John 6:51-58; Luke 1:46-55; Proverbs 9:1-6
There’s a prayer I pray every Monday as I read the lectionary texts for the week: “Lord, what is it that you want to say to these people in this time and this place through these texts?” I hold that prayer in my mind and heart all week. And then I listen.
I listen to the life of the congregation. I listen to the world. I listen to theologians, commentators and scholars in the things I read. I listen to my colleagues. I listen to my own heart. I listen for the Holy Spirit. I learned a long time ago that God speaks to us in a multitude of ways as we walk through the world. So I listen.
This week, we had a choice between two different sets of lectionary readings. In the texts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, the focus in the Gospel lesson was on Jesus saying, “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.” But this Sunday is also a day set aside to remember and lift up Mary, the mother of Jesus. As I bounced back and forth between the two different themes and the two different sets of texts I found things in both that tugged at me, things that opened doors to things we need to think about and talk about as a community and people of faith… and, frankly, as a nation and as a world. But I didn’t feel a definite pull to go with one over the other.
So I kept listening.
One of the problems that pastors face is that there is just so much going on in the world and in our churches that God has been calling us to address that it’s hard to know where to start. As one of my colleagues said in a meeting this week, the world is on fire, and I don’t know where to start to put it out.
The world is, quite literally, on fire. And we, the human race, collectively, can’t seem to find the will to put out the fire that threatens to destroy us and all the rest of the earth along with us. With droughts and fires and floods and hurricanes, the change in our climate has become so manifestly real that anyone who still denies it sounds like they’ve been living in an alternate reality. We have the science. We know what needs to be done. But the changes we need to make are so substantial, pervasive and dramatic that we can’t find the will to make a meaningful start. We know that we need to radically change the way we live, in ways that are going to involve each and every one of us. No one can sit this one out. The change that has to happen if our children and grandchildren are going to have half a chance of living in a habitable world are scary. And expensive. So we’ve been dragging our feet. We’ve been rationalizing. But we can’t afford to do that anymore. The world is on fire.
Our relationships are on fire, too. In our purple church, our purple nation, our purple world, we keep trying to find the middle path between red and blue, but there’s been so much friction from the two sides rubbing each other the wrong way that the middle ground has become scorched and unstable. So many bridges have been burned. And if you try to discuss that simple fact, the finger-pointing starts all over again and plans and hopes for new bridges are set ablaze before foundations can even be laid.
Red and blue, black and white—these are the binary patterns we know, and any suggestion of a world that’s broader and more colorful, a world that doesn’t fit the patterns we’re used to living in, raises our hackles. There are whole states in our country right now where politicians are working to make sure that teachers are not allowed to address the historical fact that within our nation’s history one race of people held another race of people captive and brutally enslaved them. That’s a wound that our nation will never recover from if we can’t open it up and cleanse it. But it’s too hard to talk about. There’s too much guilt festering in it. So even though that wound is on fire with infection, we can’t seem to find the will to do what it takes to heal us. We can’t seem to find the will to simply speak truth to each other with grace and humility.
Fear has such a hold on us that we stand frozen even as our world is on fire. Fear—it gets expressed in denial, and greed, and in an aggressive assertion of individualism, an assertion of so-called “rights” at the expense of our mutual responsibility.
We have bought into the lie of limitation. We have bought into the idea of scarcity. We have been taught to look out for number one first and let others take care of themselves if they can. And all of this is a profound contradiction of what Jesus taught.
In his book A Gospel of Hope, Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We baptized people are the ones who have signed on for the Jesus story of abundance. We are the ones who decided that this story is the true story, and the four great verbs—he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave—constitute the true story of our lives. As a result, we recognized that scarcity is a lie, a story repeated endlessly in order to justify injustice in the community.”
Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need. But not for everyone’s greed.”
Jesus gives us a living example of how it can be different. He calls us to take, to bless, to break and to give—to take responsibility and treasure the resources God has placed in our hands, to recognize the goodness that God has provided, to divide things fairly among those who need them, and to give, to share, in order to meet the needs of the world.
When Jesus called himself the bread of life, he was inviting us to take his way of thinking, seeing, living and being in the world into ourselves. To swallow him whole—all that he is and all that means—his way of doing life in all its fullness. His language was graphic and shocking so we would pay attention. “The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.” For the life of the world. He was telling us that he was all in, willing to pour out his life for the life of the world. And he was inviting us all to be all in, too.
He didn’t talk about his “rights.” He embraced a responsibility. He didn’t complain about his discomfort. He embraced the pain of a broken world and endured unspeakable torture in order to heal it. He personally volunteered to show us in no uncertain terms that scarcity thinking—greed, fear and an insatiable hunger for control and power—lead inexorably to the innocent being crucified.
When he called himself the bread of life, Jesus was also reminding us of the abundant generosity of God. Jesus was reminding us of all the ways that God nurtures us and provides for us. He was reminding us that everything that sustains us comes from God, that God is constantly mothering us.
On this day when we also remember Mary, the Mother of Jesus, it seems appropriate that we should stop and think about all the ways God has mothered us.
Some people are uncomfortable thinking about God as our mother. But the scriptures aren’t. In Deuteronomy 32, God chides the people of Israel saying, “You forgot the God who gave your birth.” In Isaiah 42, God compares Godself to a woman in labor. In Isaiah 49 God is compared to a nursing mother. In Isaiah 66, God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”
The scriptures describe God as a mother bear and a mother eagle. Jesus likened himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks and told a parable in which God was like a woman looking for a lost coin.
Some of the saints of the early church returned repeatedly to the image of God as a nursing mother. Saint Augustine wrote, “When all is well with me, what am I but an infant suckling your milk and feeding on you?” Ephrem of Syria wrote, “He has given suck — life to the universe.” Teresa of Avila exclaimed, “Oh Life of my life! Sustenance that sustains me! For from those divine breasts where it seems God is always sustaining the soul there flows streams of milk bringing comfort to all the people….” Mary, herself, in her Magnificat sang out, “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
In the late 3rd or early 4th century, a collection of hymns called the Odes to Solomon had this verse in it:
“A cup of milk was offered to me
And I drank with sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son is the cup,
And he who was milked is the Father,
And she who milked him is the Holy Spirit.”
The world is on fire. And one of the flames we need to extinguish is the domineering inferno of patriarchy that has needlessly silenced and oppressed half of humanity for far too long. God long ago gave us the imagery to go another way and the colors we need to paint outside the frame of male domination in the church and in the world.
In our first reading this morning from Proverbs, we heard this:
“Wisdom has built her house…
She has sent out her servant girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.” –Proverbs 9:1-6
The world is on fire. But God, our mothering father, our fathering mother, has given us the everything we need to put out the fire, to live with cooler heads and warmer hearts. We have Jesus, the bread of life, who gives his life for the life of the world. We have God, our mothering father, our fathering mother who gives us all good things to take, to bless, to break and to share. We have the Holy Spirit who guides us with the voice of Wisdom: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live. And walk in the way of insight…” for the life of the world.