking answers to underline the radical change he has made in the order of the universe. To underline that there is a new reality at hand, the kingdom of God, which he has launched, which makes it possible to be set free from bondage to sin. To be set free to experience something of what God intended from the beginning.
Jesus knows what it would be like if God’s infinite compassion and justice were fully manifest in every situation. Jesus knows what normal was before the Fall, what normal will be when God is all in all, and he won’t shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, given the circumstances, what do you expect. Just try and make do the best you can.” He won’t conceal from us what God’s intentions for wholeness are. He won’t dumb it down.
Moses wrote this law for you, Jesus says, because of the hardness of your hearts. But Jesus can cure hardness of heart. Jesus can bring into your life and mine experiences of new creation, just as if sin had never wreaked havoc among us. We’ve reminded ourselves over and over at Emmanuel that this new creation, launched by Jesus when he came, will run along parallel to the old creation until the end of time, when God will be all in all. But it is possible now for us to throw our arms open and welcome moments of joy and healing that give genuine tastes of the new creation.
I’ve talked often here about how I’ve experienced new creation and a cure for my hardness of heart around money since I threw my arms open at age 23 and took the risk of trusting God that he meant what he said about tithing. You’ve heard me say there is nothing, ever, that could make Mark and me stop giving away at least 10% of what we receive. For us, that’s just normal now. And doing so has proved to us that the new creation is happening, and when you take the risk of saying yes to it, you have joy. It also happens that after 35 years, a whole lot of other signs of new creation and moments of joy have been paid for in part by our giving, but that comes second for us. Trusting enough to take a step into God’s world where generosity is normal comes first.
Whenever we send out letters and ask our members to estimate what you will give to Emmanuel in the coming year, as we’ve done this week, I pray that some of you will actually change the terms of the discussion in your heads, just as Jesus does to the Pharisees today. Like Jesus’ words about divorce, his words about money are not meant to make life harder for us as we try to muddle through under the circumstances, but to remind us how beautiful and freeing and desirable God’s original intentions are. Jesus changes the terms of the discussion to help us notice that now that he has come, we have another alternative. We could trust God. We could be lavishly loving. We could throw our arms open to new creation.
Now, I’m not naïve. I know that many, many Christians do not consider changing the terms of the discussion when they start filling out their pledge cards. I know the boring, post-Fall, broken-world questions all too well: “What’s the best I can do given the circumstances?” “What did we pledge last year?” “What’s a nice round figure?” There’s nothing to stop us from thinking about giving that way. Now that Jesus has come, though, we do have another alternative.
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.” There is absolutely no doubt about it in the psalmist’s mind: God’s word is good. It is beautiful. It is life giving. It is more to be desired than gold and sweeter also than honey.
Which is a totally understandable thing to say and even believe when you lived 600 years before Jesus said these ominous words in our Gospel lesson this morning:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two and to be thrown into hell, where . . . the fire is never quenched.”
How refreshed and restored do you feel after hearing that?
Jesus’ words are not exactly what we’d call good news — because we have a feeling that his warning is meant for us.
All we have to do is take a quick look at our hands and our feet and ask what we’ve been doing with them or where we’ve been going with them. All we have to do is think of what we’ve seen, what we haven’t looked away from, that is not noble or true or pleasing to God. We have all stumbled, and even with the most surface-level evaluation, we know that Jesus’ words implicate us.
But what do we do with that? Jesus’ words are hard. We hear “cut off your foot, chop off your hand, pluck out your eye,” and we quite understandably freeze up, wondering if our Savior could possibly be serious, or if he was just having a really bad day or playing a really bad joke.
The writer of Proverbs famously said, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy,” which is a poetic way of saying that it is actually better for us to be rebuked by someone we love than commended by someone who doesn’t care for us at all. And that’s true because the person who loves us wants what’s best for us, wants us to thrive, and they want this so much that they will sometimes risk hurting us so that we are saved from more and worse pain further on down the road.
I bring this up because I think it’s part of what’s going on in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus knows, just as we all do, that we are imperfect people, unable to keep our eyes fixed on God because we keep getting distracted by ourselves. We keep wandering off on wayward feet. We keep reaching out for what we should not have. Jesus knows that our situation is so dire that even if we were to cut off our hands and our feet and pluck out both eyes, we would still be unable to stand in God’s presence — because we are sinful, and we cannot save ourselves. That is not a truth we like to hear. Not a reality we want to deal with. But it is what Jesus tells us today.
And that testimony does revive the soul and make wise the simple because “by them is thy servant warned . . . . Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”
When Jesus came to earth to save us, he didn’t come to inflict strange and painful religious ceremonies on us. He didn’t come to command us to do violence to ourselves and then just move on, as though that would overcome our separation from God. What he did come to do and what he asks of us today and every day is much more serious than losing an eye or a hand or a foot. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says, “for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” The stakes are high, so Jesus asks for everything — but only because he wants to give us everything in return.
In a few moments we will hear, “This is my body, broken for you.” And that is the truth to which our Gospel lesson ultimately points us. God so loved the world — God so loved you and me — that he sent his son into our world of sin and violence and sickness and death, so that his back might be whipped, his hands pierced, and his side broken open for us. Only then, only through the broken body of God himself, are we saved. Only then are we counted blameless and innocent of great transgression. Only then are we welcomed into a future more beautiful and safe and holy than we could ever imagine.
This is the hope we have. The hope that rests not on our efforts but on the Cross of Christ. And we can truly and with our whole hearts say that it is more to “be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” AMEN.
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
We’ve looked quite a bit at James this month, one of the New Testament letters, which we’ll finish reading at Mass next week. As both Deacon Chris and Marisa have mentioned, this letter focuses on behavior – how those of us who belong to Christ live out that belonging. So James doesn’t really address the baseline question of what makes somebody a Christian; he’s focused on the next step, what it looks like when Christians express the identity God has given us.
Luke Timothy Johnson, a NT scholar from Emory University, points out that throughout his letter, James speaks about two measures for human behavior. How do we measure what’s good and admirable? How do we decide what’s the best way to live? James teaches that either we can measure this by God, our creator and source, or we can measure it by the way human priorities, oriented around us, measure things. Throughout the NT, and here in James, that second attitude is often called “the world,” that whole bundle of human priorities independent of God -- “what looks worth it to me by my own lights, what everyone else is doing, what just feels normal.”
When you hear the word “world” in the NT, that’s usually what it means, which is worth remembering because by “world” we often mean the whole planet or the beauty of nature or something positive. So when James says “friendship with the world is enmity with Christ,” or the apostle John says “do not love the world,” they don’t mean Christians shouldn’t value natural beauty or enjoy life. They mean we shouldn’t love approaching existence as if we were on our own to get what we want out of life.
So there are these two measures, in James: we measure what’s worth doing by God, our creator and owner, or we measure what’s worth doing by us. And where James is especially interested in making inroads, is in waking up people who think of themselves as accepting God but are actually measuring what’s good and helpful and valuable by themselves, by the values of the world. James calls this “double-mindedness.” He says that we can either be a friend of the world, or a friend of God. But we can’t live by two measures at once.
What you measure by, what counts for you as a good way to live, affects your behavior in all kinds of ways. So we’ve already heard James address over these past few weeks what it looks like when you use God to measure how you respond to economic inequity, as well as when you use God to measure how you respond to the way language can be a tool for violence and exclusion. In the whole first section of today’s reading he talks about how disputes and compromises are handled when you use God as your measure.
In all of those areas – dealing with economic disparities, with our speech, with conflicts -- measuring the best way to live by God produces very different results than measuring the best way to live by us, by the world. In fact those two measures produce different results in every single thing we do all day. And James is trying to tell his readers: OK, we’re sitting in church right now, but in our routine assumptions, what measure of value are we actually going by? What ideas of the best way to live are we actually putting into practice? Because that will tell you whether you are living as a friend of the world, as he calls it, or a friend of God. Far more than what you say, what priorities you put into practice tell you who you really are.
James applies this today in a really subtle way to prayer, and I want us to try and notice how his flow of thought works here. First he talks about cravings that we have and how we respond to them. Just these baseline, I want it experiences, whether big or small. This could be anything at all. You’re at an event and someone is being made a fuss over and you think, how come I’m not getting any credit? I work way harder than her. Or my flight is delayed and we have to sit on the tarmac for an hour. Or I went to my lunch restaurant and they didn’t have the tuna salad today and I only went because I wanted the tuna salad. Our lives are full of experiences where our cravings get denied. Where we don’t get what we prefer.
And James uses this very common experience to ask us to notice what measure we use in prayer. Up till now he’s talked about daily life, now he talks about prayer. You do not have, because you do not ask, he says. In other words, whatever craving is getting frustrated right now, have you prayed about it? If you’re measuring the way you live by you, not by God, will you think to pray in situations that don’t seem quote, religious, unquote? Probably not.
You know, you can pray in absolutely every situation. On the tarmac. At lunch. God is present in every millisecond, relating to you, loving you, closer than your own breath. There is no situation in which it isn’t possible to measure by God. Now, probably only the greatest saints live minute to minute with that perspective. But it’s always possible.
So James first says: you’re measuring by yourself, so you do not ask. And then he goes even further: You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. When someone’s measuring by themselves, even if they do pray, they’ll tend still to pray with that self focus. They will tend to measure what’s important by themselves, even in prayer. It’s such a subtle point James is making. That’s what he means by “you ask wrongly.” If someone is measuring what’s valuable by themself, their prayer will be mostly trying to recruit God for their agenda, to treat him as a resource for satisfying cravings.
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
So if we are willing to be as subtle and self-aware as James this morning, we can look at our prayer lives. Are we mostly praying when we have a want or a craving? Are we praying in order to get things? Or are we praying, if you will, in order to get God? In order to draw near to God and allow him to draw near to us? When you’re a friend of the world, in James’ language, you’ll talk to God about the world.
When you’re a friend of God, you’ll naturally start to talk to God about God. To thank and adore him for who he is. To just sit in his presence in silence and soak up his love. To let yourself steep in the words of Scripture so that your perspective can get bigger. To receive his limitless forgiveness. Just to enjoy him. Our Presbyterian friends say in their Westminster catechism, that the chief point of being a human being is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Praying not to get things, but to get more of God, to enjoy God, to draw near to God, to allow God to draw near to you. And those of you who know what I’m talking about know that what often happens is that we start our prayer with self, and then God widens us out to enjoying him and seeing things from a broader perspective. We start with the worldly concern we have: “God I’m so angry about this flight being late,” and then as that prayer goes on he opens everything up for us, widens our vision, and changes our reactions. We see this all the time in the Psalms; today’s is a good example though we don’t have time even to look at it. It alternates prayer based on that human measure, that self-preoccupation, with God widening out the preoccupations and pouring down his love and his spaciousness.
If you think you might be stuck in that human measure, if you talk to God mostly about things and mostly when you want something, rather than spending time routinely enjoying him and letting him broaden your mind, I’m going to suggest you use today’s collect as an initial little bit of leverage to begin changing that. Take the bulletin home, or use the Forward Movement app or your Book of Common Prayer, and spend 10 or 15 minutes in the presence of God with this week’s collect. You do not have because you do not ask. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
It boasts of great things because the words that cross our lips can never be taken back — though we don’t often think of them that way. We’re so used to the constant stream of information and perpetual noise of TV and social media that when we speak we imagine the words disappearing, as short-lived as our attention spans. The sarcastic comment toward our loved ones may be bad but it doesn’t really have a lasting impact. The muttered insult at people who cut us off in traffic won’t really change anyone or anything. But the reality is that nothing we say will truly go unheard. Our words make up our reality. They linger on in our memory. They make us who we are and lead us toward who we will be.
But we don’t often speak as though that is the truth. Words have a power we don’t fully understand, a power that St. James refuses to downplay: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. . . . For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
James makes such an impassioned case against the human tongue because he knows that our words matter more, much more, than we think they do. Listen to what the Proverbs say:
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” and
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
Our words matter. But it’s not only in the here and now that they weigh on our lives and the lives of others. We are told in Scripture that one day we will give an account for our words. For all of them. Jesus said that on the day of judgment we will stand before God himself, and he will weigh everything we have ever said: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If we think about that for a second, it should scare us. Every careless word we utter, every backhanded complement, every passive aggressive aside — we will give an account for it.
Where, then, does that leave us? If every word we say will be examined before God’s judgment seat, then what hope do we have that mercy awaits us?
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ . . . Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another . . . . 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, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
The Father has spoken one Word, the Word who took on flesh. The Word who has come to us full of grace and truth. This Word is Jesus Christ, the one through whom all things were made and through whom all things will be redeemed. He is the certain hope that we have because he offered himself up for us, that we might become one with God himself, his words becoming our words, his grace our grace.
It is only through Christ, living in us and among us today, that we can speak grace and truth to one another. Our human hearts are hard, quick to judge and quick to hate; yet Jesus remains with us, never leaving nor forsaking us, leading us on to better things. And as we travel with him, as we walk his road, we are changed. Christ Jesus shines into our hearts and our minds and our voices, revealing the depth behind every kind word, the consolation behind every sorrow. His story becomes our story, his life our life. As St. James says, “Draw near to him and he will draw near to you. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” May these words sustain us today, tomorrow, and in the coming weeks. AMEN.
So the Pharisees and the scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Where does evil come from? Surely the most popular answer to that is “over there.” Point over there, name the evil, condemn it, and separate yourself from it. The Pharisees Jesus jousts with today are far from the only human beings that have dealt with evil like that. In fact, it’s interesting how our postmodern culture has enthusiastically, though I’m sure unwittingly, adopted one of the principles at the heart of the Pharisee movement: purity means overtly signaling your distance from evil. "It’s over there; I condemn it; see how pure I am." Whether you signal your distance from evil by what you post on Twitter, or signal it by how visibly you observe the purity rules of a religion, trying to set yourself apart from the bad guys and make clear your own virtue is one of the most common human behaviors. Where does evil come from? The easiest answer may be “over there,” but Jesus’ answer is “in here.”
Now the idea that it’s not just some hearts over there, but every human heart, that harbors and expresses evil intentions is not something Jesus made up on his own: it is the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures which he grounds himself in. And it is the witness of the New Testament Scriptures that the Holy Spirit will inspire after his death and resurrection. And it is the witness of all the saints of the church over the past 2000 years, who came to know the depths of their own fickle hearts best of any of us. Mainstream Christian testimony is unanimous: Evil is not over there; it’s pervasive, including in here.
This is, of course, one of the parts of the Christian account of human nature that has now been the most resoundingly rejected in Western culture. Not that the Pharisees liked it – in fact, the disciples didn’t like it either. They push back against Jesus in this chapter too, and he retorts, “Are you also without understanding?” But I think we in the contemporary West might like this teaching least of anybody.
What passes for spirituality among us now teaches that everyone has a true inner self that is beautiful and sacred, and that the more we discover and express that self, the better and more spiritually authentic we and the world will be. But at the same time – this is a logical contradiction, of course, but people don’t seem bothered by that -- it also says that when certain other people express their inner selves, their speech and their deeds are evil, and it is our sacred duty to exclude and erase and shame those people, and to be seen doing so, because after what they did, you know, they are just beyond redemption.
Now at those two words, anybody who takes Jesus seriously ought to be able to recognize a problem. When we hear a human being characterized as beyond redemption, something ought to kick in and we ought to say, “Hey, wait a minute. ‘There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy like the wideness of the sea. There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed.’”
Christians know, or at least should, that God’s plentiful redemption is enough for you, and for me, and for everyone. We can’t declare him unable to redeem anybody. But in order to make sense of that offer of plentiful redemption and mercy, and draw on it in your behavior towards others, we need to take time to internalize what Jesus says about people, as actually applying to us. What Jesus says about the human heart as applying to your heart.
Alan Jacobs has written, and I think it’s true: “When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is… vindictiveness.”
What is it in the Christian account that can set us free from moralism and vindictiveness, and give us this all-important means of offering and receiving forgiveness? The answer is Redemption. The plentiful, final and full redemption you and I and the whole human race need has been provided for by Jesus through his Cross and Resurrection. It’s not up to us. You may not believe that yet, or not be sure if you believe it, and that’s fine, but I wonder if you might try with me to imagine how it works.
After the Cross, we now know that a justice greater than we can imagine will be done on the last day, and that it will perfectly satisfy both God, and our own need to see things made right. We now know that death and evil have lost any ultimate power over us and the universe. We now know that our partial and shortsighted efforts at improving the world will be swept up by God in a great cosmic rectification of all things, in the new heavens and the new earth. And we also know that this redemption works not just at that cosmic level, but that it’s available to deal with even the smallest misdeeds in your life and mine.
And where Jesus is so psychologically brilliant in this chapter is in asking us to start grasping his kind of redemption right there. He knows, probably, that starting anywhere external will feed all our worst tendencies. He doesn’t ask us to start grasping how God makes things right by trying to improve or sanction others. He doesn’t ask us to start grasping how God makes things right by thinking in terms of global solutions or policy statements. He asks us to start grasping how God makes things right, how vast and full the redemption he offers on the Cross is, by noticing our own need of it. By letting him do it for us.
Not to stop there. His redemption is so big you can’t stop it anywhere. He asks us not to stop with our own heart, but to start with our own heart. Because however bad we think those evil people over there are, however much they merit being erased and shamed, if we start trying to figure out how things get made right by looking at them, that will feed our self-righteousness and our moralism and our natural tendency to exclude. Self-righteousness and moralism and exclusion are all things Jesus came to save us from!
So if we want to understand redemption Jesus style, Scripture style, Christian style, we start with ourselves. We start with the realization that in making things right God reaches all the way down. Redemption reaches to the bone, to the tiniest flaws and the most intimate hurts. Redemption both rectifies in God’s sight, and starts healing in our own experience, everything that is broken in us. God’s loving justice addresses even the tiniest cracks.
So, for example, your hateful little remark about people who won’t get vaccinated, or about people who want to require the vaccine -- or whatever it is, it could be any little sin – up against the perfect beauty and the perfect love and the perfect holiness of God, that flare of anger, that little crack, is something he loves you enough to want to make right. Right there, God wants to offer forgiveness and redemption. And as you begin to look at your little cracks -- or your big ones, the ones that still keep you up at night – as you look at those up against the perfect beauty and the perfect love and the perfect holiness of God, you start to internalize that if we are to erase and shame those who have fallen short of that perfect beauty and perfect love and perfect holiness, we will erase and shame everyone. Start with me.
I am beyond redemption. And yet Jesus redeemed me, because that is who God is. This is the scope of the love we’re talking about, and this is the place from where we just might be able to look outwards without moralism and without vindictiveness. Examining your own conscience brings it home: We’re all beyond redemption, and yet Jesus still redeems.
Once you grasp it, it seems too good to be true. But it is true. Yes, as Jesus teaches, evil is not just over there, in someone else. It is from within, from the human heart, including yours and mine, that evil intentions come. And there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty. There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed. Even for those of us – all of us – who without Jesus are beyond redemption. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
Every day at around 3 o’clock the excitement begins to build: Within an hour or two hours or, if I’m lucky, in about 15 minutes, the mailman will arrive. I have no way of knowing what will be in his bag or if he’ll even come to our house — but that doesn’t matter. My ear is cocked for the sound of approaching footsteps, for the beep of a scanner. I’m imagining the secret surprises and forgotten treasures that will be left in my mailbox. And as I see our postman approach, I can’t help but burst out in the Mail Song from Blue’s Clues.
I’ve always loved getting mail — but nowadays, it means a little more to me because a card or a new book or even a package of cleaning supplies provides that spark of happiness I crave in this seemingly endless pandemic. Getting something in the mail reminds me that I am not alone, that I am still very much alive despite the fact that death could be lingering around the next corner.
Which is kind of a melodramatic thing to say. But if you take a moment to reflect, you’ll find that we’ve all adopted those kinds of habits and that way of thinking. After a year-and-a-half of COVID-19, a year-and-a-half marked by hundreds of thousands of deaths, confused messaging, and little steps forward followed by big steps back, we are all scrambling to find the things that will distract us or give us some kind of relief from the invisible war we can’t escape.
But as I am reminded every day the mailman skips our house, nothing we do or buy can keep the anxiety out forever. Try as we might, we can’t ignore that the world is not okay, that things are not alright, that what we thought would give us life simply doesn’t.
“Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus tells us, “but [work] for the food that endures to eternal life.” Something better, something more nourishing and sustaining awaits us here and now in the midst of chaos and fear. We need only reach out and take it.
After feeding the 5,000 on a mountainside and after attempting to outrun them without success, Jesus spends longer than we might think possible talking about a very different kind of meal than the one he had just provided. We’ve spent a month thinking about it with help from the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who reminds us that the bread Jesus offers for us to eat is not like anything anyone might encounter at family dinner or out at a restaurant. It is not even like the bread that fed the Israelites in the desert. It is me, Jesus says, my body, my flesh. “I am the bread of life. . . . If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This is a hard saying, one that caused many of Jesus’ disciples to leave right then and there because for all they knew Jesus was describing some kind of cannibalism. What he was really talking about, though, was even more incredible, more offensive. After all the years of humankind trying and failing to live with a holy God, fellowship with him — with life eternal — was in reach. All that was needed was the belief that what Jesus said was true. All that was needed was that his disciples should eat of his flesh and drink of his blood.
It’s really no wonder they were frustrated enough to leave. In the midst of suffering, no one wants a saying that sets their teeth on edge. And we are no different. Think about it: What help is Jesus’ mysterious sayings when the world is burning around us? We want immediate gratification. We want immediate escape. And when Jesus doesn’t promise us that, we go looking for something that will.
“After hearing Jesus’ message, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”
Try as we might to find something that will rescue us from the anxiety and sorrow of the past 18 months, none of it will ultimately satisfy. Because life, the life that knows no end and no change, that cannot be erased by disease or hate or injustice, can only come from God himself, from Jesus Christ our Lord. When Jesus said on the night he was betrayed, “This is my body, this is my blood,” he was making a promise — that every single time we come to the Table he is there for us.
And that is the truth we cling to through whatever comes tomorrow or the day after. The bread we eat will not crumble. It will not go to waste. It is a meal that becomes a part of us. It is the way Christ becomes a part of us, transforming our souls and our bodies, our whole being into vessels of his mercy, into a temple more beautiful than Solomon’s.
As we hold Jesus in our hands, as we feed on him with faith and thanksgiving, we are bringing the Savior of the World into the places of our deepest fears and most secret hopes, the place where he can and will change us. This is the hope we have, the shield between us and the world, that whatever Jesus touches, he will redeem. AMEN.
Wisdom has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She calls from the highest places in the town, "You that are simple, turn in here! Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity and live."
We’ll be looking today at this invitation from the figure the Bible calls Wisdom, and at the similar but different invitation from Jesus. This is the third in a series of sermons using our summer book by Henri Nouwen, and before we start talking about invitation, let me remind you that after Mass there’s a discussion of the book over in the education area. We’ll do that again next week as well. But for the moment let’s look at this Proverbs lesson about Wisdom.
Wisdom, in the Old Testament, develops into a personified figure, a woman who is an image for aspects of God. The early Christians quickly realized that what the Bible said about Lady Wisdom was the same thing they were discovering to be true about Jesus, and so both St. Paul and St. Matthew use the term Wisdom in describing him: Christ the Wisdom of God, Paul says.
Now in this Proverbs reading, notice how proactive Lady Wisdom is. All the preparation for the meal is hers. She is the hostess. She is searching for guests. She is calling out to us to come to the table. It’s all her. And this is true: God’s invitation to come to the Table is his to give. Jesus just takes that for granted as he describes himself in today’s reading from John. What we see, though, is that while that invitation from Wisdom was good and gracious, what Jesus is inviting us into goes much further. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…. Just as I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate.
Isn’t that interesting, that phrase: not like that which your ancestors ate. Why does he mention that? Well, look at what Jesus says about what it does to us not just to show up at the Table, but to internalize his presence, to consume his reality: if we eat him, he says, we live because of him, we abide in him, we feed on him. And Nouwen points out that this piece of the Eucharistic experience actually requires an invitation from us. We think of Jesus proactively inviting us to his table, like Wisdom did, and offering us an encounter that is joyful or comforting or whatever, but the temptation is to leave it where Proverbs left it, where our ancestors left it: God invited me. Wasn’t that lovely? Now let’s go to brunch.
Nouwen points out that after Jesus invites us to his table, it’s then on us to invite Jesus to stay with us, day by day. When we invite Jesus in, the fruits of the sacrament multiply and we begin to belong to him in daily life. But if we don’t invite Jesus to stay with us, to continue his presence throughout the next hours and days until we come to his Table again, it’s all too easy to let the extraordinary gift he gives us at Mass slip away.
And what will inevitably happen then, if we do not invite Jesus into our lives after he invites us to the Table, is that we will move on to other things to abide in. We will leave Jesus to one side until we’re in church again, and try to feed on other things, to live because of other things. You know those things as well as I do. What things other than Jesus do people live because of? What do we abide in? What do we feed on?
The obvious answers are that we try to nourish ourselves with, and live for temporary things, the things our ancestors ate: family, a comfortable life, achieving your goals, romance. Wilier answers have a veneer of spirituality: I want to feed on having a balanced life, I want to feed on being kind, I want to abide in becoming my authentic self, I want to live for the growth goals I have set.
Or what most of us fall for, the wiliest answer of all, is an unintentional mix that just happens without our even being conscious of it: "I'm going to abide in my family while being fed by my church involvement and my personal quest for authenticity, while also living for my career." Or fill in the blanks with whatever stuff you think about all day. If you have not consciously chosen not to live that way, you are probably living that way.
And this can be very deceptive, because it feeds the mind and the emotions, feeds the need for relationships and purpose and a sense of something meaningful. It keeps you busy enough that you may not even notice what’s missing. But none of that, none of it, actually feeds the thing Nouwen is talking about in his book or Jesus is talking about in this reading. And that's why Jesus says this difficult sentence, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."
Be offended by that if you like, but Jesus isn’t talking about ordinary life. You can have a wonderful, fulfilling ordinary life without eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood. Jesus is talking about something different, about the possibility to have the life of God himself in you. God designed into each of us a human capacity for this almost inconceivable gift of union with God in Christ, and that gift either is alive in us or it isn’t. Only God can cause it to be born, and only God can feed it with himself and thus keep it alive.
This is why Jesus' offering is so vital. The invitation Wisdom gives in the first reading is beautiful. She is feeding us something wholesome, nourishing, but not herself. But Jesus doesn’t hold back; he addresses our deepest possible need. He gives himself. This is just staggering generosity. He has to use these metaphors of eating, drinking, consuming him, because nothing else is intimate and concrete enough. God doesn't want just to inspire us or enhance us or comfort us. He wants union. But he will never force it on us. He respects us too much for that. He wants union, but we have to invite him.
Nouwen in his chapter "Inviting the Stranger" writes: “Our life is filled with good advice, helpful ideas, wonderful perspectives, but they are simply added to the many other ideas and perspectives… with such an information overload, even the most significant encounters can be reduced to ‘something interesting’ among many other interesting things …. Jesus is a very interesting person; his words are full of wisdom. His presence is heart-warming. But do we want him to come to know us behind the walls of our most intimate life? … The Eucharist requires this invitation. Having listened to Jesus’ word, we have to be able to say more than ‘this is interesting!’ We have to dare to say “I trust you. I entrust myself, with all my being, body, mind and soul to you… I want you to become my most intimate friend…I want to come to know you… as the companion of my soul.”
Nouwen concludes: “Jesus wants to be invited. Without an invitation, he will go on to other places… Unless we invite him, he will always remain a stranger, possibly a very attractive, intelligent stranger… but a stranger nonetheless.”
Once you’ve left Mass, do you start trying to abide in a mix of interesting things you never even really decided to live for? Are you having an interesting moment at church and then getting on with the rest of your day? What would happen if you came to this Table where Jesus himself has invited you, and then invited Jesus in turn to do what he wants with your life, to know you completely, to be a companion in every hour of your day? As Nouwen says, Jesus wants to be invited, but he does wait to be invited.
For the summer read this year Emmanuel is using Henri Nouwen’s book, “With Burning Hearts” A meditation on the Eucharistic Life. Today’s sermon is part of a 4 week series using ideas from this book as it connects with the day’s lectionary. In addition to the sermon series there will be two opportunities for you to discuss the book on August 15 and 22 following the worship service. If you have not yet read the book I encourage you to do so. Hope spills from its pages. The chapter I will be using today is titled Mourning Our Losses: Lord have Mercy.
Today’s Old Testament passage finds us with the prophet Elijah at one of the lowest points in his life. Elijah, probably the most important prophet, certainly one of the most well-known, had many occasions of dramatic stories demonstrating the power of God. His name, Elijah, means the Lord is my God, and that is what defined his ministry, his time of being a prophet. He proclaimed over and over that Yahweh, the Lord, is the one true God.
Just prior to today’s passage Elijah confronted the God Baal and his worshipers. At that time Ahab was king of Israel. Ahab married Jezebel who was a leading believer in Baal and many in Israel began following Baal, instead of Yahweh, the lord God. Elijah warned King Ahab of the errors of his wife and her beliefs and spoke openly against the Baal worship. So Elijah had a contest of sorts with 450 Baal priests. Each group of worshippers had a bull to sacrifice. First the Baal priests took a pile of wood and spent most of the day crying to their God to burn the offering, without success. Later, Elijah rebuilt the Lord’s altar of stones that has been torn down and on it put wood and the bull sacrifice. He made it as difficult as possible by pouring water on the wood and building a moat of water around the altar. Then he prayed to God to send down fire on the altar and God did! Certainly this was an effective showing of God’s power and a visible and memorable sign of who is the true God!
There are many spectacular stories in the Old Testament!
But it is not over. Elijah then proceeded to kill all the priests of Baal. And then King Ahab took this story back to his queen Jezebel who vowed to kill Elijah in retaliation.
It is at this point in the narrative that we see the man, the human being, Elijah, rather than the great prophet Elijah who has just prayed for and received a great showy miracle from God. Elijah has forgotten what God has done for him throughout his life. His fear of Jezebel and what she has said she will do to him, overtakes him and he flees Israel. He runs to Beersheba (a land not under Ahab’s control) and even then continues another day’s journey deeper into safety. However Elijah is not relieved of his fear.
That is where today’s passage begins. Exhausted and spent, worn out from the killings, the running and the fear, Elijah sits under a bush and asks God to end his life. He is overwhelmed with pain and grief and depression. Enough he thinks, enough, and he asks God to die.
Notice that Elijah takes all of his pain and his grief to God; he does not hold back this part of his very human life. At some level Elijah must have had some glimmer of hope that only God can provide.
And what happens is that God does provide very practical, tangible things, a touch to remind him of God’s presence, bread, from heaven, and rest to recuperate. We are told that Elijah is fed twice with this food to sustain him and to prepare him for what God will ask him to do next.
In these short verses we hear of the depressed and hopeless man turning to God. At some level Elijah knew that God had provided for him in the past and that he may provide for him yet again. Even, or maybe especially the greatest ones with close relationship to God need that sustenance that only God can give. Elijah came to God depleted of everything and he is fed and given strength to continue on.
As we approach the Eucharist each week, there will be some times when a few of us will be at the point Elijah was in today’s lesson. We may be despondent, fear-filled, depressed and overwhelmed by our life’s situation. Other days, while things may be going fine for us personally, our thoughts may be filled with the situation in the world and the pain of other people. We may feel the weight of the variants of the Covid virus, or the current political situation, or the increasing violence around us. And at other times we may come filled with joy from something going on in our personal life. What we seek as we gather together in this sacred space is that hope that comes from God. We are not on automatic pilot as we enter the rite. We bring our pain and our joy with us and ask for God’s mercy. We begin each Eucharist collectively saying Lord have mercy.
Losses are a part of human existence, a part of the journey of life. Some of these losses might be considered natural, a part of the human process. Others are more of a disturbance of the natural order, such as a sudden fire or a pandemic. While we do not each have the same losses we do all suffer at some point. And, we do not ignore suffering, we cannot, rather we ask God for mercy.
In the first chapter of his book Nouwen says this, “We come to the Eucharist with hearts broken by many losses, our own as well as those of the world.” And he tells us that we have two choices in experiencing those losses, we can become resentful, hardened by all that has happened or our hearts can be opened so that we become grateful for the gift of life. We can be resentful or grateful those are the options when faced with loss.
I quote again, “The word Eucharist means literally act of thanksgiving. To celebrate the Eucharist and to live a Eucharistic life has everything to do with gratitude. Living Eucharistically is living life as a gift, a gift for which one is grateful. But gratitude is not the most obvious response to life, certainly not when our experiences are a series of losses!”
Acknowledging the grief and pain of life, the act of mourning loss, is necessary before we can see the gratitude. It is through mourning that we are able to know life as a gift. As counter intuitive as it seems, Jesus told us, Blessed are those who mourn. When we try to glide over or avoid thinking about the loss we can become insulated, hardened and resentful. Yet when we acknowledge the grief and express it, rather than trying to avoid it we will be comforted. Through our mourning we will find hope, the hope that only God can provide.
As a congregation, as a group, we come here together to the Eucharist each time with a mixture of despair and hope. Some of us may have come with an attitude similar to Elijah’s in today’s reading. We may be despondent, perhaps even angry, overwhelmed by personal pain or by the pain of the world around us. Some of us arrive with thoughts of all the good we see in people around us or the good we have experienced recently. We come together with both the despair and the hope and we ask God for mercy. Lord have mercy is our continual prayer.
Certainly Elijah was not living his life as one who was grateful at the time of today’s reading. His prayer to God to end his life was really a prayer for mercy. Otherwise he could have ended his own life. Instead he asked for God’s help, for God’s mercy, at a very low and dark point. And God through his angels gave Elijah the sustenance to continue. God fed and comforted him to prepare him to continue in his journey to serve his Lord.
Like Elijah when we approach the Eucharist with our brokenness and ask for His mercy we will not be disappointed. God through the Eucharist will feed us. His grace will sustain us. We will find peace through our losses.
We begin each mass by praying: Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy. And in so beginning we prepare to receive God’s mercy and love. The hope inherent in the service is there each and every time we come. We will be fed. We will be sustained. We will be shown mercy, given hope and receive God’s love. Jesus invites us to his feast, to be closer to him and to know his love in this tangible way. His love is ready for the taking.
“The angel of the Lord came to Elijah a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Again, I invite you to join with the Emmanuel community this summer to read and explore Henri Nouwen’s book. It spoke to me and I believe it will also speak to you about the beauty of knowing God through the Eucharist right in the midst of our very human lives.