Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon; Pentecost 10/Proper 12C; Luke 11:1-13

According to Luis of Granada, an influential spiritual author and guide of the 1500's, “Prayer, properly speaking, is a petition to God for the things which pertain to our salvation; but is also any raising of the heart to God.”

It's clear from his point of view that prayer is not the coin which you drop into the heavenly vending machine and get your reward.  Prayer is how we develop a relationship with, and deepen our understanding of, God.  Prayer takes discipline.  Prayer takes reflection.  Prayer takes listening.

There are, of course, many ways to pray.  We have the Rite I way:  Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.  Amen.

We have Anne Lamott's understanding that prayer is essentially three words . . . Help, Thanks, Wow.

And we have everything in-between.

So with all these forms available, and a variety of styles (is kneeling required, do we have to bow our heads, can we stand, are ecstatic utterances acceptable, does God actually listen to weejus prayers, and more), how are we to pray?

Every clergy person in every denomination in every faith tradition at one time or another has been asked, “How do I pray?”  This is akin to asking the dentist, “What type of floss should I use?”  Or asking a doctor, “What kind of exercise is best?”  The answer to both of those question is, “The kind that you will actually use or do.”  The answer to, “How do I pray?” is, “You pray.”  But, like I said two weeks ago, we have a habit of turning the simple into the complicated.  So people want to know exactly how to pray, as did Jesus' disciples.

“Teach us to pray like John taught his disciples,” they ask.  Jesus responds with what has become known as the Lord's Prayer.  You probably noticed some differences between the version heard today and the one you're familiar with.  And that's okay, because I’m not going to be talking about those differences today.  Instead, I’m simply going to reflect on the prayer as Luke gives it to us.  Hopefully you will find something useful and thoughtful.

Father, hallowed be your name.  Hallowed means to venerate and/or treat as sacred.  On the one hand it's easy for us to treat God's name as holy and sacred, and to venerate that name; we do it every Sunday.  But there's more to it than that.

The catechism says that God lovingly created the universe, sustains and directs it, and that it is good.  In fact, all of creation was deemed very good.  The name of God, the image of God, is in all things.  If we claim to venerate and treat as sacred the name of God, then we must also venerate and treat as sacred all that is around us.  We can start by not demonizing others, by learning to see the face of Christ in all people, and by respecting all of creation as bearing the image of God.

Your kingdom come.  What does this kingdom look like?  For starters, it is not based on our ideas of power and domination.  Psalm 33 has a good image of the kingdom of God and how it differs from our ideas of a kingdom:  “There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army . . . the horse is a vain hope for deliverance.”

In Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams puts forth the idea that the kingdom of God is something totally foreign to our way of thinking.  The kingdom of God looks at the world from the point of view of the helpless, the outcast, the powerless, the victim.  Viewing the world in this way, he says, frees us from the need to secure our own power.  The kingdom of God is present in the voiceless and powerless, in the outcasts and the leftovers.  The kingdom of God leaves no one out.  When we pray this prayer, is this the kingdom we are expecting and hoping for?

Give us each day our daily bread.  On its surface this could be taken as a petition to ensure we get our daily nourishment – both physical and spiritual.  And that is certainly a valid petition and a valid understanding of this line.  But for almost every person in this congregation that is not really a concern.

What if we were to look at this petition in light of the previous one – your kingdom come?  What if we looked at this petition as a fulfillment of the kingdom of God?  Looking at the petition in this way allows us to see a kingdom of no outcasts, a kingdom in which we have no need of securing our own power, a kingdom where we, by our understanding and actions, work to ensure that those whom society dubs as outcasts receive their daily bread.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  There's too much here to unpack in one sermon, so let me make just one observation.  Notice that this line is not a mandate from God to us.  This isn't God saying, “Love others because I first loved you.”  This line has a “from us to God” movement.  We are praying that God forgive us – because we forgive others.  In short, if we do not forgive, then we cannot be forgiven.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.  Traditionally this has been interpreted as asking for us to be spared the final trial and judgment at the end of days.  But Sharon Ringe writes, “The petition may have been intended as a prayer that the community be spared the accusations and trials before various secular and religious authorities.”

Going back to Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams argues that Christ was tried and executed for, among other things, his refusal to play by the rules of worldly calculations, tactics, and power.  This refusal by Jesus to play the game, his insistence on silence and other-worldliness, results in his trial and execution.  What would happen if we also refused to play the game according to the world's rules?  What would happen if we focused on God's silence and other-worldliness?  Could not we face the same trials as Jesus?  Could this be the time of trial we are praying to be saved from?

Prayer is an exercise in discipline – just do it.  Prayer is a petition to God regarding the things of salvation.  Prayer takes many forms.  But prayer also involves a fair amount of listening.

So when you pray, pray like this.  But spend time listening to what you are really asking of God.  And spend time on listening to what God is asking of you.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon; 9 Pentecost, Proper 11C; Luke 10:38-42

Today we hear the story of Martha and Mary.  It's a short story in which Martha plays hostess to Jesus while her sister, Mary, does nothing but sit at Jesus' feet listening to him teach.  Within this short story are deep issues around theology, gender roles, and worldly distractions.

There are many interpretations that criticize and demean Martha for her many distractions.  They paint an image of her that reminds me of my grandmother.  We would often have Thanksgiving dinner at her house, and the place was packed with family and relatives.  But from the time people began showing up until they went home, she was never able to sit and enjoy the meal.  She was always up getting this or that, or moving things around in one way or another.  Like Martha, she was distracted by her many tasks and she had to be told several times to sit down and relax.

There are also many interpretations that overly praise Mary for her decision to sit at Jesus' feet, listening to and learning from what he has to say.  This often comes from the line that says she has chosen the better part, and is presented as reminding us to focus on heavenly things over earthly desires.

The way these women are typically presented is, “Mary good, Martha bad.”  But, as my favorite NT professor often said, “It's more complicated than that.”

One other way we can interpret this story is to demean both women.  Martha is too overcome with the details and distractions of her many tasks to take any notice of what Jesus is saying.  On top of that, she whines to him to intercede on her part and tell Mary to quit being lazy and get to work, rather than deal directly with her sister.  In family systems theory, we call that 'triangulation.'  Don't be a Martha, we are told.

Mary doesn't fare much better.  Yes, she is attentive to what Jesus is saying, but she is completely passive.  Unlike the male disciples, she never speaks, nor does she ask any questions.  She seems to be living out the directives to women as found in 1 Tim. 2:11-12 – “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”  Mary becomes yet another symbol and example of male dominance.

Another way to look at this, though, is to make some positive observations.  The first is that Mary and Martha are not binary examples, one good and one bad.  We need to understand that while the gospels provide us with a new way to live our lives, the gospels very rarely provide us with black and white answers.

A second observation is to note that the gospels are not to be used as a resource on how to demean people.  We aren't to use this particular passage as a way to tell busy people (distracted or otherwise) that Jesus doesn't like the way they handle their business, or their busy-ness.  Nor are we to use this passage to keep women submissive and silent as Mary.

The final and most important observation we can make is that this is a both/and passage.  It doesn't provide black and white answers, but it does show us how to live.  It doesn't berate Martha for her actions, but it does teach us about perspective.  The truth of the matter is that we need both.

We need both hearers and doers of the Word.  We need both the thinkers who plan the feast and the laborers who make it all come together.

In several places throughout Christian history Martha is praised for her work.  She is the one who was ready to serve Jesus before he even arrived.  She is the one who prepared, as Augustine said, a foreshadowing of the meal Christ would share with his disciples.  She also, in another gospel, is the one who had the discussion with Jesus about the resurrection.  Martha has many reasons for which to be praised.

Mary, on the other hand, is much more introspective and/or introverted.  We don't know if she helped with the pre-arrival preparations, but it's clear that once Jesus arrived she was totally focused on him.  In that other gospel story about her brother Lazarus, she was most likely sitting in prayer next to her brother while he died; and she was probably playing the part of a proper mourner when Jesus arrived.

Both of these women have qualities for which to be praised.  Both of these women love Jesus.  Each woman expresses that love in different ways, just as all of us here have our own unique way of expressing our love for Christ.  This doesn't make any one way better or worse than another, it just makes it different.  Within those differences, however, are things to which we may want to pay attention.

First, we need to understand that Martha's work is necessary.  It is necessary for us to be hospitable and serve others.  It is necessary for us to prepare this house for the arrival of Jesus.  It is necessary that we offer food and drink, both literal and spiritual, to those who need it.  These things are necessary, but they won't last.  All of this – the planning, the meals, the concern, the building – all of this is transitory.  Later in Luke (in a passage we wont' hear until Advent 2019) Jesus will say, “Heaven and earth will pass away.”  This is all temporary, and Martha, while doing important work, gets caught up in thinking it's permanent.

Mary, on the other hand, chooses the better part.  Again, in Advent 2019 we will hear Jesus say, “But my words will never pass away.”  As Augustine said so beautifully, “This tiresome journey brings us closer to home and rest where, all our busy activities over and done with, the only thing remaining will be, 'Alleluia'.”  Knowing and dwelling on what will last is choosing the better part.

We have things to do here.  We have people to feed and clothe.  We have sick to visit.  We have services and potlucks to organize.  But let us never forget why we do these things.  Let us never get distracted by that which we know to be transitory.  Let us always, in all our busy works, choose the better part.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon; 8 Pentecost, Proper 10C; Luke 10:25-37

We make it so difficult for ourselves.  Last week we heard the story of Naaman, the Aramean army commander who suffered from leprosy, initially refusing to wash in the Jordan bcause it was too simple.  Today we hear of a lawyer who wanted a detailed example, or a legal definition of the word “neighbor.”

Go and wash.  Love your neighbor.  It can't be that simple, can it?  Well, on the one hand, yes, it can.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  But simple doesn't necessarily mean easy, and that might be why both we and the lawyer look for ways to tighten the definition.

The question, “Who is my neighbor” gets asked a lot, and usually with the intention of eliminating some people for consideration.  Notice that the lawyer asked this question in order “to justify himself.”  We, too, ask that question in order to justify ourselves as well – we want a reason to be justified for treating certain people with dignity, respect, friendship, and love.  We want a reason to be justified for treating other people with rudeness, disdain, neglect, and hatred.

In response Jesus tells this story.  There once was a trucker from Mississippi whose truck was hijacked.  He had come upon an accident and stopped to see if he could help; but it turned out to be a trap as four men appeared with guns.  The hijackers attacked him, beat him, and shot him; and leaving him for dead in the ditch, drove off with their cars and his rig.  The next morning a priest driving by saw what looked like a body lying in the ditch; but already late for his meeting with the bishop, he drove on by assuring himself that some other person not so pressed for time would stop and help.  A doctor also drove by and saw the body in the ditch, but knowing that this road was famous for staged accidents and robberies, he also drove on by assuring himself that he would most likely see the person in the ER where he was on call.  But then a Syrian refugee, on his way to Friday prayers at the mosque, saw the body.  Using his first aid kit in his car he cleaned and bandaged the trucker as best he could and took him to the local hospital.  While there he gave the registration desk his own personal information and told them that he would cover the cost of treatment.  Now, of these three, who was a neighbor to the trucker from Mississippi?

The answer given is that the man who showed mercy was the neighbor.  That, of course, would be the right answer.  And within that answer there are two things to notice.

The first, and most obvious, is that we are to treat everyone we encounter with kindness and mercy.  Everyone is our neighbor.  We need to constantly ask, “If I were him/her in that position, how would I want others to treat me?”  Love your neighbor as yourself – treat others as you want to be treated.  This law is to be applied equally across the board without distinction.  For us Episcopalians it means we are to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of EVERY human being.  Oh snap.

EVERY human being includes the refugee and the Muslim.  The migrant worker and the illegal alien.  It includes lesbians, gays, bisexual, and the transgendered.  It includes people of color.  It includes the homeless and mentally challenged.  It includes ALL and EVERY.

In that respect we are to emulate the actions of the Samaritan and the refugee and show mercy to all, because all are our neighbors.

The second thing to notice is that there is a strong christological aspect to this story.

Due to a few places in scripture, Christians have traditionally portrayed Jesus as one who represents the least of these.  Psalm 22: “I am a worm and no man; scorned by others and despised by the people.”  Isaiah 53:  “He was despised and rejected by others; he was despised and we held him of no account.”

Jesus used the Samaritan because that was a person who was despised and scorned by the good Jewish people to whom he was speaking.  In my retelling of this parable, the Syrian refugee is seen in the same way by “good Americans” – despised and scorned.

Ambrose equated the Samaritan with Jesus because it was he who offered mercy to one who was dying.  We, too, dying in our sins, are offered the saving grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.  He also pointed out that the Samaritan, like Jesus in so many instances, was not afraid to touch the unclean and impure, but that it was through his touch that they were healed.

Augustine said that, as the Samaritan poured out wine and oil on the injured man, bringing him to the inn to be healed, Christ has done the same for us.  Christ has offered us bread and wine, the sacrament of body and blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of our sins, and he has brought us to this inn, the Church, to be healed.

There is a whole plethora of churches and spiritual practices that have as their foundation, “Seeing Christ in others.”  But how serious are we about putting that into practice?  How serious are we about living into that goal?  From the homeless to the alien, from the Muslim to the atheist, from Syrian refugees to people of other sexual orientations and identities, up to and including the drug dealers next door, there are many people we would rather not treat neighborly, let alone attempt to envision Christ in them.  But they are our neighbors, and Christ is in them.

On this day when the nation is reeling from yet another shooting of two black men by white police officers, and from the tragic and hateful retaliatory shooting of five white Dallas police officers, we need to pay more attention to this gospel.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  We are doing neither of those when we choose to walk down the easy path of hating those who differ from us in any way.  Not only do we need to learn to love our neighbor as ourselves, but we need to learn to see the face of Christ in others.

Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

It sounds so simple, but, as recent events have proven, it's damn hard to do.


Sunday, July 03, 2016

Sermon; 7 Pentecost, Proper 9C; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Luke continues with the theological itinerary of Jesus in today's gospel.  Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem, but before he gets there, he sends out the advance scouts.  Today Jesus sends out 35 pairs of disciples to every town that he himself is intending to visit.  The purpose of this is to have the disciples proclaim the arrival, or the nearness, of the kingdom of God.  It could be that Jesus is using the information that the disciples will bring back to determine which towns he will visit; or it could be that he will visit them all, but he wants to know what the theological climate of the town is.

One of the questions that comes up is, “Why 70?”  We obviously can't know the mind of Luke, but there are several hypotheses about why he used that number.  First, 70 is the number of elders that Moses chose to assist him in the leadership of the Israelites as found in Numbers 11 (Eldad and Medad being the most famous).  Second, 70 is the number of Gentile nations in the world as recorded in Genesis 10.  In the first example, we are reminded that the kingdom of God cannot be handled by one person – it takes many people to make the kingdom of God a reality on earth.  In the second, we are given an idea that the kingdom of God is for all people, not just a select few.

That last one also plays into the notion that it's not only the few named disciples who are part of Christ’s mission, but that even the many anonymous followers of Christ are to be apostles and missionaries.

I personally don't think it matters whether Luke had in mind the 70 elders that Moses chose or seeing the 70 Gentile nations as the mission field.  What's important, I think, is that 70 were sent out with a particular mission, and that mission was to proclaim the kingdom of God has come near.

Within that mission of proclamation, and today's reading, are a few things we need to pay attention to.  The first, and most obvious, is that we are sent to proclaim the kingdom of God has come near.  This isn't a job for Jesus alone.  This isn't a job only for professional church people (i.e. clergy).  This is a job for all of Christ’s disciples.  Everyone of us here today is asked to participate in the mission of proclamation.

The second thing we need to pay attention to is that it is not our job to judge.  Notice that Jesus sent the disciples to all the towns ahead of him; he didn't send them to a few particular locations, or only to those people who would accept the message.  The disciples are not instructed to prejudge who may or may not be worthy.  They are instructed to proclaim the message to everyone.  As St. Augustine said, “Since we don't know who is a son of peace, it is our part to leave no one out, to set no one aside.”  Those who reject the disciples and their message do it of their own accord.

There's a third thing we need to pay attention to, and while related to what I just said, it's also a little more complicated.  Today's lectionary selection can be compared to a certain radio version of Piano Man where the line about Paul, the real estate novelist talking with Davy, who's still in the Navy, gets cut out in the interest of time.  You may have that same feeling that something is missing from the reading.

What's missing are verses 12-15 where Jesus bemoans the fate of those towns who refuse to hear the message being proclaimed.  He basically says that Sodom had it easier than they will on the day of judgment.  And he goes on to proclaim a woe on Chorazin and Bethsaida (two Jewish towns), saying that Tyre and Sidon (two Gentile towns) will fare better.

Even though the lectionary chose to omit those verses, we still need to know how to deal with them.  When reading this passage, it's easy to mistakenly assign the role of judge and jury to the disciples, and to us.  But that's an incorrect reading.

The instructions to the disciples being sent out end at verse 11.  Those instructions basically end with, “Proclaim the message, and if they choose not to listen, leave.”  The next four verses are Jesus' words to the disciples/apostles as to what the consequences will be for unbelief.  These words of woe, destruction, and judgment are for Jesus alone to speak.  It is not our job to pronounce judgment.

The final thing we need to pay attention to is consistency.  The message given to the disciples to proclaim is this: the kingdom of God has come near.  It is the same message proclaimed to those who accept it and those who reject it.  For some, it is a message of hope.  For others, it is a message of fear.  But whether people see it as hopeful or as fearful, we need to be consistent in its delivery.  And how we ourselves view the arrival of the kingdom of God – with hope or with fear – will determine how we proclaim the message.

There are plenty of Christians who, while saying they are hopeful for the kingdom of God, are really living and proclaiming a gospel of fear.  Their main message is to fear our neighbors, fear people of color, fear people of other identities, fear other religions.  All that fear leads to, among other things, dire predictions for the coming wrath of God.  All that fear leads to a hopeful destruction of others.  Unfortunately that message of fear and wrath seems to be the preferred message of the dominant group through history and into today.

On the other hand, there is a message of the kingdom of God that can bring hope, and that message is based in love.  Love the Lord your God with all your self.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  These two commandments have massive implications.  What would it look like if we loved our neighbors as ourselves?  What would it look like if the people of this country loved its people enough to provide health care, both physical and mental?  What would it look like if we loved each other enough to ensure everyone had three meals a day, or earned a living wage?  What would it look like if we actually treated everyone equally, regardless of religion, race, gender, or orientation?  This is a message that is hard to live into and hard to proclaim.  But it might be that this is ultimately the narrow road Jesus talks about.

The ironic thing here is that, while a kingdom of God based in love is hopeful for many, for others it is rife with fear.  The fear of equality for others.  The fear of losing what's mine.  The fear that someone somewhere might get something I don't think they deserve.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he is sending you out ahead to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God, of a kingdom that is based in love.  The message of the kingdom that we proclaim should be this:  love God, love one another, and abide in that love.  Some will hear that message and find peace.  Some will hear that message and find fear.  Whether that message is accepted or rejected, we are to proclaim it without judgment.  Whether that message is accepted or rejected, we must always be consistent in how we proclaim it.  And whether that message is accepted or rejected does not change the fact of the matter that the kingdom of God is near.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon; Proper 8C; Luke 9:51-62

In the Wednesday Word I wrote about both my affinity and fear of water.  I like being near lakes and oceans.  I am mesmerized by waterfalls.  But I also won't swim in anything without an edge or that is not heated to 82 degrees.  And I will not, in any circumstances, ever go whitewater rafting.

This reflection on water was generated by my daughter who let me know she had stopped at Multnomah Falls on her way to visit her grandparents to have lunch and hike to the top.  That got me thinking about waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and oceans and how I like to be near those things.  Not only how I like to be near them, but how I have a healthy respect (some say paranoia) for being in and around them.  I always wear a life vest when in a boat.  I refuse to go whitewater rafting because that's not how I want to die.  I never run willy nilly into the ocean.  I like being around water, but I also don't want to relinquish control to the point where I'm at the mercy of the river, lake, or ocean.

As it turns out, I was one step ahead of the Sunday lectionary.

Today's gospel is the turning point for Jesus in Luke.  From here on out Jesus is determined to go to Jerusalem because “the days drew near for him to be taken up.”  What we are presented with from now on is a theological travel narrative.  Like the car chase scene in Bullitt or the island-hopping scenes of Hawaii Five-O where what you see doesn't match up to the actual route or scenery, the travels of Jesus to Jerusalem are less about the route and geography than they are about theology.  This is why Luke is a gospel and not a tour guide.  This is why some geographical locations don't make sense, because Luke is concerned with theology and not geography.

The theological point Luke is making is that discipleship is costly.  Jesus is now heading to Jerusalem to confront the powers of this world, endure his Passion, and eventually ascend to the Father.  The mission of Christ to restore all people to unity in God and making them/us heirs of the kingdom was not without cost.  Jesus tells his disciples several times in several places that he will be handed over to various leaders and crucified.  He also tells his disciples and others that if you want to follow him, you must take up your cross.

If you want to follow Jesus, it will lead to Jerusalem.  If you want to follow Jesus, you will be mocked.  If you want to follow Jesus, you may be persecuted.  If you want to follow Jesus you will be asked to give up those habits and desires that separate you from God.  This understanding of discipleship, and this understanding of commitment to God, is at the heart of the gospel passage today.

Cyril of Alexandria addresses the first would-be disciple by pointing out the man's apparent selfish, and self-serving, attitude.  Notice, he says, that Jesus doesn't call this person to follow him, the person announces he will follow.  Cyril writes that the man had seen the great works of Jesus and wanted to be counted as a disciple/apostle to reap the rewards without experiencing any of the cost.  Part of the cost of discipleship is knowing you will lose the comforts that even foxes and birds enjoy.

In discussing the last two who were called by Jesus but delayed following – one to bury his father and one to say farewell – Basil the Great, Cyril, and Cyprian all point out that discipleship requires us to forsake any human obligation no matter how noble.  The first and greatest commandment is this:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength.  Once we have made the commitment to follow Christ, our turning back to worldly concerns only serves to keep us in place rather than moving toward the goal.  As Cyprian said, “Remember Lot's wife.”

The heart of today's gospel is the idea of commitment.  How committed are we to following Christ?  How committed are we to a life of discipleship?  Do we love God with every fiber of our being?  Are we willing to go to Jerusalem and sacrifice ourselves for the love of God?

And right about here is where the connection between God and water comes together.  I like being around water.  I like being around God.  I like the calm, peaceful presence water can emit.  I like the calm, peaceful presence emitted by being in a holy space.  I like witnessing the power of the ocean and of waterfalls.  I like witnessing the power of God in so many different ways.  I like the feeling of being washed clean, and I like the ritual of baptism.

But I also like enjoying these things and participating in these things from a safe distance where I’m not always challenged or not always in fear for my life.  You will never find me in an open-water swim.  You will never find me sailing solo to Hawaii.  I have no plans to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  If I get to close to water, or give up my need for control around water, I just might die.

And that, unfortunately, also describes my relationship with God.  I often feel as if I'm participating from a safe distance.  I still want to be involved in worldly things, refusing to love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength.  I still want to have some semblance of control, fearing that I just might die if I give it all up.

But that is the point of the life of Christ – that we give it all up for God, dying to the cares and pulls of this world, only to be raised to new life.

I love water.  I love God.  Too often, though, I am unwilling to let go of my need for control and jump in with both feet.

Maybe that's the point of discipleship – that we're supposed to let go, jump in with both feet, and understand that discipleship isn't an individual endeavor.  Because until we give up control, until we jump in with both feet, until we are willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus to Jerusalem, the question remains:  How committed are we really to becoming disciples of Christ?


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon; 5 Pentecost, Proper 7; Luke 8:26-39

About a week ago, someone asked me, “Do you prefer change or do you prefer the status quo?”  Being the good Episcopalian that I am, I answered, “Yes.”

Depending on your experience of me, some will say I prefer and work at change.  Others will say I prefer to maintain the status quo.  Examples of change include leaving the altar rail open at Communion, instituting the 6 a.m. Easter Vigil, and the impending chancel reconfiguration.  Examples of maintaining the status quo include . . . well . . . sometimes you can't recognize that because it's hard to see what you are doing when you've always done it that way.  Observing the status quo sometimes feels like being a fish in water – you don't notice the water until it's gone.

I bring this up because today's gospel is all about change and protecting the status quo.

Jesus and his disciples cross over to the country of the Gerasenes.  Immediately after getting out of the boat Jesus is met by a demoniac.  He is naked.  He lives in the tombs.  He was often kept chained and under guard.  And he knows who Jesus is.  Scripture doesn't tell us exactly how long the man had been possessed, we're only told that it was “a long time.”  Long enough, perhaps, for the city council to pass a resolution mandating all demoniacs live in the tombs, away from the quiet, orderly suburban housing tracts; or maybe away from the downtown corridor that they are trying to revitalize.  Long enough, perhaps, for the people to see this as normal behavior.  Long enough, perhaps, for the situation to become part of the status quo.

Part of that status quo was to keep him separated and apart from the “normal” people.  Part of that status quo was to keep him chained to behavioral expectations placed upon him by the dominant society.  Part of that status quo forced him to live in the tombs, unable to come out into the general society because of who he was.  And then Jesus stepped out of the boat.

After his brief encounter with the demoniac, Jesus healed him by sending the demons into a herd of swine that then committed mass suicide.  The swine-herders ran off and told everyone in the area what happened.  All those people then ran back to Jesus where they found the man clothed, in his right mind, sitting with Jesus.  And then the people ask Jesus to leave town.

They ask him to leave not because he healed someone who was a danger to himself and others; they ask him to leave because he upset the status quo.  They ask him to leave because Jesus brought change, and the people couldn't handle that.

Two things about change, and the first has to do with church.  I was talking with a woman last week about change in the church and we both found it ironic that when people say they want change, they really don't mean it.  “We need more people” is often followed by, “as long as I don't have to change pews.”  Or a comment about doing something different to attract people is often followed by, “as long as we don't change the music.”

If you want to grow there will be change, because all growth entails change.  Just think about the constant changes our bodies go through from birth to adulthood.  If it's alive, it changes.

The second form of change and upsetting the status quo has to do with the kingdom of God.  I could be wrong, but I think most people have an image or vision of the kingdom of God as supplanting the kingdoms of the world.  They see it as competing with and being ultimately victorious over the powers and principalities of the world.  But there's another way to think about the kingdom of God.

In his book Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams examines the gospel accounts of Christ’s trial before the high priest and Pilate.  His basic argument is that the kingdom of God is a kingdom that does not compete for space in this world.  As Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Because it is not of this world we have no need to defend it.  We especially have no need to defend it through tactics indigenous to this world, i.e. Christians marching off to war, holy crusades, attacking perceived threats to Christianity, and the like.  If we fight for Jesus using the tactics of this world (think of Peter taking up the sword), we end up surrounding Jesus with violence and we eventually do violence to Christ himself.  Rowan Williams argues that it is precisely this unwillingness to use violence, it is this unwillingness to participate in the violent systems of the world, that infuriates his accusers.  Because of his refusal to participate in their game with their rules, they attack his supposed weakness and execute him.

We are all caught up in one way or another in a world system that revolves around violence.  Because we are born into this world of competitive violence, into a world of winners and losers, we often don't recognize it as the status quo.  It appears to us as water appears to a fish.  We see varying levels of violence in the same way the Gerasenes saw the demoniac – something we have to attempt to control, something we force to live in the shadows of the tombs, something with which we would rather not address, and something in which our behaviors toward that other person become the status quo.

Last week a gunman walked into a night club and massacred 49 people, wounding others, and scarring many more for life.  The people targeted also happened to be gay.  In the aftermath of what has effectively become our national liturgy, the modern-day Gerasenes are fighting to maintain the status quo.  They are fighting against change that brings peace.  These modern-day Gerasenes are fighting to continue living in a world of violence, where the only solution worth pursuing is more violence.  And they are fighting to keep one group of people locked in chains, forcing them to live in the tombs, in deep, dark closets, away from everyone else.

Jesus is waiting to step ashore.  But it is our shore and we need to invite him.  If we do so, then we are also advocating another way.  We are advocating a kingdom not of this world.  We are advocating a kingdom that doesn't use the tactics of this world.  We are advocating a kingdom of peace.  And we are inviting people to do violence to us because we won't play their game with their rules.

Change is hard.  But without change there is no growth.  Without change, the incident in Orlando will soon be forgotten, replaced by yet another violent incident.  Without change, it's all status quo.

Change, however, is what Jesus is calling us to do.  Change is what we owe the victims in Orlando, Charleston, Newtown, Roseburg, Columbine, and so many others.  Change is what both the Gerasenes and the demoniac needed.

It is the process of change brought by Jesus that leads to peace and sanity.  And it is precisely that change that the Gerasenes cannot tolerate – both then and now.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sermon; 4 Pentecost/Proper 6C; Luke 7:36 - 8:3

Before we get into this story of the sinful woman washing and anointing Jesus' feet, we need a little back story.  During the Season of Pentecost in Year C all of our Sunday gospel readings come from Luke.  For the most part these are sequential readings that follow the life of Christ . . . for the most part.  This particular season is 27 weeks long, and Luke has 24 chapters.  So unless we want to read one full chapter every Sunday, some things will get left out.

Today we jump from the raising of the widow's son to the dinner at Simon's house.  That jump skips over the passage where John sends disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah or not.  John, remember, is traditionally considered to be the last prophet of the old age who ushered in the new.  Luke, we learned last week, considers Jesus to be a prophet of God, but only in the sense that his prophetic calling is but one part of who Jesus is.  He is a mighty prophet who gives sight to the blind, causes the lame to walk, cleanses the lepers, opens the ears of the deaf, and raises the dead.  Luke is moving us from prophet to Messiah.  So while this skipped-over portion is not necessary for understanding today's story, it certainly helps us begin to understand the totality of who Jesus is.

Today we get less prophet and more Messiah.  Jesus is invited to dinner by Simon, a Pharisee.  While at dinner a sinful woman appears, washing Jesus' feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with oil.  As usual, there is a lot going on here.  There is the erotic undertones of her act.  Refusing to keep the Sabbath day holy is not why she's identified as a sinner.  There's the interplay between Jesus and Simon.  There's the contrast between the woman and Simon.  And there's the movement of Jesus from prophet to Messiah.

Any one of these could be the basis for a good sermon, but the one that intrigued me this year was the contrast between Jesus and Simon.  Both of these men were faithful.  Both of them wanted to do what was right in the eyes of God.  Both of them wanted to live into a form of righteousness.  But there the similarities end.

Simon doesn't fit our image of a typical Pharisee.  He's not out to get Jesus.  His dinner invitation doesn't appear to hide any ulterior motives.  If you read this story in the context of the story the Lectionary chose to omit, you might get the idea that, just as John was searching for the Messiah, Simon was also searching and he simply wanted to learn more about Jesus over a good dinner.

But then this unnamed woman showed up.  Not just any woman, mind you, but a woman specifically identified and singled out as a sinner.  As I said, it's not because she refused to keep the Sabbath day holy that she was labeled a sinner.  And it is this woman who draws out the differences between Simon and Jesus, and points us to seeing Jesus as the Messiah.

As I said, Simon wanted to do what was right in the eyes of God.  He wanted to be faithful.  His idea of righteousness was wrapped up in maintaining a sense of purity and holiness for God.  The way to maintain righteousness before God was to avoid having any interaction with sinners.  The way to maintain righteousness was to maintain proper boundaries and not let the stain of sin contaminate you.  The way to interact with those people, then, was to ensure that they purified themselves before being allowed contact with, or access to, holy people and places.  A short way of saying this would be something like, “Clean yourself up and then you can come inside.”

Jesus presents us with another way of seeing righteousness.

Jesus also wanted to do what was right in the eyes of God.  He also wanted to be faithful.  But whereas Simon saw the path of righteousness as a restricted access toll road, ensuring people made the proper payment before being allowed to enter, Jesus saw righteousness as an open road that everybody has access to.  Where Simon saw righteousness as a temple of God where people needed to get cleaned up before entering, Jesus saw righteousness fulfilled in houses of God that invited people in and helped get them clean.

Simon's view of righteousness is an exclusive restaurant, black tie and gown required, where a maitre d' oversees the reservations, allowing in only the approved clientele.

Jesus' view of righteousness is an A.A. meeting.

In Romans, Paul writes, “There is no one who is righteous,” and, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  We cannot obtain righteousness on our own.  Left to our own devices, we will sin.  Left to our own devices, we will be unable to maintain a pure and righteous path to God.  Left to our own devices, we will set up our own boundaries, criteria, expectations, and judgments for determining who is in and who should be kept out.  This is what Simon is advocating for – a formal way to keep out undesirables so that they don't contaminate or distract the religiously pure.

People still follow Simon's lead today.  Whether it is blatant racism, sexism, or homophobia, or whether it's a more subtle version of those, people set up barriers designed to keep certain people out, as well as keep certain people in power.  A recent example happened over in England last week.

The Diocese of Liverpool and the Diocese of Akure, Nigeria, formed a companion relationship several years ago.  Last year, the bishop of Liverpool invited the Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, Bishop Suffragan of Virginia, to become an honorary assisting bishop in Liverpool.  And last week the Diocese of Akure severed their ties with Liverpool because Bp. Goff is in favor of marriage equality.  In other words, Akure ended their relationship with Liverpool because Liverpool let that woman, a sinner in their eyes, into the house.

We should be taking our cues from Jesus, not from Simon.  The righteousness Jesus exhibits comes from invitation, welcome, inclusion, and compassion.  It comes from understanding that we aren't the maitre d' controlling who gets in, but that we are the staff ensuring our guests are cared for.  Because it is in the inviting, the welcoming, the including, the compassion, where we show people that God wants them.  It is in those actions where people can begin to be cleansed, dying to old ways of living, have their sins forgiven, and live into a new life of resurrection.  And it is in this behavior that Luke shows Jesus moving from prophet to Messiah.

Today's gospel passage gives us two ways to understand righteousness:  the Simon way and the Jesus way.  Simon's way is neat and tidy with clearly delineated rules and regulations, making clear with whom we are and are not allowed to associate.  The Jesus way is a bit more messy.

Five star restaurant with a limited clientele, or A.A. meeting?

Which will you choose?