Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Flesh-Eating Gospel

Sermon on John 6:51-58

When I read this lesson, I groaned a little bit. And when I went online, I saw that I wasn’t alone. The facebook statuses and blog posts of my clergy friends reflected a shared sentiment: “The bread of life AGAIN?”

The readings we hear each week in church are generally not selected week-by-week by the pastors, but are based on a three-year cycle of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. Each week has an assigned Gospel reading, an assigned epistle reading, and a couple of different options for Hebrew Scripture readings and Psalms. This year we are in the middle year of the cycle, Year B, and the summer of Year B has a certain reputation among preachers; week after week after week, we hear about bread: the Living Bread, the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven, the loaves and fishes.

This Sunday, we once again hear Jesus describing himself as bread. But today’s reading is a little different. Jesus starts out again talking about himself as living bread, but quickly transitions to inviting his listeners to eat his flesh and drink his blood, causing some of my less reverent clergy friends to refer to this week in the summer of bread of life readings as “Zombie-vampire-Jesus week.”

“The bread that I will give for the life of the world… IS MY FLESH.” Zombie vampire Jesus indeed.

Our culture is rather obsessed with zombies and vampires. From Buffy to True Blood to Twilight, George Romero movies to the AMC series “The Walking Dead,” we can’t seem to get enough of these creatures that are human-but-not-quite, feasting on the flesh and blood of the living. So when Jesus seems to invite us to go vampiric on the Son of Man, it feels a little uncomfortable. Our worlds are colliding, as the blessed savior’s words evoke entertainment we think of as scintillating, self-indulgent, and perhaps even irreligious. As I first read this passage, my first instinct was to dismiss the similarities, to try to banish those zombie-vampire overtones from my mind and read it from a purer, more spiritual place.

I’m not alone in that: the great reformer Martin Luther stated emphatically that it surely could not be meant in a literal sense. He goes on to say that the sort of flesh that Jesus invites us to eat is not “the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made,” “not flesh such as purchased in a butcher shop or is devoured by wolves and dogs.” Martin Luther rejects the “fleshiness” of the text, and of course he is right that the text is not a literal invitation to cannibalism.

Another option, which Martin Luther also rejects, is that this passage refers to the sacrament of communion. Many commentators turn toward this option: the bread which we bless and break and declare to one another, “this is the Body of Christ.” The wine which we sip or dip bread into, saying sometimes “the cup of blessing,” but sometimes “the blood of Christ, poured out for you.” Communion is mysterious, and it is sometimes puzzling, and there are different ways of thinking theologically about it, but for those of us who are accustomed to it as an old and familiar ritual, it is not creepy. When we hear this lesson as a foreshadowing of the last supper and the crucifixion, a teaching about communion, it isn’t creepy either.

But what if those creepy resonances between this passage and stories of zombies and vampires are more than coincidence? What if Jesus is intentionally tapping into some of the same deep fascinations and fears, the same taboos and terrors, that horror stories play upon?

After all, it is pretty clear that Jesus’ teaching is disconcerting and upsetting to the listening crowd. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask. Even the disciples, a couple of verses after the end of the reading we heard today, tell Jesus he’s on thin ice: “This teaching is difficult,” they say, “Who can accept it?” If we try to reinterpret this teaching so it is not difficult, if we try to find an easy way to hear it so we can accept it without struggle, perhaps we’ve missed the point.

Commentator William Willimon in the Feasting on the Word commentary notes that throughout the passage, Jesus moves from polite words about eating and drinking to ruder words that are more explicitly anatomical, words more aptly translated as “gulp down my flesh,” or “slurp my blood.” Jesus calls attention to the messy reality of eating, the fact that, when we eat, we mash up formerly living things between our teeth, moisten them with our saliva, swallow them into our guts. We can try to dress it up with white tablecloths and pretty plates and proper etiquette; we can chew with our mouths closed and keep our elbows off the table, but eating, at its heart, involves a lot of bodily processes that make many of us a little squeamish when we give them our full attention. When we pay attention to eating, we remember that we are living things, with bodies: muscle and fat, bones and connective tissue, nervous system, skin, nails. Bodies that are different, but not so very different, from the bodies that once made up our hamburgers or pork chops (for those of us who are not vegetarian). Giving our full attention to the processes of eating and drinking calls attention to our own mortality, our own fragility. In this passage, Jesus calls us to give them our full attention nonetheless. Because, as the grand statement at the beginning of John reminds us, in Jesus, the Word was made flesh.

The Word made flesh means that all of the nitty-gritty embarrassing details of having a body have been in-dwelt by divinity. The Word made flesh means that God created every intricate and repulsive detail, from an infant’s tiny curling toes and almost translucent toenails, to dandruff and acne, to aching joints and sore muscles, to the electrical impulses of nervous systems, to liver spots and graying hair. The Word made flesh means that through Jesus Christ, God has dwelt among us in a particular body, experiencing the mundane joys and irritations of physicality. The Word made flesh and dwelt among us, shattering every barrier between that which is physical and that which is spiritual.

In his book Accompany them with Singing, Thomas Long writes about the history and traditions of Christian funerals. Long notes that to the Greco-Roman worldview saw the spiritual and material worlds as completely separate; the prevailing culture surrounding the early church celebrated things related to spirit and intellect and condemned things related to physicality and fleshiness. Early Christians, however, saw an intricate and holy connection between spirit and flesh. Long writes about the ways early Christians puzzled Romans with ideas like the doctrine of the incarnation, and practices like communion, reflecting Christian theology that the spiritual and the physical were not separate spheres, but a unified creation. “The most bizarre of these activities, as far as the Romans were concerned,” Long continues, “was the Christian practice of burying the dead – not just their own dead, but the poor as well.” The early Christians, Long says, gave their time to help bury the poor, a practice their Roman peers found repugnant. They gathered up the bones of martyrs and made relics out of them. They treated dead bodies not as empty shells to be abandoned, but as created things to be disposed of with care. There were other practices, too, stemming from this theology: Diana Butler Bass writes that early Christians were also known for caring for the sick. When an epidemic took hold, she writes, most people who could would flee the city; but Christians stayed and cared for the ailing. They believed that the Word was made flesh; they believed that the resurrection means we need not fear death; they believed that caring for the ignored and despised is a high and holy calling. And they believed that they were nourished and sustained in these acts of service by Christ – whose flesh is true food.

Those beliefs are as counter-cultural today as they were two thousand years ago, although we live in a very different culture than that of the early church. And the call to take seriously the incarnation is as pressing and as counter-cultural today as it was two thousand years ago. Taking seriously the incarnation means working and hoping for justice and peace in the flesh, in the world. Not only spiritual peace in the hearts of the faithful while wars rage and gun violence escalates, but peace in the world. Not only justice by-and-by in the realm of God, but justice now, in this world, for living people: fair pay for a day’s work, access to resources and opportunities, and a government that serves the common good. If Jesus is the Word made flesh, living bread for the life of the world, then God’s call to us, this Body of Christ which we call the church, is to incarnate God’s will. To work and hope and pray for justice and kindness and peace and grace that is tangible; visible; incarnate.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. In the creation of human bodies, in the incarnation, the Word made flesh, God enters into all of embodiment. Not just the parts of the human experience that are polite and pretty, not just the parts that are joyful and romantic. The messy parts and the icky parts and the parts that we don’t talk about in polite company.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. He invites us to a faith that happens not just in our internal reflections, but with our hands and feet and voices. It is not always sunshine and roses when we visit a friend in the hospital. There are bed pans and hospital johnnys. It is not always easy to sit down and eat with someone we don’t know well. There are awkward silences and moments of conflict. When you embrace someone while they cry, you sometimes end up with snot on your shirt. That is what it means when God invites us to the messy and ugly business, the high and holy calling, of really caring for our neighbors, being part of the Body of Christ, the church, incarnating God’s love for the world.

“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus says. It sounds creepy, and maybe it is. But it is necessary. Because we who are fed by this living bread have a high and holy calling: to love God and our neighbor; to do justice and love kindness. And in that hard work, we are truly nourished and sustained by Jesus Christ – not always tangibly, but truly. We could not do it if we were merely metaphorically sustained by God. We could not do it if Christ loved us abstractly. We can do it only because we are fed by the Body of Christ – the Body of Christ which we know truly, though not always tangibly, through scripture and prayer and community – nourishing and sustaining each of us. And for that real sustenance, thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Give a Benediction

A Guide for the Perplexed 

I wrote and posted this because I once needed an article like this and couldn’t find one. 

Perhaps you’re in your first call, or doing an internship in a congregation. The hymns are chosen, the liturgy is written, your sermon is ready to go. Just smooth sailing and pastoral presence in front of you, right? Nope. 

The benediction used to take me by surprise every single time I led worship. Unlike most of the liturgy, it can’t be typed in advance, printed out, and read out loud (I do this with many things including my pastoral prayers – it makes worship less spontaneous for me, but a better experience for the congregation.) Unlike the unscripted parts of worship (e.g. announcements), it calls for a certain gravitas, which can be hard to summon up when you’re standing there trying to think of what you were going to say. Frankly, it can be daunting. But fear not! If I can get this figured out, you will be fine. 

First of all: take a deep breath and remember what an incredible gift it is to bless these people and send them out into the world. Wow, right? Let that show on your face. 

Walk out until you are as close as possible while still being visible to everyone. Stand up straight. Stretch your arms out around shoulder level with your palms facing the congregation. Stretch them out farther. Try to accept that this does not make you look silly. Imagine that the power of God is flowing through you – it is. 

Now, say something. I give my benedictions in three sections: 

  1. A brief charge. Send them out to do something. It can be as simple as “Go forth to love and serve.” Or it can be a reiteration of the message of the sermon. Or it can connect to the final hymn. Extra style points if you use a little rhetorical flourish. 
  2. A blessing. This isn’t something for them to do, it is a prayer for God’s blessing on them. Memorize this one, or say something as brief as “May the love of Christ surround you, today and every day.” 
  3. Invoke the trinity (if this is appropriate to your setting) or another way of naming God. I say, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – one God, Mother of us all. Amen.” Wait to hear “Amen!” 

Lower your arms; don’t look sheepish; don’t think about logistics – you can find your papers later; exit gracefully.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Safety Second

A Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Safety second!”

That’s what my friends and I would say to each other in seminary. “Hey, I just got this bike… do you think I’m fine to bicycle through Times Square at rush hour?” “Safety second!” “Wait, how does this grill work again? Am I supposed to use lighter fluid?” “Be careful! Safety second!”

It wasn’t a great joke – we were seminary students, not comedians – but the joke was based on the unstated but implied priority, “God first.” Whenever we heard someone who wasn’t in on the joke say “safety first,” we got a kick out of correcting them. “Safety first!” “No, safety second.” Unveiling the “God first” punch line was especially fun if we were talking to a seminary professor or a field education supervisor.

So imagine my joy when my eight-year-old stepson, staying with his dad and me for the month of July, put on his helmet before a scooter ride and remarked, “Safety first.” I taught him the “safety second” joke, and he had a great time sharing it with everyone from my colleague the senior pastor to his vacation bible camp leaders to strangers on the subway. He had some questions about whether God and safety ever actually conflict with each other – whether it is ever actually necessary to choose between “God first” and “safety second.” My stepson enjoys stories of heroes and martyrs who do actually choose God over safety, but we noticed that in our everyday lives, “God first” and “safety second” usually coexist with little tension.

Our Gospel text for today raises questions of what it means to put God first, even as Jesus, in his encounter with the scribes and Pharisees, puts safety second. Our cycle of readings is taking us, step by step, through the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel according to Mark; the last few weeks included a brief detour into the Gospel of John to hear several lessons about Jesus as Living Bread. This week, we return from the Living Bread to the more mundane type of bread, as we find ourselves with Jesus and the disciples eating a meal in the land of Gennesaret, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And around them are Pharisees and scribes who have come from Jerusalem.

Until I traveled in Israel, I didn’t completely understand the significance of the place names in the Gospels. In particular, traveling in Israel gave me the opportunity to grasp the contrast between the Galilee, where Jesus grew up and began his ministry, and Jerusalem, where he spent his last days and was crucified. The Galilee is a region in the northern part of contemporary Israel, named for its body of water, the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a large-ish lake. To give you a bit of a sense, bicycling around the Sea of Galilee is a popular tourist activity, which takes about a day. To this day, the Galilee is a rural area, with rolling hills and lots of agricultural fields and pastures. Nazareth, the town in the Galilee region where Jesus grew up, is definitely a town, but not a big one, with a couple of bustling streets and a small market.

Jerusalem, by way of contrast, is definitively urban, and was in Jesus’ time as well. The city’s boundaries have expanded since New Testament days, but the center remains similar, a labyrinth of stone streets in a covered market where you could -- and I did -- get lost for hours. As it was in Jesus’ time, it remains a center both of religious observance and of religious and political tension. It is that religious and political tension that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion, and so when these Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem appear in the bucolic hills of the Galilee, the fact that they have come from Jerusalem is much more than a little geographical tidbit. It is a warning sign that Jesus is starting to get the attention of the religious authorities, and not in a good way.

As soon as these scribes and Pharisees appear on the scene, they have a pointed question, a veiled accusation, for Jesus regarding the disciples, who are eating the meal with unwashed hands. To twenty-first century listeners, people in an age where the existence of germs is widely known, and the sources of germs are widely understood, eating with dirty hands sounds mostly like a safety and hygiene issue. It is a bad idea, but not for the same reasons that the scribes and Pharisees would have considered it unacceptable.

 The Pharisees were members of a religious movement within Judaism, a movement which we honestly don’t know much about. There was a lot of tension between the early Christian tradition and the Pharisees, because both were newish religious movements within Judaism that were open to everyday people, not just the religious elite. The tension between the two movements means that early Christian documents are not considered to be particularly objective, and few other documents mention the Pharisees, so it’s hard to know much about them for sure. The scribes, however, we do know about – they would have been scholarly members of the religious elite. When Jesus attacks them with an accusation of “honoring God with their lips” but not their hearts, he is attacking people who have a lot of power and influence – pretty clearly putting safety second.

For the Pharisees and scribes, failing to wash one’s hands before eating would have been a religious violation: much of Jewish religious practice at the time focused on ritual purity and impurity, and early Christian sources seem to suggest this was a particularly true for the Pharisees. Ritual purity is not about germs and hygiene; it is a different kind of thing entirely – a fact which is illuminated by the verb Mark uses to describe the ritual washing of cups, pots, and kettles: baptizo, to baptize. It is not so much about making things clean of dirt and debris as it is about making things clean in the eyes of God. Observing ritual purity regulations, for the scribes and Pharisees, was a matter of putting God first in one’s daily life and actions; they are scandalized by the disciples’ failure to observe ritual hand-washing practices.

If we don’t pay careful attention, stories like this one can sound like indictments of Judaism and the Jewish tradition, at least as it was practiced at the time. It is easy to hear that tired old theme of Jesus freeing us from the onerous and arbitrary restrictions of the law. But that’s not what this text is saying, or what Jesus is doing. The Gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus knows the law; he quotes the Old Testament with ease, and interprets it with authority. And he knows that there is no religious law or that mandates the washing of hands before meals. That tradition is an old custom by this time, but not part of the Mosaic law. Jesus quotes Isaiah to the scribes and Pharisees, saying that they are, in the words of Isaiah, “teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

The hand-washing tradition is a fine religious observance, I would say also a fine hygienic practice (although ritual washing, like baptism, generally involved a sprinkling of water rather than a good scrub with soap). However, this religious custom that had originated as a way of practicing faith had come to be used as a way of judging, criticizing, and categorizing other people. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus names and rejects many, many religious and social systems that were used to label, demean, and exclude, from ritual washing to temple donations to leprosy. And in many cases, these systems were deeply tied to socioeconomic status: the wealthy and well-born are in, the poor are out.

Our society, too, has a fair number of practices and customs that separate people from one another. We know a few things about labeling and judging. Probably most of us have been on both sides of that coin. From teenage obsession over having the “right” brand of jeans or shoes to the subtle nuances of business attire, our clothing often serves to communicate identity and social status; whether we or not we judge the apparel of others, we are often sized up based on our clothing. The ways we use language, too, whether it’s oral or written, can mark us as younger or older, more or less educated, “from here” or “not from here” in ways that can be used to reinforce racism and xenophobia, sexism, ageism, and class discrimination.

These norms, practices, and customs, from how we speak to what we eat to how we spend our time, sometimes serve to separate “us” from “them,” and to reinforce notions of hierarchy and superiority. This week, more people watched the television show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo than the Republican National Convention. “Honey Boo Boo,” for those not in the know, is a seven-year-old pageant princess from a family that proudly identifies as “red necks.” Their outrageous antics have earned them their own spin-off from the show where they first appeared, Toddlers and Tiaras. The television show has been criticized for the way it portrays this low-income, rural, mostly overweight family; one reviewer notes that the show attempts to make the Thompson family an object of scorn, “something to point and snicker at.” While the audience watches in horror and judgment at the family’s rural Southern culture, others judge the audience for tuning in to such garbage, while some turn up their noses at anyone who even has a television. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of scorn, judgment, and superiority both directed toward and coming from the Republican National Convention.

In the face of all of this, Jesus calls us to a different way, calls us away from judging and labeling, away from hierarchy and arrogance, away from “us” and “them.” Jesus declares that no outward customs – nothing we can see – can “defile,” or make a person less acceptable to God. Instead, he says, “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Friends, the only human heart we can really know is our own.  Since the only heart we can truly know is our own, we have no choice but to turn from judging the behavior of others to focusing on our own habits of mind or heart. We have no choice but to turn from the superficial differences which separate us to the love of God which unites us and calls us away from scorn and arrogance, and toward repentance and renewal.

That is precisely what we try to do, what we are invited to do, when we come to the communion table. We experience, for a moment, a table where all are welcome and no one is turned away, a table where there is no “us” and no “them.” We experience, for a moment, a meal where rich folks and poor folks and somewhere-in-the-middle folks receive the same bread and the same cup, gifts of love from the same God. We practice a ritual that has been practiced all over the world for centuries, with many kinds of bread and many different words and many different practices, all of which are good and acceptable to God, because all of them come from good intention, all come from the intention to put God first. And we experience the grace of God, who knows the intentions of our hearts, who invites us to cultivate the good and let go of the bad, and who welcomes us back to the table every time.
Thanks be to God.