Thursday, August 30, 2012

Metaphor and Meaning

Ephesians 6: 10-20

It’s really too bad that the local Christian bookstore closed last month. Besides all of the supplies that could be obtained there; besides all of the Bible covers, and the wall hangings, and the Cd’s of music and the DVD’s, they had a toy section!
I loved going into that section, and seeing the Veggie Tales Noah’s Ark, or their Nativity scene (which I still kinda want).

But one thing you would always find in that section was what looked like a child’s make-believe gladiator suit. There would be a chest protector, a helmet, a belt, a sword. And the chest protector would have the word “righteousness”; the sword would say “spirit”. The helmet, which was always too small for any but the youngest heads, would say “salvation”; anf the belt, of nylon, or pleather, or whatever, would say truth.

It was a toy that taught this sc ripture. It’s too bad that we have to send for this stuff by mail order, now, because I really could have used the toy set this morning. It helps us remember what it is that we are supposed to be carrying forward vinto the world.

Paul was working with what he had. This was the bronze age (I think). Only certain cultures had the wherewithal to be able to make these items. They didn’t play sports back then, not any that required protection, and maybe the blacksmith had a leather apron. There were not a lot of needs of protective gear.

Imagine: if one person is wearing metal breastplate, and a helmet, and maybe shin guards, and everyone else is wearing woven cloth, and throwing rocks and swinging sticks, guess who wins the fight?

I don’t know how they’d keep bees, if they did-maybe they just ran up, grabbed a piece of comb, and ran for the hills.

My point is, if Paul had lived in a culture closer to ours, he would have had more options than just the militant one provided to him by the Roman army. He’d have available to him beekeeper’s net hats; he’d have mechanic’s gloves that for so well that he could pick tiny screws up while wearing them; he’d have those plastic shields that surgeons wear on tv that make them look like welders, and oh yeah, welders’ helmets!

For me though, the best image that comes to mind, as a substitute for warlike imagery, are football uniforms. Take the helmet of salvation (which of course will have a 49ers’ emblem on it!), and the forward pass of the spirit; and the thigh pads of truth, and the shoulder pads of faith.

I’m not saying that military imagery is bad for everyone, but I do know that there are people who would prefer their religious metaphor to be more peaceful. So we can play around with the more modern choices.

Paul is of course employing metaphor, teaching about what it is that we need to carry with us out into the world; truth, righteousness, faith, and and salvation, and we always are accompanied by the truth that we carry into the world is that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son; it isn’t necessarily the most important bit that the gift was made; rather, that God does love us, that is the important part; that God loves the world now is the message we give.

And as far as righteousness goes, Paul doesn’t mean self righteousness, the arrogance and pride that so many of our co-religionists exhibit. Instead, he means the humility and humbleness of knowing that our work is never ending, and that it is true, but we are imperfect messengers, unable to get the message perfectly as God intends.

Truth. Righteousness. A drive to share the gospel of peace. Not a gospel of division; not a gospel of Methodists are better than Presbyterians, or Catholics; instead, a gospel of peace, saying that we are all children of God. And this is also how we are to live together.

This is what Paul is saying. It’s a metaphor. And we can change the metaphor to what works for us! It doesn’t have to be the armor of Roman soldier; it can be a bicycle helmet, it can be a beekeepers’ net hat.

Paul is talking about a mission; and in a mission, you have to wear what you need to get the job done. Whatever you require to share the love of God is what is necessary.
A preacher I read in the past, in seminary, has a line that fits here. Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the concept of preparedness. She writes that if the church were serious about being church, they would issue crash helmets, and the pews would have seatbelts. Ordinands and confirmands maybe should be given boots and backpacks.
To do church right is to support each other in bringing the love of God to a world that obviously needs it, but doesn’t always want it. We are not here to force the message, but we are here to share and be open with the message. We all know that there is pushback to our message, largely because it has been presented so imperfectly over time.

This is why we need protection and padding.


Friday, August 24, 2012

The Ick Factor

John 6:51-58

It’s a hard thing, to hear this passage. “You cannot be one of my people unless you eat of my flesh.”

How many people when they heard me reading this, had a little bit of an “ewww” feeling?
It’s a hard thing to hear. And it has probably been a hard passage to hear ever since
Jesus said it, way back then.

I don’t know if you know this, but before Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire, in the 4th century, it was considered a minority religion, and in some places, an illegal religion. You’ve heard stories of Christians being thrown to the lions; this was why! Because they were considered anti-government by believing in Christ. Some folks were even considered atheists, because they did not believe in the official pantheon of roman Gods. And so they were “picked on”, oppressed.

I said last week, in another part of the service at the other church, that the reason there are acolytes as a traditional part of worship is because back in the days of Christian oppression and secrecy, the children, the ones who would be above suspicion, were the ones who would lead Christians to secret places of worship, sometimes even down into the dark and scary cities’ catacombs, where the city of Rome placed their dead.

There were always spies who were looking for Christians, and one of the things that Christians were always being accused of, one of the things that they were sent to the lions for, was the charge of cannibalism. Texts like this morning’s gospel passage were often evidence against Christians.

Yet another dangerous effect of literalism.

Christians understood that this passage is not literal. Christians understood that we don’t sacrifice someone, and then eat their bodies. This is not the Donner party at church.

When talks about “eating of my flesh”, and “drinking of my blood”, he is talking about participation in the body of Christ. You are the body of Christ. You’re here this morning, this makes you the body. “Where two or three are gathered, the body of Christ has been constituted. “

But we are not, at communion, sitting down to a meal of each other. We are sitting down to be the body of Christ.

When we do communion, we do it with a very specific set of language in mind. When we come to the rail, or to the cup, and stand, or kneel, or whatever, we take a little piece of bread, and a little drink of juice (or the bread is dipped in the juice). That, for us is the symbol of being the body of Christ, or participating in the body of Christ. But we in the United Methodist church believe that “stuff,” that bread and juice, that flour, and that sugar, and that yeast, and that salt, and that product of mashed grape berries; we do not believe that that stuff becomes the actual body in blood of Christ. There’s no need to go into a discussion of consubstantiation, or transubstantiation; all that’s necessary to know is that we understand a more symbolic meaning in the act of communion.

When we take communion, we may think of old Sunday school teachers we used to have, old preachers, our parents, perhaps spouses who have passed on, and in some terrible cases, children who have preceded us in death. And as we take communion together, those people in your memory are swirling around over our heads, this is what we call the “cloud of witnesses”. When we take communion, we also participate with them, in doing what it is that Jesus told us to do.

Next time we take communion, listen for the language that we use: the night Jesus was arrested, he sat with his friends, his Disciples, and he lifted a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, and gave it to his friends, and said take, eat, this is my body which has been been broken for you. He used the past tense, but it would not happen till the next day.
“this is my body”.

Then he passed around a cup, and yes it was wine; Louis Pasteur had not been born yet. He gave thanks to God, and passed around the cup, and said “drink from this, all of you:, this is my blood which has been shed for you and for many for the forgiveness, of sins.” Again, the past tense, for something that was going to happen the next day.

“Each time you do this, do so in remembrance of me.” That is the command that we follow. This is our purpose in taking and giving communion, to take and to receive, to remember. To remember our cloud of witnesses. To remember those who are at the rail with us in that moment. To remember the sacrifice of Jesus.

But what it isn’t, despite this morning’s passage from John, is cannibalism. It is a participation in the body. It is a command by Christ, and it is a remembrance of those who have come before, and for some of us, maybe it is even a promise, a renewal, every month, to make sure that the faith is passed on, even to little babies baptized.

I encourage you to go back this week, and read this passage again, with this symbolic passage in mind. Help it grow in your minds, past the initial “ick” factor, Perhaps that will be your growth in faith.

What we do is a symbol. It is a bonding action for all of us together. And only a misunderstanding of the language, a literal meaning, should be what turns your stomach.


Pastor Drew, August 19, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rehabilitation and Memory

John 6: 41-51

When people read this passage, Most of the time, the interpretation and proclamation centers around the concept of Jesus being the living bread. Sometimes they’ll even carry on into next weeks’ passage, which continues the concept of Jesus as the body.

But Friday night, I was the preacher at the Wyoming Valley Rescue Mission, and in thinking about that message, another part of the passage caught my eye: verse 42 says “They were saying ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say “I have come down from heaven’?”

Have you ever done something, when you were a kid, that people 50 years later still remember you for?

Have you ever done something dumb, that, when you go back to your hometown, it’s the first thing they refer to you by?

When I went back to my 20 year class reunion, I had changed a good bit. I had twice the belly and half the hair I have now. I was also engaged in a vocation that was not high on my list of careers when I was 17. I got to the reunion, and there were a few people who didn’t recognize me. Not until they saw my eyes. So at the end of the night, I received the award for “most changed”, which is still stuck into the back of my senior year yearbook.

I am not sure if I received the award because of the way I looked, or because of my answering the call to ministry, which was so far away from what I was telling people I was going to do when I was 17.

Sometimes, we live under the oppression of expectations of people we know from our youth, or our families.

Some of us may have gone on a joyride, borrowed a car without their permission, and went driving around town. Who knows what it may have been. But what seems to be true is that when they see you after not seeing you for years, that’s of course the first thing they refer to.

Now, think back to the people who I spoke to on Friday night, the people at the Rescue mission. These aren’t folks who are out for an early meal before they go dancing. These are folks who are on the ragged edge. Some may have just gotten out of prison, and are trying to restructure their lives. Others are suffering under the weight of addictions, addictions that have ruined their lives.

And in our society, for all of the official language of “serving their debt to society” and “being rehabilitated”, what most folk actually believe is that once you have made that mistake, that is what you are for all time. When you have had an addiction, society expects you to fail, to fall off the wagon again.
They are even more oppressed by the expectations of others than those of us who have committed youthful indiscretions.

Jesus can identify with this. In this verse 42, here are people who have known Jesus since he was a child, who knew his parents, and who now find it impossible for him to be claiming these things he’s claiming. “We knew him as a child; I changed his diapers…” You know the comments.

When you change someone’s diapers, do you really believe that when they grow up, they can perform miracles? In another Gospel, Mark 6, the story is expanded to include the statement that “he could do no deed of power there, (in his hometown)”.

It is hard to live beyond what people expect of us. It is hard to break the bounds of where people have us pegged. Sometimes we have to start fresh in order to succeed, in order to expand to be what we are capable of. And Jesus knows what this feels like.

We believe in a Lord of redemption; of regeneration; of change; of maturity; of growth. We believe in a Lord that demonstrates all of these things.

So, while you may think it’s unfair to have people only remember you for something yu might have done while you were young and dumb, think about how many times you’ve looked with distrust at people who are in Anonymous meetings? How many times have you heard that someone has a prison record and felt fear and distrust?

I don’t even think we hear the language of “rehabilitation” and “paying our debt to society” anymore. More often, we are sounded by people like Javert from Les Miserables, who believes that once you have committed the sin, you will always be a sinner, beyond the reach of grace, even for a sin as small as stealing bread to feed your family. That, I believe, is the operative attitude in our society.
But we believe in a Savior that does rehabilitate. Who redeems.

Let’s put truth to our words. If we believe that we have been regenerated by Christ, then can’t we also believe that the Christ that lives with each of us is also working in each of us? Shouldn’t we believe that those who are seeking to recover from addictions can be successful?

We are not in a position to mistrust. We are not in a position to judge. There but for the Grace of God go us.

Jesus himself had to deal with people’s preconceived notions, and memories. So do we, so do they, so does everyone.

Let us be the people who believe in redemption, in rehabilitation. Let us be the people who believe in second, third, fourth chances. Let us be the people who believe that everyone we meet is Jesus.

In Matthew 25, the saints ask “when did we feed you? When did we clothe you?”. And Jesus says, when you have done this to the least of these, you have done it to me.
Every person we meet could be Jesus. Including those with addiction, including those with prison records.



Thursday, August 09, 2012


Ephesians 4: 1-16
This past week, on my Facebook feed as well as other news sources, there was one primary subject that just got everyone all riled up. I just have to say the words “Chick-fil-a” and everyone’s got a reaction, and opinion, or a story. This is not a sermon about the evils of homosexuality. This is not a sermon about how homosexuality is a lifestyle that needs to be eliminated, as sinful. Neither is this a plea for acceptance, or a lesson in biblical interpretation regarding hat one Biblical scholar called “the clobber passages” of the Bible with regard to homosexuality. It’s also a moot point as to whether anyone here participated in the day of support last week, because there’s only one Chik-fil-a in the Scranton area, and it’s in the food court at the Univ. of Scranton. What matters here is that there are Christians on all sides of the issue, and that they are all earnest and seeking to do their best in witness. And there are just some times when we’re going to differ. Paul writes in his letter to the church at Ephesus, which is in what we know as Southern Turkey, along the trade road between Athens and Antioch, that “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift…The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to maturity and to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 7, 11-13, NRSV) In there is an allusion to the Body of Christ, which Paul says elsewhere (1 Corinthians 12) that the whole body of Christ needs parts that do different things, ears and eyes and feet and stomachs. There’s a reason why there are so many denominations in the world—they all have different ways of understanding the word of God, the call from God, and how that is to be lived out in this world. For Methodists, our “23 herbs and spices”, our “special sauce”, is our understanding of salvation. We do not believe in “once saved always saved”. We believe in three ways of understanding God’s grace. There is prevenient grace, in which we are guided by God before we even acknowledge God’s presence. There is justifying grace, which is the moment when we accept that God’s grace works in our lives, we become one of God’s own and begin our journey to deepen our faith. That lifetime journey toward what Wesley called “entire sanctification” (which he believes he never himself reached), is led by what he called “Sanctifying Grace”. This is the journey toward resembling Jesus in our hearts and actions, becoming fully human in the process. But because we understand salvation this way, it does not mean that others must agree with us, or be lesser. Presbyterians have a slight different take, a different recipe, and so do Roman Catholics, southern Baptists, and Egyptian Coptics. And all of us together make up the Body of Christ. What is also true is that that same difference making up the whole is true of individual congregations. To fill out that allusion, there are parts of the body that not only can’t do others’ jobs, there are also parts of the body that when they have come to contact, do not do well together. When blood comes into contact with brain cells, the result is not very healthy for the brain cells. There may be Christian beliefs that you disagree with. It may be the church’s position on homosexuality. It may be the position on war. There may be some Christians whose beliefs you are “allergic” to, some that make you angry, and some that you merely consider less important than others do. But to follow Paul’s analogy, they are no less the body of Christ for all their differences from you. And in the midst of all this kerfluffle over Chik Fil A last week, it is good to remember that those you disagree with are still children of God, and have within them a spark of God. Even if you think they are flat wrong and dangerously misguided. We can argue, we can plead, but what we can never do is dehumanize them; we can never deny the spark of God within them. So your “homework” this week, your growth in discipleship, is to go to lunch or have a conversation with someone who makes you nuts. Amen. --Pastor Drew