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.