“Servant Leaders”

Sabbath Day Thoughts – Mark 10:35-45

When the economy cratered in 2008, the St. Louis-based manufacturing and consulting company Barry-Wehmiller took a big financial hit.  For CEO Bob Chapman it was clear that employee cuts were inevitable, but instead of sending out pink slips, Chapman made a surprising announcement.  He implemented alternating furloughs of four-weeks unpaid leave for all.  Chapman told his workers, “We must all suffer a little instead of letting people go.”  Chapman participated in the rolling furloughs, foregoing wages alongside his employees until the crisis was averted.

When Cheryl Bachelder became CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in 2007, the fast-food franchise was struggling.  Popeye’s, which had started 45 years before as a grab-and-go fried chicken joint in the suburbs of New Orleans, had dwindling franchises and falling revenues.  Instead of cutting the bottom line, Bachelder implemented a new leadership model.  Bacheleder cast the vision for what Popeye’s could do: serve excellent chicken to families on the go for a reasonable price in more locations.  Then she set out to help her workers succeed with better pay, benefits, and training.  Bachelder transformed Popeye’s from just another fast-food mill to a business culture where everybody won.

In March 2020 as the world ground to a halt amid the exploding COVID-19 pandemic, the airline industry was in big trouble.  Governments issued lock-down orders, travel plans were cancelled, and we all sheltered in place.  The CEO of Delta Airlines Ed Bastian took drastic steps.  Bastian led his company through the crisis by announcing that he would take a 100% pay cut, going without his $900,000 salary for the next six months.

Bob Chapman, Cheryl Bachelder, and Ed Bastian are advocates of servant leadership, a model for business management first theorized by Robert Greenleaf in 1970.  Greenleaf cast the vision for management that shares power and puts the needs of workers first, so that they can reach their greatest potential.  According to Greenleaf, servant leadership creates businesses where employees are growing as people.  They feel healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous.  Those workers are also more likely to become servant leaders themselves.  Beyond the walls of the corporation, these companies make a difference for good, benefitting the least privileged and most at-risk people of the community.  Greenleaf dreamed of a world where servant leaders would create businesses that showed the way for others to follow while making a helping, healing difference for communities.

Our gospel lesson reminds us that, long before Robert Greenleaf cast his vision, Jesus was a servant leader.  He hoped that his disciples would follow him on that path.  Jesus’s words, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” were spoken as he neared the end of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for that final Passover.  Just before today’s reading begins, Jesus had warned his friends.  For the third time, he told them that he would soon be betrayed, arrested, condemned, and executed.

Even though they had heard this message three times, the disciples didn’t understand.  James and John had figured out that glory would not await them in the holy city, so they hatched a new plan.  They would convince Jesus to honor them in the Kingdom to come with places of greatest honor at his left and right.  The fact that the other disciples got so angry at the Sons of Zebedee tells us that they probably had their own visions of grandeur.  How dare James and John assert their right to be elevated above the rest of them!

In stark contrast to those visions of glory, Jesus called his friends to be servants and slaves.  A servant, diakonos, waited on others, whether serving food or completing helpful tasks.  A slave, doulos, simply did whatever he or she was told, acting at the direction of their master.  This was not what the disciples wanted to hear.

Jesus’s model of servant leadership was an extraordinary departure from business-as-usual in the Ancient Near East.  Think about it.  Caesar was a self-proclaimed God.  Petty rulers like King Herod lived in luxury at the expense of the people whom they were appointed to rule.  In stark contrast to Caesar and Herod, Jesus was the prime example of servant leadership.  Jesus allowed his core value of agape, self-giving love, to guide him.  That love called him to a life of service—helping, healing, caring, speaking truth to power, and ultimately giving his life for the salvation of us all.  Long before Robert Greenleaf tried to sell the business world on servant leadership, Jesus was blazing the trail and hoping that his followers would go and do likewise.

Back in 1970 when Greenleaf published his first essay on his new model of leadership, he had plenty of critics.  Those naysayers insisted that leaders would only be respected if they were firmly authoritative—that often translated to white men with graduate degrees from prestigious schools and years of experience at the helm of Fortune 500 companies.  Greenleaf’s critics also said that if you make your workers your priority, then they will walk over you.  They would indulge themselves with those opportunities, perks, and benefits, but they wouldn’t put their shoulder to the wheel.  The skeptics proclaimed that companies who embraced this radical theory of leader-as-servant would never make money.

Yet time has told a different story.  When Bob Chapman became CEO of Barry-Wehmiller in 1975 at the age of thirty, the ninety-year-old company had $20 million in revenue.  Their technology was outdated.  Their financial position was weak.  Today Barry-Wehmiller has survived that 2008 recession and continued to grow.  They now have 12,000 employees and a net worth of $3 billion.  Beyond that impressive bottom line, the company sees its unique measure of success as the way they touch the lives of others.  In addition to his work as CEO, Bob Chapman and his wife operate a foundation which teaches the principles of servant leadership for free to communities in need.

At Popeye’s, Cheryl Bachelder found that when she began to focus on changing the company’s culture to a servant-based model, things began to change for the better.  As franchise owners and employees benefitted, the chain began to grow.  Sales increased by 45%.  Stock price climbed from $13-a-share to $61-a-share.  Better yet, when surveyed, franchise owners, employees, and customers all said that they were happier.  In 2017 when Tim Horton’s acquired Popeye’s, that grab-and-go chicken joint had grown to 2,600 locations worth $1.8 billion.

Although COVID-19 remains an ongoing concern, thanks to the delta-variant, things are looking up at Delta Airlines.  Unlike their competitors, Delta has weathered the COVID crisis without resorting to furloughs.  In an interview last month, CEO Ed Bastian said that flights are full and Delta is hopeful and optimistic.  After losing $9 billion in 2020, Delta turned a profit last quarter and is on track to do the same this quarter.  Delta was the first airline to volunteer to help with the evacuation of Afghanistan.  With more than two dozen flights out of Kabul, they airlifted 3,000 refugees from the crumbling nation.  When praised for his leadership, Bastian brushes aside the compliments, saying, “It’s all about the people.”

Of course, after Jesus, the best example of the power of servant leadership is found in the disciples, the ones who really didn’t get it when Jesus told them three times that whoever wishes to be greatest of all must be servant of all.  Ten of the disciples would follow Jesus in losing their lives for the sake of the gospel.  As they reached out to the world with the good news of God’s amazing love, the disciples died untimely deaths in pursuit of Jesus’ mission and in service to God’s Kingdom.  They were crucified, put to the sword, stabbed, clubbed, stoned, and burned.  Even John, the only disciple to live to old age, suffered—driven out of Israel and forced to live in exile on the other side of the Mediterranean.  Despite the high cost of servanthood, by the time John died, the gospel had spread exponentially.  House churches spanned the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Syria to Spain.  Everywhere people were affirming that God is love and Jesus is Lord.

Those servant churches would grow.  Within four centuries, Christianity, which began as a persecuted sect of Judaism, was granted status as an official religion on the Roman Empire.  Today there are 2.5 billion Christians worldwide, about a third of the world’s population.  Nowadays, the fastest growing churches in the world are in places like Iran, China, and North Korea, where servants of the gospel take great risks to share the good news that Jesus, who was slave of all, loved us so much that he died for our sins.

I suspect that there would be more thriving churches if we worried less about number of members and the size of endowments and we thought more about servant leadership.  It is in putting love into action, it is in choosing to serve others, it is in saying “yes” to Jesus’s humble purpose, that greatness is found and growth comes.  May it be just as true for us as it is for those titans of industry.  May it be just as true for us as it was for Jesus and the early church.  Amen.


Resources:

Thompson, James J. “Theological Perspective on Mark 10:35-45” in Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Black, C. Clifton. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 10:35-45” in Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Tait, Brian. “Traditional Leadership vs. Servant Leadership” in Forbes Magazine, March 11, 2020. Accessed online at forbes.com.

Liden, Wayne, Menser, and Hu. “Servant Leadership: Validation of a Short Form of the SL-28,” in The Leadership Quarterly, 26(2), January 2015.  Accessed online at researchgate.net.

Greenelaf, Robert K. “What Is Servant Leadership?” in The Center for Servant Leadership.  Accessed online at Greenleaf.org.

–. “Leaders Eat Last” an interview with Simon Sinek on CBS Mornings, January 7, 2014.  Accessed online at cbsnews,org.

Gibbons, Mike. “Servant Leadership Examples & Characteristics” in People Managing People Magazine, 2020.  Accessed online at peoplemanagingpeople.com.


Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet 1852-6 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 Presented by subscribers 1893 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01394

Possessed

Sabbath Day Thoughts: “Possessed” Mark 10:17-31

Americans don’t like to talk about money.  In May, Business Insider Magazine conducted a poll of 2,130 people to determine the topics they were most likely to discuss with friends.  Last on the list was money, outranked by current events, family, health, sex, relationships, and politics.

Rachel Sherman, a sociologist with the New School, reports that how we feel about discussing money may be determined by how much we have.  Affluent Americans say they are circumspect about money because they don’t want their lower-wage-earning friends to feel bad.  Middle income Americans tend to shy away from the topic of money because they may be economically fragile—the cost of their kid’s college education, a surge in healthcare expenses, or an unexpected big-ticket home repair can leave them reeling with more month than money.  Working class Americans are much more transparent about money.  They freely discuss the challenges or even impossibilities of supporting a family on minimum wage work.  They swap ideas about how they stretch their dollars and cut corners.

Kimberly Chong, an anthropology lecturer at University College, London, teaches that at the heart of the taboo on money talk is a cultural belief that money is associated with personal worth.  Social status, power, and respect are tied to our paychecks and our bank accounts.  It’s like that bumper sticker, “The boy, who dies with the most toys, wins.”  That sort of thinking is uncomfortable in a democracy where we affirm the equality of all citizens, even as we acknowledge the reality of income inequality and the concentration of wealth.

We don’t like to talk about money, if we can help it.  We really don’t like talking about it in church.  Perhaps my calling our attention to the topic has got you feeling uncomfortable—or wishing that I would change the subject.

Jesus didn’t have any trouble talking about money.  He talked about it a lot.  Indeed, the only topic that Jesus talked about more than money was the Kingdom of God.  If you counted, you would see that eleven of Jesus’ thirty-nine parables are about money.  Today’s reading from Mark’s gospel speaks frankly about the tension that can exist between our understanding of earthly riches and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.

As Jesus and his friends were departing on a missionary journey, a rich man stopped them and asked the Lord an urgent question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In Jesus’ day, eternal life was just another way of saying the Kingdom of God.  Jesus sounded impatient as he counted off the requirements of the Torah: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, no fraud, be sure to honor your parents.  Perhaps feeling relieved, the man was quick to share that he was all about that sort of righteous living.

Mark gives us a window into Jesus’ feelings.  The Lord, seeing the rich man and hearing of his obedience, loved the man.  Jesus saw that it was this man’s heartfelt desire to love God and love his neighbor as himself.  This man had disciple written all over him.  And so, Jesus extended to him the same invitation he had made to Levi the tax collector and Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the fishermen: “Follow me.”

When the rich man heard the cost of discipleship, he balked.  The thought of selling his property, and parting with the proceeds made his heart skip a beat, tied his stomach in knots, and sent his mind scampering down rabbit trails of worry and fear.  The rich man went away grieving.  The Greek word that describes how the man felt is stugnasas.  It means shocked, surprised, and in sorrow.  The man had a crisis of character.  He turned away from Jesus, unable to accept what the Lord asked of him.

It’s a story that is hard to hear and perhaps harder to understand.  Even the disciples struggled with what Jesus had to say about the rich man and camels passing through needles’ eyes.  In the ancient near east, wealth was seen as a blessing from God.  From the point of view of the disciples, this rich man was one of God’s beloved ones.  How else could he have amassed that land, those homes, those belongings, those slaves?  It didn’t make sense to the twelve.  If the rich man wasn’t first in line at the pearly gates, then who could be saved?

Over the centuries, Bible scholars and preachers have grappled with how best to interpret this tough story, a story that questions our relationship with God and money.  The monastic tradition has long looked to this passage as a proof text for vows of voluntary poverty.  Postulants of the Franciscan, Claretians, and other religious orders take vows of poverty upon entrance, renouncing their worldly possessions.  What they own becomes the community’s and is used or disposed of for the benefit of all.

In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, our spiritual ancestor John Calvin taught that the rich man’s problem was more than money.  The rich man wanted to know what he must “do” to inherit eternal life.  For Calvin, that smacked of works’ righteousness, as if we earn our way into God’s Kingdom by accruing God’s particular favor with good deeds.  Eternal life, Calvin taught, is God’s freely given gift for all who place their trust in Jesus.  We cannot earn our way into heaven, but God’s grace makes the impossible possible for us.

During stewardship season, generations of preachers have used this story to invite us to be generous givers.  The rich man makes us question what we truly value.  Is it Jesus and a life spent in his company, or is it our money and the things that we possess?  In our love for Jesus, we are inspired, maybe not to sell all that we have, but to hold our possessions loosely.  We prayerfully consider how our abundance may be used in Jesus’ purpose.  We live generously as a blessing to church and community.

I think those are all valid and responsible ways of preaching about the rich man.  Some are called to a life of voluntary poverty and radical sharing.  Heaven is ours only by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are, indeed, blessed to be a blessing to our church and others.  Ultimately, all we have and all we are belongs to God, whether we are rich men and women, or middle-class families, or the working poor who live so creatively on so little.

But the story of the rich man goes deeper than all that.  Jesus calls us to question the core assumptions and the cultural beliefs about money that possess our society.  Jesus contradicts the premise that our personal worth is tied to our net worth.  That assumption prompts us to value some people over others.  It’s a short leap from there to what the disciples presumed: that the rich man’s wealth was a sign of God’s special favor.

But that wasn’t how Jesus saw the world.  Jesus loved the rich man.  Yet, Jesus also loved those low-status, vulnerable children whom he hugged and blessed.  Jesus loved those disciples, who struggled to understand his teaching.  That abundant and overflowing love of Jesus was a reflection of God’s love.  After all, God so loved the world that God sent the beloved son to die for us.

At the close of today’s reading, Jesus told his friends that those core cultural beliefs that we hold about personal worth and net worth don’t apply in the Kingdom of God.  There, many who are first will be last and the last will be first.  Jesus invited his friends—Jesus invites us—to let go of our false assumptions.  We are called to envision a world where the penniless Haitian migrant at the southern border is as loved by God as the billionaire businessman.  It’s a world where the illiterate day laborer is of equal value to the university professor.  It’s a world where the residents of Edgewood House, and others who are reliant upon the social safety net, are every bit as valued and beloved as those who are enjoying a leaf-peeping getaway at The Point this weekend.  That’s some radical stuff, Jesus.

If we accept what Jesus has to say, it will change how we see not only our neighbors but also our possessions.  If our personal worth isn’t incumbent upon the size of our paychecks or our 401Ks or our brokerage accounts, then it gets easier to live generously and share freely.  Our abundance becomes a way to shape a world where all may know that they are the beloved by our limitlessly loving God.  That’s an invitation to discipleship that can make us feel stugnasas—shocked, surprised, or in sorrow.  Or, Jesus’s invitation just might grant us a foretaste of the Kingdom to come and the life eternal.  Jesus says, “Follow me.” How will we respond?


Resources

Black, C. Clifton.  “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Loudenback, Tanza. “A Survey of 2,000 Americans Found . . .” in Insider: Business Magazine.  Accessed online at businessinsider.com.

Menendez-Atun͂a,Luis. “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 10, 2021.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Pinsker, Joe. “Why So Many Americans Don’t Talk about Money” in The Atlantic, March 2, 2020.  Accessed online at theatlantic.com.

Thompson, James J. “Theological Perspective on Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


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When Dreams Die

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Mark 10:2-16 “When Dreams Die”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on our health—and hard on our marriages.  As employers furloughed workers or businesses went virtual, couples found themselves spending more time together and lots of it.  That round-the-clock intimacy has been complicated by other factors. Lay offs and job loss have meant less income and greater economic pressure.  Social distance has stretched the limits of our family and friend support network.  If you have kids, closed schools and quarantined daycares created impossible challenges of childcare, homeschooling, and distance learning.

Studies show that during the first seven to eight months of the pandemic, the divorce rate surged.  That spring, a survey of 1,277 couples found that 29.9% of them said they were in serious trouble and headed for divorce.  Ken Jewell, a New Yok City divorce lawyer, related that when his office reopened after the shut-down in June 2020, he saw a 48% jump in requests for counsel.  A further dark consequence of the COVID crisis has been an increase in domestic violence and substance abuse.  Apostles’ House in Newark, a shelter for women and children, reports that their beds have been full throughout the pandemic.

Beyond the social science and the statistics, we all know couples whose marriages have become fraught, embattled, or failed over the past year and a half.  Young couples with children, middle-aged empty-nesters, and even retired folks with years of marriage under their belts are calling it quits.  There is a lot of heart-ache out there.  Weddings are among the most hopeful and joyous moments in our lives.  When those dreams die, they take a piece of us with them.

The Pharisees put Jesus to the test with a question about divorce, “Tell us, rabbi, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  The fact that the Pharisees knew by heart what the Torah had to say about divorce reveals that there was a larger controversy brewing.  Deuteronomy 24 instructs that a man my write a certificate of divorce if his wife commits an “erwat dabar”—an indecent thing.  The two great rabbinic traditions of Jesus’ day disagreed about what an indecent thing might be.  The Hillel School taught that it was up to the husband’s discretion.  A poorly cooked meal, childlessness, failure to observe the Torah, sexual immorality, or inability to complete household tasks, all could be grounds for divorce.  The Shammai School allowed men to divorce wives for only one reason: serious infidelity.  The Pharisees anticipated that Jesus’ response, one way or the other, would make him enemies.

It is likely that Jesus’ answer offended everyone.  It certainly left the disciples scratching their heads and asking more questions.  Instead of weighing in on what indecent thing would be grounds for divorce, Jesus called his listeners to re-think their understanding of marriage.  Jesus turned to the creation stories of Genesis in which humanity is created male and female in God’s image.  Something sacred is stamped upon each of us, and we are given to one another in the covenant of marriage.  Two become one with God at the center of the relationship.  In that union, we find a wholeness and completeness that was part of God’s plan right from the start.  “What God has joined together,” Jesus teaches, “Let no one separate.”

Behind Jesus’ words lies a deep pastoral concern for women.  According to Jewish law, a woman had no right to divorce her husband on any ground.  It is hard for us to understand, but in first century Israel, women were a little like sexual property.  Young women passed from a father’s household to a husband’s household in an arranged agreement that had monetary and social benefit for the father.  The husband had every legal right to dismiss the wife at his discretion, like bad goods that failed to live up to their anticipated benefit.  The impact of divorce upon a woman could be catastrophic.  She might be able to return to her kinfolk.  If not, she had no safety net—no alimony, no property rights, no home, no right to even parent her own children.  She depended on the charity of neighbors or was forced to beg or resort to prostitution. 

Jesus’s teaching about divorce contradicted this prevailing notion of women as property.  Indeed, Jesus’s suggestion that women could divorce husbands would have sounded deeply shocking and offensive to the Pharisees.  Jesus invited his listeners to see women as beings created in God’s image, whose equal footing was essential to wholeness in marriage.  Marriage—this shared sacred identity and need for wholeness—was at the heart of God’s best hope for humanity.  Jesus’s words were—and still are—a radical, counter-cultural, deeply truthful lesson.

Despite God’s original intent and Jesus’ provocative teaching, divorce persists.  Presbyterians have been debating it since the Westminster Assembly of the Divines met in 1647.  They allowed for divorce by husbands or wives in cases of adultery and willful desertion.  The aggrieved party could later remarry “as if the offending party were dead.”  Our denomination’s current stance on divorce is best expressed in a 1981 revision of the Westminster Confession.  We acknowledge God’s holy intent for marriage, yet we also recognize the frailty and sin of humankind, “The weakness of one or both partners may lead to the gross and persistent denial of the marriage vows so that the marriage dies at the heart and becomes intolerable.”  When dreams die, separation and divorce may become acceptable and permissible.  That same guidance applies to traditional unions and to our refined definition of marriage, adopted in 2014, between “two people.”

Beyond the words of scripture, the teaching of Jesus, and the guidance of the church, is the uniquely painful reality of divorce.  It feels like something dies at the heart. On the day in 2004 when I accepted this church’s call to serve as your pastor, I stood in the pulpit and shared that I was divorced.  A brief, early marriage to my college boyfriend had come to a sad end, more than a decade earlier.  My ex-husband’s adultery and “willful desertion” might have ticked all the boxes for the Westminster Assembly of the Divines, but it didn’t make me feel any better.  I had felt profound grief, shame, rejection, and a visceral pain that told me that part of my heart was dying.  I know that many of you in your own experience have felt the same, whether you have been through divorce or experienced the end of a long-time committed relationship, whether you are children of divorced parents or your adult children have suffered through divorce.

That collective pain of divorce is so great that it is tempting to not preach about it at all.  Jesus, we hear your beautiful vision of marriage that is sacred and deeply reverent with God at the very heart of it.  We freely acknowledge that there would be a whole lot less divorce, and many more happy marriages, if those relationships were entered into in the spirit of your teaching.  But Adam and Eve have left the garden.  We live in a frail and fallen world where we regularly disappoint you and one another.  Lord, have mercy upon us. 

It’s significant that Jesus followed his tough teaching on divorce with the blessing of children, those most vulnerable and lowest status members of the Hebrew household.  Although the disciples wished to turn the children away as a waste of Jesus’s time, the Lord welcomed them and blessed them.  Jesus welcomed the children, the outsider, the vulnerable, the rejected, the leper, the Pharisee, the low-status-second-class citizen.  It’s safe to presume that Jesus welcomed the divorced.  It’s safe to say that Jesus continues to welcome those who are divorced.  The grace of Jesus Christ is always sufficient for us.  Thanks be to God.

The most recent studies of marriage have shown that as the pandemic has continued, the divorce rate has levelled and begun to decline.  Some of the reasons for that may not be good.  The economic strain of the pandemic may have forced couples to remain together.  The lack of childcare has put plans for separation on hold.  Closed courts and a backlog of cases may be causing a temporary lull.  Five states that make divorce rates public are showing a drop in the number of couples rushing to the courts.  A recent survey of 2,429 couples found that 17% of those questioned now say that their marriage has been strengthened by the pandemic.  They began to communicate better.  More time together deepened their appreciation for one another.  They spent time with the kids, exercised together, cooked together, and cultivated new shared hobbies.  Their feelings changed for the better.  Perhaps they began to glimpse in their spouses that sacred image that each of us bears.  Perhaps they are now finding in one another that wholeness and completeness that God originally planned.


Resources:

Mallozzi, Vincent. “Divorce Rates Are Now Dropping: Here Are Some Reasons Why” in The New York Times, March 24, 101`.  Accessed online at nytimes.com.

Staniunas, David. “Marriage, Divorce, and Mariners” in Presbyterian Historical Society Newsletter, June 26, 2014. Accessed online at pcusa.org.

Wall, Robert W. “Divorce” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strongman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988.

Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. “Commentary on Mark 10:2-16” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 4, 2015.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. “Commentary on Mark 10:2-16” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 7, 2018.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.

Thompson, James J. “Theological Perspective on Mark 10:2-16” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


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A New Earth

Sabbath Day Thoughts: “A New Earth” Isaiah 65:17-25

When it comes to climate change, the Adirondacks may not be at the top of our list of regions most impacted by our warming earth.

We are more likely to think of island nations like the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that rises only 2.4 meters above sea level at its high point.  As sea level rises with the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, the Maldives are in peril.  In 2015, the charismatic young President of the Maldives drew world attention to his nation’s plight by holding his first cabinet meeting underwater.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2010, sea levels will potentially rise 100 centimeters, covering almost the entire nation.

When it comes to climate change, we think of polar bears, the poster-child for the impact of global warming on our animal species.  Climate projections anticipate that, before mid-century, we could have a nearly ice-free Arctic in the summer.  Polar bears rely heavily on sea ice for traveling, hunting, mating, resting, and in some areas, for dens where cubs are birthed and nurtured.  Studies have linked the demise of sea ice with a 40% decline in the number of polar bears in northeast Alaska and Canada.  Will the bears survive a warming Arctic?

In the lower forty-eight states, we tend to think of the south when it comes to the impact of global warming.  Our warmer, wetter world has caused a surge in powerful tropical storms that have pounded the Gulf states and beyond.  Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana in August, second only to Hurricane Katrina as the most damaging and intense hurricane to hit the U.S., with maximum winds of 150 mph.  As Ida moved north, so did its destructive power.  The storm caused catastrophic flooding across northeastern states.  Ida caused $50.1 billion in damages.  In the storm’s aftermath, 95 Americans had been killed—33 deaths in Louisiana and 9 more across the southland, 30 in New Jersey, 18 in New York, and 5 in Pennsylvania.

Island nations sinking into the sea, polar bears threatened with extinction, massive storms inflicting heavy property damage and loss of life.  This is often the face of climate change on the evening news.  Yet we might be surprised to learn that the Adirondacks are being profoundly affected by our warming world.

Researchers at SUNY Plattsburgh report that the Adirondacks are warming at a rate that is twice as fast as the rest of the planet.  The global average temperature has increased 1.8 degrees over the past 30 years, but in Lake Placid, that increase has doubled to 3.6 degrees.  That means that our fall is longer than it once was.  Our spring comes earlier.  We have more winter warm-ups.  Ask anyone who grew up in Saranac Lake and they will tell you that winter isn’t what it used to be.

The Adirondacks sit at the southern edge of the great boreal forest that stretches north across Canada to the Arctic.  As our weather warms, that boreal forest will creep north as native plants and trees can’t take the relative heat.  It’s already happening.  It’s already having a big impact on our wild creatures.  The National Audubon Society reports that we are seeing a dramatic decline in our northern boreal birds, like gray jays, Bicknell’s thrush, spruce grouse, and the black-backed woodpecker.  We are also seeing a decline in fish.  Brook trout, lake trout, salmon, and round whitefish all need cold water to thrive.  An EPA report anticipates that brook trout fishing could disappear from the Adirondacks by the year 2100.  As the Adirondacks continue to warm, the animals of the boreal forest will migrate north in search of habitat.  Can we imagine the park without moose, bobcats, fishers, pine martens, and loons?  Unless there is collective action to limit the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, that will be the Adirondack Park that we leave to our children and grandchildren.  It’s a sobering possibility.

In our scripture lesson, the Prophet Isaiah shares God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth.  The people who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy were likewise living with the impact of their actions upon the good land that God had entrusted to their care.  The Israelites had returned home from decades of captivity in Babylon.  Their land, which had once flowed with milk and honey, had been devastated by foreign invasion and decades of war.  When the Babylonian army had rolled across Israel, they had destroyed everything in their path.  Every fortified city from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south had been conquered and flattened.  Jerusalem was hardly recognizable: its protective walls breached and pulled down, its homes in ruins, its Temple burned to the ground.  The reality was so overwhelming, that people didn’t know where to begin.  That may be how we feel about the reality of climate change.

In the midst of the people’s despair, God spoke a vision of hope.  God, who had created heaven and earth, would create again, a new world of harmony and abundance.  God’s word to the Prophet Isaiah is a sweet and joyous promise of long life, rebuilt homes, fruitful vineyards, simple abundance, and good health.  God anticipates a healed relationship between humanity and the holy: before we even begin to pray, God will hear and respond.  God anticipates a healed relationship between humanity and all creatures, great and small.  All will dwell peaceably, free from harm and the threat of destruction.  Isiah’s promise is so sweet, that we hear it and we want it for ourselves.  We want it for the generations to come.

It’s a promise that reveals God’s best hope for us.  Indeed, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos described God’s coming Kingdom as Isaiah did, as a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem in right relationship with God.  Humanity gets things so wrong.  The ancient Israelites bring death to the land by exploiting its bounty, oppressing one another, and waging endless wars in pursuit of wealth and national greatness.  We, with our unbridled consumption and short-sighted pursuit of prosperity, pump the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases that trap ultraviolet rays and turn up the heat.  Our world is suffering.  Creation is groaning.  And in the middle of the mess that we have made, God dares to dream that things can be different.  There can be a fresh start, a new earth.

What might it look like for us to claim Isaiah’s vision, to begin living in ways that give us a foretaste of the coming Kingdom that God will one day bring to completion?  Jerry Jenkins, the leading expert on climate change in the Adirondacks, says that we can personally start to mitigate climate change with simple thrift.  Don’t buy new stuff: reduce, re-use, recycle.

We can make changes at home.  If we dial back the thermostat by two degrees, we can not only reduce our household carbon emissions, but also save as much as 5% on our heating bill.  We can turn off un-needed lights.  We can replace energy-wasting lightbulbs with high-quality LED bulbs that last a long time, consume less electricity, and save lots of money, year in and year out.  We can use native plants in our flower gardens to attract pollinators, like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

We can change our habits.  We can bring our own re-useable bottle or mug wherever we go.  We can drive less—plan our trips into town, walk to nearby destinations, or ride our bikes instead of hopping in the car.  We can cut down on food waste by eating leftovers.  We can eat less meat—those concentrated animal feeding operations, where cattle and pork are warehoused in close proximity and force-fed, are massive emitters of methane, a greenhouse gas.

If we are in a position to make big ticket investments, we can consider purchasing a hybrid car.  We could add a solar array to our homes to begin moving off the grid.  We could invest in a renewable heat source.  Burn wood pellets.  Go geo-thermal. 

These are simple steps that each of us can embrace.  You can give them a try, even if you deny the truth of climate science.  What’s to lose?  These simple actions are good for us, good for the planet, and they save money.  Who doesn’t want to save money?

William Janeway of the Adirondack Council envisions a day when the Adirondack Park will be “energy neutral.”  We’ll preserve our wild beauty and ecological integrity.  We’ll be a world-class natural resource and a premier tourism destination.  We’ll be a model for the world to see of a “climate-smart, public-private conservation landscape.”  The stakes are huge.  Our failure to take action could have dire consequences for our children and grandchildren.  Jerry Jenkins cautions that if we do not slow the course of human-caused climate change, “We may be the last generation to see the big bogs and the boreal creatures.”  Would our children ever forgive us?

May we find in Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth the holy will to make a better future for our park and our planet.


Resources

–. “Peril and Promise” on Mountain Lakes Journal, May 21, 2019.

Craig, Gewndolyn. “Adirondacks Affected by Warming Climate in a Number of Ways” in The Post Start, October 13, 2018.  Accessed online at www.poststar.com.

Foderaro, Lisa. “Savoring Bogs and Moss, Fearing They’ll Vanish as the Adirondacks Warm” in The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2011.  Accessed online at www.nytimes.com

Kerlin, Kat. “18 Simple Things You Can Do about Climate Change” in UC Davis: Science and Health. January 8, 2019.  Accessed online at www.climatechange.ucdavis.edu

Mann, Brian. “Effects of Climate Change on the Adirondacks” on North Country Public Radio, Feb. 25, 2019.  Accessed online at www.ncpr.org

Rivera, Nelson. “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 65:17-25” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Johns, Mary Eleanor. “Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 65:17-25” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.


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The Hard Road

Sabbath Day Thoughts–Mark 9:30-37

Who is the greatest?

If we are talking about nations, we might argue that the greatest country has the strongest economy – a chicken in every pot, a job for every worker, abundance beyond imagining.  Or, it could be the land with the most powerful military: expertly trained troops, cutting edge technology, firepower that inspires shock and awe.  Or, it could be the nation with the best quality of life – top healthcare, best schools, least poverty, and earliest retirement.

When it comes to the workplace, we might feel that greatness is found in the biggest paycheck.  Or, it could come down to responsibility—the number of employees we supervise or sites that we manage.  Greatness is associated with climbing the corporate ladder.  We have an inherent sense of workplace hierarchy from the tech billionaire firing rockets into space to the immigrant janitor, emptying the trash after hours.

Our understanding of greatness takes shape from an early age.  Consider our schools.  Greatness is acknowledged in brainy students who earn academic laurels, like National Honor Society, valedictorian, and salutatorian.  Greatness is heralded on the athletic field, where our natural prowess for speed, agility, or teamwork is rewarded.  Some students think that greatness is found in popularity—kids with the coolest circle of friends, best clothes, prettiest faces, and nicest homes are often most admired.

What do we believe makes for greatness?

In our reading from Mark’s gospel, the disciples were challenged to rethink their understanding of greatness.  Jesus and his friends were walking a long way, apart from the crowds.  The Lord used this quiet time to share a second prediction of the betrayal, suffering, and death that would befall him.  Given Jesus’ bleak prophecy, we might expect the disciples to discuss how they could best support, protect, and encourage their friend Jesus.  Or perhaps they would ponder how best to continue Jesus’ message and mission, if the worst should happen.  They could have talked about care for mother Mary, help for the struggling crowds, or healing for all those sick people who depended upon Jesus’ compassion.

But at the day’s end, as they settled into Peter’s home in Capernaum, we learn that the disciples spent the day arguing.  When confronted by Jesus, the twelve grudgingly admitted that they had been squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest. Peter thought he was the best because he had walked on water—at least for a little while.  Andrew thought he might be best because he was a natural evangelist, bringing Philip and Nathaniel and even Peter to the Lord.  James said he was the greatest because he was a natural leader whom others respected.  Judas thought he should take top honors for best managing the money.  On the road that day, there must have been the sort of heated, trash-talking debate that we hear in the locker room or on the line of scrimmage, in the board room or on the playground.

Scientists believe that the desire for status is a fundamental human motive.  A 2015 study by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business found that status is something that all people crave and covet—even if we don’t realize it.  We may not want wealth or a fancy home or an impressive job title, but we all desire respect, some voluntary deference from others, and social value – to know that we matter in the lives of other people.  Status is universally important because it influences how people think and behave.  It can even effect how we feel.  Indeed, when we perceive that our status among peers, work, or community is low, we suffer.  Low status impacts our health, making us more prone to depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease.

In the first century world of the Roman Empire, Caesar was the greatest.  Members of the imperial family and the Roman senate, as well as those who enjoyed their patronage, had high status.  Roman citizens had higher status and greater legal protections than residents of vassal nations, like Israel.  At the bottom of the social ladder were menial slaves and children.  Within Greco-Roman society, unwanted children could be abandoned at birth at the discretion of their father.  Even within Hebrew society, children had no status apart from the Beth Ab, the house of the father, the patriarch.  Outside the protective order of the Beth Ab, a child was completely vulnerable.  That’s why the Torah is littered with commands to care for orphans.

When we consider that first century world, we begin to imagine how shocking and offensive Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples would have been.  First, Jesus says that the greatest of all must be servant of all.  The servant of all was the lowest status slave in a household.  They were typically the youngest slave with the most menial of duties: foot washing, sanitation, caring for animals.  The servant of all didn’t eat until every other slave in the household had been served—by them.  Only then could they eat from the leftovers.  Next, Jesus—a high status rabbi who typically would not have been concerned with children at all—Jesus took a toddler and placed the child in their midst.  This child would have been the lowest status, most vulnerable, and dependent person in the home.  Jesus gave the child a hug and told the twelve that this was who he was.  This was whom they should emulate and welcome.  Can we imagine the shocked silence in that room?

It’s a tough teaching that flies in the face of our fundamental human desire for status.  It’s hard to even think of a comparable metaphor in today’s world.  Perhaps, Jesus would call us to be like migrant farm workers, spending long hours in backbreaking labor for low wages to feed America.  Perhaps Jesus would call us to be like the vulnerable children caught up in the foster care system without a permanent home or consistent guardian or a legal voice in decisions that profoundly affect our lives.  Whatever our notions about status may be, Jesus wants to turn them upside down.  Jesus wants to thoroughly reorient us.

Karoline Lewis, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, teaches that we begin to understand what Jesus is trying to say when we consider what God has done.  The immortal, omniscient, inscrutable, unknowable great God of the multiverse chose to be mortal, to know the finitude and the frailty of flesh.  That downward path continued as Jesus—God made flesh—concerned himself with the least of these, the low-status people of his time.  He sought the lost sheep of Israel, forgave sinners, touched those who were unclean, welcomed scoundrels, taught women, and healed Gentile outsiders.  It got worse: betrayal, prison, a kangaroo court, torture, public humiliation, and a brutal excruciating death that was reserved for the lowest status residents of the empire.  God gave us the ultimate object lesson in downward mobility.  Think about it.

It is a hard and holy road.  It makes no sense whatsoever until we affirm what those earliest Christians knew about Jesus, knew about God.  God is love.  God is agape, the choice to love others and act always in their best interest, without counting the personal cost.  Agape is the choice to love whether or not the object of our love is lovable or worthy.  It is a choice to love, regardless of status.  Agape prompted God to become flesh in Jesus.  In agape, Jesus poured out his life with kindness and caring, healing and justice.  In agape, Jesus chose the cross for the redemption of status-seeking disciples like Peter, Andrew, and James, for status-seeking disciples like us.

In today’s tough teaching, Jesus dares to hope that there will be others to follow him on that hard road of downward mobility.  He opens a window on a world that can be ours, a world where greatness is found in love that serves, honors, and sacrifices.  Jesus challenges us to envision a world where we are willing to be weak, vulnerable, and humble for others’ sake.  It is a world where our innate desire for status is subverted, where the greatest among us are not the folks with political power, the biggest bank accounts, or the most followers on social media.  The greatest of all love the most.  It is world where we can all be great.

As I finish up my message, I’d like to invite you to imagine the world that Jesus would have us make, where greatness is found in vulnerability and self-giving love.  In Jesus’s world, the Olympic games honor those who care the most.  The gold medals this summer went out to all the nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and caregivers who have been on the frontlines of the COVID crisis.  In Jesus’s world, the billionaires aren’t firing rockets into space; instead, they are vying to ensure that the world’s children have safe clean drinking water, enough food, and an education.  In Jesus’s world, reality television doesn’t pit contestants against one another for survival on a desert island.  Rather, competitors go toe-to-toe to see who can be kindest, who can do the most good, who can make the biggest positive difference in their hometown.  In Jesus’s world, every child is honored and everyone has status, not because they are intelligent, athletic, or popular, but because they are children of a God who loves them enough to die for them.

It’s a good world.  It’s the greatest.  Let’s go forth to make it so.  Amen.

Resources:

Lewis, Karoline.  “The Greatest” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 17, 2018.  Accessed online at workingpreacher.com.

Lose, David. “A Different Kind of Greatness” in Dear Partner in Preaching, Sept. 2018.  Accessed online at http://www.davidlose.net/

Moore-Keish, Martha L. “Theological Perspective on Mark 9:30-37” in Feasting on the Word, Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.

Ringe, Sharon H. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 9:30-37” in Feasting on the Word, Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.


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A Bigger Mission

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Mark 7:24-37

Every day we encounter them, folks who are outsiders to the Christian community.

Melissa has never been a church member.  Although her parents were both raised in mainline congregations, they never got involved with the church as adults.  They never had Melissa or her brothers baptized or confirmed.  Melissa has good memories of attending church as a child on special occasions with her grandparents, especially those wonderful Christmas Eve services.  Sometimes, Melissa thinks she could really use that beauty and belonging in her life, but she doesn’t know how that would happen.  Her grandparents have been gone for years.  Sunday morning services feel like a foreign language, and the one time she did go, she sat by herself in the back.  It feels a whole lot safer to stay home and have a second cup of coffee.

Ben and Mary haven’t attended church since their youngest son aged up and out of the Youth Group.  They had felt it was important for their children to experience the moral and ethical teachings of Christianity, and so for years they had made the effort to come to church.  They sat in the sanctuary while the kids trooped off after the Children’s Time to Sunday School.  Ben and Mary never truly intended to drop out of church.  Each week they promised one another that this would be the Sunday they would be back.  A week turned into a month.  Then, it was a year.  Then, it just got too embarrassing because they had been gone for so long.  Now they think of church as something that had been part of their lives “back then.”  It’s just too much bother to reconnect.

Betty attended church weekly for decades.  Every week, she sat in the same pew, used the same hymnal, and passed the peace with the same people.  All that tradition had to change when Betty sold her house, which had gotten to be too much to manage after her husband died.  Betty’s new home is a fifteen-minute drive from church.  After she had a series of fender benders, the kids persuaded her to give up the car.  As a result, Betty’s Sunday morning trips to church came to an end.  Betty likes the online services, but it’s not the same.  She misses worship; she misses her church family.

Every day we encounter them, those folks who, for whatever reasons, are now outside the Christian community.  We exchange awkward “Hellos.” We make small talk about the weather.  We share superficial news of family.  Then, we go our way, feeling relieved it’s over but also a little sad.

Our reading from Mark’s gospel told two stories of outsiders to the covenant community.  It began with that woman and her demon-possessed daughter.  The Bible scholars like to tell us all the reasons why this woman and her child would not be welcomed by Jesus and his friends.  First of all, she was a Gentile of the worst sort: a Syrophoenician who worshipped the storm god Baal.  These were not lost sheep of Israel.  These were foreign Jezebels.  This woman didn’t have the courtesy to follow the traditional practice of sending a male family member to make the request for healing help.  A first-century rabbi would never accept a private audience with a woman who was not a family member, especially a Gentile Syrophoenician one.

All Jesus wanted was a little peace and quiet after his dust up with the Pharisees and scribes, but as soon as this woman heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood, she was knocking on the door with her inappropriate request.  We know that Jesus didn’t like it because he called the woman and her child dogs—ask any woman and she will tell you that there is absolutely nothing nice about being called a dog, no matter who says it.  Most of us would tuck our tails and walk away, but that tenacious woman refused to give up.  Her witty repartee about even dogs deserving a few crumbs—and her bold faith that Jesus could heal her daughter, if he only would—stopped Jesus as he began to shut the door.  “Hmm,” he thought.  “Maybe it isn’t just about the lost sheep of Israel.  Maybe God’s love can be bigger than that.  Maybe even outsiders like the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter could have a place within the new covenant community that is taking shape around me”.  One thing is for certain, Jesus changed his mind.  The demon was gone and the girl was cured, sight unseen.

The second healing story serves as an exclamation point to this notion of a bigger mission.  Jesus was again in Gentile territory, again facing inappropriate demands to heal someone who was beyond the literal and spiritual borders of Israel.  This time, there was no harsh refusal, no need for witty repartee.  On the contrary, Jesus worked hard for the man’s healing: laying on hands, applying spittle, touching his tongue, and praying, “Ephphatha!”  Be opened!  Jesus’ healing work was so thorough that the no longer impaired man and his friends couldn’t stop sharing the good news of what Jesus had done, despite Jesus’ request that they keep it on the down low.  The news of this new openness must have spread like wildfire throughout the Gentile cities of the Decapolis.

These beautiful stories of healing and the command to “Be opened” speak to us.  Often when we hear them preached, we are reminded that Jesus invites us to reach beyond traditional boundaries.  We are meant to share God’s love, healing, and mercy with folks who are stereotypically outsiders to the mainstream of society—or at least to mainline churches.  Be opened!  Minister to those who are incarcerated.  Reach out to the refugee and the migrant.  Welcome neighbors whose lifestyles or loves have been made to feel like they don’t belong amid the assembly of the faithful.  Indeed, I believe that Jesus calls us to that radical openness which we affirm every Sunday when I share our statement of mission and state that, “All are welcome here.”  God’s love is always larger and more inclusive than we can begin to imagine.  Jesus expects that those who follow him will “Be opened” even when that is not easy or comfortable.

This time through the lectionary cycle, I have also been thinking about those other outsiders, the ones we encounter every day.  They may be spiritually hungry seekers, like Melissa.  They have never known what it is like to have a church family.  They don’t know that Jesus loves them.  The very thought of attending a church on their own feels risky and lonely, like being a stranger in a strange land.

Those everyday outsiders may have once had a place in the assembly of the faithful.  But then an empty nest, or a big promotion, or retirement got them out of the church habit.  They have slipped away from our Sunday mornings and our potlucks.  For a number of years, they made an obligatory appearance on Christmas Eve.  One day, we sadly realized that they aren’t church people any more.

Those everyday outsiders may even have once been insiders like Betty.  Then, a big move, a growing disability, the death of a spouse, or the onset of dementia brought an end to their deep engagement with the congregation.  We miss them, but we don’t always do anything about that.  We trust that the deacons and the pastor will handle it.

There are everyday outsiders everywhere, and the advent of the pandemic has made it that much easier to allow folks to continue to be outsiders.  We tell ourselves that if people really want to worship, they can now do so online.  We don’t even consider inviting them to church because who wants to worship in the Great Hall anyway?  It becomes awfully easy to hide behind our masks in the grocery store.  We may encounter those everyday outsiders everywhere, but those awkward moments of encounter pass.  We shrug it off, at least until the next time.

Ephphatha!”  Be opened, Jesus says to us this morning.  It’s a prayer.  It’s a plea.  It’s a calling to take personal responsibility.  Those everyday outsiders, their mothers aren’t going to come knocking at the church door, demanding an audience with Jesus.  Those everyday outsiders, their neighbors aren’t going to intercede for them.  It’s up to us to care, to reach out, to speak, to make a way for connection, to be the love of Christ for those who feel that, somehow, they are on the outside.

Jesus, put your fingers in our ears.  Jesus, give us a little of that holy spittle.  Jesus, touch our tongues.  Open our hearts to those who are on the outside looking in, lonely, alienated, and uncertain about what they are truly looking for.  In a world that is desperate for God’s mercy, healing, and love, the gap between insider and outsider is ours to bridge. 

Resources:

Ashton, Loye Bradley. “Theological Perspective on Mark 7:24-37” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.

Howe, Amy C. “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 7:24-37” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.

Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 7:24-37” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.


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Lip Service

Sabbath Day Thoughts – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The phone calls started at about 2PM. It had been Youth Sunday at the church.  As the Pastor for Youth and Children, I had worked with the kids for weeks to plan their special day.  They were liturgists.  They acted out the scripture reading with a skit.  In place of a traditional sermon, a few high school students had shared reflections about their latest mission trip.  Then, the crowning act of our worship had been communion.  In a departure from the norm, four youth had been servers, passing the bread and the grape juice along the pews for all the worshipers to partake.  It had been a lovely Sunday, so I wasn’t surprised that members might want to check in and celebrate.

My first caller, who I will name Fred, often stopped by the church.  He was a widowed WWII veteran, and I suspect that a church office visit was always on his weekly “to do” list.  On that Youth Sunday, our conversation started pleasantly enough, but it took a sharp turn when it came to the Lord’s Supper.  “Who was that tall girl you had passing the plate?” Fred wanted to know.  “You must mean Jenna (not her real name),” I answered.  Jenna was a striking teen with long, dark hair and big brown eyes.  I had been feeling particularly self-congratulatory about Jenna’s participation in the service.  Her parents were going through a rough patch and I’m sure that things weren’t easy for Jenna at home.

Fred didn’t congratulate me.  Instead, he wanted to know if I had noticed Jenna’s skirt.  I wracked my brain, trying to remember.  “Hmm,” I puzzled.  “I’m not really sure I noticed, but I think it was denim.  Wasn’t it?”  Next, I could hear impatience in the voice of the normally mild-mannered Fred, “I’m not talking about the fabric.  I’m talking about the length.  We could see her knees and you had her serving communion.”  I was floored.  I wish I could say that Fred’s was the only concern that I heard about my judgment, the youth, and our worship leadership.  If I hadn’t realized it before, I certainly learned in those first years of ministry that folks have particular notions about what pleases God.  Cross those lines, and you’ll find yourself fielding phone calls or receiving anonymous notes.

Our preoccupation with what pleases God is nothing new.  The Pharisees and some scribes took exception to Jesus’ disciples, who sat down to eat without first ritually washing their hands in a rite of purification.  In first-century Israel, there was diversity of practice when it came to table fellowship.  On one end of the spectrum were Jesus and the disciples.  They were known for breaking bread with sinners, tax collectors, and at least one leper—all people who might be deemed unclean.  When it came to ritual hand washing, Jesus seemed little concerned.  When the 5,000 were fed, Jesus did not send the disciples around with water and towels for a little purification before multiplying the loaves and fish.

At the other end of the spectrum were the Pharisees, a Jewish sect whose very name meant “set apart.”  The Pharisees followed the Mishnah, the long oral tradition of teachings about the Torah.  This tradition of the elders insisted that to be a holy people, pleasing to God, Jewish people needed to follow the same purity restrictions that the Torah mandated for priests while they were actively serving in the Temple.  The Torah required priests to ritually wash their hands and feet before presiding at a ceremonial meal, so the Mishnah taught that all Jews should do the same for every meal.  That’s a lot of washing.  When the Pharisees saw the disciples’ disregard for handwashing, they thought, “This Jesus isn’t a very good rabbi if he doesn’t share our concern for holiness.”

It all sounds like an obscure first century worship war.  It takes a lot of explaining just to have the whole reading make sense, just to understand why folks were so hot under the collar.  But if we take a moment to genuinely and honestly reflect, most of us will admit that we have had our moments when we have thought that what was going on at church wasn’t pleasing to us or to God. 

A local woman, who has never worshiped with our congregation, once told me that she “hates” the responsive liturgy, like the call to worship or the confession, that are part of Sunday mornings in mainline congregations.  She prefers the ecstatic praise and tongues of the apostolic and Pentecostal tradition. 

A seasoned and gifted female colleague shared with me that a young man told her she could never be a real pastor because she is a woman.

I served as a student pastor at a very large, high steeple church.  The senior pastor had a beautiful tenor voice.  One communion Sunday, he sang the words of institution: “On the night of his arrest, he took the cup.  After giving thanks, he lifted it up.  This is my blood, poured out for you . . .”  It was lovely and memorable.  But after the service, he was accosted by an angry woman, “This is a church, not a Broadway show.  Next, I expect you’ll be hoisting up your robe and dancing for us.”  In each of these instances, people felt personally offended, yet they also felt that what transpired was an offense to God.  They imagined that God was every bit as angry and indignant as they were.

Jesus’ response to his Pharisee critics is among the harshest of his teachings, “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, taking their own words and attributing them to God.’  But you have abandoned the commandment of God to cling to your own human tradition.”  The fact that Jesus was quoting the Prophet Isaiah tells us that, even back then, this sort of squabble about what pleases God had been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. 

According to Jesus, if the Pharisees were really worried about being a holy people, set apart for God, then they would be better served by pondering their own hearts—attending to their inmost thoughts and their everyday actions.  I’m sure Jesus’ words, and his pointed mention of sins like fornication, murder, deceit, and pride, made his opponents see red.  I’m also sure that Jesus’ words eased the shame and embarrassment that his disciples had felt in response to the Pharisee’s public criticism.

When Fred called me on that Sunday afternoon to voice his opinion about youthful knees at the Lord’s Supper, I was still so wet behind the ears as a pastor that I didn’t really engage his concern.  I listened, and he eventually hung up.  It never occurred to me that some of his concern could have been what Jesus might call a “heart problem.”  That long-legged, doe-eyed Jenna was not unlike what Fred’s late wife must have looked like, back in the day when the boys were coming home from Europe, war weary after defeating Hitler and his Nazis.  Perhaps there was even an unspoken sexual spark that felt unbidden and unwanted as Fred pondered the body and blood of Christ for him.  If I had been a more experienced pastor, I might have invited Fred to go deeper, to understand his feelings better.  I might have asked him to speak just for himself and not for God.

I suspect that the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic has brought out the Pharisee in all of us.  After all, we are Presbyterians and we do like to have things done decently and in order.  There we were, liking our Sunday routine, but then COVID-19 swept across the nation in repeated waves that closed church doors and made us worship online.  Eighteen months into this, we are wearing masks yet again. We have traded our sanctuary for the Great Hall, singing for a soloist, the pipe organ for the piano, bulletins for a slideshow.  It doesn’t feel familiar.  It doesn’t feel holy.  We are not sure we like it—and we just might think we are speaking for God about that.

Jesus would tell us that it is the perfect time to ponder our hearts.  With humility and deep honesty, we might even see our critique and dissatisfaction as a natural consequence of this uncertain time when nothing feels safe or familiar—and we wonder if anything will ever feel safe and familiar again.  With faith and courage, we might even begin to speak for ourselves instead of God.  We might bring our hearts back home to the Lord, who welcomes sinners and Pharisees.  We might open our hearts to Jesus, who loves us, saves us, and dies for us, even though we have a penchant for breaking his heart.

Despite my leadership of Youth Sundays, Fred and I became friends.  He genuinely appreciated and generously supported the mission work that the Youth Group pursued in their summer trips to Appalachia, where they made homes warmer, safer, and drier for the rural poor.  Fred must have quelled his worship concerns because he never again raised the alarm, even though there were other short skirts and low-slung jeans with protruding boxer shorts and even some cleavage in the services that followed.  I hear that a number of years later when Fred died, he left a small legacy to the church, the thankful gift of a holy heart.  Amen.

Resources:

Hare, Douglas R.A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Skinner, Matt. “Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 2, 2012.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22-2/commentary-on-mark-71-8-14-15-21-23-5

Johnson, Elizabeth. “Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 2, 2018.  Accessed online at Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary


7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

7in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”


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“You Gotta Serve Somebody”

Sabbath Day Thoughts – Joshua 24:1-2a:14-18

“You may be an ambassador to England or France

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

Those are the words of Nobel Poet Laureate Bob Dylan, written in 1979.  Just the year before, the thirty-eight-year-old Dylan had played 114 concerts on a ten-month world tour.  As the tour neared its end, Dylan was exhausted and struggling.  Remembering that time, Dylan says, “Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd… knew I wasn’t feeling too well.  I think they could see that.  And they threw a silver cross on the stage.  Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage … But I looked down at that cross.  I said, ‘I gotta pick that up.’  So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket… And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona… I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego.  I said, ‘Well, I need something tonight. I didn’t know what it was.  I was used to all kinds of things.  I said, ‘I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.’  And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.”

That silver cross would change Dylan’s life.  He began to study the Bible and have spiritual conversations with his bandmates.  Later that year, Dylan underwent what he saw as a turning point in his life.  His girlfriend at the time Mary Alice Artres, a born-again Christian, said Dylan experienced a “visit from Jesus himself.”  Dylan would admit, “Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”

That “physical thing” had a profound effect on Dylan’s poetry and songwriting.  The album he released the following year, “Slow Train Coming,” reflects themes of personal faith and Christian discipleship.  In fact, the seventy-nine-city tour to promote the album was called Dylan’s Gospel Tour.  Dylan’s single “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” the words of which are woven through this message, was his first hit record in years, earning him a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.

“You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk

You may be the head of some big TV network

You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame

You may be living in another country under another name

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

Dylan sounds a lot like Joshua in today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible.  God had long ago claimed Joshua with the promise, “As I was with Moses, so shall I be with you.  I will not fail or forsake you.  Be strong and courageous.”  Joshua’s first task as Israel’s leader had been to shepherd the Israelites through the waters of the Jordan and into the Promised Land.  Once there, Joshua found that, although the land was flowing with milk and honey, it was also filled with people who were reluctant to surrender their bounty to Hebrew invaders.

Through long years of conflict, Joshua had led the Israelites against one enemy after another.  One by one the Canaanite cities had fallen, not because the Israelites were more powerful or because Joshua was a better military strategist.  Rather, victory had come because God had fought side-by-side with Israel.  At Jericho, in keeping with God’s instruction, the Israelites had circled the city for seven days, shouting and blowing their horns, and the walls had come tumbling down.  At Gibeon, Joshua had cried out and God had held the sun and moon still while the Israelites routed their foes.  At Azekah, God had rained huge hailstones from the heavens, killing the armies of their Canaanite enemies.  As Joshua neared the end of his long life of service, the Israelites were finally at peace.  Thirty-one Canaanite kings had been defeated.

With all that God had done for Israel, we might anticipate that they had a born-again faith in God, every bit as ardent as Bob Dylan’s love for Jesus.  But when we read between the lines of Joshua’s testimony, we hear that Israel was worshiping other gods.  Some bowed down to the gods that their ancestor had worshiped beyond the Euphrates.  Some worshiped the gods of Egypt, where the Israelites had been enslaved by Pharaoh.  Others were captivated by the Canaanite god Baal.  They had to serve somebody, but as Joshua pondered his people, he saw that they were making some bad choices.

You may be a construction worker working on a home

You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome

You might own guns and you might even own tanks

You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

With thousands of years of hindsight, it’s easy for us to recognize the Israelites lack of judgment.  Why turn your back on God Almighty when God had delivered thirty-one Canaanite kings and every fortified city in the land into your hands?  But if Joshua or Bob Dylan were here today, they might call us to consider the false gods that we worship.  Stephen Johnson, Professor of Preaching at Abilene Christian University, points out that the Israelites aren’t the only ones with competing allegiances.  We can place our ultimate allegiance in partisan politics, refusing to mask or maintain social distance or be vaccinated, refusing to protect vulnerable neighbors and spurring a lethal fourth wave of COVID-19.  We may serve only our personal interests, ignoring our neighbors in needs, disconnecting from relationships that feel like work, or consuming irreplaceable natural resources at a rate that destroys the planet.  We can even be enslaved by good things when we devote to them all our time, energy, and attention to the detriment of our physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being—or the well-being of others.  Work, family, or community can become idols.  When we fail to build our lives around the holy center of God Almighty, we worship false gods, just as surely as the Israelites did.

“You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride

You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side

You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair

You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

In a last faithful act of leadership, Joshua gathered all twelve tribes of Israel to Shechem, to affirm the covenant that their ancestors Abraham and Sarah had made with God.  The people came, young and old, men and women, aging warriors and young farmers, mothers with children and babies.  They listened as Joshua reminded them of all that the Lord had done for them: delivery from slavery, bread from heaven, water from the rock, walls tumbling down, foes vanquished, and the blessing of that abundant land.  Then, Joshua asked the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  Confronted by the simple truth of an old man’s eloquence, the people chose God, saying, “We will serve the Lord.”

After Bob Dylan made his choice for the Lord in 1979, he came to believe that God had given him a unique platform and voice.  He could use both to serve the Lord.  In a December 1979 interview with KMEX Tucson radio, Dylan said, “I follow God, so if my followers are following me, indirectly they’re gonna be following God, too, because I don’t sing any song which hasn’t been given to me by the Lord to sing.”  Dylan’s choice for Jesus alienated some of his traditional fans, but it earned him new fans and a different following.  “Slow Train Coming” is universally considered one of the greatest Christian records of all time.  The single “You Gotta Serve Somebody” has been recorded by Pop Staples, Etta James, Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, LeeAnne Womack, and more.  I’ve been quoting it for you as poetry this morning.

“Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk

Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk

You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread

You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

If we are waffling on that choice of whom to serve, I could follow the example of Joshua and remind us of all the Lord has done for us.  God has freed us from the burden of sin and promised us the life eternal; blessed us with folks who love us; given us a church home; gathered us for camp outs and picnics and evening Vespers; surrounded us with the beauty of the Adirondacks; walked with us through every trouble.  I could go on.  We’re gonna have to serve somebody. 

Let us choose this day to serve the Lord.

Resources:

–. “Bob Dylan Gets Religion in the Gospel Years” in Goldmine: the music collector’s magazine. Feb. 23, 2009.  Accessed online at https://www.goldminemag.com/articles/bob-dylan-gets-religion-in-the-gospel-years-part-2

Dylan, Bob. “You’re Gonna Serve Somebody” in Slow Train Coming, Columbia Records, 1979.

Johnson, Stephen. “Homiletical Perspective on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Koenig, Sarah. “Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 23, 2009.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-joshua-241-2-14-18-2

O’Brien, Julia M. “Exegetical Perspective on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Wenner, Jann S. “Slow Train Coming,” a record review in Rolling Stone Magazine, September 20, 1979. Accessed online at https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/slow-train-coming-251127/

“Live Forever”

Sabbath Day Thoughts – John 6:51-58

“So Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves. Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. — John 6:53-54

We want to live forever.

Some turn to cryonics in pursuit of immortality.  At death, their bodies or heads are subjected to low-temperature freezing with liquid nitrogen.  Then, they are stored with the speculative hope that advances in science will one day allow them to be resurrected or digitally replicated.  That will cost you about $80,000.

Others, in their quest for prolonged life, resort to calorie restriction.  Citing the evidence of lab animals that live longer when their food intake is cut by half, calorie restrictors limit their daily diet to about 1,400 calories and maintain below-normal body weight.  For a six-foot-tall man, that’s about 144 pounds, for a five-foot six-inch woman, 108 pounds.  They say that their reduced body mass needs less energy to maintain and cuts their risk for age-related disease.

We may roll our eyes at the extreme practices of cryonics and calorie restricting, but we will gladly try whatever the doctor tells us will extend our lives.  We’ll get outside and exercise daily, year after year.  We’ll floss our teeth and eat our veggies. We may even quit smoking, give up red meat, and watch less television.  What have you been doing in pursuit of longevity and that fountain of youth?

In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus told his listeners in the synagogue in Capernaum that anyone who eats his flesh and drinks his blood will live forever.  Jesus’ Jewish listeners found his words both puzzling and repulsive.  To begin with, it sounds like an invitation to cannibalism—Eeeewww!  On top of that, the most essential dietary restriction of the Torah was the prohibition on eating blood.  Blood, the life of an animal, belonged to God alone.  In the Temple, blood was poured out in sacrifice to atone for sins.  In the slaughter of farm animals, blood was covered with earth as a memorial to God.  According to Leviticus seventeen, the person who ate blood was cut off from God and the people.  It is little wonder that those folks in Capernaum were shocked and offended by Jesus’ sermon.

When we hear Jesus’ hard teaching, we need to remember the story of the Israelites, and their forty years of wilderness wandering.  Back then, the people were fed by God, who sent bread and meat from heaven—manna and quails—so that the people might live.  Given that context, we are able to imagine Jesus as bread or manna or flesh, the spiritual food sent from heaven so that we might live.  We also understand that Jesus spoke in metaphor.  When Jesus talked about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we hear in those cryptic words the institution of the Lord’s Supper.  Each month we break the bread and lift the cup—eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ—in remembrance of Jesus.  We further realize that Jesus’ saving death on the cross was like the ultimate outpouring of bloody sacrifice, an offering that atoned for the sins of the world.  When we put that all together, we “get” what Jesus is saying here.  But for “outsiders” like those in the Capernaum synagogue, for outsiders like our unchurched neighbors today, it all sounds like a gruesome and incomprehensible mystery.

Given the public fascination with cryonics, calorie restricting, and daily habits that may promote longevity, it seems that even those of us who get what Jesus is saying, find it hard to trust his promise that we will live forever.  We have had tough experiences of death: the slow and painful demise of parents or the shocking accidental or untimely death of those who are young and vibrant.  We have been traumatized by near-death experiences of our own.  We are skeptical about highly publicized and lucrative accounts of those who have returned from death—from Pastor Todd Burpo’s book Heaven Is for Real to neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s autobiographical work Proof of Heaven.  When it comes to living forever, we wonder.  We peer through a glass dimly.  We won’t truly know until we are there, in the midst of the great what’s next.

Throughout history, the best Christian minds have sought to unravel for us the great mystery of the life eternal.  In the fourth century, John Chrysostum taught about today’s reading from John 6, saying that in Jesus, God became flesh, condescending to live among us.  When we partake in communion, eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, we participate in God’s great, out-reaching love.  We are commingled with Christ—inseparably mixed and joined.  The “life, breath, and fire that terrify the devil” are imparted to us.  We become a part of the life of Christ—and that life is eternal, reaching beyond the grave.

John Calvin in unraveling the mystery of John six eloquently wrote that in “becoming the Son of Man for us, Jesus has made us sons [and daughters] of God with him; that by his descent to earth, Jesus has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that by taking on our mortality, Jesus has conferred his immortality upon us.”  We live forever because in Jesus of Nazareth, God has freely and graciously chosen to open for us the way to eternal life.  How good is that?

I wish that I could tell you exactly what to expect in the great what’s next—hand you a detailed map, or email you a link to click, or paint you a beautiful watercolor—but I haven’t been there.  Yet I find insight and anticipation when I ponder the metaphors that Jesus used to talk about it.  When the Lord warned his disciples of his coming death, he said that he was going to his Father’s House.  Jesus was drawing on the everyday reality of the Beth Ab, the home where many generations gathered under the extended roof of a patriarch and matriarch—elders, adults, children, and grandchildren, unwed aunts, disabled brothers, widows, orphans, slaves, and vulnerable neighbors, all living together with mutual regard and loving care.  Jesus also liked to use the metaphor of the Great Banquet—like the Lord’s Supper on steroids—where all will be gathered in the love and generous hospitality of God, a feast with the finest food, the best conversation, and the greatest of joy.

We know that with the Father’s House and the Great Banquet Jesus was using earthly metaphors to try to describe an incomprehensible, holy reality.  Yet Jesus’ words assure us that in that sweet bye and bye we will be perfectly loved, warmly welcomed, and completely accepted.  We will be totally at home—safe and sound, nurtured, fed, and filled with joy.  I like the sound of that.  If that is what living forever is all about, then I want in.  How about you?

Lord, give us this flesh to eat.  Lord, give us this blood to drink.  Lord, let us live forever.  When we read John’s gospel, we hear, again and again, the way to eternal life.  It’s pretty simple.  We don’t have to be sinless—and according to John Calvin, thanks to our total depravity, we couldn’t be sinless, even if we wanted to be.  We don’t have to undertake heroic works of mission, taking the gospel to drug-infested neighborhoods or to a remote village in the Amazon.  We don’t have to be more pious than anyone else, making the journey of a thousand miles on our knees.  We don’t have to pay $80,000 to be frozen in liquid nitrogen and warehoused until the time is right.  We don’t need to drastically reduce our calorie intake.  We don’t have to floss or give up red meat or shoot for 10,000 steps daily, even though those habits might be good for us.  None of that will make us live forever.

According to John’s gospel, according to Jesus, all that is needed to live forever is belief.  We simply need to trust that a God who loves us enough to become incarnate for us, to live with us, and to die for us, isn’t going to leave us hanging for an eternity.  For God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16).  The “yes” that we speak to God’s immeasurable love for us opens the door to eternity.  It’s that simple.  Does anyone want to share a yes with me this morning?  Let’s hear it.  Yes!

Karoline Lewis, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, reminds us that, for those of us who believe, our eternal life with God has already begun.  We, who wish to live forever, are already on our way.  In our lives as people of faith, as our relationship with Jesus is nurtured in the breaking the bread and lifting the cup, there is “an abiding, a unity, a reciprocity, and oneness.”  Forever is tasted, here and now, as we live with God in the moment.  That is a promise that we can trust for eternity. 

One day, we shall arise in that far brighter light on that far better shore.  The great mystery will come to an end and we will see clearly and know fully the immeasurable love that God has for us.  We’ll walk with the Lord.  We’ll take up residence in the Father’s House.  We’ll find our seat at the Great Banquet.  All will be perfectly and ultimately well.  I hope to see you there.  Amen.

Resources:

Calvin, John.  Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977. 4.xvii.2.

Lewis, Karoline.  “A Living Bread” in Dear Working Preacher, Aug. 9, 2015.  Accessed online at www.workingpreacher.org.

Hendricks, Michael. “The False Science of Cryonics” in MIT Technology Review, Sept. 15, 2015. Accessed online at www.technologyreview.com.

Grabski, Isabella. “Can Calorie Restriction Extend Your Lifespan?” in Science in the News: Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Aug. 2, 2020.  Accessed online at sitn.hms.harvard.edu

Meeks, Wayne. “Exegetical Perspective on John 6:51-58” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Morse, Christopher. “Theological Perspective on John 6:51-58” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.


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“Soul Food”

Sabbath Day Thoughts — John 6:24-35

We live in an increasingly unchurched world, filled with spiritually hungry people.  The Barna Group reports a rapid rise in churchlessness in America. In the 1990s, thirty percent of people indicated that they had no affiliation with a religious community.  A decade later, that number had edged upward to thirty-three percent.  Four years later, the number of churchless people had jumped alarmingly to forty-three percent of Americans.  This year, Gallup reported that, for the first time in eight decades of collecting data on churches, membership has dropped below fifty percent of the population to forty-seven percent.  In the northeast, including places like Saranac Lake, the percentage of people who do not connect with faith communities is likely even higher.  This leap in people who have no religious affiliation encompasses every demographic: men and women; adults, youth, and children; rich and poor; people of every race and ethnicity; those who identify as conservative, moderate, and progressive.

Despite their departure from church, people are spiritually hungry.  They long for a connection to the sacred.  They are eager for deeper meaning and holy purpose.  Two-thirds of the churchless identify as spiritual people.  They believe in God, have a sense that God is at work in the world, and long for an authentic relationship with the Holy.  Fifty-seven percent of those who are churchless insist that faith is “very important in their lives today.”  The connection they seek with God is right up there with family, vocation, and their social network as the most vital and formative aspect of their daily experience.

It’s a paradox.  Traditional religious structures are in decline, but the world is filled with spiritually hungry seekers.  We see them everywhere.  They dabble in the trappings of other faiths.  They hang Tibetan prayer flags.  They burn incense and learn yoga.  They seek the Creator in the creation.  They say they find God on the mountain top or commune with God in the garden.  They seek the fulfillment of their spiritual longing in a quest for personal excellence, hiring life coaches and making best-sellers of the latest New-Age, self-help guides.  If asked, they will say they are spiritual but not religious, as if religion is something distasteful, like lima beans or liver.  But if all the data gathered by the Barna Group and the Gallup poll is correct, those seekers aren’t finding what they need.  Instead, they feel an increasing existential longing.  All that spiritual seeking has failed to satisfy the deepest hunger of their soul.

Our reading from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel describes Jesus’ encounter with a crowd of spiritually hungry people. Just the day before, Jesus had satisfied the hunger of a great crowd of people, multiplying five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000—with twelve baskets of leftovers to spare.  As the spiritually hungry crowd approached Jesus, they were eager for yet another miracle. “What sign are you going to perform?” they asked.  They longed to know that God was still at work in the world.  They needed to believe that, just as God had once provided manna for their ancestors in the wilderness, God was active and engaged in their lives: loving, caring, and meeting their physical needs and deepest longings.

Jesus invited the crowd to go deeper, to look beyond the manna that was provided in the wilderness and the picnic they had enjoyed the day before.  They could eat all the manna, all the barley loaves, and all the dried fish in the world, yet they would still be hungry.  The bread they truly needed was the one whom God had sent into the world to satisfy their deepest hungers.  When the fourth century pastor and theologian John Chrysostum taught on this passage, he put these words in Jesus’ mouth, “It is not the miracle of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.”  In Jesus, God had become the bread of life, entering the world to satisfy their deepest spiritual hunger.  Instinctively, the people knew Jesus to be right, demanding “Give us this bread always!”

Two thousand years later, the faithful minority, whom George Barna would call the “churched,” we continue to feed upon Jesus, the bread of life.  We worship him with praise and thanksgiving.  We feast on him with Bible Study, book groups, and Sunday sermons.  We bring our hopes and dreams, our pain and woe, to him in prayer.  We seek him in community, whether gathering for a Zoom Coffee hour, walking together in a sermon on the trail, or serving him in the least of these who are our neighbors.  When we share in the Lord’s Supper, breaking the bread and lifting the cup, we remember Jesus, the bread of life.  We remember his saving death on the cross, and we remember that Jesus lives in those who go forth to be the Body of Christ, the bread of life for a spiritually hungry world.  17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal taught that, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator made known to us through Jesus.”  We who feast upon the bread of life can testify that God alone can satisfy the spiritual hunger of humanity.

It is likely that when the Barna Group and the Gallup Poll next take the spiritual temper of America, they will find us hungrier than ever.  The COVID-19 Crisis has taken a terrible spiritual toll on humanity.  Mental health professionals have described this past year and a half as a collective experience of trauma that will have long-lasting effects upon us all.  Beyond the deaths of more than 613,000 people, we are experiencing what can only be called a spiritual crisis.  41.5% of us are reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression.  We have sought to fill our deep needs with that which does not satisfy.  We have been drinking heavily and eating too much, with an average reported pandemic weight gain of more than thirty pounds.  We have seen the largest rise in drug overdoses in more than twenty years.  A study by Harvard University of children aged seven to fifteen found that, with the stress and social isolation of the pandemic, two-thirds of our kids had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression.  Now, more than ever, folks of every demographic need the bread of life.  They need to know that God continues to provide manna in the wilderness and bread from heaven and soul food amid the pandemic.

Researchers say that some of the best resources in addressing the present crisis are to be found in places like this, in the churches which people have been leaving in record numbers for decades.  It begins with our connection to that Higher Power, who grants us meaning and purpose, but it is more.  A rich spiritual life, which features daily prayer and reflection, can actually change our brains.  The amygdala is that primal part of our brain that drives us to fight or flee and keeps us in a state of chronic stress.  Scientists say that the amygdala actually shrinks with the cultivation of a daily practice of prayerful spirituality; conversely, the pre-frontal cortex, that portion of our brain that drives higher reasoning and problem solving, gets healthier.  It thickens and grows.  Think about that: being a part of church can actually better equip our brains to respond to crises like COVID-19.

The social engagement of church, the coming together of the body of Christ, is likewise a powerful help in this time of crisis. The church is a network of caring individuals who will love and accept us in all our frailty.  Look around.  These are people who pray for us amid our troubles.  They show up with a casserole when we are too overwhelmed to cook.  They forgive us when we are crabby, critical, and hard-to-love.  They are in our corner, rooting for us, when we feel most at odds with the world.  Caring connections like these are a powerful antidote for our feelings of depression and anxiety.  It seems that church is a lot less like lima beans and liver than the churchless 53% of the population thinks.  Church, as the body of Christ, can be bread for a spiritually hungry world.

Perhaps today, we can hear in a new and breathtakingly relevant way Jesus’ words, “I am the bread of life.  No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again.”  We may live in a spiritually hungry world, but we have Jesus.  We have what is needed to meet that deep need, to fill that “God-shaped vacuum in the heart.”  This week, we could do something real and tangible to address the deep longing that sends our neighbors out in pursuit of prayer flags and life coaches.  We could tell someone about our friend Jesus.  We could pray with a hurting family member.  We could come to church, bring a friend, and sit among those who love us like the Lord does.  We could tune in for Wednesday’s online communion service and feast, once again, upon the bread of life and resolve to go forth as bread for a hungry world.  May it be so.  Amen.

Resources:

George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless. Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2014.

Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup News, March 29, 2021.  Accessed online at news.gallup.com/poll/3341963/

Sparks, O. Benjamin. “Pastoral Perspective on John 6:24-35” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Morse, Christopher. “Theological Perspective on John 6:24-35” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Guynup, Sharon. “Why ‘Getting Back to Normal’ May Actually Feel Terrifying” in National Geographic: Corona Virus Coverage May 20, 2021. Accessed online at national geographic.com.

Hylen, Susan. “Commentary on John 6:24-35” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 5, 2018.  Accessed online at http://www.workingpreacher.org.

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