Sunday, October 17, 2021

21st Pentecost, 2021-B: Servants of all

Lectionary: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45  

How well do we listen? So often when we have conversations, we can tell the person we’re talking to isn’t listening as much as preparing their response or formulating their next point. You can see it on their face. They’re looking at you, but not really listening.

Servant listening, as I call it, is listening deeply, with the speaker as the priority. Servant listening is listening attentively, taking in what the speaker is saying, even when it’s hard to hear or accept.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus has already told his disciples of his coming suffering and death three times. This last time (in vv 33-34) Jesus goes into horrible detail about being condemned to death, mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed, then after three days rising again (10:33). He had also just taught them - twice - what greatness is in the kingdom of God, both times saying, the first must be last and the last must be servant of all.

It appears, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, weren’t listening. Maybe they were listening - the way so many listen to the voice of God even today: “yeah, but not really.” Love your enemies: yea, but not really. Turn the other cheek: yeah, but not really. The first will be last and the last will be first: yeah, but not really.

Glory and honor, position and prestige are still things we strive for – just as the disciples did. As one commentator said: “Personal ambition did not start with James and John, nor did it end with them.” (Source: Dick Donovan)

Every time I read this passage, though, I wonder why no one asked for a pause or explanation after Jesus said: “and after three days he will rise again.” We read that knowing he’s referring to his resurrection at Easter, but the disciples didn’t know that was coming. How could they have? Who could have imagined the resurrection?

So, listening with their “yeah, but not really” ears, James and John skip right over that intense statement and drop back into planning for the Messiah they still hold onto – the one who will defeat the Romans, giving the people of Israel a military victory and freedom from occupation.

Make us your top brass, James and John say, and we’ll do right by you. Never mind that their request squeezes their friend, Peter, out of his top-ranked position among the twelve.

Will you, Jesus asks? Can you? You have no idea what you’re asking. You still don’t understand me or what Messiah means. Can you drink the cup I will drink? The one I just described: the cup filled with shame, torture, and death? Will you allow yourselves to be submerged in this path of Messiahship, giving up your life as I am about to give up mine?

Yeah, but not really, right? Sure we can, they reply.

Interestingly, what the ten took away from this discussion wasn’t about Messiahship or servanthood. They skipped over Jesus’ powerful, tragic statement and instead, focused on James’ and John’s subterfuge, and the new pecking order that might create.

You can practically see Jesus rolling his eyes and sighing as he called them together – again – to clarify his teaching on greatness and leadership in the kingdom of God. Don’t be like the non-believers, he says. They hold their power over others as a weapon. You must use yours to serve, and you must serve everyone. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” and to give his life in order to set God’s people free.

It’s comforting to me that even though the disciples still aren’t getting it, Jesus is still planning to entrust the continuing work of his ministry of reconciliation to them. It bodes well for the church today.

One of the greatest lessons (?) challenges (?) I learned from one of my mentors was the spiritual practice of humility, which often sounds like this: ‘I could be wrong,’ or at least, ‘I might have an incomplete picture.’

No one has the complete picture except for God. That is what our readings from Job and the Psalm offer us today. God is God and we are not.

Practicing humility might have prevented James and John from asking for glory for themselves, rather than for those they were about to serve. Practicing humility can help church folks today avoid the: ‘we have to do church my way, and if we don’t, I’ll take my money and myself outta here’ problem.

Practicing humility can help us remember that we often don’t have all the information about a situation or event, so we may not be able to see the big picture. Sometimes our bishop can, sometimes not, but God always can. God, who laid the foundation of the earth and determined its measurements, is constantly creating the big picture, responding in mercy and love to all of us as we attempt to navigate our time on earth.

The church Jesus built upon Peter, the Rock, who was supremely human and definitely didn’t have the whole picture, has been guaranteed to stand – even against the gates of hell (Mt 16:18), so I don’t worry about that. What concerns me as a pastor, is that our church, which is the living continuation of the church Jesus built, takes advantage of the gifts God has brought together in this time and place to serve as we are called to do.

The ministries of each church are continually formed by God to serve their membership and the people in their corner of God’s kingdom. To serve well, every church needs people who pray like St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine of Hippo who was a rogue before he was a bishop. We need people who proclaim the Word like St. Peter or our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry (who probably had very different styles).

We need some who will advocate for justice like Jonathan Daniels did, and others who reconnect us to God in creation, like St Francis did. We need traditionalists and progressives, folks who make meals, administrate programs, and teach our children serving alongside others who practice hospitality and manage money.

Granted, this kind of diversity often makes for messy or challenging church politics, but it’s worth it. No one in this or any church is perfect, and no one has a handle on the big picture, but together, we are greater than the sum of our parts. By the grace of God, and through the gifts of the people present, our church can transform our corner of God’s kingdom through our ministries of prayer and service.

To do that, we are beginning the season of giving to the ministries of the church - our annual pledge drive - which enables us to provide financial support to our church as we strive to bring the dream of God closer to its fulfillment in our time and place.

Let us pray: Abundant God, you made us in your image and breathed into us a spirit of generosity that is both gift and response. Move us, we pray, to give as we have received - abundantly, generously, and joyfully that our common ministry may ever bear witness to your unfailing grace. In the name of the Three in whom we are One. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

20th Pentecost, 2021-B: True relationship

 Lectionary: Job 23:1-9; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

En el nombre del Dios, que es trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

I had a friend who once told me that they were wealthy because God trusted them above others to manage the wealth they were given. Not everyone was wealthy, they said, because not everyone could be trusted in that way.

I’ll never forget that conversation because of the look on their face and the tone of their voice. They were kindly but patronizingly informing me that I wasn’t rich because I wasn’t among those whom God could trust in that way.

I remember feeling so sad as I looked at the face of this person, whom I loved dearly, recognizing that they were completely clueless of their hubris. Their implicit insult hurt me, but not nearly as much as the lost-ness of their soul did.

Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart once said, in order for the graciousness of God to be upon us, we must detach from all else and turn our attention to God. Granted, that’s hard to do.

We live in a world that constantly tells us what we should want: to be happy, beautiful, successful, and adored. We live in a world where “true love” is found buffet-style on reality TV, where body plastic has become the norm, where prized positions are won by the most manipulative and deceitful, and where personal value is calculated by the number of followers one has on social media or the heftiness of one’s bank account.

The message is: more is better. More stuff. More clout. More blessing. It’s an addiction in its truest form, and it isn’t so different for the rich man in today’s gospel story.

A faithful believer, the rich man asks an honest question of Jesus – how can I be sure I will inherit eternal life? Jesus answers like a rabbi would: ‘You know the commandments… don’t murder or commit adultery… don’t steal or bear false witness… don’t defraud… and honor your father and mother.'

Isn’t that an interesting group of six of the ten commandments Jesus chose to highlight? So, who can tell me… what number was the “thou shalt not defraud” commandment?

It wasn’t. Jesus interpreted the 10th commandment, “thou shalt not covet” for this rich man, who probably didn’t want much of what his neighbors had.

‘But I’ve kept these commandments from my youth,’ the rich man tells Jesus. I’ve lived a righteous life. You can see how blessed I am.

Jesus looks deeply, lovingly at this man and says to him. ‘Detach from your stuff – from the symbols of your happiness, the evidence of your blessing. Empty yourself and your life of all that distracts and separates you from true relationship with God and your neighbor, including your poor neighbor. Then come and follow me.’

Mark tells us that the man was shocked by what Jesus said, and that “he went away grieving” because he had a lot of stuff from which to detach.

It doesn’t say the man didn’t eventually do it, only that he left deeply saddened and distressed by what God had asked of him. I think most of us have this same kind of response when we get real about what God is asking from us… partly because God’s desire for us is so radically different from what the world teaches us to desire for ourselves; and partly because it’s just plain hard to detach.

After his encounter with the rich man, Jesus turns to his disciples and helps them detach from an inherited belief that distracts them from true relationship with God and neighbor: the notion that wealth is a blessing that indicates God’s approval and poverty is evidence of God’s disapproval. In fact, Jesus says, it’s harder, not easier, for a person with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

This totally unhinges the disciples, who wonder… ‘if one whose life is clearly blessed by God can’t enter the kingdom of God…’ “Then who can?”

Peter responds like the rich man did. ‘But Jesus, we’ve done that. We’ve left our homes and our families to follow you. What else do we need to do?’

‘Don’t worry,’ Jesus assures them, ‘you’ll be rewarded for your faithfulness, in this life and eternally. But remember, it is God’s way, God’s will that is at work here so what God asks of you, and the reward you receive, may not be anything like what you’re expecting.

To conclude the story I began with at the beginning of this sermon: this couple lost all of their wealth during the Great Recession of 2008. They lost their jobs and their home. They had to share one car and one cell phone. It took some time, but the experience eventually freed them from the notion that they were especially blessed, enabling them to enter humbly into true relationships with others, and I would guess, with God too.

We, too, can unlearn what separates us from God and one another and live differently.

Whenever Jesus encountered a poor person, a hurting person, a hated person, he entered into real relationship with them – and in that relationship, they found healing and wholeness. We can, we must, do the same if we are to call ourselves followers of Jesus.

It’s a risky proposition in real life. When we see a beggar at a traffic light, do we roll up our windows and look away or hand them a dollar and a smile? When the Afghan refugees come to Webster Groves will we fear and resent them, or enter into real relationship with them?

The poor need money, of course. They need clothes, housing, food, a place to shower and go to the bathroom. But they also need to be in real relationship with people.

Being poor isolates people. Jesus told us there would be poor among us always, so our goal isn’t to eradicate poverty but to transform our relationship with the poor, to tear down the barriers that isolate them and welcome them into our community, into real relationship.

The result of that may be the eradication of poverty. Who knows? God knows.

In order to do that, however, we must also transform our relationship with the wealthy. Jesus showed us how to do that, by loving them the way Jesus loved the rich man in our gospel story. 

It is only in God, for whom nothing is impossible, that this can happen. We can’t do it, but we can take the opportunities God presents us and make space for God to do through us what the world says is impossible.

I close with the blessing used at the consecration of our bishop: 

May God bless us with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep within our hearts. 

May God bless us with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people so that we may work tirelessly for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless us with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done. And the blessing of God the Almighty, the grace of Christ the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us and among us, now and always. Amen. 

Note: This blessing was written by Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Marlene Fox, in 1985. I adapted it from the second person (you) to the third person (we/us).

Sunday, October 3, 2021

19th Pentecost, 2021-B: Embrace the least

 Lectionary: Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16 

It is comforting and exciting that our readings from Scripture today are so relevant to our current climate of deep political divisions, the continuing presence of the pandemic, and the co-opting of the word “Christianity,” its meaning and embodiment, by voices that seek to control people rather than to trust God.


The story of Job and his ability to endure unfair and humiliating circumstances frees us from the mistaken notion that good people are blessed and bad people are cursed. Job was righteous, blameless before God, yet terrible things happened to him. And no matter how bad it got for Job, he never cursed God or forgot God’s promises. Job acted faithfully, enduring until God’s redemption was made manifest.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to uphold a group of early Christian converts from Judaism who were suffering oppression probably in the form of humiliation and social ostracism. Trying to live out their faith put them at odds with the culture around them so the epistle writer offers them comfort while at the same time reminding of their responsibility to respond in faithfulness to God, saying, we may be
imperfect, but Jesus is perfect and in him is our hope.

The gospel is about God’s faithfulness to us despite our continuing failure to love one another as God loves us, despite our propensity to cling to legality and the narrow justice we can conceive rather than trusting in God’s plan of redemption to establish perfect justice.

The divorce discussion in Mark is about the equality and respect of persons. It is not a condemnation of divorce but of disrespect of a child of God. In this discussion Jesus raises women up to equal footing with men. This is an unheard-of concept in a culture where husbands owned their wives as property and could legally ditch a wife for any reason or no reason at all, at their whim, sending her into a life of ruin, poverty, or prostitution. The law given to them by Moses was necessary, Jesus says, because of their hardness of hearts. They had chosen to legalize the mistreatment of a female child of God.

Then Jesus contrasts this choice with the choice to love and he uses another iconic image – a child. Children expect the best until they learn not to, and they are really good at hospitality because they haven’t learned prejudice or bigotry. They receive what they are given, trusting the giver, especially if the giver is the person meant to take care of them.

Mark tells us that people had been bringing children to Jesus so that he would ‘touch’ them. It’s so interesting to me that the word translated as ‘touch’ also translates to mean ‘to enlighten, to put fire into.’

Do you hear the symbolic message of that? When people bring the children of God to Jesus he puts his fire (his divinity) into them, enlightening them. If that isn’t a call to evangelism, I don’t know what is.

The disciples were stuck in their habitual, culturally given understanding of children as weak and helpless human property. When they tried to stop the children from coming near to Jesus, Jesus became ‘pained in body and mind’ as the Greek translates it. The dullard disciples were still unable to “see” and understand his teaching, so he made it plain, speaking those now-famous words that bring comfort to the oppressed and discomfort to the powerful: “Let the little children come to me and don’t stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom belongs.”

Taking the children into his embrace, Jesus laid hands on them and blessed them. In that culture, to lay hands on someone meant to take them under your protection, to commit to upholding them.

Jesus is embodying two very important messages by this action. First, that those whom the world judges to be the least come first in the kingdom of God. They are welcome and are, in fact, under the protection of the One who calls them.

Second, by laying hands on the children, who represent all of the people of God, Jesus is committing to protect and uphold us. When Jesus touches us today as he still does in prayer, in the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion, and in Scripture, Jesus is promising to carry us through whatever confronts us, like a pandemic that just won’t quit, by enlightening us, putting the fire of his divine love into us.

‘Come to me like this,’ Jesus says, with his arms wrapped around a little child. Trust me enough to receive what I have to give you. Trust me the way this child trusts me. Open yourself to me and expect the best. Forget about prejudice and bigotry, power over or control of another – those aren’t in the Way of Love I am showing you. Let me enkindle you with the fire of my divine love so that you might shine with it and draw others into my embrace as well. Welcome everyone, especially those whom you judge to be least, because to me they are the first priority.’

How’s that for good news? Jesus chooses us and trusts us to be his partners in this work of reconciliation. To the suffering, he promises redemption and relief. To those in power, he promises the freedom to be the child again, to trust God to bring everything to perfection.

Culture doesn’t support Jesus’ approach any more now than it did then. Today we see culture politicizing issues in order to hamstring or silence the church’s response to the least among us, issues like compassion for immigrants, people of color, the poor, or the LGBTQIA+ among us, all of whom are being systemically oppressed.

Calling for their protection and caring for their needs is exactly what the church is called to do, what we’ve always done. In the 4th century, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra learned of three young women whose father couldn’t afford the dowery needed to marry them off, which meant the girls would likely end up as prostitutes, so he went by their house at night and tossed money into their window, some say St. Nick tossed his gift down the chimney, thus saving them from that terrible fate. During the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, Constance and the martyrs of Memphis cared for the sick whom others had tossed out to die, feeding and caring for them, eventually dying themselves from that plague. The freedoms women and people of color enjoy today and the movement toward full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people have an awful lot to do with the advocacy of The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, an Episcopal priest, and race and gender advocate, who in the 1950s – before Dr. King and Ruth Bader Ginsberg - picked up the torch of co-creating systemic change.

We all need to hear Jesus’ good news: “Let my children come to me – all of them - and do not stop a single one; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” We need to hear again and receive the gift of the truth in the letter to the Hebrews: that humans have been crowned with glory and honor – all of us.

We, the church, the body of Christ in the world, are not gatekeepers protecting God from the unworthy. We’re all unworthy, yet all of us have been given the gift of redemption in Jesus. Do we trust him enough to receive it? Do we trust him enough to share this gift with those judged to be “the least” in our time?

The church, and we who are members of it, are bearers of the fire of Jesus’ divine love, and we are called to shine the light of his love until everyone, every child of God, is loved, protected, and welcomed in the wholeness of his holiness. There is no one who is outside the reach of God’s love; and there is no issue no matter how culture works to co-opt it, that disqualifies anyone from our compassion, respect, and our active advocacy.

I love that our church is called Emmanuel – God with us. The truth of that is deeply moving. God is with us. We don’t do this alone.

In fact, God and the whole company of heaven are with us! That’s why we, like Job, can endure whatever difficulty comes our way. Wearing our crown of glory, trusting in the promises of God, and clinging to our hope in Christ, we can reach out and embrace those whom society casts as “least” and welcome them into our lives, our parish community, and our worship where they will find healing and wholeness in Jesus. 

Good news, indeed. Amen.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

18th Pentecost, 2021-B: Unity not uniformity

 Lectionary: Lectionary: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124: James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50 


After 25 years of being a spiritual director, I’ve learned how to listen deeply which enables me to discern gifts that the speaker may not even recognize in themselves yet. Reflecting that discernment back often opens up new ways for them to live and serve. In corporate settings, this grace enables me to envision a parish like a great puzzle, with lots of individual pieces that fit together creating a whole that is unified and beautiful.

Spiritual gifts often don’t follow the paths of logic or reason. God gifts who God wants to in the ways God wants to, and those gifts will change over time, as God responds to the changing circumstances in the world, bringing forth the gifts that are needed to accomplish the plan of love.
This is such an important lesson for the church. We like being in a group. There’s a security in being with “like-minded” people. As the Christian church evolved, it self-segregated into groups: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant… then into smaller groups within each larger one: Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.

Each smaller group was built upon certain beliefs or doctrines that were distinct from the other groups. Over time, and by the grace of God these groups began to reconnect with one another, for example, the AME (African-Methodist-Episcopal) churches.

The Episcopal Church is now in full communion with the ELCA (Lutherans), the Moravians, the Church of Sweden, and more. As our TEC website explains it: “Within this new relation, churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous…Diversity is preserved, but this diversity is not static. Neither church seeks to remake the other in its own image, but each is open to the gifts of the other as it seeks to be faithful to Christ and his mission. They are together committed to a visible unity in the church’s mission to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments.” Source

For us, it's about unity, not uniformity.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples discover a man who “doesn’t follow us” healing in Jesus’ name. They complain to Jesus about him, proud to tell him they made him stop.

Jesus’ response probably surprises the disciples who are used to living with rigid boundaries around their Jewish identity, but he is teaching them (and us) about the inclusiveness of God’s plan of redemption. As our Prayer Book says, “the Church is one body under one head, Jesus Christ. It is holy because the Spirit dwells in us. It is catholic because we proclaim the whole faith to all people to the end of time. And it is apostolic because we continue in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, being sent now as they were then to carry out Christ’s mission to all people.” (BCP, 854) Source 

The exorcist in this gospel story is not an enemy, he’s a gift from God, and Jesus admonishes the disciples to recognize that the grace of God is in him – a lesson that was repeated later at the first Pentecost.

This is Jesus’ church, not ours. We are members of the Body of Christ in the world, and that body is diverse and living, evolving and interdependent. As our Presiding Bishop often says, we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.

When the disciples tried to stop this man from healing in Jesus’ name, they became stumbling blocks on the path of love. Jesus’ teaching on the consequences of being a stumbling block is clear: “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

The next part of his teaching requires some deep listening. We can do this. We are a people of prayer so we’re used to hearing words that point to a larger meaning. It’s also one of those times I’m grateful that as Episcopalians, we take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.

Rabbi Jesus had a point to make, so let’s look at the words he chose: 

HAND = our actions... At the Last Supper, Jesus said: the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table, that is, his betrayal is already happening. (Lk 22:21) Also, Jesus continually asserted that the kingdom of God is at hand – it’s happening now. If our actions inhibit anyone God is drawing in, we are a stumbling block.

FOOT = our direction, our path and how we travel it... The Way of Love is inclusive of more and more until the whole world is reconciled to God. Jesus established this path and it is one of gentleness, mercy, welcome, and transformation by the grace of God. If the path we or our church is on is coercive, judgmental, exclusive, or conflicted we are off the path of love and we are a stumbling block.

EYE = how we receive information, how we perceive and understand. Depersonalization allows us to make an enemy of another person. They become a classification: illegal, black, brown, wrong, condemnable. Jesus calls us to see differently, to see with the eyes of the Spirit, so that we can recognize the grace of God in the least likely of people or circumstances. The Bible is full of stories about this: God choosing Moses who stuttered, Abraham who traded his wife for his life, and the stranger who is healing in Jesus’ name.

If our actions, our way of traveling our path, or our way of perceiving cause us to become a stumbling block, we must be willing to disconnect from them. That can be hard for a people who love saying, “We’ve always done it this way” or who believe theirs is the only correct, moral, or logical view.

This is also the Episcopal way. I refer you to our (still current) statement of ecumenism in the BCP, on page 876: “We do solemnly declare to all whom it may concern, and especially to our fellow-Christians of the different Communions in this land, who, in their several spheres, have contended for the religion of Christ… That in all things of human ordering or human choice, relating to modes of worship and discipline, or to traditional customs, this Church is ready in the spirit of love and humility to forego all preferences of her own.”

How powerful is that?! And how much peace would come from applying this to church ministries and worship preferences?

In our Eucharistic Prayer C, we pray to God: “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us…” (BCP, 372) It is God’s work we do, and Jesus concludes this teaching moment by clarifying that using the metaphor of salt.

“For everyone is salted with fire,” Jesus says. Salt is a preserver of meat (of flesh) and fire is the Biblical symbol for God. Remember the burning bush and the tongues of fire at Pentecost.

Followers of Christ are salted with fire… we are preserved by God, with God, and in God so that we can be sent into the world to do our part reconciling the world to God. As theologian Jim Marion says: “When the kingdom is established upon Earth everyone will be spiritually developed to the point of living effortlessly… All humans will live in conscious union with God and with each other, each one manifesting Spirit in their own uniquely creative way (Mt 13:52). This creativity will continually deepen and find ever new and wondrous ways of expressing itself, for there is no end to the depths and riches of God, nor is there any end to the gifts God is prepared to shower on those who follow the path of love (1Cor 2:9).” (Source: “Putting on the Mind of Christ, The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality,” Hampton Roads Pub Co, 2011, pp 291-292)

Let us pray… Grant us, God of love, to remember that we are salted with the fire of your Spirit and bring us to be at peace with one another in this church and in the world. Then send us out onto the path of love where we will find heavenly treasure strewn about in divine abundance for us and for all. Show us when we are in the way and mercifully restore us when we’ve strayed from your path of love, that we may glorify you as we serve your creation in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

17th Pentecost, 2021-B: The birth of servanthood

 Lectionary: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37 

I grew up with 3 sisters, 17 first cousins, and a slew of what we called non-bloods, who were like family, but not biologically related. In addition, there were our aunts, uncles, second cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents. Since our families were from tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods in NYC we saw these extended families often.

Depending on who was hosting the gathering, the kids either ate with the adults at the main dining table or had a separate table set up in the living room. At my Puerto Rican family’s houses “the kids’ table” was a blast! We could cut up, relax, be silly, and enjoy our segregation from the adults – who were laughing like crazy at their own table. We loved it. 

My Irish family were wound a bit tighter. When you walked into my Dad’s eldest sister’s house, for example, there was plastic on all the furniture and she hovered nearby constantly cleaning up around you every time you moved. The kids didn’t speak unless spoken to, didn’t make a mess, and didn’t have fun. At dinner we were segregated to “the kids’ table” but the message was different: that we were the low-ranking members of the clan and the main table was for the high-ranking members.

This is where I learned the absurdity of classism. I was the same person but treated vastly differently by the two sides of my family.

I also learned about racism during my childhood, since the Irish half of my family openly despised the Puerto Rican half of my identity, calling my mother racist slurs at just about every opportunity while trying to persuade me to own only my Irish identity – “the only one that matters,” they would say.

My Puerto Rican family wasn’t free of racism either. From them, I learned a whole hierarchical structure of which Latino countries were at the top of the ladder of respect and which were at the bottom. My grandmother’s indigenous background put her near the bottom of that hierarchy, a fact that was used to abuse and oppress her during her lifetime.

So, at this point in my life, I have little patience for anyone who applies absurd distinctions meant to separate and diminish some in favor of others. It remains a favorite practice in modern culture, so we’re as much in need of a shift in perspective now as Jesus’ disciples were in today’s Gospel where Jesus is laying the groundwork for the birth of servanthood.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” he says. Jesus demonstrates his point by taking a child in his arms and declaring that whoever welcomes this child, who has no rank, no power, and no prestige, welcomes him; and further that whoever welcomes him welcomes God who sent him.

It’s interesting to note that the word translated as “child” also means “servant” so whoever welcomes the servant, welcomes God who sent him. Jesus confirms this shift in perspective later in Mark’s gospel,saying, “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Mk 10:45) Jesus is the servant of all, the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah, who calls us to love one another as he loved us and to serve one another as he served us.

The timing of this lesson from Jesus is important. Jesus and the disciples are back in Capernaum, Jesus’s hometown, and the house they’re in is probably Peter’s, so the child is likely someone in Peter’s family.

Jesus has completed the last of his healing ministry and is focusing now on preparing the disciples for his entry into Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, abused, and ultimately murdered. This is the second of three times Jesus tells his disciples about the path that lies ahead of them, the path of the suffering servant. Something new in this second time is the notion of him being betrayed.

Jesus is speaking in the third person, however, so it’s easy to understand why the disciples might be a bit unsure of what Jesus is saying will happen and to whom. Jesus has referred to himself frequently as the Son of Man, but the disciples also would have been familiar with the term “son of man” since it appears in the Torah hundreds of times.

For Christians, this term is understood as representing Jesus and the fullness of his humanity. For his disciples, however, this name was not yet connected to Jesus.

Since Jesus has already smacked down his #1, Peter, pretty hard for decrying the path he is describing to them, the others decide to stay silent. But Jesus isn’t letting them off the hook. He asks them what they were arguing about as they walked to Peter’s house.

You can almost see their eyes widen as glances shoot back and forth among them. They had to know they were busted, so what do they do now?

In keeping with his ministry of love and spiritual development, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them what they and the future church dedicated to him will need to live in the world he’s about to die to save: servanthood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

In my years serving as a priest, I have seen the beauty of this when it is lived out and the tragedy of it when it is not. As the letter from James points out, when we are operating from wisdom, which as we said last week, isn’t about knowledge as much as being in intimate relationship with God, the fruits of our works will be good and peaceable, absent of partiality or hypocrisy.

The tell-tale sign of moving off the path of faith and truth is that conflicts and disputes will arise. When they do, the only faithful response is to “submit to God” as James says in his letter, to draw near to God who will draw near to us and restore our wisdom, our peace, and our path.

Another sign of being off the path of faith is anxiety. As we prayed in our Collect, “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love and hold fast to those things that are eternal and eternally true; and what is eternal and eternally true for us is Jesus, who calls us to serve in his name.

What I love about this gospel story is the way Jesus acted so gently with his disciples who didn’t get it, were afraid to ask about it, and were about to have to deal with it without him. Jesus was brutally honest in his prophecy about his own suffering and death. I’m sure he knew how hard it was for his followers to shift from their expectation of Messiah to Jesus’ embodiment of it; from their life-long goal of taking the seat of power to Jesus’ command to be last of all.

So he takes a child, embraces it, and invites his disciples to do the same. What a homey example of divine presence. Children may have been without rank, power, and prestige in ancient Jewish culture, but they were much loved and valued.

It’s not so different today. Whose heart isn’t warmed and broken open by the innocence and guilelessness of a child?

Jesus, who would have noticed that he’d silenced his disciples with this smack-down of Peter, takes a different approach this time, a gentler one. By sitting down Jesus takes the familiar posture of a rabbi who is about to teach. This helps diminish his disciples’ anxiety because they know what to expect.

Rather than scolding them for engaging in absurd distinctions meant to separate and diminish some in favor of others, Jesus takes and embraces a child, connecting the qualities of that child to his teaching. By doing this, Jesus reaches beyond knowledge to the experience of love: his core message.

This child, this servant is me, he teaches. Welcome me and you welcome God who sends me. Be like me. Be like this child, this servant. Then whoever welcomes you, welcomes God who sends you. You can almost hear the sigh of relief from the disciples and feel the warmth of love filling that room.

It’s hard to shift from the habits of our thinking, especially when the world affirms them so strongly. We won’t always get it right or get it quickly, but Jesus will stick with us, gently showing us the way to go.

Let us pray… Loving Jesus, pour your grace over us so that each one of us, and all of us together, may feel the warmth of your love filling us to overflowing. Then send us out on the path of faith you have set before us that we may serve faithfully, peaceably, and without a trace of partiality. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

16th Pentecost, 2021-B: The path of truth

Lectionary: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 

I just love it when the Gospel ends on such a high note, don’t you? :)

So often, when we read this passage from Mark, we zip past the hard parts, like “Who do you say that I am?” or the part where Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” or that shame statement at the end. We aren’t ashamed of Jesus so we aren’t worried about him being ashamed of us. And we’d be able to answer Jesus’ question “Who do folks say that I am” with the certainty of 2000+ years of affirmation.

The niggling that happens in us, though, is that Peter answered correctly “You are the Messiah,” the one God anointed to bring salvation to the whole world. Then, somehow, he went way wrong.

Peter truly loved Jesus, of that there’s no doubt. His concern about Jesus being rejected by the Jewish leadership and undergoing great suffering is reasonable and loving, but Jesus rebukes him for it with a hard smack-down: “Get behind me Satan.”

Jesus knows time is getting short and he’s showing some frustration with his disciples, particularly Peter, for not getting it. What did Peter miss? What are we missing?

Let’s start with who we say Jesus is. Like Peter, we truly believe Jesus is the Messiah. The problem often is, how we understand “Messiah.”

Peter, along with the Jewish people, were anticipating a new King David to use military prowess to free them from Roman occupation and establish them as a world power once again. That, they believed, would enable them to live in peace and prosperity, as their forebears had during the reign of King David.

Jesus’ understanding of Messiah was different. He didn’t come to conquer but to serve. He didn’t come to save a single race of people but all people for all time, unifying everyone into one household – the household of God.. This is what he had been demonstrating in his ministry all along – eating with sinners, women, and tax collectors, healing Gentiles and Jews alike.

When Peter answers Jesus’ question, he’s speaking a truth he doesn’t fully understand. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah. He knows that the world is different and will never be the same because of Jesus, but his attempt to rebuke Jesus reveals Peter’s utter lack of wisdom.

As we heard in our Old Testament, wisdom isn’t about knowledge as much as the knowing that comes from being in relationship with God. I love the personification of Wisdom as a woman who shouts in the streets where ordinary people will hear. “She calls out to the ‘simple’ (who don’t know better), to the ‘scoffers’ (who take pleasure in cynicism) and to ‘fools’ (who despise knowledge) – all of whom reject her. (Source)

Peter knew better, but his reproach to Jesus revealed that he would set aside the grace of the knowing that came from being in relationship with Jesus in favor of knowledge given to him by people who didn’t have the kind of intimate relationship with God he had. In other words, he rejected Jesus who had, as Wisdom said, poured out his thoughts and made his words known to Peter.

We tend to hear Jesus’ smack-down of Peter with 21st-century ears, so let’s clarify why Jesus called Peter, the one upon whom he would build the church, “Satan.” First, I need to point out that the word, “Satan” is not a proper noun. It had a small “s” until later translations, As theologian Elaine Pagels teaches, “the satan” means “one who throws something across one’s path.”

In Jewish understanding, if the path is bad, the obstruction is good, thus “the satan” may have been sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm. (The Origin of Satan, Vintage, 1996, pp 39, 40) If the path is righteous, however, as was the case in today’s gospel, “the satan” is blocking the path of the will of God. This is what Jesus says Peter is doing: “Get behind me… for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Mark tells us that after rebuking Peter, Jesus calls the crowd and disciples together to pour out his thoughts and make them known to all of them. If you want to be my follower, Jesus says, then you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.

So I wonder… how do we do that today? How do we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus?

Last week we talked about prayer, that in prayer we give God the priority. That is the simplest, most do-able form of self-denial. Give God the priority.

The more we practice that the more quickly we recognize when we, like Peter, have become an obstacle in God’s path. And we all will, at some point, discover that we’re the obstacle. The good news is, that Peter wasn’t thrown out of the club, and neither will we be. Like Peter, we will be lovingly formed and reformed so that we can be sent out to share the good news we know.

When we take up our cross we are intentionally carrying in our hearts and consciousness the symbol of death, which for us is also the symbol for new life. Only to a follower of Jesus would that make sense because Jesus transformed death into the gateway to new life, resurrection life in him. Taking up our cross, then, is how we live continually in the new life he gave us.

Following Jesus means continually listening for the wisdom of God speaking in us, guiding us on how to respond and relate in our world. How do we respond to people or situations that frustrate or anger us? What picture do our responses on social media, in traffic, or the church parking lot paint of us?

It’s popular right now to be simple, or cynical, or to abhor facts. All you have to do is spend 10 minutes online to see how many people are choosing that path. It’s understandable, and sad when you think about it.

When someone chooses to be simple, to not know better, then they can avoid accountability. If they choose to be cynical, they don’t run the risk of relational responsibility. If they choose to abhor facts, they get to recreate reality into one they can cope with or feel like they can control.

As followers of Jesus, we know better and we tread a different path, a path of truth, which is the path of life. Any truth we learn brings us into deeper relationship with him, which leads us into deeper relationship with one another.

Loving God, being in intimate relationship with God, connects us to all our relations on earth and in heaven, past, present, and future, known and not yet known to us, and our church is our home base for that.

Today is Homecoming at Emmanuel. When I think of coming home, I think of being where love is, where we are accepted for who we are. At its best, home is where disagreements can happen without damaging the bond of love, because the love that holds us together, is Jesus.

Today is a great day to come home and celebrate the love of Christ embodied and lived at Emmanuel. We welcome those who live far off and those who are near, as we celebrate the grace that comes from being in relationship with one another, and with God who loves us and makes us one. Amen.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

15th Pentecost, 2021-B: Be opened

 Lectionary: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Video of my sermon

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

I am SO glad to be here with you! I have to say, I’m still a little surprised that I live in MO and now own a home here! This was never on my radar. Steve and I have two grandsons in GA and we were planning to buy a house in the GA mountains to be near them. 

Then God intervened.

I had been a rector for 10 years and loved it, but when I took my sabbatical in 2016, I discerned a call to Interim Ministry, so I got myself trained and began serving as an Interim Rector – a ministry I completely loved.

Interim ministry is what brought me to serve at Calvary in Columbia. Canon Doris, who was my seminary classmate and remains a dear friend, contacted me in NC and asked me to come to MO and serve as an Interim at one of two churches. I didn’t hesitate to tell Doris, no. I have two grandsons in GA and am not interested in moving farther away from them.

Doris called back three months later and said these magic words: just pray about it. I did pray and clearly heard God’s call to me to open to an option beyond my plans.

I arrived at Calvary 8 days before the pandemic shutdown and loved every minute of my ministry there – as strange, different, and challenging as it all was during COVID-tide. God was right – again.

As my ministry at Calvary began to come to a close, Doris called again asking me to discern a call to serve here. No, I said (again). I want to get back to GA and my babies. Ok, she said, just pray about it.

There were those magic words again. Well, not magic as much as wisdom.

When we enter into prayer we give God the priority, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Like the woman in our gospel story whose child needed healing. A non-believer, this woman knew that she was in the presence of love when she was with Jesus, and she knew in the depths of her soul that his love could heal her child, so when Jesus refused her request for healing, she persisted.

Every time I read Jesus’ initial response to the Syrian woman, I ache over the meanness of his words. Why would he deny her request so offhandedly? And why would he call her a “dog”- a common racist slur against her people?

It’s an uncomfortable reality, but if we believe, as our Presiding Bishops often says, that if it isn’t about love it isn’t about God, and if we believe that Jesus is the full revelation of the character and nature of God, then we must enter the discomfort and stay in it until we discover the revelation of love Jesus is offering.

People disagree about why Jesus made that horrible response, so let’s pause for a moment, zoom out and look at this gospel from a wider lens. We’ll get back to this, I promise. 

There are two very different healing stories presented to us today, but both take place in Gentile territory. In the first story, a Syrian woman from the Phoenician seaboard violated all kinds of protocols by approaching Jesus, a man who is not her family and speaking to him. What she asked for, however, was not for herself but for her child.

This woman was motivated by love for her child and that, along with her faith in the love she perceived in Jesus, wouldn’t let her give up. It’s also the only time the Scripture records Jesus losing an argument – and it was to Gentile, who was a woman!

Jesus didn’t perform any healing ritual or prayer in this story. He just told the woman to go home, that her daughter was well. The faith that led her to beg Jesus for healing in the first place also carried her home with no proof that he had done what he said – but he had.

The second healing story of the deaf man is radically different. It’s important to note that his deafness would have been considered punishment for a sin. Remember when, in John’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (Jn 9:2)

In this story, friends of the man born deaf brought him to Jesus and begged for his healing. Jesus takes the man away from the crowd and performs a very specific healing ritual. Clearly, Jesus could have healed this man in the same way he had healed the Syrian woman’s daughter, with a word, but he chose a different course. Touching the man’s ears and tongue, then raising his eyes and his prayer to heaven, Jesus sighed - a signal of physical release and an embodied symbol of the breath of God which breathes life into the world.

“Be opened,” Jesus said, and he wasn’t talking to the ears, but to the man. Whatever may hinder you from your wholeness, whether it’s yours or someone else’s belief in your unworthiness, or the idea that God loves some whom God created more than others, be opened now. Come into the presence of love. Be opened and receive the grace God is offering.

In my experience with healing prayer, I’ve found that people often assume God won’t work a miracle for them because a) God doesn’t do that anymore, or b) even if God did do that, surely God wouldn’t choose them.

To these I say those magic, wise words: “just pray about it.” Give God the priority, trusting in God’s love and mercy. I am a witness to many truly miraculous healings of bodies, minds, souls, and churches.

Jesus says to the body of Christ today the same thing he said to the deaf man: “Be opened” for, as Jesus’ mother once said, “nothing shall be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37) Everything is possible and will probably include options beyond our plans.

In our Scripture story the deaf man did open and was made whole. Mark tells us that he spoke plainly, but like most of the healing stories, the transformation that resulted from Jesus’ healing reached beyond the man into his community where folks were “astounded beyond measure” by what they witnessed.

And what they witnessed wasn’t just the healing of a deaf man, but the truth that God acts in the world to heal and reconcile. That is our witness too. God is still acting in the world to heal us and make us whole.

So then, why does the gospel present such different accounts? I think it’s because Mark is showing us that God meets us where we are. For the deaf man, who was probably Jewish, ritual had meaning and would help him “be opened” to the healing. For the Gentile woman, ritual might have been strange and a stumbling block to her being opened.

Now we can return to the racist slur Jesus used. I think he used it to break down entrenched barriers between the Gentile and Jewish communities of his time. In order to break down entrenched barriers we must first notice they exist. Jesus’ startling statement worked like a charm – then and now.

The Jewish hearers of Jesus’ slur would have been in full agreement. Syrians are dogs; they don’t deserve what belongs to us. The Syrians listening would have heard the old, familiar discrimination. It was the way of their world: the Jewish people hate, exclude, and deny the Canaanites.

Jesus’ words and actions tore down entrenched, divisive barriers of culture, race, gender, and age. His healing demonstrated that a Gentile girl and a deaf man were as worthy of God’s love and mercy as anyone else.

Jesus met each one in our gospel story where they were, just as he does for us now.

As we begin our life of faith and service together, let’s “be opened” and let God’s healing love and mercy set us free from all that binds us, all we’re blind to, and all that separates or divides us. Let’s be “astounded beyond measure” by what God is ready to do in and among us and through us in the community God has placed us here to serve.

Let us pray…

Fill us, most merciful God, with the power of your Holy Spirit, and free us from any bonds that continue to restrict our freedom to fully love you, one another, and our neighbors. Enter our hearts today and our dreams tonight and show us your will for us as your disciples in this time and place. Loosen our tongues to speak your truth. Strengthen our hearts to birth your love into reality no matter the cost; and make each of us to shine with the celestial light that is the mark of your saints in heaven and on earth; for the love of your Son, our savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.