Sermon: Sunday, August 26, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 4 — Imperishable Perishing”

Texts:  1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43 and Psalm 84  •  Ephesians 6:10-20  •   John 6:56-69

In our household, Kerry and I have worked out a pretty simple division of labor.  I do most of the grocery shopping, he does most of the cooking.  He’s a much better cook than I am, so that works out well for me, but I’m still mastering the art of grocery shopping.  There are plenty of prepared foods and canned goods in our cupboards, but since we both value trying to eat fresh and would like to cut down on the amount of preservatives we ingest, I am having to break out of my old habit of shopping once a month and buying only foods that will last.  There’s an art to grocery shopping that I haven’t quite mastered.

It bums me out when I open the fridge and see that something I bought has gone bad.  It’s usually the bread.  Again, I don’t want to buy the national chain breads that have all the preservatives baked right in.  I want the local bakery bread, the stuff with real flavor that you actually have to chew.  I want sourdough or rye or multigrain.  I’m convinced by the smell of the loaf as it’s pulled from the oven and I put it in my cart, imaging how good it will taste set on my plate next to a fresh salad or whatever Kerry throws together in the kitchen.

Then life happens.  Kerry works late, and I’m not in the mood to make dinner, so I run next door to Charcoal Delights and pick up a patty melt.  Or, we’re rushed to get out of the house in the morning and, instead of packing a lunch, we figure we’ll just grab something over the lunch hour.  A few days pass, we open the refrigerator and pull out the bread only to find it’s got mold growing on it and we have to throw it away.

The reign of God is like a loaf of bread.  That’s what Jesus has been saying for the last month.  More specifically, he’s been saying, “I am the bread of life.”  It’s an odd mixture of perishability and imperishability in the Jesus loaf.  On the one hand, we know that Jesus dies on a cross.  If he is the bread of life, he is bread that will perish.  On the other hand, there is a promise that to take part in the life of Christ is to be joined to eternity, to become imperishable.

Today we come to the last week of the summer series that I’ve titled, “Game of Thrones,” during which we’ve followed the rise of the nation of Israel, charted through the house of David.  It also happens to be the last week of these sayings from Jesus found in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John known as the “bread of life discourse.”  We’ve mostly stayed away from all the talk of bread in order to focus on the story of King David’s rise to power, and the tragedies that befell his house.  Last week his son Solomon had taken the throne and prayed for the wisdom to lead.  This week Solomon dedicates the temple, but something happens in gospel that ties these readings together, so let’s stay there for a moment.

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.”  Do you recall the story from Hebrew scripture in which bread comes down from heaven to feed the people?  // The story of manna from heaven is a story of God’s intentional perishability.  As the Israelites travelled through the desert from slavery to freedom, they were forced to rely on God to provide for their needs.  God sent manna from heaven which could only be eaten on the day it fell.  Moses instructed them gather as much as they needed, and to be sure everyone was provided for.  When some of the Israelites tried to gather up more than a day’s worth, they would awake to find the surplus infested with worms and gone foul.  They would have to throw it out.

The Israelites were escaping from a master who used slave labor to build an empire.  Even though they’d crossed through the Red Sea, they hadn’t yet become free people because they were still living with the empire’s value’s in their hearts.  The forty year journey in the wilderness was the transformation of a people that took a generation to complete.  Once they entered the promised land, they were ruled not by kings but by judges, people of wisdom and faith who guided the people and encouraged them as they lived a different kind of existence than the tribes that surrounded them. They were people called to live a life of radical dependence on God.

But the cost of their difference was great.  The tribes of Israel were surrounded by larger, mightier nations who had amassed great surpluses of wealth that bought armies.  Armies required expansion to provide the goods needed to keep the armies and their infrastructures well maintained. In fact, it’s dangerous to have a standing army around if you’re not prepared to keep feeding it what it wants, since it has the means at hand to unseat you and rule in your stead.  The tribes of Israel weren’t worried about the problems of kings and armies however, since they were too busy being conquered to consider what happens after you win.

So Israel asked its last judge, the prophet Samuel, to name for them a king.  In doing so, the people made a decisive break from trusting in God to provide what was needed, their daily bread, and to go the route of their warring neighbors.

It’s been an instructive journey, traveling with Israel through the reigns of King Saul, King David and King Solomon.  The stories have been filled with the kind of pathos we expect from Greek tragedy or night time dramas.  The people get what they asked for, a king to rule them and an army to protect them; but they also get what Samuel warned them of, a love of power that consolidates wealth in the hands of the few and returns them to the kind of life under empire God had worked to liberate them from when God brought them out of Egypt.  King David — once a sensitive, overlooked shepherd boy — becomes a king so taken with his own success he proposes to build a house for God.  His son, Solomon, begins his reign by marrying a daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, allying himself with empire, then building the temple his father hadn’t.

It makes it hard to interpret Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in this morning’s reading from 1 Kings.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, quoted on the front of your bulletin, spells out the difficult dynamics of this scene.  The temple is intended to serve as a visible reminder of God’s commitment to the nation of Israel, but also stand as a tribute to the power and wealth of the regime that got it built — not only for its citizens, but for the nations that surrounded them.  It was an act of establishment that said, “look what we have built — may it stand forever.”

The spirituality of establishment takes root in all of our lives, in our national politics and in our personal dramas.  It is the quest for immortality by our own efforts, the legacy projects we take on to make sure our names outlive us.  In order to be remembered, whether by the history books or by our grandchildren, we work to amass fortunes or achievements that will be the benchmark for those who follow us.  We adopt the cultural values that surround us in the workplace, striving for notoriety, recognition and promotion.  We live the values of self-help and self-actualization instead of trusting in God for what is needed this day and making sure that everyone has enough of what God has provided to make it to tomorrow.

There’s a really anti-Judaistic way of hearing Jesus’ words when he says, “this is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.”  When we’re caught up in our tribal prejudices we can hear these words as a kind of replacement theology, as in, “God’s gift of manna to the Israelites is inferior to the gift of God in Christ Jesus that the church claims as its own.”  I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying at all.

Rather, I think Jesus is calling to mind the whole history we have been studying this summer.  The history of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery under Pharaoh to its slow, subtle re-adoption of empire values that brought them to the place where we will leave them this Sunday.  Solomon dedicated the temple, but is the last king to rule over a unified kingdom.  After his reign the nation falls apart until, generations later, they are taken once again into exile.  Living under Roman occupation, Jesus reminds the people that placing their hope in empire’s tools to defeat empire’s ways has never worked out well for them.  Jesus invites them into a mystery, one in which imperishable life comes only through perishable means.

Empire will not defeat empire, and wealth will not solve the problems of poverty.  The reign of God calls for life lived by a completely different set of values.  We hear them listed in the passage from Ephesians, where the author speaks of the “whole armor of God” as the “belt of truth” and the “breastplate of righteousness” and the “shield of faith,” but most importantly “as shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  If you’re troubled by the militaristic imagery, trying hearing it as a direct challenge to militarism.  The whole litany invites us to live our lives by a different set of values.  Where the world dresses for war, we are called to dress for peace.

The ancient Israelites were not the only ones to put their trust in empire.  Whether we look at the lives ruined by faith in the stock market, nations devastated by ethnic cleansing, or neighborhoods divided by wealth — mapped out by the haves and the have nots — we live in a world that expects us to put our trust in ourselves, and punishes those who don’t play the game of self-sufficiency well enough to win; the poor, the differently-abled, the undocumented.

Jesus invites us back into lives of radical, uncomfortable dependency.  Lives lived not for ourselves, but each other.  One day at a time, one meal at a time.  Bread without preservatives — fresh if eaten today, now; bread that will not wait until tomorrow to be eaten.

In Jesus, God is calling each one of us to lay aside our desire for self-sufficiency and to invest ourselves in one another.  “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks.  “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  Many who had followed Jesus up to this point were turned off.  “This teaching is difficult,” they responded.  “Who can accept it,” and they left him.  But Peter and the others remained, giving us the words we sing each time the Word of God is read in our assembly, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As we leave summer behind — and with it the stories of David, Saul and Solomon — we take with us the reminder that the pull to establish our legacies, to build our empires, is strong and is with us still.  As we move into the Season of Creation, we will be reminded of the price paid by the very earth for the kinds of empires in which we now live.  This day, as much as any era before us, we are challenged to reshape our lives with a radical reliance on God at the center.  It begins with the practicing of eating the bread laid out for us at this feast, daily bread, that moves us from unsustainable ways of living into life imperishable.  Amen.


Sermon: Sunday, August 19, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 3 — Feasting on the Word”

Texts:  1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111  •   Ephesians 5:15-20  •   John 6:51-58

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.



Sermon: Sunday, August 12, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 2 — A House Divided Against Itself”

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

In the name of Jesus, the bread of life. Amen.

There are times when a preacher sits down to write a sermon and all previous plans get cast aside.  Times when a happening, something local or something global, takes center-stage and demands our full attention.  Such was the case this past week.

Last Sunday, just as we were beginning our worship service here at St. Luke’s, a mass shooting took place at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin just over an hour north of us near Milwaukee.  I was driving home from church when I got the text alert that something had happened, and called Kerry right away since the massacre took place so close to his hometown. Coming just over two weeks after another mass shooting outside Denver, Colorado, this event brought closer to home the terrifying reality that we live in a culture infected by fear, hatred and violence.

These are anxious times, to be sure, and anxious times too often produce anxious responses.  Families stretched to find work or keep food on the table worry about competition for employment.  Wave after wave of corporate downsizing leaves some resentful of jobs moved overseas. It doesn’t take much for people who are hurt and scared to begin to look upon their neighbor as their enemy.

This sort of fear finds its strength in racism and nationalism and calls it pride.  It wraps its bigotry in a flag and calls it patriotism.  It builds walls along the very same borders crossed by one wave of immigrants after another, forgetting how many of our ancestors arrived on these shores fleeing poverty and oppression and hoping for a better life.

An article published by Sojourners magazine and co-authored by Eboo Patel and Hana Suckstorff of Interfaith Youth Core spoke into this anxious amnesia with the following words,

“The shooting in Oak Creek reminds us that the forces of prejudice are loud. They sling bigoted slurs and occasionally bring 9mm guns to places of worship. But we are not a country of Wade Michael Pages [the man who carried out the attack at the Sikh temple].

We are a country whose first president George Washington, told a Jewish community leader that ‘the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’

We are a country where Jane Addams welcomed Jewish and Catholic immigrants streaming in from Eastern Europe in the 19th century as citizens, not strangers.

We are a country where a young black preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., learned nonviolence not only from Jesus, but also from an Indian Hindu named Gandhi and from a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.

And we must be a country where a new generation of leaders rises up to write the next chapter in the glorious story of American pluralism or else we will forfeit the territory to those who would shoot at our neighbors while they worship.”

That fact — that while we gathered in safety last Sunday a community of neighbors, separated from us by just a little geography and united to us by a great deal of shared humanity, were marked for death because of how they looked, where their families were from, or how they worshipped — that fact of history pushed aside the plans of many a preacher this week.

But our worship tradition calls us to listen to our sacred texts in weeks filled with sorrow and weeks filled with joy, so we turned to scripture this week wondering what, if anything, these stories and histories might offer in light of the present moment.

For the tenth week in a row we have been following the story of King David, his rise and fall.  For the last two weeks we’ve heard the story of his abuse of power in taking Bathsheba and his avoidance of accountability in the murder of her loyal husband, Uriah.  As we left the story last week, the prophet Nathan has brought a word from God saying that, because of David’s violence against Bathsheba and Uriah, the sword will never leave his house.

As we rejoin the story this morning, all that Nathan prophesied has come to pass. Tragedy has befallen David’s home, like a houseguest that refuses to leave. First the child born from David’s illicit relations with Bathsheba dies in its infancy.  Then, in a series of crimes mirroring his own against the house of Uriah, David’s eldest son, Amnon, takes his half-sister, Tamar against her will — provoking her brother, Absalom, to murder Amnon at a dinner party for all David’s heirs. With that, the war of succession is on, and it becomes clear that Absalom’s appetite for power and privilege exceeds even David’s.

After engineering a return from exile, Absalom sets about building support for himself by playing on the ethnic prejudices and anxieties of the Israelites. Rising early and stationing himself by the gate to the city, Absalom would greet petitioners who had come to Jerusalem seeking justice and would ask them, “from what city are you?”  When the claimants identified themselves as Israelites, Absalom would respond, “see, your claims are good and right.”

Some scholars have read into this evidence of ethnic tensions the nation of Israel.  Though David had originally ruled from Hebron in southern Judah, he later moved the capital to a Jebusite city and incorporated Hittites and Gittites, foreigners, into his administration. When Absalom plots to engineer a change of regime, he begins by playing on the ethnic resentments of the hometown Israelites, demonstrating that race-baiting tactics are as old as human memory, and as deadly as ever.

We wish we could say that we’ve somehow evolved beyond these sorts of tactics, that as human beings living in the most materially wealthy civilization in the history of the world we have grown too savvy to the politics of division to be distracted by their frantic antics, but we have not.  We continue to need the advice Paul gives the Ephesians when he writes to them,

“So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another… Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph 4:25,29-32)

As is so often the case, when events like the one in Aurora, Colorado or Oak Creek, Wisconsin demonstrate to us the horrors of which we are capable, there are voices that rise to show us the best in ourselves, that speak the truth in love and remind us what we were created to be.  The voice that has provided the most encouragement to me these last few days hasn’t been either of the candidates in this fall’s presidential election, or any columnist or pundit.  Instead, it’s been the voice of a 10-year old Sikh girl named Tarina from the state of Virginia who wrote,

I am only 10 and don’t know about all the religions but the recent shooting in Wisconsin got me wondering about other religions. I watched the coverage on TV (for once my parents seemed OK with it) and the reporter kept saying that temple seemed to have been mistaken for a Muslim place of worship. Then, I heard another person saying, “Sikhs are not Muslims.” I started thinking what if we were? It would still be wrong for Mr. Page to come in the place of God and shoot people.

I was not born then but have learned about 9/11. It was horrible when Osama bin Laden attacked the Twin Towers. A lot of Muslims were wrongly thought of. A lot of people think that if one person is bad in a religion, everyone in that religion is bad. I think that statement is not true. No matter what religion, we should never misjudge a person. If someone is a different color or is from somewhere else you should try to get to know them and you might learn something new. You will also make someone feel good and at home if you just talk to them and learn about their background.

I think that Mr. Page hurt Sikhs because he might have mistaken Sikhs as Afghani people. It doesn’t make it any less horrible as Afghani people are great people as well. We need to stop hurting each other and create a world of peace and tolerance. We are the only people who can change this world.

As David’s house fell apart, his son Absalom tried to consolidate power around himself by playing on people’s nationalism and ethnic prejudice.  In the end, not only did he not win the crown, but he lost his life and divided the nation.

Consider, by contrast, what happened at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin just hours after their house was assaulted.  As police officers and reporters converged on the scene, the very people who’d hid in closets and restrooms to avoid being killed offered them food and water as part of langar — the Sikh practice of feeding all visitors to the house of worship.

This morning, one week later, we gather at the Lord’s table to take part in the Christian practice of feeding all visitors to the house of worship, the one we call communion that reminds us, as Paul writes, “we are members of one another.”  We share this meal in remembrance of the guru Jesus, who said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’”