Sunday, August 22, 2021
Lectionary 21, Year B
Prayer of the Day
Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 Joshua calls all Israel to serve the Lord
Ephesians 6:10-20 Put on the armor of God
John 6:56-69 The bread of eternal life
Title: Metaphors- The Language of Faith
It’s the lazy hazy days of summer. Some call them the dog days of summer – an astronomical term that has grown to mean hot, sultry days of inactivity – ah, the envied life of a dog. (Except when people are franticly preparing to welcome a tropical storm or hurricane. But under normal conditions, these are those late summer days when kids are growing bored with summer vacation (if that is possible) and parents certainly are ready for it all to be over and school to start. How ever you approach these days, they beg for bodies given to relaxing and minds left to aimless wandering.
Yes well, try telling that to the church calendar. On issues of theology, there seems to be no rest for the summer weary and humidity overheated. Last week, we daringly took on the 2,000-year-old quagmire of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and how to see her in her unique role and yet as one more who is part of the great cloud of witnesses. And this week, we have Jesus wrapping up his discourse on Bread with some of his most shocking statements yet that invite us to meditate again on, among other things, the mystery around the great gift of Holy Communion – another tenet and practice of the church, a nourisher of our faith, that has the potential of becoming a theological mine field, with centuries of great minds trying to define and explain it, disagreements about it dividing churches and separating siblings in Christ, and – even sadder to observe – for some, teachings around communion have instilled such fear in people’s hearts and minds that the very gift that should draw us closer to God is instead avoided like the plague out of guilt and shame. A new chapter of controversy is still being written as churches around the country and around the world struggle with communion practices in the time of isolation, ZOOM worship, and extreme safety measures. Do we dare take this one on in the midst of what should be our summer slumping?
Why can’t faith be as easy as what Joshua spells out? In our first reading, he is speaking to the people who have been delivered from slavery, been wandering in the wilderness, and are preparing to finally enter the promised land. Joshua says to them: Folks, it’s quite simple. See what God has done, believe in God because of what you have seen God do, and so put God first and foremost, serve God because of what you have seen God do. Simple enough, right. We can handle that as we lounge around in the summer heat, seeing God in creation, being refreshed by the gifts of God (like ice cold drinks), putting God first (well, in the top three. Okay, at least the top five.) Easy, right?
But then Jesus comes along and complicates things. And what he is saying is not just difficult to understand because it was said 2,000 years ago and the cultural and historical contexts have changed so much. It was hard to swallow as soon as it was spoken. (Pun intended.) We see reported by John that what he said was a deal breaker for many people who had been following him, listening to him, pinning their hopes on him. So difficult to take in that as he wraps up his discourse on bread, many followers wrap up their time of following him and they walk away. He’s gone too far, they are thinking and saying. And the controversial confusion continues today. I remember overhearing a fellow teacher at a school where I was teaching, dismissing and even mocking Christianity because of its cannibalism. And if you look at what Jesus is saying, you can kind of understand why he might be thinking that. Furthermore, from some Christians, to hear them describe their understanding of the Eucharist, they are devouring the true flesh and blood of Jesus, taking Jesus very literally here.
Last week was asked What do we do with Mary? This week the question is, (I’d say an even bigger one): What do we do with Jesus? First and foremost, and always, we have to take Jesus and what he says in a larger context than just one shocking line like: “I am the bread of life. Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He actually says a lot of shocking things – If we really take “Love your enemy” seriously, that’s life and world changing.
Now at the risk of turning this into a prelude of English classes about to be held with the new school year, in talking about Jesus, who he is and what he says, it would be wise and helpful to talk about metaphors. And while you may have looked at metaphors from both sides and up and down, I am finding that defining metaphors can be as expansive as the imagery that they are created to express. The dictionary defines it simply as: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Examples: His words cut deeper than a knife. OR Drowning in a sea of grief OR I’m feeling blue. But I wanted to go deeper in understanding this literary device that Jesus uses so much.
Don’t laugh, but in this YouTube world, I watched a couple of videos. One presented by a college professor, Tim Jensen of Oregon State University, the other by poet Jane Hirshfield. They were both teaching about metaphors in five minutes or less. And they offered some new language (for me at least) that shined some new light on this means of expressing what I thought I knew well. And I ask you to join me in taking a new and deeper look at metaphors, because, while they are certainly the language of poets, considering Jesus’ teaching in today’s reading and throughout the gospels, metaphor is that language of faith. (We consistently see this in the psalms and we certainly see it in today’s armor talk in Ephesians.) But back to the video teachers, here are some gems that they offered. (Hey, if we are going to talk about metaphors, might as well talk in metaphors.)
First and foremost, we think in metaphors. Which makes sense. Our dreams are filled with metaphors. We often strive to understand what our metaphor-filled dream life is saying about our very literal waking life. And since we so natural think in them, metaphors are equipment for living. They enable us to feel and know something differently.
Similes, close cousins of metaphors, statements like the grass was like a carpet, make us think. Metaphors, such as Jesus saying: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” make us feel.
Metaphors are not science. A very important point when speaking the language of faith. (Dangerously, faith is sometimes turned into a science and the Bible it’s textbook.) It is why literalism can be dangerous. Metaphors say things that are not factual, and yet are true. Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. You are my sheep.”
Metaphors are the handles on the doors of what we can have and what we can imagine. Think of Jesus saying: “I am the light of the world.” – a handle on a door giving us the means of opening it and growing in understanding.
When you think about it, Jesus himself is a metaphor. Through him we feel and know God differently. He is more than the person who walked the earth and who spoke the revolutionary things he said. He points to something so much more than the person we see. We see flesh, but in faith, we know he is the Word of God that feeds our souls and spirits. Blood courses through his veins and sustains his physical life, but through faith, we know that what animates his life is the grace, mercy, and love of God, speaking wisdom through his teaching, showing compassion through his healing touch.
All of this is ours when we receive his true presence in the bread and wine, the body and blood, the life, death, and resurrection of the one who is the abiding word of God. The one who walked the earth, who is now with us through the work of the Holy Spirit.
And the promise Jesus makes connected to this intimate gift of receiving him who is the bread of life is perhaps the sweetest of his metaphors – you will abide in me and I in you, Jesus promises. And that is a metaphor that we spend our entire faith journey exploring its eternal depths, feasting on its rich mercy and grace, and resting in its peace-filled assurance,
Now I know I never miss an opportunity to give those constantly confused first disciples a hard time. And of course, outspoken Peter is a favorite individual target – as known as the patron saint of I don’t get it. But today, I want to thank him for his response to Jesus’ question. reminds us that even if we don’t get the metaphor, fully or at all, that’s okay. Most important thing is that we stick around with our questions and confusions. Asking with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” In light of the great defection, Jesus asks the twelve if they are leaving him too. To which Peter says, “Where would be go? You have the words of eternal life.” I don’t think Peter understands all those words. In face other episodes will certainly confirm that. But Peter and the others know to stick around with their questions and their confusions. They are seeing that there is more to this man than just earthly language that can be baffling. As the metaphor that Jesus is, his followers, by the leading of the Spirit, are feeling and knowing something is different in this man and his words. Words that not only speak to our earthly life but to a life beyond our knowing or understanding. And so, they stay. With their questions, their hesitations, with this metaphor of a man that can blow their minds with a word.
And so we are wise to stick around, to keep listening and asking, to keep feasting on his presence, to keep abiding, not because of what we know or understand, but because of who he is – a handle on a door of what God wants us to have and imagine.
The Rev. Mark Erson,