Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 15, 2019

Lessons:

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

 

This is a story that ends with a cliffhanger.

The story goes like this.

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time, Jesus came to Portland.

The whole city was really excited. Somehow, impossibly, Jesus was not on the news or on Twitter or NPR. But everybody had a story about bumping into him.

One person said that they had seen Jesus down on the Eastbank Esplanade, and that Jesus looked like he was thinking pretty hard about kicking his leg over the railing and walking across the water to the other side. Someone else talked with Jesus as they rode the tram up to OHSU. On the ride up Jesus told them that, back in his day, if you and your friends wanted to get to the top of a mountain, you had to climb it yourself. And still another person bumped into Jesus at Powell’s Books. You’ll never, they whispered, believe what Jesus was reading.

Everybody had a tale about meeting Jesus. Everyone, that is, except for one person, a person whose name I have changed to Stanley. Stanley was leading a good life. He lived in a good house, had good friends, attended a good church, drove his good car to his good job. Stanley was a good person.

Stanley wasn’t sure what it meant that so many people had met Jesus but he had not. He was getting kind of worried. And so he got pretty excited when word reached him that Jesus was at the park right near his house.

Stanley stopped everything. He turned off the kettle, he put the cat outside, he told Alexa to shut off the radio. And he got up and he went. Down the street, past the coffee shop, and the pub, and the other coffee shop, and the other pub, down into the wild green.

And there Jesus was.

Jesus was standing on a little hill, the toes of his bare feet digging into the grass. His blue track suit shining in the sun.

Telling stories.

A crowd was gathered around. Stanley joined them. He stood beside someone he knew, a friend, another good person. And he listened.

Jesus’ stories might’ve been even stranger and more confusing and more beautiful in person.

Who knows how long Stanley and the others stood there? Time passed that day the way that it did sometimes when Stanley was a child, when an afternoon of play would come so close to perfection that he could scarcely believe that the sun was setting and the voices of home were calling to him.

Jesus’ storytelling ended in the very same way as those afternoons did all those years ago, not with Jesus saying,

The end,

but with Jesus saying,

I’m hungry.

Stanley was hungry too. He started looking around for a food cart. Maybe he could take Jesus out for dinner?

But Jesus didn’t go anywhere and nor did anyone else. It looked like they had done this before. Somebody in crowd had a little food. And someone else had a little more. And together, Stanley was amazed to see, there was plenty. Down went the picnic blankets and down went the food and down sat the people and Stanley was just about join them.

When he noticed who all was there.

A minute ago, when everyone was standing, Stanley could only see the handful of people near him. But now, with Stanley still on his feet and just about everyone else sitting down, the faces became clear.

The friend whom he stood beside a minute ago is not the only one whom Stanley knew at this picnic. He know no fewer than half of the people here. Maybe more.

Here was Stanley’s relative, the one whom it was so much work to be around, so that Stanley spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas working hard to avoid the laundry list of subjects that lay like landmines between the two of them. Here was his neighbour from a few houses down, whose bumper stickers and lawn signs feel like bee stings or bombs into Stanley’s world. Here was the one whom Stanley had not seen in some time, maybe months, maybe years. At their last parting there was anger and accusation and damage that Stanley was not sure could ever be forgiven.

There were still others.

And so Stanley pushed his way through the people and across the picnic blankets and over to Jesus.

Jesus!

Stanley whispered. But it was the kind of whisper that is loud enough to turn heads.

Jesus! I’m not sure if you know who all is here.

And Stanley told him the history of the people who were sitting around him, that these were the kind of people who were here at the picnic.

To which Jesus replied:

I know! Isn’t it amazing that they are all here?

But the expression on Stanley’s face made it clear that he did not think that this was amazing at all. At least not amazing in a good way. Jesus saw Stanley’s brow furrow, saw his face start to redden. And so Jesus said:

Stanley.

Do you do much sheep herding?

Stanley was about to reply but Jesus just kept on talking.

You know when you have a hundred sheep? And one goes missing? Well, what do you do then? You leave the ninety-nine by themselves out in the desert and go find the one. Right?

But Stanley was not sure that this was right at all. In fact, it sounded kind of irresponsible to leave ninety-nine sheep with no one looking after them where they might get lost or eaten by wolves. But again, before he could reply, Jesus said:

So you leave the ninety-nine and you find the one. You pick up your sheep, you carry it home. And what you do say to everyone?

Rejoice me with!

And Jesus looked around at those seated on the picnic blanket and he beamed.

But Stanley still looked confused. And so Jesus said:

Okay, I’ve got another one. Have you ever lost a coin in a couch? You know how you drop everything and you tear apart that couch, until you are standing in a pile of cushions and couch lint and mummified raisins, the coin in your hand? You know how you text all your friends then? What do you text to them?

Rejoice with me!

A moment of silence passed, Stanley staring at Jesus, Jesus staring back at him with the biggest smile on his face that you can imagine.

Meeting Jesus was may more disappointing that Stanley had expected.

At last, Stanley spoke:

Okay, I get it,

Stanley said,

These people on the blankets, with everything that they have done, everything that they are responsible for, all of the hurt that they have caused. They are like the lost sheep, they are like the cost coin. And we’re all supposed to rejoice that they are here.

Yay. I guess.

Another moment of silence passed. And then Jesus says:

Oh, no, Stanley. They aren’t the lost sheep or the lost coin.

You are.

And we’ve found you.

Jesus looked around at everyone on the blanket and he said:

Rejoice with me!

And there was a great cheer.

And this is the cliffhanger at the end of the story. There is space on the picnic blanket for Stanley, there is abundant food for him to eat, there is a party hosted by Jesus.

Tell me,

Tell me,

Tell me,

Does Stanley choose to sit down?

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 26, 2018

Lessons:

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?

Of all the things that the disciples say in all four of the Gospels, this one might be my favourite. It is such an unvarnished, such a direct, such a real response to a teaching by Jesus.

And it’s also kind of hilarious.

Although maybe we don’t actually have to choose between real and hilarious. Maybe the two often belong together. I have sometimes wondered if a serviceable definition of a joke is that a joke is something that tells the truth in an unexpected way.

Children often give us the gift of telling us the truth unexpectedly. Maybe that is the reason that Jesus tells us to become like the very young. My friends Jeremy and Heather tell the story of visiting a friend’s home to attend a party. Their youngest child, Theo, went to the bathroom and there he discovered that the toilet was outfitted with a bidet. Now bidets are common in Europe and in Japan, but they are unusual in our part of the world.

And so Theo came marching out of the bathroom, got the attention of everyone at the party and said, “You guys! In the bathroom they have a butt wash station!”

That’s hilarious – and it’s true. I suspect that Theo wasn’t the only one at the party who wanted to comment on the bidet, who was curious about it, who thought that it was really cool. He was just the only one who was brave enough or, maybe, unscarred enough by life to name his curiosity and delight out loud.

The disciples do something similar today. The disciples are not children. But many of them are young people. Some of them, perhaps, are what we would today call teenagers; in Jesus’ time, adulthood starts at around age 12 or 14. And, like Theo, they are brave enough or innocent enough or guileless enough or trusting enough in Jesus to listen to what he has to say (just like us here in church over the last several weeks, the disciples have been listening as Jesus says I am the bread of life and eat my flesh, drink my blood) and then to say out loud:

This is hard.

Who can accept it?

One of the churchy words that we use from time to time is discipleship. Discipleship means something like being a follower of Jesus, it means saying yes to the Gospel with your life, it means being friends with Jesus. And the example of Jesus’ first friends is that a legitimate and faithful way of being alive and responding to Jesus is to say:

This is hard.

Who can accept it?

This response suggests that faith is something more complex and more beautiful and more broken than a flawless and finished piece of art that we hold in our hands, that perhaps we ask other people to admire.

Have you seen my faith? It’s perfect.

It suggests that faith is something more like a verb, it is something we do. Maybe, to borrow an image from the book of Genesis in which Jacob meets the stranger in the night underneath the stars, faith is like a wrestling match, like a struggle.

Friends, to my mind naming out loud that faith can be hard is good news and freeing news. Because I suspect that many of us – most of us? – have moments of when we wonder if we are impostors in church or impostors in life, moments when we say: I’m the only one who doesn’t get what this passage from the Bible means or why it is in the Bible at all; I’m the only one who sometimes finds the worship service confusing or weird or even boring; I’m the only one who has moments when I experience suffering or loneliness or unfairness and I don’t feel the presence of God at all.

What if we were brave enough to name those experiences out loud? What if, like Theo telling everyone about the butt wash station, we could name when discipleship is hard, when being a Christian is hard, when believing in God or believing in ourselves is hard?

I wonder what would happen if, when we did a reading in church – imagine the first reading that we heard today, a reading from the Book of Joshua, a book that sure can be read as celebrating genocide and God’s presence in genocide – imagine if we heard that reading and then the lector said:

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

and instead of us replying, “Thanks be to God,” we all said,

This is hard. Who can accept it?

Or imagine if we said the Creed together and at the end, instead of Amen, we said,

This is hard. Who can accept it?

Or what if we had a litany? A litany like we do at the start of Lent every year, where I chant or say a prayer and we all respond in prayer. A litany that names what is hard about being a Christian and being alive. Wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote a litany like that? Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone wrote a litany like that?

I’ve written a litany like that.

Let’s try it out:

Cantor:           The Trinity is comprised of three persons but only one God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           In the Book of Kings, some boys make fun of Elisha for being bald. And so he curses them. And then two she-bears come forth from the woods and maul 42 of the boys.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Our parish is discerning the possibility of a major redevelopment project, we are wondering if God’s preferred future for us will see us replacing most of the buildings on our campus.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Our holiest of books, the Bible, has been quoted to defend slavery.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           When you pray to God asking for forgiveness, even for that thing that you think might be unforgivable, before your prayer begins God has already said yes.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           You are made in God’s image and God has designed you for a life of joy, but that doesn’t mean that you will not get the phone call that floods your life with loss and grief.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Sometimes when you come to communion you will kneel beside someone whom you find it hard to respect or like.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The homeless person sleeping on the street is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The woman at the border who has her baby taken out of her arms is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The President of the United States is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           You are a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Amen.

Maybe there is more to be added to that litany. Assuredly there is more. This thing we call discipleship is hard. This thing we call being alive is hard.

I’m always sorry when I meet someone who tells me that the reason that they don’t go to church is that they don’t know what they believe. But what if church is the perfect place to not be sure what you believe? What if the odds are high that when we come to church unsure of what we believe we will stand beside someone who, at least some of the time, is not so sure what they believe either?

In the story that we hear today, some people encounter the hardness of discipleship and they leave. We’ve all been those people. God knows I have. This is too much, too confusing, too exhausting, I have to stop. But some of them stick around. Even after they say, this is hard, maybe because they have named that this is hard, they have the strength to stay, to remain with Jesus. And maybe some of them leave and then return.

Jesus says that the truth will set you free. So let’s tell the truth.

I was at a party and they had a butt wash station; it was the most amazing thing. Someone close to me, someone I counted on, disappointed me profoundly and I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to trust people after that. Someone close to me died, and I felt like that time when I got punched in the gut on the schoolyard, I couldn’t quite breathe. Sometimes I pray and I wonder if all I am doing is whispering to an empty room. One time I was in a public space and I had something like a vision in which there were bands of light connecting everyone and illusions of separateness fell away. But I was embarrassed about the experience and so I didn’t tell anyone.

This is hard. This thing called faith is hard. This thing called life is hard. Who can accept it?

But when we keep on showing up with Jesus, we may be surprised to remember that it is also so, so beautiful.

 

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by the Rev. Martin Elfert

Jesus addresses the Diciples

Lessons:

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

About ten years ago, one of our closest and oldest friends was having a fierce conversation[1] with her husband, a fight with her husband. In the Ann Landers tradition, I’m going to change both of their names: let’s call our friend Sarah and her husband Adrian. The fight that Sarah and Adrian were having was seismic in nature: they were tackling big questions about their future. It was one of those fights that thickened the very atmosphere in the room, one of those fights that was a kind of life hinge: depending on where the fight turned, their future would look very different.

Eventually, the fight came to a conclusion. The two of them reached some tearful agreements, the most notable agreement being that children would not be coming to join their family, now or ever. And that might have informed Sarah and Adrian’s lives for years to come. Except that Adrian then said:

That fight was really hard and really stressful.

Let’s never do something like that again.

And Sarah says that, in that moment, she knew that their marriage was over.

That’s a difficult story and a sad story. But it’s also an important, an instructive story. Because notice: what led to the death of Sarah and Adrian’s marriage – what led to Sarah moving out some six weeks after that conversation – wasn’t the fight, nor was it the outcome of the fight. Quite the opposite. What led to the death of their marriage was the moment when Adrian verbally confirmed something that Sarah had suspected for a long time: this fight was, for him, the rarest of exceptions to the rule. Generally speaking, Adrian was unwilling to do the hard and vital work of having a fierce conversation with his spouse.

Now to be clear, I don’t doubt for a second that Adrian had the best possible motivations in seeking to avoid conflict, I don’t doubt that his goal in skipping as many fights as possible was for Sarah and him to avoid the pain and the sadness and the other big feelings that came with them. I don’t doubt that because I have been Adrian, especially when I was a younger man. Back then, I would move mountains to avoid anything that felt remotely like conflict, not just with Phoebe but with anyone. But the terrible irony is that, through Adrian’s efforts to avoid the wounds of conflict, he inadvertently invited in the far bigger wound that was the death of his marriage.

Today, Jesus talks about fierce conversations, about conflict and, in particular, about conflict in the church. I find his teaching here hugely reassuring. What we learn from the Gospel today is that, even when Jesus was with us in flesh and blood, even when our Lord was an actual guy in a body who was standing here on the Earth, even when you go could up to the Son of God himself and ask questions and get advice – for the Christian, this is the very definition of ideal conditions – that didn’t stop conflict from being part of his community.

That tells me that conflict between humans is universal and unavoidable and normative. Conflict isn’t something that in an ideal church doesn’t happen, or in an ideal marriage doesn’t happen, or in an ideal friendship doesn’t happen, or in an ideal country doesn’t happen. To the contrary, conflict is evidence that your church or your marriage or your friendship or your country has a pulse. If you are part of a relationship in which there is no conflict, there is a high probability that at least one of you in that relationship is dead.

Here at Grace, there has been conflict and there is conflict; unless this is your first Sunday with us, that won’t be news to you. And let me dig out my crystal ball right now and make a prediction: there will be conflict in Grace’s future. I understand the conflict here at church in the same way that I understand conflict within my marriage and within my deep friendships: as evidence that we care about one another and love one another and are engaged enough in the work that we are doing together to be willing invest ourselves in hard conversations. When I counsel couples who are preparing to get married, I don’t get worried when I find out that they have fights. Of course they have fights. I get worried when, like Adrian, one of them is starting to check out, to refuse to invest in fierce conversations, to refuse to invest in the marriage.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus doesn’t say “don’t fight.” He knows that we can’t achieve that goal, and that it’s a mistake to try to achieve it. What he says instead is “fight fair.”

And what does fighting fair look like? Well, it looks like direct communication and it looks like an attitude of persistent, almost relentless openness and forgiveness.

Jesus tells us to go directly to the one with whom we are in conflict, and to speak to them in private. If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. In other words don’t triangulate: if Person A has a complaint about Person B, don’t tell Person C about it. Get your complaints out of the parking lot!

Having that first conversation in private is super important. Jesus specifies privacy rather than the parish hall or the Thanksgiving table because it means that you and your conversation partner are spared having to expend any energy defending yourselves from public embarrassment. Your total focus can be on the conversation. (The one instance in which it’s okay and even good to skip the total privacy rule is if talking to Person B alone feels so fraught or is such a source of anxiety to you that you will skip the conversation before encountering that anxiety. In that case, it’s totally fine to say, “I’d like to talk to you. Do you mind if I bring along this other person whom we both know and respect?”)

In my experience, that private conversation leads to a resolution – or at least the beginning of a resolution – nine times out of ten. But if it doesn’t lead to a resolution, Jesus says, then keep on going. Have another conversation, this time with a third party – maybe a counselor, maybe another member or two of your community. If that still doesn’t work, involve the wider community. And if that doesn’t work, then Person B shall be like a Gentile and tax collector to you.

What does it mean to treat someone like a Gentile or a tax collector? It’s tempting to read this as an instruction to shun someone. Except that I notice elsewhere in scripture that Jesus is actually really generous and really welcoming to Gentiles and tax collectors: he has meals with them, he heals them, he tells transformative stories to them, he includes them in his life in every way. So maybe to treat someone like a Gentile and a tax collector is to acknowledge that there is a fracture in your relationship, that the two of you have named that fracture together, and that you remain committed to finding healing and wholeness, even if it means that your relationship will be deeply changed in the process.

Katherine Jefferts-Schori, the Episcopal Church’s recently retired Presiding Bishop, has a wonderful new interview on the website of Time magazine. Jefferts-Schori is one of a number of women whom Time is featuring because they were the first women to do a given thing; as many of you know, Jefferts-Schori was the first woman to be Presiding Bishop. In the interview, she talks about the abuse that she received early on in her Episcopacy, much of which was simply appalling – she got spat on, for instance, and called the most vicious of names. But then she says something remarkable and generous. She says that she understands conflict as an occasion of possibility.

I knew exactly what she meant.

I have never endured anything as harsh as what Jefferts-Schori endured. I have, however, been in a few intense fights. I think of one fight in particular when I was back in the theatre business, in which the energy going back and forth between me and the one with whom I was in conflict was so hot that it just about blew off my toupee. But you know what? Notwithstanding all of that yelling (because of all of that yelling?) come the conflict’s end, the two of us understood one another in a new way and our shared task in a new way. That conflict was hard but it was also full of possibility, it was generative, it invited us into new insight, into growth.

You’ve heard me say more than once that Jesus’ teachings are often simple and hard. And this teaching is simple and hard. Because I don’t know about you, but I would way rather triangulate, I would way rather go to the parking lot and complain to Person C about Person B. It’s so much less emotional labour. And besides, when I complain to Person C, I am able to cast myself as the unequivocal hero in the conflict: my actions my motivations are thoroughly calm and reasonable and fair whereas Person B is unhinged and unreasonable and unfair. The problem is that, as appealing as this scenario is to me, it deprives both me and Person B of what Jefferts-Schori described, of the possibility of conflict. It deprives that person and me of mutual understanding, of mutual learning, of mutual growth, of the opportunity to say, “I can see why you felt that way, why you behaved that way.”

Jesus says: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Often the church has focused pretty hard on the binding part. But I wonder if Jesus’ formula for encountering conflict, if Jesus’ ministry and teaching in general, isn’t way more about loosing bonds.

Do the hard work, Jesus says, of engaging in fierce conversations directly with one another, of engaging in conflict with one another, of understanding that conflict as an act of love. And in doing so, loose the bonds that hold you back: the bonds of the resentments that you have left unspoken until now, the hurts that you have left unnamed until now, and in turn, the perspectives and experiences of Person B that you have left unheard until now. That will loose your bonds, on earth and in heaven.

Today’s passage then ends with Jesus’ famous words: Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them. We often remember those words when talking about praying together, or when talking about a poorly attended church service: and fair enough, that’s a good and reasonable reading. But what the wider context of this passage tells us is that Jesus is also talking about conflict. We could paraphrase his words just a little and say:

When two or three of you are gathered in conflict in my name, I am in the midst of you.

And that might be the best news there is about conflict. When we choose to do the hard work of engaging in a fierce conversation, when we choose to fight fair, when we choose to tell the truth to Person B and listen to Person B’s truth in return, we are inviting Jesus further into our marriage, further into our friendships, further into our country, further into our church.

[1] The term “fierce conversation” comes from Susan Scott’s book of the same name.

 

A Place at the Table + Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

What a privilege to be here.

I’d like to begin our time together by saying thank you. Thank you to everyone at Grace Memorial with whom I have interacted over the last several months as we have done the work of discerning that we are called to do ministry together, to serve and love God and neighbour together. Thank you to the search committee and to the vestry – it is a bit of a cliché to say that something was a pleasure. But this search process was a pleasure. The conversations and meals and prayers that I shared with the search committee and vestry left me with energy and inspiration and hope. That’s a big deal.

Thank you to the Diocese of Oregon for their support throughout this search. Thank you to Father Stephen and to Mother Esme and Sue Jensen for their leadership, for helping this parish to be so vibrant. Thanks to the staff – K and Allie and Ellie and Tom and Mariann and Linda have made their expertise and their generosity available to me, they have helped me to start to figure out how things work at Grace during this time when my eyeballs are spinning in two different directions.

And thank you. Thank you. Back at the start of May, when Phoebe and Amiel and Miriam and Timothy and I came to visit Grace, some of you knew who we were and why we were here, and you welcomed us with enthusiasm. And some of you had no idea who we were or why we were here, and you welcomed us with enthusiasm. (There are Episcopal parishes at which visitors report that they went to coffee hour and no one talked to them. Grace is not one of those parishes. That’s something we can feel good about that.) Our family is grateful to you. We can’t wait to share with you in the adventure of faith.

So.

For the first time in more than a month, we have returned to the Gospel of Mark. We were last here way back on July 19th when Mark told us about Jesus being chased around by the crowd as though he was a rock stars, about Jesus healing everyone who was sick. And then, just as Mark was about to tell us the story in which Jesus feeds 5,000 people, we abruptly took a five-week detour into the fourth Gospel and John told us the story instead. I’m not sure why the architects of the lectionary (the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next) made that decision, except that John’s account is longer than Mark’s and it features Jesus’ extraordinary and mystifying and wonderful meditations on bread.

As we return to Mark, Jesus has just performed the miracle with the five loaves and the two fishes. Everyone is stuffed, they are filled up like they had eaten seconds at a wedding banquet. After that great meal, Jesus walked on water and he healed the sick. It is in the context of these miracles – the aftermath of these miracles, if you like – that the conversation that we hear today takes place.

Jesus and his friends are sitting down for a meal. The Pharisees and the Scribes show up and they are appalled to observe that Jesus’ friends are beginning to eat without washing their hands first. Now, this is well before germ theory is invented, so the Pharisees and Scribes are probably not anxious about anyone catching influenza or a cold. But even if their understanding about why hand washing matters is different than our own, I want to suggest that their visceral reaction, their disgust at these unwashed hands is something that we can understand, something with which we can even empathize.

Jesus’ friends include a whole lot of people who do physical work, who spend their days working with animals. We can well imagine that their hands are filthy. Throw into the mix that, as the Pharisees and scribes explain, washing one’s hands is a sign of piety, a sign of devotion to God (notice that, in a few minutes, as we get ready for the Eucharist, I will wash my hands), and it makes even more sense that they are shocked at seeing these folks walking right past the and towards the table. Imagine watching someone going straight from cleaning a toilet to digging into the communal bowl of chips at the Super Bowl party, and you have some sense of the yuck that these folks are feeling.

It makes sense that they are disgusted. It is reasonable that they are disgusted.

I want to emphasize the reasonableness of the Scribes and the Pharisees’ reaction, the reasonableness of their disgust, because there is a big temptation to read this story in such a way as to make the scribes and Pharisees into its villains. This might even be the standard reading of this story: the Scribes and the Pharisees are the ones who just don’t understand compassion, who are so fixated on the law that they just don’t get the Gospel. As the children’s song, I Wanna Be a Sheep declares:

I don’t wanna be a Pharisee,

‘Cause they’re not fair, you see.

The problem with that reading is that, well, it’s lazy. And through its laziness it draws us into a place that is dangerous in two – or depending on how you count, three – significant ways. First (and maybe this is obvious), it invites us into a place of anti-Semitism, a place in which the church has spent a shameful amount of time over the centuries. The “Pharisees as unfair” readings tells us that these folks – more or less the Ancient Near East’s equivalent of observant Jews – are obsessed with Moses’ law, a law that Jesus has made unnecessary and maybe even silly. At best, the reading draws us into a kind of smug contempt of our Jewish brothers and sisters. At worst, it leads us into violence, it leads us into the holocaust. And that brings us to what is either the second problem with that reading or another aspect of the first:

It ignores Jesus’ Jewishness. Listen to Luke 4:16: Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. The Gospel writers don’t spend a whole lot of time telling us about Jesus’ Jewishness or his religious observance because they take it for granted. It is no more necessary for them to keep on saying, “Jesus was an observant Jew,” than it is necessary for them to say, “If Jesus didn’t drink water, he got thirsty” or “Jesus couldn’t hold his breath for more than about a minute.” Of course Jesus was an observant Jew. What is implicit in this story, is that as an observant Jew, Jesus himself was among those who washed his hands before he ate. His personal piety, his personal practice, is really similar to the Pharisees. This is not, in other words, an argument between a Christian and some Jews; Jesus wasn’t a Christian. It is an argument between faithful Jews.

Last of all, the problem with the Pharisees and Scribes as villains is that it makes this story into something little more than a pat on the back for you and for me. Here is its self-congratulatory message: unlike the Pharisees, you and I get it. We are the ones who follow and listen to Jesus, we are the ones who are doing faith right. Why can’t those Pharisees and scribes, why can’t those other people, understand that?

Let’s see if we can put that seductive and common reading aside for a moment and hear this story again. Let’s watch once more as Jesus and his friends sit down for a meal. Let’s watch as Jesus washes his hands and some of his friends do not. And then let’s listen as the scribes and the Pharisees, these Jewish people of deep faith and devotion raise, their thoroughly reasonable objections to Jesus, another Jewish person of deep faith and devotion. Maybe they take him aside to speak to him quietly, to say, Jesus, you’re forgetting to remind these people to wash their hands. And then let’s listen as Jesus responds to them with startling anger, as he yells at them. We can imagine spit flying out of his mouth. (And by the way, if you need another clue to Jesus’ Jewishness, notice that, as he yells at them, he is quoting the Jewish Bible, the prophet Isaiah.)

You hypocrites.

The people honour me with their lips,

But their hearts are far from me.

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.

Holy smokes. What is going on?

Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. Actually, let me amend that: there’s good news and there’s good news. But the second part of the good news might be hard.

The good news is that Jesus invites everyone to eat with him. Even people who are woefully under-qualified. Even people who don’t know enough to wash enough to wash their hands before sitting down at the table. Even people like me and you. If you don’t know the Bible all that well, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you get lost in the Book of Common Prayer, if you’re not sure when to stand and when to sit and when to kneel, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you don’t feel all that confident singing in church, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you’re not sure if this whole faith thing even makes sense, if someone like you even belongs in church, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you have done things which you regret, things for which you struggle to forgive yourself, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus. If you have hurts that you fear may never heal, if you wonder if you are irreparably damaged goods, you’re still invited to dinner with Jesus.

And now here is the good news that is hard. Are you ready? Brace yourselves. The good news that is hard is that Jesus invites everyone to eat with him. Even the person whom you like the least, even the person whom you respect the least, even the person whom you cannot forgive. Even the person who holds church in contempt, who holds you and me in contempt, who holds Jesus in contempt. Everyone, everyone, is invited to dinner with Jesus.

Now, let me be clear. The point of this story isn’t that washing your hands doesn’t matter, that going to church doesn’t matter. No. These things absolutely matter, Jesus himself washes his hands, Jesus himself worships in the synagogue every week as was his custom, Jesus himself integrates prayer into his life. The point of this story is that, by doing those things, we don’t make God love us. Nor by doing them do we prove that the people who aren’t doing them have forfeited God’s love.

And that is hard. It is hard to give up on the seductive notion that there are rules we can follow that will make God like us. And it is hard to give up on the seductive notion that we, inside the walls of this church, are doing things right, unlike those other people who, right now, are riding their bikes or doing yoga or sitting in a coffee shop or sleeping in.

As my friend and teacher, Bill Ellis, says, we don’t go to church in order to be saved. We go to church because we are saved. We don’t serve God in order to make God love us. We serve God because God loves us. Being here is a response to God’s totally gratuitous gift of life and love and freedom. Indeed, everything we do for God – hand washing, tithing, service, prayer, song, the meal that we served together in the parish hall on Friday, you name it – is a response, it is a way of saying thanks for what we already have.

Jesus doesn’t lose his temper often. But he does blow his stack when we make worship, this act of joy and gratitude, into an attempt to buy God’s love, into an attempt to prove that we are saved and others are not. Thanks be to God, Jesus doesn’t stay mad for long. After the feeding of the crowd and the walking on water and the healing, this might be the fourth miracle, that Jesus doesn’t stay mad with someone who misunderstands the Gospel as much as you and I do. After just a moment of anger, Jesus smiles and he says to you and me: Sit down. Wash your hands first. Or not. There’s a place for you at the table.