This last week my wife Allison, who is priest in the Episcopal Church, and I were talking about the gospel reading for today in preparation for our Sunday sermons when we started talking about our two different experiences in summer camp as children. See each of us participated in church summer camps when we were in elementary school and as a teenager. We both loved being at camp; each for a different reason.
One of the ways we had a different experience was in our cleanliness. See Allison took a shower every single day at camp. In fact she even got an award at the end of camp, along with her best friend, for their cleanliness.
Me on the other hand. I went the opposite direction. I didn’t shower once, the entire week. I took pride in my uncleanliness. It was a badge of honor. A sign that I had in fact experienced the fullness of camp. Now I didn’t receive any outer awards for my uncleanliness, but I do remember how much fun it was to go an entire week at camp without a shower.
Cleanliness was an important topic of conversation during the time of Jesus. In fact, cleanliness has always been an important topic of conversation for religious folks dating back to the earliest beginnings of the Abrahamic faiths and up through the religious experience of the modern era. In face we even have sayings like “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” right.
The gospel reading for this morning lifts up this idea of cleanliness in the context of Jesus’ time in a real and challenging way. See the disciples and Jesus are traveling all throughout the region of Galilee participating in the healing and restorative ministry of God. Jesus is preaching, teaching and living into the kingdom of God. He’s healing the sick, he’s touching the untouchable, he’s breaking all societal and religious boundaries to offer folks who were excluded and shunned the grace of loving human contact. Jesus is breaking all of the rules. All of them. And he’s doing so for the sake of people, for the sake of relationship, for the sake of restoration and reconciliation, for the sake of loving folks back into life.
So as Jesus and his disciples are engaged in this ministry they run into some adversarial voices. Because whenever you’re out there trying to do some good in this world there’s bound to be a naysayer or two. These voices are from some scribes and the pharisees. Now the scribes and pharisees have come all the way from Jerusalem to the region of Galilee to check Jesus out. To see what he’s up to and to find some way to discredit him, to attack his ministry, to challenge him or to stop him.
Because the pharisees and the scribes were the religious authority of the day. They were one of the groups of religious leaders who had power and authority in their community. And because they were human beings with power, they were threatened by Jesus ministry because Jesus ministry is all about empowering the powerless, it is all about humility and radical inclusive grace which uplifts the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and the unclean and offers them a seat at the feast of heaven.
It’s important to know this back story as we encounter the text we heard read this morning because it explains why Jesus is so confrontational with the pharisees and the scribes. See this confrontation happens as the pharisees and the scribes are observing Jesus’ disciples who have neglected one of the traditions of the elders and have not washed their hands before eating their food. Upon noticing this they ask Jesus why his disciples don’t participate in this ritual of cleanliness?
Immediately Jesus launches into his response calling them hypocrites and quotes from the prophet Isaiah who talks about people honoring God with their lips but their hearts are far from the heart of God.
Without this background information about the intent of the pharisees and scribes Jesus’ response to a relatively simple and seemingly harmless question could sound a little bit too reactive. But Jesus knows that the pharisees and the scribes are there to discredit his movement.
They are there to maintain the status quo. They are there to preserve their own power, prestige and ego. They are not interested in listening for what God is doing in their midst, they are not interested in metanoia, in a transformation of their hearts and their lives, they only want to maintain that which they know and that which they constructed.
So Jesus embodies the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and he confronts the powers of this world with raw truth telling in order to help everyone wake up to this truth: God is in fact doing something new in this world, right here and right now.
Jesus is calling the pharisees and the scribes to see that these practices, these rituals, these traditons that they are holding fast too are not helping them to grow in their knowledge and love for God and God’s people. On the contrary, these traditions and rituals have in fact become a barrier for them, a barrier between them and other people.
Let me explain a little bit. And I want to be clear at this point that I am not saying that I am above and beyond the pharisees and the scribes. They are human beings just like you and me. We all have this temptation within us. A temptation, as one theologian once put it, “to let our last experience of God become a barrier to our next experience of God.”
See the traditions, rituals and practices that the pharisees and scribes were adhering to were practices that had developed and evolved over the years in the Jewish faith. They were rituals and practices that were intended to draw one’s attention and focus beyond the ritual and practice itself toward God. These practices were intended to enable and empower folks to practice their faith in this world and help them to learn how to love God with their whole heart and love their neighbor as themselves.
But as it often happens with us human beings, we missed the point. We built up practices and rituals that helped us to define who was in and who was out, who was included in God’s favor and who was excluded. We decided who was clean and pure and who was tainted and unclean. We drew all sorts of lines and boundaries so that we knew exactly who was worthy of God’s love and salvation and who wasn’t. This practice hasn’t gone away mind you. Christians and even more so, pastors have fallen into this same temptation and trap.
There’s this Buddhist teaching that say a spiritual practice is “the finger pointing at the moon, the finger is needed to know which way the moon is, but all too often we mistake the finger for the moon.” The temptation that the pharisees and the scribes fell into is the same temptation that we all fall into: to make an idol out of our religious practice.
And so Jesus calls them and us out on it. He challenges our assumptions and our traditions in order to ask us are they helping us to grow in our love for God, are they empowering us to truly love our neighbors and are they pushing us beyond our comfort zones to love the stranger, the lost, the outcast in our midst.
See Jesus calls us all as followers in his way to examine the contents of our own hearts and our lives. To acknowledge and confess the things within us that if left unchecked could defile us and our actions. See Jesus knows that the heart of a spiritual life is allowing God to transform us from the inside out, not from the outside in. The purpose of our rituals and traditions, the purpose of the law of the Hebrew scriptures, is to bring a growing awareness to that which is within us which needs the touch of God’s transforming love.
The commandment to love our neighbor, the commandment to love the stranger, the commandment to give away one tenth of our money; these commandments are intended to bring a growing awareness to our tendency to withhold love from those we deem unworthy, our tendency to not want to see others as created in the image of God, or our love for our own wealth and power instead of a humble reliance upon God’s grace and mercy. These outer practices have an inner component. The problem occurs when we disconnect the two.
So you might be wondering what’s the deal with the sermon title this week. Iron, starched but haven’t bathed. It comes from a quote from our founder John Wesley which I learned just this past week. The true quote is this: “the church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.”
It speaks to the heart of this gospel reading, the heart of this spiritual truth that Jesus is trying to wake us up to, we must make sure that our inner life matches our outer life. We must make sure that we are allowing the life-giving love of God to wash over us, to fill our hearts and our lives, to make us whole by God’s overflowing mercy and forgiveness. We must confess that which is within us that leads us to want to turn inward and away from God’s leading and then we must turn ourselves outward toward the world with that loving and open spiritual posture to be agents of radical inclusive grace in this world.
It makes sense that today is a day we would be celebrating the gift of holy communion. This sacrament of God, this sacred meal in which God makes herself known to us. This meal is one of the ways we are washed and made whole because in this meal we recognize that even though we all fall short of the glory of God, we are unbelievable worthy of God’s love and God’s favor, we remember that we are God’s beloved children and that God is well pleased with each of us, all of us. And so as we prepare to receive the bread and the cup, let us take a moment to consider that which is within us which we need God’s help to transform in love.
Read John 6:56-69
We live in a world that is saturated with advertisements, brand images and product placements. As we move about this world and we are bombarded, every single moment of every single day, with some message from a company or corporation telling us that we need this product or service to make our life complete. The crazy thing is that the number of these impressions, just keeps growing and growing and growing.
I was reading an article this past week where it was estimated that back in the 1970s the average person would encounter 500 different advertisements a day. 500 different times during someone’s day a company or corporation would get their product along with a catchy jingle or a clever commercial in front of a potential buyer. Do you know how many different advertisements we see today? Double that? Nope. How about 10 times that at the very minimum. 5000 different images, commercials, product placements drift into our world every single day. And this on the low end. The reality is that for most of us it is probably much higher than that.
Why does this matter? Well it seems to me that all of these images and advertisements are trying to tell us a very similar story: something is missing in your life, something about your life isn’t quite as good as it could be until you buy our product. Or to put it another way: if you buy our product we will help you to be who you want to be in this world.
A couple years ago I was really struck by this commercial for Apple computers. It was a simple commercial with two men on screen. The man on the left was dressed like a dorky, middle aged man. He had a suit on which was brown and beige, wearing glasses and he generally gave off the impression of someone who works in the accounting office. Standing next to him was a young guy, wearing cool jeans and a hoodie, his hair was slightly messy in that hipster, I’m too cool for school kind of way.
As the commercial began the guy on the right said, “ Hello I’m a Mac.” And the other guys said “and I’m a PC.” I’m a Mac, I’m a PC.” I mean it is clear to most which one you want to be. You want to be the cool, young, hip, relevant guy on the right. See they aren’t just selling computers but they are selling an identity. I’m a Mac and definitely not a PC.
Our scripture lesson for today speaks to this in a very real and honest way. Let’s unpack it just a bit. The gospel reading comes from the end of the 6th chapter of John. We heard the very beginning of the chapter a couple weeks ago when Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish. After this miracle the writer of John relays a series of teachings that Jesus gives to us about being bread of life and the bread of heaven. It is a long discourse and a long series of teachings in which Jesus talks about the various aspects of what this teaching means in the life of a believer.
Our reading from this morning is the conclusion of this set of teaching. Jesus is in a synagogue in Capernaum, which is a town right on the sea of Galilee. He’s teaching in this place when he says to the people:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Those who are following Jesus respond to this teaching by saying, “this teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”
I can tell you this much, I identify with those disciples and followers of Jesus who are baffled and confused by such a teaching. In fact this doesn’t just apply to this teaching but to a lot of teachings that Jesus gives us. It’s difficult to understand what he is trying to teach us. It is difficult to understand what it means for us to each his flesh and drink his blood. A lot of the folks that heard Jesus teaching this were baffled because they thought he was being literal.
They had a surface level understanding of what he was trying to get at. For that reason they were really confused by Jesus. Eat your flesh? Drink your blood? I don’t think so. That’s too much. And so baffled and not quite comprehending these difficult teachings some of the disciples turn away from Jesus. They go back to their day to day lives. They stop following him.
Now it might be easy to want to distance ourselves from those disciples. It might be tempting to say to ourselves, well I’d never leave Jesus, even when things got difficult or confusing or you weren’t really quite sure what all of this faith stuff actually means. That’s the easy way for me to go in interpreting this text.
It’s easy to put some distance between me and those disciples questioning Jesus “this teaching is difficult, how can we accept it?’ But the truth is that there isn’t that much distance between me and those disciples and I am pretty sure I’m not alone in this.
Perhaps you are like me in this way, there have been times when I’ve felt like this way of living is just too difficult and challenging for me to accept. There have been times when I’ve felt like believing in Jesus and living following in his way might actually be in vain. I’ve sat with folks whose faith is deep and rich and wondrous, folks who have the kind of faith that inspires you and uplifts you, and as I’ve sat and listened to their story I’ve heard them relay moments in their journey where they too wanted to turn around and stop following Jesus. They’ve relayed feelings of wandering around in the dark or feeling as though it was all for not.
Maybe it’s that dark night of the soul we sometimes go through, those spiritually dry places when no matter what you do you just can’t feel God’s presence the way that you used to,
or perhaps it was walking through the illness of a loved one, a spouse, a child, a dear friend, and as you are praying you’re wondering why they are so sick.
Maybe it’s that terrible business decision you made for the sake of people and the stress of the finances and trying to make it all meet is just too much.
It is in these moments where we feel that real temptation to just turn around and stop following in the way of Jesus, because well, the road is tough, the teaching is difficult, how can we really believe it.
But Jesus speaks into this reality these words of challenge but also words of comfort, he says, eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me and I will abide in you always. Jesus says to take all of this, his teaching, his call to follow in his way, Jesus’ very life-giving love itself, take it into our selves, to take it into our hearts, our souls, the deepest parts of our inner being and to abide in him, remain in him and he will remain in us. He says take all of it into yourself and allow it to transform you from the inside out.
He’s teaching us this very important truth about a spiritual life, because: The spiritual life is about learning to be ok when things aren’t ok.
Spirituality, is not about transcending suffering or the heavy things in this life, nor is it about living in denial of these things. No, it’s about naming them, claiming them, knowing them for what they are, incorporating them into our story, but not letting them have the last word.
Jesus teaches us to live from our true identity and our true selves, first and always even when it gets difficult and challenging, even when the road seems dark and long and treacherous, and he promises no matter what that his life-giving love will never leave us, abandon us or fail.
See all that other stuff in this life will do just that it will fail you. No matter how awesome and useful, no matter how innovative, no matter how sleek and cool, all of it in the end is just temporary. No matter how much Apple wants me to believe their products can offer me this awesome and cool hipster kind of life if I just buy enough products with that cool logo on it. No matter how many iPhones I buy I’m still going to be that dorky guy who looks like he’s from accounting.
So I decided to title this sermon, you are what you eat. It’s that old saying which helps us to remember that one of the keys to being healthy is to eat healthy food. And there is truth to all of that: right what we take into our bodies matters, it affects us and it changes us, for the good and for the bad.
It’s the same thing with our spiritual lives. What we take into our spiritual lives matters. It can change us and transform us from the inside out in ways that are life-giving and healthy in our spiritual maturation, and ways that are life-stifling too. That’s why Jesus calls himself the bread of heaven, this is why he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He’s helping us to see that we need to be aware of what we are spiritually putting into our selves every single day.
We are bombarded with all of those images and narratives telling us that we are not complete, we are not whole, we are not loved or lovable until we buy this one thing or we complete this one program. And yet we know that in the end none of those things will satisfy or bring us an abundant life.
One of the ways that our founder John Wesley believed we can stay in right alignment with God, allowing the love of Jesus to abide in us always was to participate in the sacraments of the church as often as we can. Now in case you are new to Christianity, or perhaps you need a little refresher course, the United Methodist Church practices two sacraments of the church. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace. In other words, a sacrament involves tangible material things which help us to experience, feel and understand God’s intangible grace at work in our world. The two sacraments that we practice are the sacrament of Baptism and Holy Communion. Each of these involve something material or physical, the water, bread and juice, but they take hold in our heart and our lives in this deeply spiritual way.
And at the core of each of these sacraments is a reminder, a grounding in our core identity, our true selves. In our baptism we acknowledge that each of us is known, called and loved by God first and foremost. When we receive holy communion we humbly recognize that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we find the fullness of our own lives, the freedom of life made new by God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness which is bestowed upon us continually.
When we celebrate the sacraments we remember that we abide in Jesus always and Jesus abides in us
That is who we truly are, that is who you truly are, you are loved, you are cherished, you are created in the image of the most high God and God is well pleased with you. When you move about your world, when you see all the different voices and narrative trying to lay claim upon your heart, those voices that tell you life would be perfect if and when you do or buy this one thing, gently remind yourself that you are baptized, you have tasted the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, you are forgiven, made whole and complete by the love of our savior, Jesus Christ, who calls to us with a voice of love, calling us to know love and to be love for this hurting and broken world. Remember who you are and more importantly whose you are. Thanks be to God.
We live in an age that we sometimes call the information age. We are swimming in a sea of information. It’s been said that there is more information generated in ten minutes than in the whole of human civilization up until this point. Think about the information that we have access to right now, in this very moment.
When I was growing up I remember having these questions that would pop into my mind throughout the course of a day, like:
who was the youngest president to ever be elected?
or what is the distance from the sun to the planet Pluto? (of course when I was a kid Pluto was still a planet)
or what was the biggest comeback of all time in baseball?
I would have these random questions that would arise through the course of my day. I would stop, pause for a moment, wonder what the answer might be and then continue about my day. This was because in order to find out the answer to those questions it took work. It took a lot of work.
It meant turning to the old trust Encyclopedia Britannica which we had on a book shelf. Either that or it meant you had to go down to the public library and seek out that one specific book which may or may not contain the answer to your question. Or, maybe it meant searching your address book for the phone number of that one person in your life who just seemed to know all there is to know about everything you ever wondered about. Then you had to call them on their home telephone and hope that they were at home to answer.
Because it was so much work to get the answer to any of these questions, most of the time what I would do it I would pause and think to myself “what a great question, I wonder what the answer is” and then I’d go on with my day.
Of course this has all changed. I can answer any of those questions in a matter of moments. In fact I decided to do a little experiment. I actually timed myself as I answered all of these questions. Using my trusty iPhone and Google I was able to answer all of these questions in 2 minutes and 11 seconds. Two minutes and eleven seconds to find the answers to all of these random questions that popped into my head.
Now for those of you who are just so curious that you can’t focus on the rest of the sermon until you know the answer to all of these questions here are the answer; youngest president: Teddy Roosevelt he was 42, 3.67 billion miles from the Sun to Pluto and the biggest comeback in baseball history was a 12 run difference, it happened three times in the history of the game: Indians over the Mariners in 2001 and two other times in the early 1900s.
It is a little overwhelming to me when you think about all the information we have access to today. Of course in many ways living in this age is absolutely amazing. We have the ability to share information and knowledge in a way that can make such a deep impact on individuals and communities. That same knowledge which used to be held by a select few powerful and wealthy individuals is now available to the entire world.
There are definitely some positive things about living in the information age. And at the same time it can be overwhelming and anxiety producing. In fact according to the statistics we are more depressed and anxious than any other generation in human history. Now, I have to believe that one of the factors that plays into all of this is the 24/7 news and information that streams right into our pockets, which is just one click away all the time, around the clock, whether we are out buying groceries, or we are at the park with our grand-kids, whether we are cooking dinner or folding laundry.
But as people of faith we know that there is more to life than just digesting all the information we have at our finger tips. We know that there are some questions that Google or Alexa just can’t answer. Big questions like why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What is the next right action to take in this world? Why do good people suffer? How do I take all that I have and all that I know and all that I am and make an impact on this world? I guarantee no matter how good Google is, I can’t answer those questions in 2 minutes and 11 seconds.
As people of faith we know that there is something else we need to seek and cultivate in order to life a rich and whole life: and that thing is wisdom.
This brings us to our reading for today. Our reading that I’ll be focusing on for the sermon is the story of Solomon, the son of King David. Now if you are not familiar with the story of David it is important to know that David was a great king who united the northern and southern kingdom of ancient Israel. He was a brave warrior and a shrewd and cunning leader.
But one of the things that is so remarkable about the story of David, as it stands in contrast to other stories of kings from the ancient near east, is that the Hebrew people told the stories of David as a great king but they also told stories about his flaws and his character defects. They didn’t shy away from the fact that David was a human being who made some big mistakes.
So David has a son whose name is Solomon and the reading from today relays the story of David’s death and Solomon’s ascension as king.
The passage says that as Solomon became king he went to one of the high places, a place called Gibeon to make a sacrifice to God. After offering his sacrifice he falls asleep and God comes to him in a dream. God says to Solomon, “ask what I should give you.”
And Solomon answers God praising God for all the faithfulness God has shown to Solomon’s father David, and the people of Israel. Then Solomon asks God for the ability to govern the people and to discern between good and evil, or as I like to think about it, the ability to see beyond good and evil.
God is pleased at this request. This request for a discerning and wise mind. God replies to Solomon, I will grant this to you because you didn’t ask for all the riches of the world, you didn’t ask for the death of your enemy or worldly power. You asked for the wisdom to see and to know what is right and true so that you can govern the people and make the world a better place.
Now I don’t want you to get the impression that Solomon is a perfect human being according to our scripture. He is never portrayed in this way at all. He is deeply flawed just like his father King David. But, we do as a people of faith, remember his humble request that God would grant him wisdom to be a good leader to his people.
As people of faith we are called to cultivate wisdom, to grow in our wisdom as we journey through this life with God. What exactly is wisdom? It’s one of those questions that you can ask Google and you will never actually get the right answer. I tried it. I googled what is wisdom and saw a number of different articles and blog posts. They all talked about wisdom and they got pieces of it and portions of it. But no one blog post or article or study can capture all of what wisdom is because to me wisdom is that experiential knowledge we cultivate as we follow in the way of love.
Solomon asked for the wisdom to know the difference between good and evil. He asked to see beyond the information of the situation, to see beyond what was in front of him and to see the truth which lies beyond the facts. To see the spirit of God at work behind the circumstances or the situation and to know what is the next right action he was called to take on behalf of God’s love and justice in the world.
So the question for us as we go about our days and our weeks is how are we do grow in our wisdom as people of faith? How do we to learn from our brother Solomon and ask God humbly to receive the wisdom to know what is the next right action we are called to take?
One of the prayers and practices of our tradition which can help us in our pursuit of cultivating God’s wisdom in our lives is a simple prayer called the Serenity prayer. Now you probably know it or maybe have heard of it. The Serenity prayer is a prayer that has become really well known because of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups. It is part of the ritual of a 12 step group to open the meeting with this prayer. But what you may not know is that it is a shorter version of a longer prayer written by a Christian theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr.
The original and longer version of the prayer is this:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
I love this prayer so much as it captures faithful living in the day to day, as we encounter situations and circumstances and we are trying to discern and figure out what we are called to do and how we are called to follow in the way of Jesus. The simple, yet profound brilliance of the prayer is that first portion: God give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Far to often I think we get caught up in trying to change the things that we just cannot change in this world. It becomes an obsession. It causes us undue anxiety and stress and it does spiritual harm to our souls. We become obsessed trying to control other people or to change what others think about us or how others see us, we try to rearrange our external circumstances in just the right way so that we can receive a lasting peace.
Sometimes we do all of this and it eats away at our soul, our spirit because at the end of the day these are the things that we cannot control. If we learn to surrender, learn to accept that we are not in control of our universe, then we can learn to trust and rely more fully on the one whose love and power is greater and bigger than ours.
And at the same time, we sometimes ignore, deny or live in fear of the things within us and around us that we can change. The things within our hearts which need to change. That old hatred we need to let go of, that habit which has grown and grown into a full on addiction, that longed for perfection in our life that we’ve sought in desperation. These are things that we can change if we are willing to step forth in courage.
And at the heart of it all, the thing behind all of it that allows us to move forward in our spiritual journey with God into a full and abundant life, a life of wholeness balance and peace, is the wisdom to know the one from the other. The wisdom to see beyond the circumstance and the facts, beyond the information and the news and to see the spirit of God, the loving spirit of our God who longs for us to live lives of love, who longs for us to live lives of connection, who longs for us to live in hope and to walk humbly in faith all the days of our lives.
So may God give us grace with serenity to accept the things that we cannot change, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to know the one from the other. Thanks be to God, Amen.
Read Ephesians 4:25-5:2.
I remember as a kid hearing that old nursery rhyme: sticks and stones may break my bones but… word will never hurt me. It was one of those adages that I heard thrown around which didn’t really make sense to me. Of course words can’t physically hurt us the way that a stick or a stone will, but heaven knows words have this profound impact on our very being and our soul. Words matter. They really matter. Words make a deep impact on us.
They have the ability to express our deepest longings, our deepest desires, our hopes and dreams. Words have the ability to inspire and to uplift, to encourage and to comfort. They have the ability to just change everything about your day, your week, month and even year.
How many of us have had this kind of experience: we are just having a day. We woke up and it seemed like everything was stacked against us. It was a struggle to get out of bed. The drive to work was just terrible, everyone cutting everyone off, the honking and even though you left with plenty of time you get to work late, you’re tired, and you’re frustrated. And the day just goes on from there. Everyone in the office is stressed out and on edge, your boss is coming down hard on you for a minor mistake you made. It is one of those days you just want to crawl up in a ball and wait for it to pass.
But then, out of nowhere someone says something kind, a word of grace, a word of hope and suddenly it is as if it is all just lifted. Everything is just lifted in that moment. The sun comes out, shines warmly upon your face, all of the past frustrations and anger just slips away. You start to walk a little lighter, freer. It all comes down to the power of words. Words from another person, words to ourselves, words have the power to build up and the power to tear down.
Because even though we have all, hopefully, had that experience of being built up by the power of words, most of all, a dare say all of us, have probably had the experience of being brought down by the power of words. Maybe it’s that snide remark about our weight or our appearance, the insult about our intelligence, the mean comment about a loved one. Those same words which could be arranged to bring about so much joy, peace, assurance and love can be rearranged to cut to the core of our deepest insecurities and fears.
Just as you can have that kind word that breaks into the pattern of a terrible day bringing a new sense of love and life; you can also being have a wonderful, everything is going your way and life is good kind of day, when all of the sudden someone says something that just completely derails everything. So much so, that as you laying there trying to go to sleep at night, you are not thinking about the million things that went right during your day, but you are thinking about that one thing that was said that hurt you so deeply.
Words are powerful. We are reminded of this truth in our reading today from the New Testament which comes from the Letter to the Ephesians. The passage we heard is from the fourth chapter of the letter. The first three chapters of this letter focus on building up the community of the faithful to be united as the body of Christ. You might remember that the early Christians church was struggling with it’s identity as it became a larger movement and the church was growing more and more diverse.
The church was struggling to know and live into it’s call to welcome all people into the beloved community regardless of their background, their race, their class, etc. This was a point of tension for us as the Holy Spirit guided the church to become more and more and more inclusive. This tension hasn’t gone away mind you. Our very own United Methodist Denomination continues to struggle with the issue of inclusivity.
The author of Ephesians penned this letter to bring about a reminder for the church in Ephesus, but also other early churches, that God calls us to be a counter-cultural community where we welcome the stranger in our midst as a beloved child of the most high God. To remind the church that we welcome all who no matter how different they are because all, and I mean all of us are created in the image of a loving God and all of us have inherent sacred worth.
The writer spends the first three chapters of this letter grounding us in the theological reason for this unity. God has called and is calling all people to be one in Christ Jesus, even in the midst of our diversity and difference, because, although God is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, redeemer and sustainer, God is one.
So after spending the first three chapters grounding us in our Christian beliefs and tradition, the writer then turns from the communal to the personal, from the macro to the micro. There’s this pivot point in the letter where the author moves from these big, beautiful and expansive ideas about God and Jesus and he Holy Spirit, to the deeply personal, every day kind of stuff that makes up our basic human life.
I love this. I love how the Bible and this letter have this ability to draw us into the world of ideas and prayerful reflection on the deepest questions about the nature of God and then at the same time, scripture gives us some practical, useful, everyday kind of theology. Or another way to say it is this, how are we as a church community going to live differently this week because we went to church today. How does our faith actually change the way we live and move about this world?
And we see this so clearly in the passage we read today. The writer has been exploring these huge ideas about God and now starts to talk about how these beliefs and ideas actually change us from the inside out. Because that’s the whole point of this Christian thing, that’s the whole point of this following Jesus thing, that we are transformed in love from the inside out.
When we practice our faith, when we follow Jesus, we are changed, we are transformed in the day to day of our life. The early Christians called this repentance, or metanoia in the Greek, which means the transforming our hearts and our minds. Or as we hear it in Ephesians, putting away our old life and living more fully into our new life.
Let’s dive in and see some of the teachings for our daily Christian living. First, lets talk a little bit about the sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. We hear in the passage today in verse 29 “ Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” As Christians we are to let no evil talk come out of our mouths.
It seems like we have been hearing about all sorts of different speech over the past few years in our world. We have heard talk of hate speech and cyber bullying, we have had long public conversations about the role of free speech. This is particularly timely as we remember the tragic events of Charlottesville, Virginia which happened just one year ago. One commentator on the scripture for this week posed this interesting question, in light of all that we hear about in our world today, what is Christian speech? What does Christians speech look like or sound like in our world.
“Let no evil come out of your mouth but only what is useful for building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” We are called to guard our hearts and our tongues. We are called to think before we speak and to watch out to make sure our words are intended to build up others instead of tearing them down. I don’t know about you but this is a good reminder, a good word for me in my life.
A reminder that as Christian people we are called to be reflective and mindful. We are called to be completely grounded and present in the moment, to recognize with awareness our physical location but also our spiritual location in each moment and to be not be governed by anything other than love.
Along with this teaching on watching out that evil words don’t come out of our mouths the writer of Ephesians also teaches that we are to speak the truth to our neighbors because we belong to one another. As I reflected on this portion of the passage I thought about a book we recently got for our daughter Olivia, called “Being Frank.”
It’s a great story about a boy named Frank who believe honesty is the best policy. So because of this he is frank with everyone in his life. He soon discovers that his honesty is not so welcomed because he often shares it in a way that is hurtful or insulting. He tells one of his friends that her freckles look like the big dipper, another that her singing sounds like shrieking and on and on and on. Finally, after a long day he ends up on the porch with his grandfather.
His grandfather teaches him that honesty is the best policy, always, but it also depends on how we share that honesty with others. Frank learns to be honest and to share exactly what he is thinking but to do so with love and care for the other person. Frank told his friend that he liked her freckles because he likes dots better than squares and the other friend that when she sings she can really hit the high notes. He learned that speaking the truth to our neighbor matters but also that we should speak the truth in love.
There’s so much here in this passage. So much which impacts our day to day life. And at the heart of what the writer is teaching us in these verses is that we are to guard our hearts from the things in this world that are corrosive and life-diminishing. We are called to put away from us “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” We are called to be imitators of God, which is to be an imitator of Jesus Christ, God’s self-revelation of grace made flesh.
Now this isn’t easy. It’s not easy to let go of things like anger or bitterness. These are parts of what is means to be human. Who here among us gets angry? Right, we all do. I think that key to all of this is that as spiritual people we are not be governed by these feelings and experiences. We need to put away anger or bitterness, slander or malice. We need to put it in it’s proper place and never let it lead the way.
The reality is that we will get angry at some point, we will feel bitterness or resentment toward something or someone in our life. It will happen at some point along the way. The key to the spiritual life is to become mindful enough, aware enough of our inner life to recognize these emotions and feelings as they arise, to allow them to come and go without letting them have control.
There’s a great Christian Buddhist teacher named Thich Nhat Hanh. I was listening to a podcast where he was teaching on anger and mindful living as a Christian Buddhist. He has this soft, centered and peaceful presence even through a podcast. He said “as I go about my day whenever I feel anger arise within myself I pause internally, I notice that anger within me, I embrace it gently as a friend and then I let it go.”
The reality is that as human beings we can sometimes become imprisoned by these evil things in our world and our lives. We can become prisoners of our own anger, malice, contempt and bitterness. We can walk around day after day with our head turned down and our self-turned-in because of these feelings we have within us.
As we learn to let go of these things, as we learn to put them away from ourselves we open ourselves up to receive the grace of God, the tenderhearted presence of our loving God that makes us whole. We are forgiven for all of the anger and bitterness and we are set free.
So friends as we go about our day to day, as we experience this life with all of its glory and all of its agony, may we learn to put away from us the things in this life and this world which take us away from love, the things of this world which want to lay claim on our hearts and to guide our thinking, may we stick with the truth, may we stick with love. May we speak words of grace to others and build them up and may we resist those who would tear us down. And in those moments when we don’t know what to do, we don’t know which way to go, may we remember to try to imitate Jesus, whose go to move is always , love, forgiveness, mercy and grace. Amen.
Take a moment to read John 6:1-15
A teacher once asked the students of their class to bring something to school that symbolized their religious faith. The next day the teacher begins to go around the room asking each of the students to share what they brought. The first little boy says, “I’m Jewish, and this is a menorah. We light it to celebrate Hanukkah.”
The teacher says, very good, now who’s next? A little girl stood up and said “I’m Muslim and I brought a prayer mat we use to kneel down as we pray.” “Excellent,” said the teacher, “now who wants to share?” A young girl stood up holding high a dish and declared, “I’m a Methodist and this is a casserole!”
We United Methodists do love our potlucks do we not? I mean it’s honestly one of the things the United Methodist Church is known for in our popular culture isn’t it? I remember when I announced at First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica that I would be moving to the Mid-West, a whole group of transplants from across the region came up to me after worship and said, “Robert, you are going to love the United Methodist mid-western potlucks, they are the best.” And they were definitely right on. The welcome potluck hosted by the United Methodist Women of this church was an incredible feast of deliciousness, fun and fellowship.
Now there’s a reason I bring all of this up today. Not just because I love thinking and talking about food, but there’s more to it than just all that. Food, meals, eating together is a sacred act.
Think about all the traditions and holidays we have throughout the year which revolve around food? Pretty much every single holiday includes some sort of special meal, some sort of sacred dish, something for all of us to gather around, remembering and acknowledging in some way the connection we share with one another and the connection we have to our God.
Food is crucial to our life as a people, as families and it is absolutely essential to our life of faith. A meal represents so much more than just the food itself. It represents, life, connection, hope, memory, both personal and communal. A meal represents abundance, provision, goodness blessing, it represents mercy, satisfaction, contentment and ultimately it represents that we are part of this tapestry of life, this creation woven together by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Which brings us to the gospel reading for this morning. The reading for today may be a pretty familiar story to some of us. This one of Jesus’ most well-known miracles where he feeds 5,000 hungry folks. This story was so well known and well circulated in the early church that it is one of the few miracles stories of the New Testament that is contained in all four of the gospels.
Jesus is in the region of Galilee, next this large lake called the Sea of Galilee. He’s preaching, teaching and healing folks all around the lake. He’s moving from place to place, and people from all over the region are responding to his ministry. They are following him around from spot to spot and there’s this movement that’s forming around him.
So in response to this momentum that’s kind of picking up, Jesus retreats up to a mountain, as he often does, for some spiritual renewal and reflection as the festival of the Passover is approaching. As he looks out upon the crowd that has gathered around him he asks his disciples “where are we going buy bread for these people to eat.”
Jesus knows the hearts of his disciples. He knows that they are living in the scarcity of the moment. And so one of Jesus followers, Philip, replies to Jesus, “six months wages would not buy enough bread to feed all of these people.”
Now I have to admit I can see myself in Philip and in his response. He’s looking out at the crowd and he just sees a mass of people. Too many people even for him to count. He looks out and he sees that the need out there is huge, too big for him alone, too big for his small group of friends, too big in his mind even for Jesus. And he is the rationalist. He sees the need and assesses what they have and determines that it’s just too much, they don’t have enough.
This is a pretty human thing to do. How many of us would react in the same way? See we human beings have this tendency to be drawn into a mentality of scarcity. We like to think of things in terms of a zero sum game. There’s only so much of the pie and we’ve got to make sure that we get the right size piece for me and for mine.
This isn’t always a bad tendency. Sometimes it allows us to be responsible stewards with what we have, it helps us to make good decisions and to live within our means and on and on.
But like all things, we have to keep ourselves in check. We have to keep a balanced outlook on our lives and our world or else we get a little bit too stuck in that mindset of scarcity and not enough-ism. Because the shadow side of that scarcity mindset, or the slippery slope we could find ourselves falling down is this:
we live in fear, we live in fear that there isn’t really enough out there for us to make a life. And if we live in fear, then we end up hoarding everything we have or could ever attain out of fear of running out.
This kind of fearful living eventually lead us to believe that the only way to have true peace, security and contentment in our lives is by earning, saving or gathering enough wealth or stuff in our lives that we feel protected from life’s uncertainties.
This of course is a fools errand. No amount of stuff, no amount of money, no amount of power we have in this world will relieve us of the anxiety we carry that something may go wrong, that feeling that the other shoe is drop.
So as people of faith we know only way to true peace and serenity is the humble recognition that we rely on the grace of God always, the humble recognition that we cannot in fact save ourselves, the humble recognition that there is something at work in this world that is bigger and more powerful than us alone, the humble recognition that we need the love, the mercy and the hope of Jesus in our lives, to make us whole and set us free.
Back to the story for today. So Philip, the practical one, says to Jesus, we don’t have enough money or enough food to feed all of these people. But Jesus is up to something here in this moment. Jesus is moved by compassion for these hungry people. He invites the disciples to tell the people to sit among the grass, the green grass a sign of God’s providence and power and Jesus asks a young boy to share his lunch.
I love that part. Jesus asks a boy to share his lunch. The boy has enough food for him and his family. It’s not much, but it’s something. But the boy offers what he has to Jesus. He gives what little he has to Jesus.
And Jesus takes his bread and fish and he blesses them and Jesus distributes them among the people. He gives and gives and gives of the bread and the fish and it just keeps going. On and on and on and on until everyone has had enough to eat. The text says everyone ate until they were satisfied, and yet there was still some left over.
What a picture of God’s kingdom right? What an image of what it looks like to live in beloved community. This is the image of God’s kingdom we strive for in and through the church. As a church we are struggling to be a community that believes in this kind of abundance, to be a people who believe that if we share and give of what we have that there is truly enough for all.
To live more simply so that others can simply live. This is a counter cultural way of being in this American society which is so driven by rampant consumerism which has this underlying narrative and it goes like this: your life isn’t complete until you buy this and this and this and this.
What is at the center of this picture of God’s kingdom in the gospel for today? A meal. Food. This basic human provision. This basic human need.
As I mentioned earlier in this sermon, we are known as a feeding people in the United Methodist Church. I’ve seen this too here at Mt. Healthy United Methodist Church. This last week I had the privilege of meeting with Kathy Lorenz, the volunteer director of the Mt. Healthy Alliance Food Panty over at the Disciples of Christ Church a few blocks away.
What a humbling and power experience it was to learn about the work of the pantry and the work of this congregation over the years. It was shocking for me to learn of the needs of our neighborhood around hunger and food insecurity. The pantry of the Mt. Healthy Alliance serves around 500 families each and every month. 500 families who are able to go to a safe place, to share themselves in vulnerability and receive such a simple and profound gift. Kathy, the pantry director, told me that each year the pantry gives away the equivalent of $500,000 worth of food each year.
I am honored to be the pastor of a church which supports this kind of ministry and outreach to our community. I am proud to be the pastor of a church which not only supports this food pantry but also discerned a missional opportunity for our community which centers around food: the Pancake breakfast.
I am excited for a chance to participate in the pancake breakfast coming up in September. But one of the things that I’ve learned about it which is so inspiring, uplifting and what gets at the heart of Jesus’ ministry is that at the pancake breakfast everyone eats together. We all eat as one community. There is no us and them, no server and ‘servie’. We build relationships as we share in the sacred gift of breaking bread, or eating pancakes and sausage with one another.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “to a hungry person the gospel is a loaf of bread.” He was right on. For those who struggle to eat every single day a loaf of bread is the good news of God’s love.
But, when we take time to not only offer the bread, but to intentionally build relationships and community with those who are weak, poor, vulnerable, all of those who have fallen on hard times, we reach beyond the bread, beyond the food and we share the good news of the gospel. Because when we do this work we are reminded and we share with others that we all have inherent worth.
We are reminded and we share with others that we are created in the image of a loving God, that we are all worthy of love and grace, we remind others and ourselves that, although we are different in ways too numerous to count we are made one by the source and creator of all things who weaves us together in love, in this tapestry of life, hope and redemption.
If you are new to the church, or if you just don’t know about the food pantry ministry or the pancake breakfast find me and let’s talk. There are ways to give back, to volunteer for these worthy outreach ministries. And as for the pancake breakfast, come be part of it in September, meet a new friend, enjoy some breakfast together, be refreshed and enlivened in the spirit of God which takes something as simple as a meal, time shared together in the breaking of bread, a time where we know, we see and we taste the goodness of God’s grace for you, for me, for us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.