Sunday, July 29, 2012

With Three Pennies and God...

Thanks this week to (you knew this was coming) Kathryn Matthews Huey, for direction and inspiration in the writing of this sermon. I found Mother Teresa's story here.

Finally, I recommend taking part in "World In Prayer," which is updated weekly and offers a prayer for the needs of the planet.

John 6:1-21
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, "Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?" Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world."
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

This is the Word of the Lord.

In our reading last week, Jesus and the disciples were trying to get away, have a quiet meal and catch a nap. The disciples had gone out two-by-two into the towns and villages, bringing the Good News and seeing the power of God at work in themselves when they cast out demons. Jesus had just learned the horrifying news of his cousin John’s death, and their popularity had grown to the point that they couldn’t move without attracting attention. They cast off across the Sea of Galilee for some peace and quiet, and thousands met their boat when it landed on the other side.

In John’s account, the boat ride takes place under different circumstances, and Jesus and his disciples actually make it to the mountainside and sit down before Jesus sees the massive crowd coming. Honestly, if I had seen a crowd that size coming, kicking up dust in their wake, I would have first thought of running. But Jesus? He saw them coming and asked, “We’re going to need to feed them all. Where’s the bread store, Phillip?”

Phillip turned red and sputtered, overwhelmed at such a thought. “It would take thousands of dollars… and even then, there would be enough for maybe a bite… and besides, do they make that much bread?”

You can’t really blame Phillip. It was, on the surface, a nonsensical idea – the logistics of finding bread, paying for it, transporting it, distributing it… well, the word “impossible” comes to mind.

And then there’s Andrew. Where Andrew found the boy is a mystery… perhaps the child overheard Jesus speaking and tugged on the disciples’ robes. Perhaps Andrew heard what Jesus asked and immediately went scouting for food among the approaching throng. Whatever the case, while everyone else was studiously attending to not making it their problem, Andrew joined right in the nonsense. “Hey, Jesus, this kid has five loaves of barley bread and a couple of fish… not that it’ll help or anything…”

Jesus smiled and said, “Perfect! Sit ‘em down, let’s feed them!”

Now, I’ve heard a lot of theories about what happened next, including many commentators and scholars who say that the little boy’s generosity led to a “miracle of sharing,” where the people saw the child’s generosity and responded by sharing their own food.

Now, there are a lot of reasons that I think that particular interpretation of the Scriptures rings hollow, one of them being the crowd’s reaction to being fed. One would scarcely expect a crowd to become intent on making Jesus their king, by force if necessary, after being encouraged to share.

This wasn’t a warm, fuzzy, join hands and sing “Kum Ba Ya” moment. No, the crowd was responding, with excitement and an energy bordering on violence, to a sign – a demonstration of the power of God in Jesus Christ, a demonstration of who Jesus is.

Like their ancestors before them, the people being fed that day hold onto the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15, the promise of a prophet like Moses who will be raised up by God to lead them. Is it any wonder then that they see a good candidate for king in this man of power? After all, for a culture so steeped in the Scriptures, Jesus’ actions that day would have resonated for some with the stories of the Exodus from Egypt, where Moses himself had asked at one point, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Others would have seen someone bringing barley loaves that are inexplicably multiplied and shared, and would have remembered how a man had brought twenty barley loaves to the prophet Elisha, and had provided one hundred men their fill of food.  Others would have sat on that mountainside and eaten until they couldn’t look at another bite, and recalled the beautiful promise in Isaiah 25:6: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare  a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.”

Oh, make no mistake: for a people living so close to the ragged edge of starvation, suffocating under the bootheel of oppressive taxation and withering in the shadow of the ever-present Roman Empire, to enjoy a meal of barley loaves and fishes until they could eat no more was a banquet, a feast, a sumptuous repast beyond description.

The people long for freedom from lack, from starvation, from the empire that oppresses them, and this longing leads them to set their sights too short. It's certainly understandable, and only human, that they would see Jesus as a miracle-worker and even as a potential king. Even the desire for a king, however, is too small a dream and falls far short of God's dream for the people. Like far too many people today, the people in that well-fed crowd focus on what this miracle worker can do for them, which, to quote Charles Cousar, "skews the reality of grace and seeks to make of Jesus a genie or an errand boy…." Instead, Cousar writes, Jesus is even greater than that prophet they had been waiting for all these centuries, even greater than "a wonder-worker" who will fulfill their every need and desire.

History tells the tale of thousands upon thousands of kings and queens and empires and kingdoms that have risen, conquered, thrived… then either fallen to greater kingdoms or empires, or else collapsed under their own weight. Jesus came for a greater purpose, a Kingdom that will have no end… a Kingdom which conquers with love, and which rules and thrives by grace. A Kingdom which meets needs with an abundance that is always more than enough.

In the Letter to the Ephesians, we read of a God who “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” Jesus wants to give us what we don't even realize we need, at least not consciously; he knows what we need, deep down in our innermost, authentic human selves. How often have we been confronted with a need – one we experience ourselves, or one we see in another, and, like Phillip, have said, “it’s impossible… we lack the manpower, the infrastructure, the resources, the experience, it’s someone else’s problem…”?

How often, I wonder have I actually asked for too little, failing to see beyond my own immediate wants and expectations?

And while I know that I dismissed the idea of the Feeding of the Five Thousand being a “miracle of sharing,” I cannot deny that even that interpretation carries a message for us today.

Jesus asked Phillip about bread for the hungry crowd. Phillip looked at the bank balance and threw up his hands. The other disciples studied the clouds, strolled off whistling and twiddling their thumbs… and one little boy stepped out from the crowd, counted his pennies, tugged on Andrew’s robes, and handed him his lunchbox.

And Andrew said to Jesus, “we don’t have much, and we don’t know what difference it will make, but here is what we’ve got.”

Agnes had 3 pennies to her name… and a passion to help the poor. As a young girl, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu went through ministerial training in Ireland and India.  She graduated from her training with a burning passion to serve God and love people. The problem was a lack of resources. . .  how on earth was she going to realize her dreams with only 3 pennies?  What could she do with so little?

 One day she gathered all her courage and approached her superiors.  Agnes announced, “I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage.”  Her superiors could not believe what they were hearing!  After laughing at her, they said, “You can’t build an orphanage with three pennies.  With three pennies you can’t do anything.”  Agnes just smiled and replied, “I know.  But with God and three pennies, I can do anything!”

Agnes got her orphanage, and for fifty years this worked among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.  We know Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu as Mother Teresa.

Agnes looked at her pennies and said, “It isn’t much, but here’s what I have.” For Mother Teresa, three pennies were more than enough. For Jesus, five loaves and two fishes were more than enough.

What can we do to help all those affected by the devastating tragedy in Aurora, Colorado?  How can we help those fleeing the civil war in Syria, running from the undeclared civil wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Somalia and so many other parts of the world often overlooked by news organizations? What can we do about the one million children worldwide who disappear into child sex slavery?

Closer to home, what about that neighbor, that friend, who simply needs to know that God loves them?

Is the task too much? Is the need overwhelming?

With three pennies and God… we can do anything.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Snorting of the War-Horse...

Many thanks this week for the insights of Rev. D. Mark Davis and Rev. Lindy Black.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading jumps completely over a couple of very important events – the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and Jesus walking on the water. Now, this is normally the kind of thing that makes me shake my head and grumble at the computer screen, while adding back in the verses that were skipped, but not this time.

This time, I confess, I got hooked on a phrase, fascinated by it: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…”

Jesus has been spending the Gospel of Mark running around healing, teaching, doing signs and wonders, raising from the dead, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Most recently, Jesus has endured the ridicule and disinterest of the people in his own home town, and he has sent the apostles out in pairs to spread the Good News, and, in the meantime, Jesus has learned of his Cousin John’s death at the hands of Herod.

And now the apostles had returned, road-weary but eager to tell Jesus about all that had happened. They sat in a circle, there on the lakeshore, enjoying a meal: passing around a loaf of bread, some olive oil, and perhaps some vegetables, while the apostles filled Jesus in on their adventures.

Or, at least, they tried to enjoy a meal, they tried to have a conversation.

People kept coming up and interrupting. Perhaps they needed something specific, perhaps they just wanted to say hello, perhaps they wanted to get a close-up look at this rabbi and his band of devoted disciples. Whatever the case, Peter would start to say something and someone would interrupt. John would try and take a bite of bread and someone would ask him a question.

I suspect this kind of thing was par for the course for Jesus, who was always sensitive to the needs of others, always keen to find an opportunity to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of God. How many times do we read of Jesus being interrupted, or of stopping to teach a lesson, during a meal? But this would likely have been a new experience to the disciples and, after awhile, you could tell it was wearing on everyone’s nerves.
Make no mistake, the twelve enjoyed being celebrities… but it was getting to the point where they wondered if they’d ever get to finish dinner.

And this would have been a great place for Jesus to say, “Ha! Now you know how I feel!” but instead, he puts his bread down and says, “guys, let’s take a break. Hop in the boat, go find someplace quiet to eat, and take a nap.”

That was the plan, anyway. Just take a few hours, find an empty spot in the wilderness, finish supper and grab a couple hours’ shut-eye.

Besides, it isn’t a stretch to imagine what John’s death signaled for Jesus’ ministry. Herod killed John the Baptist with impunity, no one questioned his actions or challenged his authority to do so, or complained to Rome about it. John had been an irritant to Herod’s wife, had challenged his authority, and had been permanently silenced. How much more would the authorities – civil and religious – work to silence Jesus? Could there be any doubt that the road Jesus traveled would lead to the cross?

Perhaps this would be a good opportunity for Jesus to very quietly, very specifically tell these disciples, still glowing from their success as evangelists, what the future held for them… the terror and the glory which followed, and how it was all worth it for the glory of God and for the now-and-coming Kingdom of Heaven.

But as soon as their boat cast off from shore, word spread that Jesus and his disciples were on the move, and folks began to rush around the lake to meet the boat. It wasn’t that many people at first, but they were walking fast, with purpose, and as they passed by the towns that lined the shore of the lake, folks asked questions, got excited, and joined in the journey. Soon, it was a massive throng of people, moving at almost a dead run, circling the lake to meet Jesus on the other side.

And what a sight they must have been, too, when the disciples pulled the boat up on the shore and Jesus stepped out. Thousands of people, men and women and children, red faced and out of breath, dripping sweat from the exertion… and all eyes locked on the Son of God as he stepped from the tiny fishing vessel.

The Scriptures tell us that Jesus looked at them and he had compassion for them. And while that sounds like a very nice term, “compassion,” all warm and fuzzy and such, there’s more to the story.

The Greek word for “compassion” there – “splagchnizomai,” is derived from a word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which described the removal of an animal’s innards during ritual sacrifice. Jesus’ reaction to the people is not one of irritation or of resignation. He sees their need, their lost-ness and their hunger for a word and a touch from God, and he is moved in such a deep, visceral way that it is as if his heart is literally torn from his body for them.

Jesus could have told them, “Hey, not right now, I’m on my break.” He could have sent them away, taken a few hours with his companions, and regrouped. No one would have blamed him, after all. That was his plan; that’s why he’d gotten the group on the boat in the first place. These people, they were an imposition, an interruption, and they never knew when to quit.

In classical Greek, “compassion” means the snorting of a war horse. I love that image: compassion chomping at the bit to move, to act, to forever alter the course of someone’s life – compassion is not a passive feeling, but a call to action!
Jesus saw them for what they were – aimless, hungry people, searching for hope and direction, starving for a word from a God they believed in, but barely knew. They lived life as if they were groping around in the dark for a light switch, not even certain if there was a light switch… Jesus saw all of this, and Jesus heard the snorting of the war-horse.

Now, as I said at the beginning, the Gospel records that Jesus fed these people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and we will look more closely at that event next week. But Jesus’ immediate compassionate response – seeing the people for what they were, sheep without a shepherd – wasn’t to merely feed, to just heal, to simply do signs and wonders.

This is not to say that these things are not important. In fact, when the reading picks up, after skipping the feeding of the five thousand and the night where the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, we find that so many people came to Jesus and received healing that if they so much as mimicked the woman with the issue of blood – touching the fringes of his cloak – they were made well.

But I find it fascinating that Jesus’ immediate response, his compassionate action when he looked into their searching, hungry, hopeful eyes, was to speak to their real need – the need for direction, the need for guidance, the need for a shepherd. Jesus immediately began to teach them.

Something else I find intriguing is pretty easy to miss in our reading. Notice how, in the first verses of the reading, Mark refers to Jesus and the disciples as a group – we read the word, “they” and “them.” But when they reach the shore, when Jesus sees the lost sheep, well, from that point on the narrative is singular. “he” and “his.”

I wonder, what happened to these disciples? Could it be that, despite the amazing things they had done and seen, they so easily slipped back into the role of observer? Could it be that the twelve – fresh from the experience of fulfilling their calling as apostles, from experiencing active compassion in the towns they visited with only the clothes on their back and a walking-stick – have now lapsed back into ignorant and fearful followers? They are followers, we have to give them that much credit, but they aren’t participating any longer in the way that they had been called and empowered to participate. The war-horse no longer snorts. They are now more ‘hangers on’ than ‘co-workers.’

There’s a principle we use in sales training: people will take the easiest option you offer them. If your questions or your sales close provide the opportunity to do nothing, then that is what people will most often do. That isn’t a value judgment, it is just human nature.

This seems to be what has happened to the disciples. They could have jumped out of the boat, waded into the crowd, and begun speaking to the individual, immediate needs of the exhausted and bewildered people. They could have told each of them about the Kingdom of God. Or, they could let Jesus do it – fall back into their habit of standing around getting confused at the things Jesus says. They made the easiest choice.

And it’s fun to point out the disciples’ shortcomings, to shake my head and say, “if I had been there, I would have been different! Yet, in reality, how often have I faced the choice between speaking to someone’s deepest need, and turning them away, directing them somewhere else so they can impose on someone else… and have made the easy choice, the most convenient choice? Perhaps I am oversimplifying it when I say that Jesus made the hard choice, but the fact is that, time and again, we see Jesus doing the difficult, inconvenient, unpopular, even dangerous thing – putting people before doctrine, compassion before convenience, and valuing love more than life itself. If our own discipleship involves the imitation of Christ, are we not called to do the same?

It’s been said that church is what’s left after the preacher leaves town and the building burns down. Church is also what happens when we answer the call to action – when we make the hard choice not to redirect or ignore, but to move with compassion as the hands and feet of Christ, teaching and feeding and walking and healing in the name of the One who died for us, rose for us, and lives for us.

May we never be satisfied to be observers, resting on the experiences we once had. May we instead see people for who they are, beloved creations of the Living God, men and women and children for whom Christ died, hear the snorting of the war-horse, and may we be moved to act with the same compassion which compelled that risen Christ.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Choice...

My heartfelt thanks to The Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton, Sally A. Brown, and Emerson Powery for their insights on the Gospel and Epistle readings.

Oh, the part where I say "For Herod, the hens came home to roost on his birthday...?" I almost wrote, "things came to a head..." Some puns do not need to be made.
Mark 6:14-29
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "'John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

This is the Word of the Lord.

You’ve heard the phrase “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?” It might have originated with Herod Antipas. The man in our Gospel reading today is the son of the Herod who, decades before, when he heard about the birth of the Messiah, had ordered that all male children less than two years old be put to death. Antipas grew up in a royal household defined by intrigue, greed, and murder. That he’d grown up at all was an accomplishment; the elder Herod had a reputation for being so obsessed with protecting his own power that he went as far as to have his wife and two of his sons killed.

When his father finally died, Herod Antipas inherited a portion of his father’s territory, which was split up by Caesar Augustus between Antipas and three of his brothers. He also inherited his father’s love of all things Roman, and the conviction that he could have and do anything he wanted, so long as he made sure Rome was happy.

As an example of this, while visiting Rome, Antipas had stayed with his brother, Phillip, and had fallen, madly and mutually, in love with Phillip’s wife, Herodius. So Antipas simply divorced his own wife, forced Phillip to divorce Herodius, and married her.

For obvious reasons, it was horrifying to the residents of Galilee – to every Jewish person, really. Thus John the Baptist had been speaking out against the marriage. Now, I’m sure he wasn’t alone in his open and passionate criticism of Herod, but John’s popularity among the residents of Galilee meant that his words carried a lot of weight, and that represented a danger to Herod Antipas’ authority, and this of course meant that John the Baptist couldn’t be allowed to speak…

John was arrested and thrown into chains. Herodius made it clear to Herod that she wanted John killed, but Antipas was, apparently, more scared of John the Baptist than he was of his wife. After all, though Herod had been educated in Rome and was steeped in Greek and Roman culture and habits, he was (at least by birth) a Jew, and he had to have been familiar with the prophets. What of the rumors were true, and John the Baptist was Elijah, returning to prepare the way for the coming Messiah? What if this wild-haired man dressed in animal skins was right, and Herod needed to repent?

I can imagine a sleepless, tormented Herod going down the stairs under his palace night after night, descending into the dark, stinking recesses of the dungeon where John was kept under guard, barely fed and living in filth, and talking softly, out of the earshot of the guards.

And I can imagine him coming back up those stairs later, head spinning from words he couldn’t comprehend, mulling over concepts he couldn’t grasp… and night after night, he’d be back, braving the stench and the rodents to listen to the prophet speak from behind the locked door of his cell.

The Reverend Doctor Delmer Chilton says that Herod Antipas is a “perplexed seeker, a dabbler in the mysteries of God. He believes just enough to keep him awake at night but not enough to change his way of living.”

After all, for Herod Antipas to repent certainly meant giving up Herodias, and may well have included giving up his stranglehold on power, giving up his comfortable life. There’s very little doubt that, night after night, Herod was challenged to change, and night after night Herod had the opportunity to change, and honestly? If Herod had really wanted to change, he would have. But there was money to be made, parties to be had, and more power to gain.

I think that, all too often, Dr. Chilton’s description of the perplexed seeker would fit many Christians, including me. How many of us keep holy things hidden away in the basement of our lives – not willing to throw them out, but not really sure what to do with them?

Honestly, many of us live our lives without paying much attention to the holy. There’s too many other, more immediate things going on, after all. There’s work to be done, entertainment to be had, television to watch… and besides, who knows how taking all that stuff seriously might challenge us to be different? Truth be told, most of us are happy with the way we are. We don't want to change; if we really wanted to, we would.

For Herod Antipas, the hens came home to roost on his birthday. There was a party, plenty of guests, and part of the entertainment was a dance by Herod Antipas’ daughter, who Josephus tells us was named “Salome.”

Now, I’ve heard this dance portrayed as not much more than a striptease. You may have heard Salome’s dance referred to as “the dance of the seven veils,” but I want to suggest something far less risqué. The word used to describe Herod’s daughter here in our reading is the same Greek word that is used for the little girl we spoke about a few weeks ago, the one that Jesus raised from the dead. Perhaps Salome just did a very darling little performance, and everyone thought it was precious.

Whatever the case, though, Herod resorted to utter hyperbole to thank Salome for her performance. “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

And of course we know what happens next… but what if it hadn’t gone that way? What if, even before that birthday party, Herod Antipas had put aside his confusion and gone with what John was saying? What if at that party, when Salome told him what she desired, he’d ignored the complete loss of reputation, the rage of his wife, the shame of of going back on his word, and had spared John’s life?

I don’t want to make Herod a sympathetic figure here, because there’s ample historical evidence to prove that the man was, consistently, a slimeball. But I have to wonder how often we ourselves are confronted with choices – not life-or-death decisions that end up with someone’s head on a platter, but choices that are, in their own way, no less important: whether to follow the call of God or to stick with the safe, the familiar, the socially acceptable?

And what do I mean when I use phrases like “the call of God?” Is this merely a change of habits, making it a point to do good things and engage in regular Bible study and meditation? Well, make no mistake, these kinds of things are important, even vital, to our faith journey. But there’s more to the story than simply changing our actions. Paul touches on it in our Epistle reading today, I think. Hear the Word of God from the first chapter of the book of Ephesians, verses three through fourteen:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.”

Christians, we are not merely members of a group that picks Sunday morning for our get-togethers, we are the adopted children of the living God! We have been lavished with priceless gifts like redemption, forgiveness, and a spiritual inheritance of which the gift of the Holy Spirit is the seal!

God chose us “in Christ,” and thus every experience is reframed, from our most bracing joys and cherished achievements to our frustrations, our temptations, our most anguished regrets, and our most wounding losses. “In Christ” we are joined to the power and presence of God. “In Christ” we are knit to others who will cry over our dead with us, even as they help us sing hymns of resurrection.

At the same time, being “in Christ” is no sentimental togetherness. “In Christ,” our community has to reckon with the fact that we will be perceived at times as more of a threat than a blessing. Part of the “in Christ” community’s calling is to be a truth-telling, truth-living reflection of the God who has called it into being.

No, we may not be able to avoid trouble, to escape pain or danger or suffering. Frankly, I wish I could be one of those kinds of preachers who say if you pray this way or think that way or give your money to this or that ministry, God will give you a Cadillac and plenty of money and you’ll never be sick.

But I do know this: God’s plan for “the fullness of time” – gathering all things to God’s self – means that, whatever the wild and boundless Spirit of God leads us to and leads us through, we can be assured of two things: First, we never, ever go alone! We have the indwelling Holy Spirit, the very presence of God with us each step of the way, and we have one another, the Body of Christ, the community of believers to guide, encourage and support us in even our darkest hours.

And second, we know where this faith journey leads. Our inheritance awaits us, most assuredly, in the now-and-coming Kingdom of God! From the first epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter four, verses sixteen and seventeen: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Last week, the residents of Jesus’ home town were offended by what Jesus had to say, and they turned away. This week, we read that Herod Antipas was perplexed by what John had to say, and ended up choosing to save face and mollify his wife. At the same time, throughout the Gospels, the disciples struggled to comprehend Jesus’ words and actions again and again.

The difference between all of them is that the disciples took a chance. When Jesus sent them out two by two, when he told them to fish for tax money or go find a guy carrying a jug of water, when he said to distribute a handful of food to a crowd of thousands, when he told them to cast their net on the other side of the boat, they did it! And on Pentecost they felt the wind of the Holy Spirit and caught the breeze. It took them places they never imagined, and may never have chosen to go, but in the end it was all worth it!

Because we are “in Christ,” and because Christ has died, and because Christ is risen, and because Christ will come again, we may not know where our faith journey goes… but we most certainly know where it leads!

And for this we say, Thanks Be To God!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

They Knew Him Too Well...

Deepest appreciation to the writing and scholarship of David Lose, who helped me put my brain around the reading.

I have to say a word about the excessive use of italics in the following reading. As I've mentioned, I write like I speak; the metering, phrasing and the paragraph breaks aren't always grammatically correct or particularly pretty.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been forgoing printing out the manuscript of my sermons, choosing instead to take advantage of technology and read them from the screen of my trusty BlackBerry. This saves paper and means that I don't have to drive to another county to write and print.

It also means that I don't have the luxury of penciling in breaks - lines I place between words in a sentence to get the emphasis right - or to underline words that need a particular stress. Thus the egregious generosity with italics. I beg your indulgence and forgiveness as you read the following.

To the point of the sermon: It turns out that knowing Jesus is all well and good. The difference lies in what we do about that knowing...

Mark 6:1-13
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It’s easy, this side of the Resurrection, to shake our heads in disgust at those villagers of Nazareth. Imagine, having the living Word of God right there in front of you, speaking the very words of God, and blowing it off as nothing more than a home town kid trying to make himself more important than he really is.

Oh, sure, just like everyone else in that region of Judea, they’d heard the rumors, they’d listened to the wild tales of healings and exorcisms and miracles and signs. Every story seemed to be stranger than the last, and the travelers who told them seemed to get more and more excited every day. Could this Jesus be the Promised One?

The residents of Nazareth, almost to a person, rolled their eyes when they heard that. They knew Jesus too well to fall into that trap!

There were frightening stories, too – Jesus challenging the Pharisees, openly defying the most powerful people in the province. Mary had even taken James and the family and gone to try and bring him back to Nazareth before he went and got himself killed… but they’d come back empty-handed, and said nothing about the trip to anyone. That figured, they all thought. They knew the guy, after all. They knew him well.

So that Saturday, the synagogue was buzzing as Jesus took the seat of the teacher and began to speak… but it wasn’t an excited buzzing. After all, this guy was just a carpenter, or at least he had been until he laid his tools down and walked off. Who did he think he was, anyway, acting like a teacher? He wasn’t even legitimate! Everyone knew about how Joseph had left town for the census with a very pregnant fiancée, and returned from Bethlehem with a new baby. Why, some folks had even whispered that Joseph wasn’t the kid’s father to begin with!

That first synagogue, in Capernaum, the people had heard Jesus speak with authority and had responded with wonder and confusion: “What is this,” they asked, “A new teaching—and with authority!” Today, though, in this synagogue, though Jesus spoke with no less authority, the whispers were not filled with wonder; rather, their words dripped with derision. “Where did this guy come up with this stuff? The gall! Doesn’t he know who he is? Doesn’t he know that we know who he is? Does he really expect us to forget what he is?”

We’re told that Jesus “could do no deed of power there,” and that “he was amazed at their unbelief.” Imagine it! It is beyond comprehension, isn’t it, that the very Lord of Life found himself at a loss, that anything could offend him in such a way!

We who have read the Gospels know that Jesus healed people, like the crippled man at the healing pool, who didn’t know how to ask for what they needed. Jesus even healed people without intending to – like the hemorrhaging woman we met last week. And then there were the people who were beyond asking for what they needed, like the demon-possessed or the little dead girl. In every instance, though, there was some degree of faith, some openness to the transformative power of Jesus. But here, in Nazareth, in the synagogue he had known his whole life, among the people who knew him best and who should have loved him the most, they had instead slammed shut the doors of their hearts. They had nothing for him, and wanted nothing from him.

They knew him too well to believe him. They’d seen this guy, had shared meals with him, had hired him for carpentry jobs. They were his brothers and sisters, cousins and neighbors, and while everyone had always known Jesus was different, they didn’t view this difference as a good thing. Jesus had been a weird kid, and had not changed when he grew up. Rabbi? Healer? Messiah? Please, don’t be ridiculous. He was Mary’s kid, the odd one.

God couldn’t speak through him, he was just Jesus. No one special, not qualified to interpret the Scriptures, certainly not worthy to speak the Word of God! If anything, he was an OK carpenter. Best to ignore him, and maybe he’ll get the message and go back to his hammer and saw and leave all this crazy talk alone.

And I have to wonder, how often do I do the same thing? Close the doors of my heart to a word from God because the messenger is someone I know too well, or have dismissed as unworthy of my attention? What would it mean to my faith journey if I laid aside the need to check credentials, to dismiss someone who is outside my circle, or who is so familiar to me that I “know” God couldn’t use them?

Could I be more like the disciples who, even though they struggled with the things Jesus said, wrestled to understand who he was and what it all meant, were willing to do what he said – even though it meant traveling into the unknown, walking two by two out into the countryside, with not a dollar or a loaf of bread to their name, dependent upon the hospitality of utter strangers, preaching a message they didn’t quite grasp?

There was no guarantee of success; in fact, there was every possibility that they would fail spectacularly, starve on the road or end up stoned to death by an angry mob. Yet as Jesus sent them, they went, no questions asked. They went because they knew him so well.

Yes, let’s not forget that these disciples were just as intimately acquainted with Jesus as the people who’d grown up with him. They had spent long hours on the dusty roads with him, had eaten with him, shivered in the cold night as they slept in the desert between towns. There had to have been hundreds of conversations about nothing, jokes told around the fire and long, comfortable silences.

They knew him too well… to not believe him. And despite their shortcomings, despite their doubts and utter lack of comprehension in so many areas, when they commanded demons to leave people, they did! When they anointed people for healing, they got well! When they preached repentance, people listened!

The difference between the people of Nazareth and those road-worn Apostles was simply faith.

I have to tell you, this idea that the difference between the miraculous and the mundane being in us, and not in God, makes me very uncomfortable.

I’ve been brought up in my faith journey to believe that God doesn’t need us, that God isn't inhibited by our faith or lack thereof, that what I believe or think or do matters not at all when it comes to God accomplishing God's purposes.

Isn’t one of the central elements of our belief system the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith?” Isn’t it a cornerstone of Reformed Theology that it's all up to God? God is the one who justifies. It's by grace, not by our work. Our faith is really just an awareness of and trust in what God has done.

Without God’s grace, without the drawing of the Holy Spirit, are we not all like the citizens of Nazareth, Jesus’ neighbors and family members, who look at the hometown prophet and are left cold, offended and ultimately disinterested? Everything: our faith, our inclusion in the Kingdom, our being born again to eternal life is under the complete control and will of the Creator of the Universe, and not a thing we ourselves have any power over.

This is a fact. But what if what’s at stake here isn’t a matter of God’s ultimate purposes or our eternal destinies? After all, it’s not like Jesus couldn't do anything there, we read that he did perform some healings, though it wasn’t like other towns where they were breaking down his doors. What if, rather, the Word of God is simply inviting us to contemplate the possibility that we have actually have something to do, that we have an important role to play in the Kingdom. To say it another way: this isn't about doing works to attain salvation, or about willing ourselves to have enough faith to reach out to God, it's about the role each one of us is invited to play in sensing, experiencing, and making known God's will and work in the world.

We who are the Church apparently have a choice to make: a new choice every day, when we face that front door to our hearts. Do we consult our list of doctrines, our criteria for inclusion and acceptance, and decide that we’ll only hear from God if it’s through someone who meets the standards, thank you very much? And if the terrifying happens, that God actually has a word or an action for us to carry out, a Kingdom work which will change the life of someone else? Isn’t it safer to lock the doors, nail a board or two across them, and go see what’s on TV?

Or will we boldly, recklessly fling open the doors of our hearts? Take them off the hinges, even, and set them up on sawhorses and make communion tables out of them? Will we walk out onto the dusty roads with comfortable shoes, a walking stick, and not a dollar or a loaf of bread to our name, and see what the wild, boundless, joyous and unpredictable Spirit of God has in store for us today?

May we always, habitually, joyfully throw those doors open wide. May we know Jesus too well to not believe him!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Dad and The Thief

I'm indebted to the writing of Emerson Powery ("Gospel" tab) and (big surprise) Kathryn Matthews Huey for insights and guidance in the following sermon.

Mark 5:21-43
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This is, in part, the story of a thief.

We’ve spoken before about how, in first-century Judea, as well as in most of the cultures of the day, women had no real legal or religious standing. In this patriarchal culture, women – and, truth be told, children – were often possessions of men, dependent upon husbands or fathers for their daily needs, with no prospects of being much more than child-bearers and caregivers their entire lives.

There were exceptions, of course, but that’s for another day. Today, our Gospel reading focuses on two people, both in deed of healing and restoration, both untouchable and beyond hope, but who stubbornly refused to give up hope, boldly pursued whatever avenues – including stealing – to get what they needed.

Jairus was used to having authority. Now, he doesn’t strike me as one of those people who got drunk on power, who saw his position in the synagogue as a birthright, and demanded others kiss his feet. But when things needed to be done, Jairus was the man who got them done.

At least, until the day his daughter got sick. After that, he wasn’t much use to anyone.

He was obsessed – going here and there, consulting physicians and rabbis, spending money like there was no tomorrow, because in his heart, if his daughter couldn’t recover, if she died, there was no tomorrow.

Yet no matter what he did, no matter how he prayed or which physician he paid, his twelve-year-old daughter, once so full of joy and energy, grew weaker and sicker.

Even in his panicked state, Jairus had heard about the rabbi, the man who had supposedly healed paralytics and lepers, and even driven out demons simply by telling them to go away. And now, his stomach in a knot and his beard wet with tears as he stood over his daughter, listening to the breath rattle in her throat, Jairus knew that there was one hope. Jesus of Nazareth.

It wasn’t hard to know that Jesus was back from the other side of the lake – the house fairly shook as the whole town seemed to stampede to the lakeshore at the news. So Jairus kissed his daughters ashen forehead and joined the rush.

Being a man of power had perks, and one of those was that when Jairus told people to move out of his way, they did. In short order, he stood before the healing rabbi.

Or rather, he knelt. He couldn’t have explained why, but the desperation in his heart was so heavy, his terror so unbearable, that this dignified, powerful man, this teacher of the Law and expert on proper worship and conduct, fell to his knees and begged.

And Jesus said yes. Without hesitation, he lifted Jairus to his feet and told him to lead the way, no small feat with the entire population of the town crowded in.

The thief was there, too. Like Jairus’ daughter, we aren’t told her name, just that the desperation she felt – and the absolute conviction that there was just one hope – was as deep as Jairus’.

Like the leader of the synagogue, she had searched and spent and hired and consulted, trying anything and everything to be cured. Like Jairus, she had found no help, no relief. For a dozen years, she had felt her life’s blood draining slowly from her, every day bringing another false hope, another failed cure, every day finding her degree weaker in body and spirit.

I can’t tell you why this woman didn’t have anyone to speak to Jesus on her behalf. Perhaps the nature of her disease, or maybe she was a widow who was self-sufficient. Really, it’s anyone’s guess. But she had no one to make her case before the healing rabbi. So she took matters into her own hands.

Like Jairus, like everyone in the region, she’d heard about Jesus, about the healings and exorcisms and miracles, and the more she heard, the more convinced she became that if she could see Jesus, if she could be touched by Jesus, she would be healed.

Her problem was more complex than Jairus’, though. As a woman in that culture, it was highly irregular to speak directly to a man, and to confess aloud what her condition was would have been disastrous – she would be labeled unclean, and shut out from worship and from interacting directly with anyone interested in attending worship in the synagogue.

Day after day, though, as she got sicker and sicker and spent every dime she had on ineffective cures, she thought about that touch from Jesus. It had to happen!

When she heard the commotion outside her door, the crowd clamoring to get to the lakeshore, she decided that, even if it meant embarrassment and exile, she would plead her case. Enough was enough, she had one hope left, and it was Jesus of Nazareth.

And there was the crush of the crowd, the mad noise of hundreds of people pressing in to see the miracle man, an impossible wall of humanity – she couldn’t reach the lakeshore, and though she could see Jesus between the wall of shoulders and backs, she just couldn’t push through to him!

He was talking to Jairus, she saw… poor Jairus was a mess… now they were moving, and coming toward her!

She said it aloud, though the words were lost in the noise of the crowd, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

And she pushed against the crowd, she reached as far as she could through arms and legs and elbows and bodies, and as Jesus passed by, she caught just the hem of his robe with the barest of brushes of her middle finger on her right hand…

And in that instant, the woman became a thief.

You see, it was one thing for Jesus to reach out, and by an act of his will provide that power which heals. This was his choice, a function of the mission his Father had sent him on, a way of proving who he was and why he came.

Yet as the hem brushed by, though Jesus didn’t touch her, that touch of the corner of his hem, that slightest wisp of contact was enough. She knew it! She knew she was healed! Her heart burst with joy! At last, she was free!

Ahead of where the woman had reached through the crowd, Jairus and the disciples were pushing through the crowd, trying to make a path for Jesus. They’d push, look back to make sure Jesus was near, then push again, a maddeningly slow process.

And now Jesus had stopped dead, and was looking around… no, he was glaring, searching the faces in the crowd! What had happened?

The crowd fell silent. Jesus spoke at last, loudly: “Who touched my clothes?” It was perhaps the strangest question the disciples had ever heard.

Peter cleared his throat. “Um, Teacher, with all due respect, um, I think everybody touched your clothes…”

But the woman, the thief, she knew what Jesus meant. As joyous as she had been at her healing, terror now gripped her heart. Shaking, she knelt in the dirt and, through sobs, told him everything. Everything.

Then a long silence, and, finally, Jesus touched her… lifted her to her feet… and gave her what she had stolen. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

No longer a thief, no longer sick, the woman melted into the silent crowd.

Jesus turned to see the already-pale Jairus nearing collapse. He’d just heard the news, the words no one ever wants to hear.

Jesus stepped up to the ashen, broken Jairus, looked deep into his eyes and said, softly, but with steel in his voice, “Don’t fear. Believe.” He looked to Peter, James and John, said, “Come with me,” and they were off.

Jairus’ house was already full of mourners – the professional kind, mixed in with the folks there for gossip and casseroles. Jesus walked into the middle of the wailing crowd and asked, “Why are you crying? The girl’s just sleeping.”

Their laughter was as loud as their crying had been. When Jesus next spoke, Peter, James and John heard the tone he used against the storm on the lake: “Get. Out.” Needless to say, the mourners found someplace else they needed to be. Quickly.

And Jesus took that tiny, cold hand, and spoke again, softly: “Hop up, little girl.”

What does it mean to have faith, to believe? Can we package it all up neatly in statements or doctrines, mental and verbal assertions that do little more than specify who’s “in” and who’s “out?” Jairus’ colleagues, the Scribes and Pharisees and Temple elite would certainly have thought so; though they approached the worship of the one, true Living God sincerely, in an effort to obtain perfection in worship they had instead arrived at something antiseptic and predictable. At best, their religion was a formula that treated the Almighty like a cosmic vending machine and, at worst, a malevolent and oppressive system which robbed the poor and marginalized of even the slightest hope.

Today we met two people who, in desperation, latched on to a faith that is wild, unpredictable, headstrong. The hemorrhaging woman threw out convention and propriety, taking what she needed by force – there’s really no other way to put it. Jairus looked utter despair – looked death itself – in the face, and boldly refused it.

And none of these people – the woman, the child, the terrified father – were outside of Jesus’ concern.

We who are sometimes needy, sometimes desperate, sometimes weak and drained of resources and direction, are not outside of Jesus’ concern.

And we who are the hands and feet of this healing rabbi, this crucified and risen Savior, must realize that no one who is needy, desperate, weak and drained of resources can be outside of our concern.

Jesus chooses not to leave people in the conditions in which he finds them.  And he has the power to alter that condition.

Do we? Can the Christian community alter the conditions of people's lives?  Can the Body of Christ, too, bring healing into troubled circumstances?  Must we not also cross boundaries –  whether they are related to ethnicity, gender, race, orientation, politics or anything else that divides our society – and advocate life-giving meaning and change?  May God grant us the courage to do so!