Sunday, August 23, 2015

Behind Enemy Lines: a sermon

“Behind Enemy Lines”
Proper 16, August 23, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43
Psalm 84
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

After so many weeks following this passage of Jesus as the Bread of Life, we come to its conclusion and the confrontational climax.  For those that were following Jesus, this became a decision point.  Cut bait or swim.  This was a moment of life-changing importance.  We see people at those various levels of commitment to Jesus, just like his parable of the Sower, where the seed fell on various soils, or souls one might say, and received differing responses.  Those that were following their bellies, wanting to just be fed rose up.  "This teaching is difficult.  Who can accept it?" they asked.  When Jesus turned to his most committed followers, his disciples, the Twelve, he gets a much different response.  "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."  Where others ran away, those that understood the implications of what he said ran to him. 

What was so controversial and hard to take?  It is easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to shoot the message because of the messenger.  What Jesus is saying here is to our ears commonplace, and accepted (or at least tolerated) as we come to the altar table weekly.  But to Jews in the first century it could not have been more abhorrent.  To the Greeks and Romans, the disgust factor would have been backwards and savage.  Rumors of cannibalism amongst fringe groups were not uncommon.  But to a Jew, the thought of blood and its consumption was beyond the pale.  Deuteronomy 12:23 "Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat."  Try getting a medium-rare burger in the Middle East, even today.  Kosher or Hallal dietary restrictions prevent that. 

As Jesus speaks openly of his flesh and his blood, he is intentionally using this metaphor because of its meaning and its implications.  Already in John's Gospel we were told "in him was life, and that life was the light of all people." John 1:4  He uses this image because of its Life implications.  He is making very clear what he wants for and from his followers.  John 6:51 "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."  Jesus is making clear that those who are his followers receive the source of their life from him, and reside in him.

And in response to these hard words, some turned away.  Thankfully, there were those who did not.  We are here today because of them.  Some of the early recipients of not turning away were Paul and those who were listening to the words he wrote in our Ephesians 6 passage.  Those who remained received another powerful metaphor.  Go to most any Christian bookstore, and if it has a children's section, you will find an action figure or costume set on the full armor of God metaphor used here in this passage.

This armor we are to put on is for one reason, to make sure that we are to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  The word for wiles here is not an emotional term.  In fact, the translation I prefer for methodeias is not wiles, but rather schemes.  It is not evil henchman laughing like in a super-hero movie; it is the calculating and methodical planning of a general moving his troops around the battle board.  These schemes are out to undermine at best and destroy at worst our mission and ministry to this hurting world.  Jesus knew and Paul reminds us, we are behind enemy lines and attacking a power desperately clinging to their territory.

Now think about it.  We are not enemies of the people; we love the people.  We are enemies of the Power that holds down the people.  We are not like Peacekeepers sent in by the United Nations.  (And they seem so often to be ill-equipped or restricted from doing what is necessary, anyway.)  We are not here to keep the peace.  We are sent in to be Peacemakers.  We are to be on the offense, but not offensive.  We are to bring good news, but our weapons and equipment are there for defense only.  So what did Paul say?

We need everything God has to offer for our protection while we are at God's work in this world. 
·        The belt of truth
·        The breastplate of righteousness.
·        Shoes, whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace
·        The shield of faith
·        The helmet of salvation
·        The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

The Belt of Truth: What does a belt do?  It holds things up.  It makes sure we are covered.  How often do we cover ourselves in a lie? Paul mentions first that we cover ourselves and have it all come together with truth.  Everything else is dependent upon that.

A Breastplate of Righteousness:  A breastplate covers our vitals, heart and lungs, stomach and guts.  In the ancient world everyone looked like Batman.  Or rather, Batman chose the intimidation factor of being covered with a breastplate which showed his 6-pack abs and chiseled chest.  I get the muscles, but the navel and nipples always befuddled me.  But Paul's breastplate, what covers our vitals is Righteousness.  We don't use that word often, any more, and when we do it is often in the negative, Self-righteous.  Righteousness: the quality of being morally right or justifiable.  What protects our very life is being right from how we live, and with whom are we right?  God.  The devil clan sling and scheme away, but our breastplate is "God's okaying of us," as one of my seminary professors translated this word.

So we have our belt, and our breastplate.  Next Paul turns to shoes.  And here he has some flexibility for us, very unlike Paul most of the time.  For shoes, whatever enables us to share the gospel of peace.  Remember, this extended metaphor, we are behind enemy lines, being attacked by a scheming commander, and we are encouraged to have whatever we need to bring peace and proclaim it.  We are out to win not only the battle but the hearts and minds of those in this occupied land.  We must be swift and agile, and ready to move.

But while we are moving behind these lines and bringing the good news of peace, arrows are heading our way, flaming arrows from the evil one himself.  In response to that, we are given the Shield of Faith.  This shield, our faith, in Paul's understanding is not just for us.  Our shields, in the battle formations of the Roman world, would have had a powerful strategy of using my shield to work with your shield to protect and cover us both.  In fact, on the command "As One," Roman soldiers would gather in a line, with shields fully covering the front, sides and above the whole group of soldiers so that nothing was showing.  This Testudo, or Tortoise, was a way to be enshrouded by the shields.  Think on this, as we venture into this hostile landscape, that when we bring our shields together we are all protected.  When we bring our faiths together, we are much stronger, healthier, and more protected.

One thing that is powerful for me here is when we are "As One," we hold tight to each other's faith as it strengthens our own.  The Creed we are about to say.  Some of us will really be feeling it today.  There are those of us who are not.  But when we come together "As One" we say it together.  It is not "I Believe."  It is "We Believe."  When we are in formation, you protecting me and I protecting you, we feel it and we need it.  Our strength combined is what we need, especially when we are about the work we have been given to do.  Ginter Park needs us to be the Church.  As we link in with our Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal and Disciple of Christ brothers and sisters we can bring Christ's hope and light to this neighborhood.  We need to be "As One."

Even more, I was intrigued that the command for this was "As One!"  In Jesus' final prayer for the Church, it was that we all might be "As One."  What a powerful image.  What a wonderful coincidence.

The last two items we are instructed to take, not necessarily use, but to take: the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.  A helmet to protect our head, our intellect and our sensory center.  Our sword to defend ourselves.  I think that too often Christian have taken the sword to use offensively.  This armor is for use with the devil, remember, and our interactions with those we find trapped behind the enemy lines are not our enemies, but those who need to Gospel of peace.  We have our shoes to rush to them, and we take our sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God for use with the devil, like Jesus quoted Scripture at Satan in the Wilderness.  The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, is not to be used on the civilian population.

In college, I took a film studies class, and we watched the beautiful German film "Wings of Desire" by Wim Wenders.  It was a beautiful and fantastical story of an angel who falls in love with a woman in Berlin, and must choose what he wants most.  Eternity or mortality.  When he chooses to love, he stops being an angel.  I was fascinated when Wim Wenders also had him lose his helmet and his breastplate instead of just his wings.  The wings we had seen up until this point, but the helmet and breastplate were hidden.  I am sure that the director was showing by having a physical helmet and a physical breastplate land on the fallen angel that he had lost his salvation and his righteousness.  My professor, unfamiliar with this passage from Paul, said he was losing his protection.  I, in my very sophomoric way, pointed out this much more clear metaphor.  If you know the Scripture it is obvious.

We are still behind enemy lines, and we are bedeviled all too often.  There are those for whom this idea is too hard, and just like with Jesus himself, they will walk away for this teaching is difficult.  But there are those for whom, this calling and this challenge are not only what they do, it is who they choose to become.  Like Peter, we must say, "‘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.’"

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Bread of Heaven": a sermon

Year B Proper 13
St Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA
“Bread of Heaven”

We all have wants and desires.  As Eugene Peterson put it in The Divine Conspiracy, humans are defined by what they treasure.  Our "treasurings" make us who we are, roughly paraphrased.  When my wife comes home, and I do not feel the mood to cook, which happens occasionally, I might ask, “What are you in the mood for?”  Often she is good and says something that can easily be fixed, but sometimes I can talk her into going out.  And this is on a whim.

Whims are hard to deal with.  We are often like Homer Simpson who cannot resist a doughnut if he sees one.  A spontaneous impulse, coupled with opportunity, is a hard temptation to fight.

But today we are not speaking of wants, or whims.  Today I want to speak about the deep hungers of the Soul.  What is our heart’s desire?  Many of us might not even be able to name it quickly.  It is hard to pin down the one the we want most.

This week I was rewatching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  My wife had mentioned that it was Harry Potter’s (supposed) 35th birthday, and I happened to mention that it was J. K. Rowling’s 50th birthday.  Neat coincidence that she shares her birthday with her main character.  Huh?  And if you remember, in this film, Harry confronts the Mirror of Erised.  (For those not familiar with the book, Erised is Desire spelled backwards.)  Headmaster Dumbledore finds him staring into the Mirror after hours.

“Can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?" Harry shook his head.
"Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help."
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, "It shows us what we want... whatever we want..."
"Yes and no," said Dumbledore quietly.
"It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.
"The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. Now, why don't you put that admirable cloak back on and get off to bed.”  [Emphasis mine]
J.K. Rowling,  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Our desires give us neither knowledge or truth.  People have wasted away looking for it.  We must not dwell on dreams and forget to live.  I thought this was a children’s book?  

As we learned from last week’s reading and this week’s as well, King David let his desires get the better of him.  While he thought he was being sly and cunning, people saw what took place.  It was out of character for him.  It was a departure from the man of God they knew him to be.  Nathan the prophet knows if he comes to it directly, David will shut him down or shut him up, or put him down, even.  So he approaches it with a parable.  A British author, humorist and Christian, Adrian Plass tells the story this way.  The Nathan Rap by Adrian Plass. [Adrian Plass, “Clearing Away the Rubbish,” Kingsway Publications, ISBN0551031735, p162-165, 2000]

It was evening in the palace when the prophet came by,
There was trouble in his manner, there was thunder in his eye,
He was still for a moment, he was framed in the door,
And the king said, ‘Nathan! … What are you here for?’
The prophet said, ‘David, I’ve a tale to tell,’
So the king sat and listened as the darkness fell,
While the hard-eyed prophet took a seat and began,
The story of a merciless and evil man.
‘This man,’ said Nathan, ‘had a mountain of gold,
Sheep by the thousand he bought and sold,
He never said, “Can I afford it or not?”
What this man wanted, this man got!
And one thing he wanted, and he wanted real bad,
Was the only living thing that a poor man had,
And he knew that it was wrong, but he took it just the same.’
‘I’ll kill him!’ said the king, ‘Just tell me his name!’
‘It was a lamb,’ said the prophet, ‘just a little baby lamb,
But he saw it and he took it and he didn’t give a damn,
And he knew that it was special, and he knew it was a friend,
And he knew about the sadness that would never, never end,

And that same man began to plan a far more evil thing.’
Then David rose and cried aloud, ‘He’ll reckon with the king!’
‘So do you think,’ said Nathan, ‘we should stop his little game?’
‘I’ll smash him!’ shouted David, ‘tell me his name!

‘Be careful,’ said the prophet, ‘don’t go overboard,’
For David’s eyes were shining like the blade of a sword,
‘Perhaps you should be merciful, perhaps you should try
To understand the man before you say he must die.’
But David said, ‘I understand that wrong is always wrong,
I am the king, I must defend the weak against the strong.’
Then Nathan questioned softly, ‘So this man must take the blame?’
And the king was screaming, ‘Nathan! Will you tell me his name?

Then a silence fell upon them like the silence of a tomb,
The prophet nodded slowly as he moved across the room,
And, strangely, as he came he grew more awesome and more wise,
And when he looked at David there was sadness in his eyes.

But David’s anger burned in him, he drew his sword and said,
‘I swear, before the dawn has come, that sinner will be dead!
No more delay, no mercy talk, give me his name!’ he cried,
Then Nathan said, ‘It’s you, it’s you!’ and the king just died.

When confronted with the truth of what he had done, and after his declarations for justice, David’s heart was moved.  A few times in Scripture it is said that David was a man after God’s own heart.  And I do not believe that that in any way implies that David was perfect.  We know that he was not.  What I do believe is it is the way God saw David, and maybe the way God sees us.  Not who we were, or are, but our Best Selves.  The Person we can be, and in Christ could be.  And maybe when all our imperfections are purged away, will be.

In an act of contrition, David wrote one of the most beloved psalms, one filled with RAW honesty, Psalm 51.  We read it today.  We use lines from it all the time.  We read it in full on Ash Wednesday when we prepare for Easter.  David wrote this prayer of confession in response to what he had done.  We pray it still today for those times when we chase our whims or our selfish desires.  

In the choices we make, we often are against our own self-perception and our self-interests.  We choose for the moment, and not the long-term.  We are not acting in accordance with our Best Selves, the one God sees and seeks.  As Paul put it in our Ephesians passage so bluntly.  “We must no longer be children.”  I have used this quote before, but it is so apt I hope you will indulge me using it again.  C. S. Lewis here:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Lewis calls us to make our desires not weaker, but rather stronger.  He urges us to choose the best, not the momentary.  He calls us to walk in the way of Christ.  Another fabulous quote by Lewis on Desire reframes it in the way Jesus does in our Gospel today:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

As Susan shared so well last week, John gives a list of Signs, not miracles, that point to who he is.  The crowd who had been fed, wanted more.  They may have thought that they were being spiritual, but even their request for a sign pointed to their bellies.  They told Jesus of Moses and the Manna from Heaven.  Jesus responded that the Manna came from God, not from Moses.  This Manna that they were calling for is an unknown.  It was unknown to them, as it is to us.  It was like coriander seeds, with the consistency of a resin.  In fact the word, Manna, is the Hebrew for “What is it?”
We could say the same of Jesus, as John requests us to do.  Instead of “What is it?” we could say of Jesus, “Who is this?”  In his declarations he points to the idea that he is the Manna from Heaven.
6:33 "The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
6:34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."
6:35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Lewis: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”  

Jesus and Lewis both want us to reframe our desires, move them away from the fleeting whims and daily desires.  Jesus does not dismiss them, remember he taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.”  They are there, and he acknowledges our needs.  But he calls us to our Best Selves, our Highest Selves.  He calls us to him.  He is the Bread of Life.  He is what we really desire.  He is what we really want.  As David prayed: “Create in us a clean heart, Oh God, and put a new and right spirit within us.”