Saint Search

Scripture: Mark 12:28-34 ~

Chapters 11 through 13 are Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem; this week’s text concludes a series of challenges Jesus met when he returned to the temple in Jerusalem for a third day.

David speaking from the pulpit

If you prefer to watch the video of Rev. Weekley delivering this sermon, click the image above to go to the St. Nicholas Facebook page.

Jesus had asserted his personal authority by ousting the money changers and animal-sellers from the temple courtyard on his second visit, so it is not surprising that the religious authorities — the Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes — banded together to try to discredit Jesus when he appears at the temple a third time.

The first three of these confrontations (Mark 11:27-33; 12:13-17; 12:18-27) were unquestionably nasty and combative in nature — the establishment authorities were on the attack. But this fourth and final challenge has a different atmosphere. To being with, an individual scribe is singled out, speaking, it would seem, for himself and not as a representative of any group.

The fact that Mark describes this individual as having just “come up” also seems to distinguish him from the previous gathering of Pharisees and scribes. It is not entirely clear from the text whether the “them” this scribe hears arguing consists of Jesus and this group of religious authorities, or the group muttering among itself.

Whatever the case, this scribe is immediately impressed with Jesus’ answers.

Consequently, unlike the baiting, belligerent questions posed by the others to test Jesus, this scribe’s inquiry seems to arise from a sense of respect for Jesus’ opinion and insight.

“Which commandment is the first of all?” he asks (Mark 12:28).

The first half of Jesus’ reply is hardly astonishing. He quickly asserts that the Shema (taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-5), the prayer recited every morning and evening by pious Jews, is “first” among the commandments. The Shema (named for its first word in Hebrew, shema (“hear”) combines a theological statement with an ethical mandate.

First, it confesses that God is one and that God is in a special relationship with Israel.

Second, it demands a profound personal response on the part of each person who would confess this truth — to love this God. The totality of this love extends to all aspects of the human being.

The second half of Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question comes from Leviticus 19:18. When coupled with the mandates of the Shema, this commandment links personal piety to active ethical behavior. The term plesion, “neighbor,” is an adverb being used as a noun. The context, however, makes it clear that Jesus has in mind the Hebrew re’a or “fellow citizen,” or even more generally, “fellow human.”

Jesus fully intends these “two” commandments to be as one inseparable mandate.

Jesus concludes “there is no other commandment greater than these” — inferring that these commands should be designated as numbers 1 and 1, not 1 and 2.

Jesus’ final words to the scribe also differentiate this exchange from the earlier combative challenges Jesus had faced that day. Mark’s text, which generally has few good things to say about the religious authorities, specifically compliments this scribe (he “answered wisely”). Jesus’ response is also unique. When he announces that this scribe is “not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34).

Pheme Perkins observed that this exchange between Jesus and the scribe becomes itself something of an illustration of the Great Commandment. “Because they join together in the conviction that there is no commandment greater than love of God and neighbor, they are able to treat each other as neighbors” (“The Gospel of Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995], 679). They have stepped away from “us versus them” categories, and created an island of reconciliation in a sea of hostility. Their common devotion to God and neighbor silences the debate, and Mark reports, “After that no one dared to ask him any question”

What a good text to consider on All Saints Sunday.

What is a saint, anyway? And how does one go about finding one – or being one?!

Today’s passage from Mark provides a few hints.

Someone asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment, and he responds by citing the Shema — “Hear, O Israel … you shall love the Lord your God” — and adding “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31).

When the questioner affirms Jesus’ response, Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom.”(v.34)

Even though this curious questioner is not a bona fide, official disciple, they are able to grasp and accept the truth of Jesus’ teaching.

If, in Jesus, God is on a saint search, looking for people headed for the kin-dom.

The necessary qualifications appear to be 1. Acknowledgment that God is God, and then acknowledging that love flows in two directions, to God, and to our neighbor.

A saint is not anyone special:

A saint is simply a person who lives out an intense devotion to both God and neighbor.

But can we spot them? Not necessarily, at least not at first glance.

Fanny Crosby seated at her piano

Fanny Crosby, American evangelist

As I shared with the children earlier, Fanny Crosby is one of those persons considered a saint by many because of her devotion to God and neighbor through her gifts of music, composition, and dedication to helping the poor.

Fanny Crosby resisted praise and any attempts to portray her work as anything but ordinary. She saw herself as a simple woman seeking to live the gospel — a person who demonstrated nothing more than an intense devotion to both God and neighbor.

Crosby was “the most prolific of all nineteenth-century American sacred song writers”.[74] By the end of her career she had written almost 9,000 hymns,[2][33] using scores of noms de plume assigned to her by publishers who wanted to disguise the proliferation of her compositions in their publications.[10][196]

One of my favorite hymns composed by Fanny Crosby is “Blessed Assurance.”

There are six other of her hymns in our hymnal: “To God be the Glory,” “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Close to Thee,” “I Am Thine, O Lord,” and Rescue the Perishing.”

Crosby described her hymn-writing process: ‘It may seem a little old-fashioned, always to begin one’s work with prayer, but I never undertake a hymn without first asking the good Lord to be my inspiration.’ Her capacity for work was incredible and often she would compose six or seven hymns a day.

While Crosby will probably always be best known for her hymns, she wanted to be seen primarily as a rescue mission worker. According to Keith Schwanz, “At the end of her life, Fanny’s concept of her vocation was not that of a celebrated gospel songwriter, but that of a city mission worker.

In an interview that was published in the March 24, 1908, issue of the New Haven Register, Fanny said that her chief occupation was working in missions.[67] Although, according to Schwanz: “Many of Fanny’s hymns emerged from her involvement in the city missions”, including “More Like Jesus” (1867); “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour” (1868);[234] and “Rescue the Perishing” (1869),[235] which became the “theme song of the home missions movement”, and was “perhaps the most popular city mission song”, with its “wedding of personal piety and compassion for humanity”. (love of God and neighbor) Crosby celebrated the rescue mission movement in her 1895 hymn, “The Rescue Band.”

But wait, not everyone’s a saint: in fact, most are far from it.

What about those who are a long way from the kin-dom, or at least on a significant detour?

How did they lose their way? And how can they find their way back?

Some get lost because they never received good directions from parents or other mentors.

Some have never learned how to listen for guidance from God.

Others stray because their judgment is clouded — debilitated by the struggles of daily life.

Still others race after big thrills and big money, risking the loss of heart, soul and mind in the process.

But there is always hope because God is always saint-searching, always reaching out, especially to those who are lost, as Jesus’ life testified, inviting all into the new life of loving God and neighbor.

Author and theologian Kathleen Norris, says salvation begins — in the sudden awareness that a particular path is leading to death, the naming of something as “wrong,” and taking steps to turn away from it.

Salvation is continued in the unexpected and astounding grace of God to continue freeing people from whatever is holding them in bondage or preventing them from continuing to become all they are meant to be in Christ.

The way back to the right path — the kin-dom path — always begins at the very same place:

At the point where God in Christ reaches across miles of missteps and a multitude of failures and frustrations, and wraps healing arms around the shoulders of wayward, seeking souls, guiding them forward on the best path.

This is what God did for Franny Crosby in her life; her hymn compositions, advocacy for the blind, and rescue mission work are expressions of her response.

God is on a saint search, and it is not only perfect people who are going to be found.

There may be some who are born with the natural ability to love God with the totality of heart, soul, mind and strength, 24/7/365 — but for most of us, this passion and power come only after we discover that God has always loved us, and that this love precedes our own.

And all God asks of us, as Jesus said, is that we respond with that same level of passion … loving God in return with all our heart, soul, mind and strength … and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

It does not take great or heroic acts to put love of God and neighbor into practice.

One of my favorite saintly stories:

During the course of earning her master’s degree, [a woman] found it necessary to commute several times a week from Victory [Vermont] to the state university in Burlington, a good hundred miles away. Coming home late at night, she would see an old man sitting by the side of her road. He was always there, in subzero temperatures, in stormy weather, no matter how late she returned. He made no acknowledgment of her passing. The snow settled on his cap and shoulders as if he were merely another gnarled old tree.

She often wondered what brought him to that same spot every evening — what stubborn habit, private grief or mental disorder. I wonder if she didn’t sometimes begin to doubt her senses, or believe in ghosts.

Finally, she asked a neighbor of hers, “Have you ever seen an old man who sits by the road late at night?”

“Oh, yes,” said her neighbor, “many times.”

“Is he … a little touched upstairs? Does he ever go home?”

“He’s no more touched than you or me,” her neighbor laughed. “And he goes home right after you do. You see, he doesn’t like the idea of you driving by yourself out late all alone on these back roads, so every night he walks out to wait for you.

When he sees your taillights disappear around the bend, and he knows you’re okay, he goes home to bed.”

There are many “saints” like this anonymous neighbor, people who are never officially recognized for their love of God and other people.

You have named of the saints of St. Nicholas for me over the last year: Tommeye Reed and Snooky Johnson are two names that come to mind.

Who are some others? Please, leave their names in the comments and say a prayer for each of them.

 

“What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your kingdom?” (Matthew 20:21). … We have been tempted to replace love with power.”

–Henri Nouwen,

in Mornings With Henri J.M. Nouwen,

quoted in Christianity Today,

February 8, 1999, 72.

Saints have learned how to resist the temptation to replace love with power.

Like Franny Crosby, and like those beloved saints we name and claim personally in this community, may we learn to resist this temptation as well, inviting Christ to shape us into the unique saints we are created to be.

Every Sunday for nearly three years Walter had a routine. Just before 10:00 a.m. he would open the doors to Epworth and prepare the church for worship. If the weather was cold, he would build a fire in the old wood stove. If it was hot, he would open all the windows and distribute the hand fans with a picture of Jesus on one side and an ad for a local funeral home on the other.

Next, Walter would open the Bible located on top of the wooden pulpit and read the selected Scripture for that week. Then it would be time for prayer. Often there were folks in the community included on Walter’s list. The latest national and world news would be mentioned.

But always, Walter ended every prayer with a plea for God to remember and bless his beloved church.

Every Sunday, Walter had a routine, but what makes this story so unique is that with very few exceptions, Walter began and ended the Sunday morning worship service … alone. Alone? Why?

Many years ago, Epworth church was built on land donated by a neighboring farmer, but if for any reason they stopped meeting regularly, if Walter stopped opening the church doors every Sunday, the property would revert to the original owners … Epworth church would cease to exist.

So what is the big deal? If Walter is the only one bothering to attend, let him go somewhere else or stay at home. Why not face the inevitable and allow Epworth to quietly disappear? What harm would it do? For Walter, it was a big deal. God had a divine purpose for his life and for the church he loved. But for now, Walter must be patient, be faithful … and wait. Wait for what? …

One Sunday morning a young family, new to the area, visited Epworth and after meeting Walter joined him in worship. They found something unique about this little church nestled among the trees and the old man who faithfully opened her doors. On the following Sunday they came back and within a few weeks the children were bringing friends. At year’s end a minister was hired.

Today, Epworth is a small family church situated between several farms and hidden among the trees. Every summer they offer vacation Bible school for the neighborhood and each Christmas is celebrated with a pageant performed by the children. Many of the original family have died and some of the children have moved away, but the miracle of Epworth has never been forgotten.

On the first Sunday of August, people come from across the United States to visit the church of their youth and relive the miracle of the old man who refused to let his beloved church die. The worship service is followed by a picnic on the church grounds. While the children are playing and the adults are eating, you may notice a family wandering over to the nearby cemetery. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a parent telling her child, “Let me tell you a story about Walter …”

–Larry Davies, “Turning Points:

A Church, the Messiah … Wait! Why?”

December 15 & December 22, 1999

Bonus Video: Blessed Assurance by Total Woman Foundation (TOWOF), Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria


 

Originally delivered November 1, 2015 — All Saints Sunday — by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

  • Fanny Crosby by W. J. Searle, Everett. Massachusetts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Transcleral Light Therapy / Presbyopia

Scripture: Mark 10:46-52 ~

I still remember the day I realized my vision had changed. It was during Sunday morning worship and I was leading the closing hymn.

For some odd reason my arm would simply not extend out far enough for me to focus on the words!

Presbyopia. This is not a religious disease, like something only Presbyterians catch.

Older man with glasses having trouble seeing cell phone.Presbyopia is a common vision problem. It comes from presby (meaning “elder/old”) and opia (meaning “eye, or having to do with sight”).

Presbyopia is the slow deterioration of close-up focus. It develops when the clear lens of the eye loses its elasticity. Elasticity changes focus, and focus sometimes determines whether you order shrimp scampi or sirloin steak.

Until recently, presbyopia was most often treated with inexpensive reading glasses or repeated laser surgeries as the disease progresses.

But switching between reading and distance glasses is irritating. You juggle not just four eyes but six. People usually stash several pairs of cheap readers in all the places they read — one by the nightstand, one in the office, one lost in the couch cushions. But none seem to be around when the cell phone rings.

Laser treatment is gaining popularity, but although lasers are effective, many are still skeptical of the concept and find the cost prohibitive.

Eighty-five million Americans have presbyopia and are looking for better solutions than glasses and expensive surgeries, including myself.

Just last week I learned of another option for treating presbyopia: Transcleral Light Therapy.

A light beam is aimed at the ciliary muscles (the lens focusers), increasing their strength and flexibility. After five 10-minute sessions and periodic tune-up treatments, patients report that their glasses are obsolete.

In other words, application of Light sharpens our focus on the world.

I was drawn to how this form of physical light therapy parallels the spiritual message of today’s gospel; the story of blind Bartimaeus is something of a spiritual Transcleral Light Therapy.

According to the text Bartimaeus had sight at one time, but somewhere along the way lost his vision — whether as the result of aging, disease, or injury, we do not know.

We do know Bartimaeus has two strikes against him — he is blind, and he is begging.

In Jesus’ culture, that was a perfect condition for being overlooked by society.

Blindness was considered a sign of sin, and beggars were treated as outcasts.

As Jesus passed by, Bartimaeus calls out for mercy. But the crowd rebukes him, attempting to keep Bartimaeus in place on the margins (v. 48).

But something, call it faith or intuition told him that this particular Light he perceives in the darkness is his only chance to ever see clearly again, so he yells out even louder.

Ironically, it turns out Bartimaeus was the only person in the crowd who could truly see Jesus that day.

Sculpture "Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus"When the Rabbi asks what Bartimaeus wants Jesus to do for him, Bartimaeus simply says, “My teacher, let me see again” (v. 52).

Bartimaeus knows enough about Jesus to call him Rabbouni, Master Teacher, and has enough personal belief to say “my.”

As Jesus heals him, Jesus connects Bartimaeus’ reception of new sight to his faith.

Blind Bartimaeus somehow depicted at a physical level and understood at a spiritual level a message that remains important to our physical and spiritual well-being today: Application of Light sharpens our focus on the world.

Just as physical sight shifts over time, often imperceptibly until one day we cannot ignore our arms are too short for our eyes to focus on a page, similar changes in spiritual sight can happen as well, until one day we look around and have to admit we no longer have the same spiritual clarity we once did.

This story of Jesus and Bartimaeus invites us to answer Jesus’ question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

What is blurry to you? What do you need to focus on, inside your soul; outside in the world — and how can Jesus sharpen your vision?

In a conversation with two other colleagues last week we talked about this passage and each named a situation that affects many people in our world that is right in front of us but largely hidden: TDOR, Human Trafficking, and Internet Pornography.

TDOR: Transgender Day of Remembrance 2015

Purple transgender symbol with a candle in the centerNo one should be subjected to violence simply because of their gender identity or expression. No one should be denied the basic rights that enable their safety and security. No one should consider taking their own life to escape harassment and bullying. Please join with us on this day to remember our departed friends, loved ones, and community members.

The annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) memorializes individuals who have died throughout the world in the previous year because of anti-transgender hatred. Each November, the worldwide transgender community turns its attention to family, friends and loved ones lost to violence and prejudice.

A tradition inspired by the Allston, MA vigil for slain transsexual Rita Hester in 1998, this day has become the worldwide rallying point for a community long under siege.

How might you and I apply the Light for more focus?

Human Trafficking

White logo on orange background: Not for SaleThe anti-human-trafficking agency Not For Sale reports that there are more than 27 million slaves in the world today. That’s more slaves than were kept at the height of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1800s.

International Justice Mission president Gary Haugen crystallizes this issue with a story. Ten-year-old Kanmani is enslaved as a child laborer in India. She works 10-hour days, six days a week, closing up the ends of cigarettes with a little knife. If she doesn’t work fast enough to make her daily quota of 2,000 cigarettes, her overseer strikes her on the head.

At week’s end, Kanmani receives her weekly wage — roughly 75 cents. She is a  bonded laborer, forced to work because of her family debt. But because she isn’t paid enough to offset the debt interest, she is, in effect, a slave.

Christian theology recognizes the imago Dei in every person — the inherent value of human life, and the movement away from slavery toward liberation.

How might you and I apply the Light for more focus?

Pornography

As opposed to the more public and systemic issues above, pornography is a private pandemic. Consider these staggering numbers:

• Annual porn-industry revenue is larger than the revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo! and Apple combined.

• One in 10 adults admits to Internet sexual addiction. Of those, 28 percent are women.

• In a typical month, more than 70 percent of men ages 18 to 34 visit a pornographic site.

• Every week, more than 20,000 images of child pornography are posted online.

Pornography is a silent, undiscussed killer. It comes out in late hours and darkened rooms. It ruins marriages and families. It skews intimacy. It degrades humanity. It shackles its victims with shame.

How might you and I apply the Light for more focus?

These are only a few of many examples of things happening right in front of us that should be near enough for us to see … but somehow remain blurry and out-of-focus for many.

Only you know what things within and without you need clarity, focus.

Whatever blind-spots seem daunting and unsolvable, our first step is to merely expose ourselves to things that keep us in the darkness.

We need to recognize we need help. We need to pray. We need to read and learn and let the Spirit guide us in the next steps after that.

The coming of Jesus means Light breaking into dark places (John 1:5).

Bartimaeus knew it that day and screamed out in faith to receive sight, knowing there was only one way to receive the sight he needed:

Apply the Light of Christ to sharpen your focus on the world.

The answer is the same today.

May we learn from Bartimaeus’ faith. Amen.

Prayer:

O Christ, we thank you for the light that shines from within! Help us this day to recognize the places, the points of light that shine within us: the light of faith, the light of hope, the light of love!

Regardless of whether or not we see clearly, whether the sun is shining or the rain is falling, remind us that there is a light that you have given us that will never go out.

We pray for light in those places where we need clearer understanding, clarity of purpose; discernment of direction.

We thank you for the faithful example of Bartimaeus, and ask for the courage to cry out to you for the healing and focus we need in life.

So that in a time of war, may our light be a light of peace.

In a time of hate, may our light be a light of love.

In a time of slavery and poverty, may our light be a light of freedom and opportunity.

Bless us this day in all we say and do to be a light to the world.

In the name of Jesus, the Light of the world, we ask and pray. Amen.


 

Originally delivered October 25, 2015, by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

  • Sculpture “Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus” by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861. St John’s Church, Erbach, Rheingau, Hesse, Germany by Haffitt (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Living the Questions

Scripture: Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Mark 10:17-31 ~

The Book of Job is both powerful and profound in its theological discussion about the question, the problem — the tragedy — of evil and suffering.

Screenshot of Facebook video post showing David at the pulpit

If you prefer to watch the video of Rev. Weekley delivering this sermon, click the image above to go to the St. Nicholas Facebook page.

Whenever this book has been the subject of Bible study groups I facilitated it left people with more questions than answers; but this is alright, because the Book of Job is not meant to answer, but rather to raise, important human questions.

English comedian and actor Stephen Fry, a self- avowed atheist was once asked in a television interview what he would ask God if given such an opportunity. Don’t we all have a question or two we’d like to ask of God? Job certainly did.

At one point, the interviewer said to Fry, “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say?”

Fry responded, “Bone cancer in children; what’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world where there is such misery that’s not our fault?” He then added a second question: “Why should I respect a … God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?”

That segment of the interview was soon posted on YouTube, where, within days, it was viewed over 5,000,000 times. Not surprisingly, the responses to the clip ranged from admiration to anger.

You can form your own opinion about Fry as a thinker, but he did sync with many people when he said he’d question why God did certain things we mortals don’t like.

Just imagine that you could be transported to heaven for an hour to talk face to face with God — with the assurance that God would answer one question for you.

What question would you ask?

Perhaps, you’d want to toss around one of these questions:

  • Why do people suffer from cancer? Why is there disease at all?
  • Why are some of us capable of mass shootings or child abuse?
  • Why can’t we have wisdom when we are young and would really benefit from it?
  • Why the evil and brutality of groups such as ISIS?
  • Why the unending conflict in the Middle East?
  • Why such economic injustice and exploitation on earth?

Saturday morning when I read the news of the bombings that happened an Ankara, Turkey I found myself asking God how people can be evil and cruel enough to kill and maim other human beings gathering for a peace rally.

There’s almost no limit to the questions we’d like to ask God, and not just out of idle curiosity.

Many of us are even now experiencing some pain or grief common to the human condition.

We’re invested in the questions we’d ask, and, we think, God’s answers might help us deal with what we cannot understand.

If you watch the Stephen Fry video clip on YouTube, you may notice the passion with which he posed his question.

There’s a palpable, personal anger in this segment that leaves this outspoken atheist looking more than a little like a Job figure, in spite of himself.

Like Stephen Fry, and like many of us, Job and his friends are full of questions.

The 23rd chapter of Job is part of a larger section that includes chapter 24, in which the suffering Job responds to his friends who are attempting to force him to repent of the sins they believe he must have committed.

They see his losses and misery as evidence that he has done something wrong.

Vignette with emaciated Job sitting on rocks beside sacrificed lambs at right, the hand of God clutching a lightning bolt protruding from clouds above.

Headpiece to the Book of Job, Loutherbourg’s Vignettes for Macklin’s Bible.

Job maintains his innocence, but here he also laments that there’s no place where he can put his case before God to receive a verdict of “Not guilty.”

Job says, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him … I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me” (vv. 3-4).

In other words, Job wants an audience with God, and wants God to answer a question or two for him.

Job is confident that if he could only get such an opportunity, he would be acquitted.

If you read the whole book of Job, you will find that while God does eventually respond to Job, God never does answer Job’s question.

Isn’t that how it is for us with many of the questions we have for God?

God is simply not going to answer them. Fry’s unlikely to have his question answered, and we’re unlikely to have ours answered either.

Do you remember the (2003 to 2005) CBS TV series called Joan of Arcadia?

In that show God spoke to a teenage girl, Joan. Initially Joan thinks she can’t be hearing from God, but she eventually learns to trust the voice, and to follow God’s instructions — not without some questions, which, of course, God doesn’t answer.

While the series was running, Barbara Hall, the show’s executive producer, explained, “[In] trying to write God, I obviously don’t know what (God is) thinking. On the show, God won’t answer any direct questions because it is a divine mystery. The show is really a lot about posing theological and philosophical questions and not about answering them.”

And that’s how it often is for us, too. We can and do pose all kinds of questions, but if we’re waiting for God to answer them, we may have to wait a lifetime and in the meantime proceed through life on the basis of sheer faith.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) said: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you, because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Live the questions: what does it mean to live into the questions?

“Living the Questions” is the name of the new Monday evening Bible group study, and the video facilitators, the late Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan also address the importance of living into the questions rather than seeking or expecting concrete answers.

An unidentified author, writing on the Co-Intelligence Institute site, tells of being in a dialogue group in the early 1990s where one of the exercises was a conversation consisting entirely of questions. The participants could talk about any topic that came up, but could only ask questions, not make statements. The author found the experience to be “profoundly transformative.”

She said that in such an exercise, several different types of questions will arise, “including statements masquerading as questions, rhetorical questions, open-ended questions, questions that simply direct attention, strategic questions, questions that modify, overlap or focus on some portion of another question, or link the issues of a previous question to another area of inquiry, etc.” She added, “Powerful questions simultaneously open up and focus attention.”

The author also said that the exercise “is a great opportunity to explore what relationship we can have to questions other than answering them,” and that’s important for our inquiry here. “Ultimately,” said the author, “questions can take us deeper into the meaning of our lives.”

That is, we don’t necessarily have to have the answers in order for our questions to push the boundaries of our lives. “When we live the questions in our conversations,” said the author, “we are in dialogue with the people around us. When we live the questions as a way of life, we are in dialogue with life, itself” (emphasis added).

In that regard, she said, living a question “is like living with a fruit tree that continually generates fruit — in this case insights — for our nourishment. There is never anything final about any particular apple from an apple tree. More will follow. They don’t answer, they just nourish. And they’re full of seeds, as well.”

The early Methodists held class meetings where converts were divided into groups of 12-15 people, with one layperson designated as the leader. The classes were not study groups but accountability clusters. When they met weekly, they would go around the circle, with the leader asking each one in turn how his or her experience of living the Christian life had gone that week. Each would tell of spiritual victories and failures that had occurred since they last met. The group would pray together for one another, encourage one another, advise one another and generally help each other by holding each other accountable to do their best to follow Jesus.

But all of that began with questioning each person’s progress. Many historians agree that the class meetings were a major source of the vitality of early Methodism.

Quakers still have what they call “queries,” a series of questions used for individual and collective reflection, spiritual growth and prayer.

Quaker Martin Grundy tells of one experience: “[T]he most recent query we discussed came at the end of a rather tedious, long-winded, not particularly well-grounded, meeting for business. The query we were considering was simply, ‘How do we recognize what we are called to be obedient to?’ As people spoke to it, the silence deepened and lengthened between speakers. Finally, the speaking ceased altogether, and we were wrapped together in quietness and love. The clerk ended the meeting, but we were loath to leave. We were in the presence of God, and found it good.”

In the end, perhaps that’s what we should expect from our questions for God — not answers, but a dialogue with life and the experience of God’s presence in our daily lives.

Stephen Fry may never experience this dialogue or the presence of God, because he’s not initiating the conversation in faith. Job had a question for God and received no answer.

Yet, Job remained convinced that God was real, and, eventually, his questions put him in a position to be confronted — and helped — by God.

Our questions can do as much for us.

God may not answer our questions, but, like Job honestly asking our questions can put us in a position to be confronted — and helped — by God.

There’s another important detail to notice about Job.

In the first block of verses in this text, Job clearly wants to meet before God. But in the second block, and especially in verse 15, Job expresses terror that God might actually show up. Aren’t we like that, too: wavering between courage and fear; hope and despair?

We might be comforted by this image of Job, another human being struggling to understand life, who, in the end, is confronted and comforted by God following a long walk through difficult times that included the loss of family, onset of disease, unexpected poverty, and the betrayal of friends.

I am reminded of Leslie Weatherhead, who wrote in Prescription for Anxiety (1956):

“When I was once passing through a very dark phase, largely due to physical illness … I did not know whether to accept an onerous and very demanding position, or to withdraw from it. One day my wife said she thought the darkness could be part of God’s training for the job. I came to accept that view. Fear itself can be used by God to equip us for our tasks, as long as we take the right attitude, and do not let it cow us into surrender, or into any of the many avenues of escape which the frightened suggests to us. I can only write down this testimony. Like everybody; I prefer the sunny uplands of experience, when health, happiness and success abound. But I have learned far more about God and life and myself in the darkness of fear and failure than I have ever learned in the sunshine. There are such things as the treasures of darkness. The darkness, thank God, passes. But what one learns in the darkness one possesses forever.”

Unlike Stephen Fry and many others, I do not blame God for things such as bone cancer, injustice, or violence. I tend to understand such tragic conditions as largely the result of human choices and political decisions.

However you view evil and suffering the fact is that, like God, Jesus never explains why there is suffering, illness, evil, and death in this world.

Like God, Jesus confronts these issues and comforts those who suffer under them by bringing healing and hope.

Jesus experiences all that evil and suffering can do to a human being and body; and in the end drains evil and suffering of all power through the act of new life — a new life learned and forged in the darkness and given to us to light our way as we live these enduring questions of life.

Closing Prayer

Holy One, sometimes when we gather in worship and in prayer we do not really understand why we do it, because we do not understand so many of the “whys” in life.

Some times our hearts are filled with sorrow, or rage over our sense of loss, or injustice, or confusion.

Sometimes find ourselves before you and one another in pain too deep for words, or with anxiety and disquiet we cannot explain.

And here you are, more ready to listen than we are to pray.

There are just some things we cannot understand, so we ask you to help us know your presence.

Help us as we ask our “why” questions, and teach us to appreciate the questions themselves, as guideposts for our lives.

We ask and pray in the name of Jesus, who we know also felt lonely and forsaken at times; and who taught those who asked this simple prayer of thanksgiving and praise …


Originally delivered October 11, 2015, by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

  • Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 28 of 134. Bowyer Bible Old Testament. Headpiece to the Book of Job by Phillip Medhurst (Photos by Harry Kossuth) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Little Things

Scripture: Psalm 26, James 2: 14-26 ~

Some weeks it is effortless to prepare a message for Sunday morning worship.

Image of Facebook video with David at his pulpit.

If you prefer to watch the video of Rev. Weekley delivering this sermon, click the image above to go to the St. Nicholas Facebook page.

These are the days and weeks that feel and evolve like I am connected to God, led by the Spirit, and guided by the gospel of Jesus as I move through time.

Last week was not one of those weeks.

Early in the week I reflected on Psalm 26 and found myself wondering about what kind of house for/of God St. Nicholas is.

Then I read an article on Homiletics Online that spoke of the psalmists mixed response of both joy and disappointment in attending worship:

“In today’s psalm, we read about another “house,” the house of the Lord. O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell” (v. 8).

The writer of Psalm 26 is absolutely crazy about the temple of the Lord, the place in which God’s glory lives (v. 8), and goes into God’s house to sing thanksgivings and speak of God’s wondrous deeds (v. 7). The psalmist wants nothing more than to stand on level ground and bless the Lord in the middle of the congregation (v. 12).

But many of the people who have lived in the house over the years have not behaved themselves. As the writer of the psalm approaches God’s house and remarks, “I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked” (vv. 4-5).

Both the temple of ancient times and the church of today have suffered at the hands of worthless hypocrites and wicked evildoers.”

I think everyone here would agree this is true. Today this is the claim of many who have no interest in either religion or the Church.

On Wednesday I read an article in Huffington Post by a self-identified “millennial” dissatisfied with the Church; even churches that seem progressive. The article, titled “Churches Could Fill Their Pews with Millennials if They Just Did This” by Christian Chiakulas, gives two reasons for declining attendance church attendance and membership:

  1. “Some millennials will never be interested in church,” (which is true in every generation, and has been from the beginning).
  2. “Those of us that are amenable to the idea of joining a congregation want it to mean something. We want more than just a group of people to sing songs … Do you know what we would buy? Jesus the man, Jesus the prophet, the Jesus that fashioned a whip of cords and overturned the tables of money changers for making God’s house a den of robbers … I spent an hour and a half at church one week and the name ‘Jesus’ was not mentioned a single time. I’m all for love and a personal relationship with God, but I choose to follow the man who teaches that political action is worship, that social justice is love.”

This young man’s comments led me to recall what church planners were saying “back in the day” in terms of attracting those who were then the quickly-disappearing young; Baby Boomers.

Back then the lament focused around the lack of personal relationships, spiritual practices and congregations so anchored in the structures of committees, boards, and Parliamentary Procedure that belonging to a church sometimes felt like being a part of any secular institution — and all of this took place during a time in our culture when traditional institutions were beginning to be held in great suspicion by persons seeking deeper connections with God and neighbor.

Both then and now the common thread is that some ultimately come to realize the essential importance of both worship and spiritual practices, and political and practical action.

As James points out about faith and works, it is not a question of either/or, but of both/and.

We worship in community and embrace personal spiritual practices; we also seek ways to care for the marginalized, poor and oppressed, engaging in political and we do these things because these are the things that Jesus did.

Jesus Casts Out the Money Changers by William Hole

Jesus Casts Out the Money Changers by William Brassey Hole [Public domain], via Wikimedia Common

Jesus worshiped in community. Jesus embraced spiritual practices such as fasting and prayer. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, visited and ate with outcasts.

Jesus also challenged the religious and political structures of his day, exposing hypocrisy, teaching mercy, and calling for radical change in both social and religious practices for the sake of the poor, the isolated, and the exploited.

As followers of Jesus today, this is the basis of everything we do as a congregation.

It is why we worship, and it is also why we become involved in supporting projects like Kristin Park’s mission to Haitian refugees living in Honduras.

It is the reason we collected items and sent 66 Health Kits to The United Methodist Committee on Relief in response to earthquake disasters.

Following Jesus is why some of us drive miles to participate in political processes, attend conferences, or engage in local community projects.

Last Thursday evening I was invited to offer the Prayer of Invocation and the Benediction at the annual Hulls Heroes Awards.

Five individuals and one organization — Hull Seaside Animal Rescue shelter — received honors that night, and one thing I heard each recognized hero say is that whatever they did, they did because of the efforts and support of many others; and because they knew it was the right thing to do.

And though none of the women and men receiving this award spoke directly about the connection between the works for which they were being recognized and their spirituality, many did reference a faith community to which they belonged in their acceptance remarks.

The fact they invited me, a clergyperson, to offer a Prayer of Invocation, and a closing Benediction marked the whole event as grounded in the connection between what James calls faith and works.

Then, on the late evening news, I watched the heartbreaking story of another mass shooting, this time in a small rural town in my home state of many years, Oregon.

I have been to Roseburg a few times, and Deborah and I have visited friends there as well. Other than for the prevalence of guns in Southern Oregon, it is one of the last places I can think of where you would expect something like this to happen.

President Barack Obama, with Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco, reacts while glancing at cable TV coverage of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., in the Outer Oval Office, Oct. 1, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

When I heard President Obama speak about this and lament in frustration the growing occurrence and routineness of this kind of horrific and brutal violence, I shared his prayer and sentiment when he said:

“I hope and pray that I don’t have to come out again during my tenure as president to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances. But based on my experience as president, I can’t guarantee that. And that’s terrible to say. And it can change.”

What happened Thursday morning in Roseburg affected the direction of this message. I found myself asking: how does an ancient psalmist’s writing about loving God’s house and despising evildoers, a contemporary young man’s expression of dissatisfaction with all churches, and James’ insistence on the balance between faith and works possible relate to such violence?

Then I reread Psalm 26, and stopped at the words saying, “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you” (vv. 1-3)

This plea reminded me of Christian Chiakulas’ article and his statement about desiring to belong to a “church that meant something” and to follow Jesus, the human prophet and agent /advocate of social and religious change.

Both are seeking to walk in faithfulness; both are seeking a place or hoping for an experience that will provide direction.

Interestingly, both are suspicious of those around them, and have an awareness of hypocrites and evildoers present in the gathering, and perhaps questioning whether or not they can find faith, spiritual community or practical guidance in such a place.

I cannot answer that final, doubtful question for either of them.

However, I can say that the importance and meaningfulness of the Church is greater than either the imperfection of its members or any perceived insignificance of its gatherings by those un-invested in its welfare.

Neither the Church as a whole, nor any congregation I have ever served is perfect.

Neither the Church as a whole nor any congregation I have ever served has achieved world peace, brought an end to hunger, poverty, homelessness, bigotry, or oppression; or established any form of economic justice even close to resembling what Jesus describes.

Still, I believe the little things we do make a big difference; a difference not only for others but for us who do them.

Last Monday during Bible study we watched a video during which retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong talked of the church as never meant to be a powerful majority as the world understands power, but, rather, like leaven, a little salt, a little light in the darkness.

These little things are the hope. This is what Jesus said, and this is why we do the things we do.

I invite you to keep these things in mind as we share Communion together this morning. Communion, the symbol of the broken and scattered made whole again through the love of God, in the body of Christ. Amen.


Originally delivered October 4, 2015 — World Communion Sunday — by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Prayer is a Verb

Scripture: James 5: 13-20, Mark 8:27-38 ~

Episcopal priest and author Frederick Buechner wrote of a place where people go when we need to connect with and remember things that should not be forgotten.

He names that place, “A Room Called Remember.”

Buechner says that in this place some memories and connections come to us unexpectedly and unbidden.

Some connections we choose to reclaim, because they are important to us.

Some memories and connections are sweet and reassuring; some are difficult and heartbreaking, warning us, or moving us from complacency to action.

James reminds of the importance of such prayerful places and practices this morning by lifting up the core, the heart of our faith: the practice and power of prayer.

James tells us that prayer is very effective; and this week I have certainly felt the value and power of prayer as so many of you offered prayers of healing, comfort and success for Deborah’s surgery.

I think one of my favorite comments came from Eleanor, who told me that she was praying for us and for the surgeons and care team, so I did not have to worry!

Thank you all. Words cannot really convey how much your prayers meant/mean to me and Deborah.

Sometimes people scoff about prayer, saying it is just “well-wishing” or a passive response to whatever is happening in life, good or bad.

But prayer is anything but passive.

Prayer is a verb; prayer is an action- an act of faith.

Even science is interested in what happens when we pray.

One key question investigated today is what happens to a brain on prayer?

The color of the praying brain

In his letter to a group of Christians outside of Palestine, James calls for prayer when people are suffering, cheerful and sick, promising that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (v. 16). James is convinced that prayer can have a significant effect on our brain, body, heart and soul — in bad times and good.

Today, medical researchers are finally catching up with James.

Dr. Andrew Newberg of Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia has been studying the effect of prayer on the brain for more than 20 years.

Newberg injects radioactive dye into voluntary subjects, and then looks for changes in their brains when they pray.

Dr. Newberg does not claim that prayer is a cure-all, but he does believe it can be equally as important as science in helping patients to heal.

Brain scan showing a baseline image and an image while the subject is praying that shows a change in activity during prayer

Learn more at AndrewNewberg.com

Pointing to a computer screen that showed brain activity, Newberg said to NBC News (December 24, 2014), “You can see it’s all red here when the person is just at rest, but you see it turns into these yellow colors when she’s actually doing prayer.”

Without prayer, your brain is red — a hot and inflammatory color –and with prayer, your brain is yellow.

Yellow is the most luminous of all the colors of the spectrum. It’s the color that captures our attention more than any other color.

In the natural world, yellow is the color of sunflowers and daffodils, egg yolks and lemons, canaries and bees. In our contemporary human-made world, yellow is the color of Sponge Bob, the Tour de France winner’s jersey, happy faces, post its, and signs that alert us to danger or caution.

It’s the color of happiness, and optimism, of enlightenment and creativity, sunshine and spring.

What a wonderful color for our brains on prayer!

Such changes cause Newberg to believe that prayer does possess the power to heal.

He suggests that “by doing these practices, you can cause a lot of different changes all the way throughout the body, which could have a healing effect.”

Prayer for the sick

Back in the first century, James had the same belief. “Are any among you sick?” he asked his fellow Christians. “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (vv. 14-15).

Prayer is powerful, says James. Powerful and effective (v. 16).

Of course, not everyone believes this. Dr. Richard Sloan, the author of a book called Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, agrees that the brain is going to change during prayer, but he sees no proof that these changes lead to healing. “Your brain changes when you eat chocolate,” he says. “There’s nothing special about showing brain changes when people pray.”

Sure, says Sloan, religion can provide comfort to believers during times of stress. But he warns that we shouldn’t treat religion “like some sort of cosmic vending machine in which you can deposit a coin to get a health benefit.”

Dr. Sloan has a point, but the truth is almost nobody treats religion like a cosmic vending machine.

The vast majority of Christians agree with Dr. Newberg, the one who injected radioactive dye into people and studied their brains as they prayed.

They, like Newberg, believe that medicine and prayer are meant to work hand in hand.

Prayer is “not a cure for cancer,” he says. “It is not going to cure somebody of heart disease. We can’t tell people to pray in order to get better — that doesn’t really make sense. The reason that it works is because it is part of the person’s belief system.”

How does prayer work?

So how does prayer actually work? What makes it powerful and effective?

The power of prayer is not that it changes disease but that it changes us — the people who pray.

When Dr. Newberg studied a group of Franciscan nuns who joined together in meditative prayer, he discovered that the area of the brain associated with the sense of self began to “shut down.” He saw that in this type of prayer “you become connected to God. You become connected to the world. Your “self” sort of goes away.”

Connection to God. Connection to the world around you. Loss of self. That’s real change and true healing. As James writes to his fellow Christians, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up” (v. 15).

Prayer does not always lead to a cure, but it saves the sick by raising them into the presence of God.

Prayer changes the people who pray, making them more peaceful, accepting and aligned with their faith.

Your brain on prayer may not kill cancer cells, or convince God to cure you of your heart disease, but it might make you better able to face and to overcome your health challenges.

The confession connection

One of the most well-known modern healing prayers is the Serenity Prayer.

I learned this prayer when I was a new pastor in Idaho. It was taught to me by a member of my congregation who was a recovering alcoholic, and it is central to many 12-step recovery groups:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Notice that God is not asked in this prayer to heal anyone miraculously.

Instead, God is being asked to give serenity, courage and wisdom to people so that they can become well and live life more fully.

Because part of the healing process for many of us is going to include forgiveness, there needs to be an opportunity for honest confession and pardon in prayer as well.

This is why the letter of James says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (v. 16).

Confession. Forgiveness. Prayer for others. Healing. Each has a role to play in the prayer of faith which saves the sick.

The Serenity Prayer is recited in 12-step groups across this nation and throughout the world, and the result has been sobriety for millions of people.

In each of these groups, the Serenity Prayer is said in order to change the hearts and minds of people, not God.

People who pray for serenity, courage and wisdom will find their prayers answered, and will be given the help they need. Eileen Flanagan, who has written a book on the Serenity Prayer called The Wisdom to Know the Difference, quotes a study which found that wise people “are able to step outside themselves and assess a troubling situation with calm reflection. They recast a crisis as a problem to be addressed, a puzzle to be solved. They take action in situations they can control, and accept the inability to do so when matters are outside their control.”

The prayer of acceptance

Prayer helps us to step outside ourselves, assess troubling situations, and take action when we can.

But it also helps us to accept the inability to act when situations are outside our control.

In this sense we can say that prayer in that place called remember aligns us with the will of God for healing and wholeness in human life, even when we are facing a terminal illness.

Remember, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (v. 15).

I think one of the realities we face whenever we or someone we love is ill is the truth that each of us will die of something, eventually. It could be cancer or heart disease or a bad accident.

As one colleague said, good health and physical fitness only delays the inevitable.

But this does not mean that we should not pray for God to save us, to heal us and those we love, to raise us up and make us whole.

One of the truths known for centuries by mystics is that prayer can heal us, even when it doesn’t cure us of our illness: It changes our brains and it changes the rest of us as well, turning us into people who get outside of ourselves to form deeper connections with God and with the people around us.

Prayer is powerful and effective because it gives us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can and wisdom to know the difference.

Prayer also gives us the opportunity to confess our sins and receive forgiveness, freeing us from the guilt and regret that can eat at us like many physical diseases.

Prayer is a verb: the action required of us is entering that place Frederick Buechner names, “A Room Called Remember.”

The coloring mandalas you received with the bulletin this morning is one means of entering this room.

I invite you to take time alone, with crayons, markers, whatever you choose- and enter into a time of meditative prayer as you chose colors, fill in shapes; see where it leads, what doors it may open.

Closing thought about prayer: Two prisoners, whose cells adjoin, communicate with each other by knocking on the shared wall. The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.”

Amen, and Amen!


Originally delivered September 13, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

 

Scripture: James 2:1-13, Mark 7:24-37

If we were to look for a common message found in both of this morning’s scripture readings I think it would be the titled of my message, which is actually the final phrase from the Epistle reading from James: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Screen capture of Facebook video post.

Prefer to watch the video of Facebook? Click this pic.

The gospel reading is another one of those passages difficult to interpret.

Jesus is seeking some alone time, but it is impossible to keep his whereabouts secret.

A Syrophoenician woman, a gentile, considered a foreigner, an outsider, immediately learns where Jesus is staying and desperately seeks him out to heal her little daughter.

All we are told about the child is that she has some type of “unclean spirit.” We do not know how what her symptoms are.

Prior to this Jesus has already healed a gentile man, known in the gospel as the Geresene demoniac.

He has fed more than 5000 persons, never asking anyone about their religious or ethnic background.

So what is the problem here? Why does Jesus suddenly appear to insult this woman, calling her a dog, and implying her daughter does not deserve to receive healing?

Woman approaches Jesus on her knees, in the background, her daughter lays sick on a bed.Perhaps this is a teaching moment for those gathered in the house or living in the region of Tyre.

Tyre, a wealthy port city, known for production of a rare purple dye made from the murex shellfish, known as Tyrian purple and reserved for the use of royalty and nobility, had strict socio-economic classes, dividing people according to wealth, privilege, and power.

Within such a context Jesus at first appears to similarly divide people into deserving and undeserving groups in relation to healing and divine favor.

But a close look at the text reveals just how quickly Jesus’ apparent judgmental attitude changes.

After a brief exchange of words during which the woman virtually states that there is enough of God’s grace to go around, Jesus simply says, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29)

Judgment gives way to mercy; harsh words are replaced by a healing action.

The reading from James applies this gospel message of grace and mercy within the context of a young faith community struggling with similar issues of favoritism and discrimination.

One of the bad habits of the first-century church was the practice of showing partiality to the rich.

Paul addresses this many times, as James does in this letter.

A person with gold rings and expensive clothes would come into the community, followed by a poor person in dirty clothes. Church members tended to honor the one wearing the fashionable clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while they would look down on the poor one, saying, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet.” (James 2:1-3).

James writes in his letter that they were making distinctions, and acting as “judges with evil thoughts” (v. 4).

This human behavior pattern of showing partiality towards those who gain our approval is the very same today.

A young husband and wife with well-behaved children, showing up at worship for the very first time, are almost always going to be received very warmly; they gain value simply because of who they appear to be.

One of our bad habits as human beings is judging people based on their outer appearance, and not taking the time to find out what is in their hearts.

An attractive young couple could be coming to church only to placate a nagging family member.

A homeless person could be “rich in faith” and anxious to find a community of love and acceptance.

Jesus and James remind us that we will never know unless we get beneath the surface.

So how do we move away from showing partiality, making distinctions and judging people on outer appearance? Surprisingly, the answer is not better theology, morality or biblical interpretation.

We know the words and we have likely studied the topic at least once in a Sunday school of Bible study class: “blessed are the merciful” “love God and neighbor as yourself.”

It is really a matter of better practices, actions; better habits.

The New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg wrote a book called The Power of Habit (Random House, 2012). In it, he tells the story of companies that found new life and success simply by replacing established routines with new, positive habits.

In the 1990s, Starbucks was faced with their employees breaking-down under the pressure of so many complaints resulting from too many custom-made coffees.

In response Starbucks created the LATTE method for their baristas: LATTE stands for Listen, Acknowledge, Take action, Thank the customer and Explain why the problem occurred.

With this new habit, customer and employee satisfaction radically improved.

At the sluggish Alcoa aluminum company in the late 1980s, Paul O’Neill was hired as chief executive officer. Investors hoped he would increase revenue, but he focused instead on decreasing employee accidents from unsafe work habits. He instituted new processes that required cautiousness, and over the next decade the company’s income skyrocketed.

In both of these cases, success and new life came from getting in the habit of doing things differently, and focusing on the well-being of the people involved.

In this morning’s text James has some positive suggestions for a church in search of better habits.

James begins by urging us to obey the law of love, which he calls “the royal law” of Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8). This means treating others as we would want to be treated, and showing the same mercy to others that we would want to receive from them.

James identifies this as “the royal law” because it is the rule that stands at the very center of the realm of God.

When we show partiality we break this law of love. By favoring one person over another, we’re treating one person as more valuable than the other — a habit that makes no sense in a realm composed of equally precious children of God.

But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are acting in a way that puts equal value on every person — whether rich or poor, strong or weak, neighbor or self.

As political parties and candidates increase the pace toward the 2016 election year I am stunned by the partiality shown to, and the pride displayed by rich candidates; I am thinking of one person in particular boasting of billionaire status.

This same candidate favors massive deportation and budget cuts in benefits for the elderly and the poor.

In terms of loving our neighbor I think of Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, and how it so dramatically captures the eternal importance of this law of love and merciful habits.

Let’s update the language of the story: imagine the rich man dressing in Prada and feasting on lobster and truffles every day.

At the gate of his exclusive community lies a homeless man named Larry, covered with rags, who would like nothing more than to satisfy his hunger with the scraps from the rich man’s table. The rich man is in the habit of looking down on Larry and treating him like dirt, shouting “Get a job!” as he blasts off in his personal helicopter every morning.

Larry dies and is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also dies and is buried. From Hades, where he is being tormented, he looks up and sees Abraham and Larry, as people say these days, “ just chillin.’”

Still in the habit of showing partiality and making distinctions, the rich man calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Larry to bring me a Perrier; for I am in agony in these flames.”

Even in the afterlife, the rich man views and treats the poor man like a servant: this is the fruit of showing partiality, someone is always viewed as “less-than.”

Abraham shakes his head no, and the rich man changes his request. “Then, Father, I beg you to send him to warn my brothers, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

Again, Abraham says no, reminding the rich man, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”

The point here is that long before the time of Jesus, people have known the commandment of God, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

The words of James describe the state of Lazarus in Jesus’ story very well: “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13).

Think of a time when you needed and received mercy in your life …

  • What happened?
  • What did that feel like?
  • How did you respond?

The rich man in the story may have had faith — at the very least, he knew about Father Abraham. But he showed no evidence of good works, since he failed to help the poor man who was lying at his gate.

James urges us to get in the habit of keeping faith and works together. Seeing words and deeds as two aspects of one whole is the key to living a life of integrity and avoiding the charge of hypocrisy.

Our credibility as persons and as a congregation is always going to be based on whether we practice what we preach, whether we find concrete ways to love our neighbors as ourselves, with mercy and impartiality … instead of simply talking about it.

The bench dedicated to Tommeye Reed Friday evening at the Hull Library was in memory of a person who seemed to understand love of neighbor, and concern for the welfare of others, without partiality.

I have heard that Tommyeye was known as the connection between St. Nicholas and the community. Now, it is up to us to be that connection through our words and our actions.

Let me close with one short, but true story about the triumph of mercy over judgment.

A mother sought the pardon of her son from the first Napoleon. The emperor said it was his second offense, and justice demanded his death. “I don’t ask for justice,” demanded his mother, “I plead for mercy.” “But,” said the emperor, “he does not deserve mercy.” “Sire,” cried the mother, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” “Well, then,” said the emperor, “I will have mercy.”

And her son was saved.

— Good Company

Amen.


Originally delivered September 6, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Transformed by Love

Scripture: 1 Cor. 13:1-8, Mark 7:1-16 ~

If you were here last Sunday you may remember the message was titled, “A More Excellent Way.” The text came from 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, and the image Paul creates of followers of Jesus as members of one body, each with unique gifts and parts to play in creating a vital, healthy, well-functioning body.

Screen shot of Facebook video post showing Reverend David Weekley at the pulpit of St Nicholas United Methodist Church

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Last week’s passage ended with Paul saying, “Yet I can still show you a more excellent way.” (1 Cor. 12:31, and it seems important to me to continue reading from this chapter to learn more about what Paul means by a more excellent way.

The words that follow are likely some of the best known verses in the New Testament, familiar even among those who do not consider themselves Christians.

Anyone who has attended a wedding is likely to have heard this passage; it is one of the most often chosen verses to be included in readings during wedding ceremonies.

It is a beautiful passage to read at weddings, and who would not wish this type of love on every newly wedded couple?

The truth is, however, as you can see for yourself, these verses have nothing to do with romantic love; although romantic love is certainly not excluded.

In many ways it would be easier if this passage were about romantic love.

It is easier to strive to achieve the qualities of love Paul lists for someone we love, particularly new, romantic love, than to apply the same ideals to a person, group, or community we label as enemy, adversary, or outsider.

It simply appears to be part of human nature that people divide themselves into groups and then proceed to determine relationship boundaries by the labels we have created.

This human tendency, far from creating the kind of love encouraged by Paul, often leads to harsh responses, and ever-tightening boundaries that separate people from one another rather than building the kind of community Jesus preached and exemplified.

This is part of what Jesus addresses in the gospel reading from Mark.

It is made clear in several gospel passages (Matthew 5:17, 21,27,31,38,43) that Jesus is not intent on overriding the law; on the contrary, Jesus is restoring the true spirit and intent of the law, which had become incredibly twisted and corrupt.

This passage is only one example of the many ways Pharisees, teachers of the law, and the scribes undermined or circumvented ethical religious laws through a process of rationalizations or convoluted interpretations.

In this reading the issue moves from ritual handwashing to a human invention by which adult children could circumvent taking care of elderly parents. It involved declaring everything one owned as dedicated to God, therefore no resources may be used to care for one’s aging parents.

Sometimes these misinterpretations and strict social boundaries prevent us from seeing one another as fellow human beings and children of God.

I happened to read a sermon on this same passage by The Rev. Charles Hoffacker that included a story from Zen Buddhism that enhanced Rev. Hoffacker’s understanding of this scripture.

I found it helpful in thinking about these verses as well.

It is a story about a Zen teacher, Nan-in, who taught and practiced in Japan about one hundred years ago.

One day, Nan-in was visited by a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

During the course of their conversation the professor asked many questions.

Nan-in served tea.

He poured his guest’s cup full, and then continued pouring.

The professor watched the cup overflow until he could no longer restrain himself and shouted. “It is overflowing! No more will go in!”

A cup of tea. Some of the tea has spilled onto the saucer the cup is sitting on.Nan-in stopped pouring the tea into the overflowing cup.

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations.

How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” [1]

Jesus likewise encounters a group of people who, like Nan-in’s visitor, are cups full of opinions and speculations that need to be emptied if they are ever to receive Jesus’ message.

Jesus is in Galilee, yet some Pharisees and scribes have made a trip down from Jerusalem because of him. On this particular occasion we are told they gather around Jesus; they are carefully observing and listening, but not because Jesus has anything to offer or to teach them.

The author of Mark has earlier told us of the conspiracy to kill Jesus [Mark 3:6], and it will be in Jerusalem that he is put to death.

In this context it seems particularly threatening and ominous that this group of Pharisees and scribes have come all this way to gather around Jesus.

As they gather, they begin to find fault.

Perhaps lacking the nerve to confront Jesus directly, even though he has violated many of their human religious traditions, they begin by finding fault with some of Jesus’ disciples.

What they choose to criticize is not a huge failing, but that these disciples omitted an observance of human origin, a religious custom was broken as some disciples ate without first performing an intricate handwashing ritual.

As Rev. Hoffacker noted in his sermon, this hand washing was not for the purpose of hygiene.

It was a practice meant to wash away ritual defilement, such as that caused by touching something or somebody deemed unclean.

The Law of Moses mandates hand washing only for priests attending to their duties within the area set aside as sacred.

The Pharisees, however, extend the practice to many other circumstances, creating what at least one biblical scholar, Morna Hooker, calls a “boundary marker.” [2]

This was foremost a method and a practice further distinguish them from the surrounding pagan population.

This is why these scribes and Pharisees gather around Jesus and ask him why his disciples fail to keep the tradition of the elders.

They are what Nan-in referred to as full cups, so full of questions and opinions there is no room for new answers.

The cups must first be emptied.

Filled with their own opinions and interpretations they have labeled Jesus and his followers as people outside their boundaries, outsiders, and potential enemies.

This is why criticism and condemnation absorb their energy and fill their remarks.

They have no energy left for anything better, anything more important.

Their cups are full, and anything more poured in at this moment would only be wasted.

Jesus recognizes these Pharisees and scribes not only as a nuisance, but as living examples of elevating human tradition above God’s greater command of love for God and neighbor.

This is a spiritual danger that can threaten any of us.

So Jesus gathers the people around him, the crowd, so they can hear and heed the warning he feels called/led to offer them.

In effect, Jesus tells the crowd: “Be aware! Purity is not a matter of keeping external rules, without regard for what’s inside you. Righteousness is not simply how you behave when people are watching. Just as you have an inner aspect as well as an outer one, even so, keeping rules is not what God or the gospel are about.

You must pay attention to the condition of your heart!”

What Jesus means by heart is neither the physical muscle in our chest that pumps blood, nor our emotional aspect.

Jesus understands the heart in the Hebrew sense as the center or core of the person, the seat of the inner self.

Like Paul speaking to the Christian community in Corinth about the more excellent way of love, Jesus teaches here that the heart is where the problem lies.

Simply put: Like Nan-in’s teacup, our hearts are full.

Our hearts are full of human traditions, habits, and preoccupations; they are so full of our own opinions and interpretations of other people and of life that they are poisoned, and the toxins kill our spirits and the spirits of people we influence.

Like Nan-in’s tea cup, our hearts overflow, but what they hold are not simply our own opinions and speculations, but poisons that can prove lethal for ourselves and the people around us.

These scriptures readings are not intended to render us helpless, but rather to help us see a true problem, and the challenge we face as people of faith.

We live in a materialistic society that bombards us with messages about how enough stuff, adequate savings, and an upwardly-mobile economic future can solve our problems, and protect us from anything.

But materialism cannot solve this problem that Jesus exposes.

What we need is not to pour still more tea into our overflowing cup.

What we need is to empty and detoxify our hearts from the poisons flooding forth from it.

The problem is not external, and neither is the solution.

What we require, at the center of our being, is for God to create a new heart in us, a heart that is determined to approach the world with the kind of love Paul describes to the Corinthians, and the love of God and neighbor Jesus lived and taught in the gospel.

This needs to happen, not one time, but continually.

As we have discussed and tried to practice in our Bible study, quieting the mind long enough to open our hearts is not easy.

Over and over again, the overflowing cup must be emptied, the toxins purged from our hearts and lives, so that the transforming love of Christ can find a home within us.

Like Nan-in’s professor, we must be set free from our own opinions and speculations, and once again be open and susceptible to the wonder and the miracles around and within us.

Christian discipleship offers many ways by which our hearts can be emptied out and become ready to receive the gift of transforming love.

Charles Hoffacker offers one method for emptying our cups; he calls it “majoring in the majors.”

This is not a phrase with which I am familiar; has anyone here heard it before?

Rev. Hoffacker says that we major in the majors when our inner attitudes and our outer actions are based on an accurate judgement/ discernment about what is important/ essential.

In life, maybe most of all in our spiritual life, it is important that we do not confuse the majors with the minors.

All we hear from the Pharisees and scribes concerns “the minors” i.e. a custom of merely human origin, something of small import in the vast complex of faith and life which is Judaism at that time.

Theirs is what one colleague described as “an unexciting complaint,” one that hardly suggests the faith of the Exodus and Exile, or the significance of the Torah and the Prophets.

The one thing they choose to say to Jesus is a far cry from the loving-kindness and mercy that Israel’s Holy One shows to people, that Jesus lived through every word and action, and that Paul defined in 1 Corinthians as “the more excellent way.”

I close this morning with a prayer that it may never be so among us!

As followers of Jesus we must never allow peripheral matters to take center stage.

Jesus and Paul encourage us to measure our lives, as persons and communities, by nothing less than the expansive standard of the Great Commandment that we love God with the entirety of our being and love our neighbors — all of them — as we love ourselves.

Our discipleship needs to be characterized by nothing less than a love that is patient and kind, not envious, boastful or conceited; a love that keeps no score of wrongs and that rejoices in the good and well-being of others; a love always trustful, and hopeful- a love toward God and others, all others, that never ends.

In such a practice as this, our cups are emptied and our hearts filled instead with the transforming love of Christ.

May it be so among us, and through us. Amen.


Originally delivered August 30, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

[1] Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, compilers, “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writing” (Tuttle Publishing, 1998), p. 19.

[2] Morna Hooker, “The Gospel According to Saint Mark.” (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), p. 445.

Image credits:

  • Cup of Tea by grassrootsgroundswell [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A More Excellent Way

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 ~

Last week was our grandson Riley’s birthday. I cannot believe he is seventeen years old? I literally ask myself, “Where did the time go?”

Reverend David Weekley standing at the pulpit August 16, 2015.

Prefer to watch this sermon on video? Click the image above.

I remember when my children were very little; every new thing they explored, every skill they mastered assured me of how special and wonderful they were; and how smart they were.

Of course these things are all still true!

It’s just that, way back then I thought they were the smartest, the youngest geniuses in the world.

Today I simply smile, perhaps with a bit of nostalgia, as I listen to new parents making similar observations and predictions about their toddlers.

Some of the comments go something like these:

“My Lucy could read The Cat in the Hat by age three and wrote her first letter to grandmother in kindergarten!”

“You should see Andrew. He made all-district in baseball and got all A’s this year in middle school!”

It is so amazing to see where children will go with gifts and creativity.

A few years ago I came across what was then an amazing example of a young person developing an array of individual talents in the field of music and entertainment in the form of a teenage girl named Kaitlyn DiBenedetto.

Kaitlyn taught herself the drums at age 5 and picked up the guitar at age 11.

After playing supporting instrumental roles with a number of local New Jersey rock bands, she broke off on her own in 2010 at the ripe old age of 16 to form the band, “Just Kait.”

Just Kait is a band featuring, well, just Kait!

She literally plays and records every instrument- drums, bass and guitar- and lays down her own vocal tracks as well.

As a 17-year-old high school senior, Kait released her first CD in August of 2010.

In Just Kait’s music videos, Kaitlyn changes her wardrobe, including glasses, hats and wigs, as she is filmed playing all the instruments and singing all the parts. It really is an amazing act and display of individual talent.

But wait a minute: doesn’t the very word band imply more than one person? Doesn’t it mean a group of people coming together around a common purpose- to create music?

What happened here? Did Kaitlyn grow up unable to play nice with others?

Was the first word she learned “mine”?

I do not know the answer to these questions, but when I googled Kait to see what she is doing these days, well, she is still doing music, but more as a studio musician again.

Somehow the concept of a one-person band did not catch on.

But the point here is not to diminish the talents of people such as Kaitlyn DiBenedetto.

She clearly has musical talent and ability to be able to accomplish everything she has hoped for in the world of pop-music.

I am referencing her this morning as an example of what our Scripture text is not about.

As Paul points out in this first letter to the church in Corinth, in some Christian communities there’s a serious problem; you might say it is the problem of some people trying to play all of the instruments.

Paul is attempting to teach this young church, as well as followers of Jesus today, that all of us are in the band and we all have an instrument to play.

The quality of the music we produce as a church depends upon each one of us, as individuals, using our gifts for the benefit of the whole.

It also depends upon us not diminishing or negating the gifts others bring.

As I recall, many of us in band camp debated whether it was superior to read treble clef, or bass clef. Those among us who studied keyboard boasted they knew both, which obviously made them superior over us all.

This is the same old human condition Paul addresses in this letter.

Rather than the example of a band, which did not exist in the time of Paul, he uses the example of the human body to make an important theological point.

Paul tells us that if the body were all an eye, it would be a monster and could not function at all.

As one commentator writing in Homiletics expresses it: “The message in terms of Paul’s image of the church reveals two distinct themes: the reality of heterogeneity and the necessity of homogeneity.”

When we cannot appreciate this truth, the church often becomes unable to function.

One humorous ditty that addresses when this happens comes from a Vietnamese Christian by the name of Phong Ngo who writes:

Oh, give me pity, I’m on a committee,
Which means that from morning to night,
We attend and amend and contend and defend
Without a conclusion in sight.

We confer and concur, we defer and demur
And reiterate all of our thoughts.
We revise the agenda with frequent addenda
And consider a load of reports.

We compose and propose, we suppose and oppose
And the points of procedure are fun!
But though various notions are brought up as motions
There’s terribly little gets done.

We resolve and absolve, but never dissolve
Since it’s out of the question for us.
What a shattering pity to end our committee.
Where else could we make such a fuss?

I deeply appreciate Phong Gno’s comments, although I do value and understand the importance of church committees; they provide stability, accountability, continuity, and hope for the future.

This is one important reason we have reformed an Administrative Council at St. Nicholas.

These meetings not only bring an important level of communication to our congregation, they also provide minutes, comments, and conversations about the needs of St. Nicholas for future generations.

In the Greek language heterogeneity literally means many.

It may be one of the most overlooked words in this passage, and with that simple word “many” the idea that the body of Christ is supposed to be diverse; is intended to be diverse.

A faith-community is composed of many members.

Even a place such as St. Nicholas that concretely acknowledges such diversity we are sometimes overcome by how each person is unique.

And as Paul points out, every one of the members matters to the same degree; without each one a part would be missing.

I was thinking about this last week when I stopped at Starbucks to get a cup of my favorite coffee, the “coffee of the day, with an added “shot.” I asked the person working there why no matter which Starbucks I go to, I can always be confident that my order will taste the same.

She told me that Starbucks puts its employees through rigorous training to ensure that every venti, no-whip, sugar-free Caramel Macchiato is precisely the same as the next one, not only in the same shop but at any Starbucks in any location.

Starbucks wants loyal customers who know that they will get the same exact order and taste at the Safeway or the airport or the local corner Starbucks café.

This type of product uniformity is great for coffee drinkers like me, but I believe it’s terrible in producing healthy and vital ministry in our church.

If every person were a visionary leader, nobody would complete a single project.

If every person were administratively -minded and conversations about program and budget lacked input from creative-minded people, you would end up with well-organized committees that are detached from the needs of the local or broader community.

Without those who are servant-minded, nobody would count the offering, mow the church lawn, plant and care for the trees and flowers, or take care of the Communion vessels and elements.

Paul reminds us that there are as many gifts as there are members, and each of us has a unique gift to offer God and the community of Christ in what we know as the local church.

The Greek word Homogeneity means something like ‘sameness’ or ‘oneness’ and is difficult to discuss in church classes and congregations.

The apostle Paul discusses the idea of homogeneity in the Christ-body in terms of the unity of a shared vision and purpose.

In modern language we might say it is, “being on the same page.”

But the truth is that local churches often do ministry through committees, boards and teams, and these are not exactly synonyms for unity and cohesiveness.

Why? Because different gifts, life experiences and perspectives often lead to different agendas, trigger points, and the interpretation of life.

We need passages like this one from 1 Corinthians to help us move beyond dissension to what Paul describes as the more excellent way–the way of true Christian love, a love that is willing to engage in honest, vulnerable conversation to arrive at, and ultimately to achieve true unity in Christ.

We can read these words quickly and agree at a superficial level, but trust me, they are not so easy to live out.

The kind of unity Paul calls us to moves beyond calls us to a place that is deeper than personal experience and personal agenda;

Paul asks us to put Christ first in our individual lives and in our common life in the church.

Paul reminds us to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice [Romans 12:15].

The writer of Hebrews encourages us to “provoke one another” to love and good deeds.[Hebrews 10:24]

Why? Because we are not a one-person band, we are not called together so our particular gift can take over: we are called to take our place for the health and well-being of the body of Christ that is our faith community.

In describing a healthy church Paul says it takes both diversity and unity: heterogeneity and homogeneity.

Serving in the church and living out our gifts-(and may we all do both, because it is all good) if we do it for Christ- whether it is vacuuming the floors, serving meals, creating art, singing in the choir, counting the offering, meeting as committees, volunteering for major fundraisers such as the Lobster Dinner- it is all good, if we do it for Christ.

This is the ultimate point Paul makes.

This is the more excellent way.

Paul reminds us that God made “All” of us to be the “Many” for the “One.”

I am grateful for the many beautiful ways we work together as a congregation, and for the growth and new learning that takes place whenever we gather, worship, and work together as followers of Jesus.

May we continue to offer our gifts and ministry in ways that reveal how your beautiful diversity may be held together through the unity of your Spirit.

Amen.


Originally delivered August 23, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

Communion Reflection

Scripture: John 6:51-58 ~

An atheist was swimming in the ocean one day. Suddenly a shark appeared in the water, so the atheist started swimming furiously toward their boat.

Reverend David Weekley standing at the pulpit August 16, 2015.

Prefer to watch this sermon on video? Click the image above.

Looking back the atheist saw the shark turn and head towards them.

As the atheist saw the jaws of the great white beast open, revealing its horrific teeth, they screamed “Oh God! Save me!”

In an instant, time was frozen and a bright light shone down from above. The atheist was motionless in the water when they heard the voice of God say, “You are an atheist. Why do you call up on me when you do not believe in me?”

The atheist was confused and could not lie, so they replied, “Well, that’s true. I don’t believe in you, but what about the shark? Can you make the shark believe in you?”

To which God replied, “As you wish,” and the light retracted back into the heavens.

The atheist felt the water move once again. As he looked back, he saw the jaws of the shark start to close down on him, when all of a sudden the shark stopped and pulled back.

The atheist watched as the huge beast closed its eyes, bowed its head, and said, “Thank you Lord for this food which I’m about to receive …”

Have you ever noticed how many social events in churches and other organizations revolves around food?

Think about it for a minute. Weddings and funerals, for example, involve receptions.

Just next Saturday we will offer our annual Lobster Dinner to the community.

Any many of our congregational meetings involve refreshments, even if it is only tea or coffee.

In fact, many of Jesus’ miracles, teachings and parables involve food. The story in today’s Gospel reading from John is a good example.

It also involves food, but not the type you would expect.

This story takes place shortly after Jesus has fed 5000 persons with the five loaves of bread and two fish.

Jesus has left Capernaum with the disciples, but the crowd found them, and the people were still hungry.

They wanted Jesus to give them physical food again, but he could see that their true hunger was for spiritual food, so he says, “I am the bread of life.”

A Bible, communion chalice and plate of flat bread sitting on a tableThis time Jesus is not talking about literal “bread”, but about the true “living bread” in the sense that those who believe in him will have their spiritual hunger satisfied.

The point is, that when our spiritual hunger is satisfied, we are satisfied in a way that physical food cannot accomplish.

John’s discourse about the bread of life in Chapter 6 of his Gospel is his way of dealing with the Eucharist, especially since his Gospel is the only one of the four Gospels that does not include the story of the Last Supper.

The story of Communion is told differently in all four Gospels because each one was written for a different audience.

In John’s case, his Gospel was written for the church in Greece approximately 80 years after Christ’s Ascension.

At this time in history, the Greeks were leaders in politics, philosophy ideology and culture, so John’s interpretation of the Eucharist was much different than that of the Hebrews, for example.

The main reason why John’s Gospel doesn’t include the story of the Last Supper is because John wanted to focus on the meaning of the Eucharist. John tells us that in Holy Communion Jesus meets us just as he did 2,000 years ago.

We need this spiritual relationship because it is easy in our world to lose hope, to fall into doubt or begin to mistrust God, that is what the atheist story I opened with is about.

To restore us to the way we are meant to live, with faith, means that we have to be able to trust again.

In the incarnation, God became flesh and lived among us.

And Christ’s entire life was God’s life lived in the flesh so that we might know God as a God of grace and truth, of mercy and love, and therefore as a God we may trust.

When Jesus died on the cross, the final link was created between the gospel teachings and the Old Testament with its Jewish rituals.

The Jewish rites of worship seeking forgiveness from sin involved animal sacrifices.

Salvation depended on being part of the right race, nationality, bloodline, clan or group.

In contrast, the Gentiles believed that life and breath came from the spiritual realm.

Consequently, the Gentiles believed that the flesh was corrupt. Their spiritual life consisted of trying to get away from the flesh. The result was rituals and liturgies that pushed God away and made the spiritual difficult to reach.

Jesus bridged that gap through his death and resurrection–which is the bread of life that he refers to.

As God’s revelation, Jesus opens the bread of God’s word in the world.

When we eat the bread of life, it fills our spiritual hunger and we become God’s words in the world.

As such, we are our brother and our sister’s keeper, because we are asked to love and care for others like Christ loves and cares for us.

If we can’t reconcile ourselves to each other, what hope is there for the life of the world?

The word bread also means sustenance.

In the Lord’s Prayer, the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread”, really means “Give us today what we need for life”.

Flesh and blood also mean a vital, active life. When Jesus says that he is the bread of life, he is referring to his own life and vitality. He gave his life freely so that we can have eternal life if we believe in him.

Painting of Jesus offering communion to a disciple, other disciples are around them praying, angels are overhead.Jesus gives us grace for living, gives us access to God, forgiveness of our sins, and the experience of eternal life even as we live this life.

There is an interesting parallel between this gospel reading and the manna that came down from heaven when the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert.

Both Jesus and the manna have their source in God in heaven, and what Jesus offers is similar to what the Israelites received. Unfortunately, the people who first heard today’s Gospel reading didn’t understand this parallel.

Jesus said that he is the bread of life that came down from heaven, but the Jews knew from scripture and their experience that it was manna, not Jesus of Nazareth that came down from heaven.

To them, eating manna and eating a person were two entirely different things. They did not realize that Jesus is the divine word, the revelation of God, and as such not only does he provide the bread, he IS the bread that is essential for our spiritual life.

To eat the flesh and to drink the blood of Jesus–is to take his life and teaching into our very lives and to believe in him–it is to surrender our own self-righteousness to God and cling to Christ’s saving work.

Loving ourselves as Christ loves us does involve making personal sacrifices and changes in the way we behave toward others; changes in the way we think, act or believe; changes in the way we worship and pray; changes in the way we forgive one another; changes in the way we regard righteousness and salvation–even changes in our station of life or our economic status.

At the retreat last weekend each person was invited to share a song that expressed our view of life.

I chose the song by the Beatles that says, “All you need is love”–the love of Christ as shown by his spiritual food.

When we eat the bread of life, we are in Christ and Christ is in us and around us at the same time.

If we find it difficult to understand this concept, we are not alone.

There is a story about a minister who was walking along the beach with his daughter. The child was asking her father questions about a recent sermon about Christ begin with people.

The girl said, “Dad, I can’t understand how Christ can live in us and we live in Christ at the same time.”

As they walked further down the beach, the father noticed a bottle with a cork in it. He took the bottle, filled it half-full with water, re-corked it and flung it far into the ocean.

Then he said to his daughter, “The sea is in the bottle and the bottle is in the sea. As it bobs up and down in the sea, it is a picture of life and motion, life in Christ”.

Faith in Jesus does not begin by obeying church doctrines, nor is it an intellectual exercise.

Faith in Jesus means responding to his invitation to have a personal relationship with him. Let me give you an example. Suppose some friends invite you to their home for a meal. When you are a guest in their home, they are sharing their intimacy with you. They are sharing with you some of the privacy of that place where they live, eat, love, work on their problems, argue, sleep and depart for work and pleasure and return for rest every day.

After you arrive, they show you around their home in which they take deep pride. Then you sit down for the meal. You fine everything set with care, the food delicious and the conversation delightful.

In other words, it becomes a lovely occasion and you leave feeling full in every way. You enjoy bread from the kitchen, but you also enjoy being graciously received, the lively conversation, and being in beautiful surroundings.

Multiply this by thousands of times and you have a glimpse of what the Holy Eucharist is.

In the Eucharist, Jesus and “bread of life” are one.

In Holy Communion, the bread and cup are the elements that provide our spiritual nourishment and nurture our faith in God.

Close with a couple of questions I fund while preparing this message: Is Jesus our daily bread or a seasonal dish? Is he our regular nourishment, or our Christmas turkey, Easter ham and whatever else conveniently fits in throughout the year?

In other words, is Jesus our Savior, the one to whom we look for all things, at all times?

The living body of Christ is active, not static. It nourishes and flows. It is alive, and it requires our active participation in it to carry its meaning into the world.

May God help us individually and as a community in this endeavor.

Amen.


Originally delivered August 16, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

  • Bible and Lord’s Cup and Bread by John Snyder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Jesus Institui a Eucaristia (painel lateral da Capela do Santíssimo Sacramento da Antiga Sé) by José Teófilo de Jesus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a Miracle!

Scripture: John 6:1-21

While I was preparing this message I happened to find a sermon preached by a seminary student on this same text.

Video player showing Reverend David Weekley standing at the pulpit of St. Nicholas United Methodist Church

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I liked the way this student began the sermon:

“I can see the excited headlines plastered across the newspaper. Or, in today’s world, I can picture the trending topic on Twitter, and the stories filling my Facebook news feed. Jesus Feeds 5,000 People, and You’ll Never Guess What He Does Next. Hashtag #BreadMiracle. Something noteworthy is happening here. Jesus’ behavior is not normal.”

I agree with the seminarian that Jesus’ behavior is not normal; in fact I would go even further and say that Jesus’ behavior is never normal; this is how he drew the attention of both followers and persecutors.

In today’s reading, Jesus is attracting attention. Crowds are following him.

John tells us the crowds are following Jesus because they, “saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”

Before this reading, Jesus had healed a lame man at the pool of Bethesda.

This healing has led some to believe that God is up to something new and different in Jesus, and they want to know more.

So a large crowd gathers to hear what Jesus has to say.

And then John tells us there is a big problem:

“Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’”

Colorful painting of the crowd who came to listen to Jesus, food is being distributed to all the people.John goes further and tells us that Jesus said this to Philip to “test him” because Jesus already knew what he was going to do.

Now, either these people are all terrible at planning ahead and didn’t realize they’d need to eat, or Jesus’ question is actually part of a larger teaching about God and faithful discipleship.

It is interesting that this feeding miracle is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels.

There is only one significant difference between the accounts. In the other three gospels the disciples come to Jesus and ask him about food. But in John, Jesus notices the problem first and asks Philip what the plan is for feeding the people.

This is very typical of John to portray Jesus as being completely in control, and already knowing what he is going to do; so John tells us Jesus just asks this question as a test.

Apparently, Philip fails the test, since his response, a perfectly logical response, is essentially, “I have no clue.”

200 denarii in the Greek world of this time was equal to 6 months wages.

Basically, Philip responds by saying what they need to purchase so much bread is much more than they have.

Feeding all these people would take a miracle.

Fortunately, Andrew comes to the rescue. “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

On a literal level Andrew is right. Five loaves and two fish are not going to do much good among such a large crowd.

It would take a miracle.

This is where contemporary interpretations become varied and go in three major directions.

Biblical “literalists” say that what happened is that after Jesus gave thanks over those five barley loaves and two fish it all miraculously multiplied so that everyone ate all they wanted with leftovers.

Back in the day when I was a seminary student at Boston University popular theological thinking took a more socio-ethical approach to this miracle, saying that, of course people had provisions with them. Who would leave home for a long days’ walk and activities without packing a lunch?

The problem was that only the child was willing to share.

When Jesus thanked the boy and then gave thanks to God, people’s hearts were opened and attitudes were changed so that they were willing to share what they had hidden in their belongings with the others.

Some contemporary theologians take another approach. They look beyond literal bread to a deeper theological message.

In this case, the food is a metaphor for spiritual food, and the twelve baskets are also symbolic, indicating that the person and message of Jesus is meant to include everyone (twelve= twelve tribes of Israel, and symbolically means that no group or person is to be excluded from God’s kin-dom).

In his book, Who is Jesus?, well-known theologian and biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan makes this comment about miracles:

“My point, once again, is not that ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

John Dominic Crossan makes a good point. The problem with any and all of these interpretations, however, is that nobody really knows; we were not there.

Regarding a literal interpretation: I think we are uncomfortable with the idea of miracles. At least, I am. They don’t fit the way our world works.

Yet miracles are central to John’s stories about Jesus.

In fact John organizes his entire Gospel around 7 of Jesus’ miracles. Today’s reading includes numbers 3 and 4. Miracles are important to John’s understanding of Jesus.

Let’s return to the story for a moment.

Jesus has the people sit down, divides them into groups, takes the bread, gives thanks, and distributes it to the people. And everybody gets free food, and everybody’s happy. Actually, everyone’s really happy. People like the free food so much that they want to make him king.

This type of interpretation matches up with current “prosperity gospel” teaching; it’s all about stuff.

Think of the economic prosperity from having a king who can miraculously, (magically?) multiply stuff!

A bigger mansion, IRA, and private jets.

But apparently that’s not what Jesus wants. He’s got something different in mind than being a vending machine.

At the beginning of the story, the crowds were following Jesus because of the signs he did.

In the story that follows this one Jesus begins his teaching by telling the crowd, “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

Then Jesus moves to a more metaphorical interpretation of the miracle and goes on to talk about himself as the bread of life, manna from heaven, the true bread for the world. Not the kind of bread the people are expecting.

Clearly Jesus does not preach a prosperity gospel, and he does not invite people to understand him as a vending machine in the sky.

He does talk a lot about caring for one another, about feeding the hungry, loving our neighbor.

These teachings certainly come closer to the socio-ethical interpretation I learned in seminary when people’s hearts are opened and they finally give up hoarding what they have to share with others.

So what do we do with these miracle stories?

I cannot answer that question for you, but I am not sure it matters in the end.

Whether a literal multiplication of loaves and fish happened, whether people opened their hearts and lunches to share with one another; or whether they came to understand Jesus as the spiritual bread given to all people by a loving God- these are all miracles.

The faith question each of us is left to answer is: why do we follow Jesus?

Sometimes we actually seem repulsed by miracles at any level.

We don’t want Jesus breaking our nice little boxes of what’s possible.

Maybe we are afraid of what might happen if we dare to believe in a God who doesn’t follow our rules.

Maybe we want to insist we know how the world works, and this isn’t it. Bread does not or should not come for free.

No matter how we interpret this story it does not fit our worldview.

It’s a miracle. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not explainable.

I remember taking an economics class way back in high school.

We were taught a catchphrase, “TANSTAFL.”

“TANSTAFL” is an acronym meaning, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

Clearly, Jesus did not take economics.

These are hard stories to believe when all the evidence says they’re impossible.

In a world where there are starving people, where there is so much going wrong in the world, in our lives, how can we possibly dare believe that God provides for us and invites us to provide for one another?

Maybe God isn’t bound by our understanding of economic justice, by physics, by what we think is possible, by our rules.

Maybe the point of this miracle story is that God is capable of more than we can understand.

And maybe, because of the cross, because of the rest of the story, we can dare to believe that God is present and active in a broken world, even where and when we cannot see it.

In a world of rules, a world that says “How dare you claim to be loved? How dare you claim to be made worthy? How dare you love one another?”

We believe in a God of miracles.

We believe in a God who gives freely, not according to worldly rules.

We believe in a God of grace.

The miracle of this story and of the gospel itself is that God does love you.

God does make you worthy. God does forgive. God does provide.

Even though we might be afraid to believe it, even though we do not understand how it works, God is present.

And that, my friends is the real miracle! Amen, and Amen.


Originally delivered July 26, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

  • The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard (1505/1506–1566) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons