Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What do you want Me to do for you?

     I guess I made it a whole week in the New Testament, huh?  Our Gospel story today in Mark is familiar to many.  If anyone asks if you know the story about Blind Bartimaeus, most people recognize the name.  What gets confused are some of the details.  Was he the guy with mud on his eyes?  Is he the one who begged and whose parents make him testify before those in the Temple?  Is Bartimaeus the one who is blind because of sin?  What’s worse, the story is one of those “Synoptic problems.”  Details differ between those relating the story.  Did this occur on the way into Jericho?  On the way out?  The synoptic problem is simply the biblical commentators’ acknowledgement that the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t always agree.  We live in a society that is full of Law & Order, NCIS, and all kinds of other criminal shows.  This generation understands that witness testimony often differs on details, which is why forensic evidence is so important in trials.  Human beings tend to pay attention to different things at the same event.
     I was thinking of this yesterday as I left the office.  George and Maxine were swinging by church to place the flowers on the altar as I was heading toward a football game at the house.  We stopped to chat a couple moments.  I asked Maxine if she had her house back in order after the big family visit for the baptism.  Maxine laughed that things still weren’t clean.  Then we shared a laugh about our prospects, Karen and mine, if our kids each just have a couple children.  Finally, George and I talked a little shop about a couple small things at church.  If you were to grab the three of us in, say, a decade, and ask us to recount the encounter, how would we remember it?  George might remember it was a bit of a business visit.  Maxine might remember it as a “I told you so moment.”  I might remember it as a warning.  Whose recollection would be wrong?  We pay attention to details that are important to us; we don’t just record facts.
     In the healing of Batimaeus, Mark is interested in telling other parts of the story than his counterparts Luke and Matthew.  In particular, Mark has been building a Dagwood sandwich worthy of the comic strip character’s name.  Mark will often tell stories with so-called sandwiches and meat.  The meat is the important teaching he wishes to convey within the narrative.  Sometimes, Mark crafts sandwiches within sandwiches within sandwiches.  Such is what is happening in our reading.  Let’s look and feast.
     Events are now progressing rapidly.  Jesus and His disciples are leaving Jericho and headed toward Jerusalem.  We all know how the story ends.  As they are leaving, a blind man named Bartimaeus cries out to Him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  As many of you know, it was customary for beggars to sit at the gates and beg for alms.  Typically, they spread out the cloak and begged, hoping passerby’s would toss a coin or three onto their cloak.  We might say their cloak was their business or storefront.  Unlike the blind man in the first healing in Mark, though, who remains passive to Jesus, Bartimaeus aggressively seeks healing from Jesus.  Those around the poor blind tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, to quit bothering the rabbi.  But Bartimaeus only gets louder.  Jesus stops and tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus to Him.  Those who moments before were sternly telling the blind man to be quiet are now full of encouragement.  “Take heart; get up, He is calling you.”
     Bartimaeus, Mark says, hopped up and cast aside his cloak and came to Jesus.  Throwing off his cloak is an amazing act in itself.  That was his blanket at night, his wrap during inclement weather, and his source of income by the gates.  We might say it was likely his most valued treasure.  But, at the summons of Jesus, the blind man casts it aside, his only really valued possession, and goes to our Lord.  Compare that to the response of the rich young man or even the Apostles James and John, whose concern is, shall we say, more in line with the world’s thinking than God’s.
     “What do you want me to do for you?”  So often, Jesus asks these words.  So few people give Him the right answer.  Last week, if you read the Gospel while I preached on Job, you might recall that Jesus asks the same question of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when He comes into His glory.  Jesus tells them they do not understand what they are asking.  He will not enter into glory the way they expect.  He will enter into His glory through the Cross, and two thieves have already been prepared to sit at His right and His left.  The Apostles are focus on temporal goods, on power.  Jesus is focused on something far more important.
     Blind Bartimaeus somehow sees Jesus and the focus of His work.  Our first hint was the title he uses to address Jesus.  Others call Him Rabbi or Teacher.  Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man.  Bartimaeus is the first to call Jesus “Son of David” in Mark’s Gospel.  To us, sitting on this side of the Cross and Resurrection, the titles may seem interchangeable, but to 1st century Jews, the title “Son of David” was equated with God’s Anointed or Messiah.  Somehow, despite the blindness in his eyes, Bartimaeus is able to see Jesus for who He is.  Was it the stories of all the healings?  We do not know.  We only know that a blind man sees Jesus as the Son of David in his midst and capable of the healing for which he so longs!  More amazingly, when pressed by the Son of David what he wants done for him, the man says simply “My teacher, let me see again.”
     As you can see, there is a tremendous irony in the man’s request.  In many ways, the faith of the Apostles is not yet as mature.  The blind man healed at the beginning of this sandwich sees only shadows and figures that look like trees.  Not a few verses later, Mark teaches us how his brother and sister Apostles and disciples saw Jesus.  Some see Jesus as the path to worldly honor and prestige.  Some will see the glory of the Transformation and yet miss the teaching of Jesus of how His glory will be achieved.  At least one will actively oppose His teaching of a suffering servant.  Some will be jealous of their relationship with Jesus, uncomprehending of the fact that one who casts out demons in His name can long oppose Him and His mission.  Some will cast out marginalized children, forgetting that He teaches they must be childlike in their faith.  On and on the list goes.  The disciples sort of get it.  But like the first blindman, they do not see clearly.  None do, until blind Batimaeus.
     And let’s look quickly at the healing.  In healing the first blind man, what does Jesus do?  He makes must with dust and spit.  And, if we want to be careful, we notice that the complete healing does not take place on the first try.  What is required for Him to heal in all His power?  Faith.  Think of your favorite healings.  Those stories which truly speak into our souls are those where Jesus’ power is sought by others.  If I but touch the hem of His cloak . . . Why could we not cast out the demon? . . . And let’s not forget the rich young man who cannot follow Jesus and goes away grieving because he had many possessions.  In whom or what did the rich young man trust?  His wealth.  Over and over again we see Jesus’ power sufficient to meet any need, and over and over again we see examples of those whose faith is strong and able to claim the healing power of Jesus for themselves and others who must spend a bit more time in the presence of the Lord.  And the Apostles clearly fall into this latter group.  As with the Syrophonecian woman and so many others, though, Jesus simply tells Batimaeus to go, his faith has made him well.  Bartimaeus sees what the Apostles, the Pharisees, the Temple priests, and the crowds have missed.  The Son of Man is the Son of David.  Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with David.
     What do you want me to do for you?  In many ways, I wish this was the assigned reading for next week, Healing Sunday.  But I think its occurrence this week gives us all time to think.  What do we want from Him?  So often, when people approach the altar rail asking for prayers, I ask that question.  I often wonder if we approach the throne of grace confidently.  Do we come to this rail as did the hemorrhaging woman, those little children, Jairus, or even blind Bartimaeus?  Do we come confident in the belief that Jesus is sufficient for any need we might have?  Or are we more like Peter?  Like Paul?  Like James and John?  Or even more like the rich young man?  Do we come with our own conditions, our own baggage, and an unwillingness to trust in the Son of our Father in Heaven who wants only abundance for us?  Or do we come expecting Him to heal us or, if we are like Paul, in need of a thorn in our side to remind us that His power is made perfect in weakness?  Week in and week out we come to this rail, and I wonder what we seek?  What do you want Me to do for you?
     It seems this lesson in Mark, aside from some other more obvious commentary on discipleship, gives us also a bit of lesson about healing.  First of all, we learn that healing does not come easily.  Yes, Mark pays little attention to the miracle itself.  Jesus just cures blind Bartimaeus with a word and adds a commentary to it.  But notice the effort required of Bartimaeus.  When he calls out to Jesus, the crowd tries to silence him.  Rather than listen to the crowd, however, Bartimaeus calls louder.  He risks infuriating those upon whom he is dependent for a living.  He risks a cuffing or assault in which he will possibly never learn the identity of the one striking him.  And he even risks the comfortableness of his surroundings, no matter how unenviable we might think them.  He risks losing his spot and his cloak, both of which are essential for him in this blind condition for scratching out a meager living. 
     Bartimaeus is not alone in Mark’s Gospel.  Jairus must ignore cultural norms and even the mockery of the mourners to see his daughter restored.  The Syrophoenician woman likewise must overcome cultural norms as well as the fact that she is a gentile woman seeking a Rabbi’s help.  The paralytic man’s friends must lift him onto the roof and then dig their way through the thatch and mud so that they can lower him down.  You think the homeowner was not likely to notice the hole after the crowds dispersed?  The hemorrhaging woman fights through the crowd and then dares to answer Jesus in full view of the crowd when confronted by His question.  The list goes on and on.  Many of those in Mark’s narrative must display incredible persistence seeking the healing they desire.  How often do we, though, give up on Jesus because of the crowd around us?  How many times do we hear the God does not work that way any more and live as if such testimonies are truer than God’s Word?  How many times do we tell ourselves Well, I asked once, I guess that is a “no?”  Heck, how many of us ask for the wrong thing when we find ourselves in Bartimaeus’ position?  How many of us truly know what we desire or need?
     The second lesson regarding healing in Mark’s narrative is the requirement that one must go to Jesus for healing.  It makes sense to us as Christians.  The Son of Man is the Son of David is the Son of God.  But in this world in which we live, how often are we told that real healing is to be found in the care of doctors, of mental health professionals, or in crystals, or in some channeling of the universe’s life force, or some other idol?  Either Jesus is who He says He is or He is not.  Either He is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, of God’s grace, and of all that He revealed in Scripture, or He is not.  We live in a pluralistic age that likes to confuse us, that likes to convince us that truth is relative, that there are any number of paths to the same destination.  Part of Mark’s testimony is that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light.  Jesus is the God incarnate/Man divine.  More importantly, He lived the life the Father asked of Him.  And for that obedience He was raised from the dead as proof of the testimonies He gave us.  How do we know Messiah came otherwise?  Yet how often are we too quick to seek anyone and anything but the One who promised to redeem all things in our lives?  How embarrassed are we to speak our need to the One who seeks and knows our hearts?
     Those of us watching the story unfold might think Jesus’ question is out of place. If He knows what I need, why ask?  For all His grandeur and glory God desires that we choose to follow Him.  God always gives us a choice to follow or reject.  More amazingly, when we realize we have rejected, He sent His Son so that we could simply repent and try again!  But God always gives us a choice.  It does not matter whether it is you or me, our neighbor, our co-worker, Jonah, Paul, Peter, the Syrophoenician woman, or any other character you admire in Scripture or life.  Everyone has a choice.  Bartimaeus’ answer stands in contrast with those who do not choose correctly.  The rich young man goes away grieving because he had many possessions.  James and John are thinking only in terms of worldly power.  Bartimaeus, though blind, sees clearly who Jesus is and what He offers!  And He readily accepts the opportunity.
     The third lesson that we get in the story is the reminder that there may not be a next time.  I was advised, when I proposed starting a healing service at Advent, that many of us would be loathe to come forward for healing for any number of reasons.  I must say, I listened to the Advent crowds and found my expectations lowered.  But the response of those who have come forward, as well as that of Bartimaeus, reminds us that there may not be a next time.  What if Bartimaeus had decided, “I will wait until Jesus comes back this way and ask to gain my sight?”  This is Jesus’ last pass through of Jericho.  What if Bartimaeus had waited?  Similarly, what if today or next week or next month is the time that God has set that appointment for you or for me?  What do you want me to do for you?  What if we meekly say nothing and keep to our current condition?
     Lastly, the healing requires a response.  Bartimaeus does not simply go back and sit by the road.  The healing is something too joyful for him to contain.  So, what does he do?  He casts aside everything and follows Jesus.  He follows Jesus on this journey that will end in a few short chapters.  He follows Jesus on this road that leads to Calvary.  Unlike those so far in the story, He follows Jesus wherever He leads.  What if Jesus answered our prayer?  How would we react?  Would we be another of those who testified to His saving and healing grace?  Or would we do our best to slip back into the crowd and live the life we have chosen?
     I know I have been a bit heavy today.  I can feel it.  My job and my intention is always to afflict us where we are comfortable and to comfort us where we are afflicted.  Perhaps, sitting here this morning listening to me drone on, you have recognized times in your life where the crowd has gotten the better of your determination, where you realize that you have treated Jesus as if he was of secondary or tertiary importance in your healing, or where you feel like you gave the Lord the wrong answer.  Maybe as the week goes along and the seeds I have planted germinate, such will be the places in your mind to which you turn.  Two things you need to hear: (1) Even if you have missed an opportunity, that was not the last time He was passing through your life.  Each moment you live, each moment you breathe, you have another opportunity to ask for the healing you need.  Next week, we will live that request more intentionally, but such answers can be given at any time.  (2) If you have forgotten who Jesus is, if you have been seduced by the world, you stand in good stead.  You stand in the company of none other than the Apostles and disciples who accompanied Jesus!  And just as His grace and love and forgiveness made them into the men and women we admire from afar, so is His grace and love and forgiveness capable of transforming each one of us into a Bartimaeus of this place and this time!  What do you want Me to do for you?  That, brothers and sisters, is the question before us all, this day and every day.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Seeking the Friend in the whirlwind . . .

     I have heard rumblings that I am a bit aloof or distant, that for my whole nine months with you, some people feel as if they do not yet know me well.  First, let me say that works in reverse.  I do not yet know all of you well either.  I am beginning to get to know some of you, but I think we are all only scratching the surface when it comes to learning about one another so far.  Second, and of far more importance to me, I want to say “good.”  More than one person has grumbled to me that I need to spend more time talking about me, especially during the sermon.  The sermon is not the place to learn about me.  The sermon is not the place that I am supposed to talk about me.  I will meet you in my office, over coffee or drinks, or even for a meal and answer your questions until you are convinced the Vestry made a mistake calling me, but I try to avoid me as the subject in the sermons.  The reason is simple, but Bishop John reminded me of its importance during my discernment period last year.  I am not here to build a cult of personality.  I am here to participate in the life of a group of people called to glorify God in worship and service of others in our community.  Put in stark language: if you are placing your faith in me, Brian your priest, you will be sorely disappointed in the future, if you not are already.  If you are placing your faith in God through Christ, then you are guaranteed that, at some point, you will see God face to face and know all that you have suffered, even those disappointments at the hands of all your clergy, will have been redeemed.
     That being said, today you get to sit back and get ready for a possibly hours long sermon.  I see that got your attention.  I’m kidding.  I understand that the Titans play at noon.  I would never dare to interfere in our love of all things football.  But, I will warn you, many of you for the first time, that Job is one of my most favorite books in the Bible.  It was also the subject of one of my Master’s thesis and oral defenses at the University of Dallas.  You might say I did an extensive Bible Study of this book, led gently by a Cistercian monk.  I love when I preach on Job because I feel like I have already done a great deal of the prep work in a galaxy far away and a long time ago.
     Job is an incredibly rich book.  I wish we spent more time reading the book in the lectionary because it speaks to one of the angsts of Christian life.  For those who do not yet know the story, Job is described in the beginning of the book as a righteous man.  The one who describes Job is none other than God Himself.  How would you like to be judged today by God as righteous?  If you have not read the story, God speaks of Job’s faithfulness to none other than Satan, who has been going to and fro around the earth.  Pretty cool idea, is it not?  God telling Satan that a person is righteous.
      Satan, for his part, rejects God’s judgment of Job.  In effect, he tells God that Job is righteous because Job is rich.  Since Job lacks for nothing, Job can afford to be righteous.  God, of course, sees the heart.  He tells Satan that he can mess with anything external to Job.  So, Satan has all the livestock killed or plundered and calls up a great storm to collapse the family house and kill the entire family.  We are told that, in all this calamity, Job did not sin.
     Fast forward to Satan and God’s next discussion.  God points out how Job did not sin, even absent the accoutrements of wealth and the loss of his family.  Satan says that Job still has his health, so, of course, he still worships God.  Again, God, who sees the heart, gives Job over to the power of Satan with the limitation of sparing Job’s life.  Satan torments Job by giving him an extreme leprosy of sorts.  Job has itchy boils and scabs and is miserable.  Still, we are told, Job does not sin.
     It is at this point that the holy rollers enter the picture.  We are, of course, speaking before Jesus’ ministry, so these men who approach Job are not Christians.  But they, like Job, claim to love God.  At first, they sit in silence with Job and mourn his losses.  Then, in what we know is an effort to “help” Job, the men begin to encourage Job to repent of the horrible sin that has earned the wrath of God.  Job, the one judged by God as righteous, rightly claims he is righteous.  He has not defrauded anyone, he has not gossiped, he has given his choicest to God.  Job has done everything within his power to do as God commands.
     We see this play out all the time in modern churches.  The worst example I can recall was at a snake-handling church I attended in north central WV as a kid.  A few weeks before our class visit, an elderly lady was bitten by a copperhead or rattler and died.  Everyone mourned her death.  They mourned her death not because she was gone, but because she had clearly failed to repent of her sin since God had let her die.  They wondered how she could appear so righteous on the outside for so long, and so rotted on the inside.  You can probably think of more common examples.  Like as not, you may have received those kinds of people and their advice in your own hurts and miseries.  Heck, you may have played the role of the friends in someone else’s life.
     The friends respond with the good ole “sure you have.”  They entreat Job to look around and to see the consequence of his sin.  The more that Job protests his innocence, the more they use his circumstances to prove his guilt.  We understand this logic, don’t we?  We really only need God when something is wrong.  So long as we can pay our bills, have good health, are in no bad relationships, we believe that we are favored by God.  Put a little more bluntly, we like to think our material blessings signify our relationship with God.  How do I know I have a better relationship with God than my neighbor?  Because He makes sure I have whatever I need while my neighbor suffers!  How do I know I have a better relationship with God than my friend?  Because, bless her heart, that storm cloud follows her in whatever she does.
     You are laughing, but we know people who like to judge their relationship with God based on the circumstances of life.  Heck, some of us do as well.  I always go nuts when I hear that attitude expressed to prospective Christians during efforts to evangelize.  If you’ll just give your heart to Jesus, He will make everything right.  You won’t want for nothing.  He will heal your diseases.  He will provide you with all that you need.  When we or others say that nonsense, think of the harm done to the person coming to faith.  I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of us who believe in Jesus have broken family relationships?  Issues of provision?  Suffer significant health ailments?  Experience bad luck?  I always remind people newer to the faith that our Lord was rejected, tortured, and killed.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Him.  If God allowed those events to happen to His only begotten Son, what might He allow to happen to those He adopted?  It is not that God is mean or that He loves us any less; it is that He has chosen to work through suffering to redeem us.  Suffering reminds us of our own inadequacies, our own impotence, our own lack of understanding, of our real dependence upon Him.
     The whole book of Job exists to remind God’s people that our life’s circumstances in no way reflects our relationship with God.  Job praises God in the good and the bad, just as God knew that he would.  Bildad, and later Elihu, two of Job’s “friends,” are adamant that suffering leads the sinful back to God.  Theirs is a vapid theology, a theology that will still be hanging around when Jesus walks the earth (Lord, was this man’s blindness caused by his sin or that of his parents?), and is still with us today.  Their attitude speaks to another loss that Job has endured, one that we do not often get.  As a rich man with a happy family, Job is accorded tremendous respect.  As shown by his friends’ counsel, though, Job’s circumstance has caused them to be anything but a friend.  In fact, although Job insists he is the same man as the day before, they refuse to accept his testimony.  Respect among his friends was truly fleeting.  Elihu, in the chapters before our reading today, launches into what he thinks is a wonderful soliloquy about God.  God rewards the just.  God punishes the wicked.  Sometimes God punishes so that the wicked will turn to Him.  It is really that simple, according to Elihu.  God, of course, disagrees with Elihu.
     Throughout the book, Job has longed for an advocate.  He has desired a courtroom setting so that he could present his case to God.  Whether arguing with his wife, his friends, or even himself, Job knows he has not sinned.  If his suffering is punishment, then he is suffering unjustly and wants to take his case up with God.  Now, after Elihu’s rant, God appears out of the whirlwind and thundering with sarcasm.  Were you there when the morning stars sang together?  Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Can you play with behemoth and toy with Leviathan?  Elihu cannot answer these questions that are put to him in rapid fire succession.  Before Job, Elihu and the others have claimed to know God’s inscrutable motivations and actions.  And God, answering Job’s claim for an advocate, shows them how vapid their understanding of Him really is and how bad their counsel was to Job.
     God is, of course, not done after dealing with Elihu and the others.  He turns His focus upon Job and instructs Job to gird up his loins and answer Him.  Job, of course, realizes now, in the presence of holiness and righteousness, that he is mortal.  I am of small account; what shall I answer You.  Some commentators like to argue that God just thunders away in this book.  From their perspective, God is the ultimate windbag.  Because He did all these things, He seems to think we should never question Him or His motives.  Again, notice that God never claims that Job is unrighteous.  If suffering was supposed to be a sign of wickedness or broken relationship with God, then Job rightly understood his punishment to be wrong.  Job’s struggle is real.  Better still, Job’s struggle is accepted by God.  But, if carried to its logical end in those terms, in order for Job to be vindicated, God would have to be placed in the wrong.  Job never accuses God of being evil.  He never sins against God despite all the ridiculous advice of his “friends.”  Job finds himself between a rock and hard place.  God is good, but so is he.  How can his situation be explained in light of those two understandings?  Now Job, and we, needs to rethink his understanding of material circumstances and one’s relationship to God.  To use Job’s words after God’s instruction, he spoke of things too wonderful for him to completely understand.  He sees now what he had only heard.
     Of course, even in that seeing, Job still does not get the complete picture.  God does not tell Job why his farm was destroyed, why his family was killed, and why he lost his health.  Job never hears that his suffering was the focus of Satan’s efforts to turn him from God and that God knew his heart, knew that his servant Job would not turn aside.  Job only learns that his suffering was not related to his standing before God.  We as readers and hearers of the story, know the background.  But Job is kept in the dark.
     One last note on the story.  God’s wrath is so kindled against the four friends of Job that he tells them He will not accept an offering from them.  Can you imagine that conversation?  As wonderful as it would be to imagine God telling Satan that we are righteous and faithful, it would be terrifying to hear God say to us that He will not accept our prayers and offerings.  In a note that hints at the redemptive suffering of Jesus, God tells the friends to take the bulls and rams to Job.  God says that Job will intercede on their behalf, and He will accept the offering and prayers on account of Job.  Not unsurprisingly, Job offers the sacrifices and prayer for his friends who wronged him, reminding us one last time that God’s judgment of His servant Job was correct.
     Why do the righteous suffer?  Worse, why do the wicked seem so often to prosper?  It is a question that is left unaddressed in the book of Job.  Our passage for today’s reading clearly hearkens us back to the beginning of the Bible.  Those who have been in the Genesis Bible Study cannot help but be reminded of the imagery the read a couple months ago.  But is the thrust of God’s answer simply, I am God and you are not?  No.  Job has stumbled onto the seeming chaos of his worldview or his perspective.  Like many of his time, Job believed that the righteous were rewarded while the wicked were punished.  Certainly, that was a promise of God’s.  But God did not promise that every single moment of every single day of every single week of every single month . . . you get the picture.  God, I think, takes Job back to the beginning to remind Job and us that He is the God who brings order to chaos.  God reminds Job and us that He need only speak, and the stars, the planets, and all that is jumps to obey Him.  One day, that Day of the Lord, all things will be set right.  But today is not really that day.  Job gets more than the answers that he seeks; Job learns he has not been asking the right questions.  Job learns one additional significant item: he does not face calamity or chaos alone.  The friend that he so longs for to advocate on his behalf has appeared to him out of the whirlwind.  That Job’s life might seem insignificant when compared with earth’s foundations or the singing of stars is not the understanding of Job.  Job now understands the Lord is none other than the friend he has been seeking during his suffering.
     How that applies to us, I think, is obvious.  Looking around this group gathered here today, I am aware of some significant suffering.  My guess is, as we get to know one another in the months and years ahead, I will become aware of even more suffering.  Suffering is terrible.  The Bible never takes suffering lightly, and we would do well as God’s people never to take our suffering or the suffering of others lightly either.  But held out against the chaos and suffering of our life that the God who created all things, the God who made all that is, seen and unseen, will be the One whom we see face to face as a friend, when that glorious day is upon us!  Better still, that friend, that Lord, has promised that He will redeem all things in our lives.  There will be no melancholy, there will be no sadness, there will be no wrath on our parts, there will be no tears.  He who spoke order into chaos will speak healing into us, and we who claim Him as Lord, will share forever in His eternal glory!
     Brothers and sisters, I know there is terrible suffering in some of your lives.  I know that some of you believe yours is of the “garden variety” kind.  Like you and me in our situations, Job would never have been satisfied with a philosophical explanation of his new poverty and destroyed family.  How can we accept philosophically some of the struggles we have faced?  We and he want only to know that God is there, that He still cares for us, and that He has not given up on us because of our sins and failures or because of the seeming chaos of the world.  We have that best reminder, of course, in the face of our Lord Christ, who walked a greater path of suffering, that we might know our path, one day, will end, and that the crosses we have born for His glory will be exchanged for that “well done” blessing He has promised to all who continue in Him.  One day, we will see Him clearly, not in the whirlwind, but with outstretched arms proclaiming to the Father that “this one is mine, too.”  Then, and only then, will our suffering begin to make sense.  Then, and only then, will we be completely healed.  Then, and only then, will the answers we and Job seek be truly found.



Thursday, October 15, 2015

Trust and compassion in our service . . .

     I am often amused at the apocalyptic claims that the world has begun to infiltrate the Church.  In light of recent events in the world, there is sometimes an attempt to generate a hysteria among “good Christians” about whatever particular issue.  In more recent weeks, these pleas have centered upon marriage and gun control, but other areas have served as the foci.  Just a couple weeks ago I received a claim desperate for money because the administration had declared that “Any soldier who professes Christianity can now be court-martialed and may face imprisonment and even a dishonorable discharge from the military.”  The claim went on to say that even military chaplains were now subject to this new policy.  The claim, of course, was in bold print, which meant it was as certain as anything found on the internet.  Why are you all laughing?
     I have in the past received letters from organizations purporting to be working hard to fight any number of evils in the communities in which I have served.  And just when I think I have seen it all, just when I am convinced humanity has sunk to a new all time low, I tend to get a new one.  It is incredible to me how many people, claiming to be faithful, will prey upon the gullibility of the masses and the people in the pews.  No doubt some of us respond convinced of these truth claims.  I guess enough of us respond to make this an effective way of doing ministry or business, but I really shake my head at the hysteria of the claims.
     One of the reasons I tend to be less worried about society trying to overtake the Church is the simple fact that I am a classicist.  In some ways, the greatest even in the history of Christendom, after the Empty Tomb, was the conversion of Constantine.  In the profession of a ruler, Christianity went from being persecuted to being promoted, from being on the fringes of society to being in the center of power, from being poor to beginning the greatest capital campaign the world has ever seen.  Of course, in some ways the worst thing to happen to Christianity since our Lord’s Resurrection was the conversion of Constantine.  Constantine, and nearly every ruler who followed, demanded good order in the Church.  Sometimes, that order was brought about at sword point.  Our forebears took it upon themselves to build great edifices to God’s glory.  But, some of our brothers and sisters, particularly those in older buildings in less than desirable locations, deal with the maintenance costs month in and month out.  And who really has time to preach on the ties that developed between the political leaders and the religious leaders over the last couple thousand years?  Life is complicated, as is the Church’s relationship to the world.
     Another reason that I tend to be less worried about society trying to overtake the Church is found in Mark’s Gospel today.  It is a hard thing to be a disciple of Christ.  Jesus Himself describes it as cross-bearing.  But we want it to be comfortable.  We want it to be easy.  It always amazes me how those new to the corporate world think that there is an easy way to the top.  As an assistant manager in a brokerage firm, one of my primary jobs was to train new brokers.  Now, you all have come to know me well enough to realize I am not a huge fan of wasting your or my time.  Again, why are there chuckles?  Imagine me in a less-pastoral role.  Frightening, isn’t it?  Every moment I spent on a broker that did not succeed was a waste of my time.  At worst, I could be dealing with my customers.  At best, those whom I hired could be making lots of money so that my manager and I could make more money.  In between I could be at home with Karen and the kids or out on the golf course with colleagues or clients.  I see the nods.  Other businesses, particularly those dependent upon sales, work the same way.
     I used to tell potential brokers that the job was anything but sexy and fun the first few years.  Every day they would talk to three hundred people.  Two hundred eighty of those people would never want to hear from them again.  Of the twenty that did, maybe two would give them a shot to earn their business.  I see the math happening in your heads.  You used to think being a broker was glamorous work, didn’t you?  Those that survive in the business simply get a thick skin.  We get used to rejection.  Over and over we are told no.  And even if we are told yes, we still have to hope that the men and women running the companies are playing by the spirit of the investment laws.  People get mad at brokers even if the companies run afoul of the SEC.  Even if we do our jobs the best that one can expect, clients fire us over things outside our control.  And so we continue to grind it, to work like apes on a treadmill.
     Invariably, I would be told by a new broker they had a better idea for how to succeed in the business.  Never mind the fact that in capitalism imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  The new broker would have a short cut or idea.  Some would be blatantly illegal; most just were the products of trying to get a return on the least amount of work invested.  I get it.  It is human nature.  Some would eventually learn that what separated them from the broker making a nice living was not that they were geniuses, not that they were gifted businessmen and women, not that they had the “right” chart, but that they were hard workers.  Those that learned typically succeeded; those that did not left or were let go.  Human nature is human nature.
     Our story from Mark this morning touches on this infiltration of culture and on the condition of humanity.  A man comes up to Jesus and asks the Good Teacher what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus knows when someone is fishing for a compliment.  A lot of us in some kind of authority know when someone is fishing for a compliment.  Jesus reminds the man that only God is good.  Since no one understands He is the God-Man, the irony is lost on the man and on those within earshot.  Jesus plunges on and reminds the man of the torah.  Upon hearing this, we can almost hear the man’s heart burst with pride.  Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.  Then comes the spiritual wedgie.  Jesus looked at him, loved him, and said, “One thing you lack, Go.  Sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.”  Mark tells us that the man’s face fell and that he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
     Why was the man there to question Jesus?  We do not know.  Mark gives us no answer to that question.  Perhaps the man knew deep down he was doing something wrong and needed to hear an escape clause.  Maybe, like some of us, he just wanted to be affirmed for who he was.  Certainly he was sincere.  When the man proudly proclaims he has kept the torah since his youth, Jesus does not begin drawing his sins in the dirt or accusing him of his failures.  No, Jesus tells the man quite simply the one thing he lacks.
     Mark does relate to us that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words to them.  Jesus tells them that it is incredibly hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.  Why is that?  Part of that makes sense on an intuitive level, particularly those of us living in a capitalist society such as our own.  Those who run businesses are often trying to squeeze every last penny of profit out of every dollar of revenue.  It makes sense as capitalist.  But does it as a Christian?  I can remember as a broker the consolidation of many of the restaurants during the nineties into publicly traded conglomerates.  Weird restaurants seemed to be being bunched together.  There was this weird private restaurant, though, that Wall Street wanted to bring public.  They were not nearly as famous for their “spokescows” then as they are now.  One thing that drove some bankers nuts was the CEO’s unwillingness to budge on the pledge to stay closed on Sundays.  Chick-Fil-A’s gross margins were a couple points higher than all their comparables.  If the CEO would simply open on Sundays, Chick-Fil-A would easily be the most profitable of that sector of fast food.  Better still, whoever landed that IPO was going to make a killing!
     The CEO drove them nuts with his rigidness.  His increased productivity, he felt, was precisely because he tried to run his business more biblically.  Being open on the Sabbath was a non-starter.  Even if his employees never went to church, maybe they would spend time with their families.  Even if they never went to church or spent time with their families, maybe they would use the time to pursue hobbies and other interests.  Even if his employees did nothing but watch football and sleep on Sunday’s, at least they would be well-rested.  The CEO understood that rest is important for mental, physical, and spiritual health, even if his employees did not.  Rested and happy employees makes for increased productivity.  The CEO understood that if he made the changes suggested by bankers, he would lose the advantage they were seeking to promote.  Is Chick-Fil-A a Christian business?  No doubt if we spent some time we could probably find a fault or two in the execution of their business plan.  Maybe we could even find a few faults with the plan itself.  But I like to think that their nuggets give us a glimpse, however shadowy, of the finger foods that will precede the great Feast!  But I think their CEO understands something that we in the Church all too often forget.
     We claim as Christians to serve a God who created all things.  We claim to serve a God who placed us in His creation as stewards.  Then we go about our daily lives and work often acting as if the things we are stewarding are really our own and not His.  We forget that we follow a God who relates to us as our loving Father in heaven, except for those times we find ourselves in church.  And we wonder why the rest of the world begins to ignore our testimony.  The world does not ignore it; they follow it.  He or she who dies with the most toys wins!  And we modern Americans are not alone.  When Jesus walked the earth, the rabbis specifically forbade what He commanded of this man in the story today.  Scripture is filled with the spiritual dangers associated with wealth; yet the rabbis decided they knew better than God.  No one was allowed to give away more than 20% of one’s wealth because the rabbis did not want someone to become penniless or a burden to others.  Jesus is speaking into this very idea that we should trust in ourselves, in our efforts, in our acumen, in our own storehouses.
     I know that many of us sitting here this morning are blessed with great resources.  I know that the preacher’s discussion of money from the pulpit can seem crass or rude or downright ridiculous.  But place yourself in the position of the man in today’s encounter.  If Jesus told you the only thing you lacked was to sell everything and help the poor, how would you respond?  Would the idea of helping others and facing persecution in light of eternal rewards and salvation make the following struggle seem inconsequential?  Or would you walk away with your face down?  Would you have to weigh the pros and cons?  My guess is that more than a few of us might decide to enter into an argument with Jesus.  We love to wrestle with God, so I am sure a few of us would be saying “Now wait just a cotton picking moment, Jesus, don’t You know . . . “  And we are not alone in those sentiments at Advent. 
     We belong to a denomination that is thought to be made up of the elite in America, but whose churches and diocese struggle to balance budgets.  Why?  We elect (or nominate those who fail to show up at Parish Annual Meetings) representatives to serve on a Vestry.  We should be voting for those whom we respect in their spiritual life, their walk, with God.  We ask them to run the business side of the church and keep the priest “in check.”  Then, when the Vestry comes back to the parish and says this is what we need to subsist, the second-guessing really begins.  I think we are overpaying our clergy—they only work one day a week.  I don’t know that the yard needs to be mown as often as it does—sure, my yard needs it, but the church does not.  Why do we give to the diocese?  They just pay bloated salaries.  Can’t the music director work for free?  Can’t the teenagers cover the nursery?  Yes, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I shared those same thoughts.  I can laugh now because I know how ridiculous I sounded in God’s eyes, and certainly to Karen.  In the beginning, we were starving grad-student newlyweds.  We gave maybe $500-$1000 to our parish.  I sat in pews just like these at Advent and argued whether our $500 was being spent wisely.  You would have thought, listening to me, that God would never be able to find another $500 in the whole universe, if I wasn’t satisfied the money was being well-spent.  And I am not saying that we should not ask questions and discern in community.  But, if you voted for eight or nine or ten of the members serving the Vestry, and if you think they are competent men and women, and if you think they have been discerning these same questions, why do we fight with them so much?  Why do we act as if they lost all their marbles when it came time to set a budget?  And why do we act as if we are the owners and not the stewards God created us to be?  Whose money, whose property, are we hoarding?
      Want to think of something uncomfortable?  How should we really be budgeting?  What if we went around to all the members of the parish and asked how much they were giving, that the numbers offered would be our budget?  Would good enough keep the lights on?  The doors open?
     I have skirted a line this morning.  I know that in Episcopal circles we tend to place greater emphasis on economic success than spiritual success.  I understand that most of us go to work in a culture that is materialistic and every bit the master of those who would be its slaves.  I also understand that when we preachers speak about the subject of wealth and its place in our hearts and in God’s economy, we can sound like we are berating or condemning.  Some maybe are.  Not all of us have sat where you sat; not all of us have served the same masters as have you.  I intend neither.  Jesus looked on the man and loved him.  Loved him.  Just as Jesus looked on the blind, the lame, the deaf, the lepers, and everyone else, he looked on the rich man in love.  But in that loving look, Jesus also saw through to the man’s heart.  The man lacked trust in God and he lacked compassion for others.  The man did a great job of keeping the letter of the torah, but he failed to grasp its true purpose.
     Discipleship requires two significant qualities in the believer.  First, we must trust God.  It is all fine and well and good for us to bow at the name of Jesus or tell our friends that God will save us from our sins, but what Jesus is looking for in discipleship is trust.  Picking up our cross and following Him means that we expose ourselves to the changes and chances of the future, that we become dependent upon our Father as a child.  We live in a world that tells us we are our own masters, that we are captains of our own ships, that we have the right to have it our way; yet nothing could be further from the eternal truth of God!  Trusting God means that we recognize not just His right to us, but that He will follow through in His commitment to us.  Yes, bad things will happen.  Paul describes it as a spiritual battle.  But we are not the suppliers for this cosmic battle; we are not the owners of this fight.  We don’t need the storehouses, because He has access to The Storehouse.
     The second quality required of a believer is compassion.  You and I are called to remember who we are and from what we were saved.  That spirit of joyful thanksgiving is supposed to be the fire that drives our internal engines.  What the man in our story kept out of legalism, you and I do in joyful thanksgiving.  To outward appearances we look the same.  Inwardly, though, there is quite a distinction.  We serve a Lord who had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd; we serve a Lord who, in His encounters with people like you and me, gave willingly of His time and power; we serve a Lord who went even to the Cross for us while we were yet His enemy.  How can we then claim to love others as ourselves and still argue with God over the appropriateness of His call on us, not just His call on our money, but His call on our time and our skills?  If we choose the answer of the rich man, we are not really disciples.  Let us pray that in our future encounters with our Lord, we would all respond as a disciple worthy of Him who laid down His life that we might share in His glory for all eternity.

In Christ’s Peace,


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Youthful Intentions . . .

     Not a week after I complained I was spending too much time in the Gospels and New Testament, I found myself drawn again to the Gospel lesson for this week’s sermon.  I say that as a lover of the book of Job.  In fact, many of you do not know, but I did both a paper and an oral defense for my Master’s degree in Religion on the book of Job.  To say that I love it when the book comes up in the lectionary might be a huge understatement.  I have done tons of study.  I am almost always over-prepared for sermons on readings from Job.  But, even the blind could see and the deaf could hear that we needed to discuss Mark, particularly in light of our instructed Eucharists a couple weeks ago.

     Jesus is on a trajectory that will end in Jerusalem and on Golgotha.  The Pharisees come and test Him by means of a question.  “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  It is a question that expects a yes or no answer, thereby springing a trap that lurks dangerously in the background.  If Jesus says yes, then the Pharisees can cast Him as one opposed to the teaching of the prophet John the Baptizer, who was put to death for his unwillingness to sanction Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife.  If Jesus is opposed to God’s prophet, then He cannot be of God Himself.

     On the other hand, if Jesus answers no, then He places Himself clearly on the side opposed to Herod.  Those springing the trap can simply go to Herod, report that Jesus has said the king cannot marry, and then Herod can carry out their dirty work.  It is a trap worthy of Guinness Beer – Brilliant!  The problem, of course, is that the one answering is far more cunning than those setting the trap.

      Typical of our Lord, Jesus looks more at the attitude and assumptions of the questioner rather than the question itself.  Jesus knows full well what is permissible and what is impermissible under the torah.  But He also understands that what is permissible is sometimes at odds with what was intended.  So He asks the questioner a question.  What did Moses command you?  Jesus wants them to see, and likely the gathered crowd, the presuppositions which cause such a question to be asked.  We are told that the Pharisees responded that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal (called a get) and divorce her.  Sorry, ladies, but the Pharisees are right.  The idea of a woman divorcing her husband was simply unthinkable.  In that sense, the men held all the power.  But it was a decision that was not to be undertaken lightly.  Once a man divorced his wife, he could never take her back.  He was forbidden by Moses from re-marrying her if he ever sent her away.

     Jesus then does a curious thing.  Rather than saying something like He does over the coin with Caesar’s image or using the famous “You have heard it said . . . . but I say to you . . . ,” Jesus harkens back to Creation.  Jesus allows that the commandment is true, but He testifies that it arises only out of the hardness of heart.  He goes on to combine Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 in the explanation of His answer.  We were created male and female.  A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.

     On the surface, the verses seem distant.  We might say they are a full chapter apart.  Yet Jesus yokes them together in His description of the intention of God in creation.  We live in a world that settles for “good enough,” but we serve a God who offers far more than good enough.  We serve a God who loves us dearly, who wants only the best for us, wants to shower us abundantly with His blessings, and we are so quick to settle for good enough.  Using Eucharistic language, we fight over the crumbs on the floor when the feast in on the table above us.  Even the Apostles and disciples cannot grasp the teaching of the intent.  Mark relates that they had to ask Him later to explain it better.  Jesus reminds them that everyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery.  Jesus frames the divorcing in a way that would shock His hearers.  He teaches that whether a man or a woman divorces, the remarriage results in adultery.  The one remarrying is sinning against the prior spouse and against God.

     As God’s people, we have forgotten the intent of marriage.  I know some of you are a bit disappointed with me that I am not a hammerer of the age and our national church from the pulpit.  I think our church has erred terribly in trying to bless what God has described a sin.  But the fault of that error lies with us and has occurred for some years now.  We have become a culture, a people, who shrug our shoulders at divorce.  If I asked how many of you were divorced and thereby adulterers under Jesus’ own words today, how many of us would raise our hands?  In taking us back to the intent of marriage, Jesus reminds each and every one of us of the sacramental nature of marriage, of the difficulty of a man and a woman leaving a family, and the strains of starting a new family.  It takes a commitment, a covenant, like God has with His people, the Church.  It takes forgiveness, it takes grace, it takes humility, and it takes any number of other unpopular in this age characteristics for a marriage to work.  Heck, in this age we have forgotten that marriage is work.  We have bought in on the idea that marriage is little more than a coming together for so long as it is convenient for us.  We have bought in on the idea that marriage should always be happy for us.  We have even bought in on the idea that becoming pregnant in a marriage is a failure of birth control rather than a participatory act of creation in which we share that much more of God’s power.  Think of that for a second.  Many in our society have turned the intent into a failure!  Like the Pharisees in our story, we are far more interested in what we can get away with than we are with modeling the life God intended for each of us.  And we wonder why the world rejects our narrative; why the world rejects God based on our own testimonies.

     If you find yourself squirming a bit, relax.  I am not here to condemn you.  I am the product of a mother and father who divorced one another twice.  Put differently, they violated both sides of what Moses allowed for hardness of heart.  But both have asked God for forgiveness and claim Christ as Lord, so unless I really screw it up in the time I have left on this earth, I expect to see them in the world to come.  But, in giving you that bit of background, I can also testify as to why Mark yokes the children to the passage of divorce. 

     No matter how amicable or inimical the divorce, who gets hurt?  I see some more squirming.  Relax and listen, I have already promised I am not here to condemn.  When we ask sociologists, psychologists, and pastors who the real victims of divorce are, what do they answer?  That’s right.  The children.  Even in so called “good divorces” the children suffer.  How many times, upon hearing of an impending divorce, do we cluck “what about the children?”  There is a loss of one parent or the other, even in joint custody situations.  The standard of living generally falls as the mother and father have to provide two separate households.  The social system of children is often interrupted by divorce.  What do they do with the pictures?  The gifts?  The memories?  The untangling of a marriage is painful process even in the best of circumstances.  As the adults try and figure out who is friends with which parent, the kids lose some of their interaction with those adults and other kids.  As the parents figure out which parent has the children for which holiday, the kids struggle with the knowledge that the holiday is not right.  Then there is the guilt.  Even in abusive situations, the children often think they are to blame for the divorce.  If only I did not make daddy so angry.  If only I did not cause mommy to be disappointed and drink.  In “normal” marriages, children almost always blame themselves for having done something they do not understand.  Maybe now you understand why Jesus is indignant when the disciples keep the kids from Him.  The only ones who have no say in the dissolution of a marriage are the weakest in the family.  And we all know that God loves those who are weak and who are stuck in the margins, because He called each one of us into right relationship with Him.

     And for the last minute or two we have spoken of so-called “good divorces.”  What are we to make of bad divorces?  How do the children fare in those?  Way worse.  Then they are apt to be used as pawns in an adult war.  I’ll show your mom by not paying for you to go to school.  I’ll show your dad by gouging him on expenses.  Or better yet: Let me tell you about your other parent and what an evil person they are.  Carried with the latter discussion, which admittedly can be more passively aggressive than I have described, is the threat of you better agree with me!  Divorce is ugly, and, as Jesus reminds us, it is a consequence of our hard hearts.  But it is not the real focus of the passage.

     Jesus’ focus is upon the intent of marriage.  Those seeking to trap Jesus are trying to figure out the “out” clauses of what they view as little more than a social contract.  Jesus demands that the evaluate marriage, and ultimately themselves, not by what God has permitted but by what God intended!  In essence Jesus is teaching more here about the intended good of marriage than the experienced evil of divorce.  Put a bit differently, Jesus is focusing on the intended blessing and far less on the result of a hard heart.

     I do not think it is coincidental that the children come next and that the passage is yoked to the divorce question.  In the next couple of weeks we will read about people, adult people, trying to figure out what they can get out of their relationship or service to Jesus.  One will flatter Him, and two others will ask to sit in glory at His right and left hand.  But Jesus holds up the children as the model of the behavior they should be emulating.  Make no mistake, neither the ANE or Jesus likely had any false pretentions about the behavior of children.  As with today children can be polite or rude, well-behaved or unruly, dependable or flighty, and any other number of traits and combinations.  In fact, children in Jesus’ time were really meant not to be seen and not to be heard.  They were the least of the least.  In many ANE cultures, a dad had to accept the child as his.  If he did not, the child was not even brought into the household.  No, Jesus uses children to illustrate better His point that you and I and all those who claim Him as Lord need to be like children to claim the blessings of the Father.  To become proper heirs of our Lord, we need to become insignificant.  We need to realize our dependence upon our Father, who has promised us all good things.  And we need to trust that those things He gives us are really what we need and not the beginning of some game of bartering.

     Jesus’ question also challenges us.  He clearly values children.  Do we?  Are they meant to be invisible and inaudible, or are they mean to be part of this family, full participating worshippers?  At Advent, we claim to be an intergenerational community?  Are we?  More importantly, do the youth, those whom we are called not to hinder, believe that we are?  You and I might think we are doing a great job ministering to and with our youth, (well, I know that I am not a trained youth pastor, so I am not that delusional) but our youth may think rightly they are forgotten, they are of tertiary importance, or that they are even unwelcome.  How we and they answer that question shows whether we align our lives with the Apostles misunderstandings or our Lord’s intention.

     One more question, I think, deserves some comment here in our life together at Advent, particularly in light of participating worshippers and servers and the instructed Eucharist a couple weeks ago.  I am cognizant that the passage has served as a flashpoint for fights regarding the baptism of children and communing children.  I do not think the passage speaks directly to the former.  It does, however, highlight a hardness of heart within some of us about the role of the youth in our community.  One of the repeated questions after the instructed Eucharist a couple weeks ago was the practice of children receiving communion without the rite of first communion.  Next time, if there is one Father, can you remind parents not to let their children take communion?  That was great, Father, can you re-introduce first Communion now?  I shared with those who were bothered by the practice of the much of our wider church and, I suppose more importantly to you all, of me.  For all the importance of the Eucharist, there was very little given in Scripture regarding instructions about it.  Paul tells us we must be repentant toward God and at love and charity with our neighbor in the first letter to Corinth.  Jesus instructs us to remember His flesh broken for us and His blood poured out for us in the Gospels.  The rest, though based in good intention I think, are our own rules and thoughts.  I know we believe that children should understand what they are doing in the Church.  But answer me this question: What is the Eucharist for you?  How well do you articulate that holy mystery?  Why is a child’s understanding of what is happening necessarily any less profound than yours?  Can you explain fully to our youth what is happening when you take Communion?

     I know people make a big deal of the power and prestige that comes with being a clergy.  I’m still looking for both.  Maybe my ordaining bishop just forgot to convey those when he laid hands on me.  There is a lot of garbage that goes with this work.  I have been here nine full months, enough for Karen to have birthed another baby or for me to have been instituted as your rector.  How many of you, do you think, have burst down my doors telling me of the wonderful blessings showered upon you by God?  How many of you, do you think, have called at odd hours with a joyful thanksgiving?  There have been a few more than some of you might think, but most of our conversations have been way more concerned with perceived needs, intercessions, and other problems of our lives, both individually and collectively, here at Advent.  I have been cautioned that I have not been as respectful of the past tradition of first communion at Advent in my answer about this question, but I want you to understand why.  Baptisms and the wonder of a child’s first Eucharist are a couple of those events that make the anguish, hurt, impotence and whatever else of those bad events in our collective and individual lives cause seem like rubbish in mine.

     Those concerned about my practice need to understand a bit from where I am coming.  I was raised in a southern Baptist church.  I really believed in a believer’s baptism.  I really thought Communion should be something special – like received only around Christmas and Easter special.  But, on this side of the rail, I get to see a different perspective.  We profess that children are a blessing from God.  We claim that our primary responsibility as parents is to teach our children the wondrous deeds God has done and the love He has for each one of them.  We are challenged to raise our children so that they never can remember a time when they did not think God was present in their life.  And, yet, how often do we celebrate the conversion of a notorious sinner and ignore the child who cannot remember a time they walked apart from God?  We celebrate the notorious sinner, we promote the notorious sinner’s conversion; but we “meh” the child now adult who says they always knew God was near, we ignore the “well done, good and faithful servant” we should be giving to parents of such children.  And some would have us exclude children just as they begin to realize they want to be a part of something.

     Parents around here and at other churches I have served will tell you that I ignore the first couple reaches, the first couple times the child holds out the hand to receive.  But once I discern they are reaching to be a part of this family, I begin to offer.  Most cannot speak more than 60-70 words at that point (they could never explain what they are doing), but they want to be like those around them.  And, critics are right, they might not cup their hands correctly, they might fidget while they kneel, or drink their first sip of the cup while making a disgusted face or with accompanying shivers.  But the face you do not see is the face of wonder, the face of belonging.  It is usually a face of innocent joy.  And I have seen youth break the wafer and feed mom or dad and themselves, emulating what they see the idiot in the cassock do week in and week out.  I have seen children take the wafer and place it whole in mom or dad’s mouth.  I have even seen a child take the wafer, gum it really well, and then decide to give it to dad (and dad’s accompanying horror that this is a slobbered piece of Jesus and that he has to eat it!).  If parents are bringing their children to meet Jesus, in light of this reading, why would we ever keep them away?  I’m not talking about forcing them to eat and drink.  I am talking about when the child reaches for our Lord and Savior, why would we ever slap that hand away in light of His example today?  We claim He is in the Sacrament; yet we would keep the children from coming to Him.

     And just because experience is good does not mean that we should blindly follow it.  There is an effort to create a three or four-legged stool within the Episcopal Church today, as if our ability to think and our experiences are not tainted by sin.  Those who would really claim to follow Hooker and what we call Anglicanism must always look to His Word to see if what we are doing corresponds to what He calls for or what He allows.  So long as the child is baptized, is there any reason in Scripture that we should keep them from the Table?  Given His teaching today, is there any reason we should prevent those already baptized into His death and raised to new life in Him from touching Him, from receiving His blessing, from drawing sustenance from that well spring that He offers?  I’m pretty sure not, and as a keeper and dispenser of His Holy Mysteries, I will continue to act as I think He calls.  And if, in the end of this discussion with some of you or in the wider church, convince me that I have erred and in need of repentance, then I will of course repent and change my practice, trusting that His grace is sufficient even for this sin.

     I get it.  We love tradition.  We don’t mockingly call ourselves the frozen chosen in many quarters for no reason.  There was a time in our collective lives when we thought there was a good reason to keep the children from eating His flesh and drinking His blood.  But maybe, lost in this call to us to be like children, maybe Jesus wanted us to approach Him and all things anew, just as a child.  We spend so much time as adults driving our cynicism into the ears and hearts of the little ones of our lives.  We have so much less patient with our little ones than our Lord does with us.  Why?  Is there a question that drives a parent more nuts?  Why?  At some point we just drop the effort to explain, or we realize that we cannot, and we just go with “because I said so” or some other such explanation.  Who told us we cannot hear God’s voice?  Who told us we cannot see His face?  Who told us that the childlike joy and wonder was inappropriate behavior?  Most likely it was an adult, or a group of adults, within the churches of our childhood.  We were hindered just like those children in Mark’s passage today.

     Brothers and sisters, we have spent a great deal of time talking about intention, tradition, and failure.  In many ways, that is the milieu in which we are called to minister.  In many ways, it is the Apostolic ministry we share.  Like those in the story today, who did not understand the lesson at first and even acted so as to cause our Lord to respond indignantly, we make mistakes all the time.  The Gospel news, the glorious news, is that our Lord’s offer of grace supersedes all those failures.  We can share with those who come after, our youth, the power of such forgiveness and the glory of such grace.  Better still, we can participate in the new creation, His Bride the Church.  We can lay that foundation of love, mercy and invitation in such a way that those who come after might never know what it is like to stand apart.  And in the end, is that not what we want for our children, our children’s children, and for those who come after?




Thursday, October 1, 2015

A God who makes the ho-hum glorious . . .

     When Dale and Dick came to visit me during the search process a bit more than a year ago, Dale commented on the number of my sermons that were on the Old Testament.  I had explained to both of them that the OT makes up nearly two-thirds of Scripture.  If I had my druthers, I would preach on the OT about 2/3 of the time.  Events in parish life, like Baptisms, and our calendar make that hard to do.  In Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter, I think we clergy ought to be focused on the Incarnation, the work and person of Christ.  That is not to say that the OT does not look forward to His Coming.  But it is to say that the people are more clearly focused on Jesus and His redeeming work during those seasons and, I suppose, we are right to spend a bit more time in discussion about them.
     That all being said, I think it has been nine weeks since I preached on the OT.  Nine weeks.  Thankfully, we get a good story this week that speaks to all our ministries in the world around us.  Those of you paying close attention may have thought Leslie mispronounced the king’s name.  Those listening closely would have heard her say Xerxes instead of Ahasuerus.  In truth, they are one and the same.  And let’s face it, Xerxes is much easier to say than Ahasuerus.  Xerxes rules Persia or Babylon, if you prefer, some 100 years after Nebuchadnezzar.  The Jews are a dispersed community within the empire.  It was common practice in those days to take a subjected, conquered people and spread them out throughout an empire.  If numbers were small enough, no group would have the critical mass necessary to foment rebellion.  They would be too busy trying to scratch out a life.  And, if three or four or more subjugated peoples were in an area, so much the better!  It is really hard for people to plot and plan rebellion if they cannot speak to one another.
     In this case, though, there had been rebellion.  Mordecai, we learn in chapter 2, is of the tribe of Benjamin and has been carried off to the capital of the empire, Susa.  Through the trials and hardships of being settled in another land, Mordecai becomes the guardian of the girl Esther, who Scripture tells us was beautiful and had a lovely figure.  This last bit was important because, Xerxes was later enraged by his Queen Vashti’s insolence.  You see, during a state dinner, he had commanded his wife to appear before him and those at the dinner.  We are given no reason; we are told only that she refused.
     Well, Mel Brooks is right in this respect at least: It is good to be the king.  I know we modern men are used to our wives’ coming to our every command, so we can understand just why Xerxes put Vashti away and decided to choose a new king.  Wait, why are you laughing?  In typical kingly fashion, there was a beauty pageant held to determine the next wife.  Not unsurprisingly, the beautiful virgin Esther, with a lovely figure, was chosen to be queen.
     Flash forward a bit.  Mordecai is working and becomes aware of a plot to kill the king.  He tells Esther, whom he has raised, who, in turn, warns the king.  The king places in the annals of the king, the official record, if you will, that Mordecai, through Esther, had preserved his rule.
     Flash forward a bit more.  Haman is now the second-in-command in the kingdom.  Everyone bows to him, except this old Jew named Mordecai.  Though those in his family and those who advise him tell him to forget the old man, Haman refuses.  The perceived arrogance of Mordecai gnaws and gnaws at him.  He has no idea who Mordecai is.  He does not know that Mordecai has been favored by his boss, Xerxes.  He certainly does not know that Mordecai raised the queen, as she kept the details of her birth secret so that she would be eligible to be chosen queen.  Eventually, he plots to kill Haman and all the Jews in the empire.
     Over time, the plans become known.  It’s hard to keep such a secret when you are building scaffolds in view of the public and sending letters to the reaches of the kingdom declaring a date of execution for a people previously favored by the king.  Eventually, the likely success of the plot causes Mordecai once again to seek out Esther and have her intercede on behalf of the Jews with the king.  Esther is understandably nervous.  Queens today are rather imperious.  Back then, and especially with this king, being a queen was dangerous work.  A queen could only approach Xerxes if she was summoned.  This idea of interjecting herself into the daily regimen of the palace ran the risk of causing him to think of her as a bit too arrogant to be his queen.  Vashti’s insolence, whatever it was, had given Esther the opportunity to be queen in the first place.  And Esther’s presentation, as Scripture points out, is illegal.  Nevertheless, she bids Mordecai to tell the people to pray and to fast for three days, that she might figure out a way to do what he asks.
     I should note here that God is not mentioned in this book.  Nowhere in the text of this book is a name of God mentioned.  It seems strange to those of us who study Scripture that He would not include His name in a book about Him.  But that is precisely how He inspired Esther to be written, edited, and recorded in Scripture.  It is a problem that dogged Rabbis and scribes for some time, but that is another tale.  The book seems so far removed from God that the only particularly religious activities mentioned are the praying and fasting asked by Esther of Mordecai.
     Eventually, Esther decides that a meal will serve her purposes best.  She invites the king and Haman both to a meal.  Haman is beside himself with glee.  He gets to dine in private with the king and the queen.  His power and prestige are, in his mind, confirmed.  This type of invitation just does not happen.  Esther uses the slow play.  When Xerxes offers her whatever her request is, even to half of his kingdom (sound familiar?), Esther asks the king simply if he and Haman can return the next night.  The king promises and Haman is overcome with pride.  He recounts to his family and friends the honor shown him by the king and queen, though the lack of respect on the part of Mordecai eats at him.
     The next day arrives.  As it happens, king Xerxes had been unable to sleep the prior night.  In a fit of desperation, he had had the annals brought to him and read by the attendants.  They just happened to select the passage that dealt with Mordecai and the plot of the eunuchs Bigthana and Teresh.  As he laid there unable to sleep, he asked what he had done for such service.  His attendants informed him that he had done nothing.  What kind of king fails to reward those who save his life?  The question gnaws at the king.
     Timing, of course, is everything.  As he is contemplating that question, he asks who is in the court.  At that moment, we are told, Haman had entered to have the king put Mordecai to death.  The king summons Haman and asks what should be done for one whom the king wishes to honor.  Haman, given last night’s invitation and this evening’s, naturally assumes he is the man whom the king wishes to honor.  Haman “suggests” that the king have one of his most noble officials present the man, robe him, place a crown on his head, and even ride a horse ridden by the king.  Xerxes loves the idea and commands Haman to do all that he has said to Mordecai.  You can imagine the stunned expression of Haman.  He came to court to have Mordecai killed, and Mordecai is the one honored by the king.  Talk about a topsy-turvy world!
     Later that evening, Haman and the king join Esther in her quarters for another meal.  Again, the king is overcome by Esther’s beauty and cooking.  Once again he makes the offer of even half his kingdom.  This time Esther responds.  She begs the king to spare her life and that of Mordecai and the rest of the Jews.  Had her people only been sold into slavery, she says, she would have said nothing.  But the threat of death is too much.
     As we might imagine, the king is enraged.  He does value Haman, but he also values Mordecai, and he at least lusts for his queen.  He steps out for a moment to gather his thoughts.  Haman, of course, reads the king mood.  He knows that the king will destroy him for his plotting.  Haman’s conspiracy against the Jews has made the king look double-minded and ungrateful.  He goes to plead for his life from Esther when he trips and falls onto her couch.  Just as the king is entering.  Imagine the scene in his eyes.  At best Haman is attacking the queen.  So the king, with a little help from other advisers, has Haman put to death and gives his family to Esther, who places Mordecai in charge.
     The story is not yet over.  Haman’s letters of instructions to the governors are still out there.  The Jews are going to be killed.  So, the next day, in spite of the dangerous mood of the king, Esther presents herself at court yet again.  He extends his scepter, and she speaks.  Esther tells the king that she cannot be silent in the face of such death and destruction.  The king agrees and says she can do whatever she wishes with his seal.
     Scripture relates that, in the turned tables, the Jews in Susa killed three hundred enemies.  Further, the Jews in the outlying provinces killed nearly 75,000 people.  Scripture also relates that, although Xerxes gave the Jews permission to loot the destroyed families, the Jews did not.  They left the treasures, presumably as a sign that this was a holy war.  The day has become a special day in the life of the Jews.  Those of you who have heard of Purim now know the story upon which it is based.  Haman had cast Pur, the lot, to crush them and himself had been crushed.
     But the story of Esther raises a number of questions with which we Christians need to wrestle, particularly those of us who have largely grown up in a country that has no kings and queens and courts and those of us who have not really suffered the threat of death at the hands of enemies.  And, do not be ashamed to wrestle so with Scripture.  Rabbis for some 20 plus centuries have argued whether it should be included in their canon.  And I have taken the time this morning to fill in those details skipped by our editors.  I understand why they skip the difficult parts, but I think we do ourselves a disservice when we do.  So what is going on? Why do we think God thought this an important story to relate to us, as distant as we are in political systems, miles, and whatever else we like to think?
     One theological question presented in this book is the question of violence.  In this book, we are presented with a real threat to existence.  Haman had successfully manipulated the king to be in a position to utterly wipe out the Jews in the kingdom.  It was not a fanciful possibility but a reality with a date certain.  It would be akin to somebody grabbing hold of Hitler’s diary and seeing that he expected the last of the Jews to be killed on such and such a date in whatever year.  Just as he was determined to wipe the Jews out, so was Haman.  As American Christians, we certainly do not live under that imminent threat, but we have brothers and sisters around the world who do.  ISIS is doing its best to stamp out Christianity wherever it gains control.  The Muslim Brotherhood has performed a modern Haman on our Coptic brothers and sisters, many of whom now live in the dumps outside the cities.  A little more than a month ago, we celebrated with our Armenian brothers and sisters.  And they are here specifically because of threat to life in their home countries.
      Some modern commentators like to claim that the Jews were exorbitant in their fight.  They used the kings favor to wipe out some 75,000 thousand enemies.  Who does that?  The problem, of course, is that the punishment was just.  Haman and those who plotted to destroy them planned this end for them.  They were to be killed and their loot divided as the spoils.  What happens in this narrative is just.  The Jews only destroy those who wished to wipe them out.  The text points out three times that the war was not for financial gain.  Although Xerxes say and justice would say it would be fair, the Jews leave the spoils.  It is their way of reminding themselves that they need God on their side, an important lesson to an exiled people and an important lesson to us.  We may place our trust from time to time in our health, our wealth, our whatever, but our real trust needs to be in God.  The judgment also serves as a warning to those who would choose to fight against God and His chosen people.  For a while, Haman seems to have the upper hand.  All his schemes seem to be falling into place, and then the unexpected happens.  Xerxes cannot sleep.  He listens to the annals and is reminded that he shorted Mordecai.  How might the story had been different had Xerxes slept like a baby or the attendant read from another section of the book?
     There is another interesting detail in the celebration after the killings.  The people feast and give presents to the needy in their towns.  It is a curious thing to be shedding blood for a couple days and then returning to feast and serve those in your community in need.  Those of us might recognize the roots of the behavior in Deuteronomy.  The enemies of God and His people have been dealt with, but there are still hungry and poor who need help.  God may not be mentioned by name, but His people act as if they believe and accept His instruction.
     Another lesson in the book for us, I think, is the day to day nature of the book.  I mentioned earlier that God is not mentioned in the book.  It seems weird that a book that reveals to us the character of God somehow forgets to mention His name.  But is it any less weird than the way we tend to live our lives?  How many of us go through our daily and weekly lives forgetting God is there?  How many of us find ourselves in odd encounters, strange conversations, boring everyday life only to later realize that God was really at work in an event?  I have shared with some the circumstances surrounding the death of Clarence a couple weeks ago.  What connected us was me needing furniture for the rectory in January and Jane.  From that tenuous thread some serious theological discussions happened, as has some serious pastoring.  Oh, and did I mention that Clarence had been raised Baptist and then moved on to the Jehovah Witness.  Some might say it was lucky for him that I spoke Baptist and exclusion and understood the consequences of shame.  Some might say that, but I think the connection was far too tenuous to be other than the nudgings of God.  And isn’t that how He works far more often in our lives.  A nudge here; a whisper there.  Sure, He parts the waters from time to time; He does the incredible every now and again just to remind us of His power.  But far more often He is simply whispering, encouraging, inspiring, and acting far more mundane than we would ever wish.
     The last lesson upon which I want to touch, and perhaps the most important, is the obvious one.  In this narrative, who is the Christ-like figure?  Who is the figure that is presented as an offering, elevated, and then intercedes on behalf of God’s people, thus saving them from death and destruction?  I see the faces.  The OT hates women, right?  It is misogynistic, patriarchal, and written by white European males to keep themselves in power, right?  In a day and country where we marry for love and believe in equal rights, it is easy to forget the context of Esther.  The death of her parents meant that she was likely consigned to prostitution or begging.  She had no value in the society of Susa.  Yet Mordecai fulfilled his obligations.  God may not be mentioned by name, but many of the Jews seem to be trying to live in accordance with His teaching.  Mordecai takes in the additional mouth to feed.  He raises her, educates her, and even counsels her.  Our modern sensibilities might be offended by his willingness to enter her in a beauty contest, but who could provide better for her than the king.  Yes, in a way she was an offering, an offering that pleased the king.
     And look at Esther’s response to her situation.  Her predecessor has been removed for being the kind of queen Esther will need to be to preserve her people.  When the time comes, though, she chooses to act.  She is willing to give up all the cushiness of being queen to save her people; she is willing even to lay down her life, not unlike the King whose ministry she foreshadows.  She asks only for prayer and fasting.  That is her “armor,” if you will.  And though she is queen, she understands humility.  As part of an exiled community she knows what it means to be on the margins.  Rather than forcing her position on the king, she waits for him to make the request of her.  And she does, twice, knowing that each request could cost her her life.  Can you imagine?  An orphan elevated to become queen and then used to save a people?
     Brothers and sisters, the book of Esther speaks to the everydayness of our existence.  Each and every day of our lives is consecrated to and lived to God, if we are truly serious about being His people.  We may touch people outside the covenant in different ways, but our lives should be no less an offering to the One who promises eternal life in Christ.  You may be a teacher who straddles yourself with extra, unpaid tutoring for a struggling student.  You may be a doctor or nurse who gives a bit more time pro bono than your colleagues because someone just needed it.  You may be a worker, a paper pusher, or even a priest.  You may think your work is the least glorious in the world.  The truth is that God is every bit at work in our daily, humdrum lives as He is in the miracles.  And you and I are promised that one day we will share in that glory when He returns.  Better still, you and I are called to be that intercessor, that Christ-imitating person, who acts to point others to the God where people really should be placing their faith, their lot.