Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pentecost 17B, 2012: Co-creators of Love

Proper 20 Lectionary: Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; Psalm 54 ; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

We believe that God is love, that God is the creator of all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be. We believe that God’s plan of redemption is perfect, and God’s justice is sure, even knowing that how that looks often surprises us.

We believe that humanity and all creation have been redeemed by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We know that we are living in the
‘already-but-not-yet’ part of the plan. Redemption has already happened, but the
process of redemption, the work of it continues until Christ comes again. We know that we are partners with Christ in this work, making us co-creators of love.

If God is love and creator of all that is, then who or what in all of creation is not of God? Yet, throughout the world we see pain, loneliness, hunger, poverty, abuse, oppression, war, betrayal. Are those of God?

When a two year old is diagnosed with leukemia and dies before she starts pre-school, is that of God? The platitude – everything happens for a reason – isn’t very helpful.

We don’t know why some things happen because we can’t see the plan of God in its fullness. Other times things happen because someone sinned, and it has nothing to do with God or God’s plan.

People sin. Terrible things happen in the world. Wrong things happen. When believers witness terrible things, wrong things, our Savior asks us to wait in faith. What we wait for is the fulfilling of God’s promise of redemption. This is the essence of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples these last few weeks in our readings from the Gospel of Mark.

Waiting is hard because as we wait we have to trust. Our power, our knowledge, our best intentions aren’t enough. Only God is enough.

In our Offertory hymn, are these words (v 3): “Teach me thy patience; still with thee/ in closer, dearer company/ in work that keeps faith sweet and strong/ in trust that triumphs over wrong.” Trust that triumphs over wrong. This is what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples they would need.

The worst was about to happen. Jesus has told his disciples several times now that he is going to be betrayed and killed. You remember that Peter didn’t want to hear that. ‘No Lord. Don’t let it be so.’

And Jesus pushed back at Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan.” ‘Don’t distract me, don’t tempt me away from the path of redeeming love being laid by God. Yes, it’s going to be awful, so you must have the kind of trust that triumphs over wrong.’

This time when Jesus reminds his disciples of the awful reality about to happen, he adds the promise of redemption: “The Son of Man is being betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again.” Wait. Death is not the end. God’s love triumphs even over death.

Let’s let that sink in for a minute. God’s love triumphs even over death.

If we really believe that, then what is there to fear? What is there to keep us from flinging our proverbial arms wide open and welcoming everyone and everything life has to offer – knowing that everyone is included in God’s plan of redemption, and everything that happens presents us with an opportunity to be co-creators of love?

The hardest part of being co-creators of love is that we must approach everyone and everything as the Son of Man did. There was no one with whom Jesus wouldn’t connect – the clean and unclean, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, young and old.

And when he did connect, he didn’t judge them, even when the evidence was there to convict them. Instead, he forgave them, healed them, strengthened them to live, and empowered them to love.

Jesus brought light and life to those trapped in darkness and sin and calls us to do the same. As we do this, we risk success. What if we succeed? What if we become known as the greatest church with the greatest followers of Jesus Christ in history? What if we become famous and admired, heroes and she-roes of the faith? What if we get a saint’s day in Lesser Feasts and Fasts?

Isn’t that like what the disciples were arguing about as they traveled to Capernaum? Can’t you just hear it? Peter says, ‘I’m the greatest. I’m the rock on whom Jesus plans to build the church!’ John says, ‘Yeah, well I’m the beloved disciple!’ Matthew says, ‘I’m the best liturgist.’. And everyone knows Luke is the best healer.

When they settled in for the night, Jesus asked the disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way” (like he didn’t know!) They were busted and they knew it.

But Jesus, as patient and loving as ever, took what was one of the last opportunities he had to teach them. He sat down and called the disciples to him. When a rabbi does that, it means class is in session.

‘Do you want to be great?’ Jesus asked. ‘Then you must turn away from the desire for worldly greatness and be last of all and servant of all.’

At this point, I’m picturing the blank stares on the faces of Jesus’ listeners as they try to figure this out.

Then Jesus took a little child, and holding that child in a loving embrace, he demonstrated what he meant. To the world, this child is helpless, powerless, has little to offer, and no clout whatsoever. But to heaven, this child is the face of redemption because: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In other words, when we connect with the helpless, the powerless, the weak, the poor, the excluded – we connect with God. They are the means by which we are co-creators of love and partners in the continuing work of redemption. As one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams, said: “Every time you opt into kindness/ make one connection/ used to divide us/ it echoes all over the world.” (“Echoes” by Dar Williams, My Better Self album)

A child is open, trusting, and relies on her parent to know and take care of what she needs. A child offers his love freely. He knows he’s part of a family and isn’t expected to ‘go it alone.’

How are children welcomed - or not - in our churches? Do we see them as the face of redemption… as an opportunity to connect with God?

In his book “The Peaceable Kingdom” theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that “it is the privilege of Christians, as well as their responsibility to tell God’s story to those who know it not.” (44) How are we meeting this responsibility – to our actual children, and to the children of God in our local community?

“But…” Hauerwas says, “…God’s story is not merely told; it must be lived.” (44) How are we doing with this one?

Are we proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Or are we coming to our church club just enough to ensure our reputation as a good person bound for heaven? Are we connecting our lives with the lives of the helpless, the powerless, the weak, the poor, and the excluded – recognizing in them the face of redemption?

Hauerwas said, “it is through the need of another that the greatest hindrance to my freedom, namely my own self-absorption, is finally not so much overcome as simply rendered irrelevant.” (44) I can tell you that I hear the transforming truth of this from people who volunteer at our Shepherd’s Table ministries.

As followers of Christ, you and I are walking on a path of redeeming love that is laid out for us - moment by moment - by God. Like the labyrinth, this path takes unexpected turns but always leads us home. We can’t get lost.

The path flows according to the needs God is entrusting to our attention and to our care, so… we go with the flow! It is our privilege as Christians, and our responsibility.

I close with the prayer written by the founder of Centering Prayer – Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pentecost 16B, 2012: For the sake of the gospel

Proper 19 Lectionary: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

I begin with a quote from one of my favorites, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who said: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

In our gospel reading today, we have that wonderfully uncomfortable conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus has asked the disciples who people are saying he is. Having done amazing things – feeding the 5000 with 2 fish and 5 loaves, opening the deaf man’s ears and loosing his tongue so he can speak plainly, Jesus wants to know ‘What are people saying about that?’

The disciples answer that the people think he might be John the Baptist, or Elijah, or a great prophet. ‘Well, you’ve been with me throughout all this,’ Jesus said. “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answers without hesitation: “You are the Christ” (the Messiah, the Anointed One). And Jesus sternly orders them not to say that to anyone else. Why?

Maybe because their understanding was too small. The expectation was that the Messiah, the Anointed One would save the people of Israel. Like King David, the awaited Messiah would free the Jews from Roman occupation and establish peace for Israel.

But God’s plan was much bigger than that. The Word made flesh came to save the whole world, and his salvation would be eternal, not historical.

The time had come for Jesus to have a hard conversation with his disciples. By rebuking Peter, Jesus was reminding them: ‘Salvation is not what you’re thinking. You have part of it right, but there’s a bigger picture beyond your view.

So first, let me tell you what will happen to me, Jesus says. the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected by those whose opinions matter most among earthly authorities, and be killed. It will be humiliating.’

‘Now let me tell you what will happen to you Jesus says. if you keep to your own expectations and plans, if you live your life protecting yourself from darkness and judgment, if you seek the approval and blessings of those with earthly authority – you will die an eternal death.’

‘If, on the other hand, you follow me, if you willingly accept humiliation and disgrace from earthly authorities because you are living according to the teachings I have given you, if you enter the places where souls are in danger and darkness for my sake, if you and bring the light of the good news I have given you to the world, then even if you die doing that, you will have eternal life.’

We Christians are called to go wherever there are people living in darkness and despair and carry to them the light of Christ. We’re to go where the cords of death have entangled someone and set them free.

In the world, you have to prove that you are poor enough, disabled enough, or legitimately sick enough to receive help. And that’s fine for the world – but it isn’t fine for Christians.

This week I met a woman at the Shepherd’s Table. Well, I didn’t actually meet her, I was sent to her because she was causing trouble, so I went to speak with her.

The situation was this: This woman is homeless. She carries her entire world around with her in a rolling suitcase and a backpack. She’s mean and belligerent. She’s been kicked out of most of the area shelters because of her caustic behavior.

Local advocates told us she was trouble and not to give her our names. They said she “causes trouble if you do.” They also wanted nothing more to do with her – their doors are closed to her now.

I was sent to talk to this woman because she was found trying to take a bath in the bathroom sink. When some of our volunteers asked her not to do that, she got angry and began cussing them out.

When I found her, the woman was eating her meal. I began our conversation by telling her who I was and affirming that her desire to be clean was a good and honorable one, and I apologized for not having adequate facilities to provide that for her.

“When?” she asked me, not looking up from her plate of food.

“Today,” I replied.

“Where?” she asked.

“In the bathroom,” I said, and I repeated that she was right to want to be clean, but our facilities were inadequate for that. I promised that I would work to find out where she could shower and let her know.

“Why?” she asked, still not looking up from her food.

“Because I care about you,” I said, “and we want to help you.”

“Why?” she asked – this time looking up at me.

“Because you matter,” I said.

It’s possible this woman is suffering from some kind of mental illness. It’s possible she’s feigning mental illness because it gets her a little compassion.

I don’t know and I don’t care.

I observed, however, that she has learned to have power in an otherwise powerless existence by threatening people, cussing them out and being belligerent. It works. She has an impact.

When I asked the woman her name, she said, “Homeless.” ‘That’s what you are” I responded, “but not who you are. What’s your name?”

“Homeless” she repeated.

“OK, Homeless,” I said. “It will take me a few hours to find out what’s available for you. Since I won’t be able to reach you, please come back and see me.”

“I might” she said.

She didn’t – but I ran into her a couple of days later at the Dollar General store. I noticed her sitting in front of the abandoned storefront next door. I went over to her and said, “Hi Homeless. Do you remember who I am?”

“I remember,” she said.

“I’ve been looking for you. I’ve been looking for what you need.” I said. “You’ve made a lot of people upset around here and they don’t want to help you.”

“I know,” she said.

“I’m still looking for a place where you can clean up” I said. “Do you remember why?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Good,” I said. “Everyone should know that they matter.”

I asked her if I could get her something to eat or drink, but she said she had just eaten and pointed to the food trash her backpack. I asked if there was anything else I could get her while I was out running errands and she said no, she was fine.

I told her I hoped she come again Wednesday and eat with us, that I hoped to have a resource for her by then. She said she’d see me there. I hope she will.

The fact is, most of us haven’t experienced the indignity of being shunned because we’re unclean. Most of us haven’t known the kind of powerless Homeless experiences every day.

Is it any surprise that she’s mean?

Homeless may be suffering from some mental illness, but she is certainly carrying a load of bad experiences along with her rolling suitcase and backpack. And it’s very likely that she has been treated with indignity by people whom she had to ask for help.

Homeless is exactly the kind of person Jesus calls us to walk toward, not away from as the world does.

We can enter the darkness of her world because we bring our own light with us – the light of Christ. We can be patient with Homeless as she learns how to see in the light, just as Jesus was patient with the disciples, and just as he is patient with us now.

People will say bad things about us and judge us as stupid or na├»ve, but that’s OK. It isn’t their approval or blessing we seek. You see, our church isn’t here to win praise for ourselves or to build a great local reputation.

We’re here to carry the gospel to people like Homeless. We’re here to bring the light of Christ into her darkness.

We may not be able to change the world, but we can set some ripples going in the waters of life. We can bring God, who is gracious and compassionate, to those who are entangled in the grip of the grave, even when their call sounds - at first - like a threat.

We can, and we must, reach into the world as it is, and do our part to make it as it should be.

I close with a Celtic prayer I love:

Lord, touch our lives with your glory that we may reach out to others.
Fill our hearts with your love that all may see the love of Christ.
Inspire us to dare new things for you that we may encourage those without hope,
Open our lives to your Spirit that we may reflect your praise.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Pentecost 15B, 2012: Be opened

Proper 18 Lectionary: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Last week we heard Jesus arguing with the Pharisees about ritual cleanness, about what defiles and what doesn’t. Jesus insisted that what is unclean comes from within, not from without.

Calling the Pharisees hypocrites for holding to human tradition rather than embracing the heart of God, Jesus turns to the people and explains that it is an unclean heart, a rigid, small, unloving heart that defiles. Then he demonstrates this teaching by heading immediately to an unclean region - the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon - the place where Jezebel was from.

There he encounters a woman (strikes one and two – she’s a Gentile and a woman) who comes to him (strike three – she broke the rule that prohibits women from speaking to men) seeking healing for her daughter (a Gentile girl? See strikes one and two) who has an unclean spirit.

Jesus’ response to this woman startles a bit each time we read it. He said, “Let the children (the people of Israel) be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (a name often used to refer to Gentiles). Why would Jesus exclude this woman and deny her request?

Perhaps he was demonstrating what he had just finished teaching. Or perhaps it was because he had not yet completed his mission to the Jews, which had to come first, as it was prophesied in Isaiah. Maybe it was so that when we read this 2,000+ years later, we are left unable to deny that Jesus was moved by the faith of an alien, someone who was not supposed to be able to eat the food of life.

The current discussions we’re having in the church and in society on immigration and open communion come to mind.

Undeterred, the woman reminds Jesus that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. What a powerful and faithful response! Her faithfulness so moves Jesus that he changes his mind, drops the religious and societal barrier that separates them, and heals the woman’s daughter.

In response to the trust this woman has demonstrated, Jesus doesn’t even need to meet or touch the child in order to heal her. He simply speaks it, and she is healed.

This isn’t the first time God’s mind is changed following an argument with a human. In Genesis, Abraham argued with God about not destroying Sodom if only ten righteous people could be found. And Moses asked God to relent from destroying the people of Israel for their spiritual adultery during their exodus. Now this woman argues with God to obtain wholeness for her child, claiming, at the same time, both her identity as a member of the household of God and her right to partake of the spiritual food of life given to the children of God.

Isn’t it amazing how Jesus encounters someone with a pure heart right after arguing with the Pharisees about this? And just so we’re clear – she was a rule-breaking alien, woman. Three strikes against her and she still gets the home run.

That’s because this Syrophoenician woman trusted in three important ways. 1) She trusted that in Jesus she would find the food of life, which for her, was the healing she desired for her child. 2) She trusted in the mercy of God who cares for the stranger (Ps 146:8). She may not have been a Jew, but she was in the household all the same, and everyone in the household deserves to be fed. 3) She trusted in the abundance of God’s love knowing that there would be enough for the children of Israel and for her.

Our Scripture tells us that after this encounter Jesus continued on through the Gentile country and headed back toward Galilee where people brought a deaf man to him to be healed. Like many who are born deaf, this man spoke with an impediment.

Jesus didn’t hesitate. He took the man away from the crowd and did a healing ritual with him. There was no magic in putting his fingers in the man’s ear or his spittle on the man’s tongue. It was ritual.

Jesus could have healed this man in the same way he had healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, with a word, but he chose instead to do a healing ritual. Ritually touching the man’s ears and tongue, then raising his eyes and his prayer to heaven, Jesus sighed - a signal of release - and called upon the man to do the same.

“Be opened,” Jesus said. It’s a simple command, but it’s so powerful and transforming that we ought not to run by it too quickly.

“Be opened.” Jesus wasn’t talking to the ears, but to the man. It was a command with a sense of urgency and it required the man to come into the presence of God and let go, to be still and let God do the work.

Be … just be… just wait in the presence… release, let go all thoughts, all desires, all expectations… let go all doubts, all fears, all concerns about worthiness or unworthiness, cleanness or uncleanness… let go and let God open you. “Be opened.”

And immediately, our Scripture tells us, he was opened. We know his ears were opened and his tongue released because Mark tells us that he spoke plainly. It seems clear, however, that the man himself was also opened, along with the people to whom he returned.

Mark tells us that no matter how much Jesus cautioned them not to talk about it, their excitement could not be contained, “astounded” as they were “beyond measure.” They had witnessed the fulfillment of the prophesy that when the Messiah came he would make “the deaf to hear and the mute to speak” and they couldn’t help but proclaim what they had just seen Jesus do.

The healing ritual with the deaf man was done for the benefit of the man, the people in his community, those to whom they told the story, and for us who read about it today. It demonstrates an important part of our relationship with God, who waits faithfully for us to come near and be made whole.

It also reminds us how important it is for us to do what we do on Sundays and Holy Days: ritually praying and eating together while giving thanks to God – the source of the food of life that makes us whole. When we come to church we make an offering of ourselves to God knowing – trusting – that in Jesus we have the food of life, that God’s mercy and love are abundant and available to any who ask.

As Episcopalians, we’re familiar with ritual, and the symbolic language and actions involved. We may not think about it much, but we are affected by it when we are open to it.

So like that deaf man, Jesus is calling us - right now - to be opened… to come into the presence of God… to release, to let go all thoughts, desires, and expectations… to let go all doubts, fears, and concerns of worthiness… to let go and let God in.

“Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts…” Amen.