Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sermon: "Messy Jesus"

King Street UCC, Danbury CT
August 23, 2009
“Messy Jesus”
John 6:56-69

When I was about 8-years-old, and my brother Larry was 7, we awoke one morning and much to our joy discovered that a new house was being built just up the street.
Larry and I stood on the sidewalk and watched in amazement as the workers dug a giant hole for the foundation.
They worked for hours piling the dirt sky high, until the end of the day when they packed up their equipment and left the lot unattended.

My mother, who must have seen the gleam in our eyes, told us that we were not to go anywhere near that construction site.
You know that wasn’t going to happen.
There was a huge pile of dirt, and a giant hole in the ground.
What kid could resist that?
Sure enough, only an hour later she caught us playing on the pile of dirt.
My mother dragged us home warning us that if she caught us out there again there would be hell to pay.
Well, my mother never actually used the word “hell,” but saying there would be heck to pay just doesn’t have the same effect.

The next day, the hole got even bigger, and we watched as the workers poured concrete around the sides.
And once the workers packed up and left for the day,
Larry and I were right back up on that pile of dirt.

We’d run to the top using our hands to claw our way up, and then we’d slide back down the other side. We played King of the Hill, Moses on the Mountain, and invented creative ways to propel ourselves from top to bottom – face first, feet first, sideways, upside down. We had dirt in our teeth, dirt in our ears, we even had dirt in our underwear, but we didn’t care.

After a day spent in the hot summer sun, the dirt was cool on our skin.
And joy was found in the moment we became airborne as we launched ourselves off the top of the pile.

Then Larry and I heard our mother calling us home for dinner.
We quickly ran off the lot so she wouldn’t catch us in the act and then we casually skipped on home as if we had spent the afternoon lying on our backs watching the clouds roll by.

But as we skipped up the front walk our mother flew out the screen door and held up her hand stopping us in our tracks.
We were a mess.
We were covered in dirt from head to toe. Our hair was plastered down with sweat, our faces were flushed and our knees and elbows were scraped and bloodied.
My mother looked at us with fury in her eyes and said,
“Have you been playing at that construction sight again?”
Larry and I looked at each other, then back up at our mother,
And in unison we said, “Noooooo, we weren’t anywhere near that pile of dirt, honest!”

My brother and I were covered in dirt from head to toe, yet we tried to deny it. Much the same as the disciples did in our scripture reading today.

The disciples had been with Jesus from the beginning, following him from town to town, watching him heal the sick, raise the dead, and mingle with the likes of prostitutes and tax collectors.
They stood off at a distance and watched as this crazy preacher man predicted the end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
And they got up close and personal as they watched him wipe sweaty brows, touch diseased skin, and rub spit and dirt into a man’s eyes to help him to see.

They watched Jesus put his hands in the muck of life and dig right in.

If you think about it, Jesus’ hands must have been quite a sight.
Rough and dry from a lifetime spent in the desert sun, his cuticles split and his palms scarred from years of working with wood, surely there was dirt under his fingernails and dirt ground into the swirls of his fingertips.
But it wasn’t so much the condition of Jesus’ hands, but rather what he did with them that irked his detractors. Jesus broke every purity law the Pharisees came up with, yet the people continued to follow him… because they sensed that there was something about him that would set them free.

By the middle of John’s gospel the crowd following Jesus has swelled to 5000 plus, as we heard in the lectionary a few weeks ago.
A moving mass of humanity, pushing against each other and reaching out to receive the bread and fish as it passed through Jesus’ calloused hands.

The masses continued to follow Jesus as long as he fed them and kept them entertained.
But when he turned to teach them, they began to drift away.
Jesus said to them,
'I am the Bread of Life . . . whoever eats this Bread will always live.'
And those who did not believe in resurrection or eternal life, slowly wandered away.
Then Jesus said,
“I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."
And those who were turned off by his claim that he, a mere human being, was on the same level as God, also turned and walked away.
Then Jesus said,
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
And the crowd of 5000 dwindled back down to 12.

Jesus’ disciples pulled him aside and said,
Master, what are you doing?
We had a good thing going here, the people were hanging on your every word, watching your every move, then you have to go off and spout some nonsense about living forever and eating your flesh and drinking your blood?
Do you blame them for walking away?
This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?

And then Jesus responds with one of the most confrontational lines he’s ever spoken to the disciples,
Jesus said, “Does this offend you?”

Jesus went on to say:
If this bothers you, how are you going to react when it’s crunch time and you’re picking my broken body up off the ground?
How are you going to react when I’m nailed up on that cross begging God to end my pain?
How are you going to react when I return three days later proving that death no longer has a hold on you, that with God you will live forever?
Those who walked away in disgust have already proven that they cannot stomach what I have to say, or what is to come,”
and then Jesus looked the disciples straight in the eye and said,
“Do you wish to also go away?”

How would we respond to these questions?
Does this offend you?
Do you wish to also go away?

There was a time when my answer to these questions was, yes.
I am offended and I do wish to go away.
Like many young people I left the church behind only to come back to it years later.
But even now, when Jesus starts talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood I get nervous.
As a former Catholic, today’s scripture reminds me too much of what I left behind.

In the Catholic tradition, the bread and wine is not just a symbol of Christ, it is believed that the elements transform into the actual body and blood of Christ.
This teaching is difficult, and I could not accept it.
I also couldn’t accept the image of Jesus I was shown in my youth.
In the church and school I attended we didn’t have a plain cross hanging above the altar, we had a crucifix.
A 7” tall wooden crucifix with the very real, and very dead body of Jesus hanging on it.
As a child, kneeling in the pew and looking up at the altar, that’s the image of Jesus that I knew.
I could see the sweat beading on his brow, and the blood dripping from the wound in his side, and from the thorns on his head.
I also recall seeing the image of a grief stricken Mary, sitting with the lifeless body of her son draped across her lap, her arms cradling him, just as she did when he was a child.

In the UCC we like to say that the message of Christianity is not about how Jesus died, but how he lived.
We focus on his teachings of hope, and love, and justice.
Not on his death.
A dead Jesus, a dying Jesus, a Jesus who talks about us eating his flesh and drinking his blood is a messy Jesus.
It’s too corporal, too visceral, it has too much of a ‘cringe’ factor to it.

Unfortunately, many of us in today’s world are too far removed from the corporal nature of life to understand what Jesus was on about when he was talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
As a culture, we have become overly squeamish.

Our media is full of images of beauty and youth, we do all we can to hide the sick and the dying from our view, and only 2% of our population still lives on farms, where children learn at a young age that blood and flesh and death are a natural part of life.

I grew up on Long Island, where meat came shrink wrapped on Styrofoam trays and cost 59 cents a pound at the A&P.
We did have a local take-out restaurant that had a poultry farm in the rear, with chickens, turkeys, and even a peacock on display, but I made no connection between the entertainment that the farm supplied and the bucket of fried chicken that my mother was picking up for our dinner inside.

Which is why all this talk of flesh and blood makes me nervous.
When I read books like Fast Food nation, or the Omnivore’s Dilemma, which contain graphic accounts of slaughterhouse conditions and how the food we eat actually gets to our tables, I just want to stick my fingers in my ears and say “La La La La La, I can’t hear you!”

When Jesus talks about drinking his blood, and eating his flesh, I want to do the same.
And I suspect that I’m not alone.

Now we know that Jesus lived in a different time, and he was speaking to a people who understood the world in a much different way then we do.
The ancient civilizations of our own sacred history conceal a fair amount of blood.
Human sacrifice, of children and virgins, was not uncommon in ancient Israel. Which is why Abraham tied Isaac to an altar at God’s command without batting an eye. It was part of the culture. That is until God told him that sacrifice of the innocents was no longer necessary.

With the rise of Judaism, animal sacrifice became the norm.
It is important to remember that the temple in which Jesus walked was soaked in blood. Daily sacrifices of goats, lambs and doves were part of the standard worship program.

The point is that Jesus was speaking to a first century audience.
Everyone in his time knew about animal sacrifice, whether it was in the temple at Jerusalem or in pagan temples in Corinth or Rome.

It was natural for Jesus to speak of his own impending death in those terms, and it made sense for the first Christians to memorialize his death in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, using language that identifies it with the sacrificial ritual they all knew.
Unlike those of us today who cringe when we hear the words “eat my flesh, and drink my blood” Christians in the first century understood that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

Jesus wanted us to consume him. To take him into our bodies so he would become a part of every fiber of our being.
To internalize his Words, and his actions and most importantly, his love.
He wanted us to understand that as we are flesh, he is flesh.
He feels our pain, he knows our suffering, and by making his flesh and blood a part of own we will know his suffering as well.

Jesus wanted us to grasp this teaching fully, which is why he used language that was so bodily focused and why he used that same language while performing the ritual he asked us to do in his name.
Jesus said,
Do this in remembrance of me and become like me in the process.

The language Jesus uses in our scripture reading today made sense to the early Christians. But those who stood outside the early church were just as befuddled as we are.
In today’s reading from John we hear an echo of the beginning estrangement between Christians and Jews. John’s gospel proclaims that Jesus is the only sacrifice that God demands, the priests and the temple sacrifices are no longer needed.

It is interesting to note that Jews and pagans alike would come to distrust the Christians’ Eucharist.
Because it was done behind closed doors with only baptized Christians allowed to participate, rumors began to fly about secret rituals, human sacrifice and cannibalism. Outsiders had only the written word to go by – eat my flesh, drink my blood – with no first hand experience to reveal the true meaning of the text. Taken literally, this text was proof that Christians were cannibals.

For this reason, early Christians were mistrusted, shunned, persecuted, and killed.
Then as now, refusing to acknowledge metaphor can be deadly—literalism can literally kill you.

This is something we still fear today.
We fear that outsiders may take our words, our scriptures, literally.
Or we fear that we may be confused with Christians who do take them literally.
Or we ourselves may take them literally because we’ve never had anyone give us reason not to, and yet the literal meaning of the words just doesn’t fit with our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
So we ignore them, skip over them, push them into the back of the closet.

And when we run across scripture like today’s lectionary reading, we want to stick our fingers in our ears and say “La La La La La, I can’t hear you!”

But lets face it, the Bible is a messy book, full a lot of not so nice things that we would rather not have in there - rapes, murders, baby killings - and we can’t blame it all on the Old Testament while we hold up our shiny, clean New Testament for all to see.
Jesus is messy too. He says things that we just cannot accept.
And we’d rather not be associated with that Jesus.

How many of you have seen the Capitol One credit card commercial where a mother and her son are trying to choose a picture of him to put on her credit card?
The boy, named Jimmy, is about 9-year-old, and he is determined to have his mother not choose a picture that could potentially embarrass him every time she hands her credit card to a sales clerk. He wants her to choose the picture of him in his karate uniform, where he’s looking tough and cool. She wants to use the picture of him taken when he was a 3-year-old sitting in a high chair with a bowl of spaghetti dumped over his head. In the commercial mother and son go back and forth shooting down each other’s alternative choices until much to his chagrin, Karate Jimmy loses and Spaghetti Jimmy wins!

We do the same with our Christian faith.
The Bible is a messy book.
There are a lot of images in there that we wouldn’t want displayed on our credit card as a representation of who we are, or what we believe.
So we do our best to ignore or eliminate those images that don’t fit in with our modern understanding of the world, or who we are.

We don’t want Spaghetti Jesus on our credit card.
Spaghetti Jesus, messy Jesus, tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Messy Jesus talks about being raised from the dead, he casts out demons and walks on water, Messy Jesus parades around with a sign that reads Repent! The end is near! While we cross over to the other side of the street and pretend that we don’t know him.

At least that’s who messy Jesus is for those of us who call ourselves liberal Christians.
For other Christians, messy Jesus is the one who cavorts with sinners, treats women as equals, tells us to love our enemies, and forgives those who have wronged him.

Regardless of our theological leanings, there are some things that Jesus says or does that we just can’t wrap our heads around.
Like the disciples we say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"

And Jesus’ response to us is the same:
“Does this offend you? Do you also want to go away?”
Jesus never said that following him was going to be easy.
And he intentionally gave us challenging teachings to separate the faithful from the pretenders.

He knew that being intellectually committed to God was not enough, we also need to be emotionally, spiritually, and physically committed to God.
By invoking the image of blood and flesh, and creating a ritual that had us eating and drinking, Jesus had us to move out of our minds and into our mouths, our bodies,
To not just contemplate or think about our faith but to taste it, to smell it, to feel it.

But we can’t do that without showing a willingness to get messy.
A willingness to get our fingers sticky and our hands dirty.
To have crumbs on our chin and the smell of grapes on our breath.
A willingness to be like Simon Peter who when Jesus asked, “Do you also want to go away” he answered by saying, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

Believe it or not sometimes I wish we in the UCC were more like the Catholics; that we didn’t feel the need to keep the messiness of Jesus’ death, hidden away. But unfortunately too often we’re more like the disciples, forever denying that Jesus is actually going to die, wanting to keep him alive forever, because we can’t conceive of how we would live without him.
But Jesus asks the disciples, and us, to not plug our ears when he talks about how he is destined to die, and to not walk away when he teaches us something that we may not yet comprehend.

Jesus asks the disciples, and us, to trust that he will live on within us through the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is through the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine that Jesus enters into us, whether we believe it to be true figuratively or literally.

We can’t be true followers of Jesus unless we’re willing to get messy every once in awhile.
To be covered in dirt from head to toe, and to not deny it.
To climb to the top of the hill and slide down head first,
With grins on our faces, dirt in our ears, and scrapes on our knees.
And the joy of knowing that Jesus is leading the way.



Anonymous said...

Hey sis,
Nice sermon -- I enjoyed reading these past few -- nice to have you back and off of facebook.
(I seem to remember a long wooden plank, some bikes and a few Evil Kneviel stunts thrown into those dirty summer days! And dad yelling at us not to do that.)
My comment however, being that I am still a Catholic, is that, I agree it is good to remember Jesus' life and how he lived and his message -- and we should all try to live this way-- but isn't the whole point of Christianity that he DIED (and yes it was messy, we can thank Mel Gibson for not letting us ignore that) for OUR sins! When we do get "offended" and "walk away" it is then that we need to look at that crucifix and remember what He did for us and that being his followers is not going to be, nor is it expected to be easy. And not everyone can step up to that challenge at certain points of their lives. I agree these ideas and images can be scary for children (I have a few of my own "messy" memories) and the key is to convey the importance in an understandable way for children while at the same time they can fully appreciate and understand it as they grow into adulthood. Because as mom probably said, and I am now saying to my kids, "You'll appreciate this more when you're older"

So I agree with your closing that we need to accept the "messy" Jesus and hopefully your congregants, no matter what stage they are in with their faith, will take what you say to heart and won't be afraid to walk with the Lord.
PS I am one of I'm sure a minority of Catholics who truly believe in the "Body and Blood of Christ" so we may disagree there but my own church has much work to do within itself on that aspect.

Natalie Armstrong said...

Really enjoyed reading this. Thank-you.