Sunday, August 26, 2012

Choose This Day (Sermon 8/26)


Joshua 24:1–2a, 14–18; John 6:56-69

If, on a morning, I open my eyes,
My first decision thereupon lies.

Will I continue to lie in the bed,
Allowing my thoughts to run through my head?

Will I get up and go to the shower,
Regardless of both weather and hour?

What of my child, who may want me to stay?
What of the tasks that call me this day?

From the minute of waking, there are choices to make,
What will I give today? What will I take?

I want to be saintly and say my first thoughts are of God,
But sometimes they’re not and, in that, I’m not odd.

We may rise with the sun or maybe at noon,
And we make hasty promises to get with God soon.

Yet, that instant, a choice has been made-
The balance of time against God has been weighed.

We can’t do it all. Surely God understands.
Consider this: did not God make this world, its demands?

But in each thing we choose, and it is choose we must
We have decided in which god we shall trust.

When we make decisions for work or for pleasure,
With money or time, talents or leisure,

With each small decision we leave or we make,
We are choosing a god for each task’s sake.

When Joshua says, “Choose this day whom you’ll serve.
My household and I, from God we’ll not swerve.”

He means the God of justice and freedom,
The God who through the desert did lead them.

This is a God of providence, of mercy and manna
Compared to others, God proved top banana.

For the Israelites, Joshua clearly lays out a decision,
Because they had, in history, treated God with derision.

Sometimes God seemed so far and so distant,
They struggled to find God’s mercy consistent.

Yet, who gave the manna? Who gave the quail?
Who brought forth the water when the people did wail? 

“People of Israel,” Joshua said,
“Turn all that you’ve known ‘round in your head.

Think of the guidance through both day and night,
Think of God’s grace. Think of God’s might.”

The people responded, “Our choice has been made.
We’ve looked around. Only Yahweh makes grade.

Only one God can say, ‘I am who I am’
Only one God would work for our father, Abraham.”

So Israelites promised to serve God whatever may come,
For richer, for poorer, when happy, when glum.

The years passed, however, and memories faded.
People thought of this choice and became jaded.

The desert, the manna- they all became history.
What God’s doing now… that became mystery.

It became easier to feel freed by law and instruction,
Only society’s rules prevented destruction.

But that structure left some people wanting,
The gift of the law could seem rather daunting.

When onto the scene, this man Jesus appeared.
Some people rejoiced. Some people jeered.

Then, and again, he talked about bread
About life here right now and life after we’re dead.

He healed sick people, he fed many others,
But his teaching confused both sisters and brothers.

What was this about flesh to eat, blood to drink?
A hard teaching to swallow, most people did think.

Said his disciples, “Jesus, this is enough.
What you’re teaching- it’s too much. It’s too tough.

We don’t like it. We don’t understand.
We’d like to quit you, but it doesn’t seem that we can.

We’ve looked around as to where we might go.
The problem is, there’s some truth we do know.

Within a world of struggle and strife,
You have the words of eternal life.

Only you have offered hope in the future,
Between God and us, you are the suture.

Even though it is hard to stay,
We cannot leave you or your way.”

The disciples decided (or most of them did)
It was with Jesus that they placed their bid.

They decided, as their ancestors had,
To be on God’s side couldn’t be bad.

And so I say to you this day…
“Wait, Pastor Julia, I’ve something to say…”

“What is it, my child, what bothers you so?”
“Well, you’ve confused me. And so I must know

I thought God chose us. I thought it was done.
I thought the war’s over. The fight had been won.

Didn’t Luther write we’d never say yes…
Without God’s Spirit, we can’t acquiesce!

If you tell us, ‘Today you must choose’
Are you not setting us up… to lose?”

You are right, my child, in every way.
And yet you made a choice today.

You came to be here, to be in communion
To pray, to eat, to embody reunion.

Each day, we see gods far and near.
We can worship success. We can give over to fear.

We can spend our resources or over-honor our kin,
We can reverence our bodies from our toe to our chin.

We can make work our idol, honored, adored.
We can seek that which gives immediate reward.

But in the end, it all fails. It all becomes dust.
These idols- they fade, they die, they rust.

In the end, what we want is something that lasts,
Something that goes beyond all other forecasts.

What can bring order to confusion and strife?
Only the hope of eternal life.

Eternal life, both for there and for here.
A growing, a knowing, a ridding of fear.

This is what Jesus offers- in body and blood.
Without that promise, bread and wine are just mud.

Like us, they’re from dust and to dust shall return,
But through eating and drinking, still we can learn

That God has chosen in creation’s favor,
The presence of Christ is what we savor

When we gather at table, both willing and able
To experience Jesus as truth and not fable.

To trust, to be open, is the choice we must make,
Each day, in the moment right when we wake.

In every moment, we choose a god to serve
With all that we have, each sinew and nerve.

We have a God on the side of all of creation,
Who knows and who loves without cessation.

Who gives us each talents and gives us each gifts,
Who forgives our sins, who mends our rifts.

Who with body and blood has chosen to feed us.
Who through valleys and o’er mountains, has chosen to lead us.

Lord, where could we go? You made us, you know us.
Now, through the Spirit, continue to grow us.

God has called you by name, so as your fear eases,
Choose your god. Every day. I recommend… Jesus. 


Amen.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Between Jesus and Me

In this week's coverage of the scandalous words of Representative Todd Akin of Missouri (see: Akin, "legitimate rape", "shut that down"), his frantic retraction, and the push from other Republicans for him to step down from his race (not because he was wrong, but because he was public)... I have run through a gamut of emotions.

I have revisited how I felt when assaulted by men who did not heed my words to stop and how I felt for friends who experienced far worse assaults than I did.

I have pondered what I will say to the child I currently carry in my womb regarding rights, women, and America.

I have been angry at the attempts to discuss abortion instead of the very real rights and bodies of women- women who are currently alive, women who (theoretically) have constitutional rights, women who are not magical vessels for pedestals or damnation.

All of these emotions swirled in my mind until I had this exchange with myself, in my head, while driving:

I'm so angry about this. I want to write about it, but I don't know how. 
What specifically are you angry about? 
Being made to feel helpless. 
How will you expand upon that? 
I would discuss previous times this has happened. 
Boring. 
Well, I could... talk about it makes me feel depressed and vengeful when men tell me what I can and can't do with my body.
To whom does your body belong? 
To me... 
What about R (your husband)? 
No, except through my consent and our mutuality. My body belongs to me. 
What about your children? 
See above re: husband. 
What about to Christ- think of your baptism? 
Ugh. Now Jesus is just another man, laying a claim on my body. 

WAIT A MINUTE.

This is where I nearly wrecked my car. I could not believe the sentence about Jesus ran through my head- exactly like that. "Now Jesus is just another man, laying a claim on my body." I pulled into the parking lot at work and sat, attempting not to hyperventilate, and thought about that sentence- several times.

The thing is... I do believe that my baptism into Christ's death and resurrection does have a claim on my body.

AND NOW I AM RESENTFUL OF ANYONE WHO WOULD DIMINISH THAT RELATIONSHIP BY ATTEMPTING TO PLAY GOD WITH MY PERSON.

That's right, Akin and other supporters of fetal personhood over maternal/female personhood, by attempting to abort my status as a person via amendments and rhetoric, you nearly came between Jesus and me.

It seems that you'd like to think you're God- knowing the ins and outs of human bodies and minds, but it ain't necessarily so. In fact, it necessarily ain't so.

You are not God.

You are not God. I am not God. You are not me. You are not a mediator in the relationship between God and me. You do not get to claim that your work creates me, saves me, sanctifies me, redeems me, or frees me.

You don't own me. Or any part of me.

What you have not made, what you have not saved, what you are not making whole... you may not claim. You cannot claim. You will not claim.

Jesus appreciates that women can think. I refer you to his conversations with the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15, Mark 7), in which Jesus yields to the reasoned argumentation of a woman who pleads for the healing of her child.

Jesus believes that women have strength and that women who do not have or may not have children are worthy participants in community life. I refer you to Mark 5, in which a girl who is not yet bearing children and a woman who may be past child-bearing are both healed and restored to their families/communities.

Jesus understands that social situations may lead a woman to make poor choices or to feel trapped by circumstance. Thus, Jesus tells the woman caught in the act of adultery (brought forth without her male partner in John 8) to go and sin no more- granting her the personhood to be bigger and resistant to the male forces that would shape her world. Jesus gives hope to the Samaritan woman at the well, in talking with her as a person of intellectual being, capable of seeing her way to new life, new choices, and renewed hope.

Jesus affirms that women can handle and do handle many types of jobs and tasks. Sometimes they sit and listen, like Mary in Luke 10, to learn and to be part of discussion. Sometimes, like Martha in the same story, women play the role of host- making guests comfortable and providing a gracious space.

Jesus inspires the gospel writers to understand that women are an integral part of the salvific act of resurrection and sharing the good news. All four gospels have women playing significant roles in the spread of the resurrection story. Not as gossipers, but as evangelists- sharing truth with all whom they encounter.

As I consider this Jesus, this Jesus whom I claim to follow, this Jesus in whom I am said to be clothed, this Jesus whose story still brings hope to me and many... this Jesus is a man whom I am willing to allow to lay claim to my body.

Because He sees it.

He knows it.

He saves and renews it.

Furthermore, if and when there is a time when I feel separated from God, because of what has happened to me, because of what I have done, because of choices or actions... I can trust that Jesus will be with me. He will not abandon me. I am and remain a person to (and through) Christ.

But you, Akin and others, ... you do not see me. You do not know me. You have no claim on me. And you have dared to attempt to come between me and God, by way of my uterus, my vagina, and my identity as a woman.

Do not offer your words regarding my potential child or other fetal life. Do not offer hasty retractions- apologies for having been caught, not for your actions. Do not wring your hands about loss of life, when you are so clearly willing to dismiss my life as being less than.

There is one man who can make claims upon my body. That man also happens to be God.

And you, your ilk, your fellow travelers, your co-conspirators...
You. Are. Not. That. Man.











Good reading from this week for includes:

Martha Spong on Old Husbands' Tales
Julie Craig on To Be a Girl, In this World



Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gotta Serve Somebody

This week's reading from Joshua includes the famous verse:

 "Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amories in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, well will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15) 

When I think of this verse, I consider the truth that we're never really choosing if we are going to have a god, we're constantly choosing what we will worship as god. Will we choose the God of creation, who has chosen us, or we will choose any number of lesser gods- whose glittering promises of health, wealth, and power are played like siren calls from all corners of the world? 

Whom will we serve? 

I keep hearing the words of the prophet, Bob Dylan, singing, "You gotta serve somebody..." It's not that we've gotta, it's that we're gonna... so whom will you choose? 

"Gotta Serve Somebody"

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Might be a rock'n' roll adict prancing on the stage
Might have money and drugs at your commands, women in a cage
You may be a business man or some high degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a state trooper, you might be an young turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes 
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody's landlord you might even own banks.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes 
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be working in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody's mistress, may be somebody's heir.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes 
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may call me Terry, you may call me Jimmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say.

You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.



Sunday, August 19, 2012

Life Force and Momentum (Sermon 8/19)


John 6:51-58

           
            How many of you know someone who says they don’t believe in God? Most of us do. Many of us have had conversations with friends or family members or even strangers who tell us that they don’t believe. Sometimes their reasoning has to do with church history or personal experiences and sometimes they just feel like what we trust is true just cannot be. So in your conversations with these people, how many of you have ever offered today’s gospel passage as an argument support?

            How many of you have just casually offered, “You know, Jesus said: Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58)

         What? No one has used this passage as an argument or comfort in a discussion with someone who has difficulty experiencing God in the world? Why not? Why wouldn’t you use this passage? Because it sounds crazy. You might try to tone it down by saying, “Well, I know it sounds crazy, but we don’t really eat Jesus. I mean, we eat this bread and drink this wine and we believe he’s present in those things. We don’t really know how he’s present, we just sort of trust and eat and look at each other and go home and it’s very meaningful. But we’re not crazy. I swear.”

            Well, that falls a little flat, doesn’t it? This passage sounds strange even to us. Even if we’ve come to accept that we’re a little crazy, we like for things to make sense, to seem logical, to be rational… and this passage brings us right up to the edge of what we believe and says, “Here it is, all laid out for you. And it’s a little bit more than you can swallow.”

            What is Jesus saying here- to the people around him at the time and to us today? Part of this goes all the way back to the beginning of this whole section of John- with the feeding of the 5,000 and having leftovers, with the walking across the water and stilling the storm, with the phrase “I am the bread of life”. Part of what Jesus is telling his audience is that it’s not enough to participate in what is easy or obvious- the miracles, the healings, the supernatural events. It’s not enough to live based on the history of what God has done. In the case of the Jews in Scripture, it’s the memory of the freedom from slavery and manna in the wilderness. In our case, it’s not enough to believe in Christmas and Easter- the birth and resurrection. When we reduce God’s actions to what was and a vague expectation of what may come, we are missing the present, the current action, the contemporary revelations.

            The bread of life is not fast food. We do not grab it and go. It’s not something we consume just to have eaten, to have enough to get us to the next meal. What Jesus is telling those who would hear him is that the body and blood is something to chew on, to sit with, to return to. It’s something to gnaw on- with your mind and with your body. We chew on the bones of our salvation- making the taste last, always finding one more morsel, one more piece that gives us the flavor of heaven.

            And what is this eating for? Why do we chew over Jesus? What’s to be gained from eating the flesh and drinking the blood? True enough, eternal life. True enough, a better understanding of God. True enough, a very strange image to have in your mind. But what about the word Jesus uses, “abide”? What about abide? Eating the body and blood brings us to abide in Christ and Christ, in us. What does that mean?

            This week, I’ve been reading a book called “God’s Hotel” about one of the last almshouses in the country. An almshouse is where people used to go if they weren’t really able to pay for a hospital stay, but still needed care and had nowhere else to go. In one section, the author, Dr. Victoria Sweet, talks about the difference between seeing a person alive and seeing the body of the same person after they’ve died.

            “Much later I learned that medicine had once had a name for this, this something present in the living body but missing from the corpse. Two names, actually. There was spiritus, from which we get the English spirit, although the Latin spiritus was not as insubstantial as “spirit”. Spiritus was the breath, the regular, rhythmic breathing of the living body that is so shockingly absent from the dead. Spiritus is what is exhaled in the last breath.
            And there was anima. Usually translated as soul, the Latin is better for conveying the second striking distinction between [the body of the person] and [the person themselves]- its lack of movement. Because anima is not really the abstraction, “soul”. Anima is the invisible force that animates the body. That moves it, not only willfully buy also unconsciously- all those little movements that the living body makes all the time. The slight tremor of the fingers, the pounding of the heart that shakes the living frame once a second, the rise and fall of the chest. Those movements by which we perceive that someone is alive. Anima, ancient medicine had observed, is just as absent from the dead body as spiritus.” (p. 2-3)[1] 
            I read this passage this week and I thought, “That’s what we get through eating the body and blood of Jesus. This is what happens with Christ abides in us! We have spiritus! We have anima!” When Jesus abides, resides, dwells, within us- we have something that we otherwise lack. We cannot always put our fingers on it specifically, which is what makes it hard to explain to doubtful listeners, but it is something that both comforts and motivates us, something that feeds and exhausts us, something that grounds us and gives us forward momentum. That’s what it means to have Jesus abide in us- as a result of our feeding on him.

            And what does it mean for us to abide in him? It means our spiritus and our anima have an anchor, a solid base. It means that when we look around, we see Christ in all things. And it means that all things see Christ in us. It means when we are wondering how to respond to all that God has done in Christ, when we are asking the question, “What should I do?” The answer is “Abide.” When we rest in presence of Christ, we are even more able to be present to the people and circumstances of our lives. Having fed on the body and blood, the Spirit uses that fuel to help us brighten the corner where we are, to shine the Christ light right onto our every day tasks, to love our neighbors and to be about the work of justice and peace.

            Yes, it all sounds a little crazy, but in the end… what we do here is not about bread and wine. What God does here is not about bread and wine. It’s about bodies. It’s about flesh and blood. It’s about life force and movement. It’s about Jesus, abiding in us and we, in him.


[1] Sweet, Victoria. God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Riverhead Books, New York. 2012. p. 2f 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why are you Eating? (Sermon 8/12)


1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

            My best friend and I are what you might call “eating friends”. She lives in Pennsylvania, but when we know we are going to get together- we immediately start making a list of restaurants in the area in which we will be. We make choices about which days to eat the big breakfast, lunch, OR dinner. We also have foods we both buy or bring, only on trips, because they are our vacation foods and because we enjoy eating them together. For us, the experience of eating together is a fun part of our relationship and our memories of things we have done together. (For the record, we do things other than eat. I think.)

            What are some of the reasons we eat? We eat for pleasure. We eat because it’s time. We eat because we’re hungry. Anyone who has worked at losing weight knows that it’s easy to fall into the trap of eating because you’re lonely, bored, or sad. We eat when we’re celebrating and when we’re grieving. But when it comes down to it, we eat to stay alive. We eat because without eating, we cannot function.

            So, we understand that while we often have many, sometimes overlapping reasons for eating, there is one basic reason why we eat- to stay alive. So here’s my follow-up question to that: why do we trust in Jesus? What are some of the reasons why we put our faith in Jesus, a Jewish man of two centuries ago, who some say was the Messiah of God?

            We may have faith in Jesus the Christ because of some experience- internal or external. We may trust in our tradition and the tradition of our families, a part of which is belief in Jesus. We may still be questioning in our hearts, but feel that Jesus is the best bet for an anchor in a rocky sea. We may be seeking our best life now and a great return for bread cast out upon the waters. Of all these reasons, when it comes down to it, why do we believe in Jesus?

            We want eternal life.

We want eternal life. We want to stay alive. We want heaven. We want the reunion with those who have gone before us. In a way that is beyond our imagination, we want the banquet and the rejoicing and the tree of life and city beyond imagination and the parade of nations and the drying of all tears and abounding joy. We eat to stay alive and, often, (more often than not) we look to Jesus as our ticket to doing the exact same thing. We treat the bread of life like a ticket to heaven. We look at the table as a foretaste of the feast to come and, when it doesn’t turn to ashes in our mouths, we see it as insurance and assurance that we will be at that feast.

            But the life of faith is so much more than that. More importantly, Jesus is so much more than a ticket to ride or insurance toward immortality. In today’s readings, God’s story unfolds to help us understand that bread of heaven (and bread from heaven) is for the life of the world, eternally. Which is wholly different than being for eternal life.

            When Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel (the actions preceding today’s excerpt), he travels to the end of the known world and then goes one more day- just to be on the safe side. He’s ready to die. He wants to die. God sends a messenger to Elijah, bringing him food and telling him to eat. Why does Elijah  need to eat? Because his work is not done. He has to eat for life- his own life and for the life of God’s word in the world. As a prophet, his work of speaking truth, of revealing God’s power, of bringing hope to God’s people is not yet over. Thus he receives bread for the journey because it is not time for him to die. Elijah receives bread from heaven, the bread of life, for his life here on earth (and for the other lives whom he encounters as well).

            When the crowds gather around Jesus, they grumble about what he has to say- even though he’s fed them, healed them, and generally amazed them. Still, they know his people, they’ve seen his followers, they know he sleeps and has physical needs. What’s this about heaven? Yet, he tells them the One who has come from God is the bread of life. The bread of life comes for the life of the world. Jesus explains that the bread of life feeds us for eternal life and for life right now.

            Like the crowds, we do not always like that “life right now” part. What does that look like? The writer of Ephesians says it is a life of uplifting speech (no slander, no backbiting), a life of kindness and gentleness, a life of forgiveness and imitation of Christ. Would this be the same Christ who gave up his life for the sake of the world? Are we supposed to imitate that Christ?

            That’s where our experience of Jesus gets tough- where we’d rather think about eternal life, than what’s happening right here and now. When the imitation of Christ means loving our enemies, not the ones far way, but the ones next to us, the ones who we see in the grocery store, at the family reunion, at the communion rail… When the imitation of Christ means trying something new and uncertain… When the imitation of Christ means admitting that you’re not, that we’re not in control… When the imitation of Christ means living by faith, and faith alone… all of that makes the bread of life seem a little dry and to catch in our throats.

            Eternal life, whatever it is like, will be fantastic. But we are here now. The bread of life… the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we experience in communion, in Word, and in community… this bread of life is food for this journey, nourishment so that we can live, sustenance so that we can live right now, provisions so that we can live right now for the sake of the world. Fuel for the imitation of Christ.

            Our faith is not a retirement plan. It is not a moral system that we use for guidance on occasion. We have been given the gift of faith, so that the world might know the joy of salvation, the salvation that has come through Jesus the Christ. We have been baptized into God’s history for the life of the world, the life of the world right now. We are fed- as a community and as individuals- in communion and in prayer- through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are fed so that we can stay alive. Alive in faith. Alive in Christ. Alive to do the work to which we have been called and to which we are being led.

            We are eating friends, food friends, bread sharers. Being fed from heaven right now- for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the world.


Amen. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Bondage of Memory (Sermon 8/5)


Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; John 6:24-35

            Every four years, I have a little jealous streak that rears its head. It’s not because I wish I had put more effort into being an Olympic athlete, though I am admittedly envious of their skills. The little green monster that peeks out dates way back to my childhood when, looking at a poster in the hallway of my house, I realized there were no women presidents. Immediately, I wanted to be one. The presidency became my goal. In high school, I pursued a lot of avenues that were open for politically inclined students. I was voted most likely to succeed and most likely to become President. So every four years, I feel a little nostalgia that it is not going to happen.

            At some point, I realized this was not the path for me. I do not mean a path that was not open to me- I mean not the best one for me. In order to move on to places and things that were better suited for my skills, I had to let the dream of being president die. Yet, the ghost of that dream occasionally haunts me.

            In today’s readings, people are having a hard time letting their dreams die. The Israelites likely dreamt of freedom each night they were in Egypt and, to be sure, it did not look like this wandering in the desert, uncertain, hot, and wistful, even, for the food of Egypt (tinged with the poison of slavery, though it was). They are in bondage to their memory, unable to be thankful to the God who has brought them thus far.

            Their memories will neither allow them to let go of what they thought freedom would be like nor will their memories recall the truth of what life in Egypt truly was. Their memories are holding them back from seeing God’s actions right in front of them- the actions that are bringing them life.

            The people gathered around Jesus in today’s gospel, both Jews and Gentiles, are not able to see who he really is. Their memories are fixated in two directions as well. On the one hand, they are clearly remembering the many baskets of leftover food after an entire crowd ate their fill. On the other hand, they are remembering what has always been promised about the Messiah of God and what his advent will bring. Obsessed with the signs they’ve witnessed, they crowd Jesus- unable or unwilling to hear what he is saying about belief in God and what truly sustains life.

            Their memories will not allow them to see past the obviousness of the miracles nor will it allow them to let go of the messiah of their minds. Their memories are holding them back from seeing God’s actions right in front of them- the actions that are offering them life.

            We too can be in bondage to our memories. Not just to what we once thought we might have been personally, but in many directions. We can hold ourselves captive by society’s standards or the expectations of those we hold dear. We may be enslaved by the memories of our own beliefs about ourselves, our work, our families- what they were going to be, what they could be if we just made a few changes.

            As a church family, we can be in bondage to our memories of what we think we our best times. We can long for the leeks and cucumbers of days gone by, forgetting the work that went with those meals. As part of the church universal, we can hold so tightly to our memories of what we believed would happen when we nailed the theses to the door, ordained women, become more welcoming… that we are devastated by events that do not live up to the expectation of our memories.

            I’m not talking about our memories of people we have loved or times that we appreciated- those are gifts from God that we’re able to recognize. But the memories of what we thought would be… Our communities, our homes, ourselves… can be held back by what we once believed would be our future. When this happens, and it does, we often grieve for what might have been- without taking stock in what is. Our memorial grief can hold us back from seeing God’s actions right in front of us- the actions that are offering us life.

            When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life”- it’s not about food for the stomach. When God provides manna in the wilderness, it’s not about keeping the Israelites alive for another day. It’s about the present… and the presence. About the relating… and the relationship. The reality of the spiritual strength that is offered to us through Jesus, by the work of the Spirit… that reality is so that we can live, right now. So that we can believe that God is with us, right now. So that we can grow into our potential as God’s beloved, right now. 

            Part of the work to which we are called letting go of the idols of our memories, breaking the bonds of what we thought would be, and helping our neighbors to do the same. We have a very real present in which to live, a very Real Presence that feeds and sustains us. In order to appreciate these gifts and their accompaniments, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, we have to be willing to be open to the immediate work of the Spirit. We have to accept that God is still speaking. We have to expect that Christ will feed us. We must believe that what God is doing, right now, in our lives and in the world, is greater than what we could have expected or dreamed.

            And then we find ourselves released from the bondage of our memories, false as they were. And we find ourselves in a gracious present, lacking nothing, equipped and energized to carry the bread of life into the world. Whether we are Olympian, pastor, lawyer, teacher, accountant, retiree, homebody, or president. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Class I'll Never Forget

I just received the most recent issue of the Yale Alumni magazine and the feature story is entitled "The Class I'll Never Forget". Inside the magazine, there were 15 short paragraphs from various Yale alums- describing their most memorable class and what made it so. Inspired by the article, I began to make a list of the classes I took while attending Yale Divinity School and my different teachers.

You'd think the class that I'll never forget would pop right out at me, but as it turns out I think of the professor and the class so often, it took a minute to bring them to mind in context. I would like to say, however, that I took many classes from deeply profound and caring professors who inspired me in any many ways. These were men and women who taught me to see the humanity and the Spirit in church history, the power and the humor in Scripture, the darkness and the light in Christian ethics.

Yet, the class I will never forget is "What Would Jesus Write" with Jack Hitt. For this very small seminar class I had to submit a writing sample, preferably in the style of an editorial or magazine pitch. I wrote "Where would Jesus drill" about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and sent it in, fingers crossed.

When schedules were published, I saw that I was in! The class initially conflicted with a language requirement, but Hitt moved the time and we gathered once a week to hear each other's pieces, encourage one another in submission, and to be told, bluntly, where we needed to cut, shape, and get over ourselves.

I believe only 8 or 9 of stayed in the class and, I'm not entirely sure, but I believe I was the only one in the class aiming toward ordination at the time. We wrote about politics and personal experience, religion and education, science and mystery. And Jack Hitt inspired us all. If you've ever read his books, heard his pieces on This American Life, or flipped through a magazine he's edited- the man knows how to tell a story. He knows how to wind you up, play you out, and then bang you on the head and hang you out to dry. And he imparted as much of that skill as we could soak up in a semester.

He showed us how to sell ourselves, sell our writing, and sell the point we were trying to make. I wrote 300-500 word piece after piece in that class- some poignant, some funny, some angry. Hitt edited via email to us all, talked on the phone, and spun out three hours of some of the most useful class time I'd ever have.

Having written for radio prior to YDS, I was used to writing short, informative pieces. Hitt gave my writing a whole new edge, a sharpness and clarity that was absent before- perhaps because of necessity or because of lack of skill.

Even now, when I am writing a sermon (or a blog post), once I pass 500 words- I wonder if I still have anything to say or if I'm just talking. The very best of my sermons and posts are definitely influenced by that class and by Jack Hitt and what I learned from him. I read almost everything he puts out, in the hopes of continuing to shape my own style through his lessons. Of all the classes I took, of all the things I remember from seminary, the thing I ask myself daily is "What would Jesus write"?