The Goodness of God in New Wineskins

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. August 23, 2015 on 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and Mark 2:23-28

1 Samuel 21:1-6

Mark 2:23-28

One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.   The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”   And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?   He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”   Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;   so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Twice a year the congregations of the Presbytery of South Alabama come together for Presbytery Meetings.
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We just had our meeting  at the Government Street Presbyterian Church this past  Friday evening and Saturday morning.  Worship was great in both.  Friday night was non-traditional, just as we do here in the early service.  Saturday was more traditional style worship.  Both were moving and inspiring.

A Sad Dismissal

But there was a depressing part on Saturday as we turned to the business meeting.  On the agenda was the dismissal of two more of our congregations.

The primary reason for their departure is that the majority of our Presbyteries, 121 out of  168 voted to approve the changes to our Constitution allowing gay people to be married.  Those changes do not force anyone to marry anyone, but the door is now open.  Our constitution treats gay and straight people equally.

It saddens me that these two congregations are leaving for all kinds of reasons.  I do not believe that our unity in the body of Christ is dependent on unanimity of opinion.   I believe that baptism gives us our unity in Christ, and no one can add to it or undermine it.

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I firmly believe that for Christians, faith is about trust, not about assent to or belief in a list of dogmas.

I am part of a growing number of people who think this way – what I hope will be a new consensus view, but I realize that we are in the minority at the moment, and have been so since 325 AD.  That was the year Roman Emperor Constantine forced all of the Christian bishops to come together at Nicea and make a common creed.

Christianity was quite diverse before that.  Different groups had different ways of understanding who Jesus was and how Jesus related to God.

But after Nicea, the ones whose views did not prevail were proclaimed heretics.  The church then became the imperial project of the Emperor.  Constantine financed salaries and buildings, and the church quickly became the chaplaincy to the Empire.

To many of us, that was a disastrous move.  Faith evolved from “trust in”, to “belief that.…”

So now, when Christians end up believing different things, instead of tolerating diversity, as we did for the first 300 years, we think we need to pull away from each other.

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And personally, I am sad to see them go.  Not just theoretically.  I believe that we need each other.  I need people who disagree with me.  I need them to challenge me. I need to hear other perspectives.  I feel just like the professor who told his class that he knew that at least 10% of what he was teaching was wrong, he just did not know which 10%.

I need people like one of the pastors of the departing churches with whom I disagree.  Here is my story about this:  as you probably know, we Presbyterians have been debating our differences of opinion about LGBTQ issues for years.  Well, after one Presbytery meeting, someone suggested that those pastors and elders who were interested should come together for a series of conversations about the issue.

So we did.  I was a member of that group.  Over the course of the next two years we meet multiple times for dialogue and a shared meals together.  We got to know each other; we had some good laughs, and some great conversations.

I was supporting the view that LGBTQ people should be given equality in every respect in our church, and others argued that the bible did not allow this.  At one point, after I had said something I do not recall, one of the pastors looked at me and asked me a question which I replied immediately to.

I want you to know that hearing myself answer his questions was a huge “A ha!” moment in my life.   A light went on.  I realized something that I had never put in to words before.  His question sparked that moment of self-revelation for me.

“I want God to be good”
He simply asked,

“What is your issue with this question of gay rights?”

My immediate response was,

“I want God to be good.”

I shocked myself as I heard those words leave my lips.  I had never put it so succinctly.   But as I said those words, I realized what I had been thinking as I studied the issue.

For me, by then, it was clear that nobody chooses their sexual orientation.  I never chose to be strait.  I just woke up one day and realized girls were cute.  And no gay person chose to be gay.  Who would ever choose to have all the complications and challenges, even all the outright persecution that gay people have to endure?

None of us, neither you nor I, chose our sexual orientation.  It is simply how we are made.   We do  not choose the gender of the people we fall in love with; and that is what this whole debate is about: who we fall in love with.

So, for me it is simply wrong to exclude or marginalize people for loving differently that I do.  And I cannot believe that a God who is good would ever want us to marginalize or exclude people just because they are different from ourselves.

In fact, as I study Jesus’ life and teachings, I find just the opposite.  I find that Jesus was constantly crossing over boundaries and walls, prejudices and traditions to welcome the marginalized and the excluded.  He ate with sinners, touched lepers, crossed the sea to break bread with gentiles; he made time for women and children, even Romans themselves.

So anyway, back to that dialogue group.  I need people like the pastor who asked me that question that helped me clarify my own thinking.  I am sorry to see them go.

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I am also sorry to see them go because I think it is so unnecessary.  The teachings of Jesus themselves should, I believe, help us to look at questions like this one.  The texts we read today are  perfect examples.

Jesus teaches us to follow a trajectory, an arc of understanding that was started in the Hebrew bible.  This trajectory moves in the direction of justice and liberation of the oppressed, and away from a rigid, exclusionary focus.  It moves from legalism to compassion.  From retribution to mercy.

Let is consider for a moment, the text we read.   Jesus is in trouble with the purity, rule enforcers, the Pharisees.  He is in trouble because he is the leader; the buck stops with him.  His people, his disciples, have been breaking the law of Moses.  They have been reaping grain on the Sabbath.  Reaping is working.  Work is explicitly forbidden on the Sabbath.  This is not an obscure law, it comes right out of the Ten Commandments itself.

But Jesus excuses them.  On what basis?  On the basis that he knew how to read the trajectory of understanding of what is important to God.  It turns out that God is good.  And being good means caring about human suffering.  In fact it means placing the concern for human well-being above ritual concerns.

Jesus backs up his teaching with a story from the Hebrew bible.  It is about a time when David was running for his life from king Saul with his small band of supporters.  They were hungry.  The only bread available was consecrated bread from the house of God that only priests were allowed to eat.  To make a long story short, the priest made an exception to the rule and allowed them to take the holy bread.

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Then Jesus gives a clear summary of his perspective.  To those who accused his group of breaking the Law by a bit of personal harvesting on the sabbath he said:

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”

When was the sabbath law made?  Right after the people of Israel had escaped from being 24/7, bricks-without-straw slaves of Pharaoh.  They gathered as newly freed people at Mt. Sinai and heard Moses read the law that gave them all, for the fist time in their lives, a day of rest!  The sabbath law was made for humans; for their benefit; not as a burden but as a blessing.

The sabbath rest law was for the benefit of humans.  That was what was important to God: human flourishing.  So for Jesus, allowing people to eat is of even greater importance than keeping a rule, especially a rule made for the purpose of benefiting people.

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I believe that there is something deeper going on here.  Mark is using this occasion to back up what he just said in the line preceding the text we read: you do not put new wine in old wineskins or it will burst them.  You put new wine in new wineskins.  Jesus was bringing new wine.  The old wineskins were not going to work.  The old way of looking at things was going to have to be replaced by a new way.

So, unlike the folks who think that they have to leave when things change, Jesus taught us to expect change.  It is ironic that the motto of the Reformed Church of which the Presbyterian church is a part is, “the church reformed, always reforming….”

We have changed, not in arbitrary ways, not willy-nilly, not changed with the wind, but we have intentionally sought the voice of the Spirit who is still at work, leading the church in to new truth, as Jesus told us the Spirit of truth would do.

We have come to the conclusion at several moments of our past that we need to follow the Jesus trajectory further than our ancestors.  We changed from accepting slavery as necessary to rejecting it as immoral and dehumanizing.  We changed from excluding women from ministry, which the New Testament does, to openness to the gifts of women as elders and ministers.

We are served by women elders in this church: if they all went away, we would have to close up.  Their ministry is vital here.  And at the Presbytery meeting, our current moderator is a woman.  But it was not long ago that all those doors were shut to women.

So now we have changed again, and have finally given fully equal treatment to gay people.  We are already benefiting from their participation and ministry among us.  This is a cause for celebration.  I am so sorry that those who disagree cannot see their way clear to stay together.  We will be weaker without them.

God is Good

But this is our rock-solid core commitment: God is good.  God wills the good.  This is what we all take to bed every night.  This is what we wake up to every morning.  This is what sustains us in the really hard times.

We believe that faith is trust.  It is trusting that God is good; God is with us.  God is for us.  God loves us.  God calls us by name and wants what is best for us.  And when we suffer, God also suffers with us.    God is good.  That is what Jesus taught us.  That is our faith.  Truly it is in God we trust.

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Like Children

Sermon on Mark 10:13-16 for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, August 16, 2015

Mark 10:13-16

 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Every year when school starts I get nostalgic.  I remember walking to school on rainy days in second grade, with my yellow slicker on, the smell of new textbook pages, the sounds of the cafeteria; it all comes back every fall.   Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 12.58.50 PM

Today is the day we do the blessing of the backpacks; we send the children of this congregation off to a new year with God’s blessing and with great hopes.  We are so blessed in our area, to have high quality schools, excellent teachers and administrators, extra-curricular music and sports, and blessed that our  adults, over the years, have seen fit to fund all of this (at least until recently); none of it is free, but it is so important!

We had a wonderful summer around here for kids.  The Summer Fine Arts Camp called Kaleidoscope was a great success, and so was our VBS.  Children are important to us.  They are fully part of the family of God.  Very soon we will have a baptism of a child, which will be a great joy for all of us.

Jesus’ Solemn Pronouncement

We read the text from the gospel of Mark about Jesus and the children.  It seems a bit bizarre in our day to imagine adults trying to keep children from him, but in those ancient times, children were expected to be silent non-participants at adult functions.  Fully in keeping with Jesus’ outreach to all people who were marginalized, the poor, the sick, women, and foreigners, he also made a welcoming space for children.

One of the most beautiful images we have of Jesus is this one:

“he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

He not only blessed them, he had something to say about them:

“it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This is one of those solemn pronouncements that gets a “Truly I tell you” preface.  I like the old King James version: “verily verily I say unto you”.  It sounds even more serious.

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I want us to think about this important, solemn pronouncement today.  In what way do we receive the kingdom like children?  In what way, as Jesus so categorically puts it, will we never enter the kingdom if we do not receive it accordingly?

I am sure there are many ways to reflect on this; today I want to reflect on one.

Children expect to grow and develop.  Children know they are in process towards a goal that they have not yet reached.  How many times have you asked a child their age and instead of a simple answer like “Four” you get “Four and a half.”  Children know that the next level is coming; they are not there yet, but they will be, soon.

To receive the kingdom as a child is to always remain open to growing and developing spiritually.   We know that all of us pass through developmental stages as we grow.

Erik Erikson has mapped out eight Stages of Psychosocial Development from the oral-sensory stage of infancy all they way to adulthood.

Piaget has outlined for us the  stages of Cognitive Development, that describes how we move from thinking of everything in concrete, literal terms to being able to think abstractly.

Lawrence Kolberg has described six stages of moral development.  All of us used to think of right and wrong only in terms of fear and punishment.  Later we grew to understand that there were rules we had the duty to obey to maintain social order.

Eventually, for those who keep developing morally, we come to understand that there are moral principles that transcend human laws.  It is right to resist the Nazi’s.  Laws themselves can be immoral.  It is right to stay seated on the bus and not move to the back.  It is right to sit at the lunch counter and expect to be served, no matter what sign has been posted.  It is the only moral thing to do, to make a wedding cake for whomever is being married.  No human law can make discrimination morally good.

We consider justice to be a higher demand on us.  We consider Love of neighbor as compelling to us, on a level right up there next to loving God, as Jesus taught.

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Children know they are developing.  They know they have not reached maturity.   Next year they will be taller.  Next year they will learn the next level of math that they could never comprehend this year.  Some adults, however, get stuck at spiritual and moral levels far from maturity.

They get stuck in the literal phase, especially when they read the bible.  If it says “seven days” in the creation story, then each day had to have twenty-four literal hours, even though there is no sun to mark time until day four.

It would be funny, if it were not also tragic.  People who get stuck here end up believing in a god of wrath and judgment, more interested in condemning people than redeeming them, if the numbers involved indicate God’s interests.   Getting stuck in the literal stage ends up being tragic.

Growth and development, that children naturally expect, are necessary for us to enter the kingdom that Jesus was announcing had arrived.  We leave behind  childish concepts of God as the great Santa in the sky, or as the old man with the long white  beard, or the scolding parent with the threatening paddle.

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We leave these childish concepts behind. We become open to paradox and conundrums as part of life.  An adult, maturing faith must keep developing until it can accommodate both aspects of our experience:
– wonder and awe as well as suffering and tragedy;
– sunsets, and tsunamis;
– thin-place experiences of palpable presence, and the dark-night-of-the-soul times of agonizing absence;
– the feeling of overwhelming gratitude for the gifts we enjoy of security, technology, medicine, education, nutrition, healthy safe food, on the one hand, and the depressing knowledge that there are still many people who are food insecure, safety insecure, and who cannot even dream of living the lives we take for granted.
A maturing, developing faith also grows to understand that certainty is not ever going to be available.  As the theologian Karl Rahner as said:

“If you are talking about God and you’re talking about anything that has to do with God, whether it’s ritual or sacraments or scriptures or morality or anything and you are sure you know what you are talking about, you are a heretic.

The desire to be sure, to be certain, while all of us have it, is an immature quest that needs to be left behind in favor of embracing mystery and paradox.

Developing believers are able to chart a course from naiveté to deconstruction, to a second naiveté that can maintain faith in the allurement of Love, even in the context of suffering and evil; there is no certainty here; but there is hope, courage, and compassion.

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A maturing, developing faith is also open to looking in the mirror, seeing how far we have to go in the basic spiritual practices like forgiveness and humility.   Since we know we are still in process, still growing, like children are, we welcome self-discovery that comes from looking at the things that make us angry and offend us.  We realize that most of them are probably evidence of our false selves, our egos that are still fragile and wounded, and in need of transformation.

When we do not get it to go our way, when someone else gets to make the decision or gets the honor, and we feel that “who do they think they are?” question, we realize that we still have growing up to do.  When we hear ourselves saying, “you can’t make me; you are not the boss of me” we realize that this is our inner moral child reacting, and we smile, and laugh at ourselves; we expect to keep growing up spiritually.

A childlike approach that assumes development understands that it is never to late to begin new practices of spiritual formation that we become aware of.  We embrace practices of silence, meditation, and wordless contemplative prayer because we know that spiritual development is not automatic; it is not produced by the clock nor the calendar, but by regular habits, practiced over time.

A developing, growing person takes more and more personal responsibility.  We become mindfully aware that every choice we Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 1.01.32 PMmake is, in fact, a choice we make.  Every forkful of food we bring to our lips is a choice with consequences – both personal and global.  Every purchase we make, every investment we make, every use of our money, is a personal choice that we take moral responsibility for.  Every vote we cast, every use of our time, every entertainment decision we make we are mindfully aware that we are responsible for.  Even the words that come out of our mouths are choices we make, which can be words of healing, of welcome, of reconciliation and love, or not; and we take mindful responsibility for them.

Jesus says,

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Like children, we expect to grow, to change and to develop.

You have heard the expression, “You cannot teach and old dog new tricks.”  I have good news: we are not dogs.  That expression may indeed be true for quadrupeded   canines, but we are different.  Brain scientists have told us about neuroplasticity.  Our brains change with each new experience we have.  And this process, scientists tell us, continues throughout our whole lives.  It never stops until we breath our last.

The truth is that we are continually developing and changing.

The challenge and the call is to make it intentional.

So we are here to commit ourselves to entering the kingdom that is here, now, by means of a childlike acceptance that we are here to grow.
We are here to develop.  We are here to put on our backpacks, load up the school supplies, and open the door to the future that is evolving, that is in process,  welcoming the future, just like children do.

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Jesus Saves – no, Really.

Sermon on Mark 6:53-56 for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 09, 2015

Mark 6:53-56
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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.44.26 PMI just had my annual physical.  I take that for granted.  My insurance company believes I will be healthier, and therefore cheaper for them, if I have one of these every year, so they pay for the whole thing, lab tests and all.  No co-pay.  At the exam, I complained about my allergies, and right away got a prescription for the latest, hottest new medicine.  I had it filled within the hour.

I realize that this puts me in quite a privileged group.  Most people in the world today do not have it as good as I do, and most people in history could not even dream of this kind of access to good medical care.

Heath Costs Money

Today and historically, maintaining good health has been related to income.  The less money you have, the less healthy you probably are, for all kinds of reasons.  It starts with nutrition; if you are food insecure, you have problems from the start.  It is still true today, but all the more so in Jesus’ time.  It may have even been true for Jesus himself.

In Mark’s gospel, some people call Jesus a carpenter.  He was, then, a landless day-laborer like many other people, in the decades leading up to the disastrous Jewish-Roman war.  According to scholars, economic and political deterioration had left much of the population of Palestine dispossessed of their land.  Illness, for laborers, meant instant unemployment.  Ill-health must have been endemic.  (see Myers, Binding, 144).

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The situation for the sick is even worse than discomfort and loss of income.  Put yourself in the shoes – or sandals – of people back then.  What do you believe?  Well, for starters, since illness is associated with sin and guilt, you believe that when you get sick, you were being punished by God.

This is called the doctrine of divine retribution.  You get what is coming to you.  Lots of people I speak with still believe some version of this.  Even people who use the language, even if metaphorically, of karma, implicitly believe people get what they deserve.   They say “What goes around, comes around.”

You would also believe, as they did in Jesus day, that illness was a form of  religious impurity.  Impurity could be removed, but only by a trip to the temple in Jerusalem, the purchase of sacrificial animals, and the ritual of sacrifice.  For you, it would be expensive; in fact, nearly impossible.

Jesus’ Unorthodox Healing Mission

Jesus, as we know from the gospels, had a reputation for being a healer.  People came to him with the problem of illness, and found that by touching him – even, as Mark’s gospel says, the fringe of his garment, they would be healed.

Let us stop and think about what this would mean for you, if you lived back then.  You could go touch Jesus and be healed, Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.49.59 PMand suddenly lots of your problems go away.  If God heals you, it must mean that God is no longer out to punish you; you are forgiven.

If  you got well, you were no longer impure; no need for the trip to the temple.  No need for the priest.  No more feeling religiously excluded from God, nor from your neighbors.  This is huge.

So, in other words, touching Jesus completely reorients your entire world view about how God feels about you and what God wants from you.  Suddenly you are liberated from the world of guilt and shame.  You are now invited into a world in which God is for you, in healing ways, not against you.  This, is in fact what salvation means.

And that is why Mark tells us that when people came to touch even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak,

“all who touched it were healed.”  

The word healed is exactly the same word that means “saved.”  Touching Jesus saves us.

Whether or not you take the healing miracles of Jesus as literal or metaphors for a deeper kind of salvation, one thing is certain: all of the people who touched Jesus that day later died.  The question is, were they saved?  The answer is yes.  Touching Jesus saved them.  Their whole relationship to God and each other was transformed.  Salvation means healing, and healing is salvation.

Distorted “saving”

I need to pause here and draw our attention to a great distortion.  A great many people, maybe some here, think that what Jesus came to save us from is hell.  I want to tell you that I believe that is utterly mistaken.

First, because Jesus was Jewish, and he knew is Hebrew Bible well.  Salvation for Jewish people is always historical, with a plus.  We read a text from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 49, in which God says to his people, Israel, picturing the nation as a person,

“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

It is all about how God would gather the scattered nation of Israel, who, in those days, were a small remnant of survivors of the Babylonian exile. That is the historical part. And this salvation of the regathered nation would be part of something larger that God was doing to bring salvation to the world.  That is the plus part.

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Here is how the plus part works:  Israel was the one nation in those days that knew that God was one, not many (monotheism).  That God was the creator of a good  physical world, and that humans were made in the image of God, with dignity and purpose.  Israel alone knew that what God wanted was that people love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds and strength, as their daily creed affirmed, and that, as Leviticus says, they also must love their neighbors as themselves.

In other words, that Israel had the calling, the vocation to be the bearers of this light to all the nations of the world; that God was for them, not against them; that God wanted love above all, not a laundry list of reasons to punish people.

So, salvation, to Jewish people, meant returning to the land as the re-gathered people of God, proclaiming God’s forgiveness and mercy to all the nations.

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Jesus saw himself as the person who was bearing this mission.  This is why he kept crossing over to the Gentile side of the lake; he was bringing the light of God’s salvation to the nations.

How did that manifest itself?  In Jesus’ radical hospitality; in table fellowship; in breaking bread with all who would come, without regard to the barriers of ethnicity or even religious purity.  And that kind of welcome, that kind of embrace of the other had enormous healing power.  Radical hospitality enacts and embodies the essence of the message that God is welcoming.

Jesus Still Saves

I believe this message, and I hope you do.  Jesus saves.  Specifically touching Jesus saves us still today.  People who have gotten close enough to Jesus even to touch the fringe of the Jesus-message experience transformation and healing.

Touching Jesus, or we could say, waking up to the good news of the kingdom of God, or, shall we say, kin-dom of God, is always transformative.  To touch Jesus is to know that this new family he is making out of total strangers is a place where we can find a home; a place where we can be loved, accepted, embraced, not because we deserve it or have earned it or are pure enough for it, but only on the basis of grace – the free gift of God’s love.

And when we recognize this is true for us, then we realize it is true for everyone.  We open our hearts and our arms and we embrace the stranger, the other, the person who formerly we had thought of as outsiders. Hostility becomes hospitality, and in that moment, God is present; reconciliation is possible; and healing happens.

Touching Jesus begins to heal us; and the longer we stay in touch with Jesus the deeper the healing goes.   We start to heal from all the ways our own egos keep us in sick states.  We begin to recover from the sickness of our self-absorption.  Our pride, our greed, our sense of being in competition with everyone, our apathy; all of these being to heal over.  The longer we are in touch with Jesus the healthier we become, and the more willing to open our hearts to people who are suffering.

We get involved personally and practically in every way we can to pay-forward the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit.  But we do not stop at a personal response.  We ask the question: why are there so many sick people?  What are the systems that keep people down?

Healing the Systems of Sickness

With hearts awakened by touching Jesus, we suddenly wake up to the fact that there are a lot of people who have not touched the Jesus message and for that reason, a lot of people are still sick.

Just as Jesus stood up to and against the systems of his day that were keeping the people sick, mentally, spiritually and physically, so we take up the mantle and address the systems of our day.

You would think that in an ostensibly Christian nation, most people would have at least touched the fringe of Jesus enough to want to extend healing to everyone.  But that is not the case.  I actually believe that the distorted message that so many people have heard, that Jesus came to save us from hell, (end of the story) has something to do with why touching him has had such a null effect morally for so many.

When  people believe that reciting the creeds is all we have to do to have touched Jesus, that is part of the problem.  It has been pointed out that in the great creeds, the whole life and teachings of Jesus gets reduced all the way down to the little tiny comma between the phrases “born of the virgin Mary,” comma, and  “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  In the creeds, Jesus was born and dies, and everything else he did, and said, like healing people, is hidden in that comma.

Whatever the reason, it appears that many who think that they have been saved by Jesus have not experienced much ego Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.57.52 PMhealing.

All we have to do is to look at the public discourse around literal health care.  The Alabama senate committee came within three votes of gutting Medicaid 23%.  What would that mean?  Analysts say that if the cuts had remained:

“…about one in five Alabamians would lose their health coverage, including nearly half of Alabama’s children and about 60 percent of the state’s seniors in nursing homes. Those cuts likely would lead to the closure of Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, as well as dozens of other hospitals and nursing homes across the state. The results would be devastating for Alabama’s economy and quality of life.”  (source: Alabama Arise Citizen Policy Report, http://www.arisecitizens.org/)

How could a person have been touched by Jesus’ healing message and vision and not want to extend literal healing and healthcare to children, to seniors, to the poor – to the very kind of people that flocked to Jesus for healing when he waked the earth?

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This is what we mean when we say that we are Jesus’ hands and feet.  We are the ones who have been saved by touching Jesus. We have been healed of our misconceptions of a non-loving God; we have been and are being healed of our ego diseases of the self-oriented life.

And now we are the body of Christ for the world, the light of the nations, that God’s salvation may reach everyone; not salvation from hell, but salvation meaning healing of exactly the kinds of diseases we have been and are being healed of.

So we are the ones who are called to bring Jesus’ healing touch to everyone.  We bring God’s openhearted welcome to the stranger.  We bring God’s merciful embrace to the guilty.  And we extend God’s care into every system of our world – the political systems, the health-care systems, the legal systems – everywhere the powers of the world are located.

We will know that we are fulfilling our mission when people can honestly say of us what they said of Jesus: all who touched them were healed.

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The God Who Passes By

Sermon on Mark 6:45-52 for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 02, 2015

Mark 6:45-52

 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.   After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.   When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by.   But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out;   for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded,   for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

I remember the first time someone drew my attention to Jesus’ personal spiritual life, I wondered why so little had been said Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.10.12 PMabout it.  When I thought of Jesus’ prayer life I would think of him on the night of his arrest, praying intensely in the garden of Gethsemane as the disciples slept.  But of course you do not get to be a person who can pray like that, at a time like that, without a whole life spent in spiritual practices, including prayer.

But anyway, this text is one of the reasons Jesus’ personal spirituality gets overlooked.  His whole night of prayer gets one sentence.  But that sentence is overwhelmed immediately by the story of the disciples in the boat fighting an adverse wind, and Jesus walking on the water.   By the time you get to the part where they see him in terror, you forget all about his prayer life that evening.

You also forget that the reason they are in that boat that night, crossing the lake is that Jesus required them to.  Mark tells us that Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat” using a word that means “compel” or even “force”.  It is such a strong word that when John tells this story, he drops it.

Resistance to Following

These details are here for a reason, and they are important, and we will look at them.  But I must pause right here.  We often speak of ourselves as followers of Jesus.  I hope we all consider ourselves followers of Jesus.  The question is, what do we do when he leads to places we do not want to go?

I just had a conversation with some people who told about a bible study they had been in on the topic of the Good Samaritan parable.  The whole point of the parable is that our responsibility to care for the real needs of our neighbors is profound, limited only by the extent that our hearts have been broken open by human suffering.

But instead of getting that essential, fundamental point, the group started grousing about the costs of medical care.  Instead of a conversation about compassion it ended up being about how to keep their money in their own pockets.  I guess  the guy lying half dead on the side of the road would just have to stay there.  Anyway, it is bizarre that people could read Jesus’ teaching and turn from it completely.   He was leading where they had no intention of going.  Is Jesus that optional?

Well, the way Mark tells the story of Jesus, being a disciple means feeling compelled to follow where Jesus leads.  If he says get in the boat and cross over, then you do, even if you do not want to.  The assumption is that he knows what he is doing.   There is a purpose.  He is training these people to live life, not according to the status quo world, but to live lives transformed by an alternative vision, inspired and empowered by the Spirit.  So, sometimes the training cuts against the grain; put us in places of awkwardness or discomfort – even pain.

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So, back to the story.  Jesus spent the whole night in prayer.  By the time we get to the walking on the water part, it is morning.  What happens when people pray like that?  I hope no one thinks Jesus was making requests all night.  Probably most of the night was spent in silence; in what we call centering or contemplative prayer, or simply meditation.

What happens is that compassion grows.  People who pray contemplatively have much slower triggers for anger, for insult and for disgust feelings about others.   In fact a sense of oneness begins to blossom.  A person who regularly meditates in silence begins to see that we are all connected to each other on this planet.  And not only are we connected to each other, despite surfaces differences, but we are also connected with all living things.  In fact with all things in the universe.

The importance and significance of the boundary markers that we have spent so much time building and maintaining that make our group different from and better than other groups based on race or language or religion or sexual orientation or status or education, or any other descriptor, simply diminish to the vanishing point.

This is the essential insight Jesus had which blew open the doors and exploded the walls around the concept of the kingdom of God.  Think of how revolutionary and actually difficult it would have been for a Jewish person who grew up feeling  that they were part of the exclusively chosen people, to imagine the kingdom of God without ethnic boundaries.  But for Jesus, it was essential.  God’s Spirit is at work in the world to bring God’s blessing and wholeness to everyone.

So, no, the disciples did not want to get in that boat and cross over, because in Mark’s story, crossing over to the other side is about going from Jewish space to non-Jewish space.  Each time they do, the crossing is difficult.

Of course it is.  For whom is it ever easy to open the door to the “other” to the stranger, to the person who is different?   Our instinctive impulse is suspicion, or fear, if not outright loathing for people who are different.  Nobody wants to get in the boat and face the  difficulty of crossing over.    But disciples of Jesus feel compelled by the Master Teacher, and so they do.

This is the second difficult crossing Mark tells about.  In the first one they encounter a storm, but at least Jesus is in the boat – even if he is sleeping.  When they awaken him he calms the storm.  When the community of Jesus followers awakens the presence of Christ as they gather together, the storm of opposition to fulfilling their transformed vision of embracing a new humanity can become peaceful and calm.

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This time, as they cross, there is no storm, but they face adverse winds that make them spend the whole night straining at the oars.  This time, Jesus is not even with them, and the struggle to cross is all the harder and longer for his absence.

Did you notice what Mark keeps calling this fresh water lake?  He calls it the Sea of Galilee.  This is purposeful.  The sea is rich with symbolism in the Jewish scriptures.  The whole world is a blessed and good place because God, the creator, calmed the waters of chaos in the beginning by his Spirit, his breath, the wind of God that blew over the waters.

The Israelites gained their redemption, their freedom from the Empire of Pharaoh in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea as another wind from God separated the waters.

That crossing was remembered liturgically and poetically in the Psalms.  The imagery of Psalm 77 takes the Exodus story and adds pyrotechnics to dramatize the  immensity of the moment with these words:

“When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

That moment Israel became a nation.  The family who had gone down into Egypt as a 70 member clan came out of Egypt as a new nation.  God’s way was through the sea, on a path that left no footprints.

This is the tradition that Mark is invoking.  To be part of the new nation, the new kingdom of God is to make the challenging crossing to the other side.

Mark wrote his gospel in and to a young Christian community that was most likely a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They had begun to live that alternative vision of a new humanity of reconciliation; a community of radical hospitality.  But there is no way that it was easy for them.  How could it be?  And all the more difficult because Jesus was not physically present anymore.  Jesus was not in the boat.

The language of spatial separation Mark uses emphasizes Jesus’ absence.  The boat was out at sea, and Jesus was alone, on the land, and ominous evening had already fallen.

Passing By on the Water

So then the scene comes that is both famously memorable and confusing.  If you know anything at all about Jesus it is probably that he turned water in to wine and walked on water.   But why in the world would he walk on water only to appear to pass by the poor struggling and now terrified disciples?

Well if you read this literally, I do not see how it makes any sense at all.  I do not read this literally.  Mark is again alluding to a profound tradition in several of texts from the Hebrew bible; stories that every Jew, literate or not, would know well.  These are the stories of divine revelation when God makes his glorious presence known by passing by.  It happened to Moses and to Elijah.  Both stories are dramatic.

Mark is saying to his struggling mixed community: yes, it is true that we are separated from Jesus now.  But he is the one whose vision of a new humanity we are following.  We are in this boat together.  And it is not true that we are abandoned.  God is with us.  The Spirit of God is here.  The Spirit of the risen Christ is here in the midst of our struggle against the adverse winds on this threatening sea.

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Mark’s gospel is realistic about how difficult this process can be.  The disciples are slow to catch the vision and to embrace it.  So Jesus pronounces peace as he comes to them, and says, “take heart; it is I”.  Then Mark explains the root of the difficulty of the evening: their hard hearts made them unable to understand about the loaves.

If you were here last week you know what he is talking about: the story of the feeding of the 5,000.  Strangers who had massed around Jesus had been formed into groups the size of house churches on the fresh green grass that had sprouted in the desert, sharing eucharist together, as if they were family.  If you do not get the meaning there – even on the Jewish side of the lake, you will certainly not understand why you must get into the boat and cross over to do it again on the Gentile side of the Lake.  But that is exactly what followers of Jesus are compelled by Jesus to do.

This is why many people now refer to Jesus’ mission as the Kin-dom of God, instead of kingdom of God – replacing a monarchical metaphor for a kinship, family metaphor.

Here is the point: when strangers are embraced with hospitality instead of hostility, God is present.  It is miraculous and transformative.

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And frankly, our world desperately needs this.  Our country needs this vision as we now are newly aware of how deeply divided we are racially.  Our state needs this vision too, as it is still not able to wrap its judicial head around the fact that LGBTQ people deserve justice and equality for all.  Our world desperately needs people who know that religious differences do not constitute justifications for violence or for discrimination.

This text is a call to the church to be the church.  First, we must be the people of God and then do the work of the people of God.  Being the people of God means that we follow Jesus in his spiritual practices.  To be a Christian must mean practicing the regular disciplines of a Christian, including and especially regular silent prayer-meditation and the regular celebration of the sacrament of Eucharist in the community.  These are the essential practices that both sustain our faith and open our hearts to the oneness that is the fundamental reality of the world God made.

And then we do the work of the people of God as we open our personal hearts to strangers and people who are “the other” and as we take up the cause of working for justice and equality for all people – not just Americans (which would be radically missing the point) – but all people on this planet.

So in a moment we will come to this sacrament.  We will break bread together as a family.  We will share one cup, and enact the sign of God’s presence among us.  And we will, by this meal, proclaim that the kin-dom of God is present, and that we, as followers of Jesus, are ready to really follow Jesus.

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The Basket of Broken Pieces that is Us

Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, July 26, 2015, on Mark 6:32-44

Mark 6:32-44
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 it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;  send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”  But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”  And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”  Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.  And all ate and were filled;  and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.  Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

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There is a scene in the book The Life of Pi in which Pi’s mother tells him a Hindu story.  Yashoda, foster mother of the baby Krishna once accused him of eating dirt.

‘Tut, tut, you naughty boy, you shouldn’t do that.’  ‘I didn’t eat dirt!’ ‘Yashoda said, ‘No? Well, then open your mouth.’ So Krishna opened his mouth. And what do you think Yashoda saw?  She saw in Krishna’s mouth the whole entire universe.”

It is a great story, in a book about stories, and about the question, which way of telling a story is the best?  I thought of that scene as I reflected on our text from Mark’s gospel, the feeding of the 5,000.  Why?  Because no good Hindu believer would imagine this story of Krishna was something literal that happened one day; it is deeply symbolic.  And the book, the Life of Pi itself asks the question: how do you read a story, especially a story in which God does something?

Well, this feeding story could be read literally.  In that case, it is a magic story that happened one day.  The result on that day was that hungry people were fed once.  The point of the story would be that Jesus had god-like miraculous power.

There are lots of hungry people in the world who missed that miracle that day because they were not there.  And there are people who are hungry all over the world today, and always have been throughout history, who missed that meal as well.  If this is just a story of a single meal, even with all the leftovers, it still leaves a lot of people out.

But I do not believe Mark told this story so that we would take it literally. It is bigger than that.  I think there is something with significance here – worldwide and deeply personal significance, so let us look at it.

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First, by feeding hungry people in the wilderness, Mark is showing us that God is working through Jesus like he did through Moses who gave the people manna from heaven.  But there is more going on here.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus does two feeding miracles; this one, and in chapter 8.  Here he feeds 5,000, there he feeds 4,000.  Later in chapter 8, there is a fascinating conversation between Jesus and the disciples,  in a boat, that sheds light on the way in which Mark wants us to read these stories.  The subject in the boat is bread.  The disciples feel badly because thy did not bring loaves (plural), but only brought one loaf – not much among twelve grown men plus Jesus.

Listen to the discussion:

 [Jesus says] “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?   When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.”   “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.”  Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”  (Mark 8:18-21)

We are not from Palestine, so we can be forgiven for not catching the fact that the feeding of the 5,000 was on the Jewish side of the lake, while the feeding of the 4,000 was on the Gentile side.  That’s why there needed to be two feedings.

The whole story is loaded with symbols.  Even the word for baskets differ: when he feeds Jews, they pick up 12 baskets of leftovers, one for each tribe of Israel, using a Jewish word for basket.  When they pick up the leftovers on the other side, they use a Greek word for basket, and there are 7 left over, just as there were, according to Moses, 7 nations of Gentiles in the promised land that the Jews would conquer.  (Deut. 7:1)

The point  Jesus was making in the boat discussion was that many loaves were not needed; only one loaf was needed.  From one loaf, taken in gratitude, broken, and shared, there could be abundance for everyone, in fact, for the whole world – Jews and Gentiles – leaving no one out.

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One loaf is clearly a reference to a community, celebrating Eucharist together.  In the days of early Christianity, we should imagine groups meeting in house churches, probably comprised of 50 to 100 people at the most – the number of people who were grouped together for the meal.  What other point would there be in grouping people if you were simply going to feed everyone?  The point is, it looks like church; like a communion service.

Even the very verbs Mark uses are Eucharistic words.  Just like on the night of the Last Supper which we remember in the Eucharist, Jesus “took” the bread, “blessed, broke, and gave it” to his disciples.

Even the green grass they sat on is symbolic.  I have been to Palestine, and I want to tell you that in places where they do not have those irrigation hoses, there is no green grass to sit down on – especially in a place that was “deserted” – actually the word means “wilderness.”

But of course the image of the the desert springing to life with fresh vegetation is exactly how the  prophets pictured the new age when the kingdom of God would come (Ezek. 47).  So the people had green grass to sit down on, and on which to share broken bread together.  The Kingdom, or should we say, the realm of God had come.

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One more bit of symbolism will be helpful to see.  Jesus, Mark tells us, looked at these hungry people with compassion, and observed that they were like “sheep without a shepherd.”  Last week we spent time on the concept that the Lord is our shepherd.  But there are several layers involved in this image, and I want to share another with you now.

The prophet Ezekiel is where Jesus first heard that phrase, “sheep without a shepherd.”  In Ezekiel’s day, it was a comment about the failure of the leadership to meet the people’s needs.  The shepherds were the people in government.  And their failure was proven by the fact that some sheep were getting fat at the expense of the other sheep who did not have enough.

Listen to how Ezekiel describes the situation:

“Son of Man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.  4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezek. 34:2-4)

Jesus saw the poor hungry people of his day and gave the same assessment.  They were like sheep without a shepherd.  The leaders who were supposed to “let justice roll down like waters,” who had the obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, were caring only for themselves.

You may remember that this story of an impromptu banquet in the suddenly-verdant wilderness comes right after the story of king Herod’s sumptuous banquet.  That meal ended with John the baptist’s head on a platter.  Ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Herod felt threatened by John’s messianic preaching and the organized peasants, gathering in large groups, who followed him, anticipating a change.  (see Binding the Strong Man, p. 208).  Organized sheep make unjust shepherds nervous.

“You feed them”

The central moment in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is the conversation  between the compassionate Jesus and the disciples.  They notice, and point out that the people are hungry – they are not without compassion too.  So Jesus tells them to feed the people. But based on economic realities, there is not enough. It is impossible. I can just hear someone saying, “Well, you know, Jesus, I am a business man and I look at this from a business perspective.  The market is what it is;  the price of bread is set by the forces of supply and demand.”  The market does not care that people are hungry.

So their solution was to tell Jesus,

“send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”

Treat them as autonomous, individual consumers, and throw them to the mercy of the market.

Jesus’ Alternative Vision

But Jesus has an entirely alternative vision.  Jesus’ vision is of a new community that operates by radically different values.
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He creates groups of 50’s and 100’s – not on the basis of family ties or even friendship.  These people who were attracted to Jesus could well have been absolute strangers to each other, but these strangers were now organized into these new groups.  These flash communities were sized just right so that everyone could take the Eucharist from one single loaf.  One loaf, as Jesus told the men in the boat, is enough, when it is the bread of Eucharist.

Eucharist,” by the way, simply means “thanksgiving.”  When a community of strangers gathers to break bread together, and by doing so, identifies itself as a community of people brought together by Jesus, they become family.   And when they break bread with thanksgiving, they are proclaiming  a whole life-orientation of gratitude.  They are thankful because they know that everything is gift.  Every mouthful of bread, every sip of wine, every denarius in their money pouch, comes from God, the Heavenly Abba who cares equally for the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field.

A community of strangers who have been made in to a family of gratitude experiences a miracle: the impossible becomes possible.  Instead of the context of alien wilderness, they create a context of green grass that just begs you to go get the blanket and the picnic basket and the ice-cream.  Instead of an economy of personal hoarding and scarcity, they live into the vision of a shared humanity and abundance.

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Now, we are that community.  We are that group of strangers who have been made into a family by the alluring call of Jesus.  We have responded to that allurement; we know ourselves as followers of Jesus.  Now, we are the body of Christ.  Just as the bread of the Eucharist is Christ’s body, broken for us, so now as the body of Christ, we offer ourselves to be broken on behalf of a hungry world.  We are those baskets of broken bread – not whole bread, but broken.

Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus tells us; blessed are those with broken hearts who see suffering, and feel compassion.  Who first feel compassion, and then who respond.  Blessed are those whose brokenness has been shared with other broken people, and whose life is offered on behalf of others who still have hungry bellies and hungry hearts.  Blessed are those who hold the shepherds in government responsible for providing for all of the sheep, not just for the elite 1%.

A New Vision for Humanity

So this is not a story about one magic meal on one day.  This is a story of a new vision for humanity.   It is a radical change.  It is like a new creation – which is probably why Paul liked to call Jesus the new Adam.

Like an ice-cream cone with two scoops, there are two enticing allurements for us here.  The first is the vision of us as a community of followers of Jesus.  We are offered a vision of living as a community of radical hospitality, radical openness to strangers, to others, radical inclusion offered on the assumption that whom God has brought together, God has brought together.  And based on the depth dimension that we have all experienced, that when the stranger is embraced with hospitality instead of hostility, the impossible becomes possible, a new future is created, and God becomes present.

The other scoop is how our community blesses the entire world.  Never before has there been such time in which it is so urgent that we be a model of that new humanity.  The most obvious place to start is with people who are literally poor and hungry.  We are the kind of people who look at the world as Jesus taught us to: with compassion.  Compassion leads us to share our resources until all are fed.  But we do not stop with private charity.  We ask the follow up question: why are people still hungry?  What systems need to change so that hunger and poverty can be eliminated?

Our community is called to bless the world in other ways as well.  With all of the divisions and hostility in our country and in the world, we have the role of reconcilers.  We are called to live into this new vision of a new humanity by our steadfast commitment to ending discrimination of all kinds – against LGBTQ people, against people of other races, against immigrants, yes, and including against people of other religions; yes, including Muslims.

We are not going to join the ranks of the cynics nor of the doomsayers. We have been given the gift of a vision of hope for a future that God is creating every day.  So we must be a community that faces this future with the fitness and energy of those who have been doing their daily workouts, our regular Christian practices like prayer, meditation, and the sacraments, which strengthen us for our mission.

We are Jesus-followers.  Bread, broken for the hungry.  A family with an amazing, hopeful purpose.

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The “is” and “so” of Faith

Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, July 19, 2015, on Psalm 23 & Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Psalm 23

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.

I do not know how your days go, but it seems often that what I think I am going to do is  not actually what I end up doing.  Thursday I was going to work on the minutes of the last session meeting, but someone needed help getting a browser  plug-in installed to print out some sheet music, and there was a huge pool of water in the men’s room to deal with.

Well, we, who have our days rearranged for us, are in good company.  Jesus’ day went entirely differently than the rest and relaxation he had planned in this text from Mark’s gospel.  Jesus, it seems, had a rhythm of ministry and withdrawal, which he led his disciples to practice as well.   All faithful Jewish people are grounded in the rhythm of work and sabbath; service and rest.

Unplugging

We often talk about the practices of a Christian.  Jesus models for us the practice of active service, and of intentionally making space for the Spirit by pulling back for solitude and silence.  I believe that the more connected we are technologically,  especially users of smart phones, with all of the alerts and notifications we receive, the more we require unplugging for times of silence, meditation and prayer.

Even for the rest of us, without smart phones, we have plenty of reasons to need to pay attention to our spiritual lives.  We are are constantly made aware of the  disturbing and upsetting news of the world, even terrible things that happen nearby.    The more anxiety we feel, the more we require silence, meditation, and prayer in our lives as a regular, daily practice.  Jesus is our model.

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So we plan for times of spiritual renewal, but life does not always go the way we plan.  We can learn from Jesus here too.  We see Jesus being open to the Spirit leading him into experiences he did not anticipate, even which he tried to avoid, as the crowds he wanted to escape found him.

He responded to this interruption in his plans the way a person who is in touch with the Spirit does.  A person who has spent hours in silence, in prayer, in mindfulness meditation has learned to be present to the present moment and to accept what is happening, non-judgmentally.  Which is what Jesus did, in this story.  Mark tells us:

“he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd”

So often we experience irritation and frustration when the unexpected happens.  But that is not the only way to live; it is merely the default way.  There is another path.

We can learn to look at life, even the unexpected and difficult parts of life and receive them non-judgmentally.  We can learn to say, “O, this is what is happening now” instead of reacting with resentment.   This is not automatic.  That kind of spiritual maturity is the fruit of a life spent cultivating daily spiritual practices.

To receive the moment as it is, non-judgmentally, is what it means to trust.  Trust that even what appears chaotic and pointless will be OK.  Where does this trust come from – we will watch this unfold in Jesus’ experience.

Jesus’ Inner Life

Back to the story, we see Jesus responding with compassion to an interruption.  I love the way Mark describes his reaction to seeing the needy crowds. Mark gives us a rare glimpse of Jesus’ inner life.  He could have told us simply what Jesus did as he responded to the needs in front of him by touching them.  Or he could have also mentioned Jesus’ feelings about them – his compassion.
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But Mark went one step further and told us about the image or the metaphor in Jesus’ mind as he looked with compassion and responded with his healing touch.  He looked at the people as shepherd-less sheep.   Not just as sheep, but as sheep who had no shepherd.

And for a person who has been formed spiritually in the traditions, the texts, and the practices of Israel, the only response is to do what God does: to be there for the shepherd-less ones; to show up in their lives and to touch them with your presence and compassion.  There is tremendous healing in this.

The Experience of Trust

Jesus was, as we have said, formed spiritually by the traditions, the texts and the practices of Israel.  Today we read one of the most loved texts in the Hebrew bible, the 23rd Psalm.  “The Lord,” which translates, Yahweh (Israel’s name for God) “is my shepherd.”

This may well be the only statement of faith you need.  This is that ground of trust that Jesus had.  He knew that as he lived his days, both the ones that went as planned and the ones filled with the unexpected, a Shepherd was guiding him.

So far, I have spoken of small interruptions and irritations that are opportunities either for resentment and irritation, or for trusting acceptance, but we need to go deeper.  It is not just traffic jams, long lines, or a ruined vacation days that we have to deal with, but far more difficult challenges to faith.  Family issues, health issues, financial issues; life is hard.

Trusting that there is a Shepherd there for us is made complicated by the fact that if he is there guiding, we do not see him.  His work is not at all obvious.  Especially when tragedy strikes us or those whom we love, it looks as though there is no shepherd at all.

How do we trust in those times?  How do we trust in the Shepherd, as Jesus did, when the difficulty is not just a crowd of needy people interrupting a day of rest, but a crowd of angry people shouting, “crucify him”?

How, in other words, do we trust when the diagnosis is bad?  When the relationship falls apart?  When the figures just do not add up?  When it is life and death?  When it feels like we are in an abyss, without solid ground?

I believe we all want to be people who have peace, who are content, who face life’s biggest challenges from a place of trust and calm.  We can be that kind of person, but only after cultivating trust in the daily doses of difficulty that life serves up to us.  Spiritual practices bear fruit, but there is no short-cutting the growing season.  Trusting that there is a shepherd guiding us when it is life and death is possible for those who nurture their spiritual lives in the every day.

The Uncanny Depth Dimension in History

I believe we can be helped to trust the Shepherd if we stand back and take a broader perspective than our own little lives.  There is an uncanny positive direction to history, that it helps to remember.
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Dr. King, famously said that

“the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

It is true.  More people today, than ever before, live in free, democratic countries.

In our country, we keep inching closer to the ideal of equality for everyone.   We keep seeing legal obstructions to equality fall, and symbols of discrimination are being pulled down from flagpoles across the country.

But it is not so easy.  The moral arc that is long and bends towards justice, only looks like a smooth line from a great distance.  Up close, it is a zig-zag line.  We make moral progress by taking two steps forward and one back.  We end slavery and follow it with Jim Crow.

We  elect a black president and think race relations  are getting better, until we see news of cell phone videos showing things that shock and horrify us.  Even as some flags come down, others go up.

The job is unfinished.  And yet, progress has been made.  It is as if something deeper is going on than chaos and randomness.   There is a depth dimension that points to something at work beneath the surface.

As John Haught has said so well,

In the final analysis, the depth is the ultimate support, absolute security, unrestricted love, eternal care.”  (What is God? p. 18)

In other words,

Yahweh, God, the Lord, is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

That is what Jesus trusted, and how he was able to trust in the face of everything he went through, from the interruptions, to the cross.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Jesus, grounded in the traditions, the texts, and the practices of Israel, the rhythms of work and Sabbath rest, the teachings of Torah, the prophets and the psalms, the   communal experiences of pilgrimage and festival, was ultimately grounded in God; grounded in trust that he was under the Shepherd’s care.

So we too, grounded in the traditions, texts and practices of the church can tell our story in this particular way.  It is a journey story.  It is a complicated story.  It is a deep and mysterious story, but it is a story of a journey towards home; our true home, in God, guided by the Shepherd.

This story gives us the courage to trust, and fills us with compassion.  We trust that our interrupted lives are not chaotic, but guided.  And we look with compassion on every place of suffering, every situation of shepherd-less-ness and, as Jesus taught by example, we too respond with a reaching touch of healing.

Organized for Compassionate Action

I love the way the Jesus story shows us both a vision of personal compassionate touch and of organized, strategic ministry.  In this scene the people come to Jesus for his personal ministry.  But recently we saw that Jesus strategically organized the disciples into pairs and sent them out with a plan for healing ministries.   Justice and care often require organization and strategy.

The personal becomes political when compassion addresses large scale issues like mass incarceration, racism, discrimination, poverty, climate change, and war.  People who are grounded in the Shepherd’s story become parts of movements of change in solidarity with the shepherd-less ones.   There is, we know, a depth dimension to what we do together that is far greater than any of us could accomplish alone.

This is the “is” and the “so” of faith.  The Lord IS my shepherd, we say, SO, we are not in want.  Instead, like Jesus, we are engaged.  We are engaged in the traditions, texts and practices of a Christian.  We are engaged in both mission and in contemplation; in service and in Sabbath.

And we are also engaged in shepherding ministries of compassion, including the compassion that can only be accomplished by the organized, strategic work for justice and peace.

Ultimately, we are grounded in faith, trusting, waiting, searching, and always, hoping.

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Passing it On

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, B, July 5, 2015 on  Mark 6:1-13

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 his son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not 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. Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 2.12.46 PM

We have enjoyed watching the TV series called “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”  Set in the days of the American War of Independence, it is about spies who worked for General Washington.  The drama starts in 1776 in Setauket, New York  which was under  British occupation.  British troops were everywhere.  Resistance was dangerous.

It was also a time in which insults to honor were settled by duals with pistols, as happens in this story.  Insulting someone’s honor was taken with utmost seriousness.

The occupation of the land by foreign troops, the hopes for independence and the culture of  honor and shame are all parts of the story we read from Mark’s gospel.  The land of Israel, like the American colonies, was under foreign occupation: Roman troops were everywhere and were not at all reluctant to punish sedition.

Every Israelite longed to be out from under the boot of the Roman Empire, to be free and independent in their own land.   They wanted their kingdom back.  And many were willing to go to war to get it back.

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Into this context, Jesus is born.  He grows up the son of a peasant carpenter from a small insignificant village in Galilee among the working poor.  He goes to synagogue every Sabbath where they read Torah and the prophets, sing the Psalms, and pray.  They pray to the God of Moses, who led the exodus from Egyptian imperial oppression.  To the God of Abraham who turned from idols to  worship the one true God.  They prayed to the God of creation, the ultimate Source of all being.

We know almost nothing about Jesus’ experience of childhood and youth, but by the time we get stories about his adult life, we see a person who is deeply spiritual.  He spends long periods in silent prayer and meditation, sometimes all night long.  He is a person of compassion, willing to be attentive and fully present to suffering people.  And Jesus has a clear sense of calling.  He knows what his purpose is.  He lives as one totally connected to the Source of all being.  He is fond of calling that ultimate Source of being “Abba,” Father.  His connection is personal and even intimate.

What comes from this connection?  It is complicated.  Some of it makes Jesus well liked – even amazing to people.  At the same time, it alienates Jesus from some; even makes them angry.

Reacting to Jesus’ Vision

On the positive side, Jesus’ presence is a healing presence for many.  He touches people in unique ways with the power of God’s energy flowing through him.  He refuses to alienate anyone – he even goes out of his way to cross over to the Gentile side of the lake, to touch impure people and to remove social and even religious purity-barriers, as we have seen in the last few weeks of reading the gospel of Mark.

And Jesus has an amazing vision for he future.  He lives in the days of monarchies, so he calls his vision the kingdom of God.  It is a vision of shalom; of goodness, of reconciliation and wholeness.  Most remarkable is that for Jesus, the future has arrived.  The time is fulfilled.  The kingdom of God is at hand, and for those who accept this vision, it changes everything.

I wish we knew how Jesus arrived at this amazing vision, but we can see where it came from.  If you look back on the story of Israel told in Israel’s scripture, you can see patterns emerging, or evolving.  You can see trajectories.   The nation that is comprised of liberated slaves are formed into a community by covenant, under Moses.

Israel’s Odd Prophets

They worship their liberating God through sacrifice, as many ancient peoples did.  But Israel had these odd, outlier people called prophets who had remarkable spiritual insight, who said that there was more to it.  God, the Creator, the ultimate Source of being did not actually need sacrifices.  What God wanted was justice, mercy and compassion.

God wanted liberation for humans at a deep level.  God wanted liberation from selfishness, from greed, from violence.  The Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 3.24.00 PMprophets had an amazing vision of a future of shalom, of peace between nations, of swords beaten into plows and spears into pruning hooks.  It was a world-encompassing vision by prophets who knew that this was the only possible world that the Source of all being could desire.

So Jesus grew up reading Moses, and the Psalms, drinking in the insights of the prophets, and communing with God, the ultimate source of all being.

This is why, like some of the prophets before him, Jesus offended people too.  There are those for whom a world-wide vision was against their parochial self-interest.  There were those who did not long for the days of shalom, but who wanted to go to war.  They did not want the kingdom of God, they wanted the kingdom of David back.

Long ago, the prophet Jeremiah got thrown into a pit where he was expected to die because he told the people of his day not to go to war with the invading Babylonians.  And similarly, Jesus offended the nascent zealots of his day by resisting their quest for a new war of liberation against Rome.

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The story we read today shows glimpses of Jesus and the way he was received, both positively and negatively.  People liked his sermons in the synagogue, but they had issues with his agenda.  In that honor-and-shame-obsessed culture, they tried to insult Jesus.  They did not call him a new prophet, but rather a lowly carpenter.  They did not call him Joseph’s son, as patrilineal custom dictated.  They called him Mary’s son.  They mocked his family, his brothers and sisters.

Jesus got the insult.  He said,

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown”

But he did not call anyone to a dual or get into an ego contest.  His sense of self was far deeper than their ego insults could touch.  His response was the non-violent response of a contemplative.  He simply moved on.

Jesus’ Two-leveled Mission

There were two levels to Jesus’ mission.  First, he wanted people to come to know and love God, the ultimate source of being has he did.  He taught people to pray “Our Father in heaven” meaning our Father who is Divine; God.  Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 3.39.56 PM

He taught people to be spiritually oriented.  To come to understand that their truest selves were not their external labels and roles, their time-bound and culture-bound identities, but that their true identities were that they were God’s progeny; God’s children, in fact, at one with God.

Jesus wanted people to understand that their relationship to God was not about guilt and shame, taboo and law, but about redeeming love and ultimate trust.

This is exactly what we need still today; to be spiritually connected to the source of all being, to God, whom we know is for us, not against us.  To finally know ourselves at one with God, to experience God’s presence in the present.

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Spirituality is the first level.  But it does not stop there; it cannot stop there.  As soon as God is known this way, everything else changes.  It changes the way we relate to all other humans in the world.  They are not aliens to us if we share a common source, a common Father.   We cannot be indifferent to their needs, their pain, their conditions anymore than we are indifferent to the pain in our own families.  We become people of compassion.

Did you happen to see that piece that was carried on a popular news channel in which a white reporter in a sharp suit interviewed homeless black people living in Grand Central Station?  It was so, so sad.  This man went up to people who had no homes to live in, completely devoid of any compassion, and smugly coaxed them to reveal how dehumanized their lives had become.   Then he interviewed white people who complained of how inconvenient these homeless people made their lives.  Then he discussed the piece with the popular news anchor – all without one single word of pity, understanding or compassion, let alone analysis of root causes nor proposals for solutions.

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Friends, we are called to a far higher standard.  Just as Jesus sent out his disciples to pass on the vision of the kingdom, the realm of God, so we are here for a purpose.  Just as their ministry was a ministry of healing, so we are called to be God’s agents of practical care and compassion to the suffering.

Just as they cast out demons, so we are called to confront all the ways in which evil manifests itself in our day: the way the evil of greed and corruption infects our economic and political lives.  The way the evil of discrimination and racism continues to claim victims.  The way the evil of apathy infects us and allows us to turn away from people in poverty, and to ignore the cruel absurdity of mass incarceration.

Let us be the people who embrace Jesus’ vision.  Let us be people of deep spirituality.  Let us practice our faith intentionally by daily prayer and meditation, by regular worship and sacraments, and gathering together as a community in fellowship.  And let us be a community that passes it on in practical mission to our world.

Our perspective, since it seeks to be Jesus’ perspective, may run afoul of popular perspectives.  We may have to take some heat for being scandalized by heartless reports about homeless people.  We may take some flack for being the ones willing to stand up for equality for LGBT people and for  pressing for an end to racism and all its politely tolerated symbols.

We may, like Jesus and his disciples, find some people unwilling to embrace the world as it looks from the perspective of the Source of all Being. But we will not be baited by negativity.  We will live as hope-filled followers of Jesus, as children of the Father, as those who know we are one with God, our source and our destination


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