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The 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 6, 2015
“Love Beyond Boundaries”
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.”
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.
PROPER 17B – August 30, 2015
In the reading from James this morning, two ideas are contrasted. First there is the idea of the ‘implanted word’ and, second, the idea of ‘doing the word.’ At first you might believe there is a contradiction here, that James is saying that doing is more important than being. But the section as a whole says that for us to be the ‘first-fruits’ of God, Christians cannot be hearers of the word only; they must reveal its working in their lives. It is the gospel Word that has been implanted from which these good works come. These are, then, not so much contradictory ideas as they are complementary ideas that work together.
One commentator on churchy stuff recently said that the fellow who does stats for one (I will not name it) denomination thinks that 400 pastors (I’m assuming that this means 400 pastors from the that denomination and like-churches) will be resigning this weekend due to the Ashley Madison hack (as reported in “Christianity Today.”) There’s lots of internet handwringing on conservative Christian websites about how “everyone” knows “someone” on the AM hack list. As far as I know, I don’t know anyone involved in the hack. (Diana Butler Bass made this comment on FaceBook). My point in repeating this news is simply to note the resignations. Setting aside for the moment, as if we could or should, the grace of God; It seems to me that the internal conversation that permitted participation in this behavior in the first place implies that what you believe is more important as what you do. The resignations serve as evidence (if there are any) that what you do is as important, or at least should be reasonably consistent with, what you believe.
In the gospel lesson, the disciples create their own little issue with the religious authorities by not following prescribed procedures. They do not wash their hands, nor the dishes as they are supposed to. Despite the miracles they have been a part of, what specifically bothers the religious authorities is that they do not follow the rules. They are accusing the disciples of being hearers and not doers.
The irony, of course, and the point of it being recorded in the gospel is that these religious leaders “…pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. ” (Matthew 23: 4-5a, CEV) Telling this story is pointing out that ‘do as I say, not as I do’ condition most everybody suffers from in one way or another.
Still, there isn’t anything sadder that when someone who we lift up because of who they are, or what we want them to be, falls (or jumps) off the pillar we’ve placed them on. In these days of instant messages and the Internet, (the Ashley Madison scandal, for heaven’s sake), starlets and politicians have little or no chance of not ‘falling from grace’. Every mis-step, every faux pau is quickly printed and published for all to see. Sometimes we think they deserve it. Some people say they are not surprised at all the news about Josh Duggar. Nobody can be as good as the image they project because as the Pharisees and Sadducees can tell you, an image is a difficult thing to maintain. It is hard to be exposed as something you are not, or as not something others want you to be. It is so very easy for our actions to betray our faith. It is hard to be as good a ‘doer of the word’ as we are a ‘hearer of the word.’
A friend and I were together the other day and he got a call from a colleague at work. He told this other fellow that he was with ‘the Pastor.’ They other man said, ‘you won’t catch me in church.’ I do not know why he said this, but I have my suspicions. It may be that he is afraid he would be judged for some reason. Or, did you know that there are people out there in the community that do not want to have anything to do with church because they think that everyone there is narrow minded and judgmental? Why would someone think that? Why? Because,
For all its loudness, all its exclusion, violence and ubiquity, the faith that is modeled in the public square is often not particularly affecting. It is hard to imagine someone looking on it from outside and musing to herself, “I’d like to have some of that.” (Jimmy Carter’s Image of Faith Truest to What Faith Should Be, Leonard Pitts Jr., Tribune Content Agency on Aug 26, 2015)
If there were any truth in that rumor, it would be because what we do is not consistent with what we say we believe. More likely, however, is that folks who are honest with themselves and their shortcomings are resistant to organized religion because they anticipate judgment. Hard or not, to say we are Christians means to not only hear the good news, but also to be about those things Christ was about.
Our faith is, after all, about believing something so fully that you cannot help but act on it. It is as when someone loves someone so fully that they cannot help but act out their concern. To say you believe in peace, and to continually go off to war reveals what you really believe in. Peace is not founded upon war. To say you are concerned about the poor and to build for yourself bigger barns is evidence you do not really care for the poor. The poor are not lifted out of poverty by special concern for the wealthiest 2% in the nation. “It is complicated,” we say, and it is. But it is not so complicated that our beliefs cannot be measured by the slightest indications of charity, love, and grace. When we revere christians like Jimmy Carter, it is not because they wrote a great theological treatise; it is because their actions were a great statement of faithfulness.
There is something to be said for grand and sweeping mission efforts. But what I think James is encouraging is everyday ministry. Forgiving when I have the opportunity. Being generous where I can. All the while, in little things, hoping against hope that these daily acts of ministry mean something, that they bring the grace of God closer, and make the love of Christ something real; becoming not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts.
Sunday August 16, 2015
“Thanks For Everything”
I once read a letter from a missionary in the Congo. She wrote:
When I was in the Congo recently, I preached in a church-on-stilts in a fishing village. Villagers had set up camp along the Congo River, where they could fish and make some semblance of a living. Fishing means surviving for most of the members of this community. After I preached my sermon, which was translated into Lingala, the local language, I returned to my seat and watched as members of the church danced forward with their offerings. I was overcome by their joy in doing so. I’m serious when I say that they danced! They were thrilled, delighted, overjoyed that they had something to give. This was the highlight of the worship experience.
Just when I thought it was over, the marvelous African beat continued and the people kept dancing. They were invited to give another offering. Another offering? This would never fly in our churches at home! This time people brought forward their gifts for me, the preacher. What? Me? An offering for me? I could hardly believe it. Their tradition is to offer gifts of gratitude for the one who has shared the word of God. It was overwhelming to me. Never had this happened to me in all my travels and visits to preach the gospel. Wow!
Despite my incredulity, I graciously accepted the three fish that were brought forward. And the long branch of plantains, the oranges, the money. I felt strange accepting this offering, I’ll admit. But I know that to honor the giver, you honor the gift. (Amy Gopp, Ecumenical Stewardship Center, Amy is the director of Week of Compassion, a ministry of relief and development through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).)
I am not saying that we don’t do this, I think we do, but our swiveling and swaying is not visible to the naked eye.
Gratitude is a condition that is not always visible. Culturally, people like me, have been trained to not wave the banner of success, or shout out the call of joy.
If we allow ourselves these emotions it is required that they be subdued, that we not draw unreasonable attention to ourselves. All this is fine. It’s fine because to mandate exuberance without a grateful heart is just as ridiculous as feeling gratitude and not expressing it.
It sounds so cheesy and yet, it’s true. Gratitude is a habit.
Without gratitude it is tempting to assign every goodness in life to our own hard work or our own charming personalities. That’s not gratitude. That is nothing more than self-congratulation. When we work at gratitude, it is easy to think it is contrived. At first it may well be. But as time goes on, a gratitude exercise shifts your entire way of thinking. Did you know that what you do can change what you think?
One author talks about a ‘forced’ habit of telling others what it is about them that makes her feel gratitude. She said, “at first it made my skin crawl. It was way outside my comfort zone.” But that’s the point isn’t it?
When life gets hectic and you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a moment to focus on the people and things you are grateful for in life. When you are grateful, other things will fall by the wayside. For example, you probably won’t be able to feel jealous and grateful at the same time. You might even be thankful for someone else’s success or their contribution to you. Being thankful gives you perspective on you situation and brings you to the present moment.
Focusing on good things also helps you see beyond the troubles of the day.
But I want to tell you that it was St. Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus that lead me to think about gratitude. And if you are trying to get more gratitude in your life, it is important to be specific, to thank someone. And for us, ultimately, that someone who we tell might be the barista at the coffee shop for their sunny disposition, or someone who holds the door, or complements your work; but keep in mind that who we are really speaking to is God; God is the source of all blessings.
Slightly more recent than St. Paul, a man named Ignatius developed spiritual exercises, the cornerstone of which was called the Examine. It’s a prayer meant to be prayed once or twice per day. In this Ignatius gives us a model for daily gratitude. In practice, the Examen can become so natural that we find ourselves being aware of God’s movements throughout the course of the day. And Ignatius would likely ask his followers to respond to those graced movements with gratitude, not just a once a year, but each day. God gives us good things and when we give thanks for them we give thanks to God.
Not all of us are comfortable with what can be called ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ ecstasy. But here in St. Paul’s advice we are confronted with it. The Spirit’s outward and visible expression in peoples lives, as alarming as it is to some of us, is not the point. The text is hoping for the transformation that occurs when our ‘hearts sing God’s praises for all things.’ This kind of internal work, that looks a whole lot like gratitude, happens on God’s terms and makes us useful in God’s kingdom.
The practical take away of the Spirit’s presence (is there another kind?) is the goal of shaping our attitudes. Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Sociologists, have earned a lot of PhD’s and been awarded a lot of grant money determining what St. Paul already knows: We shape our attitudes by what we bring to it, how we receive it, and how we are in the habit of responding to it. (Marshall, Paul V. Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3, p. 352.)
The days are indeed evil. And by that I mean that the world is often going its own way and not the way of Christ. Asking anyone to ‘give thanks in all things,’ is a nearly impossible task – unless we remember that the continuing effort to do so is not an ‘ought’ but is ‘as you are able.’ I simply want to suggest that one reason the world is the way it is, is that there are many great things in life for which no thanks to God is offered. Our faith, our discipleship, is worse off because of this omission. (ibid, p. 354)
That’s really what all the excitement is about, here at the table Christ sets for us, here where we receive the bread of life. It’s about remembering, and giving thanks.
“Sing and make melody–make music–to the Lord in your hearts, always giving thanks…for everything, always giving thanks, giving thanks for everything,” in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
August 9, 2015
“Truth is not Enough”
25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The individual is capable of both great compassion and great indifference.
He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter.
My mother always told me to tell the truth. As a parent myself, I have pointed out to my children that telling the truth from the get-go avoids having to try and remember the story that you told to avoid the consequences of that truth in the first place. Not telling the truth is sometimes rooted in avoiding either punishment or pain, pain inflicted by that truth.
And that is why the truth is sometimes very hard to tell. The consequences of telling it can be less than desirable.
People can get mad at you. Anyone, in any significant relationship, knows this. Your significant other is getting dressed in the morning. They ask, “how does this look?” This is, of course, a subtle variation of “does this make me look fat.” And this is one instance where telling the truth can be the source of friction in a relationship.
The truth, even in the most self-evident situations, can be misinterpreted. I was in Boscov’s or Kohl’s, I don’t remember which, and I was being the dutiful husband, waiting outside the dressing room while my wife was trying on a garment of some kind. There was another guy there, twiddling his thumbs too. I thought to myself, so this is what it has come to; standing in the mall waiting for our wives, holding their purse. His wife came out first. She said, “how does this look?” He said, as far as I could tell, truthfully and enthusiastically, “Great!” She pouted and said to him, “you are just saying that.” “What are you saying,” he pleaded. “You’re just saying that so you don’t hurt my feelings!” “No I’am not!” “Yes you are!” She said, “I knew when I put this on it didn’t look good.” He muttered, to me I guess, “well, why did you ask me?”
There are times where brutal truth telling is all that is left. Speaking the truth to power, so that the powerful cannot claim “I didn’t know” is one time when the harsh and unadulterated truth should be told. When the Cushite tells King David of Absolom’s death, he does not say it straight away, but there is no mistaking the truth of the situation. A better example is the prophet Nathan from last week’s reading who tells, first, a parable of a rich man who takes advantage of a poor man by basically stealing his meager resources when his own resources could have easily sufficed. King David identifies quickly the gone-wrongness in this situation. It’s a little harder to accept when Nathan tells David “you are that man.”
And often, telling the truth is an excuse for venting our own frustrations or hurts, which may or may not be beneficial to anyone. The truth of some small matter can be so hurtful if told the consequences far outweigh the benefits. The truth of large matters is sometimes not told because it horrifies everyone.
In the movie “A Few Good Men,” An enthusiastic, inexperienced, Navy lawyer named Kaffee is called upon to defend two marines who are up for court martial, indicted on murder charges. While on the stand, the Base’s CO, Colonel Jessup, under intense questioning by the young defense attorney is finally unnerved. The Colonel says, “You want answers?” Kaffee says, “I want the truth.” Jessup shouts, “you can’t handle the truth.”
I have a colleague who selectively pares down this scripture, who snips out the parts they don’t like, to make Paul’s words support truth telling in a way that makes it a weapon. I called him on it. He quoted that old saw, ‘the task of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ I replied, ‘yes, but it doesn’t say to afflict everyone.’
The letter to the Ephesians insists that we are members of the same body, and therefore we have a responsibility toward one another. And that applies as much to the way we speak to and about one another as to any other facet of life. From this perspective Ephesians says that our words should convey “truth” and “grace” to each other. By “truth,” I don’t think it means a theoretical approach—it’s not about a courtroom inquiry, or academic research, or philosophical contemplation.[Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 512] Rather “speaking truth is a practical matter. And by practical, I do not mean practical in the same sense that Colonel Jessup understands it. From this perspective, “speaking truth” is a way of fulfilling our commitment to relate to one another in ways that promotes peace and justice. When that is the case our words “convey grace”, they “become a vehicle and demonstration of the very grace of God.” [Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 520]
The truth of our existence is that we really are each other’s keepers. We have an obligation to one another—particularly in the context of our mutual faith—to relate to each other with love and kindness and compassion. Make no mistake: it grieves our loving creator when we fail to do that. It grieves our creator when we act in ways that positively destroy the fabric of humanity that the Spirit weaves among us. [Alan Brehm, http://www.thewalkingdreamer.blogspot.com August, 11, 2009]
At the present moment there are multiple conditions present in our society that call for truth telling.
If people have no sense that there is a truth larger than themselves, their individual self interests reign supreme; without ethics the social fabric of society deteriorates, and random violence and polarizing rhetoric, sexual obscenity and public incivility, rampant greed and disregard for the common good escalate; without a workable truth [philosophy of life] beyond themselves people find no lasting meaning;
without truth [purpose] there can be only increasing anomie and passivity and rage that erupts in more violence. [Dawn, Marva “The Sense of the Call” Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006, p.4.]
But ‘telling the truth is not necessarily a solution to anything.’ For me, the polarity of thinking evident in the public sphere, on racism, marriage equality, gun violence, trophy hunting in Africa, is exemplary of some of the problems of ‘just tell the truth.’ Anger, even death threats, are shot like canon volleys across lines. So each camp circles the wagons a bit tighter, draws clearer lines around their version of the truth, and digs in.
I am not suggesting that there is no truth to be told. I am not supporting the idea that, in every case, some sort of ‘situational ethic’ be employed to define our reality. What I am suggesting, as is St. Paul, that there is no way forward for humanity if we insist upon killing one another (figuratively and actually) over the truth. Truth, as we experience it alone, is not enough for God’s people.
In this case, Paul is using the word truth in a very specific way. Truth is not some evidentiary fact. Here it has to do with the truth of God’s love and grace shown in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ. By its very nature, truth cannot set free anyone without its companions, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Without these qualities, even this truth is just another tool the jailer uses to hold others hostage.
Recently we received an ‘anonymous’ letter from a ‘long term member,’ who voiced displeasure over the suggestion of and process for the welcome center/elevator project. This letter was full of inaccuracies about how our campaign progressed and how certain funds were used. The letter suggested that moving ahead with the project would cause us to lose more members.
I told one of our leaders that I am unwilling to respond to anonymous complaints of any kind. Why? Because anonymity does not allow for any relationship. Compassion, kindness, and forgiveness, cannot be exercised universally but are qualities of specific relationships. I cannot be compassionate for the poor in Haiti in general; I can be compassionate if I advocate for them and donate to them specifically. I cannot forgive in generalities; I can forgive someone who, because of differences of thought or belief has derided my character. But none of these gifts of the Spirit can be exercised outside of some sort of relationship, apart from a commitment to community.
That is why I have been feeling pretty down, nearly wanting to cancel my newspaper subscription, and turn off the tv. My strong introvert personality is begging me for isolation and withdraw. But I have an ever stronger force tugging at me; I believe the gospel, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, because they remind me of the kindness, compassion, and forgiveness God has given me.
And still, those five words at the beginning of chapter five, they intimidated me. “Be therefore imitators of God.” They intimidated me until I realized that that is all I am ever asked to do, to be a once off imitation, to do my best, to marshall up what limited amounts of compassion and kindness and forgiveness I have, to be an imitator. That is what disciples of Jesus do, after all.
THE 18th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
August 2, 2015
“God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.” Fredrick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking”
“Hello, Sinner!” Rev. Nadia Boltz Weber’s favorite greeting.
This reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus can be, well, a little discouraging. It is possible to hear these words and because of who we are and what we know of our limitations, to believe that surely, St. Paul must be talking about someone else.
One of the great paradoxes of this life of discipleship is that God chooses to work through feeble human beings. Paul’s language, Apostles, Evangelists, Prophets, may make us think about the miraculous; and so our thoughts turn to big events like Moses parting the Red Sea or when Peter and John, at the gate called ‘beautiful’ (because it lead to the temple), who healed a man who could not walk since birth. Big names. Big roles. Big events. Yet a closer observation of lives of these people, Moses, Peter, or John, reveals they were far from perfect and yet God found them worthy to be agents of God’s work in the world.
I was once visiting a church. It was summer, and you might be surprised to know that when I am on vacation I usually go to church. On that day they had some special music. They brought in this tenor to sing during the offertory. I overheard the buzz in the pews before worship. He was known to these folks for his beautiful voice. During the piece he sang, there were a series of high notes that I am quite sure he had sang perfectly a hundred times before. But on that day, well, they weren’t so good. I heard two people in an adjacent pew reviewing the offertory: “well, he really flopped today. But what do you expect? He’s only human.”
He’s only human? I wonder what people said in their comments all the other times he sang that same piece but hit every note. “Well, that was wonderful. But what do you expect, he’s only human.”
See there is something strange in our assignment of cause to every faux pas to the human condition. What about every success? What about all the times that the gathered community of faith is actually agents of God’s healing and reconciliation? Do we chalk it up to luck? Coincidence? What is going on here?
It is as if, because Jesus has ascended into heaven and so he cannot be assigned the task; it is as if God simply chooses somebody nearby who looks like they might just possibly do. God uses people to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, and often these instruments are as surprised at their being chosen as anybody else. It was as if God “put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.” (Buechner, Fredrick “Wishful Thinking”)
The church, at its best, is a rather ragged gathering of imperfect people who God has tapped on the shoulder for various kinds of service. This identification can easily be shrugged off because each of us know that at the moment we are hardly capable of fulfilling any such ‘high calling.’ But the miracle is that the service we are called to, to be Christ to each other and the world, is not and never has been accomplished by perfect people, save one.
What disciples of Jesus do, what any church does, in real life, is to
help us to believe that life can be abundant and free. They encourage us to trust that we can always begin, or begin again, no matter what has happened to us, no matter what we have done, and no matter what we have failed to do. (Rev. Dr. Guy Sales, “In Repair,” Day One.)
Some years ago I was part of an ecumenical program called the ‘weekday school of religious education.’ It was basically Sunday school, but it wasn’t on Sunday. We got permission from the school district to allow elementary students to ‘elect’ to be released for an hour in the school day and we put them on the bus and took them to one of our churches and taught them bible stories. The children left the elementary school building as if shot from a cannon. I suspect some saw this as another hour of recess. Some of the behavior was so bad that one day a Borough police officer was moved to pull the bus over, because there were screaming children hanging out the windows. So we began ‘chaperoning’ the bus. Adult volunteers rode the bus to and from the classes.
I was trying to manage the circus we called a bus ride one day. My strategy was to sit with the child who was acting out the most. They were usually sitting in the back. One day I sat down next to a child who for all purposes could have been ‘Dennis the Menace,’ or ‘Calvin,’ from the old ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ cartoon. I sat down next to him and albeit briefly, his antics stopped. I said, “my name is Jon Fogle, what’s yours?” He said, ‘Dickie Howser.’ I paused a moment. The name sounded familiar. I said, “Do you have a grandfather with the same name?” The boy hung his head and said, “yeah, the bishop.”
I asked him about his behavior. He said point blank: “everybody knows I am just a bad kid.” My heart broke. So I asked him another question, “is that what your grandfather, the bishop, says about you?” “No,” Dicky said, “he tells me I am a child of God. But I know better than that.” I told him, “I think your grandfather was right. You are a child of God.” And then I told him, “some expectations are easier to live up to than others.”
And so if you start to think that this person or that person is not worthy of inclusion in God’s family, think again. More importantly, remember even you, too, are included. When we say “all are welcome,” pause a moment and say to yourself ‘I am welcome.’ I am called. I am welcome here. Paul begs the Ephesians to live up to his expectations for them. But this cannot be done if we believe they are too high, or mistakenly assigned. Our worthiness is not a product of our spiritual perfection. Our worthiness is not a consequence of hard work. Our worthiness is not an end, but rather what, when believed, allows us the freedom and grace to be the people that God has already created us to be. Each of us, are worthy servants of God, with our own particular and peculiar gifts that God has given us. No exceptions.
The poet Mary Oliver says it this way:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
This is the good news of the Gospel.
One of the benefits of having friends who attend our UCC General Synod is that they bring me back stuff. Sometimes is is ‘kitsch.’ Other times it is something that stimulates my thinking. That happened this year.
A friend gave me a brief paper written by Rev. Dr. Bob Thompson, president of “Faithful and Welcoming Churches.” This paper was thoughtful, well written, and I suspect representative of the position that many people take on the whole marriage equality issue.
There is very much in it that I appreciate and admire, even if I am not in agreement. While demonstrating a gracious and generous spirit, it is also clear he is writing to give voice to (and for) people who do not support marriage equality.
In this paper, (titled “Rethinking Homosexuality”) I see Dr. Thompson laying down his principle reason for opposition as being based upon the Genesis account. Some advocates, however, interpret this creation as the need for ‘companionship’ and community. Much of the rejection of LGBQT has focused on the sex ‘act,’ or procreation. I would not want to take such a narrow reading of the creation story(s).
That being said, the rest of the document discusses why Christians should not be so absolute in their rejection and condemnation of LGBQT folk. In citing such not-controversial qualities as self-denial, calling, sins, compassion, unity, humility, and prayer, Dr. Thompson does an excellent job of describing the essential requirements of any Christian community with respect to any divisive issue. He does not take up an affirming position but reinforces ‘welcoming’ as normative.
It is interesting that while he cites John 17 and the unity of the church, his discourse finally comes down to a very pragmatic concern: “…essentially we’re saying to half or more of the world around us, ‘if you want to find a relationship with God and Jesus, don’t come here.’ I have a similar concern about growing intolerance in the UCC for anything but a very progressive theology. As I heard it, the “Faithful and Welcoming Churches” folk wore t-shirts that said on the back, “I am Welcome Here.” I would hope so.
To be clear, I personally support marriage equality and believe that a Christian church should be ‘affirming,’ not just welcoming. And, affirming does not remove one from the realm of ‘faithful.’
I did not come to this position overnight. It represents over 25 years of ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ, much of it during the same period the denomination grappled with the issues of ordination and full inclusion of LGBQT folk. As Dr. Thompson said so well, that as a pastor in the reformed lineage of our UCC “I am always rethinking everything.” I agree with Dr. Thompson who also affirms that there are some absolutes in terms of faith. The reality is, however, that if we insist upon a very narrowly defined dogmatic we ‘ipso facto’ exclude many from the family of faith.
In terms of individual congregations, especially middle to larger congregations, a narrow dogmatic denies the diverse reality in the pew. Forced allegiance is not helpful, in part because issues like these are rarely solved by better theology or better exegesis. Thompson acknowledges: “…Christians down through the years are now almost universally acknowledged to have read the bible wrong on a plethora of topics.” Issues such as this are usually emotional and relational. Dr. Thompson is right on target when he recognizes that “where people make up their minds, slam their opponents, and separate into ever-narrowing cliques of the like minded…” and essential element of the church of Jesus Christ is lost.
Some months ago I attended a training put on by an ecumenical cast of leaders. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, and Equality PA, were there to teach about a process called “Building an Inclusive Church.” It was (to me) a great event. I was the only straight, tall, white, CIS, heterosexual, married to the same woman for 34 years, in the room. During the break, one of the leaders questioned me. I think he was concerned I was some sort of ‘plant.’ He asked, ‘why are you here?’ This question helped me frame a little better in my mind, not only why I was in attendance but, why embraced inclusion.
Ironically, I must confess, I do not understand what has come to be called the “gender spectrum.” Either by nature or nurture, I identify in very traditional ways. In terms of attraction, again I identify in very traditional ways. Still, there was and is something that bothers me about assigning a certain ‘gone wrongness’ to others who do not identify as I do.
When I was in high school I was involved in sports. Up the street from where I lived I had a classmate who suddenly ‘disappeared.’ I learned that he was at home in a deep, dark, depression following a failed attempt at suicide. I went to see him. He told me that he was gay. In the mid ’70’s, that was disturbing to me; but not as disturbing as the reality that this athletic, funny, smart, young man nearly killed himself over it. I stumbled through words and actions in the days and weeks ahead that I hoped would demonstrate to him that this did not mean I would cease to be his friend.
Early in my ministry the United Church of Christ voted to affirm LGBQT folks as candidates for ordination. I was a member of my Association’s Committee on Ministry. We labored to create a statement affirming that GS resolution. I was the primary author. The gist of that paper was that a persons identity as LGBQT was but one element of their whole identity. That, any more than a persons identity as a woman, did not immediately exclude them from the ordination process. However, just because you fall into this category or that category qualifies no one for ordination. Still, at every ‘town hall’ meeting we held in the association, I got barbecued.
Once, the Conference asked me to be part of a public discussion held at one of our churches. Another pastor from the conference who opposed ordination for LGBQT folk was also asked to participate. I found myself on the podium at this church with my colleague by my side. He spoke, then I spoke. He answered my questions. I answered his questions. After about an hour of this we wrapped it up. I turned to him and said, “I think that went pretty well.” He said, “I wish you had not said that.” Shortly thereafter ‘all hell’ broke loose and these nice ‘christian’ people were at each other’s throats. Everything but fists were slung in every direction. My colleague, as opposed to one another as we were, slinked out of the building, together.
The central issue that I was supporting then, and now, is that a person’s sexual orientation does not, ‘ipso facto,’ disqualify anyone from ordination. Another more recent example is the Boy Scouts of America’s policy which provides room for LGBQT leaders. I suspect that they enacted this policy with the understanding that there are many qualities that disqualify someone from being a Scout leader. One’s sexual orientation is not one of them.
I would stand with Dr. Thompson; I hope he would stand with me, knowing that I would be Welcoming, Open, and Affirming. If a couple came to me, requesting a wedding in the church, and it was a same gender couple, they would be subject to the same questions and process that every other couple gets from me. Are they members? Is the extended family active members? Are they willing to attend premarital counseling (it’s required). Do you recognize that this is a worship service of the church, and not a ‘production?’ And, in that counseling, are their major relational issues (e.g. violence, abuse, addictions) that would not allow me (in good conscience) to conduct this wedding? To me the issues that are problematic (sinful even?) are not in the realm of identification but are relational.
Not too long ago, a family left our church. I was heartbroken. I met with them and discovered the main reason was that they felt I was ‘pushing the gay agenda.’ So for a couple of hours we talked. I offered a book to them, which they accepted, by Mark Achtemier titled: “They Bible’s Yes to Same Sex Marriage.” Finally, I said, “I wish I could talk you out of leaving.” There was, of course, nothing I could say to change their minds.
See, what I hope to be ‘pushing’ is not the gay agenda, but the Christian agenda. Recently, the lectionary lead me to re-read a letter, written a long time ago, while a pastor was sitting in jail. He said,
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19, NRSV, emphasis mine.)
Paul’s hopes for the Ephesians, a people who were once outside the ‘family of God’ with no way in, and who then through Jesus Christ had access, is the same hope I have for all God’s children. In that, together we may be ‘rooted and grounded in this love that is for all God’s people.’ This ‘condition’ is not an end point or a goal for faithful christians, but a desirable starting point for all we do. I think that is what Dr. Thompson hopes for too.
June 28th, 2015
“Advice on the Offering”
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
In my first call there was an older woman who lived in a house that was a remodeled chicken coop. True story. We were involved in a capital campaign to add a much needed addition to that church. For some reason she felt compelled to tell me how much she had committed to give for the project. I spoke too quickly and said, “That’s too much.” See I knew how limited her resources were. Angrily, she replied “that’s not for you to decide, it’s between me and God. I was just giving you a heads up.”
Earlier in chapter eight of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth he tells the church about their sister church in Macedonia. There, they were full of faith and short on resources. Yet, “they gave beyond their means.” Most of us might spend beyond our means from time to time, but ‘give beyond our means?’
Do you remember Jesus in the temple, watching the collection box? It may have been the widow from the first church I served who put those two copper coins in the till, or someone like her. It was so moving that Jesus pointed this out to his disciples, and the idea of ‘proportional giving’ was born.
Whenever someone is trying to get me to emphasize this moral issue or that moral issue, I am reminded that Jesus offered more advice, spoke about money, stewardship, more than anything except the Kingdom of God. There is no specific commandment on giving from Jesus, as St. Paul notes. So we are left to our own devices. In a new members class years ago I was taken off guard when a couple asked me, “how much should we give?” The Holy Spirit was faithful and in good rabbinical fashion I answered with a question, “how much are you ‘called’ to give.” That couple in the new member group answered my question by asking, ‘doesn’t the bible say 10%. Is that how much we have to give? and I said no, you can give more.
See this request from Paul is not about the normal ‘alms giving.’ It is not about the plate being passed in church on Sunday. The first thing it is about is the Jerusalem church that is suffering extreme poverty; and he is urging all of the people he knows to come, generously, to their aid. See for disciples of Christ, stewardship is not only measured monetarily, but also relationally.
It is as if Paul is suggesting that those Christians over in Corinth pause and think about the situation in other churches. Think about other people. See, the first point Paul makes is that being a follower of Jesus is relational.
Although the Jerusalem church was in dire need of financial assistance, Paul’s appeal for help was directed at gentile churches. And so Justice is both economic and relational—even racial. Being reconciled to God, giving to your neighbors and forgiving your enemies, living at peace because everyone’s needs are met—is there anything that feels closer to heaven? It is easy to be put off; Paul lays it on so thick, using every lever at his disposal: Shame. Flattery. Fear. He did whatever it took to get the Corinthians to eagerly give; not because the money was important, and it was, but because that’s what people reconciled to God do. They are generous.
More than one stewardship campaign has been based that gift that keeps on giving, guilt. But in reality, Paul is not trying to make us feel guilty. Instead, he is basing his appeal on the same thing that every good offering is based upon: gratitude. In his first letter to the Corinthians he exclaims “already you are filled; already you are rich!” (1 Cor. 4:8). The second thing Paul is speaking about is the Son of God, in the flesh. The “BIG” word is “INCARNATION.” Paul is saying that the drama of God’s redeeming love occurred in this life that we know, where we live, the same place where, for example we might share some of our resources with those in need. “He who was rich became poor.”
Even back then, it was easy to compartmentalize life, saying: Today I will exercise in the spiritual realm. Come Monday its back to the ‘real world.’ Paul dispels such binary thinking. Because the One who is eternal became physical, because the spiritual entered into the material, because this ultimate reality chooses to meet us in our reality, there is no separation between the spiritual and material. Money for relief of the poor, or an earthquake in Nepal, or funding education in the inner city has the same ramifications as prayer and worship or any other spiritual practice.
We might jump over this short verse in the midst of the rest of this reading, but it gets at the second part of what Paul is speaking speaking about. It is the reason or motivation for that collection: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Sometimes we can rationalize keeping our resources to ourselves by saying that “I worked hard for it, it is mine.” What you might here Pauls saying is that none of it is yours, especially your place as a child of God. It was generously and freely, sacrificially, given to you. He never comes right out and says the how much. But the why? The why is right here in black and white, and it is the background to Paul’s advice to the Corinthians, and us, on the offering.
Monday, June 22nd, I was blessed to join some of my United Church of Christ family on the steps of the capitol building in Harrisburg to raise a prayer for education in Pennsylvania. Once a friend advised me to stay out of such matters and ‘stick to religion.’ So let me tell you why I was there.
As the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss wrote, poor school districts inevitably struggle to afford special-education staff, smaller classes, better computers and teacher development, among many other things. You do not need to study financial reports or performance studies. All you need to do is to visit these schools to see it.
One study documented that per-pupil spending across all districts in Pennsylvania during the 2009-10 school year was $12,729. Districts with the least and greatest levels of poverty, the fewest and most students, and the lowest and highest levels of student achievement, spent, on average, more per student than districts in the middle (i.e., the second and third quartiles) of the poverty, enrollment, and achievement distributions. On the average, poorer districts perform lower than wealthier districts. Why? Larger class size, fewer resources, less targeted professional development, reduced ancillary staff, as a consequence of strangled budgets result in reduced academic outcomes.
Education expenditures must be sufficient to produce acceptable academic outcomes for all students, especially when educational needs vary across the student population. Students living in poverty, English- language learners (ELLs), and special education students all require a larger investment than other students in order to achieve academically. This means that districts with high numbers of high-need students require more funding.
In 2013, Stein and Quinn of The University of Pennsylvania conducted a study that indicated statewide, the adequacy gap for all non-charter school districts (including the School District of Philadelphia) in 2009-10 was, on average, $751 per pupil—suggesting that an additional $1.26 billion was required to account for the difference between current per-pupil spending and an educationally adequate level of spending.
The average of $5,813 in per-pupil dollars coming from the state in Pennsylvania in 2012 ranked 21st nationwide — and was less than every abutting state except Ohio. The Educational Law Center estimates that high-poverty public schools in Pennsylvania spend an annual average of $3,000 less per student compared to wealthy schools, adding up to a funding gap of $75,000 in a classroom of 25 students. While this number includes local funding, the fundamental issue is that the state funding amount is not consistent across districts. It is not equitable. This average shortfall is savagely more in some poor districts.
The reason that the expenditures must meet a ‘fully funded’ and ‘fair’ formula is that without complete and adequate funding, these students, on the whole, are not provided an ‘equal’ education to their counterparts in wealthier districts. This educational deficit has long term consequences for the economies of cities and states, setting up a vicious cycle. Without complete and adequate funding, who, exactly is this workforce that is being prepared for the jobs we hope to create through tax subsidies for corporations?
Jonathan Kozol, writer, educator, and activist, who studied education for forty years, bluntly explains this situation by noting that legislators are unwilling to tax benefactors and corporations. In Pennsylvania, critics frequently point to teachers salaries and pension [a pension fund whose multiplier was recently increased (not requested by PSEA) by 0.5% by the legislature]. Further in the past, this same legislature reduced school districts required contributions to these same funds, and market returns temporarily provided an offset in income. That situation was brief, and since then, no increase in funding (even without increased pension contributions by districts) has crippled poorer districts.
Morally, ethically, this is structure for educational funding that is in effect an economical and social segregation. As a pastor that is why I am compelled to speak, this is a faith issue. In St. Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he urges them: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, NRSV)
I urge Governor Wolf to fulfill his campaign promises for fair education funding. It is long past time for the legislature to provide a permanent fair funding formula that is not subject to the whims of politics, but instead provides equitable funding for all students and districts.
THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EASTER
April 19, 2015
“Believing is Seeing”
Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.
Not all that long ago, my wife and I were traveling somewhere. It was snowy, windy, and cold. I could have been December, January, or February, I don’t remember. As we rounded the bend in the country road I noticed out of the corner of my eye four deer standing out on the edge of the field, near the woodline; they were easily 500 yards off. I said, “look, deer.” We kept going. She said to me, “are you watching the road?” She’s that kind of navigator. I told her, “of course I am!” She wondered how in the world I managed to pick those deer out of the landscape. Some of you know how I did it. My eyes are tuned to that image. It jumps out at me.
I was standing in the parking lot about a month ago, talking to someone. I paused. “What?” they asked. “Listen,” I said, “snow geese.” They wondered aloud how I heard that.
It’s a habit. Over the years I have gathered an encyclopedia of times and places where deer can be expected. Not specific places, but if I am in a familiar spot that helps, then I can anticipate seeing them.
When I get surprised is when I see deer where I don’t expect to see them. When I was at Princeton, my advisor’s home was on the edge of town and he couldn’t keep shrubs in his yard. The deer chewed them to the ground every winter. This was suburbia. I thought he was hallucinating until when I was there one day having lunch, the deer came up between the houses for their lunch. They startled me. I didn’t expect to see them in that setting.
Hearing is the same thing, we get tuned to certain sounds. Snow geese on the horizon. A baby’s muffled cry down the hall. Sometimes, though, we don’t hear and we don’t see.
It is like the nurse who had a patient in the hospital. She had cared for the man for two weeks, nurturing him back to health. The man went back home to his wife. One day they were in the grocery store and this nice young woman came up to them and greeted them, saying ‘It is so good to see you again.’ He looked at her during an awkward minute. His wife looked at him. He looked at the young woman. Finally he said, ‘do I know you?’ ‘Why sure she said…’ he interrupted her and said, ‘of course! I know you! I just didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!’ Some things are easier to recognize in a setting that we expect them.
I hope you don’t mind if we think about this variable experience we call ‘seeing.’ It is common in the bible to hear this word, see. Peter begins speaking to a crowd and uses this word ‘see.’ John writes a letter to a church that is enduring division and he uses the word, ‘see.’ In the gospel, Jesus tries to quell the disciples confusion saying, ‘see that it is I myself.’ I want to emphasize these conversations, not in a way that some people do, to criticize. I want to take a close look at those people so that we might learn something about ourselves. We all develop our vision as we grow older, but one thing we all do; we see things through our own ‘lenses.’ Behind most of the decisions we make, things we say, what we do, what we like and dislike, is how we ‘see.’
I have a childhood memory of the first house my family owned. It was a warm summer evening and after dinner we were sitting out in the backyard eating watermelon. What I remember is my grandfather telling me that the seeds were bugs. I couldn’t bring myself to eat watermelon for years. Even now, I can plainly see that the seeds are not bugs, and yet I don’t eat it if I can avoid it. What is going on here? You know what is going on here. I am entirely able to observe that those little black bits are not bugs, but seeds. Yet, no thanks to the watermelon.
We come to Peter. Peter and John have just healed a lame beggar. At the gate of town where the beggars congregate a man looks to Peter for something. Peter knows what he wants. He anticipates what he wants. Then, in one of the greatest lines in scripture, Peter takes the man by the hand and says,
I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.
The man begins jumping around and shouting for joy. The people nearby were, of course, astonished. What did they see? You can imagine what some investigator would hear if he interviewed the witnesses. But Peter didn’t wait for any speculation. He explained to them what they saw.
We come to the letter writer John. John is writing to a church that has been divided over some kind of disagreement. We don’t know what it was. But whatever it was, John told them there is one medicine for what ails you:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
So for us, there is something wrong if we cannot recognize the love of God in one another. It is present for all to see and yet something hinders our ‘seeing.’ What would it be? Is not God’s loving grace such a powerful presence that it is obvious? Apparently not. Not if you aren’t looking for it. Not if you do not anticipate it.
We come to John and the disciples in the upper room. I did something I promised myself I wouldn’t do. Last week I watched a part of the tv mini series, A.D. I told myself that I didn’t need to watch it. I’ve read the book. As I watched, I was impressed, surprisingly, that the writers and editors did not depict the disciples as a group unanimous in their resolve, in anticipation of the risen Christ. They were not. Not in the book, not in the t.v. series. The writers of that series depicted the upper room scene. Just like in scripture, they had trouble ‘seeing Jesus.’ “They were startled and terrified, thinking they had seen a ghost.”
I know people who limit the possibilities to that realm. You know, to the ‘religious.’ It is as if Faith is active only in the territory of the spirit. They might say believing Jesus is the Christ is something that is important in that it gives us hope for eternity. The risen Christ is encountered in the bread and the wine, and in scripture read and preached. And, to their credit, Jesus can be encountered there. But there are other places too.
Some things are so hard to see. We are so prone to miss what is going on around us.
One of the hardest things to see is the Risen Christ in our midst. So John wrote these things to remind all of us that we need to practice ‘seeing,’ and build our own ‘encyclopedia’ of where we notice God at work in the world around us. If we decide ahead of time the likely places where we will encounter Christ we can increase our chances. But where?
John wants the reader to know that the place to look for the presence of Christ is not beyond the earth. But that the sacred center of life is still in the world, in the flesh and blood, material world. This is where God is active and alive. This is where people can know God and where God lives with and empowers people. In the world around us. In people around us. Sometimes in the most unlike people and places.
And because of this passage and so many other passages in John, no one who reads these stories can then continue to believe that following Jesus Christ means being concerned only for matters related to the soul. Then, with the ancient heresies of John’s day, and now, with those ancient heresies dusted off, the dwelling place of God is not off in the world of the spirit somewhere, fenced into what is sacred but not secular, but within this physical world in which we live. Let us not create false divisions.
We have to tune our eyes and our hearts so that we might believe this, and so see it.
You can see Jesus in the daily ministry of the church. Where? As we are armpit deep in the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual…human hurts of people in our church, our community, and our world. As we gather around the Lord’s table and Word of God our eyes and hearts get readjusted. And when we go out to serve this same God, we continually re-discover God, the living and true God, noticing this presence around us; There, God meets us and continues to empower us for ministry in this world. See?
You are witnesses to these things.
April 5, 2015
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
For a few minutes, I ask you to suspend your familiarity with the account of what happened ‘early in the morning on the first day of the week.’ For a little while, let your heart rest in that place that so many were on that day, confused, discouraged, perhaps ready to go back to ‘normal’ life, whatever that is.
But someone, not of our close knit group, a person who had to follow along on the edges, makes her way to the tomb. Her name was Mary. She has been called Mary Magdalene. She has been the subject of wild speculation like so many prominent figures are. Some have said she was a harlot. Others, quite creatively, have suggested that she was Jesus’ partner. Some have even imagined that she bore his child. Early in the church’s tradition, she is is often identified not only with the anonymous harlot with the perfume in Luke’s gospel, but also with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; this interpretation is often called the “composite Magdalene” in modern scholarship. The seven devils removed from her by Jesus “morphed into the seven capital sins, and Mary Magdalene began to be condemned not only for lust but for pride and covetousness as well.” (Morrow, Carol Ann, “St. Mary Magdalene: Redeeming Her Gospel Reputation.” Liguori Publications. Catholic Update Newsletter. Nov. 30, 1999.)
What we do know is that according to Luke, seven demons were cast out of her. I do not confess to know what that really means except that she had a complex condition that Jesus miraculously relieved her from. We do know that she appeared to be the leader of this group of women who also followed Jesus. Being a woman, and living in a society where they were seen as little more than property and a means for procreation, she was never the less depicted as a brave and resolute person who stayed nearby Jesus throughout his suffering and crucifixion.
The insiders, you might note, have scattered. The end of the Jesus story, as they had conjured up in their minds, did not turn out as planned. Fearing for their lives, or soundly dejected, they have made their presence scarce in the final days. Who can blame them.
Then, maybe because she and the other women were doing the woman’s work of anointing the body, or perhaps it was because of her unwavering dedication, early in the morning on the first day of the week, she leads a small group to the tomb.
I do not know precisely what was going on. But I have stood at the edge of freshly dug graves enough to have a sense of the mood. There is a scripture I use there, perhaps one of the earliest writings of the christian era, from another outsider named Paul to some folks in Thessolonica: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” But on this day no one knew this, so no one could say it.
It is easy to not know this. I see it outside my office window from time to time. Someone goes out to the cemetery, amidst the stones. There are family names, sometimes they put the words: ‘Father, mother, or, husband, wife.’ Sometimes they are bringing some fresh flowers, sometimes they are taking away a dried and decrept arrangement from a prior season. There lingers there a certain kind of pain that is renewed, even though the smell of freshly dug soil has long been blown away by the wind and grass now grows.
When I watch them I believe that there are many who visit whose name is also chiseled into that stone, their loved one’s dates complete and theirs uncertain. But in some continual act of devotion they come to tidy things up and remember.
I imagine that this is the work Mary was about that day. So it was a normal day, the usual for those who were grieving. But the removal of the stone and the empty tomb disrupt what she was about. Her mind moves to the logical conclusion that someone has taken Jesus’ body. What other conclusion could there be? In a closed an ridged structure of ‘that’s the way things are’ only the old and familiar occur. Find the body, and get things back to normal.
To this outsider, this one who was not welcomed at the table, but had to tag along at the margins, Mary’s closed world (and ours) is broken open when Jesus calls her name. The one who was certified as dead greets her. The established rules as to what should happen, what can happen, how things can happen, are overthrown. And because of who she was, the old structures of who is an ‘appropriate’ disciple of Jesus Christ is left in shambles. It is a new day.
But even Mary is stuck in the old way. She asks the gardner, “tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” Even she wants only to do what is acceptable and proper. But his calling of her name, that familiar voice, shatters her customary world, as comfortable as it may be. It is Mary Magdalene, who begins the proclamation of Easter.
Now, remember with me that we do know the entirety of the story, so that with Mary we can experience, and with Peter, we can proclaim, the reality that ‘God shows no partiality.’ With Saint Paul we can affirm that now and forever ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.’ That apparently it is true, that ‘whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, Jesus welcomes you…Today we know this. Today we are certain that Jesus came to redeem the whole world, even you and I, as imperfect as we are. ”so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” This is the good news.