Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cross-bearing or just inconvenient splinters . . . ?

     We have reached the halfway point of Mark’s narrative, and our journey with Jesus continues toward Caesarea Philippi.  Caesarea Philippi was renowned for its temples.  In particular, there was a magnificent temple to Pan and, after Herod had finished with his efforts, a wonderful marble temple to Caesar, the son of a god.  A God of nature and a self-proclaimed god serve as the background to Jesus’ questions and instruction right smack dab in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. 

     The scene starts out innocently enough.  Jesus asks those following Him who people say that He is.  The disciples throw all kinds of answers at Him.  Some say you are John the Baptist.  Others say you are Elijah returned.  Still others say You are one of the prophets.  The answers all make sense in light of what Jesus had done and what people expected of the Messiah.  Since Jesus had come with no army at His back, no doubt some thought He could be the one announcing the coming of the Messiah.  Plus, given the possible family resemblance, some may have even argued that John had not been killed, but saved by God for this wonderful ministry.  Even the proclamations that Jesus was Elijah make sense.  Only Moses and Elijah lacked graves.  Elijah, in particular, we are told, was carried up into heaven by the chariots of fire in full view of Elisha and the company of prophets.  Jesus miracles of raising the dead would certainly call to mind the idea that Elijah would come again.

     Jesus then asks that important question: But who do you say that I am?  These men and women have followed Jesus around as He has taught and performed various miracles.  Better still, they have had the parables explained.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus exerts power over nature and the supernatural.  He casts out demons with nary any difficulty.  He walks on water.  He even meets with Moses and Elijah in His transformed glory.  Peter, of course, takes the plunge.  You are the Messiah! 

     For Peter and the disciples, this was quite the leap.  Thus far in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples have only called Jesus, Teacher.  Sure, they have wondered who He is, but they have been unwilling or unable to account for Jesus.  He has cast out demons, He has walked on water, He has fed the 5000 men besides women and children, and He has performed any other number of miracles.  But, until this point, none of His disciples have been willing to voice the answer all no doubt wondered.  To be sure messiah was a loaded word in Jewish culture.  Depending upon whose school of thought one belonged, the Messiah could be a prophet like Elijah, a military leader like David, a wise teacher like Solomon, and a few other exemplars of their history.  Certainly others had claimed to be God’s messiah, or had the title thrust upon them, only to be crushed by those who had conquered the Jews.  Nobody, of course, thought of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant.  Yet, right here in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, the point at which Jesus will demonstrate His faithfulness and His power by being obedient to the Father’s will and suffering the indignity and horror of the Cross, and right after all the works and signs of power and the Transfiguration, Peter makes His famous confession. 

     The answer is important not just to Peter and the disciples, but to all of us.  Who do you say that He is?  A hippie teacher from Nazareth?  Someone who tapped into the eternal consciousness of the divine in nature?  Someone else?  It is an important question to ponder because, in the end, if He is someone other than Messiah, then His words can be ignored, shrugged off, as captive of His time.  But if He is the Messiah, as Peter confesses, then we are all like Lucy with a lot of explaining to do.

     Jesus, after ordering them to tell no one sternly, begins to teach them about His impending suffering and death.  Mark’s Gospel will take a dramatic turn, not just in the sense that Jesus will now head to Jerusalem, but also in the sense that we will be focused more upon His suffering than His works of power from here until His glorification.  Notice that Jesus no longer teaches them in parable.  Mark says that He began to teach them plainly.  Peter’s response, of course, makes sense from a human perspective.  Mel Brooks may have made a small fortune off “It’s good to be the king,” but we laugh because we understand the joke.  What good is it to have all power if one cannot do as one wishes?  If Jesus is Messiah, from Peter’s perspective, then He should be glorified even more than the greatest king, the greatest prophets, the greatest of the men and women who have served God.  And Peter is right.  In God’s economy, Jesus ranks number 1.  Everything in the end will be placed at His feet, precisely because He walked the way set out by the Father.  But it is the path to that glorification that will scandalize and shock so many people along the way and those of us who hear of it centuries and millennia later.

     Fortunately, you and I live on this side of the Cross and Empty Tomb.  We know that Jesus has walked obediently the path set before Him.  Unlike Peter and John and all the disciples and the crowds and those who opposed Him, we know He is the Messiah that Peter claims.  He is God’s anointed.  And He will accomplish for Jew and Gentile far greater than anyone could possibly have imagined.

     I remind us of that simple truth because the answer to the question, if we agree with Peter, has a claim on our lives unlike any other claim.  There are lots of claims on our lives, claims by families, by friends, by workers, by political parties, by sports teams.  Only one person, though, died for our sins and rose again.  Only one person paid the cost so that you and I might be made worthy to stand before God, that the chasm created by our sin might be bridged.  That gives His claim priority in our lives.  Or at least it should.  Far too often we let everything and anything get in the way of His claim on our lives.  So often we pay lip service to the fact that He was Messiah, rather than living as if we believed His claims were true.

     And what is His instruction to those of us who would be His disciple?  Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Me.  It is a well known imperative from the Gospel.  Non-Christians could probably cite the verse as well as Christians, which seems fair since so many Christians do as good of job of cross-bearing as our non-believing friends.  Sounds harsh?  Listen to Jesus’ words again.

     First, He makes three demands upon all of us who would claim Him Lord.  The first is that we deny ourselves.  Jesus, of course, set this ultimatre example.  Though He could have come with angels and chariots and theophanies, He chose to enter the world through the womb of a virgin.  He chose to be born into the blue-collar family of a carpenter.  He was laid in a manger instead of a crib.  He seems to have had no house to call His own.  He wandered about from place to place teaching, healing, and heralding the kingdom.  Those who should have recognized Him did not.  If anyone ever had reason to promote themselves, it was Him.

     Yet how many of us are into self-aggrandizement or self-promotion?  Ambition is a two-edged sword, is it not.  Yes, we need some drive, but do we need the accolades that stroke our ego?  Jesus says no.  In fact, Jesus makes this the first of His demands of discipleship.  How often do we expect God to be happy that we gave him 80 or 90 minutes of our lives each week, as if we were doing Him a favor?  How many of us want to take the selfie or create the perfect tweet that shows our humility.  Mac Davis wrote a funny song about the difficulties of being humble, but we tend to live as if He were speaking the truth of the messiah rather than Jesus.  And, do not hear this as a specific attack on anyone in the pews, it happens to those of us in collars or behind the pulpits.  My guess is, now that election season is upon us, there will be a huge fight for some to become the next Billy Graham or next kingmaker.

     Jesus’ second demand of His disciples is that we take up a cross.  You and I understand the context far better than His disciples gathered in Caesarea Philippi.  We know that the path to glory passes through Golgotha.  Nevertheless, how loathe are we to accept danger, to be willing to sacrifice, to be counted among the ranks of the enslaved and despised.  To Jesus’ contemporary audience, these words would have sounded nuts.  Rome excelled in putting people to death.  Crucifixion was just considered one of the more, if not most, shameful ways to die.  Generally, one died of exposure rather than blood loss or anything else.  And while you hung there, in pain and thirsting, passerbys could hurl insults or worse at you.  The historian Appian  recounts how the people of Rome responded to the thousands of slaves and gladiators that were crucified by Pompey after the insurrection of Spartacus.  And Jesus wants me to carry my instrument of execution willingly?

   Jesus’ last demand of His followers is that the cross must carried to the destination He chooses.  Sometimes we forget, I think, that our lives really are not our own.  I’ll pick up my cross Jesus and head that way, the way of my own choosing.  Jesus reminds us that He will choose our direction.  We might think we are unqualified or not educated enough, but Jesus does not care.  He understands that His power and His grace are sufficient for each one of us.  Besides, when we know we are totally unqualified, the egos cannot really be stroked at the successes!

     Why do we follow these three commands?  Jesus points out that the way we seek to ensure our safety, to shield our lives, are all doomed to fail.  The translation misses the Greek at play here, but Jesus is instruction His disciples, you and me, that to enliven our psyche, we must be willing to give up our lives.  We have a hard time understanding what Jesus is proposing, but it makes sense.  The psyche is what makes Leslie, Leslie, Dick, Dick, Jerry, Jerry, Brian, Brian, and so on.  One of the unique claims of Scripture is that you and I will be known as ourselves throughout eternity, if we declare Jesus as Lord.  The psyche, of course, was that identity God gave to us at our creation.  It was that image of Him stamped into these fleshy bodies.  And to get life for that psyche, we need to be willing to give us our lives.

     How many of us, though, plot and plan as if this life is the reward?  Know anyone who saves and saves and saves, so that they never have to worry about anything?  They are like the man who built bigger barns.  Know anyone who eats just so and exercises just so and is super-fastidious about everything related to their body so that they might avoid sickness or death?  How does that work out for them?  Know anybody who chases titles and accolades as if those are the real measures of life?  I do.  Heck, I was one who really used to.  The problem, as some figure out, is that we cannot take our health, our riches, or our titles with us.  We may become so enslaved to chasing after our security blankets that we sacrifice family, reputation, friends, and who knows what else.  Some may even chase them to the point of rejecting Jesus and His claim and demand on each one of our lives.  Yes, we know some who live as if they do not agree with Peter’s insight that He is the messiah.

     All this instruction and demand serves as a precursor to Jesus’ promise to His disciples and His enemies.  Deny Me, and I will deny you before My Father and the angels.  Claim Me, and I will claim you as My own before My Father and the angles.  The stakes for which we are playing, brothers and sisters, is far greater than you and I can ever ask or imagine.  It is so easy to forget who Jesus was and what He did and what He has promised to do.  Yet His instructions, His demands, are meant to help us make decisions in our lives with an eternal perspective.  If we are going to be glorified for all eternity in Him, how self-effacing is it for us to deny ourselves for the few years we walk the earth?  Really?  If we are going to be raised, in part, for our willingness to walk with the despised and the condemned, how dangerous is the path in this life that we are walking?  Really?  And if we know He is the Messiah, why should we ever be stressed out about the route He has chosen for us?  Really? 

     I told the 8am congregation that I lacked specific Advent examples of cross-bearing to share.  There I talked of how we in Nashville might be asked to help refugees of Syria assimilate in the community in the months ahead.  In a country coming off 9-11, such is nearly unthinkable.  Yet, who better to minister to the outcasts than those who have picked up a cross and willingly born whatever shame the world has chosen to give us.  And for those among us who are really loathe to help Muslims precisely because they are Muslims, how will they hear the Gospel if disciples like you and like me do not make the effort to be Christ’s crucified hands and Christ’s crucified feet in the world for them?  We might serve and serve and never once get ask to account for our accounts of service.  But given the cost that He bore for your souls and mine, when is our labor ever really hopeless or wasted?  I talked a bit about the difficulties of being faithful witnesses and winsome teachers in this era of the new sexual ethic that is morphing in our midst daily.  We will seem to be out of step with the world and even with other Christians.  But for some, this will be the cross born and the direction in which it will be carried.

     Then Gregg gave me a great sermon illustration of cross-bearing discipleship for Advent between the services.  As most of you all know, we have opened our doors to another group of Christians on the weekends and to a homeschool group on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Both pay us, so this is not just an “out of the kindness of our hearts” endeavor.  But even a simple gesture of welcoming 80+ youth and maybe 100-150 other Christians each week can be challenging.  I laugh now, but earlier this was a consuming problem.  The Brides’ Room was locked up tight, and no one knew where to find a key!  We wanted to make sure that the room was left unsullied by those who pass through our doors each week, and yet we left the room unusable to us!  Where were we going to hold Lectio Divina this morning?  I hear the laughter.  Yes, God does sometimes speak in sarcasm or irony.

     While that scramble was occurring, someone had put away the cutting boards in a drawer wrong.  Andrea, while getting ready for snacks, could not open the door.  Poor Gregg was trying to help her.  I don’t know how many splinters he picked up from that labor this morning.  I am glad that he did not stab himself with that screwdriver he was using to wedge the kitchen drawer open.  Plus, it meant I could look for the key to the Brides’ Room.  I see the nods.  You get the idea.  You should have been here Wednesday when I was on the floor trying to light the oven pilot with Ron and Peter directing!

     No doubt our willingness to open our doors has other nagging consequences.  No doubt some of those consequences cost us a bit in terms of convenience or finances; some, like poor Gregg’s ministry this morning, might actually cost splinters or some blood.  How big are those crosses, though?  Take a pause from the laughter and from your knowing winks and ask yourself how heavy these issues really are.  Do the really rise to the level of shaming and death, or are they merely inconvenient?  My suspicion is that most of us will come down on the side that they are inconveniences rather than true cross-bearing.  Yet, how important are those born inconveniences in the lives of those whom we try hard to serve?  The parents of 80+ youth understand that we really do value education and youth, just like Jesus said we should.  The members of another congregation saw us in deed trying to help them honor a spiritual matriarch who had passed.  Yes, it was quite the service, but so was ours.  While they mourned with those who see her no longer and celebrated that she had gone to her reward, we were on the floor like slaves, making sure all could come to that shadowy party of the feast that is to come!  And it is those images, of the youth of no account and the immigrants among us being served, that testify to heart of Advent.  Do we fail?  You better believe it.  But it in failure where God’s power is most made manifest in our lives, for only in failure do we often find the humility and need for redemption.  Who do you say that He is?  More importantly, where has He asked you to be a cross-bearer in the lives of others?




Friday, September 18, 2015

A homily on the death of Clarence . . .

     Those of you gathered here this afternoon may be a bit shocked that an Episcopal priest is here officiating at Clarence’s funeral.  I’m not sure who is likely to be more shocked: you all; me, because I am doing a funeral service without a Resurrection Eucharist; or Clarence.  You all laugh, but I know Clarence well enough to know that he was shocked by turn of events late in his life that led to an Episcopal priest strolling into his room in the hospital and visiting him in hospice care.

     I only knew Clarence for the last couple weeks of his life here on earth.  Our connection was one of those tenuous threads that sort of make you sit back and wonder at the way God sometimes works.  His granddaughter has attended my church, and one of his daughter’s best friends attends my church.  In full disclosure, I had talked to Denise over the phone sometime around the ice storms this winter.  That was the source of our introduction.  In any event, I got a call a couple weeks ago asking if I would mind visiting him at home.  He was going to have some stents placed in his kidneys the next week, and his loved ones felt he needed to speak with a pastor.

     I learned from Clarence that he had been raised Southern Baptist and spent some time in or around Jehovah Witnesses.  During one of our early conversations I shared that some of my colleagues in my last diocese referred to me as the “Episco-Baptist.”  That got a chuckle out of him and a “I guess you’ll do.”  I may have only spent a few hours with Clarence in this life, but I realized pretty quickly that was not effusive in his enthusiasm or his praise.

     For the most part, Clarence and I spent time getting to know one another.  Mostly there were other people in the room, and Clarence struck me as the kind of guy who was slow to open up, but a real friend to those whom he chose.  Certainly, those of you in his family have born that observation or intuition out.  I have received a couple notes reminding me what you each lost in Clarence.  For some, he was a brother and all that being a brother entails, good times and not so good times of getting on nerves.  For some of you, he was a wonderful friend, the kind of guy who seldom let you down and never let you down on the “big stuff” of life.  For Ruby, of course, he was far more than a husband, and that is why her grief will be so deep in the coming weeks and months.  He was her best friend; he swept her off her feet on the dance floor; and she treasured her time with him.

     I do wish Clarence and I had had more time, or I suppose I wish I had known he had so little.  One of his deeply held fears was that some of you were disappointed in him for a variety of reasons.  I think another characteristic of Clarence was the fact that he was his harshest critic.  Where some of you were glad he was there to help you in your struggles, Clarence had a nagging urge that made him wish “he’d done more.”  Where you all were thankful for silence; he had that “I wish I’d known what to say” about him.  I see the nods.

     Clarence also had one major “I wish” that causes me to wish I could have spent a bit more time with him.  He may not have known me long, but we spoke the same language.  I understand Clarence’s fear that he had disappointed God and, by reason of that fear, was convinced that he had earned a place outside God’s heavenly embrace with all the saints.  I wish you all could have seen his face when I reminded him that he had failed God, as had we all, and that was why Christ had suffered the beatings, the mocking, the betrayal of friends, the flogging, the Crucifixion, and death.  We all, myself included, I told him, have done horrible things in our lives.  We all, myself included, I reminded him, had disappointed God.  But such was His love for us that He bore the punishment for all our failures, for all our sins.  His death was so horrible precisely because of us, individually and collective.  Now, it was our job to repent and ask God for the grace to try again.

     Typical of an engineer who put roads together and was always concerned how joints fit just so, Clarence was loathe to accept that it (salvation) was that easy.  It had to be harder because our failures were so bad.  I told him, expecting that day to be so somewhat off into the future, to ask His Lord when he saw Him if He thought it was easy.  Clarence, true to form, chuckled a bit and laughed that I don’t pull many punches.  I apologized for the bluntness, but I knew he needed to hear, absolutely needed to hear, that his sins had been paid for by our Lord and that he was by no means excluded from His covenant.  It gave him things to think about.  I told him I would leave and let him get some rest and be back the next day.  He promised to think on what I had said and would likely have a few points to argue.  He died that night.

     I share that part of the story because I learned from Clarence and from other members of the family and circle of friends that you all have dealt a lot with death these past couple months.  One death is too many, but three is beyond painful.  Most experts tell us that it takes a year or so to deal with the grieving process properly.  All of you gathered here find yourself still trying to be good friends, good family, and yet still in mourning over the death of a loved one.  The strain on such a family can be massive.  And no matter how many times we like to pretend we have power to do anything about it, all our forbidding of death accomplishes exactly nothing.  We can bid death to stay away, but death is less likely to listen to us than a cat or a rock.  Death is immune to our desires; death is implacable.

     Thankfully, in some measure, Clarence served a God who is not implacable, who is not unmoved.  Though we, like Clarence, have done incredibly bad things to warrant our exclusion from His kingdom, our Lord made it possible for all of us to share in that kingdom for eternity.  During our big discussion, Clarence asked repeatedly about the what if’s.  What if I did not go to church enough?  What if I did this sin?  What if I did not speak out about this?  What if I knew my workers did this?  All those what if’s were covered by the flesh and blood of Jesus on the Cross.  There is no what if beyond Him!  There is no failure that He cannot redeem!  There is nothing, not even death, that He cannot use for His redemptive purposes!

     God is not a God who needed your loved one as one more angel.  God is not a God who is indifferent to your suffering.  Our Lord God is a God who weeps with you, who shares your sadness.  But our God is also a God who offers us a way to ensure that this, this bitter feeling of loss is not the last word, that there is truly hope in the face of ultimate sadness, and life, real life and not a figment of one’s imagination, in the face of death.

     The reading for today came out of Clarence’s own words.  As we argued a bit about the what if’s of his life, I reminded Him of all that was required.  No matter Clarence’s objection, I had the perfect answer.  After a bit, Clarence laughed at me, “No matter what I say, no matter what I have done, you seem to think I get a clean slate every time I ask Jesus to forgive me.”  When I agreed enthusiastically, Clarence had one more.  “You pastors today ignore the Old Testament.  I grew up on the Old Testament.”  I asked him what the difference was with what I had told him and what the difference was with what Joshua had told the people.  It is the same story!  We just know the end now!  Each day when we rise, each moment we are awake, you and I are afforded a choice.  Whom will we serve?

      Brothers and sisters, I am usually loathe to play the evangelist in front of those suffering.  There are individual discussions that need to be had, particularly for those who have wondered away from the sheepfold.  But brothers and sisters, Clarence’s life and death reminds me that we sometimes do not have the time we think we do.  Contrary to how it may sound in your ears this afternoon, I was more slow and more gentle than I think I should have been.  That Clarence may have passed away uncertain of his fate will nag at me for some time as a bit of a pastoral failure on my part.  I could have been blunter.  I could have been even more forceful.  But you all have been through this now three times in two months.  Better than most families, you know the futility of trying to stave off death.  Better than many families, you know the pain of those words left unsaid, those dances left undanced, those hugs left ungiven, those words left unsaid.  Brothers and sisters, no matter the sadness or anger at you loss, our Lord still loves you.  No matter how long you have stayed away or never even bothered to come at all, while you have breath you still have time.  But why not get to know the One who died for you even why you were still at enmity with Him, that you might face the pressures of life and the fears of death with His grace in your life, each and every day you draw that breath, a grace Clarence only dreamed could be true, but would have loved to have shared with each and every one of those whom he loved?




Thursday, September 10, 2015

The cure for the skubalon-filled heart . . . and the evils which flow from it!

     This week, thanks to a good bit of organizing on the parts of our brothers and sisters in the AME church, we are reminding ourselves that racism, and for that matter lots of other “ism’s,” seems to be thriving in our country.  So, on this day, many churches around the country are observing “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday” today.  Truthfully, I imagine that most pastors are preaching to the wrong audience today, if they are, in fact, wanting the Holy Spirit to change the hearts and minds of people in America to stamp out racism.  While I am certain there are exceptions in the pews around churches in America today, I would imagine that most people who dragged themselves out of bed on the last three-day holiday of the summer season have an understanding that racism has no part in Christianity.  None.

     Of course, maybe I am just preaching to the choir today at Advent.  One of the pleasant discoveries in my short time with you has been the fact that the discussions about racism and skin color are fairly direct, but always respectful.  One of those first conversations about racism happened during my first few weeks at Advent.  Billy sent the EYC to see the movie Selma.  Lynne thought it would be a great follow up for the kids to ask Billy what it was like growing up in the era depicted in the film.  For those of you who do not know Billy, he has an incredible story to tell.  I’m not just talking about his education as a doctor and as a dentist.  Billy has broken some barriers and ceilings that were in place until he arrived on the scene.  He shared some of those stories with the Advent youth.  At a time when events in Ferguson and NYC were still dominating our Facebook feeds and talk shows, Billy was able to share what he had experienced as a child, as a youth, as a young adult, and as a young professional in this country.  In the eyes of our youth, Selma came to life.  It wasn’t just a movie; it was Billy's story.

     For the adults, of course, it was also a good lesson.  As a country, we have much work still to do, but we have also come a long way.  Sometimes, given the news stories and cycles, it is hard for us to see that.  We chatted afterwards about how the youth had absolutely no understanding of how people could be treated that differently because of their skin color.  The idea of separate bathrooms, of separate water fountains, of sitting in assigned places on busses or in theaters, and other dehumanizing actions and attitudes that were accepted four or five decades ago were unthinkable to them.  Attitudes and practices that likely informed the behavior of our youths’ grandparents’ generation was simply incomprehensible in their eyes.  If we had charged a dollar for every time one of them said “really?” or “are you making this up” or “wow, that’s dumb,” we might have balanced a small city’s budget.  We have made some progress, or rather God has made some progress, changing hearts and minds.

     Perhaps there is an undercurrent of racism at Advent of which I am still unaware, but so far discussions that touch on racism have seemed well-considered and acknowledged as difficult.  Certainly our discussions about Ferguson and other lightning rod events that involved the police, as well as the AME martyrs and the subsequent discussions of the Confederate flag have been mature.  Unlike the press, we seem to be far less concerned with “gotcha” statements, and far more concerned with “how do we acknowledge” and “how do we honor” questions.  In a body that proclaims that in Him there is no Jew or Greek, such an attitude makes absolute sense.  The problem that faces us today and the one that our AME brothers and sisters likely really want addressed is the question of how we preach and teach effectively to those outside the walls of our churches about the inherent dignity of all humanity?  If fewer and fewer Americans are going to church, self-identifying themselves as Christians, and engaging in the worship of God, should we be surprised that society is becoming increasingly racist?  If fewer and fewer Americans are self-describing themselves as hearing or reading the Gospel on a regular or even infrequent basis, how do we begin to combat the attitude that seems to be growing to some?

     I will say, as I peeked ahead to the readings, I thought this week well chosen by the AME church to address racism.  My hope was that the press would cover the effort around the country and people would get to see how Christians can lead the fight against racism.  As you all heard me read a few moments ago, our Gospel lesson was on the faith of the Syrophoenician woman.  It is a well-known story.  In fact, her faith is enshrined in our Rite 1 liturgy.  Each time we celebrate the Eucharist using Rite 1, we say the Prayer of Humble Access.  We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table.  But Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.  Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood, that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us.  Amen.  It is a wonderful story that speaks to our human dignity and the unity with which we as a human race meet our Lord.

     Then, I got to reading some of the planned sermons for this week on various listservs and other sites on the internet.  I cannot tell you how many sermons are being preached on the idea that Jesus was a racist and needed His attitude adjusted by a Rosa Parks-like figure or on the idea that Jesus was just plain mean to this woman.  I can tell you that I am thrilled that not many of the sermons will get any press.  If Jesus was a sinner, what did His death accomplish for us?  That’s right, nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  If Jesus’ sacrifice had a blemish, then we are all still under the curse.  What a terrible perspective and belief!  Can you imagine?  All the way back in Genesis, what does it say about the image in which we, all of us, were created?  We were created in His image.  If Jesus truly is and was the Son of God, then this woman, as well as every individual we encounter in our daily life and work, was created in His image.  Knowing that, how could we ever come to the conclusion He was racist?

     The other idea, that He was simply mean or spiteful to this poor woman, is equally offensive.  Jesus has just fed the 5000 men besides women and children.  He has argued at length with the Pharisees and scribes over the question of cleanliness.  Jesus has even rebuked them for adopting customs and elevating those customs as equal to God’s torah, even when they knew the custom was in direct conflict with God’s torah.  In a few verses, Jesus will feed the 4000 mostly gentiles.  In a couple chapters, He will begin His Passion Week, where He suffers and dies for the sins of the world.  He who knew no sin became sin.  And we are supposed to think He is mean-spirited?  Spiteful? 

     I understand the appeal of such teaching and preaching.  We want so desperately to believe that we can improve ourselves by means of our own efforts.  If Jesus was just one of us, it makes it possible for us to live a similar life.  Make no mistake, we should strive to mirror His life.  Of course, you and I are burdened with this fleshy heart.  No matter how much we wish we were different, we are still prone to wander, prone to sin.  We cannot help but think mean thoughts at those individuals who cut us off in traffic.  We cannot help but judge the “other” sometimes as being outside God’s grace because of their circumstances.  Sin infects every single aspect of our existence—our thinking, our acting, and even our longing.  Like those who practice racism, we often believe ourselves better than others, somehow deserving of God’s grace.  In my short time among you I have heard comments like “God should be happy that I made time for Him today.”  Do we really believe that?  Do we at Advent really believe that God is lucky to have us as His disciples?  You think He thought that while dying on the Cross for each and every one of us, the pastor chiefly included?

     The unfortunate consequence of such teachings is that it turns the Gospel, the Good News, into “meh.”  Who wants to follow a racist?  Who wants to follow someone who is mean?  Who wants to be a disciple of someone cannot stand those whom He created?  Does anybody?

     And what if ending sin, any sin, is truly up to us?  Do you really think we have it within ourselves to fight racism in our hearts, in our institutions, and in our society?  What is the likelihood that Brian can convince you to leave this sanctuary today, determined not to be a racist?  What is the likelihood that any conversation you have with a brother or sister in this parish this morning can accomplish such a noble goal?

     If such teachings are wrong, though, why do I think the reading was perfect for a Sunday that called Christians to their responsibility to stand up against racism?  Take a look at the story and read it again.  Jesus has gone into the gentile region.  In fact, He is sought out by a woman whose people have been at war with Israel for generations.  Somehow, someway, this woman has heard of Jesus’ miraculous healings, of His anointment with signs and powers, and still she seeks Him out, not to be denied.  And what does she seek?  She seeks healing from a demon for her daughter.  How does the great Healer respond?  He calls her a dog.

     Part of the problem with the story is that dog is rightly understood as being a racial slur.  It would not be as bad as the N-word in modern speak, but it would not be that far off.  We know from Josephus that the residents of Tyre were despised by the Jews, and by Galileans in particular.  In economic terms, Tyre was the gated community and Galilee was the working poor neighborhood.  But the problem really exists in our own prejudices.  Those who want to excuse Jesus’ behavior, as if it needed to be excuses, will claim it was a test of her faith (though nowhere does Mark mention it as such) or simply an account written back into the narrative of Jesus to explain the tensions found in the early Church when Jews and Gentiles needed to figure out how they related.  Both are noble attempts to explain away Jesus’ behavior, but they do not make any sense in the narrative. 

     As Americans, as members of a privileged group in a privileged country, we tend to view the behaviors of others through our own prejudices and with our own cultural understanding.  We like to think that the fights that existed in the early Church have been resolved.  We like to think that that the Gentiles deserved better treatment because so many Jews rejected Jesus.  We like to think that Jesus was not the God Incarnate Man divine that he was and is.

     When Jesus tells the woman that He has come for the children, the Jews, what does He mean?  Peek back in Genesis to the story of Abraham and Sarah.  What does He promise them.  Your descendants will number greater than the sands on the beach.  Your descendants will number greater than the stars in the sky?  What is the “why” of that promises?  I will make of you a nation of priests, a light unto the world, that My name will be glorified.  Way back in the teens of Genesis God declared that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants would be priests to the world.  Their job would be to live, to eat, to worship, and to relax in accordance with how God instructed them.  All this instruction, the torah, would cause others to seek Him.  When Jesus declares it is His job to feed the children first, He is acknowledging the purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah.  Salvation comes from the Jews.

     We like to think of Jesus as some hippy, peace-loving, never-raising-his voice, patient instructor.  The truth is, He is far more patient and loving than we or any of His disciples deserve, but is He really that figure in Scripture.  Last week He mocked the Pharisees and scribes for outward cleanliness and inward crap-filled hearts.  A few weeks before He noted how His own people and His own relatives held Him without honor and lacked faith in Him.  He will complain of humanity as a perverse generation.  He will remark upon the lack of understanding on the parts of His disciples.  Heck, He will call Peter Satan.  He is not the relaxed, inoffensive Messiah we like to imagine.  In truth, Jesus is often quite accomplished at name-calling.  Jesus is often quick to point out in the lives of those whom He encounters those stumbling blocks which keep them from a right relationship with God.  And few, if any, are glad to hear those words when first they are directed at them.  No doubt neither were you when He first reached into your life with the words that spoke to your pride.  The big problem, of course, is that He names what really is wrong with us.

     If Jesus is neither sinning or wrongly steeped in His own culture nor to be thought of as the polite, inoffensive healer, what is going on in this passage?  More to the point, how should the teaching of the passage inform our efforts to overcome racism?  Place yourself in the lady’s position for just a moment.  You come from the gated community of Tyre, but you have heard incredible things about this rabbi from Galilee.  Your money, your education, your hard work is normally sufficient.  Only the lazy and ignorant suffer and, let’s face it, they do because they deserve to.  Now you are confronted with something you cannot fix, a demon in your daughter.  What’s worse, the possibility of her healing requires the help of one of “those” people.  What would you do?  How many of us would do anything we could to avoid going to Him for help?

     The lady goes and has the famous encounter that will earn her a memory in our celebration each week.  Notice, nearly unique in Mark, she (that’s right, she) gets it.  She understands that the Messiah’s mission is to the Jews first.  But it is that first bit that does not deter her.  Whatever stories she has heard in her privileged home have caused her to realize Jesus mission and purpose.  Yes, He is there for the Jews, but His crumbs will satisfy the rest.  Jesus is under no obligation to her; she can make no demands upon Him.  Like everyone else whom He encounters, she is dependent upon His grace.  And so she accepts the truth of His statement.  But in acknowledging His purpose and her position, she reveals much about her faith.  She is stubborn and persevering.  She hunts Jesus down, knowing what His attitude as a Galilean Jew is likely to be.  She engages Him in His teaching.  Yes, we call each other dogs, but even the puppies get to eat of the Master’s food.  She is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter, even to the point of humbling herself before this particular man.  Make no mistake, she has no idea yet of the living bread that He offers; she is certain, however, that His crumbs will meet her need and save her daughter.  And for her humility and perseverance what does she get?  She gets not only her heart’s desire but remembered in the Church even to the present.

     Approaching the mercy seat, approaching our Lord, requires great humility, brothers and sisters.  We live in a world that constantly bombards us with the idea that we are masters of our own domains, that we are captains of our own ships, that with hard work and a bit of luck we can have it, whatever “it” is, too.  But we who are gathered here know that advertising is false.  The things we need, the things for which we long, we are insufficient.  We have lots of doctors and nurses among us, but who among us can keep death at bay?  We have members among us who seem to float placidly along the currents of life.  But we all know we are more like ducks, paddling furiously beneath the surface, worried about the next turmoil, the next raids, or the next predator.  Each of us gathered here today, brothers and sisters, has faced the same choice as that wise Syrophoenician woman.  Each of us has stood before the Savior as He named that which in our pride, that which in our Ego, caused us to want to flee Him.  Yet when it mattered most, we accepted the truth of His words.  We accepted as true our undeserving and unbelieving faith and asked, asked Him to save us in spite of ourselves.

     That humility, brothers and sisters, is where we are to begin this push to eradicate racism from our midst.  The effort will fail miserably if our efforts are based on programs or any other foundation but the fact that each and every one of us, as well as each and every single person we encounter in the world around us, appears the same before God.  It does not matter whether they or we are red and yellow black and white, it does not matter whether they or we come from gated communities or hillbilly slums, it does not matter whether they or we are currently disciples.  The Cross casts its shadow across all humanity.  It is that knowledge, and understanding of our Lord’s commitment to everyone we meet, that compels us to invite others to His feast.  For all the good that this weekend may or may not do, think of the pride that is involved to have created and kept distinct so many denominations.  We in the Church, better than all, should understand the lack of need for “racial” churches.  We who are offended that Jesus called the lady and her daughter a dog are little moved by the fact that there are Korean churches, Armenian churches, and whatever else within a few short miles from here.  We who claim to have the wisdom to which the rest of the world should accede will, in our press releases and photo shoots, make a big deal about how black churches, white churches, Spanish churches, Asian churches and whoever else are participating in this effort today.  We will enshrine the division we so deplore, patting ourselves on the back and feeling better for having done it.  And the world, if it even notices, will likely ignore us or remind us we are a bunch of hypocrites.

     Brothers and sisters, the fight against racism and all other evil skubalon that proceeds from the heart is a noble fight.  We should never accept any evil on account of “that’s just the way it is.”  But if we are truly to begin to combat any evil, if we are truly intent upon following those great commandments of our Lord and Savior, we must begin in all humility in the shadow of the Cross.  It is there that our fleshy hearts, our skubalon-filled hearts are circumsized.  It is there that we come to recognize our undeserving nature.  It is there that we come to recognize the true inestimable value of grace.  And then, as a raised people empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are fit heralds of God’s grace to the world.  Such humility never seeks a reward.  Such humility understands it does not deserve any reward.  But it is that kind of humility that truly models the life our Lord lived for us and for all those in the world around us, whether they have heard His offer or not.  It is, in the end, that humility which will lead to crucifixion of all our pride and egos, and all the sins that flow from them.

     In the days and weeks that followed the shooting in Charleston which served as the foundation for this nationwide, inter-denominational effort today, that humility was certainly on display.  Over and over the survivors and the families of the martyrs struggled to explain their effort to forgive the young man who maliciously altered their lives on earth.  Newspapers and televisions and blogs were full of stories of trying to comprehend their humility.  How could they explain their need to forgive?  How could they mourn and yet find hope in such a bitter situation?  And for a brief time, a small snippet, we got to see the fruits of such humility on display.  For a few short weeks, they came.  For some weeks people of every color, creed and language visited to worship with them, to mourn with them, and to encourage them.  For a brief while Facebook memes raged that it was a shame we were not like that all the time.  Of course, God is like that, is He not.  When we are the most vulnerable, when we are the most helpless, when we are the most impotent, that's when He shows up in all His redeeming glory.  For a few brief weeks, the Church resembled the resplendent bride for which He died and which He promises to raise.  For a time, the Church lived what He taught.  The Church was glorified in its humility.  Pray that we do more and more, that all might be drawn to His saving embrace.



Thursday, September 3, 2015

The skubala of the heart and the skidmarks we leave behind . . .

     After a five week sojourn through the Gospel of John and Jesus’ teaching that He is greater than Moses, that He is the Living Bread sent down from heaven, and that He will give His flesh and His blood for His own, we return to the immediacy and no-nonsense of Mark.  Just to remind you, Mark uses “immediately” even more than John uses “bread.”

     Today, we get this wonderful encounter and discussion of defilement, along with an idiom that out to really cause us to gag.  Stewart was giving me a bit of grief a few weeks ago, wishing I would preach more on my experience in Rome.  I told Stewart that, in many ways, I was still thinking about and praying about the things I had witnessed and heard.  If those things were too much for me, I could only imagine how hard they would be for those of us at Advent.  But I told him to be patient, eventually I would probably find the need to use those experiences and tales as sermon or teaching illustrations.  Such happens today.

     One of the stories I heard while eating in the dining hall where Francis spent much of his time prior to his elevation as Pope, was his tendency to walk around saying “Skubala happens” in Spanish or Portuguese.  To those describing the events to me, it was yet another reason why, in their minds, Francis should not have been elected pope.  I suppose, in their minds, I was supposed to be offended at Francis’ earthy words.  Unfortunately for them, I had spent some time in locker rooms and in the pit of brokerage offices, two locations renowned for their dialects of earthy language.  Only a few of you are laughing, so I guess I need to back up and do a bit more instruction about Jesus’ teaching today.

     In addressing the crowds about the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus uses some earthy language.  In fact, he paints an amusing mental image of the Pharisees and the scribes in the minds of those who hear His teaching.  As we have read this morning, the Pharisees and scribes spent a great deal of time trying to convince the Jews that “cleanliness was next to godliness.”  There is a certain logic to their position.  Before sacrifices and attendance at Temple worship, one needed to be washed.  That’s part of the reason why no one hearing Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan would have expected the Levite or priest to help the injured and beaten man.  Women who had given birth or after their monthly cycle needed to be cleansed before they could return to the community of faith.  There were some significant requirements about washing in the torah. 

     As we can see from Mark’s parenthetical remark, though, the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day took those teachings and expanded them.  They washed the food, the pots, the kettles, and any number of items.  Imagine a bunch germaphobes tasked with the proclamation of God’s teaching, and that is sort of the situation we find ourselves in as we return to Mark today.

     Those germaphobes, of course, notice that these disciples of this Nazarene Hick do not observe the washing.  So they call Jesus out on it, in full view of the crowds and disciples.  We do not understand the battle for credibility occurring in this passage today, particularly since we have left Mark for five weeks.  When we last left Mark, Jesus was healing people.  Even those who touched only the hem of His cloak were healed of their diseases and infirmities.  Something wonderful is happening.  But the Pharisees and scribes will not accept it.  They hear the stories, they hear the testimony; but they reject it.  Who is this man?  Where does He think He has the right to do these things?  So they point out that His disciples do not fastidiously wash everything before eating.  As the rabbi, Jesus is responsible for the behavior of His disciples.  Since they are not behaving rightly, Jesus must be a fraud or charlatan.

     After pointing out Isaiah’s prophesy about them, Jesus moves on to this wonderfully graphic image.  Better still, He gives the teaching to the crowd.  I remember the first time I read this passage in Greek.  There is a process that appears which should not be there.  I should preface that by saying I was raised in my early life on a KJV Bible with red letters.  We knew what was important because it was in red!  Ah, now you all are laughing.

     Anyway, one of the difficulties with reading the gospels in Greek is that they are pretty well known.  As I got to this point, I knew what was said.  There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.  It seems like an inoffensive teaching, does it not?  But we skip a great deal of the passage today.  What Jesus describes around this passage is a bit more graphic than we would like to believe Jesus would ever discuss, let alone use to teach.  Jesus goes so far to paint the mental picture for His disciples.  Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?  For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.  Ah, I see the squirms.  Jesus is describing eating and going to the bathroom.

     Notice how He uses this as an illustration.  Can we eat anything that defiles us?  No.  When we eat something, even something with dirt or worse on it, it passes through the stomach and out of the body.  It can make us sick, but the food never passes through the heart.  Paul will use the word skubala to describe what is produced by the body or the world.  Jesus instructs His disciples that it is those things which come from the heart which defile us.  But see the image He creates.  Although we have skipped the passages, Jesus compares the list of sins to “that which is excreted from the body after eating.”  The image is unmistakable.  We are not the only ones to have an understanding of “diarrhea of the mouth,” but we usually confine its use to those who cannot shut up.  Jesus is using that image to teach us of the origins of evil, the human heart, and how the exercise of those sins defile us before God.

     Now I see you get the Pope’s comment.  Skubala does indeed happen.

     Jesus, in today’s reading addresses three different groups in three different ways.  For the first group, the Pharisees and scribes, He shows them how their practice of piety has choked out all possibility of creating a heart that loves God in accord with the shema.  In fact, their petty cleanliness has created an obstacle to those whom they are supposed to lead in a right relationship with God.  Although we skip the teaching on Corban, Jesus uses that as an easy example of elevating human tradition above God’s revelation to the point that one of the Ten Words (Honor your father and your mother) can be ignored.  The Pharisees and scribes, of course, were not interested in learning what God wants or expects.  The miracles which testify to Jesus and His mission are lost on them.  More’s the pity because they, as students of the torah and the prophets, should have recognized Him.

     The crowd, of course, gets a direct teaching.  Jesus instructs the crowd that only those things which come from within can defile a human.  Can you imagine the anger and ire of the Pharisees and scribes?  Jesus has just instructed them that washing themselves, their food, and their pots are unimportant to God.  To make matters worse, He seems to have the signs of power, of God’s favor, on Him.  And there He stands, telling the crowds that what spews from their mouth is feces!

     The graphic description, of course, is for His disciples in the privacy of the house.  Even after this teaching, they still do not understand what Jesus means.  Jesus paints a rather graphic picture.  They, and we, should see fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly as the equivalent of crap coming out of our mouth.  It’s repellent, is it not?  It’s disgusting, is it not?  Yet that is the very impact those sins have on the world around us.  Whenever we act in accord with these evil intentions, the world is rightly turned off by us and the Lord whom we claim to serve.  Think I am crazy?  Think of the television personality who publically cloaked himself in his faith and understanding of God’s will for marriage and family.  Is his “outing” in the Ashley Madison hack drawing people to God’s instruction about marriage and family, or is it causing people to be repulsed?  How about the clerk in the state to the north?  In visibly and publicly renouncing to issue any marriage licenses, how is she drawing others to the embrace of our Lord on the Cross?  In her claim to be the defender of God’s law on marriage, what has happened?  People have looked at her life, at her behavior, and been repulsed as if she was spewing crap from her mouth.  What of the pastor who said Jesus told him he needed a Leer jet?  Never mind that one, I may have some further discernment to do to make my travels easy. . .

     And, as much as we would like to pick on those others, those visible Christians, who cloak themselves outwardly in God’s righteousness, where do we Adventers fall short?  Where do we, in our actions or lack thereof and in our words, demonstrate how far from God our hearts really are?  Are we gossipers at work, thereby telling others we are slanderers?  Do we take money or supplies from employers cognizant of the fact that we have not earned it, thereby telling others we are full of avarice or are thieves?  Do we curse those who cut us off in traffic or ridicule people we see who do not act or dress like us, thereby telling others we are full of pride and murder?  Now I see the squirms.  It is fun to look at the sins of others, is it not?  But it sure is not much fun to look at our own.

     And what of our efforts to clean up our filth?  How successful are we?  To push Jesus’ illustration a bit further, all we can really do is clean up the mess afterwards.  We can no more stop the evil in our hearts from spewing forth than we can stop the excrement following digestion from exiting the body.  We might even be really good at cleaning up those messes in our own eye, but really we are like children.  When we hurt someone, when we disparage someone, whenever we sin against someone, the effects of those sins usually linger.  Even if the other against whom we sinned is inclined to forgive us, how easy is it for them to forget what we have done?  Heck, how well do we forgive or forget those evils done against us?  I suppose I need a fancy Greek word for skidmarks.

     Much of Jesus’ teaching these last five weeks has dealt with teaching His people, us, of their/our need for redeeming grace.  We can no more change our hearts than we can feed 5000 men besides women and children.  It takes His blood to wash us clean.  It takes His flesh to circumcise our fleshy hearts and bow our stiff necks.  In short, combatting evil requires the permanent, indwelling Spirit of God within us, a possibility made possible only through Christ’s redeeming work.  And, we are told, that Spirit’s presence will be proclaimed to the world in how we interact with others, not only by our words but also by our actions.  Are we welcoming, or are we judgmental?  Are we edifying or are we critical?  Are we drawing into His embrace, or are we driving people away?

     As with all sermons, and in accord with Him whom I serve, I am not here to condemn you this morning.

     No doubt many of you came to church today exited to see people and catch up on one another’s stories from the summer.  The last thing you wanted, and perhaps the last thing you expected, was a little “potty humor” and a call to self-examination.  Today sort of kicks off the fall for Advent, I am told, as we gather to eat and to celebrate Rally Day.  What better way to examine whether we are living a life that leads others to God or living a life that fulfills Jesus’ teaching about the defilement within us.  As we finish today, we will head over to the parish hall and to the pavilion.  There will be lots of ministries on display and lots of opportunities for those of us present to serve God through work here at Advent.  I hear there will be some great food and better fellowship.  In between, though, you will have the opportunity to explore some ministries.  You will be able to ask men and women with whom you have travelled this road of faith for some time about the ministries that impassion them.  Some of the opportunities will be more internal, reading, setting up the altar, praying, and studying, but many of the opportunities will be external.  All, of course, exist as evidence that this parish family has been strengthened, aroused, and restored.  All the ministries in which we engage are meant either to improve the worship of God or to serve better those in our community who need to be reminded of His love.  Perhaps in years past, you have meant to sign up but got busy.  Perhaps in years past you wanted to sign up but were afraid you lacked a skill or knowledge.  Perhaps in years past you believed yourself too wounded ever to be His hands and His feet in the world around you.  Why not make the decision to really embrace the Lord’s call on your life?  If the same old, same old has left you with nothing but skidmarks, why not try things a bit differently?  Neither I nor He is calling you to do everything, but I am certain He is calling you to do at least one thing.  Why not give up that fleshy heart and allow Him to begin to truly transform your heart?  Why not serve Him in others, either within this community or without, and see what cleanliness is really like!