You know by now that we’re following the Old Testament readings in worship this summer, at least for the next two weeks — then we’ll move into a series of texts related to creation and the environment for the month of September — so at some point in this sermon I’m going to have to address this dream in which God approaches King Solomon like a genie in a bottle and tells the new king to make a wish.
But before I get to that story, I feel like I have to say a few words about the gospel reading for this morning. If you’ve been to church at all in the last month, you may be experiencing something like deja vu as you listen to the gospel text. That’s because, since July 29th, we’ve been slowly working our way through the sixth chapter of the gospel of John — in which Jesus makes a long, drawn out comparison between himself and a loaf of bread. The metaphor reaches its overblown pinnacle this morning as we hear Jesus say, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
In a world filled with television shows like “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead,” about vampires and zombies respectively (and, incidentally, two of my favorite TV programs right now), it’s hard to hear Jesus’ words and not immediately think of the supernatural. It’s easy, perhaps, for life-long Christians to go into auto-pilot mode as they read through the sixth chapter of John, immediately making the metaphoric leap from Jesus’ body and blood to the sacrament of communion. Try though to hear this passage with the ears of someone who, maybe, just walked in off the street and is trying to understand who Jesus is and what the people who follow Jesus believe, and you’ll see how bizarre it is.
Then, try to cast yourself back in time about two thousand years to the first century, before Christianity had become a global religion, when people were trying to understand who the people in this strange Jewish cult that was beginning to draw in all kinds of people from across the Roman empire were. There were rumors on the street that they practiced strange rituals in private, that they ate human flesh and drank human blood. It had to be addressed, and so — we believe — the writer of John’s gospel put these strange words on Jesus’ own lips in an extended metaphor to get people thinking and talking about what is actually nourishing, what is actually sustaining, what is actually needed for life. Bread and wine, yes, but even more — wisdom.
The portion of John’s gospel assigned for today cuts off at v.58, but next week — our final week of both the bread passages and the stories of King David’s house — we’ll hear v.59, which provides, I think, a critical piece of context for these shocking and bizarre verses. Immediately after Jesus says, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” John puts this in context, saying “He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.”
We have a number of teachers in our congregation, brilliant people passionate about the subjects they teach and invested in those they teach. In their efforts to help their students learn, they use every trick in the book. They joke, they hint, they lead, they tease, they play dumb, they berate, they badger, they tell stories. They do whatever it takes to get their students to wake up from the culture of anesthesia in which we live that is always numbing us up, dumbing us down, and putting us to sleep. They are willing to be shocking for the sake of the education of minds and the formation of character. They might not want absolutely everything they say in the classroom to be excerpted and read out of context at the end of the day. I think the same goes for Jesus.
When you opened your email on Friday, many of you found our weekly eNewsletter waiting in your inbox. If you’re visiting with us this morning, or you’ve been coming for a little while but you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you can go to our website (the address is on the back cover of your bulletin) and click on the icon at the bottom of each page that looks like a pencil. That will sign you up for our weekly eNewsletter. Or, you can fill out one of the visitor information cards in the back of the pew and put it in the offering plate, and we’ll take care of getting you signed up here in the office.
The lead story in the newsletter this past week was a request from the Education and Faith Formation committee for you to take a quick online survey about the kinds of learning and community building opportunities you’d be most interested in for the upcoming year. It asks about Sunday morning adult education as well as Sunday School offerings for our children 2 and older. It asks about mid-week small groups. It tries to get at the kinds of topics you want to focus on, whether that’s biblical education, theology, spirituality or societal concerns. The reason for the survey is that we’ve finally hit a place in our growth as a congregation where there are enough people — meaning both enough teachers and enough learners — that we can really branch out and offer a variety of topics based on your interests… though only if you fill out the survey so we know what those interests are. If you missed the eNewsletter this past week, never fear, you’ll get a few more chances to fill it out, both online and in print over the coming weeks.
I was at a fundraiser earlier this week and the hosts gave us each one of these rubbery wristbands. You’ve all seen them, it seems like everyone is making them these days. Lance Armstrong has his “livestrong” wristbands; you get rainbow colored ones at Pride festivals. I first recall seeing these wristbands pop up back in the 1990s with the letters “WWJD” monogramed into them. WWJD, standing for “what would Jesus do?” I think it’s a great question, though, I often got the sense that — rather than opening the bible and finding out what Jesus might do, based on what Jesus for instance had done, that these wristbands functioned more like a rubber band or a piece of yarn reminding us to be nice or play fair. I don’t think anyone who wore a WWJD bracelet ever turned to their classmate or their co-worker and said, “whoever eats me will live because of me,” though, that is WJD… what Jesus did.
Jesus, like the best teachers in this room, wanted to wake people up to what was really happening in the world around them. He wanted people to understand the ways they were being used and controlled by the forces of empire. He wanted to give them a vision of life under another kind of power, another kind of kingdom. He wanted them to move past the cheap distractions named in the passage from Ephesians this morning of “wine and debauchery” and really engage with the deep truths of the world God made and the world God is constantly remaking. He wanted them to live in this world as if there were not from this world, as if they were educated and formed in a different world. A world where worldly wisdom, might and wealth had been replaced by faithful love, justice and righteousness.
That, finally, brings us to King Solomon — David’s son and successor — who has beat out his brothers for the throne, and now finds himself having to rule. He is ruling a nation that goes to war like it was a season of the year. He is ruling a people who trusted their kings more than their God, but it God that Solomon turns to at the beginning of his reign to ask for the thing he most needed in order to rule well. Solomon asks for wisdom. He asks, “give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
One of Solomon’s weaknesses as a ruler will be his partiality to foreign powers. Already at the beginning of his reign we read that he has made an alliance with the Pharaoh of Egypt by marrying his daughter. Egypt, who once held Israel’s people as slaves, has found its way back into Israel’s courts — an ominous foreshadowing of empire’s encroachment on Israel’s future. But here, at the beginning, Solomon is still asking “what would God do?” How would God have me lead? That is the kind of wisdom Solomon needs and God provides.
Friends, we are in no less need of wisdom today. We may not be kings, but we are asked to act powerfully in our lives and in the world. I know the stories you are living. You are people with difficult decisions laid before you. You are discerning where to work, where to live, who to love. You are choosing between care for yourselves and care of your families. You are questioning what it means to be faithful to God and loyal to nation. You are remembering your youth and imagining your final years. You are inspecting the stories of your lives and you are asking if there is any kind of coherent through-line, if there is any sense or meaning to the decisions you have made or the choices now before you. You hunger for wisdom to know what is right and wrong.
Jesus does not dispense wisdom like medicine over the counter. Jesus offers rough words, hard to understand, that cannot be easily swallowed. This is an exercise for minds waking up to a way of living in the world that will be hard for others to understand, that will be difficult for them to swallow. Life with God, following Jesus, will not be as simple as a cord tied around the wrist reminding us to be nice. Life with God will be cords tying us together, reminding us that we sink or swim not alone, but as one.
“What is God doing?” is a question that requires us to ask “what has God done?” What answers there are to be found we will find together, when we finally discipline ourselves to lay out the scriptures, chew on their poetry and parables, and feast on what we find.