Proper 21(B): Textual Indigestion

Proper 21(B): Textual Indigestion

Mark 9:38-50

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Occasionally, when I find myself staring at a blank screen during sermon preparation, I’ll take a few minutes and pull up past sermons I’ve given on a particular text in order to get a sense of where I’ve been and where I’m going (or at very least, where I SHOULDN’T go!) This is my third pass through Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary since my ordination, so when I read this difficult and rather obscure text, I breathed a small sigh of relief, confident that my trusty sermon archives contained at least a few words of wisdom. But to my surprise, I discovered that in 2015, I elected to preach on the Epistle and in 2012, I elected to preach on the Old Testament! I have never preached on this passage before!

Given the fact that I’m the editor of this blog, I could have farmed this essay out to someone else; and I could have even broken my own rule and offered some thoughts on the non-Gospel readings for Proper 21. But if I’ve learned anything at all about preaching, it is that the preacher should always pay close attention to the texts that give you exegetical indigestion—even if that means wrestling a bit.

The first thing that troubles me with this text is just how much it sounds like me. My younger brother and I are five years apart, and the two of us are the youngest of five cousins—all of whom grew up within either walking distance or a short drive from our house. Somewhat predictably, there was lots of horseplay, scapegoating, and tattling. I can vividly remember many occasions when either my brother or I would run to our parents and complain, “Mooooooommmmmmm, Marshall sprayed the cat with the water hose…” or “Daaaaaaaaddddd, Christopher isn’t sharing the popcorn…” Of course, neither of us really cared about the damp cat or the hogged popcorn (although I do love me some good buttered popcorn!) Instead, we were concerned with proving how perfectly innocent we were by pointing out the misdeeds of the other.

Sound familiar?

“John said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” Now, by all accounts, casting out demons is a good thing. And, truth be told, I don’t think that the disciples were upset about the demons being cast out. They were upset because they were being cast out by someone who wasn’t them. They had the corner on this whole Jesus movement, and if someone else was casting out demons, that’s a threat—nevermind the fact that demons are being cast out!

When my Dad taught me to play chess as a kid, he’d say, “Look at the whole board, not just the individual pieces.” The Disciples made the same mistake that I did. They were so focused on the individual pieces that they couldn’t see the whole board.

How many times has this happened to you? After a vibrant, glorious worship service, a parishioner meets you at the door with a complaint about the symmetry of the candles, or the positioning of the flowers. As if we could bring in the Kingdom if only we could properly adorn and accessorize the worship space! Every congregation needs to be reminded about the importance of charity and generosity towards others from time to time. This might be a good occasion for such a sermon.

In the same way, every Christian—and every Christian leader—needs reminding that there is more than one model for being Christian and being the Church. Big screens and praise bands may make some people’s skin crawl. But for others, the ancient liturgies of the Church have a way of stifling or snuffing out the fire of the Spirit. The best sermons are the ones the preacher most needs to hear her/himself. This might be a good occasion for a sermon rooted in humble introspection.

Although it’s rather subtle, there is yet another important word of wisdom here. Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “We’re all in this together!” There’s a lot of Kingdom to build, and there’s more than enough work for everyone! In a world that can sometimes feel like everything is falling in on itself, what a welcome breath of fresh air to hear that, no, in fact, the whole world does not depend on me. We are all in this together!

Thanks be to God!

Headshot3
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

 

Proper 20(B): A Reversal of Social Order

Proper 20(B): A Reversal of Social Order

Mark 9:30-37

By: The Rev. Kim Sorrells

This passage is one that many of us are familiar with. The call to serve or to welcome children are ones that we hear in church frequently. Often, we have heard this passage used in a fairly casual and warm-hearted manner. We may see it partially quoted on a Hallmark-style print with Jesus surrounded by happy children, or used to promote volunteer work. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with applying the text to these aspects of the Christian faith, if we are honest with ourselves, this texts asks much more of us than to simply welcome children in church or do an hour or two of volunteer work.

The way of life that Jesus calls his disciples to is one that flips upside down the values of power and prestige of their culture. Rather, here in his community the lowly will be elevated, and the higher up made humble. The ways of society that value some above others will be turned upside down. The word in verse 35 that the NRSV translates as “servant” is diakonos, which in that time referred to someone who served meals. They were the servant of all and the lowest rank of all servants. In fact, they were only allowed to eat after all others had been satisfied.[1] The next section on children was related. While we miss it in English, Mark’s audience would have noticed when hearing this read that the word paidon for “little child” is similar to another word for servant, pais, whose inflected form also has a “d” sound. Not only would the recognition be one of vocabulary, but they also would have heard the word child as referring to someone like a servant who served meals in that both were not honored or seen as holding any high standing.[2] A person would gain nothing by extending hospitality to these persons consider lowly. They have nothing to offer them and not status or power to be gleaned from them. And yet, these are the ones that Jesus says to honor them.

It’s not hard to see that what Jesus is calling for is a flip of what society tells us to do. If we are followers of Christ, we are to be the ones who are also turning our society’s values of prestige and power upside down. We are called to welcome those who have nothing to offer us; those who grant us no access to power or prestige.

I can’t help but notice that we don’t always do such a great job at this. As I write this, our country is currently consumed in a debate over immigration that sees people by what they can offer to us rather than as human beings. We see families torn apart, children cast into concentration style camps away from their parents, all because their parents sought to find asylum on our shores. Little children, servants, worthless—these are the ways we are treating them. And yet, as followers of Christ, we are called to turn that reality upside down and inside out. What would it look like if we elevate these children, welcomed them with hospitality the way that we claim to welcome Jesus? I image, much more so like the Kin-dom of God rather than a nation of humanity. I imagine it might look like a place where justice is the highest value, rather than power and prestige.

The sad reality is that there are a number of ways that we fall short of this expectation. Too many children face growing up in subpar schools or without adequate access to what they need to thrive. Too many people don’t receive basic healthcare because they can’t afford it. Too many people work well over 40 hours a week and yet cannot make enough to survive. Is it perhaps because we continue to maintain a system that fails to provide hospitality and honor to all humans?

We as people of faith are called to be change makers; to turn the system upside down. If we are not actively trying to dismantle systems of oppression, we are in fact perpetuating them. I believe the word this passage speaks to us today is that we must examine how it is that we are or are not living into this call to be change makers in our world. Are we perpetuating the status quo, or are we working to dismantle systems of oppression and instead bring about the Kin-dom of God, on earth as it is in Heaven.

[1] Ringe, Sharon H. (2010)  David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor (eds). Feasting on The Word, (Year B, Vol. 4, Proper 20, p 95) Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press

[2] Ibid. 97

PO20180610-PrideHeadShots-0150_ EDITEDpp
The Rev. Kim Sorrells

The Rev. Kim Sorrells is an Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ, with an interest in Spiritual Practices and Justice work. Kim is also bi-vocational and spends their “day job” working for Atlanta Pride as the Programs and Partnerships Manager.

 

 

 

 

Proper 19(B): Lose to Win!

Proper 19(B): Lose to Win!

Mark 8:27-38

By: The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon

Before I started writing this, I spent hours going through my files of sermons looking for my old notes. I felt as though I had preached a sermon from this text before and I wanted to see where my head was at that time.

After about 30 minutes of searching, I was reminded of the moment I preached the text. It was during my time as program coordinator for Columbia Theological Seminary.

It is a familiar text – one where preachers from far and wide have lifted the text to make the point of Jesus’ divinity and purpose. They have used this text to make the case that Jesus truly is the son of God, that his purpose was to come among us to save us from ourselves, and that while he understood this, he wanted to ensure that his disciples understood it as well.

Preachers have preached about how and why Jesus needed and wanted to prepare his followers for what was to come to them, what would happen to him, and how they needed to brace for what was to come when he would be gone.

During the sermon, I highlighted the 2012 hit by Fantasia Barrino, Lose to Win from her fourth studio album The Side Effects of You. I talked about how the song was an instant hit, becoming an anthem for many fans of the 2004 American Idol winner. I talked about how she explained during an interview that the song, according to the Grammy award winner, was not just about the realities of a failed relationship – but also the realities of anyone who may experience setbacks in life, love and career.

“When I say lose to win I don’t want people to think I’m only talking about love,” Barrino said in a 2013 interview. “There’s people out there who’ve lost homes and jobs…I want them to know sometimes you have to lose those things for God to put the right things in your life.”

If it makes you cry, cry, cry
Can’t get no sleep at night?

Sometimes you gotta lose to win again.

Through the sermon I attempted to bridge the similarities between Barrino’s hit single and Jesus’s engagement with the disciples. I talked about how at the beginning of the new academic year, students, faculty and staff would have to lose, to lose old ways of thinking, old practices, old habits to prepare for the next – and how Jesus attempted to do the same for his disciples as he was on the eve of his destiny.

I can imagine that the disciples, as they were engaging with Jesus at this point in Jesus’ ministry, full of hope. Here was the fulfillment of the many prophecies – their savior, their Messiah, here to rescue them from the oppressors’ snare. They could not have imagined the possibilities of heartache, of pain, of struggle. And when Jesus their Messiah began to forewarn them, it was a possibility they did not want to hear. They could not fathom.

This scene in Mark’s telling of Jesus’ ministry follows a series of miracles. The curing of a deaf man, the feeding of thousands, the healing of the blind man – countless signs and miracles as reported by Mark. While on their way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks, “Who is it people say I am?”

As the disciples respond, Jesus then asks a very pointed question: “Who do YOU say that I am?” Simple question, right? Jesus knew that in order to truly know him. They had to be able to fathom the repercussions and consequences.

Jesus was being like that drunk uncle at the family gathering: saying things that did not need to be said or that others did not want to be known. And Peter did what any matriarch or patriarch would do: he attempted to intervene before what was about to be said would embarrass the family.

Because this is not supposed to look like that, right?

This possibility of suffering, of potentially having to lose out is not something any of us are ready to embrace or fathom. But suffering, struggle, especially for something worth struggling for, is integral to life, to purpose, and especially to ministry.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 

What is my point?

The one thing I appreciate about the sacred text is that the text has a way of being contemporary without us realizing. We are living in some extremely interesting times. It seems as though chaos is all around us. But with that, we have choices.

For some, society seems chaotic. For some, their hope is shaken. For some, they are craving more but having no idea of how to get to where they think they want to be. And for others, the inevitable has been unavoidable.

Yet in all of that, the sacred text is still a resource. And at this moment, regardless of what is and has been, God is still concerned about us. God is concerned, but are we most concerned about?

Are we focused merely on human concerns, the needs of the present that we consider to be most important that are actually fleeting and selfish?

When I preached this text before, I encouraged those in the congregation to lose themselves; to sacrifice for the sake of truly being God’s beloved community. And I think the same is still true today.

God, I believe, is calling us to be selfless; to be focused; to be better and to be concerned about those things that God is most concerned. And it is not and will not be easy.

There will be those who will reject us, that will threaten us, that will hate us, that will feel threatened by us because of how we push against the status quo, the normal, the comfortable.

““Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus said.

Sometimes, we have to lose, to win again!

MashaunSimon_Color-Web_4
The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon

The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon is a writer and preacher from Atlanta, Georgia. Currently, Mashaun serves as Communications Manager for Spelman College. Mashaun is a licensed and ordained preacher and serves on the ministerial staff of House of Mercy Everlasting in College Park, Georgia. Mashaun is also a member of the Board of Directors for AID Atlanta and a member of the Advisory Board for the Counter Narrative Project. He holds a professional writing degree from Georgia Perimeter College, a Bachelor of Science in Communications from Kennesaw State University, and a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

 

Holy Cross Day: It’s a Trap!

Holy Cross Day: It’s a Trap!

John 3:13-17

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

It is becoming harder and harder for me to read the third chapter of the Gospel of John without worrying about the dangers embedded in a few beautiful lines. The image that comes to mind is Admiral Ackbar shouting, “It’s a trap!” during the Battle of Endor in the 1983 film “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” That may sound odd. After all, our pericope for the day contains one of the most popular lines in all Holy Scripture. The sixteenth verse, specifically, was thrust into the pantheon of American iconography thanks to Rollen Stewart, an eccentric and troubled man who would hoist signs during major sports broadcasts in the 1980s emblazoned with “John 3:16.” Introducing the Gospel to millions appeared to be Stewart’s goal, but as I have discovered in my own study, pulling this one verse out of the rich context of John’s entire story is dangerous business indeed.

Falling into the trap of focusing solely on the oft-confused and maligned sixteenth verse can result in wielding a weapon of exclusion and elitism rather than the life-giving tonic that it was meant to offer. John’s message was intended for a closed group of persecuted believers. This is a message of Good News and inclusion, meant to provide life and hope during dark days. The author would not have imagined that it would one day be wielded to exclude people from the faith or even worse, the basis for which violence might be conducted in efforts to “purify” and expunge infidels.

This well-worn passage also risks a superficial gloss by even the most careful of preachers. For those raised in the Church, it is one of the first memorized lines of scripture for even the youngest of disciples. We think we know it so well that there is nothing more left to reveal. In cases such as this one, it is helpful to heed the advice of Barbara Brown Taylor: “Whenever you come up on something about God, the Gospel, or the life of faith that everyone knows is true, step back from the reverential crowd whose gaze is fixed on it and look in the opposite direction—because nine times out of ten there is something just as true back there, though largely ignored because its benefits are less obvious and its truth harder to embrace.”[1]

For the discerning preacher, gazing in the opposite direction means exegeting one’s own community before wading into the waters of this text. What is your community’s current understanding of this passage? How much of John’s world and context do they understand? Are they even aware of the critical seventeenth verse?

Additionally, the preacher will need to have a solid understanding of how their community understands the cross. Within the lectionary cycle, this passage is the stock Gospel text for the Feast of Holy Cross Day (September 14). This holy day provides the Church with an opportunity to celebrate the cross itself as the instrument of salvation. The collect for the day recalls that Christ “was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself,” and prays that “we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him.”[2] It has been my experience that congregations tend to be unbalanced when it comes to their glorying in the mystery of their redemption which offers preachers an opportunity to expand the possibilities of the cross and thus, humanity’s salvation. I have experienced some churches that spend most their salvific exploration on Good Friday and the crucifixion. Even on high holy days, these congregations tend to revel in the mortification and humiliation of the cross. These folks like sing about the grave on Christmas (just Google “cradle and the cross” Christmas lyrics.) On the other hand, I have experienced as many communities that rarely glory in the mystery of the cross because “it makes everyone feel bad.” In these congregations, Good Friday services were sparsely attended and during the few sermons that dealt with the topic, everyone squirmed uneasily in their seats, anxious for it to be over so that brunch plans could begin. Understanding where your community resides will help you determine the preaching path forward that might expand their approach to salvation.[3]

Holy Cross Day provides an opportunity to celebrate Christ’s redeeming death on a cross. One might ask if it is more honest to the Gospel message to balance the agony of the cross with the ultimate outcome–the resurrection of the One crucified for the salvation of all the world (v. 17.) To accomplish this task, the preacher might benefit from theologian Gerard Sloyan’s identification of the Johannine “double ‘upraising’ in crucifixion and resurrection” (8:28, 12:32, 34) throughout the book .[4]

For the church that inclines toward a more punitive atonement focused on Jesus’ death, they may need reminding that “God wills life and not death for all who believe in the only Son. That indeed is why God gave him (v. 16), not for the world’s condemnation but its salvation (v. 17) [emphasis mine].”[5] For the church that hesitates to acknowledge the cross, unpacking the true power of the cross during a feast day celebration, or perhaps more appropriately, in a small group teaching time, may deepen the faith by exploring the mystery of how a symbol of shameful systemic oppression was converted into a sign of hope and life.

This balancing act of the cross’ role in salvation is a perfect opportunity to draw out J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant description of the birth of Christ as the eucatastrophe of human history and the resurrection the eucatastrophe of the incarnation.[6] This imaginative phrasing of the paradox of salvation allows for a preacher to resist the trap of focusing solely on John’s sixteenth verse and instead, to invite the congregation to hold in tension both the crucifixion and the resurrection. To further emphasize the mysterious enigma of the cross on its feast day, singing the hymn “Lift high the cross” can highlight this that the cross is a sign of resurrection rather than one of death and shame, and that John’s Good News is that “once lifted on the glorious tree, as thou hast promised, [Christ will] draw the world to thee!”

[1] Brown Taylor, Barbara. “Entering the Dark Cloud of God” Festival of Homiletics. 25 May 2014, Central Lutheran, Minneapolis. Address.

[2] The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer, Oxford UP, 2007.

[3] I find that in one-on-one and small group settings, inviting people to tell their earliest memories of Church and how the cross was introduced to them as young children, adolescents or even adults provides for the beginnings of exegeting their current understanding of the cross. These stories can aid a skillful preacher in contextualizing sermons on atonement for their congregation.

[4] Sloyan, Gerard. “John” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, 1988, 46.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Oxford UP, 1947.

KimJenne_2017
The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.

Proper 18(B): Humility and Jesus

Proper 18(B): Humility and Jesus

Mark 7:24–27

By: The Rev. Charles Cowen

In my days working in the professional theatre, there was an apocryphal tale actors loved to share about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. During the filming of the film Marathon Man, Hoffman showed up to the set looking sickly, weak, and sleep-deprived. Olivier looked at his costar and asked if everything was ok. Hoffman replied that since his character, at this point in the film, had been awake for 72 hours, he, too, had stayed up for 72 hours. Olivier, in his droll English dialect, replied, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

This story always will make an actor laugh because we know first-hand the incredible power of imagination and empathy. Many Hollywood types get caught up in political debates and demonstrations because they spend their days imagining what it is like to be someone else–what  it means to be the other.

Perhaps more than any of the Gospels, Mark invites the audience to imaginatively walk not only with Jesus but with those whom Jesus encounters.[1] In today’s lectionary selection, we are given the opportunity to imagine two encounters with Jesus. Through these encounters, we, along with our first-century siblings, come closer to knowing the living God in the person of Jesus.

In the first story, I cannot help but place myself in the shoes of the Syrophoenician woman. I do not have children, but I have worked closely with children as a teacher and as a summer camp chaplain. The deep, deep love I have for those children gives me a tool for imagining and empathizing the fear, despair, and sadness a parent must feel when their child is threatened. This woman, who has heard the many stories of Jesus casting out demons, healing withered hands, and feeding over 5000 people, approaches Jesus in her desperation and begs for healing for her daughter. What parent wouldn’t? Every time I hear this story, I am jarred to my core at Jesus’ response: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27 NRSV).

Ouch!

Not only does this pain me as I imagine the children in my life whom I love, but it pains me as a 21st Century American who has heard our leaders refer to immigrants and their children as animals. Just as those who have sworn to protect our country see children of foreign birth as somehow lesser-than, Jesus, a Jew, here sees this Gentile as something lesser-than.[2]

Then something truly miraculous occurs. This incredible woman out of her love, her fear, her desperation, teaches Jesus—Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Son of God (Mk 1:1)—teaches Jesus a lesson about humanity.

Can you imagine the embarrassment of hearing a mother reply to your callous comment, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28)? We, the listeners of this story, are invited to consider the bravery and lovingness of this desperate mother while we also consider the humanity of Jesus as his arrogance is transformed into humility through an honest encounter with another human being: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (Mk 7:29).

As if this story does not already give us enough to imagine and reflect upon, we then immediately get another story where Jesus heals a deaf-mute. Just as the Syrophoenician woman speaks for her child, this man’s friends speak for him. Jesus, performing all the motions that healers of his time would have performed, does what other healers were unable to do—he loosens the man’s tongue and unstops his ears.

I invite you to undergo the same imaginative practice we underwent with the Syrophoenician woman with this man, with his friends, and with Jesus. It is a practice, simple in principle and powerful in deed. Congregations can be taken on this imaginative journey through preaching or in small-group Bible studies. As a matter of fact, this imaginative practice is exactly what we do when we participate in the remembrance of the Last Supper through the sacrament of bread and wine.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). These familiar words are absent in Mark’s Gospel, perhaps because the entirety of Mark’s Gospel is an extended anamnesis—a sustained remembrance of who Jesus is and what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus, truly human and truly divine, brings with him truth of the coming of God’s new kingdom. Its unfolding brings healing and freedom not only to a specific people in a specific time and place, but to all people. Jesus himself learns this through the prophetic voice of the Syrophoenician woman and lives fully into it through his healing of the deaf-mute.

I admit freely that Year B brings me much joy. The theatre artist in me loves telling this story given to us by Mark. I love imagining alongside my parishioners and friends as we remember Jesus’ life and we remember the life of the Markan community. As Mark reminds us in the opening line of his Gospel, this is “good news” that cries out to be shared. How will you and your faith community remember these stories, empathize with its characters, and spread that love and empathy throughout God’s emerging kingdom?

[1] For an excellent resource in imaginatively engaging with Mark, I highly recommend Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel by David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie. 3rd Edition. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012).

[2] Please do not read anti-Semitism into this. The point is that humans are always looking at ways of categorizing others as “other.” I imagine a Gentile would have the same suspicion of a Jew.

Cowen Headshot
The Rev. Charles Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church and Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish in Wilmington, Delaware. He received his M.Div. from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, and prior to seminary was the Associate Director for the Marley Bridges Theatre Company in Newport, Rhode Island. In addition to his church work, Charles has worked as a playwright, actor, improviser, puppet builder, puppeteer, storyteller, director, comedian, and Emcee.

Proper 17(B): What About the Rules?

Proper 17 (B): What About the Rules?

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

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

My spouse and I have a niece who is bright, glib, cheerful, and curious. From an early age, she’s one of those kids you want to listen to because everything that comes out of her mouth is unexpected and often hilarious. Yet, like so many extremely bright children, she has a particular penchant for seeking out precisely what she is not supposed to do. We talk about her as being the textbook example of obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Not supposed to go past this point on the driveway? Well, she’s going to play exactly on that border. Need to sit down for meals? She can figure out the most complex and uncomfortable looking squat that is hard to classify as either “sitting” or “standing.” I watch her parents constantly have to decide whether she’s pushing the boundary too far, or whether her precise but hardly innocent obedience to their instructions is, technically, within the rules. Suffice to say, she’s awesome.

But what is cute in an exasperating child isn’t so attractive in full-grown adults, and I see Jesus tackling that impulse as he verbally spars with the Pharisees in this passage. They look to a clear law and can’t see any reason to flout it; why would Jesus’ followers be so careless about their ritual washing? It’s tradition; it’s presumably not that hard to do. In the disregard for this one law, I imagine, they see more than just eating with unwashed hands; they fear (or maybe hope to find) that this is evidence that Jesus and his followers aren’t as good of Jews as others think they are. Maybe this relatively innocuous choice reveals them as disdainful of tradition, or ignorant of it; maybe this choice is all the confirmation they need to be able to dismiss this band of misfits as nothing more than a group of troublemakers who don’t really care about their religion.

I wish it were harder to think of modern equivalents, but I know all too well how this plays out in my Catholic tradition. You don’t go to Mass every Sunday? Well, you must not have any real idea of what Catholicism means. You don’t go to the sacrament of Reconciliation twice a year like the bishops recommend? Then how can you expect anyone to take you seriously when you claim to love the Church? You’ve decided to use a method of birth control that the Church condemns? You’re not a real Catholic.

I’m endlessly frustrated when my faith tradition is regarded (by insiders or outsiders) as somehow nothing more than a collection of rules to follow. It’s something I hear often from my undergraduate students, especially those who weren’t raised in any religious tradition. Christianity, from their perspective, is a set of strict beliefs that one must wholly accept and flawlessly adhere to, and anyone who marches out of time is sent packing. It worries me that that is what they’ve seen modeled. The letter of the law, in this interpretation, has no room for humanity, for context, for imperfection, or for conscientious dissent – it is synonymous with the whole religion. To be Christian is to follow orders.

This is why I am so heartened by the way Jesus teaches following this tiff, calling attention to a person’s motivations and intentions as far more important than the rules they follow. He refuses to argue about the specific rule and instead pushes his learners to think beyond compliance into the much harder space of morality. What does it mean to be greedy, or deceitful, or lewd? That’s tougher to answer than the question of whether one washed one’s hands properly before a meal. Sometimes it’s easier to “round down” and to obey a rule rather than to try and figure out why that rule exists in the first place, what it’s supposed to encourage and discourage within a person’s heart. My niece will, at least eventually, understand that the boundaries her parents impose are usually about safety (stay on the sidewalk!) or compassion (you can’t hit your sister and take her toy) – if she somehow grew up without realizing this, and without trying out the values for herself (my friend is upset; is it more compassionate to let her vent, or to help her come up with a solution?), we probably would say something went wrong in her learning. In the same way, rules make great litmus tests; moral discernment, by contrast, is messy, awkward, and fraught with mistakes. You can be a great rule-follower by, well, obeying the rules; it’s darn near impossible to be a moral person without screwing up a lot because so much of our moral development happens by observing and acknowledging our errors.

Personally, I think that any work we can do as religious professionals or ministers to de-emphasize “rules” and talk in more expansive ways about moral decision-making is worthwhile, and not because the behavioral guidance passed down in our tradition is worthless. Far from it; to comprehend the “rules” is to understand more about virtue and vice and how earlier Christians have wrestled with the same questions. But we do ourselves a disservice when we forget to dig in, when we let our tradition be reduced to a series of boxes to tick. The goal for my niece is that she’ll come to understand what the rules are about (safety, boundaries, love, compassion); same deal for us. Jesus seemed to think so, anyway.

Picture1
Dr. Emily Kahm

Dr. Emily Kahm is a Teaching Fellow in Religion at Augustana College in Illinois, where she teaches courses on contemporary Christianity and Catholicism. She resides with her spouse, Chris, in Iowa, along with their dog, Bosco, and rabbits, Exodus and Hildegard.

Proper 16(B): Jesus’ Adaptation in Context

Proper 16(B): Jesus’ Adaptation in Context

John 6:56-69

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

Has this ever happened to you? You’re watching a movie, and right at the pivotal moment, the big plot twist, the major reveal, someone enters your space. This person knows nothing about the movie, and in the hope that you might be able to convey enough information in a short amount of time so that the new person might join in on the experience, this kind soul begins to ask you questions: “Who is that? What’s her story? Why are they fighting?”

FYI: If you’ve never experienced this, it’s possible that you might be that person!

This is exactly what I feel like when reading John 6:56-69. The lectionary throws the reader into the middle of a pivotal moment, without all the information. If read simply as the lectionary would have it, one might be under the impression that the disciples’ response in 6:60 is aimed specifically at Jesus’ statement beginning in verse 56, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

In reality, the disciples seem to be responding to a great deal more! Jesus’ teaching stretches back to 6:25. And the central gravity of the passage seemingly comes to a head at 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus says a few more things that seem to hold some weight. Things like:

“…‘This is my Father’s will: that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day’…” (6:40)

“…‘No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me’…” (6:44)

“…‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you’…” (6:53)

Only after a lot of teaching do we finally reach today’s lectionary’s selection.

…‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples who heard this said, ‘This message is harsh. Who can hear it?’… (6:56-60)

While Jesus’ graphic wording in this paragraph is hard to digest, the same can be said for the whole chapter. Jesus’ entire message is difficult! And what is that message? From my perspective, it seems to be this: Jesus is the bread of life, and the way to God. Unless one believes, one may not be raised up on the last day.

In seminary, I participated in an exercise that drew an imaginary line. On one end of the line was Exclusive Christianity (Christianity is the one, true religion.) On the other end, was Pluralistic Christianity (Christianity is one among many pathways to God.) And in the middle—Inclusive Christianity (Christianity is my pathway to God, and there may or may not be others.) We were then asked to figure out where we stood on the spectrum.

Through my first few years of ministry, I thought about that line a great deal, and I couldn’t help but notice that my place on that line tended to shift depending on my context. It still does.

For example, when involved in a deep discussion concerning Christian doctrine with someone who might stand on the Exclusive side, I find myself somewhere in the Inclusive space (possibly approaching Pluralistic.) Likewise, when in a similar discussion with someone who more closely identifies toward the Pluralistic range of things, I end up standing in between Inclusive and Exclusive. It all depends on context.

Similarly, if I participate in a religious conversation, it is going to sound a lot different with a believer than a nonbeliever. We adjust based on context.

This is something I love about Jesus. He is contextual. He adapts to the moment; to the people; to the context.

The same can be said for Jesus in John 6. At the very end of this long passage (in 6:64-66), we finally reach a break in the action, and we find out that Jesus has been aware from the beginning that some of his own disciples may not believe. In fact, the author of John writes that Jesus actually knows the specifics of who would not believe AND who would end up betraying him. Jesus actually states, “Some of you do not believe.”

Since context is important, we need to recognize that Jesus is not addressing the 12. He is addressing a larger group of disciples. A group that seems to include some who are much more committed to the movement than others, and even some who do not believe. And because some disciples do not believe but continue to “follow” Jesus, he declares this to be the reason for his “harsh” teaching, essentially serving to “weed out” the unbelievers from the believers, much like Organic Chemistry seeks to do with Pre-Med students. He’s testing for commitment. His teaching occurs in a context. Thus, the reason for the hard teaching.

I wonder if Jesus would address a crowd of “sinners” in the same way. I wonder if Jesus might address a group of Pharisees more harshly. I wonder if Jesus could say the same deep and difficult teaching to a group of new, post-modern followers. Or would he change the way he said it? Or would he use action? Or simply listen?

We serve an adaptable God, with an adaptable message, and ever-adapting manner by which the gospel makes its way into the world. But that same message of forgiveness, and hope, and love of Jesus Christ will always be the same. God will always be reconciling the world to Godself. But it may look/sound/feel different.

May your reading of Scripture look for context.

May your ministry take note of ways to adapt.

And may you know that God is a God of creativity, innovation, adaptation, and ultimately, love.

 

Andrew
The Rev. Andrew Chappell

The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.