Monday, December 10, 2018

Sermon; Advent 2C; Luke 3:1-6

“Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation . . .”

So begins the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent. This Collect actually does what Collects are supposed to do – collect the disparate thoughts of individuals and bring us all into a unified focus of a worshiping body. It touches on a theme present in all the readings to give us a foundation on which to build. Today's theme and foundation is that of God's messengers preaching repentance to prepare the way for our salvation.

In the first lesson, Baruch proclaims a time when the dispersed children of God who had been taken away would return to Jerusalem. He proclaims a time when that return will be glorious and magnificent. And he proclaims that mountains and hills will be made low, valleys filled up, and the ground made level.

This morning's Canticle, the Song of Zechariah, proclaims a time when a savior would come, setting his people free from enemies and to worship God without fear. Zechariah sings this to his son, John, whom he declares as the forerunner of the Messiah to prepare his way.

And in the gospel, John fulfills his father's prophecy by preparing the way for Jesus and announcing that mountains and hills will be made low and valleys filled, reiterating the prophecy of Baruch.

We are in the season of Advent – the season of preparation. We wait in that liminal time of the already and not yet in hopeful expectation for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. All of our readings point us toward that coming. Last week it was the coming of the Son of Man at the end of days in power and great glory. Today and next Sunday it is the coming of Jesus and his ministry to the people of Israel. And in two weeks we prepare for the Incarnation, the coming of God in human form.

In one respect this has all been fulfilled. In Christianity, John is considered the last of the prophets and he came announcing the coming of the Messiah. When Christians truly follow Christ and live into his example and mission, there is a leveling of the social, political, and economic systems in which all people are seen as children of God and treated with dignity and respect. In this way the kingdom of God truly is at hand. God is present and we are free.

This is the already.

The reality, though, is much different. Yes, John came announcing the coming of the Messiah, but we have not done a very good job of living into the kingdom. The social, political, and economic systems of the world are still filled with incredibly high mountains and awfully low valleys. Too many people are seen not as children of God but as invaders and cancers to be eliminated. Dignity and respect have been replaced with fear and loathing. And even here at St. John's we are talking about active shooters and people are afraid. Imagine the fear our Jewish, Muslim, or African-American congregations have every time they gather to worship.

This is the not yet.

As I was thinking about our current state of already and not yet, and pondering the readings for today, I kept coming back to this image of the mountains and hills being made low and the valleys raised up. It occurred to me that many of us have heard this, myself included, as a physical prophecy. That is, that literal mountains and hills will be made low and the valleys raised up in a physical leveling out so that our physical journey to Jerusalem is made easy. In ancient times this was something that was done (to the best of their ability) to ensure the approaching king had an easy journey. But I'm not sure that is correct.

The more I think about it, the more I see those mountains, hills, and valleys as a reflection of the social, political, and economic systems in which we live. The mountains and hills of the wealthy and powerful. The mountains and hills of systemic racism that affords me the luxury of not being killed, profiled, or harassed because I am white. The valleys that are designed to discriminate and keep certain people “in their place.”

These are the mountains, hills, and valleys that Baruch and John were describing. These are the systems from which Zechariah longed to be freed. This is what Mary will address when she sings, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”

In last week's gospel Jesus said that there would be distress among the nations and people would faint from fear. That was part of the apocalyptic vision found in Luke 21, and it's looking forward to what we call the Second Coming. It's also why we use it on Advent 1 because Advent is that season of looking forward and preparing.

But instead of being all panicky about those end days, of wars and rumors of wars and such, what if that apocalyptic vision was looking forward to this time of leveling out that Baruch and John were proclaiming? The razing of mountains and hills and the uplifting of valleys in a social-political-economic context is terrifying to people.

It's why the upper classes fear the lower classes and economic redistribution. It's why those in power fear those whom they rule and dominate. It's why the white majority fears people with dark skin.

Leveling mountains and hills and raising valleys is more than a nice visual of smoothing out the roads to Jerusalem. It's a metaphor for the social-political-economic upheaval that occurs when we actually live into, and work to bring about, the kingdom of God.

When we actually live into kingdom ideals, when we actually love our neighbors as ourselves, when we actually strive for justice and peace, when we actually respect the dignity of every human being, then we will see mountains and hills brought low and valleys raised up. And when these things begin to happen we will be in the midst of preparing for our salvation.

We are in Advent – the season of hopeful and expectant preparation. Look around: what needs to be brought down, what needs to be raised up, and how can you help shake the world?

May we hear the words of the prophets and work to repent of the sins that created social, political, and economic mountains and valleys as we prepare for the kingdom of God to appear on earth as it is in heaven.


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon; 25 Pentecost/Proper 27B; Mark 12:38-44

25 Pentecost/Proper 27B
Mark 12:38-44

Mark is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue. Two weeks ago we heard the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Does anybody remember what I said about that story – not necessarily the content of the sermon (which would be nice), but about the story?

I said that this was the last healing story in Mark's gospel, and that this is the final ministry story before Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. In Mark, the Passion narrative begins with Chapter 11. It's hard to tell exactly where we are in that week, but today's story might be taking place on Tuesday.

Today we have two stories that revolve around worship and discipleship. Jesus is hanging out at the temple teaching the people and watching the goings on, and two episodes crop up. The first is his teaching and warning against the scribes.

In the temple Jesus sees the scribes decked out in all their finery and he knows what motivates them. And what motivates them is personal prestige.

We've all known or seen people like this: people who care more for what the position can bring them than what the role of their position actually is. Career politicians come to mind. But it's not just politicians. It's cops who feel entitled because they wear a badge. It's doctors and lawyers. It's clergy and televangelists. It's people who want to be photographed coming out of church. It's anyone who demands respect without giving respect in return. It's everywhere egos get in the way or take over.

When our ego takes over, when we become more focused on ourselves, then it's easy to ignore those whom we devour because we deserve what they have. And we make excuses for why they deserve to be devoured: they're lazy; they're moochers; they're on drugs; they're foreigner; etc.

Why do we do what we do, and what is our motivation? This applies not only to our lives in general, but it also applies to our worship. Are we more concerned with what we can get out of it, or are we more concerned with what we put into it? The scribes of Jesus' day, and many people today, were and are more concerned with what they got out of it.

After calling attention to the scribes and giving a lesson on proper behavior, Jesus sits down across from the treasury and does some people watching. I don't know if this was Ingathering Day at the temple or what, but Jesus is watching people make their offering.

We know the story – the wealthy are making large donations while the poor widow puts in two pennies. She is commended because, percentage-wise, she has given much more than any of the wealthy people have or ever will. She has given 100 percent of what she has while those around her are only giving two percent. It is a physical representation of the reversal that Jesus has been preaching.

And on this Ingathering Sunday it would be easy for me to question whether you were pledging in the two percent range or whether you were pledging a more significant percentage. It would be easy for me to ask if your pledge was really enough, or if you thought Jesus would be proud of your level of giving.

It would be easy; but I don't do guilt very well, nor am I the chair of the pledge campaign. So I'll leave it to you to ask and answer those questions for yourselves.

Aside from the money thing, remember that Mark is a Passion narrative and almost everything points us to the cross. The story of the widow also does this, even though it might not seem obvious.

This poor widow, who one can assume was one of the victims of abuse at the hands of the scribes and other temple officials (“They devour widows' houses”), gave up everything she had, including her last two cents. With nothing left, she probably expected to go home to die – much like the widow in our first lesson who, even though she was expecting to die, did not withhold from God.

But besides connecting this gospel story with the first lesson, today's gospel also connects to Jesus and the Passion. In this story the widow becomes a precursor, or a foreshadowing, of Jesus and the Passion.

The widow has been abused by those in power – like Jesus will be abused by those in power. She gives up her last two cents; in a very real way, she gives up her life to follow God. In a few days, Jesus will also give up everything, his very last and his very life, to follow God.

So yes, today is Ingathering Sunday. Yes, we are asking about financial commitments. I will never ask anyone to put themselves at financial or personal peril in order to pledge to the church. But what I will do is ask you to seriously and honestly examine your commitment to the church and to God.

Are we giving, from the abundant gifts we have been given, only a small percentage to God? Or are we giving in thankful proportion to what we have been given?

We give our best to our spouses, our families, our jobs, and our hobbies. The widow in the treasury challenges us to evaluate what we give to God. In his Passion, Jesus challenges us to evaluate what we give to God.

The question today's gospel asks us to consider is this: are we willing to put God first in our lives?


Monday, October 29, 2018

Sermon; 23 Pentecost/Proper 25B; Mark 10:46-52

Mark is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue, and almost everything in Mark points us to the cross. Some, like last week, are overt and obvious. Some, like today, are less so. Today that pointing to the cross has more to do with timing and location than anything else.

If you remember from the last couple of weeks, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and Holy Week is fast approaching. To put a time stamp on it, today is the last pre-Holy Week passage. So a few things about today's passage.

First, taken in isolation this is a lovely little story about Jesus healing the blind beggar Bartimaeus. He wasn't born blind, but had lost his sight at a point when he could remember what it was like to see. This loss of vision crippled him and he also lost his ability to be productive, relying on the generosity and handouts of others to survive.

Do you remember the Arch Books? When I was a little kid living in Beaverton, OR, I attended a neighborhood bible study thing or something that one of the neighbors held in her house. To be honest, I don't remember a lot about it. But when we moved away from there, the woman gave me this Arch Book about Blind Bart called, “The Beggar's Greatest Wish.” To this day it's one of my most sentimental valuables. And in isolation, it's a great story about a blind man who would not be silenced as Jesus passed by and who was granted his greatest wish to see again.

But if we pull this story out of isolation and look at it in context, it becomes something much more.

While Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and his Passion, he passes through Jericho. Depending on your interpretation, this is the last miracle he performs before he is crucified. This is certainly the last time he heals anyone. From here on out, Jesus is singularly focused on the Passion.

That focus begins to take shape with this healing story. First, notice that Jesus is addressed as “son of David.” This is the first time Mark uses that royal title. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, as the king comes closer to the holy city, Mark now feels allowed . . . free . . . safe . . . compelled . . . to use the imagery of Hebrew scripture in announcing the arrival of the king.

Second, and tied to the first, is that Jesus does not stop Bart from telling others about the healing. More often than not Jesus instructs those healed to not tell anyone about it. The one exception is when Jesus heals the demoniac in Gentile territory and explicitly commands him to tell his people about it. But when in Jewish territory, people are ordered not to tell. That is, until today when his command for silence goes unsaid.

This story is leading us into the Passion. There's the recognition that Jesus is the promised Messianic king in the line of David. There's the lifting of the command for silence. And there is the large crowd following Jesus which alludes to the coming Palm Sunday procession that will also identify him as being of David's line.

In isolation we have a wonderful healing story and the basis for an Arch Book of sentimental value. In context we have a story that closes out the ministry of Jesus and opens up the Passion narrative. But there is another aspect of this story I want to address, and that is the issue of timing.

As I've said, this story is the bridge between ministry and Passion. His greatest wish was to see again, and Jesus grants that wish. But the timing is interesting.

Bart exhibits great faith in Jesus, even to the point of calling out his name in the midst of a crowd that tries to keep him quiet. This faith results in the restoration of vision. This faith compels him to jump up, leave his possessions behind, and follow Christ.

We never hear about Blind Bart again, but I would like to believe this encounter changed him both physically and spiritually. I would like to believe that that change led to a lifetime of discipleship. And while that's a wonderful thing, look at when this happened.

Bart's eyes were opened in time to see the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and witness people proclaiming him king. Bart's eyes were opened in time to see Jesus betrayed and arrested. They were opened in time to see him mocked, spit upon, and beaten. They were opened in time to see him crucified. They were opened in time to watch him die. I hope they were opened in time to witness Resurrection.

I think Bartimaeus can be an example to us of what discipleship entails. First and foremost, we need to have a faith which believes in the power of Christ to bring new life. We need to have a faith that compels us to proclaim the name of Jesus even when others are trying to silence us.

Second, we need to go into this discipleship thing with eyes wide open. Just because we have faith doesn't mean all our problems disappear. If we follow Christ, then we will surely experience pain and suffering and even death. This is not something we can gloss over, nor is it something we can turn a blind eye to. But having our eyes opened, we must know that following Christ is not always a rose-colored window.

Today we are once again reminded of that as we hard the news of yet another mass shooting, this one at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as the disciple of another stripe mailing pipe bombs to people he dislikes.

I pray that we will finally have our eyes opened to see the pain and brutality of the world. I pray that we will witness Resurrection, live over death, love over hate. I pray that we will, like Blind Bartimaeus, have the courage to proclaim the message of the Gospel, even when the world tries to shout us down and keep us silent.

Because if we can't do that, then we might as well sit blindly by the side of the road.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Sermon; 22 Pentecost/Proper 24B; Mark 10:32-45

Mark is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue. Almost everything in Mark points us to the cross and, as you would expect, today is no different. In fact, it's hard to get more cross-pointed than today.

Today we have Jesus' third and final Passion prediction. Jesus and his disciples are on the road going up to Jerusalem. Here, as with the other predictions, Jesus pointedly says that he will be handed over, condemned to death, be mocked, spit upon, tortured, killed, and will rise again on the third day. As with the other predictions, he says all this openly.

Notice where Jesus is on this journey to Jerusalem. Anybody remember? They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. Jesus isn't following. Jesus isn't being pulled along by outside forces. Jesus is leading the way to his self-sacrifice. Jesus understands the purpose of both his life and his death. In that act of leading, in that act of understanding servanthood and sacrifice, Jesus leads the way. And he is asking us to follow him.

But the disciples don't get it. They can't yet understand the meaning and/or purpose of Christ's life. And while all the disciples generally don't get it, today it is James and John who show both their ignorance and their greed.

James and John hear this prediction from Jesus and I think the only part they heard was, “I will rise again.” The only thing they hear is, “This guy has the power to defeat death.” The only thing they are looking for is how they can have access to that power. So they ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory.”

What James and John are doing is twofold. First, they miss the whole point of Jesus. That whole point is wrapped up in the last verse of today's passage: The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Second, they continue to see Jesus as being based in power as we understand it. They continue to want Jesus to overthrow the Roman government and establish the old kingdom of Israel. They still want to exercise worldly power over others.

These two misunderstandings are tied together.

Too many times people have used Jesus or the Church or Christianity as a tool or weapon against others. Too many times people have seen “the power of Jesus” as permission to do great harm. We see it in the Roman Catholic Church where priests have used their power to abuse children. We see it in every denomination where people have used their power against women. As we approach Christmas, we will see it again in an attempt to use Christian power to fight the so-called “war on Christmas,” and demand that everyone say and respond in a particular way.

I was at clergy conference last week. As I mentioned in the Wednesday Word, we heard stories from our female colleagues about various uses and abuses of power against them. Everything from inappropriate touching to letters left in their mailboxes. And one colleague recently told me of a physical use of power when a larger man grabbed her at the hips, pulled her in, and whispered to her for a “private” conversation. This is NOT okay.

The Church, like Jesus, does not exist to exert power over others. We are not here to sit in glory ruling over others and demanding certain loyalties or behaviors.

Unlike James and John today, but like John later in his life, we need to understand and live into the real purpose of the church and tap into the real power of Christ.

The purpose of the Church, and therefore or purpose, is to serve others. Our purpose is to sacrifice ourselves so that others may have life. What does that sacrifice look like?

It's sacrificing our time, talents, and treasures for others. It's participating in any or many of our various ministries. Be present for Community Cafe. Help with the Learning Parties. Get involved with Bester school. Look for ways to help the people who visit our bench. Be willing to sacrifice our public image by calling out abusive and/or inappropriate behavior that happens in public. Reexamine your budget.

There are plenty of ways we can sacrifice ourselves for the proclamation of the gospel and to reflect the love of Christ.

And in that sacrifice and service there is no room for power grabs or abuse of power. In the Christian perspective and theology, real power comes through our service. Jesus exhibited this when he washed the feet of his disciples. We experience it when we do likewise.

I recently read a blog post by a Roman Catholic priest about the ongoing abuse of children in that church. Among other things, he said, “Those who commit these crimes have warped the meaning of Eucharist. They have taken the body of Christ which was broken for us, and have broken the bodies of little ones for their own selfish desires.” That which was originally a selfless sacrifice for the world has become a selfish sacrifice of others in the name of power.

Last week I talked about taking up our cross and following Christ, and how we were called to crucify that which separates us from Christ or that which takes the place of Christ in our lives. One of the things we need to crucify is our desire for power. We need to be wary of churches and leaders who wield power like a club, trying to force everyone to bow to their particular interpretation of Christianity.

But unless our desire is based in servanthood, it is meaningless. And if our desire is based in establishing the kingdom of the nation and not the kingdom of God, we will continue to see and participate in abuses of power.

As Mark brings us closer to Holy Week and the Passion, we are left with two paths from which to choose: we can choose to follow James and John and the way of worldly power, sacrificing those who get in our way for our own personal gain; or we can choose to follow Christ and the way of spiritual power, sacrificing ourselves for the good of the gospel.

The question is ever before us: Whom will you follow?


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sermon; 21 Pentecost/Proper 23B; Mark 10:17-31

Just in time for the upcoming pledge campaign, we get this reading from Mark.

Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Sell what you own and give the money to the poor.

Mark, as you will remember, is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue. In Mark's timeline, and where we are in the narrative, we are fast approaching Holy Week. We are quickly coming to the Passion – the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Next week Jesus will issue his third Passion prediction. Two chapters ago he issued his first Passion prediction and followed it up with, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Where Jesus was, where Jesus is going, and what Jesus is asking the rich man to do today all point to the cross.

We need to understand a few things about this whole business of taking up your cross and following Jesus. The cross you bear is not an illness. The cross you bear is not your mother-in-law. The cross you bear is not any form of self-denial for the sake of self-denial. Nor is the cross you bear an actual, literal crucifixion. To bear the cross for the sake of Jesus, however, does require us to understand what crucifixion itself meant.

The act of crucifixion was used by the Roman government/occupation forces as a visible means of deterrent. Those convicted of certain crimes, such as treason, or repeat offenders, were crucified to send a message to the masses. It was a very public form of humiliation and torture. It was a reminder that those who did not submit to Rome would end up on a cross, publicly humiliated and shamed, while being forced into the ultimate act of submission to authority.

So when Jesus talks about taking up your cross and following him, he's not talking about actual crucifixions, mothers-in-law, or self-flagellation. He's talking about the subordination of the self in favor of loyalty to Jesus. Will your loyalty to Jesus, will putting away (crucifying) your desire to elevate yourself over and above Jesus, take priority in your life? Are you willing to be publicly humiliated and/or shamed because of your love for Christ? This is part of taking up your cross and following Jesus.

All this comes into play today with the story of the rich man.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Don't murder; Don't commit adultery; Don't steal; Don't bear false witness; Don't defraud others; Honor your father and mother.”

All of these he has kept since his youth. All of these, in one way or another, urge us to think about and show concern for others. All of these in one way or another ask us to keep our selfish desires in check. If we do what the commandments are telling us to not do, then our concern for others is diminished and our concern for the self increases.

What Jesus is asking the rich man, and us, to do is to go deeper. Not only must we do what is expected at the most basic level (obey the commandments), but we must be willing to crucify that which places our selves over and above God. We must be willing to risk public humiliation for the sake of the Gospel.

St. Francis comes to mind. Born to a wealthy family he was rich, spoiled, and only concerned with looking good while out carousing with friends. An encounter with a beggar changed all that, and he renounced his former friends and lifestyle. His friends ridiculed him for becoming soft, and his father imprisoned him in an effort to change his mind. Had he allowed this humiliation and shaming to guide his life, Francis would have followed in the footsteps of today's rich man.

When told he needed to sell all he had, I can imagine the thoughts running through his head: What will my family think? What will my friends think? How will I explain this? And on and on and on. He wasn't willing to face public ridicule and shame in favor of following Christ.

We face the same decisions today. It may or may not have to do with selling everything we own (it probably doesn't), and it may or may not have to do with our pledge (it might), but there are certainly other areas of our lives where we are asked to crucify our own desires for the sake of the gospel.

Our desire for vengeance leads us to approve of the death penalty. Are we willing to speak out against state sponsored murder? We have a bad habit of blaming victims, especially female victims of sexual assault – what were you wearing, were you drinking, were you alone? Are we willing to change the narrative and begin blaming the men who commit those crimes? Instead of looking for outside reasons, we need to start saying that the reason rapes and other abuse of women occur is because of men who prey on women. Not short skirts. Not alcohol. Not being alone.

When minorities are belittled and humiliated in public by those in power, are we willing to stand with them and say, “This is not Christ-like behavior. This is not respecting the dignity of our fellow human beings.” Doing that is liable to make us the target of that very same public humiliation.

Today's passage isn't about money. Today's passage is about priorities.

Every day, maybe multiple times a day, we are faced with making a choice between God and world, between maintaining the status quo of our lives or of crucifying that which separates us from God. It might be money and/or our use of it. It might be taking a risk to stand with the outsiders, the vulnerable, or those not in power. It might be going against popular opinion with regard to race, sexuality, gender, politics, or something else.

Seek Christ in all persons. Strive for justice. Work for peace. Respect the dignity of every human being.

These are not always easy to do. These are not always popular. These may lead to our public humiliation and shaming. But it is the doing of these things which elevates the place of Christ in our lives, and it is the doing of these things which lead us to the cross and crucify that which separates us from God.

It's not easy. But then, doing what God requires us to do rarely is.


Monday, October 01, 2018

Sermon; 19 Pentecost/Proper 21B; Mark 9:38-50

There's a lot going on in today's gospel. There's the issue of ownership and jealousy, the issue of self-mutilation, the issue of leading people astray, and a comment about salt. I want to focus on the first part of today's gospel – that of ownership and jealously.

Last week I preached on John and pointed out that he had a bad temper (wanting to call down thunder and lightning to destroy a city) and was overly ambitious (asking Jesus for a seat of authority). Today we also find out that he can be possessive, jealous, and easily threatened. In short, he's a lot like us. How many of us have experienced these feelings when we perceive someone moving in on our territory? Or when we encounter someone who really does know more than we do about our particular area of expertise?

We all have those areas in which we excel. We all have a group, or groups, of friends with whom we feel comfortable. Oftentimes these parts of our lives make us feel special or give us a feeling of worth. When something happens to change the balance of power or the dynamic, we can feel threatened by that change. Especially when that change happens quickly.

When I was working on my BA in Spokane the question was posed, “How would you deal with a person who missed most of the project meetings and then, toward the end of the project, showed up and began to tell you what was wrong with your project and what you needed to do to fix it?”

One guy in the group said, “I'd inform them that they had no room to talk, so why don't you just sit down, shut up, and color.” Shut Up and Color, by the way, became our class motto.

This isn't exactly an apples to apples comparison, but the idea that we feel threatened when someone invades our turf still applies. And this is exactly what is happening here with John.

Calculating time in the gospels can be a difficult thing. But follow me here. This story takes place at the end of Chapter 9. Jesus has given two Passion predictions so far and his third will come in the next chapter. At this point, Jesus is closing in on Jerusalem and Holy Week. So let's say that Holy Week is about a month away. This means that John has been following Jesus in the neighborhood of three years. Three years of traveling with this group and developing close relationships. Three years of healings and miracles. Three years of having parables explained privately. Three years of thinking this group was special and/or privileged. And now some outsider is going around casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Someone who was not them, someone who was not part of the right group, was out there doing what John and his boys were supposed to be doing.

That privileged, possessive, jealous feeling kicks in and John tried to put an end to what the newcomer was doing. Whether or not he was successful we don't know, but we do know he tried. And here Jesus gives one of the greatest lessons of his ministry: Whoever is not against us is for us. This, coupled with Jesus' statement over in John's gospel, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” is probably the most challenging statement Jesus makes.

Love God, love your neighbor; yeah, okay. Give to everyone who asks of you; I may not like it, but I can follow it within reason. Welcome the foreigner; again, problematic, but doable. But this one . . .

This one requires us to examine our own personal biases and jealousies. This one requires us to lay aside our feelings of ownership and privilege. This one requires us to accept the fact that the net Jesus is casting to draw all people to himself is much larger than we know or are willing to admit.

This has been on my mind lately because we still live in times when one group attacks another group for not being the right kind of Christians or the right kind of Americans, for that matter. I say “still” because it happened in today's gospel with John. It happened between Romans and Celts. It happened between Catholics and Protestants. It happened between Protestants and Protestants. It happens today between denominations and within denominations.

Today's Evangelicals are trying to force not only other denominations, but the entire country, to bow to their approved interpretation of both Scripture and patriotism. Last week I received a book from Answers in Genesis and a flier from Discover Prophecy telling us (basically) why they are right.

I belong to a couple of Facebook groups that regularly get into arguments over the proper interpretation of rubrics and vestments. And when I visit other churches, I can't help but take notes on what they did wrong.

We seem to have an innate need to be right, to possess special knowledge, and to lord that over those whom we think are not part of the right group.

Instead of focusing on the fact that they don't belong to us, instead of feeling threatened by outsiders, what if we focused on what they do well?

At the vestry meeting last week we were discussing rest. I asked if our worship was restful. The general consensus was yes, but drums and guitars are not. Rather than look down on that type of worship, or try to convince everyone that they need to do it our way, can we simply be glad that some people find God in that style? Rather than nitpick on theology, can we work to find common ground where God is present for all of us? That, for instance, is the basis of HARC – several different religious traditions working together for the benefit of the community and to be the face of God.

The Catechism states that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Unity does not mean conformity. But we can't be unified when we focus on differences.

Granted, some differences are necessary and sometimes it's vital to know why we are different. For instance, the inclusive nature of TEC is different from, and incompatible with, the KKK or other racist and nativist organizations.

Today's passage asks us to do two things: 1) Evaluate the actions of others in light of Christ's message of love and inclusion; and, 2) remember that we are not alone or privileged in this mission. Instead of being threatened by how others proclaim Christ, be thankful that Christ is being proclaimed.


Monday, September 24, 2018

Sermon; 18 Pentecost/Proper 20B; Feast of St. John (tr)

Today we celebrate the feast of our patron, John the Apostle and Evangelist. According to one website, John is the most common saint name for a church with over 3700 churches taking their name from him. There are six St. John parishes in our own diocese, and two in Hagerstown (the other being the ELCA church on south Potomac). And, unfortunately, his feast day is December 27; but every year we get permission from the bishop to transfer the feast of our patron to a better time.

So what do we know about John? Generally speaking, not much. But we also know more about him than most of the other apostles.

What we know is that John was the brother of James, and both sons of Zebedee. They were fishermen by trade. He was one of the three or four inside group of disciples that included Peter, James, John, and sometimes Andrew. He may have had a bad temper, as he and his brothers asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan town that wouldn't receive them. He may have been overly ambitious, as he asked Jesus to grant him and his brother to sit on his right and left in glory. He was faithful to the very end as he is the only male disciple to remain at the cross. And he took Mary as his adopted mother after Jesus died.

Tradition tells us that he was the beloved disciple; that he wrote the gospel that bears his name, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation; that he was exiled to Patmos after Emperor Diocletian ordered him boiled alive – thankfully to no effect; and that he lived to an old age, being the only disciple not to be martyred. As with a lot of church traditions, we have no way to verify any of this, and some have been debated for millennia (such as which documents actually belong to him).

What does all this mean for us today in the 21st Century United States? What does it mean for us to not only be the body of Christ, but to bear the holy name of John? I think there are four things that bind us and John together, and which we can utilize as a parish bearing his name.

The first is recognizing that John is what many people refer to as a mystical writer. Remember, mystery in the church has a different connotation than it does out in the world. For us, mystery, or mystical, refers to Holy things that become known only through revelation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only son who has made him known. In his first letter, he also talks about the mystery of the Incarnation. We participate in the mystery of God through our prayer and worship. Incense gives our worship a mystical quality. Hearing scripture week in and week out slowly reveals the nature of God. We participate in the mystery of faith: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. And we partake of the Holy Mystery of Communion – Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

The second thing we can utilize is how John recorded the invitational nature of Christ. When Andrew first met Jesus, he asked, “Where are you staying?” Jesus replied, “Come and see.”

Jesus invited Andrew to follow him. He invited a woman to partake of his living water. He invites people to partake of the bread of life. He invites people into the mystery of eternal life. He welcomes the woman caught in adultery into a healthy relationship. He specifically invites outsiders to join him.

The third thing we can utilize is the nature of Jesus' servant ministry. This shows up in a variety of places, but nowhere is it more pronounced than when John records Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. After that act, Jesus specifically says that the disciples are to follow his example to serve others. This intimate act of foot-washing is his greatest example of servant leadership.

And the fourth thing we can utilize is John's inspirational nature. From his awe-inspiring prologue of the gospel, to his epistles, and to the Revelation he recorded, John is there to inspire and encourage his readers.

Jesus is God and he came to save the world, not condemn it. The message is this, in him there is no darkness at all. There is no fear in love. A new heaven and new earth will arrive. The home of God is among mortals. Let everyone come.

These are just a few words from John that were written to inspire people of the faith. From seeing God in the mystical, in the everyday, and in times of tumult (remember, Revelation was written as a book of hope against the empire to reiterate that God wins), we have many examples from which to follow as members of a parish that bears his name.

If all this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Last March the Vestry came together in their annual retreat to get to know each other better and to look at the big picture of our parish. One of the things we did was to develop a new mission statement; that is, articulating what it is we actually do. In that exercise we unknowingly infused these aspects of John into our mission statement.

“The mission of St. John's is to: Worship; Welcome; Serve; and Encourage”

We worship God in a way that embraces the mystery of this holy place and these holy things.
We welcome people into our midst, both stranger and friend, and even those who make us uncomfortable.
We serve people around us in a variety of ways.
We encourage people to explore, to use their gifts and talents, and to work toward a deeper relationship with both God and others.

The Vestry unknowingly infused these aspects of John into our mission statement, and that's great. But how much better would it be if we were more intentional about not only making our mission statement come alive, but recognizing that we are representing our Patron Saint in this good and holy work.

Today is our celebration of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. Let us follow his example and worship, welcome, serve, and encourage with everything we have, living long lives for the glory of God and examples of the faith to the world around us.