Proper 13B: Becoming Bread

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OLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 11: 26-12: 13a

READ THE OLD TESTAMENT TEXT

Our Old Testament passage is the continuing story from last week. Remember that David, home alone while his armies were out fighting battles, had spied the fair Bathsheeba and, in what can only be described as a colossal failure of leadership and an implausible abuse of power and authority, had sent for her, slept with her, impregnated her, and then in an attempt to cover up the deed, lied, schemed, and finally murdered her husband Uriah the Hittite. So, Uriah is now dead and Bathsheeba mourns. With Uriah dead, David then is free to take Bathsheeba as his wife, bringing legitimacy to their son.   Well, as you know, there are a variety of ways that this story is told. Some will shift the blame to Bathsheeba, depicting her as some sort of harlot or something that wooed David into the affair. But that, of course, ignores the fact that it was David that had all the power here. Others will somehow characterize it as God’s work, as if God would call David to cheat, lie, scheme, and murder to further the building of the Kingdom of God. Sorry, I don’t really think that’s quite what God had in mind.

So today we have the story of Nathan. I love Nathan. He confronts the problem head-on. And he does it in quite a remarkable way. He tells a parable. (Where have we heard that style of teaching before?) He tells the story of a rich man who possessed many flocks and herds—so many, in fact, that he didn’t even really know them all–and a poor man who possessed one lowly little lamb who the poor man actually had grown to love.   Yet when a traveler appeared, the rich man, replete with livestock, actually took the one lamb from the poor man to feed his guest. Well, David was incensed. After all, what a horrible man! Someone should do something! That is not justice! That man should be punished! That man doesn’t deserve to live!

You know, John Westerhoff once said that “if a parable doesn’t make you a bit uncomfortable, [doesn’t make you squirm a little in your seat], you probably have not gotten it.” So, obviously, David didn’t get it. Obviously, it was much easier to hand out judgment for someone else’s acts than to recognize his own failures and shortcomings. So Nathan, courageously speaking the truth in love, essentially, holds up the mirror. “David,” he said, “You are the man!”

He then explains in detail what David has done, all the time holding a mirror, forcing David to look at himself, to look at his own actions, to realize that his actions have consequences, that they cannot be hidden from God. And, maybe even more painful, they cannot be hidden from himself. David has to face what he has done, look at the consequences, look at the pain and the suffering that he has caused. And David finally admits his wrong. He confesses. It’s a hard thing. It’s a hard thing to admit when you’ve done something wrong. It’s a hard thing to be forced to take a good hard look in that mirror and see the reflection not of that image of God in which you were created but rather someone that you’d rather not be around.

Yeah, sin is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a hard thing to look at, particularly, when that mirror is showing us someone that we don’t really want to be. Where did we go wrong? And what will everyone else think?   And, after all, we’re good Methodists. We don’t need to talk about sin. We have grace. Really? I think Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor has possibly written the most incredible book on sin that I have ever read. In her book entitled “Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation,” she depicts sin as our only hope. Well that’s a new spin on it! After all, aren’t we trying to avoid it? She says that “sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications), 59.) In other words, no longer can we just sweep something under the rug hoping that it will go away, hoping that our good Methodist upbringing will shower us with grace and keep our sins closeted away where they need to be. It’s a phenomenal way to think about it, to realize that in some way, holding the mirror up for ourselves or, if we can’t do that, hoping that someone in our life will be grace-filled enough to do it for us, can actually bring us closer to God, actually put us on the road to beginning again.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What power does the parable have in confronting David as opposed to some other way that Nathan might have utilized?
  3. Why is it so difficult for us to see our own misgivings?
  4. How do we usually talk about sin in our society and our culture?
  5. How do you view sin in your own life?
  6. What part did God play in this story?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 4: 1-16

READ THE EPISTLE TEXT

This passage is sort of a “hinge” statement for the writer of Ephesians (who, remember, is more than likely not Paul). It wraps up the theological statement in the first three chapters and leads into the material that follows that provides a rationale for the behavior that is required of the church. It is an exhortation to hearers to abandon the old ways and fully enter something new. The primary call is to unity of the church, which the writer views as a reflection of God’s gift of reconciliation in Christ. But this is a process, rather than a completed event. Unity is part of the maturity of the church itself. Unity is the way to wholeness.

But while the process is going on, the church is called to build up the members of itself, rather than posing some sort of “requirement” of where they have to be before they enter the church. That is the reason, as the author sees it, that God endowed members of the church with certain leadership gifts. But in Ephesians, unity is not the same as uniformity. This is not a closed unity that shields the church and keeps it “safe” with its set and staid doctrines and beliefs; it is rather an expansive and open unity, growing and dynamic. The mystery of God does not wipe out the distinctions between groups within the church. The call is that even in the midst of diversity the church will become one in Christ. It is a call to a “grown-up” faith that recognizes what God has provided and listens for what God is calling us to do. We are to live a life worthy of our calling, a life worthy of what we were created to be.

Part of the message here, again, is that God’s generous love reaches out to include. No one is too far away; no one is too far gone; no one has sunk too low. It is a message of grace. We are all called by God. So these leadership positions are not “rewards” but roles through which the leaders reach out to everyone in the name of Christ. Endowed with gifts, we are now partners with God in ministry and ministry-making. We are now partners in building the Kingdom of God.

You and I might lament our meager gifts. We might even wish for some that were more positive and attractive, but such wishing is a waste of time. There is a wonderful story that comes from Jewish tradition about a man named Simon. And Simon wanted always to be more like Moses ~ That was his constant worry. And he kept going to the Rabbi and saying, “Rabbi I must lead my life so that I live more like Moses did.” The Rabbi told him once “Simon God will not ask you why you were not more like Moses? God will ask you why you were not more like Simon?”

We have to live our own lives. I do not know why you have the gifts you have and I have the ones I have. I only know that we have them for the same reason, to build up the Body of Christ, to benefit others, to serve the communities of which we are a part. That is the central issue in the business of living.

So are you a gifted person? Yes, absolutely. Where you come from is a gift. Who you are is a gift, what you long to be are all gifts given you by God. The opportunities you have that come from where you are now, and what is going on now and the relationships you have now are also gifts from God. Use them to the Glory of God ~ to the building up of the Body of Christ. Use them to make the world God loves a better place. Do that and you will be doing the business of life. Amen. (From “Gifts”, by Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, available at http://day1.org/837-gifts, accessed 1 August, 2012)

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does “unity” mean to you?
  3. What do you think “unity” means to most of our society?
  4. How does this speak to our modern-day church?
  5. What does this say about our own calling?
  6. What does it mean for us to “live a life worthy of our calling”?
  7. What does this passage say about leadership?

 

GOSPEL: John 6: 24-35

READ THE GOSPEL TEXT

This passage follows up to the passage that we read last week about the Feeding of the 5,000. And here Jesus makes a major declaration by claiming that the crowds were following him because their needs had been met. In other words, he is claiming that the crowd really wasn’t that impressed with the miracle itself but in that it had had a positive effect upon them. The implication is that this was sort of a superficial belief and did not lead to real change, to really knowing who Jesus was.

We believe Jesus to be the full revelation of God, but, particularly in John’s Gospel, that revelation does not come to us directly and straightforwardly. And, once again, the crowds do not get it. They hear “bread” and assume that Jesus is talking about baked wheat flour. Jesus notes their incomprehension. They are looking for Jesus, but the “Jesus” for whom they are looking is different from the one they have. Their faith rests, rather, in their idea of a Savior, a King, or perhaps someone who can “fix” all the ills of life. It sort of, then, flies in the face of the notion of the “Feeding of the Multitude” being about the Jesus who can meet all of our needs. In other words, it’s about bread but it’s not just about bread. The bread that filled their stomachs now turns into holy metaphor. Now don’t get me wrong. The passage is not lessening the importance of physical nourishment. There are millions of starving people in the world that can speak to that. But it’s not all there is.

Jesus is depicting faith as belief in something else, in the spiritual, the incarnation of God. Jesus is not trying to hide the truth but to show a new truth—the Word made Flesh. “Seeing” Jesus, seeing signs is not the same as encountering the Christ that is the Word made Flesh, not the same as knowing Christ as God. What is interesting is that most people are good at going where their own physical needs are met and, yet, many try to “spiritualize” others’ material needs. Jesus is trying, though, to connect their physical hunger back to their spiritual hunger. The two cannot be separated. After all, what good are “signs” if one is physically hungry and what good is eating if one is spiritually wanting? Encountering Christ recognizes that we are called to feed the world both physically and spiritually. We can neither concentrate on just the physical nor can we over-spiritualize the basic need of the human body for physical food. We are called to be the “signs” of Christ’s presence in the world. We are called to be sacrament in this world.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the term “Bread of Life” mean for you?
  3. What stands in the way of our seeing Christ as the Bread of Life?
  4. What needs compel people to follow Christ?
  5. How do those needs affect our faith, our view of Christ, and our view of the Church?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Perhaps if we are brave enough to accept our monsters, to love them, to kiss them, we will find that we are touching not the terrible dragon that we feared, but the loving Lord of all Creation. And when we meet our Creator, we will be judged for all our turnings away, all our inhumanity to each other, but it will be the judgment of inexorable love, and in the end we will know the mercy of God which is beyond all comprehension. (Madeline L’Engle, “Waiting for Judas”, in Bread and Wine)

Vocation is the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s greatest hunger meet. (Frederick Buechner)

 

Sure, people need Jesus, but most of the time, what they really need is for someone to be Jesus to them. (Reuben Welch)

 

Closing

O Ingenious God, I rejoice in your creation, and pray that your Spirit touch me so deeply that I will find a sense of self which makes me glad to be who I am and yet restless at being anything less than I can become.

Make me simple enough not to be confused by disappointments,

Clear enough not to mistake busyness for freedom,

Honest enough not to expect truth to be painless,

Brave enough not to sing all my songs in private,

Compassionate enough to get in trouble,

Humble enough to admit trouble and seek help,

Joyful enough to celebrate all of it, myself and others and you through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(“Touch Me Deeply so that I will Find a Sense of Self”, by Ted Loder, in Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, 82 )

Proper 23A: You Are Cordially Invited…

"Parable of the Great Banquet", Brunswick Monogrammist, c. 1525, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland
“Parable of the Great Banquet”, Brunswick Monogrammist, c. 1525, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 32: 1-14

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

For forty days and nights, Israel is without Moses and, for them, without access to God. (Now remember that Moses is up there on the mountain trying to hammer out what God intends for the people to do, what God intends for the people to be. Moses is up there working hard to understand. And so he leaves Aaron in charge. And, apparently, he has lost control at the foot of the mountain! I guess they just thought Moses was taking too long!) The people are so anxious about Moses’ return that they seize an initiative of their own to have access to God, without reference to Moses. They appeal to Aaron, who, for them, is probably the next best source of theological authority after Moses. So, one could argue that the idol was in place of Moses rather than God.

And yet, without access to God, they desire to make gods for themselves and Aaron obliges. He authorizes the offering and the religious act of building the calf. Now some would characterize this as the anticipation of a rival to YHWH. But maybe Aaron was trying his best to maintain order, to show that God WAS still there and just made some slips in judgment. Don’t we all? I mean, back away from it a bit. Aaron was the consummate “people pleaser”. He was just trying to make everyone happy.

The “great sin” here, though, is to substitute an available, produced God for the one who is not, in their view, immediately available. The first and second commandments require receiving, accepting, and obeying God. All of that is broken with this act. This is their attempt to domesticate God into something manageable, something they can control. It reduces faith to something palpable. They wanted a visible substitute for God.

We, too, neglect sometimes to sense God’s presence. One could say that it is because we are not looking in the right place (but then, isn’t God EVERYWHERE?); one could say that it is because we are not approaching God in the right way (but, then, what happened to that grace thing?); or one could say that we are turning our backs on God (but, again, isn’t God EVERYWHERE?). Maybe it’s because this God in which we believe is not merely a far-removed deity but is rather a God of relationship. God wants a relationship with us. So perhaps the reason that we do not sense God’s presence has nothing to do with God at all. Perhaps we are just not willing to do what it takes to be in relationship. It takes openness; it takes willingness to change; and it takes seeing beyond ourselves. Rick Morley, in a blog on this, makes the observation this “the root of the problem in Exodus 32 isn’t idolatry. It’s patience.” (available at http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1025?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=proper23a-gospel-2) I think that may be our biggest problem too. We understand that God means the best for us. But we’d rather have it now!

Well, can you imagine what Moses’ reaction was when he came down from that mountain? After all, he was tired. He was looking forward to being back with his people and was excited to relate this newfound knowledge of God to them. And there they were—burning fires, melting jewelry, a half-baked golden calf, and Aaron in charge. Geez! So, he begs God to forgive them. And God does. The plan for disaster is thwarted. You see, even God is open to change, open to the future. Sign me up for a relationship with that God any day over this golden calf thing!

Albert Outler defined sin not as falling short of God’s expectations but rather the act of “overreaching”, of trying to get in God’s business, so to speak. He speaks of it as “our unwillingness to be radically dependent upon God “for life and breath and all things.” It is, therefore, the idolatry of preferring to be “gods” rather than truly human.” (Albert Outler, in Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 40) We all do it. But once again, God does not give up on the people. God just moves in their direction. You see, God truly WANTS to be in relationship with Creation. Just be patient…

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this passage say about Aaron?
  3. What are our “golden calves” today?
  4. Do we have “visible substitutes” for God? How does that play out in today’s church?
  5. How does this passage speak to you about “sin”?
  6. What does patience have to do with our faith?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 4: 1-9

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

The genre of this writing could be characterized as a “friendship letter”. The Philippians are dear to Paul (who is indeed probably the writer of this letter). They have been generous in supporting his ministry. And yet, not everything is great. They have numerous challenges to their faith. Paul mentions first “opponents”, which have apparently caused them great suffering. Whatever it is, Paul is concerned that the church might divide in the face of this conflict. There is also a concern that the people are being subjected to alternative teachings that would pull them away from the teachings of Jesus. The third struggle in Philippi is a conflict between two female leaders of the congregation named Euodia and Syntyche. (Regardless of the fact that they were in conflict, it should be noted here that there WERE female leaders in the church, putting aside interpretations otherwise.) I think the sad part is that we don’t even know what the conflict was about and yet the ONLY reason these women are remembered is that they were having an argument. Ouch!

But Paul is very careful not to take sides and he pushes for unity in the name of Christ. He urges the Philippians to rejoice and he does so himself. What he refers to is not a superficial cheerfulness but a deep joy in what God has done in Christ and is continuing to do through the saints. The fact that this joy is “in the Lord” reminds us not only that it derives from the Lord, but also that it is shared by those who live in Christ. How else do you experience the joy of the Gospel?

Paul is very concerned about the relationships of those within the Christian community, but he also contends that consideration of others is to be shown to everyone, not just to fellow Christians. He is urging the Philippians to live their lives as a proclamation of the Gospel. It is this way of living that gives us the composure that we get from relying on God. Karl Barth claimed that this joy of which Paul wrote is a joy “nevertheless”. It is a joy that takes root even in darkness. This does not mean that Christianity or living the life of a Christian is unrealistic or unaware of the hardships in life. It is, rather, a way of living by seeing everything that has been made as good, just as God created it to be. While it is clear that Paul never gave up on the idea of the Parousia, the second coming of Christ, there is also a real present tense in the tone of this letter. Paul is reminding the Philippians that God is indeed here and because of that, we should truly rejoice.

Joy is probably pretty elusive for us. In fact, we probably confuse it a bit with happiness. Joy does not mean that all is right with your world; it does not mean eternal happiness. It’s about embracing life; it’s about living the life that is here; and it’s about being able to see beyond yourself. Joy is about relationship with God, with life, with Creation, with others, and with yourself. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. Sometime true, unadulterated joy is difficult for us. Why is that? What stands in the way of our “rejoicing in the Lord always”?
  3. What does joy mean for you?
  4. Do you think joy is possible in this life?
  5. What gets in our way of that actually happening in our own lives?

 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 22: 1-14

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This parable is packed with many different levels of understanding. You have to remember that for the writer of the Gospel According to Matthew, this was sort of part of an indictment against the religious and cultural establishment and their hypocrisy. There is another version of what is probably the same story told in the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s version of the Gospel that not only does not include anything about the wedding garment, but also is missing any statements of violence and harsh judgment. Most contemporary scholars would say that it is probable that those sections were not in the original story and were added by later redactors because they’re not really in line with our image of the non-violent Jesus.

But, that said, the writer of the passage that we read today places this parable after Jesus has already announced the arrival of God’s rule. In effect, Jesus has already announced the great messianic banquet and the onset of God’s rule in the world and has invited everyone to follow him to it. And there was probably some disappointment and frustration at the number of people who had not gotten on board.

So he uses the very tradition of the time to tell a story. The custom was that you announced that you were having a party on a certain day. When all of the planning was done, you sent word to those who had been invited. It would be mortifying if no one came. And that’s what happened here. The king had prepared an incredible feast for the wedding of his son and it was all going to go to waste. So, the host decided to invite anyone in the village that he saw. The hall is filled and the party begins.

But then a guest shows up without the proper attire. (Apparently, he had not read the small print on his invitation!) Now, there’s another cultural norm that we need to know here. It was not that everyone was required to own a garment appropriate for this occasion. Wedding hosts provided garments to their guests in much the same way that an upscale restaurant provides coats and ties so that everyone will be dressed for the occasion. From that standpoint, the focus changes from what we thought was just a snobby host to a guest that didn’t respect himself or the host enough to prepare to come.

Well, as I’m sure you’re already figured out, this story is not a treatise on how to dress but is rather another allegory about the Kingdom of God. The king, of course, is God. And the wedding banquet is the great messianic banquet, the incredible Kingdom party to which we’ve all been invited. And God, the perfect party planner, provides us the garment to wear.

Dressing, of course, has a lot to do with identity. When you and I read this story, most of us probably have the image of the guest as someone who was a bit underdressed for such an auspicious occasion. But it doesn’t say that. What if the guest was a bit overdressed (overreaching, again)? What if the reason the guest refused to don the wedding garment was because he or she did not want to cover up a new and expensive outfit that really looked good? What if those trappings of the material world had so taken over the guest’s life that the person that he or she was called to become could not be. The garments that we choose to wear depict who we see ourselves to be. They also affect how others see us.

This parable has nothing to do with dress codes as we know them. It has to do with being who you are and who you are called to be by God. It is not merely limited to emulating what Jesus would do. It is painted on a much larger canvas than that. We are made in the image of Christ and we are called to be and to become the Body of Christ. That image is the garment that we are asked to wear to this incredible banquet that God has planned. It’s about more than us.

But most of us come a bit dressed down. Most of us come clothed in the trappings of our lives, holding on to those earthly things that we have so carefully collected and continue to hold onto for security or safety or just to look good. But look at what God has done. God has set the most incredible table you could ever imagine. God has invited every single one of us to come and celebrate at the party. And as we enter, feeling a bit humbled, a bit like we don’t really belong, we are handed a garment that is made just for us, a garment made in the image of Christ. And then God waits. God waits for us to respond. All we have to do is put it on.

Now don’t get me wrong…it’s a hard thing to wear. The buttons sometimes do not line up easily and many times we step on the hem and rip it. And it’s heavy. Because, you see, grace is heavy. It’s hard to wear. And it’s hard to move around, much less dance, when you’re having to worry about carrying justice and righteousness and everlasting peace. But the garment and the banquet hall are so incredibly beautiful, that you will want to stay. And the garment gets lighter and lighter as it becomes more and more a part of who you are. It takes a little work. Change always does. But it is meant to fit. And after all, the word is that the host dances with each of us forever.

The image of this party is a truly incredible one. It is because it was not planned haphazardly. It’s been God’s plan the whole time. We have been moving closer and closer and closer to the great celebration from the very beginning. And now Jesus has shown us how to wear the garment.

R. Paul Stevens says “the last thing we do is the first thing we think about.” He goes on to say that “if we want to have a party with a cake, we first think about the party, then the cake. Then we obtain ingredients and turn the oven up. We do not first turn on the oven, go out to buy the ingredients, and then plan the party. God envisioned the final party and then “thought up” Creation. [God envisioned your place at the table and then created you and the garment that fits.] The whole of our human existence makes sense in the light of the end.”

You see, the party is not in full swing yet, but we have the invitation and we hear the music wafting over our lives. And there really is no fine print. Here…here is the garment for you to wear. Wear it so that you will be what God calls you to be and so that when you sit down to the feast, you will be dressed to experience the joy of the occasion. So, now, “go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Where do you see yourself in this story?
  3. What are our excuses today for not having time for God?
  4. What, for you, is your wedding garment?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Patience is the companion of wisdom. (St. Augustine of Hippo, 5th century)

 

Joy has no name. Its very being is lost in the great tide of selfless delight—creation’s response to the infinite loving of God. (Evelyn Underhill)

 

Functionalism is lethal when it is not balanced by a sense of reverence. Without reverence, there is no sense of presence or wonder. (John O’Donohue)

 

 

Closing

 

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.

We come here in search of a God we know,

whose expectations we anticipate,

whose demands we can tolerate.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed!

Here we encounter a God unknowable,

with an intensity that is both blinding and liberating,

with a pervasiveness that is inescapable.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come;

‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.

Now we proclaim a God experienced

in the hints of ecstacy found in human love,

in the haunting challenge seen in vulnerable eyes.

The Lord has promised good to me, God’s word my hope secures;

God will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.

 

 (By Katherine Hawker, written for the Union Church UCC of Tekonsha, MI, 1996, available at http://liturgyoutside.net/Pr23OT28P21Outside.html, accessed 4 October, 2011.)