What Kind of People

a sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17B/Lectionary 22]

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

When I was in high school I was on the swim team. Swim meets were long, sometimes all-day events that kept large teams from several different schools inside a gymnasium together. And one thing I remember is that each school team would stake out an area of the bleachers or the pool deck that was away from the competition area and hang out together as a team, doing things like listening to music, finishing homework, eating snacks, and stretching while the different races were held. There was rarely a lot of mingling between teams because we didn’t really know people from the other schools. Plus, they were our rivals. You didn’t want to fraternize with the enemy. I remember there was one team we swam against from time to time that really stood out. They would begin each meet with this really loud and elaborate ritual together that was like a group cheer. When they’d do it, the whole place would get quiet and watch them. It was kind of weird, but it was also kind of cool because we knew it intimidated us. That cheer was their hallmark, and it had the effect of making all the other teams feel like we didn’t have as much school spirit as they did. We had some group bonding customs, too, but nothing as remarkable as the customs of Page High School in Greensboro, NC. And we thought their school spirit helped. They always dominated in the water.

In Jesus’ time, all day and every day in society was like a big swim meet. Out about in public and also in private settings people were grouped almost constantly by visible and sometimes peculiar traditions and customs that they practiced. Jerusalem and the region around it was fairly multicultural, a place where different peoples and religions often lived close together, so it was important to have ways to distinguish your group from another’s. We get to hear some of that in Mark’s Gospel this morning. He goes into great detail about the customs that some of the Jews of Jesus’ time practiced. You get the impression that these rituals were a little elaborate and made them stand out. It’s like they go overboard on washing things. Their hands. Things they buy at the market. Bronze kettles. Mark is the only gospel writer who gives us this background detail, and it is probably because the community he was first writing for did not have many Jewish Christians in it.

In any case, some Jewish leaders from Jerusalem, the capital, come to Jesus and his disciples and notice Jesus and his disciples have different traditions, especially when it comes to this overboard washing. Some of his disciples are not washing their hands before eating. They are not following the tradition of the elders, which is kind of like saying they are not doing the funny cool cheer that makes them seem better than every once else. And if Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher of the faith, a keeper of the tradition, then this is odd. The Pharisees want answers.

The tradition of the elders is what the people of the time would have known as the Great Tradition. Religious elites, people like the Pharisees, were expected to adhere to a very strict interpretation of purity codes. Purity codes governed how to keep yourself undefiled from things in the world, things like certain foods and dead things, and bodily fluids. Common people, like the people that Jesus would have had as disciples, were not expected to follow the Great Tradition. Fisherman and people who made their living farming were constantly coming into contact with things like dead fish and birthing animals and manure. They followed something called the Little Tradition, which was like a watered down version of the Pharisees’ Great Tradition. But both the Little Tradition and the Great Tradition rules about clean and unclean did something else: it defined in groups and out groups. People who could keep themselves ritually clean in the proper ways, especially in the Great Tradition, were considered more holy, more acceptable, more powerful than those who couldn’t. These laws and codes helped to make sure that all the groups of people were kept in all their little sitting areas during the big swim meet of life and that no one intermingled. Correctly used, the laws could remind someone of their need for God. But more often than not they were employed to enforce honor and shame on people.

Jesus pulls the rug out from under the Pharisees and all that. Jesus pulls the rug out from all of our attempts to categorize people to their disadvantage, to shame them, and he does it in a clever way. He doesn’t say that there’s no such thing as being clean and unclean. He just redefines where uncleanliness comes from in a way that makes us all able to look inside ourselves. The digestive system, Jesus explains, has nothing to do with true cleanliness, nor do the hands and the skin. It is the heart where uncleanliness comes from. It is things like thoughts and ideas and intentions where evil can take root, and we all have that capacity. Then he gives a list that surely would have impressed the religious experts in front of him. This list is derived straight from the Ten Commandments, the law that stands at the center of Jewish practice and identity. Religion often tries to use laws and rituals in order to hide these universal inclinations.

It is good to have Jesus remind us where our brokenness comes from, where we need to look in order to find the sources of uncleanliness. It’s why we take a few moments of self-examination during the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of the worship service. In that time we silently search our hearts for ways we’ve let God and others down over the past week, ways we’ve hurt others, or ignored them. We don’t list through all the yucky things we’ve touched or the “wrong” people we’ve gotten too close to. In so many ways we still are learning to live in the world that Jesus envisions—one where we see fewer and fewer in groups and out groups, one where we don’t label people in a way that sets them lower or higher than we see ourselves. One where we realize we all have the same kind of heart.

As good as that all is, we can still let our inner uncleanliness become labels, and we can still distance ourselves from others we see as morally impure, can’t we? We can also begin to loathe ourselves and feel unremitting shame if we are aware in an unhealthy way of how ugly our own hearts can be. I was reading something on Twitter this week about a young man who was still working through some bad memories of the church he grew up in. Apparently it was a very legalistic, moralistic Christian church that taught things like secular music was bad and certain people were going to hell and that questioning any church authority was a sin. But yet he found himself liking secular music, and he had questions he wanted people to answer. This young man described that experience as trauma. It had made him hate parts of himself.

That’s the nature of sin, isn’t it, though? To traumatize us and eventually get us to traumatize each other with rules and religious codes. Sin makes us fixate on ourselves, or, what’s worse, to excuse away our own imperfections while pointing out everyone else’s. Jesus is right about religious groups and people. We have a tendency to honor God with our lips but in our hearts we are far away from him.

In doing away with these cleanliness codes, and focusing our minds on our own inner brokenness, Jesus opens us up to love and forgiveness. It’s like cutting through all the red tape of religion and churchiness and simply bringing God’s compassion and reconciliation straight to us, where he means them to be. It’s about getting us to see our common humanity, the sisterhood and brotherhood we share with one another as God’s children. We don’t fixate on our cleanliness and uncleanliness at all because we’re too amazed by God’s mercy. Eyes of faith help us see that God plants the cross right in the middle of human messiness. Deceit, wickedness, folly, slander, envy, theft, murder—Jesus becomes a victim of the entire list of vices he himself names in order to show us they have no ultimate power over us. The hope—God’s hope—is that his people then become known for that kind of love, that kind of sacrifice for the stranger, that kind of service to the neighbor. In the wide group of humanity, those who follow Jesus are so forgiven and so free that people see they are open to all, open to expanding and letting more people in. Jesus teaches us we’re the one group that should realizes there really are no groups. Our cheer is inviting, not intimidating. It enlivens. It rejoices. Others will look at us and ask, like they did to the ancient Israelites, “What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?”

Just a couple of months ago our church office got a call in the middle of a weekday from a truck driver who was hauling a bunch of food that had been rejected by its destination grocery store. The food was fine. I think some packages were damaged and didn’t meet deliver standards. In a pinch, he had to offload it somewhere and continue to his next delivery site. Not wanting to trash it, the trucker got online and searched for churches that were nearby. We came up first, so we got the call. Hanne, our office administrator, told him to stop on by. She called several members, all of whom dropped what they were doing and helped him unload the goods in our parking lot. Within an hour or so all of the packages were in our kitchen waiting for food pantries and partner organizations like Moments of Hope to distribute food to those in need. Someone that day asked him why he came here. “Because,” he explained, “I figured churches knew what to do with a load of food like this better than anyone else.”

That, my friends, is the kind of thing to be known for, especially in a day and age when churches and denominations are increasingly viewed in a negative light, known for bigotry and hypocrisy. I’m so thankful for the people who responded that day, who demonstrated so clearly what the truck driver was expecting—a people whose hearts are not far from God at all, not far from the One who multiplies loaves and fish and distributes them to the people. I’d call that a faith so sure of Jesus’ ability to purify and heal that it habitually looks out in the world in service.  They are doers of the word, not merely hearers. That’s the group with the best cheer of all, and by God’s grace we’re a part of it.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 16B/Lectionary 21]

John 6:56-69 and Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

“Choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Those are the words that Joshua, Moses’ trusty assistant, speaks to all the tribes as they prepare to live there. It has been a hard-won campaign to subdue the native Canaanites, to make the Promised Land a region hospitable to the Israelites and their faith. They have fought and they have settled where they belong. Even more so it has been a hard-won campaign for God. God has done most of the heavy-lifting, delivering them out of slavery in Egypt, leading them through the Red Sea, and bringing them through the trials and temptations of the wilderness. God has fed them with manna day by day and has protected them from serpents and other dangers. Now his people are assembled and ready to begin this new life, and Joshua decides to lay the decision that lies before them as clearly as he can. It’s like a big division. They can serve other gods and go other ways, but why not serve the one God who just claimed them and saved them? That is what he and his household are going to do. It reminds me of what American author David Foster Wallace says about atheism. There’s really no such thing. “There’s no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

We are living in a time of decisions being laid before us—so many decisions that have so much life-or-death weight to them. Our minds are filled, for example, with images of Afghans faced with the gut-wrenching decision of having to serve the Taliban or face unknown consequences. Or protests about school board decisions for the fall. And what about news sources? Choose today which channel your family will watch! As for me and mine…

Of course, people are still drawing lines and making decisions about how they and their family will continue to move through this COVID pandemic, even as some among us deny there is anything to worry about at all. I resonated so much with an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago with the title, “Vaccination Status Has Americans Picking Sides.” The writer for the piece interviewed multiple people who have seen their families and close friendships divided over things like wearing masks and getting a vaccine. One woman who had planned a huge birthday celebration for her two-year-old decided briefly to uninvite family members who weren’t vaccinated, or to at least ask them to stand outside. In the end she just cancelled it altogether. Our congregation sent out a simple survey last week to gauge interest in Sunday School for young children. The responses were so interesting. Many people have decided what’s best for their family is only to meet in classes outside. Others will only participate if masks are required. Some won’t send their children if masks are required. We’ll figure it out.

My wife was in Target last week with all three of our children doing their back to school shopping, and all of them were in masks. Another shopper approached my wife and accosted her for having our children in masks, saying that it would harm their brain development. No children should be putting those on their faces, she said. It’s like everywhere you turn is it “Choose today which ideology you will serve. As for me and my house, we are doing this.” I’m just glad Melinda didn’t tell that lady that our household doesn’t think pineapple belongs on pizza.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our faith, at the very least, was devoid of hard decisions and confusing teachings like this? Wouldn’t it be great if our relationship with God were one area where things just came easy, where we could so easily make the leap to belief and practice? Jesus finds out that it isn’t, and so do his disciples. You may remember that a crowd follows him throughout the gospels, and that crowd increases as he makes his way through the towns and villages of Galilee. Today he is in Capernaum, and for the first time in John’s gospel, the crowd visibly dwindles. People leave him. They make their choice to follow something else. Or at least not follow him anymore. All that is left is the Twelve. And I imagine that must be extremely hard to deal with. I imagine that must be demoralizing to some degree because most of us find it demoralizing when people decide to disconnect themselves from us. Generally the point is to increase the number of people who are on our side, who are in line with our lives and beliefs, not weed them out. And whatever Jesus is doing and saying is, at least at this point, starting to weed them out. They choose that day in Capernaum whom they will follow. And most of them don’t choose Jesus.

I remember that our seminary classes started with summer Greek. Before you could actually register for other classes, you had to prove you could read and understanding basic biblical Greek. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a way of weeding people out. The faculty were very patient and gracious with grading, but without fail there was always a person or two who just could not master the concepts and eventually went on to do something else. It was a bit sad to see that happen, but maybe it actually helped them to find their true calling.

The particular teaching that gives the crowd of disciples trouble is Jesus’ words about his flesh being the bread of life and that those who eat it will have life forever. In John’s account of Jesus’ Last Supper, we do not hear about Jesus breaking the bread and sharing the cup of wine. Instead, John uses Jesus’ words and teachings after the feeding of the 5000 as the lesson about Holy Communion. The life of Jesus’ followers will center around this giving of his flesh and blood. When they partake of the meal where that sacrifice is remembered and emphasized, Jesus will abide in them and they in him. That means if you are a follower of Jesus you will always be nourished by Jesus’ selfless giving and by participating in the community that lifts up that selfless giving as God’s way. But for many of those who went about with Jesus, this is just one bridge too far. This teaching is too difficult. It’s like Greek.

The Lord’s Supper and having faith that he abides in us in the bread and the wine is only one element of our faith that may seem difficult to swallow and accept. There are many things about Jesus’ way that make us stop and wonder if it is for us, after alif it our cup of tea, after all. In other places Jesus talks a lot about loving enemies and forgiving our persecutors. He talks about giving what we have to the poor. He models compassion for groups of people we tend to despise.

And then there are all of the teachings about Jesus and his life that have become part of our faith, and these are often too much for us to take in. I’m talking about things like his miraculous birth from a virgin. And his walking on water. And the sign that starts this whole teaching in the first place, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. We live in a very rational age, where we think everything must be scientifically tested before it can be trusted. It is difficult to hear these things about Jesus and from Jesus and still decide to follow along because his words speak truth.

A friend of mine, who is a pastor, recently shared that his own brother, who just like him grew up attending worship in church and who carried that faith into adulthood, recently confessed that he can no longer believe. The brother told my colleague that he just can’t mentally accept the claims of religion and Jesus and was no longer involved in a faith community. I think many of us know people who are in a similar situation, and, in fact, that story is probably reflected in our own faith journey’s to some degree. What my friend did was buy his brother a book that talked about working through doubt to find faith. The brother read it and, lo and behold, it worked. But that kind of story doesn’t always end that way. Sometimes we just struggle to believe and find it hard to make the choice to keep going. It’s important to notice, however, that Peter never claims to understand what Jesus is saying. In fact, it almost sounds like he doesn’t make sense of it all. But he does know that he can’t turn anywhere else. Jesus has the words of eternal life. That is, there is something deeply true and life-giving about life with Jesus that compels him to stay.

What is most fascinating about this moment in Jesus’ life, at least to me, is not the people who turn away, or how Peter stays, but how Jesus responds to all of this. He doesn’t go running along after the people who turn away right at that moment, worrying about how he can immediately convince them to come back, which is what I think the church often does when people leave. He doesn’t wring his hands about his numbers and adjust his strategy. He just keeps going. Even for those who stick with him he knows there are going to be things that just don’t make sense, that will blow their socks off. Even of the Twelve remaining there will be betrayers and deniers. And then there is the spectacle of the cross. It’s like Jesus says that day, “If you think these words of mine are offensive and something to complain about, just wait until you see what happens in Jerusalem. No one will get it.”

No, Jesus doesn’t go running after the people who turn away, but he does chase us with his love. Jesus doesn’t go back to the drawing board, wondering how he can change his message so as to attract more believers. He doubles down on the message. He doubles down on being the Son of the God who claimed the forgotten slaves in Egypt and who led the cranky Israelites through the desert. He doubles down on calling the dead to new life and showing that love is his way and that his love is forever. He never changes his mind, never changes his course on showing the grace that God has committed to give to all people. Jesus watches people choose something else to worship for the time being, but still doubles down on his love for them, even though it means being lifted up on the cross in order to draw all people to himself.

And that means, my friends, all people. Those wearing masks and those who won’t. Those who don’t want the vaccine and those who want the vaccine to be a requirement. Those who master Greek and those who flunk out. Those who understand what’s happening in Holy Communion and those who think it’s strange. Those who believe what we do and those who don’t. Eventually all of our stories, all of our decisions, all our mistakes and failures and triumphs and victories will be viewed in the light of the one who has died for us because of his love.

He has the words of eternal life. Now, really…what else could we choose?

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The One Green Thing

a sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14B/Lectionary 19]

John 6: 35, 41-51 and 1 Kings 19:4-8

My grandmother, who died from COVID this past autumn at the age of 102, could set a mean table. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood we’d gather at her house after church on most Sundays with the rest of my relatives ready to feast on the different delicious dishes she and my aunt had prepared. This was country cooking and baking at its finest. I couldn’t wait to get in line and pile my plate with food. But my parents had a rule: something on my plate had to be green. That was their way of making sure I got my veggies. Green Jello didn’t count. I tried to pull that off once. Green beans counted, but I detested green beans. Broccoli casserole would have counted, but I gagged at the mere scent of broccoli. Fortunately for me Maw Maw, as we called her, always had a bowl of homemade cole slaw somewhere in the buffet, and cabbage, even when mixed with a good bit of mayonnaise, sugar, and vinegar, still has a light green tint to it. So slaw was my go-to green option, week after week. The lasting effect of my parents’ “one green thing” rule was a belief that only veggies are really good for you. All the other things that actually drew me to the table—the macaroni and cheese, the chicken pan pie with that nice bready crust on top, the succulent barbecued short ribs and the gooey sauce they were in—all those things were tasty, but not as nutritious. It was the green things that gave life.

there is plenty of green in there

Jesus is talking nutrition this morning, and he has been talking about it ever since he multiplied the loaves and the fish for thousands of hungry people by the lake one day. The people ate and got their fill. They were hungry and found the meal delicious, like a table set by a country grandmother. They follow after him, drawn by his words and his ability to provide. But at the end of the day Jesus wants people to eat the thing that gives life. He cares not just about our bellies, but about our livelihood, about our soul’s health and well-being, and it is starting to sound, as we listen in on this conversation between the crowd and Jesus, that there is a particular thing that Jesus wants us to partake of. What is the something green?

That’s the problem the people are having. They feel drawn to him. They like the stuff he’s providing, but Jesus is saying that he is what they need to eat. It is his flesh, his body and blood, that will give life to the world. He is the bread that has come down from heaven. The crowd is used to bread coming down from heaven and feeding people. They have several stories, in fact, from their history about this happening. Their ancestors in the wilderness, for example, ate manna to get through each day. It was this flaky substance that fell each night from the sky. They would wake up and, lo and behold, there would be enough to collect for a meal that day. It’s kind of appropriate when we learn that the Hebrew word “manna” is actually a question. Directly translated manna means, “What is it?” They couldn’t really come up with a word for this substance that miraculously appeared. What was it? God’s gift.

And the people in this crowd also would have been familiar with our story from 1 Kings this morning, the one where the prophet Elijah is on the run, fearing for his life. Queen Jezebel is determined to kill him, and so he runs out into the desert for safety. Tired and famished, and unable to conceive of any outcome to the situation other than his death, he lies down and wants God to take his life. And then miraculously, out of nowhere, some bread cakes and water appear. He eats them and is able to continue for far longer than he ever imagined.

These are the stories of a God who always gives his people what they need when they need it, even in times of distress and dismay. These are occasions of God’s unbelievable grace, grace that comes through in a pinch, often when we least expect it and never because we deserve it.  

I don’t know about you, but it feels to me that we’ve come through seventeen or so months of wilderness where God has sustained us the way God sustained those wandering ancient Israelites or Elijah. We’ve been existing on manna, little daily or weekly outpourings of help that got us through the darkest times of the pandemic. What was it? It was the donation of the microphone that the Mawyer family knew the church staff would need to broadcast daily prayer with our phones. Or the words of encouragement that people left on our Facebook page.

Or the phone call from one of our friends. Two different families in the congregation had pizza delivered to the church office at different points over the past year or so. We weren’t in danger of starving, of course, but the thought that someone “out there” was wanting to nourish us with pizza and give us a sign of support helped sustain our spirits and energy level. And I kid you not, but just the very day when I was in my office writing this very paragraph, I took a break because I was hungry and needed a snack, but I didn’t know what I was going to scrounge up. I walked out of my office and there lying on the floor by my door was a bag someone had just dropped off. Inside was a bag of Goldfish crackers just for me. It was like my sermon was coming to life.

this was not the actual bag of Goldfish I received this week. The actual bag was much larger.

On a more serious level, of course, some of the financial relief from the government issued over the past year has meant for many people the difference between staying in an apartment for another few months and being on the street. It’s where we probably get the word “godsend” from. Little miraculous godsends that get us through. If the pandemic has been a desert, or if COVID-19 has been Queen Jezebel, hunting us down, then gestures of generosity and community between people have been the hot bread cakes laid by the stone of Elijah’s head.

And yet, as good and necessary as those godsends have been, they are still not ultimately the “green thing,” so to speak, that Jesus comes to put on our plate. As Jesus explains to the hungry crowd that day, even the ancient Israelites would die, no matter how many days God provided them manna. Even though it got them through a hard time, even though it met their bodily needs for a time, even though it bridged their path to the Promised Land, the manna wasn’t and would never be that particular sustenance that fully satisfied them. Jesus is the real godsend. Jesus himself provides for the deepest needs and the most human longings that we experience. His flesh is given not just to get us from one day to the next but so that we may live forever. His body is offered up so that those who are drawn to him will not die and then experience the ultimate separation from God’s promised land of mercy and forgiveness and love forevermore. They will see the Father.

And when we are drawn to him, we find we end up eating. We wind up at a meal, a meal that Jesus himself once provided and a table he himself sets again and again. It’s a table designed to include more and more people. Furthermore, it is a real fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the faith, not just a gathering of like-minded people who like to contemplate ideas together. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Jesus spends a lot of his time in the gospels contemplating and teaching ideas with his disciples and other people. But we can’t deny that the culminating moment of all of that contemplating and wondering about God is a meal around a table with bread and wine and then a real death on a cross, a moment where a real body suffers and bleeds. That’s the green thing, believe it or not, God decides we must have. We can’t live without it. The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is not just his words and values, but his flesh.

In fact, the experiences of the earliest Christians show us that our understanding of God’s grace in Christ actually came from first experiencing this meal, not the other way around. That is to say, people can really only contemplate what the Father of Jesus is like and wonder about the grace given in Jesus when they first are fed by his body and blood at the table of Holy Communion. Robert Louis Wilken, a church historian and once on faculty at the University of Virginia, reminds us in his book on early Christianity that in the beginning of our faith there was no such thing as a church without an altar. Before there were articles written about the Trinity, before there were commentaries on the Bible and what it says, before there were essays about how to live a Christian moral life, before the New Testament was even complete, there was “awe and adoration before the Son of God alive and present in the Church’s offering of the Eucharist.”[1] He is the bread that has come down from heaven. Those drawn to him eat and live and that life is eternal because in eating we are joined to what he has become. He is already raised to new life, and so when we become part of his body he will raise us up on the last day.

A green thing on your plate, or in your hand, as the case may be. You receive it today and every time the church gathers here. It is the source of the only kind of life that really matters in the end. Feasting on his sacrifice, we are empowered to sacrifice for others. Drawn into his compassion, we are born to show compassion to those around us. Eating a morsel of his humility and servanthood, we are commanded to put away all bitterness and wrath and malice too. Nourished by his love, we get up from this table and go in the strength of this food forty days or more. We re-commit ourselves to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgiving, as Christ has forgiven us. These are words to contemplate, yes. Ideas and values. But make no mistake, we are to be a real, living body that puts flesh on them, too. Godsends. For the life of the whole world.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Robert Louis Wilken. Yale University Press, 2003. page 36.