Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 19, 2018

Lessons:

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

The novelist Salman Rushdie has a line about storytelling, about crafting words, that goes like this. Rushdie says:

Good metaphors shock.

Good metaphors don’t merely surprise us or delight us or invite us into curiosity – although they certainly do most or all of those things. Good metaphors make us gasp. They are startling, almost vulgar, offensive. You listen to them and you say: what are those words, those ideas doing together?

Here’s the problem for those of us who like telling stories: much like a joke tends be a lot less funny on the second telling, metaphors tend to lose their capacity to shock through repetition. They get worn out, they die, they no longer evoke shock or, for that matter, much of anything else. Think of the popular metaphor for betraying someone, for making someone into a patsy or a fall guy when something goes wrong. What’s the metaphor for that?

They threw him under the bus.

In its beginnings, that was a shocking metaphor. Throwing someone under the bus is a metaphor about committing murder in the most gruesome and hands-on way available. Through repetition, however, we now hear it and we don’t really even blink, let alone imagine someone disappearing beneath the wheels of a public transportation device.

Those of us who read and honour the stories of Jesus and by Jesus have the same problem. Jesus uses some seriously shocking metaphors. Sometimes they are comical, sometimes earthy, sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes just weird.

You are the salt of the earth.

The Kingdom of God.

You brood of vipers!

Take the log out of your eye before complaining about the speck in your neighbour’s eye.

Or what about the metaphor that we hear in the Gospel reading today?

I am the living bread that came down from heaven: whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.

Imagine the people standing in the crowd when Jesus first speaks those words, when his words are brand new and raw, when no one has heard them a thousand times. The people look at one another and they say:

Did Jesus just use a cannibalism metaphor?

And the answer is: Yeah, he kind of did.

Jesus is upping the ante from his already shocking words Take, eat: This is my body. In case there is any ambiguity, Jesus adds the gruesome additional words: eat my flesh, drink my blood. Those who read Biblical Greek tell us that there are at least a couple of Greek verbs that mean “to eat,” and the word that Jesus uses for eating in this passage has the connotation of gnawing on bones. This is a super carnal image.

What do we do with a saying like this? If we dust off the years of repetition, if we permit Jesus’ metaphor to strike us with its full, original shocking weight, how do we respond to a Messiah who says that faith looks like a scenario in which he is our dinner?

Now, before I go any further, I want to stop for a second and do something like inserting a footnote into this sermon. (Imagine a big floating number one appearing in the air beside the word bubble coming out of my mouth, imagine it referring you to a paragraph of text down by my feet.) What I want to be clear about in this footnote is that, when I use the word “metaphor,” I don’t mean, “as opposed to something that is true or real.” Sometimes we speak of metaphors in that binary and dismissive way, sometimes we say, “That’s just a metaphor,” and what we mean by that is, “That’s just a made-up story. It’s not true.”

I don’t mean that at all. What I mean when I speak of the metaphors of Jesus is something harder to quantify. I mean that there are certain kinds of truth that are at or beyond the limits of human understanding, that are so deep into mystery that the only way that we can talk about them is by employing image and poetry and paradox. When we get super literal with these mysteries, we end up in a place that is unintentionally ridiculous. (Speaking of eating Jesus’ flesh, I know folks who were told as kids not to chew when they received communion, lest Jesus start bleeding in their mouths.)

For the purposes of our conversation this morning, what I mean by a metaphor is a symbol that points us to the truth.

Okay, that’s the end of the footnote. Back up to the word bubble.

When we hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life,” when we hear him say, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood,” many of us think of the Eucharist. And we are right to do so – this is absolutely Eucharistic imagery. But the shocking violence of Jesus’ metaphor invites us to at least one other place as well.

That place is the cross.

It is at the foot of the cross that we encounter Jesus’ flesh and his blood most directly. He goes to the cross innocent, he is sacrificed there by empire and by the religious and economic systems that collaborate with empire. And by going to the cross innocent, he does no fewer than two things. (He assuredly does way more than two things, but these are the two that I am going to concentrate on this morning.)

The first thing that Jesus does on the cross is to reveal the total moral failure of the system that put him on the cross and that puts other people on the cross. He declares that any system which sacrifices some of its members so that others may be comfortable is engaging in evil, whether that means high priests saying “Better for one man to die”; whether it be our culture declaring that people living in tents under overpasses is an okay prince of admission for our economic structure; whether it be children being taken from their mothers at our border because we are afraid of how migrants might change us; whether it be, and think of this week’s news, Bishops covering up years and years of sexual violence by priests so as to preserve patriarchy and power.

The second thing that Jesus does on the cross is to declare his absolute and unreserved solidarity with those who suffer. On the cross he embodies what he says elsewhere: Just as you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me. When we turn violence on the least of these –economic violence, the violence of racism, the violence of nationalism, the violence of gun-worship, the violence of patriarchy, the list goes on – we are turning that violence on Jesus. On the cross we learn that it is Jesus who is living in the tent under the overpass, Jesus who is the child taken out of his mother’s arms, Jesus who is the victim of years of sexual violence from a priest.

Now, a minute ago I said that we often think of Eucharist when we hear Jesus say, Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and that we were right to do so. Yes, this is Eucharistic language. But it is Eucharistic imagery that must be understood in light of the cross.

There is a moment at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer – after we say amen, after we say the Lord’s Prayer – when the priest (today, that will be me) holds up the bread and then breaks it. One of my mentors taught me the practice of pausing in that moment, of letting the bread rest there for a beat, intact. His reading of the symbol of waiting is this: in that moment of waiting, we declare our longing that the Body of Christ could be unbroken, that Jesus’ flesh could be unbroken. But then we do break it, we accept that the wounds of Jesus are inescapable part of his story, that the breaking of the Body of Christ is an inescapable part of our story.

Once the bread is broken, we take it into our bodies.

As the old saying has it, you are what you eat. On Sunday mornings we eat the brokenness and the suffering of Jesus, we eat his radical and non-violent resistance of empire, we eat his absolute loving solidarity with the poor. May we indeed, with God’s help, become what we eat. May we come to communion, not as an intellectual concept that we must agree to, but as an encounter that might transform us.

Good metaphors shock. May the bread of life, the flesh and blood of Jesus, give us a holy shock. And may that holy shock invite us to share God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s love. May the flesh and blood of Jesus invite us to share the bread of life across the world.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Three Synoptic Gospels

Lessons:

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Some variation on the story that we just heard appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Luke shortens the story considerably, omitting the startling anger of Jesus’ reaction to Peter: in Luke, Jesus’ words, “Get behind me, Satan!” are gone from this conversation. Here in Matthew, by contrast, the rebuke remains (“get behind me,” by the way, does not have any of the modern connotations of getting behind someone, of “having their back”: what Jesus means is “Get out of my way!”). And Matthew adds something else. In Matthew, Jesus tells Peter:

You are a stumbling block to me.

Depending on which translation of Jesus’ words you read, you may also hear these words rendered as “You are an offence to me,” “You are an obstacle to me,” “You are a hindrance to me,” even – and this phrase from the New Living Translation kind of blows my mind – “You are a dangerous trap to me.”

That kind of variation in the translation is a clue that we are encountering a word that is either ambiguous in nature (in other words, scholars aren’t sure what it means) or that holds a meaning or flavour doesn’t quite have an English equivalent. In this particular case, it’s probably the latter.

The original Greek term that is translated in so many different ways is skandalon. Here is the root or ancestor of our modern-day word, “scandal.” And as the translation that we heard today suggests, a skandalon does indeed refer to a stumbling block, it does indeed refer to something left in the middle of the hallway by a toddler that you trip over in the night (that is an example drawn from personal experience). But that definition is incomplete.

Because in the original Greek, a skandalon is something that is both repulsive and attractive. An addiction or a compulsion or a terrible obsession or a relentless habit are skandalon: if you’ve ever stayed up altogether too late watching shows on TV or on Netflix or surfing social media (and forgive me if that is a trivial example, but it is real), you’ve experienced repulsion and attraction all at once. More seriously, the gambler who cannot leave the casino, the drunk who can’t leave the bar, the sex addict who can’t switch off the pornography are in the grip of skandalon. To slow down when you pass the car accident in the hope/fear that you will see blood on the road is skandalon.

What Jesus is talking about here is that thing that we don’t want to do but that we do anyway. Or maybe that’s backwards. Maybe what Jesus is talking about is that thing that you want to do but that we know we mustn’t do.

Given that definition, it makes sense that Jesus’ accusation comes right after calling Peter “Satan” or, as we sometimes call Satan, The Tempter. Because the repulsive and attractive thing that Peter offers to Jesus might be the biggest temptation that Jesus has ever faced, bigger even than the temptation that the actual Satan offers him at the beginning of his earthly ministry.

Let’s back up a little.

The passage that we hear today in Matthew comes immediately after the passage that we heard last week. So, Jesus has no sooner praised Peter for identifying him as the Messiah, as the Son of God, Jesus has no sooner declared that Peter is the rock upon which will build his church, than today’s reading begins.

Jesus tells the disciples he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed. This is a theme, by the way, that shows up in all four Gospels. Jesus says that he must suffer and die; not that he might suffer and die, not that it is a risk, not that it is a distinct possibility. But that he must.

Why?

One possibility – and it’s a Biblical one – is that Jesus must die in order to fulfill the scriptures. I’m willing to take that answer seriously, to listen to it and to wrestle with it. But that wrestling is going to have to wait for another sermon.

A second possibility – one that really got a foothold at the beginning of the second thousand years of the Christian movement and that lasts right up to this day – is that Jesus’ death is necessary in order to pay some kind of cosmic debt to God the Father. I don’t find that argument persuasive. Indeed, I find it the very opposite of persuasive: to my mind it paints an appalling picture of God as someone who is petty and violent and small and selfish.

But maybe that’s just me.

A third possibility behind Jesus’ must is the one that I’d like to wonder with you about this morning. This possibility is almost the very opposite of the second one. And, like the first possibility, it is thoroughly Biblical. This is the possibility that Jesus must suffer and die because he has confronted a brutal government and a brutal religious structure and the brutal practices that surround and support them. He has confronted them by telling subversive stories, by engaging in promiscuous acts of healing and transformation, by persistently choosing non-violent resistance, and by sharing food and community in acts of radical inclusivity and radical hospitality. In doing so, Jesus has revealed that the laws and rules of Empire are neither inevitable nor obvious nor immutable nor irresistible nor God-given.

And that kind of behaviour is hugely threatening to Empire. And so the government and the religious authorities will respond in the only way that Empire knows how to respond: by sending the death squads for Jesus.

Jesus will go to the cross, totally innocent – or, in theological language, totally without sin. The one whom his followers call The Son of God, the one whom the Christian movement in the first centuries after his death came to understand as God himself, the one whom we confess in the Creeds to be God, will be murdered by the government. Let me say that again: God will be murdered by the government.

And by freely accepting this death, Jesus will demonstrate the utter brokenness of Empire and the violence and selfishness that supports it, he will demonstrate God’s absolute and unreserved solidarity with those who suffer and who endure injustice, and he will demonstrate God’s absolute refusal to respond to violence with violence of God’s own, God’s absolute refusal to respond to exclusion with exclusion of God’s own.

It is this act of sacrifice which Jesus must do that Peter tells him he must not do.

God forbid it, Lord!

says Peter,

This must not happen to you.

Peter’s response, let’s be clear, is totally reasonable. If a friend and leader whom I loved told me that they must be tortured and killed I would say the way same thing. And it is its very reasonableness that makes Peter’s words such a temptation to Jesus, such a skandalon. Because what would make more sense, what would be fairer, than for Jesus to refuse a brutal and painful death? No one would blame him, no one would think less of him if he stopped preaching and quietly went back to carpentry. Nor would anyone blame him if he were to try to assemble an army and to try to go defeat the Romans, if he were to build crosses and nail their soldiers to them. People would cheer!

This is as big a skandalon as there can be for Jesus. The possibility that Peter has named, the possibility of stepping aside from his collision course with Empire and with the cross is the most attractive idea that anyone has presented to him ever. But it is also the most repulsive. Because Jesus knows that it means abandoning his calling as Son of God, as Messiah, as Christ.

Jesus almost says “yes” to Peter. But through nothing more or less than force of will, he shouts, “No!” He says to his best friend:

Get behind me!

Get out of my way! I know you don’t mean to, I know you don’t want to, but you are tempting me like no one else. Not even Satan could match what you are offering now. I want what you are offering so much, Peter. But get behind me, normalcy. Get behind me safety. Get behind me power and status and dreams of leading an army. Get behind me dreams of holding a scepter and wearing a crown.

I want more than anything to life my life and grow old and maybe get married and have kids.

But I can’t. I mustn’t.

Peter has understood that Jesus is the Messiah. But like you and me a lot of the time, he doesn’t understand at all what that means. He thinks that Jesus is a worldly King, that he is a King in much the same sense as Caesar, except that Jesus is a King on Peter’s side. What you and me and Peter don’t get is that Jesus is a King whose power comes through powerlessness, whose love is shown when he is abandoned, who will show us who God is and what God is like as he goes to the cross.

Jesus pushes through the skandalon. He stumbles for a minute, but then he regains his balance and keeps on walking. And because he must, he continues the journey to Jerusalem.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Mary Anne Gard

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

 

Wow, is Jesus upset or what? “I come to bring fire.” “Households will be divided.” “Like the changing weather, I have been showing you signs of change, of upheaval and you just will not pay attention!” He is so frustrated with us that He is almost sputtering, almost can’t complete full sentences.

Have you ever been at that place? That place where, you see the signs that someone you love is slipping into dangerous territory and you keep pleading and warning and finally resort to yelling to get their attention. But they don’t listen and fall into the danger you had feared. Then, also as you had feared, you are left with: remorse, guilt, and profound sadness. “Why wouldn’t they listen to me?” “Why didn’t I do more?”

Last weekend I went to the wedding in the sands on the Long Beach peninsula, of a wonderful young man that I helped raise. Many years ago, Katie and I became good, life-long friends with two women in college. Eventually they married and we incorporated their spouses into our various activities. Every Friday night we got together for a serious poker game that usually went on until the wee hours of the morning.

Those poker games and our lives endured great upheaval when, Adam, the first child, now the young man beaming at his bride, arrived. We tried to keep the tradition of Friday night poker, but urgent baby cries interrupted.

Panties needed changing. Bottles needed preparation. The baby needed holding. Gradually, we didn’t drink or smoke so much. By the time number two boy appeared at poker night, we all became domesticated, responsible adult parents. Eventually, four boys arrived in all, and responsible adult activities revolved around their lives and schedules, and not poker pots.

Sadly, one dad died young, and shortly thereafter the other dad ran away. This time great upheaval dragged behind it profound despair. That left us four women to raise the four boys.

The run away dad, to his great credit, eventually returned to the picture, but it was not without years of bitterness, and distrust, and pain before a shaky peace was made.

It was a household torn apart. Father against son. Mother against father. Children against parents. Then finally, at this wedding, after years of stumbling through the family mess, it was clear that what was torn apart was finally made a ragged whole. Sins, if they really were sins, were mostly forgiven by everyone.

Two of the four boys, brothers, stood out in stark contrast to Adam and his brother. These two boys were sons of the father who died young. For some reason, they never fully got traction in this world. They chose to close off their pain and responsibility by drinking.

At this wedding it became glaringly clear to us, who raised and loved them, that they were roaring alcoholics.

Oh yes, we saw signs along the way. Oh yes, we prophesied that they were traveling a dangerous road. Oh yes, we gently suggested they not drink so much. Oh yes, we didn’t serve alcohol at get togethers. Oh yes, they denied all our accusations about their deterioration. But now we could not longer deny nor excuse away the liars, barely standing up before us.

We parental figures gathered and spoke plainly, for the first time together, that there was no getting around it. Those babies, those boys, these men were alcoholics.

In our discussion, each of us told our stories of dealing with alcohol in our lives. After all, we had been just as rowdy at their age, and we turned out fine. But we each hit a wall, a crisis point, a decision place that demanded we pay attention to the signs of havoc in our life course.

One of us would be drug tested and wouldn’t be able to work. Another of us ended up in rehab. Two had children and that ended their alcohol and drug use. Now the children were adults. Somehow they would have their own awakening, just like we did.

Then two of us told stories of alcoholic parents, who never hit their crisis change point and wreaked destruction on their lives and the lives of everyone in their path. No, we had to do something to help move these young men to change. Intervention. That’s what we would do, and that is where we left it.

On the day before the wedding, I walked a part of the Long Beach Lewis & Clark Discovery Trail. They have stations along the way that offer entries from the Exposition journal that describe the flora and fauna of the landscape.

One of the first stations describes the basalt formations seen along the Columbia River. Millions of years ago, huge underwater volcanic eruptions pushed hot lava to the top of the water. The water cooled and shaped it. Opposites of hot and cold formed our land. For millions of years this continuing land and water interaction proceeded until a crisis point. Then land above became too heavy for the land below. One day the land below slipped out from under the land above and covered it.

Even our earth, even in it’s formation, operates on a pendulum of opposites, until a crisis point when chaos and change happens on a grand scale. Then everything has to be rearranged, re-evaluated, and reformed. We are now a species of that reformation and are living out our roles in the grand re-making of the world.

Our lives, in every aspect, are designed for this pattern, from the formation of the world millions of years ago, to the life of a single human being today, there is collapse then change. As Carl Jung writes, “the greatest and most important problems in life are all in a certain sense insoluble. They must be so because they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”

Can you really ever change someone until they are ready? As young adults each of us found our own motivation for change, but it wasn’t the motivation our friend’s experienced, nor could it have been because we were different people, from different up-bringings, headed in different directions. It seems that prophetic warnings are only helpful in retrospect. It seems we all have to walk life’s tightrope of choices that keep us forever in tension. Whether we want to fully participate or not, there will be tension and there will be change.

There are so many places in the Gospels where Jesus shows us His human side and today is one of them. He is so frustrated with explaining and prophesying to the disciples that his death is looming. He needs these men to pay attention to him because Jesus feels the fate, the salvation of mankind will soon be removed from his hands and into theirs. When will they understand the signs and warnings as he does? Never.

We each have to experience our own crisis point. We each have to swing wildly around our own center cord that vibrates our tension. We are creatures made of dark stuff and light stuff. Both are needed to bring us to our Via Media, our own true connection with the wonderful, unpredictable Spirit of God.

Often, no mostly, our crisis point means we fail. We fall down so hard that we crack apart everything we’ve known. Our bottom shelves slide over our topsides and a new terrain with a new direction rises to the top.

Richard Rohr tells us that “Most of us need to have the status quo shaken now and then, leaving us off balance and askew, feeling alienated for a while from our usual unquestioned loyalties. In the uncomfortable space, we can finally recognize the much larger kingdom of God.”

He further says, “This pattern of temporary falling apart precedes every transition to a new level of faith, hope, and love. If one is not prepared to live in temporary chaos and hold the necessary anxiety that chaos entails, one never moves into a Bigger World.”

But you know what, we – you and I don’t get to judge what that Bigger World is for each person. Faith means we trust in God’s direction. We don’t know that the free will a person exercises, that results in a choice we don’t agree with, is against God’s will. Maybe it is perfectly in alignment with God and our judgement is askew.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we don’t head the warnings shouted at us, because we might not find our greatest happiness, for being overcautious. Maybe instead of fearing these falls, and railing against our misfortune when they happen, we should trust God and even be thankful.

I think Alanis Morrisette had it right in her song, “Thank U.” Her lyrics say: Thank you terror. Thank you disillusionment. Thank you frailty. Thank you consequence. Thank you silence. How bout remembering your divinity. How bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out. How bout not equating death with stopping.”

Most certainly we should share prophesies and wisdom we have acquired from our years of failing and thriving. Parts of our path may make a safer, clearer way for others. But, as Jesus illustrates today, despite all our love and warnings and pleading each person has to fall to rise. And not just fall once but many times.

Our job as parents, friends, Christians is to stand by them, and as the BCP guides us in Birthday Prayer #51: “strengthen them when they stand, comfort them when discouraged or sorrowful, raise them up when they fall.” If we ask God to do those things, we better be ready to help out as God’s hands and feet on this earth.

And we should not forget the strength that Jesus offers us in the Eucharist. He knows our journey is difficult. He knows we will ignore our prophets and that the world will yank sure footing out from under us.

But in the remembrance of His life at this table, and in the gift of his body and blood, there is strength and comfort. Here is the promised peace that passes understanding. Here is our center mast that remains planted firm and can withstand all the storms of the world that send us spinning from from despair to hope, from child to elder and even, and most surely, and most blessedly, from the greatest pendulum swing – all of us will experience – from death to life.