"Table Scraps vs. Loaves and Fishes: Sharing the Bread of Life" (Matthew 15:21-28 & Matthew 14:13-21)
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
That first text Jane read for us seemed a bit harsh, didn’t it? Jesus appears to refuse the pleas of the Canaanite woman to help heal her daughter, saying: It's not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs. The woman says: Yes, but even dogs eat crumbs that fall from their master's table. What on earth is going on in and under those words?
I'm guessing even those of you with favorite animal friends were shocked to hear Jesus refer to this woman as a dog. And I'm afraid it may be worse than you think. Jews in Jesus' day don't seem to have kept dogs as pets; the biblical writers were unfamiliar with the kind of warm relationship that many of us have come to know between dogs and their people. Dogs were generally of the scavenger sort, haunting the streets and dumps; they were considered to be unclean, and 'dog' was apparently used as a term of contempt. The implication, then, is that the people whom Jesus normally heals are 'children' and this Gentile woman and her daughter are 'dogs', subhuman and therefore unworthy of his concern. All of which only leaves us with more questions than answers: Why was Jesus silent to the woman's pleas for help when she begged him to heal her daughter? Why does he then seem to insult her by calling her a dog? Those of us who’ve read and heard lots of stories from the gospels know this does NOT sound like the Jesus we know. The Jesus we know ministered to a Samaritan woman at the well and healed the son of a Roman centurion. So it's hard to know what to make of this text.
As you might imagine, any number of interpretations have been proposed to make sense of the story. For my part, I wonder if Jesus was setting up his audience, seeminglyplaying into the xenophobic or chauvinistic attitudes of his day, seeminglyindicating others had a right to exclude this Gentile woman, but only to give her an opportunity to make a powerful point in her own words. I like to think Jesus had a twinkle in his eye here, teasing his disciples along a little, setting the volleyball up so this Canaanite woman could spike it with her telling reply: “Surely even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.” Whatever our interpretation, it’s clear she understands what others in the story miss -- that food from God’s table is intended for everyone, even those despised and mistreated by others. In this midst of this strange gospel episode, she proclaims a profound truth about the kingdom of God.
For what isthe kingdom of God supposed to look like? Elsewhere in Matthew's gospel it's likened to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. When those he first invited refused to come, he sent his servants out into the streets to gather everyone they found and bring them in to share the feast. (Matt 22:1-10) The kingdom is also foreshadowed in that other story we read today from Matthew’s gospel, about Jesus taking five loaves and two fish and managing to fill the bellies of well over five thousand people. Jesus didn't check anyone's credentials before he made supper that night; the all-you-can-eat buffet, as a sign of God's kingdom, was free and open to all. Interestingly, Matthew tells a very similar story a chapter later too. Clearly he felt it was important for us to understand the way God’s abundance worked, in feeding these great multitudes of people. And in Luke's gospel we read that in the last days people will come from east and west and from north and south, and will eat together in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29-30)
The symbolism is rich, isn't it? We're all invited to sit at God's table, to share the bread of life. But in the present kingdom, our table manners could seriously stand some improvement. We argue over who is worthy to pull up a chair. Sometimes our remarks at the dinner table are hurtful to others, or not exactly the kind of thing we’d want Jesus to overhear. Sometimes we forget that all are invited, and are reluctant to share even a few table scraps, even the crumbs that fall from our plates, with those who ask them of us.
Oh, but in the kingdom to come. . . There the laughter of dinner conversation will be pure and kind. There no one will be left out or will go hungry, no one will have to beg for a few table scraps, for everyone will be seated side by side and all served equally. For then we will have learned the true meaning of the kingdom of God, and our host will see to it that our table manners are impeccable.
The earthly kingdom is just a lens, a window through which we can catch a little glimpse of the heavenly kingdom. What we see is the 'now'; we see the 'not yet' only dimly. So naturally our view will be a bit distorted. Here and now we won't always get it right. But isn't it still a glorious vision? All God’s children, men and women, young and old, from every tribe on earth, sitting down together to share a meal. An abundance of food. A banquet like none other we've ever seen.
It’s that vision that excites me when I think about our congregation “Sharing the Bread of Life,” which was our theme at our annual officers’ retreat here at church, and a theme we’re hoping can inform much of what we do together as a church family this year.
Next week we’ll have an opportunity to “Share the Bread of Life” in two quite tangible ways. First, we’ll break bread together around the Lord’s Table when we celebrate communion with our friends from the Hungarian church that shares our facility. Then, after worship, we’ll head downstairs to build sandwiches for our friends at Tent City 5.
And when we say sandwiches, we mean SANDWICHES. I love the way our Operation Nightwatch team thinks, when it comes to food preparation for those they serve once a month downtown. They’re not interested in offering a littlesomething to eat. They’re all about quality and quantity. It’s a feastthey put together each month! We want to do the same with our sandwiches for Tent City 5. This isn’t about crumbs or table scraps. We want to demonstrate, as generously as we can, that there is plenty of bread for all in the abundance of God’s kingdom. We also want to package up a little love with the sandwiches we build, so the kids will draw pictures and write message on the lunch bags they’ll be delivered in; they’ll do that during their Sunday School time next week before returning to join us around the Lord’s Table for communion.
The witness of the Scriptures is clear. God’s kingdom banquet is intended for everyone. There isn’t a person on this planet who isn’t worthy of an invitation to the feast. There isn’t a soul on earth who isn’t welcome around God’s table. And God provides. For our part, we’re simply called to sharethe bread God provides, never hoarding for ourselves, or making anyone feel unworthy of being included. Let’s not put anyone in the position of having to fight for their place at the table the way that Canaanite woman did in the first text we read today.
I hope you can join us as we “Share the Bread of Life” next week, both here in worship and downstairs as we build sandwiches in fellowship hall. And incidentally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the more we share, the more we’ll find we have available to share. For the God overseeing our sandwich operation is the same God who rained down bread from heaven for the children of Israel in the wilderness, the same God to whom we regularly pray for our daily bread, the same God who in Jesus fed a huge crowd with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish – and not only were they fed, there was a whole lot left over!
One of my favorite biblical prayers, from the book of Ephesians, ends with these words: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”
We might startnext week with the relatively simple task of sandwich building, and with our welcome at the Lord’s Table extended to just a few new friends. But there’s no telling where that might lead us. We could end up being blown away by what God is able to accomplish if we continue offering him our willing hearts and hands, and if we keep looking for ways to “Share the Bread of Life” in his name.
Who knows how our generosity and welcome might be multiplied by God. But if today’s gospel texts are any indication, I suspect we’ll find the table’s big enough for everyone, and loaves abound!
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
The kids ask and ask for the thing they want more than anything in the whole world. They get it. They’re ecstatic for awhile. Then it’s not exciting anymore. Kids ask: How come you didn’t get me that other thing? Mom says they don’t need that other thing.
Kids get hungry. Really hungry. Could eat three pizzas in one sitting hungry. Dad gives them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Kids push back: but you left the crusts on my bread, and it’s the wrong kind of jelly and anyway, I wanted pizza. Dad says stop arguing and eat your lunch.
Kids hide peanut butter sandwiches in their pockets. Mom says don’t do that, it’ll make a mess. Kids keep stuffing it in. Mom says don’t do that, I mean it. Kids do it with gusto, then wonder why their pockets are so sticky.
Then the kids get thirsty. . . But that’s not until Exodus 17.
OK, I’ll admit it’s a somewhat irreverent paraphrase of today’s Scripture lesson. I expect it’s human nature to complain sometimes, just as it’s human nature to disobey our parents on occasion. And part of what we have here in Exodus 16 is a phenomenon true of many parent/child relationships. It’s just that in today’s performance the role of parent is played by God, and the role of child is played by the ancient Israelites.
The theme for our annual leadership retreat here at church last month was “Sharing the Bread of Life.” Over the next few Sundays we’ll be focusing in worship on Scripture texts that guided our conversation at that retreat. One of them being God’s provision of food – this manna, or bread from heaven - as the Israelites made their way through the wilderness, from slavery in Egypt into the promised land of Canaan.
And to be fair,the people’s complaints are really only a small part of what’s going on in this text. The weight of the story lies in God’s response; that is, in how their needs are met.
First, notice that God responds with compassion and understanding. As any good parent knows, the fact that the kids are complaining doesn’t mean they’re not genuinely tired and hungry. Before any real learning can take place, they need some food. Notice the sequence. The Israelites lament, and God rains down bread from heaven for them to eat. After all, what father, when his children ask him for bread, would give them a stone? What mother would forsake her nursing child? Feeding is the most basic form of provision, and it’s not for nothing that we have been taught to ask Godfor our daily bread. Yahweh’s been in the food business ever since Adam and Eve first strolled around the garden. And here in the wilderness, a month out of Egypt, the people may well have been truly hungry.
As for how God meets their need, I guess we’re free to come to our own conclusions about how extraordinary we feel it was for the people to have just as much food as they required each morning and each night for forty years. There are scholars who argue it wasn’t all that unusual to find these particular food sources in the desert – both this flaky white residue that could be baked and eaten, or the quail to provide them with meat. They claim it was a happy coincidence for the Hebrew people rather than a miracle. But accepting the gist of the ancient author’s interpretation – that the manna and quail were a tremendous gift from God – I think it’s important, even for those who may be drawn to more scientific explanations. Because the main question addressed within the text is not whether we are dealing here with “unparalleled food sources,” but whether the Israelites had Someone to thank for their daily bread. After all, when the tax refund arrives precisely when we need it most? Thanks be to God for bread from heaven!
It’s even been argued that it was the very ordinariness of the manna and quail that was significant. That the point of this particular story following on the heels of the more dramatic Passover and Red Sea events was “not to stress the extraordinary acts of God one more time but to keep God linked with everyday blessings.”God is concerned about all the little things”too.
Though for the manna to keep well over the Sabbath, and to spoil on other days certainly indicates there was something unusual about it. The fact that a portion of manna is kept for later generations to see also shows us this was felt to be a supernaturalprovision of food. Manna as superfood, you might say.
At any rate, another element of the divine response to Israel’s complaints is that while God meets their need, God doesn’t exactly let them order off the menu. Flaky manna paste was presumably a far cry from the mouthwatering meals they’d had in mind. Keith Green has a great song, “So You Want to Go Back to Egypt?” in which he imagines just how far the recipe file might be stretched as they wandered around: manna hotcakes, manna-burgers, filet of manna, manna-cotti, and naturally ba-manna bread. It wouldn’t exactly rate its own show on the Food Network. On the other hand, the people weren’t hungry anymore. They had enough to eat, and what remained was for them to learn to be content with what they had.
Meanwhile, as the chapter opens and closes we find clues that there is yet another important dimension to this story. And that’s the role of memory for these people of God.
First, notice the selective memory of the former slaves as they reflect back on their life in Egypt, where they “sat by the fleshpots (that just means pots full of stew meat) and ate [their] fill of bread.” That’s funny, I don’t remember any mention of mouth-watering Egyptian cookouts back in the opening chapters of Exodus. Being forced to make bricks without straw, yes. And groaning under the heavy yoke of slavery. But not so much about fragrant stew simmering over the fire.
So, too, the people demonstrate a bit of forgetfulness, at best, in the way they go about collecting their manna. “Only take what you need,” says God. So they promptly go out and try to gather extra. “Don’t bother going out on the Sabbath; there won’t be anything there.” So out they go on the Sabbath and wander around wondering where all the manna went. How quickly we forget!
But on the positive side, notice the ways in which Israel wouldremember what happened here in the wilderness. I find it interesting, for instance, that they recall their own mistakes in so much detail. Remember: this is a Hebrew document we’re reading, the Israelites reflecting back on these experiences in the desert, and it’s hardly a flattering self-portrait! It reminds me of the way our perspective changes as we grow older. Like Mark Twain’s line about how foolish his parents were when he was a teenager, and how much they had wised up by the time he hit 21. So perhaps we can see a certain maturity in the way Israel was willing to paint such a realistic picture of themselves as they reflected back on this episode from a distance.
And the single most fascinating element of the story to me is this jar of manna they later kept for all generations to see. They were commanded to take this jar of stuff, whatever it was (the word manna may be a word play; it sounds a little bit like the Hebrew for “what the heck is this?”), and they were to place that jar front and center in the tabernacle of God. In other words, every time they gathered for worship, here was this reminder of bread from heaven, given so they would know that it was Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt. A tangible memento of God’s presence in their lives each and every day of that long journey. A visible reminder that a place in their lives that had at times seemed godforsaken was really quite the opposite. For God had provided them, daily, with the bread of life.
What kinds of things do you suppose went through their minds years later as they considered that jar of manna? And where might be our takeaways?
Remember when we had reached the end of our rope, and God came through for us? Remember how much trouble we had trusting God really would provide for us every single day? Remember how we complained about what we had, rather than giving thanks that we had enough? Remember how we foolishly tried to hoard too much for ourselves, but learned, over and over again, that there would be plenty for everyone, if we just took what we needed and left some for our neighbors too?
Behold that jar of manna. Bread from heaven. Bread of life. Bread to be shared, along our journey. Amen.
 Fretheim, 183.
 Fretheim, 184.
Sermon by Donald A. Bailey
My topic today is blind spots, physical, mental and moral. This topic came to me last year, when Marie was unexpectedly diagnosed with a torn retina, which required emergency surgery. In the course of her treatment, we found out quite a bit about the eye, probably more than we really wanted to know. For instance, we learned that there are hundreds of times more nerve endings on the surface of the cornea than there are on one's fingertip, making even a minor scratch on the cornea extremely painful.
Another thing about the eye that I learned, or remembered, because I had heard of it before, is that the optic nerve comes off the front of the retina and then dives back through the retina to connect to the brain. This sanctuary used to be filled with Boeing engineers, and we still have a few out there, and every one of them would be horrified at a design that took the output from an optical sensor off the front of the sensor and then routed it back through a hole in the receptive surface to the processing unit. Any competent engineer would take the output off the back of the sensor, eliminating the need for a hole in the sensor surface.
Some of you may remember a few years ago when I had the privilege of giving a talk from this pulpit on the relationship between evolutionary biology, Scripture, and faith. It's a particular interest of mine, thinking about the relationship of science and religion. Some of you may also remember a number of years ago when we had visiting speakers from The Discovery Institute here, promoting the notion of intelligent design. This is a doctrine that claims that biological structures, and in particular human beings, are far too complex to have evolved by mere chance. There must have been a designer to create such a wonderful mechanism as, for instance, the human eye.
I am convinced the intelligent design people are wrong. Eyes, or something similar, have evolved at least 30 different times in the last 500 million years, because the ability to see gives the animal such an evolutionary survival advantage. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And of course, there's this problem of the optic nerve. The "intelligent designer" who thought that one up failed engineering 101.
Genesis tells us we are made in "the image of God". But I personally don't believe that God's optic nerve comes off the front of his or her retina before going back through to the brain. More on that later.
But I didn't come to talk today about evolution. I came to talk about blind spots. The consequence of the optic nerve going back in through a hole in the retina is that everybody has a blind spot, where there are no receptor cells to pick up the light. You don't see it, because your eyes are constantly moving over the visual field, and the brain automatically fills in what it figures must be in the blind spot. But it's there. You can test by taking a piece of paper and draw an ex-on the left-hand margin. Then measure about 5 inches to the right and draw a dot about the size of a penny. Hold the paper at arms length and close your left eye. Keep your right eye focused on the X and slowly bring the paper towards you. You will see the dot disappear.
And just as our brains construct a model of the visual field that we are looking at, our brains also construct a model of the entire world based on our experience. Not just our visual field, but our expectations about how things work, what tools and objects do, how our relationships with other people fit together, basically everything that's part of our day to day experience goes into this gigantic model of the world in our brains. This model is a pretty good approximation of the world, and every waking minute our brains are refining it and adapting it to new information. But who knows, tiny aliens, or Angels, could be hovering right in our blind spots, and we would never know it.
In the passage from Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonishes us about our blind spots. He uses the metaphor of a speck in your neighbor's eye, and expands it to the log or plank in our own eye. Of course, Jesus was referring to our moral blind spots, not our optical blind spots.
Jesus saw people for who they really were, not by how society judged them, or other people assumed them to be, but how they really were in their hearts. Jesus calls on us to do the same. In this, as in so many other aspects of his ministry, Jesus was a radical. He made hard demands on his disciples, and he makes hard demands on us. And of course, the ultimate example of a moral blind spot was the failure of the Jewish authorities to really see who was standing there right in front of them, God incarnate.
Of course, it's relatively easy to say "Oh, we all have moral blind spots, and we need to be more careful to avoid them." But that's very difficult to do in the abstract. When I think about moral blind spots, and I certainly have many of my own, it helps me to think of the work of the Nobel prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman. He wrote a wonderful book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow". Traditional economic theory is concerned with what a hypothetical economic person would do in any given situation. Such a person is assumed to be rational, selfish, and consistent in their wants and desires. Kahneman's profound insight is that this rational economic person does not actually exist in real life. But we can understand and quantify many of the unconscious influences which govern our decisions.
Kahneman described the situation this way: our brains operate with two distinct but related systems of thought. System 1 Is the way of thinking we use everyday, all the time. It is quick, efficient, doesn't use up a lot of energy, doesn't require a lot of mental effort, and for most purposes usually produces pretty good results. It's the system you probably use to pick a tomato out of the bin at the supermarket. You think, "This one looks good," without exactly quantifying its ripeness, weight, color and other physical characteristics. System 1 is always checking your mental model of the world against new sensory input, asking "Is there a threat coming at me," or "Is there some kind of opportunity here that I should be taking advantage of?" or "All right, everything seems to be stable, no need to worry or change what I'm doing." System 1 is the part of our minds that triggers the flight or fight response.
System 2, on the other hand, is thinking that is slow, rigorous, requires a lot of effort and energy, and is completely verifiable. Where system 1 says "I have about $75 worth of groceries in my cart, and so I think I have enough money to check out," system 2 adds up all the items and comes to $82.17. System 1 uses rules of thumb and approximations. System 2 figures things out in detail. System 2 follows the rules of mathematics and logic, looks for evidence for and against any given proposition, and reasons things out in an organized way that can both be explained to another person and replicated by them. System 2 understands the workings of system 1, and can help us develop techniques to correct the errors that lazy system 1 may commit.
Of all God's creation, we are, as far as we know, the only creatures that think about how we think. We may someday discover that dolphins or chimpanzees think about how they are thinking, and engage in philosophical debates about their intellectual methodologies, but right now, humans are the only creatures we know who do that.
Kahneman's work illuminates many of our potential moral blind spots. When we encounter someone, system 1 immediately forms a conclusion whether this is a friend, or someone we need to be concerned about, or someone we can ignore. Certain things about the person will raise associations with past experiences that will color our immediate reaction. System 1 automatically associates together things that it encounters in an effort to create a coherent mental model of the world. If you have just heard the word "eat", and you are presented with the letters so_p, you will most likely think of the word "soup". But if you have just heard the word "wash", you will most likely think of the word "soap". There was classic experiment conducted in an office break room. There was a box next to the coffee maker where people would contribute a few coins to pay for the coffee. With no prior warning or explanation, a picture of flowers appeared above the box. In a few days, again without explanation, the picture was changed to one of human eyes. Then the pictures were switched back and forth at varying intervals. Lo and behold, contributions to the coffee fund went up significantly when the picture of eyes was posted, as opposed to the picture of flowers.
One thing that system 1 does very well is jump to conclusions. System 1 immediately comes up with an interpretation of the new situation that fits the available facts, without you even being aware that it is doing so. System 1 focuses on the existing evidence, and ignores evidence that is absent.
Often, how a question is posed will influence your answer. I just tried this one out on the confirmation class: How many animals of each type did Moses bring on the Ark? [Pause] Wait, Moses did not have an ark, Noah did. But the way the question is posed focuses our minds on the number of animals, and System 1 simply ignores the identification of Moses. For another example: Alan is described as intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious. Ben is described as envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent. When given those two descriptions, most people view Alan much more favorably than Ben, even though all the adjectives are the same and only their order has been changed. Then there is the "halo" effect, which is the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person, including things you've not observed. Joan was likeable at the church picnic, so I think she will be a generous contributor to the building fund.
The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. You like or dislike people long before you know very much about them. You trust or distrust strangers without knowing why. How and why does this happen? This is an example of system 1 being confronted with a hard question -- "What is this person really like?", And instead answering a much easier question -- "Does this person's expression make me feel comfortable or uncomfortable?" This happens all the time. And easier question, called an heuristic, is substituted for a harder question, that would require system 2 to go into action and actually evaluate the known facts about person, and perhaps investigate additional unknown aspects of the person.
When asked a question, such as, "Is John honest?", System 1 will think of instances when John behaved honestly, and take those as evidence that he is in fact honest, conveniently ignoring the instances when he may not have been so honest. The confirmation bias of system 1 leads it to seek information confirming the hypothesis presented to it, and also leads it to exaggerate the likelihood of extreme and improbable events.
In preparation for this talk, I had occasion to take an implicit bias test. You can go on the Internet and take one yourself. The one I took measured bias for or against old or young people. A series of words and pictures of faces are flashed on the screen, and you are asked to rate them as good or bad as quickly as you can. When good words were paired with young faces, it was very easy for me to make a quick answer. But when the words and faces were mixed up, I actually felt my mind slowing down and searching for the answer. System 1 couldn't answer the question, and system 2 went into action.
Behavioral economics and psychology can give us ways to understand the log in our own eyes that Jesus warned us against. System 1 leads to moral blind spots. System 2 enables us to check our conclusions and compensate for our blind spots. There's a common expression among the younger generation: "Check your privilege." Translated into the terms I am using, I think what people are saying is, "Your system 1 is leading you to unexamined assumptions that prevent you from seeing clearly the actual situation."
A number of years ago, when I had the privilege of serving on the search committee for a new pastor for MPC, interim pastor Elaine talk a lot about discernment, the process of trying to figure out God's will. As we sifted through the resumes of many qualified candidates, we sometimes got lost and modeled in our deliberations. One of our members would bring us back to task by saying, "Let's remember our mission statement. How does this candidate fit our mission?" Another of our members would bring us back to task by asking, "Are we asking the right questions? Is there other information we should be looking for?"
To me, discernment is not simply waiting for an answer to present itself. It is engaging system 2 to look at an issue in depth, from several different perspectives, with an understanding of the biases and preconceptions which may be influencing our thought processes.
System 2 has the potential to enable us to see the world more or less as Jesus saw it. Not as quickly or as comprehensively as he did, but along the same path that he walked. Which brings me back to our scripture reading from Genesis. In what way are we made "in the image of God?"
Clearly, it is not our bodies. We succumb to old age, disease, and accidents. Ultimately, to dust we return. We generally come in different genders, although God is clearly neither male nor female but transcends gender categories. And then there's that silly problem of the optic nerve. That can't be in the image of God.
I personally believe that it is in the workings of what Kahneman calls system 2, and what other philosophers have called Reason, that we imperfect humans approach the image of God. System 2 allows us to not only know, but to know how we know. It gives us the ability to see past our implicit biases, to compensate for our tendency to answer the heuristic question instead of the real question, and to check our results against the evidence.
As the apostle Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians: "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Many of us enjoyed a fun celebration of Easter last week. Our Greek and Russian Orthodox friends celebrate Easter today. And the nice thing about either church calendar is that we remain in the seasonof Easter for several weeks, until Pentecost Sunday. In this season the gospels offer us not just one resurrection story – the one we told last week about the women discovering the empty tomb – but several of them. So in any given year we might hear about the two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, for instance. Jesus walks right along with them, but they don’t know it’s him until later that evening when he breaks bread with them. Or we might hear about the disciple Thomas, and his inability to believe it’s really Jesus, alive again, until he touches the scars in his hands and his side, wounds from his crucifixion.
This year I found myself gravitating to the episode that comes just before Thomas’ encounter, in these earlier verses from the same chapter. We’re still on Easter Sunday, at this point. When we read “it was evening on that day, the first day of the week,” that’s the very same day that Jesus had appeared in the morning to Mary at the empty tomb. While Mary has seen Jesus for herself, remember that the other disciples have not. He’d been executed a couple of days earlier, and clearly they’re afraid the same guys that got him will come for them next, because as our story begins they’re hiding away behind locked doors.
But locked doors or not, Jesus appears and stands among them, saying “Peace be with you.” Notice he shows them his hands and his side, and a few verses later we’ll learn Thomas wasn’t with the rest of the group at this point, so it’s not really fair for us to pick on him for wanting to see what everyone else had already seen. At any rate, Jesus then says to them a second time “Peace be with you.” And then he breaths on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
“Peace be with you.” Because Jesus was a Jew, it’s likely he was offering the Hebrew greetingshalom aleichem(aleichembeing the “with you” or “with y’all” part of “peace be with you”), or perhaps its Aramaic equivalent, which would be quite similar. As is the Arabic, incidentally, which is why our Muslim friends greet one another with the phrase salaam 'alaykum. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic are all related, Semitic languages –they’re similar the way that French, Spanish, and Italian are similar - so it’s the very same greeting whichever of those languages you choose: shalom aleichem in Hebrew. salaam 'alaykum in Arabic. Peace be with you or peace be upon you.
Who among us doesn’t welcome being greeted in peace, or given a blessing of peace, which is really what that greeting is about. May you find peace, may you have peace. That’s what we’re saying to each other during the passing of the peace here at church too. There’s more going on there than the fun of walking around and shaking hands or exchanging hugs. It matters what we are saying to each other. Nothing wrong with “hello,” or “good to see you,” or “welcome, I’m glad you’re here.” Those are all perfectly appropriate; I sometimes add those greetings too. But there’s something special about saying “peace be upon you” or “the peace of Christ be with you” – or even using that rich Hebrew word shalom, which a couple of you regularly exchange with me on Sunday mornings, shalombeing a word that holds within it not just peace but wholeness, wellness of body and spirit. It’s a blessing we’re saying. A prayer, of sorts, for that person’s well-being. It’s not at all uncommon for me to catch someone’s eye on a Sunday morning and get a sense of how much they needthe gift of shalom, or peace, in that very moment. We’ll take all the peace we can get even on a normal day, right? Bring it on! And there are times we need it even more.
The week after Easter lastyear had me at my mother’s graveside. There are so many details to be handled immediately following a death that Dad felt it would be ok to hold off on burying her ashes for a while, and the rest of us in the family agreed. The challenge, in upstate NY, is that once you wait until late fall, you’re really waiting until the whole winter is past. So we planned for spring, once the ground had thawed, to take care of those final arrangements. Mom would be buried in the family plot in the old rural cemetery in our hometown. And having done the larger memorial service several months earlier, we decided we wanted to keep the committal of her ashes quite small and simple. Just the three of us– my dad, my sister, and myself. Just a handful of early daffodils cut from their garden that morning, for each of us to lay on the gravestone. We picked the week after Easter for purely logistical reasons at first, because of my work schedule as a pastor here on the opposite coast, but I also found it quite meaningful to be headed to her grave in that season of resurrection. After all, we are Easter people – as someone or other said from this pulpit last week – which means we are people of hope, people who know God can bring new life even from the heartbreak of death.
The question came up – if we don’t want a full burial service with extended family, or even Mom and Dad’s pastors, what should we do instead? We decided I’d just pull together a couple of simple prayers, and one of her favorite psalms, and read those, and that would suffice.All of which was fine. There was only one problem. As we got ready to drive down to the cemetery that morning, I remembered that just trying to play pastor wasn’t going to cut it, when I was also a grieving daughter. I needed to be on the receivingend of comforting words too.
So at the last minute I leaned on technology, and downloaded a favorite piece of music onto my phone, so that once I’d read the psalm and the prayers, I could play it for all threeof us to hear. The song was “A Gaelic Blessing” by John Rutter. Here are the lyrics:
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.
The song came to mind because I’d played it for mom a number of times in her final days, when she most needed the gift of peace. And now we were the ones who needed it. What a blessing it was for me to simply be quiet and listen to that song in that moment. Celtic spirituality often uses images from the natural world, knowing our Creator can connect with us, and bring us peace, through waves lapping on the seashore or wind in the trees. So it seemed only fitting that standing there at Mom’s graveside we heard the song under a cluster of pine trees, surrounded by rolling hills, with the gentle sounds of cows and sheep in nearby fields adding their voices to the soundtrack. On the way home in the car, we enjoyed adding our own lyrics:
Deep peace of the rustling pines to you,
Deep peace of the lowing cows to you,
Deep peace of the wooly sheep to you…
Mom would have loved it. And even as we prayed for her peace, it felt like she was praying for ours. For God’speace in that hard time, a peace that passes all human understanding.
Shalom aleichem. Salaam 'alaykum. Peace be with you. We’ll take all the peace we can get even on a normal day, right? Bring it on! And there are times we need it even more.
While it may not be preached as often as the story of so-called Doubting Thomas or the story of Jesus hanging out incognito with those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, I have to say this morning’s text from John has become one of my favorite resurrection stories. It’s so simple, but so powerful. A small group of Jesus’ followershuddled together, frightened and hurting. And while they are gathered, Jesus himself arrives, to bring them peace.
A small group of Jesusfollowers gathered together, frightened and hurting, overwhelmed by a violent death and worried about dangerous people in positions of great power. While they are gathered, they receive God’s peace.
Here we sit today, a small group of Jesus followers gathered together. Some of us frightened or hurting. Some of us deeply concerned about violent deaths or worried about dangerous people in positions of great power. But whenever we are gathered, we can also receive the gift of God’s peace. We can look in each other’s eyes, take each other’s hands and say: shalomor “peace” or “the peace of Christ be with you.” We’ll take all the peace we can get even on a normal day, right? And there are times we need it even more. So what a blessing to be able to offer it to one another every single Sunday.
Returning to our text, it’s important we don’t overlook the other gift Jesus gave those frightened disciples on Easter evening. The story ended with Jesus breathing on them and saying, “receive the Holy Spirit.” We can have all kinds of Greek and Hebrew fun here too. John wrote his gospel in Greek, and the Greek word pneuma(spirit) is related to breath and air (think: pneumatic or pneumonia in English). In Hebrew too, the word for “spirit” (ruach) can also mean “breath,” so Jesus is intentionally playing with words here, in whatever language he’s speaking.
Since he was a Jew speaking to Jewish friends, I like to imagine the scene unfolding in Hebrew. Jesus sees how dis-spirited his disciples are (a conspicuous lack of ruach), he knows they need to be re-in-spired (just add ruach), so he breathson them (ruach!)… and in so doing gives them their spiritsback, even as he also gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He performs a bit of holy CPR, you might say, on this frightened bunch. It’s an object lesson. It’s one of those marvelous word pictures Jesus is always using. Breathingon them as he says: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Opening his mouth and sending out in their direction the very thing they needed most. His spirit. His breath. His life.
Those Greek and Hebrew words for spirit or breath share verbal roots with the respective words for wind, too. The wind of God will make a memorable appearance next month on Pentecost Sunday, when the book of Acts tells of the Holy Spirit whooshing through the early church with tremendous force, as a mighty wind.
It’s the very same Spirit, the same breath or wind of God here in today’s story, just in a gentler form. A quiet breeze, if you will, instead of a rushing wind. In each form, the Spirit can give us courage, in fearful times. Sometimes we’ll need it in a big dramatic burst. And sometimes we’ll need God’s courage and comfort to come to us as a gentle breath.
“Don’t forget to breathe.” I’ve often said this to people who are hurting or fearful, anxious or overwhelmed. I’ve been known to say it to myself in tough moments too. “Don’t forget to breathe.”
Next time I say it, I want to remember that the breath most needed in that moment, the breath that’s promised us, is the breath of the Holy Spirit. Exhaled by the mouth of God, inhaled by fearful children of God needing courage, by hurting children of God needing healing, by disheartened, dis-spirited children of God needing inspiration, and energy, and Easter hope.
Friends, no matter what this week, or this year, may hold for you or for the crazy world around you, don’t forget to breathe. As you breathe, picture yourselves inhaling the same gift of God’s Spirit that Jesus shared with those fearful disciples on Easter evening. As you breathe in God’s Spirit, you’ll also be receiving the gift of God’s peace.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you…
Deep peace of Christ, the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.
Or as rabbi Jesus himself would say, shalom aleichem, “Peace be with you.”
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s quite a story we tell today. While it may be new to some of you, others of you – like me – have been looking forward all year to hearing it again.
Jesus having died back on Friday, and the Sabbath not being an appropriate day for final burial preparations, the women arrive at the tomb early Sunday morning to get to work. Arms full of spices, sleeves rolled up, for the sad task of embalming their dear friend and teacher.
When they get there, instead of a dead body, they find an empty tomb, and men in dazzling clothes offering them these strange, but encouraging words: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Don’t you remember what he told you? He is risen!” The women run back to relay the joyful tidings to “the eleven” (that’s the 12 disciples, minus poor Judas) and to the rest.
As adults we can get caught up sometimes in analyzing stories, in debating this or that detail, or wondering why it was told in such and such a way. But think about how children respond to a well-told story. Those of you who are parents or grandparents, those of you who are teachers, you know. The minute you finish their favorite book, what’s a child most likely to say? “Again! Again! Tell it again!” No matter that they’ve heard it a hundred times. No matter that they’ve got the whole story memorized by now. The hearing of it – again – brings them such joy. So moms and grandpas and patient teachers, when time and stamina allow, indulge that desire when we can. We flip back to page 1, and we tell their favorite story again.
It occurs to me that our whole church calendar is connected to that same basic desire, even if we’re far too grown up to be curled up on our parents’ laps with a stack of toddler-sized board books. Because we know that the very best stories are well worth hearing again and again.
So back to today’s story….
It doesn’t surprise me a bit that those eleven disciples would have trouble believing the women who’d just come from the empty tomb. For any of them, it would have been one thing to hear Jesus talk about his resurrection ahead of time, and quite another to believe it had actually happened. How would you have reacted if the women came running to tell you what they’d seen and heard?
Here’s what Anna Carter Florence has to say about the women’s words seeming to the disciples an idle tale:
"Alas, [she says,] The disciples, I am sorry to tell you, are not as receptive to this news as we might have hoped. In fact, they are less than supportive. You might even say that for one wildly out-of-character moment, they forget their disciple manners and resort to the subtle cadences of a high school locker room: “Yeah? Well that sounds like a load of !@#$%^&!* to me.” (Luke 24:11) Translators of Luke have clearly tried to play this down…[“an idle tale” indeed!] But the Greek word in question is leiros, which means “nonsense,” “drivel,” “trash,” “garbage…'"
And a host of colorful English equivalents – hence the !@#$%^&!* in her paraphrase of the text.
It’s a perfectly natural reaction. And those of us who are most familiar with the story - who’ve heard it told again and again - would do well to sit with the skeptics for awhile. The Easter story defies logic and explanation. It sounds too good to be true. If it weren’t these things, it wouldn’t be Easter. I mean, trees budding and birds chirping and eggs hatching – all those signs of springtime, we can explain. But Jesus on the third day wasn’t at all like a daffodil bulb pushing up toward the sunshine! The Easter story almost has to sound like leiros (nonsense) to be worth anything at all. The fact that it cannot be explained scientifically is precisely the point! Because any God worth worshipping is going to be capable of doing things we mortals cannot explain! Let’s not get caught in the trap of trying to make it sound perfectly reasonable.
I just love that the unlikeliness of their story doesn’t deter the women at the tomb. They could have huddled just outside the walls of the graveyard, weighed the pros and cons of actually blurting out this bizarre thing they’d seen, and opted instead to let someone else stumble upon the empty tomb and take it from there. That they didn’t take the easy way out tells me they couldn’t help but spread the word. They had witnessed something that needed to be told.
There’s also something marvelous that happens in our text between verses 11 and 12. I’m not sure if you caught it? Verse 11 – the women’s words seem to the eleven disciples a load of bunk, Peter of course being one of those eleven. Verse 12 – But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Why’d he go, do you think? To prove them wrong? Why would he need to, if he already knew it to be impossible? Or was there just enough room in Peter’s imagination to wonder… to doubt his own judgment of leiros (nonsense) … to think it really might be as the women had said?
In conversations about faith and doubt in the church, we often talk about doubts that challenge or complicate our faith. Well, here’s a case where doubt was the very thing that brought Peter back – not only back to the tomb, but back to wonder and amazement, back to a place of openness to what Jesus had been telling them all along, back to the hope that what seemed impossible was actually possible. All because he left that door of curiosity open just a crack.
Martin Copenhaver tells it this way: “’Nonsense!’ says Peter, and with that he is off like a shot.... I love the juxtaposition of those two reactions (“Nonsense!” and “Let’s check it out!”) because I think it says a great deal about the mix of belief and disbelief that [is part of] every subsequent Easter as well. The head may say, “Nonsense,” but then our eager and running feet bring us here” to see for ourselves.
It’s quite a story we tell today, and it contains the best news we could possibly hear. God wins. Love wins. Life conquers death. No wonder we look forward to telling it again every year.
I don’t need to tell you how badly we need to hear this news today. You pay attention to what’s happening in our country right now. You know the horrific cost that evil and violence and sin and death are exacting in so many places. We need a resurrection story. We need to hear – again – that goodness is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, that light is stronger than darkness, that truth is stronger than lies.
We need it. And our children need it.
Although I have to say I’ve heard an awful lot of them reminding us in recent weeks. Our children and teenagers have themselves been telling stories that need to be told and retold. I hope you’ve had a chance to hear not only their heartbreak but also the tremendous hope they’ve been proclaiming. Reminding us that we don’t have to live in a tragic state of Good Friday forever, where horrific acts of violence are accepted as if they’re unavoidable. “No!” They’re shouting. “No! That’s a lie. We can choose a vastly safer world.”
And sure, some will call the brave children’s words leiros, foolish nonsense, just as many disbelieved the brave women who shared what they’d witnessed at Jesus’ tomb. Death’s allies are pretty powerful. Always have been. When we’ve lived in their shadow long enough, we start to believe that Good Friday is just the way it is. That innocents suffering gruesome deaths cannot be avoided. That there are no alternatives.
But the naysayers may have forgotten about a little thing called Easter Sunday. All over our country this morning, all around the world today, are people singing and praying and shouting and cheering and waving their Alleluias. We’re doing all of this to celebrate the most unlikely of all possible endings to a story – Jesus marching right out of his own grave! We’re doing all of this because we know we don’t need to continue living in the gruesome violence of Good Friday. Not when the God of life has given us Easter.
There’s a reason video clips of our children telling their stories have gone viral. Like all of the best stories, they ring true. Like all of the best stories, our hearts and our spirits long to hear them again and again. Call me crazy, but I think it’s also because we know Easter truth when we hear it. And we can spot a resurrection story when we see it marching down the mall in DC.
Easter truth will always have people wondering: is it possible? Did it, can it really happen?
But I suspect those of us who aren’t quite sure about the resurrection of Jesus wouldn’t be here at all this morning if we didn’t have at least a little of Peter’s healthy doubt. “Nonsense! But let me check it out just in case…”
And those of us who believe the resurrection is true generally have experiences that confirm our trust in the story, that help us “find [our] place in the history of [God’s] grace.” Once we’ve had those experiences of new life, of despair-turned-into-hope, we too are called to share what we know.
A gentleman got up to lead a children’s message in his church with a borrowed bank sign hung around his neck. It said simply: “Teller.” His point, of course, was that we are all called to be tellers of God’s mighty acts, tellers of God’s grace, tellers of the seemingly impossible that turned out, with God, to be possible after all.
If you suspect the story the women told the disciples was “an idle tale,” a bunch of leiros, foolish nonsense, I’m grateful you have enough doubt to wonder and listen to the women’s testimonies and try to experience Easter for yourself.
And if you’re here today because you have experienced in your own life the truth of the Easter story, put that “Teller” sign around your neck and get to work: Tell it! And then – again! again! – I beg you to tell it again. Because we desperately need resurrection stories right now.
Tell the world that the women who shared what they’d seen and heard at the empty tomb had it right.
Tell the world when the kids marching in the streets have it right.
Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, truth is stronger than lies… and what’s more, life can even triumph over death.
It’s quite a story we tell on Easter – Jesus, marching right out of his own grave! If it rings true, it’s because we know that even today the God of resurrection is still on the loose in the world, inspiring his children – inspiring our children – and reminding us not to give up hope.
The forces of violence and death are powerful, I know. Always have been. But don’t believe anyone who tells you we have to live in Good Friday forever. We are Easter people. And we mustn’t be afraid to tell, and tell, and tell again what we believe to be possible, because the God of resurrection is on the loose: Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
 Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, p. 118
 Martin B. Copenhaver, “Easter Nonsense,” in Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, p. 19
 Matthew West song, “Thirteen”