Sunday, August 12, 2018

Thinking outside the God Box John6:35, 41-51

I am the Bread of life. Who ever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  Well here we are folks just as we promised last week.  When we last saw our hero he had just made this statement.  The people in the crowd had sort of explained their anticipation that they expected more literal bread or mana from heaven just as Moses had given the Israelites.  However, Jesus explained it was not Moses but God that gave bread from heaven.  Then he makes the statement…
I am the Bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 
“In last Sunday's text, the center of attention was upon Jesus as the gift from the Father for the life of the world. Building on that claim, this Sunday's text focuses on Jesus as the center of faith to which the Father draws people. The movements within chapter 6 for these two Sundays are certainly interconnected, but they are not identical. Jesus is not simply repeating himself, and John is not writing in circles.”
John is writing something specific here and he is very intentional. In verse 35 we hear the first of the I Am statements of Jesus. Does anyone know where we first hear I AM…Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
“I am the bread of life” is the first of the seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel. These statements are unique to John and in many ways encapsulate the distinctiveness of John’s presentation of Jesus. The “I am” beginning of these sayings is more emphatic in the Greek than can be expressed without awkwardness in English (Greek ego eimi).
“I am” often reminds readers of the revealed name of God from the burning bush story (Exod. 3:14), and, to be sure, from the opening verse Jesus’ divine nature is front and center in John (“… the Word was God,” 1:1). The striking feature common to all of the “I am” sayings in John, however, is that they all express Jesus’ relationship to humanity. The other six are: “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “the gate for the sheep” (10:7), “the good shepherd” (10:11), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “the true vine” (15:1).”[1]
One Commentator asked this intriguing question “What does Jesus mean by proclaiming himself “the bread of life”? At one level, the answer can be put simply: Jesus means that he is the source of eternal life for the world, an explanation expressed straightforwardly in verses 47-48. If the meaning were this simple, however, there would be little reason for Jesus to have used the symbolism in the first place.”[2]
Alas if it were but that simple However
Jesus’ I am statement is not just about who He is metaphorically, but it can be seen literally as to telling us from where he originates.  This is where things start to get interesting. If you note last week Jesus was addressing the 5000 whom he had just fed but in today’s text Jesus dialogue companions suddenly shifts to “the Jews.”
Now before we proceed we must recall that in John “The Jews” are not all the Jewish people but in some contexts it refers to the Jewish people who are opposed to the Followers of Christ, in other context it refers to Jewish people who feared other Jewish people and in some context the phrase is used to refer to Jesus himself. 
“One prominent feature of the Fourth Gospel is its repeated mention of ``the Jews.'' The Greek word Ioudaioi, generally translated ``Jews'' in our English Bibles, appears sixty-seven times in the Gospel of John. In many cases, the people so designated are opponents of Jesus; eventually, ``the Jews'' actively seek his death…some of these verses make positive statements about Jews. In John 4:22, Jesus (himself a Jew, as we read in John 4:9) states that ``salvation is of the Jews'' (KJV). Moreover, a number of the passages cannot possibly refer to the entire Jewish community of that day-e.g., those in which various Jewish individuals or groups are said to act cautiously ``for fear of the Jews'' (7:13; 9:22; 19:38; 20:19).[3]
In John’s Gospel the word Jews has multiple implications…In this case it is very clever remember when they referred to Mana from heaven feeding the people taking us back to a time with Moses in the desert… and just like back then “the Jews started complaining”
So Jesus has made an I am statement “Both this phrase and the phrase “bread from heaven” were references to the story of the manna. Jesus’ initial statement in verse 35 associates him with the life-giving power of the manna. In the wilderness, the Israelites had neither food nor drink and would have died without God’s provision. So also, Jesus has just provided miraculous food for 5,000 people (John 6:1-14).
Also like the manna story, Jesus is not only talking about the relief of literal hunger. The manna story is a story about trust in God. God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15). But once in the desert, Israel did not trust God to provide for them. Even so, God provided both food and water throughout their forty years (Exodus 16:35).
Just as the Israelites complained to Moses, so also the Jews complain about Jesus. The word “complain” (John 6:41, Greek: gonguzo) is a cognate of words used in (the old testament) to describe Israel’s grumbling against God and Moses … The grumbling of the crowd characterizes them as the Israelites in the Exodus story. They have experienced God’s salvation and yet do not fully trust in God.”[4]
Jesus takes this a bit further by introducing the statement of being drawn.  No one can come to me unless they are drawn by the father. Here we have God at work again. God draws people to Christ one commentator even suggests something a bit more dramatic.
“The first time, it is stated negatively: "No one is able to come to me unless drawn by my Father" (verse 44). The verb translated as "drawn" could be translated as the more intensive word "dragged." No one comes to Jesus without the Father's pull.”[5]
How are we drawn to Christ? what is this mystical pull that the creator offers to us? I would put forth it is the ancient texts. Jesus is saying that all we have learned of the human experience and our relation to the creator keeps leading us on.  Jesus even states it a step furthur
“In the next verse, Jesus refers to scripture (Isaiah 54:13) and states it positively: "All who heard from the Father and learned from what they heard will come to me." Here, the teaching from God and the learning from that teaching will result in coming to Jesus.
Different church contexts have different understandings of what it means "to come to Jesus." John's own context and community had different layers of meaning for this also. It may be important to invoke some of the options. For the Jews in Jesus' context, it would be to choose the messianic understanding of their own tradition. For the Jews in the context of the Gospel of John, it would mean choosing to step outside the Jewish tradition and moving into the Christian context. In today's context, it might mean moving outside the typical pattern of our own culture and choosing a radical Christian understanding of the world.”[6]
In today’s context we need to step outside our cultural context and choose a radical understanding of God operating in the world today and how we are called, drawn, pulled and sometimes dragged into that.
In this text Jesus is calling to those who have one concept of how the world works, who have one concept of how God operates within it and what their role is. We are being called to evaluate, re-evaluate and evaluate once more over and over what our role is as Christians in this world.  How we perceive, conceive and understand God to be operating in this world.
This does not happen in a vacuum it is dependent on learning and seeking God’s words. It is dependent upon us seeking that connection to God and it is through that connection to God are we drawn to Jesus. It is about being open to knew possibilities and new realities in and through Christ. This sometimes means letting go of what we “know.”
“Perhaps this is what happened to the crowd with Jesus; they knew too much for Jesus’ words to ring true. Jesus said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven" (John 6:41). The Judeans object. They murmur among themselves. These are the insiders, the ones who know the history -- they know how God does things and how things should be done.”[7]
This is the way we have done it.  This is the way it has always been done.  So this is the way it will be done.  God sent us Moses…Moses led us…fed us…taught us…and we know Moses and you sir are no Moses… The Judeans knew a lot they know how God operates
“They also know Jesus' origins. "Who does he think he is?" They mutter, "Claiming to have come down from heaven? We know his folks. We know he came from Nazareth, not from heaven!" (verse 42) These Judeans also know their scripture. "The bread from heaven was the manna fed to our ancestors back in the time of Moses," they correctly point that out. And these Judeans know the law. "The Lord God said, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods.’" They know it all.”[8]
It is fun to note that we have heard this grumble against Jesus before in Mathew; “Isn’t this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Luke, 4 “Is this not joseph’s Son?” Mark “is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?”
On commentator reflects “Maybe they know too much. Or perhaps they really don't know enough. When I was in seminary, I took a trip with then president of a Lutheran college. He was driving, and I was reading the student newspaper to him aloud. A pre-seminary student had written an editorial espousing the use of doughnuts and coffee or pretzels and beer as the elements in the Eucharist. When I started to audibly protest, the president raised his hand, smiled, and quietly said, "Remember, Craig, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions." The student only knew a little. In retrospect, so did I.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions. When it comes to God, and even to the Church, we know only a little. Like all living things, the Church -- and our understanding of God -- continues to grow and to change. And so to know only a little, and to think the little that we know is all that there is to know, can be fatal. These Judeans had some head knowledge about God; perhaps they did not know God by heart or by trust.”[9]
“the Jews” had God all figured out. Had the rules and regulations of how things had always been. Funny, maybe they did know God by heart…as in by rote…they knew what to expect of God and Jesus wasn’t it.  They had God in a God Box. A nice neat little package. They could not and or would not allow themselves to imagine something bigger, something greater, something beyond their knowledge or perception. They were unable to hear and know what God was trying to show them. They had made up their minds and did not want to be confronted with what Jesus tried to teach them. Now that rings true for us!
“So, when are we like those Judeans? What issues reveal that we know too much about the Jesus of our traditions and not enough about the living Word God speaks to us now? When do we allow our knowledge of the history of the past to close our eyes to the working of God in the present? When are we looking and listening with open hearts? When are we willing to be drawn to the Bread of life, rather than put our trust in what we know?”[10]
Think about it. We once knew slavery was ok and justified by the Bible…We once knew that women should not speak from the pulpit, we once knew That women were property. We once knew that the races should be separated. We once knew that children should work in our factories or dig coal. Heck we once knew that coal and cigarettes were healthy for us.
Yet history shows that we have been called past what we once knew…again and again God calls us to something more. Something wiser, something more loving, something that can only make us better. Further up and further in!
 God has called us to be an ONA church and that goes beyond simply letting gay people in.
God is calling us to think about how we have yet to heal our race relations. God is calling us to rethink just what our borders are and what it means to love and care for those who are seeking us out as a refuge and a safe place.  God is always calling us, drawing us out, pulling us further sometimes kicking and screaming all the way.
What do we do when leaving everything up to God seems naive, if not ridiculous? What do we do when what we know god is calling us to and yet our culture, our context says no? What do we do when we have had enough of silly church talk because we just know too much for it to be true? What do we do when the greatest gift we have to share is compassion and Love and it is too scary for us to do?
“Jesus is not calling us to abandon our knowledge and tradition as if they still cannot teach, help and guide us. Jesus cautions us that our knowledge will not give us absolute answers or a foolproof plan to make things right. God's answer is rarely to reassure us that our knowledge and understanding are correct. If anything God uses our knowledge to give a purpose, a journey, and a direction -- namely, to trust and follow Jesus. Whatever the details of this journey are for us, its purpose is to draw us into life as part of God's coming reign, which human-constructed circumstances and conditions cannot undermine or negate. The risk of setting out on the journey, which is trusting and following Jesus, is that, even when we think we have a map or a plan, we do not really know where we are going or where we will end up.
The good news is that Jesus, rather than our knowledge and understanding, is the source of our calling and the source of our strength. What makes it good news is that, in those moments when we understandably have enough of this life that we cannot trust Jesus, Jesus has not had enough of us. So, rather than turning to our knowledge, perhaps we can turn to Jesus, recognizing that we certainly cannot have enough of him. When put that way, it is a wonder that we aren't so drawn to the Bread of Life that we double back into the line for communion in order to get seconds.”[11]

[2] ditto
[6] Ditto
[8] Ditto
[9] Ditto
[10] Ditto
[11] Ditto

Sunday, July 29, 2018

From Scarcity to Abundance John 6: 1-21

Fred Craddock shares a story of manna…as story of feeding … a story of unexpected glory…you see he had gone to Winnipeg to give two lectures the first lecture went off without a hitch but the second lecture well…
            Friday Night as he left the lecture hall it was beginning to spit a little snow. He was surprised, and his host was surprised as well because he had written, “It’s too early for the cold weather, but you might want to bring a little wind breaker, a little light jacket.” The next morning when he got up there was two or three feet of snow piled against the door. The phone rang, and his host informed him that everyone is surprised by this, the lecture had been cancelled and no one could get to him to breakfast and the airport is closed.  He gave him directions to the bus depot around the corner that has a café.
Fred explains;
            “I said; ‘I’ll get around’ I put on that little light jacket; it was nothing. I got my little cap and put it on; It didn’t even help me in the room. I went into the bathroom and unrolled long sheets of toilet paper and made a nest in my cap so that it would protect my head against that icy wind.
            I went outside, shivering. The wind was cold, the snow was deep. I slid and bumped and finally made it around the corner into the bus station. Every stranded traveler in western Canada was in there, strangers to each other and to me, pressing and pushing and loud. I finally found a place to sit, and after a lengthy time a man in a greasy apron came over and said, ‘What’ll you have?’ I said, ‘May I see a menu?’ He said, ‘What do you want a menu for? We have soup.’ I said, ‘What kinds of soup do oyu have?’ and he said soup. You want some soup?’ I said, ‘That was what I was going to order – soup.’ He brought the soup, and I put the spoon to it –Yuck! It was the awfullest. It was kind of gray looking; it was so bad I couldn’t eat it, but I sat there and put my hands about it. It was warm, and so I sat there with my head down, my head wrapped in toilet paper, bemoaning and beweeping my outcast state with he horrible soup. But it was warm, so I clutched it and stayed bent over my soup stove.
            The door opened again. The wind was icy, and somebody yelled, ‘Close the door!’ in came this woman clutching her little coat. She found a place, not far from me. The greasy apron came, ‘What do you want?’ She said, ‘A glass of water.’ He brought a glass of water, took out his tablet, and said, ‘Now what’ll you have’ She said, ‘Just the water.” He said, ‘You have to order lady.’ ‘Well, I just want a glass of water.’ ‘Look, I have customers that pay- what do you think this is, a church or something? Now what do you want?’ She said, ‘Just a glass of water and some time to get warm.’ ‘Look there are people paying here. I f you’re not going to order you have to leave!’ And he got real loud about it. So, she got up to leave and, almost as if rehearsed, everybody in that little café stood up and started to walk towards the door. I got up and said, ‘I’m voting for something here; I don’t know what it is.’ And the man in the greasy apron said, ‘All right, all right, she can stay.’ Everybody sat down, and he brought her a bowl of soup.
            I said to the person siting there by me, I said, ‘who is she?’ He said, ‘I never saw her before.’ The place grew quiet, nut I heard the sipping of the awful soup. I said,’ I’m going to try that again.’ I put my spoon to the soup – you know, it was not bad soup. Everybody was eating this soup. I started eating the soup, and it was pretty good soup. I have no idea what kind of soup it was. I don’t know what was in it, but I do recall when I was eating it, it tasted a little bit like bread and wine. Just a little like bread and wine.”[1]
            Fred Cradock in this story shows how a greasy apron moves form scarcity to abundance and in so doing a noisy café on a very cold morning moves form a place earnest refuge to a church. A Awful cup of soup is transformed into bread and wine.
            Walter Bruggeman reflects on Psalm 145 which I used as our opening reflection.
·         In Psalm 145:15 it says, “The eyes all look to you.” But the voice of fear says there is not enough oil and we better send the fleet somewhere.
·         Verse 16 says, “You satisfy the desire of all things,” but the voice of fear says there is not enough food for everyone, so don’t worry about the “food desert’ without Kroger in some parts of the city.
·         Verse 17 says, “The Lord is kind in all his doings.,” but the voice of fear says, there is not enough healthcare and we should practice triage on the poor.
·         Verse 19 says, “He fulfills the desire of all who fear him,” but the voice of fear says, there is not enough education to go around, so we have a new kind of “separate but equal.”
·         Verse 19 says, “He hears their cries and saves them,” but he voice of fear says there is not enough support for all, so no immigrants.
·         Verse 13 says , “He is gracious in all his deed,” bu the voice of fear says there is not enough of truth, and surely Islam does not have any.
·         Verse 20 says, “The Lord watches over all who fear him,” but the voice of fear says there is not enough grace to share it with the gays.[2]
            Though this reflection was written in 2012 it still rings true today.  This is a concept of scarcity verses abundance.  This is the concept and the heart of today’s Gospel . His reflection on the voice of fear is heard loud and clear in our society today by conservative and Liberal alike. The fear of not enough is kind of the basic mantra here in the USA but the mantra of humanity in most places is  not yet enough, we have never seen enough! It is a mantra of anxiety and fear it is a mantra of scarcity.
            And right in the middle of this fear and anxiety comes todays gospel. He comes upon a hungry crowd. Walter Brueggemann argues that when he asks Phillip how we shall feed them Phillip represents the Church. “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
            “But John tells us this is a trick question that Jesus puts to Phillip.”[3] He wanted to see whether Philip understood. He hopes that Phillip by now would understand that Jesus is to enact God’s gift of abundance in the world. Where Jesus comes, life overflows with wellbeing. But Phillip – the church- does not get it. Philip is thinking in old-world categories of there is not enough.  He tells Jesus I would have to work for 6 months to pay for the food. We just can’t afford it. We can’t feed all these hungry people but “Jesus already knows his own capacity for abundance; he knows the source of bread for the world. He knows there will be more than enough! But his church still is trapped in scarcity”[4]
Of course, we humans love to rationalize this miracle by saying what really happened was an act of generosity that the crowd pulls out food they had tucked away and they share it. I think this minimizes the Gospel and its message John is pointing out “God's amazing power to completely "transform human expectations"; instead, we modern, self-sufficient types think it's up to us humans to handle things, to help ourselves.”[5]

One commentator “observes the power not of God but of shame in this interpretation, that is, getting people to share out of a sense of guilt: "God is no longer a miracle-worker unbounded by human laws, but a social manipulator who reminds people to share. Behavioral modification replaces amazing grace as the core of the story.”[6] This is a response that grows out of an attitude of scarcity in which our response becomes that we must be in control all the time.
Jesus is not held down by this interpretation, the Gospel of Christ cannot exist in the disciple’s response. Jesus moves us beyond a simple understanding of the way the world works. He tells the crowd to be seated. Jesus says come to the table he blesses bread. “Jesus gives thanks (the word is eucharisto; Eucharist! Imagine a meal called ‘Thanks!’)”[7]
Then all were satisfied, and he tells the disciples to get the leftovers …he didn’t ask if there were any, he knew. Jesus knew in his abundance there would be plenty left over. 12 baskets full, a basket for each of the tribes of Judah! “John tells us this is a new reality right before our eyes. Jesus enacts a new world.”[8]  A world of abundance! In that old world of scarcity there is not enough, and we must cringe and save and protect and not share and not let anyone get a free lunch ( or a free cup of soup) be cause we might run out.”
But we can see the abundance! We are witnesses to what cast out s our old fears and shows us a new way to live in this world! The old ways can no longer hold us captive by fears for we know of an abundant grace that overflows. At the end of the Gospel reading we see Jesus showing up in an unexpected place and he says to them “be not afraid” because the world is now working in a new way!
I know our society has taught us to get more and keep more and do not share for it could be gone tomorrow. The old refrain of fear and scarcity will return to our heads and hearts daily but remember Jesus has changed the narrative “We are the people who have witnessed and know about the abundance of bread among us, for the world. The church is a pump station for abundance that overflows.”[9] We do not need to check the economics of it. We do not need to explain it. We need to stand in witness to the truth of Christ that all our fears which lead to scarcity have been conquered by the God of abundance. Be not afraid step out boldly in faith and live abundantly in the grace of God!

[1] Craddock, Fred B., and Mike Graves. Craddock Stories. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001.
[2] Brueggemann, Walter, Samuel Wells, and Thomas G. Long. The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann. Vol. 2. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Pg 188
[3] Ditto, 189
[4] ditto
[6] Ditto
[7] Bruggeman, 190
[9] Ditto, 191

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Come away and Pray mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The disciples had come to Jesus and told Him all that they had taught and done and Jesus says…Come away to a deserted place all by your selves and rest for a while.  I need this…you need this.  This is sabbath.  This is a different than Sunday sabbath, but this is sabbath.

Jesus prays some 30 odd times throughout the scriptures, but this is different there are 4 direct instances where he went off alone to pray.  “Continually Jesus withdrew from people, daily life activities, and the demands of his ministry to be alone with the Father and pray. Jesus’ solitude and silence are a major theme in the Gospels…The priority of Jesus’ solitude and silence is everywhere in the Gospels. It’s how he began his ministry. It’s how he made important decisions. It’s how he dealt with troubling emotions like grief. It’s how he dealt with the constant demands of his ministry and cared for his soul. It’s how he taught his disciples. It’s how he prepared for important ministry events. It’s how he prepared for his death on the cross.”[1]

Jesus is teaching his disciples his practice.  His practice of retreat.  These moments of going away to a deserted place and pray are mini retreats. In this instance though the retreat actually occurs on the water, for the crowd follows them around the bank to where they are headed and are ready for them when they arrive.

But this concept of getting away to rest and pray had me thinking about how do we pray? What do we pray for? Sometimes I am cautious in my words even up here.

As a clergy I am asked for prayers.  I often see people on Facebook who are asking for prayers. I may run into someone somewhere and suddenly they will mention a family member or friend who is not doing well or is on a job hunt or who has lost themselves and needs prayer.

I make a promise of prayer and I often keep it there on the spot so as I do not forget it. But a part of me always wonders just what people are hoping for, what are they expecting, when they ask for prayer?

A UCC Minister shared this experience

“In July I had dinner with a long-time friend, also a UCC minister, who retired not long ago. It was wonderful to see him; it was sad to see him. Since his retirement he has had significant health issues, some of which seem to be resisting any and all medications. His immediate future, health wise, is very uncertain. As we parted, not sure when or if we would see each other again, I told him I would hold him in my prayers. But again, what did I mean by that? What exactly will I be praying for? What do I want my prayer for him to accomplish? In fact, is accomplish even the proper word to use?”

Every week in our worship service we lift up joys and concerns during our prayer time. But when we ask for prayer for a friend suffering from illness, for a family member stricken with grief, for ourselves as we face a surgery or a situation we fear might overwhelm us, what are we asking for… what do we hope will happen?

“Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.”

Wonderful words, comforting words, but do we believe them? What do you suppose they mean?
Do you recall Huckleberry Finn’s experience with prayer?

“Miss Watson, she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray everyday and whatever I asked for, I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish line but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work.”

I think of all the times I have prayed to catch that one big fish!”

He goes on to share another story a church member had shared with him

“A bar called Drummonds in Mt. Vernon, Texas, began construction on an expansion of their building, hoping to grow their business. In response, the local Baptist church started a campaign to block the bar from expanding, using everything from petitions to constant prayer. About a week before the bar’s grand re-opening, a bolt of lightning struck the bar and burned it to the ground.

Afterward, the church folk were rather smug, bragging about the “power of prayer.” And so the
angry bar owner proceeded to sue the church on grounds that the church was ultimately responsible for the destruction of his building, “through direct actions or indirect means.” Needless to say, the church quickly abandoned the “power of prayer” argument and instead insisted it had absolutely no responsibility for or connection to the destruction of the bar.

The judge read carefully through the plaintiff’s complaint and the defendant’s reply. He then
opened the hearing by saying, “I don’t know how I’m going to decide this, but it appears from the paperwork that what we have here is a bar owner who now believes in the power of prayer, and an entire congregation that does not.”

What do we believe about the power of prayer?  How do we let prayer into our lives?  What do we expect when we pray?

 Former UCC executive minister Steve sterner once wrote;
 “I think our problem with prayer is not that it works sometimes, but that sometimes it doesn’t. We truly struggle with the efficacy of prayer when it doesn’t seem to work. It is easier to believe totally that prayer does not work than it is to reconcile in our own hearts and minds why it doesn’t seem to work sometimes.”

“Ask and it will be given to you…sometimes; seek and maybe you will find?” That doesn’t
sound particularly comforting…does it?

Samuel wells speaks of three different kinds of prayer[2], the first kind is the resurrection prayer when you are just praying so hard for that miracle.  Jesus alive from the dead, Lazarus walks out of the tomb. No matter what all the doctors have said… the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear…can I have just a little of that?

This is the prayer that comes from the deepest of despair, from the very wells of faith, that mustard seed that we have been told can move a mountain…well lord we do not have a mountain to move but if oyu could give us this one miraculous cure…

This prayer is the prayer that says God you have the power to fix it… so fix it, make changes, take action, restore health! I want to pray it, but there are so many times when it is even hard
to pray for healing, for the miracle, because healing just isn’t going to happen, at least not physical healing.

I am not saying miracles aren’t possible nor that a miracle won’t happen. Miracles all the time even now the simple fact that this bunch of cells can breathe and walk talk and think is a miracle. But when the resurrection prayer is lifted this is not what is expected nor understood.

More often than not I find myself praying what Wells calls the prayer of incarnation.  “It’s a call for God to be with your friend or loved one. It’s a recognition that Jesus was broken, desolate, on the brink of death, and that this is all part of being human, part of the deal you sign onto the day you are born. Our bodies and minds are fragile, frail and sometimes feeble.

There is no guarantee that life will be easy, comfortable, fun or happy. The prayer of incarnation says, ‘God, in Jesus you shared our pain, our foolishness and our sheer bad luck. You took on our flesh with all its needs and clumsiness and weakness. Visit my friend, my loved one, and give them patience to endure what lies ahead, hope for every trying day and companions to show them your love.’”[3]

This is the prayer that reminds us we are not alone.  God is walking beside us and sometimes carrying us for through Christ, God knows deeply what it means to be human and companions with us in our journey.

Beyond this sacred companionship there is a third type of prayer that Wells describes, this is a prayer of transfiguration, of transformation. This is a prayer that asks God to give us, our friend, our loved one a vision of the reality within, beneath and beyond what we understand. Wells says that this is a prayer that, in our times of bewilderment and confusion, asks that God might reveal to us a deeper truth to life than we have ever known, reasons for living beyond what we have ever imagined and an awareness of grace and love that we have never known before.

Wells says this prayer is asking for just a glimpse into the great mystery. Help us to see, help our minds through this problem, this pain, this trial to see perhaps just a glimpse of God’s glory.

 Wells says; “Maybe this is our real prayer for our friends, our loved ones, ourselves, a prayer for God to make this trial and tragedy, this problem and pain, a glimpse of God’s glory, a window into God’s world, even into God’s heart: ‘God, let me see your face, sense the mystery in all things, and walk with angels and saints. Bring me closer to you in this crisis than I ever been. Make this a moment of truth. Touch me, raise me, and make me alive like never before.”[4]

Fred Craddock, shares an experience with prayer of transformation:

“When my sister Frieda, my only sister, was dying of cancer, I had gone back to visit and knew that the time there would be the last time I would see her. She asked me to help her prepare her funeral service, which I found extremely, extremely difficult to do. When we finished preparing the service, she asked me to pray, and this is what I did. I located myself straight in front of the throne. Before I closed my eyes, I wanted to make sure I was in front of the throne, because what I wanted was God on the throne, God the power, God the almighty. All things are possible with God.

When I had positioned myself straight in front of the throne, I bowed my head and
prayed for her relief and for her healing as intensely and sincerely as I could, and I closed with Amen. I lifted my head, opened my eyes, and there in front of me was Jesus, the bleeding lamb. Now who wants that? And she died.

            There it is. God the power, God the one who identifies with us and suffers with us. You won’t find a better picture in all the bible than here.”[5]

 For Fred the prayer for a miracle became the prayer of transformation a glimpse into a deeper truth, a new reality, indeed into the very face of God. His sister died, but for Craddock, there was healing and new hope.

When Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given you,” he does not exactly say what will be given. And when he says, “Seek and you will find,” he does not exactly say what we will find.”

We live in a mystery and we seek to touch that which we cannot comprehend perhaps the hardest part of prayer is just resting in this mystery. Allowing our attempt at control to slip away,. Learning to allow and rest and be still in the spirit of God but not only in times of need and despair but also just for ourselves.

You see in the everyday life of loving community we need to pause, be alone with God so we have the spirit the energy and the wisdom to walk when called, to pray when called, to seek the mystery and allow God to be in control.

As Steve Sterner says, “Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of prayer is surrendering to the mystery of that to which we pray.” No, our prayers may not be answered in the way we wish, may not achieve the results we hoped for. And yes, there will be times when we simply are not okay with that. I’m quite sure that God is okay with those time when we are not okay with God. But, as Craddock discovered, as we are persistent in prayer, it is often we who are transformed, we who are changed, we who begin to see life and reality and God in a whole new light. And, disarmed of our demands and expectations, we just might find ourselves able to welcome the acceptance, love and other blessings that we didn’t even pray for.” No, I have no final answers for you concerning prayer and the power of prayer. But I do want to urge you to trust the process, regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself, the prayer itself, gives us life.

[3] Ditto
[4] Ditto
[5] Craddock, Fred B., and Mike Graves. Craddock Stories. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001. Pg 125

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Mark 6:14-29 Children will listen

Stephen Sondheim wrote the great lyrical finale of into the woods with these words…

How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say "Listen to me”

For some odd reason those are the words that first came to me as I walked with this gospel today. I cannot help but wonder what this strange request did to this young girl.  I wonder if she even had a concept of what she asked for?  We do not know for she is not mentioned again. Now Herod on the other hand.

“Mark chose this opportunity, after Jesus sent out his disciples on their first formal mission, to report the death of John the Baptist.  Mark hinted at this political death earlier in the story when John was arrested (1:14) but saved the full report until chapter 6.  Interpreters who choose to think that Jesus' life and mission were disconnected from the socio-political affairs of his first century context must view this account (John's death by Herod) as an aside.  Using intercalation (i.e., the "sandwich" technique) once again, Mark placed this account between the commission and the return of the disciples to intimate its significance for the expansion of Jesus' mission.”[1]

Mark is intentional of putting this message in between the moment Jesus sends out his disciples two by two and before they return. Now this translation is a little weak on just how much Herod enjoyed the company of John.

In Nicholas Kings direct translation it says this about Herod.
“and Herodias had it in for him and wanted to kill him. And she couldn’t, for Herod was afraid of John, knowing him a just man and a saint. And he protected him, and when he was listening to him he was greatly puzzled. And he used to listen to him gladly.”[2]

It is a bit more of a gentler kinder image of Herod. He actually enjoyed being puzzled by John’s teachings and he truly did want to protect him as best he could.

Now Herodias Philips ex-wife and now wife to Herod seems to be the point of contention she is the one who doesn’t like John’s objections to the marriage and plots to be rid of him and sees an opportunity with Herod’s Birthday party. So she gets her daughter to dance for Herod.
Her daughter has become famous for her dance what was her name?... what was the dance??

Well actually we do not know her name is not mentioned except for in some writings where it is the same as her mother’s name.  What kind of dance did she do htat so pleased the king?  We do not know? It might have been a simple little girl trying to impress her daddy. Over the centuries there is more legend than anything substantial around this dance.

 So “What was Herod’s fear all about? He could not have been happy with John’s judgment against his adultery. There is no evidence that Herod repented. Yet we are told that Herod knew John to be righteous and a holy man, and Herod liked to listen to him. Was he like we are sometimes, sensing a hard truth about our lives, uneasy but not ready to accept it? Why risk offending God by harming John; he could be a true prophet after all. Was that it? Or was it also fear, as the ancient historian, Josephus, claimed, that the power of John’s message might stir a rebellion….

Herod was not loved by all. His more zealous enemies considered him a collaborator with Rome. Herod, a small-time ruler, not actually a king, was beholden to Rome and vulnerable at home. As the drama played out, he was vulnerable to his wife as well. Beguiled by his daughter’s …dancing and its effect on his guests, Herod makes a rash promise. Herodias leverages his need to appear resolute in front of his politically important guests to get her wish; John is beheaded. Conflicted within himself about John’s message but surrounded by manifold political and family pressures, Herod does what he knows is terribly wrong. He is deeply grieved.”[3]

Herod is deeply grieved as are Johns followers and, I would imagine, John’s family which is Jesus’ family.  John "a voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" (Mark 1:1-3) It John we celebrate as this wild uncontrollable spirit that comes out of the dangerous wild places proclaiming one baptism of repentance and a forgiveness of sins.
John is the one who points past himself, a lesson for all of us preachers and teachers, John proclaims; “The stronger one than me is coming after me, of whom I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. ( Mark 1:8) Jesus is baptized the heavens open, the holy spirit as a dove descends upon him, and a voice is heard saying this is my son in whom I am well pleased. Then Jesus is hurled out into the desert. It is after John has been handed over to Herod that Jesus returns and starts his ministry.

John starts the Jesus story whether it be at the baptism or by a simple stirring in his mother’s womb we have no Jesus without John…I mean we could have, Jesus might have still had a great ministry and message without John and yet John is essential to our story…this is our sacred story…this is our sacred text.

So yes, we grieve the loss of John, but we do not celebrate how he died or even why for that is a bit confusing, but we celebrate the life he lived.  The wild man in the desert telling us to make ready the way for our lord.

Just as much as Herod is part of our sacred text. In the best of storytelling anytime we see or hear Herods name we want to boo or hiss.  Herod is a villain and yet in the circumstances that play out is he a villain or is he trapped by his own circumstances? Remember “Herod makes a rash promise. Herodias leverages his need to appear resolute in front of his politically important guests to get her wish”[4] so is he a patsy or is he some political parable in the midst of all of this?
One commentator point sout that;

“It is tempting to see in Herod a parable that speaks to leadership in government, economic and institutional life in our own time. Persons in positions of power are subjected to powerful pressures that pose a threat to their own security. Personal pride, greed for gain and prestige, and the influence of ambitious intimates can also play a role. Under the sway of these encroaching forces, the courage to serve truth and the common good can flag. The results may not be as gruesome as John’s execution, but the damage can be even more extensive. Even exemplary leaders who are devoted to the welfare of those dependent upon them frequently find themselves mired in a morass of conflicting forces that stymie their best efforts. Certainly there are prophetic voices like John’s today also. Yet, the impact often seems minimal. When wealthy interests can now influence the presidential election by giving anonymously to non-profit “social welfare” organizations, citizens without such economic power might wonder if their needs are being served. Indeed, one could feel a bit like the Baptist’s disciples: nothing left to do but bury the body.”[5]

But we are called to be more resolved and invested in life.  We are called as disciples of christ to stand in the face of such opposition and call it out as what it is..we are called to be the faces of hope beyond hope..

“So why does Mark tell this story: the longest of the Gospel’s anecdotes and its only flashback? Aside from the Golgotha plot and discovery of the empty tomb, this is the only tale in which Jesus never appears. Its villains never reappear. It’s a strange story about John in which the baptizer himself never appears. Even stranger: beneath this story of John is the story of Jesus. The flashback is a flashforward. Mark tips us off in “King Herod heard;for his name had become known. And he said. ‘John the baptizer has risen from the dead, and that’s these reason these miracles are at work in him…. That fellow I decapitated, John-he has risen’”(Mark 6:13-15)[6]

 In this turn of events Herod foreshadows Pilate in the same way that John foretells of Just like Herod, Pilate is amazed by circumstances surrounding an innocent prisoner, swept up in events that fast spin out of his control and unable to back down after being publicly outmaneuvered Like John, Jesus is passive in his final hours and is executed by hideous capital punishment seemingly dying in order to placate those he offends.

As I was wondering how I might tie this into today what we see here is a governor who knows better but is trapped by the politics and expectations around him.

I found one commentator that brought me to tears.  I am going ot share just a part of commentary as he reflects on this gospel and today…

“Connecting to present times

One such story from today’s headlines goes like this:

When he landed in Michigan in late May, all the weary little boy carried was a trash bag stuffed with dirty clothes from his days long trek across Mexico, and two small pieces of paper -- one a stick-figure drawing of his family from Honduras, the other a sketch of his father, who had been arrested and led away after they arrived at the United States border in El Paso…

An American government escort handed over the 5-year-old child, identified on his travel documents as José, to the American woman whose family was entrusted with caring for him. He refused to take her hand. He did not cry. He was silent on the ride “home.” The first few nights, he cried himself to sleep. Then it turned into “just moaning and moaning,” said Janice, his foster mother…

He recently slept through the night for the first time, though he still insists on tucking the family pictures under his pillow …

Since his arrival in Michigan, family members said, a day has not gone by when the boy has failed to ask in Spanish, “When will I see my papa?” They tell him the truth. They do not know. No one knows … José’s father is in detention, and parent and child until this week had not spoken since they were taken into the custody of United States authorities. He refused to shed the clothes he had arrived in, an oversize yellow T-shirt, navy blue sweatpants and a gray fleece pullover likely given to him by the authorities who processed him in Texas.1

I, Cláudio, have a 6-year-old boy and I am an immigrant citizen, foreign and citizen at the same time. I could not read this biblical story of John the Baptist without thinking of stories like José and the loss of his father. To have José separated from his father is like having one’s head cut off. The story told in Mark 6 has no redemption. John the Baptist had his head cut off. That is how hundreds of families are now living, with their heads cut off, parents without children and children without parents.

If John announced the coming of Jesus Christ, these kids and parents announce the horrendous cruelty of the immigration policies of this country. On behalf of these families, we must stand up like John the Baptist, who told the governor of his day: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). Just as Jesus came in the footsteps of John the Baptist, we must show up as Jesus Christ to these families.”[7]

We must show up like Christ…Just as John started a ministry and Jesus came in fulfillment and yet not completion for you see the ministry goes on.  The apostles stepped up, the disciples stepped up and we a re called to step up as Christ to keep the ministry going. We are called ot be Christ to our immigrant brothers and sisters.  We are called to be Christ to our homeless brothers and sisters.  We are called to be Christ to those suffering from illness.  We are called to be Christ to each other any time and all the time. If not us than who?

  We are the United Church of Christ a united and uniting church living to maker this place heaven on earth for all. So I will leave this sermon as I began…

How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn

[2] King, Nicholas. The Bible: A Study Bible. Buxhall, Stowmarket, Suffolk: Kevin Mayhew, 2013.
[5] Ditto
[6] King, Nicholas. The Bible: A Study Bible. Buxhall, Stowmarket, Suffolk: Kevin Mayhew, 2013.