Sunday, September 30, 2018

Starting With Faith Instead Of Fear

September 30, 2018 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the sermon and the entire service is available here.

This morning, we pick up right where we left off in last week’s gospel lesson. Jesus is sitting with his disciples in a house in Capernaum, and he’s holding a child in his arms. The disciples had been arguing with each other about which one of them was the greatest, and Jesus had used the child to teach them what true greatness looks like in God’s eyes. “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me,” he had said to them, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me but also the one who sent me.” As Fr. Chuck preached last Sunday, Jesus had been challenging the stereotype that greatness comes with physical strength or wealth or other expressions of earthly power. “No,” Jesus had taught them, “if you want to bring the fullness of God’s power into this world, you must begin by making space in your midst for even a little child—for the forgotten, for the ignored, for all of those whom the world would rather brush aside and stick at the kiddie table.

But, in today’s lesson, John wants to be sure that he understands what Jesus has in mind. Welcoming a child is one thing. Children are mostly harmless. They might require your attention or make a mess or drive you crazy (at times), but children can be endearing, too. It is one thing to make space for a little child, but what about a rival? What about an imposter? What about someone who is using the name of Jesus to perform his own miracles but who isn’t interested in becoming a disciple? What about someone who claims to have access to Jesus’ power but who hasn’t spent even a moment following him? “Teacher,” John says to his rabbi, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” In that moment, I like to imagine Jesus looking at John and then at the other disciples and then at the child he is holding in his arms and then back at the disciples with a loving smile on his face before saying, “Why would you want to stop him? No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

As human beings, we are natural born discriminators. Is this bright red fruit tasty and nutritious or bitter and poisonous? Is that animal in the bushes something I can eat or something that is about to eat me? Will the person I am with join me in making a fruitful, life-long partnership, or is our future together one of unending struggle? Are you friend or foe? When you reach quickly into your coat pocket are you likely to pull out a bouquet of flowers or a firearm? If you’re my spouse or my child or my friend, a scary thought like that never enters my mind. But what if I don’t know you? And what if you don’t look like me? And what if I associate the differences between us with something threatening? Can I be trusted to make that instantaneous judgment? And what happens if I get it wrong?

Several years ago on Good Friday, someone played a prank on me and switched out the water in my glass with vodka. After reading the longest gospel lesson of the year, I lifted the glass up to my mouth and took a big sip. Instantly, I knew that something was wrong. Processing the surprising information as quickly as possible, my brain received the signals from my mouth and thought, “Danger! What is this? It is not water. It might be cleaning fluid or another poison. Quick, spit it out!” So I spit it back into the glass. A half of a second later, it occurred to me what my colleague had done, and I wish that my brain had been faster so that I could have downed the whole glass and make him nervous about how the sermon might end up. We all make split-second decisions. Not all of them are life or death decisions, but sometimes they are, and we use the power of discrimination to keep ourselves and others safe. That’s how we work as individuals and in community. We use groupings like family and clan to make those decisions easier, trusting those with whom we identify and holding at a distance those we do not know. But what happens when we approach all of those relationships and the decisions that they bring not from a place of fear and suspicion but one of confidence and trust?

Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is an invitation to begin from a place of faithfulness instead of fear. With those words, Jesus is encouraging us to start with trust, to begin by believing that every person, regardless of how much we have in common or how much we disagree, is on the same side. That’s a radical approach to humanity, and it’s risky. It means throwing out all that we have learned about who we can trust and who we need to keep an eye on. It means being vulnerable to strangers emotionally, spiritually, and physically. How would the world change if everyone began from a place of trust instead of suspicion? What would happen to our politics? What would happen to our economy? What would happen to our church?

Maybe a more important question is to ask how it could ever be possible. How does Jesus expect us to look at a rival, a competitor, an imposter who has infiltrated our community and who threatens to pull us apart and make space for that person in our midst? The answer is love. Jesus says, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus knows that the power associated with his name is love. Love is what gave that pretend-disciple the power to cast out demons. Anyone who would set another person free from the burden of being ostracized by society knows the power of unconditional love. And you cannot know that power, you cannot encounter it and tap into it and reflect it out into the world, without having the walls of separation and exclusion and discrimination begin to fall down. Unconditional love knows no limit, no boundary, and unconditional love—the love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ—has the power to strip us of our exclusivities and embolden us to be vulnerable to others so that we might make space for them in our midst.

Sometimes we describe our church as if it were a family. In some ways, that’s true. This is a safe place to be authentically you. You can be honest and open and vulnerable, and you will be loved by this community no matter what. That’s who we are. That’s what it means to be a part of this church. But the term “family” can also impart an unintended sense of exclusion. To a newcomer, a congregation that calls itself a family might feel closed and guarded. One might wonder what one must do in order to become part of a church family. People don’t join families. They are born into them or they are adopted by them or they marry into them. Families know their own. They know who belongs and who doesn’t. But that’s not the kind of family we have here. The only way this “family” will work is if we decide to let our guard down and welcome anyone and everyone into the fold as if they have always belonged here. We must be willing to be real and authentic with everyone and let them be the same with us, and we must do that from the very start.

That’s a risky approach to building a church. It means sharing authority with newcomers. It means making a place at the family table for someone we haven’t even met. It means confessing our shortcomings and articulating our deepest hopes in the company of strangers. That’s risky, but the results are beautiful. And the only way it ever happens is love. We must let God love us until we are able to love everyone else in the same, unconditional way. We must let love take down the walls that separate us. And we must take that love into the world until the world knows the power of that love, too—until the reign of God’s unconditional love is complete.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Stumbling Block Millstone

Last Sunday, my colleague, Fr. Chuck Walling, preached a beautiful and challenging sermon that helped us see more clearly what Jesus did when he took the child in his arms. In response to his disciples' arguing about who among them was the greatest, Jesus picked up a little child, holding it in his arms, and declared that one who welcomes a child welcomes him and the one who sent him. Fr. Chuck invited us to think of Jesus using a Madonna-like image to challenge the stereotype of how children were to be understood and received in order to challenge the stereotype of how God receives us. It is that image of Jesus holding a child in his arms in a gesture of love and admiration that fills the second half of this Sunday's gospel lesson.

Jesus, perhaps switching gears, looks at the disciples and announces, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." By "little one," Jesus may have someone or something else in mind, but a continuous reading of Mark 9 suggests that the child, if not still in his arms, is nearby. And, even if the "little one" refers to someone else, perhaps the sort of person who would perform an exorcism in Jesus' name despite not officially enrolling as a disciple, the focus on surprising welcome is still behind his words. As much as he encourages his followers to welcome a child in his name as central to their identity, now he warns them that putting a stumbling block in the way of an unexpected follower comes with dire consequences.

But what does it mean to cause one of these little ones to stumble? Shhh, we say to them, your opinion isn't important to us. Please sit over there where you are out of our way. Ma'am, you may be more comfortable if you take your disruptive child out of church. What do you know? You're only a teenager. The world is falling apart; just look at the newest generation. These newcomers and their children are taking over our church. I can hardly tell that it's the same place I've loved for decades.

Different generations have different ways of expressing meaning and value even if they still value the same thing. Love of country, love of church, love of family--they are true in every generation, but they might be shown in different and, at times, contradictory ways. Jesus asks us to trust that those who are following him, who believe in him, who are showing the fruit of their relationship with him, are on the right path even if it is a different path. "Those who are not against us are for us," he says. Those are radical words in a culture of constant litmus tests, in which we evaluate and dismiss anyone as "other" or even "enemy" for not agreeing with us in every respect.

Children often bring out the best in us. Politicians are stereotypically shown kissing babies because people like first. But welcoming them, making space for them, adapting the community to meet their needs is challenging if not threatening. Jesus may have taught his followers some easy lessons, but those didn't get written down. This is a difficult teaching. Any who causes one of these to stumble, anyone whose policy or practice is an impediment on the path of someone who is pursuing Jesus, is in dire trouble. If we didn't need to pay attention to that warning, Mark wouldn't have bothered to write it down. We wouldn't be hearing it on Sunday.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Who You Gonna Call?

James must have been an experienced pastor. He must have dealt with disappointed parishioners. He must have known what it felt like to have someone say, "I really needed you last week, but you weren't there." In Sunday's reading from James 5, the author lets us know that he's dealt with people in need and that he's learned to place the burden of action on them instead of the pastor.

James writes, "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord." Although that spirit of self-empowerment is contained from the beginning, it's the last bit that really gets me: "Is anyone sick? They should call for the elders and have them pray over them." James doesn't write, "Is anyone sick? The elders should go and pray over them," implying that the leaders in the church should intuit that someone is in need. James wants his readers to know that those who are in need are to reach out and ask for help.

Words cannot describe what an honor, privilege, and pleasure it is to go and pray with someone who needs prayer. Whether sick, discouraged, anxious, or facing hardship, when someone calls and asks me to come to their home, their hospital room, their office, or out for coffee, I leap at the opportunity. I did not go to seminary to manage staff and budgets. I may have gifts for that, and I may be better at that than I am at making house calls, but I felt God calling me into ordained ministry to offer the ministrations of the church in the name of Christ to those in need. Nothing makes my day, my week, like getting a phone call and being asked to come and pray.

Similarly, words cannot describe how discouraging and disappointing it is to discover that someone I care for, that someone I love, is upset because I did not come and visit, did not call, or did not check on them when they were sick, in the hospital, or mourning the death of a loved one. It touches deeply on a distinct personal failure in a place of love and care and duty. It is the very reason I have given up a secular career. It is the very reason I have dragged my family into this peculiar challenge that is a clergy family. To know that I have failed in that way makes me angry with myself even though I know that I am not psychic, even though I recognize that I cannot intuit everyone's needs, even though I trust that I am trying my best to be a faithful pastor. James, I like to imagine, understood what that felt like, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, encouraged his readers to take the responsibility for themselves and reach out to their clergyperson and ask for prayer.

It isn't always easy to make that phone call. We don't want to bother our clergyperson. We don't think our needs are important enough to warrant a special call to the church. But James seems to understand that as well, and he doesn't really give us a choice: "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church..." Not "really sick" or "should consider calling." Part of what it means to be a member of the Christian community is to recognize that our concerns are tied up with those of others. We call not because we are desperate but because we are united in concern and in prayer.

Yes, it is our own duty to pray for our own needs. Yes, it is the responsibility of the one in need to reach out to the elder. But the power of prayer is a communal expression. As James writes, "The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." We must take responsibility for our own needs, but we must also accept that the needs of others are our responsibility, too. The elders are representatives of the whole community. Their prayers aren't any better, any more magical, than the prayers of everyone else. But, when the elders come, they bring with them the prayers of all who are united in the body of Christ, and they bring the concerns of the individual back to the community.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

I Love Esther

A few years ago, I taught a men's Bible study on the Book of Esther, and I loved it. Each week, we read a different chapter, and, as I prepared for it, I found I couldn't put the book down. I needed to know what happened next. In the Jewish tradition, the entire book is read during the feast of Purim, as God's people recall how Esther spoke up and intervened on behalf of the Jews, risking her life to save her people. Containing ten narrative chapters, it is easy to sit down and read the whole thing in twenty minutes.

This Sunday, we will hear a tiny taste of the book as we read selections from chapters seven and nine. It is a shame that the congregation does not hear the whole story, but I'm relieved that we are currently reading Esther in the Daily Office. Although we read it yesterday, by the time we get to Sunday's lesson and hear of Esther's request, we have missed the part where she risks her life to approach the king. By the time we read from chapter seven, we have skipped over the part where Esther calmly asks the king if she might through a banquet for her rather than expose her entire plan. We miss chapter eight, in which she offers to throw another banquet, again forestalling her request.

In Sunday's reading, we get the isolated and thus strange connection between the king's decision to hang Haman and the abatement of his anger. What we have not read is how the king is despotic, moved to rage at the slightest offense. He is a child-like figure who must be cajoled with the offer of power, food, wine, and sex. We do not see how Esther uses her sexual identity as an expression of her power rather than as the servant the tyrant king wants her to be.

Although we read about wicked Haman, we do not recognize in Sunday's reading that he is an insider, a favored servant of the king. Haman is the right-hand-man of the tyrant, whose own greed and scheming have led to the danger that the Jews are in. We miss the fact that the king has agreed to go along with Haman's plan all along because the king was not thoughtful enough to question his advisers or look beyond his next banquet or orgy.

Esther is a bold story of human greatness. Yes, God is presumed to be active through it all, but God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther--not once. The story is an invitation to us to commit ourselves to walking in God's paths even when surrounded by ungodly people and unholy politics. Has there ever been a time when we need this story more? On Sunday, we will get a glimpse of the story, and I hope it makes us want more. I don't think I'll be preaching on Esther. This is, of course, the only time Esther shows up in the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, and it is a shame to let it pass by. Again, I'm thankful for the Daily Office.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Jesus' Off-Script Remarks

On Sunday, Jesus will get on a bit of a roll in Mark 9:38-50, and at times it feels like he may have wandered a little bit off of the script. (Of course, that says more about my inability to hear coherently than either Jesus' message or Mark's recollection of it.) Jesus starts with an encouraging reply to John's question about a non-disciple performing exorcisms in Jesus' name: "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me." But, just a few lines later, he's moved on to, "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell." In the words of Ron Burgundy, "Boy, that escalated quickly!"

The reason it feels a little like Jesus wandered off of his script is that I can see the progression from his generous words of welcome to his foreboding warning, but it takes a winding path to get there.

Jesus starts with an incredible statement that by itself may be the focus of my sermon this Sunday: "Whoever is not against us is for us." In these words, Jesus acknowledges that the work of God's reign encompasses everyone and everything that isn't actively working against it. The starting point for Jesus' followers, therefore, is to accept the work of others as contributing to God's work rather than hindering it. And it is the instinct to stop them, to hinder them, that is the reason Jesus' remarks tumble from rewarding those who offer a cup of water to the thirsty to salting the unworthy with the unquenchable fires of hell.

Jesus says to his disciples, "Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward." That is the measure of faithfulness--the simple, supportive gesture of a cup of water, the most basic of provisions to one in need. You don't need to be a Christian in order to give a thirsty person a drink of water. The mistake, therefore, is to impede that expression of faithfulness.

Continuing, Jesus declares, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." The path that leads to Jesus is easy going. If all it takes is a cup of water to be rewarded, what a shame it would be for anyone to invent obstacles to that reward. Yet that is our instinct. 

It can't be that easy, we tell ourselves. Jesus has just mentioned losing one's life, that the greatest must become servant of all. Cup of water? That's only the beginning. It needs to be ice water. And the ice needs to be the purest glacial ice. And the glass needs to be crystal. And it needs to be served with a linen napkin. When someone else presumes to saunter up and jump in line behind Jesus, claiming that all it takes is a simple humanist gesture, we'll be sure to put them through their paces and show them what following Jesus is really about.

But that's stumbling. That's the hand, the foot, the eye that causes us to stumble. And Jesus tells us to cut them off and pluck them out. It turns out that it's easier to follow the path with a disability than to navigate the path on our own presumed ability. Those who have found the path have a tendency to make it more difficult for others, and Jesus invites us to consider again how it is that we found ourselves on that path. Even if it takes cutting off a foot to recall that the invitation to follow Jesus was a gentle one, it would be better to follow him lame than not at all.

If someone is not against us, that person must be for us. Start there. Start with the gentlest possible invitation and the easiest possible requirements. Build a church on that principle. Leave the stumbling blocks to life itself. And if you forget that you, too, were invited down the path not because of something you'd done but because of who Jesus is, think about cutting off your foot. Don't do it, but think about it. And remember that even the lame have an easy time walking the path behind Jesus. Why would you make it harder for anyone else? That just makes it harder for yourself.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Clamoring for Comfort

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 9:30-37), Jesus speaks to the disciples after they've finished a journey. "What were you arguing about on the way?" he asked. Mark lets us know that they kept silent because they had been arguing with one another about which one of them was the greatest. They were embarrassed to have their childish behavior called out, but how uncommon was that behavior?

We argue with one another about who is the greatest all the time, but we rarely notice. Few of us take a Muhammad Ali approach: "I am the greatest!" Instead, we play a game of one-up, trying to outdo the other person with our own impressive status. Whether it's parents bragging about their children's accomplishments on Facebook, golfers recalling funny moments from the past, executives complaining about the challenges of managing a rapidly growing company, or clergy complaining about how busy they are, we all play the game. We compete to see who is the greatest. The game never ends, so there's never a clear winner. It just keeps going and going. Why?

We need to be loved. We need to know that we are loved. We need to convince ourselves that we are lovable. Of course, we confuse lovability with accomplishment, which is why ego plays such a strong part in the game. We wrongly believe that if we have the funniest joke, if we have the most talented child, if we have the fullest calendar, if we have the most beautiful marriage, if we have the most vibrant faith, we will be first in line when love is being dished out. And that sort of rivalry--the implicit argument about who is the greatest--comes from a place of uncertainty, of faithless vulnerability. We compete for the love when we aren't sure we will get it.

As a pastor, this seems clearest to me when a parent dies and siblings begin competing with one another during funeral planning. All of the childhood roles come back, and siblings compete with one another in the same way they competed decades ago. One child, often the oldest, takes charge and begins to make unilateral decisions about what mama wanted. Another child, often the youngest, walks in late, refusing to be on time in order to refuse to play by the other child's rules. Yet another child, usually one in the middle, tries to make peace as the other children fight over which hymn would be most appropriate. What they're really doing is competing for mama's love. "She loved me the best," they don't actually say with their lips but say clearly with their actions. When the apple cart gets turned over, when the status quo gets shaken up, when we lose our bearing and begin to doubt that we are loved, we grab for it, competing for who is the greatest, who is the most loved.

As the gospel lesson begins, we hear that Jesus has been spending time alone with the disciples. He has been teaching them that the Son of Man must suffer and be killed, that their master will be taken away from them. Jesus knows that this teaching will be difficult, so he spends time closely with them, dismissing the crowd. But everyone needs some time to process this challenging prediction. Like children whose parent has received a difficult cancer diagnosis, the disciples begin to argue with one another about who is the greatest. What did that sound like? Human nature hasn't changed at all since then, so I'd be surprised if Peter actually said, "You know...I'm his favorite." Instead, I think Peter started by saying, "I think I'm going to try again to take Jesus aside and talk some sense into him. If he'll listen to anyone, he'll listen to me." And then John said, "You don't know what you're talking about. You never understand what Jesus is really saying." James looked at his brother and said, "Mind your own business--like you've ever been a good listener." And the conversation continued, each of the disciples asserting his identity, his role, his relationship with Jesus.

It isn't easy to hear that the road ahead will be one of suffering, pain, and loss. Divorce, illness, diagnosis, death. Those things happen to God's people every day. What will they mean to us? How will we response to the struggle? Do we allow the struggle to define us? Is it a sign that shakes our confidence in our lovability? Do we react by asserting ourselves, clamoring for affirmation? Or do we know behind it all that God is with us, that God still loves us, that we don't need to compete with others for status in God's eyes? The truth of the gospel is God's limitless, unending, unmitigated, unqualified love. It is the foundation upon which faith is built. We are not asked to believe that everything will be good, easy, or painless. We are asked to believe and trust that God's love persists especially when things are difficult. Seeing that and knowing that gives us peace and enables us to be the free, unburdened people God created us to be.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Woman Or A Wife?

This Sunday will be the second week in a row in which the author of Proverbs says something that upsets me. Scripture has a tendency to do that if we love it and pay attention to it. Last week (Proverbs 1:20-33), Wisdom mocked the foolish, laughing at their calamity when "panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind." Since Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut's were (and still are) tormenting their victims, I considered changing sermons at the last minute to address it, but I didn't. This week (Proverbs 31:10-31), the value of a woman is praised poetically but, it seems, only in her identity as a wife. Perhaps because Monday was my anniversary, that gets under my skin.

"A capable wife who can find?" the author begins this reading. "She is more precious than jewels." I don't disagree. I wouldn't use the word "capable" to describe a spouse as it feels more fitting for a colleague or babysitter, but I share the sentiment that being married to a wonderful woman is an incredible and priceless gift. But the same woman would have great value as a human being and as a member of society regardless of her marital status.

The list of attributes that the author praises is impressive. The woman in question "does good and not harm." Compared to the ships of a merchant, she "brings food from far away," presumably cutting coupons and scouring weekly ads before travelling to four grocery stores to get the best prices. A wise business person, she purchases land and develops it--pretty remarkable for ancient times. She sows her own clothes and makes extra garments to sell in the marketplace. She is wise and kind and teaches others how to behave similarly. Everyone thinks highly of her. Physical beauty and charm, we are told, aren't as substantial as faithfulness.

All of these attributes seem governed by the opening lines: "A capable wife who can find?" Her accomplishments, her labor, her praiseworthiness are all articulated in terms of what she can contribute to her husband and her family. "What about a woman who never marries?" I want to ask. "Why must a woman's value be tied to her husband and children?" I understand that this is an ancient text and that I cannot hold it up to the same scrutiny as a contemporary writing, but we're reading it on Sunday, and, even if I were preaching, it would almost certainly be read without critical comment, without at least an attempt to reground it in the contemporary context. Does this passage do more good than harm?

But there's hope. The last line of the passage makes me wonder whether we cannot hear this differently: "Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates." Think for a moment how shocking those words are. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands? Let her reap the benefit of her efforts directly? Not through a husband or a family or another man but for herself? Let her works themselves praise her? Let her work speak for itself, independently of its contribution to a man's life? Are these concluding words the Holy Spirit winking at us, reminding us that there is deep egalitarian value even in this ancient text?

I wonder. Proverbs 31:1 identifies this passage as "The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him." I know that headings like that are later additions and almost always reflect a developed tradition and not the actual origins of a passage, but the tradition itself says something. Could this be an oracle delivered by a mother, a woman, to her son, a leader among his people? Could she know how to set him up for something substantial and challenging? Could the long list of positive attributes, begun in the context of a woman's identity as wife, end up flipped on their head by a final twist? I wonder. As a husband and father of two girls, I wonder.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Quiet Teaching

Yesterday in Mark 8, we heard Jesus predict his passion and death for the first time. This coming Sunday, leaping over the Transfiguration and the miracle exorcism that follows it, we read the story of Jesus' second passion prediction in Mark 9:30-37. Given the repetition, I suspect that the second half of the lesson, which includes the argument among the disciples about which one of them is the greatest and Jesus' teaching about the first being last will get most of the attention, but, at first glance, the opening sentences are what catch my eye this morning: "Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, 'The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.'" More specifically, it is the "for" that links Jesus' desire to keep a low profile and Jesus' prediction of his death on which I really want to focus.

Jesus didn't want anyone to know where he was for he was teaching his disciples that he would suffer and die. First, what word does the Greek text actually use? As in English, there are several ways to show cause in NT Greek. Some are stronger than others. In this case, instead of using "dia," which is most often translated "because," or "epei," which is most often translated as "since," Mark uses the more common and less definitive "gar," which means "for." As in English, "for" doesn't make as clear a causal connection as "because." Mark isn't telling us that Jesus wanted to go unnoticed because he was teaching his disciples about his upcoming death. In my mind, it sounds more like he was teaching his disciples about his upcoming death and didn't think it was a good time to include others in the conversation. They're related but somehow with less intention.

How do other translations put it? The NIV uses "because" but separates the actual teaching from the mention of it: "Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, 'The Son of Man...'" The CEB makes the link clearer than "gar" might imply: "...he didn’t want anyone to know it. This was because he was teaching his disciples, 'The Human One will be delivered...'" Many others, like ESV and KJV, leave  the word as "for," but it's good to know that other translation committees see the possibility of a stronger connection between Jesus' desire for privacy and the content of his teaching.

But why? This is an echo of yesterday's gospel, when Jesus starts by teaching his disciples privately that he must be betrayed, suffer, die, and be raised. After the "Get behind me, Satan!" confrontation with Peter, Jesus addresses the crowd and invites them to take up their own cross and follow him, choosing to lose their lives for Jesus' sake in order to save them. But, in Mark 9, we're back to a private moment. There's something about this particular messianic identity that Jesus still wants to keep a secret.

In yesterday's sermon, I made a transitional comment that wasn't very important to the message but that comes back up in my mind today. The "take up your cross and lose your life" message isn't a great strategy for building a church, but, as PB Michael Curry reminds us, Jesus didn't come to build a church but to start a movement. Maybe that's part of what's behind this quiet teaching. Jesus knows that he can't say this openly to his would-be followers but can only let the fully committed disciples hear. I wonder if this is keeping with Mark's pattern of establishing the true identity of Jesus as God's anointed one before sharing the consequences of that. Regardless, it's allows a way into the text for a sermon.

I'm not preaching, but I can imagine presenting that dual invitation: to those who have come to believe that Jesus is the anointed one of God the invitation is to journey with him to and through his death and to those who are still wondering who Jesus is the invitation is to journey with him down the road a little bit longer until who he is becomes clear. Writing that, I'm not really happy with it, which makes me glad I'm not preaching this week, but I look forward to wrestling with the text between now and Sunday and hearing the sermon that our preacher will offer.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Whose Team Are We On?

September 16, 2018 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

In Alabama, where I’m from, you have to pick sides. Remaining neutral isn’t an option. If you’re from Alabama, you’ve long ago made your choice or, more likely, were born unto it, but, if you’re new to the state, practically everyone whom you meet wants to know whether you cheer for Alabama or Auburn. Football culture is so important there that people don’t know how to handle someone who says “Florida State” or “I like them both” or “I don’t follow college football.” It doesn’t matter. You can cheer for another team from another state, or you can ignore college football altogether, but you still have to make your choice.

In Alabama, when you meet someone for the first time, there’s a good chance that they will ask about your football preference before they ask about your children, and there are plenty of football fans in the state who don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. Here in Arkansas, people don’t seem to care what in-state team I cheer for. Primarily that’s because there’s only one major university in the state, but I’m learning that it’s also because the only major university in the state is Arkansas. But Arkansans who pay attention to what football means in a place like Alabama, when they hear where I am from, want to know which team I cheer for. And, when they ask, I’m always a little hesitant to answer. I’m the first to admit that Alabama fans can be…tedious. The T-shirts, the bumper stickers, the houndstooth everything, the mythical national championships, the obnoxious chants—and so often those things come from people who have never even been to Tuscaloosa much less graduated from the University. I don’t want people in my new home to lump me in with all of that just because my heart will always whisper, “Roll Tide!” And, given this morning’s gospel lesson, it seems that I am in good company.

Jesus, travelling with his disciples, asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” Using flattering terms that suggest how successful Jesus had been at winning over the crowds, they replied, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” In other words, the people already had begun to understand that Jesus was someone special—that he was a dramatic, God-sent leader for God’s people. But then Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Why? Why didn’t Jesus want anyone else to know? This was a good thing, and it was the truth. Why didn’t he encourage the disciples to tell the crowds what they had learned about their rabbi—that he was God’s anointed, the heir of David’s throne, the one who would not only teach and lead God’s people but save them, too? Why not let everyone know that Jesus was the Messiah? Why keep it a secret?

Perhaps Jesus didn’t want anyone to be confused about what team his followers were on. To a faithful Jewish listener, the label “Messiah” wasn’t just an exalted title reserved for special religious leaders. It was a unique theological identifier that carried unique expectations. Although it would place one in rarified company, it was possible for a great leader to be another John the Baptist or another Elijah, in the same way that we might say that someone is another Martin Luther King, Jr., or another John F. Kennedy, but one couldn’t be another Messiah. Different sects of Judaism had different understandings of what sort of figure the Messiah would be (or whether there would be one at all), but all who looked for the coming of Messiah understood that person to be the one who would unite God’s people and deliver them from their peril. And, in first-century Palestine, you didn’t have to pay close attention to politics in order to know what that peril was. Rome and the physical, spiritual, and economic oppression that it represented were all around. You couldn’t whisper the word “Messiah” without getting someone’s hopes up that Roman tyranny might someday be overthrown.

But this Messiah wasn’t interested in leading God’s people in a physical or political rebellion. The freedom that he envisioned came by following a very different path, as he tried to explain to his disciples: “…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” We are familiar with the passion predictions. Two thousand years after Jesus’ story unfolded, we know how it will play out. But to those who walked with Jesus, to those who hoped that he might be the one to set them free, the thought of this leader, who had the God-given power to overthrow Rome, being killed by his own people was anathema. It simply did not compute. You cannot say “Messiah” and then say “rejected and killed.” If Jesus’ disciples tried to explain to the crowds that their rabbi was the Messiah, there was no way that they would understand that his messiahship was one of vulnerability, suffering, and death.

Even the disciples couldn’t understand it. His head spinning in confusion over conflicting images, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him—a shocking thing for a disciple to do to his master but one that underscores how truly impossible it was for Peter and his companions to reconcile Jesus’ messianic identity with his painful prediction. And Jesus, turning and looking at his disciples, let Peter know that those who refused to accept this difficult truth were siding not with God but with the Enemy, with the powers of this world that stand in opposition to God reign.

It’s hard to celebrate defeat. It’s hard to get excited about giving up. No one looks forward to struggle and pain and loss, and I’m not sure that Jesus is asking us to look forward to them, but he is telling us that they are the place where God and God’s people are to be found. Jesus came not to free God’s people by raising up his mighty arm against the evil oppressors but to free them by undoing a system that prioritizes strength, that rewards wealth, and that uses power to achieve its goals. For all of human history, we have been plagued by a distortion of God’s truth, a self-seeking distortion that we call sin. Only the rejection, suffering, and death of God’s anointed one, Jesus of Nazareth, had the power to undo that plague through the victory of resurrection, through the inauguration of a new way of life. And those who would follow Jesus into the glory of that victory and into that new way of being can only get there by following him down the path that leads through self-denial, struggle, and even death.

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said to the crowd, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Any takers? That’s not exactly a pep talk. It sounds like a terrible strategy for building a church, but, as Michael Curry reminds us, Jesus didn’t come to start a church but to start a movement. He came to invite us to follow him into true life.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. Well, what sort of answer will we give? Most of the people I encounter who brag about being a Christian don’t seem to know what it means to follow Jesus. Those who truly follow him embrace a life spent making the upside-down reality of God’s reign manifest in the world around them. Those who follow Jesus become vessels for God’s victory in weakness, God’s power in vulnerability, God’s glory in poverty. Those who follow Jesus lose their lives. They give up their claim on their own life for the sake of the gospel—for the sake of God’s transforming love that has the power to make God’s truth a reality in the world. People shouldn’t need to ask us whose side we are on—what team we are following. It should be a “secret” that we proclaim as boldly with our lives as we proclaim it with our lips. If that’s the kind of meaningful life you’re interested in, you’ve come to the right place.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Salty Speech

When, as a newly ordained curate, I asked my boss if I could show a clip from a film that included some profanity, he surprised me with how little concern he showed. After giving me permission, I reassured him, saying, "Don't worry; I will be sure that there aren't an F-bombs or GDs," and he quickly replied, "I've always liked Goddammit!" Apparently, I had misjudged the whole "curate needs to ask the rector" concept.

I never had a problem with saying dirty words. I said them all the time, but I had a knack for only saying them when parents weren't around. I could swear here and there, but I never got in trouble for it the way my younger brother did. (Mainly that's because I tattled on him.) But, behind the angelic appearance, was a blue streak.

James wouldn't approve. James has a gift for plain, clear diagnosis, and he offers it again in this Sunday's reading (James 3:1-12). Decrying the duplicity of the tongue, he notes how "with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God." Like a gentle but unequivocal parent, James writes, "My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so." But, as in the readings from the previous two Sundays, in order to make his case, James offers not a practical argument but a theological one.

"Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh." In other words, if you can't get olives from a fig tree, you also can't get profane, cursing speech from the mouth of a person made holy by God. James doesn't mean the kind of swear words that were once beeped out on network television. James means the kind of condemnatory, critical, "no, you really go to hell" talk that has begun to tear the Christian community apart.

We can't bless the Lord with the same mouth that curses one made in God's image. In a practical sense, of course we can, but, in a theological sense, that's actually impossible. James asserts that those two kinds of speech cannot come from the same mouth just as fresh water cannot come from a saltwater spring. What does that mean for us?

Perhaps it is an invitation to diagnosis. What does our speech sound like? Are we quick to criticize? Do we ever use words to dismiss or discount another human being as if they were less than us, less than human? Do we speak of those who disagree with us as if they were of inferior intellect or questionable moral character instead of honoring their full and equal personhood before debating the issue at hand? If that's the case, maybe the diagnosis is that we haven't experienced the transformation to holiness that God gives us in Jesus Christ.

What it isn't, however, is an invitation to make ourselves holy by cleaning up our speech. James lets us know that from the start: "And the tongue is a fire...[and] no one can tame the tongue." No human being can make her or himself good by starting with the tongue, with speech. It must, absolutely must, go the other way around. We must start by becoming holy in Christ. Then our speech will follow. We must pursue a lifetime of holiness and let our speech be a measure, an indicator, of the extent to which our clinging to Christ is shaping us into Christ. Be encouraged, however, for James isn't writing to heathens but to believers, and he is writing to them in order to remind them that being formed into the holy ones of God is the pursuit of a lifetime, and our speech--all of our speech--is a reminder that our pursuit takes a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Pursuing the Cross

September 12, 2018 - Holy Cross Day, tr.

Why would anyone go looking for the cross? Why would anyone pursue an instrument of death? Why would anyone want to possess a sign of defeat and shame? Why, as legend has it, did St. Helena, Constantine's mother, travel to Jerusalem in 320 AD search of the macabre relic? Because, of course, the cross isn't just an image of Jesus' crucifixion but also the means of our salvation.

When I was a third-year seminarian, my field-ed parish was in Potomac, Maryland. There were two full-time priests on staff, and I was one of two students who did my contextual education work there, so there were plenty of preachers. Because Sundays were precious, I was given a chance to preach on Good Friday--not the central sermon for the whole day but a meditation on one of the seven last words that Christ spoke before his death. I don't remember which meditation I had, but I do remember my supervisor offering me a cautionary tale before I preached. "Because this is a service that draws in people from different churches, we used to allow preachers from other denominations to participate in the meditations," he explained, "but, a few years ago, in an attempt to connect the pain of Good Friday with the hope that lies ahead, she ended her meditation by declaring, 'Alleluia! He is risen!' to which I replied, 'Not yet, he's not!'" My supervisor told me that, having ruined Holy Week for the whole parish, she was the last guest to preach on Good Friday. It was his way of saying, don't screw it up and let the Easter cat out of the bag.

On Good Friday, we venerate the cross without seeing the resurrection that lies ahead. We pretend, for the sacred three days, that the cross is a sign of pain and suffering not only for Jesus but for his followers, who experience the agony of watching their savior die. On Good Friday, we cannot afford to approach the cross except in the shadow of death, but on Holy Cross Day, which, unless we translate the feast to another day in the week like today, we observe on September 14, we have the opportunity to celebrate its glory.

"May I never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ," the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians, one of his earlier letters. How remarkable that Christians so quickly translated the cross from a sign of a treasonist's failure into a sign of God's victory! Within a generation, followers of Jesus understood the symbol of Rome's most gruesome execution, a device reserved for slaves or insurrectionists, a warning to any who would follow in their footsteps, to have become a means of salvation. The powers of this world intended the cross to be a sign of the Empire's unconquerable might, but at Easter God reversed it, flipping it on its head, and making it a sign of God's true power. Thus, we cannot fully venerate the cross on Good Friday. We need another day, this day, to pause and stand in its radiant light.

But when we venerate the cross, when we wear it around our necks, when we pursue it as St. Helena did, are we celebrating the right victory, or have we, too, re-flipped the image and made it again something else entirely? Paul writes, "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." He was not merely boasting in the cross, laughing at the powers of this world as if he and the followers of Jesus had gotten the last laugh. Paul was accepting his own crucifixion, his own earthly shame, his own worldly loss as the means by which his heavenly gain was guaranteed. "From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body," he writes. "I have had my own full share of suffering. I need no more. Carrying the cross is burden enough." When we celebrate the cross and the victory that it gives us, do we forget that God's victory comes not in power but in weakness, not in glory but in shame, not in freedom but in bondage?

May we never boast in anything except in the cross of Christ. May we never see the path on which we follow Jesus as a path of self-gain but of self-emptying. May we never look down from the heights of God's victory in derision of others but with the same, loving gaze through which Jesus beheld the world from the cross. May we never celebrate the cross as a sign of our own glory but of God's, a glory to be found in humility and meekness, a glory that is revealed not in the order of this world but in God's majestic reign.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Who Are We Really?

When Jesus asks the disciples, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "You are the Messiah," but what Jesus didn't let them know, at least at first, was that Peter's reply implied a second, equally critical question: "Then who are you?"

Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 8:27-38) comes right in the middle of Mark's 16-chapter account of the good news. As many have pointed out, Peter's confession is a turning point for the gospel story. For the first 8 chapters, we're trying to figure out who Jesus really is, which is why they are full of miracles. For the second 8 chapters, we're trying to figure out the significance of who Jesus is, which is why the narrative begins a long trek toward Jerusalem and the cross and empty tomb. All of that is synthesized in this little exchange between Jesus and the disciples. Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus then predicts his passion and death. But the fall out is what really interests me.

Peter isn't ready to hear it. As soon as he identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus predicts his rejection, torture, and death, and Peter will have none of it. We know this story. We know how Jesus reacts. We have rehearsed the consequence of Jesus' messianic identity. We know that, as Messiah, he must be rejected by the powers of the world and reveal God's true power. But do we remember what that means for us?

It's easy to get so wrapped up in Peter's mistake that we forget that we, too, are being asked a question. Who are we? Who are the ones who follow Jesus? If our Messiah is the one to be crucified, that changes what it means for us to follow him. It's one thing to confess that Jesus is God's anointed one. It's another thing entirely to confess that the one who will be rejected and crucified is the one whose self-emptying victory we make our own.

Who are we really? I'm writing this on September 11, the anniversary of the coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the failed attack that ended in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, and I've spent the last few days wondering who we are as a nation. We are a nation that believes in freedom. We are a people that value liberty. But confessing freedom as an ultimate expression of our identity is a costly thing. It isn't easy to honor the personhood of those who are different from us as fully as we honor our own, but that's what it means to be the Land of the Free.

The identity of our country that is most deeply threatening to terrorists of all stripes is our freedom. It is baffling and even frightening to those with narrow-minded, radicalized self-interest that we would allow and even promote a culture where difference is accepted. One doesn't need to be a Christian to be an American. One doesn't need to be a Republican or a Democrat. One doesn't need to love this country. One doesn't need to support one's government. As a nation, we believe that even those who disagree with freedom are free to do so. But that's hard in a culture of suspicion. And that's the greatest threat that terrorists pose to us. On September 11, 2001, buildings were destroyed and precious lives were lost, but equally at risk was our freedom.

Who are we? It is easy in the aftermath of a terrorist attack to abandon the principles of freedom that make us emotionally and, perhaps, physically vulnerable. It is easy to stop accepting those who are different from us, those who pray faithfully to Allah, those who wear the traditional hijab, those whose skin color or accent or language identify them as other, as part of our national family. Are we a nation that believes in freedom, or will we let fear allow us to give up our tolerance of others? Seventeen years later, we've regained some of that identity, but Islamophobia still threatens our national identity far more substantially than any specific terrorist plot.

Sunday's gospel lesson reminds me how much easier it is to claim an identity with our lips than with our lives. Following Jesus isn't simply an intellectual choice. It's a way of life. That's true for freedom, too. It's a lot easier to read about it in civics class than to live into it on the streets of our country. Are we really who we say we are?

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Radical Welcome, Limitless Hospitality

September 9, 2018 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here, and video of the entire service can be seen here.

“Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome in this place, and you are welcome at God’s table.”

Those words are printed in our bulletin. Unless the new guy forgets to say them, we hear them every Sunday before we come to Communion. The search committee, when they came to visit, let me know how important they are to this congregation, and, after being here for only seven weeks, I can already see for myself that they reflect the identity of this parish at a deep level. But do we believe what they say? Do we really believe that all people, regardless of who they are and what they believe, are welcome in this place and at God’s table? Is that a statement of our faith, or is it merely a catchy slogan that describes the kind of church we wish we were or, worse, pretend to be?

It isn’t easy being a church that welcomes everyone. People are…messy. They can be disruptive. They can be unpleasant. They can be needy, walking into a community and continually demanding more of that community than it has to offer. They can be off-putting, pushing people away because of how they look or talk or smell. They can be controversial, making others uneasy because of their recent arrest or recent affair or recent bankruptcy. And some people can be down-right dangerous, threatening others verbally or physically. We might want to welcome anyone and everyone into this congregation, but we cannot and will not allow a sexual predator to wander through the halls. But, if we believe what we say, then we must believe that anyone and everyone belongs here among us and at God’s table.

James knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. “My brothers and sisters,” he asked, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” In other words, can someone who shows partiality still believe in Jesus? James was writing to the early Christian community, but he raised the kinds of issues that seem particularly relevant to the twenty-first-century Episcopal Church: “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and…to the one who is poor you say…‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Our branch of the Jesus Movement isn’t exactly known for being a poor people’s church. What Rector wouldn’t rather have a congregation filled with generous, easy-going parishioners than critical, complaining hold-outs? What Vestry wouldn’t rather see an eager, energetic volunteer walk through the door than a “pew potato” who does nothing more than show up? 

Notice, however, that James isn’t making a practical argument but a theological one: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” The problem that James has with favoritism isn’t its lack of hospitality but its incongruity with the gospel. The real issue isn’t our behavior but God’s. Who is God? God is the one who chooses the poor, who sides with the marginalized, who loves the least among us. The gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that God embraces those whom the world brushes aside. Jesus shows us that God’s love belongs as much to the outcast as to the one at the center of the religious community. If we believe that, if we believe in Jesus, then we must make space here in the midst of us for anyone and everyone not because it’s the nice thing to do but because it’s who God is and what God does.

To be that kind of church, we must first acknowledge that it’s easier for us to reach out to people who look and talk and dress and think like us, but those aren’t the people to whom God is opening God’s arms. Of course it’s easier to be a church where the pews are filled with people who have money to share and problems that they would rather keep to themselves, but that’s not a church that reflects God’s reign in the world. Even Jesus, when he told the Syrophoenician woman that it wasn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, showed an instinctive preference for his own people. But the woman’s response reminded him that, when it comes to God’s love, there is always enough, even for the uninvited guest to receive a full share. What will it take for us to learn the same lesson?

The answer for us isn’t to try to be more welcoming but to go deeper in relationship with Jesus, the one who shows us that God’s love has no limits. For the most part, our congregation is good at making space for outsiders. On the surface, we are as friendly as any church in Fayetteville. We take pride in our welcome. But even the most intentional welcome has its limits. If the only thing holding open our doors is our decision to be friendly, then eventually we will reach our breaking point, and our hospitality will run dry. Why? Because there will always be someone too difficult, too hostile, or too painful for us to embrace on our own.

It is not we who welcome the stranger but God who welcomes her into our midst. If we want to be the community where all of God’s people dwell, we must remember who it is that has called us into this place. We must remember that we, too, are here not because of who we are or because of what we bring but because we also are recipients of God’s unconditional love. If we want to be a church that welcomes anyone and everyone, that is where we must start—with our own radical welcome by the one who loves us and the whole world without limit.

Whoever you are, you belong in this place. Wherever you may be on your journey of faith, you are welcome at God’s table. But you cannot come to that table and participate in that sacred meal if you are unwilling to share it with everyone else who may come and kneel beside you. The invitation is universal and the price of admission is free, but the cost of participation is enormous. To share in the body and blood of Jesus Christ you must recognize that your place at the table is in no way the product of your own doing but is completely and totally a gift of God. And you must recognize that everyone else has been given the same gift for the same reason. How humbling! How equalizing! How threatening! How glorious!

You cannot believe in the power of unconditional love and also believe that such love has limits. You cannot be the recipient of God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor, and deny that same grace to anyone else. As a speaker at last week’s All Faiths Summit said, “You only love God as much as the person you love the least.” That’s true, but, if you’re struggling to love others, try remembering how much you are loved by God. You, too, are welcome at God’s table, and it is God’s welcome that makes room in our hearts for everyone else

Thursday, September 6, 2018

When Jesus Says No

What do we do when Jesus says no? What is our response when our gentle savior, our beloved Christ, says no? How do we handle rejection from the Son of God? How do manage when he refuses our request?

We don't read many instances in the gospel of Jesus saying no. When the Gerasene demoniac, whom he had healed, asks to follow him, Jesus refuses. When Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus, he tells her not to cling to him. This Sunday's gospel lesson from Mark 7 is perhaps the clearest and starkest example.

Jesus tried to sneak into a house in the region of Tyre, a northern district away from the center of his ministry. Mark tells us that Jesus didn't want anyone to know that he was there, but his fame had grown to the point where he could not escape notice. A particular woman heard about his arrival, and she came at once to beg him to cast a demon out of her daughter. She fell down at his feet and pleaded with the healer. But Jesus said no.

Actually, there's more to it than that. The woman was a Gentile, a descendant of the native people whom the Israelites had displaced when they moved into Canaan. And Jesus did not only tell her no. He called her a dog, the common Jewish slur for Gentiles like her. Mark's version is the softer, diminutive "puppy" version, but the root of that label is the same. "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs," Jesus said to her. Not now. Not yet. It is not your turn. Go away.

What is our response when Jesus tells us no? I've never heard Jesus dismiss me because of my race. I've never encountered Jesus on a day when he was too busy or too tired to listen to my problems. Those are the marks of the privilege that I carry. Still, I've heard Jesus say no to my requests. When Jesus says no to us, do we hear his no spoken to us in love? In genuine concern? Or is the no we hear an exasperated, burdened, irritated no? Is he saying no because, even to Jesus, or more particularly to the culture that attempts to own him, we aren't important enough? What do we do when Jesus says no?

The woman in Mark 7 showed incredible faith. Perhaps borne out of a mother's desperate love for her child, perhaps the product of a surprising confidence in the God of Israel, the woman refused to give up. "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." For a person in my position, a man whose life is the very definition of privilege, that response to Jesus' no is one of humility. It is a plea for compassion. I try to win Jesus' attention and affection by surprising him with my willingness to accept his dismissal. But that's not what this woman said. She offered a correction. "You may be right, but there's room for me even in your prejudiced mentality," she says to the rabbi. "For saying this," Jesus replied, "you may go--the demon has left your daughter."

What do we do when Jesus tells us no? Some of us have the privilege of accepting that as a challenge designed to teach us something, an invitation to deeper faith. Others know that if they do not take control and change the dynamic behind the no then God's reign will not have broken through completely.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Proverbs: A Slow Reading

During my final year of seminary, I traveled back to Alabama during diocesan convention to interview with a few parishes. After attending convention and spending some time with rectors and delegations, I visited two parishes in the southern part of the diocese, including a Sunday-morning visit to the church where eventually I would be called as a curate. That trip was in the early spring, probably in February, just as Lent was starting. I had the chance to visit a Sunday school class that met in the chapel and that was taught by the organist. I had never known an organist who taught Sunday school, and I was delighted to sit in on his lesson on Proverbs. I can't remember exactly what part of Proverbs we were covering, but I do remember that, when I was ordained and arrived in the parish four months later, he was still in Proverbs and had only made it a chapter or two further along. Astonished, I asked my new boss how long that class had been going on, and he told me that he thought the Proverbs study was in its second or third year.

This Sunday, our Track 1 reading from Proverbs is short. It is only six verses, and the lesson will be finished almost as soon as the reader begins it. This week, I've had a chance to read those verses a few times, and each time I'm drawn deeper and deeper into their wisdom. (Isn't that the point of Proverbs?) As I prepare to hear them on Sunday, I am glad we're slowing down and only reading a little bit, and I wish we had even longer to listen to what the Spirit says to us through them.

The second couplet in particular has grabbed my attention these last few days: "The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all." Think about that. Sit with those words. Let the implications of that begin to wash over you. I am in the middle of a conversation with these verses. Do I believe that? Do we believe that? Of course we do, but do we really? Is this true in our minds? In our lives? In our prayers? Have the implications of this sunk in? What does this say about God? Nothing particularly astonishing. God is the creator of all things. But the implications of that are astounding! God made one rich and the other poor? How quickly I attach value--not just monetary but surely based on monetary value--to those distinctions. But why do I do that? Do I think God does that? Do I believe in a God who would value some of God's creation more than others? Surely not. So why do I allow myself to assign different value to different people, to different circumstances? Is it because I've forgotten what it means to believe that God has created them all? How will this change my understanding of poverty? How will my next conversation with someone who is seeking financial assistance be changed by this? How will I internalize the commonality that the proverb reminds us to see?

It can be dizzying, allowing the depthless wisdom of a proverb to tumble around in one's mind. It helps me understand why the Sunday school class took so long, and it also reminds me why I would have such a hard time teaching that class. I am not patient. I want to digest massive quantities of biblical literature. I want to leap from thought to thought, story to story, theme to theme. But Proverbs always resists that approach. It requires us to slow down. Like cricket or pot roast or a family reunion, one cannot really enjoy Proverbs if one is in a hurry. One must slow down. And read. And reread. And wake up the next morning and read it again. Imagine a daily calendar of Bible verses in which the same verse was repeated seven or ten or thirty days in a row. That's Proverbs.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Threatening Miracles

In the gospel lesson for this Sunday (Mark 7:24-37), we encounter two miracles, which Mark has placed back to back. First, Jesus casts a demon out of the the daughter of a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician lineage. Then, Jesus opens the ears and loosens the tongue of a deaf man with a speech impediment. At first glance, they seem like two little stories of power that are tied together in the lectionary because neither is long enough to stand on its own, but a second look reminds us that Mark hasn't placed them together on accident, and the connection itself may be worth celebrating.

I suspect that, to a faithful Jewish ear, these two miracles sounded like a continuation of the threat to the traditions of the elders that Jesus undertook in last Sunday's gospel lesson from earlier in Mark 7. First, Jesus heals the daughter of a Gentile woman. To use an anachronistic mindset, the optics of this exorcism are challenging. Right on the heels of Jesus' seeming dismissal of the hand-washing and dietary rituals of his people, Jesus offers a clear sign of God's salvation to a woman who is not only a Gentile but described as a Syrophoenician--one of the ethnic tribes that inhabited the Promised Land when God's people arrived and killed them or drove them out. This woman, therefore, is identified as one of the people who stood in the way of the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. Setting aside the problematic overlaps with the Doctrine of Discovery, this miracle is a sign of God's rescuing power being offered to those who threatened to undermine the foundational identity of God's people.

Then, immediately afterward, Jesus restores the hearing and speech of a deaf-mute. The recipient of this double-miracle is not identified as a Gentile, but the miracle is described by Mark as having occurred "in the region of the Decapolis," which was a ten-town area where mostly Gentiles lived. I haven't done extensive research on it, but several websites, probably citing the same source, identify the word that Jesus uses to command that the man's ears be opened--"Ephphatha"--as a "Syro-Chaldaic or Aramaic word" (see, for example, this website). If it is a word of Syro-Chaldaic origin, it may have sounded to those who heard it (or read it) as if the person who performed the National Anthem at the Super Bowl was singing in Spanish instead of English. More than that, however, the miracle itself is identified by the crowd in words that resonate deeply with Jewish hopes: "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

This second miracle is in no small way a fulfillment of Isaiah 35:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:1-6).
Hear those beautiful words! Hear God's promise of rescue and comfort and flourishing to God's people! And notice that the first signs that this promise is being fulfilled include the opening of ears and loosening of tongues. This must have generated quite a buzz among those who were waiting for God's salvation to come.

There's one more piece of the puzzle that I want to offer, and that's Isaiah 35:8: "A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray." In the same prophetic promise, God identifies that only God's holy people will travel on the highway that connects their exile with their salvation. The direct path between struggle and hope is reserved only for the chosen. Yet Jesus is performing these signs of God's salvation on a woman who doesn't belong and on a man who lives on the border between chosen and excluded. I think Mark does this on purpose, and I think it's an opportunity for a sermon.

This Sunday, we hear in Proverbs that God is the maker of rich and poor alike. In James, we hear that one cannot believe in Jesus and show preferential treatment. In Mark, we are reminded that Jesus brings God's salvation to those who are often assumed to be excluded. This was threatening to the religious powers of Jesus' day, and it is threatening to the religious powers of our day. Salvation is God's work among all of us. Whoever it is that we instinctively cut out of God's saving plan, they are the very ones in whom God's salvation is being revealed.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Faith Alone?

Yesterday, in a Sunday school class about the labor movement, we read James 5:1-9, in which the author warns rich people that their "gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire." (Too bad that doesn't make it into the lectionary, huh?) During the discussion, someone asked a fundamental question about Christian theology: what about God's grace? She had a good point. What about God's grace? If we believe in God's grace, if we believe in judgment but also cling to God's mercy, what does a passage like James 5 mean for rich Christians like me and most of the people reading this blog?

Maybe the answer comes from a careful reading of the whole letter. In yesterday's epistle lesson from James 1, the author told us, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." This Sunday, in James 2, we will hear the author say, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you...? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." Those two snippets make every Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, Reformed muscle in my body start to twitch. Except that that's not the whole story, and therein lies the opportunity for 21st-century discipleship.

Words matter, and, in a 21st-century, post-Christian context, I hear James pushing words and our understanding of them to their limits in a way that invites their renewal. What is religion? The word James uses is "threskeia," which connotes the physical, mechanical, external qualities of worship. It is "religion" in the outward sense. What a powerful opportunity for the contemporary church to distinguish between the going-through-the-motions mindset that so often fills spiritually empty, numerically declining churches and the real, vital, relational, transformational activity of vibrant communities of faith! James is careful with his words. He is not suggesting that the Christian faith is merely helping widows and orphans. He is calling into question those who think that following Jesus means simply showing up for the ritual every week.

This distinction between real, genuine "religion" and empty, false practice is also at the heart of James 2. Can faith save you? That depends on what we mean by "faith." If faith is merely saying "I believe" or reciting the creed or showing up and claiming to be a Christian, the answer is no. But that's not the "faith" that disciples of Jesus, including the apostle Paul, have in mind. The faith we are called to have is the faith that Jesus has shown us--the kind of faith that carries us through hardship, torture, and death into resurrection life. We are to put our whole trust and confidence in God's promise to love and care for us always. And that kind of faith is transformative. That kind of faith isn't dead. That kind of faith takes hold of one's life and shapes it.

James had a problem with the church he saw. This was a church that welcomed the rich but ignored the poor. It was a church where the wealthy sat in the good seats, ate their fill, and received the respect of the community while the poor were brushed aside and sent out without enough food or clothing to be sustained. That is a church that believes with its lips but not with its heart. One cannot have faith in the One who in Jesus Christ has reversed the world, flipping poor to rich, dark to light, and dead to life, and ignore the needs around them. If we believe that God has won a victory over sin in Jesus Christ, we must live into that victory on a daily basis. The victory isn't contingent upon our participation in it. That's salvation through works, which isn't Christian and isn't what James is writing about. The victory is God's work, and those who believe in it are transformed by it into participants in it. In short, there is no such thing as a works-less faith.

Isn't that good news for today's church? I don't know anyone who has time to waste at church. As I've said several times, even I have better things to do on a Sunday morning than show up merely for the sake of showing up. What we do--our "religion"--must be a participation in the death-to-life work that God is doing all around us. That's why we go to church. That's why we show up. That's why we follow Jesus. And that's why people will still give up their lives to follow him...if truly following him is what we are inviting them to.