Search This Blog

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In or Out!

Mark 9:38-50
This, for me, anyway, has been a fascinating week. An enormous amount of energy, focus and press has surrounded the historic visit of Pope Francis I to the United States, so much so that it has been hard not to be caught up in or at least curious about the travels, the speeches and the activities of the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
If your week found you having to travel in the direction of Washington, D.C., New York or Philadelphia, or anywhere else along the Northeast corridor, you may have found yourself in “deep doo-doo” as my mother used to say. It simply isn’t easy to move millions of extra people into and out of our cities.
While I wasn’t able to be personally present or even to observe firsthand the broadcasts of Francis’ speeches and activities, I have read reports and some transcripts of what the pope said, followed, of course, by the endless commentary about everything he did – commentary which heavily weighed in the positive, I must say.
Since he was elected to the papacy on March 13, 2013, the appeal and the fan base of this pope has grown far beyond the reaches of the Roman Catholic Church. I was not alone this week as an “outsider” who was listening, watching, and weighing the words of the pontiff.
Leaders and members of many other world religions and Christian denominations have watched his movements as have political leaders from across the globe. Along with the masses who have thronged his appearances, I have watched with growing respect and appreciation the consistent message the pope delivers regardless of his audience.
Francis has built up quite a fan base, to the extent that without the careful planning, added security detail, and massive crowd control employed this week, we might have faced a disaster similar to that which faced pilgrims to Mecca this week, where people were trampled and hundreds were killed.
Instead, millions of people crowded the cities and millions more gathered around television sets around the world to watch history being made. Yet, as poet John Lyndgate once said, in words later adapted by President Lincoln, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time.” The pope has his detractors, too.
For as much good and positive press the pope has garnered, there are also those who don’t like him, who question his decisions and teaching, who find him too radical and too honest and too convicting in his opinions. Yes, there are those who would like to give him the boot right out of the Vatican and back to Argentina.
As we know from the gospels, Jesus received the same kind of positive and negative attention and response during his lifetime. As we have read from the gospel of Mark over the past few months, Jesus has been traveling all around Galilee. And as his ministry has grown, his reputation for shining a new light for God’s people and new hope on those who truly walked in darkness, those who were so long waiting and yearning for just such a word, the crowds grew. So did the determination of his opponents.
People wanted to hear more from this Nazarean. They brought their diseased and disabled for healing. The poor came to be fed. Everyone was looking for a little something from him. People came out of the woodwork and as other gospels testify, even out of the ceilings to touch and be touched by him.
Watching the frenzy which surrounded Francis this week, I could only imagine what it might have been like for Jesus during his own travels around Galilee, followed by crowds from which there was no escape.
Jesus’ ministry had grown to such a point that like Moses in our first lesson this morning, disciples were chosen to help and then himself Jesus sent them to teach and preach and heal in his name. He appointed them to this ministry and made them part of the vast work of sharing God’s love and mercy in the world. But then the inevitable happened. They began to think of themselves in competitive and exclusive terms.
Like Joshua in the Old Testament text, the disciples were afflicted with forgetting – yet again – that God’s call and anointing comes in many forms to those whom God chooses.
In the gospel just before today’s story, upon hearing Jesus’ second passion prediction, some of the disciples distracted themselves along the road by arguing which of them was the greatest. Jesus had to remind them that to follow him means to take up one’s cross. Jesus he told them those who are the “last” among us will be the “first” – in God’s eyes and in God’s kingdom.
It’s part of the problem with humankind, with all of us, isn’t it? Sooner or later, no matter how pure our motives and intentions to follow in the way of Jesus, we set up walls – barriers which separate us from one another.
We create lists of who is on the inside and who is on the outside, who is in the right and who is in the wrong, who has power and is deserving, and who is powerless and undeserving, who is the greatest or most important and accomplished, and who just doesn’t matter quite as much, who is “one of us” and who is “one of them”.
The disciples come to Jesus complaining that someone who isn’t “one of us” is casting out demons in Jesus name.
But Jesus sets the record straight. “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Or, as The Message translation puts it, “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”
Even among the Christian denominations we struggle with Jesus’ words here, because you know, there are the Evangelicals and the Charismatics; There are the Conservatives and the Moderates; There are those who read and understand the Bible as the literal, historically factual and inerrant Word of God and those who believe that the Bible is the authentic, living, and inspired Word which must be read contextually. There are Reconciling in Christ congregations who not only welcome but desire to help heal the hurts of the LGBT community and individuals and there at congregations which adamantly shut them out. And we fight one another and disregard the legitimacy of the faith of the other.
The thing is that Jesus tells us that he welcomes all who believe in him. Jesus calls many from different walks of life, from different backgrounds, cultures, and social strata to serve him. The kingdom of God is inclusive not only of whom it serves but in whom it calls to serve.
What is it that has people today talking about and following and listening to the man who was at the center of the news cycle this week? What is it about Francis that draws both crowds and praise but also deep criticism? And let me set the record straight. Unlike Jesus, Pope Francis is neither saint nor divine. So what is the draw?
Is it that he, through word and deed reflects the teachings of Jesus and in so doing is giving people who hunger and thirst for good news the hope which is for them both precious commodity and life-giving good news? Is it the down-to-earth manner of a man whose every action is scrutinized, weighed and judged by the world yet seems to be pretty consistent with the Jesus who places love and mercy ahead of politics and agenda? Is it that the man who now has our attention and is seen by so many as being radical somehow reflects the humble walk Jesus commands of all his followers as they take up their cross to follow, but which we find so challenging?
Is it the ways in which he is reaching out and urging unity and acceptance of diversity in this kingdom life and kingdom work as Jesus does in our gospel today?
In his address to Congress, Francis said, “In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.”
We confess that the kind of cooperation of which Francis optimistically speaks is the kind of cooperation that the disciples struggle with in the text today and is the kind of cooperation that can be a struggle for us, each and every day.
Yet the grace of God, experienced through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s way of stripping away barriers, and it encourages us to look at one another through the lens of this gospel.  
Through the incarnation of Jesus, the enfleshment of God’s own spirit for the kingdom of God, the dividing lines, the barriers that separate people and disadvantage those who are seeking, struggling, and searching are removed, knocked to the ground, and obliterated.
What does it mean to really believe that God works through all denominations?
What does it look like when cooperative ministries unite in common cause for the sake of people in need?
I suppose it looks something like hundreds of people having their homes rebuilt and life restored by a wide variety of faith groups, working cooperatively following a disaster like Superstorm Sandy as we saw happening just down the road almost three years ago, or a hurricane like Katrina or so many disasters since which have found various faith groups working cooperatively to restore lives and communities.
I suppose it might look like an Interfaith Hunger Coalition providing food for scores of people right here in Easton; I suppose it might look like a homeless shelter served by volunteers from the Jewish temple alongside members of the Quaker Meeting house, in partnership with members of Grace each and every month. These are but a few of the large network of partnerships and ministries serving the needs of this kingdom of God.
The good news of God in Jesus Christ comes to us not through the group, denomination, class, race or gender we belong to nor through the particular call that Christ has called us to, but is made manifest in God’s creative, redeeming, inclusive love for all, which draws us together, working and serving God’s kingdom.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Plot Twists and Hairpin Turns

Mark 8:27-38
          I’ve been reading a book lately that I have had such a hard time putting down – I finally, thankfully, finished it last night. The storyline has held me captive, especially in the last half of the book, as the plot has taken many twists and hairpin turns. It’s the kind of book where, even if you are not crazy about the storyline, you just have to know where it will end up. Do you know what I mean? So, this sermon may be a bit on the short side because, you know, I had a book I just had to attend to this week.
          Some of the best and most entertaining or captivating books and movies are the ones that have huge plot twists. These are the ones where you just don’t see that particular turn in the plot coming.
          You become fascinated by the unexpected –
                             or perhaps you are unnerved by it,
                                      and either way, you just have to reconcile the

tension that is created.
          Perhaps a major character is revealed to possess some personality flaw – like the fact that though you have grown to love them it is revealed that they really are a serial killer           or are otherwise leading a secret double life. They are just not the person you thought them to be.
          Or maybe tension in the storyline keeps you perched on   the edge of your seat, fingernails digging into the cushions because there are so many unexpected twists and turns that, like the book that I just finished, you just have to find out how it will end: people aren’t who they seem to be; their motives are false; there is a conspiracy underfoot that you misread of missed entirely.
          Something in the story keeps us coming back for more, however, even though we may not be necessarily crazy about the story itself.
          I feel a bit like that when I read the gospel of Mark.
          Now I know that some of you are probably thinking, “Really, Pastor Karen, the Gospel of Mark? (Maybe you should get a life!),” and you would be right. Or – “but we’ve heard these stories so many times, how could you be surprised by anything you read in this gospel?” And of course, you would be right there too, because the truth is that I have read this gospel many, many times.
          Yet as I contemplate its meaning at each reading, I still do find myself surprised, intrigued, often confused, and scratching my head – as I do with this text we read this morning.
          Along with the disciples, I find myself amazed and wanting to get at the heart of what in the world is going on as I observe the exchange that occurs between Peter and Jesus.
          This story marks the midway point in the narrative in this gospel of Mark. Jesus has been traveling throughout Galilee. Already there have been some minor twists here and there.  Jesus has been healing and driving away the demons and the crowds of people following him are growing. What could be better than that for a fledgling mission? But these actions and miracles also attract the attention of the leadership of the temple – and not in a good way. They set out to trap Jesus by various means.
          Jesus has been teaching his disciples and sends them out to do the same   and they bring back stories of great success in preaching, teaching and healing in his name. What teacher could ask for more? Yet at the same time, Jesus warns his followers to keep his works and even his identity to themselves – they mustn’t reveal too much too soon.
          Jesus has been performing works of wonder all around the region –yet things turn ugly when he returns to his own hometown of Nazareth, of all places - so that there, in that place, he can do little.
          In our gospel today, in a confession to Jesus, Peter speaks the words that we’ve all been waiting to hear. Because after all, we who are here, gathered together by the Holy Spirit as confessing Christians know who Jesus is. We have been waiting and watching and hoping that soon everyone will know who Jesus is, beginning with these first twelve disciples, and that the Good News of this revelation will cover the entire earth. Finally, Peter gets it!   Peter says the words we have been longing to hear. Words that I can imagine Jesus has been longing to hear.
          This disciple, with whom Jesus has a deep abiding relationship and friendship, responds to the question, “Who do you say that I am,” with the correct answer: “You are the Messiah,” Peter says.
          Now maybe Mark, who is notably short on words, who often cuts to the chase and seems to leave things out as a result, skips part of Jesus’ response to Peter in order to highlight what is surprising and important to him in this story. We don’t know for sure. But I find it frustrating that here, when someone finally gets it and states the truth about Jesus, the wonderful earth-shattering truth about our Savior, Jesus immediately tries to hush him up. Because what is Jesus response? It is not “good work, my good and faithful servant,” nor is it “High fives! Right answer Peter!” nor “Excellent deduction, my friend.” No. Jesus does none of these.
          Jesus sternly tells Peter and the other disciples not to tell anyone about him. It is not yet the time to let loose this information. Jesus then goes on to tell the disciples what is coming – that he, the Messiah, will – in fact must undergo horrific suffering and a torturous death. We go from high to low.
          Poor Peter. Poor disciples. Poor reader.
          We go from what seems like the greatest climax possible in this narrative - identifying the one we follow, the one we love, the one who has been teaching us, making us promises, calling and gathering us for godly work in the kingdom and we enter into the deepest hairpin turn of all, followed by a stomach clenching plunge into despair.
          Peter and his companions are likely picturing thrones and successful military campaigns and the overturning of the oppressive powers of the earth; they picture Jesus seated in earthly glory, they probably see themselves all as being part of a wonderful movement and kingdom in which Jesus is crowned and enthroned and worshiped and adored but they hear from his own lips shocking, shocking news. Jesus is going to be rejected. Jesus is going to be taken away in the most awful circumstance imaginable. He will be killed.
No – it’s actually unimaginable – what Jesus is saying.
          Can we blame Peter when he chastises Jesus? “Stop! Say no more!
It can’t be true, don’t tell us these things. It is not possible!”
          But Jesus is not finished teaching these disciples – and us – what his messiahship means. He is not finished describing how God’s love for humanity will require the greatest sacrifice from the Son.
          Jesus has much to teach these friends, these followers, these disciples, about what it means for the world that God sent the messiah to be born in human flesh, to dwell in human brokenness, and to raise those who are have been destroyed by sin and death into new life.
          The story suddenly slows down a bit. Jesus is now talking not only about how he will suffer and die, but how those who follow him, who serve him, will also know suffering; will also know pain; will also know mortal death – but will at the same time receive abundant everlasting life.
This is the mystery of life and faith, and it is the key to the kingdom of God.
          Frankly, I suspect most of us find our grasp of this message elusive most of the time. We have to admit that we find Peter’s definition of “messiah” the one we prefer as well. We consider ourselves “blessed” when we are successful, happy, healthy, prosperous, and enjoying the good life. We want a strong God, a God who heals our illnesses in ways we recognize, a God who provides ample prosperity, a God who guarantees our security, a God who ensures victory for our military (and perhaps our sports teams) and generally gives us the happily ever after we seek.
          What Jesus offers with all this cross-bearing talk and demands to “lose our life” is a plot-twist we didn’t see coming and one we have little understanding of.
          And yet, as the saying goes, we do not always get the God we want.
We get the God we need. Jesus points to a God who meets us in our vulnerability, suffering, and loss.
          God meets us in those moments of astonishing twists and turns in the storyline of our lives; those moments when we go from high to low in the moment the phone rings, or the test results come back, or the car is suddenly careening out of control.
          God meets us in the falling of buildings built with human hands, in the crashing down of cranes, in the storm and drought and fear of everyday life, the plot turns that permanently change the trajectory of our well-planned lives.
God meets us in those moments when all we have worked for,
          striven for
                   and hoped for
has fallen apart and we realize that the goal we thought we were headed for is not the goal within our grasp. God meets us in that pivotal moment of mortal need, when we realize that we are incapable of saving ourselves and desperately need a God who knows our every thought, our every breath, our every sin and failure, joy and triumph, and discover that God, our God, is already here – surrounding us with love, support, and comfort through the extraordinary means of a savior who has born the cross for us, and the simple means of friends and strangers who reach out in compassion for all who are in need.
          Among the twists and turns of the gospel is that God is here and present not only in the moments when we are most in need but also in the moments when we are most needed.
          For God is here when we pick up the cross of Christ and walk with others, discovering new purpose through the sharing of our own scarred and treasured hearts, when we serve the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving the despairing, sitting with the lonely, loving the forsaken, and sharing the cross – and love of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Skip the Whitewashing - Let's Paint With Color

Mark 7:24-37
How often we strive to soften the edges of what we find uncomfortable.
I wonder: Have you ever found yourself trying to fix a story that casts someone you care about in a somewhat unflattering light? You describe the person in favorable terms, you paint them in glowing colors, you emphasize or even exaggerate their positive attributes, while minimizing their faults or ignoring them altogether.
Have you ever rearranged the details of a story to make the main actor – whether it is you or someone you know – a bit more sympathetic, a bit more palatable?
In Martin Luther’s explanation to the 8th commandment, the one about bearing false witness, Luther goes on to explain the spirit of the commandment this way: “we are to come to (our neighbor’s) defense, speak well of our neighbor, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
The Woman of Canaan by Michael Angelo Immenraet,
 17th century
Well, if Martin Luther said it, then we must be on the right track when we whitewash certain – let us say – aspects of a person’s behavior – especially when that person is Jesus.
That is what we often do when we read gospel texts like the one we read this morning. We interpret Jesus’ shocking words and reaction to the Syrophoenician mother’s request in the best light possible.
By “dogs” surely Jesus was referring to cute little puppies, not to the fact that the woman was a Gentile nor suggesting that she was a morally inferior person.
Or, we make excuses for Jesus. He’s been traveling a lot. Surely, he’s hot and tired. After all Mark makes sure we know that Jesus was wanting to have some quiet time. Some down time, perhaps. He didn’t want anyone to know he was there in that house. So, the woman caught him at a bad time, in a bad place. Surely, cranky Jesus just needs a nap. He is human after all.
Better yet, we translate Jesus’ brush off as a test. It’s intentional. It is a teaching stratagem. Jesus was simply testing the woman and doing so in such a way as to pass along to his disciples something about the importance of faith, maybe even persistence in faith.
Jesus is the great teacher, after all. And that’s what teachers do. They teach; on the clock, and off the clock. As for the woman, it seems she passes the test.
Maybe all of these things do play a role in the emotional state of Jesus and in his response to the woman’s request. But I wonder if we don’t actually miss something important when we sweep this story and cranky Jesus under the rug.
Because frankly, while all of those explanations may serve to help us feel better about the words Jesus uses, no matter how you slice it, this story is still hard to understand and uncomfortable to read. It’s like a hunk of bread stuck in the throat, - a hunk that just doesn’t seem to want to go down.
Why is it that in that house in Tyre that day, Jesus seems so unkind, so dismissive, so discriminatory?
We are living in an age where we are particularly sensitive to the kind of name-calling we see here, - as well we should be. So a red flag goes up. We disparage this kind of derogatory labeling, we condemn it as just not acceptable. And we know about such labeling.
Truth be told we’ve probably engaged in it ourselves, whether in thought, word, or deed.
But lately, derogatory names, images and ideologies have become flash points for angry protest in our politically correct world. Think about all the signs of protest that have surrounded us lately:  #Blacklivesmatter; #alllivesmatter; #equalopportunityforall; and this one that I saw yesterday, “treating refugees as the problem is the problem.”
So, trying to make sense of Jesus referring to a desperate mother who comes to him pleading for relief from suffering for her young daughter as a dog is confusing and disconcerting.
Is it possible that Jesus himself really just had a lesson to learn, and that this woman helped him learn it?
My friends, context matters.
The gospel of Mark has been illustrating the tension building as background is laid for Jesus’ ministry, revealing, bit by bit, “God’s kingdom has been inaugurated, but is not yet fully realized…” Perhaps even Jesus himself does not yet fully understand the extent and radical nature of the kingdom he proclaims, which is nothing less than God’s far-reaching plan for history.
Jesus lives in a land that is deeply divided, where fellowship between Jews and Gentiles historically has been forbidden; where historically, the Jews of Gallilee have been oppressed and subjugated by foreign powers, even powers from the region of Tyre. Wheat from the Galilean fields, produced from the hard labor of Galilean farmers makes the bread that fills the baskets that sit on the tables of prosperous Tyreans, while many Jewish peasants go hungry.
As he tries to rest in the house in Tyre, a house which sits in Gentile territory, perhaps Jesus himself is still learning something that the woman pleads for and hopes for – that the mercies of God extend even now beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel.
As we have collected the stories early in the gospel of Mark, they illustrate the growth of Jesus’ ministry – his authority in teaching and preaching being questioned and affirmed; all those miracles Jesus has performed – healing, casting out unclean spirits and demons; his feeding thousands of people with just a couple of    fish and a handful of loaves of bread; his walking on water - and we have grown in our understanding of Jesus as the Son of Man who has come into this world to transform lives and hearts.
Now it seems that Jesus’ mission must break down the boundaries observed throughout the centuries between God’s Chosen people of Israel, and the Gentiles.
In an episode just before this story, Jesus articulates a reorientation of the religious law and traditions, as he and his disciples argued with the Pharisees over the ceremonial practices and the social mores surrounding the consumption of food – mores that in fact create separation.
Jesus said that it is not what is on the outside of a person that defiles them but what is on the inside. What is in the heart of a person is then what really counts and is made evidence by their actions, the words they say – the things they do.
We don’t know what the woman thought about her own worthiness of God’s attention or Jesus’ time. But she demonstrated through her actions, absolute conviction that her beloved daughter was deserving of Jesus’ healing.
Whatever Jesus may have meant by his initial response to her in today’s gospel text, we know that one way to disarm criticism is to agree with the critic.
So the woman doesn’t express outrage at Jesus’ statement, nor does she argue with him. "I am a dog,” she agrees, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table."  In other words, perhaps, "I know I don't deserve a thing from you. I am no better than a dog in your world, but even dogs receive better treatment than you're giving me. Can't you spare a few crumbs of grace? I'm not asking for myself, but for my daughter."
This woman may not fully understand the nature of Jesus’ mission either, but for herself – for her daughter - her hope and her trust in Jesus is all she has and all that matters. And with a word, Jesus performs the healing she requests.
The change this encounter provoked within Jesus calls us to reflect on the power our own encounters with people who are ‘other’ can have on our own understanding of the Kingdom of God and who it includes. This woman teaches us about the power—and influence— encounters with strangers, ‘foreigners’, and newcomers can have. They can influence our own understanding of the limitlessness of God’s grace.
Folks we don’t yet know, people from different walks of life and backgrounds, and peoples of all nations have the ability to stretch our perspective, and teach us about ourselves, themselves, the world, and God. Jesus himself shows us the way to allowing our hearts and our actions be softened and swayed by the hope and the need of strangers.
We remember that each and every person on this earth, even those we don’t yet know, are created in God’s image, and therefore bear God’s image in the world.
While Jesus may have a change of heart in an instant, our hearts—at least my heart—tends to need a bit more work.
But, it is my hope, my trust, my experience, and God’s promise, that our encounters with the Gospel, and with Gospel-bearers who come to us as “the other”, do change us, little by little, more and more into Christ’s likeness.
Just as Jesus was changed by His encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, by the grace of God, these encounters with “the other” teach us about the radical nature of God’s love and grace.         
The Gospel is more than just a whitewashed image of Jesus as God’s promise to makes us feel better: The Gospel is an encounter that changes. It is the living Word of God through which God blesses us.
Through it and through the strangers and neighbors who challenge us by their otherness, may God grant us eyes, hearts, and minds open to transformation, that, more and more, we may understand and live the radical nature of God’s Kingdom, as we share God’s Good News of love and grace with all the world.