Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Choosing the better part for ourselves and for the world . . .

     For those of us who try to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper, or internet, in the other, this is a challenging week.  Scripture has a number of potential lessons.  Amos has the cool wordplay on summer fruit and the end, never mind the people of Israel’s absolute rejection of Leviticus’ and Deuteronomy’s instruction on how to deal with the poor and oppressed.  If only we could somehow apply that to a modern country . . . I am told by several women that Luke’s pericope on Mary and Martha has been used to bash women in certain denominational expressions of our faith, so that might be fun to mine.  And did you listen to the psalm as you read it this morning.  Rulers ignoring God’s instruction—where will ever find such short-sighted men and women in this day and age?
     Turning to the newspaper side of things, we are dealing with yet more violence.  Many of us still have not gotten over the events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas last week when we were confronted with the political unrest of Turkey and the terror attack in France, the latter of which has demonstrated that we need headline editors more than ever.  I’ve noticed that a Nice Bomber kills 80, After the Nice Attack: an Angry Public Wants to Know, and ISIS Claims Responsibility for Nice Attack and other headlines crossing my social media spaces.  I know the town is pronounced differently than the word in English, but it creates a strange juxtaposition a first.  Locally, we may have reached the end of the Vanderbilt rape case.  And, perhaps the most challenging for clergy this week, Pokemon is back.  That has really blown up my FB feed.  Do we, as churches, welcome this phenomenon and the people playing it?  Do we use it as a marketing ploy—Instead of “Gotta catch ‘em all,” “We hope you catch the One!”?  That sounds a little too Matrix to me.  Maybe there is a better slogan out there among you.  Do we condemn the game as some sort of demonic spiritual warfare?  Some of those Pokemon look strange, but I don’t think they rise to the level of demons.  There is a lot to synthesize this week.
     What makes it all the more difficult is my week.  Normally, I like to think I do a fair job of discerning what we as a congregation needs to hear, and I try to preach the text faithfully.  This week, though, I felt I was getting the sermons preached at me.  Sometimes I will preach a sermon and wonder where things came from, but this week has been an illustration of Luke and Amos for me.  I wonder if such will benefit all of us, or have I likely missed the mark?
     My week began with the aforementioned Pokemon on Monday.  We had finished Bible Study.  I was working on writing last week’s sermon and headed over to the kitchen for some coffee.  On a couple trips, I encountered young men, nerds really.  And before you go nuts that I am slamming youngsters unnecessarily, I’m only recognizing my own kind.  It will likely surprise only the visitors among us that I was once a nerd, to which my wife and kids will offer the sarcastic “Once?”.  You can tell who these young adults are.  Their skin is really which, like vampires who avoid the sun.  Many have sunglasses on because, well, they have been cooped up inside on computers for far too long.  Most are not in good shape.  But the tell tale sign is the simple observation that they are being led about by their phones.  They are searching for Pokemon in the world, or looking for particular spots.
     I learned this week that we are a gym.  Advent will become important as people collect more and more powerful Pokemon.  People will have their Pokemon fight for control of the gym here.  Right now, the red team controls the gym with some big fluffy purple thing.  No doubt the yellow and the blue team are looking to take this site away from the red team by battling with more powerful Pokemon, and other members of the red team are seeking to become the captain of the gym in the same way.  How did I learn all this?  I “caught” a couple young men following their phone around here.  I teased them by letting them know I knew what they were doing.  They tried to play it cool when they encountered me, but they were so busted.  And, as I said, I speak a language of nerd, so we ended up in lengthy conversations after we exchanged the daily passwords and secret handshakes.  You all are laughing, but it’s those mini-cultural markers that you and I are particularly gifted representatives when empowered by the Holy Spirit.  That’s not to say we had no difficulty communicating.  I used to speak Dungeon & Dragons.  Now I really only speak WoW and maybe Candy Crush.  They were really speaking Pokeman too quickly for me to follow it all.
     In the beginning, of course, I thought it a nuisance.  I had things to get done.  Many of you had asked me to get my sermon up quickly last week.  We were dealing with the two dead air conditioners.  I had a meeting with diocesan men.  I was behind on the red book.  Vicki, Ron, and Oliver were giving some thought as to how we might change our approach to outreach at Advent.  I had Bible studies for which I needed to prepare.  I even needed to prepare a sermon for this week.  Yet here I was, so busy doing the business of the church, I was annoyed at doing the work of the Church.  At least such never happens to any of you, right?  The priest may be screwed up, but you in the pews have no such worry.  You are all able to balance your work on various committees, the Vestry, the Altar Guild, and everything that goes on around here, your “real” jobs or “secular” life, and still do the work of the Church, right?  Hmmm.  I see squirming.  You mean I am not alone?
     My second reminder involved one of the homeless that we sometimes help.  I will call him John, just in case he ever takes me up on my invitation to join us for worship.  John probably suffers from mental illness.  He is one of those guys who would remind you of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.  What’s worse, a lot of the cloud that follows him is of his own decision making.  In my less pastoral moments I just want to shake him and say “make better choices!,” as if that would fix everything in his life and him.  John spends more time seeking help from the good folks at Good Shepherd than from you at Advent.  Of course, Randy is on vacation this month.  We talked specifically about John before Randy left.  I knew John would be here more.  I had a chance to consider my responses long before he showed up and started calling.  When he did precisely what we thought he would do, it still drove me nuts.  I found myself lacking the patience I should have had for John.  John has health concerns and material needs, and I do not mean to diminish those in your eyes, but I recognize he just longs for someone to listen, to care.  If I am not in the patient frame of mind to do that listening, to do that caring, as God’s ambassador, I am really not fit for kingdom life.  I may have good excuses for my impatience: on top of my normal workload I have these nerds wandering the grounds!  But in the end, such thoughts dishonor God.  How often in life am I just like John?  How often do I make bad decisions, sin, and deal with the dark cloud of consequences?  How often do I just want to know that God cares, that He still will redeem?
     Because I wear a collar, I know you expect me to be better than yourselves.  Sometimes I am.  But as you have all figured out over the last eighteen months, sometimes I am not.  What’s worse, your lack of a collar does not excuse you for your behavior.  I may be the “professional” church among us, but we are all the Church in the world.  You each have difficult family members, friends, co-workers, and others in your life who are just like John.  Heck, some of us at Advent are friends, true friends, and recognize in one another that we can act like John more often than we would like to admit.  And we get so caught up in our business that we forget our work and our calling as Jesus’ disciples.  We accept things the way they are because, well, fixing them is someone else’s responsibility.  We allow society to go about life in violation of Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 19, just as it did in the time of Amos, and we say nothing, do nothing, maybe even vote for the status quo . . .
     Brothers and sisters, our reading from Luke today is not an attack on women.  Our reading today is not a “mind your own business” teaching moment.  Our lesson, as all are in the Scriptures, a reminder of the freedom and responsibility of being heralds of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  You and I cannot begin to grasp the importance of hospitality in the ANE.  Hospitality was an important virtue in the ANE, and in the Jewish life in particular.  Abraham’s interaction with the angels on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah had planted that in the Jewish DNA.  If you know any Jewish matriarchs, you can well imagine them in this scene.
     Jesus and His retinue of disciples show up at the house of Mary and Martha on His way to Jerusalem.  Martha is faced with the daunting task of feeding the group and making them comfortable.  If she lacked enough food on hand, she’s had to put together a shopping list and head out to the market.  She’s had to take note who is allergic to gluten or peanuts.  She has had to see who prefers water to wine, beer to soda, who wants what condiments.  Afterward, she has had to clear the table, refill drinks, put the food in containers, wash the dishes and put them away.  She is right to feel hassled.  There has been a ton of work and, because of the importance placed on hospitality by the culture, a great deal of pressure.
     You are all Southerners.  We understand this a bit.  I see it when I drop by houses for visits.  Northerners might think it sexist, but it is just how the South works.  When I visit a home, the wife is always anxiously making sure I am comfortable.  The husbands will have her fetch a drink, a sweet tea, or a water.  I will be asked repeatedly if I need a snack.  Imagine the pressure if I dropped by with Karen and the kids?  Imagine the pressure if I dropped by with my family, the Vestry, and a few other tag alongs?  That’s what Martha faced.  No wonder she wanted help.
     She complains to Jesus and asks Him to tell Mary to help her.  And Jesus refuses.  And in His refusal you and I are reminded that our work is far more important than our business.  Mary rightly recognizes that Jesus is the guest.  She has the opportunity to sit at His feet and listen and learn.  The dishes, the business as it were, will still be there tomorrow.
     Jesus’ answer is not a condemnation of Martha.  He does not rebuke her or cast her aside.  He simply reminds her and us of what her and our priorities should be.  We should be far more concerned with Jesus than the business of the church; we should be far more concerned with the work of the church than its business.
     Sitting here today, you may be arguing internally with me that your service on Vestry, your service on various committees, even your worship today is your spending time with Jesus and being about His work.  Is it really?  You may be even arguing with me internally that you cannot spend time with Jesus because He is not in your home as He was with Mary and Martha in this pericope.  Yet those of us who claim Him as Lord and who have been baptized into His death and His resurrection also claim that we have unfettered access to God now, right?  The veil has been torn by Christ’s work on the Cross.  More amazingly, He has promised that He will be with us always.  So how can we meet Him, as did Mary and Martha and others?
     As Episcopalians/Anglicans, we claim that we meet Jesus in Scripture.  In fact, we have it in our little red book that we should read Scripture every day so that we will meet Jesus every day.  We have a two year cycle where we read a big chunk of the Bible to remind ourselves of the saving works that God has done and how he has fulfilled all His promises in Christ. 
     We also believe that we can meet God in prayer.  I know the world is quick to use prayer as a “break only in case of fire or emergency” button, but you and I know better.  We have it in our little red book that we should enter into prayer multiple times a day.  It is so enshrined in our little book that we don’t even need “professionals” in the church to lead the prayers.  We can meet Jesus in the morning, at noon, in the evening, or before bed.  We can do that on good days, on bad days, on “meh” days.  And here’s the secret.  Those who came before us recognized that if we spend time meeting Jesus, we have a better chance of keeping our priorities straight.  If we spend time studying what God has revealed to us in Scripture and in the work and person of His Son, you and I will be consumed with His work rather than the business that, for all its good intentions, sometimes gets in the way.
     So, brothers and sisters, the question for all of us this week is rather obvious: are we choosing the better part in our lives?  Are we putting aside our distractions and focusing our attention upon the One who will not be taken away from us?  Are we meeting Jesus in the Scripture and in our prayers?  Or are we too busy really to make such time?  The questions, by the way, are not purely academic.  In fact, they may the best practical questions for this day.  Sitting among us may be the saint who will be given the wisdom that can help the world around us work through racism.  Sitting among us may be the saint who will be given the wisdom to help us navigate through an election process that seems to choose between narcissism on one hand and dishonesty on the other.  Sitting among us may be the saint who will be given the wisdom to help us figure out how to deal with the causes of terrorism, the economic injustices that we share with Amos’ Israel, or whatever other problems we face as individuals, a parish, a diocese, a nation, and the world.  We may not have the answers to the questions and problems in our lives, but we know the One who does.  And He invites each of us to spend time with Him, listening and learning, that we might be beacons of light in a dark world, pointing others to His love and His glory.



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