Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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Soul Food

John 6:24-35

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?”
Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." 

Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 

So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat.' " 

Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.


I don’t like talking about Jesus. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love Jesus; and I feel called to a vocation which has “proclaiming God’s Word” as its primary responsibility. I just find it awkward to talk about him…especially with people outside of our Cross of Grace family.

Generally one of two things will happen when I end up talking about Jesus with someone: 

Typically what happens is that the word “Jesus” (or “church”, or “pastor”) brings the conversation to a screeching halt and I recognize the other person cannot wait to find someone else to talk to. 

However, when I find myself talking to someone who also loves Jesus, the conversation often derails for a different reason. About five minutes in we realize we are talking about two very different Jesuses; or rather about two different interpretations of Jesus. Suddenly the other person tries to tell me I’m wrong, or starts looking for someone else to talk to.

The problem with the Jesus that I believe in and love is that he’s rather odd-sounding.

I’ll demonstrate by telling you what I believe is true about Jesus:

Jesus is one of the three formations of the true and eternal divine force that created, designed, and sustains the universe but condensed into a real-life, flesh-and-blood human being who was born from a virgin and lived two-thousand years ago as a brown-skinned middle-eastern Jewish man. 

He was trained as a rabbi and led a righteous life that was a beautiful expression of the Hebrew prophets’ call to bring good news to those who are marginalized by the oppressive political and religious structures of the day. He performed inexplicable miracles, hung out with society’s worst of the worst, and invited people into a new way of seeing the world by telling stories that few people understood. 

He never said he was God, but others started saying it. But there were others, however, thought he was completely offensive and a disgrace. This put him at the cross-hairs of the powers and principalities. Realizing something bad was going to happen to him soon, he told his disciples that he would be executed and raised back to life. He promised to be with them every time they shared a meal, even claiming that the bread they would eat would be his body and the wine they would drink would be his blood. Sure enough he was arrested, convicted, and executed. And sure enough, three days after his death he emerged from the tomb full of life. He stuck around long enough to scare his disciples, eat some grilled fish, and then ascend into heaven.

Imagine you didn’t know anything about Jesus until you heard that. What do you think about that answer?

You now see why I try to avoid talking about Jesus. Any answer I give sounds weird and, frankly, unreal. The reality of Jesus, as it turns out, is hard to grasp and even harder to put into words. Fortunately, our task is not to understand Jesus; our task isn’t even to talk about Jesus; rather, our duty and delight is to experience Jesus and invite others to experience him as well.

Recall the story from today’s gospel lesson. The crowds are incredibly impressed by Jesus, even though they fail to understand what he’s doing and saying. The crowd wants bread for their bellies; Jesus offers them bread from heaven. The crowd wants to know how to act; Jesus tells them what to believe. They are confused. Intellectually, they just can’t quite gasp who Jesus is and what he’s saying. But nevertheless, they are moved through their encounter with Jesus. Being in the presence of Jesus moves them to pray in spite of their confusion, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  

I am under the impression that most of us have little interest in telling someone about Jesus. It could be that you see such a conversation as a violation of someone’s privacy. Or perhaps you are not confident that you know enough about Jesus to be an effective ambassador. However, what we should all desire is to help people encounter Jesus – the way, the truth, and the life, and to see them moved to prayer.

Jesus says he is the bread of life. Even though we don’t quite understand what he’s talking about, this much is clear: we could starve to death without Jesus. 

Jesus says he is the bread of life; which, I guess means Jesus is “soul food.” 

Soul food reminds me of a special place in downtown Phoenix, Arizona called Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Café. I went there for the first time about 20 years ago along with my uncle and grandfather when we were visiting my grandparents, who lived in Arizona. My grandfather was a wonderful man, but let’s just say that he was “old fashioned” (to put it politely) regarding issues of race. Had he known that Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Café was a soul food restaurant and that we would be the only white people in there, I doubt he would have walked in. But, my uncle, in his ornery way, convinced him to check it out by omitting certain details.  

So, there we were in a small cinderblock building. The menu was scribbled on the wall and it included things I could never imagine eating. I specifically remember ox tail and pigs feet being on the menu. I stuck with the safe standards: fried chicken, greens swimming in bacon fat, mashed potatoes, and my first piece of sweet potato pie. It was one of the best meals I had eaten. My grandfather was equally impressed. So much so, that the next week he took his wife to Mrs. White’s. And a few weeks later, they started taking their friends from church to Mrs. White’s.
Had either my grandfather or I demanded to be told about Mrs. White’s ahead of time, neither of us would have gone – I would have wanted pizza, and my grandfather would have wanted to go where there were fewer black people. And yet, our experience of soul food was one that had a profound effect on each of us.

We, as Christ’s body, as called to provide “soul food” for the world. Not the fried chicken, sweet potato, collard greens kind of soul food (although that’s the stuff that probably can heal the world); but the other, more important soul food – the one that invites people to not simply learn about Jesus, but to experience what it is like to be loved by the son of God – the one who gave up everything so that we would be loved and truly free.

Just as there are people who insist they don’t like soul food, even though they’ve never tried it; there are people who insist they don’t like church, even though they’ve never tried it. Do we chastise these brothers and sisters? Do we ostracize them? Ignore them? Fight them? Fear them? Do we attempt to educate them?

We don’t need to talk about Jesus. Instead, let’s start by asking them if they’re hungry. Because we have soul food to feed them. We offer the bread and wine – Christ’s tangible and eternal forgiveness, peace and love. If you’ve never tried that, you don’t know what you’re missing. And if you’ve had it, you know that you need to share it with others. 

Amen.

The Counter-Gospel of "King" Herod

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it [that is, the recent adventures of Jesus’ disciples, whom Jesus had sent out two by two to heal the sick and cast out demons], for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." 

But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." 

She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. 


 Giovanni Baronzio, "The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of the Baptist"

Giovanni Baronzio, "The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of the Baptist"

Today we hear of the events around the death of John the Baptist, according to Mark’s gospel. It is an uncharacteristic interruption in the gospel. Whereas Mark is typically interested in quickly jumping from one Jesus story to another, this story does not even include Jesus directly. The fact that this story is so unlike the rest of the gospel is our first clue to really pay attention. It is so unlike the rest of the gospel because it is laying out the counter-narrative to the good news of Jesus Christ. Today’s gospel text is a narrative warning depicting the dangers of seeking power in the wrong places.

First, let’s be clear about the title of “King” that is assigned to Herod in this story. The Herod mentioned here is not Herod the Great – the one who sought kill the infant Jesus by slaughtering the babies in the region around Bethlehem and forcing Mary, Joseph and Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt. That Herod is long gone. The Herod whom Mark mentions is Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod the Great; and Herod Antipas was not a King. He was more like a regional governor. The title “King” is most likely a tongue-in-cheek title meant to mock Herod; just as the title “Great” was a mocking title for his evil and destructive father. Far from a tidbit of knowledge useful only to history buffs, pastors, or trivia nerds; this fact is our second clue that Mark is up to something in this passage. Essentially, this is a work of political satire. It is revealing a universal truth by making a mockery of a well-known leader and system. 

This counter-narrative to the good news about a man-child who wanted desperately to be powerful reveals that Herod made a drunken promise to his daughter in front of his cronies; his daughter was manipulated by his wife (actually his brother’s wife, but that’s a whole ‘nother story); and he ended up having to save face in front of his people by agreeing to his daughter’s demand of John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Following John’s gruesome beheading, Herod heard accounts of Jesus of Nazareth and was afraid that Jesus was the ghost of John the Baptist, back to haunt him into insanity. Herod was a man haunted by his mistakes who clung to an abusive relationship with power in order to numb himself from his own pain.

A story with severed heads and leaders looking over their shoulders afraid of the ghosts of their past victims is analogous to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and seems fit for the TV show Game of Thrones. It makes for an entertaining show but the question remains…so what? What possible meaning does such a story have for our own lives today?

The truth, sorry to say, is that our world is infested with people like “King” Herod — people who lord their power over others and perpetuate injustice because the disfigured desire for power fills them with something them that is lacking inside. Having power over another individual or group of people helps them forget about being picked on as a kid or for not feeling loved by their mother or father, just to name a few common motivations. 

And once someone has a taste of power, they rarely pause and think, “You know, this power doesn’t actually fill that void in my soul.” Or, maybe this person deserves respect precisely because they are different from me.

Instead they seek out more power, assuming that the next bended knee, the next heap of praise, or the next nod of agreement will finally stop the pain of not being enough. They are blind to the needs of others in the same way that they are blind to their own needs. Such people can electrify huge crowds of people who feel a similar sense of dissatisfaction with life. A common enemy is labeled, dehumanized, taunted, and targeted. Such people know exactly who their enemies are – their enemies are anyone who doesn’t serve their own interests. Their enemies are anyone who dares to stand up and proclaim that there is another way. Their enemies are anyone who says the problem isn’t with those who are labeled as other, but rather a problem with the leader’s soul. 

Mark dedicates considerable space in his story to depict a weak man who chased the whims of others and perpetuated injustice in an effort to hold onto his sense of power. That depiction makes me think of someone in particular: Me.

In my most unhealthy moments, I feel like the only way to ever be worthy enough, powerful enough, and loved enough, and the only way to fill the void in my soul, is by putting myself over and above those who are different from me. 

I often speak to my therapist about all the things and people I use to fill the void in my life...and you are one of them, truth be told. I seek your affirmation in order to feel loved. I seek your praise in order to give my life meaning.

That’s terribly unhealthy. It puts you in an awful predicament of being responsible for my emotional well-being. It puts my needs above yours. And it puts you in a position that is only meant to be filled by the God of peace and love – a title that does not belong to you. 

I am sorry. I am sorry for my “King” Herod-ness. I am sorry for putting you in a tough spot. And I am sorry that I so easily participate in a world that regularly tosses aside people who do not seem to serve our immediate needs. 

This is not the good news, of course. As I said earlier, Mark tells the story of King Herod in order to highlight just how different John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth really were. And once I am able to see myself in the antagonist of the story and recognize just how dark and misleading that path is, only then my heart is open to the truth of the prophets as revealed by Jesus and John the Baptist.

Who were Jesus and John the Baptist? They were the ones who stood up and spoke about a better way. They were the ones who stood up in the best prophetic tradition and said, “Woe to you, oppressors of the poor and marginalized who seek to fill the void in your soul with violence instead of God’s love. Not only does your way create misery and destruction in others’ lives, but it is destroying your soul also. Repent from those ways and seek the love you desire solely from God’s presence, which has been a part of your soul from the very beginning.”

I came across the following words this week and found a beauty and necessity in them that I have to share with you. Rev. David Lose writes,

“We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus came to make possible for us more than mere survival, more than mere persistence, more even than mere success. Jesus came to help us to imagine that there is more to this life than we can perceive. Jesus came to offer us not just more life, but abundant life. Jesus came so that there could be a better ending to our stories and the story of the world than we can imagine or construct on our own. And when the Temple has just been destroyed, or your marriage is ending, or you've lost your job, or you fear your child will never speak to you again, or you're pretty sure your friend has betrayed you, or you think you may just have screwed up the one relationship that meant something to you...then the possibility of another ending -- a good ending -- is, indeed, not just good news, but the best news you can imagine.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1621)

Thanks be to God, today and always, for the unmerited gift of true grace, love, and truth. May our eyes be opened to the darkness of our paths and may we be inspired and equipped to seek fulfillment in Christ alone. And may we all be encouraged to be a part of a better story for all people.

Amen.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.