Proper 16, 2009, Year B

I am terribly sorry for what I’m about to say.  I do not mean to hurt your feelings, I promise.  But I have to tell you-we are weird.

Normal people would spend a morning like this in bed, or in an air conditioned café with a fresh copy of the Sunday New York Times.  We should be curled up on a couch, puzzling over the crossword puzzle with an iced latte in our hand.  Instead we’re in this overheated sanctuary seated in hard wooden pews.  We’re wearing our least comfortable clothes: stockings, ties, suit jackets and high heels. When I’m done with this sermon, we are all going to say the same words we’ve said the last thousand Sundays, all together in a chant.  After that, we are going to partake of a tiny cracker and some port-before noon!

How weird are we?

Well, we are almost as weird as the disciples.

And we’re not anywhere close to being as weird as Jesus.

In today’s gospel lesson, we have finally reached the end of the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John.

So far, the Bread of Life discourse has been lovely.  The image of Jesus as spiritual nourishment is a cozy, comforting one.  In my last sermon, I talked about Jesus’ coming to us as bread as his way to embrace us. But in today’s passage, Jesus veers off into a very uncomfortable, weird direction.

The word for eating in the New Testament is usually esthioEsthio is a nice, polite word.  Esthio is how the Israelites ate the manna in the desert.  Esthio is how the crowd of 5,000 ate the miraculous loaves and fishes.  But when Jesus tells the crowd that those who eat his flesh will abide in him, he does not use the word esthio.  No, Jesus uses the word trogoTrogo is an awful word.  Trogo means to chomp, to gnaw, to munch, to crunch.  Trogo is how you eat fried chicken or what a dog does to a bone.  When someone is trogo eating you can hear their teeth click and their tongue squish. Trogo is disgusting.

Trogo is an offensive word, and here trogo is paired with an offensive act-eating human flesh.

I get the sense Jesus is messing with the disciples here.  He’s pushing their buttons and making them uncomfortable.  Jesus is reminding them that he is not ethereal.  Jesus is not abstract.  Jesus, the Son of God, is right in front of them, shockingly, in the flesh.

Can you imagine the disciples’ reaction?  I bet they started looking down at their hands at first, and then maybe they started stealing glances at each other. Eventually maybe they start talking quietly with each other and looking at Jesus out of the corner of their eyes.    I bet they started to wonder what they had gotten themselves into.  Who was this weirdo they were following?  Eventually they just flat out confront Jesus.  Some brave representative says, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  Which is a rather polite way of telling Jesus he is a freak show.

Jesus has his audience right where he wants them. They are seriously uneasy. Jesus wants to reorient his disciple’s point of view, but before he can do that he needs to disorient them, he needs to get them off balance.

And boy, are the disciples off balance!  They are probably still shuddering at the image of gnawing, chewing, crunching on human flesh, when suddenly Jesus redirects the conversation.

Jesus asks the disciples, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.”

Woah!  Twist!

The disciples are still over here, worried about cannibalism while Jesus is over here schooling them in what really matters.  He’s telling them that, in this instance, the flesh is not important.  Jesus is saying that what he has been talking about all along how the spirit gives life.

Jesus is reminding the disciples that they have no idea who he really is.  Jesus is telling them that if they are upset now, they would really freak out when they saw him in the fullness of his divinity.  Jesus calls them out for not believing in his divinity.  Jesus reorients them.

Many of the disciples, though, cannot get past being disoriented.  They cannot get past Jesus’ weirdness.  And so, they leave.  We never hear what happens to these disciples who left.  We don’t know if they changed their minds and came back.  We don’t know if they went back to their families.  We don’t know what they thought when they heard about Jesus’ resurrection.  All we know is that Jesus made them too uncomfortable, so they left.

Jesus turns to the twelve disciples who have been his closest allies and asks them, “Do you also wish to go away?’

Now, these twelve disciples may be as weirded out as their compatriots who left, but they are also convinced of Jesus’ divinity. Peter  says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Peter speaks for the twelve and expresses why they are so drawn to him, why they cannot leave his side.  Jesus is the Holy One, Jesus is different from anyone they had ever met.  They may not fully understand what it means that Jesus is God, but they feel something in their gut.  They have an inkling, so they stay with Jesus, even though he’s weird.

We Christians do a lot of weird things.  We have a lot of weird symbols and rituals and music.  Your priests wear weird clothes. We have these weird weekly gatherings we call church.

The God we worship is weird.  He calls us to be together in ways that are too intimate, too different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to move beyond what is comfortable and into what is risky.  He calls us into real relationship, into honestly looking at our lives and confronting the parts of ourselves that don’t live up to our ideals.  He calls us to work through problems together rather than going on cable tv and screaming at each other from a safe distance.  He calls us to love the unlovable, serve even though we are powerful, have faith even when life seems hopeless.

We join with the twelve disciples in worshiping Jesus for the very same reason they did.  We may not understand Jesus.  We may think he is weird sometimes, but we also know he has the words for eternal life.  We know that what Jesus says and did and does makes sense in a way nothing in this world does.

We gather together and engage in all our weird rituals, because nothing normal quite gets at the feeling we want to convey to God.  We gather together and worship weirdly, because we are weird.  We are broken and whole, ugly and beautiful, sinful and filled with goodness.  We know that worshiping Jesus does something in us that we cannot explain, but that is absolutely real.

We worship Jesus, we follow Jesus, because we don’t want to miss anything.  We want to be there for the healing, for the joy, for the peace that only he can bring us.

We follow Jesus because we know he loves us. And that may be the weirdest, most wonderful part of all.

Amen.

Proper 14, Year B, 2009

I don’t know how closely you’ve been paying attention to the lectionary lately, but there has been a lot of whining and a lot of bread.  Two weeks ago, Jesus fed the 5000 with just a few loaves.  Last week, the Israelites started whining about being hungry in the desert and were fed manna from heaven.  This week we’ve got Elijah whining in the desert and Jesus describing himself as the Bread of Heaven.

Well, maybe Elijah is not whining, exactly.  You see, Elijah has been locked in an epic battle with a powerful woman named Jezebel.  Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab and had worked with her husband to encourage the worship of Baal among the Israelites.  And frankly, that is about the nicest thing I can think of to say about Jezebel.  She was not a kind person.  Elijah was not afraid to confront her about her many failings as Queen of the Israelites, but Jezebel was not really open to criticism.  Instead of listening to Elijah, she ordered his death.  Elijah ran away, into the wilderness.

Elijah is exhausted from running.  He has no future that he can imagine.  There is a death sentence waiting for him if he returns home.  In his exhaustion he asks God to kill him and then promptly falls into a deep sleep.

What happens next is one of the loveliest moments in all of Scripture.  Instead of killing Elijah, or telling Elijah to pull himself up by the bootstraps, or berating Elijah for his lack of faith, God sends Elijah an angel.  The angel gently wakes Elijah from his slumber and gives him hot bread to eat and cool water to drink.  Before the angel leaves, he touches Elijah one more time, encourages him to eat and then disappears.

Elijah has spent a lot of his life defending God of Israel against other gods.  Elijah has spent a lot of time helping people to see the power of God, the strength of God.  But in this small moment, Elijah experiences the intimate God, the loving God.  God gently encourages Elijah to press on and gives him the literal bread he needs to build up his strength for the journey.

For Elijah, his whining, or murmuring, or cry for help is met by God with nourishment, not rebuke.

Elijah’s need is met with love.

Most unpleasant behavior can be attributed to either hunger, fear, anger or loneliness.  Elijah was certainly experiencing hunger and fear!  When humans feel these unpleasant feelings and can’t quite sort out how to get our needs met, we lash out at whomever is around us.

I don’t know about you, but when I get cranky, nine times out of ten what I need is food.  My husband knows this by now and when he hears a certain snappish tone in my voice he immediately looks around to figure out what he can feed me before my unpleasantness can fully reveal itself.

The natural response when someone is cranky or whiny or unpleasant is to steer clear of the offending party.  But instead of moving away from us when we are at our worst, God moves toward us.  God nourishes us.

And maybe the lectionary spends four weeks in August dwelling on how Jesus is the Bread of Life, because this concept is so counterintuitive.  This concept is almost as hard to imagine as an angel waking you up and offering you a hot breakfast.

Jesus is easy to understand when he is standing on a mount or a fishing boat and telling us about God or how to live our lives.  When Jesus is speaking to us, we understand that he is the teacher and we are his students. The relationship is safe, the boundaries are clear.

But when Jesus describes himself as Bread-as something we bite and chew, swallow and absorb, those boundaries blur.

Ronald Rollheiser, the Catholic theologian, makes the connection between Jesus being the Bread of Life and being present in the Eucharist.  He writes:

For most of [Jesus’] ministry, he used words. Through words, he tried to bring us God’s consolation, challenge, and strength. His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions. But at a time, powerful though they were, they too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart.

Words are important.  I believe in words.  I have included many of them in this sermon.  However, words alone cannot convey love.

I spent a lot of time this week watching the footage of the journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee reuniting with their families after being prisoners in North Korea.  I’m sure they spoke words, too, and will continue to speak about their experiences to their loved ones, but their first reactions were to run toward their families and hug them as tightly as humanly possible.

Those hugs, their tears, her husband wrapping his arms around Euna as she clasped her daughter to her chest-those small acts conveyed more love than any speeches the women could have made to their families.

In the same way, Jesus was limited by words to express the fullness of love he felt toward humanity.

And so, Jesus becomes Bread.  He becomes a kiss.  He becomes our nourishment.  He moves beyond words to commune with us in a way both spiritual and physical.

And like the angel gave Elijah bread to give him strength for the journey ahead, Jesus gives us himself for the very same purpose.  Whether we are cheerful or cranky, strong or weak, ready or unprepared, Jesus moves toward us and embraces us.

Jesus is the Bread of life, given to us.  And that is beyond words.

Thanksgiving, Year C, 2007

Will your tables be decadent this afternoon?

Will you stuff yourselves with turkey, mashed potatoes, token vegetables, cranberry sauce, pie, and of course. . .stuffing?

Will you be so full you’ll need to take a walk to feel human again?  Will you be so full you’ll just fall asleep in front of the television?

During Thanksgiving the food we eat is bounteous because it symbolizes the bounty of all that God has given us.  When we stuff ourselves with buttered rolls and creamed corn, we are acknowledging that God has stuffed us with blessings.

Take a moment now and think about the blessings in your life.

Now, turn to a neighbor and tell them three blessings God has given you.

During so much of our lives we focus on what we long for.  We long for closer relationships.  We long for true love.  We long for the past or the future. We long for meaningful work.  Sometimes we long for any work at all.  We long for bigger houses, newer cars.  We long for new clothes and handbags.  Well, I long for new clothes and handbags.

During all this longing, it can be difficult to remember our blessings!  We live in a culture that feeds our longing, waters our longing, nurtures it until our longing feels like a need.  Our culture stretches and grows our longing until our longing looms so large that what we have been given looks meager and pitiful in comparison. 

Those that followed Jesus in John’s gospel longed, too.  They had just seen Jesus break bread and fish into thousands of miraculous pieces and feed a giant crowd.  Even though they could eat their fill-they could have been as stuffed as they wanted to-this food was not enough.  They don’t know what they want, but they know they want to follow Jesus.

Jesus knows the people are following him because of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  However, Jesus is not content to let them think of him as a miracle man or even a very generous chef.

Jesus knows that, even if they don’t know it, the people following him long for more than a snack.  They long for more than they can consciously identify.  Jesus knows that at the core of each of our longings, we long for connection with the divine.  Even a longing for a handbag, at its deepest core, is a longing to feel completed, accepted and loved.

So, Jesus turns the tables on his followers.  They want bread from him, but he tells them that he IS the Bread of Life.  Jesus’ followers crave something that will fill them temporarily, but Jesus knows he has the capacity to fill them eternally.  Jesus fills our longings, too.

Jesus fills our longings for acceptance, for love, for direction, for worth, for nourishment.  He is our bread of life, not just the bread of life for those who heard his discourses in person.

And for that, we count our blessings.