Author Archives: standrews

Sunday, October 14, 2018 – Proper 23

Proper 23, October 14, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home
Kevin Gore

I have often talked about the grand mystery that is the Revised Common Lectionary.  Today’s readings sparked no less a thread of thought for me upon a first glance.  Why it amused me, and why I sometimes wonder about the people who intentionally set the RCL is that all too often we seem to be challenged by Gospel readings that make a particular season or feast day more complicated.  Or maybe that is exactly what we need when we approach biblical study.  This is the Autumn, and in most Episcopal churches especially, now that ‘home coming’ or ‘Rally Sunday’ to kick off the program year has passed we often turn our attention to stewardship.  So what better to do with Gospel readings than toss in this passage!  But then again, I think this does have a lot to offer us in reflections on stewardship, and of course on discipleship as a whole.

Let me first tell another story.  There are many accounts of the experiences of the Desert Mothers and Fathers.  Wise and dedicated Christians in the early Church who withdrew into the deserts to pray and meditate.  They wanted to be away from society, from comfort, from the annoyance of people coming to them for advice.  So naturally after becoming hermits in the desert, small communities sprung up around them so people could seek their counsel on spiritual matters.  One particular story has been told in Christian traditions for centuries, and it goes like this:

Abba (which means Father) Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?’ then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

This story is very similar to the encounter in the Gospel lesson today.  Jesus is approached by a man who wants to know the key to Heaven.  After responding with commandments, which I don’t necessarily think is meant to dismiss the guy, but certainly seems like a rote answer; Jesus then drops the unreachable challenge for this particular person.  Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.  The man was shocked and went away grieving.  That’s quite a response.  This man goes away thinking he might not be able to attain this.  Much like Abba Lot, more has been asked of him than he believes can ever be done.  Living into the reality of God, the Presence of the Divine always seems like more than we can achieve ourselves.  Jesus affirms this as he continues talking to the disciples.  He tells them how hard entering the Kingdom of God is, especially for a rich person, because that particular persona is one who is expected to be holding on tightly to this broken world we all inhabit.

Now this might be a good time to pause and completely dismantle a very popular myth.  (because when isn’t?) There is no evidence of a gate called the ‘needle gate’ in Jerusalem.  Often this is referenced as meaning a camel can still get through, just stripped of its packs and on its knees.  A popular image especially in Prosperity Gospel followings trying to harmonize their teaching with the Gospel.  Sorry.  The truth is this is Jesus at his hyperbolic best.  Not everything Jesus says is meant to be taken literally and not everything Jesus says is meant to be taken as hyperbole.  It’s almost as if he’s talking as any human does, using a blend of both.  Jesus is extremely exaggerating here.  I’d like to think there was some nervous laughter from the disciples when Jesus says this, while they wonder if he is exaggerating on such a ridiculous level or whether they just found out that entering into Heaven is more impossible than they realize.

But the truth behind what Jesus is saying is found in the subtleties of this narrative.  How many of you noticed what it says about Jesus right before he tells the rich man how to enter the Kingdom?  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said…”  Jesus, the incarnate God, loved this human who has its own failings, its own struggles, its own reasons for feeling like the Kingdom is just out of reach.  Jesus loved him.  That right there points us to a great truth in all of this.  This passage isn’t really about whether money is good or evil, whether it is more of a blessing to be rich or to give all your riches away, this passage is about understanding the kingdom of God to be a way of life that is more difficult than you can achieve by yourself.  That living the kingdom values requires you to let go of attachment to the ‘stuff’ of life.  Now there are plenty of times Jesus talks about giving of your first fruits and tithing as a religious practice.  It was something the Jews did and was carried into the earliest Christian communities.  We’ll definitely have more to talk about regarding that as our own community’s time to reflect on stewardship and pledging for the year begins later this month.

This passage is really about our frailty as humans and our inability to reach the Kingdom of God by our own hand.  Jesus doesn’t call after the man who leaves grieving to remind him that he isn’t going to Heaven.  Jesus doesn’t say that to God it’s impossible to fit a camel through the eye of a needle.  When the disciples clearly think Jesus has ruled out so many from the Kingdom and ask ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  As Christians we believe there are ways in which you should live.  We believe there are rules or guides or sometimes signposts to what sort of life one should strive for.  We don’t all agree on every piece of it, and that’s because we all have our own struggles.  We all have the ‘stuff’ that we need to struggle to let go of.  We all have reasons that make us just as difficult to fit through the eye of a needle than the metaphorical camel.  It is our duty and our joy as Christians to walk a very different life than the rest of the world though.  We are called to a path that is not popular with the consumerist individualistic masses.  We are stilled called to strive for a perfect life we know we cannot attain by ourselves.  We also know that God will not abandon us, that God will not turn us away even if we are imperfect.

This passage ends not like some other difficult sayings of Jesus about sheep and goats, or wheat and chaff, but with a clear indicator that while for the rich man it will be impossible to enter the Kingdom of God by himself, it is not impossible with God.  Jesus does not end by saying ‘for damned are the rich and they shall be cast into the darkness.”  What Jesus says makes all the difference and points to an understanding of the Kingdom of God that really shows through God all things are possible.  So Peter of course first pipes up to assure Jesus the disciples have given up everything and look how much better they are!  Jesus assures him, again I imagine a very parental ‘yes I know you’re doing your best’ tone of voice.  What Jesus says at the end is, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  Those words could easily be an entirely different sermon, so I’ll save pulling it all apart for another time.  The point I want to make about this statement is you have to be there to be first or last.  Jesus doesn’t say ‘those that are first will never make it to the Kingdom of God’, but rather that they will be last.  Last still means you get there.  Trust me, I’ve been to Disneyland.  You might be in line for a LONG time, but you’re still getting in.

Jesus doesn’t exclude the rich man, or anyone else for that matter, from the Kingdom of God.  Jesus acknowledges that all things are possible with God, even when it seems absurdly impossible, which includes the salvation of so many we may or may not doubt are worthy.  We are all saved.  Everyone is invited into the Kingdom of God, and the salvific acts of Jesus Christ are not bound to just those who pray special prayers or those that have merits for sunday school attendance.  It is for everyone.  The Christian life, following Christ is the work we do to maintain and improve our relationship with God and with those around us.  That is the root of our faith.  Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.  You don’t have to worry about the end because God has figured that out.  What you need to focus on is living a life that reflects the values of the Kingdom, of not hiding your light under a bushel, and in by your witness helping to spread the good news of the Kingdom at hand.  What is it that Jesus would invite you to let go of to enter the Kingdom?  Ponder that in your hearts and offer it up to the God that created you and loves you more than you can ever comprehend.

Sunday, September 30, 2018 – Proper 21

Proper 21, Year B, 2018
Kevin Gore
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

If you have been watching the news or following social media, you’ll know this week has been one that will not be long forgotten.  This week has seen pain, anger, fear, and hurt glaring illuminated in the national spotlight, and has highlighted how we as a people collectively continue to fail the most vulnerable in our midst.  It has also proven yet again that living the values of the Kingdom of God seems a nearly impossible task.  I have said before that you will not hear me preach on politics, and that is true.  I will absolutely never preach on anything if it holds no relevance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I will not take partisan sides from this pulpit, and I certainly won’t be telling you, as the clerical authority in this community, how to vote.  That does not mean that I will fail to call to attention what I see around us, or that I will shy away from applying the values of the kingdom of God to our current situations when I truly believe it to be appropriate and necessary.

There is an often used quote that has been attributed to 20th Century theologian Karl Barth, but has also been attributed to Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Lincoln, and even Martin Luther.  The quote itself is that a good preacher should preach, “with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”  What Barth does actually say is that as people of faith, living in the world, we need both the bible and the newspaper, but to interpret our newspapers from our bible.

I would argue further that our newspapers give us context to apply many of the teachings of Jesus Christ to the world around us.  The reason we so value the Gospel, the reason that we are so focused on it, why we have a special book just for reading the Gospel and why we make such a to do about it in the service is that the Gospels of Jesus Christ are the only objective experience of God we have.  Everything else in the Bible, the prophets, the letters, histories of the Jewish people, the Revelation, it is all subjective experience of God by prophets, apostles, historians.  The Gospel is different because Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God in our midst, is speaking.  What the Word incarnate, the Logos, has to say is the objective experience of God because anyone standing next to him at the time could hear what Jesus says.  So these words spoken by the incarnate God ring through all of eternity, and whether Jesus is talking to a crowd of five thousand on the plains near Bethsaida or speaking privately to his disciples, they are for us to apply to our lives and the world around us after prayer and discernment.

Now with all that lead up, I can only imagine how nervous you are to hear what I’m about to say next.  Rest assured that now, acknowledging that the world around us is dark and full of turmoil, not unlike many many times in our past and future, we turn to our Gospel lesson to see what it has for us.  Recall last week Jesus is teaching the disciples about those like children, the vulnerable people in society who have no standing, and that in order to be the greatest, one must serve the least of these.  We are still in the midst of this encounter where Jesus is holding the child and speaking to his disciples.  Then John offers more context about the discussions they were having.  I can only imagine that John is patting himself on the back as he is telling Jesus what the disciples have done.  There was someone else doing the work of the disciples but refusing, as John puts it, to follow them.  John doesn’t say this other person is refusing to follow Jesus, quite the opposite, but he doesn’t want to join up with the disciples and that’s what they don’t like.  Jesus of course corrects them, because what matters is the work, what matters is pointing people towards Jesus and towards the Kingdom of God, not whether you’ve got the membership card to prove it.  It isn’t important what tribe you belong to, what group you work with, or whether you are willing to follow the disciples.  Jesus is clear that proclaiming the Gospel, doing good in the name of Jesus is far more important than anything else.  And that is why, in a nation that seems so divided, in a current situation that has drawn such severe battle lines based on clan and not on the Good News, we can look at our newspaper and look at our bible and begin to see that we are called to something very different.  Jesus offers us an alternative if we instead decide that the weak, that the ones who need healing, and that the values of the Kingdom of God are more important to us than what man made political party is in power.  That is also why it is so important for us to be ecumenical partners with those who would also proclaim the Gospel and seek the truth.  We are blessed to have Holy Cross, the Lutheran Church here in Mountain Home, as those who we can work with, and I continue to make contacts with local clergy, congregations, and social organizations that can partner with us.  When we work with these partners it’s important for us to recognize that we come from different angles, that we do not have the same experiences, or that we will not all agree on every aspect of life.  As long as we are proclaiming the Gospel, as long as we are working to exemplify the values of the Kingdom of God, then we are doing that important work in following Jesus.  That is how we take up our cross.  That is how we stand together to shield the least of these from the vileness, the inhumane treatment from the most base of humans, from the onslaught of power hungry villains for who money and prestige matter more than human life.

Then Jesus continues…“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  Jesus is really good at imagery.  I was listening to a podcast on this week’s lectionary readings and the commentators joked about finding a millstone to use as an illustrative object.  Well, they are not easy to come by these days, and in fact it would take several of the strongest of us to carry it in to the church.  So you can see the image Jesus is evoking here by putting a millstone around the neck and thrown into the sea.  That’s how serious Jesus takes this next piece of the Gospel.  It is a grave error to cause those who need our support the most to stumble, to stand in the way of those who have no privilege or standing and keep them from the Good News, or worse, lead them from it.  And then if any part of you causes this, Jesus says, you should remove it.  Now folks, this is metaphor.  Let’s not be like the early church father Origen of Alexandria who decided to remove a certain part of his body he deemed causing him to stumble…

Though it is metaphor, it is still a strong and useful image.  If your eye causes you to stumble, it’s not the fault of what you’re looking at.  It’s you.  If your facebook perusing causes you to stumble, cut it out.  If your political leanings cause you to stumble, cut it out.  If 24 hour streaming news cycles cause you to stumble, cut it out.  If anything in your life causes you to stumble, that is your opportunity to let go of those things and return to the loving arms of Christ.

We are right now in a vicious cycle that has highlighted one of the many deep-rooted cultural sins in this country.  I know I focus on us here, but please understand that I find that to be far more relevant than, like John does, to pat ourselves on the back for casting aspersions on others.  We cannot afford to support narratives that cause survivors of assault to stumble.  There are few fellow humans, I would wager, that feel more powerless at times than such survivors.  Do not mistake my meaning: this has nothing to do with the outcomes of investigations, nothing to do with the outcomes of political posturing or games of controlling the sand castle.  This has to do with extremely vulnerable people, hurting beloved children of God that need us to stand for nothing more than the values of the Kingdom.  They are simply one example of the many ‘least of these’ we encounter in life.  One could spend hours listing all the ‘isms’ that seek to rob the children of God of their humanity.  What matters is that we step away from the mobs, that we do not join in the chanting of, “Crucify him!” but rather welcome those who have no power as though we welcome Christ.

In a preaching conference I attended during my time in seminary, I took a breakout session entitled, “Preaching the Gospel without being Political”.  When the session began, the first thing the teacher said was, “I’m sorry if the title of this session is misleading.  I want you to all understand that if you preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, people will accuse you of being political.”  It is important to be willing to not fit in, to be denounced for going against the grain if we are truly to follow in the footsteps of Christ.    It is not political.  It is not posturing.  It is not virtue signaling.  It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the God we follow and are called to give our very lives for.  Nothing can come before that, or we have lost our way.  Stand for those who have had their dignity taken from them.  Stand for the weak, for the sick, for those who society has cast aside or worse.  Jesus did.

Sunday, September 23, 2018 – Proper 20

Kevin Gore
Proper 20, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home

I remember when I was a child, when I was in elementary school, there was one thing more important than anything else.  Only one aspect of my time truly mattered, truly had the power to make or break any day I was there.  It was always the fateful few seconds right after the teacher told us to line up for whatever journey we were about to take…and who she would name as ‘line leader’.  Oh to be the first, the line leader, the one with all the power and prestige…or so I thought.  I’m sure it’s part of the cosmic humor of humanity that I can remember that feeling of desire, but I certainly can’t remember if I did ever get to be the line leader, or what that was like.  Now before any of you with training in psychology start diagnosing me, let me assure you that I wasn’t the only one!  We all wanted to be the line leader.  If the teacher didn’t choose quickly enough, it was sure to result in contestation of the throne, elbows, jabs, not-so-subtle pushing for the crown.  Though more subtle than when the sons of Zebedee get their mother to ask Jesus who is going to sit at his right hand, this is in part what the disciples are doing in the Gospel lesson for today.

Imagine, you are the incarnate deity, you are explaining to your disciples how things are going to happen when it comes to your end, you are trying to teach them what comes next, to make sure that they aren’t going to hide and scatter and collapse when you are captured, tortured, and executed, but they just don’t seem to be getting it.  You heard them talking a lot on the walk to Capernaum, sometimes very heatedly, so you want to know what part of the future they are trying to figure out.  Nope.  It turns out they are arguing about who is the greatest amongst them.  Nothing more than that.  Jesus doesn’t throw his hands up and pick out another batch of disciples to train, he doesn’t even chide them for trying to determine who’s highest ranked.  Instead he offers a very poignant object lesson.  He’s good at those.

Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first, to be the greatest, or considered the wisest, must be servant of all.  This person must lift up others.  Much later of course Jesus will exemplify this in the washing the feet of his disciples.  In order to drive home the point Jesus takes a child, who happens to be waiting around to be used as a prop for Christ’s messianic teachings, and tells them that they should welcome, or treat this child as though the child is Christ.  One important point that adds depth to this passage in Mark is understanding how this would have been heard by the First Century, Greek speaking audience that this was intended for.  The Greek word being used for child in this passage has its root in the same word as servant.  This is very intentional.  In the societal norms of the time, children have less value and say than most servants or women.  They are property, and not very valuable property at that.  Now, I’m sure they are valued more than say a leper, but the point here is that this child was probably serving the guests of the house, and is seen more like furniture than a valued person, so Jesus takes the child to illustrate the reversal of power that the way of Christ demands of us.

When it comes to what you are supposed to do as a follower of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark is very clear:  follow.  While arguably the Gospel of John is more about believing, the Gospel of Mark wants action.  Mark is about taking up your cross, living out the values of the Kingdom of God, doing as Jesus did…even if that means to the very end of what he endured.  Knowing that the point is to act, and having Jesus tell his disciples to welcome this child as they would Jesus or even God in their midst, then it becomes clear what Jesus is fully saying here.  These disciples, these men who are vested with a moderate amount of worth, who as men in this first century society get to have a voice and opinion, to take action, and to expect to be listened to, are being told to use their privilege to turn the values of society on its head.  The values of the kingdom of God are clear: those that others regard as most low, those that society deems as more a burden than a value, those who have been denied a voice or the benefit of the doubt are the ones we should be most using our own position to uplift, as we would if they were Jesus himself.

There is a lot that can be said about sociological conditioning, about intersectionality, about systemic racism and sexism, about dominant cultures that attempt to cover up their own atrocities by pointing to the horrors of others.  These things are not just an issue here, but everywhere.  This is a part of the human story across the Earth, and that is why the words, the work, the life, and ministry of Jesus Christ is so incredibly radical, even today.  We are called as Christians to speak up for those who are refused a voice.  It is our duty to welcome any who walk through those doors, or any doors in our life as though they were Christ.  We are called, through the values of the Kingdom of God to lift up the least of these and show the world by our own example that these are not JUST children, or servants, or people who have been deemed to be less because of their race, or their education, or their economic standing, or their gender identity, but in them all are the face of Christ.

There is no glory in being the line leader, there is no greatest disciple.  Jesus sets an impossible goal with the important work of welcoming the most vulnerable as Christ.  What God offers in the values of the Kingdom, what we will all one day come to in the reconciling moment of the eschaton, is that moment of grace where we are all as welcomed as Christ.  Notice the little people in your life.  Who are the least of these around your days and weeks?  How are the servers at your favorite drive-through treated?  How are the wait staff at your favorite restaurant received and treated by their customers?  What about the folks struggling to work enough hours at Walmart to achieve a coveted status of full time with benefits?  There are a lot of people out there in this world who are constantly on the edge of losing hope that it can be a better place.  Take the Good News out to them.  Show them who we are, as followers of Jesus Christ.  It’s true what that hymn written in the 1960s says, they will know we are Christians by our love.

 

 

Sunday, September 16, 2018 – Proper 19

Kevin Gore
Proper 19, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home

We live in what can best be described as the post-post-modern era.  We exist at a time when technology often far surpasses our wildest dreams, but also somehow fails to solve our biggest dilemmas.  Just yesterday I was at the Baxter County Fair, and inside the commercial booth section was a man who asked me, “Have you ever had your identity stolen?”  I told him I had not, to which he then proceeded to give me information about his company that protects your identity, and not in the existential way.  We are always reminded by financial institutions that we should be checking our credit scores and our credit reports.  When you are applying for jobs it is recommended that you search for yourself on Google or other search websites to make sure there isn’t anything negative or questionable to be found.  Teachers, doctors, lawyers, any business or employee in a service industry job, can be rated online.  Your reputation can be ruined in an instant by one disgruntled customer.  There is great power in what Google tells you about someone. When I typed into the Google search bar, “Who is Jesus Christ?” I received two hundred fifty two million results in less than a half second.  (ask Siri who Jesus Christ is)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  Jesus has been actively working his ministry now for some time, so there is bound to be some talk of him.  Recall also he is always telling people not to talk about the miracles he performs or the revelation he teaches.  But people, being human, are going to talk.  So Jesus wants to know…who do people say that he is?  The answer is not surprising really.  Some people say he is Elijah, some say he is John the Baptist, and others say that he is a prophet of God, the likes of which have not been seen for nearly 500 years, since the death of the prophet Malachi.  Each of these responses also carries with it certain expectations.  If you recall your Hebrew Bible, Elijah was a prophet who stood against the worshippers of Ba’al, who founded a school of prophets, and who never died, but was taken up into Heaven by fire.  In Jewish tradition, Elijah is very much a candidate because he is still whole in body and could be brought back into play by God at any time.  In fact the prophet Malachi says the Elijah will return before the great and terrible day of the Lord, making him a harbinger of the Messiah and the eschaton.  The expectations people have about Jesus being Elijah is that he is signaling the entrance of the messiah, that a powerful servant of God is walking the earth, and that in the dark times of subjugation under the Roman Empire and the insane ruler Herod, a figure has emerged to lead them to greatness.  But Jesus is not Elijah.  If anything John the Baptist, played the figurative role of Elijah, as the herald of the messiah to come.  So what about people thinking Jesus is John the Baptist?  At this point in the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist is dead, killed by Herod, and everyone knows it.  The disciples know it; the people saying that Jesus is really John the Baptist know it.  So this would mean that God has returned John the Baptist from the dead, and ideally now John the Baptist will become a powerful prophet or leader of the people.

I have a fairly active imagination and often times I like to visualize these sorts of scenes. I can absolutely see this, Jesus and the disciples walking down the road, and he asks this question.  After hearing the responses hi s eyebrow lifts, either out of surprise or amusement, and then with a sort of squint asks his disciples, “well, who do YOU say that I am?”  Good old Peter.  He jumps right in.  God bless Peter.  Sometimes he gets it really right, and sometimes he gets it really wrong.  Well, in this instance it’s a bit of both.  He says, “you are the Messiah.”  Correct Peter.  Well done.  The problem is what Peter and the rest of the Jewish people expect out of a Messiah is not what they are going to get with Jesus.  That’s why when Jesus, who again tells them not to say anything about him being the messiah to anyone else, explains what will happen to him, Peter speaks up.  The Messiah is supposed to be this figure of strength, another king or emperor to lead the armies of the righteous into a great triumph over those that would enslave or subjugate the chosen of God.  The messiah is militant, war-like, not unlike those prophets of old but a lot more muscle…at least according to Jewish tradition.  That is not what the Messiah truly is and it is not what Jesus is.  So when Jesus explains to the disciples what will happen, what must happen with his persecution and death, this violates everything they know about who the messiah is supposed to be.  In steps Peter again, bless his little heart.  Peter tries to convince Jesus not to go that route, but Jesus knows what must happen.  Regardless of how you believe our salvation comes about through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, there is nothing if there is no death, resurrection, and ascension.  So Jesus rebukes Peter for telling him to take a different path.  Peter here is not evil, he is not trying to stop the salvation of humanity, he just can’t reconcile the image of a triumphant messiah with one who is persecuted and dies.  Peter cannot imagine a messiah that looks weak, that does not fight back, that does not strike first, that does not crush the enemies of God.

So who do YOU say Jesus is?  How do you talk to people about Jesus.  Yes I know you’ve probably internally chuckled and said, ‘that assumes I talk to people at all about Jesus.’  So setting aside all the baggage that comes with words like evangelism or all the uncomfortable seat shifting that happens when I start suggesting we go out into the community and talk about our faith, let’s start simple.  How do you talk to your children about Jesus?  Your grandchildren?  Your neighbors?  I don’t mean that we sit down for coffee and say, “well Gladys, I’m glad you invited me over because I want to talk to you about Jesus.”  There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think that’s in the purview of most Episcopalians.  The thing is though we have so much to offer a world full of self-centered, money worshipping, Herod following sycophants who are in desperate need of hearing the Good News.  This place we live in also has a desperate need of letting everyone know they are welcome, that they are loved by God, that all sin has been forgiven and what God asks for us to live according to simple rules.  Love others, love God, love yourself.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked.  We should be standing on every street corner sharing a message like that right?  That is our message here, and yet, it’s hard, it’s really really hard to even tell our friends about it.  We fear what they will think.  We fear how we will be treated.  We even fear sometimes for our well being.  That’s completely understandable.  Peter fears what will happen to Jesus.  But Jesus offers us an invitation to something greater.  Our ultimate goal should always be to lose ourselves for the sake of the Gospel.  What good is any of this otherwise?

I have not been here very long, but I am beginning to see ways in which this community of committed believers already does show who they believe Jesus is, and I can see places where we could get the word out even more.  It isn’t always easy, it isn’t always comfortable, but you know, I find that it always feels pretty good once you take a chance.  We have to be the ones to tell everyone else out there about, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls it, the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.  We should never expect they will find us because we are listed in the phone book, or have a website, or have facebook.  Some people will find us that way, those are helpful tools, but it doesn’t reach everyone.  Nothing substitutes a genuine, loving, honest conversation about what this sort of faithful life has to offer.  Our words, our actions, our lives are always testimony to something.  Do your best to make sure that testimony reflects the Good News of Jesus Christ, the salvation of humanity, and the glory of the Kingdom of God.  Who do you say Jesus is?

Sunday, September 9, 2018 – Proper 18

Proper 18, Year B, 2018
Kevin Gore
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

If I thought coming up with five different sermons all addressing the bread of life discourse was tough…I should have looked ahead to see what else was coming up in the lectionary.  While this story of two healings by Jesus from the Gospel of Mark is often beloved by many for a multitude of reasons, and has definitely been picked apart in every direction by theologians, preachers, and academics, preaching on it in the real world is not necessarily my favorite activity.   I say that because this is one of those passages that really challenge our Christology.  We don’t get to know the inner workings of Jesus’ mind.  We don’t get inner monologues from Jesus in the Gospels, only what is said and done.  To many the first event in this portion today, referred to usually as the Syrophoenician Woman, is an indication that Jesus is not fully accepting of outsiders.  That in his humanity, the implicit bias of a first century Jew towards non-Jews leads him to initially refuse to help the woman’s daughter.  To me, this takes Jesus’ divinity out of the picture in a way that is not in keeping with a Christology that acknowledges Jesus as both fully human and fully divine.  So, to say that the Syrophoenician woman teaches Jesus to stop being racist is, I think, a bridge too far in the study or preaching of this passage.

The Gospels were not meant to necessarily be broken up in small bites throughout the course of a calendar year, but rather continuous narrative that draws the listener in and lets you see the arcs and themes.  This story comes right after Jesus has had the encounter with the Pharisees about the hand washing.  He has shown them that tradition and God’s law aren’t always the same, and when the traditions do not honor the laws of God then they are not worth following.  So here it almost seems as if Jesus is turning this around and acting the same way the Pharisees do.  He is not acting in accordance with his own teachings, but rather by the laws and customs of Jews regarding others who are ethnically different from them.  What I think is somewhat curious is that Jesus is in the region of Tyre, which is not populated primarily by the Jews, but rather by Hellenized Syrians, people who are ethnically gentiles in Syrian or Middle Eastern heritage, but culturally most resemble Greek society.  Jesus is actually outside his home country when he has this interaction where he is saying that the children of God, in this case the Jewish people, must be the ones to first receive the good news.  In some ways this makes the whole interaction even more incredulous.  Jesus is on the home turf of this woman, telling her she is second class to the Jews.  What is also curious about this is that in the grand scheme of things, Jesus isn’t saying that the Kingdom of God coming to be in this world is never for anyone but the Jews, but rather he has brought it to them first.  Often this is characterized as a flat denial of sharing the kingdom of God, but it isn’t, as Jesus says the children eat first, not singularly.  Now as I’ve said before, this culture is based in whether or not you can win intellectual arguments.  This seems to be another one of those. I’m not sure if Jesus is actually speaking from a standpoint of believing this woman to be a dog, that she and her daughter are not as worthy to receive the power and miracles that he has, or whether he is testing, whether he is trying to get at the root of her faith.  What is abundantly clear though is that how she responds is the catalyst for Jesus to act.  Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”  Jesus heals the daughter by driving out a demon, from an unknown distance instead of going to her house, because this woman has responded to his challenge and she has won.

Paired with this quick interaction, that is less descriptive than most healings in Mark is the healing of a deaf man.  Let’s start first with a little geography.  Jesus was in the region of Tyre, which is far Northwest from the Sea of Galilee.  We don’t know why he was there, but he was in fact a long way from home in Syrophoenician territory.  Now the gospel tells us that he’s returning from the region of Tyre by way of Sidon.  Here’s the thing about that.  It’s like going to Little Rock by way of Branson.  By any map, it doesn’t seem like that’s the way to get from Tyre to Galilee, unless maybe it’s by way of several river boats and land crossings.  What I’m getting at is that Jesus is going a bit out of his way to head deeper into Syrophoenician territory.  Again, some scholars speculate that after the encounter with the woman in the first part, Jesus decides to continue moving deeper into the land.  I’m not entirely sure he’s preaching though, as he is adamant that the man he heals needs to keep it a secret.  Which works as well as any time Jesus tells people not to talk about his miracles.  Jesus sighs, says the Aramaic word ‘Ephphatha’ which means, “Be Open”.  It’s an interesting word choice for the Messiah, heralding the Kingdom of God, wandering deep into Gentile territory, at first telling them that they are not to be first, that he has not come primarily for them, though he then casts out a demon, then to use the words, “Be Open” which are both fitting for the act of healing a deaf man, but also very descriptive of what Jesus is doing.  The Good News, the Messiah is indeed come for all.  For the Jews, for Syrophoenicians, for us, for the whole of Creation, Christ has come to free us from the bonds of death, and to show us the way to live into the Kingdom of God.

That word, Ephphatha, ‘be open’, it reminds me of something those of you who have spent any time in a Methodist church might be familiar with.  There is a campaign in the United Methodist tradition known as ‘Rethinking Church’ and one of its main slogans is, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors’.  While they are certainly putting that to good use, it seems very apropos to this gospel story.  ‘Be open’ says Jesus.  We work to make this an open place.  Our doors stand open on Sunday mornings, much to the chagrin of those who monitor the thermostat.  Our minds and our hearts open to welcome friends and strangers.  Those who have been here for many years, those who have come back after a break, or those who we are meeting for the first time, we are open to all who are seeking the Kingdom of God.  Be open.  There are entire segments of the population in this place, even here in Mountain Home, that don’t know we are here, that don’t know our doors are open on Sunday mornings to all.  You would be surprised at the number of conversations I have had in the last couple of weeks with folks who didn’t know there was a place for them to worship, who didn’t know that we are here with our open hearts, our open minds, and our open doors.

When Jesus commissioned the Apostles, he commanded them to go out and make disciples of all people.  It isn’t just enough for us to be walking in those open doors, it’s our job to be out in the world, in the farthest flung places we know, in the sort of places that make people ask us things like why in the world we went to Branson to get back to Little Rock, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.  The Gospel, the Messiah, salvation…it is for all, and it always has been.  Let the people you meet out in the world know that God invites them in through these open doors, that they too are worthy of the Good News of the Kingdom of God.  Ephphatha.  Be Open.

Sunday, September 02, 2018 – Proper 17

Proper 17, Year B, 2018 September 2
Kevin Gore – St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Hypocrites.  That’s a word we hear from Jesus quite a few times.  It’s used a little over 20 times throughout the four Gospels, usually directed at the most outwardly pious figures, quite often authorities of the Temple or the Pharisees.  Today’s Gospel is one of those times. It’s rather clear what
Jesus is saying, that these men who are questioning the disciples’ lack of complying with the traditional social norms expected around eating have focused too much on the wrong things.  Jesus is used to being questioned by this point, especially by religious authorities.  The intellectual culture of first century Palestine is one where being challenged and either winning that challenge or losing will continually shape your social standing.  But one can imagine that maybe Jesus expected more out of these guys.  If you’re going to try and challenge Jesus’ knowledge and authority in relation to Torah or the Laws of God, don’t start using customs and human traditions as your foundation.

You see, doing all that washing that is described in the Gospel of Mark is not mandated by God.  There is nothing in the Levitical laws, in the Ten Commandments, or anywhere else provided or inspired by God that dictate this.  The washing is entirely based in culture and probably is something learned over many decades of poor sanitation and disease.  These complex rules of washing probably have some inspiration in the laws of purity, but no matter how much some want them to be, they are not a part of it.  So it seems like Jesus is not having any of this line of questioning when he hearkens back to Isaiah referring to the people that are honoring God with their words and not their deeds, and as it is written, “teaching human precepts as doctrine.”  Now there’s quite the sticky wicket as we sit here today in this church, with vestments, with particular ways of doing things, of ways we approach the table for communion based in doctrine, and how we form our entire worship.

I’ll let you ruminate on that for a minute and return to Jesus and his teachings.  So Jesus continues responding to this inquiry about hand washing by speaking to the crowd at large and saying that nothing that goes into a person can defile them, but it’s what comes out that can defile a person.  I want to pause here and say that I’m 99.9% certain that this is entirely meant to be understood on a deeper level than literal.  We know that if you eat the wrong thing, if you ingest spoiled food or don’t wash your hands after you’ve been working with children or with those who are ill, there is a likelihood you are going to get sick.  So here Jesus is pulling apart two separate concepts that have been mashed together in Jewish practice.  We’re talking about sanitation and hygiene versus spiritual defilement.  The purity laws were taken to mean you were ritually unclean, but many of the purity laws are really formed out of a helpful guide to survive.  Pork, for instance, is forbidden by Jewish dietary laws.  It’s not because pork is spiritually harmful, it’s because in the ancient Middle East when these laws are formed, you have no way of preserving the meat that can absolutely guarantee you won’t get sick from eating it, let alone how difficult it is to raise pigs and not end up with some sort of parasites in the meat at that time.  The point Jesus is driving at here is that you can be the most ritually pure person in the world, but if you are not striving to love other people as God loves, then you are defiled by what you do.  Then Jesus continues to talk about what actions defile, but first….the lectionary omits verses!

I think by now you all know what I’m going to do when the lectionary omits verses!  I didn’t read it during the proclamation of the Gospel but I do want to cover it quickly.  Right after Jesus says, “but the things that come out are what defile”, verses 17 – 20 are omitted.  The author of Mark writes, “When Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.”  Then Jesus goes on to talk about the evils that come from the human heart which defile.  This omission again might make the reading shorter, but it provides more depth to the narrative.  Even the disciples, the ones who weren’t necessarily observing all the accepted norms of washing aren’t quite able to wrap their minds around Jesus’ teaching.   I don’t blame them.  Jesus is pulling away centuries of cultural norm to get at the true meaning of something and sometimes that is hard for people to accept.

We see that so often in our own lives, which brings me back to that comment earlier about vestments and churches.  It was a bit tongue in cheek, because while it does walk a fine line between commandments of God and human tradition, these are not inherently things that stand in the way of following through with loving people, with walking in the way of Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, I dare say, they actually help remind us of that.  But peeling away tradition when it doesn’t conform to Jesus’ teaching, to the values that God calls us to, is actually really hard most of the time.  The basic truth is we fail at it.  We fail at it a lot.  Jesus has set the mark incredibly high and we’re probably never going to attain it.  We see examples of human tradition being idolized over the commandments of God all the time.  When children are torn from their parents, stuffed into cages, and abused by governments and we do nothing to stop it, traditions of nationalism and submitting to human authority has been valued over the commandments of God.  When we allow the hungry, the sick, the needy to die because helping them means giving of our own fruits, we have given up on the commandments of God.  When we don’t sell all of our possessions, give all the money to the poor, and live by the grace of God, we have not followed through with what Jesus commands us.  I’ll be honest with you, I really doubt that last one is ever going to happen for me.  Does that make me a hypocrite?  Well, yeah, kind of.

But kind of not.  A hypocrite is someone who is not genuine to what you see on the outside.  The term hypocrite isn’t appropriate for someone who fails to accomplish an unattainable goal, no matter how hard they try.  That is who we are as children of God.  I think I can be pretty sure that we will never be able to fully live in to the call of Jesus Christ until that end of time when we are all gathered together in the eschaton.  But we don’t get to just sit down and sulk that we aren’t going to accomplish the goal either.  We strive.  We work.  We try our best to tear away human tradition when it conflicts with the Kingdom of God, we acknowledge that human traditions, that denominations, nationalities, borders, corporations, profits, worldly power, that it is all not directly from God but formed through our experience as creation.  Not all of it is bad because not all of it asks us to abandon the way of God.  But not all of it is good either.  There are many things in our lives, in our cultures, in our human traditions that seductively throw stumbling blocks into our path to follow Christ.  If we are constantly striving to do better, to follow better, regardless of how badly we do it, then no, we are not hypocrites.  We are simply imperfect, and yet still we remain beloved by God.

It takes work, often times seemingly insurmountable work, to ensure we are not defiling ourselves with the evil intentions that Jesus lists.  They come in many forms and often it is harder to recognize them from what we think is right.  Just as there are always times we need to reassess if something is of God, when we find things that are not, we also need to step back and ask if it is being valued more than God’s ways.  Pride, slander, and folly are after all on that list.  This is hard work we have, following Jesus Christ and seeking to uphold the commandments of God.  There are so many human things that constantly get in the way.  Our choice must be to work at it even if we know we are ultimately going to fail.  We must hold to the values of the Kingdom of God in face of conflicting tradition.  Otherwise, if we are just here to pay lip service, if we are just hoping that our car is seen in the church parking lot or we are here to show off to our friends, then we are hypocrites and we will be called to account for that one day.  Go out and try your best.  Then try a little harder.  God commands us to love, and shows us through the life of Jesus Christ how to do it best.  God knows we are not going to be experts at it, but God also knows that in our hearts we are not hypocrites.

Sunday, August 26, 2018 – Proper 16

Proper 16 Year B 2018; August 26th
Kevin Gore – St Andrew’s Mountain Home

Those of you who have been here at any point in the last four weeks will know by now that Jesus is the bread of life.  Figuratively and literally.  Amen.

Just kidding!  There is actually quite a bit to say today to finish up this last of the readings from the Gospel of John.  We indeed have come to the end of the Bread of Life discourse, and over the last four weeks we have heard in our Gospel lessons a story about Jesus performing miracles and teaching.  The miracles were easy to swallow (pardon the pun) but the teachings have been less so.  Last week we dove into some of the history and theology around what it means for Jesus to be the bread of life, the bread and the wine to be the body and the blood.  It was important to acknowledge that we make room in this tradition for a wide array of beliefs and while we all come to the table with a different understanding of the Eucharist, we all know that somehow, someway, that is where we encounter the incarnate Christ.

A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting to fellow clergy that Lectionary Year B, the Season after Pentecost, is not the time to be newly ordained and working as the only preacher in a parish.  The Bread of Life discourse can at times seem very repetitive, and one begins to feel as if there is nothing left to say but continually repeat ‘I am the bread of life’.  But, I’ve also noticed a very subtle yet important story in this five week Gospel layout.  The Gospel of John is never very good at making things linear, so in this discourse it’s quite possible the whole conversation around Jesus being the bread of life is spread out through multiple events, not just immediately after the feeding of the five thousand or in the synagogue in Capernaum.  What this does lead to though is today’s pitch.  This is the highest, or perhaps lowest point in this narrative.  This is the revelation that comes from Jesus laying down the Truth about who he is, what he is, and what’s going to happen.

Today many of the disciples turned back.  This is where some of the group said, “This is just too much. I’m out.” and walk away.  The twelve stay, though I’m sure they have their doubts.  Doubts are not synonymous with lacking faith.  Doubts are not the same as not having any belief at all in who Jesus is or what he has come to do.  Let’s be clear about something.  Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ is not easy, and it’s not meant to be.  Even Jesus, in the garden at Gethsemane, prays for ‘this cup’ to pass him by if it be the Father’s will.  Even Jesus, who knows what is to come, knows how it must be done, reaches a point on that path that he hesitates at.  The truth of the matter is if you stay on the path of following Jesus, if you take to heart his commandments and live as best you can in the truth of the Gospel, people are going to shake their heads and turn away sometimes because for them it’s just too far.  When we put the values of the kingdom of God ahead of anything else in this world, we are accused of being too much, of perhaps undercutting the values of a particular country or culture.  Programs by churches to feed or house the homeless are attacked for bringing the wrong sort of people into affluent neighborhoods.  There are countless stories in this country alone where those who would remain firmly in the teachings of Jesus Christ have been taken to court or ridiculed for not bowing down to the other gods so many people would worship.

These lectionary readings this week, all taken together really paint a picture that is timeless.  They offer up reflections of the human condition at any age.  Joshua is dividing up the people, is telling them it’s time to make a decision.  Are you following the other gods or are you going to follow the one, true God?  Those gods that the people’s ancestors served might just as easily be translated today into the gods of popular cultural adoration.  Of extravagant wealth, or nationalism run amok, of war, of violence, of addictions.  They are the gods that our ancestors have always been seduced by, and I suspect that our descendents will also be tempted by.  That is the way of our broken condition, of our imperfect attempt at living out the Gospel.

Paul knows very well how difficult that is and will be until that last day.  In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, he gives them an image to hold on to in their spiritual battle for the Kingdom of God.  This image, which they are going to be very familiar with, is that of a soldier, not unlike the roman soldiers who they are constantly hiding from or at an uneasy peace with during the times of the persecutions.  But Paul is also very clear that this is in no way referring to physical armament.  Paul writes, “for our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”  These enemies to which we must gird ourselves with spiritual armor are the structures of power that lift up those who profit off human lives lost due to famine, war, pestilence, and plague.  To Paul this is the Roman government especially, to Joshua it is the doubt and struggles of the people who have wandered in a wilderness for forty years.  For Jesus it is rewriting the very core values of our most basic human nature that constantly struggle against the way which we, as Christians, are called to.

Let me say it again.  When we live out the way that Jesus calls us to, when we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to its absolute truest, when we show by word and deed what we believe God expects of us, there are those that will say, “this is just too much” and turn away.  Sometimes because it seems incredulous.  Sometimes because it seems too hard or not rewarding enough of a path.  But Simon Peter says it best, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” We have been shown the path, how can we turn away when we know in our hearts where God is calling us?

Today’s Gospel reading ends with verse sixty nine, but the sixth chapter of John has seventy one verses.  This chapter ends, “Jesus answered them (meaning Simon Peter and the twelve), “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray Jesus.”  Jesus chose all of them, even Judas.  Jesus calls us all to follow, knowing very well that we aren’t always going to be so good at the task.  Judas isn’t even the only disciple Jesus calls a devil in the gospels.  When Peter tries to talk Jesus out of going through with what he has already said must come to pass, that he must die, he says to Peter that very famous line, ‘Get behind me Satan!’

So here it is.  Jesus has called you.  Jesus calls you to a way lived in the values of the Kingdom of God.  Calls you to a life trying your best to follow in the footsteps of the God who became flesh, and for his actions against the powers and principalities of the world was beaten, mocked, and crucified.  God knows this is scary, is incredulous, is at times too much; but if we can take on that spiritual armor against the world, we might be able find it just a little easier sometimes taking another step when we fumble.  And in the end, we should also remember that the disciples that walked away from Jesus were still saved.  Our salvation is not based on our works.  Our works instead is acting on the call to living the Kingdom values that Jesus continues to offer us every single day we are here on this earth.

Take time in your day to think about the values of the Kingdom of God and where Christ calls you to re-imagine life.  If it seems like it’s too much, if it seems like it flies in the face of ‘conventional wisdom’, if you are tempted to turn away, you might just be on to something.

Sunday, August 19, 2018 – Proper 15

Sermon – Year B, Proper 15, 2018
Kevin Gore

Have you ever been talking with someone, or listening to a public speaker, and really liking what they are saying?  Feeling deep down that this person must be tapped in to a greater wisdom or a clearer understanding of life, or perhaps talking to you about ways to change life that seem so wonderful and right?  And then that person says something incredibly ludicrous and it brings you up short, thinking ‘wait, what?  What did they just say?  No thanks.  They can sell their crazy elsewhere.’

Well, that’s very much what the scene looks like in today’s Gospel.  Jesus is teaching the multitudes, talking to them about metaphorical bread of life and how he is that bread to the people.  This makes some sense to the people gathered.  After all, Jesus did just have the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, it’s near the Passover, life is really quite terrible at that time, and the people could very easily begin to see Jesus as their new Moses to lead them against a contemporary ‘Pharoah’, Herod their king.  In the midst of this discourse though everything comes to a screeching halt.  Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  I can just imagine a small gasp going up from the crowd, and everyone looking around at each other as if to say, “did he really just say what I think he said?”  Jesus continues to press the point, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”  Even his disciples aren’t so sure about this anymore.  Not only does the concept of literally eating the flesh of a person and drinking their blood stand as inconceivable taboos in our modern sensibilities, to the first century Jewish people it is a gross violation of their purity laws.  If such a thing is inconceivable today, it certainly wouldn’t even be spoken of then.

Jesus does not back down on this. He reiterates it several times.  And notice that he says his flesh is the bread of heaven.  He’s not just saying ‘my body’, but ‘my flesh’.  That word is so much more visceral, so much more descriptive.  John’s Gospel wants to be very explicit here, wants no doubt about what this means, and what Jesus said.  This explanation is found in all of the Gospels at some point; in the Synoptic Gospels it is more poignant in the story of the Last Supper.  This description becomes the cornerstone of the principal act of Christian worship, and continues from the earliest days to today.  Regardless of theology or belief, this doesn’t change.

The emphasis changes.  I remember growing up in a nondenominational evangelical church.  When we took communion once a month, the emphasis was always with the words, ‘do this in remembrance of me’.  The Roman Catholic church is firmly rooted in its doctrine of transubstantiation…a long word to say that through a process not quite understood by human minds, the bread and the wine are completely changed into the body and blood of Christ.  They no longer contain any substance of bread and wine.  This theology is very much rooted in Aristotelian philosophy, but is where in the Western Christian Tradition, the different branches begin.  During the Protestant Reformations different reformers have varied explanations of what the bread and wine are.  Some say it is a memorial, like a token you keep of a departed loved one to remember them by.  Others say it is like an ember from a fire.  It is not longer the fire, but it still glows hot with the heat from it.  Others strip it down to a simple act of communal eating.

As technology advances in the modern world, so too theologians have to continue to rethink real presence.   From the idea of transubstantiation comes Transignification.  Modern Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx uses the term to discuss the presence of Christ in the bread and wine in light of modern understandings of reality and physics.  In the Anglican tradition we often hear the term ‘consubstantiation’ even though it’s not official doctrine.  This says that the bread and the wine are indeed the body of blood of Jesus Christ, but are still of also the substance of bread and wine.

Hang in there with me…don’t go to sleep…this all does lead somewhere.  Let’s check in on our Orthodox brothers and sisters.  By the Declaration of the Synod of the Eastern Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem in 1672, “[Jesus is present] truly and really, so that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, the bread is transmuted, transubstantiated, converted and transformed into the true Body Itself of the Lord, Which was born in Bethlehem of the ever-Virgin, was baptized in the Jordan, suffered, was buried, rose again, was received up, sits at the right hand of the God and Father, and is to come again in the clouds of Heaven; and the wine is converted and transubstantiated into the true Blood Itself of the Lord, Which as He hung upon the Cross, was poured out for the life of the world.”  They are very, very clear that the bread and wine is only body and blood.  But the thing about this is there has never been a theological definition of how that happens.  That, my friends, is left to be a mystery of the most High God.

Now, Martin Luther wanted to make sure it wasn’t confusing and went so far as to say that when Jesus says, “my flesh” that this 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” Luther taught that if you believed this was actually the body and blood, you had missed the point.  But then there is St. John Chrysostom; one of the early Church Fathers coming out of the 5th Century.  He wrote that is for those Christ feeds to, “fix their teeth in His flesh and to be commingled with Him.”  In the early years of Christianity, one of the charges leveled against Christians during the persecutions was that they were cannibals, based in what reports were coming back about all this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood.

So what about today.  Here in this church.  When we stand around that table and say the Eucharistic prayers, we remember, through the words of institution, ‘On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”  We use language which has its foundation in the crafting of the 1662 prayerbook, to balance out both Protestant and Catholic doctrines.  We say ‘take them in REMEMBRANCE that Christ died for you, and FEED ON HIM IN YOUR HEARTS BY FAITH.  We walk a line between the two because what this comes down to is a simple truth: every person sitting in this room needs to decide how they approach this altar and what it is they are receiving when they come for communion.  In our tradition we will not tell you one or the other.  We will not decry that one is correct and the other heresy.  There are some Anglicans who have a very high theology of real presence to the point where they partake of the adoration and benediction of the blessed sacrament.  A service of prayer and adoration before a consecrated host wafer that you don’t touch or eat, only revere as the actual presence of Christ in your midst.   I have participated in that type of service.  I’m not sure it’s quite for me, but I have my own personal beliefs around the presence of Christ in the bread and wine.

I have intentionally been a bit overboard this week with quoting erudite sources on matters of Eucharist doctrine.  I wanted to show you the breadth of what exists and how far some people go to explain what is truly a mystery.  No matter what your belief is around the bread and wine, the most important thing you can latch on to is that God’s love, through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is physically remembered by us on a weekly basis when we sink our teeth into these little wafers.  Whether this is wafer or flesh, it is our weekly affirmation of our baptism, of our salvation, of our community.  This is the one moment in which we touch the divine like no other time in our day to day life; where we are at once fully reconciled with God and with those gathered around us for just a moment.  It is our momentary brushing up against the future Kingdom of God, the already and not yet.  So whatever your Eucharistic theology or piety, what matters is that you come to the table, you seek the sacrament of communion, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to take a little vision of God’s love out into our broken world once more.

 

The Rev. Kevin Gore, AF

Deacon-in-Charge

Sunday, August 12, 2018 – Proper 14

We are in week three of our journey through the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John.  We have two more weeks to try and grasp the nature of salvation in Christ and what it means that he is the Bread of Life.  No pressure.

At times though we are content to leave some things to be mysteries of faith.  That’s not necessarily bad. There are many aspects of the Christian faith that our Orthodox brothers and sisters are content to simply explain that it is a mystery.  In the Western tradition we are never content and so we send theologians and philosophers down rabbit trails trying to explain the truest natures of God. Which even from the beginning we know cannot be fully explained.  Yet they try all the same.

One thing that is not much of a mystery is that there are a couple of difficult parts to today’s Gospel and I want to focus on those, talk through them a but and offer some context, both literary and theological.  Now, anyone who was following along with me realized very quickly that I read more than what’s on your bulletin inserts. Let me explain that. The Revised Common Lectionary, the collection of readings laid out for use in many mainline Protestant traditions, has left out a portion of the Gospel.  I think this was done rather intentionally.

Left out are verses 36 through 40: “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

One of the reasons why this section may have been left out is that it is, taken with the rest of the discourse, theologically difficult to untangle from a very Calvinist understanding of Predestination.  One can begin to insinuate that only certain people are ‘drawn to the father’ as Jesus says, and those few are raised up on the last day. This is, of course, not what is meant by this passage, but it certainly has been appropriated in the past.  It could be that the editors felt it was simply repetitive in the discourse. But I decided to leave it in. I did this because it paints this scene with a broader brush. It lends depth to the conversation and interaction between Jesus and those gathered.

While not flipping tables in the temple levels of confrontational Jesus is making his feelings pretty clear here to the people gathered that their doubt and their questions are based in the same parallel to the people that were following Moses in the wilderness and no matter what God provided them, they asked for something more.  Jesus is offering a different path than the one these people currently live, but to grasp it, to understand that this is about more than just eating your fill sitting on the abundant grass is going to take some work.

Now, before I talk about more about what Jesus is calling us to, there is one other quick point to make.  It is always incumbent upon those that preach to address places in sacred text that have been historically problematic.  In this case I’m looking specifically at verse 41. “The Jews began to complain about him…” The Gospel of John can at times make us very uncomfortable in how it addresses the role of the jewish people in the narrative.  And this is one of those moments. The Gospel of John is written at a time when the early Christians were separating their identity from the other Jewish sects. They were emerging as something other than another group like the Pharisees or the Essenes.  So the author of this Gospel then is writing into it a clear distinction between the Jewish people and Jesus and his followers. It’s part of the reason that this Gospel also attempts to put the blame of the crucifixion on the Jewish people, but we will have plenty of opportunity to talk about that in a few months.

The other use of writing this way is that these nameless groups of Jewish people that are saying things like muttering against Jesus is more of a literary device that acts like the chorus of a classical Greek play.  It’s not to say these things aren’t being muttered about Jesus, it’s more to show that we don’t have a clear understanding of who said them, but it’s important to be said. I know that seems like a little bit of a segue, but as I said, it is the responsibility of a preacher to cast like on the sticky places in our Holy Scripture. Now, that muttering does really serve a purpose.  These questions could be rhetorical. Who is this Jesus who is saying he’s come down from Heaven? We watched him grow up. Joseph is his father. Surely he isn’t some celestial being!

They can’t accept this idea that Jesus, the Christ incarnate, the Logos, is sent by God for the salvation of humanity.  They are failing, as Bishop Larry put it so well last week, to see the good in what they’ve got right in front of them. Jesus is trying to explain to them that he’s like the manna from heaven, but that the result of eating this other bread is different from the bread of their ancestors.  The people that had gathered and were fed only felt satiated for a small time. When the next day came they were physically hungry again. What Jesus is teaching them now is not that following Jesus means you will never go hungry.

I have talked to you about abundance and how living into the abundance of the Kingdom of God is important in following Jesus.  So I don’t want it to get confusing here that Jesus is refuting that abundance. He’s not. What he is making clear is that he is greater than any miracle of feeding the multitude and that following him, taking into ourselves fully the path that Christ lays out for us is how we take hold of the faith of an abundant existence for all eternity.  He’s talking about being gathered into the loving embrace of God and on that last day entering into the joy of the eternal Kingdom.

Jesus knows that here in this world there is still suffering, and there always will be.  He knows that no matter how many times you feed the five thousand, they will be hungry again the next morning.  So the next step is to show them a path to an existence that will one day be truly free of all that strife. That doesn’t mean we don’t work to do those things Christ asks of us in the here and now.  Feeding people, reaching out to those in pain and need, those are effects of the Christian life. First we feed on the bread of Heaven, and strengthen ourselves with the Good News of Salvation and God’s love.  Then we reflect that all out to the world in the best, human, here and now ways we can. I dare say that is something you and I can always be working to improve in ourselves.

 

The Rev. Kevin Gore, AF

Deacon-in-Charge

Sunday, July 29, 2018 – Proper 12

Through the written word and the spoken word, may we hear the Living Word, our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This week our readings come from Proper 12, Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.  The reason that is of any interest outside of being really into lectionary patterns, is that this week begins what is jokingly referred to as PANecost, or BreadTide, but is truly known as the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse.  The Gospel lesson from John serves as both a beginning and an end.  First, it is the climax in the buildup of the last several Sunday’s Gospel from Mark.  It serves as the dramatic high point in Jesus’ early ministry.  It’s also the beginning of what we will continue to explore for the next four weeks after this.

We will have the opportunity to exam what Jesus being the bread of life means in relation to salvation, to the Eucharist, and to our call as followers of Christ.  But today…John’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand.  Jesus takes those five barley loaves from the little boy, and the two fish, and feeds the multitudes, the crowd gathered.  Now, it’s tempting, so very tempting to take the easy road.  The slow pitch, and talk about feeding the hungry.  But, that would be phoning it in a little more than I’m comfortable with.  We already have many ministries here to reach out to those in need.  And as a congregation, I would say we aren’t necessarily a crowd that needs to hear about the importance of feeding the hungry.  There is something else though I think we can talk about from this story.  Something that I struggle with, I think most people do; something that I don’t have any easy answers for.  I only have questions, confusion, consternation, and lots of harrumphs.  When we look past the very basic elements of an act like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering those who are in need, we find something deeper, more elemental to the emotional and physical actions we take.  Something that, as a society, over the years we have lost more and more of, mostly to fear.  I’m referring to hospitality.

Now I realize that here in the South, hospitality is a little more present than the world I’ve come from.  It’s a little more expected and a little more a part of the fabric of polite society here.  But I think there is that formal type of hospitality and then there is the type of radical hospitality that Jesus shows us.

Let me offer a couple examples from the book Practicing our Faith, by Dorothy Bass.  A catholic priest was telling a gathering of friends about a time when he arrived in Israel late on a Friday afternoon, just as everything was about to shut down for the Sabbath.  Public transportation was no longer available, and the house where the people were expecting him was fifteen miles away.  So he picked up his suitcase and started to walk.  He did not get far before a family saw him and invited him to spend the Sabbath with them.  He accepted their invitation, and they all had a wonderful time.  When Saturday evening came, he found his bus and went on his way.  After the priest finished his story, a Jewish friend said that he had had a similar experience while traveling through Spain as a young adult.  One night, he got off a train in a village that was already asleep.  A little frightened, he approached the only lighted place. It turned out to be a monastery, and the monks received him gladly.  After his departure, he discovered that they had quietly slipped some coin into his pocket as he slept.

In both of these stories, we get glimpses of ancient traditions sustaining ways of life that shelter and nourish people, ways of life ready to receive strangers who are passing through.  The hospitality these two young men received came from communities structured with hospitality in mind.  In each of these places, hospitality was more than an individual act of kindness – it was sustained by a way of life.  What would happen in our society today if young men like these were wandering through?  Perhaps they would be fortunate and find a safe place to rest.  But they, or others not so different from them, might not.  Is there not a crisis of hospitality in our society?  It is tragically evident in the existence of a huge unhoused population, in the widespread hostility to immigrants, or those that we like to label as ‘different’.  But it affects almost everyone in less noticeable ways as well.  A stranger smiles, and we might be instinctively cautious of their motives.  In our retreat from hospitality, we find that even friends and relatives sit at our tables less often than they used to.

I am no stranger to this myself.  As an example, I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker. I saw many of them on my drive across the country to Arkansas. I’ve seen them around here too, as I drive around this area, to Batesville, to Little Rock.  After all the history of people being hurt by those using kindness as a trap, do you think I’ve ever stopped?  No, I haven’t.  And that’s why I say I don’t have any good answers, because the fear that is so basic to our survival, so instinctual to react to the horrors, darkness, and evil we hear of occurring in our world gets the better of me.  I’m not saying I’d ever encourage anyone to stop.  And yet, that is the same fear that we hear in the disciples’ voices in our Gospel lesson.  Philip says, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  How many times have we argued with ourselves about giving money to the person on the street when our rent or mortgage is due, or donating to organizations helping those less fortunate when we are struggling with our own bills.  How many of you have thought of just inviting them in to your own table?  I’ve certainly thought about it, but I’ve never actually done it.  My favorite grace, I take from the Celtic Daily Prayer book that the Northumbria Community publishes.  It’s entitled the Shabbat Grace.  It says Bless, O Lord, this food we are about to eat; and we pray You, O God, that it may be good for our body and soul; and if there be any poor creature hungry or thirsty walking along the road, send them into us that we can share the food with them, just as You share your gifts with all of us.  Now, granted, this grace is a little wordy, and not as easy to memorize, so I don’t use it as often.  But, I want to think that the words are eternal, that I really mean it now and always.  Because when we set aside our fear, our assumptions of scarcity, that is when we encounter fully the Grace that is God, that is Jesus Christ and the kingdom that is offered to us.

Instead, most of the time, that assumption of scarcity is what is most prominent.  We have to be always ready to give of ourselves, and give abundantly trusting in that Kingdom of God at hand.  To trust in that abundant grace.  In the tenth chapter of John (10:10) Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  That is precisely what Jesus shows us in the feeding of the five thousand.  Is this not, if anything, life abundant?  Now, granted, this isn’t a ‘water into the choicest wine’ kind of situation.  As I said previously this understanding of Grace is not a prosperity Gospel…far from those misguided teachings.  The feeding of the five thousand is with barley loaves, which, at the time of Jesus are not the delicious manna of heaven.  We’re not talking about artisan loaves from Grandpa Harps.  This is rough bread, the bread of the poorest people.  But not only is there enough to feed the people gathered to their fill, but twelve baskets of leftovers.  Remember, this is just after the disciples return from their going out.  This is still the time and point when Herod’s kingdom is failing to even so much as feed the people.  God’s abundance breaks out in the midst of perceived scarcity.  That is what the Kingdom of God is like.  Grace is more bread than you can even eat, when it seems like there won’t be enough, and to have so many baskets left over.  And it really stands out to me in John’s telling of this story that Jesus himself feeds the people.  In the other tellings he sends the disciples out with the food, but here Jesus, after telling the people to sit down in the grass, feeds them himself.  Some scholars will point to this as the moment of institution of the Eucharist for the Gospel of John, as there is no institution narrative in the last supper for this Gospel.  So here these people are sitting out on the abundant grass, it probably is waving in the breeze coming off the Sea of Galilee, and being fed in the abundance of the Kingdom by Jesus.  ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.’  We’ve heard that somewhere recently, right?

Somewhere in all of this confusion, consternation, in the midst of not having the right answers to the really tough questions, is God’s grace, is Jesus Christ showing us abundance.  Take that with you this week.  I can’t in good conscience tell you to pick up hitchhikers, or invite the people flying a sign in to your home, because I haven’t conquered that fear yet myself.  But I can encourage you to think about abundance, about grace, about the hospitality of the Kingdom of God and our way of Christian life that sustains such a practice.  Go out into the world with Grace and abundance in your heart, break bread with others, that there might be more than you can fill yourselves with.  Give thanks to God always for the grace that is given us.  Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Take up your cross, go, follow Christ and live in the abundant Grace of the Kingdom of God.