2,300 years ago, Aristotle said that every good story needs to have three things: a beginning, a middle, and an end. As in drama, so in life. And in our scripture reading this morning there’s a whole lot about beginnings, middles, and endings. Jesus talks specifically about how and where we get stuck in (what I’m calling) the three acts of spiritual transformation.
Now, all my procrastinators—where are my procrastinators at? We all know that getting started is the hardest part, right? Especially if it’s a big project, especially if it’s going to require some sort of conflict or change or pain in my life, it’s easy to find something else to do for a little while—or maybe even for years. It’s easy to get stuck before we even really begin.
But anyone who’s ever walked out of a movie halfway through, or put down a novel 100 pages in and never picked it back up again knows that it’s the second act (in stories and in life) where things most often get bogged down—where we lose hope that the path we’re on is going to be worth whatever payoff the ending might hold for us.
And as anyone who’s ever tried to get back into shape knows—that first mile of that first jog—man!—I feel great; I’m like 20-years old out there! That second mile—my body starts flailing and shaking like a middle-aged body. And somewhere around that third mile, I get a cramp, and I just lie right down. Right? Sometimes, even with the finish line in sight, we can still fall down and give up. Sometimes, the final mile is the hardest one. So, in a spiritual journey, in our walk with God, what’s it like getting stuck at the beginning, the middle, and the end, and how do we get unstuck?
Now, I can’t imagine a better image for getting stuck at the beginning of something than trying to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle: the biggest, humpiest, stubbornest thing you can think of trying to go through the smallest opening you’ve ever seen. If I brought you a camel and a needle, and I said, “Get to work!” you’d have to be nuts to even try. And nobody’s ever going to bring you a camel halfway through the eye of a needle and say, “Well, I gave it my best shot, but I just can’t figure this thing out.” Jesus intentionally chooses an image that is impossible—that no sane person would even attempt.
Maybe you’ve had some experience in your life, some task, some project, some problem, some dream that you just couldn’t imagine ever succeeding at, so you never even tried in the first place. Back when I was a little baby minister, when it came time for me to apply to seminary, I was doing everything but applying to seminary because I was afraid. I was afraifd I wouldn’t get in, and then what would that mean for the purpose of my life and the fulfillment of my calling? That’s terrifying. What if I fail? And I let that terror dissuade me from applying for months. I had to get over it. I had to believe it was possible.
In the first act of spiritual transformation—of making positive change in your life and becoming who God is calling you to become—we get stuck because we believe in the impossible more than we believe in the possible. All our problems all look like camels and our solutions all look like needles. Every new beginning, every first step toward positive change in our lives, in a psychological sense, is breaking through this unbreakable barrier—it’s overcoming the impossible and reclaiming your faith in the idea that God has plans for you that are undeniable—you can’t get away from them, you can’t impossiblilize your way out of them.
How do we do that? When we’re stuck at the impossible beginning how do we make the impossible possible? When they hear Jesus tell them about the camel and the needle, even the disciples, who are usually numbskulls and always getting everything wrong, get their first response right: They’re shocked, and they ask, “Who then can be saved?” Can I shrink my camel? Can I make the needle bigger? Can I find a trick, a workaround? Can it be done? No, says Jesus, it is impossible. But, luckily for us, everything is possible for God.
I’ve been lucky to have a number of friends and congregants over the years who have been in recovery from addiction who went through the twelve steps. The twelve steps take this reality seriously. Just listen to the first three steps (designed to get you from an impossibly stuck to actually starting): 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
Jesus and the twelve steps are in total agreement—if you get stuck somewhere at the beginning, admit that you’re stuck. And if you can admit you’re stuck and if you can then offer up your mortal-impossible to be touched by God’s possibility, then you will no longer be stuck. And isn’t this Jesus’ whole way of doing things? The path to true power must be routed through powerlessness. You have started down the path of spiritual transformation. You’re following God now into the second act.
You know the disciples are in the second act of their journey at this point, and what we know about them is that they’re always looking away—to the future, to the horizon. Never their minds on where they are, on what they are doing. The disciples are continually arguing about who is the greatest or asking to be seated at Jesus’ right hand in the coming Kingdom. And here they go again. Peter now says, “Well, hold on. You know, the twelve of us did leave everything behind to follow you, we achieved the impossible! We want to be recognized! We want to be rewarded! We want to know that the sacrifices we made to get to this boggy middle, this swampy second act are going to pay off in the end! Otherwise, maybe we just get up and leave the theater.”
That’s what getting stuck in the second act looks like. We want to be carried along by what the poet Rilke called, “the winged energy of delight.” After all, this is a spiritual journey, and shouldn’t a spiritual journey feel as sleek and fulfilling as a wellness lifestyle Instagram account? Juice cleanses, and yoga, and #blessed? But “the winged energy of delight” must always transform. And it transforms in the second act. And it turns into work. It turns into hard work, or else you get stuck expecting someone else (human or divine) to carry you along and do your work for you. But it’s your work. Transformation cannot occur without sacrifice. And the most common sacrifice we must make for our own spiritual journey is our own hard work. As Rilke says, “Miracles become miracles in the clear achievement that is earned.”
And so Jesus decides to play a little trick. Jesus promises the disciples, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold NOW in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields…. with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
It’s a statement so baffling that the disciples don’t even respond. Maybe they realize they’re being made fun of. Jesus lays out this fairytale ending that he doesn’t really believe and then brings the roof down on the whole premise. And, certainly, the disciples never got a hundred children or a hundred fields or (ha, ha) a hundred mothers—how does that even work? But they did get that bucket of cold water in the face—a hundred persecutions. Their work got harder and harder with each passing day—not easier!
Someone I loved once did me a terrible wrong. I was heartbroken and angry and confused. That betrayal led to some of the darkest days of my life. I wanted a spiritual transformation. Act 1 was no problem. Take it away! I don’t want this pain! I don’t want to dwell on this anymore. And God said, “Let’s go. You know how to do it. You need to forgive.” Can’t you punish them, I asked? That would make me feel better! “No, this is your work. It’s not about them, it’s not about making you feel better. This is your work.” Fine, I’ll plan some revenge. But that made me feel worse. Take it away! “You have to forgive.” They haven’t even asked for forgiveness! “So what? Maybe they never will. This is your work. Only you can work this through. You’ve got to do your work.”
Which brings us to the end of things and that rich man getting tripped up at the end of the race. Jesus doesn’t say the rich man is a bad person. In fact, he’s been following the commandments his whole life. “You lack one thing.” One, final thing! Sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, then come and follow me.
There’s something about nearing the finish line—what’s good for you and what most challenges you get closer and closer and closer until there’s no difference between them. In act three we need to make the biggest changes, to take the greatest risks, to open ourselves up to our highest possibilities. And, again, that’s not always going to feel nice. Sometimes it’s gonna burn.
The realization that we need to cultivate here in the second act that will get us over that finish line of transformation is the realization that sometimes it’s more painful (not less painful, more painful) to finally resolve a conflict than to simply endure it. Spiritual transformation is not about escaping our pain, it’s about no longer avoiding our pain, so that the situation that could be uncomfortably endured forever is transformed through sacrifice, hard work, and acknowledging your pain, freeing you to become more fully who God is calling you to become. To get through the third act we must understand that bearing your cross is not an affront to your dignity, it’s the transformation of sacrifice, labor, and pain into faith, hope, and love.
So, in the beginning, when we get stuck on the impossible, we turn to God who makes all things possible. In the middle, when we get stuck, it’s usually time to get over ourselves, to stop fantasizing, to stop thinking God is going to do it all for us as a reward for simply wanting to change, and to get back to work. And when we’re nearing the end, and we get stuck, we can get unstuck by accepting that there is no path to a bigger and better life, to a more just and peaceful world, that doesn’t require us to sacrifice what we were for who we’re hoping to become. At the end, if you’re still holding on to what you were, you’re still stuck at the very beginning.
Beloved, the good news is that wherever you are on life’s journey, whatever you’re struggling with, and wherever you’re stuck, God is with you—squeezing that camel through the eye of the needle, calling you to labor as profoundly as you are loved, making every sacrifice a holy sacrifice. Because with God all things are possible.
I have a true story that I want all the children to hear. There was once an ordinary 3-year-old boy sitting in his mother’s lap. They were sitting in an ordinary Catholic Church on an ordinary Sunday. In a Catholic Church there’s a little bell like this [RING] that gets rung when the priest is preparing the holy communion. The bell is rung as a symbol of Jesus showing up and becoming real in the bread and in the wine. And when it was time for the bell to ring, the bell rang as it always rings [RING]. Everything was just as it should be. And in the reverent silence that followed the music of the bell, something happened that no one was expecting:
The little boy sitting in his mother’s lap hollered out, “Helloooooooooooo Jesus!” The whole church turned around to look at him, and realizing he had an audience, he gave them an encore performance, “Helloooooooooooo Jesus!” just in case they had missed it the first time.
The little boy understood something that a lot of us grownups know, but that we don’t really all-the-time believe—that when we participate in the sacrament of communion, God always, always shows up. Us grownups know what we’re supposed to believe, but do we believe like that child believes? Do we believe with that kind of spontaneous, uncontainable, unequivocal joy? I wonder.
So, let’s give it a try, shall we? Kids, when I ring this bell, I have an important job for you. Can you say, “Helloooooo Jesus!”? Let’s try after I ring the bell [RING]. Should we let the grownups in on this? Everybody this time [RING]! All right. Now, kids, every time I ring this bell, I need you all to say, “Hello Jesus!” The grownups will do it too, but they need your help. They need to hear you start it off with faith and joy to give them encouragement. Can you do that? So, whenever I ring this bell, you’re gonna be ready, right [RING]? WOW. Great work.
I received this true story from Pádraig Ó Tuama*, one of our great Christian poets. Oh, of course. Of course, he’s a poet. Only a poet could love a church story like that—bunch of bohemians and troublemakers! Sure, we take pleasure in the story too but mostly because it happened to somebody else at some other church We’re a little bit poet, but we’re also a little bit like the priest in the story, who Ó Tuama said looked shocked. “Shut the child up, you could hear in [his] fear.” That’s us, too, sometimes. Why so serious? Why does mixing children and communion make us feel so nervous?
We probably have Paul to thank. You heard what he said to the Corinthian church this morning:
“Whoever, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
Whew! Those are some harsh words! And we’re right to wonder if children attending the Lord’s Supper are capable of such sober self-reflection. Certainly, if someone had written to Paul asking him, “Hey, some people are bringing their kids to communion. Should we let them eat or not?” and he responded with these words, we’d want to be very careful about when we introduced our children to a table that could land them in spiritual judgment and physical illness. Fortunately, we know for sure that Paul was not answering that particular question.
The situation Paul was responding to was a young church in crisis. There were deep divisions among the Corinthians. They weren’t getting along. There was infighting, and there were factions. In the face of this conflict the practice of the Lord’s Supper had taken a bad turn. Instead of everybody eating the common meal together, as they used to do, some people are arriving earlier and eating before the others arrive. They’re eating so much that by the time the latecomers get there, the early birds are drunk and there’s no food left for anyone else. This is the situation Paul is responding to, and his harsh words sound totally appropriate now. Selfishness, partisanship, and drunkenness were the causes of the spiritual and physical distress in the community, and they had to be corrected.
But this is a problem only grownups could cause, so is it appropriate to prescribe their extraordinaery medicine to the ordinary spiritual lives of our children? There’s no reason to think that, if Paul had been asked, he couldn’t have said in the next sentence, “Children should approach the table with age-appropriate reverence and self-reflection, which will develop naturally through the years as long as you grownups are setting a good example!”
Setting a good example means behaving ourselves and taking communion seriously. But setting a good example also means requiring our children to observe us taking communion seriously. In fact, what does Paul say just a few lines later? He says: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Wait for one another. It’s not the Lord’s table until everyone has arrived to the table.
Which seems to me to say that whether they’re eating and drinking or not, our children should be “at the table.” We shouldn’t be having communion without them ever being here.
I’ve always found the idea of a “World” Communion Sunday to be redundant. It’s redundant theologically to say “World” Communion Sunday. Of course, it’s the whole world! Maybe it’s redundant, but it’s still a good reminder for our practice of communion. This is not my table, not your table, not the United Church of Christ’s table, or Glen Ridge Church’s table. This is God’s Table. And the whole world (young and old,
gay and straight and everyone anywhere on the rainbow spectrum, every gender, every race, every nationality) is welcome here. When we step up to this table, we acknowledge that we need God’s love and care. And we must acknowledge that we share this table with the whole human race. ALL ARE WELCOME.
Still, we feel a little nervous. We worry. What if they think it’s just a snack? What if they’re disruptive or disrespectful? What if they put their grimy little paws all over the bread just before I get to it? There are good theological and practical responses to all these worries. But let’s face it: all of us, at least some of the time, are going to feel a little nervous about what totally age-appropriate but oh-so-naughty thing our kid or someone else’s kid is about to do in the middle of holy, sacred, serious church. What do we do?
We can’t all become like the mad poets—delighted every time God shocks us with something unexpected
from the mouths of babes. We can’t totally get rid of the priest within us who just wants everything to go smoothly and orderly in the house of God. But maybe we could be more like the little boy’s mother.
The poet was delighted. The priest was terrified. The mother, Ó Tuama said, looked a little embarrassed and a little thrilled. A little of both. As a parent I totally get that. Can we let the joy of our children being in worship with us soothe the shock of what it looks and sounds like when they too begin take Jesus seriously? Can we try to become more like Jesus who said, Let the children come to me, just as they are. I don’t want them to be more like grownups. I want the grownups to be a little more like them.
Remember, even though that little boy was only three, and even though he wouldn’t be able to take communion in his church for four to six more years, he knew, perhaps more than anyone else in the church,
what it meant when that bell rang [RING]. He learned it simply by sitting in his mother’s lap and by absorbing the ritual happening all around him. Isn't there room in our church for taking Jesus that seriously?
I want to say to our confirmands, from Glen Ridge Congregational and Union Congregational, I want you to know, on the cusp between childhood and young adulthood, that all these grownups are right to take this table so seriously. And I want you to know that I take it seriously, and I want you to know why.
When I was in college, I was the director of a Christian summer camp in North Carolina. I was too young for the job, but the old director had to step down suddenly, and he believed in me and tapped me to cover the summer program for him. It was a great experience overall, but one week early in the summer, it was a real disaster.
It rained all week, which is always a sign things are going to go real bad at summer camp. We were at capacity, and we had a tough bunch of energetic campers bouncing off the walls. During a thunderstorm one night, lightning struck a cabin of little kids and scared those campers half to death. I was backing a 15-passenger van up in the parking lot in foul weather,and I backed into a BMW-Z3. It belonged to the chair of the camp ministry committee. Her husband had just given it to her to celebrate her retirement a few weeks earlier. It was towed away, along with my dignity. My girlfriend of a few years was at camp with me, and she was about to dump me, and I knew it was coming, and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it. Everybody was looking to me for leadership in the hardest week of camp, but I was green, I was stressed out, I didn't always know what to do, I lost my temper a few times, and I really let my staff down.
But on the closing night of camp, we celebrated like we always celebrated—with communion. We didn’t want to celebrate anything. We were tired, wet, cold, muddy, and mad. We wanted to quit. But out of habit,
a bunch of 17-to-21-year-olds sat down at God’s table with our heads hung low. And out of habit we said the words. Out of habit we passed the bread, and we shared the cup.
And a miracle happened out in those woods—God showed up. When we ate and drank, we began to lift our heads, we started looking one another in the eyes, tears started streaming down faces, apologies were whispered silently across the room, we were hugging campers and meaning it when we told them we loved every minute we had spent with them that week.
We were nobodies! Just a bunch of kids running a summer camp in the woods. I was a nobody. I still am. I’m not special. I’m not famous. I’m not particularly important. I’m just Pastor Jeff. But when we sat at this table, when we broke the bread, and passed the cup to one another, God showed up for us. God showed up for me! So that I could forgive myself, and grow, and keep going because there was a lot of camp left to run.
That’s the promise: That when you make this table a part of your spiritual life, when you decide to take it seriously and to honor it and to kneel before it with your heavy heart, asking for forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, looking for the path to love, God will show up for all of you too.
Isn’t that a table you want to take seriously? Isn’t that a God you’d like to get to know better? Isn’t that the God we all want our children to meet?
Well, Beloved, I promise you, you will always find God at this table.
*The story comes from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community by Pádraig Ó Tuama.
Does Jesus ever confuse you? I’m not alone in this, am I? Sometimes Jesus seems like the perfect hippie flowerchild—so relaxed, so enlightened, so loving and forgiving. This Jesus is best summed up by a bumper sticker I saw once: “No, Obama is not a foreign-born, brown-skinned, anti-war socialist
who gives away free healthcare: You're thinking of Jesus.”
But that’s only half the story, right? There’s this other Jesus who comes with fire and a sword. He shouts out, “Repent! The time is near!” He battles with demons and evil spirits! This Jesus is maybe best summed up by a sandwich-board sign I saw a guy wearing once in Times Square Station. It said, “Turn to Jesus or Burn in Hell!”
So, what gives? Which one is it? Will the real Jesus please stand up? Let’s take this morning’s scripture reading as another example:
I can’t imagine a more openminded, non-defensive, and (in the broadest possible sense) liberal approach to life than the saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Can you imagine how the world might be different if everyone believed this? I mean, how many of the world’s conflicts are really about hopelessly irreconcilable differences, and how many are simply about a psychological desire for power—for me to be in control, for our side to win? What wars could we have prevented? What political dead-ends could we have turned into compromise and cooperation?
If they’re not against us, then they’re our allies and colleagues. If they’re not against us, then we count them as our friends. And we count their victories as our victories. And we mourn their losses as if they were our own. And we will trust that the path they’re taking up this mountain of life, although it’s not the same path that we’re taking, will inevitably lead them up to the same peak.
At the same time, I can’t imagine a more harsh, exacting, damning approach to life than the words, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it’s better to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Can you imagine what the world might look like if everyone behaved like this? It’d look like the Taliban justice system out there. It’d look like a Civil War field hospital. Everywhere you looked, people would be cut to ribbons. There’d be little bits of us littered all over the place. You’d’ve been stepping over hands, and eyeballs, and tongues, and hearts, and God knows what else just to get to church this morning. It’s a scene from a horror movie.
Beloved, how is it possible that the same person said both of these things—practically within the same breath? And what can we learn from it, about who Jesus is and what he expects from us?
Let’s begin where Jesus concluded—with salt. Jesus said, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Obviously, Jesus isn’t really talking about salt. This is your bible, not a cookbook. That means Jesus is speaking metaphorically. But what does he mean by it?
Well, first it helps to know that back in ancient times salt actually could lose its flavor, it’s saltiness. Back in the day sometimes salt was harvested with other crystals that weren’t salt. They’d all go in the same bag. And maybe the bag, in storage, would get wet, and the true salt crystals would dissolve away leaving behind a bunch of stuff that looked like—but didn’t taste like—salt.
Remember when Jesus said, don’t store your treasures on earth where moths and rust and thieves get at them, store them in heaven instead. Well, this is similar. Jesus is saying don’t store your salt in the kitchen cabinet where it might lose its flavor, store it inside of yourself, and you be the flavor of salt. Salt is a metaphor for faith—faith loses something when you identify it with the external world, keep your faith within you.
Many of us learned this lesson from the Disney movie Dumbo. Dumbo is this little baby elephant with big ears. His ears are so big that he can fly! But he only flies when he’s blackout drunk, and in the morning he can’t remember, and he doesn’t believe it. You know—a children’s story. Anyway, his friend, a mouse named Timothy, gives him a “magic” feather and tells him that anyone who holds that feather can fly. So, whenever Dumbo holds the feather in his trunk, he flies, and he becomes the star of the circus. But one night during the high dive, Dumbo drops his feather and goes plummeting towards the ground. Timothy yells in his ear, the feather is just a fake! Just a regular ol’ crow’s feather to make you believe in yourself. The power was within you all along! And at the last possible moment Dumbo pulls out of the dive and flies without the feather. The feather is on the inside now where it can never be dropped. So, Jesus says, put your faith on the inside where it can’t lose its flavor. Put it on the inside where it belongs, and be at peace with one another.
Be at peace with one another, that’s an important part of this. When you put your faith in its proper place (on the inside, not the outside), then you’ve got the right perspective for being at peace with other people. Your faith, your essence, is safe and secure on the inside, and what other people may or may not be doing on the outside of you doesn’t have to be so threatening to who you are and to what you believe.
Now, Jesus cares a lot about the circumstances of our lives. He cares about how much money we do or don’t have. He cares about what we do with that money. He cares if you’re sick and suffering. He cares if you’re hungry or in prison. He cares if you’re marginalized and lonely. He cares about justice and kindness and love. He drinks at weddings. He cries at funerals. He cares about the external stuff. But for Jesus, it’s the inner journey we ignore that matters the most.
We tend to externalize the meaning of our lives. We look for meaning in success on the job, or in education and learning, or out playing on the football field, or in a beautiful home, an expensive car, nice stuff, maybe we look for meaning be standing in a pulpit, or through having a loving family, close friends, meaningful relationships. Now, some of these are worthier than others. Some lead you in the right direction, some in the wrong direction. But Jesus reminds us that true purpose, true love, true faith cannot ultimately be found outside of yourself. Your most genuine voice, your most fulfilling destiny, your deepest capacity to love, and your biggest life must eventually be found within yourself. That’s what Jesus means by salt.
Moving backwards now, we’re in a better position to understand all this hand chopping, foot sawing, and eye plucking. First, Jesus is being symbolic. Salt was not really salt. Amputation is not really amputation. No, Jesus does not want you to cut your hand off. We know this because there’s no story in the Bible of Jesus hacking somebody’s leg off to save their soul. That’s not how it works. There’s no story where someone runs up to the disciples all happy because they just poked their eye out for Jesus. It’s the opposite. Jesus is the one who heals bodies and restores sight, not the one who breaks bodies or causes blindness. And I would push it even further than that and remind you that Jesus is also the one who saves and not the one who damns.
But that doesn’t get us off the hook here. Jesus gives us this disturbing, gripping metaphor because he wants us to pay attention to something. And what are we supposed to be paying attention to? “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” We’re supposed to be paying attention to the inner journey,
and we’re supposed to be paying attention to our peaceful relationship to the world.
Once some Pharisees criticized Jesus for not following their custom of washing his hands before he ate. Maybe they had a point. But Jesus is emphatic about it. He says, It’s not what goes into your body from the outside that defiles you, it’s what’s on the inside that comes out of you that defiles you. The greatest meaning of your life is not outside of you, and neither are your biggest sins. Chopping off bits and pieces on the outside won’t solve your inner problem, will it? It doesn’t get to the root—to the spiritual problem. And so Jesus pleads with us to cut out and cast away the resistance within us to God’s love and salvation, the resistance within us to loving our neighbors, the resistance within to loving ourselves and to fulfilling our destiny as children of God. Pay attention to the inner journey.
And “Be at peace with one another.” One of the heart-rending stories that has gripped many of us over the last week or so was the US military admitting that a drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 family members, including seven children, was a “tragic mistake.” It was the wrong person, he was not in any way a terrorist, it was the wrong car, there were no explosives, there was no threat. This admission almost certainly never would have happened had it not been for the large number of journalists in Kabul covering the US withdrawal who were able to investigate. And so one has to wonder: How infrequent are these deadly mistakes? And one has to wonder if it was truly necessary to add such a tragic exclamation point to the end of our nation’s beleaguered legacy in Afghanistan.
Gen. McKenzie, after offering condolences to the devastated family, assured us Americans that, although ultimately mistaken, the strike was carried out “in the profound belief” that the target posed a grave threat to US security. It’s not easy being great. It’s not easy being Christian. We must ask ourselves, “Is our safety and security worth a drone strike that incinerates an innocent man along with his children?” If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it’s better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell, where the fire is never quenched. Christians must wrestle with the question: Is it better to risk the bodies of my neighbors, or is it better to risk my own body? Our “profound belief” in the righteousness of our strike must be mirrored by an equally profound skepticism in all of the choices that led us to the murder of someone else’s children. We must ask ourselves, where does our true security lie? Does it lie outside of us in drone strikes and missiles? Or does it come from God?
And so part of the inner transformation Jesus calls us to is to reevaluate our actions and relationships in the world. Be merciless with the blockages of sin and you might save the troubled heart. Even if it feels like you’re cutting off your right foot, do it, because once that old habit—that old crutch—dies, we’re on the path to freedom.
Now, I hope that you heard that right. I didn’t say be ruthless, or cruel, or unforgiving to yourself. I didn’t say beat yourself up, make yourself miserable, mire yourself in guilt. Jesus never called anyone into self-hate. Jesus simply calls us to be vigilant in the practice of love and virtue, and vigilant in our opposition to our vices and our personal and collective smallness. That is not an invitation to self-flagellation, it’s the beginning of a fulfillment in God that goes way beyond self-anything—it’s bigger than you!
And so now we arrive back at the beginning, and we’re ready to answer our original question—Which is it?Sweet, forgiving, doe-eyed Jesus or judgey, strict, fire-breathing Jesus? Will the real Jesus please stand up?
Well, we’ve seen it for ourselves: Jesus is a little bit of both, right? The key is to apply the right attitude to the right situation. When it comes to other people, Jesus says, be as tolerant, as kind, and as forgiving as possible. “If they’re not against you, then they’re for you.” Live and let live. Be gentle with the world. The place for hand-chopping and hellfire is not when you’re interacting with the world around you, it’s for when you look within yourself. When it comes to yourself be as vigilant as you can. Don’t beat yourself up, but be ready to fight for yourself—for your soul, your goodness, your joy.
For others—tolerance, forgiveness, and, of course, love. For ourselves—vigilance, repentance, and, of course, love. May Jesus’ way of love (a love which is both gentle and challenging, and always good) lead us all within and without to be closer to God and to all God’s children.
I wouldn’t mind being great. I think it might be nice. And I don’t mean, I wanna be really good at one particular thing. I don’t want to be great at something. I mean, that’s fine too, but I’m really talking about general greatness. I’d just like to be great. It seems like a classical and nobly virtuous thing to work towards, doesn’t it?
Nothing too crazy. I don’t need you to call me “Jeff the Great” or anything like that–not if you don’t want to. But you know that fantasy about the end life, about how you’ll be remembered: I hope there’s a long obituary with a flattering picture from my youth, a wonderful funeral, lots of people crying, some funny stories, a couple really amazing eulogies. “He was a great man,” someone will hopefully say, and the room will hum with agreement, “Amen, yes he was, a great man.” I mean, really, that would be something to work towards, wouldn’t it? That’d be good. That’d be an honorable life well lived. But the problem is that it seems sometimes like Jesus doesn’t like greatness very much.
I mean Jesus is always smacking down the great ones, isn’t he? He’s always arguing with them, challenging them, telling them to give all their money away. Jesus prefers the widow’s two cents to all the riches of the wealthy. He prefers the sinner’s table to the tables of the righteous and the well-heeled. He prefers Samaritans to priests, prefers tax collectors to Pharisees, and prefers children to the learned and the wise. What’s going on? Jesus, why? What’s the problem with greatness?
And then I hear it. Then I hear it, all right. I hear the bickering little whispers of Jesus’ disciples on the road. We’re arguing. We’re novices who Jesus pulled from fishing boats, and from loafing on street corners, and from collaborating with the enemy, but now we’re arguing about which of us is the greatest. We’re arguing about who will collect the honors, which of us will lead the victorious charge in the battle to come, which of us will sit at the right hand of the Messiah at the end of history. And, yes, I say “us” because as I’m hearing those disciples quarreling, I distinctly hear my own voice in that squabble—wrangling for position, for recognition, for exceptionalism and power—fighting for the place I believe I have earned in the favored vanguard of holiness and righteousness.
And so when we reach the house, and Jesus is sitting there with a child in his lap, he looks at us, and he says, “I do want you to strive for greatness! Of course, I do. But first, you dummies have got to see that you don’t know what greatness is yet. You’re all mixed-up about greatness. People who argue and bicker about who’s greater than who don’t have any idea what greatness really is. People who confuse power and prestige for greatness do not yet know what greatness is. There’s more greatness sitting on the floor with a child in my lap than there is in all your feverish dreams of glory. Don’t seek the greatness that singles you out; seek the greatness that brings you closer to me. Don’t seek the greatness that puts you on top; seek the greatness that welcomes God into your life. Greatness is never apart from God! Seek that greatness that mixes you up with God.”
There are a few special moments in life when we feel our greatness and God’s greatness getting all mixed up. The mountaintop moments of life when the clouds part and the sun comes streaming down on you in a shaft of light—those experiences that fill you with memories and emotions to last a lifetime. These transcendent encounters where we feel great in the great presence of God are relatively rare.
But Jesus commends to us another way, a simpler way, a more down-to-earth, practical way, something you can do every day—become a servant to the world. Become a servant and your greatness and God’s greatness will get all mixed up.
I’ll tell you when I’m not a servant. When I’m fighting for control of the TV remote with my wife, Bonnie. It’s like I’m fighting for my life—but the shows she watches. I’m telling you: Not a zombie in sight! It’s sad.
A few years ago, she was binging through Downton Abbey in our little one-room Brooklyn shoebox apartment, so I couldn’t escape it. Some of you have watched this show, right? I’m sure you’ve all at least heard of it. It was this wildly popular historical drama taking place in the early 20th century on a beautiful old British estate. Aside from the aforementioned disturbing lack of zombies in this program, I also didn’t like the social divide in the show: The Aristocrats live and play upstairs in their sprawling mansion home, the servants live and work downstairs taking care of the people who live upstairs. I don’t find that social arrangement particularly romantic. Doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t like seeing the world divided into the lower class of servants and the upper class of those-who-must-be-served.
And, so, when Jesus tells me that I must be a servant—the servant of all—I don’t like it. You want me to move downstairs? You want me to line up outside as the master motors up in his new auto or whatever? You want me to stand at attention? To be seen and not heard? To fade into the background when I’m not needed? Really, Jesus?
And the difficulties of being a servant go far beyond Downton Abbey, right? I mean, just think of who is expected to be a servant here in the 21st century. Aren’t women still expected to serve men more than men are expected to serve women? And don’t race and immigration status play a big role in who is waiting upon whom? And aren’t people in the service industry so frequently exploited and disrespected that millions of them are using the pandemic as an opportunity to escape the industry? And aren’t domestic workers facing a plague of sexual harassment and assault in an industry that has very few protections? And aren’t the tips that waitstaff depend upon for their living a direct cultural descendent of slavery? Isn’t there a dangerous power imbalance baked right into this system? And, Jesus, are you sure it’s really great to be a servant?
But sitting there with a child in his lap, Jesus, as he so often does, flips the script. Jesus’ servanthood isn’t about making the weak serve the powerful. It isn’t about making the meek serve the great. It isn’t about making the last serve the first. Sitting there with a child in his lap, Jesus tells us that being the servant of all is something like a roomful of grownups welcoming a child. Who has the power? The roomful of grownups do, of course—grownups so powerful they were just recently arguing about who’s the greatest. And who are the most vulnerable among us—in Jesus’ day and in ours? It’s the children, right? It’s not the child who serves the parent. It’s the parent who serves the child.
The word Jesus uses when he talks about welcoming a child and welcoming God is the Greek word dechomai. Dechomai can also more archaically, more accurately be translated into English as “to receive,” or even “to pick up.” So, when you’re a servant to someone, according to Jesus, you’re receiving them into your power. Jesus’ servanthood isn’t like being a butler. It’s like being a host welcoming a guest. Or it’s like picking up and holding a child. Jesus’ version of servanthood is not about serving others to your detriment. It’s about serving God’s children from your power. Those who use their power to clamber their way to the top of some majestic heap do not know what greatness is. Those who become true servants, who serve from the power that they have been given, are walking Jesus’ way to true greatness.
So, Beloved, let’s not be afraid to be great. God wants us to be great! And maybe we don’t need to worry so much about it all going to our heads. You know, it’s not always arrogance that gets in the way of servanthood. It’s not even most often, I don’t think, egotism or narcissism or megalomania that stops us from being servants.
No, for most of us it’s far softer sins: bitterness or hopelessness, lack of imagination or an inability to let go of old habits, pettiness or a little too much comfort. It might not even be your sin. Maybe it’s someone else’s sin against you: some wound you were given, and the cautiousness, the mistrust, the reluctance and doubt that scarred it over. Maybe this is why Jesus recommends a child to us as a spiritual icon—for their trust, their eagerness, their fresh-faced optimism.
My son, Romey, turned two yesterday, and let me tell you I would not describe this child as humble or as particularly helpful, nor do I think that he spends much time at all considering the feelings of others or the consequences of his actions. On the spectrum of greatness he is, for the time being, a bit of a tyrant. But, when we’re at the playground, I have to stick to him like glue, because if I’m standing anywhere within ten feet of him, he’ll jump off the top of anything, because he believes so fully that his Dada will catch him no matter what.
But us grownups, we’ve fallen face-first in the woodchips too many times, we don’t have enough trust, enough faith, enough hope to invest ourselves in serving the wellbeing of people we don’t much believe in. So, our greatness dies in our low opinion of our neighbors. It’s becoming a national affliction.
But Jesus tells us—you, me, everyone of us—that we have the power to serve! And when we serve, Jesus is there with us. And where Jesus is, there is God also. Just take a moment to look around this sanctuary at your church—at the people who make up your church. This is where our greatness begins. It begins right here in service to one another. And as we serve one another we’ll get better at it. One day we’ll find we have a whole extra helping of service to spare. And so we will learn, relationship by relationship, risk by risk, to serve more and more of our neighbors.
And won’t that be a beautiful thing to see, Beloved? Our greatness, and our neighbors’ greatness, and God’s greatness all mixed up together in this place? Isn’t that what you’re here for? Isn’t that the greatness that you came here hoping to find?
I’m not much of a follower. I’m not. I’ve never been. Come on: You know this about me. Right? I’m an original. I’m unique. I’m interesting. Followers aren’t any of those things!
Take a look at this little thing I got hanging off the back of my head! Look at this haircut I have. You see this? Do you know anybody else with a haircut like this? You know what my barber calls me? Minister with a mullet… I can’t tell if it’s a compliment or not. It might be! Maybe not! I don’t care. My wife, Bonnie, she calls it my “rat tail.” I don’t think she’s a fan, but I don’t care! It’s my thing—for the moment. And I’m not following anybody’s fashion trends—I’m making my own, you know?
And, hey, let’s face it, you’re probably something like me. In some way, right? You probably don’t have a little minimullet, but there’s some part of you that doesn’t want to be a “follower.” Who wants to be a follower? We want to be leaders, we want to be innovators, we want to be influencers, right? There’s a whole new profession out there: social media influencer. Our status in this world is not based on how many wise, intelligent, funny, decent people we follow, it’s based on how many followers we have. We want to be in the lead.
And, frankly, I know you people by now. If you’ve been around GRCC a while, you already know, but if you’re new here I’ll tell you: You can’t tell these people what to do. We have minds of our own. We do things our own way. We’re in charge of our own business. So, no wonder “Come and follow me” doesn’t feel like a very comfortable invitation to people like me, and maybe like you. Right?
Fifteen years ago, when I was just a little minister, and the advantage of a little more youth helped me to believe even more that I could never be a follower, I was walking with a colleague in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. There was a big crowd of people gathered around some street performers—acrobats or dancers or magicians or something. We could hear them, but we couldn’t see them because of all the people. My friend said, “You wanna check it out?” And I said, “No, way! If there’s one thing New York City has taught me, it’s that you don’t want to be where all the tourists are!” Then I explained to her my philosophy of making my own way, forging my own path, taking the road less traveled, and never being a follower. And you know what she said to me? She said, “Everybody’s following something.”
Everybody’s following something… We sat down on the fountain in the middle of the park, and I started to look around, and I started to see it. It’s not just the hungry eyes of the tourists looking only where they’re told to look. It’s that hippie folk singer over there. Would he be able to be who he is, play like he plays, dress like he dresses, if Pete Seeger hadn’t sat on a box in the same exact spot with his guitar fifty years before? It’s the NYU students swarming off to class in pursuit of a dream, paying for the knowledge of experts to get them there. It’s the suits weaving through the crowd on their way to another meeting not even glancing up from their phones at the wild joy of this park all around them. The truthers sitting at an info table with a banner hanging from it that says “9/11 was an inside job,” the teenagers who are laughing at them and making fun of their flyers, the handsome sailors recently disgorged from their ships for the weekend running together in packs, the scruffy activists trying to hand them anti-war pamphlets—we all follow something, somebody. The people playing speed chess in a corner of the park—they all learned the game from somebody else. The man sitting on a bench covered in pigeons—I asked him, “How’d you get so good with pigeons?” He told me, “There was another guy who used to sit here before me, and he fed the pigeons. He died, but the pigeons were still all hanging out by the bench like they missed him. I felt bad for them. So, one day I sat down, and I started feeding them.” We’re all following somebody. The question is: What do you follow? Where is it leading you?
I remember the first time I ever climbed a mountain as a kid. Every time I came to a pretty view, I thought I’d made it. This must be the top! I dropped my pack and sat down. But my camp counselor, Mark, up ahead of me, would turn around, and laugh and say, “You call that a view? Kid, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Keep it movin’!”
How often we pretend we’ve arrived when we have not yet really arrived. How often we make believe that we have become fully ourselves, we have reached our full potential, when really we’re still just caterpillars pretending that we’re butterflies. We might say it about our country: We’re a perfect democracy! Can’t get any more free, any more just, any better opportunities, any better healthcare, any better than we are. If one of those protesters or prophets or preachers starts shouting about how there’s some higher plane up above us that we could all get to together with just a little more effort, plug your ears! Roll ‘em down the side of the mountain if they don’t knock it off. We like things just the way they are.
We might say it about our church: What more could God possibly have in store for us besides what we’ve already done? We must have reached the mark by now. We’re going to pitch our tents and stake them down, there’s nowhere left for us to go. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” As we say in the UCC, God is still speaking! And in the big picture God is always on the move. So, if we’re gonna hear what God has to say, we’re going to need to follow along.
The question is not, “Do I follow?” It’s “What do I follow? Who do I follow? Where do they lead?” The question is: Have I arrived at the fullness of being God created me for, or am I just stuck somewhere on the side of a mountain?
OK, you might be thinking right about now, sure. Nobody’s an island. We’re all being led and influenced by different ideas and people—some better than others, probably. But do I really want to follow Jesus? Jesus? Did you hear what he just said? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Really? Deny myself? I like myself. Crucifixion? I hope that’s just a metaphor, but even if it is, it doesn’t sound particularly liberating. I don’t know if that’s a path I want to take. I want to build myself up! I don’t want to tear myself down, do I?
Otis Moss III told a story in his Beecher lectures at Yale about visiting New Orleans and stepping into a painter’s studio. He asked the artist, “How much are these paintings over here?” And the artist said, “Those are $20 apiece.” “Wow. That’s a good price for a canvas of that size. How about those over there.” “Oh, those are $1,500 apiece.” What?! Explain that to me, please. How could one painting by an artist sell for $20 and another painting, same size, by the same artist sell for $1,500? The artist explained it to him, “These over here I painted myself, but those over there, God designed. I did the work, but God gave me an assignment to paint something. Then while the paint was still fresh, God would tell me to take it outside and leave it out in a storm. When the rain beats on the canvas something unique will be created in the process.”
Here's an artist—a unique and creative individual who marches to the beat of his drum—who understands what it means to follow and who understands the power and the place of sacrifice. He sacrificed his $20 painting to God and was given the gift of $1,500 painting. Following Jesus’ way means giving ourselves to God, maybe even sacrificing ourselves (our small selves, yeah?), so our truly unique, priceless self can be revealed. That is a kind of “art” that we cannot create on our own because it’s bigger than us! It can only be done in collaboration. It can only be done if we’re willing to walk out in the storm and let God have her way with us.
On the other side of sacrifice, Jesus promises us the biggest kind of life. This world leaves us always feeling like we’re lacking, feeling like we need to be more, to have more, to win more, to impress more. And after a life of perpetually serving your own ego, you die, and the lights go out. End of story. That’s what happens when you follow this world. That’s what happens when you keep your nose in this world and you never glance up at God’s wild joy all around you. What would happen if you followed God’s wild joy? You know you’re already following something. The question is, WHO do you WANT to follow?
You don’t have to give up on being you to be a Christian. You don’t have to give up on being you to allow yourself to be led into the future. Sure, we’ve all seen friends who get a new girlfriend or boyfriend and they kind of disappear into the private room of that relationship. From our perspective, they maybe loose a little bit of themselves. But we’ve also known other people who get into good relationship, and it helps to bring them to life, to accentuate their unique gifts, to encourage them to be more fully who they truly are. Getting together with God is not about losing our lives. It’s about losing the life that doesn’t ultimately serve you to gain a life that serves everything. Now, that’s special.
In fact, who could be more of an individual than a follower—like a pilgrim hiking her way through the mountains, from village to village, kingdom to kingdom, heading intentionally and passionately, mile after mile, toward the heart of the great cathedral? Being a follower of Jesus means that I am an individual. It means I’m not going to let myself be swallowed up by this world. I’m going to separate myself out just a bit, raise my eyes a little higher. I also haven’t been swallowed up entirely by God. God gives us a choice. God calls us—calls us to follow because God refuses to just snatch you away erasing the gifts and the challenges that make you uniquely you. Jesus calls followers—but not to be automatons, mindless dependents, but to be something more like delegates of his way, deputies of his power, stewards of his Kingdom.
And I am an individual, unique and original. And so are all of you. And if you’re like me, you’re seeking and finding a way—a way whose promise moved your heart to commit yourself to a path that is bigger than you, beyond you, that will stretch you, train you, cut you down to size, challenge you, and encourage you to live the biggest, boldest, best life that can be lived—a life so full of joy and potential that we could never have reached such heights on our own.
So, Beloved, let me ask you one more time: Who do you follow? Who do want to follow?
& Mark 7: 24–37
When I look back on my Sunday School education as a kid, the overwhelming message I got out the experience was “God is nice. So, you be nice too.”
I don’t know if any of you received a similar message at some point. Maybe some of you are even teaching your kids this message today. I want my son to be nice, after all. But part of growing up and moving forward into adult spirituality, involves confronting whether this statement, “God is nice,” really captures the full picture of God. Is the God of the Bible a nice God? An always-nice God? To steal a phrase from Douglas Adams: Is God “mostly harmless?” Or is the God of the universe and the God of our hearts, a God who turns lives upside down for the sake of a vision of a better tomorrow? And can that be accomplished by niceness? By a nice God? Nice disciples?
We live a not-always-nice existence, in a not-always-nice world, full of not-always-nice people. I’m sure you’ve met a few them, right? Even I’m not always nice. Sometimes we’re just having a bad day. And there are some folks out there who are just confirmed meanies acting out their own inadequacies and fears on the rest of us. But sometimes, even the sweetest among us, find ourselves in situations where there’s no nice option, no easy answer, where the mantra “God is nice, so I’ll be nice, and everything will be nice for everyone” falls down the stairs with a THUD so loud that all we can hear afterwards is a devastating silence. Can niceness fix racism? Can niceness fix the trafficking of children? Can niceness fix global warming? Thud. Thud. THUD!
Sometimes we realize that the best or the most moral outcome we can hope for requires us to be not-so-nice. We’re going to have to be loud. We’re going to have to be demanding. We’re going to have to set and hold boundaries. We’re going to have to challenge someone, pressure them, push them, overthrow them for the good of everybody. And while it might be for the best, it ain’t gonna be nice.
In our Scripture reading this morning nice-nice Jesus isn’t very nice. I mean, Beloved, it’s more than that—he’s downright nasty. An unnamed Gentile woman—meaning she wasn’t of Jewish origin like Jesus and the disciples—asks for healing for her little daughter and Jesus tells her that it isn’t right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs. Which is an awful thing to say to a woman lying at your feet begging you to heal her little girl. What if Jesus said the same thing to you? What if God answered you this way when it was your own child you were praying for? “Sorry, no dogs allowed.”
Not only is it nasty, it’s also confusing. I mean, isn’t this the same Jesus we’ve been following along with all year? The Kingdom of God is like a sower throwing seed, he said. The sower THROWS THE SEEDS ALL OVER THE PLACE. They land where they will land—scattered indiscriminately! And if they find fertile ground, the seeds will grow! Jesus, what did you think was going to happen when you told a story like that?
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a seed—a mustard seed—a seed that only an idiot would plant in their field, a tiny seed that takes over the farm you thought belonged to you with great bushy weeds and gives your land away to the birds—to the pests. Jesus, what did you think was going to come of telling a story like that?
We want another story like that here, don’t we? We want nice Jesus back. We want a story about some bozo who refuses to treat people equally, and Jesus floats over to him and says, “God is nice, so you be nice too.” But that’s not what we’ve got.
Instead, Jesus travels for days without explanation to Tyre, a Gentile city, and hides out in a house wanting no one to know he’s there. The sower puts his bag of seeds in the closet, locks the door, puts on a sour face, and waits. Jesus is hiding. But this Syrophoenician woman finds him. Jesus insults her, refuses her, turns her away. He is not nice, and that troubles us deeply. But, thank God, the Syrophoenician woman has discovered a faith that empowers her to be step beyond niceness and into Gospel truth telling. The power within her that told her to seek Jesus out now stands in opposition to Jesus, challenges him, won’t take NO for an answer. She rescues Jesus with his own Kingdom. And she shows us the way.
Whether he knew it before or not, the Syrophoenician woman shows Jesus that the Kingdom of God looks in part like this: A woman, a Gentile (a non-Jew), a Syrophoenician Greek living in TYRE (Tyre, of all places, that despised city, seat of Roman imperial economic and military power, beachhead of colonialism and oppression—TYRE!), a woman living in Tyre who because of her nationality should never have heard the Good News, a person who because of her religion should never have known of such grace and such healing, a person who because of her gender should not have spoken like that to a man. To this unnamed woman belongs the Kingdom of God because she has heard the Good News that God is with us so powerfully and grown the seeds so fully that she is empowered to stand up to challenge Jesus to recognize her place at God’s table. She has heard and she will not be still. She will not be deterred. She will not be quiet. And it is in her action— standing up to Jesus—that the Kingdom of God is more fully realized. She shows us the way.
Then what happens? A man who is deaf and unable to speak—though he is disadvantaged in hearing—has heard, in the truest sense, the Good News. And that Good News heals him so that he’s opened up—transformed from a person who could not speak into a person who cannot shut up, cannot stop talking zealously about the Good News, cannot be stilled, deterred, or quieted. Even though Jesus ORDERS him to tell no one, the spread, the opening, the Good News cannot be controlled.
Jesus, what are you teaching us here? That even you aren’t entirely in control of what the Kingdom is doing? Even you can’t quiet what you’ve opened? Even you can’t turn away what you’ve invited? You’ve scattered the seed and even you can’t control where it lands. It has begun to grow and even you can’t control its takeover of your fields. What if we felt the same way about our religion? Our church? Our ministry and our resources? Maybe Jesus is offering us another opportunity to follow him—Jesus who lets the oppressed, the marginalized, the outsiders (the people not here yet) change his mind, Jesus who thinks twice about slamming a door shut when someone sticks her bold foot in his holy way.
The Syrophoenician woman demonstrates to us more about what James means when he says, “Can faith save you? Faith without works is DEAD.” Christianity takes more than private belief. Sometimes, we need to stand up for what we believe in. Jesus doesn’t say to the Syrophoenician woman, “Your faith has healed you!” He says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Being a Christian is not about being nice or feeling nice or believing that God is nice. Being a Christian means taking the Gospel or the salvation or the love or whatever you call that seed growing like a weed inside of you and translating it into activity in this world. And for us, as a church, to translate the very nice feeling of love that we feel inside of us into love on the outside of us will require us to have goals, and a vision to reach to reach those goals, and the persistence to live out that vision. And that is challenging. And when God challenges us, is God being nice? Thank you, God, that you are not always nice.
One way of reading the Syrophoenician woman’s response to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” is to see it as a sort of consent, “Sure, sure, we’re dogs, the kid’s a little dog, now will you heal her?” But I think there is a fundamental Kingdom of God, good soil, not-at-all-nice, faith-with-works, pushy-field-of-weeds challenge in her words. Jesus says that the one true God, the only true God, the omnipotent, all-powerful God favors his people to her exclusion. An astute theologian, the Syrophoenician woman challenges the logical flaw in this belief.
If your God is truly so powerful, she says, and there is not so much as a little crumb of mercy left over for my little daughter, then your faith in your God is foolish. If you think you have bread, but you have no crumbs for me, I do not believe that you really have the bread you claim to have. The Kingdom of God that I have felt growing inside of me, she says, cannot be contained—it scatters and spills and is thrown down in the places you would least expect it. Send me away with nothing, and you will have nothing, and you will have wasted the Kingdom potential here in this moment.
Beloved, where are the crumbs? Where are the seeds? Sometimes I wonder about myself—am I sharing my bread adequately? Am I vacuuming up even the crumbs? Have I sealed the pouch of seeds inside of me to keep them safe and secure in faith? Or am I scattering them? Am I willing to take the risk of discipleship—of throwing what I have been giving to the winds? And am I willing to follow those seeds—to follow them into rocks and thorns and scorching sun? Am I willing to follow them into a Kingdom of God that is so much bigger than me?
The gospels don’t name her. But we know from other historical accounts that Herodias’ daughter was named Salome. And history has not been particularly kind to Salome. Is that fair?
Christian theologians have interpreted her as a lewd temptress (all that dancing): Conniving, cold, cruel, and feminine. Classic Western art used her as an excuse to eroticize the body of an often young girl dressed in silks, her face flushed with her exotic dancing. And Salome was frequently painted holding the platter with John the Baptist’s head on it—never Herod or Herodias—but young Salome, looking off into the distance—aloof or silly. More modern Western art has continued the trend: Salome the child has been transformed into the archetypal femme fatale. Not merely lascivious, but a sadist and a psychopath—sensually aroused by severed heads. And so Salome has shouldered the blame—as women and girls so often do.
Even though Herod imprisoned John, and even though Herod made a ridiculous promise to give Salome anything she asks for—as if he can assume it’s going to be a nice request, but then it’s not nice, but he has to do it anyway because of his manly honor— But it’s not his fault because he was deceived…by a woman. And even though it was Herodias’ grudge against John, and even though it was Herodias’ request that John lose his head, and even though Salome is a kid stuck in the middle of the great powers of her day—king father, queen mother, imperial guests, divine prophet, it is Salome (hoisting the platter in her skimpy dress, staring vacantly toward the horizon) who shoulders the blame for John’s beheading. Is that fair?
Can you imagine? You’re thirteen. You’ve just nailed your dance recital. Your number was a present for your stepdad, Herod, who also happens to be the king, who also happens to be your uncle—it’s weird! Anyway, he loves it. I mean he really loves it, and all the other men seem to love it too—it’s weird! Anyway, this might finally get your mom off your back because she’s been so stressed out about this stupid party. And then Herod says, “You can have whatever you want!” And you stop yourself just before you blurt out, “PONY!” because you know your mom’s been having a tough time. You decide to do something nice and ask her what you should get—as a gift to her now that you’ve given his Royal Highness Uncle Stepdad his gift. “My sweet girl,” Mom whispers. “Always thinking of others. Be a dear and ask for the head of John the Baptist.” Is that fair?
What would you have felt in that moment? What would you have thought as you walked in your leotard and tights from Herodias to Herod to execute mom’s request? I can imagine myself thinking something like the opening lines of our poem this morning: “There are days I think beauty has been exhausted.” Have you ever felt like that? Can you imagine feeling like it’s not just that the world around you that’s ugly, but that your participation in the world—your dance, your passion, your gift is suddenly revealed to be a part of the world’s brutality. And the ringing of the applause in your ears turns from universal praise for your art to the rally of a partisan and pitiless assault on some poor prophet in prison. And what will you do? What are you going to do?
Would you have defied your mother if you were Salome when you were maybe thirteen-years old? I don’t know. Defiance of one’s parents takes either the absolute certainty that they’re never going to stop loving you or the ability to leave them behind and to make it on your own without their support. And I don’t imagine that Salome had either of those luxuries. So, what would you have done?
I can imagine myself walking slowly and unsteadily back to the throne, unsure of myself, just torn to pieces. I’d be frantically running through my narrow options, desperately seeking for the margin of error that will let me slip free without destroying myself. But that’s not what Salome does.
I can imagine myself walking up to the throne with a lump in my throat, barely able to speak. I’d whisper to the crowd that Mother wants John the Baptist’s head. And in the commotion that follows, I’d slip out the side door. And no one would ever associate me with the death of some hairy old prophet down in the dungeons. No one would blame me. All they would remember was my dancing—my beautiful dancing. But that’s not what Salome does.
I can imagine myself defeated and empty—just getting it over with. I would walk back at an unremarkable speed, with my head held at an unremarkable angle, and repeat at an unremarkable volume the words that were given to me, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist.” But that, according to Mark, is not what Salome does!
Instead, Salome rushes back to the throne like a ballerina jeté-ing across stage and shouts—with a twist, “I want you to bring me at once the head of John the Baptist—on a platter!” A head on a platter is a bit of a cliché nowadays. But from what we can tell, when Salome came up with this it was original, and inventive, and uniquely—what? Gruesome? Beautiful?
At first blush, it’s hard to call a severed head on a platter beautiful. But then we have to wonder why it is that there are so many paintings and sculptures of John’s head on Salome’s platter filling our museums and our churches. You have to wonder: If John was just a head, by itself, rolled off into some dark corner somewhere, without a platter, would his naked, neglected noggin have inspired so much great art?
It’s definitely not the gore that’s beautiful. But that platter is a statement, isn’t it? It’s the juxtaposition of the head and the plate. The platter became the vehicle of John’s message and story in death. And it’s surprising, and gruesome, and strangely beautiful.
So, why’d she do it? Why’d she do it? Was it merely for this strange aesthetic effect? Why does an artist bring a severed head on a platter into her stepdad uncle’s birthday dinner? Salome is a performance artist! It’s not that she’s overly fond of severed heads. She’s thinking of her audience. Her mother has asked her to present her with a gift. And while Salome doesn’t see a path to directly defying her mother’s request, she decides that instead of presenting her mother with John’s head, she’ll confront the whole feasting assembly of the powerful with the brutality and the extravagance of their rule (which was the same project that John the Baptist had dedicated his life to). She does it by placing John’s head on a serving platter and having it brought into the banquet for everybody to feast their eyes upon.
And now we’re meditating on a deeper level of beauty. Because Salome, who I think at least in part is an artist and a fighter—certainly “artist” and “fighter” are better descriptors for her than some of the words that history has assigned to her. So, Salome the artist, the fighter, the angry kid is asking us what purpose beauty serves. Are the beautiful things in our lives meant to distract us from the ugliness in our world? Or does the real beauty come when we find creative, subversive ways to call out the world’s ugliness?
In our poem, Meditation on Beauty, J. Estanislao Lopez struggles with this same question. Can the beauty of our trash at the bottom of the sea being recycled into coral reefs redeem us from the brutality of our environmental onslaught. Or is it all just a human amusement as the oceans warm and rise? The poem succeeds, in part, because its beauty is not just a surface beauty—it confronts us with those devastating warming waters, with the turtle who doesn’t see the surface beauty we see, who only lives or dies by what we do or do not accomplish. Lopez’s poem is like Salome’s platter in that way: beautiful and fierce.
I’d like to make the world more beautiful. How ‘bout you? You do? Well, what do you want to do? What are we willing to do? We won’t be chopping any heads. But we may have to take account of all the heads that have already been severed, all the necks currently lined up on the block. There are so many! And they have so many fierce stories to tell. And there are so many beautiful platters! But there are so few that we want to get blood on.
So, what platters, beloved, do we have to offer? What beautiful thing do we have that we’d be willing to sink to the bottom of the ocean with a prayer? What ugliness, what brutality or sin, what trouble can we crash into like dancers transforming the stage—transforming this weary world, with a twist?
I love zombies. And if a zombie apocalypse of any kind actually does happen, you should know that I’m the guy you want to stick by when the dead rise from their graves to end civilization as we know it. I’m gonna be one of the ones who makes it. I’ve read the comic books, I’ve watched the movies and the TV shows, I’ve played the video games, I’ve done all the research. But more than all that I believe I have discovered the secret zombie antidote that no one else is talking about. It’s like the Hydroxychloroquine of the zombie plague, only I think it might actually work.
Now, sure, there are a lot of more likely contenders than zombies for the cause of the end of the world: nuclear war, climate change, asteroid strike, deadly pandemic. But for whatever reason, if I had to choose, I’d choose zombies—hands down. There’s just something about them that’s captured the dark side of my imagination. And I’m not alone in that. We have a zombie-saturated pop culture. In the 100 years since the first zombie tales were imported from Haiti, the zombie has risen to become the ubiquitous titan of both the horror genre and of our fantasies of the apocalypse. Why are we so fascinated by zombies?
Well, in the zombie masses—so mindless, so restless, so violent, so endlessly, ravenously hungry—we recognize something of ourselves, over and over again. There’s a moment in most of the great zombie stories where the audience recognizes that zombies aren’t all that different from us, or there’s a moment where a character realizes that the small pockets of humanity that have escaped being eaten by the zombie horde do not really behave all that much better than the monsters do themselves. The zombies don’t just scare us, they resemble us at our worst, and that’s really frightening.
But I think there’s something even deeper—something deeper that we’re subconsciously contemplating when our imagination is drawn into a zombie story. Which, obviously, brings me to our scripture reading for this morning. At the heart of the Christian worldview is this wacky idea—eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. It’s a little disturbing. During the second century when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire, one of the charges that was leveled against us was that we were cannibals. It wasn’t true, but a reading like today’s reading helps you to understand a little bit where the confusion might have arisen from.
I mean, eat your flesh and drink your blood? Gross, Jesus. Also, read the room. People are not taking this well. As the story continues, many of Jesus’ followers, unable to understand the acceptability of such a strange teaching, stop following Jesus.
It’s a mystery of faith, I guess. And it’s hard to say anything about a mystery, right? That’s the thing about mysteries—they’re beyond us. But sometimes it can be helpful to look at the shadow that a mystery casts. When we see the shape of that shadow, we learn something more about whatever is casting that shadow. And I think the shadow manifestation of this mystery in our time is something we’re all too familiar with—ZOMBIES.
Zombies destroy the world. Christ, the logos, created the world. Zombies rise from their graves, killing the world and making a mockery of life with their gross, decayed bodies and their peculiar appetites. Jesus promises to raise us from the grave on the last day, giving us new life on a renewed earth. In zombie stories, hell overflows, and the damned walk the earth where all they want to do is to eat your flesh and drink your blood. And if they bite you, you become an undead zombie yourself. In the gospel, God chooses to come from heaven to walk among us in the form of Jesus asking us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and if we do, then we have eternal life—the biggest kind of life, which is the antithesis of turning into a zombie.
Zombies represent the very worst of our carnal natures. They are decaying. They are mindless. They run together in mobs. They are relentless. They don’t feel anything. They devour everything. They’re never full. They’re contagious. They are the rotten embodiment of the very worst aspects of all flesh. A zombie appears to be able to “live” it’s undead existence forever, but zombies are the exact opposite of eternal life—of the biggest kind of life. They are the horrific inversion of the idea of a loving God offering true food and true drink to us. If you want to understand the mystery of the flesh and the blood, don’t think of cannibalism, maybe don’t even think of communion, think of the opposite of the zombie apocalypse.
I tend to agree with Martin Luther who didn’t believe that this passage was about communion (either literally or symbolically) at all. That’s one way of sort of dismissing it (Ah, he’s just talking about communion), but we can do better than explaining it away. If it was that simple, why did Jesus let all of those disciples walk away from him not understanding? I think that Jesus goes so far as to command us to eat his flesh and drink his blood because in Jesus’ incarnation the full goodness of the human body, the full goodness of the world, the full goodness of creation, and of flesh and blood and resurrection itself is realized.
If zombies represent the very worst of our carnal natures, Jesus wants us to know that there is also a very best. That’s something we don’t always realize. Sometimes, we think it's all gradations of bad sloping steeply down to the zombie apocalypse. But it’s not. God made this world and made it good. God made the human form and made it good. God formed your body in your mother’s womb. And God even took on the form of a human body for herself through Jesus. A religion that believes that God came to us in the flesh is a religion of believers who are, in some way, immune to becoming zombies. Flesh is too good, too holy, to go so wrong.
When Jesus offers us his flesh and blood, he’s reveling in the goodness of all creation for us and in the goodness of our bodies for us and in the goodness of intimacy between us. We carry so much shame around bodies. We’re so judgmental about the bodies of others and our own bodies too. How often do we label as GROSS that which God simply called good! So, Jesus reminds us: To the horror of grossed-out Christians through the centuries, Jesus comes to us as with the goodness of a living, breathing, laughing, crying, chewing, swallowing, digesting, walking, running, jumping, stumbling, gendered, sexual, sneezing, sensuous, fleshy, human body. Believe that—believe it with the shocking passion of eating it and abiding with it as closely as flesh in flesh—and you might just be able to believe that the body God gave to you is holy as well.
And it doesn’t have to be gross. Cannibalism is gross, but that’s not what this is. As long as we can trust that this is really not cannibalism, we can let ourselves explore this divine cuisine. Instead of being gross, could it be intimately delightful? The poet Li-young Lee gets at this, I think, with his poem From Blossoms:
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
“O to take what we love inside!” Eating is the one thing that all people must do to stay alive and the one thing we all do to take what we love inside of us. So, Jesus offers himself up as food—first as spiritual food, but then he makes sure to remind us that he is a spiritual food wrapped in real good flesh, full of life’s blood. He is alive, truly alive, incarnate and embodied—and, praise God, so are we! “from blossom to blossom to impossible blossom to sweet impossible blossom.”
Eating Jesus is not like sipping on air. It’s like sitting down to dinner in a steak house. There will be meat to chew on, jus to savor—life is a delight and God made it good: “to hold the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into the round jubilance of peach.”
Zombies drain all the jus from the world. They bite delight. A world that can produce such monsters can’t be trusted or loved. But Jesus offers us the opposite vision—not a dead world devouring all flesh, but the living God feeding all the world, getting close to all the world, with the goodness of body and blood. A closeness so overwhelming, so intimate, so good, so delightful that we want to sing to God, in the words of John Denver:
You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again
John 6:35, 41–51
When Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life,” I think about my mom’s death—about her dying actually. When I arrived at the house Mom was conscious, but not really responsive. Sometimes her eyes opened, but you could tell that she wasn’t seeing us there in the room anymore. Her gaze was elsewhere. People who are dying, in those last few hours, usually turn their eyes away from all of us, so that they can turn them towards God. There’s a longing at the very end for the transformation of death, which is also a transformation in God.
I was there in the room with my father, my sister and her fiancé. There was so much grief and sadness in the room, but also something more that we were experiencing. There was an intimacy and (there’s no other word for it) an aliveness in the room. It was a deathbed, but it was more. We could all feel it. Mom’s eyes were on God, and we couldn’t take our eyes off Mom.
When Mom finally stopped breathing and slipped away, I did something that really surprised me. After about 15 minutes or so, I took a picture of my mom with my phone. It felt to the everyday part of my brain like a really weird thing to do. “Why would you want to remember her like this?” That’s what my brain was asking me—the part of my brain that couldn’t fully believe that faith, hope, and love are greater than death, the part that wanted to run away from the terrifying aliveness that I was feeling in that room. But the greater part of me knew that we had all come fully alive in that room together—Mom included. In that sacred mix of sadness and beauty, pain and truth, we experienced not only death, but also the biggest kind of life. And so I wanted to take a picture of Mom like that. I want to remember that.
Until you’ve experienced it, a deathbed feels like an awfully strange place to come fully alive. We think of coming alive as skydiving, new car smell, the second cup of coffee in the morning. And, yeah, all that exhilarating stuff is a wonderful part of coming alive. But if it’s possible to come alive at a deathbed, if we can even come alive while dying, maybe we underestimate the wideness of Jesus’ eternal life—its breadth and its persistence. Eternal life is not narrow, it’s not timid. We come fully alive in life’s mountaintop moments, of course, but do we need to be any less alive trudging through the valley of the shadow of death? Eternal life is a long life, obviously. But is that all it is? My mom got her threescore years and ten—not a short life, not a long life. But time is neutral. It’s not the length of a life that matters, it’s what fills that life, it’s how often in life we manage to come fully alive in the moment, whatever that moment may hold.
Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” He doesn’t say “will have, up in heaven, by and by.” He doesn’t say, “when they’re raised from the dead on the last day, it’ll only happen then.” He says HAS eternal life. If you hold the bread of life, then you possess eternal life here and now, on this earth, in this body, eternal life has arrived to us. Every now and again there’s a moment or two in this life, maybe even a transcendent moment or two when you feel God actively moving through you like a fire, and you come alive. But for most of us, those moments are few and far between. And we’re left to wonder in the long, cool stretches between them just what it is that really makes us come to life. What makes me come alive?
None of us is all-the-way, all-the-time perfectly alive. We’re only truly alive part of the time, and the rest of the time we just sort of exist. God calls us from existence to life! But sometimes we get stuck, held back. First problem: We don’t really believe in eternal life. Maybe we hope for heaven after we die, but we don’t really believe in the kind of eternal life that says this existence, this world, could be better and more meaningful than we expect. And we don’t expect much. We don’t think things can change, other than anticipating that things will probably only get worse. We don’t have much faith in people or much fondness for their foibles. And we certainly don’t believe that God has the power to turn this world upside down.
When I was in Somerville, MA we had a scrappy little church. If you could have seen that little old building. Oh, boy. Built by Scotch Calvinists on the cheap. The entire footprint of the building would fit inside this sanctuary. Even still, when they built it, they didn’t pour the foundation all the way out to the walls, so the walls of the church sat on dirt. Which may have saved a little money, I guess, but after a century it wasn’t much good for our walls. Whenever we’d sing “The Church’s One Foundation” in worship the Building & Grounds Committee would sing “The church has no foundation…” to help raise awareness of our unique plight.
It was a stucco building. Stucco in Boston? We wondered if had some special meaning. Maybe one of the church’s founders had made a mission to the Southwest or something. We looked into it, and it turned out that stucco was just the cheapest way to side a building in 1913.
The city of Somerville used to have four congregational churches. We were the last one, and no one thought we were going to make it. The denomination had written the church off. There was no budget, no savings, no endowment. At one time they got down to about 15 members.
But today it’s a thriving, growing church. People would come from all over the country and say, “How? How did you do it?” My colleague, Rev. Molly Baskette, published two books about it, trying to answer their questions. Why two? Well, we did a lot! There were a lot of technical answers. We changed coffee hour, we flew the rainbow flag, we became a testimony church, and on and on! And all those things were a part of it, but were they the fundamental answer to how or why the Holy Spirit showed up and set a fire in the heart of the church?
Looking back on it, in retrospect, I feel sure about one thing that made a true difference. When the church got down to 15 people, those 15 people believed that a church, of all places, is a place where you must expect transformation. They expected and they desired to be not larger, not richer, not prettier, not more respected but to be a church where lives are changed—where people come to experience the biggest kind of life, where they meet God, get sober, get married, get over their divorce, come out of the closet, have kids, change careers, change the way they spend their money, change who they think of as their neighbor, change who they are to the world. Church, of all places, is a place where we expect the biggest kind of life to change all of our lives for the better.
This to me is really Christianity 101. The reason we don’t expect much is because we don’t believe anymore the truth that we learned in Sunday School, “I am a child of God.” In his sermons, Howard Thurman would go back again and again to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You remember this story: At some point the youngest son is old enough to leave home so he asks his father for an early inheritance, leaves his family behind like they’re dead, and squanders his money on loose living—nasty stuff! You know what he was up to—disrespecting himself, disrespecting others. Things get bad (as they do), the money’s all gone, he’s got to get himself a job tending pigs, and he lays down in the mud with them and eats their scraps to feed himself. And one day, covered up to his chin in pig squalor, something he was taught as a child—not even taught—something he had always known but that he had forgotten comes crashing back into his brain. He sits up the pigsty and cries out, “Am I not my father’s son?” And just that realization—that he is a beloved child of God—is the beginning of the transformation of his life. Beloved, remember, you’re a child of God. And a child of God, when she remembers who she is, expects more than the pig-scrap life. She begins to long for the biggest kind of life. That’s the first step.
At the end of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness on the way to Promised Land, Moses says to the children of Israel, “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, bread from heaven, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” This is the second step into the biggest kind of life. I was not made only to go grasping after the things of this world. Yes, I have to eat. But there’s an even deeper hunger within me. And to honor that hunger I eat every word that comes from the mouth of my God, I take the bread of life not into my belly but into my heart. I align my life to God in the same way that God has aligned herself to my true life. Yes, I still eat bread. But that is no longer my function. I am no longer a consumer, a grasper, a hoarder. I’m a believer, a giver, a careless sower of seeds—I scatter them all over the place, I don’t judge, I don’t discriminate, I don’t hide my light from anyone because I believe that transformation is possible everywhere and all the time!
Here, in the biggest kind of life that Jesus offers us, we become aware of the profundity of the grace that has saved us. What a gift we’ve been given! We recognize that no amount of our own effort could have ever resulted in such life, such freedom, such love. And yet, simultaneously, I recognize that without my effort, this gift of grace is absolutely wasted on me because I, I, I must realize that I am a child of God, who does not live by bread alone, who has been given an incredible gift, who has aligned the core of my belief to the Gospel, and who will continue the work of announcing good news to the poor, bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, and expecting transformation all around me.
When Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life,” I think about my own death—my dying one day. I hope in that moment that I will be ready to come fully alive. I hope that come that day, whatever is left of my ego and my way will be finally ready to retire completely. I hope I will have long ago left behind my demands on God for my life. I hope that when I turn my eyes to God, I feel eternal life around me already. I hope that I pray, “God, I’m ready for you to change everything again.”
Last Sunday Jesus fed 5,000 people with five small loaves of bread and two fish. The people were so impressed and so pleased they tried to take Jesus by force and make him their king. But Jesus wasn’t interested in being king. So, he ran off. Now, he’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But the crowd hasn’t given up. And they find him on the other side of the lake. Hey, man, we’ve been looking for you everywhere! What’d you run off like that for?
And there was a woman in that crowd. And she stepped forward. If you had seen her, you would have seen a woman dressed plainly, with patches where her bony elbows had worn the through the fabric of her shirt. She held her head up high, and she had a spark in her eye that warned of an intelligence far beyond what the world expected of her. So, she lifted up her voice for everyone to hear and spoke to Jesus. She said, “Yesterday, we ate our fill of miraculous bread! We were stuffed and happy! For a while we forgot our cares. (And you know what heavy burdens so many of us carry.) We laughed, and we played with our children on the grass. And when the sun set, we rolled ourselves up in our picnic blankets, and we slept under the stars to the sound of a distant storm passing us by. But when we woke up, our stomachs were empty again. You were nowhere to be found. And we were all saying to one another, ‘Why? Why am I still hungry?’”
Jesus is ready for the crowd. He expects them and this question. And this is Jesus’ way: Yesterday he had compassion for the crowd. He fed us, he comforted us. Today his compassion will challenge us. Yesterday there was overflowing, miraculous grace! Today Jesus will challenge us to respond to that grace.
We’re all very aware of this dynamic in our tradition. It’s often put into words something like this, “As we have been fed, let us go out now and feed others.” The proper response to grace received is action that reflects and furthers that grace. This goes all the way back to the beginning of our Bibles. After delivering them from slavery in Egypt, God gives this command to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai: “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” They are delivered from bondage by God’s grace, and now they carry the burden of honoring that grace in action, in law, and in responsibility.
We know this already: The first step is grace, the final response is action, productivity, justice, etc., etc. But did you know that there’s another step between the initial grace and the final response? It sometimes gets forgotten. What is it?
The crowd makes this mistake—they leave this step out. They are so eager to be full again. They want to be in control. They tried to make Jesus king—that didn’t work. Now they ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” In the Greek they literally say, “What must we do to work the works of God?” These people want to get to work! But there’s a mistake here. They want to work God’s works in order to get more of God’s grace, more bread. They’re not responding to grace; they’re attempting to manipulate grace. But that’s not how grace works, and it’s not how the response to grace works. There’s a missing step. What is it?
And, we should say, work is not what Jesus is looking for here. Jesus doesn’t ask the crowd to do anything, right? In fact, he tells them: Do not work! Do not work for food that perishes. Instead of asking them to work, he makes them yet another offer—an offer of food that endures for eternal life. This is the work God requires of you now, Jesus tells them, to believe in the one whom God has sent. The step between the receipt of grace and the works of grace is to believe.
The crowd runs into a problem here. There’s a man who pushes his way up to the front. If you had seen him, you wouldn’t have noticed anything much about him. He could have been any person walking past you on the street or sitting next to you in these pews. But the way he crosses his arms over his chest before he speaks—you would have noticed that. There’s strength there, but also pain, like someone who has faced hurt, who is on his guard. He crosses his arms over his chest, and he says to Jesus, “Believe in you, you mean? We might. We might do that. But, of course, we’d need a sign from you. After all, when our ancestors were led out of Egypt into the wilderness by Moses, wasn’t there bread from heaven on the ground every morning for forty years so that they wouldn’t starve? Every morning! Now, that’s a dependable schedule! If you could give us a little more of that miraculous bread of yours (on a reliable schedule), I think that’s the sort of thing that would put us on the path to becoming true believers!”
We make our belief contingent on the circumstances of our lives. We all want a sign that we’re on the right path. And we can’t think of a better sign than being perfectly cared for, cocooned from all the hardships of this world. No matter how much grace we receive today, there’s always tomorrow to worry about. Today we feel like believers. But tomorrow—well, we’ll see. Even more than the crowd, we modern people don’t know anymore what it means to be a true believer. We don’t even really understand what Jesus is asking of us.
I’ve got a friend whose little daughter called her into her bedroom. “Mommy, mommy, come quick!” When she rushed into the room there were a pair of scissors lying on the floor, and there was a great, big, giant bald spot on the front of her daughter’s head, and there was a great big clump of her daughter’s curly blond hair in the wastebasket, and (as will become relevant in a moment) all the windows were closed. And her daughter said, “Mommy, a bird flew in through the window, landed in this wastebasket, and all its feathers fell out. Then it flew back outside!” “Oh,” my friend said, “I see. And who opened the window?” Her daughter thought for just a second, and then she said, “Oh, it must have been God.”
Our world mistakes believing in God or in Jesus with assenting to (“believing in”) a difficult and complicated story that doesn’t always make sense. That’s what my friend’s daughter was asking her to do. But that is not what Jesus is asking of us. The postmodern world hears that we believe in God, and it reduces that belief down to a caricature: We think there’s a man with a beard in the sky who can open and close windows from heaven. But that is not what Jesus is asking of us.
True belief in Jesus is a commitment to a way of being throughout our lives, a total fidelity to the good news that Jesus carries within himself. It’s not about did Jesus exist or not. Did Jesus say this or that or not? Did Jesus do this or that or not? What do you think about it? Do you believe that? No. The real question is: Am I permanently attuned to God through Jesus Christ? Am I aligned to the Gospel Jesus brought? Am I committed to the values Jesus taught?
As I said last Sunday, Jesus feeding the 5,000 was the miraculous demonstration of an almost incomprehensible truth: that God aligns the abundance of heaven with the scarcity of earth. What grace! What incredible grace! And now a response is required. Since God has aligned heaven’s abundance to our needs, Jesus is asking us to acknowledge this grace by aligning our innermost core (our belief) with the Gospel. Belief in Jesus means becoming a devotee of the religion of Jesus, turning ourselves over entirely to God and to God’s purposes.
We sometimes think that all belief requires is an expression of our assent. You could turn off your brain, and it might be easier. But what is really being asked of us is to offer God the beating heart of our consent. And that is a commitment wrought hard out of every moment. God doesn’t want words or thoughts or even deeds. God wants me—all of me and all of you, right down to our motivations, our purposes, the meaning of our lives.
We confuse physical and spiritual needs. “Why am I still hungry?” I must need more bread. But that's not the way spirituality works. A lifetime of bread from heaven won’t satisfy our deepest hunger. The opposite doesn't work either. We can't be saved by our own hands. We can't earn our way to salvation. No amount of good living will open the gates to God’s Realm. So, then what are we supposed to do? We do not consume God, we let ourselves be consumed by God. We do not do the works of God, we become the works of God. That is what is meant by belief.
And that is the missing step between receiving grace and changing the world. Until we believe, we will always be saying to ourselves, saying to one another, “Why? Why am I still hungry?” God’s grace will not quiet that hunger. It merely whets the appetite. Through our good works we may attend to the physical needs of others, but we cannot quiet our own deepest hunger even in the performance of righteousness and the pursuit of justice. We will always be hungry until we hold in the center of our hearts the bread of life that Jesus is offering.
Beloved, are you still hungry? Poet Thomas McGrath wrote, “We know it is hunger—our own and other’s—that gives all salt and savor to bread. But that is a workday story and this is the end of the week.” Beloved, my prayer for you is salty, savory, end-of-the week faithfulness, where God can hold you tenderly, like bread in the palm, in the sweet spot of belief, floating steadfast in the tension between grace and responsibilities. Amen.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations