Monday, August 31, 2009

Do it now

Proper 17 B; August 30, 2009
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

What moved me most about the coverage of Senator Kennedy’s funeral was learning that the church he chose was the place he had gone for daily prayers while his daughter lay gravely ill in a nearby hospital. He would just come in unannounced, without entourage or fanfare, would kneel and pray, would attend mass, would sit quietly. It was in that place, where he had prayed for healing for his daughter, and dare we say, for himself as a care-worn and weary father, that he wanted the words said over his body which prepared him for his final resting place. I was touched that this ultimate “doer” brought the whole world together yesterday to this place where he had listened intently to hear the word.

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”

For centuries, there were Christians who regarded that sentence, and the whole Epistle of James that surrounds it, as a second-rate bit of scripture. “An epistle of straw,” Martin Luther called it, fearing that it would focus Christians on work, work, work, law, law, law, do-gooding, do-gooding, do-gooding, and so they would forget the abundant and undeserved grace of God that is at the heart of Jesus’ message. There is no way that we can earn what God through Jesus has done for us – no way that the abundance of God’s love is something that we can turn off or on like a faucet, just because we do, or don’t do something. All those things that James would have us do, Luther thought, can get in the way of our hearing the true word of God’s abundant grace and love.

Over time, though, we find we read scripture differently – the needs of the day cause some words to jump out at us. Aha, we think. This is the word I need to hear right now! This word helps me understand what is going on, what God is trying to say to me right now.

“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers” is one of those texts that kind of lies fallow, in the back of the Bible, as it were, until when we need it, it leaps right to the fore with a clarion call. It’s not that we’ve heard enough of “the word” – how can anyone hear enough of what God has to say? There are times in the world, in our own lives, when we know that God wants us to act – to do something about all those things that God has been telling us about for all those years. Now’s the time, the Epistle of James says, get up. Act. Do something.

You can say that the Epistle of James is just one big to-do list. Don’t get angry, and take care of orphans and widows tops the list. That’s a good place to start: if we let our anger – justified or not – get it our way, it will just block everything else God wants us to do – and then James just gets right on it: take care of those people who have no one else to take care of them.

The Gospel of Mark reminds us about just how much trouble we can get into by being a “doer of the word.” Jesus would have us care not just for the orphans and widows that we like, but ALL orphans and widows. Not just orphans and widows who might come to church – or, as in Jesus’ day, orphans and widows who were “clean” or ate kosher food or who were able to follow all the Jewish laws concerning food and cooking – but ALL orphans and widows. It’s that grace thing, again. That abundant love. That troublesome God who knows no limits, who sets no boundaries, who takes us in no matter how dirty our hands are or whether we have stains on our clothes. It’s not the outside, Jesus says, but the inside. And more than that: even if we carry some bad stuff on the inside, if we let that stuff go, God’s abundant love will come in and fill that place, so that once again we can hear and act on the gracious word of God.

The Song of Solomon, where we get our first lesson today, is another one of those books of the Bible that is sometimes put on the back burner of our attention. It’s a curious, poetic book that uses the metaphor of erotic love to describe the actions of God in the world. God’s love, God’s grace, God’s abundance knows no limits. God delights in us, and the Word in this book is all about how easy it is for us to delight in God.

Be doers of this word, and not merely hearers. “The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom.” Come to the party. Bring everyone you know with you. There is enough to go around.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

With us with bread

Proper 16 B; Aug. 23, 2009

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84

Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Jeremi reminded us in vivid terms last week that the images Jesus uses are indeed, as he asks his disciples in today’s gospel, offensive. Drinking blood and eating skin – not a pretty picture. Bread? Yes, wonderful. Wine? Yes, as well. Communion? Yes, we those we get. But body and blood? Why such a sacrifice? Why such a commitment? Why such a risk?

What is shocking about today’s gospel is that Jesus lets a whole lot of his disciples go. For these folks, this imagery is just too much. Is it the grotesqueness? Is it the commitment? Is it the allusion to sacrifice and death? For whatever reasons, they walk away, and Jesus gives even his inner circle that option, too. Just how convincing is Peter’s answer? “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God.”

One of the earliest images of Jesus, from the earliest days of the Christian community, are images of Jesus sharing bread with his friends. They are depictions of communion, of the Last Supper. It was not until centuries later that Christians dared depict Jesus on the cross – remember that many of those early Christians faced martyrdoms and deaths of their own. Perhaps in the early days of the church they were living the scandal of the cross – of the God made human – sharing all too closely in his life and death – to want to reflect on it in art or symbol. We, now free from danger of crucifixion ourselves, can find the cross a meaningful symbol of the God who walked among us as one of us.

Our English word “companion” has relevance here. Its roots “com” meaning “with” and “pan” meaning “bread” imply that a companion is one who is with you with bread. A companion is one with whom you share your bread, your nourishment, your life, as you walk along your way. And indeed, Jesus, our divine companion, continues to share the bread of his eternal life with us, even if we, like Peter, are not always absolutely convinced that walking along with Jesus is a wise thing to do.

Full confidence in the faith is hard. Things do come by – frequently – to test us. We can read scripture, say, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and nod our heads vigorously in concurrence: Yes! We are bold in faith! Yes! We wear the armor of God, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. Yet to be honest, we must admit that the sayings of Jesus are difficult, and the life that Jesus bids us live carries with it costs and sacrifices.

Maybe the best we can do is eat the bread. To stand in line with everyone else, put out our hands and take a piece of that bread in faith. Maybe the important thing is getting up week after week to do this: to listen to the scriptures, to spend some time in quiet prayer, to worry about how hard it really is to follow Jesus, and then, nonetheless, get up in that line anyway and put out our hands, take the bread and eat it.

That’s the power of the sacrament, and the power of the community. We are not in this alone. On any given day, when the words of Jesus are just too hard to understand, or too difficult to follow, someone next to us will be able to. We are in this together: that is the essence of communion, of COMMON prayer, of companionship. We take, we eat – we may not be able to “get it” that day, or every day, but by taking, by eating, we DO “get it” – it’s not so much the eating, but the abiding – the Christ dwelling in us and we in Christ that happens when we stand here, side by side, hands outstretched, ready to take Christ into our selves, our souls and bodies ,whether we know what we are doing or not.

The bread of life and the cup of salvation, broken and shared, Holy Manna, bread from heaven, where earth and heaven meet.