Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Letter v. the Spirit (Reflections on Pentecost 14)

I was recently talking to my nephew Adam, a high school senior in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was telling me about a lad in his study hall who is challenging the school administration on the grounds that his civil rights have been violated. It seems that Adam’s classmate took it upon himself to start a Christian Bible study group during his free period. About six or seven youngster would gather together for a quiet and respectful look at the scriptures. The students were courteous enough not to disturb the other study hall students. No shouted hallelujahs, no hymn singing, no exorcisms. Just a few kids talking softly about their shared faith.

Unfortunately—yeah, you guessed it..!—the school administration ordered the study to disband on the grounds that Bible study on public school property violated the historic separation of church and state. (Personally, I’m a little surprised at this as Colorado Springs is practically the Vatican for Evangelicals!) Adam’s friend is challenging this order, arguing that his Bible study took place during a free period, was not part of the school curriculum, and did not involve school employees. I wish the young man luck.

As much as it brings the barf up into my mouth to admit it, I actually do have to agree with Donald Trump on one point—political correctness has reached the level of the ridiculous in some cases. Madeline Murray O’Hare’s personal aversion to all things spiritual seems to have turned us into a nation of whiners who have forgotten that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. Somebody always has to make an issue out of something, and it looks like we just can’t get away from the risk of a tongue-lashing from the terminally touchy among us.

This brings me to our gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Fourteen (Mark: 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23—and aren’t you glad we’re finally out of John 6?!) The story opens with the scribes and the Pharisees giving Jesus a hard time because they don’t like the disciples’ table manners. These high muckety-mucks of religious authority are ticked off, claiming that the disciples’ not-ritually-washed hands are an affront to the Law of Moses and the tradition of the elders. This criticism gets Jesus’ back up, and the Lord lays into them by saying,

“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (v.8)

And ain’t that always the way? It is an unfortunate characteristic of our humanity that we will cling like a deer tick to the letter of the law while completely avoiding the spirit. Inexplicably, the RCL once again cuts out a key element in this story, verses 9-13 in which Jesus hurls the hypocrisy of his critics back into their smirking teeth. It appears that some of these good religiously observant and pious individuals have dedicated some of their wealth to God (This could be either an offering of livestock as in Leviticus 1:2 or a monetary offering given for a specific purpose as in Numbers 7:13). In and of itself, I’d say this is a pretty darn good thing; however, the Pharisees seem to think that this grand gesture exempted them from looking after their aging parents (an exemption which was specifically reversed in the Mishna after the time of Jesus). Jesus scolds these guys for using a pious motive to neglect a humanitarian imperative to serve the needy.

I’d say that we sinners are still prone to come up with pious reasons to serve our own selfishness. When it comes to making excuses for our prejudices, laziness, and greed, we’re all religious jailhouse lawyers.

Yes, I’d agree that it’s impious to wear cut-off jeans and sports jerseys to church, but it also misses the mark to judge other people by their clothing and forget to welcome them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is immoral to take the life of the unborn. It is equally immoral to subject the post-born to poverty, to deny them adequate shelter, or to refuse them access to healthcare.

It was certainly a sign of piety and respect to allow prayer and Bible reading in public schools, but it is an insult to God to underfund public education, overcrowd classrooms, and cancel school lunch programs.

It is a hallowed constitutional right to allow Americans to defend their lives and property with firearms, and yet it is an outrage to witness endless acts of gun violence without making some attempt to end it.

In this lesson we encounter Jesus as the judge of our actions and attitudes. We can observe all the religious and societal rules we want, but if our hearts aren’t motivated by God’s love, all our judgmental attitudes do is defile.

The challenge in this lesson, as always, is to cast ourselves in the role of the Pharisees and ask what nit-picking rules or platitudes are keeping us from being authentic disciples. What excuses are we making to judge others, withhold forgiveness, or inhibit justice and mercy? The gospel always compels us to look inside. But here’s the good news: we have the gospel, and through it, the judgment of Jesus brings us to repentance, changes our attitudes, and frees us from the bondage of our sins.

Thanks for stopping in, folks. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

To Whom Can We Go? (Reflections on Pentecost 13, Year B)

Wow. I had the best darn time this past week catching up with an old buddy of forty years’ duration—my pal Mike who was a friend from Lutheran Youth Group back in the 1970’s. He was in Philly on business from his job in LA so he took me and my wife to dinner. Although I hadn’t seen him in a quarter of a century, we picked up our friendship as if we’d never been apart. In fact, I’ve recently been in contact with a whole crowd of lost friends from that Lutheran community which nurtured me as a teenager. We are scattered all over the United States now, but the bond of “family,” the communion of saints, knotted through our Christian assembly is as strong as ever.

My dad, rest his soul, used to say that belonging to our church was the best thing ever to happen to our family. He and my mother, my sisters, and I all found our individual niches within that family. The friendships, the spiritual lessons, and the sacred practices are still part of my life forty years later, bringing my heart a smile as I write this.

In the gospel lesson for Pentecost 13, Year B (John 6: 56-69) Jesus asks his disciples if they wish to continue following him even though his teachings are hard to accept or understand at times. Peter replies, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (v. 68).

Indeed, this is the existential question: If I did not have faith in Christ—faith in sacrificial love, forgiveness, life-renewing spirituality, and the promise of the immortality of the soul—to whom or what else would I turn? What other tie or association would be as meaningful to me as that which meets me at the level of ultimate reality? Where else would I find the love which has connected me to so many people through all these years?

This week’s reading strikes me as being rooted in ecclesiology—the study of the church as the body of Christ. We start by doing a little review from last week with verses 56 through 58, those yucky references to eating flesh and drinking blood. I can’t help but think that this is an obvious allusion to the practice of Holy Communion, and I’m guessing that the evangelist is telling us those who are in the Church—who share an intimate relationship with Jesus and a family connection to each other through the sacrament—are the ones who are living in the knowledge of grace, forgiveness, and immortality.

From here John points out that Jesus is making this assertion in a synagogue (v. 59), a place where the scholars might find Jesus’ teaching hard to swallow (pun intended!). They say in verse 60, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” The word John uses which we translate as “difficult” is in Greek sklhros (scleros), from which we get the term “sclerotic,” which usually refers to a body part which has hardened with disease. It’s not a nice term, and could be translated as “hard to take” or “unacceptable.”

I guess if any of us had been Jewish scholars in the synagogue of John’s day we’d find this teaching of Jesus hard to take too. We certainly can’t take it literally, and if we were hung up on ritual purity, animal sacrifice, or strict obedience to the law we’d have a pretty rough time digesting simple faith in God’s love. Indeed, as John has Jesus remind us in verse 65, we need God’s help too ingest the love which gives itself away as sacrifice for others. As Martin Luther put it:

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…” (Small Catechism)

Face it: it’s pretty hard in this busy, dangerous, unpredictable, selfish, confusing, and sinful world to find the faith to abide in Jesus. Constantly to seek Christ in others and to strive to be Christ to others is a tough order. It’s hard enough to live in flesh and blood reality. No wonder the spirit so often escapes us.

There are those who just never try to wrestle with the relationship with Jesus. But where will they go? What will replace abiding in love, forgiveness, compassion, and the hope of eternal life in the spirit of God?

I kind of dig the fact that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have linked this gospel lesson with the lesson from the book of Joshua. Here is Joshua at the end of his time as judge and leader of the Hebrew people. He is filled with awe and gratitude for God’s blessings. He’s whooped all of Israel’s enemies, and now he calls the people together and issues a challenge:

“…choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24: 15b)

Peter and Joshua both challenge us on this day. To whom can we go and whom shall we serve if not the Lord? If our answer is “no one,” than we’d best embrace the nourishment of word and sacrament found in the church, renew our commitment to spiritual discipline, and live in the joy, gratitude, and blessed assurance of God’s love.

Glad you stopped by, brothers and sisters! 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Eating Jesus (Reflections on Pentecost Twelve, Year B)

I guess it’s time that we talk about the sacrament of Holy Communion. Either that, or we have to assume that the appointed reading from John’s gospel in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary (John 6:51-58) is referring to cannibalism.

In researching this week’s gospel, I took a look at the Catholic priest and former Temple University professor Gerard Sloyan’s commentary on John in the Interpretation bible series (John Knox Press, 1988). Professor Sloyan warns us about stampeding towards a sacramental understanding of verses 51-57 by reminding us that we really don’t know exactly what the heck the evangelist was thinking when he wrote these words. Nevertheless, the smart dudes of the Jesus Seminar (See The Five Gospels, McMillan Press, 1993) are pretty darn sure these verses are about the Sacrament of the Altar. Their commentary suggests that maybe these verses were added to the text of the Fourth Gospel in later editions, noting that the type of language used here occurs nowhere else in John and that John makes no reference to a new sacrament when he tells the story of the Last Supper in chapters 13 through 17. Of course, it’s also quite possible that John doesn’t mention the sacrament because everybody already knew about it by the time he got around to writing his gospel. Who knows?

(BTW: There’s a really cool explanation for the institution of the sacrament found in Bruce Chilton’s 2000 opus, Rabbi Jesus (Doubleday). I won’t go into it because I’ve already written about it three years ago in a post called “I Am the Bread of Life” which you can click on under “Popular Posts” on the right column of this blog. Chilton’s theory makes sense to me.)

For my own part, I’m pretty sure these verses are talking about our Christian sacrament, and I don’t think we can ever go too far wrong in re-examining what this ritual means and why we continue to do it week after week. Professor Sloyan says that this passage and the whole notion of Jesus as the Bread of Life suggests that we take Jesus as our nourishment. “This nourishment,” he writes,” is a strong and intimate faith in the person of Jesus.” Indeed, we are being pretty intimate when we touch and smell and taste our Lord’s person. When we come to the table in faith we are accepting in our hands and in our mouths the brutality of the cross. Here are the gushing wounds, the torn flesh, and the spilt blood. Here is the betrayal, the abandonment, the physical agony, the carrying of the burden, the exhaustion, the helplessness, the indignity, and the inescapable knowledge of death—all of the things which are part of our human existence whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. And we eat them—we take them all in. That which was Jesus’ body is also our own. He who was born of God is one with us, in us, and always part of us. Abiding with us.

But there is so much more. Not only do we receive Christ in and of ourselves, but we recognize the same hunger, the same weak, frailty in all those who kneel before the table with us. We all hurt. We all are inheritors of suffering and death. We all share a part in the callousness which permits the obscenity of human cruelty—that cruelty so vividly on display when we look to the cross of Jesus—to go on in this world. We all make our mistakes and feel the curse of unworthiness. We all hunger for the words, “Father, forgive them.”

The miracle comes when we take into ourselves the truth of our weakness and the love of Jesus who chose to share it with us. We are nourished, strengthened, and changed. But this change requires the meeting of Jesus’ promise of full, abundant, and eternal life, with our faithful “Amen!”

Some Sundays, when I preside at the altar, I feel a sense of awe at the mingling of pain and joy which gathers around the table. There are those whose secret pain I know. There are those who will not meet my eyes as I pronounce, “The body of Christ is broken for you.” There are those who look up at me and smile with the joyful “Amen.” It is at this moment that I feel love most profoundly, and I am humbled by this.

In my parish I have made the liturgical choice to receive the sacrament after all others have received. Unlike the Roman tradition in which the priest receives first so as to be in grace when he dispenses grace, I know the beauty and power of this eating and drinking has nothing to do with me. It is an intimacy between Jesus and those who receive him. In the spirit of John’s gospel, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, I feel I should be a good host and wait until I have served everyone else before partaking myself. It’s only polite.

There are few things in life more satisfying than a meal with loved ones. At Christ’s table, we are always well fed.

Thanks for dropping by, my friend. Join me for a meal this Sunday, won't you?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Breadcrumb From the Pope (Reflections on Pentecost 11 Year B)

White bread

“…anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37b)

On Wednesday Pope Francis made an alarming statement about divorced and re-married Catholics. The Pontiff said “People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way.” His Holiness stopped just short of saying that divorced and remarried Catholics would be permitted to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

Whew! I thought. That was a close one. Whenever Pope Francis makes a truly compassionate and Christ-like statement—which he seems perpetually in the habit of doing—I get worried. After all, if the Roman Church were ever to get its act together, what would be the point of being a Lutheran? I might be out of a job!

But, in all seriousness, the Pope’s remarks seem timely this week as I look at the third of our five consecutive “Bread of Life” gospel lessons from the sixth chapter of John. This week the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading starts with Jesus’ statement in verse 35, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It then jumps down to verse 41 where the “Jews” (read this, presumably, the Jewish religious leaders) get their shorts bunched up because Jesus has claimed to come down from heaven. Unfortunately, the RCL cuts verses 36 through 40 where Jesus actually makes that claim of heavenly origin. It also cuts verse 37 which I’ve quoted at the top of this essay—a radical statement from the early church about Jesus’ gracious inclusivity. Maybe Pope Francis was thinking about this when he made his announcement about divorced people. Jesus is not in the business of driving folks away if they come to him. And for good reason.

In verse 43 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” This seems to me to echo an earlier statement of belief from Saint Paul who wrote, “…no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3b) Both of these statements can be a bit uncomfortable if your favorite hobby is narrowly defining who is or is not a brother or sister in Christ.

In the gospel story, the Jewish leaders can’t accept Jesus’ statement that he has come from God. They know his mom and dad, and they know he came from Nazareth and not heaven. They don’t seem to be too open to the idea that the compassion, wisdom, healing, and atoning forgiveness of the Creator God could ever be present in this dirty peasant teacher from up in the sticks. Neither do they warm to his calling himself the “bread that come down from heaven.” This bread, as they understand it, can only be the providence God gave their ancestors in the wilderness in the time of Moses. And why did God give this bread..? Because, obviously, God likes people like them better than God likes anyone else.

But the true Bread of Life transcends time and culture and our petty taxonomy and our limited understanding. This bread feeds all who come with the hunger for it, understanding that the very hunger itself comes from God.

God bless you, my hungry friends. You can hear Pope Francis' statement by clicking on his name.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Saint of the Month: Dr. Karoline Lewis (Reflections on Pentecost 10)

Image result for dr karoline lewis

I don’t know Dr. Karoline Lewis personally, but I must say I really appreciate her ministry—even though she shames me as often as she inspires me. The Reverend Dr. Lewis is a professor of homiletics (that means preaching in “church speak”) at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is also a regular contributor to the “Working Preacher” website, one of the sites where I go to borrow ideas for my Sunday sermons.

What I appreciate about Dr. Lewis’ approach to preaching is her insistence that the gospel text itself will always provide all the relevance needed to feed the hearts of those in the Christian assembly and prepare them for the further adventure of being human beings living in Christ. Whenever I get the urge to indulge my show-biz vanity and adorn my sermons with pithy anecdotes or rely on my celebrated skills as a raconteur, I suddenly get a mental image of this brilliant red-haired academic lady wagging a scolding finger at me and saying, “Cut the crap, Owen, and give the people the gospel!”

There is a saying that if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change. Dr. Lewis has made me change the way I look at what I have heretofore considered the punishment inflicted on preachers by the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary—those five consecutive weeks in Year B dealing with Jesus as the “Bread of Life.” I used to think, “Okay. Just how much can you say about bread?” I also considered these lessons, coming as they do in the height of summer, provided a good excuse to go on vacation and let someone else preach on bread. But Karoline Lewis, in a very thoughtful “Working Preacher” post, has suggested that just maybe the compilers of the RCL actually knew what they were doing when they stuck us in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel for five weeks. Maybe we should really take some extended time to absorb this message.

Just what the heck does “Bread of Life” actually mean, anyway? For Martin Luther, in his explanation to the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “bread” is “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” (Small Catechism)

So, okay, Dr. Luther. I’ll accept this symbolism and think of Jesus as the necessity and nourishment of my existence. This would mean that I can’t get along without Christ any more than I can exist without the other good things catalogued here. I guess it’s up to me to cultivate a correct and respectful attitude about this “bread” which, clearly, the characters in our gospel lesson don’t have. I may not know how to relate to Jesus as the bread of life, but the gospel points out how not to do it.

I get a kick out of the way John tells this story (vv.26-7). The crowd pestering Jesus greets him with a smarmy and disingenuous, “Rabbi! When did you come here?” when they knew all the time that Jesus was on his way and they were lying in wait for him to hit him up for more goodies. Jesus calls them on their B.S. right away. Maybe he’s also calling us on ours too, you think?

Do we want Jesus—or find him necessary—only when we feel we are deprived and wanting? Is he our counselor for our time of trouble and not our guide in peace and prosperity? Is he only as good as the last favor we attribute to him? (v. 30)

To the credit of the crowd in our story, they do ask Jesus how they can perform the works of God (v. 28), but we are a little suspicious of their motives. Is this a genuine desire for a relationship with God or a superstitious plea for prosperity? Do they believe discipleship is the key to earthly success, like some happy-clappy TV evangelist who promises, “Follow Jesus and you’ll be as stinkin’ rich as I am?”

No. There has to be more than this. This “bread” is what gives our life meaning and identity. It is necessity and nourishment. It is daily living, breathing, eating, drinking, waking, and sleeping belief in God’s presence, love, and grace. It is seeking Christ in every circumstance and being fed by the search with the peace that passes our understanding.

So thank you, Dr. Lewis, for changing my attitude and asking me to take a deeper and less jaundiced look at these gospel lessons. I may not be able to glean everything out of them (or even the most obvious messages), but I welcome the challenge.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Hey! Check out Dr. Lewis’ post on preaching this series by clicking here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Grace, Abundance, and a Little Bit of Fear (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year B)

The gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Nine (John 6:1-21) is familiar to most of us, I would think, from back in Sunday School days. Still, I’m going to try to see if I can squeeze a little more juice out of it than just an obvious reading of, “Oh, yeah. Right. Jesus performs miracles because he’s the Son of God.” I can’t pretend to get into the evangelist John’s head and tell you exactly what he was thinking when he wrote this tale down, but I’m finding that it speaks pretty loudly to me when I think about our needy world.

The first cool thing I notice about this story is that Jesus seems to anticipate the need before anyone else does. He and the disciples have gone to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and, being the rock star that he is, he is once again mobbed by hysterical fans who want to see him cure their sick, work some miracles, and teach them some cool stuff. But before anyone else mentions it, Jesus picks up on the fact that these folks are going to need to be fed (v.5). It looks like the Second Person of the Holy Trinity understands our need before we understand it ourselves. So what does he do? He asks his faithful follower Philip to tell him how the need should be met. Think about that. Isn’t God always asking his faithful followers—that would be us—that same question? How are we going to care for the needy?

The passage says that Jesus asks Philip as a test, because he already knows the answer himself (v.6). Poor Phil, however, doesn’t score too high on this oral quiz. Granted, he’s known that God gave Moses manna in the wilderness, that Elijah miraculously kept the widow’s pantry full even in time of famine, and that Elisha stretched out twenty loaves of barley to feed 100 people. But in spite of this history of God’s goodness, Philip still doubts that God’s creatures can be fed. At least, he doesn’t believe that he has the wherewithal to provide for them. His buddy Andrew points out that some smart lad in the crowd has packed a lunch, but he’s sure that such meagre resources can’t stretch to cover the overwhelming hunger. Isn’t that just like us?

But Jesus takes what’s on hand and gives thanks to God for it (v.11). This action cuts through the anxiety and insecurity. Jesus isn’t complaining about scarcity, but giving praise for blessing. A faithful relationship with the Creator God requires no less. Just imagine: the crappiest day you’ll ever have in your life will still be filled with more blessings than you can name. That day you drive home from work pounding the steering wheel in frustration because of the idiots you work with might be the day you recognize that you still have a steering wheel to pound, a home to go to, and a job where you encountered those idiots. Faith teaches that God’s love is abundant, and our lesson illustrates this by saying that all were satisfied, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers (v.13).

Unfortunately, God’s abundant grace is a concept which seems to be lost on the crowd in this story. Yup, they figure out that Jesus is a prophet, but they also start to see him as their meal ticket. Jesus doesn’t want to be their earthly king (v.15) who pays off like their personal ATM machine every time they think they need something. He sees these folks acting like entitled brats who think they’ve hit the lottery. They’re like prospectors who’ve found a vein of gold and think they deserve its riches just because they’ve discovered it, forgetting it has been formed by God and lain in the earth for millions of years before they ever came along. They don’t deserve to be fed—the beauty of the story is that they are fed out of God’s goodness even though they are undeserving. Jesus is no king in their way of thinking, so he makes himself scarce in a hurry.

The second part of this story has the twelve disciples heading home in their boat without Jesus. I’m going to look at this tale allegorically, and say that the rough sea of verse 18 is the ancient world’s symbol for chaos. In the swirling torrent of the world’s mess, the disciples see Jesus walking toward them, and they’re scared out of their freaking minds (v. 19). It’s only when they really recognize him that they want to take him into the boat, and as soon as they have that desire—it doesn’t even say that Jesus got into the boat, just that they wanted to take him in —they are safely home (v. 21).

Like the disciples in the story, we are always adrift in a storm of the world’s chaos. We see needs which seem too great to satisfy, and so we are frightened, preoccupied with scarcity, and curved in on our own abilities and resources. We fear the real discipleship relation with Jesus. It might cost us. It might make us lose our groove. It might bring ridicule or offend people we know. It might actually require sacrifice on our part. It might cause us to risk resources we don’t think we can spare or face challenges we believe to be too huge. But once we really recognize Jesus in our lives and recognize our need for him, recognize his love, forgiveness, sacrifice, gratitude, and the peace which comes from understanding our life is eternal and our problems temporary, we will want him in our lives. And just maybe, in the wanting, we will come home to ourselves at last.

Glad you stopped by this week. God bless you.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Healing on the Fringe (Reflections on Pentecost 8, Year B)

I have a young friend named Michaela who, in addition to being one of the coolest teenagers you’ll ever meet, happens to be a wicked tap-dancer. She goes to a fine arts/performing arts magnet high school around the corner from our church. This past spring I ditched the evening session of my Synod Assembly (Sorry, Bishop!) and snuck out to enjoy watching Michaela and her dancing classmates in their year-end recital. Michaela had a tap/jazz solo, and, I gotta tell you, I was pretty proud of the kid. In fact, I really enjoyed the heck out of the whole concert.  

I was little surprised, however, by the rowdiness of the audience. It’s not that they weren’t appreciative, but they just seemed a lot louder and more demonstrative than I remember high school audiences being in my day. They seemed like they were watching a football game, not an indoor theater performance. (Maybe we were just as obnoxious in my day, but somehow I don’t remember it like that.)

I mentioned my impression of the audience behavior to Michaela after the concert. “Yeah,” she said, “they were pretty rude. Especially the parents. They kept calling our names and it made it kinda hard for us to concentrate on stage.”

The parents..? You mean the adults? The GROWN-UPS..??!!

You would think—wouldn’t you?—that adults would know how to behave themselves in a theater around other concert-goers. You would think that they knew the rules of civility and that they would have respect for the performers and the other audience members. You might even think that they had a responsibility to model correct decorum for their children. You would think that, right? But you’d be wrong.

This Gen X generation of parents does not seem to have the same code of courtesy with which your Old Religious Guy was raised. How can they, unless someone teaches it to them?

In the Gospel lesson for the Eighth Sunday of Pentecost (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56) Jesus is dealing with a pretty rowdy public. Here he is, trying to take his buddies away on a little weekend boating trip so they can relax after the hard work of preaching the gospel and casting out demons, and this rude swarm of needy people won’t leave him alone. Obviously this gang has no respect for boundaries or Jesus’ personal time (Pastors will understand this!). But Jesus—being Jesus—doesn’t scold them or shoo them away. Instead, the scripture tells us, he has compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd (v.34). But he does not immediately begin to lay hands on them and cure their illnesses. Rather, he begins to teach them.

I think this is key. Healing is not just the absence of disease or injury. It has to include the renewing of the mind too. How can these hungry, sick, needy people know what wholeness is unless someone teaches them?

The only assumption we can make in a hungry and broken world is that people will be hungry and broken. We can’t assume anyone knows what it means to be a Christian. We have a responsibility to talk about our faith, to learn and relearn it, and to be teachers. Faith, Saint Paul tells us, comes from what is heard (Romans 10:17).

(Quick note: You may have noticed a big gap in the continuity of this week’s gospel pericope. The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have cut out verses 35-52 which is the story of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water. They’ll give us the feeding story next week and then link it to four more weeks about Jesus being the Bread of Life. I don’t know who the compilers are, but they will have to answer for this on the Day of Judgment!)

There’s a detail I really dig in verses 53-56. This part of our lesson, I would think, is about faith and hope, but I also see it as an image of our human longing and the abundance of grace found in the smallest details of our faith journey. The people again swarm Jesus, and are hungry for the healing he can give them. Even touching just the fringe of his cloak (v.56) brings them to wholeness. I like this. It says to me sometimes just the tiniest touch can abound with blessings.

Can I share a little confession? When I was a senior in seminary, I liked to sleep in on Sunday mornings. I knew I should honor the Sabbath, but seniors were not required to do field education, so, unless I was engaged to be a guest preacher somewhere, I just shut off the alarm clock on Sundays. After all, I rationalized, I had been to chapel and compline every stinkin’ day of the week. Being a single guy, I could go out clubbing on Saturday night and dance ‘til the proverbial bovines returned without having to worry about church the next day. Also, the Sunday services at our chapel really sucked. The congregation which used our chapel on Sundays was uncomfortably dysfunctional, and the interim pastor was a nightmare. She was a manuscript preacher who had no ear for liturgy, read in a monotone, and seemed to be working out her own personal issues through her excruciatingly dull sermons. So I’d stay in bed and plan to watch those Sunday morning news shows pastors never get to watch.

Until about 10:30. Then my conscience would get the better of me, I’d drag myself up, shave, put on a clean shirt, and go to church. I’d sit in the pew criticizing in my mind just about everything. Yet, somehow, something in that morning would touch me. I would, metaphorically speaking, brush against the outer garment of Jesus and realize my own hunger for the sacred. There would be a word in the lesson, a hymn, the taste of the Holy Supper, or even something profound which miraculously escaped the lips of that impossibly bad preacher which fed me with the morsel I didn’t even know I was hungry for. I always left the service glad I had gone.

A little bit of Jesus can go a very long way. There is a, as a seminary classmate of mine liked to say, a God-shaped hole in each of us. But it takes only a small brush with grace to fill it.

Thank you again for reading, my friend. May you be the fringe of Jesus’ cloak to someone this coming week—or may that fringe touch you.