Archive for September, 2006

Keeping Faith Amid A Culture of Fear

Sunday, September 24th, 2006

The most stunning vistas of the Dakotas arise out of a marvelously quixotic mixture of hills and plains. Stopping at any mountain pass on our travels this summer, Steve, our daughter Grace, and I could literally see for miles and miles. Growing up in the Midwest, I was more acclimated to the flat cornfields and small towns of Ohio or the carefully manicured suburbs of Chicago than the stark beauty of the plains.

Amid that great expanse of sky and land, I quickly realized how small my field of vision was in the Midwest. Yet, if I happened to rente a helicopter and fly above the areas which I call “home,” would the view be any less expansive than that of the Dakota plains? Probably not. It is all in the seeing.
This is more than a geography lesson to me. It is also a parable. The question it raises is important for seeing with our eyes and seeing with the eyes of faith. What is our field of vision? Can we take the long look, when we are satisfied and happy? Can we take the long look, when we are buried in class work or buried in life’s contradictions? Can we take the long look, when we are immersed in suffering, illness, or other loss? Can we just stop, and take the long look?

To live as people of faith in times like these means to commit ourselves to a field of vision that transcends the external order of things. It transcends the temporal, the material, and the physical. It transcends the temptations and allures of our entertainment-driven culture as well as the risks and dangers of a culture of endless activity. Continually, faith cuts through the insignificant in its yearning for what is truly real.

Our dog, Irie, is a hunting dog, as many of you know. Her keenest sense is her sight. As soon as she detects a moving object, she shifts into hunting mode, even if it turns out to be a pile of dead leaves swaying in the breeze. I’ll be walking along and feel the leash pull behind me. Irie is several feet back, fully engaged in some interaction I can’t even see. At spotting a squirrel, she will stand at attention for minutes on end. I heard a story once about a Brittany that chased a raccoon up a tree and remained at point all night long.

As I watch every muscle in Irie’s body at its most alert, I can’t help but think of our own call to fix our eyes upon Jesus and sustain that gaze. Hear the words of the author of the Book of Hebrews:

Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in.
Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed–that
exhilarating finish in and with God–he could put up with anything along the
way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right
alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that
story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That
will shoot adrenaline into your souls! (The Message)

 

Do you feel spiritually dry and empty at times? Sustain your gaze. Are you stuck on a life detour you never expected? Sustain your gaze. Are you praying the same old prayers that you’ve been praying for years for someone you love? Sustain your gaze. Do you face the silence of God when you need God the most? Sustain your gaze.

Don’t give up. This is the challenge of the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. Let’s give these characters names today–let’s add faces and personalities to the story. It’s a parable! It is meant to be a universal story. So, for today, let’s call the widow Alma and the judge, Judge Mason. As soon as we name the characters, the story takes on more life.

Everything is piling up against Alma. She may be right, but Judge Mason doesn’t care! Does that stop her? Heck, no! Alma decides to be a holy bother, a continual irritant, until the powerful judge listens and responds.

Jesus’ haunting punch line echoes through the centuries–When the Son of Humanity comes with his holy angels, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8) Will Jesus find people willing to be holy pests, insisting on the right, standing up to the powerful? Will he find those who will pray for years for the same thing and won’t give up? Will he even find disciples who combine prayer with seeking justice? Or will he just find the pious who neglect justice and the activists who scoff at prayer?

While faith calls us to take the long view, there are moments in our lives when we cannot. Sometimes faith is about putting one foot in front of the other and getting out of bed each morning. That can truly be a victory of faith.

“I believe–Lord, help my unbelief!” is the cry of an anguished father, dealing with the untold misery of his son’s intractable illness (Mark 9:24). Sometimes our yearning for faith is accompanied by a host of doubts and questions. Sometimes our faith is in crisis. Even broken or shattered faith finds welcome in the heart of God.

We need to guard against expecting our faith to look amazing and grandiose. Let’s face it–faith often does seem grandiose in the bible. I don’t think any of us have subdued kingdoms, tamed lions, or raised the dead lately. Faith can express itself in many ways. It can be a profound vision for the Reign of God and how that Reign is meant to shape our lives. It can be rooted in the memory of what God has done in the past as we see so clearly in the recitations of the Psalms and the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews.

Faith can be as small as a mustard seed, quiet and hidden, buried in the earth of our hearts, ready to blossom into something unimaginable (Luke 17:5,6). Faith can be mustering the will to live when it is faltering in our hearts, throwing our exhausted prayers on God. Faith can be the raging voice in the wilderness, calling out for justice, asking why, then getting to the place where knowing “why” is no longer necessary (The Book of Job). Faith is never a one-shot deal–we have it or we don’t. Like hope, faith must be tended and nurtured throughout our lives.

Peace Community Church has been on a journey of faith ever since a small group of people gathered for a prayer meeting and formed The First Baptist Church of Oberlin in 1866. That’s 140 years ago! In my 27 years here, countless stories of faith have been woven and are still being woven. It is a holy process, and we are partners with God in this journey.

As we prepare for our offering, I invite you to consider anew your own journey of faith. If you are struggling and have lots of questions, invite someone else into that journey to walk beside you and support you in prayer. Don’t struggle alone in silence. If your faith is strong, let your light shine and become a source of inspiration and support for others. If your faith has withstood many trials, embrace its hard-won maturity–even if it feels very rough around the edges–and befriend those who have yet to walk a long time with God. If you yearn for faith and it seems far away, don’t despair. Many of us have been there and back again and would be glad to offer encouragement and guidance. Always know, too, that Steve and I are here to be there for you.

Let us pray.

An Excursion Through Mark 8

Sunday, September 17th, 2006

In today’s service we are going to take an excursion through the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel. And we will begin, of course, near the end, and throughout today’s service dip in and out of random places in that chapter. Those of you who need to follow along with written text, will be able to do so. Just remember where we left off when I start going again.

We’ll start at verse 27. This is one of those pivotal points in the gospel story. It goes like this:

27Jesus and his disciples headed out for the villages around Caesarea Philippi. As they walked, he asked, “Who do the people say I am?”

28″Some say ‘John the Baptizer,'” they said. “Others say ‘Elijah.’ Still others say ‘one of the prophets.'”

29He then asked, “And you—what are you saying about me? Who am I?”

Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ, the Messiah.”

30-32Jesus warned them to keep it quiet, not to breathe a word of it to anyone. He then began explaining things to them: “It is necessary that the Son of Humanity proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.

32-33But Peter grabbed him in protest.
Turning and seeing his disciples wavering, wondering what to believe, Jesus confronted Peter. “Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.”

34-37Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Everyone who intends to come with me has to pick up their cross and follow me. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?

“It’s the cross I have to bear.” Have you heard someone say that? Or maybe said it yourself? Usually it’s in the context of some difficult, or seemingly difficult, life challenge that we are confronting. The wayward child. The sick spouse. The in-law you don’t get along with. The workmate or neighbor or roommate who drives you crazy. The people who won’t stop filing the law suits.

The reference point is, of course, this passage from Mark 8. But Jesus has something much different in mind when he talks about the cross we are called to bear. He is talking about a deliberate commitment, not a life circumstance that we have to endure. It’s not that those life circumstances that we have to endure are insignificant, nor unimportant in God’s eyes. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here.

The folk Jesus was talking to, though, knew exactly what he meant. Crucifixions were a frequent occurrence. Sometimes dozens of men and women and even children would be seen bearing their crosses on the way to the killing fields where they would die a slow, awful death. If you crossed Rome, you got to bear a cross.

This, of course, is not what the disciples signed on for. In fact, they were looking for the exact opposite. They not only wanted to see an end to their country men and women dying at the hands of their Roman occupiers, they were looking forward to returning the favor. They wanted Roman blood to run deep in Israeli streets.

That’s why Peter and Jesus got into a shouting match. Peter had finally given voice to what everyone had been wondering. Maybe Jesus really was the Messiah. Peter said it, and then Jesus totally threw him off his mark by talking about how the Messiah must die at the hands of his enemies and be raised back to life three days later.

There was no way Peter could hear that. Every Bible believing person knew the Messiah does the killing, not the other way around. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to suffer, but to create the suffering.

And it gets worse. Not only does Jesus claim suffering and death for The Messiah, he says those who follow him get to suffer and die, too.

None of this made any sense to Peter or the others. But this, Jesus said, is where life is. If you want to hang on to your notions of racial, or religious, or national superiority, you are going to lose your soul. If you are hoping for God’s retribution, you’re looking for the wrong god.

So bearing the cross is not about coping with the challenges that come along, it’s about creating challenges, about making ourselves vulnerable like Jesus made himself vulnerable. It’s putting ourselves on the line for Jesus and his ways because he put himself on the line for us. It’s the way that leads to life, to resurrection.

**********************

How did it end up like it did? The beginning of Mark 8 is wonderful. The huge crowd has been trailing Jesus through the wilderness, so taken by his teaching and love and compassion they don’t want to go back home. But they have to eat. It’s been three days and they have nearly run out of the food they brought with them. So with a few loaves of bread and a few fish Jesus feeds them all. Then he sends them home. Later on in this chapter there is a story about Jesus healing a blind man.

So maybe Jesus wasn’t in to overthrowing the Roman government, like Peter expected, but couldn’t he focus on stuff like this. He could sure make life better for a lot of people. Why die on a cross when he could be feeding hungry people and healing them?

It’s obvious that Jesus came to feed the hungry and heal the sick. That’s good. And that’s comforting. We have all known that healing and helping presence in our lives.

That’s not all Jesus wanted to do, though. He came to take on death by dying, to break its power over our lives by his resurrection. And he knew death is not easy to beat, because it’s everywhere. It’s not simply what awaits us when these bodies give up their breath. Its power is seen in our violence and our wars. It’s there in our injustices and prejudices. It’s there in our oppressions and economic disparity. It’s there in our plunder of the earth and its natural resources. It’s there in our neglect of the vulnerable. And if you challenge violence, injustice, oppression, economic disparity, there are plenty of people who will want to hang you on a cross. They don’t want things the way Jesus wants them, because they are doing quite well with things the way they are.

Jesus came to put an end to death, and the only way that can be done is by picking up a cross. It’s a radical message, more radical than the church, for the most part, has been willing to consider.

In another part of Mark 8, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees. They don’t like what he says and what he stands for. Jesus warns his followers about them. “Beware of the contamination of the Pharisees.”

By his own experience, Jesus knew that the deepest opposition to his ministry and mission came from the most religious of people. Those who were the self appointed guardians of religious orthodoxy, of conservative religious values, were the greatest hindrance to the movement of God.

Watch out for them, Jesus said, because they will cloak everything in high sounding religious terms. They will claim their own interpretation of the Bible as the only right interpretation of the Bible. They will present themselves as the real messengers of God. They will claim they are the ones who know what faith is really about. They will take the high spiritual ground. They will be hard to resist because they will come off as so very religious but, Jesus says, they oppose the work of God.

Jesus not only warned about the contamination of the Pharisees but, in the same breath, warned about the contamination of Herod. Herod was the political ruler of Israel. The challenges to the gospel of Jesus Christ are more than doubled when the religious leaders and the political leaders are working together to put a stop to it. And like yeast in the flour, you don’t even realize what they are doing. So you’ve got to pay attention and not believe a word they say.

********************

In the very last verse of Mark 8, Jesus talks about his message embarrassing us. “If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Humanity when he arrives in all the splendor of God, with an army of the holy angels.”

We have let ourselves get embarrassed by the wrong things. We squirm sometimes when people find out we go to church. We try to reassure them that we’re not fanatical, that we are reasonable about our Christianity. But Jesus never was looking, as far as I can tell, for something reasonable out of us.

And I don’t think he imagined the embarrassment would come because we claim to believe in him. Being religious was a pretty normal thing in his day. The embarrassment would come because following him would put us at such odds with the way things are done in this world. That’s what Peter was feeling when he started yelling at Jesus. He wanted a Messiah who was much easier to take, much less embarrassing, a Messiah who would conform to all their expectations.

Christianity has done a pretty good job of presenting a Jesus who won’t cause the kind of embarrassment that Jesus imagined and Peter feared. If his call to make peace, love our enemies, do good to those who do badly to us, give up on our notions of racial, national, or gender superiority, trust God rather than our bank accounts or our nation’s military is only going to put us at odds with our friends and neighbors and culture, why fight that battle? The TV preachers offer something that is a lot less of a personal challenge.

Here’s the thing, Jesus knew the cross was hard. He knew that people weren’t going to like what he was saying and doing, and what he was calling us to say and do.

But as hard as Peter and all the rest of us find that hard to take, Jesus believed with every ounce of his being that it was the way to real life, to finding our true selves.

And Jesus also knew that the cross and the resurrection are one package. Death can’t conquer life, no matter how hard it tries, and it tried really hard with Jesus.

All along the way, the cross was before Jesus. He knew it was waiting for him. But he also knew life was waiting for him, because God is a God of Life. He didn’t imagine anything else for us, nor should we.

Nurturing Hope in a Time of Fear, or This is No Time for Spiritual Cynics

Sunday, September 10th, 2006

In 1972 or thereabouts, the name Kathryn Kuhlman was synonymous with faith healing. She packed stadiums much like Jesus packed hills and lakeshores in his day. On a whim and a prayer, a few students from my college bible study group traveled from Greencastle, Indiana, to Chicago, Illinois, to attend one of her healing services.

When we arrived, the place was packed. Excitement and anticipation permeated the crowd. On one side, parents and caregivers flanked rows of wheelchairs, filled with people of all ages. Our little group of healthy college students came just to be there and see God in action.

There was preaching. There was prayer. Illnesses and conditions were called out. People came forward. With a touch of Kathryn’s hand and a breath of divine power, they fell to the floor, slain by the spirit. The healed were assisted to their feet and sent off to their seats, praising God. Hallelujahs filled the auditorium.

It was glorious. Truly, it was. As we slowly filed out after the service, my eyes fixated upon a mother pushing the wheelchair of her severely handicapped child. Around her, joy was the predominant emotion energizing the massive crowd. Slowly, carefully, quietly, she moved.

How many healing services had she been to? I wondered. How many times has this child, if he could do such thinking, hoped for release from his imprisoned state? How many times has he been slowly wheeled out of a faith healing service, just like today?

Watching the two of them leave changed my whole perspective on that experience. I do know instances of faith healing. Many of us do, whether they have been spontaneous healings or slow miracles birthed through years of diligent prayer. Our own family has experienced many slow miracles! Yet, this moment–at this healing service–was the first crack in my young, idealistic armor of hope. It left me with new faith questions since my initiation into the world of miracles and faith healings: When is faith alive, yet hope misplaced? Where does hope appropriately belong in the context of the suffering believer?

Thirty-four years later, a 21st century faith question accompanies these thoughts: In a world where lament is both a spiritual discipline and stark facing of reality, what does it mean to lay hold of hope? What is hope? [Members of the congregation were invited to share here]

Interestingly enough, Jesus doesn’t talk much about hope. Instead, he embodies hope for those who follow him. “Give me something to hope for!” they seem to cry. “Heal me! Free me! Release me!” some beg. “Help me see beyond my life and its struggles–give me a vision for more,” others ask.

This is exactly what Jesus does. His healing ministry offers a taste of God’s goodness and a vision worth hoping for–a foretaste of the Kingdom, or coming reign of God. That reign is wide and deep. It calls us to question everything about our lives–our deepest motivations and primary loyalties, our prejudices and our monetary habits. It calls us to enter a new world–a world that pulsates with the heartbeat of God–a world where justice, compassion, and reconciliation are truly home. Jesus offers hope because he offers meaning. Hope reminds us again and again that our ultimate trust and value belong in God.

It was hope, rooted in a vision of the Reign of God, that moved Martin Luther King, Jr., and South African bishop Desmond Tutu to confront the racial injustices in their homelands. It was hope, rooted in a vision of the Reign of God, that inspired Mother Teresa to work with the poorest of Calcutta’s poor.

Closer to home, it was hope, rooted in a vision of the Reign of God, that led the family of the late Dorothea Thomas to buy a new communion set for this church in 1979. The church had 12 members and big summertime crowds of 17. One church member in particular thought this was a foolish, wasteful act. Why this waste? she cried. The church won’t be around to use it! she insisted.

But on the first Sunday of each month for the past 27 years, out comes that beautiful Communion set, inscribed “in memory of Dorothea Thomas.” The Thomas family bore witness to hope with their conviction that God was not finished with this church and its ministry.

That same hope, rooted in a vision of the Reign of God, offers us a strong and sure defense against the cynicism and futility that threaten us from all sides. One of my personal champions of hope is the ancient saint Job, whose struggle with hope and despair is so thoroughly unmasked in The Book of Job. The man faces cascading, consecutive, cumulative losses which are both unexpected and overwhelming. As if this isn’t enough, he is stricken with a physically disfiguring illness that leads others to shun him. The body of the book is devoted to Job’s very personal struggle to make sense of his relationship with God in the midst of these profound losses.

Along the way, Job’s deepest yearning is unmasked. As he explains his predicament and defends himself against the theological attacks of his friends, Job blurts out his hope. It blasts out of his darkness suddenly, without warning, as if hope could no longer be shackled by his anger and despair.
Let me back up a bit in the text so you get some sense of the debilitating backdrop for Job’s powerful confession of hope.

God has made my brothers forsake me; I am a stranger to those who knew me;
my relatives and friends are gone. Those who were guests in my house have
forgotten me; my servant girls treat me like a stranger and foreigner. When I
call a servant, he doesn’t answer–even when I beg him to help me.

My wife can’t stand the smell of my breath, and my own brothers won’t come
near me. Children despise me and laugh when they see me. My closest friends
look at me with disgust; those I loved most have turned against me. My skin
hangs loose on my bones; I have barely escaped with my life.

You are my friends! Take pity on me! The hand of God has struck me down.
Why must you persecute me the way God does? Haven’t you tormented me
enough?

How I wish that someone would remember my words and record them in a book!
Or with a chisel carve my words in stone and write them so that they would last
forever.

But I know there is someone in heaven who will come at last to my defense.
Even after my skin is eaten by disease, while still in this body I will see God.
I will see him with my own eyes, and he will not be a stranger.
(Job 19:13-27)

Hope becomes for us a clearing, whether in the fog of suffering and loss, or the fear of national and global calamity. Hope reminds us why we are here—in simple language, that God has a plan for us, whether in life or death, in blessing or loss.

Two siblings couldn’t manage to visit their mother simultaneously at the nursing home very often, because one’s demanding job allowed no free time Monday through Friday, and the other worked regularly on the weekends. On a rare joint visit, however, the younger daughter made one last stop to see her mom.

“Well, I guess God didn’t answer my prayers,” her mother announced.

“What prayers, momma?” the daughter asked.

The mother quietly replied, “I’m still here.”

“What do you mean, ‘You’re still here?’” the daughter queried.

The mother became quiet for a moment, then replied, “I thought it would be easier for you girls if I just died while you were both here…but I’m still here.”

“God must still want you here, momma,” the daughter protested. It was a little of a hard sell, as her mom lay in bed, dealing with the cumulative losses of health, home, mobility, energy, and daily access to her friends.

The daughter knew her mom could hear God in her protest, even if it required a bit of extra convincing that day.

It is hope that gets us out of bed in the morning, whether she appears in the form of a scrabble game, a phone call from a friend, a child to nurture, a bird on the windowsill, or a burst of deep yearning for the Holy One who can be frightfully elusive at the darndest times.

In a time of fear, amid a culture of fear, let us hope in the God who counts every hair on our head and calls each one of us by name. Amen.

The next time your Mom tells you to wash your hands say, ‘Jesus didn’t wash his,’ and see what happens.

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

“Did you forget to wash your hands before coming to the table, Jesus?” That wasn’t his mother speaking. It was the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. And no, Jesus didn’t forget. He didn’t care.

Hand washing was a big deal to the religious establishment. This was a long time before people knew about germs. And it’s not that they were ahead of their time. It wasn’t the germs. It was Israel’s place in the world.

The elaborate rituals that had developed in Jewish life were an attempt to set Israel apart from the rest of the world, to show all the world their super dedication to the one, true God. And the religious leaders believed that if the people of Israel would be dedicated enough to God, and show that dedication by strictly adhering to rituals such as hand washing, God would reward the nation, and re-establish the golden age of Israel.

So this was all a big deal. And it wasn’t only hand washing. What Jesus did to violate the Sabbath regulations was even worse. Then there were the religious fasts that Jesus and his gang never seemed to take seriously. And he was always violating the rules that had been established forbidding social contact with women and other outcasts that would leave him ritually defiled.

So the religious types were always challenging Jesus about his lack of commitment to the faith. They would exploit times when they caught him in the act of defying the rituals, such as hand washing, because they thought he was playing into their hands. They though they could discredit him before the people.

It never seemed to work, though. Jesus wasn’t the kind of guy who would just sit there and take abuse. He would go right back at them, and it usually turned out they were playing into his hands.

It’s not that Jesus objected to ritual. He was a regular at the synagogue. He prayed. He even wrote his own prayers, like The Our Father thing. He celebrated the Passover. But he saw all of those things in a much different context than the religious ruling class did.

In one of the other stories where Jesus was confronted, yet again, about violating the Sabbath regulations his response was that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. The rituals aren’t supposed to take on a life of their own, but to enhance our lives and draw us closer to God and each other.

One of the things that Jesus didn’t like about the way the rituals were, at times, practiced in his day is that they set up boundaries. There was this notion that Israel, by practicing the rituals, showed it was separate from the other nations. But there was also the notion that within Israel there were distinctions between those who were keeping the rituals and those who were not. It set up social and economic boundaries within the nation.

Evidently, there were other people listening besides the religious establishment. Shortly after this confrontation, Jesus encounters a woman whose child is mentally ill. Or maybe we should say the woman encounters him. Everybody knows she doesn’t belong there, including her. She’s a gentile. A gentile woman with a sick gentile daughter, no less. She’s a kid. She’s a female. She’s a gentile. Where was she supposed to appear on Jesus’ radar screen. Nowhere. But her mother wants her healed and figures Jesus can do it. She is willing to drop the distinctions between Jew and Gentile. She is ready for Jesus to put his talk into action. But is he?

This is where you wish the writer of the Gospels would include a narrator who could give us some clues as to what’s going on. What is the tone of Jesus’ voice when he essentially calls her a gentile dog? Does he say that nicely? And what about her response, ‘don’t the dogs under the table get the children’s scraps?’

Is this gentile woman pushing Jesus along, leaving him no choice but to practice what he has been preaching? Is she forcing his hand? Clarifying things for him? Is she launching him into a different kind of ministry than he had imagined?

Or is there banter in this exchange? Is Jesus simply throwing out the party line about gentiles to see what she has in her? Whether she is pushing him to a new place, or confirming what he already knew, Jesus is amazed by what he sees in her. She gets it, even though the religious types and his disciples don’t. She is open to God’s love and ready to risk faith.

Jesus is looking for people who get it. We can’t keep building walls between ourselves in this world, because those walls eventually keep God out as well, no matter how faithfully we adhere to our rituals. If our purity codes and rituals leave no room for a gentile woman whose daughter needs healed, than there is something wrong with the rituals, not the little gentile girl.

Jesus agreed with his opponents that something ought to set us apart as people who claim to know God. But it’s not the ritual that sets up apart, it’s the way we live in this world.

It’s easier to grab hold of ritual. It’s all written down someplace. There are experts that will help us do the ritual right. Because we place such an emphasis on ritual, even the disciples had a hard time with what Jesus thought was pretty obvious. Everybody was concerned about how clean everybody else’s hands were. Jesus was saying what matters is not how clean our hands are but how dirty we get them on behalf of others. Are our hands lifting up the poor, guiding the lost, carrying the burdens of those who are struggling? Are we using our hands to hurt others or to help them? Are they lifted up in thanksgiving to God or ready to strike someone? Are we using our hands to build walls or tear them down?

For Jesus it didn’t matter how clean the plate was that you ate from, or how consistent the food on it was with the dietary laws and rituals. The stuff that comes into our mouths all ends up going to the same place, the sewer. It’s what comes out of our lives that matters to Jesus. Are they lives of peace and non-violence? Are they lives of love for God and each other? Are they lives seeking to discover the realm of God? Are they lives of forgiveness and mercy?

In many of the on-going discussions about how the church can reach more young adults, lots is being written about the importance of ritual. People write about the need to reemphasize the ancient rituals. Others write about the need to develop new rituals. There are labyrinths all over the place.

Here, though, is what young adults and everyone else knows. Rituals do us no good if all they do is lead us to ourselves. They have to be backed up by something or you either quickly lose interest, or end up fooling yourself into thinking that if you do the right rituals enough times, everything will be okay. What is supposed to draw us closer to God, Jesus warns us, can become a smoke screen so we can stay further away. Rituals aren’t a substitute for commitment to Jesus, they are a way of strengthening that commitment.

We are about to share together around the Communion Table, one of the great rituals of the Church. It’s also a living parable of the fine line we walk with our rituals. There is probably nothing in all of Christianity more disputed and more divisive than what this ritual is about, and what you have to do to really get it right. There is one church in this town where I was actually instructed to not approach the Communion Table. Their fear was that I would pollute the ritual if I ate their bread and drank from their cup because I didn’t view Communion like they did.

Here’s what I think about this ritual. Jesus has invited us to supper. And he hasn’t even asked if we washed our hands. (Don’t worry, I’ve washed mine). His hope is that what happens at this table is simply that we will remember him. And in remembering him, we need to remember that woman who at the least, encouraged and supported him on the path he was on, or at the most, sent him in a whole new direction.

She got it about Jesus. She understood, in him, what God was about. And she was ready to follow Jesus though the ‘Gentiles need not apply’ sign was already out. She knew he had come on her behalf. She is a hero of faith. And nobody bothered to get her name. Why would anybody care about some gentile woman’s name, anyway?

We can’t remember Jesus without remembering her and all the others that no respectable Rabbi was to associate with. But Jesus was no respectable Rabbi. The stakes were too important to be respectable.

There is nothing magic that happens at this table. That little bit of bread and little sip of juice will end up where all our other food ends up. The miracle is that this ritual reminds us that we are nourished by the love that created this world. We are nourished to nourish the world. We are sent from this table to get our hands dirty for the sake of others.