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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fable and Fact - Distorted Reflections and Truth

John 6:56-69
In the nineteenth century lived a great Hindu saint who told this fable about a motherless tiger cub who was adopted by goats and brought up with them to speak their language,
            eat their food, and emulate their ways.
In general, this tiger cub grew up to believe that he, too, was a goat.
Then one day a king tiger came along,
          and when all the goats scattered in fear,
                   the young tiger was left alone to fend for himself.
When he heard the king tiger approaching, he stood like a goat, rooted in fear, prepared to confront him, afraid and yet somehow not afraid.
The king tiger asked him
          what he meant by this seeming masquerade,
                   but all the young one could do in response
                             was to bleat nervously
                                      and continue nibbling at the grass.
So the tiger king carried him to a pool of water
          where he forced him to look
                   at their two reflections side by side
                             and draw his own conclusions.
When this failed, he offered the cub his first piece of raw meat.
          At first the young tiger recoiled from the unfamiliar taste of it, but then as he ate more and began to feel it warming his blood, the truth gradually became clear to him. Lashing his tail and digging his claws into the ground, the young beast finally raised his head high, and the jungle trembled at the sound of his exultant roar.
Frederick Buechner writes that despite all the profound differences between Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam,
                   they agree with each other
                             and with Christianity by and large,
                                      on one very basic point:
                             human beings as they usually exist in this world
                                      are not what they were created to be.
The little goat in the story is not really a goat at all—he is really a tiger—
          except that he does not know that he is,
          with the result that for the time being, he is, in a sense, really not a tiger.
“We were created in the image of God,” says Buechner,  “but something has gone awry.
                   Like a mirror with a crack down the middle,
                             we [reflect] back an image that is badly distorted.
                                      We were created to serve God
                             and each other in love, but each of us chooses instead to serve himself as God,               and this means wrenching ourselves out of the kind of relationship with God and [humankind] that we were made for.”
The scriptures tell us that we are, indeed, made in the very image of God. And yet, like the tiger cub,
our understanding of who we are and who we belong to often becomes skewed.  
We forget whose image it is we were made to reflect, if we ever knew it in the first place. We forget whose life, whose love, and whose ways we were made to emulate.
Instead, we follow the ways of the world around us. Rather than seeking godly justice, peace and love, we reflect the worldly qualities of greed, jealousy and thirst for power.
Rather than follow Jesus’ voice, which calls us to be God-bearers in the world, all too often we follow the voice and path of least resistance. We buy into a culture that tells us that we should strive for its version of success, happiness and virtue – that our main goal in life is to pursue and command physical beauty, wealth and power – as the world defines these things. And, for a while at least, we forget both our creator and who and what we were created to be.
The hard truth revealed in our gospel text, both for the first century disciples – and for us, today – is that Jesus, the bread of life provides the only food which truly nourishes. Jesus feeds us the bread of recognition and transformation.
Jesus gives us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to sustain us on our journey, and without this food –– we cannot have true life; the life of abundance he offers; eternal life. These are hard words, hard to hear, hard to comprehend, hard to believe.    
We can hardly blame the disciples who struggled, who just couldn’t fathom this business of fleshly consumption.
Even for those of us who can see past the literal and understand that Jesus is talking about something much deeper, this command is a game changer—one that can indeed offend.             
Because the truth is, many of us doubt that we have        what it takes to be a disciple of Christ. Jesus is all about love and kindness, generosity and forgiveness. But we know, deep down, that when we look at our own reflection, too often, love, kindness, generosity, and such are far from what we see.
I know, for instance, that anger and frustration can too often get the best of me. Sometimes I say things that hurt other people. I can be unrepentant when I think I am in the right in a disagreement – no matter how wrong I am. I don’t always pay attention to the needs of the people around me. Greed, envy and jealousy threaten to take up residency in my heart on any given day.
I, for example, can be stubborn, and impatient. It is hard for me to remember Jesus command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself,” let alone to act on it. I know that I am in good company.
But that doesn’t stop God from claiming us as God’s own, just as that king tiger claimed the baby tiger as his own. And God doesn’t stop at claiming us as His own, God works to transform us into God’s image through the promise of this holy eating and drinking, where Jesus comes to us, abides in us, and promises abundant life to those who follow him. Jesus’ abiding presence reminds, accompanies, strengthens us and transforms us, more and more into the image of God.
The book of Exodus tells us that long ago, God sent heavenly food to provide for God’s people. Yet the efficacy of the food didn’t last. Initially satisfied with full bellies, it didn’t take long for the Israelites to return to grumbling and to their old ways of idolatry and sin. And the wage of sin is death.
Today, Jesus gives this promise, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” This is the central point of the Bread of Life discourse of Jesus’ we have been reading here in church for the past five weeks.
For all its loveliness and the promise of relationship and presence with Jesus that this reading provides, there is something else in the promise of Jesus.
What we learn from this discourse, is that Jesus is truly “all in” when it comes to giving himself for the sake of the world, and that Jesus also expects us to be “all in” when it comes to being his followers.
Jesus offers us real life without end. Yet for all those reasons listed earlier, being a faithful disciple is tough because it is incredibly countercultural and can exact a pretty high price.
While most of us will not likely be called to die for our faith, it is probable that we will be called to make some tough choices about everything from the way we spend our time and money, to how we vote for elected officials, and where we stand on potentially divisive and polarizing issues. After all, being a follower of Christ is a 24/7/365 kind of lifestyle rather than a one-hour duty to which we submit on Sundays or when it’s convenient.
This week, a week in which we learned of the cancer diagnosis of President Jimmy Carter, he was quoted as saying: “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I have to try to make a difference.” When we walk in a similar way, we will know that we are surely not goats, but disciples, beloved, gathered, called, fed, and sent to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
Buechener writes, “the self each of us has to live with day in and day out under the most intimate circumstances possible is not entirely the self that we would have chosen to be tied to on such a long-term basis. Or, to return to the language of the fable, if the tiger who thinks he is a goat could really be a goat, then he would not have this problem. But fortunately or unfortunately, there is still enough of the tiger in us to make us discontented with our goathood. We eat grass, but it never really fills us. We bleat well enough, but deep down there is the suspicion that we were really made for roaring.”
Thanks be to God, then, for the bread and wine which truly fill us.
At the end of our reading today, Jesus finally turns to the twelve and asks them if they will stay or go the way of the crowd. Peter answers him rightly. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
God created us in God’s image, to be imitators and mirrors of Christ. God claims us and equips us through this holy meal, and through the gift of the Spirit stirring in our midst. May these promises strengthen, encourage, and sanctify us as we grow in our lives of discipleship.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Promise

John 6:51-58
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
            As a child, I could not make a more serious qualifier to a promise. I don’t’ know if kids these days use that phrase anymore. As an adult I no longer even think in those terms. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
            Perhaps it is because I have become jaded – I’ve seen too many promises made and broken. I’ve failed to live up to quite a few myself. What is a promise, after all, but words,
just words, even when spoken with the most sincere and genuine of hearts and the purest of intent?
            Perhaps my reticence to use those words arises from the hope that a promise made today will make a difference. That this time, I’ll be able to honor and keep a promise I make; that the kind of wisdom spoken in the Proverb we read this morning is the wisdom attained through age and experience; “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
            Maybe, the tenor of a promise, has become, “Cross my heart and hope to live.”
            Promises are important things.
            Promises can create change in the giver and receiver of the promise – both gain in a promise kept – despite the cost also connected to it.
            In today’s gospel, Jesus makes a bold, life-giving promise. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” And later, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
            Jesus promises to provide food for the life of the world, his flesh and blood. Jesus, the perfect promise-keeper promises that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood already has eternal life, and will be raised up on the last day.
            Jesus promises to nourish the world with the gift of himself. For the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus, his incarnate life and very real death on the cross, have become life-giving food for the world.
            In, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion, which is nothing other than Christ’s body and blood, Jesus lives out this promise to nourish faith, forgive sin, and empower us to be witnesses to the Gospel. Jesus gives us life and feeds the life within us.
            Because of Christ’s promise of mutual abiding, he in us and us in him, life is renewed.
            Throughout this sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus has tried to help us embrace God’s wisdom – wisdom which is not so much knowledge to be grasped and claimed and explained as much as it is a relationship to be trusted.
            It is a relationship desired by God, a relationship that God yearns for so deeply that God will go to any length to secure it – even to sending this Bread of Life, Jesus himself, to feed us, to abide with us, to strengthen us, and to forgive us. This, my friends, is a promise we all need to hear.
            It is certainly a promise I needed to hear this week, a week in which both my 87 year old father and a little 4 year old girl, Josie, both of whom we have long been praying for, were among those who through death, joined the choir of saints and angels surrounding the throne of our Lord.
            We have all had those experiences of loss – those which are sudden and those which were drawn out. And, though death constantly surrounds us, Jesus’ promise of eternal presence with us, of life-after death, of resurrection gives us the assurance that while death has taken loved ones from our view, death does not have the final word.
            The promise of Jesus that those who believe abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in them always and eternally, allows us to trust that in the holy spaces where heaven and earth meet, God’s love surrounds, protects, and guides our loved ones safely home. In those holy spaces God accompanies those who watch and wait. In love, in joy, in grief and sorrow, God feeds us and abides with, in and around us. We are reminded at times like these that God’s holy abundance is contained in the promises Jesus makes.
            Living in Christ, there is abundance – more life than you could ever hope for or imagine; you seek heavenly manna? Jesus says, I am that manna – I am the food you need. I am bread from heaven, for you, come down so that you may not only live, but that you may have life. I am life for you. Right here. Right in front of you. Believe in me and be nourished.
            Jesus stresses that life in him does not come because we understand correctly or believe all the right things – the doctrine and theology with which we adorn ourselves. Instead, life comes through the promise of the one who is the Bread of Life.
            Jesus promises that eternal life comes through being in close communion with Jesus himself.  Eternal life is to remain in Jesus and to have Jesus remain in us. As we eat and drink, we take Christ’s body and blood into our mouths, into our stomachs, into our bodies, Jesus promises to abide in us, strengthening, renewing, and making his love both felt and known.
            Through this holy meal, Jesus Christ, Bread of Life, himself delivered unto death upon the cross and raised to eternal life, moves us closer to himself. Christ moves us closer to reflecting the very image of the living God in our own lives.
            Through this meal, we are as intimate with Jesus, the Bread of all Living, as the Father is with the Son. This is Jesus’ promise to us not only every time we receive this precious meal, but every day of our lives, in our living and our dying, in our care of others and in our being cared for.
            While the gracious promise of God includes inviting us into the resurrection and life after death, we are mistaken if we view “eternal life, or “life everlasting” as referring only to that kind of life.
            Let us remember that while certainly, Jesus’ promise of eternal life is laden with the assurance that we will join him in the resurrection when this life is past. Eternal life reflects the reality that lives are changed in the moment of our baptism as we receive the promise of new life – a life which begins in that moment, and then carries us throughout our earthly existence and beyond.
            The eternal life begun in baptism is the gift of abundant living in relationship with Jesus, a relationship Jesus nurtures and feeds by every means possible, including the most visceral feeding through his holy presence at the table. The invitation to this meal is far more dependent on the relationship created and driven through the love of God that it is on our own action or understanding. It is available to us through God’s expansive love shown to us through Jesus Christ.
            Jesus’ promise of eternal life and of his abiding is an essential, life-giving promise which supplies hope to us in all our journeying on this earthly plane.
            The past couple of weeks, I have been made more aware than ever of the promise of life that Jesus makes. I witnessed Jesus dwelling in, with and around us through nurses and doctors, friends and coworkers, through you, through the prayers that were prayed, through the gathering of family, through the care given and received as my father and Josie moved closer to that holy place where heaven and earth meet, through the omnipresent Spirit which surrounded us. The strength we drew came from knowing the peace and promise of Jesus that nothing in heaven or on earth could separate us and our loved ones from the love of God through Christ Jesus. Through the Bread of Life, God’s eternal promises are true.
            In a few moments,
we’ll celebrate Jesus’ presence among us in Holy Communion. 
Our voices will blend with those of the angels around God’s throne as we sing
“Holy, Holy, Holy.”

            The great prayer of thanksgiving that we lift
will be the prayer of voices living and voices dead. 
            Heaven and earth will touch here,
and Christ will be present in the bread and the wine
in ways too wonderful to understand. 

And this is what is at the heart of our meal:
a common loaf of bread,
and a simple cup of wine,
both containing the promises of Jesus; together, the sign and the reality of how much God loves us. 

God has promised unparalleled blessing in this bread and this cup,
this meal through which God dwells in us and we dwell in God.

This I firmly believe, and pray that you do, too. Cross my heart and sure to live.