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Here's Sunday's worship service and sermon for August 29, 2021
Today’s scripture is from the Gospel of Mark, as we hear more about how Jesus’ teachings disturb and confuse the people around him.
Before I read the passage, a bit about the Pharisees: If you are like me, maybe you’ve had the impression that the Pharisees are the bad guys of the Gospels, always out to get Jesus, always going on and on about unimportant details. It’s sure easy to assume that the Pharisees had no compassion for the common person, that all they cared about were rules.
But that’s not who they were at all. Pharisees worried about practicing the faith, and what rules should be followed, and how to follow them given their current context. Back when the people of God were a small group all living right near the Temple and going to the Temple all the time, the rules were that you had to purify yourself before entering the Temple – It was how you remembered you were set apart by God, that everything was a gift from God.
But now, in the Pharisees’ and Jesus’ time, everyone lived scattered far and wide, and didn’t go to the Temple every day. So how can they remember they are God’s’ chosen people, and everything is a holy gift from God? How can they remember who they are and whose they are?
We know, Jesus had several interactions with the Pharisees, and few of those interactions went well. Nor did this one we’ll hear about today: The Pharisees are upset that the disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. No, they weren’t worried about germs – They were worried about practicing faith, and identifying as one of God’s chosen people. Listen for a word from God, from Mark 7:1-8
The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands.
The next several verses are all about the cleanliness traditions Jews were to follow, according to the Pharisees:
(They were eating without first ritually purifying their hands through washing. The Pharisees and all the Jews don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats.)
This lengthy explanation Mark includes tells us something very important: The people he is addressing don’t all come from a Jewish background and don’t know all the Jewish traditions. Mark is writing to a group of people trying to follow the way of Christ, but some practiced Jesus’ faith of Judaism, and some didn’t. The author of Mark’s Gospel continues:
So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders, but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?”
If it’s not germs, and it wasn’t, then what’s the big deal here? Well, all the holiness codes of the Temple had a specific purpose: Something was considered “unclean” is actually referred to as “common.” And it was a breach of faith to interact with anything that was “common.” So first, you had to acknowledge its holiness and how it’s a gift from God by ritually washing it. This practice reinforced your identity as one of God’s chosen people. It’s how you knew who you were and how the world knew who you were, too. You were a person of faith who engages the holy in everything you do.
He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he about you hypocrites. He wrote, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words. You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”
May God bless our hearing and our understanding of this message, as we, too, try to figure out what it means to live as a person of faith, following in the way of Jesus, in our own context.
What are the requirements of being a Christian? Who is a Christian? How do you know you are a Christian? And how does the world know you are a Christian? It’s a strange, strange time right now to practice the Christian faith and call yourself publicly a “Christian.” Maybe you are like the person who stopped by my office a couple of weeks ago and shared how ambivalent she felt about publicly calling herself a “Christian.” If people didn’t know her, would they think she was just like the ones in the news, the ones who won’t get vaccinated, the ones who seem to be all about judging people, condemning people, being downright mean, ignoring science?
On the other hand, from almost the opposite perspective, is it “Christian” to require vaccinations for people coming into the sanctuary for worship? That was the text discussion between my preacher friends from around the country this week. In this delta-variant, covid, vaccination controversy world, one pastor’s Session was debating making vaccinations a requirement for coming to in-person worship. My pastor friend wanted to know what we thought. It was such a complicated discussion, the elders had postponed the vote a week.
One of my preacher friends said it was the Christian thing to do, the faithful thing to do, a decision “grounded in moral courage,” because it was how we care for our neighbor, and care for the “least of these,” the most vulnerable in our midst. On the other hand, I for one balked at the word “requirement,” because from my perspective, Jesus asks us to have as few barriers as possible between us and gathering for worship. No one should be kept out. Look at today’s scripture, where Jesus is pretty clear you don’t have to ritually purify yourself in order to be faithful. The debate then was: Is hand-washing was a necessary practice of faith? In today’s world, the debate is over getting vaccinated: Is it a required practice of faith for gathering in person? I do think being vaccinated is an act of faith and I do think it’s fair to have a hope and expectation for those who gather in person. I balk, though, at the word “requirement,” or “necessary.”
The Pharisees wanted people of faith to remember everything was a gift from God, everything was sacred, and the way to remember was by washing your hands before eating. They must have been startled to have Jesus quote the prophet Isaiah back to them, accusing them of caring more about their rules than God’s love.
I know we care about our own rules and criteria; but we’re attached to those ideas because they help us feel safe and secure. So we sing “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
But who decides what practicing that love looks like in today’s world? What are the criteria, the marks, of being a Christian? The Pharisees couldn’t imagine a world where ritual hand-washing wasn’t key to being a person of faith. Remember, this wasn’t about germs! In the end, the Pharisees weren’t worried about the disciples eating without washing their hands so much as who were the chosen people if they did not do the things the chosen people should do? Can just anyone join the party?
And Jesus says, “Yes.” And we want to open our hearts and say “Yes! We’re on Jesus’ team here!” Except – Do those people who say true Christians don’t get vaccinated – Do they get to be part of the Christian faith? What about the people who say vaccinations required for in-person worship – Are they part of the household of God? How can it be both? And what about the people who are just confused? Who belongs? Who is one of us and who isn’t, and how can we tell and how do we know we’re doing it right?
Here’s a very concrete example: Several years ago, we hosted the Interfaith Thanksgiving service here, which meant I was in charge of putting the bulletin together and making sure I had the correct spelling and name for every community of faith participating. And the Mormon community told me the official name of their church was “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” In other words, they were a church of Jesus Christ too – I’d never thought one way or another about that – And I know people hold many strong opinions about it one way or the other. But that’s when I realized it’s not up to me to decide who was Christian and who wasn’t.
And so last week when my husband Paul had a student from Bangladesh and her family over for dinner, the conversation turned to being Muslim and having pets – specifically dogs. According to her husband, the Quran says that dogs are unclean, and nothing unclean can be in the area of prayer. Which some Muslims interpret as you can have a dog as long as you keep it out of the prayer area, and other Muslims say you cannot have a dog anywhere even in a shared apartment building and others say you can’t enter the home of anyone with a dog. All Muslim. All following the way of faith the way they understand it.
And I realized, O! Right! We are Reformed, ALWAYS REFORMING as Presbyterians. Which means what was considered important and crucial requirements, for practicing the way of Jesus two thousand years ago or two hundred years ago or two years ago – it has changed. And it has to change. Because God’s love is bigger than anything we do or don’t do. God’s love is bigger than any ideas or traditions or criteria we have. So yes, it is good to have practices of faith. It is also good to hold them lightly. Because it is the practice of faith to know God is bigger than any of our human debates and controversies. So yes, I think to be a person following in the way of Jesus means you’ll get vaccinated. But lots of people have lots of ideas about what it means to be Christian that I don’t agree with and wouldn’t want to be told I had to do. And I still get to call myself Christian, because I know I am trying to follow the way of Christ. So are those other people. They are part of the household of God, too. God’s love is greater than any requirement or expectation we have for ourselves and other Christians. Thanks be to God.
Are you discouraged? I am. I think about the sayng, “Fall down 7 times, get up 8,” and I know it’s true, but I also know I’m tired of covid pushing us down and us having to figure out over and over and over again how to get back up.
We were so hopeful when the summer began, and I was so excited at how many people gathered for worship, and we were beginning to get back into the groove of living the faith as a community. We had just started fellowship time again! We were on the cusp of going back to congregational singing! And then, we hear this:
Even vaccinated, we can pick up mild forms of covid. Even vaccinated, we can pass the virus on to our children, our friends and family getting chemo, our more vulnerable loved ones. All of a sudden, we’re back to wearing masks in worship, and many people have explained to me that while they really want to be here, they just can’t risk getting exposed right now. They are concerned about kids, grandkids, elderly parents, themselves. I get it. I’m feeling all those things, too. And so our gatherings for worship are much smaller, as people are being prudent.
So it was my discouraged little heart that opened the scriptures this week from the Gospel of John, the end of the 6th chapter – The one where Jesus keeps saying “I am the bread of life!” and the people keep grumbling. This week, Jesus gets even more explicit. He’s telling the people that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to know the God of love.
That would have turned their stomachs as much as it turns ours, if we stop to think about it. The laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy forbid the ingesting of any animal blood in the meat they ate – totally taboo, totally disgusting – No rare roast beef for them! It would be as shocking as Jesus saying to us something like, “Unless you crunch the shell of a cockroach and suck out its juices….” Eeeuuuwwww, right? No wonder some of them said, “Uh, no thanks,” and walked away. Here’s what happened. Listen to a word from God, from John 6:56-69.
(Jesus said) “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them.
As the living Creator sent me, and I live because of the Creator, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue.
Many of his disciples who heard this said, “this message is tough. Who can hear it?
Jesus knew that the disciples were grumbling about this and he said to them, “does this shock you? What if you were to see the Human One going up where that One was before? The Spirit is the one who gives life and the flesh doesn’t help at all. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. Yet some of you don’t believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning who wouldn’t believe and the one who would betray him.
He said, “For this reason I said to you that none can come to me unless the Creator enables them to do so.”
At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.
Well, can you blame them? This is hard. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s sort of icky, what Jesus is saying in the Temple. John refers to all of them as “disciples” but the passage goes on, and Jesus addresses the Twelve original disciples:
Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe, and know that you are God’s holy one.”
May God bless our hearing and our understanding of this word.
Is Peter resigned? There’s just no better option out there. Or is he
excited – “Jesus, you’re the answer! Of course we’re sticking with you!” I tend to think it’s more resignation. All those other folk turned away, because Jesus’ words were just too hard, too rough, too shocking, too scandalous. They didn’t understand and they couldn’t trust something that didn’t make sense to them, something they couldn’t see with their own eyes.
So Jesus wants to know: “Okay, you twelve: Do you want to bail as well?”
Why did the disciples say “we’re in” while others walked? It’s not that the disciples understood Jesus’ words any more than all those others who left. And it isn’t that the twelve were worried about their immortal souls and what happens after they die. No, when Peter says “You have the words of eternal life,” by “eternal life” he means this life, the one they are living, and that Jesus is offering them a different way to live that life. Jesus is telling them this life is to be lived in relationship. Everything is connected to everything else. God’s Spirit flows between us and in us and through us, and through all creation. And everything we know is a gift. Not something we’ve worked for.
It’s hard to wrap our minds around what this means, for how we live day to day life. Those disciples didn’t quite get it, and they don’t know where they are heading or where they will end up, but something about what Jesus is saying seems more true, more real, more hopeful than anything they’ve heard for a while.
How is your hope these days? If you were there in that synagogue, would you walk away, or would you stay for another day? We all know people who’ve walked away, especially when tragedy hits – Because they didn’t understand God, or Jesus, or God’s love. It wasn’t working the way they thought it should. We’d get it if folk were considering walking these days. What exactly is Jesus offering us, today?:
In a world where all the US work in Afghanistan seems to be turning to dust in front of our eyes, even as Afghan women are basically being enslaved
In a world where so many people are choosing loyalty to lies and identity that can kill them, over life-saving vaccines, putting the rest of us at risk
In a world where we’ve been told if we change everything right now, in 30 years our global warming will only be as severe as it is right now.
In a world of drought and floods, devastating hurricanes and destructive forest fires burning out of control.
I’d like to think I would follow Jesus for another day. Maybe you’re sure you would, without a doubt. But he’s not really offering specific instructions for how to live faithfully here and now. On the other hand, I’m not finding great answers anywhere else, either.
I finished Carl Safina’s book “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel”: a fascinating exploration of the rich, powerful, emotional bonds and communications wolves, whales, and elephants have with one another, but the author explains how near they are to disappearing, because of what we’ve done to their homes. And I was so, so sad, and a little hopeless.
But the next book I picked up gave me some hope back, especially when I paired it with what I understand Jesus to be saying here, in this passage, as the bread of life, the flesh and blood that gives and sustains life. I often find the truth of the Gospels becomes clearer for me when I see it reflected in other places.
And so it was when I opened “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a professor of Environmental Biology at Syracuse, and a member of the Native American tribe Potawatomi Nation, And she opens this amazing book weaving science and native wisdom with this statement: “’This book’ is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story – (stories) … that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, … healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.”
It’s as though she’s saying in different words what Jesus is telling us. She is offering a new way of being in this world, of being in relationship with all creation, one that uses the lens of gift instead of the lens of consumer. You don’t get more Christian than that, when you think about God’s grace and love as gift – Really, how it is all gift, from God. Think about how we say at communion, “The gifts of God, for the people of God.” And that is what Jesus is trying to explain to the crowd gathered there, and what those 12 disciples probably didn’t quite understand, but knew they wanted to, that really, it was the only choice that gave them life.
She talks about her culture’s “original instructions” that are not commandments or rules, but “they are like a compass: they provide an orientation but not a map.” Jesus, I want a map. Don’t you know we need a map? When it comes to Afghanistan. Covid. Global Warming. Climate Change. Natural disasters made worse as the world heats up.
And what you are offering me, asking me to trust, is a compass. I think those disciples knew that’s the best they were going to get, and that in the end, a compass was going to serve them much better than a specific map of a certain territory. But that doesn’t stop us from longing for maps and specific directions. Instead, we’re offered a new way of seeing and living in this world, as people of faith. We are slowly, slowly learning – That everything, every thing, is in relationship to every other thing.
When I drive here from my house, I pass the land at the intersection of Gorman and Leishear, and all the bulldozers ready to turn that open field into a neighborhood. And I wonder where the deer and rabbits and groundhogs will go, the ones that call that field home. Because what we do affects them. Because you can’t change just one thing without it affecting all the other pieces of the whole.
When I was taught science, I was taught that there could be an objective truth – That was the goal – as though one thing could be separated from every other thing, and studied as a single, discrete entity. In “Finding for the Mother Tree: discovering the wisdom of the forest,” author Susan Simard explains that when a forest is clear cut and burned to get rid of the undergrowth, and new seedlings of a single species planted, the new trees barely survive, let alone thrive. They are dependent on the network of interspecies interdependence that until recently we couldn’t even see, and so didn’t believe was there.
Jesus is asking the disciples to believe and trust in something they can’t even see, and so perhaps are having trouble believing is even there. How can that be the foundation of life? Something we can’t even see.
John’s Gospel is big on interconnectedness. Interconnectedness is hard to see, hard to understand. Jesus abides in God and we abide in Jesus and God abides in us – That’s why this shocking and radical metaphor of flesh and blood and bread and taking it into our bodies – The very physicality of it. Our bodies are in God, come from the God of love, and when we take in Jesus, we take in the life and love of that same God.
Next week Mary Darnell and I will be joined by elementary-aged kids who want to know more about communion, more about this “Bread of Life.” And I think about what we do understand, and the infinite amount we don’t, about this way of life we call “Following Jesus,” or the way of faith. But when we celebrate Communion, we celebrate our connection with the gifts of God, the gifts of the earth, the soil and microbes, sun and birds, clouds, rain, wheat stalks, yeast, water, honey, hands that plant, that pick, that mix and knead and cook and cut and package and ship and stock on the shelves the bread that is the life-sustaining food of God. The gifts of God, of God’s earth, of God’s people, for us, the people of God.
It is all gift. All of it. We take in Jesus – literally – and with Jesus in us, we see the world differently. We are not single entities. Jesus and God and Spirit and eternal life and our human life and all creation – It’s all tied up together. And we can’t quite wrap our minds around it, but that’s okay. Even though we don’t completely understand what Jesus is saying, even though we can’t see what he is describing, we can still live this life trusting in the God who gives us the bread of life, a life of faith, a faith that shows us how we are all in this together. And by “all,” I mean every part of this amazing creation we get to call “home.”
WORSHIP FOR AUGUST 1, 2021:
Worship for June 20, 2021
Worship for June 13, 2021
Worship for June 6, 2021
Worship for May 2: