Sunday, September 19, 2021

Sermon; Proper 20B; Mark 9:30-37

“What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

So many things pop into my head. A vision of Jesus saying, “Don't make me stop this donkey and come back there!” to a Thumper-like scene where the disciples, head down, kicking at the dirt, say, “If you can't say sumpin' nice, don't say anything at all.”

This scene is really a microcosm of life (generally) and the Church (specifically). We humans have a tendency to want to be great. Whether that's moving up a corporate ladder to becoming millionaires or billionaires, or making a name for ourselves in some manner, we pursue greatness. It also happens in the Church. We want to be known for having great music, great kid's programs, great education, a great many people, or any number of other things.

In answer to this, Jesus says, “That isn't what greatness is about.” Greatness is about being last in line and serving others. Then he took a child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.”

This act of taking a child into his arms is significant on at least three levels.

The first level is theological. Over in 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about feeding the congregation with milk and not solid food because of their immaturity. In this action with the child, Jesus is giving a theological example of mature vs. immature followers. Not everyone who comes to Saint John's is a mature Christian. Not everyone who belongs to Saint John's is a mature Christian. If we expect people to be fully-formed Christians when they come through our doors, we may be sorely disappointed. If we don't welcome the newcomer, the seeker, the questioner, the person who constantly asks, “Why?” after every service, we are not welcoming a child of God in the name of Jesus.

The second level is practical. This is yet another incident of Jesus welcoming an outsider. We have recently seen Jesus interact with a Syrophoenician woman who was an outsider based on her ethnicity. We have seen him interact with a deaf man who was an outsider because of a physical defect. And now we see him interact with a child who is an outsider based on their age. There's a lot of literature about children in that day and age, and Paul, at Galatians 4:1, equates children with slaves. What Jesus is doing here aligns with his ever-expanding viewpoint of the kingdom of God – “Welcome this child, welcome this slave, welcome this outsider, into your midst.”

The child also supports his statement about being servant of all. Any of us who have children know that we really aren't in charge. We exist to serve the child, at least to a point. We feed them on their schedule. We change them on their schedule. We drive them to soccer games and dance lessons and band practice on their schedule. But we also lead them in showing them how to navigate the world, how to become independent, and (hopefully) how to be good adults. If you want an example of servant leadership, look no farther than parenthood.

This child represents the outsider who is not fully part of society, it represents a human needing our care and protection, and it represents the ability to grow from child to adult, from immature to mature.

Finally there is the third level that follows the theological and practical and which I will call the ideal. This third level takes what we are given – the text and the words of Jesus – and asks, “What next?”

Every Monday I meet with a few clergy colleagues to discuss the readings for the upcoming Sunday. As we talked about this passage, one of them brought up a thought that I had heard before but bears repeating here. He said, “Are we only called to welcome people?”

I asked him to elaborate. “Well,” he said, “we can welcome people into worship services, we can welcome people to our picnics, we can welcome people to our concerts, events, and other activities, but is there a difference between welcoming somebody and including them?”

So we got to talking about that question. Do we welcome children – as longs as they sit quietly and are seen, not heard? Or do we include children to gather up front, to serve as regular worship ministers, and to take on any role they are both physically and mentally capable of (let's face it, I wouldn't want Dash to be chairman of the finance committee)?

Do we want to welcome new people to church so we have full pews? Or will we include new people to serve on committees, listen to their opinions, and encourage them to take leadership roles? Granted, there's a line here we don't want to cross. We don't want to go up to someone who has shown up twice and say, “How would you like a lifetime membership to watch over the nursery?” But do we look for opportunities to include those people who come through our doors?

We welcome homeless people to church, we've welcomed them to be fed at picnics, and we try to have a welcoming presence in general. But are we willing to include them?

At Saint John's Day last week I invited a homeless man to both worship and the picnic. He came for the picnic and we welcomed him and fed him. Several people talked with him. How would we have reacted if he said he wanted to join the choir?

It's an interesting discussion to have as we think about welcoming and including.

Today's gospel story covers a lot of ground: theologically, practically, and ideally. In the cycle of Mark, we are approaching Jerusalem and Holy Week. The first three verses of today's gospel are what's known as the Second Passion Prediction. But for us, this is something like the beginning, which Dcn. Sue referenced last week. Our “program year” kicked off last week with the celebration of our Patron Saint, and we are fast approaching the annual pledge drive.

With that in mind, I ask that you think on these three things as we move forward, both in our own personal lives and as part of the body of Christ known as Saint John's.

First, think theologically. Are you faithful in worship, fellowship, and prayers? Are you participating in any of the education opportunities offered so that you can move from theological milk to solid food?

Second, think practically. How can we, like Jesus, expand our circle? How can we welcome those who may need an advocate to speak for them. Are we willing to do the oft-times messy work of serving those in need?

Third, think idealistically. What are we willing to do, to change, or to sacrifice in order to actually include those people we have welcomed?

These are things this gospel passage brings to our attention. And as pledge season approaches, we all have the opportunity to think theologically, practically, and idealistically as to how we can offer our time, talent, and treasure for the benefit of Saint John's, the wider Church, and to the glory of God.

Amen.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Sermon; 15 Pentecost/Proper 18B; Mark 7:24-37

I want to begin with last week where the gospel came from the first half of Chapter 7. In short, it had to do with what we refer to as purity controversies – an argument brought on by the Pharisees as to why Jesus' disciples didn't wash their hands before eating. If you remember the gospel from last week, or are familiar with the story, this really wasn't about washing hands as much as it was about maintaining purity. “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of their elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

Jesus goes on to criticize the Pharisees for being overly focused on outward appearances. It isn't what's outside that defiles by going in; but it's the things inside of us that come out which defile: evil intentions, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Those are what defile. We can be as well-dressed, as outwardly clean, as perfectly groomed and manicured as possible, but if we spew forth things that are anti-gospel or antichrist, we are defiled from within.

I mention last week's gospel because so often we go from Sunday to Sunday without seeing/hearing the connection between lessons. We tend to see each Sunday as a self-contained unit, when in reality each Sunday is an important piece of the whole.

The two stories from today – the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man – are just that: pieces of the whole that tie back to last week's gospel passage.

Last week Jesus faced off with Pharisees about traditions and ritual defilement. What was originally designed to uphold the law and show how the Torah was to be practiced evolved into traditions that favored a particular group while burdening others. This might be like saying we will offer a special room for children who need a different space to run off energy during the service, but over time having that morph into a place where we expect all children to go all the time. Then, when someone legitimately asks, “Why are children not allowed in church?” we respond, “Because we've always had a room for them until they can understand how to worship properly.”

It's the ultimate, “We've always/never done it that way.”

Jesus is telling the Pharisees, and us, what is really important: it's not the kids that defile worship, it's all that stuff that spews out from us that defiles worship.

Today's stories pick up on this. A Gentile woman comes to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter. Jesus' initial response is to say no, basically telling her he's only come to help the Jews. Jesus makes the same mistake the Pharisees made – that of adhering to an exclusive, rather than inclusive, view. He essentially tells her that he has only come to serve the right kinds of people, or to serve people who are like him. This would be like us saying that we will only help Episcopalians.

The woman recognizes his mistake and says, “But there must be even a little left over that I can use.” It's then that Jesus recognizes his mistake, immediately corrects himself, and heals the daughter from afar.

The second story of the deaf man is, as we say, similar but different. Its different in that Jesus offers no resistance to the request for healing. Jesus is in the region of the Decapolis, a primarily Gentile area that seemed to have a Jewish population within it. We can assume that both the man and those who brought him were Jewish since Mark doesn't specifically say he was a Gentile, like he did with the woman.

It's similar in that Jesus heals an outsider. While the woman and her daughter were outsiders based on their gender (female) and ethnicity (Gentile), the deaf man is an insider who is an outsider. He's an insider based on his gender (male) and ethnicity (Jewish) who is an outsider due to his condition (deaf). As we see in many places, people who have a physical disability are pushed to the margins of society, making them beggars and relying on the generosity of others. Once healed, they become “clean” and are allowed to fully participate in society.

Taken together – last week's purity controversy and today's two healings – we have an overarching theme of mission, specifically mission to those whom we label as dirty, impure, outsiders, second-class, OTHER.

Last week Jesus shot down the Pharisees purity argument by saying it isn't what's outside that defiles but what's in our hearts and thoughts which come out that defile. Pushing that to a larger arena, it isn't those people who are dirty or downtrodden who defile us if we come into contact with them, but it is our own thoughts and behaviors toward them which will defile us.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman reminds us that we have an obligation to care for, to feed, to clothe, to heal those outsiders who show up on our doorstep looking for help. The story of the deaf man reminds us that there are people in our midst who we don't classify as “normal” because they don't look like us, dress like us, act like us, but we are called to treat them with dignity and respect.

In closing, it's interesting to note that neither the Syrophoenician woman nor the deaf man show evidence of following Jesus. Unlike the demoniac who wanted to follow him but was instructed to remain behind and proclaim the good news, these two people just take their healings and go on their merry way. This should remind us that we do what we do – in our case, Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage – because we are both called to do those things and because we have the resources to do those things . . . NOT because we want more people to “get saved” and become members of our parish.

We do the things we do in order to meet the needs of those who need help. We do these things because Christ did these things. We do these things because in doing them we reveal the glory of Christ to the world around us; regardless of whether or not they become disciples.

In contemplating the acts of the Church, let us be less worried about purity and more willing to get our hands dirty while engaging with those in need.

Amen.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Sermon; Proper 12B; 2 Sam. 11:1-15 & John 6:1-21

**Warning:  Topic of sexual abuse and rape discussed


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Before I begin, I need to let you know that this was a difficult sermon to write. It will be a difficult sermon to preach. It will be a difficult sermon to hear.

“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him. But David remained at Jerusalem.”

So begins one of the most famous stories in all of scripture, that of David and Bathsheba.

King David had many wives, and Bathsheba is probably the most famous. Over the centuries, this story has become the subject of many stories, films, and commentaries. Some versions have Bathsheba playing the part of a temptress, bathing outside in public view to attract the king's attention. Others portray this story as a willing, adulterous affair between two consenting adults. Still others contend that she was a victim of King David's desires and unchecked power. How we write about and portray this story not only shows how we view it, but can also shape how others view it.

For instance, one commentary I read says this:

“Although feminist biblical interpretation contends that Bathsheba was a victim of

David, other scholars find a clue to Bathsheba's complicity among King David's wives

in 2 Sam. 11:4. This verse says unequivocally that when David sent messengers to

fetch her, she went to David of her own free will.”

Did you catch that? The author says, “feminist biblical interpretation . . . but other scholars,” implying that the former aren't scholars, just a type of interpreter. The author also writes, “the verse says unequivocally.” But look at that verse in your bulletins. This is far from unequivocal, because when the king sends messengers (most likely an armed escort), you go.

What interpretations like this do is that they minimize the complicity and responsibility of David. Giving Bathsheba even an ounce of responsibility begins to move her toward being an equal player. It begins to excuse David for his behavior. After all, she was bathing in public, she must have known what she was doing. They were only messengers, she could have said, “No.”

But the reality here is that she had NOTHING to do with this situation. First, even though she was bathing outdoors, she was in a place otherwise removed from public view. Notice the reading says David saw her from the roof. It's clear she wasn't “out in the open.” This is another indication of the power differential, as David is portrayed as being over her. David could have turned away, but he continued to spy on her from above without her knowing it. David has become a peeping Tom.

Second, he uses his power and authority as king to bring her to him. A podcast I listen to every now and then called Pulpit Fiction which features two pastors discussing the upcoming lectionary readings, quoted one of those feminist biblical interpreters and said, “The reason Bathsheba went with the messengers and walked to the king's house was because it saved her from the indignity of being forcefully dragged through town.” In our day, to suggest that she could have told the king's messengers, “No, I don't want to go,” carries as much plausibility as having two detectives show up at your door and say, “Ma'am, we think you should come down to the station with us,” and saying, “No . . . I think I'll stay here, thank you very much.”

Third, he lay with her. Based on how Uriah will react later in the story when David brings him home from the war, we can assume that Uriah and Bathsheba had a strong, loyal marriage. How much “coercing” did David have to do to in order to lay with her? Or maybe there wasn't any coercing. Maybe David did this by force. But I am willing to bet my bottom dollar this encounter was only consensual in David's eyes; and that makes it rape, not an affair.

I didn't always think about this story this way. I used to be in the “Sure, David sinned, but Bathsheba wasn't an innocent bystander” camp. I've since changed my mind, starting when the women in my seminary class pointed out some of the same points I just did.

The reality is that David was king and he used that position and his power to take what he wanted. This action and attitude of entitlement by men in power, and/or by men who claim they were just having fun, has gone on for as long as there have been men and women in the world. We as a society need to get past the “boys will be boys” attitude and begin demanding accountability for inappropriate behavior. We, as men, need to set better examples and do better in general. We need to start listening to and respecting women and their stories.

If you think this is something that is being blown out of proportion, or that I'm over-reacting, let me share this with you:

On a Twitter post last week, someone asked this question:

Dear Women: How old were you when older men started approaching you?

The answers were devastating.


    11. 8. 12.

    6 when it started.

    9. 13.

    10 the first time.

    11. 9.

    12, and I never lied about my age.

    8.

    I was in 5th Grade.

    And on and on and on. Some told their stories. Some just told their age.

In the culture of the Old Testament, Bathsheba was a married woman, which may be why she is sometimes seen as being complicit. But she is only one example of the many stories I have pointed out, and the many more I haven't, of men using their position, power, influence, and sometimes brute strength to inflict bad, inappropriate, and damaging behavior on women and girls.

We have to stop implicating the victim in their own abuse. We have to stop the excuses that she was dressed too provocatively, or that she was flirting, or that she was bathing outside. We have to start recognizing that girls and women are not responsible for a man's behavior, whether that man is a peasant, king, or somewhere in-between.

For the record, there are many men, and many men whom I know, who have never touched a girl or woman without their consent. There are many men who have never used their position as David used his position. Not all men have inappropriately pursued, commented, touched, or abused women. But all women have a story about these types of encounters.

So while this isn't about the men who haven't behaved this way, this is most certainly about the hundreds of thousand, or maybe millions, of girls and women who have suffered unwanted comments, advances, touching, or outright rape at the hands of men who felt entitled to do so. This is about the results of men who view women as objects, as temptresses, as the reason for their behavior. This is about men who view this behavior as simply “having a bit of fun,” or “just joking around,” because their position and power allow them to do so.

David used his position and power to break wedding vows. He used his position and power to break a life by having Uriah killed. He used his position and power to break the will of the woman he raped and bring her under his control by marrying her.

Today's gospel, believe it or not, ties in with all of this. Today we hear John's version of the feeding of the 5000 – the first, by the way, in a five week series called, “The Bread of Life.” In all four gospels this story involves the miraculous feeding of at least 5000 people by Jesus with only five loaves and two fish. And in all four gospels, the disciples collect twelve baskets of broken pieces after the people have finished eating.

Later in this series Jesus will say, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” And in today's passage he tells the disciples to gather up the fragments (or, as another gospel says, the broken pieces) so that none may be lost.

Looking at the life of Jesus, he never once used his potion and power to coerce, belittle, or abuse people. He was around girls and women as much as any other man of the day, but never once did he do anything inappropriate. As one of our Eucharistic Prayers says, “He lived as one of us, yet without sin.” Instead of using his position and power to the detriment of others, he used his position and power to feed and heal people. We who are Christians should look to his example. And we men should be especially diligent that our actions feed and heal, not discourage and abuse.

Another thing we can do is to flip this around – that is, instead of thinking about Jesus as the bread, think about girls and women as the bread. To do this, I'm going to draw on Mark and Luke who said there were about 5000 men. When the men were finished, there was nothing but broken pieces. The disciples gathered up twelve baskets of those broken pieces so that nothing was lost. Not all men left broken pieces behind, but all the bread was broken.

Like the disciples gathered up the broken pieces of bread, the church must be willing to gather up girls and women who have been broken to some extent by abusive men so that none may be lost.

The number of women who have had a Bathsheba experience is astounding and frightening. She wasn't the first; and unfortunately, she wasn't the last. It doesn't have to be this way, but in a world where it is, I'm here to say, “We can do better.”

The question is, “How do we do better?” And by “we,” I primarily mean, “Men.”

We can do better by ensuring that there are no more Bathsheba stories.

We can do better by believing the girls and women who tell stories of being pursued, groped, abused, or taken advantage of by men.

We can do better by recognizing that Bathsheba was taken advantage of by the king.

We can do better by understanding that there are broken pieces and fragments out there who need to be carefully gathered up so that none are lost.

We can do better by understanding that there may be broken pieces right here.

We can do better by beginning to see women as people with dignity, made in the image of God.

We can do better. We must do better.

How might we do this in the real world?

We can recognize that Jesus calls us to a new way of living. Jesus calls us to renounce the ways of the world and live into the ways of God. For us, we can look to the baptismal covenant for guidance.

“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” The abuse of girls and women by men, whether men in power or men in general, is an evil power that has destroyed many girls and women. For us to renounce them means doing more than not acting that way, it also means being willing to publicly speak out and call out those actions and behaviors which can destroy girls and women. Next week we will hear Nathan do that very thing when he confronts the king about today's incident. In that story, notice that Nathan never once accuses Bathsheba for David's failings – the blame lies solely with David.

We can begin by doing better in speaking out against the evil that destroys the creatures of God.

“Do you promise to follow and obey Jesus Christ?” Following Christ is hard work. It requires us to live and act a certain way. In a few weeks Jesus will tell his followers, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this, many who followed turned back to their own way. He asks the twelve if they also wish to turn away, and Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go?” Following Jesus is hard, but to whom will we go?

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News?” Derogatory words and abusive behavior is not good news; but modeling our words and life on the life-giving words and supportive behavior of Christ is.

“Will you strive for justice, and respect the dignity of every human being?” To strive for justice is to work to ensure abuse never happens, to believe those who have been abused, and to be a voice for the voiceless – six, seven, eleven-year old girls. To strive for justice is to not tolerate bad behavior and to ensure that any and all bad behavior is called out and brought to light, like Nathan will do next week.

We can do better.

We can do better by living into the words of the Baptismal Covenant and holding ourselves to a higher standard. We can do better by having men who don't engage in inappropriate, abusive behavior calling out those who do. We can do better by believing the stories of girls and women, and insisting that men speak up for those who can't.

The story of David and Bathsheba is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a man feels entitled to posses a woman.

It is a cautionary tale of what can happen when position and power blinds a man to what is respectful, dignified, and appropriate.

It is a cautionary tale that tells us where we might end up if we follow David instead of Jesus.

From this day forward, may we do better.

Amen.


**Special thanks to the Rev. Elizabeth Jackson, the Rev. Rachel Lei Petty, and the Rev. Jane Schmoetzer for helping guide me through this difficult topic and offering useful insights.


Sunday, July 18, 2021

Sermon; Proper 11B; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

“I never take a day off because the devil never takes a day off.” – Pastor's motto seen/heard in several places.

You may have heard or seen this slogan stated somewhere by a clergy person at one time or another. It may have been stated as an honest depiction of what a clergy person does, or how they feel, in the never-ending battle against the forces of evil. It may have been stated as a self-indulgent way of broadcasting how hard a particular clergy person is working. After all, clergy sometimes feel they need to prove they work more than one day a week. But however it was presented, there are clergy who take pride in living into this statement.

Some time ago I heard a rebuttal to it, which I wish I had originated. It goes like this: If you never take a day off because the devil never takes a day off, you need a better role model.

There are plenty of places in the gospels where Jesus goes off alone to rest, pray, and recharge. If we are going to keep our focus, if we want to avoid burnout, then we should be more like Jesus and find time to rest, pray, and recharge. This isn't just good advice for clergy, it's good advice for everyone – teachers, accountants, first responders, cooks, landscapers, moms, dads – anyone and everyone could benefit from time away.

We are presented with an example of this in today's gospel. The disciples had been sent by Jesus earlier in the chapter to preach, heal, and cast out demons. They've now returned to tell him all they've done. Their popularity has grown such that they had no leisure to even eat, so Jesus takes them away to a deserted place to be alone. He doesn't tell them to get to work because the devil never stops working. He doesn't call them slackers for needing a rest. What he does is to recognize that to be effective we must have time away. If that means going way to a deserted place, then so be it.

This is a good idea and a good thing to try and achieve, but it doesn't always happen as planned. In the case of Jesus and the disciples, their effort to get away was thwarted twice. Once immediately after they returned and went away but were followed by a great crowd who met them when they went ashore, and a second time when they crossed over the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret and were recognized by many who brought sick people to him. Both times the desire to get away to be alone, to pray, to recharge, was thwarted by crowds of people seeking out Jesus to heal them.

A long time ago I was at a preaching conference where Abp. Desmond Tutu was the keynote speaker. You may have heard of him. He worked in South Africa fighting for the inclusion of women in the church and against apartheid. He became famous after President Nelson Mandela appointed him to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which worked to bring a peaceful end to the sinful system of apartheid. He has since traveled the world speaking out in favor of equal rights and against injustices of all kinds. And here he was speaking at a preaching conference in Atlanta.

After he was finished my friend Jane and I wanted to go up to him and say something like, “Thank you for being here.” FYI: priests can be fanboys/girls too. That may or may not have been what we actually wanted to say, but it was something short so as not to take too much of his time, just so we could say we talked with him. And maybe, if we could, just to touch his robe . . . right?

The only problem was that the rest of the attendees had the same idea and we were all met by a wall of bodyguards who politely, but forcefully, told us that the Archbishop had places to be.

I think about that story every so often, especially when this particular gospel lesson comes around. I think about the travel and the people Abp. Tutu met. I think about the number of people who just wanted to say, “Hello,” or shake his hand. It must have been overwhelming. I wonder if his security detail was just taking him back to his room so he could rest, pray, and recharge.

I think about Jesus who faced the same crush of people on a regular basis. I think about his need/desire to “go away to a deserted place” every so often. I think about his lack of a security detail and his inability to get away from the crowds.

These two leaders, Desmond Tutu and Jesus, modeled good self-care by taking time for themselves. The Archbishop probably managed to do that more often than Jesus, but we do see Jesus trying to find time to rest, pray, and recharge. This is a good lesson for all of us to keep in mind – finding time to rest, pray, and recharge.

But there's another part of this story that we often overlook, and that's the part of the crowds.

For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat. Many saw them going, and as he went ashore he saw a great crowd. When he got out of the boat people rushed to bring the sick to him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak. And after he spoke, all those gathered rose so that they might have a word with him.

The gospels provide us with glimpses into the life of Jesus. They also provide us with glimpses of how Jesus can be present in our lives today. If we take seriously the idea that Holy Scripture conveys the Word of God, then we can also look at Scripture as informing how we can orient our lives more closely with the will of God. But I think we would miss a wide swath of what Scripture has to say to us if we only focused on Jesus in MY life and MY relationship with God – because there is plenty in Scripture that can give us guidance and/or insight into how we can live and relate with other people. On its surface, today's gospel gives us the story of Jesus willing to heal all those who came to him. If we look a little deeper, though, we might also gain some insight into how the crowds themselves related to Jesus.

How often have we been part of the crowd? How often have we just wanted one touch, a quick word, one picture? How often have we put our desires above the needs of others? There are certainly times we need to reach out to another person. There are times when the needs of others take priority in our lives, no matter how inconvenient. But maybe, just maybe, if we all took time to evaluate the impact our actions had on others – from personal interactions, to finances, to the environment – we would all be in a better place.

Amen.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Sermon; Proper 8B; Mark 5:21-42

Today we have two stories of healing. One of a woman who had suffered from hemorrhages (or “a flow of blood” in some translations) for twelve years. Another of a 12-year old girl who dies. These two stories are always told together, and within this passage you have some rather obvious comparisons and contrasts.

In comparison, there are the two adults, Jairus and the bleeding woman, who seem to be at the end of their respective ropes and will do anything for healing. You have a 12-year old girl close to death and a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, who also might be close to death. You have two ritually unclean females – one from her flow of blood, and one from her death.

In contrast you also have a girl and a woman. You have a man asking for help and a woman taking power from Jesus on her own volition. The woman's healing is done publicly, while the girl's healing is done in private. After the woman is healed, no one is commanded to remain silent, yet those who witnessed the raising of the little girl are ordered to not tell anyone about the miracle.

And here I was really hoping for a gospel lesson I could tie into the J2A Oregon trip that begins tomorrow. I also looked at the Old Testament lesson, but songs of dead kings don't really lend themselves to youth mission trips. So it was back to the gospel.

At the most basic level, before we look at any of the similarities or differences, before we even get God or Jesus involved, at the most basic level, today's one passage is two stories. Today's passage contains one story of a family in need of healing, and one story of a woman in need of healing. As we look closer at these two stories, other things begin to appear.

Yes, this is a story of a 12-year old girl and a woman with a 12-year chronic disease. This is a story of two ritually unclean females. This is a story of Jesus compassionately interacting with females. This is the story of two very desperate people. But all of that aside – besides the healing, besides the humility, besides Mark's desire to show Jesus having power over the spiritual world (driving out demons), over the physical world (calming the seas), and over the human condition – this is a story interrupted.

Notice that these simply aren't two stories that happen to always be paired together; these are two stories that are paired together because it is a story interrupted. A man comes to Jesus asking him to heal his daughter who is close to death, and Jesus willingly goes with him to heal her. Unlike the Lazarus story over in John, Jesus doesn't dilly dally. Mark doesn't say it, but I can almost hear him say, “Jesus immediately went with him.” On his way he is interrupted by a woman with her own issues whom he heals. But because of this interruption, because of this delay, Jesus is late in arriving at the home of Jairus. It is during the delay when the girl dies. Even so, Jesus eventually got to where he was originally going and performed the miracle he had planned on performing, that of healing the little girl.

In 2017 my wife volunteered to lead the J2A program here at Saint John's. She became familiar with the program at the church we attended while in seminary. She fell in love with it and the kids who participated, and she was hoping to bring that experience here.

J2A is a 2-year program designed to help teens make the Journey to Adulthood. It includes an urban excursion (which took them to NYC) and a longer expedition with a mission aspect at the end of the program. For this group, it's the trip to Oregon that begins tomorrow AT EARLIER THAN O-DARK THIRTY.

Anyway . . .

Along the way there were some bumps which led us to extend the program by a year so we could work out some of those kinks. It was during that extended year when the kids decided to make the Oregon trip. To raise funds they planned car washes, dances, and other fund raisers. After holding one dance and planning another, the COVID pandemic hit. J2A meetings were moved to online, and the trip was canceled.

Eventually the trip was rescheduled for 2021 and the Flamingo Flocking became a COVID-safe fundraiser. This two-year program that had been extended to three, now was a four-year endeavor. Even with all that has happened, with the bumps and bruises, with a global pandemic, with the ability to only gather virtually, with all of that, the group eventually got to where they were going.

Like Mark's story of Jesus healing the girl and the woman is a story interrupted, the story of this J2A group is a story interrupted. In both of these, the gospel and J2A, what was originally planned for was interrupted by something out of their control but that interruption was just that – an interruption, not a permanent detour.

In today's gospel we see Jesus has the power to heal a person of a physical malady. In this gospel story we see Jesus has power over death. In the wider scope of Mark's gospel we also see Jesus has power over the physical world by the calming of the sea, as well as having power over the spiritual world by his casting out demons. But it seems to me that the most important part of this passage for us today is the recognition of the story interrupted.

Jairus' daughter's healing was interrupted by the woman with the chronic medical issue, yet Jesus eventually got to where he needed to be. The J2A Oregon trip was interrupted by the COVID pandemic, yet they will eventually get to where they need to be.

As we read this story, the healings and power of Jesus are nice and they help inform us of who the Son of God is, but it may be more important for us to remember that in our life and in in our own walks with God, our various stories will be interrupted. Things will happen that delay us from getting to our desired destination. Things will happen that might take us off track.

We can choose to let the interruptions send us on a permanent detour and define who we are and will become, or we can choose to see interruptions for what they are: interruptions that help tell our story without becoming THE story. For Jesus, the woman who touched his robes while he was on the way to Jairus' house was an interruption in his story that further showed who he was. For the J2A group, the pandemic was an interruption in their story that showed who they are: resilient young adults determined to overcome obstacles.

And this just might be the point of these two intertwined stories today: that if we hold fast to who we are and what we believe, we will eventually get to where we need to be.

Amen.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Sermon; Proper 6B; Mark 4:26-34

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

We've all heard this parable before. It's one of those parables that we combine several details because it appears in all three synoptic gospels. And along those lines, we've probably all heard that the mustard seed really isn't the smallest seed on earth, or that it doesn't really grow to become a tree. And we've probably all heard that this is why it's called a parable, because Jesus is using a form of speech with some exaggerations to make a point. That point, of course, is that the kingdom of God starts small and grows to become very big.

I could be wrong, but I think Christians in general tend to focus on that growth from small to big. Whether that's mainline Christians who want to once again see the church grow into a large tree where we have three or four services a day, the large choir with paid leads, and an overflowing Sunday school wing, or whether it's non-denominational Christians who want a 5000 seat auditorium, full electric band, and a coffee bar, people want to see big. If we just have the faith of the mustard seed, all that is possible.

I suppose there's nothing wrong with that. But there were two things that grabbed my attention this past week that made me reconsider how I look at this parable.

The first was something I read about the mustard plant – and that was that the mustard plant is an annual, as opposed to a perennial. That is, the plant depends on renewed sowing to come back every year. Whether or not this is factually true, or that the plant can return each year if it has the right soil conditions and self-scatters its seed, really isn't the point. But the idea that you need to replant mustard seeds every year works best with the parable and where this sermon is going.

The second thing was something that happened in a much more personal way. As I said, I think most people hear this parable and hope that if they had the faith of a mustard seed they, or their church, or whatever, will grow into this big thing we can be proud of. But what if this parable isn't about back-end big growth, but about front-end planting?

Over the past few weeks things have been extremely busy and demanding in the office. Part of that included the frustrating experience I had with the survey and re-sending it using a different platform. So thank you for putting up with that and completing it a second time – this one worked much better.

As I said, it's been really busy in the office. Over that period of time I neglected to perform a very basic and necessary function of not only my job, but of my calling and vocation as a priest. The result of that failure on my part damaged a relationship that I have come to value. When that failure was brought to my attention I was angry and upset with myself and I worried about the possible far-reaching effects.

In my defense . . . No, there was no defense. Any possible defense I attempted to make would simply be a listing of excuses. My only recourse was to visit the person and simply say, “I messed up. I'm sorry. I ask for your forgiveness.” Thankfully that apology was accepted and we are moving forward.

But that incident got me thinking about today's parable of the mustard seed and how it might be as much a reference to the growth on the back-end as it was about planting on the front-end.

If indeed the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a plant that needs replanting every year, then we can't just plant it, forget it, and hope and pray it grows into something big. Instead, we need to replant the kingdom of God any number of times.

We need to work on replanting the seeds of love in our families. We need to work on replanting the seeds of friendship. We need to work on replanting the seeds of the kingdom of God. And now, as we begin to see an end to the COVID pandemic, we need to work replanting the seeds that we call Saint John's.

The parable of the mustard seed tells us that the small things of God can and will grow into larger things which have the ability to draw everyone in. But it also tells us that it will take more than one planting for the kingdom of God to grow. It tells us that the kingdom of God is not a one-and-done event, but is the result of many events, many plantings, over a period of time.

I worked to regrow a relationship last week by planting the seeds of confession. I trust that relationship will grow thanks to the waters of forgiveness. It was that event that reminded me the mustard seed of God needs to be replanted on a regular basis. And that, if you haven't noticed, is hard work.

This kingdom of God stuff is hard work. It's hard work to replant seeds over and over again. It's hard work to replant seeds of friendship. It's hard work to replant seeds of love. It's hard work to confess your sins face-to-face with one whom you have harmed. If we think about it, this work of replanting is where we find ourselves right now.

Right now, probably more than at any other time in our history, we are reminded that we can't view the work of the kingdom, or of our relationships, as a one-and-done event, but that we need to work on a regular basis to replant those small seeds. Because while having the faith of a mustard seed that God will cause those small seeds to grow into a large dwelling that can become home to many, we must never forget that that large dwellings begin with the work we do of planting those small seeds in the first place.

We have been through the COVID pandemic. We have been through a period where the field lay fallow. But now is the time to get to work. Now is the time to begin replanting the seeds of the kingdom. Now is the time for us at Saint John's to begin planting again.

Amen.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Sermon; Proper 5B; Mark 3:20-35

Jesus said, “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

This seems exceedingly harsh, especially coming from someone who talks about loving your neighbor and welcoming the outcast. So let's talk about sin.

Origen basically says that the apostles, and us by virtue of our baptism, have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been filled with the presence of the living God by that Spirit. So while Jesus gives us an example of how to live in a right relationship with God, the Holy Spirit is the very real presence of God in us. One can therefore sin against the example (Jesus), but to sin against the Holy Spirit is to turn our backs on the very thing that gives us life. By doing that, Origen says, we have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit, committed apostasy, and will never receive forgiveness.

Novatian, a priest in the 3rd Century with a very interesting history, concurred saying that it is the Holy Spirit who gives life, binding us to God. To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to toss aside our holy bindings, remove ourselves from God's holy embrace, and reject God's teaching in favor of a self-centered way of life. It is this rejection of all that is holy which leads to the lack of forgiveness.

These two Church fathers put into words what many have wondered: Is there no forgiveness for blaspheming against the Holy Spirit? Many hellfire and damnation sermons have railed against this particular sin and have dutifully, if not gleefully, opened the gates of hell to usher in those who have committed that sin.

I can almost hear them now: “We worship a loving, patient God. But even God has a breaking point and those who have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit have crossed that line. It is they who will suffer the eternal consequences. It is you who are damned to hell for grieving the Holy Spirit.”

I don't know about you, but there was a time when I worried about whether or not I had committed that unforgivable sin. I worried whether or not I was on my way to hell. I worried if I had somehow unintentionally offended the Holy Spirit and would suffer those eternal consequences.

Then someone said to me, “If you are worried about whether or not you have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit and committed that unforgivable sin, you most likely haven't.” That is to say that worrying about it tells me you're too concerned about it to actually commit that sin. This isn't one of those unknown sins we commit, or a sin of omission. This is something we do intentionally to remove God from our lives.

If that makes you feel better, then consider the words of St. Augustine: “It is not that this was a blasphemy which under no circumstances could be forgiven, for even this shall be forgiven if right repentance follows it.”

Augustine basically says that there is no unforgivable sin, provided there is an effort at right repentance.

Forgiveness is a gift that is given to someone who has harmed or injured you in some significant way. Forgiveness is a way of saying that the other person no longer has power over you, and that you are allowing both parties to move on with their lives. And because it is a gift, nobody should ever be forced to forgive another person, because as we all know, that really isn't forgiveness.

Sometimes forgiveness comes as an un-asked-for gift. Sometimes it is in response to repentance, as Augustine alludes to. But even if it's in response to an act of repentance, forgiveness is always a gift. If forgiveness is a gift, which I think it is – what better gift to give to someone who has harmed you than to honestly forgive them? – then I think that puts an interesting spin on these words of Jesus from today's gospel passage.

Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness. It doesn't say that they can never be forgiven; it says that they can never HAVE forgiveness. I talked about this with Dcn. Sue's Zoom-group study on Mark recently, so I apologize to them for the redundancy.

They can never HAVE forgiveness. Remember, I said true forgiveness is a gift. It is a precious, valuable, rare gift given to someone who has harmed or injured you in a significant way. It is a gift that says we will not be bound or identified by past actions. The person to whom that gift is being given has two choices – they can either accept that gift, or they can refuse that gift.

Channeling my inner Forrest Gump here, “Forgiveness is like a chocolate cake.”

If you harm or injure me in such a way that forgiveness on my part is needed, that forgiveness is the chocolate cake. I forgive you, accept this cake as a symbol of my forgiveness. Accept this gift as a symbol of moving forward. If you accept the gift, you have the cake. If you don't, you don't. By not accepting the gift, you cannot move forward in our relationship. By not accepting the gift, you will be forever bound by the past.

By not accepting the gift of forgiveness, you can never HAVE forgiveness.

Forgiveness is often a two-way street on the front end where repentance is offered as a path to forgiveness and healing. Forgiveness is also a two-way street on the back end where the path to healing is begun by accepting the gift – by having it.

Augustine was right: even this will be forgiven if right repentance is made. To have forgiveness of the Holy Spirit, or anyone for that matter, we who have offended must be willing to accept the gift.

Let us never refuse the gift of forgiveness, and let us never keep ourselves eternally separated from the presence of God.

Amen.