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So I Commend Enjoyment

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Ecclesiastes 8:1-17
© Stacey Steck

There are many parts of the Bible that may be enjoyed and understood in small, bite-sized chunks like the beatitudes, the twenty-third psalm, and the parables. But there are some parts of the Bible which seemingly cannot stand alone, or which make almost no sense without having to read a really large and rambling collection of verses, like a lot of the letters of the Apostle Paul, and any given chapter from Ecclesiastes. It is almost fruitless to read any part of Ecclesiastes without reading it all, but not because there is some strong thread which ties it all together, but precisely because there isn’t really one. It is a classical Biblical case of the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This morning’s reading of the eighth chapter is interesting and enlightening on its own merits, but reading it alone only leaves us with an incomplete picture of what the great teacher of Ecclesiastes wishes to tell us. And so, I am not going to go into great detail about this particular chapter, but I am going to ask you to go home and read the whole book sometime this week to see what I mean.

This morning’s chapter is, however, representative of some of the book’s recurring themes, although without a complete version of the book’s most famous expression, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” That sentiment is indeed part of what this chapter expresses, namely that as much as we might wish the opposite, life, even life under God, does not play by the rules we might wish to create, but rather according to the sometimes mystifying rules God has imposed, rules which at times seem rather arbitrary and frankly sometimes pretty unfair. If we made the rules, the righteous would always win out over the sinners, the wise over the fool. If we made the rules, we would all get what we think we deserve: a long, happy life if we do the right things, and a swift and appropriate punishment if we do not. If we made the rules, there would be some consistency and predictability to life that would prevent the tragedies that take place seemingly every day in the news, like this week in San Jose, California, in which a gunman took the lives of nine people, including an immigrant who spent his last moments warning his co-workers and helping them to safety, even stopping to call those who were scheduled to come to work soon, instead of fleeing for his own life, only to be shot and killed himself.

And to this, says the teacher of Ecclesiastes, “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” By all accounts, Mr. Taptejdeep Singh, the one who died helping his colleagues, was among the righteous, if not in the traditional religious sense, at least in the moral sense of that moment in which he “laid down his life for his friends.” When asked to describe him, Mr. Singh’s supervisor said, “The first (thing) that comes to mind is (his) empathy and his compassion towards people.” Of all people then, Mr. Singh did not receive what he deserved. But neither did the shooter, who deprived the community of justice by taking his own life before he could be apprehended.
But should we call what happened in San Jose vanity? I suppose we could in the sense that the shooter thought so highly of himself that he thought he could take the lives of others with impunity. I suppose we could use the word vanity to describe what happened in the sense of “it happened in vain,” or for no ultimate purpose. Those two senses of the word vanity do capture, in part, what Ecclesiastes means by the use of that odd English word, but a more helpful translation for our times might be absurd, as in “Absurdity of absurdities. All is absurdity.” It is absurd, it makes no sense, that a father of two toddlers, who is hard working, empathetic, and compassionate, should be gunned down in the prime of his life. It is absurd that white collar criminals who ruin the lives of countless people get less prison time than low level drug offenders. It is absurd that a traffic stop should end with a fatal knee to the neck for nine minutes. These are the kinds of contemporary examples of the inconsistencies of life and justice that Ecclesiastes calls vanities or absurdities, that lead the writer almost to the point of despair. In our passage today, it is the sight of known criminals being eulogized for their philanthropic efforts that gets named as absurd, and the list goes on throughout the book, captured in such compelling phrases as “Again, I saw that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.” It’s all so absurd, he says.

At the same time, however, Ecclesiastes reminds us strongly that in the end, we are the creatures and not the Creator, and that the fear of God is still the appropriate posture. Fresh off the Day of Pentecost, Ecclesiastes reminds us that “No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death,” powers reserved for our confounding, mysterious God who promotes justice but doesn’t always seem to execute it. Yet in the face of all that absurdity, the response from Ecclesiastes is not to try harder, not to join the revolution, not to curl up in a ball, not even to shake a fist at God, but to enjoy the time we have been given, as unpredictable as it may be, remembering that it comes from God and that we could be hit by a bus at any moment. “So I commend enjoyment,” it says, “for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.” More than once in Ecclesiastes comes this advice to get all you can out of this short life. Yes, the answer to life’s absurdities is to party!

If that sounds like a mixed bag, a little fatalistic, a little depressing even, then you are coming close to understanding why Ecclesiastes is included in the Bible. But why would we want as part of our Bibles such a thoroughly pessimistic perspective on life, even if it is life lived under God, as part of the truth that shapes us and that we proclaim? Well, I think it has to do with the Church’s dirty little secret. You didn’t know we had one? OK, I’ll tell you what it is. The church’s dirty little secret is that although we may be “in Christ,” life is not always fun and games, rose gardens, and unending joy. Christians suffer, Christians hide their suffering, and Christians leave the church because they feel they cannot reveal their suffering. Our frequent odes to joy, and to abundant life, and to communion with Christ are not always reflective of the way life is for many of the faithful, and we don’t often leave room for the real doubt, pain, and suffering they experience. Too often, and probably unconsciously, we at least imply that it is a lack of faith that leads to a less than perfect life instead of acknowledging up front that, even with Christ as our guide, “Life is difficult,” as M. Scott Peck famously reminded us many years ago. And by lifting up this reality, we can at least go through it together, rather than alone.

The truth is that your life together as a church is going to become more difficult in the coming months, and that too is absurd. As my time comes here comes to an end, there will be transitions to plan, supply preachers to line up, meetings with presbytery to hold, nominating committees to form, goodbyes to be said, and yes, even tears to be shed. And some may say about many parts of the process, vanity of vanities, absurdity of absurdities, and they will not be wrong. Why should this righteous church be thrust into such turmoil and chaos? It is a chasing after the wind, to use another of the favorite phrases from Ecclesiastes, it is a chasing after the wind to find a new pastor; I mean they are just going to leave after a time anyway. And unfortunately, there is nothing new under the sun, another classic Ecclesiastes saying, there is nothing new under the sun about the laborious Presbyterian process of calling a pastor. It’s the same old, same old. And it’s an injustice that a small, rural church like Thyatira has to compete for the best clergy talent in an ecclesiastical marketplace that places it at a disadvantage, vanity of vanities in a body that supposedly considers each member as important as all the rest. Absurdity of absurdities.

And yet, to use other words from Ecclesiastes, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything,” and “Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.” Who knows what amazing things may happen as a result of this change? It is not just to put a happy face on a sad situation to say that the best is still yet to come, because that’s how it always is with God. At the very least we can say that the witness of 260+ years in this place suggests that everything will turn out just fine. Life will go on, Sunday School will continue, the choir will still sing, and deviled eggs will be served. Things may be absurd for a while, but God will be in the midst of it in that mysterious, divine kind of way, and sometimes that’s all we can rely on.

And so I, like the author of Ecclesiastes, “commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.” And to that end, Flora and I would like to announce a party at the manse on Sunday afternoon, June 13 from 5-9 pm, although you can stay later if you want to! We’ll send out more details, but we wanted to announce it now so hopefully you’ll be able to make plans to come. You don’t have to bring anything except yourselves, we’ll make it so that we can be somewhat socially distanced, and we’ll trust that God will provide good weather. And we sincerely hope you will join us, at least for a little while because we want to celebrate with you what God has done in this place over the last five and a half years, and to give thanks for the welcome you have given us, even if it is in the midst of saying goodbye. That may sound absurd, but sometimes life is like that, and that’s why there is a book called Ecclesiastes. May God bless us as we eat, drink, and enjoy ourselves in the midst of our toil. Amen.


Sorry, no FB Live broadcast available for this week (at least not one worth watching!)

Luke 12:1-12
© Stacey Steck

There are a lot of things to be afraid of in this world. There’s COVID-19 of course, pretty scary stuff there. Dying a painful death is pretty high on many people’s lists of things to be afraid of. Heights, that’s my great fear. Public speaking is a classic one. Reading the second chapter of Acts is pretty scary with all those foreign words. Clowns are popular right now. And then there are the run of the mill fears of snakes and spiders and the dark. And then there are the lesser known, but often very debilitating, fears that we call phobias. You know some of the common ones like agoraphobia, or the fear of open spaces, and claustrophobia, or the fear of enclosed spaces. But did you know about Syngenesophobia, which is the irrational fear of relatives? Someone suffering from this condition can expect to experience a very high amount of anxiety from merely thinking of relatives, let alone actually seeing them. In fact, their anxiety may be so intense that they may even endure a full blown panic attack as a result of it. Can you imagine Thanksgiving at their house? Xanthophobia is fear of the color yellow. The common cause of this phobia is unhappy experiences involving the color yellow, like getting stung by a bee or even getting hit by a yellow car or school bus. Very troubling for some is asymmetriphobia, or the irrational fear of asymmetry. Essentially, anything that is objectively or subjectively out of whack even just a little will give someone with this condition an very high amount of anxiety. Even thinking about asymmetry may be enough to give someone with asymmetriphobia an influx of unwanted dread and terror. Not surprisingly, the antithetical phobia of asymmetriphobia is symmetrophobia, which is the fear of symmetry. And then there is the class of phobias that bring us closer to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke, and in that class is Papaphobia, or fear of the Pope, Hierophobia, or the fear of holy people or sacred things, Ecclesiaphobia, the fear of church, organized religion or holy people, and Hagiophobia, the fear of saints or holy things.

So what should we call this kind of fear Jesus both describes and recommends, when he says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear; fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Well, first we would need to figure out about whom Jesus is warning the disciples. At first glance, we might think he’s talking about Satan, since hell is mentioned, and Satan is supposed to be the caretaker of the underworld. Satan wants us all in hell and would do anything possible to grab our little souls, right? But does Satan have the authority to cast us into hell? Is that Satan’s job? Or is he just the recipient of those souls who are delivered there by someone else? Indeed, it is not the devil whom the disciples should fear. Jesus is pretty clearly indicating that it is God whom they should fear because it is God alone who decides our fate. The devil is powerless over life and death, powerless of anything, really, except to tempt us. And so maybe we should call this fear Jesus recommends theophobia, since it is God, theos in Greek, whom we are to fear. Turns out that theophobia is actually a thing for which people frequently seek treatment. Who knew?

The first part of the 12th chapter of Luke reads like a charge, or maybe more accurately, a warning, to the inner circle of disciples, of what might be coming due to the popularity Jesus was experiencing. After all, thousands of people were gathering to hear him, so many that they were trampling on one another. Such a gathering could be construed as a threat, could it not? And so Jesus is giving them a heads up that trouble may be brewing, and don’t be surprised if you get some questions about your role in this unfolding drama. Indeed, the warning about the Pharisees presages the betrayal by Judas. “What you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that Judas died by suicide, what with the shame of his dark deeds coming to public knowledge. At some point, Judas is either approached by, or goes looking for, those who wanted to do away with Jesus, and surely they had some secret conversations, “words whispered behind closed doors” about betrayal by kiss. So be careful, he tells them, be careful what you say or do, because people are watching, and they might not like what they see. It’s not like the Jewish leadership was the KGB, knocking on doors in the middle of the night, hauling people away, but with a pretty violent Roman Empire lurking in the background, you never knew what could happen. And of course it did ultimately happen, didn’t it?

And so back to the fear factor. Jesus can probably imagine these words provoking fear in the disciples, making them start to look over their shoulders all the time, but that’s not what he wants them to be doing. What he really wants is for them to continue to focus on God, and on the message Jesus is bringing that is attracting so many people, and to let the chips fall where they may. And so he ups the ante and tells them that what they should really be worrying about is not a crucifixion by the side of the road, but an eternity second guessing what might have been. It is life with God that matters, not death at the hands of the Romans. But Jesus doesn’t really want them to be afraid of God in the same way either, and so he follows the warning up with some words of comfort: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” What Jesus seems to be getting at is that despite the overwhelming power at God’s disposal, the power of life and death, the power to cast into hell even, God is benevolent in a way that the powers that be cannot even contemplate, and that rather than living in fear of God’s power, they should live in awe of it.

English translations of the Bible have always had trouble capturing the nuances of the original languages and perhaps nowhere do they miss the richness more than with respect to the word “fear.” In Hebrew itself, and in the worldview of its speakers, the word fear has a different meaning based on context. It can mean either fear like the fear I described earlier, our common fears or our phobias, but it can also mean awe and reverence. And so the famous scary phrase, “the fear of the Lord,” is not about living in fear, but living in awe, not about walking around wondering when God will jump out from behind a rock to scare you out of your wits, but marveling at the rock itself and your own inability to make it. It’s a kind of jaw dropping sense of awesomeness or wonder you experience when you come face to face with something so amazing or divine that it seems too perfect or too untouchable or too indescribable. The fear of the Lord is that profound understanding of the difference between you and God, a way of living as if you know how awesome God really is. And once again, we are betrayed by the translation of the Greek in Luke 12 which simply reduces it all to fright by the use of the word phobos in both places. But it’s the awe Jesus wants to make sure they do not lose sight of, because once we lose that awe, the awe of a God who knows the number of hairs on our heads, then we really will have something to be afraid of.

In increasingly pointed language, the passages that follow in Luke 12 speak of the coming judgment of this awe-inspiring God. Here’s what’s going to happen, Jesus says, when the end of days comes, and what will your posture be? Will it be cowering in fear, or standing up in proclamations of awe? Will it be worried, striving, hoarding of possessions for some futile attempt to survive a siege, or will it be graceful generosity that welcomes God’s coming to make things right? You get to decide, Jesus says. You get to decide whether you will live in fear or awe, because there are worse things than death. Maybe the kind of fear Jesus is really recommending is Atheophobia, or the fear of not having God in your life. What could be worse than living under Roman occupation? Living under Roman occupation numb and indifferent, not caring what happens to yourself or your neighbors or God’s creation. When we lose our connection to God, when we lose that awe, the world is a much duller place, the flowers of spring gray rather than vibrant with color, the songs of the birds monotone rather than symphonic, the taste of Patterson Farms strawberries bland rather than bursting with the flavor they always have. Now, that is something to be afraid of. In a world where there really are so many things to be afraid of, can we really afford to add a life without God to the list?

If we can remain connected to God, however, good things happen. What does Jesus say? “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge. When they bring you before the synagogues [for interrogation, you won’t have to] worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; fore the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” There are benefits to believing. God will vouch for you. The Holy Spirit will empower you. Those benefits probably shouldn’t be the reasons we believe, but they are pretty good perks. We probably should believe in God simply because God is worth believing in, because life without God isn’t worth living, but I suppose God doesn’t mind sweetening the pot. You probably shop at your favorite supermarket because it offers a nice shopping experience, and has the things you want to buy, and not only because it always has the lowest prices, but isn’t it nice when they also throw in a VIC card or an MVP card for some extra savings. Isn’t it nice to have the assurance that God thinks you are of more value than many sparrows and that the Holy Spirit will give you the right words when it really matters?

I know that some of you are still waiting for me to offer an explanation of the “unforgiveable sin” of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Yes, it’s one of the more mysterious phrases in the Bible: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” Very scary. Nobody really has a complete explanation for that phrase but let me just say this. Most of us don’t really have to worry too much about committing this unforgiveable sin because it takes an awful lot of intentionality to be blasphemous. I mean, blasphemy is not casual, not accidental. You really have to work at it. You have to try to deny God. Look at it this way. Jesus says, “Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven,” and that covers a lot, doesn’t it? It covered Peter when he denied Jesus three times when it mattered the most, and it’s going to cover us for almost any slip up we might make in our confessions about God as we are trying to live awe-inspired lives. If there is something we can do that is blasphemous, unforgiveable, it’s living as if God doesn’t matter, as if we are the captains of our own fate, as if have no fear of the one who has authority to cast into hell. God forgives our well-intentioned mistakes, and that might even be the best definition of the word grace. But let us not take God’s grace for granted by making our mistakes without any intention at all. In the end, that’s what Jesus is after with these disciples, and with us, for us to really live like God matters, and like other people matter, even when we fail at it. When we do that, we’ll have nothing to be afraid of. Let us be glad for a little atheophobia, the fear of life without God, and let us embrace the grace we have been given. Amen.

The Power of the People

2 Corinthians 10:1-18 and Luke 19:47 - 20:8
© Stacey Steck

Though it is often attributed to him, William Shakespeare did not in fact coin the phrase, Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. He did write something similar, from which the person who did put that combination of words together perhaps borrowed, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that this phrase entered our lexicon. But even though it is relatively late in being written, its sentiment is surely as old as God. What mother could look at a newborn child and think that shriveled little squinty-eyed squalling mass of pink flesh is beautiful? Let’s face it, newborn humans don’t look that much different than newborn rats and yet it is the rare, if honest, mother that does not think her new child is not only beautiful, but the most beautiful thing she has ever laid eyes on. Yes, beauty is subjective, and selective. It’s true for rats too, at least Templeton the Rat from Charlotte’s Web, who just loved the garbage that all the other animals despised, especially the occasional rotten egg. And Beauty ends up loving the Beast, right? Over and over again, we see evidence that although there may often be consensus around what is considered beautiful, there is no definitive standard. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Authority too is in the eyes of the beholder, is it not? Except in the most extreme situations, like dictatorships and parenting, the reason people in power and authority enjoy that power and authority is because we grant it to them. We vote for them, choose to work for them, idolize them, or by our collective participation in our society, tacitly agree that they are in a position of authority over us. Whether it is because we play the status game, or the education game, or the expert game, when we play those games we suggest to those with authority that they have it and deserve it. This was the basis of the position of authority from which the Chief Priests, the Scribes, and the elders came to Jesus asking under what authority he was going around healing people and driving demons out of people and teach with such clarity that people were saying he “taught with authority.” Yes, the Chief Priests acquired their authority by virtue of heredity. They were members of families who had the responsibility to oversee religious matters on the temple grounds, so they were born into positions of authority, supposedly divinely ordained. And the Scribes acquired their authority by being the most learned about the law and the traditions of the people. The Bible doesn’t record it, but they probably had something like Ph.D. at the end of their names, because they were considered experts in their field. And the elders came by their authority because they were the wealthiest and most influential members of society. They were the movers and shakers in Judean daily life, socialites and politicians I guess you could call them.

And here they are asking Jesus about why he should be considered someone worth listening to in the Temple, where he was teaching every day. What gave him the right to have an opinion to share publicly? I suppose we could give them the benefit of the doubt and put their question down to a genuine curiosity about where he was getting his mind-blowing material from, but we would be far more generous than Luke who makes sure to record that they were out to kill him, probably because he had just driven the money changers out of the temple. And so they ask this question designed to put him on the spot, a spot from which they thought they could prosecute him. “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority,” in other words, “Just who do you think you are? We are those with authority, and we haven’t granted you anything, and yet here you are, all full of yourself.”

And once again, in typical Jesus fashion, he refuses to play the game. “I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Now if this were the Gospel of John, Jesus would probably just have told them straight out that he comes from the Father, but in Luke, Jesus addresses their question about authority with another question about authority. And he does it in this really interesting way. You see, he asks his question about someone who also should have no authority, and yet he stumps them. Yes, John the Baptist was from a priestly family, but it doesn’t seem that he followed in his father’s footsteps, since he was baptizing in the Jordan River rather than making offerings in the Temple. And so John was a man who did not fall into any of the traditional categories of authority, and yet, as we see from the discussion that follows between those who are from those categories, John does have a kind of authority that makes them think twice. And from where does John get his authority? Either from God or someone else besides them, namely the people who believed him to be a prophet, which is to say, those who granted him authority over their spiritual lives, on the basis of some other way of reckoning authority. Yes, authority is the eyes of the beholder, and the common people had voted with their heads – by having them plunged under the water of John’s baptism.

Apparently, these Chief Priests, Scribes, and Elders had noticed the power the people had invested in John, enough power that they feared they’d cause a rebellion if they denied it. They had run into an unexpected obstacle to their authority, not unlike the way that Christian Herter, who was governor of Massachusetts in the 1950s did while he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line. “Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?” “Sorry,” the woman told him. “I'm supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.” “But I'm starved,” the governor said. “Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.” Now, Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would need to throw a little weight around. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.” “Do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I'm the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, mister.”

“Move it along Mister.” “Then Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” And they were stumped, because they had run into two forms of authority their own supposed authority didn’t know how to manage: divine authority and popular authority. Divine authority is pretty easy to understand. God is sovereign. God is powerful. God is eternal. While not everyone in the world believes that, we who do allow God to be the final word in our lives, or at least we say that we do. Proclaiming divine authority for our human actions is a little tricky to manage, and often done disingenuously in such matters as the divine right of kings and mysteriously in the election of popes, but where divine authority manifests itself the most is precisely in the way John and Jesus did it – by walking the talk. The people around them recognized the authority God had given them through their actions – they put flesh on the love, grace, mercy, and judgment that God has proclaimed since the beginning. They reflected God. And this led them to achieve their popular authority. Popular authority is that phenomenon I described at the beginning, the mandate, the purchase, the fanatic, the decision by one or more people that this person is someone I believe in, and am willing to give my allegiance, loyalty, time, money, and effort toward. Some people are worthy of that authority and some are not. Some begin with it but can’t sustain it. Some go to great lengths to muster it, but never can. And having divine authority is no guarantee of popular authority. Just ask the prophets who did many of the very same things that Jesus and John did, with integrity, and yet were scorned, lonely, marginalized people in their own communities.

Even the apostle Paul had to work hard to establish, or maintain, his popular authority despite the divine authority he was given. The passage we read from Second Corinthians is part of his extended effort to reestablish the popular authority he once had with the churches of that region. And if you recall, while he appeals to the divine power at his disposal saying, “Indeed we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds,” in the end he appeals to his behavior among them, how he was not a burden to them, and most of all, how he did not self-promote, how he made it about God rather than himself and let his works speak for themselves: “For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.” I could use the power and authority God has given me, Paul says, but I choose to let you approve of me in other ways. In the end, he seems to have been convincing, because we are still reading his words today, words which have given him authority in our lives because they are in the Bible.

Whether we believe it or not, we the people, have power. We have the power to recognize, create, and sustain the authority of others. We may feel powerless over things like gun violence, white supremacy, Middle East peace, suicide, poverty, domestic violence, and every other social and personal ill we can imagine, but, at least in our nation, authority does not exist in a vacuum. We the people choose the leaders that solve or don’t solve these problems when we vote. We the people choose the companies that pay or don’t pay their workers a living wage when we shop. We the people choose the public figures that populate the Internet with either uplifting content or degrading content when we click. And how often are we voting, shopping, and clicking on the basis of divine authority rather than any other authority? To whom, and to what degree, will we grant authority with the power that comes with our choices? Will we choose those who commend themselves? Will we choose those whose authority rests on inheritance, education, or social status? Will we choose those whose interests align only with our own?

Or will we choose those who stand in the river calling people to repentance, those whose letters are weighty and strong, but whose bodily presence is weak and whose speech is contemptible, those who follow the path of public humiliation on the cross when the rescue by ten thousands of angels is at hand? Let me ask you a question, and you tell me: In our own time, were the ministries of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, Daniel Berrigan, and Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Massachusetts lady in charge of the chicken from heaven, or were they of human origin? Discuss. Amen.

Holy v. Ordinary

1 Samuel 21:1-15 and Matthew 15:29-39
© Stacey Steck

Holy or ordinary, sacred or profane, clean or unclean, sanctified or desecrated. Just some of the words we use to describe the divide we experience between what we perceive as godly and ungodly. Some things are just cut from different cloth. Some things are innately pure. Some things are simply special. And those things are better than other things, right? Holy, sacred, clean, and sanctified is preferable to ordinary, profane, unclean and desecrated, right? I mean, people in the Bible have been struck down by God for not making the right distinction. Remember poor Uzzah, the guy who in good faith tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant when it seemed like it might fall to the ground, but who was struck down by God because he dared to touch the holy object with his ordinary hand. In some ways, the whole idea of God rests on this dualism, that there are two classes of objects, places, peoples, attitudes, behaviors, and deities, and woe betide the person mixes these God-given distinctions. Just ask poor Ahimelech.

Ahimelech should have known the difference, shouldn’t he? He was a priest in charge of the holy things, the keeper of the sacred objects, the arbiter of cleanliness and sanctity. It was his job to see that the holy bread was used only for holy purposes, but he blew it and ended up dead because he allowed that holy bread to be used in ordinary circumstances. His death is related in the next chapter of First Samuel, and with the lead in I’ve been giving you, you might think that the reason Ahimelech died is because he allowed David to use for ordinary purposes the holy bread. Maybe you remember something about this holy bread, or the bread of the presence, which in the King James version was called the showbread. Now, if I were a Baptist preacher, I’d give you a fifteen minute detour through the depths of the Old Testament about the making, storage and distribution of this holy bread but suffice it to say that it was taken pretty seriously mainly because it was an offering to God whose holiness deserved respect. But Ahimelech didn’t die because he gave David the holy bread in an unholy ceremony. He died because King Saul considered him a traitor for harboring a fugitive. Yes, Doeg the Edomite, the royal shepherd who saw what transpired, went and reported it back to the king and poor Ahimelech, through no real fault of his own, died along with eighty-five of his fellow priests. In fact, it was Saul, rather than Ahimelech, who got it wrong about mixing sacred and profane. You see, this story is told to remind us that there is something even more holy than the bread of the presence, namely God’s purposes, which in this case were destined to pass through David, and which were aided and abetted by Ahimelech giving David the holy bread. Saul was feeling threatened by David’s popularity, not to mention his anointing by Samuel, and had been trying to kill David. So it is in the context of David trying to preserve his consecrated life that he finds himself asking the priest for some ordinary bread. And Ahimelech obliges him with holy bread.

Is there anything more ordinary than bread? Bread is a staple. There may be some pretty nice, extra special breads out there, but nearly every culture has its basic kind of bread, whether it’s Wonder bread, tortilla, pita, or pumpernickel, which almost by definition makes bread ordinary, the word ordinary coming from the word meaning basically to count. Ordinary things are things that are regular, observable, countable, like the days of our lives, like loaves of bread stacked on a shelf at Food Lion. Eating bread is ordinary like washing the dishes is ordinary, like filling the car up with gas is ordinary, like brushing your teeth is ordinary, things that exist or happen all the time without any fanfare, or much meaning attached to them. But here’s the thing. The difference between holy and ordinary isn’t always what we think it is. Look what Jesus did that day in the desert with four thousand of his closest friends. When the disciples say, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus doesn’t ask for some kind of holy bread to do a holy and miraculous thing. He simply says, “How many loaves do you have?” and they say seven and a few fish, and the next thing you know there’s food like the proverbial manna, so much that it can’t all be eaten. A holy thing has happened from ordinary stuff.

So it turns out that the line between holy and ordinary is kind of blurry after all, and that is good news for us who are not inherently holy. It means we get to touch a little magic, taste a little immortality, and team up with God to make a little mischief. We may be ordinary, but that doesn’t mean we are unholy. You see, being holy is really just about “will,” at least according to some of the great spiritual thinkers of the ages. Thomas Aquinas, no slouch of a theologian, said something like this about becoming a saint: “just will it,” to paraphrase Nike. And Thomas Merton, the great Trappist contemplative monk of the last century, boiled it down to “wanting to.” That truth was revealed to him by a sage friend who posed to him the question, “Don’t you believe that God will make you what he created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.” Neither of those observations mean, of course, that we are capable of making ourselves divine. We are, however, able to open ourselves to the divine, and experience it. Will it. Want it. Desire it. If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Just snap your fingers, right?

If that sounds a little too much like fantasy, let me suggest a method proposed by Jesus a long time ago, the one we encounter in this morning’s passage from Matthew, and in our upcoming Sacrament of Holy Communion. It’s the TBBG method, and it’s really just easy as Jesus makes it out to be. Remember the story. Jesus is out curing a whole bunch of people of all their infirmities – the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute – and as a result they all praised the God of Israel. But they also got hungry at this three day festival of healing, and in Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus is moved by compassion because, “I do not want to send them away hungry for they might faint on the way.” And so he makes his call to the disciples to bring forth the ordinary bread they have and then he actually does the most ordinary of things to it. He takes it, he blesses it, he breaks it, and he gives it to them. And all were fed with seven baskets full of bread left over for the journey home.

Maybe you’ve heard that series of words before. Took, blessed, broke, gave. It is the formula Jesus always uses for these types of meals. At the end of the road to Emmaus? Took, blessed, broke, gave. Feeding of the five thousand? Took, blessed, broke, gave. The Last Supper? Took, blessed, broke, gave. Last month’s celebration of the Sacrament at Thyatira? Took, blessed, broke, gave. In a few minutes? Yes, you guessed it! Took, blessed, broke, gave. You’ll hear that formula each and every time you come to the table because its pattern is not only what Jesus actually did at meals, but because it is the pattern of his own life, and because it must be the pattern of our own lives as disciples, and because the meal, and the life of Jesus, and our lives together are bound up in the simple but divine convergence of the ordinary and the holy. TBBG. Took, blessed, broke, gave.

All through the Jesus story, the Gospels writers are very careful to preserve this formula with only the slightest of variations, such as in today’s passage where it substitutes “gave thanks” for “blessed,” but of course that is really just the same thing. And the reason I think there is this amazing consistency of the holy formula despite the ordinariness of its words is precisely to make it memorable for us to use it to draw our ordinary lives closer to that which is holy. That’s because we too can TBBG as an act of will the likes of which Aquinas and Merton would be proud. You see, what makes any of our ordinary objects, places, peoples, attitudes, and behaviors holy is the intentionality we invest in them. If we choose to see God in a place, it’s a holy place. If we choose to see an object’s divine possibilities, it’s a holy object. If we choose to see Jesus in the eyes of another, we will recognize what is holy in him or her. If we choose to approach each day with an attitude that nothing can stop good news from spreading through us, there’s no stopping its holiness. If we choose to behave with integrity when we don’t feel like it or when it’s not convenient for us, we will cooperate with God’s desire for shalom. So let’s take the most mundane of ordinary daily task to see how it can be made holy: brushing your teeth.

So you wake up each morning with an unholy mouth, or at least one that smells and tastes like it is from hell. So you stumble to the bathroom and you face the choice between conducting your ordinary routine of BRFG, AKA brush, rinse, floss and gargle, or your holy routine of TBBG, AKA, take, bless, brush, and give. (We can’t have you breaking your teeth, so we’ll substitute in another “B” word.) And if you choose the holy route, this is what it might look like. You take your tooth brush from its holder determined to make the day a more holy one. You are intentional about taking care of yourself, and intentional about getting your day off on the right foot. You could do a cursory job of it, but you decide after taking that toothbrush in your hand that you will bless the Lord who gave you the teeth you are about to brush, so you stop and look in the mirror and offer your first prayer of the day to the Holy One of Israel who healed the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and you, and who invited you to contribute to the building of the Kingdom. And then you begin to brush, because just standing there with a toothbrush in your hand isn’t going to get your teeth clean any more than Jesus just standing there in front of four thousand people with seven loaves wasn’t going to feed them magically. And then, having done all of this, you give your clean smile, and your fresh breath to the world you encounter as you leave the bathroom, and the whole world is happier that you did this holy act. Now, brushing your teeth is not exactly a sacrament, but it is an opportunity to make something ordinary holy first thing in the morning.

Two more quick examples before we come to the table. I remember very distinctly the opening of the movie, "The Milagro Beanfield War,” truly one of my favorite films of all time. Old Señor Amante in his tiny, little, dusty adobe house in New Mexico with only shutters to cover the opening where glass would normally be, rises as the sun shines through those shutters into his eyes. He creaks out of bed and strokes his beard and shuffles over to a mirror, looks closely at himself and says, “Thank you, God, for giving me one more day.” He says it almost routinely, but not in the negative sense of routine, but more that he was thankful every day. I think there is no more profound expression of faith than to offer this simple, intentional sort of gratitude. This man had not moved mountains nor built a business nor formulated a philosophy. But he humbled himself before God and let the holy into his heart. And then there’s my friend Amy in Costa Rica who makes logging into her computer each day a holy experience. You see, at the beginning of every month, Amy creates a new password to be a daily cyberblessing by taking a word from Scripture, blessing it by giving thanks to God for the opportunity to encounter it every day for the next month, typing it onto her keyboard, and then giving those she serves and works with her best, holiest self, one that is intentional about making God’s purposes evident. How much more ordinary could typing in your password be, but how filled with possibility it becomes when you choose to make it a holy act.

There is something decidedly ordinary about the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We do it every month. It’s not a gourmet meal. It has to be prepared and cleaned up afterward. Choirs of angels don’t fill the sanctuary with heavenly music as we ingest ordinary bread and grape juice. But we have chosen to be here, chosen to give thanks for the body and blood of Jesus Christ, chosen to eat and drink, and chosen to give our lives in service of the God who blurs the distinctions between ordinary and holy, sacred and profane, clean and unclean, and sanctified and desecrated, even when we are not capable of doing the same. But thanks be to God for people like Ahimelech and Amante and Amy who could see beyond the ordinary to the opportunity for holiness in their midst, no matter the consequences. May we take, bless, break, and give ourselves as they did. Amen.