In the Grasp of the Unconditional God

(sermon 10/28/18 – Reformation Sunday)

Reformation Sunday 2018

Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

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Today, in Protestant churches across the country, congregations will observe Reformation Sunday, when we recognize the great theological movement that changed the face of Western religion, society, and culture. We do that every year on this particular Sunday, the last Sunday in October, because that’s the closest Sunday to the anniversary of Martin Luther having out his period equivalent of a tweetstorm, nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Of course, the Reformation started long before that. Before Luther was Jan Hus, and before him was John Wycliff, and long before any of them was some poor peasant who didn’t like something the Pope had decreed and asked why he had the authority to decree it, and someone answered “He can do it because he’s the Pope!” and the person answered “Well I didn’t vote for him!” and that was the match that lit the fire that eventually became the Protestant Reformation.

Maybe more than anything, the Reformation might be seen as the theological revolution of grace – the understanding that our salvation is entirely the work of God, and that there’s nothing, nothing, that we do to earn that salvation. This grace means that God has called and chosen each of us, directly, which means that God’s favor is not mediated to us through any religious leader. None of them has the authority to grant, or withhold, God’s forgiveness, or God’s salvation, to us. It’s what we call “the priesthood of all believers;” that we definitely value learning and in-depth study to become a spiritual leader, but their charge doesn’t include being that kind of arbiter of God’s acceptance or rejection.

The Reformation’s focus on grace could be seen as the rejection of the conditional God – that *if* we do something, *then* God will forgive us, accept us, save us. That *if* we carried out all the requirements of the “sacramental system” established by the church, and did this, that, and any number of other items on some priestly checklist, then we’d be saved, and we wouldn’t spend eternity in hell. Mind you, after the Reformation, we Protestants didn’t waste any time setting up our own sets of requirements, our own checklists – *if* we accept the statements of the right creed; *if* we believe the right thing about Jesus’ nature and the mechanics of how salvation through him works, *if* we believe just the right thing about the Trinity, or *if* we recite the “sinner’s prayer,” then God will accept us. But at its core, the revolutionary theological foundation of the Protestant Reformation said a resounding “NO!!!” to all of those things. God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation is not a conditional thing. We do not worship a conditional, “transactional” God. We worship a God of grace.

Today, we celebrate two related things – a baptism, and receiving members into our congregation. And the way we understand both of these things is tied very strongly to this theological revolution.

To us, baptism is a sacrament given to us by this unconditional God that we worship – it isn’t a sign of us doing something that makes God happy, and as a result of that, God will give in and stop being angry with us and will forgive us and save us. It isn’t the spiritual equivalent of an economic transaction. To us, baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant that God, completely independently of our words and actions, long before we ever were aware that we needed God, long before we were ever born, chose to make between us. In baptism, when we profess our faith, we are simply acknowledging that we recognize the existence of that covenant, and out of gratitude for it we want to profess it publicly, and live in gratitude for it.

And membership in a congregation is also a very Reformed concept. Before the Protestant Reformation, if you were born within the boundaries of a particular church parish, you were considered a member of that parish, and under the authority of that parish priest, and that bishop, and ultimately, the Pope. In the wake of the Reformation, we understood that being a part of a particular congregation is something that a believer chooses to do – it’s an intentional act, and in and of itself, it becomes a statement of faith as we commit to be part of a community of faith, part of an extended family united in Christ.

The Reformation began a new thing in the world. It began a new thing for all of us – the way we understand God, and ourselves, and the relationship between the two of us. It was also a resurgence in the theological understanding that we were supposed to work for the betterment of the society that we lived within. That while we weren’t doing good things to try to earn our salvation, out of gratitude for God’s grace, we are called to continually work to heal the broken areas of our world. With God’s help, to help create that “new thing” that God is ushering into our existence. To bring God’s love, and peace, and justice to more people. To heal wounds, and to respect one another, to value each and every human being, despite any differences; standing up for their dignity as having been created in God’s image and worthy of our love and care. All of them, without exceptions.

Let’s especially remember that part of the meaning of the Reformation today, at the end of what has truly been a week of hell and agony, ranging from the domestic terrorism of pipe bombs to the racist murders in JTown to the xenophobic mass murders at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As we honor the great Reformers who came before us, let’s also remember that we’re called to be “the Church reformed, and always being reformed.” We’re called to be reformers, too. Is it possible, given the news, that God is calling us to especially emphasize that last aspect of the Reformation? Can we commit, out of gratitude to God, to stand up to the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that spawns tragedies and near-tragedies like the ones this week? Can each of us say enough is enough, and commit to never spew that kind of hate, even in moments of anger or frustration? Can each of us commit to calling that kind of hate out as the dangerous, ungodly evil that it is, wherever we hear it, as soon as we hear it, and no matter who it is that said it? Can we commit to using our faith, and the courage and strength that the Holy Spirit infuses within each and every one of us – no matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, because first and foremost, we’re all under the banner of Christian – to stand up and say no more. We choose welcome. We choose love. We choose to be our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s, and the keeper of all those who identify somewhere else on the gender spectrum, too. We choose to be the face of Christ, the hand of Christ, the feet of Christ, and the love of Christ; and because we’re in the grasp of this unconditional God, we also choose to love unconditionally and to literally say, for Christ’s sake, stop the hate speech and the violence.

Amen.

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Ubuntu

(sermon 10/7/18 – World Communion Sunday)

ubuntu

Luke 22:14-30

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

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Presbyterian. Baptist. Methodist. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and on and on and on. All the different traditions, branches, and denominations under this one umbrella we call “Christian.” One often-cited source identifies 33,000 of them worldwide.  Other people scoff at that number, disputing that group’s methodology, saying that the real number is really only about a third of that, but 11,000 is still an awfully big number. And today, World Communion Sunday, this observance that first started at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, is the day we especially set aside to proclaim and profess the unity that all 33,000, or 11,000, or however many groups there are, have through profession of faith in our common Lord Jesus Christ.

On one level, it’s nonsense, of course, since anyone with two eyes and three brain cells can see that Christians and Christian groups exhibit all kinds of characteristics, some wonderful and some atrocious, but unity doesn’t even seem to make it into the list of the top ten. In fact, we can’t even get out of the month of October, which starts with celebrating our unity today, without recognizing Reformation Sunday on the 28th, which, while we’re thankful for much of its theological progress, precipitated one of the two largest splits in church history. Some days it seems like we Christians can find a way to disagree about anything, from atonement theory to the dual nature of Christ’s personhood to the meaning of baptism to the color of the sanctuary carpet. I’ve wondered if in retrospect, Jesus wishes he’d have said “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there will be an argument.”

So on one level, the idea behind World Communion Sunday might seem a little silly, if not downright hypocritical.

But still, on another level, it’s a very good and important thing. Good because it reminds us of the hope that we’ve all been called to through Christ. Good because it reminds us of the unity that Christ wants us to have, not necessarily in every thing, but in the important things: in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. In loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength; and loving others as we love ourselves.

And it’s good because it reminds us that this unity that we, the church, are supposed to exhibit is meant to illustrate to others the kind of unity and connectedness that God has designed us all for. It’s a reminder to the church, the world, and ourselves, that it’s absolutely impossible to be truly human as an individual. We’re wired within our DNA to be connected with, to be in relationship with, to understand and be in unity with, others. Given the news of the past 48 hours or so, and the divisiveness, and the pain and suffering and disconnectedness and separation being felt by so many people this morning, I can’t think of a more timely, and important, and good thing for us to celebrate and call for in church and world. The message of World Communion Sunday, and Communion in general,  is this message of hope that, even if we proclaim it imperfectly, we need to proclaim it louder than ever, and to model it in our own lives.

The Zulu term Ubuntu captures what I think is at the heart of what World Communion Sunday is all about. Literally, the term translates as “I am because we are,” and as a concept, it refers to the belief in a universal bond of sharing and connectedness that unites all of humanity. A big part of the gospel that we believe and that we’re called to proclaim is this very same idea.

The playwright Del Shores has written several plays; they’re all insanely funny, wildly irreverent, and always carry a deep message. In one of his plays, there’s a character named Benny, a wild, brash, over-the top young man who had suffered terrible bullying, abuse, and brutality growing up in a strict fundamentalist church. He carries a lot of bitterness and resentment about that, and he spews a lot of it in one scene – but after some reflection, he gets philosophical and makes a profound, deeply theological observation – that everyone, the good and the bad, even those who had hurt him so badly, were all like individual bits of colored glass in a big stained glass window; all interconnected, all needing one another for support; and that the light of God shines through each one of them to tell us something that God wants us to know, and to make the world what it is. Everyone.

One of the hymns we sang last week captured this idea too, in a particularly Christian sense. For everyone born, a place at the Table. Woman and man; young and old; just and unjust; abuser/abused. Everyone.

This faith, this Table, this sacrament, proclaims that by God’s design and through Christ who strengthens us and reconciles us, we are to lift up one another. To share in one another’s lives, to bear one another’s burdens, to rejoice with one another in our joys, to mourn with one another in our mourning – and most importantly, even recognizing our differences –  even sometimes profound differences – to celebrate the new life that we all have in common through our one common Lord,  Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

23 Words

(sermon 9/23/18)

dirty-faced boy

Mark 9:30-37

[Jesus and his disciples] went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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It was an uncomfortable moment for the disciples. Jesus had told them while they were in Caesarea Philippi that he was going to be killed. The first time he’d said it, they didn’t believe him, and Peter even scolded him for it, as we heard last week. But then he’d done it a second time, and after that, the disciples seem to have taken his words to heart. So as they were walking from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum, which probably took them two, maybe even three days, they talked about it. If it’s really true, and Jesus was going to be killed, they thought, we need to start making some plans in order to keep this movement going. We need to have some kind of a plan for succession. One of us is going to have to become the new leader. So as they walked, they debated who that new leader would be, based on who was the greatest, who was the most important among them; all the while trying to keep their conversation quiet, without Jesus hearing them, because that would have been a bit awkward.

But the awkwardness came anyway, when they got to Capernaum and Jesus asked them what they’d been talking about on the road. Maybe it was Jesus’ divine knowledge, or maybe the disciples just hadn’t been as discreet as they’d thought, but one way or another Jesus knew what they’d been talking about, and he asked them about it. And at first, when asked, the disciples just stood there, looking a bit sheepish, and feeling ashamed, and not knowing what to say.

A lot of people who have written about this story have said that Jesus’ response to them was to criticize them and to say that their discussion about who was the greatest among them was inappropriate. That might be true, but honestly, I don’t think that’s right. The passage doesn’t really say that Jesus was criticizing them; I think that’s us reading something into that probably isn’t there. I picture this scene, and hear Jesus’ words, as they’re written, and I think it’s Jesus actually *validating* their conversation. At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has shifted gears from trying to gain followers, and he’s been trying to teach these disciples about deepening their discipleship and preparing for when he wouldn’t be with them – so what the disciples were discussing would have been completely appropriate. I believe that in this story, we’re seeing Jesus trying to help them along, telling them how they should think about what discipleship really is, and how greatness is really measured.

In order to help make his point, Jesus showed them a little child. Now, the people of Jesus’ time loved their children every bit as much as we love our own, but in that culture, children were completely at the bottom of the pile. They were powerless. They were voiceless. They had no real rights; they supposed to serve, not to be served. They were supposed to stay with the women. They were to be seen and not heard, and truth be told, not even seen by the men when they were doing supposedly important “men things;” especially things like discussing deep subjects of God, and religion, and determining how to lead and continue a new movement.

So it was odd when Jesus stood this dirty-faced little kid in front of them in the middle of this important conversation and told them – serious adult men, now part of the great teacher’s inner circle – and told them “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me, but the one who sent me.”

Just like that. Twenty-three simple and totally unexpected words that encapsulated for the disciples how to order their lives of following Jesus, and how to measure true greatness in God’s eyes. Whether a literal child or otherwise, humble yourself and welcome the powerless. The weak. The friendless. The one most in need. In my name, he said, serve those who are the least, and that will make you great.

It was 1963, in Warsaw, Poland, and memories of the horrors of World War II were still raw, and fresh in the minds of many people. The old man was one of those people. He was a doctor, running a clinic in his neighborhood, highly respected by the community as a man of learning and status. Life had definitely thrown him a twist, though, when his daughter had married a young German man. A German! One of those people who had nearly wiped his beloved city off the map; one of those people who had been responsible for untold human carnage, including the deaths of many in his own family. Granted, the young man himself seemed to be nice enough, and he was only a toddler during the war; he hadn’t hurt anyone – but still, his father had served in the army during the war, and had taken part in only God knows what.

The man had been terribly upset about the wedding, which was bad enough. Then, shortly after that, the couple had had a child. But now, barely a year after the child had been born, the young man had been killed in an automobile accident, leaving an uncertain future for the old man’s daughter and her child. At this same time, she had been accepted for advanced study in the United States. It would open up a world of opportunities for her and her child, but it would have been all but impossible for her to complete her studies while also caring for the child all by herself, and in a completely foreign environment. So she asked her father, the old man, could the child stay with him and her mother, there, until her studies were complete; then she’d send for him?

Impossible. Unthinkable. It would never work. But then, he looked into his grandchild’s eyes, so full of wonder, and love, and curiosity, and no small amount of fear. Yes, his other grandfather may very well have even killed some of this grandfather’s own brothers and sisters. But this child – this utterly helpless child with the troubling bloodlines, and whose future looked bleak otherwise – this child hadn’t hurt anyone. He needed someone. So the old man said yes.

From the very beginning, and contrary to all social expectations, the old man formed a very strong bond with the child. In that time and place, taking care of a child was totally women’s work, not a man’s, and for a man of his stature, a distinguished highly respected doctor, it was completely inappropriate, degrading, even scandalous. But for some reason, despite all of that, the old man did it. He cared for him. He dressed him, and changed him, and bathed him, and laughed and played with him, in a completely undignified manner. As the child grew, the old man let him help with the gardening, and visit with him at the clinic. For the next few years, the two spent countless hours together like this, and whenever people told the old man he was being undignified, he disregarded it – he just didn’t care. He’d found very deep meaning, and great love, by humbling himself and not caring what society said, in order to care for this little one. If he didn’t help him, who would?

Decades later, the little child, now a man who had grown up and lived in the United States for most of his life, stood on the street corner in Warsaw where his grandparents’ house had once been, long since replaced by an apartment building. Standing there on the same sidewalk where years before his own much smaller feet had stood alongside his grandfather’s as they tended to the flowers in front of a house that was now just a memory, he recognized that his grandfather – who wasn’t a religious man at all; his faith had been a casualty of the war – had actually personified those all-important 23 words of Jesus: “Whoever welcomes such a child as this in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sends me.”

When we think about our own lives of faith, it’s good for us to go back to the source, to always reflect on just what Jesus himself taught, and what he said was important for us to keep in mind – and how we could show gratitude and love for the God who has shown us such great love and mercy. If we want to be seen as great in God’s eyes, we need to be ready to humble ourselves and to welcome and help the helpless and the powerless, even if it means raising a few eyebrows in the process. And we don’t do it out of a sense of duty or obligation or burden; we do it out of gratitude – because long before we could ever offer that kind of welcome and acceptance to others, the helpless, dirty-faced child who stood in front of God, and who received that kind of welcome, was us.

Thanks be to God.

Who, and So What?

(sermon 9/16/18)

banias

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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It was a really incredible thing – a big cliff face, looming straight up from the grassy area below, the rocks as red as anything you’d see in Sedona. At the very bottom of the cliff was a large cave opening. Inside the cave, there was a large natural spring that bubbled up and poured out of the mouth of the cave, and flowed down through the valley. In ancient times, it was the site of a temple to a pagan Canaanite god. Then the Greeks, who never missed a chance to make a bold architectural statement, rededicated the place to their god Pan, and they built an impressive temple directly over the mouth of the cave, and the water ran through the temple and flowed out the front, down a spillway built for it. Later, additional shrines and niches dedicated to other Greek and Roman gods were added to the cliff face and the grounds around the temple, making the place a major pilgrimage site for followers of any number of different deities. The fact that it was just a stunningly beautiful place only added to the number of people who visited there.

That was the state of things in the ancient town of Banias, which had been renamed Caesarea Philippi by the Roman occupiers, when Jesus and his disciples visited the place and enjoyed its natural beauty and the water flowing out and giving life to the valley below. It was in the midst of people all around them, arriving to pay their respects to the various gods, and all the religious cross-talk that any crowd like that was bound to have, that Jesus asked that question, “Who do the people say that *I* am?” And the disciples tell him, and then Jesus asking “Who do *you* say that I am?” And Peter gives his answer, the first time in the gospels anyone professes that Jesus is the messiah.

You’d think that this would be a bigger thing, something getting more supernatural attention. We get angels appearing in the sky and singing at the Nativity; we got clouds rolling back, the Holy Spirit descending, and the very voice of God voicing approval when Jesus was baptized. But now, when Peter makes this big, world-changing profession… nothing. If Monty Python had made a movie of this, you could imagine all the disciples pausing and looking up at the sky, waiting for at least some glorious, dramatic background music, something, anything. But instead, all they heard was the water flowing on past them and down into the valley.

And then they heard the most amazing thing – Jesus actually telling them *not* to tell anyone about it. Then he goes on, laying out in very plain terms that he’s going to suffer, and even be killed, by the religious and civil powers because his message – the actual good news from God that he’d been sent to proclaim – was a threat to both of them. And then, in the worst promotion and growth strategy in the history of marketing, Jesus invites them all to come along and suffer and die along with him.

When the disciples naturally balk at the idea, Peter especially, Jesus doubled down on what he’s said. It’s nice enough to profess that he’s the messiah, but by itself, that isn’t enough. If he’s the messiah, then so what? If he’s the messiah, that has to have real-life consequences. If he’s the messiah, then the way they lived needed to reflect that, consistently. And thinking only in human terms would ultimately be disastrous for them, an exercise in futility.

What sense does it make, he asked them, if you gained the whole world, if you gain it by throwing away God’s truth? If you compromise on the things that are really important to God, just to gain what you think is important in the here and now? And what does that make of your profession that Jesus really is the messiah?

Jesus criticized Peter for thinking in human terms. But how could Peter, or how could we, really think in any other terms; we are human beings after all. We do live in this very imperfect, very human world, governed by very imperfect, very human ways. Everything in our life is tempered by that reality. In fact, as a theological sidebar, that’s what John Calvin meant when he talked about “total depravity” – not that everything we do is bad; rather, that everything we do, no matter how noble, still has some element of human self-interest embedded within it.

This conflict within us is unavoidable. Still, Jesus tells us we need to resist that most common of human shortcomings. To not fall victim to giving in, to selling out God’s good news, in order to get, or to maintain, something we want in this life. Jesus’ words here are a stark warning to us even when we’re pursuing some good end goal, to very seriously ask if the end really does justify the means.

Not falling victim to that can be hard. Really hard. Jesus spoke to those disciples as they stood there next to the flowing waters, and across time he speaks to us, telling us to trust in the goodness and wisdom of the God who we encounter in the waters of our baptism, and to trust that this God can and will work within us, and help us to think less and less in human terms, and more and more in the ways of the one who was first called messiah on that fateful day in Caesarea Philippi.

Thanks be to God.

Schooling Jesus

(sermon 9/9/18)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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A little more than a week ago, Rev. Robert Wood died. He was 95. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him; I hadn’t either until I saw stories about his passing. It turns out that Rev. Wood holds an important distinction in church history – he was the first member of the clergy to write a book calling for the full welcome and acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church, and the church’s performing of same-sex marriages. He wrote his book in 1960. And he was the first member of the clergy to participate in a march calling for full civil rights for LGBTQ folk. That was in 1965. The church owes a debt of gratitude to Rev. Wood.

After reading his obituary, I was curious about his book – I’d never heard of it before – so I started to look for it, and it turns out that the entire thing is available online as a pdf file. So I downloaded it and was reading through it, and the obituaries were right – his ideas about church welcome and marriage were forty or fifty years ahead of where the rest of the church was. But I have to admit, a lot of what I was reading in the book was just… bad. It was peppered with all sorts of misguided negative prejudices, assumptions, and so-called conventional wisdom that the culture of 1960 just *knew* to be true, but which advances in biology, psychology, and other disciplines have now proven to be completely false. The great irony in this is that Rev. Wood was a gay man himself, and even he couldn’t escape internalizing all that negativity that you’d think he’d know  wasn’t really true. In the decades that followed the book’s publication, Rev. Wood’s knowledge and understanding grew, evolved, and truth be told, I’m sure that in the decades that followed, he probably felt pretty silly about some of the things he’d written in 1960.

Today’s gospel text deals with this same idea of the continual growth of understanding over time. In this case, it’s Jesus whose level of understanding evolves. In this story, Jesus is going from place to place, proclaiming God’s good news for the people – but up until this point, that message has really been aimed at Jewish listeners. In this story, though, Jesus is approached by a non-Jew – a Syrophoenician, an unclean Gentile; a religious and ethnic outsider, someone to be scorned and dismissed, and a woman on top of all that. In short, this woman had three strikes against her before she’d even opened her mouth, and when she actually does, Jesus shuts her down by dismissing her with the terribly insulting ethnic slur of calling her a dog. Stop bothering me, he tells her; I’ve got more important things to do than to waste my time with the likes of you.

Of course, we heard her answer – very pointedly telling Jesus I may be a dog, but if your God’s so great, surely, you’d think that God would give the dogs of the world the table scraps.

We don’t really know anything about this woman beyond what we can get out of her words here. Maybe Jesus’ insult hurt her deeply. Maybe she thought Jesus was being an arrogant jerk. Frankly, that’s what I’d have thought, if I were in her shoes. On the other hand, maybe she’d internalized all the negative messages that the culture had dumped on her, like Rev. Wood apparently had, and she didn’t think any better of herself than Jesus apparently thought of her. Maybe she thought that Jesus was right, she wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ time – but at very least, she believed that her daughter was. The preacher David Lose once wrote that she was convinced – she had faith – in the truth that her precious, innocent daughter was absolutely worthy and deserving of Jesus’ attention, and she was willing to do whatever it took to help her – even if it meant going toe-to-toe with this supposed great teacher and healer; even if it meant putting up with his verbal abuse.

Based on the story, it seems that Jesus got her point. It seems that on this particular day, Jesus had gotten himself schooled, and by a most unlikely teacher – an outsider among outsiders. He learned, just as Rev. Wood had, that even he had to gradually learn to get rid of his prejudices, his religious and cultural biases and assumptions, in order to have a fuller, more complete understanding of the fullness, the breadth of the kingdom of God. This gospel text goes on to talk about Jesus healing a deaf man, but as he talked with the Syrophoenician woman, it was his own ears that were opened. And this shouldn’t shock us, or sound like blasphemy. We know that three days after Jesus was born, he wasn’t tying his own shoes, or solving quadratic equations. That isn’t how the incarnation worked. We know that the scriptures say that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom; it didn’t happen instantaneously, so it shouldn’t bother us to imagine that he had to learn this lesson from someone.

Of course, that lesson that Jesus learned is just a short hop, skip, and jump to what we can get out of the story. I think there are two takeaways that we can get from this story. First, we learn these same lessons – that God’s love is for everyone; and that we can gain new insights into God’s love and about the kingdom of God – insights that we might be blind to from our vantage point, from the outsiders of our own time and place, whether we’re considering the church, or society in general. We can be taught, and have our faith deepened, when we hear the voices of those outsiders – whether we’re talking about people from other races, other ethnicities, other nationalities, whatever classifications might make someone an “outsider” to what we’re accustomed to.

I think that in general, Springdale has done a pretty good job at being open to hearing, and learning from, a broad range of people. We’ve probably been better at that than many, if not most, congregations. We’ve been open to, and accepting of, a broad range of people, and we’ll continue to do that even more, and even better, in the future.

There is another important point about this story that I want to point out. Jesus had to learn something in this story, to get a better understanding of the good news that God had called him to proclaim. But we don’t hold it against him that he had to learn this lesson. We don’t hold it against him that he didn’t know the truth of the expansiveness of the kingdom of God before the woman showed him that God’s good news was intended for her, too.

In the same way, we can acknowledge, just as one example, that the Presbyterian Church engaged in terrible abuse of Native Americans, especially Native American children – taking them from their homes and putting them in special schools that tried to strip them of their culture. We eventually grew in our understanding, and saw the great sin that we were engaging in, we repented of it, and we don’t have to hate the Presbyterian Church for its past mistakes. And similarly, Rev. Robert Wood held some really appalling beliefs about gay people, but he eventually grew in his understanding, and we can still consider him a great trailblazer in church history.

My point in all that is that each of us has grown in our own journeys of faith. I suspect that each of us, in some way or another, used to believe something as a part of our faith that we no longer do – that we look back on, and realize we were really mistaken about. Maybe it’s something that we feel a little silly about for having once believed it. Or maybe it’s something that has hurt people. Or whatever – the fact is, we’re all going to have something like that in our experience if we’re living out our faith in an ongoing journey of faith development.

And if we do, maybe it’s something that we aren’t proud of. Maybe that old belief is something that we feel guilt over. Maybe it caused a big falling out within the family, or with friends, or coworkers, or a similar setting. Maybe we’re carrying a bunch of baggage because at some point in time, we’d messed up with our way of understanding our faith, and what God is all about.

Well if that’s happened, this story shows we’re in good company. Jesus got it wrong in this passage. And the good news for us is that God didn’t beat Jesus up over having to learn this lesson the hard way, and neither will God beat us up when we have to go through the same thing. God knows that we call it a faith journey for a reason; that we’re engaged in a faith-building process. So in faith, and with God’s help, let’s be open to hearing what God wants to teach us, and from whatever teacher God may use to teach it. Let’s learn the lessons we need to learn. And let’s turn the rest over to God, and trust in God’s love, and not beat ourselves up over the reality that we aren’t perfect and never will be. God knew we weren’t perfect long before reaching out to us, and letting us know that we’re loved and accepted.

Thanks be to God.

Moon Gospel

full moon

(sermon 9/2/18)

Mark 7:1-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

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When my daughter Erica was very, very young, the two of us did something almost every evening. Just before her bedtime, I’d sit her in my lap, and I’d read the little cardstock book Goodnight Moon to her. Every night, I’d read those words in the same tone, in the same voice, the same phrasing and emphasis,

“In the great green room, there was a telephone,
and a red balloon,
and a picture of … the cow jumping over the moon…”

And she’d focus with laser-beam intensity at the pictures, as I pointed out each item mentioned,

“… Goodnight comb, and goodnight brush,
goodnight nobody, goodnight mush.
And goodnight to the old lady whispering hush.
Goodnight stars, and goodnight air,
goodnight noises everywhere.”

And every night after reading it, whenever it was possible, I’d scoop her up in my arms, and I’d take her outside, out on the sidewalk in front of the house, sometimes wrapping her in a little blanket if it was a little chilly, and we’d look up at the stars, and the sky, and just take it all in. In fact, the very first word I ever heard her say was on one of those nights, when she looked up in the sky and pointed, and said “Moon!”

It was a ritual that the two of us had. A tradition. A simple thing, really, but it was a way for us to mark the passing of the day into night, and the passing of time, and to share it together in this little way that bonded us together.

That’s what traditions do, at their best. They’re practices that keep us grounded in time and place, and acknowledge the cycles of life, and mark us in some way as a connected community with the others we share the tradition with. It’s the same whether we’re talking about our own individual lives, or our families, or our workplaces, or our favorite sports teams or recreational activities, and it’s certainly true in the church.

Of course, we all know that traditions and rituals can be a double-edged sword. They can be something that helps to instill community, and instill and reinforce something good and important; or they can be something that smothers growth, that makes an exclusive, unhealthy community, that institutionalizes pettiness and triviality, ultimately missing the whole point.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel text. When we first hear it, it almost sounds like Jesus and the disciples are a bunch of slobs who don’t care about basic hygiene and who never wash up before dinner. But that really isn’t what Mark is talking about here. It’s also where things get a little sticky – bear with me here…

Mark says that the Pharisees were criticizing Jesus because they weren’t going through the very specific, ritual hand washing that Mark says all the Jews did before eating. The problem with this is that as best as anyone can tell, in Jesus’ time, it was only the temple priests who were supposed to engage in this ritual; it wasn’t expanded to include all the people until quite a number of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. So it appears that Mark is inserting a detail into the story that’s more of his own time than Jesus’. But we can forgive him for this bit of literary license, because ultimately, he’s making an important and valid point about Jesus’ teaching. Mark’s original audience consisted primarily of followers of Jesus who had been born Jews, and he’s writing at a time just after the Jews and Christians finally divided into two separate religious faiths. During that time, both the Christians and Jews argued amongst themselves, there were accusations and finger pointing coming from both directions, neither side’s hands were clean, if you’ll pardon the pun. As part of this, the Jews criticized the Christians, saying that they surely couldn’t be worshiping the same God that they were, since they didn’t observe a number of the rituals and traditions that had supposedly been instituted as necessary by God, including this ritual hand washing. So in this section of the gospel, Mark is trying to address that criticism to his original audience, showing that Jesus had taught that what’s really important isn’t the rituals in and of themselves, but rather, the intent behind them.

And in this case, the intent behind them was living one’s life in a way that was holy – literally, “set apart” from the norm for God, in ways that identify someone as a follower of God, and as seen by the way that they lived. Living in ways that please God. Living in ways that didn’t defile their souls. That kind of defiling, Jesus said, doesn’t happen by anything that goes into the body. Rather, what defiles a person – what defiles their soul – is what comes out of them. Sexual immorality. Stealing. Killing. Greed. Lying, deceit, betrayal, slander. Add to that living with a lack of grace, or mercy, or forgiveness. These are the kinds of things that defile us.

That assessment has the potential to make any of us feel pretty defiled – dirty in our souls – because let’s face it, we’ve all fallen into many of those kinds of behaviors. But for us, we know that isn’t the end of the story, because through Christ, through faith in the message of God’s love for us, we know that God has reached out to us, and reconciled with us even in spite of all that. Through Christ, we’re not only forgiven, and considered clean, we can actually want to live more holy lives. Through Christ, we’re also strengthened so we actually can live lives that are more pleasing to God, more holy, less defiled. Through Christ, we can focus less on the details of our rituals and traditions, and more on the meaning behind them.

Through Christ, we can examine our own lives, and our families, and most definitely our church, and we can focus on the difficult but important task of examining all of our own traditions – keeping the good, getting rid of the bad, and often, modifying others in order to make them more constructive and meaningful in our current setting – so they help us to have the kind of community that pleases God, and that help us to live in the way that Jesus was talking about – doing the original good, just in a slightly different way from in the past. Traditions can change,; they can be different, but still familiar.

 On many nights now, I’ll get a call, or more often a text, from the one I used to read and stargaze with, as she’s just closed out a late shift at the restaurant and is walking to the subway station, or maybe she’s already on the train, making her way toward home. We’ll talk about our days. She’ll tell me about the coworker who’s driving her crazy; or the funny customer she waited on; or what Seamus, her cat, did the day before; or what her chemistry homework is, now that she’s gone back to school to study astrogeology, because she wants to study and learn what all those stars and planets in the sky are actually made of.

And sometimes, even though she doesn’t know it, as we’re texting back and forth, I’ll step outside and sit on the front stoop, and look up at the stars and the sky while we talk. It’s our tradition. And even though the details of the tradition are different now, and even though I really wish I could reach out and hold her again like when she was little, it’s actually very much the same. Through that tradition, I thank God for her, and the love between us. Through the tradition, I’m reminded of all the goodness and beauty and vastness of God’s creation, and how I’m meant to live, and to fit into it all. And I’m grateful that wherever we both actually are at the moment, the same moon that I’m looking up at is beaming down on her, too.

Thanks be to God.

#BathshebaToo

(sermon 7/29/18)

bathsheba

2 Samuel 11:1-15

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house.

When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”

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It’s one of the scariest moments for anyone who’s ever had a kid, or who has even just been around a kid. You’re just sitting there, minding your own business, when this little one who you love beyond the moon and the stars comes up to you and puts a picture they’ve just drawn in your lap, and they ask “Does this look like a dog?” And you look down at the paper, and what you see bears a striking resemblance to a feed sack with some twigs stuck in it, with a little smiley face at one end. So you say “Oh yeah, that’s a beautiful dog!” And the little child says “Oh – I was trying to draw a cow.”

It’s in that moment that the child has learned an important truth for anyone who creates in any way – painting, sculpture, writing, composing music, designing a building, delivering a sermon – whatever – that you, the creator, only own the meaning of whatever you’ve created until you share it with someone else. Then, your reader or listener or audience is going to experience it from their own vantage point, and apply their own meaning to it, which might be something very different from what you’d intended. And in general, that’s OK; that different meaning can be every bit as valid an interpretation as yours.

I think that to some extent, that same concept comes into play a little bit when we try to draw meaning out of today’s First Reading; that we can find some meaning in the story that the original author hadn’t really intended, but from our vantage point, we can see what he hadn’t . But first, let’s look at the passage overall.

The author of this book starts by mentioning kings and kingdoms going to war in the spring, making it sound so casual that it almost seems like the only reason they go to war is the weather is nice and the kings are just bored. The author makes it sound like it’s just the start of the new baseball season. In this story, the author seems less concerned about the fact that King David has attacked a neighboring kingdom than he is by the fact that David himself isn’t even out there fighting the good fight with them – he’s letting other people do all the fighting, while he’s lying around on his couch living the good life.

Part of that good life, at least in David’s eyes, is apparently the right to just take whatever he wants for himself, and in this case what he wants is Bathsheba. No matter that David is already married. He’ll actually end up with numerous wives; it would have been unthinkable that a man, especially a powerful one like a king, would limit himself to just one lover. That wouldn’t be a concept until several hundred years later. No matter that Bathsheba’s already married, too, to Uriah the Hittite – a valued soldier in David’s army yes, but still a commoner, and a foreigner at that. A foreigner was good enough to serve in David’s army, and risk his life for David, but in the end, as we know, David was still going to treat him like garbage.

After David discovered that he’d gotten Bathsheba pregnant, he needed some cover to prevent a scandal. So as we heard, he summoned Uriah back from the battle. He met with him at the King’s residence, then told him to go on home for the night, get a good meal, and enjoy some alone-time with his wife. But Uriah is such a gung ho, oo-rah soldier of David’s that he refuses to do it – even after David tries to get him liquored up and more pliable – saying as long as his troops are engaged in battle, he won’t go home and enjoy privileges that they can’t have. He’ll just spend the night in a corner somewhere here in the palace. Poor Uriah – trusting, naïve, unquestioning Uriah. The author of this story makes it clear that he was a strong supporter, really a true believer in King David. He would have literally taken a bullet for David, or at least, an arrow, and of course, he does. The great minister and writer Frederick Buechner pointed out that based on the way he’s portrayed in the story, Uriah was such a committed, patriotic, straight arrow committed to David that even if someone had told him that David had raped his wife, maybe even if they showed him 8×10 glossy photos of it, he still would have denied it, and stayed solid in his support for David – and if he did believe it, he’d probably say David’s behavior didn’t matter, supporting him was more important – even while David was playing him for a fool.

The central reality of this story is that David used his position of power to take Bathsheba – just as the prophet Samuel had warned the people years before that kings would do. He raped Bathsheba, and when he learned she was pregnant, and he couldn’t manipulate Uriah into giving him some believable cover story for the pregnancy, he used that same power to have Uriah killed so David could have Bathsheba for himself. The story is ugly, and awful, and evil, from start to finish. Honestly, it seems like a miracle that such a negative story about so beloved a biblical character even survived. It makes us wonder what point the author was really trying to make by documenting this story?

Well, to his credit, he seems to be clearly coming out against David’s casual attitude toward putting his army’s lives at risk while he stayed home. And he’s certainly coming out strongly against David raping Bathsheba, and his collusion with general, Joab, to get Uriah killed.

But there still seems to be a blind spot or two in the author’s original intent, which we might be able to fill in. He seems to see the rape of Bathsheba more as a violation of Uriah’s rights – his property rights – than as any big violation of Bathsheba and her own personal human dignity.

From our vantage point, we can look at the picture that the author has created, and we can add our own layers of understanding to it. We can see this story as a strong statement against unnecessary war, and rape, and murder, and the abuse of power; as well as it being a statement against men thinking they can exploit and subjugate women, and demean their dignity, and cheapen the reality of their having been equally created in God’s image.

Bathsheba wasn’t able to say much at the time of this story. But because her tragic story was preserved, she’s been speaking out to the ages ever since, against injustice against women perpetrated by men in positions of power.

And there, in that point, is where I can finally find some good news – some gospel, some grace – in this story. In protecting and allowing this terribly negative story about David to survive, and to speak across time, we can see that God cared about Bathsheba, and all the Bathshebas of the world; that God shows a special preference for them, and for all who are victims, over the powerful, the abusers. the victimizers. Good news that we can have hope, and comfort, that when we find ourselves being victimized and abused by others in positions of power over us, that God is walking our journey with us, and is on our side.

That, to me, is our good news. It’s also a confirmation to us of where, as people of the Kingdom of God, our own priorities need to be, whenever we see others being victimized. This story is our call to be a voice for, to be supporters of, all the Bathshebas of our time, and the Uriahs of our time. This story reminds us that we’ve been called to stand up, and to speak truth to power, wherever the realities of our time have not painted a very pretty picture.

Thanks be to God.