Mother Ann’s sermon preached on Aug. 8, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Aug 8, 2021 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

Our Great Advantage

The 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Aug. 8, 2021

Jesus was a controversial figure during his lifetime.  Consider today’s Gospel, in which he boldly introduces himself as “living bread that came down from heaven…for the life of the world.” That stunning promise drew in many listeners.  But not everyone.  Skeptics on the scene wrote him off as merely “Jesus…son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know.”  They treated him as nobody special.   At the time, no one could say for sure which response to Jesus was the right one…the disciples’ awe, or the scoffers’ disinterest. 

Looking back on this reading today, you and I take the awe for granted.   We have read forward to the end of John’s Gospel.  We know all about the empty tomb and the angels and the ascension into heaven. Through the centuries we have seen how Christ’s words have proven life-giving and true, while those of his detractors have turned out to be deadly.  Hindsight has made all of this quite clear.  

Or has it?  You and I never get to live our own daily lives with this kind of hindsight.  Events just keep coming at us and carrying us along, and our final grasp on what’s happening only arrives after the fact, as we see how things play out.  In the meantime we find ourselves facing many of the same challenges that Jesus’ first listeners did.  Like them, in the moment, we are hard pressed to be sure as to God’s whereabouts among the people and circumstances all around us.

We humans are shortsighted, and so we limit our expectations.  When subtly unsettling events hint at God’ involvement, we are tempted to shake the feeling off, or else write it off to common sense causes. Who knows? Maybe it was just last Sunday’s sermon playing mind games with us.  At other times we face some deeply destabilizing encounter that seems totally surreal; we reject it even more quickly as something too astonishing to be believed.  Our defenses throw up a wall.  

Perhaps you’ve heard about a contemporary movement called “cancel culture,” in which one group of people tries to eliminate all traces of some other group’s existence. Like so much of public interaction today, this defense mechanism has been highly politicized.  But 2021 did not invent it. Behind the reaction lie millennia of human pushback against whatever challenges our status quo.  We find this kind of snub in today’s Gospel, as Jesus openly discloses that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, and listeners put him down as Joe and Mary’s kid.  This very human impulse to cancel out whatever unsettles us keeps our eyes riveted on business as usual, and we miss God’s movement through our days.

Fortunately we get some help with noticing God’s presence in our reading from Ephesians.  These early Christian leaders intended their advice to circulate far and wide, and encourage Christians everywhere to grow into the sort of believers whose response made Christ real to others.  Their practical witness to Jesus would become a living lesson on his ministry and mission, and bring his teaching to life.  Therefore: certainly Christians flirted with lying like anybody else, but for Christ’s sake they struggled to tell the truth.  Yes, Christians could get angry, but for Christ’s sake they didn’t nurse their anger into self-righteous rage.  Of course Christians had objections to what some other people did, but they focused on building those other people up, by drawing nearer and showing respect.  As often as they could manage it, Christians upheld their baptismal covenant by seeking and serving Christ in others. 

Like everyone around them they knew plenty of ways to cancel out people who rubbed them the wrong way; but as Christians they did their best to do better.  They had this one great advantage: every Sunday they gathered to eat the living bread that had come down from heaven, and so Monday through Saturday it showed. It’s no surprise to find this ancient wisdom embodied in St Michael’s mission statement today, “Illuminating the light of Christ on the Eastside.” That’s how God’s Kingdom works.

Now I hear some people talk about themselves as being spiritual but not religious.  When asked to say more they usually mention seeing no point in organized religion, as if worshipping God could ever proceed as a solo, self-help endeavor. The reality is that people who go it alone have no good way of answering the question about the right reaction to Jesus, whether it should be awe, or indifference, or anything else. Having stepped back from the Church, they have stepped away from the kinds of encouragement and example that open human ears, stir our very souls, and cause us to grow in faith. It is only by living out this quest together, bearing one another’s burdens, rejoicing over one another’s joys, strengthening one another’s weaknesses, and praying for one another as we pray for ourselves, it is only by living out this quest together that we grow together in Christ.  We spend a lifetime relishing these moments of stirring encounter, until that day when Jesus of Nazareth comes knocking at our door, and we know for sure it’s not just Joe and Mary’s son.  Amen.

© 2021 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.