The one about blue laws, the sin wagon, and God’s limitless beauty.

Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from August 30, 2015

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Mark, the seventh chapter:

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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It’s a story that often arises in pre-marital counseling: the crisis of relationship that occurred at the moment when two starry-eyed lovebirds realized that they…fold bathroom towels differently. One uses the corner-to-corner method; the other prefers tri-folds. A friend of mine once told me that she married after a very short courtship. She learned soon after the wedding that her husband wasn’t a graduate student, as he had necessarily made her to believe; he was, in fact, an undercover operative in the CIA. She said that news should have sent her into a marital tailspin, but it didn’t. Her first, disappointed tears, she explained, were shed when she found towels folded corner-to-corner in the laundry room. “How could he?” she playfully exclaimed forty years later.

Of course, this crisis is less about the towels and more about the values that were folded into them somewhere along the way. Values of hospitality, generosity, and kindness were tucked into the creases of these practices by our families and communities-of-origin. The keeping of customs and traditions shapes us, which is why we teach our kids to say “thank you” from the moment they begin to string words together. From these practices, we learn a sense of right and wrong. They are embedded early, which is one reason why it feels like such an affront when they’re challenged later in life.

We meet an affronted people in Mark today. The Pharisees notice that some of Jesus’ disciples are eating with dirty hands. Mark is quick to point out to those readers who may not immediately be put off by this, that all the religious people thoroughly washed their hands before they eat, in accordance with what their elders had taught them. Now, if we do a little digging into the Hebrew Bible, we learn that there is no law on the Old Testament books about the washing of hands. This was a practice that had grown up in and around the religious community we meet in Mark’s gospel.

When I lived in South, I used to make an annual pilgrimage to an East Atlanta eatery called Ann’s Snack Bar, which was famous for two things: its burgers and its rules. The place only had eight seats, which meant that a crowd often gathered outside of the doublewide trailer. There were a lot of unwritten rules at Ann’s, including do not approach the door unless instructed, do not speak to Ann unless spoken to, do not lean or lay on the counter, do not sit or stand babies on the counter, don’t park illegally in the lot, and, whatever you do, don’t curse while eating. Violating any of the unwritten snack shop rules, regardless if you had been informed of the guiding principles, would result in immediate dismissal from the premises. Ann was nothing if not serious.

And the Pharisees were nothing if not serious: it was wrong to eat with unclean hands. Religious people just didn’t do that. Mark tells us that they also didn’t eat farmer’s market veggies without washing them. And they kept their cups, pots, and bronze kettles nice and tidy, just like dad used to. Religious people followed the rules. And, lest you and I be too quick to dismiss these rules as trivial, shared practices were good for the community. Really good. These rituals bound the Jewish covenant community together. It was up to the Pharisees, as the people tasked with interpreting the written and unwritten laws, to ensure that folks abided by the house rules. To be clear, eating with dirty hands wasn’t like folding the towel corner-to-corner or accidentally leaning your elbows against the counter at Ann’s in East Atlanta; it was a big deal. By breaking the practice, Jesus and his people were knowingly or unknowingly challenging one of the very things that held the religious community together.

We in the church know something about this. Every congregation has unwritten laws, rituals, and bans that govern behavior and often surprise newcomers. They vary from place to place. They go something like this: We use three coffee filters and four scoops of grounds in the coffee pot on Sunday morning. We sing “Holden Evening Prayer” during Lent every year. We use a gong and Tibetan finger cymbals each Sunday after the reading of the gospel. We don’t serve doughnuts. We position Easter lilies symmetrically around the cross. We break the bread during the Words of Institution. We don’t break the bread during the Words of Institution. We keep the sanctuary at 64 degrees. We don’t sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” We begin every worship service with “Holy, Holy, Holy” (and have since 1952).

We might call these the church’s blue laws—the do’s and don’ts of faith communities. They may be unwritten, but they are strictly enforced. Visitors, new members, and new pastors have good odds of violating one or more of them.

Of course, blue laws aren’t only an issue in the church. They surface when you stay at your in-laws for the first time, or move into a new senior living facility, or attend the PTA meeting at the local school, or even join a gym (or so I’m told). In all of these settings, when our traditions are challenged by others’ deeply embedded values, it can be tempting to dig our heels in and to hold oh. so. tightly. to the customs and practices, rights and wrongs that have been life-giving for us and for our people.

But Anthony Bloom, onetime metropolitan in the Russian Orthodox Church, who had equal amounts of wisdom and facial hair, says that if you hold on to something too tightly, you risk limiting the beauty of what you’re clinging to. Additionally, you will risk losing the use of your hands to that object. Poetic as he is, Bloom is not the first to say it; he’s simply paraphrasing Jesus in words that we can hear. Jesus says, “Don’t limit the beauty.”

New Testament scholar Gail O’Day says that “sin isn’t a moral category about behavior; it is a theological category about one’s resistance to God’s revelation.” That means that defilement isn’t so much about washing our hands as it is our want to limit the ways we believe God can and will be revealed. It was a wonder that God would be revealed through societal outcasts, who were forbidden to step foot in the Temple. It was a wonder that God would be revealed through a preacher from Galilee and his ragtag bunch of disciples. It was a wonder that God would make God’s self be known outside of the clean constructs and formidable frameworks that the community had agreed upon. The problem isn’t clean hands, Jesus says. It’s clinging so tightly to practice that we fail to recognize the work of God all around us, in us. The problem is limiting the beautiful means by which God may choose to come close to God’s people.

Today, Jesus comes to all of us aboard the “sin wagon.” You know, the vehicle by which we judge our worthiness and faithfulness—and that of others—based on behavior, and he lovingly loosens our grip. Today, Jesus comes to the insiders and the outsiders, to those of us who are breaking the rules and those of us who will die trying to follow them. Jesus comes to all of us and says, “Forget the sin wagon; your worthiness rests in me. Come and see the beautiful things that God is doing through unlikely people, in unlikely places for the sake of all of creation. Come, let me open your hands. Let me open your eyes to a new vision. Come, let me give you hearts tuned to sing my limitless, wondrous song.”

Thanks be to God. AMEN.

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Christ’s Living Meal

Jay’s sermon from Sunday, August 16

John 6:51-58

Jesus said, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Judeans then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Congregations have different practices when it comes to the age at which one is invited to receive the bread and wine and communion. Here at Holy Trinity, we approach the question individually with families. We welcome all children who want to receive when their parents believe they are ready for it. Some families wait until confirmation, as was the practice in my church growing up. Some begin much sooner—even as soon as children can first stretch out their hands to take the gift of bread, which is for them, as for us, the real presence of Christ.

Children bring joy to our gathering around the table here at church, just as they do for any family meal. While kneeling at the rail, kids may look up at me earnestly with a piously outstretched hand…or they might act a little silly and suddenly get the giggles, something that can happen to any of us at church. Very often, our Holy Trinity children demonstrate that they are proud to be included in what they can so easily perceive to be a very important act of the church. From time to time, I’ve witnessed a child of 4 or 5 break off a piece of their bread and share it with a younger sibling. How can something so important not be shared?

If a child starts receiving communion in the early school years, I like to meet with them first to talk about the sacrament and prepare for the big day of receiving it the first time. I usually begin by asking them to describe for me a special meal that they have recently shared with people whom they love. I ask them to draw a picture of that meal, and then I watch them as they carefully reconstruct on paper dining room and kitchen tables, with stick figures of moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, and even siblings. Memories easily come into their heads, and they describe for me birthdays, holidays, or even just last night’s supper. Sharing special meals with people we love is a great starting point in talking about communion because each one of us knows well what that means. Each one of us needs to share such meals often.

When I went to the clinic with my own two daughters last week for their regular well-child visit, one of the questions their physician asked was “Do you share family meals together at home at least three nights per week?” She asked that because we have discovered as a society how important eating meals together is for a child’s health and well-being. She asked about the food, too—“how many servings of fruits and vegetables each day?” But just as important as the food’s nutritional value for a child’s overall health is the experience at the table, shared with people they love.

We know that there are unhealthy tables, too. There are tables set with violence or neglect, which are seriously harmful for the children who seek to be nourished there. There are young people who eat from school cafeteria trays all alone in hallways or restrooms, out of fear of the bullies who are gathered around other tables or the worry that there simply won’t be a place for them at any table. Here again, the food children eat matters very little in comparison to everything else that they take into themselves at mealtime—body, mind, and soul.

In all of these ways, meals are crucial for the spiritual health of adults, too. This is part of the reason why meals and feasts play such a central role in the imagery of our scriptures—both the Old Testament and New Testament. Certainly, these texts arise out of communities for whom actual, physical food was not easy to come by, and where bread made up at least 50% of a person’s regular diet. Tables filled with a variety of dishes were surely a common fantasy. But meals then, as now, were still about much more than the food. The culture in which Jesus lived was a lot like a middle school cafeteria, where who is sitting around the table with you has profound significance. One biblical scholar (John Dominic Crossan) has said that a meal table in Jesus’ culture was “a miniature map of society’s vertical discriminations and lateral separations.” In other words, all you had to do was take a look at where people sat at a table to see where they stood in society.

For something so common to human life as eating, it sure is complex. And into all of this complexity and anxiety, Jesus speaks a promise: “At the table of life, I will be your host and your bread.”

It is laid out before us: a meal where we can be nourished with what we most need, where we can be assured that we are beloved children of God worthy of all of God’s great gifts, where we can receive forgiveness offered freely no matter what burdens we’ve been carrying around with us, where we can be set free to be our true and authentic selves in communion with other people and all that God has made. It is a meal of mystery and promise and self-giving love that has been offered to us without cost, and a place where everyone is welcome. Today we have come to gather around Christ’s table and to be fed.

The really amazing thing is that these gifts of Christ are offered to us each and every day to feed and nourish us, not just on Sunday mornings. Christ continually invites us to a table of abundant grace, where we receive love and freedom. The challenge for us is that we may quite often listen and respond to other invitations: “Come to the table of resentment and anger, bitterness and envy. Come share in a meal of stressed-out competition and rivalry, where you can earn your place at the top if you learn to do enough, if you learn to be enough. Come and be fed by anxiety and the scarcity-driven frenzy of life. There is a cost, yes, but that makes the meal even more delicious.”

We try to respond to both invitations. We want the free, healthy, whole-grain bread of life, while also buying a little of the junk food of foolishness, too. We want to live freely and faithfully, while also keeping up with the ways of the world, to live well, to accommodate, collude, compete. And trying to juggle our responses to these two very different calls can be exhausting. In fact, it cannot work. Responding to Christ’s invitation to feast demands saying no to some other, very attractive invitations. It means recognizing the other calls of the world as invitations to meaningless, junk-food frenzy and participating instead in what really satisfies.*

Two weeks ago, Holy Trinity participated in the open streets day on Lake Street. The city had blocked off the road to car traffic, and a stream of people walked and biked past our church all afternoon. We had decided to set up a table there on Lake Street and hand out free sweet corn to passersby. It was originally just a way of supporting local farmers, but then we also decided the corn was also in celebration of our church’s ministry of lending an ear to the neighborhood for over 100 years. In any case, we handed out 1200 ears of corn that day, and our neighbors were delighted by it. One by one, we caught people by surprise with our offer, and many couldn’t believe it was free. Someone took a picture and tweeted it out on social media, saying, “The Lutherans are giving out corn!” You wouldn’t believe the pile of corn we had out there, and yet it was gone in just a few hours.

I’ll admit that I almost didn’t take part in open streets and the great corn giveaway two weeks ago. I had just returned from family camp. I was tired, and there were tasks to get done at home, as there always are. But I am sure glad I did go. In the span of just a couple of hours, I talked with friends from Holy Trinity and friends from the neighborhood, residents of the apartments and relatives of residents, our state representative, business owners, neighborhood activists, and many strangers. The life experiences and life concerns varied greatly among them. Someone engaged me in a theological discussion; someone wanted to talk about our church’s work with payday lending; someone told me about a troubled relationship with his son; someone just wanted to sit in the shade with me for a while. And what I found as I handed out corn and talked with people on the street is that I was being fed as much as anyone that day. I was getting a taste of God’s good, wide-open kingdom. It turns out, I was a guest at a very unique banquet.

A meal like that changes your perspective. It makes a difference for how you go about the rest of the day, even the rest of the week.

Christ invites you today to be fed and changed by a living meal.

*With thanks, as usual, to Dr. Walter Brueggemann, including his 1997 sermon, “Sabbaticals for Rats?”

Life in Community and the Bread of Life

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

4:25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

John 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Judeans began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

This morning, a good friend of mine, also a pastor, is giving her first sermon in a new congregation. After serving in another location for many years, she is just starting this week in a new community. They are in that early stage of getting to know each other—she and the rest of the congregation—and they will hopefully be together for a long time.

I think that the second reading today from the book of Ephesians will be especially helpful for their new beginning together in worship today. It is a great passage for beginnings in Christian community. It would be an appropriate choice to read at baptisms or new member Sundays, whenever people first become a part of the church, because it describes some core values for what it means to be a community together that is centered in Christ. Of course, this is helpful to read on an ordinary Sunday, too—one such as today, when most of us have been church together for some time and will all hopefully continue to be church together for some time into the future. I know I am looking forward to the years ahead here at Holy Trinity. Well, Ephesians 4 offers a powerful list of reminders for both the ordinary and extraordinary moments of Christian community, for life together as followers of Jesus. Among them are these:

  • Speak the truth. More than just refraining from lies, truth-telling is a way of building trusting relationships. We need each other, after all, and we need to be able to trust each other. So say what is true for you, and trust that others will be able to hear it.
  • Be mindful of your anger. It makes sense, I suppose, that this follows truth-telling. You might get angry sometimes, and that’s okay. You don’t need to be afraid of strong emotion. In fact, there are times when in the face of injustice and violence it would be wrong not to get angry. But remember also that the kind of anger that festers or manipulates others or seeks only to tear down others will be seriously harmful to a community. So deal with your anger well, whether it’s about big things or small things. Be mindful of your anger.
  • Be aware of the needs of others. In your life and your work, don’t just keep your head down focused only on your own accomplishments and desires. Take a look around you, and be mindful of how you could help others. They might need some food or clothing; they might need a kind and gracious word from you, which is just as important. Help where you can.
  • Be kind and tenderhearted. Forgive one another. Forgiveness is perhaps the most important mark of Christian life together because none of us does life perfectly. I need your forgiveness often. We all need to ask for, receive, and offer forgiveness. Church is a great place for practicing this.

Again, while there are other things we could add, this is a helpful list for any Christian congregation, and I hope that it continues to describe who we are together. Beyond the church, this list in Ephesians could also inform and strengthen other relationships. It could serve friendships, marriages, relationships between parents and children, among siblings, in neighborhoods both small and large, maybe even a society. We would do well to study Ephesians 4 often for the sake of all our communities. But if you can’t remember all the details, it all seems to be summed up in that final phrase: “live in love, as Christ loved us.”

That sounds so simple when it’s put that way, doesn’t it? Live in love. It sounds trite, even. And yet there is a powerful promise here for our world—more than just the church, the whole world. What would it mean for us to live in love, as Christ loved us?

I often wonder if the world is becoming more loving or not. Have we learned anything from Ephesians and from countless spiritual teachers who have gone before us, or do we keep falling into the same traps of human nature over and over again? Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed optimism about this, saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I want to believe that he is correct. I want to believe that in the 50 years this weekend since the signing of the Voting Rights Act our society has become more just and loving toward all people. But the death of Michael Brown and all the events of the past year have me wondering. I want to believe that in the 70 years this weekend since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki our world has become less violent and more creative and courageous in overcoming conflict. But the signs of endless war point to a different conclusion. I try to be optimistic, yet when my eyes are opened to the sorrows of our contemporary society, I must confess that it is not easy for me to trust in that bending arc of history.

A couple of weeks ago I watched an interview with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was on the Daily Show with now former host Jon Stewart. Coates, a scholar of racism in America, clearly disagreed with Dr. King’s optimism. Most of all, he said he doesn’t want us to lose sight of individual arcs. That is, when an individual’s life is ended due to hatred, when a life that a mother has built for her child is “all gone in one racist moment,” then we should not “try to make ourselves feel better about that” by talking about the universe’s arc. We need to sit with that pain. We need to recognize that an individual’s very important arc has come to an end.

I appreciate his honesty and his sense of urgency. He is willing to speak his own truth with clarity and passion. In listening to him, I felt an even greater need to respond now to this call from Ephesians to live in love, as Christ loved us. Our world is in desperate need of this love right now.

So I am grateful that Ephesians doesn’t just show us the need for love. It also shows us where that love comes from. Like other books of the Bible it proclaims a consistent trust that God is loving us. God is present and active in loving us in each moment, even in the worries and challenges that we face, even when it is hard to find reason for optimism or hope. I don’t know if things are getting better in our world day by day, but maybe the conviction that we gather around in our worship, the thing that draws us here week after week because we so desperately need it is the awareness that God is, in fact, loving us, and that love is what gives us strength to love others. Maybe that’s what believing Jesus—believing in Jesus—is all about. It is trusting that God will continue to love us—beyond every challenge and failure, beyond even death itself. That trust will renew us for life, no matter what we face.

Wendell Berry wrote a poem that could be a daily prayer for any of us who seeks to follow Christ in a troubled, complicated world. He said:

I know that I have life

only insofar as I have love.

I have no love

except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry

this candle against the wind.

There are times when circumstances in our world make it seem that “living in love” is an unattainable fantasy, or at best just a dimly burning wick in a windstorm. The good news is that the kind of love that can change communities and even societies is not a result just of our own understanding or determination. Through Christ, God will continue to feed us and strengthen us and give us what we need for the journey. You may be at an especially challenging point in your own journey this morning; there are certainly challenges in the world around us, and we cannot see where the journey will end. Still, God will be faithful along the way. In love, God will renew you for love. Amen.