Saturday, February 21, 2015

God promises us that things will be better

Epiphany 5-B: February 8, 2015
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who had no arms. He had been born with a birth defect, and over the course of his life had learned to do with his feet many of the things that the rest of us do with our hands. After a while you didn’t notice much different about him, even when he’d sit at the lunch table and pick up his fork with his toes.

I went to seminary in New York City. There was a woman who used to stand on the sidewalk in front of Bloomingdale’s and shout, “Help me. I’ve got cerebral palsy. Help me. I’ve got cerebral palsy,” over and over again. I think she was asking for money, but since I never stopped to ask her what kind of help she wanted, I don’t really know.

Also, when I was in seminary, I went to a service commemorating “disability awareness week” or something like that. It was at the Chapel of the Church Center for All Nations – at the United Nations -- an expansive place, which welcomes all kinds of worshippers. The celebrant was an Episcopal priest who served the deaf community. One young man stands out in my memory – he was the preacher, a disability rights advocate. He was an amputee, I think. I know he refused to wear prosthesis – artificial limbs – because he had no interest in making those of us who were “fully abled” feel more comfortable with his disability. He also refused to use those metal crutches with arm holders that many people use – again on the grounds that they served to make “able-bodied” people feel more comfortable because they could categorize him as “disabled.” He preferred using wooden crutches, like anyone would use.

All these stories, along with today’s Gospel story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, raise these questions: what is sickness? What is health? What does it mean to be healed?

Last week, we read of how Jesus cast the demons out of a man possessed by what we today might call mental illness. In the words of the old hymn, Jesus “re-clothed him in his rightful mind.” He restored him to wholeness. He cast out those outside forces which had invaded the man, and gave him back himself. No longer was he possessed by those alien forces; he could return to the rest of society, to his community and his family, as himself, restored, healed.

Whatever fever Simon’s mother-in-law has, it must be serious. The normal remedies must not be working. They way she is isolated and alone, even in the house, makes us think that perhaps they had given her up for dead. When Jesus touches her, healing happens, but not healing like we would think of a doctor making a house call. Jesus doesn’t administer an antibiotic, or apply leeches, or mix a poultice, or shake a magic rattle. Jesus touches her, and yes, she is relieved of the fever, but look what happens then: she is restored to her family. She joins the party. She gets up and helps serve. She regains her place of honor and dignity. She is no longer a patient; she is a person. She is restored, healed.

In those three stories of my seminary days, I think I learned that “healing” is not just about an individual who “gets better.” I don’t think there is a “cure” for cerebral palsy, nor can someone without limbs grow them back. Healing, for those people, challenges our definitions – OUR definitions – of wholeness. Wholeness is not perfection. Wholeness is not some idealized state of no flaws. Wholeness is about being human, fully human, being a full member of the human race. The sick person is isolated; the healed person, no matter what his or her state of disability may be, is restored from that isolation to wholeness, to community, to family and friends. The healed person is a productive and needed and loved member of society. This is what Jesus means by healing: those who were outcast, who were suffering and alone, are brought back inside the fold. Healing is not just “fixing an illness;” it is restoring a person to being, once again, a whole human being who has meaning and value and a place in the community.

Many of us wonder, and I know I have felt this way, when we are sick or in trouble, why me, why I am sick? What have I done to deserve this? Why can’t Jesus help me? Where is the healing in my life?

It is hard to climb out of those pits; no doubt about it, and there certainly are some things about our lives – all of our lives – that we don’t like, and like it or not, that will never change. We can stay there, carrying all those grudges, nursing all those hurts. We can perpetuate our isolation, thinking we are all alone in our troubles, and no, Jesus isn’t going to walk through that door and make everything better – or at least “better” in the way we think “better” ought to be defined.

But listen to this: we have what Jesus had. We have the promise from God that things will be better,
that they are better. “Have you not known,” Isaiah writes. “Has it not been told you from the beginning?” We have the same promise from God that Jesus knew, that God gives power to the faint, and strength to the powerless – that God calls all – all of us – by name, and not one is missing: not the woman with cerebral palsy, shouting outside of Bloomingdale’s, not my professor who ate with his feet, not the disability activist who refused to hide his amputated limbs. Simon’s mother-in-law is there, and the man possessed by demons, and you, and, you and you, and you, and me. Everybody who is home sick today; everybody who is just too tired to get out of bed. We’re all there, called by God, called by hope, pulled out of our isolation and aloneness. This is what God promises us: with wings like eagles, we shall run and not be weary; we shall walk, every one of us, we shall walk and never grow faint.

The saints beckon us to come deeper into the reality of God

All Saints: November 2, 2014
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10 
Psalm 149
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

There is a danger to All Saints Day. The danger is we look too often and too longingly to the past. “One was a soldier, one was a priest, one was slain by a fierce wild beast,” a pre-Raphaelite past of a romantic, medieval England, or the distant past of late Antiquity, of Christian martyrs slain by lions in the Roman coliseum. Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury through the 1960s and early 1970s put it this way:

One consequence of the mystery of Christ is that Christian people don’t stand, so to say, on the ground of the present moment and view past generations, or their comrades in paradise, as people some distance away from them. No, we see the present moment more clearly and bravely because our stance is within the Communion of Saints. How closely, how lovingly, they are praying with us today.

If the lives of the saints have any meaning for us – indeed, if we believe they are praying for us – then All Saints Day cannot be a celebration of the past. This day is about who we are in the present, and what legacy we are leaving for the future – for those saints who, inevitably, will come after us.

As might be appropriate in this election season – and this day of incessant polling – I remember a book George Gallup published in 1992: The Saints Among Us: How the Spiritually Committed Are Changing Our World. Gallup and his pollsters wanted to find “Americans for whom ‘God is a vibrant reality,’ and for whom ‘Christian commitment makes a difference in how they actually live.’” The pollsters asked probing question over long interviews – I don’t think just those quickie things we get on the phone at this time of year – and they came up with results that will help us, in the words of Michael Ramsey, “to see the present moment more clearly and bravely.” This little book – very American and very modern – tells us something about what for two thousand years we have called “The Communion of Saints.” It is just a glimpse, of course, but there is something to it.

These “saints” Gallup found – and he called them “saints among us” expressed a faith that came from their insides, “a direct experience of God that continued to be a vital part of their daily life.” For these saints, prayer is not a laundry list of concerns, nor is God a being found only in church, or in a crisis, or in relation to their own needs. What these saints can show us is that God is always accessible to us, always close at hand, in the ground beneath their feet and in the air they breathe. These saints pay attention to the reality of the divine in the world around them.

These saints – and Gallup estimated they are about 13 percent of the population – live out a deeper level of commitment to God than do their neighbors, and they do it by how they respond to the needs of the people around them. No surprise there, of course, for have not the saints over the centuries been the ones who have built hospitals and rescued the dying? Have they not been the ones who stood with their communities to make them better places, brought hope and opened the doors for justice and peace?

Gallup found that these saints threw themselves into this work – into God’s work in the world – without prejudice – or rather through the work they did for God, they learned to serve without prejudice. The saints Gallup found are not perfect; he noted that only 84 percent of the saints “would not object to a person of another race moving in next door. … not a ‘perfect score’ [Gallup noted] but [one that] surpasses that of the spiritually uncommitted by 20 points.” I think that reflects that when we actually do something with people in need – when we stand in solidarity with people like those we have never met before, that it changes us, and with the help of God that simple service and solidarity moves us further along toward the lives of the saints.

Surprisingly, part of the benefits of these saintly lives is happiness, abiding joy, joy tested through
difficulty. I think part of that happiness comes from a simplicity of life, a shedding of things that just don’t matter because you have experienced so much more deeply the things that do. These saints that George Gallup encountered were generally not wealthy or powerful, not necessarily highly educated nor accustomed to walking the corridors of power. “They stand close enough to daily needs – at home, at work, in their neighborhoods – to be in touch with the pain that is in their midst.” It is a fact that charitable giving in poor neighborhoods – even giving by those who may not always be so saintly – is much higher, proportionately, than it is in neighborhoods like ours. Saints stand in solidarity with those in need, moving further and further from their own comfort zone as they do so.

All Saints Day, then, is to stand, as Michael Ramsey, says, within the Communion of Saints. They beckon us to come deeper into the reality they live, deeper into their prayers, deeper into their challenges, deeper into their joys.

A "both-and" world

Proper 24-A
October 19, 2014
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

"Two worlds" can be the rationale for almost anything that you want it to be. We all live and move and have our being in many worlds, many communities, many relationships. In school we know the rules, the way life is lived, who's in charge, who are friends, who are “frenemies”, then we come home to another world where different rules, different players and different expectations are laid on us. Clean up. Feed the dog. Put away your cell phone at the dinner table.

The story read today from the Gospel of Matthew has been used since the Middle Ages to justify a doctrine of two worlds. Martin Luther can be credited with developing the notion based on this passage, that Christians should maintain a total separation between the sacred and secular, between the temporal and spiritual governance of their lives. Although first used to protect the Church against the corrupt interference of "Christian Rulers," it has more often served the purpose of people who might behave well in Church, but would justify cut-throat business dealings or immoral public policy on the grounds that Caesar or the civil authorities must be dealt with on their own dirty territory by their own dirty means. After all a man's got to do what a man's got to do.

Many people, however, think this interpretation is a misreading of what Jesus had in mind. Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the last week of his life. Group after group representing the Jewish authorities threatened by his teachings come to confront him, to trick him into admitting some crime for which they could punish him.

This time a group of Herodians and Pharisees, usually in opposition, join forces to quiz him on loyalty to the foreign civil authority of the Emperor versus the Jewish commandment to worship no other God but Yahweh and to make no graven image. (You remember that all Roman subjects were to worship Caesar as a god; to do otherwise was treason. The Jews were the one exception to this civic religious duty.) The Herodians were like the Vichy French; they collaborated with the occupiers. Herod the Great owed his position to the Emperor, who wanted Herod to keep the Jews quiet. The Pharisees were good, religious folk who wanted no part of the blasphemy of accommodating Rome and their pagan god. On this occasion however, these two joined forces to trap Jesus into political treason or blasphemy against the first commandment.

Jesus refuses to be trapped. "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, to God what is God's,” he says. Jesus affirms that we live in one world, not two. To the Herodians and others like them who want to compartmentalize their lives in the real world – the world where they compromise with the Roman occupiers -- from their religious obligations – where they want to stay pure -- , Jesus says, no. God demands that we are his people in social as well as religious duties. To the Pharisees who believe religious people should deal only with religion, Jesus again says no! Our God is the God of all history, of all politics, of all nations. God's standards of justice and mercy apply to all times and in all places.

There are no easy answers in this “both-and” world. The social-political world – the world of Caesar,
in Jesus’ terms – is deeply flawed. This is the world of the zero-sum game, where people think that if I gain, you lose. It is a world governed more by fear than grace, more by scarcity than abundance. And it is the world into which God has plopped us, and it is in this world that God expects us to be God’s people. God expects us to take those flaws and imbue them with life. We can pay our taxes, yes, but God expects us to use our resources to do more: to contribute to the common good. To make the world a better place. To feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, comfort the prisoner.

The world will get its due from us – but the world will not get all of us. The lion’s share, God’s share, our whole selves, our souls and bodies, are what we give in the way God would have us give, and, amazingly, the more of THAT we give away, the more and more and more we will always have.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Alien ownership

Epiphany 4b   Feb. 1, 2015
Deut 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1: 21-28

Just how comfortable are you, when, during a service of Baptism, I say, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” Asking this questions throws people off. It seems to come from a different time and place – almost from a different religion that polite Episcopalianism.

Satan and the powers of wickedness are just what Jesus comes up against in today’s Gospel. The easy interpretation of this passage is that the man with the unclean spirit is kind of crazy, kind of disruptive. We’ve all known people whose serious mental illness makes them helpless to help themselves. Indeed these exorcisms of Jesus are often lumped in with stories of Jesus healing sick people, or stories of their conversion in the faith, like the author of Amazing Grace: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Now, those healing stories are true; people do find grace to get through life’s difficulties. Their hearts are converted and they become followers of Jesus. It’s just that this is not one of those stories.

This is a story where Jesus challenges the status quo, and when he does that, people who have a stake in keeping the status quo status quo get quite angry. Demonic even. They crack up, or at least this one man cracks up. And in that anger, that crack up, he sees what they others in the synagogue do not yet see: that Jesus is the Holy One of God, and that he has come, not just to make people feel better, or to be their friend, but to change the way the world works.
We’re in Capernaum. Here, where Simon and Andrew, James and John live. It is a fairly prosperous fishing village. Mark does not seem to care what Jesus said that shook people up so much, that called out the demons like the cavalry to protect the status quo. Perhaps Jesus said something in this Capernaum synagogue like Luke recorded that he said at his first visit to the synagogue in Nazareth. That was when Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” and then said, “This day this scripture has come true in your hearing.” Think of the “business as usual” powers that that would be upset by words like that. In today’s world, what about those prisons for profit? They would be hurt by setting captives free. There are not a few institutions in society which profit by keeping people sick and poor and blind and dumb, by defining sickness and poorness and blindness and dumbness as conditions which need their help and intervention.

You can hear Jesus saying things like that – quoting scripture about the restoration of God’s justice – and ordinary people in the synagogue -- the business as usual people, the people who have something to lose if it is God’s justice they have to follow and not the usual system of justice -- getting so angry that their demons come out. Jesus is holding the world up to God’s standards of justice and wholeness. The demons, in their uncleanness, recognize that Jesus is holy – whole – clean – and they can’t stand it.

Following Jesus is an ongoing process of remembering who is in charge of our lives, who is in charge of the world. When we read in the Gospel of Mark about “demonic possession,” it is a metaphor for alien ownership. The person who is possessed by the unclean spirit is owned by someone other than God, just as Galilee and Judea were owned by the Roman Empire and not by the people who actually lived there, just as the very earth under the disciples feet and the sea in which they fished were owned by interests which put their profit ahead of people’s lives.

There are many ways to talk about the power of Satan in this world. Some people would say Satan exerts power when we choose war over peace. When we allow people to go hungry when we have plenty of food to go around. When the rich get richer and the rest of us just go along with all the legal changes that encourage money to flow to the top. Satan can take hold of our lives in quiet, sneaky ways, otherwise indistinguishable from “business as usual.”

Thinking about it in this way, we see that the stories in the Gospel of Mark are not just tales from some long ago and far away world. And the hope these stories bring is not long ago and far away, either. These stories affirm that even if we feel out of control, even we feel everybody and everything else is ruling our lives, we belong to God, and there is nothing that any of those Satans out there can do who can change that.

This is the way the world works when God is in charge

Proper 23 A     Oct. 12, 2014
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

We have just read two pretty shocking stories today, one from Exodus and one from the Gospel of Matthew. Are they about God’s wrath? Or God’s judgment? Or is that the same thing?

Many people do believe that God is a punishing God, that God’s judgment means we can never measure up, that we have disobeyed, that God is angry, and that that is the end of us.

The Exodus story is familiar – or is it? We know that Moses is himself pretty angry with this golden calf-fest. He sees this seemingly irreparable division between God and God’s people – between God’s expectations for their living the way God would have them live and the people’s gold-crazed worship of something else – and Moses steps right into that breach. He does the unimaginable. Moses asks God to change his mind, to turn away from that justifiable anger and remember how much God loves these people, however wayward and selfish and whiny and stiff-necked they are. Moses reminds God of the promise GOD made to these very same people – and God changes his mind. There could be no worse sinners than those people who squandered their future, the promise God had given them. They took all their money, their assets, their gold, all that they had, and dumped it into something as foolish as a golden calf. There are no worse sinners than these – but the hand that holds them is the hand of a God who loves them and who keeps his promises. God remembers that love, and God changes God’s mind. The story of the golden calf is a story not of God’s wrath but of God’s grace.

When Jesus tells his very troubling story of the wedding banquet, the illustrations he uses – the kingdom of heaven, the king, the slaves, the guests the wedding, the wedding garment – these are not religious images. Today we think they are religious, because we have read them for 2000. But in Jesus’ day they were illustrations from the secular world. People knew powerful and capricious kings, the kind of ruler who had absolute control over their lives. They would recognize the arrogant ones who refused to show up, the thugs who would follow violent, death-dealing orders without question, the slaves and poor people who would cower in fear, not understanding what was going on and not knowing what would happen next. And so is this a story of God’s wrath? Or of God’s judgment? And is there any difference?

This is a story full of symbols. The kingdom of heaven represents the way the world operates when God is in charge. The wedding banquet represents the abundance of God’s grace. Who gets invited in? Everybody: the good and the bad. Even after the first guests refuse to attend, God does not seek out only the good ones – God still invites everyone in. In the kingdom of heaven there is always enough to go around. Even though all is provided – not only food but wedding clothes as well – and even at that late hour, someone is not ready. Someone does not accept the full invitation. Someone still refuses God’s grace. Someone still doesn’t get it about how God wants us to live.

The people to whom Jesus preached lived in difficult times. They lived lives of insecurity and fear, under the threat of violence and in a land where powerful people called the shots. If you have ever gotten in trouble with the law, if you have ever been accused of something you did not do, you have an inkling of what power those people and the system behind them have over you. The people to whom Jesus is speaking lived with that kind of insecurity and system-induced shame all of their lives.

When Jesus spoke to those people around him about the kingdom of heaven, he didn’t mean something far off, pie in the sky by and by. He used language that described their current reality – a reality of fear and powerlessness and insecurity – and told them that the world did not have to be like that. He told them that God was on their side. That the king would throw the scalawags out, the ones not prepared to accept God’s invitation to live as God would have them live.

Yes, this is a story of God’s judgment, but it is a story of hope. There are things that God will just not put up with, Jesus says. The world as it is – of greed, and homelessness, and violence, and fear – is not the way it has to be.

When I was preparing this sermon, and first read over the lessons, I thought I could not preach on the Philippians lesson. It was just too simplistic, too happy, for our polarized and unsettled times; it put too happy an ending on the other two troubling stories from scripture. But now I think just the opposite. The Philippians passage is what the wedding banquet is all about. The Philippians passage describes the life God invites us to share, for the abundance of the wedding banquet is all around us. Rejoice, God says. Be gentle. The Lord is near. Don’t worry. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is excellent, whatever is praiseworthy: think on THESE things. In times like this, those words may pass all understanding, but this truly is the peace of God.

Harvest, home & commonwealth

Proper 22A      October 5, 2014
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

In a conversation with a Jewish friend last week, I was reminded of what a rich time of the year this is for the Jewish High Holidays. In these days between Rosh Hashana – New Year’s – and Yom Kippur – the day of atonement – faithful Jews stop and take stock of what is going on in their lives, in the world, in their lives and in the world with God. The time of the year supports that introspection, doesn’t it: this time of harvest, of cooling temperatures, of gathering-in, of re-grouping after a busy summer, of hunkering down before the challenges of the winter -- and for those of us who still live by a school calendar – before all the hard work of the coming year really gets going.

Our gospel lesson today is about a harvest-time time of reckoning – a little parable about God’s economy, meaning the way God organizes God’s household. The Greek word “oikia” means house, and “oikonomia” means the management of a house… hmm, does that tantalizing Swedish word for a fabulous store full of household furnishings also come from the Greek word for house??? Does that mean God’s house would look like Ikea??? I somehow think not. God’s economy is not about things you buy and sell, nor is it about looking great, keeping up with fashion trends, or coming out on top with a bargain.

The place to start as we understand what it is to live in God’s household, what it is to play by the rules of God’s economy, is with our first lesson, followed up by that lyrical psalm 19. Moses delivers the ten commandments – and by extension, the whole of the law -- and the psalmist tells us what a delight and a joy it is to follow that law. It revives the soul, rejoices the heart, endures for ever, and is more to be desired than gold.

But in this harvest time, let’s look at the Gospel lesson. If part of God’s household contains a vineyard, then one of the crisis points in the year is the time of harvest. The crop has ripened at once, and there is not a moment to lose to get in all in. Such a crisis is fraught with opportunity and peril. “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus say elsewhere in this Gospel of Matthew, “but the laborers are few.”
The prophets use the image of the vineyard to describe sacred land, God’s land, the symbolic place where the people live in obedience to God, to the Torah, that law of Exodus and of Psalm 19. Outside the vineyard, beyond the fence, is the land of the unfaithful, the wicked, the disobedient, the alien. But God is not pleased: those who were given the vineyard to tend have squandered the opportunity. The grapes are sour, wild, useless; all will be laid to waste, the laborers sent “to a miserable death.” All that privilege, all that power, all those riches – all taken away from the original tenants and given to those who know the rules of God’s economy, to people who will produce “the fruits of the kingdom.”

Another word for “kingdom” or “reign” of God is “commonwealth.” It came into English usage around the time of the reformation, the 16th century, and refers to the welfare, or wealth or weal, held in common by all the people. When we talk about the kingdom of God, or the reign of God, we know who is on top, who is King of kings, Lord of lords. But as I have talked about before, I find the word “commonwealth” gets to the heart of what God has in mind for us. God has a created the world, which the people of God hold in common. We are all stewards of this common wealth. When we think of the vineyard, say, as a “kingdom,” our lines of responsibility or accountability only go up, to God. But by using the word “commonwealth,” those ties reach out across the community, as well as up to the one who has created this wonderful world we all share.

The Gospel of Matthew is pretty specific about this parable: the Jews have received all the blessings of God. They are God’s special people, the follow the Torah, they are the light to the nations; they are supposed to be an example to the world about how to live in this world we all hold in common. And Matthew makes it pretty clear that Jesus believes the Jews have squandered this precious gift. They have become exclusive and selfish, and Matthew has Jesus even predict that they will be the ones to kill him.

That can be a dangerous way to read this text, after two thousand years of Christian history. That can be an anti-Semitic reading, part of the case used to accuse the Jews of being Christ-killers, to justify pogroms and prejudice.

I think it is much more powerful and provocative, however, to put ourselves in the place of those stewards: with what part of this great commonwealth of God’s creation have we been entrusted? Are we selfish with what we have been given? Do we let it go wild and sour, not caring how it grows?

Our Jewish friends have just ended their time of reckoning, of reacquainting themselves with what it means to live in the household of God. Our lessons today invite us to take a similar journey, to press on toward that goal, toward that heavenly prize, toward that fertile vineyard and that abundant commonwealth, that belongs to the common humanity of all the people of God.