Some of the words and teachings we hear on a Sunday are difficult. They may be hard to understand or even offensive. Some may make us wonder if we can follow them at all. Could they be words of eternal life?
What about the words this morning? We heard part of King Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the temple. They are bold words of request that the God of Israel keep the promise God made to David. And though God cannot be contained on earth or in the highest heaven, Solomon prays that God would hear his prayer in this place, that God would hear the prayers of the people of Israel in this place, and surprisingly, that God would hear the prayers of a foreigner to this place, that all the peoples of the earth would know and honour God whose name has been invoked on this house Solomon has built.
Solomon’s prayer seems sincere and honouring of God and God’s people and foreigners who pray to God. They are neither difficult nor offensive. Or are they? Solomon built the temple with slave labour, a temple like those to honour foreign gods that surrounded Israel. God’s honouring the promise to David would not be the issue, but Solomon’s failure to honour God, and the destruction of the temple and suffering of God’s people that would follow. Solomon’s prayer, written centuries after, honours Solomon and the temple after their downfall. That slavery is part of this and our history as God’s people, in ancient and modern times, and the terrible legacy that continues for Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour, should be difficult to hear and offend us, and call us to be different.
Despite Solomon’s actions, his prayer, and especially recognizing the prayer of the foreigner, connected to modern Israel/Palestine for example, where both can be seen by the other as foreigners in the land, holds the promise of God’s hearing the prayers and cries of all suffering people in every time, and God’s leading us and all people to honour God and God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm of steadfast love and justice for all people. Could these be words of eternal life?
The Psalm, a song of dedication or thanksgiving for the temple, expresses gratefulness and joy for God’s dwelling, a home for God’s people and God’s creatures, a place of happiness, where one day within it or at its threshold is better than a thousand elsewhere. We included Psalm 84 when we dedicated this sanctuary almost 14 years ago. Accompanied by didgeridoo and led by the choir, it was wonderful. And this facility is wonderful. But we know, especially over this pandemic, that being God’s people is not tied to a building, that we cannot depend on a building to gather or invite others into community, and it can never be an end in itself or only for ourselves. Any sense of this in the words of the Psalm or ourselves should offend us. It has been difficult, but we have found alternative ways to gather for worship and prayer and community online, in our homes and within ourselves, and in other connections, trusting in community in Christ that transcends space and time as others have before us. As the Psalm says, “happy are they that put their trust in God,” in every circumstance, foreseen and unseen, times of lack and loss and uncertainty that are not only a pandemic reality, but a present and future reality of the climate crisis and its consequences in fires and storms, floods and drought. Could these be words of eternal life?
The conclusion to Ephesians invites being strong in God and uses a metaphor of military armour for the battle against the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil, standing strong, wearing the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and sword of the Spirit - the word of God. Is this a great spiritual metaphor or a difficult and offensive reminder of the church of Christ aligning with and using and justifying military might and power for its own ends, including colonial powers and evil on these lands that continue to harm and kill Indigenous peoples, communities, and cultures, connected as it was and is to the church and horrors committed against Indigenous children and families? Are these words a spiritual metaphor for standing strong against the very colonial powers and the evil of white supremacy that they have been used to support and justify, and God’s calling us to put on truth, justice, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit and word of Christ for the good of all and all creation? Could these be words of eternal life?
In this last reading from the 6th chapter of John, focused on Jesus as the Bread of Life, Jesus speaks in the most literal words about eating his body and drinking his blood, to abide in Jesus and have eternal life in him as Jesus has life in God. Many of the disciples found this teaching difficult to accept. And Jesus confronts them, proclaiming it is the Spirit that gives life. “The flesh is useless.” Jesus’ words are Spirit and life.
According to John’s account, many disciples turned away and stopped following Jesus. Was it that they couldn’t imagine God’s own being in the flesh, abiding with them in Jesus? Or is it about later divisions, including Jewish/Christian division, over understandings and practises in the earliest church, including Holy Communion? The literal sound of Jesus’ words may offend or embarrass us, just like disciples before us. And the pandemic has caused us to think about what Holy Communion means to us and how we share in communion together. And practises have varied from community to community. The national church is now studying the practise of online communion. Some of you have submitted responses, and Jeanie is part of the Faith, Order and Doctrine Committee considering this question. Some find the option of online communion difficult, maybe offensive. Some have turned away from churches practising it. We came to provide this option after thoughtful discussion as a community and for this community, trusting we continue to share together in Christ truly present in these gifts and means of grace, and as sign of Christ, the bread of life, for all and that all have enough, daily bread, in the incarnation, the flesh and blood presence of God with us in Christ Jesus, in Spirit and truth. Many have said this is life giving. Surely these are words of eternal life?
Words that are difficult and offensive, words that can make us turn away and question if we can follow them, these are Jesus’ words, God’s words, words of Spirit and truth for us and for this world and all creation that God knows we need in our and every time - words of eternal life.
As I mentioned before, the National Anglican Lutheran Worship Conference took place online in July, under the theme “Disruption and grace.” It was, by the feedback we received, a good conference, with worship, presentations, workshops, opportunities for questions and conversations, all greatly appreciated by the 160 or so who participated. The three main speakers each offered a different perspective on the theme, on Jesus as an intentional disrupter; on grace like a front porch, a liminal place of meeting God and one another; and disruption as grace, returning us to God’s means of grace in uncertain times. I found the first presentation by Rosalyn Kantlah^nta’ Elm, an indigenous two-spirited Anglican Priest, especially compelling. They spoke about severe disruption, in the pandemic, in the locating of children’s unmarked graves on the site of Residential Schools, and in Jesus, who they described as a “Trickster” from Indigenous culture and spirituality, a “shape-shifter” whose words and stories disrupt and disturb, are difficult and offend, to challenge and change us for the Creator’s good purpose. Jesus the trickster, offering words that are difficult and offensive, that are disruption and grace, words of eternal life.
These words of disruption and grace, of eternal life today invite us into prayer, in houses of prayer and beyond, with others of every faith tradition and practise as equals, trusting in God’s hearing the prayers and cries of all suffering people, in every circumstance and struggle of this life and world, now and yet unseen, challenged to live as we pray together, in equity and unity of purpose for the good of all. Words that call us to put on with others the spiritual strength of God, to challenge and resist and disrupt the powers and forces, the structures and systems that enslave and harm any and all of God’s children, that all would know and experience words of eternal life, daily eternal life, in God’s grace. And words that offer that grace in Jesus giving his very self, his own flesh and blood, his life for God’s love of humanity and all creation, joining us in the flesh and blood struggle of disruption and grace in this world now and forever. Jesus asked if all his followers wanted to leave. Peter replied, “Lord, to whom can we go, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Words and means of disruption and grace, of eternal life. Let it be so for all, in all our relations. Amen.