“What You Notice.” Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-28

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The installation of the new carpeting in the sanctuary this week has been a very convenient happenstance in considering the Gospel lesson, because it has been a week full of observing just what it is that people will “notice.”

We had the work of the installation crew, and it was fascinating to see what they noticed when they got here and as they removed the old red carpeting.11934970_10207909348956261_4332625308661757312_n (1)

They noticed the craftsmanship.

“These seams were all hand stitched, some old timer in the business did this.”  One of them remarked.

We had the observations of people as they would walk in, either the notes of relief about the change, or some sadness, or nostalgia as the stories poured out about what had taken place on the old carpet,– baptisms, funerals, weddings, youth sleep overs, etc.

I posted progress of the work, and in the 4 years that I’ve been curating a Facebook presence for St. James, I can tell you that THIS event had the highest response rate of any posting ever!   In all, there were 425 comments, likes, or shares across five postings in two days, and not just St. James members but friends of friends as it was shared forward and commented upon.

People in other words, were noticing this!

That is, by the way, twice as many likes and comments as the notifications done about the MLM project, or the notice of an organist position being open, and three times the amount of interest in our VBS pictures or pantry ingathering!

Interesting what gets noticed, isn’t it?   Building changes will trump ministries!

After the majority of the work was done, I had e-mails and comments of what drew the eye now.  There were more comments about the banners and the overall look of the chancel.

And of course, also comments of what wasn’t done, or what wasn’t done right, or what needed to be changed or fixed or further addressed.

I just found it fascinating to consider what gets noticed, and by whom!

Today’s Gospel lesson is also about what gets noticed, and by whom.   “Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.”

It is what the Pharisees and scribes “notice” that sets the tone and action for what follows.   We are told that the Pharisees and scribes noticed that “some” of the disciples are eating without first washing their hands in the ritual manner prescribed.

It’s the inconsistency that prompts the question, is it not?  The Pharisees and scribes are compelled to get clarification, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders…?”

And, it is that question which prompt Jesus’ strong and lengthy response.  It was a questioning that skipped direct communication with the disciples and instead went to the head, to the teacher, to have him explain the actions of those who are clearly under his charge.

In other words “What are you teaching these people, Jesus?”  What makes them so cavalierly dismiss the established traditions?

I wonder if that is what prompts Jesus’ strong reaction.

I’ve often wondered if this would have been an issue at all if the Pharisees and scribed had asked the few disciples directly why they hadn’t washed.

They may have had a philosophical or theological reason.  “Following Jesus has made us reject some old things…” they might have said.
They may have had practical reasons.

Maybe they just forgot.

Maybe the opportunity was not presented for all of them.

Maybe some had a different outlook on ritual washing now.  I doubt very much that at the feeding of the 5000 all did ritual handwashing before receiving the bread and the fish, and it seemed to be o.k. then, so what is different about eating now?

But we will never know because really the issue was not whether hands had been washed or not, but rather what kind of teaching the Master was promulgating.

It is fairly clear that the Pharisees and scribes have come down here to observe, and they don’t like what we see, not one bit, and so they go for their perceived source of the problem, what Jesus is teaching.

Which, I think, prompts another fascinating question about what we notice; “Do we only see what we want to see?”

I pondered that with the carpet.

I know that I was seeing what I wanted to see, the completion of a project started a year ago!   I just wanted to see it in after the endless meetings, discussions, and sample swatches, bids, meetings for approval and scheduling.

The installers probably were looking for shortcuts, how could they get this in as quickly and as efficiently as possible?

Those unsure about the color choice were looking for reasons to state their opinions or thoughts.

Those grieving yet another instance of change in this world were keyed in on what they perceived as yet another loss.

Those who had questions about the priority of putting new carpet in were perhaps looking for things to point out that seemed wrong, or wasteful, or poorly done.

So I wondered, “Do we see what we want to see, and from whence does that preconceived bias of what you expect to see/find/notice come?”

And this is the point of contact where this Gospel lesson spoke to me, and I could hear what it was that Jesus had to say to me, for to the question about hand washing Jesus presses from an external matter of what we notice, to what it is that we do with what we notice.  He goes to the matter of the heart.

“Listen to me,” Jesus says, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come:

This is the warning given, the observation made by Jesus upon the “observers,” all of them.  The Pharisees and scribes who have come down to observe, and the disciples who are eating and watching, and the general crowd who is gathered to see what will happen in this visit.

From whence does the bias come, this noticing what you want to notice?   It comes from within, and this is what you must be on guard about!

This is the deep truth about us that we would rather not face.

Whenever I “notice” something in someone else, that is really more about what is stirring in me than it is about what that other person is doing, or saying, or the way they look or behave.

It is really about my displeasure at how things are going.

It is really about my own judgment about how a particular action should, or should not be done.

It’s what is cookin’ inside me that is the real issue, not the actions of the other.

Oh, how hard it is for us acknowledge that, and know what to do with it.

We would rather push blame on someone else.  It is their fault for not doing things the right way, or not paying attention to the rules, or messing up the well established procedures.

The issue is really not the hand washing in this story, and Jesus knows it.

The issue is; what are you noticing and what are you doing with that?   What is prompted in you?  Are they thoughts of judgment, or unrest, anger or disgust?

What is it that you are looking for; the best in people, or the worst in them?

Do you tend to look for things to criticize, or do you tend to notice the things that flow from grace and forgiveness and love?

It is from within that the things that defile us come, Jesus says, so watch out!

We know that to be the case, but we very much shy away from acknowledging it, or owning up to it, or dealing with it.

Me included.

It is hard work to be reflective.

It is difficult work to look inside your own beliefs, understandings, actions, or prejudices, and examine them.

It is painful to admit that you might be wrong about something.

It is much safer to point out the offense of someone else, or to find refuge in excuses or what other “ought” to do, “ought” to know, “ought” to have had a firmer handle on.

“Just what are you teaching your disciples, Jesus, that they neglect the washing of hands?”

The answer might be, “I’ve been teaching them to love.”

The answer might be, “I’ve been teaching them to forgive, instead of to judge.”

The answer might be, “I’ve been teaching them that the externals of what people do or look like, are of much less importance that what is going on in here.”

I might have been teaching them that until you get what is going on “in here” under the power of God’s love, grace and forgiveness, none of the externals will do you any good.

What do you tend to “notice?”

What does that have to say about whether your life is ruled by a preoccupation with the law, or whether you have been opened by the Grace that has come your way in Jesus?   Or, as the apostle Paul was often want to say, have you made up your own mind, or do you have the “mind of Christ”, the openness to see others and this world the way that Jesus sees through the lense of the Kingdom.

It all just has me pondering.   What do you “notice?”

“Scandalous!” John 6:56-70

It’s been a rather scandalous week or so, has it not?

Some of it has been expected, the run of the mill “tongue tripping” that comes with the start of presidential campaigns.

Donald Trump has played the game of “open mouth, insert foot” for the past few weeks with comments about women, border issues, race relations, and immigration comments.  His comments revealing his bullying approach to nearly everything.  You have to hand it to him, he is absolutely consistent in his unwillingness to apologize or recognize when his comments might foment harmful behavior in others.  And, despite every hint of scandal, it seems to just flow off of him and bolster his popularity as someone who “speaks his mind and doesn’t have time to be politically correct.”   Which is fascinating, in and of itself.   He has no time to be politically correct, but wants to be in politics?

It was the week when Ashley Madison became a name on everyone’s lips, and not just one that was uttered as a “hush-hush, wink-nod” comment around the water cooler.   “Life is short, have an affair” the motto.  What could possibly be wrong with a little look, a little harmless titillation, especially if no one else will ever find out?

So much for their claim of being “100% confidential”.

Suddenly everyone who can pull up the released hack of names and accounts is raking through the lists of people to see who signed up.

Politicians fall, or begin to scramble.

The Duggar Dad finds himself having to publically apologize for yet another inconsistency in the otherwise “squeaky clean” image of family that their “unreal reality show” portrayed to the world.

It is a scandal that is reaching the government, the Vatican, and almost every sector of society.

It was the week when movie theatres suddenly thought it was important to have extra security on hand for the release of the film “Straight Outta Compton” about the roots of hip-hop and rap music.  There was concern that there might be violence connected to this movie because of its “subject matter.”

Which is rather curious, if you think about it.

It never seemed to occur to theater chains in the wake of a shooting after a “Batman” movie that added security might be a good idea for the release of any other “shoot-em-up” white male film.  We somehow made it through “Avengers” “Captain America-Winter Solder”  “Ant Man” “Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “Man from U.N.C.L.E,” “Agent 47” and a host of other films without batting an eye about the potential for gun related violence.

Oh, that’s right; all those are films feature largely white guys with guns.

That is not seen as an issue, because they inflict heavy property damage on a rampage through various a cities, — not as angry black protestors, but as superheroes with righteous causes.

So, as long as you are not resorting to violence to protest against generational racism, and the policies associated with that, you are good to go on the blowing up of things.

It actually took a comedy film about relationship difficulties to prompt the next mass shooting, which just goes to show that you can’t really profile where trouble may occur.

Yes, scandalous things are all around.

So perhaps it should not come as a big surprise that the tipping point for Jesus’ bread of life discourse involves hard things to swallow and a bit of scandal as well.

Last week Jesus dropped the bombshell of the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and the gasps from the crowds who had been following were alluded to, but this week we see that even the inner circle is shaken by what he says.

The disciples hear what he has to say in this whole discourse, and they have a pronouncement upon it.

“This teaching is difficult…” they say.

“skleros” in Greek, which is a term that originally referred to agriculture, it was ground that was hard, dried out, difficult to work with or dig though.

Jesus’ teaching on the bread of life is more than just “difficult,” some of them can’t get through it!   It becomes the turning point for the disciples themselves, as to whether or not they will continue to follow Jesus.

One wonders if the complaining we are told the disciples engaged in had to do then with some kind of a call to “soften” the message a bit.

Indeed that does seem to be the direction desired by many.

The crowds are ready to proclaim Jesus a Prophet in the desert when he feeds them.  Heck, they are ready to make him King for all that matter.  So long as he’s feeding the hungry people for us and bringing good news to the afflicted on our behalf, we’re all good with Jesus!

“Go get ‘em, Jesus.”  We root for him from the sidelines when he says that he’s come to give the bread from God that gives life to the world.   We’re all for the world being fed, and so we say “give us this bread always.”

It’s when Jesus starts to make these claims of HIM being that bread from God that we get nervous.

It’s when Jesus begins to talk about allegiance and utter transformation of our own lives that we start to look for a way to “soften” the message.

It is when Jesus begins to address the touchy matter of “the will” that we start to get nervous.  “for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

“Surely you don’t mean that WE are to give up our own “will” and take on something like the “Will of the Father,” Jesus?”

It is at the matter of “the will” that people begin to question Jesus’ claims.  How could he know the will of God?   Isn’t he just Mary and Joseph’s son?

It is when Jesus begins to lay claim that he is indeed the Son of God, God’s own representation here on earth that we get nervous and queasy and it starts to get “hard” to accept things.

It is when Jesus begins to talk about us “taking him in” fully that we feel the need to put some distance between ourselves and this Jesus.

It is the matter of God “becoming flesh” and working to conform our wills to that of God that is the heart of the scandal, and it has been there from the start of John’s gospel.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s son, full of grace and truth.”   I don’t think we have quite wrapped our minds around that opening statement of John’s Gospel.  That flesh can exhibit glory, and be full of grace and truth.   That’s where we have trouble!

Jesus can’t be that much like one of us, can he?   It is the scandal of the incarnation.

Jesus couldn’t be so human that he’d say something dumb, or racist, or insensitive… Jesus was never offensive, was he?

Jesus couldn’t have been the kind of person who might have clicked on an “Ashley Madison” banner just to have a peek, be tempted as we are?   He couldn’t have harbored human emotions, desires, and yes, even shortcomings… could he?

Apparently, yes he could or this matter of him being the son of Joseph and Mary wouldn’t have been brought up.

No one would have asked, “Just who does Jesus think he is?” if there hadn’t been some incarnational evidence that Jesus was very much like us, and not so much as we imagine God!

Some, just can’t get over that, it’s too hard, Jesus, to think that what we see in you is the glory of God himself, “glory as of a father’s son.”… and yet you look so human!  That is hard, particularly when you in this fleshly form don’t look like what we have pictured when we think of God!

For others, it is quite the opposite, and that’s where this word “Scandal” comes to play, a word that Jesus uses himself.

“Does this offend you?”  Jesus says; (literally; scandalize you)? “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”

What, in other words, if you were to see fleshly me taken up in glory?  What if what I am modeling here is the way to the Father?   What if (as Jesus will make clear in John 14) the way for humans to be with God in Glory is suddenly thrown open?   “I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come and take you to myself, that where I am you may also be.”

If it’s hard to imagine that God would come down to be as one of us, then how much harder is it to imagine that he can return to that state of glory, and take us with him as we are?

That is our fondest hope, what we long for, look for when life’s force ebbs from us and our days grow short and dim.

And yet, we find it hard to believe, hard to “get through” even when it is offered to us so freely in bread and wine, this invitation to “take Jesus in” and conform our will to his will.

See, we have this difficulty with holding things in tension, and that is what rocks us about scandals all the time, isn’t it?

We like a world of “either/or.”

Either you are able to be politically savvy and act presidentially, or you are a self-aggrandizing jerk, you can’t be both Donald Trump!

Either you are a fine, upstanding moral person who would NEVER be tempted to click on a suggestive link, or you are a scumball cheater who ought to be publically flogged for your indiscretion and your actions… you can’t be both at the same time!

Either you are racially sensitive humanitarian, or you are a racist pig.  You can’t be both at the same time!

The scandal of the Bread of Life, is that Jesus proclaims in it, “yes you can!”

You can be fully human, and you can contain the infinite.

You can “eat of this flesh and drink of this blood” and abide in relationship with God fully and completely…. And still be human and subject to all that “being human” means!

This is the scandal in John’s Gospel, and perhaps for the first time in 30 years of struggling with this gospel and preaching on it, I have at last a glimpse into why it was Martin Luther’s favorite Gospel.

“This teaching about the Bread of Life is difficult, who can accept it?”

No one can!

Not logically.

Not intellectually.

Not just on the surface.

You can only accept this teaching of Jesus if it is granted by the Father, and that can only happen in the totally submission of the will to the grace and truth of God found in this Word made flesh, in Jesus.

It can only be accepted when, like the few disciples who remain, even the betrayer, you get to the point where you also say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe….”

It comes in resignation.

It comes in submission to the will of the Father.

It comes in accepting the bread, the wine; the flesh, the blood of Jesus with all of their apparent contradictions and difficulties–this is how you accept this teaching.

It comes when you come to the point where you yourself say, “Where else are ya gonna go, because I recognize deep within myself now the truth of the incarnation.”

Jesus, you are the Holy One of God, and you are fully human, and that’s where we are as well!

It’s scandalous, I tell you!

Jesus and those who follow remind us that we are beloved of God.  We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own beloved.

We are also in bondage to sin, and we cannot free yourself.

Where else are we gonna go?  To whom else can we turn, but to the one who understands this predicament, because he has lived it, and shows us we can live through it well, and beyond it.

Amen.