Sunday, August 23, 2009

Certainty in Uncertainty

Sheepscott Community Church August 23, 2009

1 Kings 8: 1, 6, 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6: 10-20

John 6: 56-69

Certainty in Uncertainty: Holding the Vision

You’ve probably heard this joke before, but bear with me. I’m going to stretch it to cover a point I want to make this morning.

A guy is riding on a train, and as he rides along he is tearing up a paper he has in his lap and throwing the bits out the train window. His compartment mate is looking at him askance, wondering whether he should go down to the club car, the sooner the better, but not before he has to ask, “Why are you doing that?” The reply? “To keep away the elephants.” 

“But there aren’t any elephants,” the man said. “ You see,” the tearer of paper replied, “it’s working!”

We have our little rituals, charms, and habits––whether we’re conscious of them or not––that we think enable us to get through the day. What I suggest to you today is that there is no need to depend on charms of any kind, that it is possible to be able to not just get through the day but to be able to rejoice in the day without knowing what the day holds, what the rest of your life holds; to rejoice in the day without tearing up pieces of paper or anything else to keep at bay whatever it is that we ponder with fear in the night. You know this is finally going to be Jesus, don’t you? No big secret, but let’s see how we get there today.

Two weeks ago when I gave a message about putting the car in reverse when we find ourselves on a wrong road, and not continuing on just because we want to see something through or to save face, when I gave that message, Bill Weary had an interesting counter to that message that I want to touch on this morning. He noted that there are also roads to the unknown that we start down that we would do well to continue on, to perhaps discover our destiny, or something we had not known before, which we will not discover otherwise.

And I want to go in that direction, down the unknown road, this morning. But before we do, I would talk about discernment, which is one of the gifts of the Spirit. Discernment enables us to distinguish, to discern what is of God and what is not of God. It is an element of the gift of wisdom. It is essential when we are making life decisions that we prayerfully, thoughtfully, carefully discern a plan of action, a way or direction forward.

As an example of what happens when we do not exercise prayerful discernment, think of Jim Jones and his followers in the equatorial jungles of Guiana in South America back in 1978. 909 people died when they drank the Kool-Aid, a saying that sadly entered the language at the time, and which indicated the absence of thoughtful discernment, the pitching headlong down the wrong road, following a charismatic leader in a lemming-like way. A twentieth-century Pied Piper of Hamlin, only this was no fairy tale; it was tragically real.

If Jim Jones’s followers had discerned before they left California that the situation was something that had to be closely looked at, if they had talked among themselves and ideally with others outside of that closed group, the outcome might have been very different. Did anyone have misgivings?

The point at which we stop our car and back it up, so to speak, is when Jones’ followers might have decided not to board the plane for South America. It is the same point that the disciples of Jesus have reached in this morning’s gospel. It really is a watershed moment. If you recall from last week’s gospel, Jesus has just announced and repeats in this morning’s gospel, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” A hard saying, difficult to take in, repulsive even. And indeed his disciples said, one to another, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Jesus knew they were grumbling, and said to them, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” Nothing he said convinced some of them, and so from that point many of the disciples turned back and did not follow him anymore. They did put the car in reverse and back up off this road they had been tentatively following down, having trusted in what they had seen and heard: the healings, the water into wine, the multiplied fish and loaves of bread, the wonderful down-home teachings. But now, this new word. It was more than they could take. It was an insult to their intelligence and their sensibilities. As Jesus asked them, “Does this word offend you?” And of course it did. Mightily. They were refusing to understand something in a new way and to accept what they could not understand. 

Note that there were many disciples beyond the Twelve, who were later called the apostles. By definition, a disciple is one who attends upon another for the purpose of learning from him; a pupil or a scholar, and in this context, Christ is the teacher, all of his followers, the disciples. Apostle by contrast is one sent, a messenger, applied preeminently to Christ as the one sent of God, and after that to his twelve selected followers, who were witnesses, they themselves in turn sent as messengers of the new Way taught by Jesus.

Jesus asked the Twelve if they too would leave, and Peter spoke for all of them when he said, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” And so he was, which was the biggest contrast with a tyrant like Jim Jones, whose interest was in controlling people, exercising power over, something Jesus never did. Jesus never coerced; he always invited and lived the life he talked about. Leading by example.

It was yes, the belief, but especially the knowledge that could provide the wherewithal of vision necessary to keep the whole group of them going forward, following Jesus down an unknown road. We believe and know. Each of those men in his heart––and the women followers who were also with them but are not mentioned in this passage––each of those in his or her heart had to make the decision whether to continue to take a chance on this charismatic leader––and he didn’t make it any easier by talking this way, did he? What must others think about us as his followers? They were no less conscious of others’ opinions than we are now. 

The Twelve did stay with him. As Peter said, “To whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” Understand that that decision was more difficult for them in a way than it might be for us because there was no history, no religion, no tradition had yet built up around Jesus. He was the nominal head of Jewish sect, seen as a troublemaker by Jewish leaders. If it was more difficult in that sense for the early followers, it was also perhaps easier in another way. Here they had the living man to listen to, to look at, to watch in his amazing feats, to learn from. While some were wondering out loud if he was the expected Messiah who would free them from Rome’s rule, he was only one. There were others who were being evaluated in that same light. When people are anxious for deliverance, whether from economic woes, religious persecution, the threats of and oppression of war, messiahs of many stripes will rise up and be acclaimed in the various areas of human striving, suffering, fears and success. Jesus was one, a special One, granted, but only one of many.

But are history and tradition enough to make us choose to go down the road after this Christ, who may be the answer we have been looking for to counteract those night fears, to help us make meaning of a life that has lost its meaning because of no defining employment; because of a relationship lost; because of a sapping illness, whether physical or mental; because of a tangle of hostility in our family that makes the day-to-day existence a trial if not downright unbearable? Can this Christ be the answer? Is this the road?

Well, I have my answers of the moment, and it is by those I live from day to day. But those are not your answers. You yourself have to ponder these words of Jesus, as the disciples did; some remained, some left.  Do we even want to be that close to someone, that when we take in that one––even if it is words of spirit, as Jesus said––do we want to seem to surrender our autonomy by such a personal invasion of our space, or what we consider our space?

I think each of us can ask for an experience of Jesus that can provide life-giving vision over a lifetime, that will give us a focus, a reminder when we begin to forget why we are doing this worship thing, why we come to church at all. Is it just tearing up those pieces of paper and tossing them out the window, just in case, just in case. Are we simply hedging our bets by coming here, by trying to live a good life? I think we deserve to ask ourselves this question before God and can also ask for an answer, a more defined assurance that it is not all for nothing. I can almost guarantee you’re not going to have the St. Paul experience of being knocked off your horse, although that’s possible. However, I can guarantee without qualification that right now in this moment, you are intimately, completely known and loved by the God of the universe, who we call by any number of names, and who has been called even more names through the ages, as in Isaiah 9: Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. We as a worshipping church have come to know him through the immediacy of Jesus. And how do we know Jesus, except by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit of the living God who moves among us. 

Incidentally some have wondered why we use the word “Spirit” now rather than “Ghost,” as it was formerly––the Holy Ghost. As I understand it, that change was instituted across the denominations about 25 years ago, simply because of the freight that the word ghost had come to carry, not the least part of which was that it frightened small children. No need to introduce that kind of fear around God; there’s plenty of other fear without that as well.

Anyway, we are still milling around on the road to nowhere, trying to decide, as some of the disciples did, whether to follow Jesus down that road, or, as some other disciples did, to turn back. I am encouraging you, if you do not have conviction enough to go forward, wherever you might be in your faith walk, to ask the Spirit of God to give you that level of conviction, so you’re not just spinning your wheels, but actually progressing in your life with God, your spiritual life. This vision will be attuned to you; only you will recognize the earmarks because it is customized for you. The caveat is that you have to care enough to be looking and listening for the Lord, who will reveal himself, in the scripture, through another person or circumstance, in worship, at the communion, in a random moment when you are walking along the street, thinking about something else. 

The key is to keep your heart right, as best you can. When the judgment against another comes in, when you slip into self-pity, when the grudge mode surfaces again, send those things packing. You, we can do that in and with our free wills all the time. That business is totally ours to do. When we do choose to keep our hearts right before God, we make a way for the revelation or refinement or extension of our personal vision, a vision that can keep us on the road following Jesus.

I have thought when I have read Peter’s response, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I have thought when I’ve read that that it sounds like Peter was shrugging his shoulders. What else were they going to do? Their fishing business was all but kaput. They had already tossed their nets on his side of the boat. It doesn’t sound like there was any joy in his response, only resignation in faith, although tinged perhaps with a bit of remembered awe.

We can ask for our own basis for awe so that we have something, which, while insubstantial because it is of the spirit, is yet substantial in that same sense, enough to carry us along, to carry us through. And then you have to walk in the light of that vision that has been given to you and not compare yourselves with others or judge them. Their vision is between them and God. You can never be the same after the unveiling of truth, and if that has not yet happened for you, seek it with all your heart and it will be given.

That watershed moment will mark you as going forward as a truer disciple––or not. While there is no certainty about the course ahead, there is certainty about the One we are following, and we continue in that following––again––in the light of the vision that has been given us. It is not to idolize the vision, but to check in from time to time to assure ourselves that yes, this is true, and that is true, and God has given me this gift to remember, and I can go forward, while much in the world clamors against my going forward. 

In relation to this idea, there was a phrase repeated twice in the first reading: “toward this place.” Solomon prayed to God, “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place.”

The parallel I make here is not idolizing our personal vision that keeps us going, whatever form it takes or took, but that just as Solomon asks that God hear the prayer of the people as they pray towards the Temple, so we can turn in the direction of that interior vision which is in our inner Temple, where we commune with God, whenever we need a booster of our faith. That vision will in turn lead us back to prayer through Christ. 

So, while tearing up bits of paper might ensure that the elephants don’t come in one person’s cosmology, we can have infinitely greater assurance that trusting prayer in the leadership of Jesus, in the sense that Peter recognized it––”to whom else shall we go?”––we can trust that prayer in and to that one will guide us on all unknown roads, including that last road. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eat My Flesh?

Sheepscott Community Church August 16, 2009

1 Kings 2: 10-12; 3: 3-14

John 6: 51-58

Eat My Flesh?

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The reading from First Kings sets us up nicely for today’s message. The young Solomon, who has succeeded his father David as King of Israel, has a dream in which God tells him to ask for what he wants, and God will give it to him. Solomon points out that he is a mere child and does not know how to govern such a great people as these are. He asks God for a discerning heart, for wisdom to distinguish between right and wrong and thereby to govern this people effectively. Solomon recognized his own poverty, not in relation to the wealth of the world––he had plenty of that––but in relation to experience. Because he knew himself poor, God could work with that. Solomon knew that he needed the wits and wisdom of God in order to do his job.

We need that wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, and the generosity of imagination of Jesus to consider today’s gospel. This is that outrageous gospel wherein Jesus says to the disciples, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” We’ll hear in next week’s gospel how disturbed many of Jesus’s followers were to hear him use such language. What he was saying was the basis of one of the hot-button issues in the late medieval church: transubstantiation. And for good reason it was a hot-button issue: it defined an idea that conjured cannibalism or vampirism in some minds.

The term transubstantiation means the change of the substance of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, a literal understanding of Jesus’s words at the Last Supper. “Take and eat; this is my body. Take and drink; this is my blood.” The term itself, which was not used until the eleventh century, was codified in its meaning at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and later at the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, called to counteract the Reformation. As a result of the Protestant Reformation, Many of the reformers and the reformed refused to accept this literal interpretation of the words of Jesus and rather saw them as figurative. They also compared the words of Jesus with other quotations in scripture that broadened understanding away from that literalness. However, even the general Protestant view does not regard the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper as common bread and wine, but respects them as symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

When I was doing background reading for this sermon, I was struck by the thought, What difference does it make whether we view the Communion as this or as that? How important is it that one belief prevail over another?Just as each of us has our own ideas about God, depending on our backgrounds, including religious upbringing––or not––cultural mores, and world view, so each one of us acts out of a given understanding of communion, that may have been learned through instruction, experience or by osmosis. We may call it Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the sacramental meal. Might not God, who is myriad and yet One, might not God be glorified in these myriad expressions of belief that are finally one under the headship of the chosen One, Jesus? Indeed in whose name we share the communion, whether commemoratively or transubstantively at all?

The endless discussions, arguments and writings on the question of communion raised by Jesus’s language in today’s gospel and at the Last Supper, are all valuable because they provide an opportunity for the clarification of our own personal thought and belief. To clarify thought around this extraordinary idea of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, I’m going to employ the wisdom of a good doctor, the poet William Carlos Williams. In last week’s sermon, I discussed faith healing and the reluctance of some who depend on that to admit the opinions and practice of medical doctors. As I stated then, all healing in all its forms, from all its sources, finally comes from God. 

Also in the sermon, I asked that we be willing to face suffering, alleviating it where and when we can, and recognizing that we cannot always alleviate it. Recall King David weeping on the floor in the room above the gate of the city, when his insurrectionist son Absalom was killed. Remember too the image of Mary holding the dead Christ in her arms, the Pieta of Michelangelo. Too late for David and Absalom, too late for Mary and Jesus. All those grieving parents could do was to face and be in and hold the suffering.

This is where William Carlos Williams comes in, where he can be viewed as a kind of bridging figure, providing focus on one hand for the communion and what constitutes it, and on the other hand, about suffering and how to view it. Dr. Williams, who won a Pulitzer for his poetry collection Paterson, was a general practitioner and pediatrician in New Jersey for many years. When asked how he could be both writer and doctor, both of which are all-consuming professions, he answered that as a writer he had never felt that medicine interfered with him, but rather, it was his very food and drink, the very thing which made it possible for him to write. Interesting use of food and drink in that context of healing and artistic expression. Communion maybe?

Before I go on, I should note for those younger members of the congregation that in Dr. Williams’ days of practice, through the late ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, doctors made house calls. Many of us remember our doctors, knocking at the door with their black bags with the dreaded hypodermic needle inside. 

In Williams’s own words, “It’s the humdrum, day-in, day-out everyday work that is the real satisfaction of the practice of medicine; the patients a man has seen on his daily visits over a forty-year period of weekdays and Sundays that make up his life. I have never had a money practice,” and here I would guess that he means he had never been a specialist, which is pretty much where all the money in medicine lies, “it would have been impossible for me,” he said. 

“But the actual calling on people, at all times and under all conditions, the coming to grips with the intimate conditions of their lives, when they were being born, when they were dying, watching them die, watching them get well when they were ill, has always absorbed me.” It sounds like Dr. Williams partook of the same wisdom of God that Solomon shared, except his was bent in the direction of healing and poetry, while Solomon’s, by his request, was bent in the direction of governing.

Just a few more sentences of Williams himself. In speaking again of his patients, he wrote, “I lost myself in the very properties of their minds: for the moment at least I actually became them, whoever they should be, so that when I detached myself from them at the end of a half hour of intense concentration over some illness which was affecting them, it was as though I was reawakening from a sleep. For the moment I myself did not exist; nothing of myself affected me. As a consequence I came back to myself, as from any other sleep, rested.”

That sounds so much like communion to me because it sounds like the hands-on application of the theology of the Body of Christ. When we forget ourselves and are fully with another, we are communion for one another. We become, we are the flesh and blood of the Body of Christ. 

On Wednesday night at the community supper at Second Congregational Church, where Sheepscott Community Church serves on the second Wednesday of the month with membrs of South Bristol Congregational, Clara Fagan dropped a line that opened up my own understanding of this sermon I was working on, and I share that line with you. By the way, the choir sang for the first time at the supper, for their supper, under Carroll’s direction on Wednesday. Anyway, Clara, speaking of one of the pieces of the choir’s music, said she had left [the music for] “All the Riches of His Grace” in church. I thought, No! No! Here you are. Here you all are, the riches of his grace, out through the church doors and in the street, so to speak. You have become the flesh and blood of Christ, fed to the folks at the supper at Second Congregational in service and in song, as surely as the chicken legs, hot dogs and sald are fed out.. Are you transubstantiated, as it were? Changed into the flesh and blood of Christ, to be fed to others? That’s one way to think about it.

Another story along that line is one I overheard Lily Mayer telling someone following the service last week. It concerned Vernon, a physically challenged older man who walks daily along Route 130 in the Damariscotta-Bristol Mills area. He doesn’t hitchhike, but folks, like Lily, often stop to give him a ride. When we talked about this at the supper the other night, Peter, one of the patrons of the supper, said that he too had picked up Vernon and given him a ride more than once. This is the practice of community, knowing who is out there and what the needs are, and responding to those needs, and the only way we can know that is by being out there.

Anyway, back to Lily. She engaged Vernon in conversation, and found out that he has two bad knees, and the walking is getting more and more difficult. I’ve heard Lily say before how she experiences the Body of Christ: it is in one another. Surely she was that to her companion in travel that day, as Peter has been as well. And Vernon was the same for them. How different is that from Doctor Williams, so completely absorbed in his patients that he entirely forgot himself. Another quotation of his that seems applicable here in relation to Lily and Peter and their passenger: “Let the successful carry off their blue ribbons; I have known the unsuccessful, far better persons than their lucky brothers.” Our poverty before God comes in different forms.

Like Elijah waiting to see God in the cleft of the rock where God has placed him, we do not experience God usually in the all-consuming fire, in the great wind that crushes the rocks, but in the still small whispering voice. There is God. As Williams has it, and as I would suggest Lily does as well, “We catch a glimpse of something from time to time, which shows us that a presence has just brushed past us, some rare thing––just when the smiling little Italian woman––or Vernon with his bad knees––has left us. For a moment we are dazzled. What was that? We can’t name it,” says Williams. Never one to shirk a challenge, I would counter that we can name it: it is the presence of Christ in the world, his very flesh and blood in us, as we are with one another. 

Psalm 27 includes the lines, “Come,” says my heart. “Seek God’s face.” In fact, show me your face has been the cry of mystics to God through the ages. Look at one another. There is the face of God. There is communion, the body and blood of Christ in its fullest and realest sense. 

It seems so simple, and yet synods and conferences and councils through the ages have constructed dialectics, which are arbitrary systems, which since all systems are mere inventions, is necessarily in each case a false premise, upon which a closed system is built, shutting those who confine themselves to it away from the rest of the world. All people in one way or another use a dialectic of some sort into which they are shut. It can be any country, any group of people. So each group is limited or maimed even by this shutting up and off from others. Each group is enclosed in its own dialectic cloud and for that reason, we wage wars and have pride over the most superficial things and ideas. 

Even as I say that, I recoup what I said earlier about the value of arguing and positing positions on all matters, including and perhaps especially theological matters. There’s value in delineating our beliefs, even if it’s just for ourselves. It’s fun and important for the clarification of thought. However, when those arguments result in entrenchment and division of people, one from another, then it is necessary to return to the source, who is One, to be replenished and further enlightened. We do that with one another in worship and especially in the communion, and we do it in our private prayer where God listens and responds and restores. Let us seek the renewal of our own minds, to unstick ourselves from the ruts of our thinking. Let us become new.

This morning, following the service, Maia Alexandra Clancy, this precious little baby will become new––a newly baptized member of the Body of Christ. We would do well, as we thank God for this little one in our midst, we would do well to ask God to renew us, even as we pray for Maia and for her family. What an opportunity we have to celebrate together another sacrament, that of baptism.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Faith Healing: An Argument for Common Sense

Sheepscott Community Church August 9, 2009

2 Samuel 18: 5-9; 15, 31-33

John 6: 35, 41-51

Faith Healing: An Argument for Common Sense

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On Monday this past week I  rendezvoused with Paul Rice the piano tuner, who is becoming a regular visitor to our church community, and led him over to Karin Swanson’s house. He had agreed to evaluate her piano as a possible replacement instrument for the Valley Church piano, which has played its last Christmas service. Karin offered the gift of the piano of her childhood to the church for its use. A great gift.

As I headed along the Sheepscot Road toward Damariscotta, I tried to remember, was it the first or second driveway on the right? I opted for the second with Paul close behind and drove down a dirt track, grass growing in the center. About a quarter mile down the road I knew, this isn’t right. Karin’s house is not that far in off the road. The question: to continue on in hope of a turnaround further on and to make absolutely sure it wasn’t Karin’s long driveway, or to stop and fess up to the apparent mistake and back out, not saving face––too late for that––but saving any more of Paul’s precious time. That’s what I did. Paul was gracious, as he has proven in the past, and after correcting the error, we found Karin’s house and the piano.

What I want to focus on from this brief vignette is the importance of reversing direction when we find ourselves on the wrong road, and not to keep pushing ahead in an unrealistic hope that somehow everything will magically work out. No, put the car in reverse and back up. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Back up and recover the right direction. Never mind if it’s embarrassing. There’s no telling what we might be avoiding even as we suffer a bit of embarrassment about actually not being perfect.

This little story opens into another story that I’ve read in the paper in the last week, which story concerned me enough to build a sermon on it. Did anyone read about the man and wife out in Wisconsin who with friends prayed for the couple’s daughter to be healed? All well and good; I am a strong proponent of the efficacy of prayer for healing and have seen the positive effects in my own and others’ lives. In this case however, the 11-year-old daughter Madeline was suffering from undiagnosed diabetes. She couldn’t walk, talk, eat or drink, and her father, Dale Neumann, thought she had a flu or fever and testified that he never expected his daughter would die. He believed God would heal his daughter, as God promises in the Bible to heal.

“If I go to the doctor,” Mr. Neumann reportedly testified, “I am putting the doctor before God. I am not believing what he said he would do.” That attitude does not recognize that healing in all its forms and from all its sources, comes from God. Mr. Neumann’s interpretation of God’s thought about healing is just that: a private interpretation that is rigid and emanates from a view of God as a demanding father, ready to punish the disobedient child––in this case Neumann himself––if he does not  continue on in unwavering faith down that dirt road toward an unguaranteed destination. 

I cannot help picturing in my mind’s eye Abraham, ready to slaughter his son Isaac because he believed that is what God was asking him to do. He was ready to sacrifice his own son. I have suggested before when we have discussed this scripture that what was more likely going on there was God trying to teach Abraham something new, that the slaughter or sacrifice of children, of human beings, which was a common practice in the land of Canaan, when Abraham resettled from Ur, was not what God desired. God is saying No, this is not pleasing to me. This is not what I am asking for. Instead an angel of the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and, as the story goes, a ram was provided for the sacrifice. 

Although the jury in Mr. Neumann’s case did not make any reference to the Abraham story, they, like God, decided for the child, and because this is a case of criminal justice and not divine justice, there is a different outcome. No alternative victim could take Madeline’s place, as the ram had taken Isaac’s, but like Abraham, perhaps Mr. Neumann will have learned something new from this sad incident. He was found guilty  of second-degree reckless homicide in his daughter’s death, as was his wife in an earlier trial. Their case is believed to be the first in the state of Wisconsin that involved faith healing in which someone died and another person was charged with homicide. 

Last month, a jury in Oregon convicted a man of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment for relying on prayer instead of seeking medical care for his 15-month-old daughter who died of pneumonia and a blood infection. He and his wife were acquitted of a more serious manslaughter charge.

If any of those parents raised up the specter of Abraham as a justification for their own perseverance in praying for healing for their daughters, I would want to encourage them to think about God in a different way, as the provider of the alternative means, i.e., Jesus. Don’t kill the child in some idolatrous exercise  of obedience that you ascribe to me. I see the model of that aspect of the God of the Old Testament as the same One carried over in understanding to the New Testament, the God who requires the death of Jesus in order to make atonement for a sinful world. I imagine that God as more like David in his heartbreakingly sad mourning for his wayward son Absalom, who was about the business of wresting the kingdom away from his father. Did David love his son the less for that? No. He knew as a politician, a warrior and ruler that he had to deal with the insurrection, but as we heard in this morning’s reading, he took precautions as a father to make sure that the young man was not hurt or killed. Unfortunately he did not have the power to control the outcome, regardless of the precautions.

Hear his lament again, and tell me that God’s lament over his Son crucified, over all his lost children, lost in whatever pain and for whatever reason, is any less poignant. “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you––O Absalom, my son, my son!” We who have children, especially grown children who are beyond our power to “save,” if I can use the word, can relate to David’s anguished lament. In prayer recently with a woman whose adult daughter is not putting her car into reverse as she continues to careen down that road that leads to nowhere, I thought of the image of Michelangelo’s Pieta, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, holding the body of her dead son. The anguish matches that of David’s lament, but for Mary, it is beyond words and eloquently captured by the genius of the sculptor.

I believe this wordless image of Mary and Jesus, and this anguished lament of David, bespeak the God whom we worship more than the lightning bolt tosser who demands his pound of flesh, demands an obedience, which in the two cases cited, resulted in the death of innocent victims. God was teaching Abraham something new, and I think these contemporary narrations are teaching us anew the same lesson. As it says in Hosea 6:6: “It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice.” * Jesus quoted that line from  the prophet Hosea at least twice. The first time was shortly after he had called Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him. Because he was eating with tax collectors and sinners, he scandalized the pharisees, who said to Jesus’s followers, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’’’

Did those parents show mercy? Even as I ask that, I know it’s unmerciful on my part to be asking the question in the face of their loss, but I think this is an important issue about the role of obedience in relation to scripture. Our beliefs can sometimes blind us to the suffering in front of us. An ideology based on punishment for disobedience, and that obedience called for by laws external to the individual, such an ideology leaves little room for a wider more generous interpretation of life and its meaning, of God and his love. 

For those parents, they thought they were being obedient to the God of scripture who would heal, and they refused any adjustment of their view of God that would have allowed the intervention of other healers, those doctors, who, like Jesus, care about the sick and use all means at their disposal to heal. The wise medical doctor does not dispense with divine healing but knows that the origins and impetus for the body’s healing is a mysterious something that he or she finally can not explain or necessarily understand. Sometimes it takes years of mellowing through practice before the good doctor knows that she or he does not know. But humility before mystery does win out in the end and makes the best doctors and scientists and people generally.

Everything is subordinated to love, which is to say, to God. It’s so hard to get out from under the punishing view and image of God, when we were raised with it. But we have to be willing to learn more, to learn something new about God, as Abraham did. That God is more like the grieving David crying out for his son Absalom than he is the removed lawgiver who demands the blood of his own son to satisfy for sin. This is a tall thinking order I’m giving you here, but I do lay it on the table.

I want to hold up King David in his humanity again , to help us to understand what it was about him that God loved so much and to be inspired by that. In joy he danced before the Lord, with complete abandon, not caring what others thought or said about him. His joy was in the Lord and the dance was for the Lord.

As fully did he give himself over to lust and the fulfillment of that lust with his faithful soldier Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. His lust led to the murder of an innocent man. David did nothing halfway, and that included his repentance, when he was convicted by the prophet Nathan of his sin.

And now this week, we see David in the extreme throes of grief, in agony over the loss of his son Absalom. His bereavement is complete, as with everything else about this larger-than-life figure who is yet so accessible to us because we recognize our own weaknesses and strengths in him. I believe it was because David was himself, fully human, that God loved him. He didn’t pretend that he was anything other than what he was, but with all of what he was––shepherd, harpist, warrior, leader, friend to Jonathan, king with all its trials and privileges, sinner, father, husband, adulterer––with all of these titles and aspects, he was himself before God. God loved him and forgave him again and again, because he repented, and raised up after him a heritage in Israel. 

Ten generations after David, Jesus was born in his line. The savior in the line of David. If David went down a dirt road in the wrong direction, and he surely did do that when he pursued Bathsheba, but moreso when he committed the sin of the spirit in plotting to get rid of Uriah, if he hurtled down that road to nowhere––and he did––he also slammed on the brakes and jammed that car into reverse when Nathan the prophet convicted him of his sin. He repented. He repented. That’s the most ordinary way to reverse a course, as I did when trying to find Karin’s driveway. 

Those parents, when they saw that their children were not getting better with prayer, continued down that dirt road, acting out of a mistaken idea that God would be displeased if they sought medical help. That attitude about an angry Father God, waiting for us to trip up so he can punish us, is idolatry at its worst because others suffer for it. The attitude begs for the exercise of common sense and mercy in relation to those children who were dependent on those parents to make good decisions about their, the children’s lives. God willing they and we can learn from the sad loss of those young lives.   

I believe that when people are subordinated to an ideology, an idea, the quality of mercy does become strained because others cease to really see the suffering of the person. The idea is all that matters. Jesus bursts through that model the way high school football players burst through those paper barriers at the beginning of football games––at least in the movies. He has no patience with that. He, who willingly gave his life, his very flesh for the world by his free choice, not by his Father’s demand, reminded the pharisees and reminds us, It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice. 

Let me conclude with one last story. Two sisters were on their way to school. They had left home that important five minutes later than usual and were afraid they would be late to school. “Let’s pray we won’t be late,” said one. “Fine, but let’s run while we’re praying,” said the other.

Like those sisters running and praying, we too can seek out the doctor’s help and also pray. Then, when we know we have done everything in our power, we can be at peace and more readily accept any and every outcome. Amen.   

Sunday, August 2, 2009

I Am the Bread of Life

Sheepscott Community Church

2 Samuel 11: 26 -12: 13a

Ephesians 4: 1-16

John 6: 24-35

I Am the Bread of LIfe

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“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” What good news on a Sunday morning, and we are all here to hear that good news. Beyond that hearing of the word, we will together consume the living word on this Communion Sunday. Jesus has not left us orphans. He gives us his Spirit again and again, and this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to remember him by.

Is that reason enough to come to church? As if that weren’t enough, we partake of this good life, of the Bread of Life himself, in each other’s company and through each other’s company. At times I regret that there aren’t more of us here to celebrate the mysteries of the Christian faith. It isn’t the idea of numbers per se. It is the idea, the fact that we would all of us be better off, the more of us who come together to share and worship, as in, the more the merrier.

Each of us has a unique calling and the gifts that attend that calling, which we bring with us wherever we go, including to church. As is recorded in Ephesians, which we heard read this morning, we come together “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.... From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

And what is that work of God? While our members are not on the street corners of Alna and Newcastle and Walpole handing out Bible tracts, Lily, Sylvia, Dot, and Sonnie were on the sidewalks of Damariscotta last week––maybe even with sandwich boards, I don’t know––selling the church cookbooks. And they sold over 30 of them at Serendipity and in front of Yellowfront. I think these women could sell irrigation systems in Maine this summer, that’s how effective they are as salespeople. Why? Because they are a witness of contagious joy, and who wouldn’t want to be part of that? For my money the joy of their fellowship is better than a thousand bible tracts, worthy as the word is. They, these women, are the living word, proof that Christ is alive and well on planet earth. I can attest that you only have to spend five minutes with any one of these women to find yourself in a celebratory mood, with no birthdays in sight, just as a result of the joy they spread. Evangelism comes in many forms, and their witnessing with cookbooks in hand through the fun they have is evangelism at its best.

But all that is beside the point. What they do, what they did is for the church, which is to say, for us. And speaking of us, Bill Ussery was the first one to volunteer selling two weeks ago, our neighbor from the South, who with his wife Shirley, joins us for summer worship. What a generous spirit this couple shares with us.

And what about George and Ted? They have agreed to join our choir-beyond-all-choirs to share their voices with us, to enhance the worship. If we share our gifts with each other, whether salesmanship, a happy heart, a beautiful voice, if we share the Christian life together, and not just on Sunday, we become increasingly aware of each other through the week, thinking about each other, praying for each other, remembering the laughter, and the tears, that made us feel like  family and make us a family. A worshiping family of brothers and sisters in the worldwide family of God. And we’ll want others to join us. Come, come and see what we have. The Bread of Life, the living word, who is among us, who is in us.

But is it all smiles and sunshine? No. We have only to look at this morning’s first reading from Second Samuel, wherein the prophet Nathan confronts King David about his sin in taking Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah deliberately set up to be slain in battle. The writer does this through an allegory about a ewe lamb, the one treasure of the poor farmer taken by the wealthy man who owned a large number of sheep and cattle. David “burned with anger,” as the scripture says, against the wealthy man, and when Nathan told him that he, David, was that man, he was immediately convicted of his sinfulness, and humbled. He said, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

The line is reminiscent in feeling of the line delivered by Eli, the high priest in the temple at the time the prophet Samuel was a boy and received his first word from God. If you recall, Eli demanded that Samuel tell him everything that the Lord had spoke n to him or thus- and-so would be done to the boy. Reluctantly but fearing whatever constituted that thus-and-so, Samuel told the old man that God was displeased with the sinful acts of Eli’s sons and with Eli’s failure to restrain them, and that God’s judgment would be on that house forever. With what sounded like a shrug of the shoulders, Eli said to Samuel, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

With both men, there is a recognition of their own sinfulness and an acceptance without complaint of whatever will follow. No self-defensive posturing. When we are in a difficult place, suffering from the results of our own bad choices or foolishness, or, as likely suffering from the bad choices or foolishness of someone we love, it is an inestimable consolation to come to church, to be with others who are, well, human, and understand the essential sadness and joy, beauty and sacredness of the condition. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here. To be able to give a sign of peace to one another, to look into the eyes of another and know, yes, this one understands. And that is not an illusion, or wishful thinking. That is the Body of Christ in action, alive and well in this church today on the hill in Sheepscot, Maine. 

We have chosen to be here rather than in any number of other places we could be, and God is blessing us for that coming, for choosing God rather than something else. How can we begrudge that God who loves us to no less distraction than he loved David, how can we begrudge that One our listening presence? We are all on the way to surrendering our lives more and more completely to this God who loves us and who can be trusted with us. What makes our journey toward greater and greater surrender to Christ, the fulfillment of which is termed sanctification, whereby Christ does not  put something into us, but is himself in us––what makes our journey toward sanctification possible and immeasurably more fun is that we do it in each other’s company. Otherwise we could degenerate into self-righteous scrupulosity that is no fun at all. We make it more possible for one another, easier, more desirable even. We are sinners together who forgive one another, and so, can believe we can be forgiven by God, recognizing our human condition as part of the larger holiness of existence, despite our stumbles along the way. 

Van Gogh, whose death day was on July 29, expressed a desire to paint in men and women something of that quality of eternity which used to be symbolized formerly by a halo. If he were here, I think he would see the shimmering halos everywhere. You may think me a fool; if I knew who you really were, I would not say such things. Ah, but I have glimmers of who you are and would say the same, with van Gogh, again and again. Halos all around. People trying to live good lives. People coming together to accept one another as they are, to love one another into greater life.

We are the Body of Christ. And we do build each other up, and we do that in each other’s company. We have this great gift of the communion that Jesus left us to remember him by, and which we will share this morning. Let us remember when we eat the bread and drink the cup, the great work which we, no less than the apostles are called to do: to embody Christ on this earth, for us ourselves to thereby become, the bread of life. To bring his healing love abroad, and by that I don’t necessarily mean Mexico, Haiti, Africa or the Philippines. I mean abroad in our own households, our own neighborhoods, on the streets of Damariscotta, not to discount foreign missions; far be it from me to say we aren’t called there. My point is that service is here and now, in front of our faces, whatever opportunities God presents, and we will recognize those opportunities as our lives are increasingly surrendered to God because we will have the Christ mind.

That involves saying, yes, okay God. Whatever you want, I trust you. I cast my lot with you. Living my life under my own steam has produced fruit but it is worm-eaten fruit. I want to bear good fruit, the best fruit I can bear. And I need your life in me to do that. 

And you don’t have to do it alone. Here we are. All of us here are on your side, cheering you on, needing you to be one with us even as you are one with God, and we will help you on your way, by praying for you, sharing with you, loving you, and we trust that you will do the same for us. Take and eat, this is my body. Take and drink, this is my blood. This is my communion, my community.

I have said this before, and I continue to believe that God is doing a great work in this church at this time, and we are all invited to make it happen, to be part of it. What a privilege. By God’s grace, may we come to see it that way: as a gift and privilege and not a burden. Amen.