Sunday, July 26, 2015                           Lectionary 17, Proper 12

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost                              Non Communion

John 6:1-21 (preached at Centennial during a pulpit exchange)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

I read a magazine article recently written about the feeding of the 5000. The author, thinking of his own sons, expressed how he just couldn’t imagine a young boy holding onto his lunch late into the afternoon. He mentioned how the first thing his sons want to do whenever they go anywhere is eat. He suggested that the boy, still having his food at that time and also being willing to share it, was miracle enough. The truth is, with our world being now so different from that of Jesus’ time, we cannot fully understand just how extraordinary the event of the feeding of the 5000 was. And most of us would likely turn our noses up at a meal of bread and dried fish, no matter how hungry we were and no matter how much there was for us to eat.

But the feeding of the 5000 was not just about eating. Jesus began by making reference to the nearness of the Passover festival. Passover was and still is the most important celebration on the Jewish calendar. And this festival included symbolic references to foods and God’s actions; this feeding, it seems, Jesus wanted to be thought of as a kind of mini Passover celebration. Still, Jesus only says that Passover was near; this event was also about hospitality and hospitality demanded that they try to provide for the people’s needs, for you see Jesus and his disciples were the hosts. And food meant a lot more then, than we who are comfortable might understand; few of us really know what it means to go without. And politically speaking food is power. Military and political strategists have always argued that when you control the food supply you control the people; provide the people with food and you earn their allegiance, at least until someone else gives them better food. It sounds so unfeeling, but it is true; still I do not believe that power was Jesus’ motivation; Jesus had compassion for the people; Jesus understood the rules of hospitality; Jesus wanted to honor the upcoming Passover festival; none-the-less Jesus’ loving act of hospitality in the feeding of the 5000 sent fear through the leaders of the Temple and Rome’s local leaders who understood the power of feeding people. Jesus did not feed them to gain power, but the leaders were not so sure and certainly feared that he would. And consider the response of the people that Jesus fed; they were beginning to identify Jesus as “the prophet who is to come into the world”, the Messiah. And it seems that they were getting ready to take Jesus by force to make him their king. It was not just the small beginnings of 5 barley loaves and two fish that made Jesus’ act such a miracle, it was also the fact that it satisfied the crowds; and they began to envision a new world, now with Jesus in power, where they would never again suffer hunger.

People are willing to give away almost anything, even their freedom for the promise of food; Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, and countless other dictators (unscrupulous as they were) came to power with the promise of food for all. This is where Jesus was so very different; Jesus did not want or need such power; Jesus’ ministry was based on love; he wanted only the people’s love for him and their love for each other and he wanted the people to trust in the one true and living God. Jesus sought, not just to feed their bellies and to care for their health, but to feed their hearts and minds with the word of God, with the love of God; food and even health come and go, but the love of God is eternal. Still today, that is Jesus’ will for us and Jesus’ primary concern is our spiritual health and wellbeing.

Elisha could feed people; he was a great man of God; but as I said earlier even despicable people like Hitler could feed people; it is just that they do it only for their own personal gain. Jesus has now called us to ministry. Our calling is modeled after Jesus example. We, like Jesus, have been called to feed the people, and from what I know of Centennial (this could be said also of St. Peter’s), you have that as a priority for your ministry, and not to gain power or influence, but simply to share Jesus’ love in a tangible way. Mostly we have all been called to share the word of God’s will and Jesus love. With such things as VBS and your presence at the Kimberton Fair (Centennial), with your Sunday school programs and Bible studies and with your participation in worship, you are doing this. The difficult thing for most of us, as we feed the hungry, and also feed the hungry spirits around us, is to steer clear of the temptation to take power for ourselves. Over my many years of ministry I have seen how committees, women’s and men’s groups, church factions and individuals have at one time or another, come to believe that they were so right, that it was their responsibility to exert undo power within their congregations; these men and women fell victim to the temptation of power, and have often caused much suffering and often divisions within their congregations. With this in mind, the working together of St. Peter’s, Zion and Centennial has seen pastors treading lightly and the group working carefully in order to keep everything on an even keel. No one wants to allow another church to gain undo power; all of us are being careful that we are not taking undo power.

Even good things like food and righteousness and cooperation can be abused for power. Jesus, when he saw that the people were warping his acts of love into a call for power, withdrew from them. Again Jesus did not want and did not need the power that they were willing to give him, power over them. All he wanted was to share God’s love with them and have them love God, love him and love each other. The Church is not a place to claim, exert or even harness power, but rather a place to share Jesus’ love. The Church has always been at its worst when given great power; individual Christians usually fall victim to self-indulgence whenever too much power is rested in their hands. As we participate in the ministry of Jesus Christ let’s make it about service and love; winning is not nearly as rewarding as seeing someone embrace the love of Jesus. May Jesus example and love be the guide we all follow.

Sunday, August 16, 2015                              Lectionary 20

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost                  Communion

John 6:51-58

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

Those of you who were listening to me reading today’s Gospel, just heard me read a very disturbing reading; can you imagine? And I quote: “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Is there any wonder that some Jews and many pagans believed, or at least accused the early Christians of being cannibals? These were people who did not believe in what Jesus taught, who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of the one true God, who when they heard the early Christians talking about receiving the body and blood of Jesus, because they did not understand the meaning, took the words as literal. But, can you blame them? Today there would be people who would think us to be “goth”, vampires or some other such thing.

As I read these words today, and me a Christian, the thoughts that they conveyed, kind of, turned my stomach. But, we as Christians do not normally read these words written in the Gospel of John in a literal way and we certainly do not see ourselves as cannibals or vampires. We know that when we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, we then eat of Jesus flesh and drink his blood, but we know that we are not literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, as though we actually carved off a piece of Jesus skin and tapped one of his veins for blood; we are somehow receiving Jesus but we don’t know how; even the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, while it speaks of the bread and the wine changing into flesh and blood do not see Communion as something nearing catabolism.

To understand the Gospel of John, it is important to note that it is not like the other Gospels. You might be surprised to learn that the writer of the Gospel of John did not tell the story of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion; in the story of the Last Supper the writer speaks only of the foot washing; he omits Holy Communion. The Bread of Life section of the Gospel of John, the sixth chapter, like in the Lord’s Supper, refer to Jesus, over and over again, as the Bread of Life and the Bread that came down from heaven. Its references to flesh and blood and bread turn my thoughts to Holy Communion. With those thoughts in mind, I wonder if the Gospel writer was thinking about Holy Communion as well. If he was, I would think that Holy Communion should carry an even greater degree of importance for Christianity than it now does, if that is even possible. John’s Gospel specifically says that it is necessary for us to eat of Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood in order to receive the promise of salvation.

Scripture says, that all who are baptized and believe will be saved, should we add, receive Holy Communion, but Scripture also says that salvation is a gift. As Lutherans we are apt to say that baptism and belief are the only conditions required for salvation, though we are just as apt to kind of back away from that a little, saying that salvation is always a gift, completely a gift, given us by Jesus through his sacrifice and death on the cross; as Lutherans we are not all that set upon arguing that baptism and belief are conditions of salvation, I’m not so sure we would want to add Holy Communion as a condition for salvation either. Confusing? Yes! The idea, at least for us Lutherans, is that even baptism and belief come to us from God, they are a part of the gift that will lead us to salvation. Those who are not baptized or do not believe, may very well have either turned away the gift or have not yet received the gift or God has come up with a different way to reach out to them. Adding Holy Communion into the mix, as something required for salvation would place a higher priority on Communion for us Christians, but because we place such an emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it really would not change all that much. That is of course, if the Gospel writer was, in fact, speaking about Holy Communion with his references to eating Jesus flesh and drinking his blood.

We might need to consider that there may be a purely symbolic meaning to Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel. Because it is found in the Gospel of John many believe that this passage contains a veiled reference to his impending crucifixion and it would come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Jesus was calling himself the Bread of Life, and making the comparison to things like the bread multiplied in the wilderness for the 5000 hungry people, and the Mana and quail showered down upon the Israelites in the wilderness. As Jesus so often does in the Gospel of John, Jesus is (or may be) looking for a much deeper understanding to his words, like when Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again of the Spirit. We as Christians often think that Jesus was talking about baptism, but we might better understand this as Jesus talking about what happens when we let the Holy Spirit enter into our lives. It is so very hard for us to fully understand the words and mind of Jesus, not to mention the mind of the writer of the Gospel of John who organized all this information as he did.

Personally I would like to stay away from all this talk about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, much the same way we do not take literally the words found in our baptism service that talk of dying to this world, though we like the idea of being reborn children of God. In Communion we receive Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and the wine; when we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior we accept Jesus sacrifice of his flesh and blood for us; this is what it means for us to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood. It is all about our placing our faith in Jesus as our crucified Lord and Savior. As children of God we submit to baptism, we believe in Jesus and we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, not to earn our salvation, but in response to all we have received through Jesus and the Holy Spirit as a gift.

Sunday, August 9, 2015                                Lectionary 19

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost                         Non Communion

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Monday morning I turned on the news and the actress Jessica Alba was being talked about. It seems that since her time on TV and in the movies she’s taken on an extremely lucrative business venture. She (along with others) began, what is known as, the Honest Company. Quoting from the company’s website, “The Honest Company is a consumer goods company, co-founded by actress Jessica Alba, that emphasizes non-toxic household products to supply the marketplace for ethical consumerism.” In a very short time the company has grown to be a billion dollar company and up until recently they seem to have been (true to their name) “honest” and had been honest about their products, but on that news show their honesty was being questioned; questions had arisen about the effectiveness of the company’s 30SPF sunscreen. On the news they reported that the product only contains 9 plus percent of the chemical needed to block the sun, Zink Oxide (I think that is the chemical that they mentioned) and the sunscreen should be made up of at least 20 percent Zink Oxide. Innocent or not (that’s for someone else to judge); I’m not a stock holder and I’m not a hater; in fact I always liked Jessica Alba as an actor, but there is now a question.

What led me to focus on this story has to do with the name of the company, “Honest”, and the accusations that the company was not being totally honest; the question of honesty ties in nicely with today’s reading from Ephesians, which begins, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” And a verse or so later, “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so to have something to share with the needy.” (NRSV) The reading goes on to outline what you should not do as a Christian; much of that can be related to the whole idea of overcoming dishonesty with honesty. The news story and this Bible passage fit together; you see, we as human beings seem to have a real difficult time with telling the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth (sorry, I couldn’t help tying this in to what we always hear on TV trial shows); we also have a difficult time living the truth.

The truth is, we are none of us, are an open and honest book. We generally reveal only what we want others to know about us. I knew a pastor who refused to reveal to his congregation that he had cancer; he had had a very positive approach to his life and ministry and he didn’t want to bring the congregation down with such negative information. Eventually, his health diminished and his sickness could no longer be hidden; but the damage had already been done; he had not been honest with the people who cared the most about his wellbeing (his congregation) and he had taken away from them their opportunity to minister to him; he himself missed out on their concern and prayers.

As a kid I was known, to not so much lie (actually that might be a lie), but as I called it in my teen age years, tell creative truths; in doing so, I would strategically leave out the parts that I didn’t want people to know; I didn’t really tell a falsehood; I just didn’t tell the full truth. Thankfully for me and for all of us, honesty is not a condition for salvation; if you’ll remember I talked about that last week; salvation comes to us always as a gift; we can never earn it: but still honesty is important, it is a good thing and it certainly helps us to build trust with each other; it helps us to build community; it helps us to build the church and its ministry.

But, honesty is also hard work and often painful; it hurts sometimes to tell someone the truth, to see their pained look, to deal with their anger, sadness or discomfort. You might think that it is easier to be creative about the truth, to say a lie, to soften the truth or to just avoid the truth; and at the time it may be, but eventually the truth comes out, and then there is no hiding; all those emotions that you previously avoided come out and with a vengeance. The Honest Company is now dealing with a lot of upsetness and if it turns out that their claim of 30SPF is proven false they will be dealing with a boat load of lawsuits on top of all the angry letters and bad press that they are now receiving.

We as the church may not be subject to the same kind of lawsuits if we tell lies but it would not look good for the church founded on the truth and love of Jesus Christ to be caught in a lie. As individual Christians, even though honesty is not a requirement for salvation, our honesty or lack of honesty can reflect negatively on the church we love. That is why we do not allow two members of the same household to serve at the same time on Church Council, or sign the church checks or count the church offerings. You see, sometimes, even the appearance of dishonesty can harm the church, and so we set up such rules to keep up the appearance of honesty and helps to ward off temptations. Honesty matters, so we try our best to maintain, even, the appearance of honesty.

Still honesty is not always easy. As a pastor I am often asked to conceal the truth; sometimes when a person is dying I’m asked to withhold that information; I am often told things in confidence which require me, all too often, to respond in half truths. But it is not just pastors, we are all called upon to keep secrets, and so to lie to family and friends. We usually defend all of this by labeling our lies as little white lies and we justify our telling them as being for the greater good. But is it?

Honesty is one of those things that make living as a Christian so hard. Even lying is not a simple question of right and wrong. As Christians we are guided first and foremost not by right or wrong, but by Jesus’ love and our faith; we are instructed to say and do that which is most loving in any situation; Christian living is not about right living, though right and wrong are always a consideration. What then is most loving for the most people, in each situation is our (to steal a Star Trek reference) prime directive. And second is to speak and act that which will reflect well upon our congregation, the church at large, Christianity as a whole and of course Jesus. It’s not easy to be honest, and again it will not be a determining factor in our salvations, but it is still a part of our being faithful to Jesus.

Sunday, August 2, 2015                Lectionary 18, Proper 13

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost                         Holy Communion

John 6:24-35

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

It is often said that there is no loyalty in sports. Players come and go when presented with the opportunity for more money. Of fans, it is said, they root for the jerseys, the colors and the team name no matter who wears them, not the players. Philadelphia is known, as the city whose fans boo even its stars, even when they are wearing the jersey, the colors and the team name. We, (yes I am one of them) booed some of the greatest players that ever wore a Philadelphia jersey; we booed players like Mike Schmidt, Donovan McNabb, Ricky Waters, Charles Barkley and Eric Lindros. But why? Because we (that is Philadelphia fans) live by the philosophy of “what have you done for us today.” Hammels pitched a no hitter, a little more than a week ago in Chicago; he was traded away on Thursday; if he were to step onto the field in Philadelphia he would be applauded, but as soon as he threw the first pitch, now that he is on another team, the people will boo him. What have you done for us today?

Philadelphia fans have the reputation of being tough, but we could say the same thing about the people who were led by Moses out of Egypt to the Promised Land and also about the first century Jews, to whom Jesus, also a Jew, tried to proclaim God’s word of love. The men, women and children who were led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt, they saw the great power of God in the plagues that God rained down upon Egypt until they were willing to give them their freedom; and they watched as God gave Moses the power to open the sea so that they could pass through on dry land and escape the chasing Egyptians, and they watched as the waters closed in upon the Egyptian army, and they also looked out as they headed towards the Promised Land, seeing in front of them the Lord God in the form of pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night leading them, but when their bellies began to grumble they seemed to forget all the great and wonderful things that God had done for them, and they began to complain against Moses and God. They, were in so many words, asking the question, “What have you done for me today?” God had not fed them, so they complained.

And then there is the story from today’s Gospel reading; Jesus had fed 5000 people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish and, to avoid being crowned king by force by that crowd, Jesus had gone off into the mountains alone; his disciples had crossed the sea by boat and Jesus, unnoticed by all (but the 12) had walked across the sea to meet up with the disciples; the next day, the crowds noticing that Jesus was nowhere to be found so they also crossed the sea, but when they found Jesus they were no longer so sure about him. What had he done for them that day? They had missed the point of the feeding miracle and also Jesus’ words and so they asked of Jesus what they must now do to perform the works of God? A question Jesus answered simply by saying believe. (Well) That was not what they wanted to hear; they then asked Jesus for a sign.

Jesus’ answer, it seems, was far too simple; where was the miracle man; where was that man who fed them? The fact that Jesus had just, the day before, miraculously fed them didn’t matter; but you tell me, shouldn’t that sign have been enough? What was it that they needed done for them that day for them to believe?

Philadelphia fans, the Chosen People who followed Moses out of Egypt and the first century Jews have a lot in common. As for Philadelphia sports fans, I think we might have booed Moses in the wilderness and maybe even Jesus if he had told us that all we had to do was believe! We are, all of us, not very different from our Jewish ancestors. We were told by Martin Luther and we hear it preached all the time, “faith alone” meaning that our salvation is based on nothing more than the grace given faith that the Holy Spirit gave to us, requiring of us nothing more than our not rejecting it. Jesus gave the people something to believe in, all they had to do was not reject it. We have been given the stories of Jesus and the faith to believe in the Jesus of those stories; will we allow them their rightful place in our lives or will we reject them, will we reject Jesus?

It seems that every time that I talk with someone about the question of salvation and share with them the Apostle Paul’s words, “justification by grace through faith” I am greeted with their lists of other requirements for salvation. People can’t seem to accept it that faith and salvation come to us as a gift. We all like gifts, but in reality we prefer paying our own way, we prefer having some control over our lives and future lives. We confess that Jesus earned us our salvation by dying on the cross, we may even believe it, but we don’t really want to put our full trust in Jesus’ promise; we have a hard time accepting that Jesus has already done for us all that needs to be done. Like it or not, God in his love, has made salvation as easy as possible. Still I am told by people that you can’t go to heaven unless you believe this thing or the other thing; I’m told you have to do this thing and that thing. It is like we just can’t accept a gift, we are always looking to take the hard way. The problem with that is, the hard way takes our salvation out of Jesus’ hands and puts it in our own and we cannot by our own efforts earn our way into heaven; it doesn’t work that way. I’ll remind you of the old saying, “the way to hell is paved with good intentions.” Well, the way to hell may rightfully be paved with our own zeal for God’s Law, with our well-meaning labors that turn out to be both good and bad, as long as we think that we are in charge, that we can earn our own salvation.

Two thousand years ago Jesus died for our sins; what then has God done for us today? He has forgiven us, he has put his Holy Spirit over us to guide, comfort and care for us, he is standing by his promises and he loves us. You would think that even Philadelphia sports fans would know that such a God does not deserved to be booed, but be praised. Let go of your insistence on being in control, trust Jesus and enjoy all that God has promised, including salvation.