Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Flesh & Blood

My sermon from Sunday:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54)

This is a very difficult saying for anyone who hears it that’s not an insider to the church. It may feel a little to graphic for us this morning...eating flesh and drinking blood...we may not care for the sound of it, but we know what the point is. With our knowledge of the Eucharistic tradition of the Church: sharing the bread and the wine, and the Gospel claim that in the Eucharist Jesus dwells within us and us in him, we can put the saying into the proper perspective, and hear how Jesus fully gives himself to the whole world.

To those without that inside knowledge, the saying is shocking and completely offensive. The cannibalistic claim is only part of the offense. The notion of drinking blood transgresses one of the most fundamental taboos in the food laws of Israel. And the exclusive tone of Jesus...without this, you have no life in you...was sure to produce anger to anyone not part of the group.

Context, at this moment, is an essential part of fully understanding this passage. Wayne Meeks of Yale University describes the insiders at the time of the Gospel of John as a “...beleaguered little group of believers whose allegiance to Jesus has brought them to the crisis of separation from their neighbors and families, ‘The Jews,’ who now hate them.” (Wayne Meeks on John 6:51-58, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3, Eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 359)

The outsiders keep asking questions throughout the Gospel of John: “How can anyone be born after having grown old...how does one reenter the womb? (John 3) or this morning’s “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:52) The answer to the riddle, so elusive to an outsider, is obvious to the insider. The way Jesus will give bread, or flesh, is the way Jesus will give of himself for the world. Meeks claims that this strange paradox is the center of the entire riddle of the Gospel of John, spelled out in the opening chapter. “The eternal Wisdom and Word of God came down from heaven and became flesh in order that he, as flesh, could give himself for the world’s life. The believers who speak in the Gospel have “seen the glory,” but only in the form of paradox. His signs “reveal it, for those in on the secret, but the event of glorification must wait through the entire narrative for the coming of his “hour.” And that glorification, that exaltation—the way the one who came down from heaven returns to the Father---is precisely his being lifted up on the cross.” (Meeks in FOW, 359) All of this is due to God’s love for the world.

So the believers...a distinct minority within their own culture...have the difficult task of living in this paradox. They are at odds with family and friends and appear out of touch with the common sense of the culture, and some people hate them for it. The temptation is to return that hate in kind, for the insiders to define themselves against outsiders, but the Gospel makes it clear that God loves the whole world, and the Christian is called to do the same.

It is essential that our modern readings of the Gospel of John hold onto love as the central theme, and not lose sight of the context of this Gospel. When Christianity became the dominant culture, no longer a tiny sect in Jewish communities, the story was subverted in anti-Jewish ways, often leading to deadly conflict completely counter to the Gospel message (Meeks again...). It is clear that even today, Christians use the Gospel of John as a battering ram for particular ideology, rather than paradoxical insight to an extravagantly loving God.

It is within this mindset that I turn to healthcare in this country.

The Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention passed a resolution on Health Care. Episcopal congregations have been called to undertake discussions of the issue of health care coverage in the United States, including:

a) recognition that health is multi-dimensional, with spiritual, social, environmental, and mental elements as well as physical,

b) reminder of personal responsibility for healthy life choices and concern for maintaining one's own health,

c) proclaiming the Gospel message of concern for others which extends to concern for their physical health as well as spiritual well-being,

d) responsibility as a parish to attend to the needs (including health-related needs) of others, both other members of the parish family and those of the wider community, the nation, and the world, and

e) recognition that there are limits to what the healthcare system can and should provide and thus that some uncomfortable and difficult choices may have to be made if we are to limit healthcare costs. (Episcopal Church General Convention 2009, C071)

We have not just been called to have our own conversations:

The Episcopal Church urges its members to contact elected federal, state and territorial officials encouraging them to:

a) create, with the assistance of experts in related fields, a comprehensive definition of "basic healthcare" to which our nation's citizens have a right,

b) establish a system to provide basic healthcare to all,

c) create an oversight mechanism, separate from the immediate political arena, to audit the delivery of that "basic healthcare,"

d) educate our citizens in the need for limitations on what each person can be expected to receive in the way of medical care under a universal coverage program in order to make the program sustainable financially,

e) educate our citizens in the role of personal responsibility in promoting good health. (EC General Convention 2009, C071)

The explanation from the proposers, the Bioethics Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, who believe that:

a) provision of basic healthcare for all is a duty of a nation of Judaic-Christian values and, furthermore,

b) the current healthcare delivery system of the United States is flawed in failing to provide comprehensive coverage for 47 million of our citizens and, furthermore,

c) our current system with its escalating costs represents a non-sustainable financial challenge to employers competing in a global market,

d) the steps we specify above are all necessary to address this problem adequately.

The Episcopal Church has said that we need to have these conversations.

The public sphere has been trying to have these conversations as well. Unfortunately, much of the public conversation has turned into angry yelling of misinformation, subverting the opportunity for serious dialogue into moments of grandstanding, and making health care reform likely to fail not on the merits of the plans, but on public perception and political implication.

I want to be clear that I am not asking you to back the current administration’s health care plan as is. Robert Reich, Former Secretary of Labor, Professor at Berkeley, writes that one reason the stream of misinformation continues to sway people is that the public plan currently lacks specifics that are critical to understanding what is being proposed. The President needs to be very specific about two things in particular: (1) Who will pay? and (2) Why the public option is so important -- and why it's not a Trojan Horse to a government takeover. (Robert Reich, How to Fight Healthcare Fearmongers and Demagogues)

The correlation between this morning’s Gospel and the Healthcare debate is twofold. First, there is no place for insiders and outsiders in this conversation. All Americans should have basic health care, and access to the real information to the healthcare proposals in a way that is clear without political agenda and bias.

Secondly, the Gospel holds us to a standard of behavior towards each other.

Brian McClaren, an evangelical pastor and author, wrote a web letter called "An Open letter to Conservative Christians in the US on Health Care." He writes:

But we Christians, it seems to me, have a high calling – to be radically committed to integrity and civility, even (especially) with those with whom we disagree. God, after all, is merciful, generous, and kind to “the just and the unjust”: How can we not have that same obligation regarding those with whom we disagree? Even if others resort to dirty political tricks and distortion of the truth through exaggeration and fear-mongering, we simply cannot. At the very least, we should be seekers of truth, seekers of wisdom, not consumers (or purveyors) of propaganda – even if it comes from members of our own political party and people who quote a lot of Bible verses (often out of context). We have a higher calling.

I think McClaren is right, and I would further suggest that all Americans need to drop the shouting, name-calling, and grandstanding that has marked the Town Hall Meetings. Let us acknowledge the real fears (as well as the rumors, egos, and ambitions) that have been fueling these reactions, and instead create the space to have real discussion and debate on the health care issues that all of the people of this country face, so that we can find the right way forward for all Americans.

No outsiders or insiders.


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