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.