Sermon for Sunday August 26th
This is a great time of year to be a sports fan, as a number of different seasons are all converging at one time right now. Professional baseball is heading into the final month of the season, although both the Dodgers’ and the Angels’ chances of making the playoffs seem to fade with each passing game. College football begins its season this coming Thursday night. And the National Football League is deep into its own pre-season with the real games – the ones that count – beginning in just a week and a half. Even the Little League World Series is underway, with its championship game this afternoon in Williamsport, PA.
But all of those sports seasons pale in comparison to the real season that is just now kicking into high gear. Whether we like it or not, the 2018 midterm election season is already fully upon us, with Election Day only 10 weeks from this coming Tuesday.
For over 100 years, the hero of the Republican Party was the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. But over 35 years ago, Lincoln’s place as the iconic representative of the GOP was replaced by the 40th president of the U.S. – a guy well known to many Californians, who spent most of his post-presidential years about 20 miles from here over in Bel Air, and whose final resting place is at his presidential library out in Simi Valley. I am speaking, of course, of Ronald Reagan. It would be interesting if one could keep track of the number of times in the next 10 weeks that the name, and the ideas, and the legacy of Ronald Reagan will be brought to mind as people prepare to go to the polls in November.
Of all the nicknames or monikers associated with Ronald Reagan – and there are many – probably the most enduring has been to refer to him as “the great communicator.” Love him, or hate him, most everyone will agree that President Reagan had a way of turning a phrase, of seizing the moment, of gathering and galvanizing an audience in a positive and productive way that most politicians today could only hope in their wildest imaginations to imitate.
Some have even compared Ronald Reagan’s oratorical skills to that other great communicator, the one whose words we hear and reflect upon every week as we gather in his name here at church. If Ronald Reagan outshined his political contemporaries, then surely Jesus took the art to a whole new level. Maybe that’s why today’s gospel lesson catches me so off-guard. If Jesus is such a great public speaker, then today’s gospel seems to catch him on one of his rare off days.
We’ve been listening to portions of the same story from the 6th chapter of John’s gospel for five Sundays in a row now. If you can remember way back to the last Sunday of July, you may recall that this story starts off pretty well. In one day, Jesus begins by miraculously feeding 5000 people who had come to hear him preach, starting with nothing more than a couple of fish and a few barley loaves. And that same evening, he astounded his disciples once again by walking on the water on the Sea of Galilee - not a bad day’s work for an itinerant preacher from Nazareth.
But the next day, things didn’t seem to go so well. I don’t know… maybe the fish had been left out a little too long in the sun before Jesus ate the previous day. But whatever the reason, I can only imagine that Jesus must not have slept all that well, since he was clearly off his game. Jesus starts out his day’s sermon pretty well, talking about how he is the bread of life, and how whoever comes to him will never be hungry. But then things start to get a little squirmy when he goes on to say, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” – We heard that in last Sunday’s gospel, if you remember. And if saying it once wasn’t uncomfortable enough for his audience, he says it a second, and then a third, and then a fourth time – just in case his hearers didn’t get the point.
Now I know that there are many who would argue that this is an example of the writer of the 4th gospel taking a certain amount of “editorial license” with the text. This gospel was, after all, written about 80 years after the time that Jesus walked with his disciples… which likely means that it was written not by the first eyewitnesses, but by their children’s children’s children. By that time, the church was already well established with its Eucharistic gathering feast of bread and wine. And perhaps the author was reading back in to history, as it were, penning some words for Jesus to foreshadow a future understanding of that sacred meal.
But taken at its face-value, it’s pretty unsettling imagery… so much so that the writer then goes on to quote some of the crowd saying, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” and to say that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Last Sunday, it was his critics who were challenging him and his words. Today, even his friends seem to be having second-thoughts about staying with him.
At any rate, it is clear that some people “just didn’t get it”… although this is not the only time that Jesus’ message is misunderstood by his listeners in John’s gospel. (Think, for example, of Nicodemus, who wondered if a person needed to re-enter their mother’s womb to be born anew, or the Samaritan woman at the well, who wanted Jesus to draw some of that “living water” so she would never be thirsty again.) In any case, today’s gospel lesson is a shining example, in the words from that classic movie line from the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, that “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
Communication, you see, is always a two-way street. It involves both sending and receiving information. And if either end of that process isn’t working right, effective communication doesn’t happen. A great example of that came in an email I received some time back now.
My friend, Kathy, lives out in Kansas City. She wrote to tell me about an incident involving her then seven-year-old granddaughter, Clara. Clara’s father, Chris – Kathy’s son-in-law – is a church musician, who had just taken a new position at a Methodist Church in the area near where they live. In the week leading up to his first Sunday, Chris had been to the church to familiarize himself with the space so he’d be ready for his first day on the job… and he brought his daughter along for the ride. Apparently, Clara took the opportunity to familiarize herself with the space as well. This is a part of Kathy’s email to me:
Chris reports that seven year old Clara was "reading" from the pulpit Bible, and this is what she said: "God welcomes you to communion. Here are some of his body parts. Thanks for coming. Amen."
I don’t think that Clara is all that different from lots of people today. How often do we try to communicate the essence of our faith, and find we are speaking in a language that our hearers don’t always understand? And so, we think to ourselves, “If only we can say it often enough, or loud enough, or insistently enough, surely they’ll finally get it.”
Some of you may know about the author, Diana Butler Bass. Diana is one of the premier thinkers and writers today about the intersection of church and culture in the 21st century, who has written books with titles like The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church, and Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. (By the way, she is also an Episcopalian.) Diana tells the story of sitting in a coffee shop, overhearing a conversation at a nearby table. A clergy-woman was trying to convince her coffee partner of the essence of the Christian faith. “The Jesus story…it’s all about redemption,” the pastor repeated, “it’s all about redemption,” only to be met with a confused gaze on the face of her listener. Finally, the other person interrupted the pastor and said, “Redemption… you mean like coupons at the grocery store?” Like Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson, we always run the risk of using so much “insider language” that the very people we try to entice to join us in this God-journey are instead pushed even further away.
What are ways in which our language – be it our words, or our actions, or our patterns of behavior, or our expectations, or our architecture, or our music, or our ways of interacting… what are ways in which our church language sometimes becomes the roadblock, rather than the gateway, to someone experiencing the goodness of God in their life? Regarding our often confusing style of worship, I’ve heard it said in some Episcopal churches, “Well, if people will just come and worship with us, after a while they’ll figure it all out, and learn to appreciate the beauty of it all.” Allow me to let you in on a little secret, folks. People won’t hang around long enough to just “figure it all out.” Instead, like those disciples in today’s gospel lesson, they will just drift away – sad, or confused, or disappointed, or hurt, or unfilled… and we will never see them again.
Instead, I think that the challenge of communicating the goodness of the Christian life in the 21st century is that all of us have to become multi-lingual. Now, in many ways, I mean that quite literally. I was speaking a week ago with a member of the Profile Committee, and we were talking about the neighborhood immediately around the Church of Our Saviour. Did you know that within a 3-mile radius of this very spot, 50% of the population is Asian, 25% is Latino, and 25% is Anglo. If we only speak one language, we will effectively marginalize ourselves ever more deeply in a multi-language world. But I think we need to be multi-lingual in a different way as well. I also mean that we will have to be able to speak both the language of the Church and the language of the culture if we are to truly engage and invite people to join us on this journey of faith.
The old gospel hymn written in the mid-19th century starts out with these words:
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
That, my friends, is a story worth telling… but only if we tell it in such a way that those who desperately seek to receive its message can hear it in their own language, in their own context, in their own lives. Otherwise, in the words of St. Paul, our message is nothing but “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
The world is waiting. Will they hear the Good News today? Will you be the one to bear the story, and tell the story, and be the story… for them? Or will all they hear is a bunch of gibberish which means nothing to them? The world, my friends… is waiting… it’s waiting for someone who “loves to tell the story.” Amen.