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.


Monday, September 17, 2018

Sermon; 17 Pentecost/Proper 19B; Ps. 116:1-8

I'm going to take a break from Mark today. I know that we just got back into his gospel after spending seven weeks in Ephesians, but today is a special case.

As you know we are doing our part to participate in the Washington County Goes Purple (WCGP) campaign. I serve on the HARC Board where we look for positive ways to engage our various faith communities in issues we think important. I did the recovery walk a few weeks ago and tied a purple ribbon around a parking meter (my back was giving me fits, so that's about all I could handle). Some of you may have participated in the WCGP walk held this past Saturday morning. We have made an outward and visible sign of our support by using purple hangings this month. And today we have brought in Vicki Sterling and Emily Keller to meet with both teens and adults regarding this epidemic.

As I mentioned, I had originally planned on preaching from Mark's gospel and how today's passage obviously points us to the cross. But as I was perusing the readings of the day, I noticed that the psalm is particularly relevant to us right now.

The cords of death entangled me, the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow.

Is there any other passage that so succinctly describes the state of those besieged by opioid addiction? These first verses of Psalm 116 could probably serve as the focal point of addiction and the road to recovery.

We are entangled by the cords of death, and are in the grip of the grave. We ourselves may not have an addiction problem, but we may know someone who does, whether family or friend. Both our community and larger society certainly have an addiction problem. And where this crisis affects society and community, it affects us here at St. John's.

The opioid epidemic was the topic of the HARC gathering last week. There were three things I took away from that discussion.

First was my own sense of hopelessness, or helplessness. This crisis is so big and so overwhelming that sometimes I don't even know where to start. How do we deal with a crisis that has its roots in the medical/pharmaceutical industry where doctors have been allowed to become legal drug pushers? How do we deal with a crisis in which medical companies main focus is the bottom line? How do we deal with a system that puts company profits over the well-being of people. How do we deal with a system where drug company CEO's defend raising prices anywhere from 400 to 5000 percent as being a “moral imperative to make money.” How do we deal with a system that continually cuts aid to mental health and rehab facilities?

I don't have the answers to those questions. All I can do is look at it and say, “Where do we even begin?”

Second was part of a response to those concerns and that sense of hopelessness and/or helplessness I voiced during the meeting by Rabbi Ari Plost. As I expressed where I was personally with this situation others nodded in agreement. People who spoke after me said, “Ditto,” or, “What he said.” Rabbi Ari replied, “In my tradition we are reminded that God does not call us to finish every task. But neither are we at liberty to desist in working for what is right.”

He's right.

And I shouldn't let my feelings of hopelessness/helplessness, or of being overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, deter me from doing something. To borrow a metaphor, we are faced with the vastness of a crisis that has washed thousands of people up onto a desolate shore. It is now our job to throw them back into living water. We may not save all the starfish, but we can certainly save some.

Third, besides educating ourselves and our children about this crisis, we need to be a place of support. As the body of Christ, as the embodiment of God on earth, it is our job to live into the words of the rest of this psalm.

Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion.

We must have compassion for those afflicted by opioids.

The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and he helped me.

Not all addicts are innocent. But I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of them didn't wake up one day and say, “I think I'll go pop some pills and become an addict.” People caught in the trap of addiction have been brought very low. We need to find ways to help.

I hope that if we do these things – recognize the problem, do something to alleviate it, and become a place of support – we will indeed be a safe place where people can see and experience God's love and respect of their human dignity. And by doing these things, we just might hear people say, “For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.”

Today we have Emily Keller and Vicki Sterling with us to help us understand a little about the crisis. Education is certainly one concrete thing we can do. Hopefully, with this information, persistence, and a bit of hope, we will be able to put more than a few people back into the waters of life.


Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sermon; 16 Pentecost/Proper 18B; Mark 7:24-37

Mark is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue, and almost everything in Mark points us to the cross. In Mark, if we follow Jesus we will end up at the cross. I say, “almost everything,” because there are those passages that don't necessarily point to the cross, but they will point to something else.
Today is one of those days. There is no controversy today. Nobody is trying to plot Jesus' death. He's not attacked for healing on the Sabbath. His disciples aren't getting into trouble. Today is simply a run-of-the-mill story with a couple of healings. But just because it's “run-of-the-mill” doesn't mean we don't need to pay attention, or that there's nothing worthwhile in there.

Today we get two stories for the price of one. The first has Jesus healing the daughter of a Gentile woman from a distance, and the second has Jesus laying hands on a deaf man, healing him as well.

Jesus has moved out into Gentile territory on his way to . . . we know not where because we aren't told. But here he is in the region of Tyre. A woman of Syrophoenician descent approaches him to heal her daughter of an evil spirit. Jesus initially refuses, comparing her and the child to dogs. But the woman persists and Jesus relents.

This story is problematic for many Christians because we can't imagine Jesus talking this way to anybody. But he has. At various times he's called people hypocrites and broods of vipers. He will call Peter, “Satan.” Jesus doesn't mince words. But this is different. Here he attacks someone with whom he is not in conflict. She's not trying to destroy him. She's not attacking him. She's not a Pharisee. She's simply a mother trying to help her daughter. And he throws it in her face.

There are plenty of explanations for this, some better than others. But I think this points to the human side of Jesus. I think his humanity is visible here in a racist moment when he thought, “She isn't one of us.” And I think his human side is evident here when he learns to reconsider his position.

Remember, mistakes are not necessarily sins. I don't think he sinned, but it's possible the human Jesus made a mistake and learned from it. Whereas Jesus learned from that mistake, others have not. And it is the deliberate continuation of that mistake, of referring to people as dogs and a refusal to see them as fully human and fully equal, which becomes sinful.

After dealing with the Gentile mother, Jesus heads back toward the Sea of Galilee where he ends up among Jewish people living in Gentile territory. While there he is brought a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Taking him aside Jesus heals him of his disability by spitting into his hand and touching the man's ears and tongue.

He then tells the man and those gathered around to tell no one, but, of course, they do.

So what do we have here? We have two generic healing stories. We have one that requires no contact, and one that involves touch. We have the possibility of a very human mistake on Jesus' part, and we have a very clear depiction of Jesus having dominion over both spiritual (casting out the demon) and physical (healing the deaf-mute) realms.

But we also have a story being told in context.

The problem, though, is that most of us don't read our Bibles at home. For most of us, our only scripture is what we get on Sunday morning. Granted, we hear a lot of scripture on Sunday mornings – two readings from the Hebrew scriptures and two from the Christian scriptures. But we don't always follow up or dig deeper at home. And by the time this Sunday rolls around, most of us have forgotten what we heard last Sunday.

As a reminder, last week we heard the story and confrontation over washing hands. Jesus and his disciples were being confronted with their disregard of Jewish traditions. But Jesus pointed out that it doesn't matter if you're clean and shiny on the outside, it's what's inside of you that spews forth defilement.

This was a purity issue. And while the Pharisees were concerned about outward purity, Jesus was concerned about inner purity. Having unwashed hands is of no consequence; but evil intentions that come from within are another matter entirely. And as it is, more than half of the “qualities” Jesus listed off have to do with harming another individual, or of treating another individual as less than . . . less than equal, less than human.

Which brings us to today.

First, Jesus is in Gentile territory and meets up with a Gentile woman begging to have her daughter healed. After some give and take, he does so. Second, Jesus is in what may be called a Jewish enclave in Gentile territory and people bring to him a deaf man whom they also beg to be healed, which he does. These two events – the healing of the woman's daughter and the healing of the deaf man – happen immediately after last week's incident about what really defiles a person.

Taken out of context, today's gospel passage is simply two more miraculous healing stories about Jesus. But taken within the context of the entire gospel, they become something else entirely. In context, they become stories about mission and inclusion.

In the first story, a Gentile woman comes to Jesus begging for her daughter to be healed. Initially Jesus refuses, stating (in a way) that he has come only to the rightful heirs, the legitimate children of God, the Jews. But this gets turned upside down with her response.

In the second story, a Jewish man living outside the boundaries of Israel is in need of healing.

And in both of these, what Jesus possibly learns, and what we should certainly learn, is that God's grace is not limited by our self-imposed boundaries. Foreigners, people not like us, are not dogs to be ignored. They are, like us, children of God, heirs to the kingdom, whom we need to feed and welcome.

We will not defile ourselves or God by reaching out to and including those who are not us. But we will most certainly defile ourselves and God by excluding those who are not us.

Jesus learned from his mistake of excluding the other. The question before us today is this: Will we?


Sunday, September 02, 2018

Sermon; 15 Pentecost/Proper 17B; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Welcome back to the gospel. After seven weeks of going through Ephesians, we are returning to Mark.

I began almost every sermon in Ephesians reminding you of who wrote it and its funnel-like structure. I'll do the same with Mark, reminding you of a few important points of the overall gospel.

Mark, if you remember, is a Passion narrative with an extended prologue. It is the only gospel to proclaim itself as a gospel. It focuses on where Jesus is going and it challenges us to follow him there. Where Jesus is going is the cross. Almost everything in Mark points us to the Passion and the cross.

When we began this journey with Jesus to the cross some thirteen weeks ago, the first story we heard was that the religious leaders wanted to destroy Jesus because he dared to challenge their idea and idolatry of the Sabbath. In various passages after that first encounter, Jesus is up against the status quo and up against those in power while he tries to make changes for the better. Sabbath controversies, unauthorized healings, and people wanting to keep him in his place were all part of Jesus upsetting the apple cart which eventually led to his crucifixion.

Today we have another controversy swirling around Jesus: that of ritual purity. Jesus is in hot water (no pun intended) because his disciples hadn't washed their hands. This isn't a, “Scrub up for dinner” order from your mom. Mark explains that this is a ritual cleansing performed by Jews as a way to purify themselves, their utensils, and their food so as to avoid outside Gentile contamination. It's simply a purification rite, maybe similar to what I do at the altar immediately before celebrating Communion.

But as so often happens, things that were begun for good and holy reasons (or even just good reasons) end up becoming something worshiped and idolized.

There's the story of a new priest who, when he was administering Communion, didn't follow the tradition of his elders because he failed to touch the aumbry located at the end of the Communion rail. This upset some parishioners who thought he wasn't being serious or reverent enough while administering Holy Communion. After some research, it turned out that the reason former priests did this was to discharge static electricity so they wouldn't shock the parishioner at the beginning of the rail.

Or candles. We use candles on the altar to symbolize a variety of things. But I have been in churches where people wouldn't leave until the candles were extinguished because . . . tradition.

What happens in these situations is what happened to Jesus – traditionalists will point to a person's refusal to follow tradition and use that act of refusal to attack and discredit those with whom they disagree. You can see this in all kinds of places – traditionalists attacking anything and anyone whom they perceive as turning their backs on the traditions of our fathers/elders, or the church, or . . . you name it.

We've seen this with women's ordination and same-sex marriages. We've seen it in sports and politics. I even ran across a Facebook group whose sole purpose, it seemed to me, was to extol the virtues and necessity of clergy wearing cassocks while denigrating those who don't. Tradition, unfortunately, is too often used to maintain the status quo in everything from social status to economic position to political power.

Tradition isn't about upholding the status quo. Tradition isn't about fighting for the way we've always done things. These things, good or bad, may be traditional, but that's not the point of tradition.

In our understanding of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, or in a theological context, Tradition is rightfully defined as the revelation made by God and delivered to the faithful through the mouths of the prophets. The substance of tradition is consistent with the central facts and beliefs of the faith. In other words, we need to understand the core beliefs of our faith in our determination of what qualifies as tradition.

And sometimes that which is traditional can change over time while remaining part of the Tradition.

The men who formed our very first BCP in 1789 also knew this, and in their preface to that book (which has appeared in every BCP since) wrote this:

It is a most invaluable part of that blessed “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us
free,” that in his worship different forms and usages may without offence be allowed,
provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church, what
cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline;
and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged,
enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the
edification of the people, “according to the various exigency of times and occasions.”

In other words, what has been traditional shall not trump Tradition itself.

What is core to marriage? I would say that it is a union of two people in heart, body, and mind; intended for mutual joy, for help and comfort in prosperity and adversity, and, when it is God's will, for the procreation of children.

What is core to the priesthood? That a person proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to love and serve the people with whom a priest works, to care for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. To preach, declare forgiveness, to bless, and to administer Holy Communion.

What is core to our faith? The Holy Trinity; Jesus fully human/fully divine; that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again; and our baptismal covenant.

If we get to a point where we confuse doctrine with discipline, we misunderstand Tradition. If we get to a point where we are more concerned with outward appearances than with inner integrity, we misunderstand Tradition. If we get to a point where we are outwardly ritually pure, but spew forth evil thoughts, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, etc, we not only misunderstand Tradition, but we defile ourselves.

When talking about Tradition, know the difference between the tradition of God and what people have made traditional. It was challenging this difference that brought Jesus one step closer to the cross. And when we challenge what has been traditional, we probably won't get crucified, but it will most likely get us in hot water.