My Neighbor | Proper 10

Luke 10:25-37

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (CEB)

My Neighbor

When a parable becomes a cliché it’s easy to gloss over the meaning because we think we already know it. We tend to take it out of its historical context and turn it into a morality lesson. Most of us know stories of how a “Good Samaritan” came to our or another person’s aid. If Jesus only meant that we should help people when they’re in trouble, I doubt he would have wasted words by telling a parable, especially in the way he told it. It’s supposed to shock us, not make us feel good about ourselves. But, familiarity breeds contempt, so we tend to reduce this parable so that it points to us as the hero of the story every time we do a random nice thing.

At the heart of this parable is the relationship between the law and the gospel. For some of us, and for the majority of Jesus’ contemporaries, the law is the gospel. When we think this way—that the law is the gospel—we view our personal obedience to the law as our behavioral proof of faith in God. We can tick the check boxes on the law’s list of demands: I did this one, I did this one, thank goodness I didn’t do this one, check, check, check. With our list of boxes checked, we can declare ourselves righteous.

But, when we understand the law as gospel, we end up making our personal understanding of the law equal to God’s Divine revelation humanity in order to justify ourselves. The law effectively becomes the means by which we arrive at God’s ends.

For Jesus, the gospel is law, which is different from the law as gospel. We’ll get into this more in a bit, but first, let’s look at the scene Luke gives us. We’re told that a scribe or legal expert stood up to test Jesus. Now, when we read this, we usually read antagonism into the scribe’s action. But this was people often did when they got together. They would pose questions to each other to see how the person being questioned would answer. And it wasn’t necessarily antagonistic. Sometimes, it was entertaining.

Another point to note is that, as this scene unfolds, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem. His journey there begins this way: “As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?’ But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, and they went on to another village” (Luke 9:51-56 CEB). A scribe asks Jesus what he must do to have life while Jesus is on his way to death.

That little piece of Luke 9 also highlights the strained relations between Jews and Samaritans. The disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume a Samaritan village that didn’t welcome Jesus. Clearly, the disciples still didn’t get this whole gospel thing Jesus was teaching. So, keep that in mind as we get to the parable itself.

Instead of answering when the legal expert asks his question, Jesus asks him how he would interpret what the law says. So, the legal expert responded with two texts of the Hebrew Scriptures that were widely seen in ancient Judaism as the hooks on which the whole law hung. One part, Deuteronomy 6:5, focused on devotion to God with one’s whole being. The other part, Leviticus 19:18, focused on the love of one’s neighbor. The two go hand in hand. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus continually connects devotion to God with actions representative of God’s love and mercy for humankind.

It’s a good answer. It’s the right answer. It’s what the law requires: love God and love your neighbors. And Jesus says as much.

But the legal expert couldn’t leave well enough alone. He needed to justify the way he had heretofore applied his personal understanding of the law in his life. He wanted to prove that the way he lived out his interpretation of the law’s demands was, indeed, righteousness. So, he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29b CEB).

Jesus sets the parable up by saying, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death” (Luke 10:30 CEB). The first two people to encounter the man on the roadside passed him by. Now, through the years, I’ve heard people try to give reasons for why the priest and the Levite—the clergy of Judaism—crossed over to the other side. The prevailing theory is that the priest and Levite would have been concerned with maintaining their ritual purity and encountering a dead body would have defiled them.

But, the hole in that theory is that the priest and Levite were both going “down” the same road. Anyone going “down” that road would have been traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. If you were going the other way, you’d be going “up” the road. The elevation of Jerusalem’s old city is 2500 feet above sea level. The elevation of Jericho is about 846 feet below sea level. So, you were either going up to Jerusalem or down to Jericho. Or, as Jesus put it, “down from Jerusalem.” If the priest and the Levite were on their way to Jericho, then there wouldn’t be much concern for maintaining ritual purity because they weren’t heading up to the temple.

The priest and the Levite are not allegorical representations of the failure of the law or what was wrong with Judaism. They only represent two people who didn’t demonstrate mercy. We don’t know why they didn’t. Their inner moral reasoning isn’t provided, and neither is the Samaritan’s, for that matter. All we know is that two people who presumably share the religious and cultural identity of the man who was beaten and left for dead did not express concern. Whatever their reasons for passing by, nothing can excuse their refusal to show mercy. In fact, the presence of these two characters in the story acting as they did—refusing to show mercy—would have shocked those who listened to Jesus words.

Yet, it’s not an indictment against Israel, Judaism, the clergy, or any such nonsense. Two people who were expected to show mercy didn’t. Their crossing to the other side of the road would have been heard by Jesus’ listeners as shocking. I know we like to see ourselves as the Samaritan in the story, but if we’re honest in our own self-reflection, we probably have more in common with the priest and the Levite than we’d like to admit. Other people’s problems are always inconvenient.

As for the Samaritan, I’m sure the man who got beaten up was just as much of an inconvenience for him as for the priest and the Levite. Certainly, the Samaritan’s introduction into the story—and especially his acts of mercy—jolted the audience. His disciples were probably scratching their heads. After all, he just passed through a Samaritan village full of people who refused to welcome him, who refused to extend the least bit of hospitality, let alone mercy.

The Samaritan is not like the presumably Jewish man who fell victim to the robbers. Yet, it’s the Samaritan who approached the man. It’s the Samaritan who bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. It’s the Samaritan who put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn. It’s the Samaritan who arranged for the wounded man’s continued care after he left. It’s the Samaritan who promised to return and pay for the cost of the man’s care if anything else were owed. It’s the Samaritan who treats the man not as an enemy but as one dear to him, which is shown by the spectrum of care he provides to the injured man. The Samaritan’s demonstration of mercy shows us how far love ought to go. Authentic love doesn’t discriminate. Authentic love creates neighborly relationships because, by love’s very nature, it meets the needs of others.

In this parable, though, the Samaritan doesn’t necessarily represent us. We don’t get to read ourselves into the story as the triumphal hero who did what was right. Rather, we should read ourselves into the story as the one who was beaten up and left for dead. The Samaritan, in fact, represents the person or group of people whom we would not want to help us. Maybe, we would rather die than have this person help us.

Who might that be for you? Think about it. Might it be a Muslim? A refugee from Central America? A drug addict? A homeless person who hasn’t bathed in three weeks? Who would that be for you? Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote the book, The Misunderstood Jew said that, as a Jewish woman, for her the Samaritan is a member of Hamas who showed mercy. In a lecture to a group of people who had witnessed September 11 first-hand, she suggested the the Samaritan was a member of Al Qaeda who showed mercy.

The point of Jesus’ parable is to remind us in our self-righteous certainty of our sincerely-held definitions of good people and bad people that mercy can come from unexpected places; that neighbors can be found in unexpected places. The legal expert wanted to narrow the scope of who he might have to count as his neighbor, but Jesus blew the definition so wide open that we don’t get to exclude anyone.

There’s probably a bit of the legal expert in all of us. Some of us find the law-as-gospel mindset comforting. When the law is gospel, we know where we’re going. We seek refuge in rules. We glorify boundaries. We enumerate norms, and we codify discipleship. We ask about definitions and try to set limits. We want to know, precisely, who I must love as myself.

When the law is gospel, I am the actor, and my actions need to be justified by my personal understanding of the law and obedience to the law as humanly defined. To ask questions that seek answers that limit or define is to view the law as gospel. It’s an attempt at maintaining control over the wildly uncontrollable love and mercy of God. It’s to continue the presumption that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is primarily knowing the difference between good and evil instead of knowing only God and God’s mercy and showing God’s mercy to our neighbors.

You see, it’s not necessarily the law that fails to meet the standards of the gospel but, rather, it’s our human failure at interpreting it. If the legal expert had read a little farther, he would have found the place that says, “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 CEB).

Neighbors are people we don’t know. Neighbors are even the people we hate. Neighbors are people we fear. Who is my neighbor?

When the legal expert realized that he was the one being tested, not Jesus, he managed to say that the one who showed mercy was a neighbor to the man left for dead. It, too, is a good answer. It’s the right answer. Because, it’s not a person’s similarities to us that make them our neighbor. Those who show mercy are neighbors. And those who show mercy are the ones who fulfil both the law and the gospel. Jesus tells us to go and demonstrate mercy to the world. Are we willing to let love move so deeply in us that we dare to demonstrate mercy to people we hate and, therefore, become neighbors to those we’d rather die than love—or allow to love us?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Measure This | 7th after Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” (CEB)

Measure This

Yesterday, in Saint Louis, Missouri, the Special Called Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church opened for a day of worship and prayer. They didn’t get to any business—that part begins today. Yesterday, they spent the hours worshipping and praying together. What they’ll be discussing and voting on today, tomorrow, and Tuesday, are four plans for A Way Forward for the United Methodist Church. The conversation is about one issue: human sexuality. How will we, as United Methodists, move forward?

I have to admit that I don’t know the answer to that question. Depending on how the General Conference votes, we might allow for the ordination of LGBTQ persons or we might not. We might move forward together as one United Methodist Church, or we may move forward on divergent paths by separating from those who think and believe differently from us regarding human sexuality. So you’re aware, the Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan, including our bishop, Julius Trimble. They don’t want to see a divided or segregated church. They believe we can move forward together, as one United Methodist Church.

As for me, I hope our bishops are right. I don’t want to see division. I don’t want to see the pointing of fingers and other actions that would inevitably follow a path that leads our church to break apart. I’d rather our church not rename itself The Divided Methodist Church. So, I ask you to pray for General Conference. I ask you to pray for our delegates. And I ask you to pray for yourselves. Ask God for the grace to see you through whatever the General Conference decides for our church.

Yesterday Bishop Gary Mueller said, “One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a human being, as a Christian, as a bishop, is to set my desires aside and to seek God’s will. I have a hard time surrendering to God’s purpose. I think it’s because I like what I like. I think it’s because I can dress up whatever I like with fancy-sounding theological words, with eloquence and beauty. And I think it’s because I find myself able to convince myself that what I want is also what God wants. I suspect that many of you can identify with that.”

And I think he’s right. Sometimes, we put our desires, our beliefs, our thoughts, and our ideals into a box and label it with God’s name. We assume that God must be on our side of whatever issue we’re examining in the moment. Prophets throughout Judeo-Christian history have smashed religious ideas that everyone else knew to be true. In Jesus’ day, everyone knew that people who were handicapped, sick, or poor were in that state because God was punishing them for their sin. God is just, and obviously God doesn’t let bad things like that happen to good people. Yet, the prophet Jesus challenged that notion several times (c.f. Luke 13:1-5; John 9).

So, whatever convictions you hold, whatever you believe to be true, we all need to ask God for grace. God’s grace is the only thing that will see us through this process as one body.

It’s probably not without some irony that the Gospel lesson for today is Luke 6:27-36. That’s just what the Revised Common Lectionary provides for the Seventh Sunday after The Epiphany in Year C. I think God must enjoy making real-world events and the lectionary texts collide in potent ways. It happens enough that I’m fairly certain God does it on purpose.

The first words of this text, “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27 CEB) contain a paradox. You see, the word enemy here is ἐχθροὺς, and the root meaning is hate. Jesus tells us, “Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (my trans.).

One thing we need to be careful of when we look at this text is that Jesus is not encouraging a passive response to violence, evil, or abuse. In no way does this text suggest that an abused woman should stay in a relationship with an abusive man and meekly offer her other cheek every time the jerk beats her. We need to keep the context of Jesus’ words in mind.

So, let’s put this in its proper context. Slapping someone on the cheek was a way of mocking them and paying them back for blasphemy. Two instances of this kind of religious retribution come to mind. One was when Kings Jehosephat of Judah and Ahab of Israel were considering military action. First, they consulted the prophets who all said the kings should attack because they would win.

Except for one. Micaiah said that he saw all of Israel scattered like sheep without a shepherd (cf. 1 Kings 22:17). “Then Micaiah said, ‘Listen now to the LORD’s word: I saw the LORD enthroned with all the heavenly forces stationed beside him, at his right and at his left. The LORD said, “Who will persuade Ahab so that he attacks Ramoth-gilead and dies there?” There were many suggestions until one particular spirit approached the LORD and said, “I’ll persuade him.” “How?” the LORD asked. “I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets,” he said. The LORD agreed, “You will succeed in persuading him! Go ahead!” So now, since the LORD has placed a lying spirit in the mouths of every one of these prophets of yours, it is the LORD who has pronounced disaster against you!’ Zedekiah, Chenaanah’s son, approached Micaiah and slapped him on the cheek. ‘Just how did the LORD’s spirit leave me to speak to you?’ he asked.” (1 Kings 22:19-24 CEB).

The prophet Zedekiah slapped Micaiah because, to him, Micaiah blasphemed against the Lord by accusing the entire company of prophets of speaking in the Lord’s name by a lying spirit. These prophets were called by God to speak God’s word, and Micaiah said they’d been infected by a lying spirit so they couldn’t speak God’s word. It was blasphemy. But, as it turned out, it was also the truth.

The other instance is when Jesus stood before the High Priest and answered his questions. “After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. ‘Is that how you would answer the high priest?’ he asked. Jesus replied, ‘If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?’” (John 18:22-23 CEB). The Gospel of Matthew records that, when Jesus was mocked by the chief priests and council, they spit in his face and hit him saying, “Prophesy for us, Christ! Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:68 CEB).

So, in this text from the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus told the people in the crowd that when someone strikes them for blasphemy because they believed in the kind of healing and salvation that Jesus offered, or the kind of faithful living that Jesus demanded, they should offer the other cheek and get on with living faithfully. Christians are not to participate in that kind of religious retribution, which is often born of self-righteousness rather than true faithfulness to God.

Jesus does not call us to suffer endless cycles of violence. Rather, Jesus calls us to live faithfully even when others mock us or declare to the world that we’re wrong, that we’re blasphemers, that we’re not holding to religious law and propriety as we ought.

“Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (Luke 6:27 my trans.). It’s not only a paradox, but also a challenge that acknowledges there are people whom we—yes, even we wonderful and innocent disciples of Jesus Christ—there are people whom we hate. And there are people who hate us. The challenge of discipleship is to love those we hate, and to do good to those people whom we know—beyond the shadow of a doubt—detest us. That’s. Not. Easy.

That’s why Jesus goes on to say, “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:32-36 CEB).

Sometimes loving others is difficult business. Yet, the demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ demand this bigger picture of love, and broader inclusion of those whom we love.

The last verses of this text have to do with judgment verses forgiveness, and it’s really about the way these two disparate things work. These words are as difficult as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12 where we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, and the place where Jesus said, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 CEB). “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned” (Luke 6:37a CEB) is a tall order to fill because we’re really good at making judgments, whether is unfiltered and voiced or the inner monologue of our minds that we don’t dare speak out loud.

The reason we’re told not to judge is because only God is good (c.f. Luke 18:19). Only God is capable of making right judgments. So, when we live into a religious or social culture based on judgment, the inevitable result is condemnation for everyone and everything. As one scholar put it, “A world bent on justice through judgment fulfills the anonymous maxim “And eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.” (Allen in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke vol. 1, p. 172). When we live into judgment, we draw lines, define purity, and defend the borders that separate righteousness from sin.

But disciples of Jesus Christ must live into a different reality than that of judgment. When we live into God’s generosity of forgiveness and grace, we can find goodness that overflows. When we remember that we, too, are sinners, yet God has deigned to forgive us and include us in God’s coming dominion, we’re set free from the bondage of judgment. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return” (Luke 6:37-38 CEB). When God’s people live into the overwhelming abundance of grace and forgiveness, we’ll find that God’s good measure is overflowing in our lap and spilling all over those around us—even those we hate and those who despise us.

Can we live with that?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Matured | 1st after Christmas

Luke 2:41-52

41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. 44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. 45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked.

His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”

49 Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them. 51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. 52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.

Matured

The Sunday after Christmas Day typically has a less-than-normal attendance rate at worship services. It’s the same with the Sunday after Easter Day. The big celebration of Christmas is now over. Decorations are probably coming down in some people’s homes. We’re tired because we’ve all been busy with travelling, visiting family and friends, going to Christmas parties and gatherings, eating Christmas meals, the craziness of Christmas morning when the kids (or grandkids) open their gifts. Not to mention all the shopping that some people have been doing for more than a month.

It’s exhausting! Wonderful, but exhausting.

I feel like I had two Christmas Days because I saw Christmas morning twice. Once from midnight to about 2:00 a.m. after our Candlelight Vigil Service, and then again at about 8:00 a.m. when I woke up for the day. Honestly, by Christmas evening, I didn’t want to do anything but go to sleep early.

And now we have the revelry of New Year’s Eve to look forward to tomorrow. I’m still tired frim Christmas. My New Year’s Eve will be me sitting at home finishing off the last of the eggnog. I may or may not stay up to ring in 2019 because 2018 just made me that tired.

So, I get why church members stay home on the Sunday after Christmas.

In fact, today is almost an image of our Gospel text from Luke. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover festival, as usual. Now that the festival had ended, they headed home with all the other faithful pilgrims who’d gone to the temple for worship. The temple, which had been a crowded place during the celebration would have boasted plenty of room for the few who might show up now that it was over. Maybe these were, like the young Jesus, the faithful whose devotion lasted year-round. There were people like that: people like Anna who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37 CEB).

Apparently, the smaller crowd allowed extra time to discuss important matters of faith, which was just what the twelve-year-old Son of God craved. Really, Jesus’ motive for staying in the Temple while his parents hit the road isn’t clear. Maybe he had questions that were important to him and wanted to discuss them with those who really might know the answers or, at least, how to find those answers. Maybe he lost track of time, like kids tend to do. Maybe he thought he was grown up enough to stay behind in another city while his mom and dad headed back home to Nazareth and figured he’d catch up with them later. Maybe he didn’t think he was lost at all.

His parents, Mary and Joseph, certainly thought Jesus was lost. At least, they came to that conclusion after travelling a day toward home before realizing that their son wasn’t with their group. The text suggests that Mary and Joseph were travelling back to Nazareth with a rather large company of extended family and friends, so it’s easy to imagine how a tween-age boy could get lost among the other kids in the group.

When we had our Romain Christmas gathering, we walked into my cousin’s house and I didn’t see my children for hours. I assumed they were somewhere in the house, but I figured as long as there wasn’t screaming that suggested pain or blood puddles on the floor, I just assumed they were good.

Now, I know that Mary and Joseph occasionally get a bad wrap from some people who think, how could they travel an entire day and not know their kid was missing? Were their parenting skills that bad? But, I’ll defend them. As a parent with kids currently ranging in age from eight to thirteen, I get it. I really do. Being a parent is exhausting on any day but being a parent on a holiday is ridiculous! I mean, nothing can prepare you for the energy it saps out of your bones.

When I first became a parent, every sound Kara made had me running to her cradle to make sure she was okay. Every! Sound! And it got tiring. I think it’s one of those learning curves every parent experiences. So, over time, a parent learns to pay attention to the kind of sound your kid makes. And we parse out whether the sound is just a sound, or a distressful sound. And we get really adept at learning to tell the difference.

So, for instance, take screaming.

Parents—and adults who are used to kids—pretty much know the difference between happy screams and screams of pain. But there are those moments when a scream’s pitch makes parents sit up with a racing heart and listen hard, because the way a scream sounded, it could go either way.

So, we listen, ready to get up and run, while pausing to see how this thing’s going to turn out. Those moments, they’re like restrained tension: parents are a loaded spring ready to go. Then, a laugh rings out, or there’s a tell-tale change in pitch that reassures our hearts that the child in question is actually expressing joy rather than pain. And we relax and go back to what we were doing because we’re reasonably certain that the kids are okay.

At my cousin Amy’s house, I just assumed my kids were somewhere… in the house. Same with my cousin Ryan a day later. I just assumed my kids were with their cousins… somewhere. I didn’t see them for hours. But again: no screaming, and no blood. So, in my mind, they were good.

I say that to put Mary and Joseph’s situation into a little perspective. They were not neglectful parents. They were not travelling as a nuclear family, they were traveling as The Crowd from Nazareth. Jesus is the one who decided to stay in Jerusalem when his parents left the city in the caravan full of family and friends. Why wouldn’t they have assumed Jesus was in the caravan with them? Why wouldn’t they assume their son was off with some of his cousins or friends? Leaving would have been as busy and chaotic as any family trip I’ve ever taken. Jesus knew they were leaving. In their favor, the text does say that Mary and Joseph assumed Jesus was in the caravan, and they looked for him the whole day while they travelled. Jesus is the one who ditched them and chose to wander off for another visit to the temple.

And, he really didn’t waste any courtesy on his mom and dad when they found him—three days later(!)—in the temple. When Mary asked him why he did this to them and explained how worried they’d been and how they’d had to search for him, Jesus’ response was, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 CEB).

No. They obviously didn’t know that. Luke only tells us that his parents didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, which is a clue that there’s more going on in the text than at first appears.

On one hand, I try to imagine how I would respond to this situation if this were my son. But that really doesn’t compare because my son is a normal kid, and I’m a normal parent. Mary, on the other hand, knew that Jesus was God’s Son, that he was special and different. Maybe this wasn’t the first instance of Jesus doing something odd and acting like it was completely normal. In any case, it seems that Mary and Joseph exercised a rare kind of patience with their son that was equal to the moment and met Jesus where he was.

Where Jesus was, in this moment and so many others, was in his father’s house. One of the things we learn about Jesus is that the temple was immensely important to him. He was carried into the temple before he could walk when he was presented to the Lord and recognized as Israel’s redeemer by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-24). He, apparently, like to hang out there and ask questions of the scribes and elders. When Jesus visited the temple years later, Jesus threw the money changers out and turned over the tables of those who were selling things there. And he quoted Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11, saying, “My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a hideout for crooks” (Luke 19:46 CEB).

Jesus called it his house, because his father’s house was his home, too. And what was going on in his house necessarily demanded his attention. “Didn’t you know,” Jesus said to his mother, “that it was necessary for me to be in my father’s house?”

I’d posit that it’s necessary for us to be in God’s house, too. We need to be present in God’s house so that we can mature and grow in perfection. God’s grace is necessary for us to grow, and that necessarily requires something of us.

Here’s the curious thing—at least it might seem a curious thing to us: even Jesus matured. Even Jesus grew in perfection. Even Jesus needed to be in the temple to worship God. Even Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath day, as the Gospel reminds us in Luke 4:16.

The fact that Jesus “matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people” (Luke 2:52 CEB) wasn’t some miraculous event that just happened, it was due to the practice of his faith! He was in the temple. He was an observant Jew from a family of observant Jews who went to temple during the pilgrim festivals, and to the synagogue every Sabbath. It was important to Jesus to be in God’s house. Jesus grew steadily from his religious roots, not in spite of them. There is no such thing as being either a Jew or a Christian apart from the community of faith!

John Wesley saw this text as evidence for practical divinity, that growth in holiness is a process that requires progress. Jesus, though he was already perfect, continued to grow in perfection. If even the perfect Son of God had to mature and grow, it plainly follows that even the purest and most seasoned of Christians have room to mature, too. Isn’t that why we come to this place every week?

I’m glad you’re here to worship God on this typically low-attendance Sunday. Maybe you know why you decided to come or, maybe, you don’t really know. Maybe you just felt compelled by some inner-necessity to be in God’s house today with your extended family and friends. Whatever got you here, your presence on such a day suggests that your faith is important to you, and that—like Jesus—you know you have room to mature.

Which, if you think about it, is a rather mature insight.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Flesh | Proper 14

John 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

42 They asked, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

43 Jesus responded, “Don’t grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God. He has seen the Father. 47 I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (CEB)

Flesh

One great difficulty with grasping the Gospel of John, at least for us post-modern, linear thinkers, is that John’s thought process—and therefore his writing—doesn’t match ours. We expect a somewhat linear format, but John presents his story in a format that seems to spiral and dance around the center-point. It’s almost a kind of poetry in the disguise of narrative prose. Another difficulty is that the Gospel seems to be written on two levels: physical and spiritual. Some interpreters tend to spiritualize the Gospel while discarding the physical as mere allegory for that deeper, spiritual meaning. Other interpreters tend to emphasize the physical aspects while holding the spiritual inuendo in a kind of uncomfortable tension. I’m of the mind that we need to pay attention to both sides of the debate.

John chapter 6 is especially difficult. Aside from immediate thoughts of cannibalism and wondering if we’re allowed to eat Jesus’ flesh grilled or fried with a little ketchup, how are we to understand Jesus’ words in verses 41-51? Specifically, how do we eat Jesus’ flesh? That’s one of the questions we’ll explore.

But, before we get there, we need to look at how this conversation even got started. After all, it’s weird, and starting in the middle of the conversation doesn’t help. Have you ever had a conversation that got kind of weird and stopped to say, How did we get to talking about this, anyway? Sometimes, to understand what we’re talking about, we have to go back and figure out how we started the conversation to begin with.

This conversation develops out of the events in verse 24 and following. That’s when the crowds began looking for Jesus after his disciples got into trouble during a storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus came to them, walking on the water. When the crowd found Jesus, they asked him how he got to Capernaum because they knew he hadn’t travelled in the boat with his disciples (c.f. 6:22). Jesus didn’t answer their question. Instead, he told the people why they were and were not looking for him. They weren’t looking for him because he had done a miraculous sign, but because they ate their fill of bread when he fed the 5,000. Then, he said, “Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life” (John 6:27 CEB).

The people asked what they had to do to accomplish the work of God, and Jesus said they had to believe in the one whom God sent. Then, they asked what miraculous sign he would do so they could see and believe. After all, their ancestors ate bread from heaven. All Jesus gave them was a stomach-full of barley bread.

Note that this question kind of proves Jesus’ point that they hadn’t searched for him because he’d done a sign in the feeding of the 5,000. They’d just seen a sign. We were told earlier that a large crowd followed him because they’d seen the miraculous signs he’d done among the sick (6:2). It seems the people of this crowd had short-term memory loss. Or, somehow, they didn’t recognize the signs they had seen for what they were.

This is really the place where the conversation about bread begins. Jesus tells his questioners that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven, but his father who gives the true bread from heaven. “The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33 CEB). The people’s response was, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” (John 6:34 CEB). That’s where our text picks up with verse 35, where Jesus said, “I am the bread of life…” (CEB).

The Jewish opposition, which is a different group from the crowds though they were likely mixed in among them, grumbled about Jesus because he said he is the bread of life. After all, some among their number were locals from Capernaum. They knew Jesus. They knew his father and his mother. They knew his identity and his origin. How could he say that he’s the bread that came down from heaven?

Jesus responds by telling them not to grumble. No one can come to him unless they’re drawn by the Father who sent him, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day. It’s curious that the word Jesus uses for drawn is found later in John 12, where Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me” (12:32 CEB). In John 6, Jesus says the Father draws people to him. In John 12, he says that he will draw people to himself. It might seem contradictory, except that we need to remember John 1, where we’re told, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1 CEB). Jesus the Word and God the Father are one God together (with the Holy Spirit).

When the Father draws people to Jesus, the Father is drawing them to God. When the death of Jesus on the cross draws people to himself, he’s drawing people to God. When held together with John 12:32, verse 6:44 does not suggest there are people the Father doesn’t draw. Rather, it emphasizes that everyone who comes to Jesus does so by the grace and prodding of God.

From that grace-filled prodding comes our action of listening and learning. When we listen and learn from God, we come to Jesus who was sent by God to raise us up at the last day. Jesus assures us that whoever believes has eternal life, and he is the bread of life. He’s a different kind of bread than the manna of the wilderness that their ancestors ate. That bread filled a physical need. They ate it, and they still died. Manna in the wilderness was a gift, but it wasn’t something that had eternal consequences. In fact, it only lasted for the day on which it was gathered (c.f. Exodus 16:20).

This bread, the bread of life which is Jesus, fills a whole lot more than a physical need. Whoever eats of the bread of life will never die. When Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51 CEB), what does he mean?

To Christians, there’s an obvious connection to the Sacrament of the Eucharist: the mystery in which we eat the bread and drink the grape juice (or wine), which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We can be sure that Jesus is referring to a physical act of eating because, in verse 54, Jesus changes the word he’s been using for eat from φάγῃ to τρώγων, which means chew, bite, chomp, gnaw, munch and includes an element of sound. It’s loud and abrasive like crunching your way through a bag of potato chips. My wife can’t stand the sound of other people chewing, but that’s exactly what Jesus says beginning in verse 54. Because of that word change, there’s no way to spiritualize our way out of the physicality of this.

At the same time, eating is used in Ezekiel and Revelation as a way of internalizing something. In Ezekiel, the prophet said: “Then I looked, and there in a hand stretched out to me was a scroll. He spread it open in front of me, and it was filled with writing on both sides, songs of mourning, lamentation, and doom. Then he said to me: Human one, eat this thing that you’ve found. Eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. He said to me: Human one, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you. So I ate it, and in my mouth it became as sweet as honey. Then he said to me: Human one, go! Go to the house of Israel and speak my words to them” (Ezekiel 2:9-3:4 CEB).

In Revelation, John the Seer recounts, “‘So I went to the angel and told him to give me the scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will make you sick to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. And it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it made my stomach churn. I was told, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings’” (Revelation 10:9-11 CEB).

In both of these texts, the prophets had to eat the scroll as a way of internalizing God’s word so they could speak it properly. Eating was a way of knowing. Psalm 34:8 tells us to “Taste and see how good the Lord is!” (CEB) as though God’s goodness is something we can sample and recognize.

In the Old Testament, salvation is often described in terms of eating. Isaiah 55 says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live” (v.1-3b CEB). In Proverbs 9:5, Lady Wisdom invites us to “Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed” (CEB).

Life comes from eating and drinking, so it’s not surprising that such simple, life-giving acts would be used to describe the life-giving goodness of God and eternal life through belief in Jesus Christ. The bread Jesus gave for the life of the world was his flesh, nailed to a cross and killed. How do we eat the bread of Jesus, which is his flesh?

In one sense, we chew it in the Eucharist. We eat the flesh of Christ and take the grace of God into ourselves in a physical way. In another sense, eating is equated with believing in Jesus. We believe and, therefore, take God into ourselves—into our heart, mind, and soul—in a spiritual way. When we eat the living bread as Christ tells us we must do, then we will live forever. Jesus will raise us up on the last day.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Prophet | Proper 12

John 6:1-21

1 After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.

14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. 17 They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. 18 The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. 20 He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading. (CEB)

The Prophet

As a kid, I remember watching Dr. J’s retirement season from basketball. I remember my mom telling me he was one of the greatest players ever, and that’s why he was being honored everywhere he played for the last time. I also watched Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas square off against each other in some of the greatest basketball games ever played. During the ‘80s decade, the NBA championship was won by either the Lakers, the Celtics, the 76ers, or the Pistons. I usually rooted for the Celtics because of Larry Bird. But I also pulled for the Pistons because my mom’s family is from Detroit, and Isaiah Thomas played for Indiana.

I don’t remember there being much of a question about what was next for professional basketball when Dr. J., Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas retired because Michael Jordan was already playing for the Bulls. And, he seemed to surpass everyone who came before him. I recall some speculation that Kobe Bryant might be the next Michael Jordan after Jordan’s second retirement in 1999. These days, people argue about who was the best player of all time, and Michael Jordan is always in that conversation. I think it’s because he was the greatest. He’s the standard against which every other player is measured. When a new great player comes along—and new great players are expected to come along—they’re always compared to the accomplishments of Michael Jordan.

The Jewish people had expectations, too. They expected that leaders would be raised up from among their people, and their measuring stick was Moses. During particularly difficult times, such as the years of Roman occupation, the expectation for such God-raised leadership grew to the point of desperation. We know from a few passages of Scripture that several hopefuls had risen, and that was also expected to continue happening (c.f. Acts 5:34-39; Matthew 24:11; Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1-2).

You see, for the average Jewish peasant, Jesus was the hope of the day. More than that, he’d been doing these signs of healing the sick and diseased. The people saw these signs, and they dared to hope that Jesus was the next great-one. But for many among the Jewish leadership, Jesus was yet another probably-false prophet coming to make a splash before getting crushed by the Romans, and taking a whole lot of poor, hopeful innocents with him. To them, Jesus was someone they were skeptical of from day one because false prophets seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.

When Jesus returned to Galilee from Jerusalem, he crossed the Sea and a large crowd followed him because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. We’re told that it was close to the time for the Jewish festival of Passover, and that might be a clue to who this crowd of people were. Passover was a pilgrimage festival: a time when the people were expected to travel to Jerusalem to sacrifice their family’s Passover Lamb at the Temple. Because these people who followed Jesus hadn’t gone to Jerusalem, this crowd might well have been made up of those who were too poor to travel and pay for lodging and a lamb during such festivals. If that’s the case, then they couldn’t fulfill their religious obligations because they were too poor to do so. Their poverty kept them from participating fully in their Jewish faith.

The mention of Passover also points us to Moses. It’s a subtle reminder of Israel’s past, and the promise that God would raise up leaders for the people. The story that follows is meant to show us that Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.

Jesus went up a mountain and sat with his disciples, probably teaching them. When he looked up, he saw a large crowd coming toward him. Jesus asked the question, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” The Gospel writer gives us an insiders-view of the question by telling us that it’s a test and that Jesus already knew what he was going to do.

Philip, the project feasibility disciple, gave the crowd a once-over, did some quick math, and determined that more than half a year’s salary wouldn’t be enough to give so many people even a small bite. Andrew, the resource management disciple, had already taken inventory and reported that a youth had five barley loaves and two fish, but that obviously wouldn’t feed this many people.

With neither of those answers sufficing, Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down. There were about five-thousand of them. Then, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks to God, and distributed it to the people. Then, he did the same with the fish. In this story, Jesus, himself, is the one who served the people. Every person got as much as they wanted. When everyone was sighing with satisfied bellies, Jesus had the disciples gather up the leftovers, “so that nothing will be wasted.”

Now, we don’t know what became of the leftovers. Maybe each of the Twelve Disciples got a carry-out basket. Maybe the saying that “nothing will be wasted” is meant to show that the leftovers of the world, whether they’re food or people like those in the crowd, are important enough to be gathered in rather than abandoned. Jesus showed over and again that he loves and cares for the people that the rest of society had abandoned. This action begs certain questions.

How will we care for the “leftovers” of Mount Vernon and beyond? How will we care for the people who’ve been abandoned and even wounded by our social structures? Rugged Individualism might be an American ideal, but it is absolutely NOT a Christian one. Jesus took care of people, especially the poor and outcast. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we must do the same. Of course, that begs another question: Do we really want to be disciples of Jesus? And, while I assume most of us would say, Yes, we should consider whether we’re willing to examine the fullness of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and, maybe—probably—change our hearts and lives so we better reflect the meaning of discipleship. Repentance is something everyone needs to do, all the time.

When the people saw what Jesus had done, that he had accomplished something miraculous and beyond explanation, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world” (John 6:14 CEB). The people were so excited that that they were about to come and make Jesus their king by force. So, Jesus took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

Earlier, I said that the Jews expected leadership, and I said that the reference to Passover—in one sense—points to Moses. When the people responded by saying, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world,” what did they mean? John chapter 1 gives us part of the answer. When John was baptizing, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask John who he was.

And we’re told, “John confessed (he didn’t deny but confessed), ‘I’m not the Christ.’

They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’

John said, ‘I’m not.’

‘Are you the prophet?’

John answered, ‘No.’

They asked, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

John replied, ‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight, just as the prophet Isaiah said.’

Those sent by the Pharisees asked, ‘Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’

John answered, ‘I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps’” (John. 1:20-27 CEB).

The reason people expected the Christ, which comes from the Greek word for Messiah, is because the prophets spoke of one who would come from the line of King David. (c.f. Isaiah 9, 11, 53; Jeremiah 23, 33; Zechariah 3, 6). After all, God had promised David that someone from David’s line would be king forever (c.f. 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:34-37; Daniel 2:44).

The reason the people expected Elijah to come is because the prophet Malachi said that Elijah would be sent before The Day of the Lord arrives (c.f. Malachi 4:5). The prophets spoke of The Day of the Lord as a time of terror when the Lord would redress the world for its evil (c.f. Isaiah 13, 24; Ezekiel 30; Joel; Amos 5; Obadiah; Zephaniah), and the idea was well-known to the New Testament writers (c.f. Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 5; 1 Thessalonians 5; 2 Thessalonians 2; 2 Peter 3). Sometimes it’s referred to as Judgment Day.

The reason the people expected “The Prophet” is because of what God promised the people of Israel through Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to” (CEB).

So, there was, at least, a three-fold expectation. The Messiah, Elijah, and The Prophet Like Moses were expected to come and start to right the world’s and Israel’s wrongs. When Jesus did this sign, the people identified him as The Prophet Like Moses who was coming into the world, and they were ready to make him king. But, as Jesus told Pilate before he was crucified, the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world (c.f. John 18:36).

The account of Jesus walking on the water pushed the matter of Jesus’ identity even further. Jesus’ disciples tried to cross the lake when a storm swept in and drove them three or four miles out from shore. The disciples saw Jesus coming toward them, and they were afraid. Jesus said, “I Am. Don’t be afraid” (John 6:20b CEB). The disciples wanted to take Jesus into the boat, and suddenly they reached the land where they had been heading. The event is reminiscent of when Moses led the Hebrews safely through the sea. This phrase used by Jesus, “I Am” is significant because it’s what the Lord told Moses to say to the Hebrews while they were still slaves in Egypt: “Tell them I Am has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14 CEB).

One thing this text tells us is that Jesus fulfills the expectation of Messiah and The Prophet. And it pushes our faith further by identifying Jesus as I Am. It ties together what John told us in the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:1, 14 CEB).

We’re also reminded that what is broken should be gathered rather than discarded, because not even that which is broken should go to waste. And, again, part of me wonders if this isn’t, in some way, an analogy for broken and hurting people. Either way, I think those twelve baskets of leftovers remind us that, beyond the 5,000 who were satisfied, there are more hungry bellies that need to be fed. And a basket for each disciple suggests that God has given the disciples of Jesus enough resources to feed and satisfy those who are in need.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Talitha Koum | Proper 8

Mark 5:21-43

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. 25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse. 27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes. 28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed. 29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?'” 32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. 34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

35 While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher any longer?”

36 But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting.” 37 He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother. 38 They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about? The child isn’t dead. She’s only sleeping.” 40 They laughed at him, but he threw them all out. Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was. 41 Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.” 42 Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around. She was 12 years old. They were shocked! 43 He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened. Then he told them to give her something to eat. (CEB)

Talitha Koum | ταλιθα κουμ

In part, this text from Mark is one of several stories that tell us something of Jesus as king. You might remember some discussion I had in a previous sermon about the word Messiah. The word means anointed, and kings of Israel were invested to the office of king through anointing. So, when we talk about Jesus as the Messiah—or the Greek word Christ—kingship is always included. Mark 5:21-43 reveals that Jesus is king over life and Law, both of which are related to human community.

Here, we have a story, and a story-within-a-story. A leader of the local synagogue, Jairus, came to Jesus, fell at his feet, and told him that his little daughter was near death. Jairus begged Jesus to come lay hands on her so she could be healed and live. So, Jesus went. Thus far in Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish leaders had felt Jesus out and turned against him. They were curious enough to gather in his house at Capernaum and witness his offering of forgiveness and healing to a paralyzed man (2:5-12). They judged him when they saw him eating with known sinners (2:16). They accused him of breaking the Sabbath Law in a couple of places (2:24, 3:2-6). Then, they organized against him by sending for legal experts from Jerusalem to make accusations that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub and evil spirits.

So, the fact that a leader of the synagogue fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal his daughter is surprising because the rest of the Jewish leadership seems to have aligned themselves against Jesus and actively tried to destroy his reputation. But Jairus was a desperate man. The Greek word he used for his child is the diminutive of daughter that was often a term of endearment. Jairus was a desperate father asking Jesus to come heal his little girl.

But as these events were unfolding, a woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years thought that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothes, she’d be made well. Verse 25, alone, tells us a lot about this woman’s predicament. If she had bled for twelve years, then she had been ritually unclean for twelve years. If she had been ritually unclean for twelve years, then she was a woman who existed on the fringes of society and probably had very little physical contact with anyone in that span.

Leviticus 15:25-28 says, “Whenever a woman has a bloody discharge for a long time, which is not during her menstrual period, or whenever she has a discharge beyond her menstrual period, the duration of her unclean discharge will be like the period of her menstruation; she will be unclean. Any bed she lies on during the discharge should be treated like the bed she uses during her menstruation; and any object she sits on will be unclean, as during her menstruation. Anyone who touches these things will be unclean. They must wash their clothes, bathe in water, and will be unclean until evening. When the woman is cleansed of her discharge, she will count off seven days; after that, she will be clean again” (Lev. 15:25-28 CEB). This is part of the law that governed this stuff for women in Jewish society. (It actually begins back in verse 19).

You can imagine how alone this woman was. Because of her ailment, anyone she touched would be considered unclean. Anything she touched that someone else touched would be considered unclean. Honestly, it sounds like a game of cooties gone horribly wrong.

Not only was she an outcast, she was poor. All the money she’d managed to earn, she’s spent it trying to get well. (Apparently, they didn’t have universal healthcare back then, either). But she’d only gotten worse under the care of many doctors. (Physicians back then didn’t have the training that ours do today).

This woman, too, is desperate. She’d heard about Jesus and the healings that had taken place all over Galilee. She might even have thought there was something mystical or magical about him. She’d probably heard that Jesus had been laying hands on people for those healings, and she thought that, if she could only touch his clothes some of that magic might rub off on her and heal her. And, in her mind, she probably thought that she’d have to sneak it because she’d lived for twelve years as someone that most people in her community would not touch.

So, she came up behind him, winding her way through the jostling crowd. It’s almost funny to imagine this scene because every person she bumped into on her way to Jesus was made unclean. But she didn’t care. She was too desperate to care about their ritual purity. If she bumped into them, they’d be unclean until evening, but she knew that if she didn’t get to Jesus, she’d be unclean for the rest of her life.

When she touched his clothes her bleeding stopped, and she sensed in her body that she had been healed. Note also how Jesus sensed that healing power had gone out from him. Jesus felt himself hemorrhage power as the woman’s hemorrhage of blood ceased.

Then, everything stopped. Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (5:30 CEB). Again, the disciples reveal their lack of insight. They essentially said, Are you kidding? Who didn’t touch you? Don’t you see this crowd? But Jesus looked around carefully, searching for the person who had touched him.

You see, it wasn’t enough for Jesus to heal someone of a physical ailment. For one thing, there’s more to wholeness of health than physical healing. For another, Jesus wanted to know the person he had healed. He sought the relationship because loving relationships and caring community are what shape us into whole human beings. Jesus wouldn’t go another step until he found the person he healed.

Meanwhile, Jairus, whose little daughter was dying, didn’t say a word. He didn’t urge Jesus on. He waited. He waited while the woman, this unclean, poor, outcast, fell at the feet of Jesus just as he had moments ago, and confessed that she had touched him. She had made him, a holy man, unclean. She had bumped into all these people, making them unclean.

Part of me wonders about the fear and trembling that overcame her. It’s the same word used to describe how the disciples were overcome with fear after Jesus calmed the storm (Mark 4:41). I think it could have included several aspects. For one, her belief that Jesus could heal her with power that was obviously beyond the mortal realm had just been confirmed. She might have been afraid of Jesus because she’d just stolen that power from him. She might also have been afraid because she’d made Jesus and the whole crowd unclean. Remember, whoever she touches, and whoever touches what she touches… cooties gone wild.

She had no idea how Jesus would react. She knew how he should have reacted according to the law. He should have condemned her. He had every right to under the law. But I wonder if part of her fearful trembling was born of hope that Jesus would finally be the one to have compassion on her, that this healer who hadn’t yet been afraid to touch others might see her as more than a plague to be avoided. Can you imagine her relief and her joy when Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed form your disease,”? (Mark 5:34 CEB).

When Jesus called her “Daughter,” he claimed her as family. This is important. This is the relationship moment. Jesus restored both this woman to the community and the community to her. You see, neither was complete without the other. When Jesus told her to go in peace, healed from her disease, the word he used is different from the other instances of healed in this text. Those other instances also mean saved. But the one at the end of verse 34 means made whole. Her faith healed (σέσωκέν) her from her physical ailment, not magic as she may have suspected! Even more, now that Jesus has restored her to her community, she’s been healed—made whole (ὑγιὴς)—from the disease that had separated her from even the possibility of caring relationships.

Dr. Mike Rynkiewich told me he was reading a dissertation in which the author claimed that “the antidote for shame is not affirmation but connection.” Another scholar, Michael Lindvall, suggested that, beyond physical healing, it is “acceptance, intimacy, and touch” that have the power to “make us whole and give us peace… Our relationships—in the church, in friendships, and in marriage—are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation. Relationship, ‘touch’ if you will, makes us human and whole. As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray once phrased it, ‘I need “you” in order to be myself.’” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. B.3, 192).

On Thursday afternoon, I had a discussion with some younger pastors in the district about the meaning of church membership. The question was posed, “What’s the advantage of membership? What’s the point beyond saying you get to vote on stuff?” My answer pointed them to vows in the liturgy. Since we’ve received new members today, we might want to look more closely at the baptismal covenant. When we join a congregation, we’re connected to a covenant community where we promise to nurture one another and include each other in our care. We promise to live according to the example of Christ and to surround each other with a community of love and forgiveness. We love each other, care for each other, help each other, mourn with each other, worship with each other, and celebrate with each other. These covenant relationships are the things that make us whole.

While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, messengers came to Jairus telling him that his daughter was dead. Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting” (Mark 5:36 CEB). Jesus went inside and tossed the crowd of mourners out. They had laughed at him when he said the girl was only sleeping. They’d seen death before, and this wasn’t sleep. They knew the girl had died. The mourners knew she had no future and no hope.

Jesus took the girl’s hand and said, “Talitha koum,” which means little girl, stand up. Immediately, the girl got up and started walking around. Knowing that death must take a lot out of a person, Jesus told her parents to give the girl something to eat.

In what way is Jesus king? In these stories, he’s king of life and law. Jesus shows over and again that he cares more about people and relationships than religious purity laws. When he took the girl’s hand, he would have been considered unclean from touching a dead body. But Jesus overcomes the law. Instead of being made unclean by touching those who are unclean, the touch of Jesus cleanses. Our touch, our contact with others in meaningful relationships can do the same.

When we enter into relationship with Jesus, and with each other as a covenant community, we’re restored to wholeness through those relationships. In these stories, Jesus teaches us that, as long as there are outcasts and people living on the fringes of society, our community isn’t whole. Those we might think of as they and them and those need us. And, whether we recognize it or not, we need them.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Afraid | Proper 7

Mark 4:35-41

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” (CEB)

Afraid

I heard a story kind of like this once. It was about a small cruise ship on one of the Great Lakes that had been hired for a fraternity reunion party. Of course, everyone knew a storm was coming because they could see the front clouds in the distance. They could feel the wind pick up and the air grow cooler as the clouds approached. The captain assured everyone that there wouldn’t be a problem, and they should all enjoy themselves. So, the fraternity brothers and their significant others danced, ate, drank, and talked. As they caught up on each other’s lives, the storm grew suddenly wilder.

Wind buffeted one side of the ship, causing it to list and rock side-to-side. Waves crashed harshly against the same side, sending spray high above the windows on the dance floor. Drinks spilled. People lost their balance. Men and women screamed. Most everyone started to panic. Then, a terrified man grabbed one of his fraternity brothers and said, “Didn’t you say you’re a pastor? Do something pastoral!”

The pastor glanced at the growing terror of those around him. He quickly dumped a bowl of caramel corn on the table, held it out and said, “We’ll now receive the offering.”

Our Gospel reading begins with, “Later that day, when evening came…” (c.f. Mark 4:35 CEB). Those words alert us to the fact that something must have happened earlier in the day. So, let’s recap what happened. Jesus taught beside the lake, but such a large crowd gathered that he got into a boat and taught while the people stood on the shore. He told several parables about seeds: seeds that are sown on a path, on rocky ground, among thorny plants, and on good soil (4:3-9); seed that grows into a harvest (4:26-29); and a small mustard seed that grows into a rather large plant (4:30-32), among other things. Later, Jesus explained the parables to his disciples and others who were nearby (4:10-20, 34).

Verse 2 and verse 33 tell us that Jesus taught with many parables that day, as much as they were able to hear. He wore the crowds out with speech, and wore himself out, too. Public speaking takes a lot out of you. I get why Jesus was tired. I take a nap every Sunday afternoon before going to Youth Group in the evening. So, it’s understandable that Jesus crashed on a pillow in the back of the boat. He taught all day, and he was tired.

Then, the storm came. But not just a storm. A great gale of wind (λαῖλαψ μεγάλη ἀνέμου). In our idiomatic English, we might say it was a massive storm of wind. It whipped up waves that crashed against the boat and swamped it. Usually, when we read this story, we imagine panicked disciples who wake Jesus so he can perform a miracle and save them. But, honestly, there’s little in the story to suggest that. The only suggestion that the disciples were afraid is when Jesus asked them why they were frightened, and that word isn’t fear, the word means timid, cowardly, or lack confidence.

Several of the disciples were experienced fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. They knew the waters, knew how to handle their boats, and had probably survived more rough storms than they could count. There is no reason to assume the disciples were panicked, but they were obviously concerned and probably working hard to save their skin.

When they woke Jesus up, I don’t think they were expecting a miracle. I think they wanted an extra pair of hands to help bail the boat. Their comment to Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?” (Mark 4:38b CEB) seems more akin to Hey, Professor, don’t you care that we’re getting swamped here? Get up and help bail the boat, you lazy git! Nothing in the story indicates the disciples expected Jesus to do what he did, that he could rescue them with a few commanding words to the wind and sea.

He rebuked the wind and spoke to the sea saying, “Silence! Be still!” and the wind stopped so that there was a great calm (γαλήνη μεγάλη). Then, Jesus asked the disciples a question that is challenging, confusing, and haunting, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mark 4:40 CEB). It begs the questions: What is faith? What kind of faith is Jesus talking about? We can look back in the earlier parts of Mark 4 and see that Jesus was teaching on the matter of faith all day. That’s why he was exhausted and fell asleep.

At this point in their lives, the disciples seem to have had the kind of faith that was like the seed that was sown on rocky ground. “When people hear the word, they immediately receive it joyfully. Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away” (Mk. 4:16-17 CEB). The faith of the disciples withered in a storm. And I have to admit that my own faith has done the same at times; not with a literal storm, but with the figurative storms of life’s trials and difficulties.

The disciples’ lack of faith is revealed fully in the next line. Some Bible translations tend to tone this down by rendering the Greek into English as, “Overcome with awe” like the CEB or “they were filled with great awe” like the NRSV. But they disciples feared with great fear (ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν). They were terrified at what Jesus had done. They were more afraid of the fact that Jesus had calmed the storm than they were of the storm itself.

How do we respond when fearful things threaten to overcome us?

There are fearful things out there. There’s a difference between saying There is nothing to be afraid of and Don’t be afraid. In the Scriptures, when something fearful happens, the admonition is always, Don’t be afraid (c.f. Genesis 15:1, 21:17, 35:17, 46:3; Exodus 14:3; Deuteronomy 1:29; Ruth 3:11; 1 Kings 17:13; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10; Acts 27:24; Revelation 1:17, among others). Though fearful things surround us and press against us every day, having faith is trusting that, despite the fearful things of this world, God reigns and will not leave us alone. Fearful things do not have the final say over us no matter what happens.

Another storm story comes from the journals of the founder of the Methodist Movement. On Sunday, December 23, 1735, John Wesley was aboard a ship heading for the Georgia Colony, and the ship experienced a storm. He wrote in his journal, “At night I was awaked by the tossing of the ship and roaring of the wind, and plainly showed I was unfit, for I was unwilling to die” (Baker Vol. I, 19). He admitted that he was afraid, that his faith failed, that he didn’t trust that God was with him even if death should come for him. And he felt that failure of his faith keenly.

Several weeks later, on Sunday, January 25, 1736, Wesley described another storm, saying, “At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before… The winds roared round about us, and (what I never heard before) whistled as distinctly as if it had been a human voice. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the utmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, grating a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one’s hold of any thing, nor stand a moment without it. Every ten minutes came a shock against the stern or side of the ship, which one would think should dash the planks to pieces” (Baker Vol I, 21).

At seven o’clock, after the storm had passed, Wesley went to speak with the Germans aboard who had been worshipping during the storm. He wrote, “In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’” (Baker Vol. I, 22).

Those German Moravians had a profound impact on John Wesley’s faith. They sang songs of worship through a storm so violent that they were sure their ship was already going down. The Moravians had faith that, whether they lived or died, God was with them, and God would have the final say. They had faith that even death is not an end.

In essence, the Moravians acted with the faith of Psalm 107: “The waves went as high as the sky; they crashed down to the depths. The sailors’ courage melted at this terrible situation. They staggered and stumbled around like they were drunk. None of their skill was of any help. So they cried out to the LORD in their distress, and God brought them out safe from their desperate circumstances. God quieted the storm to a whisper; the sea’s waves were hushed. So they rejoiced because the waves had calmed down; then God led them to the harbor they were hoping for” (Ps. 107:26-30 CEB). Faith moves like this: when great storms give way to great calm, the response is supposed to be rejoicing and praise.

For the disciples, it didn’t go that way. When the great storm gave way to great calm, their response was great fear. In calming the storm, Jesus showed the disciples that he is, quite unexpectedly, king over all creation. Our faith holds fast to that truth no matter what fearful things come our way. Faith is knowing that, no matter the storms that come against us, God is greater than the storms. Faith tells us that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay