Seven Layer Cakes and Plain Bread (4/17/05)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
In April of every year University Congregational Church celebrates communion. We do this to honor of the birth of this congregation in April of 1983. So happy 22nd birthday! This year we celebrate communion in the aftermath of Easter. This is a time of year when the worldwide church sort of gets the “blahs.” Everything builds toward Easter, and then there is this inevitable letdown in the weeks that follow.
I think Easter is the most important date on the church calendar, but I also think the Sundays following Easter are very important. Easter is the culmination of Holy Week. And there is not a more inspirational time of year than Holy Week. But let’s think about that word holy. The word holy means separate. When we say that God is holy, we mean that God is separate from the ordinary, set apart from the profane, untouched by evil. Holy Week is a special week—a week we set apart from the rest of the year in an attempt to grow closer to God. But the fact is, we live our lives right here in this mess of a world. Life is a lot like the weeks following Easter, the day after Christmas, the day after your birthday… Life has its beautiful moments, but for the most part, life is not some enchanted dance, some unspeakably beautiful dream, some heavenly cruise through the joyful sea of time.
Pretending that life is all beauty and light does not make it so. Life is a horrible, wonderful mixture of darkness and light, highs and lows, joys and sorrows. Human life is lived on that border between the holy and the profane. We live with one foot in the land of the holy and one foot in the land of the ordinary, and there is no way to place ourselves entirely on one side or the other.
Faith isn’t thinking you can live your life with both feet in the land of the holy, if only you pray hard enough, or worship the right way, or perform enough good deeds. Faith is believing God loves you even though you’re stuck with one foot in the land of the ordinary.
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Theologians say that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Christians have been trying to sort that out ever since the church fathers wrote that idea into the early church creeds. For all the great theology that has been built around the person of Jesus—and I think Christian theology is beautiful, and wonderful, and inspiring—what strikes us most about Jesus himself is not his holiness, but his ordinary nature.
We can find some amazing and powerful theology in the biblical letters of Paul and in the writings of the great theologians from the past 2000 years. But when we turn to the words of Jesus—when we read the words the gospels attribute to Jesus—we discover a man who steered clear of complex theological arguments. He didn’t use the wisdom of the philosophers to explain the meaning of life. Jesus didn’t enter into debates with those who did not share his faith. Sometimes he refused to talk, sometimes he was a bit terse, and he used an occasional cryptic parable that left those around him thinking long after Jesus had moved on.
But for the most part, we know where Jesus stood on a particular subject. To create a metaphor appropriate for a communion Sunday, Jesus was not a seven layer cake with frosting. Jesus was plain bread. Jesus looked at the ways people were trying to please God through their practice of religion, with their rituals and sacrifices and public prayers, and he said, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Mercy, not sacrifice! Compassion, not ritual! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that a brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, treat people right. That’s probably the first commandment of any religion that is worth its salt, and it is certainly the centerpiece of the teachings of Jesus.
It is not easy living on the border. It’s not easy to live with one foot in the holy and one foot in the ordinary. It takes faith to get through. But what is faith? Is faith understanding all those theological propositions about Jesus, or is faith listening to what Jesus had to say?
When we get to the heart of things, faith isn’t a matter of thinking the right way; it’s a matter of living the right way. Jesus seemed clear on that. And that doesn’t mean we can live our lives with both feet firmly planted in the holy. When we look at the life of Jesus we don’t see some mystical sage who sat high on a mountain, far removed from the troubles of this ordinary and too often profane world.
Jesus put himself right in the middle of the problems. If people were sick with contagious diseases like leprosy, he walked among them while everybody else treated them like outcasts. If a woman was caught in adultery, the sentence for such behavior being death, he simply stood between her and those who were about to stone her to death and said, “Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone.” The parables of Jesus are full frontal attacks on the status quo. In story after story he attacks the powers of his day—religious and political—by telling stories about the kingdom of God, where people of authority do not behave like they do in the kingdoms of religious and political power on earth.
Jesus had a sense of ethics—of right and wrong—that was so simple it was overwhelmingly powerful. Let’s look at a few basics. Consider hunger. How do we solve the problem of hunger, a problem that is as pervasive today as it was at the time of Jesus? Jesus had an answer. If people are hungry, feed them. That is a plain bread approach to the problem of hunger. He didn’t propose changes to the economic system. He just looked at every person who was not hungry and told them the hungry are just as important to God as anybody else. Feed them. Those are your brothers and sisters. And if you’ve got food in the pantry and money in the bank, you have no excuse for ignoring the problem.
Consider people living in poverty. How do we relieve the heartbreak of the poor? More liberal economic policies? Compassionate conservatism? We all know Jesus’ plain bread answer: give them money. You got some you’re not using right now. Give it to somebody who doesn’t have any. And we have no excuse for not doing so, because Jesus specifically says not to question why a person is poor. Just give. Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.
How about the way we practice religion? How should we approach people who have no faith, or people who belong to some faith we might not approve of? Or how about people who belong to a political party that we find contrary to what really represents the greater good? What do we say to such people? Jesus’ approach to all such matters was as simple as it gets: don’t judge anybody.
Okay, but what if somebody just walks up and punches me in the face? What then, Jesus? Do I have the option of using a knife or gun in retribution, or must I limit myself to the same tools of war as my enemy? And we know the answer. It is simple—very simple. We don’t like the answer, but is as plain bread and pure Jesus as it gets. Don’t hit back. Don’t return violence for violence.
Thank goodness we’ve had people of faith appear through the ages to complicate those teachings of Jesus—people who were willing to take the plain bread wisdom of Jesus and turn it into a seven layer cake of moral ambiguity. In his second letter to the Thessalonians Paul writes, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Okay, that’s more like it, and it’s right there in the Bible! Thanks Paul!
And our Puritan forebears in our Congregational faith became big fans of the Protestant work ethic. “Work hard and you will receive your reward not only in heaven, but here on Earth as well.” That makes great sense to me. It makes me feel a lot better about driving past all those homeless people downtown as I make every effort not to look them in the eye. (Although the truth is I’m afraid I might actually see Jesus looking back at me, and then what would I do?)
As for religion, we’ve taken the words of the one who said “judge not” and built a religion that most view as the most judgmental and self-righteous religion in the world. “I’m not judging you, but God will send you off to eternal torment unless you change your faith and start thinking just like me.”
Politics? Forget about it! Christian Americans have two very different ways of looking at the world right now, and each side is led by men and women who are convinced they alone follow Jesus. God help us all.
And as for war, we can thank St. Augustine for baking that complicated seven layer cake called the just war theory, which says, basically, that Jesus was wrong—it is okay to kill, but try not to kill too many innocent people while you’re about the necessary business of war. Sounds logical. Sounds like a good idea. Doesn’t sound like Jesus.
We’re in the aftermath of Easter. This is where we live our lives, really. Our journeys take us over the mountain peaks of Christmas and Easter and birthdays and anniversaries, but we spend most or our time in the valleys between. And we wonder how to make the ordinary holy. And we hear the words of Jesus and we think, “It just can’t be that simple. It just can’t be that simple.”
I remind you that at University Congregational Church, we celebrate “Open Communion,” meaning all present are welcome to partake: young and old; baptized and unbaptized, Christians and those from other faith traditions. Jesus welcomed everybody to his table, so we certainly welcome everybody to ours.
Let’s join our hearts in prayer:
We give you thanks, God of majesty and mercy, for calling forth creation and raising us from dust by the breath of your being. We bless you for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.
We remember with thanks the prophets and teachers you sent to guide us, and thank you above all for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life, who revealed to us so perfectly the beauty and power of your almighty love.
And we give thanks for the presence of your Holy Spirit, in this place and time, which unites all of those present to one another and to Christ. May your spirit be present upon this food and drink, as surely as it is present within our hearts, as we partake together.
In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
We recall that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise, after the supper, he took the cup, raised it, gave thanks and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.”
(The Body of Christ)
(The Blood of Christ)
Let us go forth into the world to serve God with gladness; being of good courage; holding fast to that which is good; rendering to no one evil for evil; supporting the weak; helping the afflicted; and honoring all people as we love and serve God, through the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.