If we were to take today’s Gospel reading literally, this room would be filled with folks with only one hand, one foot, and one eye. Fortunately for us all, not everything in the Bible is intended to be taken literally. Seriously, yes. Literally, no.
The Gospel starts out with John complaining to Jesus that a non-Christian exorcist has been successfully healing using Jesus’ name. Now, it was the practice of first-century exorcists to call out a long list of the names of God, archangels, angels, and prophets in order to torment a demon into departing the body of an afflicted person. Evidently, one enterprising exorcist had added Jesus’ name to the list. John is bothered by the fact that it’s an unauthorized use of Jesus’ name.
Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t bothered in the least and tells the disciples to leave the exorcist alone. And he makes a little pun on the word power: “No one who does a deed of power in my name will have the power to speak evil of me soon afterward.” Jesus then quotes a proverb: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Now here is where things get a bit complicated. For in two other Gospels, Matthew and Luke, Jesus quotes a seemingly contradictory proverb. There, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” I think it’s a case where the context makes all the difference in choosing which proverb to quote.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
There is a common thread throughout the readings today: the consequences of human speech. In the Gospel reading, St. Peter finds out that speaking out of turn and rebuking the Son of God is not a good idea. St. James, in his letter, warns of the cosmic dangers of an unbridled tongue. And Isaiah rejoices that “the Lord God has given [him] the tongue of a teacher, that [he] may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
Now, when I was a child, I learned a saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I have read that a version of that saying dates back to the year 1862. Another, much more recent saying I learned in my youth, went like this: “I’m rubber. You’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!” Of course, neither saying is true. Words can, and do, hurt people. And verbal assaults do not, in fact, just bounce off their victims.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear how St. Peter erred most grievously by rebuking Jesus for speaking about his impending death. Peter spoke, when he should have held his tongue. If Peter had spoken out of pure love of the Lord, Jesus’ reaction might have been different. But Jesus implies that Peter was motivated by human shame at what he perceived to be “defeatist” words. Peter warrants the rebuke that he receives. Even so, it must have hurt to have his master call him “Satan” in front of his fellow disciples. It’s a difficult story for us to hear, I think. And it should give us pause. How often do our words offend the Lord? And what rebuke do we deserve?
If the headlines are to be believed, many Americans today seem to think that our current situation is somehow unique. It is not! The authors of our prayer book, and more importantly, the authors of the Holy Bible describe a world, that in many ways, looks very familiar. And we would be wise to listen to their counsel.
The Collect of the Day reminds us that ours is a God who “always resist[s] the proud who confide in their own strength.” The psalmist advises us not to put our trust “in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.” And St. James marvels at how we honor the rich and despise the poor, when, in fact, it is the rich who oppress the poor, who drag their opponents into court in order to extract the last penny from them. In contrast, we are told, the poor in the world have been chosen by God himself to be “rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.”
When Joni Davidson worked on this Sunday’s bulletin, she told me that she was going to change the clip art, since we had looked at pictures of bread for three weeks straight. I understand where she is coming from! In a similar vein, I’m a bit tired of preaching on bread. So instead, I’m going to preach on the Epistle, the topic of which is spiritual warfare.
The question St. Paul considers is “How should Christians confront evil?” Now, if you have picked up a newspaper or watched the news on TV recently, you have seen clear evidence that our country and our world are in serious trouble. But how often do we identify the wrongs of the world with real spiritual evil?
Today’s Epistle speaks of rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil. And in St. Paul’s day, it was thought that the forces of spiritual evil lived in the very air around us. I think it more likely that such forces of evil live, not in the atmosphere we breathe, but in our social institutions.
Let me start out with a legal disclaimer: “All references to cannibalism in John’s Gospel were made by a professional metaphorist in a particular historical context; taking them literally may result in involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital.”
With that out of the way, let’s do a little review. For the last few weeks, we’ve heard a lot about bread: the bread of life, living bread, the bread that comes down from heaven, and so forth. Today we hear more about bread. But it isn’t any kind of bread you can find on the shelves of Safeway! For today Jesus explicitly identifies the bread from heaven with his own flesh. And he claims that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life.
As I mentioned, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, one might even say sacramentally. And latter-day Christian preachers have a tendency to gloss over the repugnant flesh-and-blood metaphor and to start speaking about the Holy Eucharist as soon as possible. But it behooves us to consider for a moment just how disturbing Jesus’ metaphor was for his original audience.
The Gospel lesson begins with one of the most amazing claims in the Bible: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The statement is full of hope and promise, but on a literal level it just isn’t true. For one thing, Jesus is not literally made of bread. And for another, history shows that Jesus’ followers have, in fact, suffered physical hunger and thirst.
Of course, Jesus is not speaking literally, but metaphorically. And it is our task today to interpret that metaphor, to unpack it. What Jesus is claiming is that he is the true source of spiritual nourishment, and that those who are fed by him will be spiritually filled. And folks, we humans, by our very nature, hunger and thirst for just such spiritual nourishment, whether we realize it or not. When we are spiritually empty, we look to fill that emptiness with all kinds of things: money, toys, food, drugs, alcohol, sex…the list goes on and on. But if we would fill the spiritual emptiness, we need only look to Jesus Christ. Through his teaching, we can be filled. Through his mediation with the Father on our behalf, we can be filled. Through the sacrament of his Body and Blood, we can be filled.
The Book of Common Prayer recommends reserving Baptisms for a baptismal feast day, of which there are four. And today is not one of them! But perhaps it should be, for the appointed Gospel reading deals in an indirect way with both of the Great Sacraments of the Christian faith: Baptism and Eucharist.
Last week’s reading from the Gospel of Mark skipped over a large chunk of text, the story of the feeding of the 5000. Today, we get the missing story, although from John’s Gospel.
Word has spread that Jesus is miraculously healing the sick. And in an age when only the very wealthy could afford to consult a physician (much like today!), there were many people who were sick. And they were besieging Jesus. Needing a little respite from the crowd, he climbed to the top of a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. When he sees that the crowd is following him even there, he doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t even complain. Instead, he expresses concern that the people will suffer hunger.
Now, Philip and Andrew, who are there with Jesus, are realists. They know that there is nothing they can do for a crowd of 5000 people. Andrew points out that all they have on hand is five loaves of barley bread and two dried fishes. Philip and Andrew undoubtedly knew the story of how the prophet Elisha multiplied 20 loaves so as to feed 100 people. But for Jesus to feed 5000 from only 5 loaves would require a miracle 200 times more powerful than Elisha’s. Clearly, they didn’t think it possible—even for Jesus. But they were wrong—quite wrong! Jesus took the bread and the fishes, blessed them, and distributed them. All were filled, and there were even leftovers!
In an oblique way, all three Bible readings today speak to the political and spiritual crisis that the United States finds itself in today.
The first reading is an oracle from the prophet Jeremiah. And it starts off somewhat dramatically with a curse against political leaders who are corrupt and ineffectual, leaders who have failed to protect the people they were given charge over. Malfeasance, incompetence, and just plain bad government have resulted in a national disaster. The people of Judah have been conquered by their enemy and are being sent off into exile. Through the gloomy prophet Jeremiah, God warns the leaders of the nation that they will be punished by God for their failure to do their duty: “You have not attended to my flock; so I will attend to you!”
So far, the reading is all gloom and doom—at least for the corrupt leaders of Judah. But the tone changes abruptly to one of hope and promise. God vows that he will reunite his people by sending them a leader who can be trusted, a true descendent of David, a Messiah. “He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This prophecy was made about 2600 years ago, and unfortunately we are still waiting for it to be fulfilled. Yes, the Messiah came as promised, but the promised reign of justice eludes us still. And so, we wait with longing for his Second Coming.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23, a psalm read at almost every Christian funeral, also makes a bold political statement. It starts out with that well-known phrase “The Lord is my shepherd.” Since the shepherd is a metaphor for the leader of the people, what the psalmist is really saying is that the only king, the only leader, the only President who gets his full allegiance is the Lord. After this affirmation of undivided loyalty to the Lord, the rest of the poem expresses the most profound trust that this divine shepherd will provide for every need. He will provide food and water for physical sustenance. He will provide guidance through every sort of danger. No longer will there be anything to fear. Then abandoning the metaphor, the psalmist speaks directly of the generosity, the goodness, and the compassion of the Lord. And he expresses the hope that he may abide in the presence of the Lord forever.
For us Christians, this shepherd, this leader, this divine king is the one to whom we give our allegiance, above every other allegiance. And today, as we recited that pastoral psalm, we joined our voices with that of the ancient psalmist and declared that the Lord alone is our shepherd, the Lord alone is our leader, the Lord alone is our President.
The Letter to the Ephesians goes on to speak of the unity that this shepherd has brought. In the Church, he has united Jew and Gentile, citizen and foreigner. This shepherd, this Messiah, this divine President does not build walls to separate peoples; no, he breaks down the walls that divide one people from another. With the election of President Jesus, there are no longer illegal immigrants and legal citizens. There are no longer Democrats and Republicans. All are united into one new humanity. All are reconciled and welcomed as citizens of the new commonwealth. This, brothers and sisters, is the Christian dream and the Christian hope. It hasn’t happened yet—that’s for sure! But we are promised that it will happen—but only if we follow the right shepherd, the right leader, the right President, the one whose name is above all other names—Jesus Christ.
Lastly, we come to the Gospel reading from Mark. It too speaks about our divine President Jesus. And what does it tell us about his approach to leadership? That he truly cares and that he knows how to express it! He sees people who are oppressed, who are tired, who are hungry. He sees people who have lost their way and don’t know which way to turn. So what does he do? Out of the purest compassion, he cancels the weekend at the golf resort, and he abides with his people. He teaches them about God’s love for them. And as we will hear next week, he feeds them. Lastly, he reaches out and touches them, and by his touch, he makes them whole again.
I took a course on leadership a few years ago. Do you know what the most valuable leadership skill is? It’s the ability to let the people you lead know just how much you care about them. I was astonished! But I shouldn’t have been so surprised. For what we were promised by Jeremiah, what we were promised by St. Paul, what we were promised by St. Mark is a leader who cares for us. And folks, President Jesus has always cared for us, every one of us. He cared so much that he was willing to give up his very life for us. And he wants us to care for one another in that same way.
Now, frankly, no American President, no political leader anywhere, could ever hope to compete with President Jesus. But it behooves the leaders of the world to try a little harder to emulate the compassion of the Good Shepherd. It behooves them to guide and to protect and to feed and to unite. And it behooves us to speak out when they fall short. But no matter how badly our leaders may fail us, we know that someday things will be better—much better! Someday, we will all live together as one new humanity in the commonwealth of President Jesus, and he will fulfill his campaign promise to make Creation great again. Let us pray with all our hearts for the swift coming of that day!
As you may know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but in my humble opinion, today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of it. So let me say a few words about the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
We all know the outline of the story of John the Baptist’s judicial murder, either from the Bible or from the movies or from the opera by Richard Strauss. But I bet that there are some pertinent details that you don’t know. I’ll start with some history that sets the scene for today’s Gospel reading. The prophet John the Baptist, while in his early 30s, reprimands Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, because he had married his half-brother’s ex-wife. (Oh, and did I mention she was also his niece?) Under Jewish law, the marriage was both adulterous and incestuous. As I mentioned last week, the main purpose of a prophet is to call the people back to a right relationship with God and with one another. And that is just what John does, publicly denouncing Herod’s marriage as an offence against God and demanding that it be annulled. Herod has no desire to repent, and he arrests John to shut him up. But he is reluctant to go so far as to execute the pestilent prophet. Perhaps he is afraid to kill a holy man, or perhaps he is just afraid that John’s disciples will riot
Today’s Gospel reading is a complicated bit of storytelling. We get two separate healing stories in what can only be called a “narrative sandwich.” The reading begins with the story of Jairus’ daughter, switches to the story of the woman with a hemorrhage, then reverts back to the story of Jairus’ daughter. I imagine that Mark intertwined these two stories the way he did for one purpose: to emphasize their common themes.
First, let us consider the story of the woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years. Once upon a time, she must have been a woman of great wealth. For in those days, only the very wealthy could afford the ministrations of a physician. But now her situation in life has changed. She is chronically ill. She is destitute, having spent all her money on medical treatments. She has no male relatives to support her. (We know this, because, contrary to Jewish custom, she is walking in public unescorted.) And she is “unclean.” Now, what do I mean by calling her “unclean”? Well, according to Jewish law, a woman who bled was ritually impure. Her husband was forbidden from touching her. And if one so much as sat in a chair that an unclean woman had sat in, that person had to undergo ritual purification.