Monthly Archives: August 2015

Living by the Spirit based on John 6:51-69

August 16, 2015

In the Gospel of John the risen Lord says to his grumbling disciples: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”

I grew up on a cattle ranch in western North Dakota, and my father spent a lot of his time and energy building fences and then mending them. Good fences are necessary for raising cattle, to enclose pastures and pens, and they keep the stock from wandering off into the wilderness. But strangely enough cattle don’t seem to mind being penned up–for the most part they appreciate fences. They prefer to stay inside with the rest of the herd, even though they could break through their barriers if they wanted to and be free.

Fences are actually quite fragile human constructions of posts and wire, and beef cattle are big, strong, beefy animals. They could walk right through their confines at any time, but for the most part they respect the barriers that keep them in, because they feel safer there, with a barrier of posts and barbed wire between themselves and the wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties. And although the comparison may not be very flattering, many people are like that–they fence themselves in with their limitations.

You know some people like that–folks who build up barriers to confine and narrow their lives. You can hear them saying–Oh I can’t do this! Oh I won’t do that! It’s too scary! It’s too difficult at my age. I suppose I could but I’d rather not chance it. On and on and on. . . .

Our human lives are by nature finite and limited—that’s very true. We can’t be or do everything. But we have infinite God, and his Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be more than we are and do more than we do. By his transcendent power we are always able to transcend the confines of our situation, whatever that situation may be, if we let him.

This week I got a note from a woman named Rachel from my congregation in Savannah. She is in a nursing home. Her body is crippled by arthritis. “I’ve been in bed for years,” she writes. “I don’t count. I just love and enjoy life.”

Some people magnify the constraints of their flesh, and other people, like Rachel, transcend their limitations by the power of the Spirit, who gives life. And asked myself when I read her letter—Do you magnify your restrictions and constraints, or do you rise above them? And I must admit that at times rather than trust in the Lord I use my limitations as an excuse. It is a natural tendency for all of us to dwell upon the restrictions our flesh places upon us, and that tendency grows stronger as we get older, and we experience more real incapacities. It’s easy to come to relish them, even enjoy them. So you hear them saying–Salad makes me windy. I get heartburn from onions. Waiter, does this salad contain eggs? I can’t have eggs. And red wine makes me nervous. And asparagus disturbs my sleep. But then I don’t like to go out after dark. And I would never fly! Never, ever! And so on and on and on, to anyone who will listen, dwelling upon what they cannot eat and what they cannot do.

But then young people can be just as bad, making up excuses to keep from attempting what is tough or complicated or scary. All of us have a tendency to do that, beloved, glorify our limitations, magnify our obstacles, and build up the fences between ourselves and wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties, and then live inside the barriers we build for ourselves, like cattle in a pasture.

It is what the risen Lord in the Gospel of John calls living by the flesh, letting the limitations that our humanness places upon us—our scruples and our fears and our incapacities–rule our lives. And Jesus is always contrasting our tendency to live by the flesh with another, better kind of existence–life in the Spirit. “It is the Spirit that gives life,” he says in our Gospel lesson, “the flesh is no help at all.”

And the risen Lord Jesus is here right now asking us a searching question–What is governing your life—your obstacles or your faith in the power of God to transcend them? And all of us…all of us, if we are absolutely honest with ourselves, will have to answer him—Lord, in the past I have often let my limitations triumph over my expectations. I have sometimes preferred to hide behind feeble excuses rather than live in the freedom you died on the cross and rose again to give me.

Now our lives are finite and limited, this is most certainly true. But that is not a good enough reason for us to spend our finite days like that, in a pen of our own making. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians—“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

School started again this week for our grown-up son Paul, who is the vice-principal of an elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a charter school in a poor neighborhood and the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary has to exploit every opportunity to make the students care about their school and value the education they receive there. The children are all required wear uniforms, and Paul stands at the front door in a suit and tie to shake to hands with each student every morning and greet him or her by name.

And as a way of expressing school spirit, he acquired as a school mascot a little yellow hamster. The children named the hamster “Little Griz,” in homage to Memphis Grizzlies, the wildly popular local professional basketball team. And Little Griz is also wildly popular.

She visits the classrooms on a regular basis to observe progress. She gives out prizes and when the children try to pet her she seldom bites. But Little Griz does not like living in a cage. In fact, she is an escape artist par-excel-lance. She is a veritable hamster Houdini. She regularly trips the fasteners and jimmies latches of her cage and goes on the lam for days at a time. She is a hamster of seemingly limitless imagination and ingenuity.

Now hamsters don’t live long—two to three years at most—and Little Griz seems to sense this. Her life is finite, and she seems determined not to spend it in a narrow cage if she can help it. And although her daring escapes drive the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary School crazy, everyone is forced to admire that hamster’s spirit. The word “impossible” is not in her lectionary.

But how about us? Life can become a narrow cage if we let it. And the difference between those who live by the Spirit, and those who are still trapped in the limitations of the flesh has to do with their ability to imagine things they have never seen and trust God to accomplish in their lives what seems impossible. Those who live by the Spirit may be frightened, but they are not afraid.

Now I would suspect that in your life, as in my own, there are a multitude of issues that are still pending. We all each carry around with us a thick file marked IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEMS– DO NOT OPEN MORE THAN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. There are seemingly hopeless tangles we struggling to undo. There are walls that stand before us in which we are trying desperately to find an opening. There is a wide, swift-flowing river at our feet, and we stand on the edge of it, waiting for it to run out before we try to cross it, but the river never, ever does run out.

So we need to hear the words of Jesus to his grumbling disciples—“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” We can’t do everything, beloved, it’s true, but God can—and will do something if we if we give him room.

You and I often read the miracle stories in the scriptures, and then wonder at the lack of miracles in our ordinary lives. But if we don’t see miracles it is because we don’t expect any. Actually wonderful things are happening all the time, all around us, in this world where literally anything can happen. But our hearts are not expectant. We do not see the glory of God, we do not see the Son of Man ascending, because our eyes are always fixed on the ground, upon our limitations and our barriers.

But the Lord is always calling us to imagine what he could do, and then he is ready to accomplish even more than we can imagine in our wildest daydreams. He will address the problems that we have long ago marked IMPOSSIBLE. He will show us the low door in the wall, and he will unlock it for us. But for our part—in the Spirit of Jesus and in the light of his example—we need to step forward into the swift-flowing river of life at our feet and stop hiding behind our limitations.

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Filed under Gospels, Life in the Spirit, New Testament

Letting it Go 1 Kings 19:1-8

Letting It Go   A sermon preached August 9, 2015

In 1 Kings 19:1-8 it says that “the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched [the prophet Elijah] and said. ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ And he arose and ate and drank, and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

This day to day world we are living in right now is actually a school, beloved, a school in which we are enrolled for a few years to acquire the lessons we need to prepare ourselves for what is coming next, for our graduation into Eternity, into that life that really is Life. And the lessons we fail to absorb in this one, we will have to mug up in the next life. Here or there, they must be learned.

So if going to church doesn’t help us absorb those crucial lessons we need to learn before we die, beloved, what good is it? If we aren’t here to learn something eternally useful, why on a Sunday morning you and I could just as well be at Dunkin’ Donuts drinking coffee and eating those plump donuts filled raspberry jelly we used to call Bismarcks. But we can’t sit around eating Bismarcks our whole lives long; we need something more substantial. So we come here to listen to the Spirit of Jesus who says—I am the living bread that came down from heaven. The Spirit has a lesson to teach us this morning, beloved, so let’s get right down to business.

We have before us a part of the life’s story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. At the moment when we catch up with him, the prophet is caught between a rock and hard place. Obedient to what he regarded as the LORD’s command, Elijah had first defeated and then slaughtered the prophets of the pagan god Baal. Now Baal had an awful a lot of prophets. They were even greater in number than those who have announced they are candidates for the presidency of the United States.

There were four hundred and fifty of them, the Bible says, and they were under the protection and patronage of Queen Jezebel of Israel, who made the wicked queen in Snow White look like Betty Crocker. So when Jezebel found out that Elijah had put all her prophets to death, she sent a message to him saying—“So may the gods do to me and more also, you wretched, disgusting little man, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (I added in the “wretched, disgusting little man” part so you would get the idea that Queen Jezebel meant business.) She was not a woman to be trifled with. Elijah knew it, and it says, “He was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life.”

So it is against this background which our story takes place. Elijah is between a rock and hard place, almost literally. He is out in the stony wilderness all alone. He sits down under a solitary broom tree and says, “It is enough, now, O LORD, take away my life.”

So what is enough? Well, you and I both know perfectly well what enough is. Enough is a place, a wilderness place where we have all been at one time or another. Elijah had reached enough. He was oppressed by his own violent past and sapped by the hatred of the wicked queen Jezebel. She was strong, and a hatred like hers drains the life blood out of you. And at the same time Elijah was disgusted with himself, ashamed because in the face of her threats he had turned tail and run. “I am no better than my fathers,” he says. Furthermore he was alone and hungry, and hunger and isolation always make everything seem worse even than it is. But most of all Elijah was just mortally tired, tired of trying to be stronger than he really was, tired of trying to change the things that resist change, tired of trying to do the will of the LORD in the face of overwhelming evil. And you and I can certainly identify with that. We too have been to the place called Enough.

“LORD, take away my life,” Elijah says. He just wanted to die. Now whereas suicide demands a particular sort of person with a despairing courage few of us have, and relatively few people seriously contemplate it, all of us get to the place where the prophet was, the place called Enough. It is a wilderness where we can’t see any reason for going further, where we look back on our lives and see only failure, where are so dead tired all we want is just to lie down and die.

But instead of dying we lie down and go to sleep. And that’s exactly what the LORD’s prophet did. Depressed and exhausted, he lay down under the broom tree and slept. What happened next was strange, but it was real, and not a dream. An angel touched him and he awoke to discover that the LORD had provided him with food, not coffee and jelly-filled donuts, but something more substantial–bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And the messenger from God said, Get up and eat. No please. Just a simple command. Get up and eat something. You’ll feel better. I can hear my mother saying it—It’s not that important. It doesn’t matter. Let it go….

When you are in a foreign city your ears are always alive to the sound of your own language being spoken. We were in the lobby of our hotel in Paris a few weeks ago when I caught the sound of two women speaking English. They spoke, as Americans often do, just a little too loudly not to be overheard. They were discussing some problem they had had with their baggage. Something was broken or missing or hadn’t shown up when it should have. It wasn‘t clear what was wrong exactly, but something surely was. One woman was angry and she all for going back to complain and seek some sort of restitution—an apology at the very least. “It isn’t right!” she kept saying. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that sort of carelessness!” The other woman heard her out, but she was equally determined to let the matter go. “We’re in Paris,” she said. “We may never be here again. I don’t want to waste our time here with things that’s don’t matter. Just let it go.”

So they went off together, still arguing about their baggage. It didn’t sound like a resolution was in sight. Now I love to travel, but I am convinced that the best way to travel is carelessly. Bad things are going happen along your journey. It’s inevitable. Your baggage will sometimes get misplaced, lost or damaged. You can’t always ignore the bad things that happen, but the best way of dealing with them is by just letting them go and moving on. The journey is so much more important, beloved, than the baggage we take along on it. So let it go.

Let it go. “Get up and eat,” the angel had to say to Elijah a second time, “otherwise the journey is too great for you.” The command has two parts: First of all–Get up–and then—eat something. In life, which is the journey we are all taking, we are constantly being presented with a choice whether to fret and brood about our baggage and cling to it like grim death or get up and let it go. Our anger and our guilt, the memory of our past failures, the pain of our present heartaches, and the anxiety of our future fears are nothing but dead weight. If we drag all that baggage along, the journey will be too great for us. So what are you carrying, beloved? Whatever it is, let it go.

There is a story told of two monks, a master and his disciple, who were on a journey. It had been raining for the past two weeks—we can identify with that!—and there were deep muddy, greasy puddles everywhere. As they passed through a town along their way the monks saw a richly dressed woman trying to cross the street. She had apparently been shopping and had gotten caught by the rain, and now she stood there, looking very cross and impatient—like Donald Trump in a frock–scolding her servants. But she couldn’t step across the deep muddy puddles in the street without spoiling her beautiful yellow silk dress. And her servants were so loaded down with parcels and packages that they couldn’t help her. So without further ado the older monk picked the woman up, put her on his back, and carried her across the muddy street, setting her down gently on the other side. But she didn’t bother to thank him. She just pushed him aside and went on her way.

The younger monk saw all this happen and all that day he brooded on it. Then at last he could contain his indignation no longer. “Master,” he said, “that woman back there was very rude to you. You picked her up and carried her across the street, and she didn’t even bother to thank you.”

“I set that woman down hours ago,” replied the master to his disciple. “So why are you still carrying her?”

So, beloved, why are you still carrying whatever—or whoever–you are still carrying? This is the place you need to set your baggage down. And now is the time to get up and leave it behind. Each week the Lord says to us–“Arise and eat.” We each have excess baggage we are dragging along, but this is the place to leave it, and Holy Communion is the time.

We can’t set our baggage down once and for all, not in this life. It is always being restored to us. It is always being returned to us out of the Lost and Found. That’s why we have to come back here each week to leave it behind again. And here the Lord provides us with a meal, not of donuts and coffee, but of his own self, the bread of heaven. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” the psalmist says. Holy Communion gives us a place to set our baggage down and the strength to do it. So hear the Lord saying to you, “Arise and eat, otherwise your journey will be too great for you.” Then come and let it go.

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Filed under Old Testament, Prophets