See.

Mark 10:46-52

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

When I was a kid, we used to take trips to Mammoth Cave in KY.   I remember a couple of the tours of the cave.  It was always fun to see the stalagtites and stalagmites coming from the floor and ceiling.  Of course, on every tour, at some point in the cave, the tour guide would have everyone stand in the center of a large cavern, and then turn off the lights.  Of course, it was disorienting, you couldn’t see a thing!  Not even your hand being put right in front of you.  

Years later, I would go spelunking, or cave exploring, in a few small caves.  Friends of mine would crawl through some places and we’d have headlamps.  If those headlamps went dead or we broke them, we had the benefit of having back-up lights or are friends to help us out.

Our main character in our gospel lesson this morning knows what its like to not be able to see in the dark.  Bartimaeus, or Bart, is a blind beggar.  In 1st century culture, if you are blind, you don’t have many options.  You are pushed aside, not useful to society, not productive, and forced to make a living by begging, by leading on the hospitality of others.

Now, Bartimaeus has a name, has an identity.  He’s the son of Timaeus.  He has had relationships, he is a part of a family.  But, his blindness has left him isolated, alone, left out.  Could you imagine the hurt that he felt, the desperation.  

We know from this passage that he hasn’t been blind all of his life, maybe he remembers what it’s like to see things or to experience the love of a family.  But, now he’s left to beg, without much of a future and no friends.  

When I was in a cave with family as a child or with friends later, I wasn’t alone in the dark.  I had others around me that I could lean in on.  Bartimeaus doesn’t have that luxury.

Put yourself in Bart’s shoes.

When Jesus comes walking down the road, leaving Jericho, surrounded by a large crowd.  Bartimaeus senses the excitement of the crowd, when he hears its Jesus, he shouts out, have mercy on me Son of David!  He’s using Son of David in order to get Jesus to notice that he’s connected to him, to show him mercy.  I have to admit, I respect Bart!  He had some moxie, he was desperate, but he was also filled with hope one last time.  

Well, the disciples have places to go, they don’t have time for this guy, they try to get him to quiet down, they cannot imagine that this moment is filled with meaning and drama, they are not thinking of possibilities, only convenience, the next meeting, and not wanting to be bothered…but Jesus hears him.  He calls Bart to him and asks, what do you want me to do?  Bart springs up, comes to him and says, my teacher, again an address of honor, help me to see again.  Jesus says that his faith has made him whole, that he is healed.  

His sight returns, and, he follows Jesus.

Friends, as I read the gospel lesson this week, I’m not sure who the blind persons were in this story.   Sure, Bart was physically blind, but the disciples had eyes to see, yet they couldn’t see the possibility of the moment.  They were with Jesus, identified with Jesus, but they were focused on their agenda and not the person right in front of them.  Maybe they were wowed by the large crowds and felt like the numbers were more important than the folks right in front of them, they looked to the crowds and not to the persons.

Folks in this story could not “see” one another!  Yet, Jesus saw them and saw the blind man…really saw them…and that enabled the blind man to not only have his physical sight, but to “see” Jesus.  Isn’t it a gift when we can be present with someone and they see us, they don’t see things on the surface, but the real in us!  What a gift!

It’s also interesting to note that this man was spontaneous, he didn’t overthink the moment, he seized it.  In comparison, the disciples were filled with fear, silence, hesitation, opposition…they were contrarians to the man’s faithfulness.  

Friends, this is the kind of faith that God is calling us towards, the faith of Bartimaeus.  We are called to be in the moment, to seize it.  We have opportunities in our lives, daily, to live in hope and expectation.  God wants to deliver us out of the darkness and into the light.  Darkness, for a season, is a good thing…it may give us rest, perspective, and growth.  When seeds are planted in the ground, it is dark…with nourishment from the soil, water, etc. those seeds push through the resistance, grow strong and move towards the sun, towards light, which also gives growth to blossom.  God wants to restore our relationships, to restore our sense of community, to restore us…to blossom and be all that we were intended to be…  God wants us to “see” ourselves, to “see” others, and to know that God always sees us, the real us, and loves us!

And, God’s called us to notice the blind beggars, or those in our pews and in our neighborhoods that we often look over.  

It seems as a church, that we also are like the disciples in that we get caught up in crowds and numbers, or trying to get somewhere, that we miss the moment right in front of us.  Folks are literally jumping in front of us, asking for mercy!  We sometimes have folks come by the church looking for help, we have friends of Fleming Road UCC calling us to see if we can participate in something.  Friends, we have eyes to see, but do we have real sight, can we see God’s work in our midst?  

Thankfully, we are not alone, we have friends around us to help us, we do not have to be fearful or hesitant, we can live faithfully in exuberance with a God who is calling us to be the new parish that can bring hope and healing to our neighborhood.  

May it be so.

Rich.

Mark 10:17-31

The Rich Man

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

 As a kid, I wanted to do the right thing.  I found out early that if I say the right things, live the right way, do the right things, then I’d have some approval.  

That’s how I lived life pretty much.  I was a good kid.  

I was also raised in the church, so I thought that doing the right things and believing the right ways, pleased God.  

However, I also wanted to find a way to express myself, to gain the attention of others.  So, I grew my hair long, and played bagpipes.  But, still, did the things that I thought I should.  I kept the commandments so to speak.

My senior year, things started to fall apart inside of me…and outside of me.  I began to have deeper questions about life, relationships.  It came to a head on a Campus Life ski weekend.  I took a risk, shared with my adult leaders that I was struggling, I did all the right things but still felt lonely.  I was asking, in essence, what could I do to enter the kindgom of God, to be in God’s Presence, to feel God’s favor…because, I was doing the stuff, but not feeling approval.

My club leaders began to share with me that it was more about relationship.  That God’s Presence was there, but it couldn’t be earned, just lived in.  That relationship was filled with grace and love, that love and grace eventually began to have a transformative effect on me as I grew in my awareness of God’s Presence.  It also pulled me towards a calling to be and do who I am and what I do.  

Our gospel lesson this morning is similar.  The rich young ruler came to Jesus, asking what to do to enter the Kingdom of God.  He first calls Jesus “good”.  Jesus pushes back, and says why call me Good, only God is good…in essence, saying that goodness is about God and we live in that goodness.  

Jesus goes on to say, obey the commandments.  The young rich ruler, says that he has, since his youth.  Jesus looks at him with love the scripture says.  He loved this kid, not because of what he had done, but simply because of him being him.  Plus, the kid was honest.  Jesus then says that he lacks one thing, sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow him.  A disciple could not have the distractions of patronage and financial obligations that came with being a man of wealth, they needed to be willing to be committed and setting aside all of the trappings of status and self importance.  Even though this young ruler was pious and devout, he was unwilling to surrender and allow God’s love to run its course in his life.

This was hard…it’s really hard to give up anything that we hold on to that we draw our identity from, wealth, our roles that we play, the persons that we project to be to others.  Yet, Jesus is telling him that true wealth, true identity, is measured by how well we love others and experience God through relationships, especially with those on the margins, those that are seeking community, yet have been left out.  

The rich young ruler leaves Jesus heartbroken, he can’t let go of what he has or who has become or perceives himself to be…the disciples are perplexed, they don’t know what to say, they focus on the material wealth and ask more questions.  Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than to get into heaven.  It’s often said that Jesus is referring to merchants coming to a city gate at night.  They can’t get into a walled city then because the gates are closed, but there are smaller doors that the can get into called the “eye of the needle”.  They have to take everything off the camel, all of their goods, in order to enter.  Most scholars would say that’s not the case at all, Jesus is literally talking about a life size camel and a real needle.  It’s impossible.  

In essence, we can’t take “stuff” with us, material stuff or the personal baggage of image that we’ve created….and image that does not remind us that we are made in the image of God…  We have to be willing to share our material stuff as well as our personal lives with others…in essence, to be willing to not hold on to stuff, to give it away, as well as to not hold on too tightly the realities that we’ve created, but to be willing to give ourselves away, to let God’s love probe deeper into our lives, and to be shaped by that love.  

When the disciples still question and ask, how can anyone get into God’s Presence, into heaven?  Jesus says that with God all things are possible.  What seems impossible with all that we know and understand, with God, there is possibility.  God wants to spark our imagination, give us hope, but it takes a commitment and a desire from us to risk everything.  

I believe that Jesus was telling this young man, just like my club leaders told me 37 years ago, let go of my desire to seek God’s approval by things that I have or do, but to know that I have God’s approval already, that God looks at me like Jesus does to the rich young ruler, with love.  My response is hopefully not to shy away, but to rise to the invitation to enter into trusting God with all that I have and to imagine the possibilities that God can open within me and outside of me.  

The disciples state that they’ve left everything to follow you Jesus.  Jesus responds that they will be rewarded with even more relationships and with eternal life…which starts now.

Friends, I find this to be so true.  Last weekend in Atlanta, and this week here in Cincinnati, I was blessed beyond measure with conversations, surprising, unplanned conversations with friends in Atlanta, the community and with friends here in the church.  I am blessed, you are blessed.  We have relationships!  Are we willing to walk into God’s vision for us as a church, as a community, and away from our visions of what church should be?  If we are willing, if we give up all to follow Jesus’ way of love and relationship with others and with those on the margins, then we will experience God’s Presence, God’s kingdom in even more beautiful ways! 

Salt.

Mark 9:38-50 

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someonecasting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.  50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

As I was thinking about this conversation around our lectionary reading today, my friend Bruce Baker came to mind. Bruce, or “Bake” as we called him, was the executive director of student ministry non-profit in Lexington many years ago. It was a ministry that I was involved with in high school, it had a huge impact on my life. The relationships that I formed with other students and with the adult leaders of this group helped to shape me in many ways growing up in Louisville. 

When I got to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, I was thrilled to learn that this group was starting up in Lexington and I met Bake. Bake and I began a great friendship and a working partnership that established this group in Lexington and its still going strong 28 years later.

I thought of Bake because of the title of today’s sermon: “Salty”. Bake was very salty! He was one of those persons that everyone simply loved to be around, he was the go-to guy in Lexington for faith leaders. At the time, he was in his late forties and really was an established presence in the Lexington community. He was everyone’s friend, yet also not afraid to mix things up a bit. 

He was the one who introduced me to the writings of Thomas Merton, the Abbey of Gethesamani and the importance of Sabbath retreats and rest, and he was a Presbyterian Elder that greatly influenced me in my decision to become Presbyterian! 

Bake was also not afraid. He would joke about his willingness to do anything for a dollar. Which he backed up, repeatedly. There were numerous occasions where some of the young folks at the time would dare Bake to do something incredibly outlandish, and to our astonishment, he’d do it. For instance, the time we dared him to climb the water wheel while in line for the Beast roller coaster. And, in front of hundreds of folks, he did. 

But, there were also many times where Bake would go more than the extra mile to support us and to reach out to kids in the projects of Lexington, as well as the wealthy kids in the suburbs that were so lonely. His example pushed me in so many ways. 

Bake would also work with anyone willing to love our community and kids. He modeled what it was like to bring different denominations together and faith communities for the common good. Plus, he was committed to Lexington. He had many of what I’d call the celebrity Christian leaders at the time, both conservative folks and progressive folks try to get him to come and work with them. Oftentimes for higher, guaranteed pay and a higher platform. Bake would have none of that, he may have been tempted, but he valued the relationships he had in Lexington too much. 

Bake modeled so much of what our gospel lessons are sharing. The disciples were trying to get Jesus to recognize how special they were when they tried to stop others from driving out demons. They wanted to be exclusive, in their own identity as disciples. Yet, Jesus shatters that image by saying that whoever is not against us for us, that we can’t be so prideful to think we can do this on our own, that we have to recognize that if someone offers to help us, or to give us a gift to refresh us that could encourage us, we should take it. 

Bake got that and didn’t position Campus Life to be a siloed ministry. He worked with everyone. That sometimes didn’t help our “brand identity”, but it did help bring the community together. 

Bake had a way of focusing on the main thing: Jesus and Jesus’ love for others. I found this quote from an intentional Celtic community that highlights this way of living that fits well with our conversation this morning: 

“We can do worse than remember a principle which gives us a firm rock and leaves the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle ‘Hold to Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted’” – Herbert Butterfield 

Another example of this here in Springfield Township are all of the faith communities starting to work together, the conversations that have been started. They have all reached out to me since I’ve been here with offers and desires to partner with us and to encourage Fleming Road UCC. Connect Day was a great example. 

It’s also interesting to think about Bake and his calling to teenagers in relation to this morning’s text. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Jesus tells us to welcome all, especially those on the margins of society, those who are overlooked or looked down upon. Children in the 1st century we’re considered non-persons. Jesus is giving them recognition and this week’s text he continues with hard language about welcoming children and not causing them to stumble. 

With a background in in youth ministry, I thought of this passage often…I did not want to cause anyone to stumble! But, this passage also says a lot about taking risks. It’s about being vulnerable and entering into friendships with those considered on the outside. The saying in this passage about cutting of your foot or gouging out an eye comes from a common saying in the first century, however, the original proverb said to cut out both eyes or hands! This is an attempt to say that it’s better to lose a part of you than all of who you are, and if you are not reaching out and loving those on the margins well, then you are missing the mark, you are sinning. And, again, as we talked about, sin is relational…it’s not only present in what you do or are, but what you do not do and who you are not. 

Who you are is a wonderful human made in God’s image called to live and love as Christ did and does…to be the body of Christ. The opposite of that is to deny God’s presence and working in your life, which leads to a sense of loss of identity, or hell. 

Hell may or may not be real, but it’s an alternate reality. God never intended for there to be a hell, and the ways we tend to think of hell aren’t really expressed in Scripture…some would even say that hell is not a part of the scriptural canon… The true reality that God intended is heaven. Heaven is being in God’s Presence. That Presence is expansive, wide, and we can catch glimpses of it everywhere when are eyes are opened to that reality. CS Lewis talks about heaven in his classic fictional book The Great Divorce as being a place of endless wonder and hell being a small crack in heaven. Yet, we, humanity make that crack so much bigger as we settle for lives filled with dysfunction and lies about our true selves as God sees us. So often we live in a place of darkness or hell. God’s love is amazing, it is so amazing that it is overwhelming and to some that’s wonderful, but to others that can be really scary. 

Donald Bloesch in his book The Last Things says this: “…hell is being exposed to the light that redeems even when darkness is much preferred. Hell is the incapacity to love even in the presence of love.” You see, the problem is not does God forgives us or love us, but can we forgive and love ourselves and others? We want to hide from God and his love for us behind our insecurities, our comfort, our wealth, our pride…whatever it is that we are holding on to that somehow gives us some false sense of security. We often do not want to be exposed to the light of God’s love that exposes everything for what it truly is, so we often prefer to live in darkness. pastedGraphic.png pastedGraphic_1.png 

Jesus says that we will be salted with fire in this morning’s passage. It’s interesting, fire burns and it warms. It can bring life or turn it to ashes. Either way, it consumes us. The fire of Jesus’ love does consume us, but it brings us life. I want to be that person. 

My friend Bake, and many others over the years, have been that salt in my life. We can be that way with each other, and with the world around us. May we sprinkle that salt to all we encounter…including ourselves! 

Welcome.

Mark 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I’m a runner.  Most of you know that, and I struggled this week on whether I should use a running metaphor today, but this applies.  My image as a runner is important to me.  I also like to run fast.  I’m 53 years old, yet, I can run farther and faster now than I ever could…even with some minor aches and pains this past year.  Sometimes, I have this image of myself really training hard in hard and winning my age division at the Boston Marathon or something similar.  I don’t want to settle for being a good runner, I want to be a great runner.

I also imagined the same thing for the cross country team I coach.  I want them to go all the way to State every year.  Never happened as a team, but we did some individual runners to state and our girls team made regionals in a magical year.  

Yet, here’s the thing, running is a sport where you can’t hide.  All runners experience something similar, we are constantly humbled.  Most runners imagine winning, coming in first…but, obviously, that doesn’t happen all the time! 

In this sport, the only way you get better is by running daily, running workouts that make you suffer and experience some pain…not to the point of injury, but pain nonetheless.  It’s hard.  Yet, something emerges within, you begin to appreciate others, you experience a shared deep connection with other runners as you put yourself out there.  

You are also vulnerable after a race, extremely vulnerable.  After running the Boston Marathon in 2016 and being extremely humbled as I ran it injured and it only got worst.  When I crossed the line, I only wanted to call my daughter who I knew would understand as a runner…I cried when I started talking to her, and I don’t really cry that often.  

As a coach, I also have to remember that my words to my runners after a race have to be honest, authentic, and also encouraging.  Especially to my own kids ran for our team!

Many of those words after a race are themes that I’ve repeated often, yet so many times they are simply not heard, yet, after a race, after the suffering, they often are heard in a way that is much more meaningful and they are received in a way that is almost very innocent and pure.  Plus, honestly, I had some cred with these kids because they knew that I’m willing to suffer in races as well, they know that I know what they are experiencing, and that I was with them.

Running can be a great parallel to life, and to this morning’s gospel lesson.  

Jesus has been with his disciples, he wanted to simply teach his disciples something meaningful, so he went through Galilee in secret as it says.  He was teaching them that he would suffer, die, and be raised from the dead.  This was hard for them to hear and understand, but he kept on saying it, teaching it.  It was important to Jesus because he was called into this world as the representation of all humanity.  He was not only telling the disciples that he would suffer, die, and rise again, but that they would be participating in that suffering, death, and resurrection through him.  

The disciples were probably keenly interested in the new life part, the resurrection part, but in order to experience that resurrection, before we can truly understand what it means to live life as God intended, we have to experience suffering, we have to die.  This isn’t a cruel  joke on God’s part, it’s a reality that we, as created beings, don’t always see or experience life as beautiful as it was meant to be.  We have to go through experiences in life that push to ask some of the hard questions.

Yet, the disciples, like us, were not interested in the harder questions, they were asking the question:  which one of us is greater?  What is our image to God?  Where will we stand with God at the end of time?  What’s our status?

In the midst of those conversations, it seems like the disciples were focused on the resurrection part.  Which I get, don’t we all want to run to the ending of a story, we want to feel good and triumphant.  The passage even says that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant.  Could that have been because they were afraid to confront the hard realities of suffering, of pain?  

So, they escape by arguing about who’s going to be greatest.  Or try to hide.  But, they are missing the mark and Jesus would not let them hide.  Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they grew silent.  They knew that Jesus had caught them in a “sin”.  We don’t talk much about the word “sin”, but it is an archery term actually, it means missing the mark.  When you don’t hit the bullseye with an arrow.  

It in this context, sin is a relational term.  The disciples were missing the mark, they were focused on themselves, avoiding the hard questions, being distracted, rather than lifting each other up and loving well.

What does Jesus do?  Well, he doesn’t send down thunder on them, he doesn’t condemn them.  He does the opposite, he treats them with respect and simply calls them together, sits with them, and brings a child into their circle.  He encourages them to serve others, to be last, to put others before them.  

The example of a child is important to note.  Children in the first century were considered non-persons.  They were often slaves, they were of no value.  They were truly on the margins.  I tell my kids all of the time how amazing they are and how loved they are, but this wasn’t even close to the reality in Jesus’ time.

By doing this, by bringing in a child, Jesus is saying that children are the stand-in for himself, for the Son of God.  We should welcome children, those on the margins as we would God, the creator of the universe.  It’s not about becoming childish so we can enter the kingdom, it says much more about maturity, about being bigger than our selfish desires or our protected self-image and welcoming others in.

Friends, we are saved by God’s grace, all of us live in God’s love whether we recognize it or not.  In the UCC, we believe that God’s love, God’s salvation action has more to do with Jesus’ actions on our behalf than our actions.  We can’t evoke God’s salvation, he gives it to us, all of us, even those who have felt left out.  

We are also called, as followers of Jesus, to live into this salvation with a sense of growth and maturity.  We are called to live resurrection lives.  Maturity happens as we grow through experiences with ourselves and with others.  Oftentimes that growth happens when we enter into relationships with those who we may not normally associate with…God has so many friendships, so much growth, so much life, real life, waiting for each of us and for this church.  As we become welcoming in our lives personally and corporately as a church, we will experience growth and we will the experience the joy of our salvation.  

May we welcome life as it comes to us:  suffering, death, resurrection…even as we welcome others in our communities who walk through these doors or that we meet in the neighborhood, welcoming them as we would welcome Jesus.  

Declare.

Mark 8:27-38

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[a]30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[b] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[c] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Bold question by Jesus in this morning’s text!  “Who do people say that I am?”  If someone were to ask that about you, what would you say?  Take a mental checklist of things to say…

If it were me, I’d first think of being a father, a spouse (most days if you ask Debbie I think), a pastor, a runner, a neighbor, etc.  

But, who are you really?  Who am I really?  I know that for me, those are roles that I play, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, but who I am, how I know myself and others, who really know me, are able to see me and I am able to see them at a deeper level.  

A few months ago, we talked about the South African Zulu greeting and response, “Sawa bona”.  When one is present with someone else, they would tell them, “I see you”, the response, “I am here.”  

It is a powerful statement of being present with someone else.  It also means that two folks have a deep sense of their own self because they are able to see others and to be present with others.  

In so many ways, I think that’s authentic friendship.  

We are seeing that in this morning’s gospel lesson from Mark.  Jesus is asking his disciples, who do people say that I am.  The disciples give a lot of descriptors, but only one, Peter, is able to see beyond the descriptors and to say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the promised one, the true friend of all peoples regardless of social status, of life situations, of their actions or sins.  

Jesus doesn’t want the word to get out just yet, he tells his disciples to let things unfold, to be patient.

Jesus then goes on to say that he would suffer.  Greatly.  Friendship with humanity, authentic friendship, comes at a cost.  In this case, this kind of life was going to lead Jesus into GREAT suffering, incredible shame, being exposed fully to the world…naked, scarred, broken.

And, something else, that he would go through all of this, but then rise again.  That, out of his suffering, his humiliation, his death exposed to the world, that he would rise again.  That no matter what he goes through, that love will win out and he will rise.  

He said this openly and the disciples, especially Peter, were stunned.  They thought of the descriptors, they wanted a deliverer, someone who can save them but without the pain and humiliation.  They wanted a triumphant God, a national hero that would solve their problems but without the hurt and scandal.

Jesus would have none of that…he gets mad and has a rather strong rebuke for Peter, “get behind me Satan”.  

You see, friends, even genuine friends, sometimes get a bit cloudy or hazy in what they see in one another.  In this case, Jesus is strongly telling Peter to wake up, to not hide behind some kind of hero type messiah, a nationalist messiah that would deliver Israel from the Roman occupation or make them a great nation again in the eyes of the world.  

No, Jesus was saying that to follow him, there something deeper going on.  He is saying that he has come to give life, to give Presence, to all of those suffering with humiliation, with brokenness, with pain, and even death.  That they can walk with him as he walks with them through the throes of life.  And, that they too will rise with him…but, they, along with him, will have to go through the hard stuff of life.  

They may even lose their lives.  Actually, they will lose their lives, in order to gain life.  Everything.

Friends, as I continue the journey of this summer, and really my whole life, of reconciling within me the grief of loss, that even things that I may hold on to dearly are dying, that this is the process of life…and that the messiah, the true friend, is with me in that process and that I too am rising again in the midst of the shame and the suffering of death.  Being with mom for the 24 hours before she died was hard…it’s been hard with every person that I’ve witnessed die…but, when it’s your mom, it was hard to see her struggle, hard to hear her wanting to go home, then hard to hear her breathe so painfully for much of a day, and then to simply stop and be in that quiet moment.  At times there was a tragic beauty in it, but mostly not very dignified…it was a struggle.  

Yet, it’s something that we all will experience.  And, we have a hope in resurrection because of Jesus.  But, let’s also remember that Jesus’ resurrected body still bears the scars of his humiliation.  And, yet, he overcame…and so will we, scars and all.  

And, you know what, that’s good news.  We have an earthy, really, honest faith that not only is with us in the hard stuff, as well as the good stuff, but a faith that is like yeast in the dough as it says in scripture that is causing new and beautiful things within us to grow.  

Open.

Mark 7:24-37

24 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, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Sermon:

Going up a mountain can be hard!  Our son loves to climb mountains, I do as well.  I’m pretty adventurous, but my son takes it to new places.  On our vacation this year in the PNW, Brennan picked out three amazing hikes for us as a family.  All of them required ascending lots of vertical feet.  They were hard, yet, the views were worth it…and the journey up, as hard as it was, and at times thinking our son is wanting to get his inheritance early…we made it.  Along the way, we had some amazing conversations, some great openings, and even some growth.

Our psalm reading this morning is from the Psalms of Ascent.  

As we’ve discussed before, these are psalms that would be recited during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Devout Jews in the 1st century would go to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.  Jerusalem sits on a hill and the temple sets on a high place in the city.  To this day, it’s called the Temple Mount.  So, there was a sense that one would be travelling upwards, ascending towards Jerusalem, towards God.

Our gospel reading this am from Mark, from the Lectionary, which is a universal pairing of Scriptures for the church for daily reading in order to paint a picture of God’s activity in our lives, actually gives us two stories.

The first is a healing of the daughter of Syro-Phoenician woman.  The daughter is possessed by a demon.  This woman is not Jewish, and she crosses some major social boundaries in approaching Jesus.  First, she’s a woman and women in this culture did not approach men easily.  Second, she’s Syrian, she’s not Jewish.  The very fact that she confronts Jesus with her daughter’s plight shows great courage.  

Jesus had been about his ministry in Galilee, yet he retreated to the region of Tyre.  Maybe for some rest, or time to get away from the crowds in Galilee.  Yet, the crowds found him in Tyre.  

When the woman approaches Jesus, Jesus may have been tired.  His response to her seems kind of rough.  His response of letting the children be fed first gives an impression that Jesus was saying to her that he had come for Israel, not the rest of the world.  That it was unfair to throw the children’s food to the dogs, was comparing foreigners to dogs?  I’m not sure.

We have two dogs, both are amazing in their own way.  Ella, the oldest, is a hound dog that sleeps a lot.  Leo, the shepherd/pointer mix is full of energy and always “on” it seems.  They both hang out under the table during our evening dinners, just hoping for a scrap.

Now, I do love my dogs, but not the same way that I love my children.  So, this passage perplexes me.  

But, maybe it could be a sense of Jesus testing the faith of this woman, but even that seems harsh.  Or, as some commentators have said, maybe Jesus is making an outlandish statement to highlight his Jewish audiences’ prejudices or sense of entitlement.  Jesus is always pushing boundaries, taking risks, exploring where love may take him and even us.  

I’m not sure, but there is a shift in this passage towards an understanding that God’s Kingdom is inclusive and God’s love and presence is for everyone.  God is not satisfied being confined to a temple mount or tied to one particular privilege group of folks, God is available and pursuing all.

God also values folks  willing to seek him out.  This woman has some “moxie”, after Jesus’ comments, she comes back at him saying that even dogs are blessed or lucky to get crumbs.  Jesus doesn’t get defensive or try to “save face”, he simply is amazed at her faith and says that her daughter is healed.  And she is.  

Friends, this story is perfect for us on a day we celebrate communion.  God did not come to give us privileged status, but to provide himself to the whole world in which we can have communion, or community, or deep relationship.  God wants to go to everyone regardless of background or status.  God doesn’t show favoritism.

It’s not an accident that the author of Mark includes this next healing story of having one’s ears opened right after the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Friends bring a deaf friend to Jesus.  Jesus declares an imperative “Be opened”!  And the man can hear!  I’m not sure what he experienced before that time, but I know he had to be disoriented when his ears were opened.  What was he hearing?  How did he process it?  How did he react?  One thing for sure, once he began to hear, his world began to change.

How many of you have had your ears cleaned out by a doctor?   My doctor pointed out, mowing my lawn with ear phones from my iphone causes wax build-up and apparently I have a very small ear canal.  I have had to get my ears dug out.  Which is literally what the gospel author is saying, we have to have ears dug out by God in order to hear.  We have a lot of cruddy stuff that prevents us from hearing.  Stuff like habits, pride, perceptions, image, cultural baggage, or emotional issues.  Whatever, we all have things that prevent us from hearing.  But, God is calling us towards God’s self.  God wants us to grow and be the persons we were called to be, all of us, together, in community.  

This man was deaf, God opened his ears through Jesus.  Jesus restored him into community.  That may have been messy and he may have things that he’s hearing and needing to share.  Which, he was also mute, so now he could share!  He was able to talk…and I’m sure he talked a lot for a while!  

Friends, may we hear God’s radically inclusive love calling out to us, inviting us into the beauty and sometime messy work of building relationships with our neighbors, this Nepali congregation that will be sharing our space, each other, and God.  May we come to this table this morning with a desire to be fully present with others and with this God.

Life.

John 6:53-60

53 So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

The Words of Eternal Life

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’

Psalm 84 gives us a great picture of what our approach, our attitude, our mindset should be every time we enter church.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
    O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
    to the living God.

If only we could have that sense of joy, of pleasure, of “loveliness” as we enter the church.  Now, of course, we all know that God’s dwelling place is not just confined to the church.  God is everywhere, all around us.  God’s dwelling place is, God’s residence, is ever present.  What would it be like if every time we got up out of bed, walked out the door into our neighborhood, we sensed such a deep connection with God’s Presence.  

It would be amazing, overwhelming, lovely.

However, we all know that isn’t the case.  We are consumed by so many things that crowd out a sense of joy.  We are busy, we have issues with others, we let anxieties overcome us, we can’t seem to cultivate that deep sense of belonging to one another and to God.  

If you are like me, you sometimes have weeks where you have to stop and pause in the midst of all that is happening around you and wonder if this world, or even your own world, is ever going to move towards becoming what you hoped it would be.

I know these past few weeks have been crazy with my mom dying from cancer.  Its been up and down and in the midst of a season of so much change, adaption, and growth…growth that isn’t easy…if it ever is or is supposed to be.  

I also began to wonder if I could be my true self in this context that I have found myself in.  In times like that, I need to know that others are willing to be in this together, to be in a place of covenant, of depth, of relational fidelity, a place of believing in one another.   This church has been that kind of relational space for me…for many of us. 

I have had other friends as well who have believed in me and I in them. Rob Waddles, who I grew up with.  He died at age 46, but his belief in me continues into death.  As does my grandfathers, my mom, my dad.  Bruce Baker when I was with Campus Life, Phillip Roebuck at Northminster, my partner, Debbie, on numerous projects over the years.  Jay Borck, Sean Gladding, Troy Bronsink, Mike Zimmer, Lisa Allgood, Daniel Hughes, Ed Goode, Julian Kenny, Andy Sexton, and so many others…as well as many of you.  

A hallmark in that belief in each other is a sense of deep humility, authenticity, and willingness to be fully present.  That’s hard.  A good example is Phillip Roebuck.  Phil is still one of my best friends, he’s 17 years younger than me.  He was in our Young Life club, amazing athlete and valedictorian at Wyoming HS, and graduated in the top 3% of his class at Harvard.  Phil also has one of the best, purest hearts of anyone I know.  He’s also extremely competitive and has a high capacity and desire to achieve.  He is honestly one of the smartest guys I know.

After I graduated from Fuller Seminary with my masters in divinity and moved back to Cincy, Phillip, who had just graduated from Harvard, was in a place of deep searching.  He wanted to know how he could grow and become what God intended for him. That led him to doing an internship with me at Northminster in student ministry.

I love Phil, so we made it a point to meet weekly, to be fully present with each other, to make sure we willing to submit to each other.  Early on I pledged to him that I would invest in him fully.  In the course of those two years, our friendship deepened and, to this day, even through lots of arguments, disagreements, hard feelings, as well as joys, amazing things accomplished together, and sharing of life.  

Now, let me be clear, our student ministry didn’t explode with numbers, actually, the first year we declined in numbers.  Phillip was, and still is, well known within our neighborhoods of Wyoming and Finneytown, we had an amazing group of adult leaders, we had great programs and were in the community all of the time.  The second year of the internship, something beautiful happened.  Community.  We began to see wonderful relationships deepen, community transformation, and a solid heading that continued on in the student ministry for quite a while…and, yes, some folks came into the church that are still there, even through some hard times at Northminster.

Why do I share this, because Phil and I made a commitment to believe in each other and to fight for each other’s friendship early on.  We built upon a foundation of my being in his life as his Young Life leader, to true friendship that gave us energy every day.  When we see each other, we echo the psalmists joy and feel as if we are in the Presence of God’s dwelling place.

Our gospel lesson this morning gives witness to that as well.  Jesus is continuing to share that to be with him meant to share in his life, to eat his flesh, drink his blood.  The very word, Sarx, means literally flesh…not sooma, which is another greek word that means body in the wholistic sense, the authors are using flesh to go to a guttural meaning…Again, sounds morbid, but what he’s saying is that we have to be willing to get into the very bowels of each other’s lives.  To love like we mean it, that each moment we are with each other, we are in the presence of someone made in God’s image and be willing to sacrifice for each other, to swallow our pride, to do things differently and to strive for authenticity.  Which, btw, authenticity is more than just being honest or “real”, it means being self aware and the surrendering of our self made identity in our work, projects, and even church.  It means living into the personhood that God created us to be, persons joined together with God, through Christ.  

The disciples are hearing this and realize that being this intimate with Christ and each other means deep change, deep awareness, and something that they couldn’t quite swallow.  They felt secure in the status quo and they let anxiety overtake them.  They realized that the hard work required for true community was too much.  I respect them for this recognition.  They were honest, and they left.  Jesus, at this point, was a failure at church growth.  Yet, Jesus also knew that something more beautiful, more lovely would happen.  Jesus wanted the disciples, and all of us to have life, real and full life.  It required taking in all of Jesus.  Richard Rohr talks about how hard this is, it seems like we in the church are constantly re-crucifying Jesus, constantly trying to put off our own death, yet Jesus says that’s exactly what we need to do, experience death so that we can experience resurrection life, true life.  

I have had to die so much in my relationships and even in my image of what could be. We all do.

Later in this story, in John 6, we have this passage about the crowd of followers after hearing Jesus:

66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

When Jesus asks Peter and the disciples that stuck around, what about you, Peter gives a feeble, but honest answer, where would we go, we don’t have anywhere else to go.  

We may be in that place today in our lives, we may feel like we don’t have anywhere else to go, but Jesus sticks by our side, believes in us, and calls us to partake in his life.  In so doing, we will change, it’s inevitable, we will also grow.  In this death and resurrection, we can trust that Jesus goes with us and we share in his life, even in the hardness.  Some of us may drift away, some may give up like many of the disciples.  But, for those of us willing to stick with Jesus and believe in each other, like the disciples, we may see the world change…at least our worlds.  

Abide.

John 6:51-58

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Sermon:

“To be or not to be”…isn’t that the great Shakespearean question?  What does it mean to be?  “Be” is the English languages most irregular verb…it’s a word of action…to be something or someone.  It is a verb of existence or reality.  I am in a car, I am in church, I will be grilling hamburgers tonight.  It is also a verb that points to relationship.  I am friends with…I am a member of this community…

This is something that has been incredibly important to me these past few weeks.  Being in friendship, relationship, community…here, in our church, and in the generations of friends that came by the hospital, the house, the funeral home, and the funeral service.  

Today I’d like to talk to you about being, specifically being in a friendship.  Over the course of my life, I have been blessed with some wonderful friendships and great community like we have here at Fleming Road UCC. 

I shared this at my mom’s funeral last week while officiating it.  “Mom, like her father, my PePa, believed in people.  She believed in me.  That has shaped me in more ways than can ever be explained.  It has led me to so many others throughout my life that have also believed in me.  My friend John McKnight, the well known author, teacher, community organizer, and mentor to many of the folks who have helped shape our culture over the years, once shared with me and another friend that his entire life has been touched and surrounded by the presence of God.  Why?  Because he’s been in relationship with people that believed in him…and that gave evidence to God’s belief in him as God is ultimately all about relationship. 

Mom exhibited the very nature of God.  The power of relationship.  She loved growing up in her community, has been blessed by community all of her life.  Wherever she went, she built amazing friendships.  So many people have invested in her over her life, the return on that investment has far outweighed anything that folks have put in!

Throughout my life, and even in so many ways the past few weeks, this investment in relationships was so evident.  

That makes sense, you see, we were all created to be in loving friendships or relationships with each other.  We were even created by a relational God.  It says in Genesis 1:27, that God created us in his image.  God’s image is one of relationship.  God exists in perfect unity as a three-in-one God…God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Three distinct persons, but of one essence…God’s essence is relational and that relationship demonstrates perfect love.  Out of that essence, that loving essence, God, the uncreated created us.  

If that wasn’t enough, creating us…God gave us the gift of God’s self.  God desires to simply be in relationship with us.  Throughout history God has demonstrated God’s pursuit of us, rescuing humanity from itself.  Humanity has sought to know God, yet we have often forgotten that God knows us and loves us.  

When Moses was being called by God out of a burning bush to go and preach release to the Jews who were being held as slaves in Egypt, Moses sought to know God’s name, because in those days, to know someone’s name was to know who they were, to have them define, to be in relationship and to know them.  Yet, when asked, God gave a peculiar answer:

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob–has sent me to you.’ “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation. (Exo 3:14-15 TNIV)

I am who I am.  The verb used here in Hebrew is “to be”. God is.  God is saying that he is wholly other and cannot be comprehended.  Yet, he goes on to say something more.  He is the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses knew that God interacted with all of those people.  God is saying, in effect, I am a God of relationship.  I cannot be comprehended, but I can be apprehended.  

God with us.  God with us in relationship.  Ultimately that is displayed in God becoming one of us through Jesus.  Jesus is completely God and is the exact representation of who God is, a God of relationship.  

Our passage this morning is one of deep relationship.  We are continuing the theme of Jesus being the bread of life.  Jesus goes on to say that in order to have eternal life, or abundant life filled with meaning and purpose, a forever life, then we must consume Jesus’ body.  Again, the word flesh is used, it’s very graphic.  When some folks in the first or second century heard this reading from John after Jesus’ death, they actually thought Christ followers were espousing cannibalism!

Of course, that’s not true.  It’s a metaphor that’s implying that we must consume Jesus, we must take Jesus in to the deepest parts of who we are, even the parts that are messy, our very bowels.  We cannot change, grow, become self/others/or God aware without help.  We need Jesus’ life to rise up within and outside of us, to take Jesus in.  

Jesus goes on to say that we must remain in him, as he is remaining in us.  This is a phrase that is referenced in others parts of John.  

John 15:4 says this, “Remain  (or abide) in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”  Remain, or abide, live…Live in Christ.  How do we do that?  We are in Christ, he sustains all things.  We simply have the pleasure of saying thank you by living in the imperative of remaining in him.  Just like any relationship, we need to be with God and with each other in order to grow.  

Friends, we cannot truly live as we were meant to live separated from Christ or from each other…to attempt to do so makes us less than human.  We may not understand that completely, but our being our “I am” is found in the actions of Jesus.  Jesus is the exact representation of God to us and he is our truly human representative in the presence of God as God in the flesh.  

So friends, BE!  Be in and with Christ, consume Christ!  He is your identity…you are not defined ultimately by the color of your skin, how much (or how little) is in your bank account, what political party you identify with, or what you have done or not done…YOU are defined by Christ’s actions on your behalf!  Your wealth in this life is defined by the relationships you have which is defined by your relationship with Christ!  My truest friend has always been Jesus.  He is really different, yet I find my identity in him because of his pursuit of me.  Friends, as you live and find you identity in Christ, know that God wants to be with you and will not let you go! 

Bread.

John 6:24-35

24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 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. 27 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.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 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? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 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. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 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.

It’s good to be back with you this morning after a much needed, and very much enjoyed albeit short, vacation with my family.  I’ve heard great things from Dave Workman and others about last week’s service.  I actually listened to the sermon and much of the service while I was on a run in Seattle!  One of the great things that we are doing now out of the pandemic is having our services out on Zoom and Facebook Live!  It was so good!  

I also texted Dave right after the service!  He enjoyed being with y’all and I’m looking forward to catching up with him.

On our vacation this year, we went to visit friends in Seattle and to take time to hike in some amazing places outside the city.  Our son wanted to go to Seattle because of the University of Washington.  As many of you know, he’s deferred his college admission for a year to take a gap year and serve with AmericCorps.  He’s committed to the University of Pittsburgh for next fall, but can break that commitment if another school gives him a better offer (and pay his parents back for the tuition deposit that we had to pay Pitt to hold his spot for a year!!).  

We had a great time exploring the city.  I’ve been to Seattle quite a bit and we’ve had relatives that used to live there, but there’s always more places to find!  We also had some epic hikes with amazing elevation gains that gave us beautiful heights, lakes, waterfalls, and snow capped mountains to explore.

And, then, there was our visit to the University of Washington.  

We may have lost our son to the PNW.

We also found out that Seattle is known, not only for coffee and IPA’s, but for biscuits!  We had a biscuit the first day that was so huge and so good, I wanted to get more…but, when I went back later in the week, there was a 30 minute wait just to place an order!  

In today’s Gospel lesson, the focus seems to be on bread.  Jesus had just performed the miracle where he fed the 5,000 from a few loaves of bread and fishes.  There was so much food that they had leftovers.  The Gospel narrative implies that folks had their fill, they were well fed.  

We start at verse 24 where Jesus has left that occasion and the crowds are wondering where Jesus and they go looking for him.  They catch up with him in verse 25 and give him the respectful address as Rabbi or teacher and ask when he got there, as if to say, where have you been?  They wanted more of that bread, just like our family wanted more of those biscuits!   It had filled them up and they not only wanted more, they had some questions.  

Jesus picks up on this and makes a statement that they weren’t really looking for him, but for what he could provide for them.  They were not simply looking for a show of power or a miracle, they were at they simply wanted more feed.  They had a needy outlook and what to meet needs.  Jesus has none of that, and simply says that you are so much more than simply trying to satisfy your needs or the needs of others.  

It reminds me of how we, in the church, and in the non-profit world in general, often ask, what are our needs or even the needs of those around us?  Sometimes those are good to identify, but there is a deeper question to ask, what are we aiming for?  Who are we?  What do we have already?  I think those questions are exemplified in the feeding of the 5000.  Jesus knows that folks need to be fed, but instead of asking how do we get to a place, he simply says, what do we have?  What are our assets, then he uses those assets to bless the people gathered.

Jesus goes on to say in our passage this morning that we should not work for food that spoils.  Again, he’s saying that we can provide for needs of the moment, but we should look for something deeper, something more meaningful or even empowering.  We should look for food that doesn’t spoil, that lasts forever and is eternal.  And, remember, as we’ve mentioned before, the word eternal in the gospels has much more to do with quality than quantity.  Jesus wants us to have big, meaningful, and full lives together with each other and with God.  

Jesus also goes on to say that God has placed God’s seal of approval on the Son of Man.  Two things about that:  in those days, a seal was meant to be placed on something that was being offered as a sacrifice, it meant that it was an acceptable gift.  The Son of Man also signifies identity with humanity, God has placed his seal on Jesus who represents us, therefore God has given us, humanity, his approval through Jesus.  It’s also a gift, we can’t work towards it, it is given to us. 

The folks hearing this, much like us today, don’t get it.  They feel that they have to somehow do something, earn it.  Jesus says, no, the only work that you have to do is to believe.  Of course, that can be harder than any physical action.  Movement in our lives towards believing in God and in others can be difficult.  It takes trust, love, and a recognition on our part that we don’t have to be defensive or try to prove ourselves, we simply are called to believe in God and, subsequently, to believe in others.  That doesn’t mean we can’t question or have our doubts, on the contrary, believing in something or someone causes the beauty of mystery and curiosity to flow as it is held together by a bond of friendship, of relationship.

Which, is what Jesus is driving his listeners towards.  They keep on asking questions and go to the place of trying to connect Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 to Moses providing Manna from heaven.  Moses’ Manna lasted for 40 years and helped the Jewish population stay alive physically, but the point of that is that it came from heaven.  God provided through Moses.  Jesus says this, says this is truth telling, God has given them, and us, the true bread from heaven, that gives life to the world, everyone.

They clamored for that kind of bread and asked where they could get it.  Jesus then declares with a double imperative, which translates from the Greek “I am, I am the bread of life.”  Whoever is willing to believe and to dare to grow and become the person that God created them to be, to receive the gift of relationship from God will never be thirsty.  

Friends, this world needs this kind of bread.  I used tell my cross country runners all of the time that there are good carbs and bad carbs.  Bad carbs can fill you up but have no nutritional value other than making you a larger person, but good carbs give you energy and are building blocks for getting stronger, healthier.  

Jesus is coming to us with the promise of Presence, of relationship.  A promise that he will be with us, even in the darkness of our lives.  He doesn’t promise some self-help technique, he simply gives us relationship.  

Jesus is the bread of life, and that bread starts with yeast rising.  That yeast has been planted in this world through Jesus’ coming to us, entering humanity, being one with us, while also being one with the Father and with the Spirit.  

God’s Spirit is also moving in and through us like yeast in dough.  We’re being molded and moved around, it’s sometimes a bit awkward, but that yeast is working its way through the dough and Christ is rising up within us and around us.

Friends, as we participate in the Lord’s Supper, let’s remember the seed that God has planted in us, God’s very self, God’s Presence, that is growing, that is giving us ideas and new life, and is moving us towards being the body of Christ to the world around us and to each other.

One Family.

Ephesians 2:11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually[e] into a dwelling place for God.

Mark 6:30-34

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Mark 6:53-56

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him,55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Sermon:

These past few weeks have been very reflective as you could imagine.  Being back in Louisville and driving to the hospital, then to the rehab center, and then back to the hospital, I’ve been on roads and in parts of town that I have not been in a while.  In between long periods of simply sitting in my mom’s hospital room, working remotely, making calls, reading and studying, there were also times when lots of folks would come to visit, persons that were my parent’s friends.  Some of these families go back generations, as in my mom went to high school with them, and my grandparents went to the same high school with their grandparents…and some were generations!  Lots of memories…as well as growth.

I’ve often said that growing up in Louisville, in my family, and in my Southern Baptist church seems like several lifetimes ago.  There are some good similarities to that Rich Jones, but I’m really different than I was 35 years, heck, I’m different than I was 5 years ago, maybe even 5 days ago!  

Through it all, there’s a sense that I, along with many of us, are becoming more aware that we are moving towards being something more.  We are defying roles, labels, stereotypes, and becoming deeply connected in our humanity with one another.

This is why Jesus came.  Jesus embodied this sense of oneness.  He redefined “family” as more inclusive and closer than we could imagine.  He redefined religion to being more about relationship.  He redefined humanity as not belonging to different categories, clans, or whatever, but to abolish what divides and to bring us together.  

Our passage this morning in Ephesians says just that…what’s more, it reminds us of the universal nature of Christ.  That Christ brings us together with one another and with those who have gone before us and after us.

I was talking with a friend this week about death, what’s next, what does it resurrection look like.  There are no certainties, but Scripture tells us that we are somehow connected in this life and in the next.  

Jesus is calling us toward living life, real life, together.  He’s inviting us along on a journey, a lifelong journey.  A journey built on authenticity.

That’s why, in our gospel lesson, that so many folks wanted to be around Jesus.  He was vulnerable, honest, real.  More than words or the miracles, they believed in Jesus because Jesus believed in them.  He was a lover.  A lover of all people and things and lived it out.  Belief, love, trust, that can bring expansive growth where labels and dogma simply don’t matter anymore.  Where simply being around someone like Jesus can bring healing as people become more aware, more real, and more themselves.  

Even though growing up in the Baptist church had some things about it that were really hard and I’m still learning from it and growing past it, there were also some great relationships that helped me to become more aware…and, one constant, I have always been a follower of Jesus…and more than the religious control that was put on me at times, that relationship has shown me how to be human and to believe in others and to seek folks out who believe in me as Jesus did.  

I was active in my church growing up, and particularly close to our associate pastor and his wife.  They were our youth leaders.  We had a lot of great adventures together, mission trips, summer camp, youth group, hayrides, weekend retreats in the Smokies, and lots of late night conversations.  

When some things happened in our church though, they felt compelled to leave.  After they left, we went through some transition and I ended up on this internal quest to sort of find myself.

When I was 17, the fall of my senior year of high school, I was president of our FCA/Good News  club (Fellowship of Christian Athletes).  Our teacher sponsor introduced me to a friend of his, Ken Goss.  Ken was the Youth for Christ director in Louisville and they were starting this thing called Campus Life at my school.  It wasn’t long when they started meeting weekly at my best friend’s house, Jeff Hume.  I was invited to simply come and check it out, so I did.

When I went to Campus Life, I thought that there was no way that this could be a Christian or even religious deal.  They laughed a lot, played games, sang songs, and many of my friends who would never go to church showed up there.  Plus, the campus life leaders, Ken, and Andy Harshberger, were very genuine.  They weren’t afraid to be honest and to ask some tough questions in a loving way, never in a condemning way.

I loved it. 

It was like a breath of fresh air.  It also began within me a sense that God really is relational and desires for me to be in relationship, right and deep relationship with others and with God.  

I also began to see Jesus as a real human, someone who I can come to and believed in me, which enabled me to believe in him.  This Jesus who has a deep compassion for me and for others.  This Jesus who yearns for me and my community of friends and my high school.  This love compelled me to come to the call of being a pastor…to have a passion for others to know this Jesus and to know that they can be loved and have a sense of community, of relationship with others and with God.  

This same Jesus has been moving me towards this place of love my entire life, to places where roles, definitions, boundaries, are all wrapped up in this deep sense of love and connection to all people and things.  

Our scripture this morning shows a Jesus that ALL can come to, no matter where they are in life.  Just like me in many ways, the folks in Israel at the time this passage was written were steeped in a religious culture, they knew the stories.  Yet, they were stuck in a cultural system over that took precedence over authentic relationship, they didn’t know that God was calling them into an intimate relationship with God and into a community of intimate relationships with others.  Jesus appears on the scene, Jesus, like some folks in our lives, demonstrated a love, a deep and authentic desire for relationship with others.  He also shared good news that God’s love was extended to everyone, not just those who were in synagogue or the temple every week, but everyone.  

Jesus didn’t say, don’t go to temple, don’t do the things that you have been taught to do, but BE someone better, love well, show justice, compassion and demonstrative action for the poor, for those on the margins of community, for those who have felt real persecution or oppression.  And, the way to experience that being was not to simply sit in church every week, but to know deeply the love that God showers upon you and to develop ways to understand that love just as you would invest in any friendship, spend time with God as you interact with your neighbors, family, friends.  

Our passage gives witness to people hungering for God, and feeling compelled to come to Jesus, to experience this love, and Jesus calls them into the desert, to slow down and contemplate what God has done for them.  I can also relate to that as God has called, and continue s to call me to places like the Springs in Indiana, or the Abbey of Gethsemani in KY…or even literally the desert when we lived in SoCal to get away with him.  And, quite frankly, if all goes well with my mom, I’m lookin forward to some time away with my own family and some friends I haven’t seen in a while in the Pacific Northwest this next week.  

Jesus calls us, his church to do the same, to take time outs in our days and sometimes longer to experience relationship with him.  As we do this, as we our allowing ourselves to be alone with God, we may find this God calling us to come to him.  In our scriptures, we see those following Jesus and that the crowds came because they were consumed by God’s love and that love was contagious.

The writer in Ephesians reminds us that we were once Gentiles, unbelievers, did not know God’s love.  Yet, God’s love came and was demonstrated to us through Jesus.  Up until Jesus, devout Jews did not believe that God’s love extended to everyone.  Yet, in Jesus, we are shown and told that we are one in our humanity.  Jesus abolished the felt need for the rules that were outside regulators of behavior, and gave us himself.  Jesus was and is the perfect humanist!  He wants us to be our truest selves.  

God’s story of redemptive love has power to change us, to inspire us, and like the disciples, to change the world.  Yet, no one can give us that power, that love, I can’t as your preacher, you can’t with each other.  It is given freely to us by God’s Spirit, and we are called to come and be joined together, all of us, with Christ as our example and cornerstone.  

Friends, we have much to be thankful for, and much work to do of self, others, and God awareness.  May we know that this God is calling us towards divine union with God’s self and everyone and everything, just as God is calling our neighbors, those who have been excluded by religious folk, all of humanity in Christ’s shared humanity with us.