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Monday, August 27, 2012

I love to tell the story...

The Rev. Bob Honeychurch
Proper 16  Year B
August 26, 2012

A number of various sports seasons are all converging at one time right now.  Professional baseball is heading into the final month of the season, with both the Dodgers and the Angels still having a chance to make the playoffs.  College football begins its season this coming Thursday night.  And the National Football League is deep into its own pre-season with the real games – the ones that count – beginning a week from Wednesday. 

But all of those sports pale in comparison to the real season that is just now hitting its stride. The 2012 presidential election season is already fully upon us. Tomorrow the Republican National Convention begins in Tampa (weather permitting), and all of the world will be watching.  I know I plan to gather around the television tube with about a case of Doritos, a well-stocked refrigerator, and a big bottle of Tums for all of the festivities. But lest anyone feel left out, the Democrats get their turn to do the same thing in Charlotte, NC in another week, and we’ll do it all over once again.

For over 100 years, the hero of the Republican Party was the 16th president of the U.S., Abraham Lincoln.  But about 30 years ago, Lincoln’s place as the iconic representative of the GOP was replaced by the 40th president of the U.S. – a guy well known to many Californians, who spent most of his post-presidential years about 30 miles from here over in Bel Air, and whose final resting place is at his presidential library out in Simi Valley.  I am speaking, of course, of Ronald Reagan.  It would be interesting if one could keep track of the number of times in the next week that the name, and the ideas, and the legacy of Ronald Reagan will be brought to mind as the Republican delegates gather for their quadrennial electing convention.

Of all the nicknames or monikers associated with Ronald Reagan – and there are many – probably the most enduring has been to refer to him as “the great communicator.”  Love him, or hate him, most everyone will agree that President Reagan had a way of turning a phrase, of seizing the moment, of gathering and galvanizing an audience in a way that most politicians today could only hope in their wildest imaginations to imitate.

Some have even compared Ronald Reagan’s oratorical skills to that other great communicator, the one whose words we hear and reflect upon every week as we gather in his name here at church.  If Ronald Reagan outshined his political contemporaries, then surely Jesus took the art to a whole new level.  Maybe that’s why today’s gospel lesson catches me so off-guard.  If Jesus is such a great public speaker, then today’s gospel seems to catch him on one of his rare off days.

The 6th chapter of John’s gospel, from which our lesson comes this morning, starts off pretty well.  In one day, Jesus begins by miraculously feeding 5000 people who had come to hear him preach, starting with nothing more than a couple of fish and a few barley loaves.  And that same evening, he astounded his disciples once again by walking on the water on the Sea of Galilee - not a bad day’s work for an itinerant preacher from Nazareth.

But the next day, things didn’t seem to go so well.  Maybe the fish had been left out a little too long in the sun before Jesus ate the previous day. But whatever the reason, I can only imagine that Jesus must not have slept all that well, since he was clearly off his game.  Jesus starts out his day’s sermon pretty well, talking about how he is the bread of life, and how whoever comes to him will never be hungry.  But then things start to get a little squirmy – that’s where we pick up the story in today’s gospel lesson –  when he goes on to say, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” And if saying it once wasn’t uncomfortable enough for his audience, he says it a second, and then a third, and then a fourth time – just in case his hearers didn’t get the point.

Now I know that there are many who would argue that this is an example of the writer of the 4th gospel taking a certain amount of “editorial license” with the text.  This gospel was, after all, written up to 80 years after the time that Jesus walked with his disciples… which likely means that it was written by the children of the children of the first eyewitnesses. By that time, the church was already well established with its Eucharistic gathering feast of bread and wine.  And perhaps the author was reading back in to history, as it were, penning some words for Jesus to foreshadow a future understanding of that sacred meal.

But taken at its face-value, it’s pretty unsettling imagery… so much so that the writer then goes on to quote some of the crowd saying, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” and to say that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” In fact, one of the critiques of Christians in the earliest years of the church was that they were cannibals, consuming human flesh and blood. And passages like this didn’t do anything to dissuade the detractors of the early Church from that assumption.

At any rate, it is clear that some people “just didn’t get it”… although this is not the only time that Jesus’ message is misunderstood by his listeners in John’s gospel. (Think, for example, of Nicodemus, who wondered if a person needed to re-enter their mother’s womb to be born anew, or the Samaritan woman at the well, who wanted Jesus to draw some of that “living water” so she would never be thirsty again.)   In any case, today’s gospel lesson is a shining example, in the words from that classic movie line from Cool Hand Luke, that “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Communication is always a two-way street. It involves both sending and receiving information.  If either isn’t working right, effective communication doesn’t happen.  Maybe you’ve had a similar experience to mine.  On more than one occasion I’ve been in a situation where two people who don’t share a common language are trying to communicate with one another.  Maybe it has happened to you when you are traveling overseas, or maybe it’s happened to you right here in Altadena. The exchange usually goes something like this:

Person 1:    Can you tell me how to find the shoe repair store?  I was told that it’s just a couple of blocks from here, but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to turn left or right at the next intersection.
Person 2:    The other person looks confused, and shrugs shoulders.
Person 1:    (A little louder.) I’m trying to find the place where I can get my shoes repaired.  Can you tell me how to get there?
Person 2:    Again, shrugs shoulders, now looking a little concerned.
Person 1:    (Shouting.) Where can I get my shoes fixed?  Why won’t you tell me?  What’s wrong with you? Why are you being so mean to me?
(At this point the other person usually just runs away, fearing for their life.)

How often do we try to communicate the essence of our faith, and find we are speaking in a language that our hearers don’t understand? And so, we think to ourselves, “If only we can say it often enough, or loud enough, or insistently enough, surely they’ll finally get it.”

I heard a great story from Diana Butler Bass recently at a presentation she did over in Claremont.  Diana is one of the premier thinkers and writers today about the intersection of church and culture in the 21st century, who has written books like The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church, and her most recent book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  (By the way, she is also an Episcopalian.)  Diana tells the story of sitting in a coffee shop, overhearing a conversation at a nearby table.  A clergy-woman was trying to convince her coffee partner of the essence of the Christian faith. “The Jesus story…it’s all about redemption,” the pastor repeated, “it’s all about redemption,” only to be met with the confused gaze of her listener.  Finally, the other person interrupted the pastor and said, “Redemption… you mean like coupons at the grocery store?”  Like Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson, we always run the risk of using so much “insider language” that the very people we try to entice into this God-journey are instead pushed even further away.

What are ways in which our language – be it our words, or our actions, or our patterns of behavior, or our expectations, or our architecture, or our music, or our ways of interacting… what are ways in which our language sometimes become the roadblock, rather than the gateway, to someone experiencing the goodness of God in their life?  Regarding our often confusing style of worship, I’ve heard it said in some Episcopal churches, “Well, if people will just come and worship with us, after a while they’ll figure it all out, and learn to appreciate the beauty of it all.”  Let me tell you, folks, people won’t hang around long enough to just “figure it all out.” Instead, like those disciples in today’s gospel lesson, they will just drift away – sad, or confused, or disappointed, or hurt, or unfilled… and we will never see them again.

Instead, I think that the challenge of communicating the goodness of the Christian life in the 21st century is that all of us have to become multi-lingual. Now, in many ways, I mean that quite literally.  If we only speak one language, we will effectively marginalize ourselves ever more deeply in a multi-language world.  But I also mean that we will have to be able to speak both the language of the Church and the language of the culture if we are to truly engage and invite people to join us on this journey of faith.

The old gospel hymn written in the mid-19th century starts out:
    I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
    Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.

That, my friends, is a story worth telling… but only if we tell it in such a way that those who desperately seek to receive its message can hear it in their own language, in their own context, in their own lives.  Otherwise, in the words of St. Paul, our message is nothing but “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

The world is waiting.  Will they hear the Good News today?  Will you be the one to bear the story, and tell the story, and be the story… for them?  The world… is waiting.

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