This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 7.10-16, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, Romans 1.1-7, Matthew 1.18-25). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christmas gifts, The Alabama Shakes, ghosts, signs, weariness, keeping the cross in Christmas, the bread of tears, salvation, epistolary preaching, grace, belonging, Sam Wells, prophecy, and The Mother of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Obstinance of God
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying in the bed, and the demon gone. Then he returned to the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Jesus is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He sets out for the region of Tyre, Gentile territory, in which he will be a stranger in a strange land, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there.
But a woman hears about him and she bows down at his feet.
Jesus is a Jew. She’s a Gentile.
Jesus wants to be alone. She wants help.
It’s here, outside the confines of Israel, beyond the realm of the covenant, out on the margins of life, Jesus is encountered by the woman’s desperation.
“Please,” she begs, “heal my daughter!”
As one outside the people Israel, she’s probably bent down at the altars of countless gods before, hoping against hope for her daughter’s sake. And somehow she hears of this Jesus, and bends down yet again.
And Jesus brushes her off. After all, he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. He’s got plenty of work to do among his own people. It wouldn’t be fair to give what belonged to God’s children to the dogs, to those outside the covenant.
“But sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs left by the children.”
A sly smile stretches across Jesus’ face. “Indeed,” he responds, “for saying that you may go – your daughter has been healed.”
Jesus had a way of attracting desperate people, and he had a way of loving desperate people.
Jesus miraculously reaches out beyond all the perfectly good reasons for not doing so, and brings about a new reality that we never imagined possible.
And it really is miraculous. But here’s the kicker – the so-called Syrophoenician woman, and most of the other recipients of grace for that matter, don’t receive the miracle because of what they believe. At least, not really. A miracle, by definition, is an unwarranted and undeserved gift of God. God in Christ has this knack for making outsiders into insiders, for reaching beyond beyond the boundaries of propriety, of meeting people where they are and not where they ought to be.
God meets us in our mistakes, not in our triumphs. God meets us in our sins, not in our successes.
Which is to say – the woman gets it! Her line about “even the dogs under the table” shows that she has caught a glimpse of the way grace works in the world – there’s always more than enough Jesus to go around even for those who don’t deserve him.
Because none of us deserve him.
She understands, in some way, shape, or form, that this is the way God has determined to be God – through mercy. God, with open arms and a never ending table, desires for all to receive a taste of grace in order that the world might be transformed, transfigured even.
Somehow, the woman knows that mercy might begin with Israel, but she also knows, through Jesus, that God’s mercy doesn’t end with Israel.
In other words, God likes crowded tables.
There is no sinner so great that they cannot be forgiven by God. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
The woman has faith enough for Jesus to meet her in her desperation, and it changes everything.
But that begs the question – What, exactly, is faith?
Some might imagine that it means, first and foremost, that one says yes to a series of creedal propositions concerning who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Something like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. Or, perhaps, accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, whatever that might mean.
And yet, we don’t hear Jesus saying anything about any of that with the woman, nor does he put any prerequisites on the deaf man with the impediment in his speech before he heals him.
Think about the thief next to Jesus on the cross. While the crowds ridicule the Messiah with nails in his hands the thief merely says to Jesus, “Remember me.”
When God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, when God brings about the resurrection of the dead, I’m going to find that thief. I can’t wait to ask him how it all worked out for him. Because, can’t you just imagine the other smug Christians walking around with their resurrected noses in the air looking down on the thief? Can’t you imagine them confronting him, “Well, you were never baptized, you never stood up and affirmed the creeds, you didn’t tithe to your local church… On what basis did you get in?”
And the thief says, “The man on the middle cross said I could come.”
Faith isn’t about what we do, faith is about what is done to us.
In the end, faith is really nothing more than trusting Jesus to do what he said he will do.
Why did the woman trust Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe she heard about him through the grapevine, maybe she ran into someone who had a taste of the loaves and the fishes. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But somehow she learned, and in her desperation she went looking.
The words about the Word continue to spread, even today. We have them right here in scripture, sometimes we can find the Word in sermons. The Word always finds its way onto strange paths, even to those who don’t go to church every Sunday and to those who don’t read the Bible.
There are always small crumbs falling from the rich table where God gives the bread of life.
And that’s exactly how faith works – it kind of shows up out of nowhere. It has nothing to demand, it earns nothing and deserves nothing. Faith simply says, “Lord, have mercy.” For faith, real confounding faith, knows that if Jesus helps, then it is only by grace. Grace is given only to those who stand under judgment – so it is with faith even today.
I came across a story a few years ago that has haunted me ever since.
A woman, in the early 90s, found herself in the fetal position on her dirty living room floor one night. She was strung out, hoping her husband would return home with their next fix, but also knew that if he did return, he wouldn’t share it with her. Their baby was somehow asleep in a dirty crib in the next room over and she had a terrifying moment of clarity. She was afraid that if someone found her as she really was, they would take her son away. And she was even more worried that her son needed to be taken away from her.
And so there she was, rocking back and forth on the floor and in her hands was a tiny slip of paper with a phone number on it. A few years before, her mother sent her the number through the mail for a Christian counselor to try to help her out of the hole she had dug for herself. Over the years, in moments of terror, the woman would pull out the number but she never worked up the courage to call in.
Until that night.
The phone rang and rang and eventually a man answered it, clearly having been woken up from sleep. And immediately the woman said, “I’m sorry for calling so late, but my mom gave me your number and said that you might be able to help me.”
The man said, “Tell me what’s going on.”
So she did. She admitted things to him that she hadn’t really even admitted to herself. I’m a drug addict. I’m a terrible mother. I need help.
She went on and on and the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice. He just kept encouraging her to share what was on her heart and soul.
They talked on the phone until the sun rose in the morning. And the woman, now having made it through the darkest night of her life, said, “You know, I’m kind of surprised you haven’t given me any scriptures to read or prayers to pray, isn’t that what Christian counselors do?”
He brushed the comment aside but then she continued, “No, seriously. You’re really good at this. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
And the man said, “Please don’t hang up, and listen to me for a minute. You know that number you dialed, the one your mom gave you a few years ago for a Christian counselor? Wrong number.”
She didn’t hang up, but they eventually finished their conversation. And her life didn’t change immediately. But she says that after that night, having encounter a stranger who listened just for the sake of listening, her life changed. Slowly but surely, her life changed because she discovered, for the first time, that there was unconditional love in the universe and some of it was for her.
She goes around the country now, telling her story, and this is how she always ends it: This is what I know, in the deepest darkest moments of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.
Faith, obviously, teaches us a lot about the Lord, but also a lot about who we are. There’s not a way for us to encounter God without coming to grips with the condition of our condition, no matter how good we might seem on the surface.
We should want to love our enemies and never be angry with all the trouble makers and cheaters who make our lives so miserable. But we can’t do it. We don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not as we ought to be. We are miserable offenders. We are not worthy to come to this table.
But that is the heart of grace.
We don’t deserve the help and the forgiveness offered to us by God.
People, since the time of Christ, have earnestly desired to follow, we’ve prayed for pure hearts and pure love and pure faith. And then, we don’t get it. Instead we wrestle with our doubts and our shames and our hurts and our pains and we realize that we are not what we can or should be. It drives us to despair and desperation. And then the unexpected happens – Jesus finds us. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And we see all things anew. We can’t do what we need to do, but the Lord can through us.
God takes away our sins, not in part but the whole, nails them to the cross, and we bear them no more.
God has established a kingdom in which forgiveness never ever runs dry, and where we are always invited to the feast where even the tiniest crumbs convey the fullness of grace.
One of the strangest parts of being a Christian is coming to grips with the fact that we would not know this trust had we not, at some point, been desperate.
And that’s faith – it’s expecting the unexpected. It’s calling out for help from the one who shouldn’t help us, and yet does. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including relay races, wicked wisdom, Christotelism, financial irony, fear, character recognition, Dead Poets Society, pagan worship, the Prayer of Humble Access, non-sentimental sacramentality, and the preaching office. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eat Me!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33, Psalm 130, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, John 6.35, 41-51). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including manscaping, movie theaters, lectionary lamentations, character identification, Robin Hood, examples of inequity, divine patience, temporal politics, ecclesial commands, heavenly bread, and comics. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Restless Contentment
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.
Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.
Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).
And then Capon brings the story home:
“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.”
Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.
And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:
Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.
Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.
“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
To what may we compare the scriptures?
Or, perhaps more plainly, what’s the Bible like?
Well, the strange new world of the Bible is like a giant house that is full of locked rooms. And on the floor in front of every door there is a key. But there’s a catch: the key doesn’t fit the lock on the particular door.
The challenge, then, is to gather up every single key and begin trying them out on each and every door until the proper key is found that will unlock each room.
So it is with the scriptures.
They are so obscure that the only way to understand them is by means of coming into contact with other passages containing different explanation that are dispersed throughout.
This is a parable about parables.
Consider – the Bible is full of just about every literary form.
Genealogy. Poetry. Prose. Drama. Instruction. Reflection. And, of course, parables.
Take it up and read – you’re just as likely to find something familiar as you are to find something bizarre.
This is the challenge of this thing that we come back to over and over again, like fools wandering around through a house with a pocketful of keys having no idea where any of them go.
So it is that we wander through the Bible while using the Bible to make sense of the Bible.
And, stretching the parable out a little more, we might hope and suppose that if any of the rooms in the house were already unlocked and opened, they would be Jesus’ parables.
That we would so hope is due to the fact that parables are usually use to clarify something about something – they are stories that reveal truths that we would otherwise miss.
And yet, at least with Jesus, the opposite seems to be true.
We don’t walk away from the parables with exclamations of, “Oh that’s what he meant!”
Instead we often walk away only to say, “What in the world was that all about?”
The late great Robert Farrar Capon put it this way: The device of parabolic utterance is used NOT to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings… Jesus’ parables are intentionally designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of those who receive them.
Consider, briefly, the parable of the Lost Sheep.
Jesus tells his disciples that God is like a shepherd who, if one sheep among one hundred goes missing, will leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one who went astray. And, if he finds it, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.
Okay. A lot of us love this parable. We’ve heard it since we were kids in Vacation Bible School and the idea that God will never leave us lost is, truly, a comforting thought.
But, here’s the problem: The only thing guaranteed about going after one lost sheep is that the ninety-nine will go missing too. Going off after one is straight up bad advice because it puts all the other sheep at risk. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found!
The parable of the lost sheep is, like all of Jesus’ parables, confounding and head-scratching Good News. It is a stark declaration that God saves losers and only losers. God finds the lost and only the lost. God raises the dead and only the dead.
The parables of Jesus, from the Lost Sheep, to the Prodigal Son, to the Good Samaritan, though they vary greatly in form and even function, they all point again and again to the fact that God is the one who acts first and God acts definitely without conditions.
Well, there might be one little condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit that we are lost and without a hope in the world unless a crazy shepherd is willing to risk it all on us.
But to the passage at hand – Jesus, resting in the vibes of his favorite playlist, the Psalms, chooses to speak in parables and only in parables in order to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
This is the exclamation mark on a string of stories that include the sower who scatters seed indiscriminately, the weeds among the wheat (which must be left to grow together until the harvest), and the mustard seed.
All three of these brief parables point to the circuit-breaking nature of Jesus’ ministry and kingdom.
The Sower refuses to sow only where the seeds will bear fruit and is determined to rain down grace upon every type of soil.
No good gardener lets the weeds grow among the wheat, but in the Kingdom of God there is room for all to grow and flourish.
And the mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil, not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in a tomb, was raised three days later.
But then Jesus decides to tie up all of these crazy stories with the parable of the leaven.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.
In one sentence Jesus has fulfilled the promise and proclamation of the psalm: He has drawn the people in to hear the words from his mouth – he speaks a parable, utter dark sayings from old. They will not be hidden from children, and this story will be told to every coming generation describing the wonders that God has done.
But what’s so wonderful about a woman mixing yeast with flour?
Better yet, what in the world does that have to do with the kingdom of God?
For a moment, let us rest in the great and sadly controversial fact that the surrogate for God in this story is, in fact, a woman. Contrary to how it has been spread throughout the history of the church, all that patriarchal nonsense doesn’t have any foundation to rest on. In other places Jesus specifically compares himself to a mother hen, women are the only disciples who don’t abandon Jesus at the end, and without women preachers none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection from the dead!
The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like yeast that a woman took and kneaded it together with three measures of flower.
God, as the female baker, takes the yeast that is the kingdom of God, and mixes it thoroughly with the flour that is the world.
Now, think about this for a moment, the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus notes that she took three measures (SATA in Greek) of flour which is a bushel.
That’s 128 cups of flour!
When you’re done putting in the 42 cups of water necessary to get the bread going you’re left with over 100 pounds of dough.
But Jesus keeps going! That crazy 100 pound mass of dough is thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened.
The great, and at times terrible, part about baking bread is that once the yeast has been introduced it cannot be removed. It becomes hidden, it loses itself in order to become something else. It is a mysteriously wonderful thing to watch the yeast disappear into the mixture knowing that it will make something marvelous of something otherwise useless.
Which, parabolically, means that the kingdom of God, like leavened bread, has been with us from the very beginning and will always be with us. It is hidden in and among us doing it’s job and there’s nothing we can do to get rid to it.
No amount of badness, or even goodness, can do anything to the yeast that is already mixed with the flour and the water.
The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of the messy dough. The yeast works intimately and immediately and nothing can stop it.
But we, as usual, scratch our heads like the disciples and all who have received the parables. We keep wandering around the house with many rooms, struggling to hold all of the keys, without having any idea about which door to try next.
We wonder what, in the world, this parable has to do with us.
Well, perhaps this parable, this dark saying from of old, reminds us that the only thing we can do, other than admitting our need of Jesus, is wait for him to do his job.
Ask any baker, one of the worst things to do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And good bread, really good bread, is made when the yeast has the time to do what it needs to do without our mucking it up.
And, AND, when baking, the only way the yeast makes something of nothing is by, of all things, dying. When the yeast has finally mixed into the dough, and it is placed in the oven, it dies – and by dying it creates thousands of little pockets of air – it’s those pockets of air that makes the dough expand as its cooked.
Frankly, all of baking is a miracle.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure, and the patience, to bake bread it’s nothing short of incredible.
And here’s the real kicker – the air created by the death of yeast, warm carbon dioxide, is the same thing we create every time we breathe.
The whole of the Kingdom, Jesus seems to say, operates similarly by warm breath.
Remember: Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made, from the beginning of creation. God speaks creation into existence. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same Spirit, Ruah, breath, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.
Remember: Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his ragtag group of would be followers hiding in the Upper Room. Jesus speaks all of his parables only by use of a breath that was there before the foundation of the world.
Remember: The Spirit is blown on the day of Pentecost filling the newborn church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world. That same Spirit compels us, as the Psalm says, to tell the stories to the coming generations and declare the mighty works of our God.
Even me standing here and proclaiming the Word is only possible because of the warm breath that comes forth from my mouth. And, best of all, God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak.
In the end, it’s all about warm air. Whether it’s in the bread backing in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what all of us are doing right not simply to live.
Consider, for a moment, your own breath. From the time I started this sermon we’ve all, on average, breathed 150 times and we didn’t have to think about it at all for it to happen.
Just like the leavened bread, our breathing happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the bread of life we call Jesus, is mixed definitively into our lives, it unfailingly expands and makes something miraculous of us.
The job, strangely and mysteriously, is already done. Finished and baked before the foundation of the world. Completed by the great baker who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with some of his final breaths, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.
Which is all to say, whether or not we know what key matches with which door, we are as good and baked into salvation right here and right now. God, compelled by love, has kneaded us in with the holy baking trinity of flour, water, and yeast which will become something we never could on our own.
The only thing we have to do is listen to Jesus and trust that he has done and will forever do his yeasty work. And, in the end, when we start to small the fresh bread wafting in from the oven of the Kingdom, we will know that we are truly home, forever. Amen.
Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
A woman stands up in a crowded sanctuary.
The gathered people called church have been arguing and arguing about the one thing needful, about what they must do to be saved.
Some suggest the baptism is the singular requirement, though then they begin to squabble about just how much water needs to be used, and how many people need to be present, and how old the person baptized needs to be.
While others offer thoughts about making a public declaration of faith, like kneeling at the front of the church during an altar call.
While still yet others boisterously complain that unless someone tithes to the church, they shouldn’t have any expectations of going anywhere but down at the end of their days.
The woman stands and patiently raises her hand until everyone stops bickering and they all give her their attention.
She says, “I’ve been doing some reading in this here book, and it seems to be that the whole of faith is this: Grace plus Nothing.”
“Excuse me?” A man shouts from a nearby pew, “If its grace plus nothing, then why bother being good or coming to church or doing anything really?”
The woman calmly responds, “Well, we do those things because they make life more fun.”
Another person interjects, “So, what you’re saying is, in the end it doesn’t matter how you live your life?”
And the woman says, “Of course it matters how we live! But it doesn’t earn us squat in the Kingdom of God.”
It seems for the briefest of moments that the Holy Spirit has finally showed up through the woman, and yet, it only takes a few minutes before the room returns to arguing.
Now there are two camps – those who align themselves with those who raised objections, who were righteously offended by the talk of Grace plus Nothing and eventually they all storm out of the sanctuary to start their own church down the road.
However, the other half, those who agree with the woman, they all perk up in their pews when she mentions Grace plus Nothing because for the first time they actually hear the good part of the Good News. So while the other half go off and start their own church, the half intoxicated by grace keep showing up week after week, dragging in all their friends – the disabused, the forgotten, the overlooked, the last, least, lost, and little and they relished in the Gospel.
This is a parable of grace.
And God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.
The Psalms understand the human condition – in them we catch a mirror glimpse of ourselves at our worst and at our best. The Psalmist, time and time again, lifts up their innermost feelings, articulating needs and fears, hopes and shames, in a way that none of us could on our own.
In short, the Psalms tell the truth.
God’s people were a lot more nimble, were forced to live truly by faith, while God was leading them through the desert. They had a portable tent for worship, they had the ark of the covenant which stood to remind them of the call to love God and one another. And yet, they couldn’t help themselves from looking backward all while God was leading them forward.
“Moses! Where are you dragging us? At least, back in Egypt, we had three square meals a day and water to drink. So what if we had to be slaves for it? Better to be a slave and full than to be free and hungry!”
Moses takes the staff that divided the waters of the Red Sea, strikes a rock in the desert, and water streams forth.
But it ain’t enough for the people of God.
“Moses! The water’s nice and all but can God spread a table in the wilderness? We’re hungry!”
Therefore, the Psalmist tells us, when the Lord heard their complaints, God was full of rage, God’s anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith and did not trust.
Yet, God rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven.
This is a parable of grace.
Jesus spends the afternoon feeding 5,000 through his divine mercy. And, when all was said and done, bellies full to the brim, a crowd gathers to question the behavior of this God in the flesh.
Jesus’ response – You all are looking for me but for the wrong reasons. I delight in giving you food to eat, but I also have something else to offer.
“What must we do?” The crowds intone.
“Believe” Jesus answers.
“Okay, we get that, but how do we really know you can make good on your promise? Can you rain down from manna from heaven for us like Moses did?”
And then Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give you the manna! It was God who gave the good gift!”
“Sure,” they say, “That’s fine. We’d like some of that bread from heaven please.”
And Jesus answers them, “Have you not heard anything I’ve said? I am the bread!”
Another parable of grace.
What wondrous good news it is that, when Jesus showed up proclaiming the beginning of God’s new kingdom, he did so not with sermons about the Trinity, or the atonement, or justification, or any other big and abstract theological mishmash. Instead, Jesus began by pointing right at our stomachs, to that gnawing, unsatisfied, emptiness within and then invited us to dinner.
Jesus feeds the hungry – that who Jesus is.
Notably, he fills the 5,000 and then tells the gathered people to work for the food that endures forever. The crowds prepare themselves to hear Jesus’ religious pitch (before he can speak again they’re already asking what’s required).
But this time it doesn’t end with the guilt trip they’ve all heard so many times before.
There’s no “I fed you so now you all have to go feed fifty people” or “Because I did this for you, now you have to do something for me.
Jesus just says, “I, myself, am the bread. Whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.” Think of the crowds during the days of Moses and during the days of Jesus, imagine how they felt while eating the bread.
Did they deserve it? Did they earn it?
The Psalmist reminds us that they had done everything but deserve it! God’s wrath was kindled against them and yet God gave them the bread anyway. The 5,000 didn’t have to lay out all their good works before Jesus delighted in filling their bellies.
This is grace.
Grace plus Nothing.
Just when we, the people of God, expect to be clobbered with guilt – You didn’t listen in the wilderness! You haven’t loved your neighbors enough! – we actually get clobbered by grace.
And, when that happens, we begin to realize that whenever we’ve gone looking for peace or happiness by doing this, that, and the other we’ve actually overlooked the God who has always been looking for us.
The One who offers us the gift we simply don’t deserve.
The heart of Christianity is this – We don’t have to give or say or pay anything – In Christ it has all been given, said, and paid for us.
And yet, it can be very VERY difficult to receive the gift of God’s grace.
Consider – Even after being delivered from slavery, God’s people still grumbled. Even after the feeding of the 5,000 the crowds want to know what they have to do.
It is difficult for us to receive God’s gift because in our “you get what you deserve” world, accepting a gift can be one of the hardest things we’re ever asked to do.
We’ve always been consumed by the fantasy of self-made people, that we can work for and earn anything our hearts desire.
The grace of God, however, tells us that there is nothing about God’s love which we can earn, deserve, or work for. It has to be given. It can come only as a gift.
It is by grace and only by grace that we are accepted by God.
Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
That question is often still our question. We look at the wildness of our lives, we spend more time looking backward than forward, and whenever we encounter our own disappointments and shortcomings, we wonder if God can really do anything about it.
Frankly, it’s why some of us keep showing up to church week after week, even if we can only do so online – we want an answer to our question. Can God make something of our nothing? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
And the answer is, quite simply, yes.
God can and God does all the time. God is the Good Shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, God is the Prodigal Father who rushes out to find us in the street even before we have a chance to apologize, God is the One who, rather than leaving us to our own devices, comes to dwell in the muck and mire of this life to offer us Grace plus Nothing. Amen.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The older I become the more complicated Thanksgiving feels.
When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of food, eavesdropping on grownup conversations, and running around in the cold until a responsible adult beckoned us back inside.
But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say that one thing that will set everyone off.
Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). Now we wear our red hats, or mention a recent debate sound bite, in order to make sure everyone at the table knows what side we are on.
Which is remarkably strange when we consider the fact that Jesus came to destroy the divisions that we so eagerly want to demonstrate around our tables.
Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.
Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Liturgy of Thanksgiving to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of theological clarity to what our tables are supposed to feel like…
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
We cannot live by bread alone – so Jesus reminds the Devil and all of us during the temptations in the wilderness. But we do have to eat to live; it’s just that ordinary bread isn’t enough. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is bigger and more important than just the sharing of food. It is through our conversations and our prayers that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. The table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table on Sundays and when we come to it we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. This is the work of God, and we are all witnesses.
Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as ours around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all you’ve done, are doing, and will do. As we eat and feast together, let the breaking of bread be a foretaste of the promised resurrection made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
1 Corinthians 11.23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is a good amount of people for Maundy Thursday. It is a weeknight after all. But it isn’t as many people as we had for Palm Sunday and, Lord willing, it is smaller than the number of people we will have for Easter.
That’s okay. There wasn’t a big crowd at the first Maundy Thursday either.
And yet you are here.
Why are you here?
We are a people forever stuck in the past.
And we can hardly be blamed.
We only know what we know. And we can’t know what we don’t know.
So our minds, whether we like it or not, are often rooted in days long gone.
Take tonight for instance, some of you can and probably do remember former Maundy Thursdays. And even if you haven’t been to a service like this before, you can know doubt think of a time you’ve received communion. And if you’ve never had communion before, you can certainly think of a time that you’ve shared a meal with someone else.
And because we tend to spend as much time in our minds as we do, we read what is happening in our present through the lens of the past.
It happens in the political realm, and the familial realm, and the theological realm.
When I was a kid my home church had lots of volunteer opportunities.
There were the big ones, you could sign up to read scripture from the lectern during a service, or you could carry in the flame as an acolyte, and every summer you could travel near and far for mission trips.
And there were, of course, the little ones as well. Your family could sign up to be greeters for a particular Sunday, shaking hands with everyone on their way in, or you could join together with some of the older members and fold bulletins every Friday morning, and every Wednesday night you could help serve food for the weekly community dinner.
In my young life, I did all of those things at one point or another, but there was one particular volunteer opportunity that my whole family took care of for a long time: we prepared the communion elements.
This meant that every first Saturday of the month we would drive over to the church and retreat to the sacristy behind the altar. There we would pre-poke the bead with this medieval-like dagger to make it easier for the pastors to tear it apart on Sunday morning, and then we would set out hundreds of tiny little plastic shot glasses within the altar rail using a little squirt bottle to fill every single one.
It would take forever.
And forever really felt like forever when I was ten years old.
On Sunday mornings, every one would arrive at the church none-the-wiser about the work we had put in to prepare everything. Even my family, knowing how long the grape juice had been sitting out in that old sanctuary, we would line up like everyone else and we would patiently kneel at the altar until a piece of bread was placed in our hands, and then we were instructed to drink from one of the little cups, and then we would go back to our pew so the next group could go.
And if preparing communion felt like forever, doing communion was even worse. It was assumed that the sermons on the first Sunday of the month would be half as long so that the congregation would have the time to all come to the altar to receive our stale bread and tepid grape juice.
And this went on for years.
Until one day after worship, I mustered up the courage to approach our aging senior pastor and confront him about our way of the Lord’s Supper. I had been to other churches and seen other variations on how to consume communion. The Catholics would all drink from one cup, and the Presbyterians would pass around these giants trays of circular discs and tiny cups. I’m not sure what propelled me forward that day – perhaps the bread had been extra hard, or my sisters and I had consumed a few too many of the little grape juice shots after worship, but I walked up to the pastor and said, “Why do we do communion this way?”
His response: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
We call today Maundy Thursday. This quaint names come from Jesus’ words at his last supper in John’s gospel: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. In Latin, new commandment is mandatum novum. Maundy is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.
So, we are mandated by God to do what we are doing.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything. Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions. You must do this, you must do that.
All of the musts don’t muster up to a very lively faith.
Instead we trudge into the sanctuary to sing the hymns and offer the prayers because we think we must do it.
We stand and proclaim with bored affectations the words of the Apostles’ Creed because we think we must do it.
We drag ourselves up to the altar to receive the body and the blood because we’ve made it out into our minds that we are mandated to do so.
What are we hungry for?
Are we even hungry at all?
There is always a lot that happens in the eucharist, a lot happens here tonight. In John’s Gospel Jesus spends his final evening breaking bread and drinking wine with his friends, but he ends with getting on the floor and washing all of their feet.
There have been countless traditions throughout the history of the church that are all tied up with what we are doing right now. By the time Paul writes to the church in Corinth he conveys it as “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
And so we remember. We remember how Jesus’ self-giving life included feeding the poor as well as dining with the rich. We remember that Jesus broke bread with the religious elite and the social outcasts. We remember that most of Jesus’ ministry took place around tables with those who both loved him and were confused by him.
And because we spend so much time remembering, we often look at this thing of communion backwards. We focus all of our attention on Jesus’ final night and we get caught up in the “we’ve always done it this way.”
Do you know what it says on our altar? I have it covered so you can’t just take a peek. Any guesses?
“This Do In Remembrance Of Me.”
It fits doesn’t it? We place the bread and the cup on the table, we read the words that Jesus shared with his disciples that final evening, and we do what we are doing in remembrance of all that Christ did.
But somewhere along the way we got our tenses confused.
Communion is not a backwards looking proposition. Yes, it is good and right for us to imagine ourselves in that space with those people on the night in which he gave himself up for us. But to do so as fully and totally as we do denies the fundamental truth that Jesus is here with us tonight in this space and with these people!
Of course communion is about remembrance, but it is equally, if not more, about anticipation. For as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
There was a woman who used to sneak into the church during the first hymn and would often retreat before the final hymn concluded. I would see her from my preaching vantage point but it was as if she planned everything so as to not have to interact with too many people when she came. After a while I noticed that she would only come to church on the first Sunday of the month and when we held our Maundy Thursday service.
Luck had it one day that I was able to catch up with her outside the main doors when she was briskly walking to her car and I asked if everything was okay.
She told me that she was Baptist and that her church almost never celebrated communion. But she knew she needed strength for the journey, so she came every month to commune with us.
I expressed my admiration of her faithfulness and she said that a pastor once told her that communion is where the past, present, and the future get all confused with each other. The pastor apparently meant it as a bad thing, but she fell in love with the idea.
She told me that she loved her church and would never leave it, but that she always needed to feel the confusion of time with us.
Maundy Thursday services often end in a confusing way. Tonight, as we conclude, we will join with Christians across the globe in the striking of our altar. We will remove elements of color and vitality making the turn toward the cross.
We will do so because our sense of time is purposely confused. Jesus has already shared the meal with the friends. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross. Jesus has already broken free from the tomb.
But tonight we both place ourselves in the time of Jesus and we witness to the fact that Jesus is still with us. We will gather at the table not just because that’s what Jesus did, but because it is what Jesus is still doing. And, we will engage in all of this in anticipation of when we will gather at Christ’s heavenly banquet with all who have come before, and all who will arrive long after we’re gone.
This is the place where time gets confused.
And that’s a good thing. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast we have three episodes for Holy Week and we begin with Maundy Thursday [C] (Exodus 12.1-14, Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, John 13.1-17, 31b-35). Teer Hardy was gracious enough to join me for two of the episodes. Our first conversation covers a range of topics including uncovered feet, Seculosity, doorposts, seeing one another through the cup, the inevitability of death, being stained with the blood, and the intimacy of worship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Stained