SERMON Lectionary 20b 2018
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
It’s good to be home. My dad used to say about the visits of his children and grandchildren: “I’m glad to see you come and glad to see you go.” It is something like that with me: I was glad to get away, and glad to come home.
My problem, though, is that I’ve had way too long to think about a sermon for this Sunday, and ended up with two of them. One takes its cue from the news, the other from today’s magnificent gospel, in which Jesus says this incredible thing, “I am the bread of life.” Both these sermons demanded to be preached, which begs the question, “how many sermons do we need?” I’m not putting that up for a vote, but the bad news is that today you get both. The good news is they’re still inside my one-sermon word-count. Here goes
We’ve been hearing about the abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church for more than 15 years, since the story broke in Boston. Since then the world-wide dimensions of the problem have come into view. Last week, a report from the Attorney General of Pennsylvania documented abuse of more than 1000 children by 300 priests over a period of seventy years, all of it covered up by the bishops and other officials. That’s what they could document; it’s the tip of the iceberg. Of course this is unspeakably horrible, and you don’t need me to tell you how horrible it is.
But there is something about this that Lutherans in particular need to keep in focus: we dealt with this problem decisively 500 years ago. The truth of the matter is that these cycles of abuse, in which the abused grow up to become abusers, have been around in the church for at least 1000 years, and putting a stop to it was a major part of the Lutheran reformation.
In the Augsburg Confession, the classic, still-binding statement of Lutheran doctrine that was first presented to the world in the year 1530, Article 23 begins with words that could have been taken from last week’s news:
From everyone, both of high and low degree, a mighty, loud complaint has been heard throughout the world about the flagrant immorality and dissolute life of priests who were not able to remain chase; their vices reached the height of abomination:
The reformers go on to explain why they cancelled mandatory priestly celibacy in their churches, in favor of marriage as the norm for pastors and people. This addressed one aspect of the problem.
But as we have learned today, with systemic abuse being exposed … it seems everywhere … abuse is not just about sex, it’s about power. Whether its Jerry Sandusky or Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Father Crowley from Pittsburgh, at its heart abuse is a use of sex to project power. It’s desperately sick, of course, but there it is.
And here again, the Roman church was off the rails from at least the high Middle Ages. I am not a scholar of these things, but somewhere along the way priests were endowed by the church with supernatural power, and were considered a different order of being, closer to God. One needed a priest to be saved, to forgive one’s sins and to confect the sacrament. The reformers complain that the church had made ordination superior to baptism. This notion of priestly power and authority distorted just about everything in the church, and the reformers took it down. Though Lutherans maintained a high degree of respect and deference to their pastors, they were not divine beings with specials powers from God. Following St. Paul, Luther preached the priesthood of all believers, meaning that God hears everybody’s prayers, There’s no fast lane on the highway to heaven.
So at the time of the Reformation, the Lutheran reformers dismantled the structures which fostered and sustained a culture of abuse that had infected the church around the world. Today our church has many problems, but the systemic abuse of children by our clergy is not one of them.
But I have a larger point to make: the evils we see today in Pennsylvania (and Chile and Africa …) are rooted in lies about human nature, in trying to make people something they’re not. The idea has been around a long time that the human body is somehow alien to God, and that sex is wrong and bad, That’s a lie, of course, a grave mistake about human nature as created by God, and it has brought all sorts of trouble down the centuries. Lutherans, from the beginning, have followed a different road: affirming human life and relationships, and making room for people to be who they are. The opening of ministry to women fifty years ago is evidence of this, as is our formal acceptance in 2009 of the fact that gay people, transgender people, and all the other varieties of people actually exist and are worthy of love. This truth-telling about human life, human nature and human relationships is part of who we are as Lutherans. It always has been. And difficult as it is to manage, and confusing as it can be to understand, it is the work and word of God.
OK, that’s one sermon. But wait – as they say on TV – there’s more. Today in the gospel, Jesus says something that is very familiar to us, but which is also so totally awesome, that I can’t let it go by.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)
There is an immense beauty in these words, and our hearts open to them like a leaf to the light. But they just don’t make any sense at all. As the Jews protested, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” For two thousand years, the church has wrestled with these words. In our lectionary, in Year B, this chapter of John’s gospel is assigned to us for no fewer than five Sundays, as if that was enough for us to understand it. Well, it’s not. There is a profound mystery in these words; it’s like staring across the Grand Canyon: “what is this and how was it made and where does it end?”
I don’t have an answer for you today, but I have a proposal, and I promise to be brief. As I prayed with this text over the weeks I was away, a question occurred to me, Who can say this? Who can say “I am living bread”, or, as I memorized it, “I am the bread of life?” Is there anyone, in any circumstance of life, who could say this truthfully? And as I prayed I heard an answer: there is. A mother, carrying a child in her womb is herself the bread of life for that child. The child is formed in and of her flesh. Her flesh and blood become the flesh and blood of the child. She is living bread, giving that child its life. And it is not just what passes through the umbilical cord, it is the whole … envelope, if you will, of body, mind and spirit that is engaged in the amazing process of creation and gestation that leads to new life, to human birth.
So here is my proposal: perhaps in saying these awesome, utterly incomprehensible words today, Jesus is not so much teasing us with something we are supposed to understand and get right, as he is inviting us into a relationship that is, like a mother and child, unsurpassably intimate, nourishing and life-giving, and also impossible and quite unnecessary to understand. Perhaps, for all our vaunted independence, we are really children in the womb of God, feeding on the living bread of God’s being, waiting to be born into a new and everlasting life.
This was the answer, anyway, to my prayer. It’s a proposal, not a sermon. Perhaps you will try it on, as I am trying it on, as a way of thinking about your life in God.
Anyway … two sermons … my time is up.
Let us pray.