13 Pentecost B—8/23/15
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-59
Pr. Scott Kramer
A few years ago my wife and I returned to visit her family in China. This particular visit coincided with the Chinese holiday known as Ching Ming Jie (“Pure Brightness Festival”). In English it’s called the “Grave-sweeping Festival.” This is the traditional festival that honors Chinese ancestors. Families return to the family grave, tidy it up and often have a picnic right there in the cemetery.
My wife’s family is Christian, which makes them fairly unusual in China. Most Chinese traditionally have practiced ancestor worship. But on that particular day, like most Chinese, there we were, sharing a picnic in the cemetery!
Today’s readings have a lot to say about ancestor worship. Put away the gods that your ancestors served, says Joshua. In his teaching on eternal life, Jesus himself teaches the difference between worshiping him and worshiping ancestors: This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever. Which bread will you eat? he asks.
Ancestor worship is not simply the practice of a particular nation or a particular people. It’s a struggle of our human condition. Ancestor worship means allowing ourselves to be held hostage by the past.
You and I might wonder what in the world this has to do with us. Well, if you’ve paid any attention to the news recently you might have noticed that our nation is still fighting the Civil War! That war ended in 1865 and we’re still arguing about what the Confederate flag represents.
But friends, this debate is not about a flag. And it’s certainly not just about the southern states. It’s about who we are as a nation, what we believe and what we as a people have learned—or, haven’t learned.
The Civil War was supposed to bring freedom to black people. Well, 150 years later black men don’t work in cotton fields–thank God! But, by the hundreds of thousands, they do rot in American prisons, at a rate nearly seven times higher than whites. Today, black men are not lynched—thank God! But, they’re shot dead by gangs and even some police officers. Racism has not died; it is very much alive. We continue to allow ourselves to be held hostage by the beliefs and attitudes of our ancestors.
Ancestor worship happens when we continue to hold beliefs and attitudes that should have died with our ancestors decades or even centuries ago. But none of this is the fault of those who have gone before us. It is we who have the power and the responsibility to choose.
Maybe what holds us hostage to our past is our refusal to choose. In today’s first reading Joshua says to his people, Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served…or the gods…in whose land you are living.
What other gods of our ancestors hold us hostage? What about this one: Every American war is a just war. Our second reading from Ephesians, chapter 6, uses vivid military language to describe faithful disciples of Jesus Christ: the whole armor of God…breastplate of righteousness…shield of faith…helmet of salvation. Beautiful language! Notice that he also writes, As [boots] for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
I was driving down the street yesterday and there was an old veteran in a wheelchair on the sidewalk, all by himself, with a sign that read, “Veterans for Peace.” And another sign that read, “Honk for Peace!” As we passed, my wife said, Why didn’t you honk? Well, maybe because it was so unexpected. A few weeks ago at the Pride Parade in downtown Seattle I saw something equally courageous. There on the sidewalk a tough-looking gay veteran in camouflage uniform stood at attention, all by himself, saluting all of us who walked by. Here are two individuals who display a rare kind of courage, a willingness to publicly—at some risk to themselves—challenge the attitudes and beliefs of their ancestors.
The author of Ephesians repudiates the idea that God favors a certain group or nation: For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Sometimes those spiritual forces take up residence in human hearts, with attitudes that choose not to part ways with the ancestors.
Well, what do you think? Do you feel comfortable with all this? No? In challenging the beliefs and practices of ancestors, Jesus asks his followers, Does this offend you? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, the gospel writer tells us that many were offended and turned away from following him!
But I don’t get the sense that Jesus really cares if we’re offended by his attacks on ancestor worship. This is a Jesus for grown-ups, who starts out sweet-talking us. When that doesn’t work he pleads. When that doesn’t work he prods, pokes, cajoles and provokes his disciples. He badgers and harangues and offends. This is a Christ whose tough love for us means he is willing to do whatever it takes to lead us away from death to life!
Sooner or later, we all choose either death or life, either the gods of our ancestors, or, the living God revealed among us for our time in new ways. We as a congregation right now are making those choices. Older folks are choosing to cling to the past—or not. Younger people are choosing to claim their God-given gifts, powers, vision and responsibility for this age—or not.
I think back to that visit with my wife and her family and the picnic we had in her hometown cemetery. I mean, think of that: a picnic in a cemetery. It was like sharing a meal with the ancestors!
This is what we do on Sunday morning—gather for a meal in the “cemetery”—in the presence not only of one another but with those who have gone before us, the whole communion of saints. We honor them not by honoring their beliefs and choices but by honoring their humanity.
In our reading two weeks ago the prophet Elijah exclaimed, “I am no better than my ancestors.” And this is true—we are no better than our ancestors! The other side of the coin is equally true: They were no better than we are. No generation is ever greater than any other generation. All are equally gifted for the time in which they are born to use their God-given gifts to the glory of God and the healing of the world.
So this morning we again gather for a meal in the presence of the one who said, “I am the Living Bread.” He didn’t say, “Do this in remembrance of yourselves and your ancestors.” He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In the sharing of this ancestral meal, dear friends in Christ, let us choose whom we will serve!