Sunday, August 12, 2018

Out of the Box: Sermon for Proper 14B

There’s an illustration that has gone around the internet and has caught my eye several times. It shows an empty cardboard box, flaps flung open, with a post-it note inside. On this post-it note is this message: “I don’t fit in your box,” and it’s signed “—God.”

This pointed yet humorous reminder is definitely what we see going on in our gospel reading today. First the crowds, and now Jesus’s opponents in the religious community of Judea try to force Jesus into the box they have created for who they think he is. If he IS the Messiah, he should do “X.” If he’s only “Joseph’s son,” he should only be able to do “Z.” All of these descriptions come with specific presuppositions.

For the second time since Easter, we get a gospel reading that includes people scoffing at Jesus and selling him short, based on their perceived familiarity with him and his family. This reaction of “who does he think he is?” is a common one that many of us experience in our lifetimes. How many of us have experienced that at one time or another, or maybe even right now, in some area of our lives? In my own life, people often assumed that because of my slight drawl on certain words, I just wasn't very smart. It’s maddening, isn’t it?

Jesus has just fed a multitude, and the religious leaders are shaken by that, and resentful. Just who does this Jesus think he is???

It is at this point that I remember something I learned a long time ago in the early days of my teaching career: be careful what you ask, because you just MIGHT get an answer you were not expecting. I learned this after watching a colleague ask a surly teenager, “Do you think I’m stupid?” Let me tell you, don’t ask a teenager that question, especially a surly one. You will probably get an answer you won’t like. 

Jesus answers his critics, and he answers them forcefully and directly. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Unsurprisingly, this was NOT the answer they were looking for.

This statement is the first of the seven “I am” statements in the gospel of John. This particular claim is shocking because only Torah was referred to as the bread of life in Judaism at that time, so those who do not follow him see this claim as Jesus approaching if not crossing over toward blasphemy. What Jesus is saying here, though, for those who approached him then, and for those of us who approach him now, is that he is not going to fit in our boxes.

Ultimately, there is a very important question embedded in this gospel: who IS Jesus, especially for us today? How do we encounter Jesus, living in the time we do?

Part of the answer lies in the importance of community, which is necessary for us as Episcopalians each time we prepare to celebrate Holy Communion. In our theology, it is impossible to have communion as a solitary act. There have to be at least two or more people in order to ask the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and the wine—I mean after all, that’s part of what communion means-- being together. Gathered around this table, we declare that we are “com-panions,’ literally, those who share bread. In the original Latin, com means “together with,” and “pan” means bread.

It is also in the sacrament of the Eucharist that we remember Christ’s incarnation from birth through death and resurrection and then taste and see Christ—where we obey his commandment to eat of his body and drink of his blood.

As the Son of God incarnate, in common human flesh, Jesus is not going to be the kind of leader or Messiah that people want. Rather, Jesus became human so that we could see God in a way we have never seen God before—and so that we could then imitate his example to the utmost of our abilities. 

Some people have used these verses in our gospel today to make exclusionary claims about God—that God will care for you ONLY if you do “X” or “Y.”

Yet that’s OUR box, again. 

What we also remember is that God’s call is to everyone. God is the One who makes sure ALL are fed, and fed abundantly—who sent the Son of God to be with us and alongside us, sharing our pains and our sufferings along with our joys, never ever giving up on us despite our repeated failures—and asks us to do nothing more than the same for each other in imitation of Christ. If we ourselves receive abundant amazing grace, we ourselves are called to give abundant, amazing grace to each other, whether friend or stranger.

As Christians, we are called to remember that, as our first verse from Ephesians today reminds us, “We are members of one another,”—and then to love each other accordingly. We are called to be transformed in pursuing the imitation of Christ. Our reading from Ephesians is about how we are called to be transformed once we accept Christ into our lives. It is not enough simply to believe in God and believe in Jesus, or even to have a “relationship” with Christ. Rather, we are called to live according to the example that Christ set for us, as hard as that may be.

That transformation starts with walking in love—in kindness, humility, and compassion for each other and this beautiful earth upon which we all depend. Why be kind? The very next sentence provides the answer: because being kind is integral to who God is, and as God’s children, as Christians, imitating God must be central to who WE are, if we are living the resurrection life called for in this passage and in our gospel. It also means paring away things which are damaging to our relationships with other members of the Body of Christ—lying, holding onto anger or grudges, bitterness, or slander—all things that have become all too common and sometimes even admired in our common lives together.

As noted last week, the call that we live into when we take hold of the promise of eternal life in the here and now is what can be expressed as a Eucharistically-shaped life, that starts with offering, gratitude, and communion with each other, shared for the life of the world. A sacramental life, which literally means a life that makes the ordinary holy. We do not come to this table for solace and pardon only, but for strength and renewal, to paraphrase the words in Eucharistic Prayer C. Jesus gives himself to us as the bread of life, so that we may give ourselves for others in imitation of him, as our reading from Ephesians today urges us.

There is an important caveat, however: in imitating Christ, we are NOT called to be JUST imitations, but REAL members of the Body of Christ.

Jesus’s critics start from the premise that Jesus is just an ordinary guy. And indeed, he was not born into a wealthy or notable family. He probably even had some version of a drawl. He was born in the backwateriest of backwaters, in the dusty, oppressed corner of a mighty empire, and he wasn’t even a citizen of that empire but a member of a subdued, occupied people. Yet within that ordinary flesh comes something extraordinary. And that same thing happens in the Eucharist every time we gather together and ask the Holy Spirit to consecrate the ordinary bread and the ordinary wine.

God declares God’s love for the material world and for us in working through common and ordinary things: bread, wine, water, you and me. God transforms the common elements of the earth, harvested and formed by human hands, into the “Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” and the “Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.” And in eating that bread and drinking from that cup, we ourselves declare ourselves to BE the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven to the world. 

That’s not ordinary—it’s extraordinary. Jesus breaks out of all attempts we make to box him in. And in doing so, he calls us to break out of the boxes we put ourselves-- and others-- in. As we gather around this table, we join hands and hearts as members of each other, fed by the bread of life, Jesus, so that we can feed, heal, and love each other. And carry that love right out into the world. Love that cannot be contained. Love that won't fit in a box.


Preached at the 505 on August 11, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

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