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“If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted of destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and…give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”

“The bulk of a tree,” writes Tom Wessels in Reading the Forested Landscape, “is mostly dead wood.” Other than the leaves, the only living part is the cambium, a group of cells a few millimeters thick that resides under the bark. The trunk may be lifeless and inert, but it’s still needed to provide structure for the growing cambium. The bulk of Christianity — whether it be ancient cathedrals or big-box megachurches — is mostly dead wood. The cambium of faith resides unseen, just beneath the surface, ever growing in new directions.
Fred Bahnson, “The Priest in the Trees: Feral faith in the age of climate change,” Harpers Magazine, Nov. 16, 2016

“I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.” – Cornel West

REFORMATION SUNDAY 2016

“Sustained in Hope”
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Luke 19:1-10

Today we observe Reformation Day. As Phyllis Tickle once wrote, we are entering into a new Reformation.(Tickle, Phyllis. “The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why” Baker Books, 2008.) Tickle (cites an Episcopal bishop, Mark Dyer) says that about every 500 years the church has a “rummage sale.” In this sale the ‘great church’ gets rid of what doesn’t fit anymore, or that hasn’t been used in ages.

Everybody knows how hard this is to do.The fact that it needs to be done doesn’t make it any easier.  It is particularly hard when you are in any kind of relationship, which we are, by definition, as a community of faith. When we moved to Wernersville we piled up some old junk that had been sitting around for a long time. I noticed that Becky was doing the very same thing. Only she was boxing up some stuff that was particularly important to me. No, I hadn’t used it lately, and no, I don’t exactly remember why I was saving it, but I was saving it. It was good stuff.

I find the whole idea of a rummage sale offensive. Your personal stuff is put out on card tables. People are pawing over your things. “How much you want for that honey?” “don’t call me honey, and you know what, I changed my mind. It’s not for sale.” Really, she says? Well, how about fifty bucks? Only fifty? that’s a steal. Really, I said?

One reason that people get rid of stuff is that their situation has changed. Some time ago…well, not really all that long ago, we got rid of several boxes of cloth diapers. Our first child wasn’t wearing those disposable jobs. You can imagine that once we got down to the business of changing and washing cloth diapers our theology of diapering began to change. By child number 3 we were fully involved in the Huggies faction. So when I noticed these cloth diapers, I wondered. Are we ‘closet’ cloth diaper folks? Was my wife trying to tell me something? No. So we were honest with ourselves about what and who we were and the cloth diapers went.

The prophet reflects an exceedingly difficult time period where the situation has changed. Not long before, the mighty Assyrian army destroyed one city after another, brutally killing people. And we know that not long after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar would three times attack Jerusalem, taking the leaders and skilled citizens into exile, and in 587 BCE, destroying the city and the temple. Indeed, violence is all around. The present situation is scary.

But that wasn’t the last time the situation was scary. In 1940, a church newspaper in Basel Switzerland published a column under the title: “The Word on the (Current) Situation” that included an excerpt from the book Habakkuk. The Nazi’s censored the paper. The powerful do that when they feel threatened.

In Habakkuk, we see how the prophet is standing on the watch tower, waiting for the Lord to answer. As is all too often the case, no answer is quickly coming. Finally a word is heard. That word, “Wait,” is rarely a satisfactory answer when it appears as though some of your best stuff is going in the dumpster.

At his listening post, the prophet hears a word from the Lord, and it does begin with wait. But that’s not all he hears. So he speaks to the people, saying how important it is to keep on, and believing in, a God that will bring deliverance. Not back to the way things were, but to a way that things will be. This unflinching belief in God’s ability to have effect on the present situation is sometimes called hope. It is the substance of that which the Apostle Paul speaks when he tells the church in Rome: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:24 NRSV)

Now there are two principles to keep in mind in order to tap into this hope. They are the principles of power and privilege and the principles of truth and justice. If you pursue truth and justice it will always mean a diminishment of power and privilege. If you pursue power and privilege it will always be at the expense of truth and justice. (Chris Hedges quoting Norm Chomsky: TruthDig,“Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This’” April 19, 2010.)  This idea seems to me to be socially true and biblically correct, if we are convinced that Jesus, at his interrogation before Pilate, said, “my kingdom is not of this world.”(John 18:36, NRSV)

This rummage sale and the difficulties church is experiencing makes me think of the stuff of our study with the Center for Progressive Renewal, and the book some of us are reading, “Vital Vintage Church.” In the book the Rev. Michael Piazza strives to help Virginia Highlands church by focusing on truth and justice. There are some uncomfortable moments during the rummage sale, but not everything is sold or given away. Getting ready for these things help us sort out what is important to us, so important that we keep it, and not only keep it, but get those old dishes out of the china cabinet and serve Thursday evening dinner on it, we don’t need to only drag it out on Christmas or Easter when the whole family is gathered at the table; when we want remind everybody how special it is. Everyday is worth the good china.

That is the point of the 2020 vision statement, really it is. It isn’t intended to toss on the sale pile things that are vital to our life together. In fact, there are many things in that document that we have done for a very, very, long time and it would help if we would just say that out loud so the community knows it.

Yes, the current situation can always be a source of discouragement. These verses from Habakkuk shares the certainty that the present situation does not mean that the end is near. It is discussed, but not near. The Prophet is so certain of God’s intention to make a difference with God’s people, no matter what the current situation looks like, that he tells others of his steadfast hope. For the Prophet, he is moved to write this conviction so clearly that even a speedy runner will be able to rush by it and still read it!

On this Reformation Day when we so often applaud the idea that we are not like other Christians, forgetting the fights and bitterness engendered by Luther’s break with the church of his youth and ordination; and the estrangement produced by that split over the succeeding five hundred years, I long for Habakkuk’s clearer and more straightforward claim. When I encounter those in these days who are hurt and fearful, unable to see that our best days…as defined by truth and justice…are ahead of us, I turn to Habakkuk.

Listen, God is determined, even desperate, to be in relationship with all of us so that, in turn, we might be in relationship with each other. This won’t be easy for us to hear. We like our formulas and comfortable patterns because, truth be told, they give us a way to manage the illusion that maybe we’re still in control, at least a little bit.

Perhaps that’s exactly why Jesus again shocks the crowds and disciples alike by seeking out this rich tax collector, honoring him, affirming him, naming him a child of God and declaring that, indeed, salvation has come this very day to his household. Maybe it’s to remind us that we never were in control in the first place. Which, while hard to take, proves in the long run to be a good thing.

Maybe, by the grace of God, in our present rummage sale, we will be moved to get rid of what doesn’t fit or is worn out, once good stuff, and keep what is faithful in these days. Then we will be able to baptize this baby today and be convinced that this child and all of us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, will be steadfast and sustained in hope.

[Some parts of this sermon are stolen, borrowed, copied from others, but the whole of it was knit together by me.]

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
January 24, 2016

“Everything Depends on Remembering”
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-12
Luke 4:14-21

Today we get to go to church. Three churches, really. The first is not in this sanctuary, not on this date, but in Israel soon after the return from the Babylonian captivity. The people, under the watchful eye of Ezra and Nehemiah begin to rebuild their shattered lives and their city, now in shambles.

While rebuilding the walls of the city, something remarkable happened. An ancient scroll was discovered. It was a Torah scroll.

This discovery came in a moment when reconstruction was not only a revitalization project for the temple and city walls. The future of these people is in serious doubt. Enemies still threaten from outside, internal disagreements threaten the future of the community. Just how to re-establish Jerusalem in safety and peace is a point of contention.

The question about the future life of the Jews is an urgent matter. Some, no doubt, looked to the glorious past and sought a return to those days in practice and in shape and in function. Because human beings now are not so different than then, I suspect, others sought to throw off the so-called ‘old ways’ and start from scratch.

In reality, what was necessary then and now, to rebuild their faith and cultural life, was the recovery of their pre-exile view of the world; but they must reimagine it for a new situation because the world, their world and the world around them, has changed.

A few weeks ago I was driving between appointments and was listening to NPR. On a talk show they had on two economists (whose names I cannot recall). The Fed had just upped interest rates and the host and one of the esteemed economists were discussing how the economy might be revitalized. The third voice finally interjected saying, “I wish you would stop using the term ‘recovery.’ There will be no recovery. What has happened to us has decidedly changed our world. You may say ‘transition,’ you may even say ‘transformation,’ but please, don’t say ‘recovery.’

Recovery looks for the past to return. Transformation looks for change into the future.

In the last episode of Downton Abby, one of the servants, the under-butler Thomas Barrow, is looking for another position. He responds to an advertisement in the paper and goes to a nearby estate. Mr. Barrow is invited in by the Master of the estate and finds it, as the Master himself comments, ‘having slipped.’ But in his imagination, that is not how the master see’s it. ’Sir Living In the Past’ remembers when they had grand parties and drones on and on about the candlelight illuminating the happy faces of the upper class during Times That Won’t Ever Happen Again. Thomas hightails it out of there, left with the realization that — again — times are different and his job skills will soon be obsolete.

At the Downton Abby, in ancient Israel, and in our midst, the world is not only changing but has changed. Familiar ways of structure and relationship are now obsolete. In every single case, the biggest question is this: can the institution remain true to it’s timeless truths and be transformed.

I use the term transform intentionally. See, there is no going back. No matter how much I may desire it there is no recovery of the halcyon days of my youth when my ‘stay at home’ mother would scrub us up, take us to Sunday school and church every week. Just as did everyone else’s family I knew. Some not only long for the past, but are stuck in believing that the present ‘isn’t how it should be.’

There are others, of course, whose memory does not contain the same content as mine. These folks are often baffled at my pining for the ‘good ‘ole days.’

Gathered there near the Water Gate is a similar crowd. Some who have lived long enough to know the way things were and some who only know the way things are. For all of them their history has given them an amnesia of sorts. Their faith seems distant, or their faith seems irrelevant. But somehow all of them realize that there is a ‘something more’ to life other than the way we knew it or the way it is. They command the priest Ezra to bring forth this scroll. He stands on the platform placed at the gate for deliberation and judgment and reads.

The scripture is read and the people who knew the way things were and the people who know the way things are dutifully respond, “Amen, amen.”

It must have been similar to times when one of our scripture lessons is particularly challenging and we automatically go on to the rubric where the reader says, “The Word of the Lord,” and we reply, “thanks be to God” even while some reservations rise in our hearts and we may have wanted to say, “well, maybe.” Being the good pastor that Ezra is, he sends out some colleagues to ensure that the people understand what has been read.

And ever since, God had ensured that someone would go forth into the community to ensure that no literal reading of Holy Scripture goes without interpretation. Those colleagues of Ezra ensure that the reading does not inflict the rigid orthodoxy of the past on the gathered people, but urges them to meet God anew in the changing times in which they find themselves.

The beauty of their interpretation is that those who knew the way things were and those who know the way things are are both moved to proclaim, “yes, that is it.” And they weep.

It appears as if Ezra understands these tears as tears of sadness, caused by the people’s recognition that they had forgotten God’s law. That may well be. But instead of insisting that they get their act together, Ezra skillfully and compassionately calls for a feast on fat and sweet wine and to send some to those who do not have any.

It appears that this wise old priests knows that the divine instruction is not a cramping, restricting legislation, but a way forward with justice and joy. That instruction has not been forever hidden in the wall, not set in concrete at Sinai. It has been interpreted in this new day in such a way that the people who knew the past and the people who know the present can see a way forward in God’s presence, together in worship and service that results in their transformation and the transformation of their community.

I pray that I have offered you one such way forward. Today is our annual meeting and in the many sheaves of paper we offer you is my report. In that report is my interpretation of the divine instruction I have received as I keep my nose buried in scripture, as it intersects our present condition. It is called the 2020 Vision Statement. There is no vote on this, as there was no vote at the Water Gate or at Nazareth as the Word was interpreted. But the people gathered do have options, then and today. We can hear God’s word of renewal and reinterpretation, and celebrate the presence of the living God in our midst; we can meet God anew in the changing times we find ourselves with joy and hope. Or not.

If as we hear scripture we somehow are moved by the Spirit, there are ways to faithfully respond. I believe that memory is the most important element of any transformation. it begin’s with our own memories of our own situation. Our memory that resides in scripture allows a careful re-collection of memories of God’s many blessings. But transformation begins when we remember that the promises of God remain sure, in this moment, even as in the past. Remember with me the presence of the Holy Spirit who opens our hearts and minds, empowering us for this work. And, this is perhaps the most important step, to participate in the diverse body of Christ, caring for one another, sharing the compassion and love of God in the world.

Today we also get to go to a second congregation, not Nehemiah’s Israel, but in Nazareth. There a young Rabbi also stood up in the midst of a congregation and read an ancient text; then he interpreted that text in such a way that it announced a new day. In this new age in which we are living, we need to be bold in our faith.  We need to trust this Jesus, filled with the Spirit whom God gives to us in Baptism and the Sacrament.  We need to live free from old enslaving habits because Jesus gives us the freedom to live that way.  We need to trust that this world which wants to oppress us and thus depress us with its beliefs and practices is powerless, useless, in his new age.

This morning we are present in a third congregation. These voices are speaking directly to us. Times are a-changing.  As it always is, today the time when God’s ancient promises intersect our present condition.  Don’t live in the past, but let the promises given in the past give you freedom, release, insights and spiritual riches, as you enjoy and serve the world that God has given us.

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

THE TWENTY FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
November 8, 2015

“Two Small Coins”
Mark 12:38-44

Just last week at our consistory meeting two actions were taken that, for the most part, were driven by anticipated gifts of money. The consistory did not pass a motion to move forward to pay for a revised plan for the Elevator project. And, we did pass a proposed budget.

Most religious institutions are dependent upon the generosity of the participants for their very existence. How much ministry and mission, or how little, is dependent upon the amount of money that ends up in the treasury.

And so there comes a time when those who are responsible for such things ask donors for a ‘little more.’ If the budget is increased by a certain amount, it is popular to simply divide that increase by the number of givers and to say, we only need an additional $3 a week from each giver. This simple mathematical equation is an easy demonstration, but it isn’t a good way to describe what is needed. For instance, if someone is giving $3 a week now, that suggestion is a 100% increase. Stewardship, unfortunately, is more complicated than simple division.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples happen to be in the Temple. I hear there were 13 containers on the wall in the ‘open air court of the women’ in the temple where people literally toss in their offerings. It isn’t quietly done as during our offertory, no sealed envelopes, no privacy. No one to say, “it’s between you and God.” No, you throw your offering in their right in front of God and everyone.

And Jesus notices that there were some people who were putting large sums into the boxes. These kinds of gifts are what make a difference in the life of the Temple. Jesus does not say that these givers are anything but generous. What he does say is that the ‘poor widow’ who put two pennies in the box gave more than anyone else. She “gave her whole life.”Widows-mite-baby

Now if this were only a story about stewardship, it would be easy enough to launch into discussion about the concept of proportional giving and note that those ‘big givers’ actually give significantly less, proportionally, than this widow. And even though I am not certain this text is actually about stewardship, it is easy to glorify her gift and question the larger givers.

If the message isn’t really about our stewardship, what is it about? I suggest what this text does is predict Jesus’ own stewardship. Just as the widow gives her entire self, Jesus gives his entire self for our salvation. Today we gather about this table of sacrifice and mystery that brings to our remembrance that great gift of Jesus for us. She does what Jesus does, that in her giving she anticipates that it will make a difference in the world beyond herself. In the end, that is truly discipleship according to Mark, that is truly salvation according to Mark, and it is what Jesus portrays according to Mark. But more so, according to Mark, this is the essence of God.

The criticism that Jesus offers in this passage comes before the scene in the temple. Jesus begins this reading with criticism of the religious leaders of his day for their greed, pomposity, and crass exploitation of the poor.  “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus tells his followers.  “They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

Their piety, in other words, is a sham, and the religious institution they govern is corrupt — not in any way reflective of the God the Psalmist calls a “Father of orphans and protector of widows.”

Jesus notices the religious authorities and tells his followers “beware.” Jesus notices the widow too. He sees what everyone else is too busy, too grand, too spiritual, and too self-absorbed to see.  For me, this is the key to understanding this story — that Jesus’s eyes are ever on the outsider, the small, the insignificant, the hidden. And if this story is criticism of the church and commentary on discipleship, then it is pointing us to something much larger than how much I will put in the offering envelope this Sunday or any Sunday to come. Rather, this raises questions about how I steward my whole life as well as the lives of those around me — near and far. Most especially those I haven’t noticed. The difference the church makes in the community should be for the good, for everyone.

Speaking of the needs of the (invisible) most vulnerable in our midst: we read this story in the midst of yet another election season, with local elections just past and next year’s presidential campaign already heating up. As we listen to candidates debate economic issues, we might recall the worn-out question from a campaign years ago, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Such a self-centered question might be better replaced with, “Are the widow and the orphan and the stranger in our midst better off today?”

The questions this text raises are appropriate to reflect upon as commentary on the current lack of a budget from the Pennsylvania State legislature.

Or perhaps we might care so much about one another and our shared life that simply asking, “Are we all better off today?” would lead us to see our futures as inextricably entwined, like those of Naomi and Ruth, (the widow and the Pharisee) and of all Israel itself. [The Rev. Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, November 8, 2015, UCC.org]

I am tempted, because I know how much more we could do in mission and ministry, to beg you to give more of your time, more of your treasure, but begging wouldn’t be dignified, isn’t really the point of the text, and how would I know if the right people would take it to heart? I wouldn’t want to watch the widow put her last two pennies in the plate, but she probably would.

ALL SAINTS DAY
November 1, 2015

“A Present Victory”
Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; Matthew 5:1-12

When I was in seminary, in one class we had a small group exercise, it was to consider our own death. My friend and neighbor across the hall, Phil, said, “I wake up with Jesus. I fail to see the down side.”

There is some benefit to his way of thinking. Normally we don’t like anything about death. We disdain its sound, its color. We avoid it. Where once the death bed was the same bed that people slept in, it is more frequently now somewhere else; a hospital bed, a room in a long term care facility. There was once the presence of extended family, including children. Now, there may be a nurse present. The sheer distance at which most family has been dispersed across the country prohibits these kinds of gatherings and goodbye’s.

There is this ‘Sunday School faith’ that takes these tender moments and says to us “they are allsaintsin a better place.” We say this because it is true. Part of St. John’s revelation on the island of Patmos records a word picture of this place, the new Jerusalem, descending from the heavens and from God. It was and is a comforting word given to Christians who were suffering and dying. So this Sunday School faith tempts us to postpone our sense of victory over death ‘until the Lord comes.’

There is a different faith, a mature faith, that offers an alternate response. There is sadness to be sure. Jesus himself wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. On the sermon on the mount, Jesus promises to the ‘blessed’ great rewards in heaven. This we count on, but we also depend on the fact that Jesus promises abundant life, not only afterlife. It takes some effort for us to nurture the faith that says that our victory over death begins here and now. My friend Phil was only partly correct. We wake up every day to Jesus.

The sociologist Christian Smith argues that most religious people in effect live a faith he calls “moral therapeutic deism.” It boils down to this: God wants them to be happy and modestly moral; God makes few demands on them; God promises heaven to anyone who is not egregiously evil; and God is not imagined to be actively part of a person’s everyday life. Religious skeptics rightly ask: What real difference in your life does being a Christian make? [Peter Feldmeier, America Magazine, Aug. 27, 2012.]

My response is that on days like today that our faith has the potential to make a significant difference in our lives, our everyday life, because it directs us back to living. At its best, faith has the power to make us more alive today than we could possibly be without it. We have a present victory.

Have you ever read Anne Tyler’s novel, St. Maybe? The happy Bedloe family is living the ideal existence in Baltimore in the 1960s, until a tragic event occurs and 17-year-old Ian Bedloe blames himself for the accidental death of his older brother.” “Depressed and depleted, Ian is almost crushed under the weight of an unbearable, secret guilt. Then one crisp January evening, he catches sight of a window with glowing yellow neon, the ‘Church of the Second Chance.’ He enters and soon discovers that forgiveness must be earned, through a bit of sacrifice and a lot of concern…” in one scene Ian is driving his nice, his dead brother’s daughter. They talk:

“You think I don’t know what I’m up to, don’t you,” Daphne said.
“Pardon?”
“You think I’m some ninny who wants to do right but keeps goofing. But what you don’t see is, I goof on purpose. I’m not like you: King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe. … Mess up, I say!” Daphne crowed. “Fall flat on your face! Make every mistake you can think of! Use all the life you’ve got!”

This niece, Daphne, who teeters on the edge of waywardness, is under Ian’s care. And in her strange way she encourages Ian to reclaim aspects of his life he set aside when his brother Danny died. Rev. Emmett, pastor of “Church of the Second Chance” urges Ian to do the same; not ignoring the rotten events that have brought him to this moment, but to live into and through them.

To do his requires a mature faith that returns again and again to the reality that Jesus is present here and now. In all things. This faith notices God’s presence, perhaps in something as simple as a friend who sits with us, saying nothing, while our tears fall. Usual activities may have a certain void that cannot be filled because someone is absent. But there are others…”who gradually will help us find the road to life again, who will walk that road with us.” [Rabbi Josua Liebman, “Peace of Mind” Citadel, 1998]

What I hope that we remember on this day when we are giving thanks for loved ones, and Saint’s of the church from the past, is that the reason we bring to our remembrance faithful people is that somehow, large or small, in a public or private way, they took what they had and served God in their time. They lived. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions qualities of a live that make this abundantly clear. This condition of blessedness is not something that is awarded posthumously. It is something that is now, and I, for one believe that these qualities are a means, not to salvation, but for the abundant life that Jesus promises.

You know, Jesus insists the Kingdom of God has and is breaking into the world. Seeing it, participating in it, here and now is possible. Thomas Merton, a saintly person in his own right, said: “A saint is not someone who is good. It is someone who has experienced the goodness of God.” That is an experience in the now.

I confess that there are days when this is hard to do. To notice and claim the goodness of God. Yet, I believe, no, I know, that Christ is not done with me, Christ is present in these days, in all things God’s goodness is close by, today, tomorrow, and always. The victory he gives us is to be savored and responded to now. This moment. This day.

WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY
October 4, 2015

“On Reading the Bible”
Mark 10:2-16

Today is World Communion Sunday and I wish I could preach a nice sermon on the unity of all God’s people as we gather around the table of the Lord. But I cannot. Once you read out loud this text from chapter ten in Mark’s gospel, you have to say something about it.

I just read parts of this text to a different gathered congregation last weekend. It was at a wedding.

I have a list of suggested texts, taken from our Book of Worship, that I share with couples ahead of time and I ask them to read the texts aloud to each other and decide on two that will be read at their wedding.

The suggested text for weddings does not include the entire portion we read this morning. I didn’t read the part about the Pharisees questioning Jesus. Last Saturday I did not read the part about what the Commandments say. I did not read the part about adultery. What I did read was the part about the unique ‘one-ness’ that comes in any covenant commitment like marriage.

What I was doing was to select a text that supported the ritual that we had gathered to perform, a wedding. It wasn’t terribly important, in that moment, to expand the reading to include what, at first glance seems to be a contradiction. Here it is: The law says it is perfectly ok to divorce your wife with little more than a note that says she may go. Jesus, however, reads into the law and says that if you do this permitted thing, divorce, you are engaging in breaking one of the ‘top ten’ rules, adultery.

I so wish that Jesus had said more about this. I could use some good advice. So I went looking around. In Matthew’s later version of this story, for instance, he adds an exception to the standard regarding marriage and divorce spoken that Mark relates, and if you look to Paul you’ll find yet another. Christians apparently have always struggled with these issues, so should we be surprised that we continue to struggle today?

Some years ago I had a young woman call me. “Can we meet, today,” she pleaded. So we met at the office. She came in, big sunglasses only slightly hiding a black eye. I didn’t assume anything. But the physical abuse she had been suffering came out amidst many tears. I let her vent. Then she asked, “what should I do?” I told her, “you and your children should get out of there to someplace safe.” “Divorce,” she asked? “Yea.” There was a slight pause, and then she looked at me, and I’ll never forget this, she said, “you are not supposed to tell me that, you are a pastor.”

What she was implying was that she expected me to abide by some ancient and antiquated notion of marriage where the wife, during the marriage vows, promised to ‘submit.’ Back then there was no parallel promise in the groom’s vows. She was emphasizing that, and the ‘for better or worse’ part. Emphasis on worse. I stuck by my advice then, and would offer the same in any similar situation today.

You may have heard Pastor Goguts, last Sunday, mention that he and Carol recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Becky and I will be celebrating our 34th very soon. I will say what Pastor Goguts said: “That’s a very long time.”

Whenever someone asks me how long we’ve been married and I say 34 years I generally get some word of congratulation. I am thankful for that, but I usually tell them to compliment Becky because she has put up with me for all that time. She has put up with gun dogs shedding in the house, muddy boots, strange things in the freezer. While it is true that opposites attract, it sometimes makes for difficulties in a relationship.

And difficulties, not abuse, not infidelity, sometimes lead to couples ‘writing’ for divorce.  Some of you might know that the law Jesus is referring to allows men to write for divorce of their wives.  In this instance, the balance of social and economic power in the relationship tips sharply toward the husband. Divorced women had no other option, other than being on the street, than to remarry as quickly as possible.  Jesus is criticizing the men here.

While the social conditions have changed since the time St. Mark recorded this story. The world at large has different expectations about all relationships, particularly marriage. I am not sure people have changed. See, this whole business of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees reads, to me, like he is telling them that they have been playing it ‘fast-and-loose’ with the law. The only reason for the permission giving the law provides is because people can be ‘hard-hearted.’ God’s creation insists that we do not take relationships lightly.

And so Jesus is calling into question a marriage practice in our contemporary society. Let’s call it serial monogamy. One day, or a string of days, the wife burns the pot roast or the husband doesn’t pick up his laundry; perhaps she yelled at him for something one to many times; or he spent the night out playing poker with the boys again. I don’t know. But these two decide they are just not a good match and get a divorce. Then, they find someone, begin dating, and get married. Then one day the pot roast is burned or the laundry is in the middle of the bathroom floor and the cycle begins again.

What I often tell young couples who come to see me about getting married is that perhaps the single most important element in your relationship is commitment. I am all for the electricity between two people, the greeks called it ‘eros.’ But if that is the basis for a relationship, you are in big trouble.

Sometimes people love another person, and enter into the relationship believing that they can ‘change’ something about that person that they find distasteful, or aggravating. We all change, of course, but to assume you can change another into something or someone you want them to be is a ‘fanciful hope.’

When Becky turned 40, I jokingly said, at the birthday party, that I was considering trading her in for ‘two twenties.’ My mother in law ‘Kitty,’ quickly said in her West Virginia accent, “honey, you aren’t wired for 220.”

Nelson Mandela, father of modern day, post apartheid South Africa, spent 27 years in prison. Two short years after his release Winnie and Nelson separated. I wondered, ‘here is a man who spent 27 years in some of the worst prisons on the face of the earth. He gets out, reunited with family, and relatively quickly says in effect, ‘I can’t handle this.’ Really? Somehow he had the inner strength and fortitude to survive brutality but cannot put up with this woman.

As some Facebook pages identify, some relationships are “complicated.”

So in my reading of the Bible, taking the path of Jesus, I have a hard time sticking to the letter of the law. I am speaking to those of you who think that you have it all figured out now because somewhere in Leviticus or Exodus it says, ‘thus and so,’ you are wrong. Jesus himself doesn’t do that; here he is emphasizing the ‘intent’ of the law. It is not so much that divorce is not tolerated but what he is saying is that trivialization of the human relationship is what has gone wrong.

I want to take a minute and speak to those who might be new in the faith, haven’t thought about this too much, or perhaps have found yourself in this very situation. Whenever human relationships do not reflect the goodness and grace of God we have a responsibility to get things right, and if that is not possible, then there is this one, last, resort. It is a last resort, not a first choice. When chosen, it is sad, in every case, that things turned out this way but good people find themselves in this situation with some frequency. Does ‘sticking it out’ no matter what glorify God? I don’t think so.

We would also do well to remember that the designated passage for this Sunday does not end at 10:12. Instead, we have the brief story in 10:13-16 of people bring children to Jesus, an act the disciples try desperately to curtail. To what extent is the question “to whom does the Kingdom of God belong” (10:14) at the heart of the test posed by the Pharisees? Is the issue at stake less about divorce and symptomatic of the larger subject of vulnerability?

Those persons on the edges of humanity, women and children, and for Mark, any outsider, marginalized by ritual, tradition, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, will find their place in the Kingdom of God. The reality of divorce, of not being married, of not having children, has made all of us outsiders for a time. I wonder if Jesus calling us back to the created order is not simply to hold up an ideal vision of the perfect relationship, but to remind us that to be human is to be in relationship, whatever that relationship might look like. And, that relationship, at its best, does what it is supposed to do: glorify God.

THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
September 20, 2015
Sermon: “What Makes a Welcome Radical”
Mark 9:30-37

I want you to think about the reading from Mark’s gospel this morning. Many times, perhaps because it is inspired, we can read the bible and get its message for us quite easily. At other times, it is easy to get misinformed because none of us can read anything except from our own perspective and our own context.

The saying seems easy.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” So easy to say and to hear we can almost brush it off.  Smile approvingly at the children coming forward for the children’s sermon in worship, and check one more thing off our spiritual to-do-list.  Welcome little children?  Done.  We might ask ourselves, “How dense could these power grubbing disciples be to have been to missed so simple a point as this?”

In St. Mark’s day, children occupied an interesting place (for Jews and Romans alike).  They represented the future—they would carry on the family name, provide for their aging parents, and produce the next generation.  But in the present, they were a liability.  Small children, especially, were more likely to contract an illness and to die.  They participated in the household labor, but were not yet fully productive, and still represented another mouth to feed.  Many historians of this time period compare the status of children in such a situation to that of a slave.  However, the dynamics were more powerful than that.  On the one hand, an adult slave could be “worth” more in the present; on the other hand, even the smallest child was a member of the “household”—an honor to which a slave was unlikely (and in most cases unable) to attain.
Children were insiders left on the outside.  And they are the ones Jesus commands us to welcome.  On the one hand, this is just another instance of Jesus turning the expectations of the world upside down.  It is a great reversal in the name of justice, the kind of which Luke’s gospel is famous for (read the magnificat there).  But on the other hand, here in Mark’s gospel we also experience something else.  With children, at least, the power dynamics are not so black and white—it is not so much a question of who is great and who is not, but instead it is a question of welcome. Make no mistake, Jesus is proposing a radical welcome.Egypt_prayer_Middle_East_300px

Put another way, Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks to be great.  Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion, and love.

And so I find I wonder now how it is that we as communities find ourselves able to heed Jesus’ invitation today to ‘welcome.’  I wonder where we get the clarity, the strength, the courage, the confidence, to be and do what is right in this way.  It must be more than simply knowing that new people are necessary in order to keep any institution, whether it be an community organization or a congregation, going strong.  In fact, if that’s our only motivator, it never really works.  At least not in churches.  Rather, it must, somehow, come from a deeper love for the last and the least and the lost that we would be willing to give up our space and welcome,  focusing always on what matters most of all.

It’s not easy, to be sure, and I do wonder if this is why many congregations are less than welcoming, why so many of us are not growing.  And while I have a deeper empathy today for why that is so, I’m still hanging on to the hope that even my seemingly normal self-centered nature can be overcome.  It matters too much for it not to be possible, after all.

What I worry about, going into the future, is that the church will look more like the border going into Hungary than the open arms of Jesus. It is understandable that we might fear reaching out and receiving others who are different, and who need the gospel and need to the benefits we enjoy as a community of faith.

What keeps me up at night is the images of children running down a railroad track, desperately trying to reach the border into Hungary. I am troubled when we speak about deportation of children and their families, reducing their value except as being an ‘anchor’ baby. I do not understand the huge inequalities in our educational system that leaves the poorest children bereft of many of the benefits that the wealthiest communities presume. Jonathan Kozal describes the entirety of this situation a ‘current day apartheid.’

Unless we learn to receive and be received by such as this, the least in our communities and in our world, our conversations about church will become empty or simply self-serving. We will worry about appearances and the color of draperies. We will continue to Facebook and Twitter endlessly amongst ourselves about nothing, or ever rehearse the same uninspiring conversations about skills and capacities, what our church is doing or has done recently — and about “who is the greatest” among us.

May the Lord save the church from such an uninteresting preoccupation.

The 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 6, 2015

“Love Beyond Boundaries”
Mark 7:24-37

There is an outdoor celebrity whose motto is “Go Where You Don’t Belong.” His name is Remi Warren. Another is Donnie Vincent. The places they go to hunt are often harsh and unforgiving. It is not so much a cultural or ethnic boundary that send the message to Donnie or Remi, “Go Home,” it is the environment. Steep mountain faces, freezing cold, blazing heat. There are no housing developments there, and there is a reason for that.

There are other places where some of us go ‘where we don’t belong.’ A few years ago Kathy Petersen, Steve Young, Nancy Gelsinger and I took some youth down to Old First on Race street in Philadelphia for a mission weekend. Part of that was going into the community to serve. The morning of that service work, our coordinator told us the address of where we were going. I am not real familiar with Philadelphia, but I realized where we were going. Hmmm, I said to myself. We found our way on public transportation to the work site where we were picking up trash in the gutter and in vacant lots where homes had been torn down. Other homes were boarded up. None of them looked like houses around here. The kids did a great job. We met people who lived in the neighborhood and they were very thankful for the work we did. It was good to talk to the people who lived there, because in doing so it was fairly easy to recognize that we share basic human needs and desires.
That evening we ate dinner with some of the guests of Old First’s shelter program. I was sitting with a couple of our young ladies and one or two of the homeless men. One guy asked them, “what did you do today?” They shared that they were picking up every conceivable manner of trash along such and such a street. The man’s eyes got wide and he said, “you went up to Kensington?” “I guess,” the girls sheepishly replied. He then said something unexpected, “I don’t even go up there.”

It is quite natural, because of language barriers, fear of crime, or simply because of ethic differences, there are places where we feel as if ‘we don’t belong.’

Jesus is intentionally traveling in a place, a region, he doesn’t belong. Then, a woman who had everything going against her pushes her way into Jesus’ presence. She was a woman and a gentile from this ‘wrong side of the tracks’ area. She had no right, according to the social custom of the day, to engage Jesus in conversation. Jesus responds in a normal way; he answers as anyone of means, anyone with certain social privilege, anyone whose motivation is not questioned because of who they are would answer. Belonging to the right faith community, and being in the proper socio-economic position he tells her what might seem logical: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”IMGP3073

The story that follows, the healing of a deaf man, may seem, while miraculous, expected. It isn’t. Surprisingly, it is another story about Jesus going where he should not go. Not so long ago people with any kind of infirmity were not seen as being afflicted by some random microbe or gene mutation. Their condition was viewed as given by God as a consequence of their sin. The blind, the deaf, people with developmental disabilities, folks with mental illness, those with withered limbs were viewed as ‘less than’ and were not valued by society. People were afraid of these physical differences because they did not understand the biology and science of their condition like we do today. These conditions were attributed to demons, or divine punishment. This understanding is why someone once asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2)

In both these cases, the story doesn’t end with the outcome we should expect. Instead, Jesus recognizes the persons intrinsic value as a human being and trespasses several boundaries, in healing them. In these two stories we could add to the motto for Jesus, “Go where you don’t belong, and do what you shouldn’t do.”

A “‘worthless, gentile girl whose mind was devoured by a demon,’ and a ‘good for nothing deaf man who couldn’t even speak clearly’” (Mitzi Minor, The Spirituality of Mark, Louisville:Knox Press, 1996, p. 51) were indeed children of God to be embraced and valued. The woman’s response to Jesus serves as a stark reminder that status, social, religious, economic, is a product of our own imaginations, invisible to God. (Amy C. Howe, Feasting on the Word, Pastoral Perspective: Mark 7:24-37, Year B, v. 4, p. 48)

The point of this text challenges us because it is asking for something more than a casual recognition of the equality of all human beings. It is something more than the recognition that ‘all lives matter,’ police lives, black lives, brown lives, yellow lives, lives that are shrouded in illness of any kind, lives hobbled by some impairment; they do indeed matter to God, but the question for Jesus and for us is ‘so what will you do, in recognizing this fact?’

In an effort to energize UCC congregations to support mentally ill people in their midst, the 2015 General Synod overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Monday, June 29 to develop a network of churches that are welcoming, inclusive, supportive and engaged (WISE) for mental health. Some of the WISE 12 steps involve mitigating the shame and stigma that mental illness engenders. One committee member noted, “As church, we are considered armies of compassion.” With rapidly shrinking public services available, “churches are where those who suffer turn.”

Friends, “The Church of Christ, in Every Age” has met the Syrophoenician woman.  The question is, will we listen to her today?  Will we understand that “we have no mission but to serve in full obedience to our Lord, to care for all, without reserve, and spread [God’s] liberating word”?  Will we listen? Will we respond by offering God’s infinite compassion and mercy to all persons wherever they might be?  ‘whoever they might be?’ I pray so.

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I am St. Justin Martyr!

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