Monday, September 24, 2012

If God followed MY plan, I would know what will happen next

Proper 20B     Sept. 23, 2012
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:6
Mark 9:30-37

There are a lot of myths about children: that they are helpless, self-centered, vulnerable, always happy, supremely innocent. There’s also that pop psychology talk about how we adults must get back to our "inner child."

The other side of the child myth is that they are violent, uncontrollable and incapable of moral reasoning – and must be tried and incarcerated as adults.

Myths like these are popular for good reason. There is some truth in them: children are dependent on adults for health and well-being, and many adults do carry with them the scars of a childhood damaged or robbed by cruel circumstance. Children do fly into violent rages and they often do not understand the consequences of their actions. But myths also can cloud reality, helping us see more of what we want to see that what really may be there.

I think that is part of the point Jesus is trying to make in the gospel. He tells the disciples -- again -- that he will suffer and die and -- again -- they deny it. They don't understand, Mark tells us, and they are afraid to ask Jesus what he means. But they must have been thinking about it somewhat, because they got into a conversation about who was the greatest. Jesus sits them down to teach them (and us!) a lesson: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." (Not what the quarrelling disciples want to hear.) And then he takes a child in his arms: "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me."

What is the importance of the child in what Jesus is trying to teach his friends?

In Jesus’ day, children were at the bottom of the bottom. They had no status or privilege, even within the family. For Jesus to use them as an example of what it means to follow Jesus, to follow the way of the cross, is to say that to be a disciple means to be as powerless and socially unimportant as a child. Rather than squabbling over who would be the greatest in the new realm of God, the disciples should model themselves on those who are powerless and insignificant. Jesus is deliberately shocking them.

What shocks us today by the example of a child? What is it about children today that might similarly shock and wake us up to what it means to follow Jesus?

Children don’t have a lot of control over what happens to them. Other people make their decisions and they are vulnerable to the wisdom or foolishness of the adults who care for them. If Jesus were using a child as an example for us, today, of discipleship, the shocking lesson for us might be that we have to give up control over the future, over what happens to us, that we would have to let go.

Wanting to control the future – to control God’s plans -- is part of the disciples' denial of Jesus' statements on suffering and death. They don't want to hear him say, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands." Who would want to hear that? I would not, but by denying it, out of fear or lack of understanding, I, too, would be betraying Jesus, for my denial would reveal that I would rather that God follow my plan for Jesus -- that we all live happily and not too controversially ever after -- than I would follow God's plan, which leaves far too much open to chance and danger.

When God became human in the person of Jesus, he opened himself to a world of chance and change, of arbitrariness and unpredictability, to a world filled with danger, grief, sorrow, loss and, inevitably, suffering and death. Into this world God has poured hope. If we deny the suffering and death, Jesus tells his disciples, we lose the chance of experiencing the hope. Yet if we approach the world with the powerlessness of a child, we can live in that new reality, in that community of equals, where in our powerlessness we can know the true power of God.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tough questions

Proper 19 B; Sept. 16, 2012
Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19
James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

The word for this gospel lesson is CRISIS: it is the turning point in the Gospel of Mark, the hinge point which marks the end of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the beginning of the end. Jesus now faces his disciples toward Jerusalem, toward the challenges that lie ahead, toward the cross, toward sacrifice, toward death. He asks them the BIG question, and they have to come up with the RIGHT answer.

The news around us seems to indicate that the whole world has been thrown into a crisis, and at every point, like the disciples confronted by Jesus, we are forced to make a choice, and every choice seems to hold life or death consequences. The Presidential election maybe the most debated one of the moment. Who do we say Romney, or Obama, is? Which side are we on? Which path should we take?

When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” they trot out the usual answers, drawn from their experience with religious figures: Elijah, who was an ancient Jewish prophet, John the Baptist, who cried out in the wilderness. That would be the predictable thing, to understand Jesus because he was like someone we already knew about. But then Jesus surprises them – and us – by asking them – and us, the readers of this encounter, “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter delivers the surprise line now: You are the Christ. You are the Messiah. You are the leader with royal stature and political power to lead us in a revolution against all that oppresses us. You are the one who will deliver us from the power of the Roman Empire and the corruption of the Jewish authorities. You are the Man.

We can hear a tune playing in the back of Peter’s head: “happy days are here again.” Visions of sugar plums, their side winning, the oppression of the cruel Romans routed out, no more crippling taxes, leaders with true spiritual and moral integrity restored to the Temple in Jerusalem. These plans sound good. Isn’t this where you’ve been heading all along, Jesus?

Maybe Peter should have paid attention to the kind of advice given in the Epistle of James – “Watch your words!!” – for Peter’s words in answer to Jesus’ question caused the teacher to erupt in an angry rebuke: “Get behind me Satan.” What you have in mind are merely human expectations; you need to set your mind on what God has planned, and for the short term, it won’t be pretty. God has sent me here to confront all those evil things that you mention: the powers and principalities that work against what God has in mind for humanity. But they will fight back, and I will suffer and die. And to follow me means sharing in that fight, in that suffering, even in that death. This way is difficult, but this is the way to life, to justice, to abundance, to mercy, to love, to community, to life.

No, this is not the response you will hear from political candidates, and believe me, it is no easier for preachers to deal with texts like this that it would be for politicians. It’s so much easier to preach on the abundance Jesus promises, or the healing he delivers, or many times he fed and taught and touched people in need. Here we are faced with what seems like an impossible choice, to follow Jesus down a difficult road.
Let’s step back a bit. Unlike Peter, we can move away from the brink. We have all of the Gospels before us; how else does Jesus talk to us? In the parables, for instance, all those wonderful little stories which frequently begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like …” Jesus tells us stories about how God is searching for US – how God is seeking the lost and the least, and is less interested in the triumphalistic and the powerful, or the secure and the slick and those who are SURE they always have the right answers. One theologian put it this way: “The Christian Church does not offer men and women a route map to God. Instead it tells them by what means they might be found by [God].”

So often, when we seek God, the temptation is to look for a reflection of our own needs, to find the key to our own selves. But our lessons today remind us that when we get in this business of a relationship with God, God takes the lead – God looks for us – God asks tough questions of us – God directs us to places we never thought we’d go. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asks us. This is not the final exam, but it is an invitation to follow him and to find out more.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

EVERYONE falls within the reach of God's saving grace

Proper 18 B   September 9, 2012
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-10, 14-1
Mark 7:24-37

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt created Social Security, he knew it would not work if it was only for a certain group of poor old people, who could be isolated, stigmatized, shunned. The program could be chopped off by later administrations if it was something for “those people.” Social Security would work, he advocated, if it was for everyone: the very needy would be embedded into something that was good for everyone who got old. It was old-age insurance for everybody, rich and poor.

All of our lessons today talk about the rich and the poor, and, like FDR’s plan for Social Security, what we actually read is not what we thought we might be reading, at first glance.

Our Gospel today has this very curious interchange between Jesus and the Gentile, Syrophoenician woman. He seems to make fun of her, telling her her ailing daughter is not worth any more than a dog. Yet the woman persists, gets back at Jesus, and when she returns home, the child is healed.

So we think that this bossy woman caused Jesus to change his mind – and yes, she was outspoken. But where else did we ever hear of Jesus NOT healing one of the many, many people from all walks of life who came to him for healing? Never. So what was it about THIS woman?

The point Jesus is trying to make in this interchange – and yes, Jesus knew what he was saying to her – is that even a woman like this woman – a Gentle, a foreigner, and a well-to-do foreign woman at that – receives the blessings of God’s grace. Like Social Security, Jesus’ healing powers are for the rich and the poor, the native-born and foreign-born, our next-door neighbors and the ones on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

As always in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is is part of the story. Tyre, far up the Mediterranean coast, is a Roman port city, well-to-do, Gentile, Hellenized. “Hellenized” means Greek-speaking, but it also means more. It means people who are part of the upper-class culture of the day, the cosmopolitan, Empire-traveling Greek-speakers. The Syrophoenicians who lived in Tyre moved in the circles of power and privilege and influence. This posh place is where we find Jesus today.

Yet we usually think of Jesus being among the poor – and the poor people of Jesus’ day were given a raw deal by people with power and privilege. Not only was this bossy woman a Gentile, she was part of the elite class that benefited from keep poor farmers and fisherfolk and townspeople at the bottom of the economic ladder.

How astounding then, when Jesus comes to this region, trying to lay low and keep his presence a secret – he seems to be coming here for a kind of vacation, away from all the press of the crowds who want healing and hope --  that a woman of this Syrophoenician, Greek-speaking, urban elite comes barging in. Jesus’ secret was apparently not safe; even this Gentile woman knew this random, roving teacher had the power to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Somehow even she has heard the Good News, she, who Jesus notes, someone supposedly excluded from it. This woman comes from the outside, from the world of power and privilege and empire. She does not live by the covenant with God, but she knows Jesus can help her.

And if we read between the lines of their repartee, we see that Jesus not only helps her by healing her daughter, but that Jesus uses this interchange – this conversation with the outsider, rich woman – to prove to those around him that God’s reign knows no limits. After this, Jesus leaves Tyre, goes north to Sidon, and then takes a journey of 40 miles to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He travels through Jewish Galilee to the Gentile, Roman, Greek-speaking region of Decapolis, another city of “foreigners.” Again, Jesus’ messianic secret is not so well kept. Here a deaf man, with a speech impediment, comes to be healed -- even someone who is deaf has heard the Good News. When God rules the world, EVERYONE falls within God’s saving embrace. The kind of distinctions that humans love so much – rich, poor; native, foreign; “our kind” of religion vs. “their kind” of religion – are not what God cares about.

In the letter of James, we read how the early church lived out this Good New. James continues Jesus’ radical equality: rich and poor are included. The rich should not be privileged, but they are our neighbors. The poor should be treated with dignity – with honor to their “excellent name” – and yes, some of what the rich hoard must be shared with the poor. The mark of a faithful person, James says, are seen in what that person does. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and … yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Sounds like Social Security to me. Maybe all those years sitting in church listening to scripture did something to FDR. Maybe this line, from Proverbs, began to sink in: “The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” Even a rich fellow like him – deaf, in a certain way, and shielded from the poor – understood that the Good News really had no limits, and no, Social Security wouldn’t work if it was only for the poor.

But Social Security, as good as it is, is, after all, only a human-designed program. In the world that Jesus proclaims, in the reign of God, everyone, always, has all that they need, and everyone’s excellent name is honored.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Three Miles an Hour

Proper 17 B     Sept. 2, 2012
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Ps. 45:1-2, 7-10
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Labor Day is the American holiday, as the unions like to say, brought to us by workers. Working conditions at the beginning of the 20th century were abysmal, especially in the rapidly industrializing cities, Laws and customs changed when people, working across class and social boundaries, decided it was in everyone’s best interest to improve things for the people who worked the hardest: No child labor. 40-hour work week. Occupational health and safety standards. And an occasional paid day off: hence, Labor Day. The last day of summer. The last day of the State Fair. Brats and burgers on the grill. Fresh corn and tomatoes. One farewell swim at the beach.

Yet even if the workers threw off their chains over the past 100 years or so, the industrial revolution is not what it used to be. We’ve certainly seen in this community how it has come to a screeching halt, and no amount of fair work rules can make up for a workplace that is no longer there. Technology is rapidly creating a new kind of workplace and a new kind of labor, but we know that it has not quite jelled in our social consciousness. We’re going somewhere in a hurry, but we may not be quite sure where, and if we stopped a minute to think about it, we might acknowledge some worry that not everyone is coming along.
Listen to this, the Manifesto of the Slow Food Movement, written in 1989, in Paris (of course):

Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine, and then took it as its life model.[i]

Slow Food, which began as a protest to the introduction of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome, now claims over 100,000 followers, in 53 countries. They are dedicated to food grown and served locally – food that starts out fresh and ends up as a delicious meal on your table. By hearkening back to the beginning of the industrial era, I think they are saying that workers don’t live by their union dues alone – that there has to be something about the quality of life – about the very bread we eat and the wine we drink – that is worthy of who we are as humans created in the image of God.

I think Jesus would be part of the Slow Food movement. In our reading today, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being too rule-bound, of worrying too much about who shouldn’t eat with them. In service to these well-intentioned rules, they have neglected some of the deeper traditions of God, traditions like hospitality to strangers, and feeding the hungry, and providing for those who are in need. They certainly have forgotten the sensual beauty of the Song of Solomon, where every meal is a delight, especially when shared with someone you love. The words of the Psalmist fall on their deaf ears, unaware of the songs and treasures and fragrances that are part of the language humans use to praise God.

The Slow Food movement has encouraged other movements, including a Slow Church movement. Like the rest of society, church life can get too busy – we can focus our attention on the wrong things, and lose sight of the delight we have in each other, in being called together in Christ’s name. We can think too much of our selves, and our needs, rather than on those out there who need us, and how much we have to share. Theologians have for some time encouraged us to slow down and pay attention to what is going on around us; they remind us that the pace of the modern world, and all its rules and restrictions, distance us from life itself. “Love has its speed,” Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama tells us:

It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice it or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore the speed the love of God walks.[ii]

Each local chapter of the Slow Food movement is called a convivium. It’s a Latin word, describing the place where people come together for a feast, where they live and dine together, where they eat, drink and are merry.

A convivium is what Jesus had in mind when he ate and drank with his disciples, for wherever the love of God is, you will find a party. Remember the story from the Gospel of Luke, about the dinner in Emmaus. Two disciples invited their companion, who had walked along the road with them, to join them for a meal. As the meal progressed, and the conversation became lively and animated, it was then they realized they were having a party, a great, rollicking, delightful party, and only then, in the middle of all that conviviality, did they realize it. Only then did they realize that their companion had brought the party with him, only then did they realize it was Jesus, revealed to them in the breaking of the bread.

[i] Quoted by John Pattison in “Why We Need a Slow Church Movement”
[ii] Kosuke Koyama, The Three-Mile-an-Hour God (Orbis Books, 1980), quoted by Simon Marsh in <>