Saturday, May 5, 2012

Lent 5 2012

Lent 5, 2012                  “It’s not about the Greeks, it’s about the Kingdom the Jesus is advocating”

In seminary we were told when beginning to write a sermon, that we should pay attention to the parts of the scripture text that pinches our foot. The understanding here being that whatever bothers us about the text as preachers is likely to be a bother for others, as well. So, by digging into it, we end up cultivating a pretty useful and informative sermon (hopefully).
This approach has worked pretty well for me, honestly—especially right at the beginning of the sermon writing process. However, today’s Gospel reading did not have a particular pinch for me, so much as it had a few things that nag at me.
The main thing that gets to me is that the passage starts by telling us that among the people who went to Jerusalem for the festival were some Greeks. We’re then told that they approach Philip and say that they want to see Jesus…  A pretty good start, really.
But, what makes me a little crazy is that once Philip tells Andrew about these people, and Andrew tells Jesus—it’s the last we hear about them. There’s no indication who they are, why they as Greeks were interested in being in Jerusalem for Passover—just this moment that goes…well..nowhere.

Commentaries about this passage really aren’t too helpful. They seem to agree that these aren’t Jewish people who had become secularized—after all, they wouldn’t be referred to as “Greeks.” However, scholars do believe that these were either Gentiles known as ‘God-fearers’, or even a group of converts to Judaism—both of which really tell us nothing about them. Besides even I could have come up with that…
Also, there is some belief that they first approach Philip because he happens to be one of the disciples with a Greek name…
While this might be helpful for making the case that these are not Jewish people—I can’t imagine how they would have any idea who Philip was…unless he was the greeter and wearing his nametag.
But the issue for me is that there is enough set-up about these people that it just seems like a wasted opportunity for a great story. However, we hear nothing more of them.

I suppose there might be something in their reason for coming to find Jesus that might offer something. After all, Jesus’ reputation was such that all kinds of people came looking for him—people caught in adultery, Gentiles, tax-collectors. But when they show up, there is always some lesson accompanied with it. Jesus always seems to take those opportunities to teach about the inclusion of the least-likely, and rebukes hard heartedness.
With these mysterious Greeks, however, we don’t see this response, and I suppose it’s up to the reader to try to discern how they fit into the bigger picture.
Now the fact is that Jesus does ‘teach’ in this section—it’s just not necessarily in conjunction with these Greek people showing up. Or, at least it doesn’t seem like it. It’s also not exactly his normal teaching style. It’s less dialogical—not the usual posing questions and answering with more questions… This is more a formal farewell discourse from a teacher to his students.
In this discourse, then, Jesus begins by saying that “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Of course the troubling thing about this is that the glorification he’s referring to is his crucifixion. And it is apparently by this act that he will draw all people to himself.

He openly admits his fear, but explains that it must be done. He even goes so far as to call people to a discipleship that demands giving-up one’s life. But in this promises honor from God for those who would give themselves so readily. Of course, what he asks seems impossible—but not something he himself would not undergo first…
Perhaps this is the reason for the Greeks showing up. To some Jesus appears by all intent a failed, Byronic hero. However as we’ve seen in other places in the Gospel narratives, he is one who teaches with authority—and even does miracles to prove his authority. The Kingdom that he advocates is not limited by boundaries, or ethnicity, or politics so that it might be caught up in wars, or the exclusion of people based solely on their background. In fact, when he enters Jerusalem, he enters as a king returning home in peacetime.
Likewise along with the ruler of this world (as Jesus says), the ushering in of God’s Kingdom marks the end for ambitious, power-hungry despotism. In Jesus is heralded something completely different—this, I believe, is what draws all people to him. This is what I believe still draws all people to him—and just like those people who knew him then, we’re all still trying to figure him out.

So, perhaps like those Greek pilgrims, Jesus has also drawn us. It just may be that in our own experience of being drawn to him, we can intuit what drew those people then.
Ironically, it’s most likely the impossible call to give our lives, and the constant challenge to be more loving, and more committed to God and others that draws us. However, these are things that test our sense of comfort, and impress upon us the necessity of finding our purpose and true selves. As hard as these things seem, though; in our sometimes chaotic world they’re exactly what gives us grounding, and help us to find our bearings again. Help us remember who we are…
This is because the Shepherd’s voice is a universal one—one which calls to all people to be known and redeemed by God’s love. And like these nameless, unknown Greeks, we can’t help but be drawn—like them, we wish to see Jesus.

Lent 3 2012

Lent 3 2012

The tough thing about following a lectionary of scripture readings is that we don’t always get the story in proper order. In fact, we don’t always get readings from the same Gospel that we’ve been reading from these past weeks… However, we do still get a continuous theme which moves us closer to the Passion narratives in Holy week.
Our reading today, for example, comes from the Gospel of John—fairly early in John’s Gospel for that matter. It’s an account that happens soon after Jesus called his disciples, and has just been to the wedding feast in Cana where he turned water to wine.
So, technically, today’s reading really marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in John’s Gospel…
Perhaps it’s not a text book way of beginning a ministry (chasing out merchants from the Temple), but it did set a precedent (to say the least). Besides it’s kind of fun to see Jesus get everyone riled up, especially in matters of injustice.
But as it turns out, these merchants in the Temple courts were offering a valid service to pilgrims who would have found it difficult to bring their own sacrifices from long distances.
This area of the Temple was well known as a kind of market, in fact, for that very reason.

Likewise, the money changers had the job of making certain that people coming to offer a monetary offering had the proper Temple currency to do so. (So, big deal.)
Now, admittedly, some of these people were probably not always completely honest in their dealings. This is made pretty explicit in the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke where Jesus accuses them of making the place a den of robbers.
John’s Gospel, however throws us no such bone. In fact, there is very little to suggest any wrongdoing on the part of the merchants. Instead, it appears that Jesus is simply angry at their very presence, and runs them out to make a different point.
When Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees for his reason for doing this, the Gospel writer reveals to us this point in a very cryptic way. Specifically that Jesus is the replacement both for the sacrifices of the Temple, and even the Temple itself.
What John’s Gospel is saying is that by virtue of him being the Incarnation of God, and soon to be the perfect sacrifice for the whole world—the Temple is basically rendered obsolete…
All the same, Jesus is said to be cleansing the Temple. Why would he cleanse something that he believes to be obsolete?

 The synoptic Gospels, of course tell us what he is cleansing the Temple from: Namely greed and dishonest merchants. But John’s Gospel brings up a different issue, specifically what Jesus is cleansing the Temple for… And from his explanation to the Pharisees, I think it is safe to say that he is preparing the Temple, the people—even the world for his sacrifice.  
In the practice of sacrificial rites, it was required that not only the priest administering the sacrifice, but the place of the sacrifice should go through a process of ritual cleansing. The Temple, of course, would otherwise have already been considered clean—at least in terms of animal sacrifice. However, the kind of sacrifice that Jesus was to be was of far greater import. Because he would be giving himself for the whole world. Not to mention the fact that he is the Incarnation of the invisible God.
What’s more, there is this sense that John places this event at the beginning of the Gospel narrative because the sacrifice that Jesus will offer is more than a few hours on the cross. Instead, his sacrifice is all of his life and public witness to the love God. A thing that encompasses far more than those moments contained in the Passion narratives. So, that Jesus is not simply a sacrificial lamb, but is instead that Passover Lamb which has become part of the family, but must still be killed. In this way, the sacrifice of Jesus becomes about his entire life with and for us.

In following his example, then, we try to live sacrificially. We try to live lives which reflect our belonging to God. We seek continually to live as though we no longer belong to ourselves, but to God and to others.
But, inevitably, as all of us know, over time we become less focused. Our lives become cluttered, and before we know it our vision of Jesus is obscured.
If we continue in such a state, it becomes impossible for us to offer ourselves sacrificially.
Thankfully, in this Lenten Season we’re given time to “re-prepare” ourselves as God’s people. This is not only to prepare for the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. We’re also reminded of what it is to be made a sacrifice ourselves—a living sacrifice as St. Paul says.
And in this preparation, we’re made aware of those things which must be driven out of our lives. Those things which make our way less clear. Most importantly, we’re given time to prepare ourselves and our lives as a sacred place where the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ can be made real.
If we can do this, rather than simply going through the motions and emotions of Easter; we make space to be transformed again by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. With all of the obstacles pushed out of our way, then, the transformation of that sacrificial and redeeming gift will be allowed to shine through us—to shine through our lives. But only if we take the time to prepare and drive out those things which complicate us unnecessarily.

Lent 2 2012

Lent 2, 2012
There is a whole lot going on in our Gospel Reading today. That said, I invite you to buckle up as I try to sort through some of it without preaching two or three separate sermons in one… Because if I’m to try and do any justice to this reading, I need to hit a few points—and hopefully draw them together nicely at the end. We’ll see what happens.
First off, a little context for the reading, just to give us some perspective on everything going on.
 Up to this point Jesus has been travelling around healing and teaching and doing all sorts of miraculous things. Most recently Jesus fed a whole multitude of people with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. He healed a blind man with some spit, and put some Pharisees in their place when they demanded signs from heaven. All pretty common Jesus-type stuff, and certainly interesting enough to start to cultivate some faith from his disciples.
The culmination of this section comes right before today’s reading, when Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is… After some discussion, it’s Peter who finally confesses that Jesus is the Messiah.
However, in a moment of terrific irony, everything gets turned upon its head in today’s Reading.

Jesus, the affirmed Messiah begins telling the crowd of people around him that the Messiah must undergo suffering and be killed. Admittedly, he does say that he will rise again in three days—but, that’s not something you usually bank on.
And honestly, if a religious leader ever told you he was planning on dying and coming back, I’d recommend rescinding your pledge and finding a another place of worship… Because, after all, no matter how much you might love and respect the leader, what Jesus is saying sounds like crazy talk.
So it’s fair to say that Peter’s response to Jesus is a completely rational one—if Jesus wants his reformation or realignment or revolution to happen, he can’t go around telling everyone he’s going to be killed. It’s just bad business.
But for those of us who know how the story ends, we know that there is much more happening. There is much more about the true Messiah than these people—even his disciples—could ever imagine. Namely, that Jesus had more than just the restoration of Israel in mind. His work was the redemption of Creation.

The problem with Peter’s response was not that he was wrong in a rational sense—the problem was that Peter forgot his role as disciple. It’s as if in the moment Peter went from being a student to a P.R. Specialist. It’s like he decided that Jesus needed a campaign manager because what Jesus was saying was bad publicity. In other words, Peter thought that he understood all that Jesus was doing better than Jesus himself, and had somehow worked out the bigger picture (which was a mistake). Worse still, Peter thought he had to save Jesus from himself.
I think when we consider these particular points, it’s no wonder Jesus put Peter in his place. In defense of Jesus’ response, I’d imagine having someone intercede to save his life could have been a temptation. Then again, from the rebuke he gives Peter, I’d say it reminded Jesus a lot of being in the desert after his baptism…  
What happens next, of course, only makes things more awkward. If it wasn’t enough that he says that he will suffer and be killed; Jesus explains that the requirement for discipleship is to take up one’s own cross and follow him.

Not only this, but he goes so far as to say that the secret of truly receiving life is to lose one’s life. Probably not a great pitch for Stewardship Sunday, but it does call the bluff of anyone who assumes that discipleship is an easy thing. And of course, it’s not only a matter of following Jesus’ teaching, but even giving our lives fully in witness to the redemption given in Jesus Christ.
What is interesting about this statement about taking up the cross is that Jesus doesn’t say to take ‘a’ cross and follow after him. He says to “take up your cross.” It’s as if there is this understanding that each of us already has a cross that we bear—perhaps crosses made from all that we’ve experienced in life: the pain, the trials, even the joys I suppose.
But unlike anything else in our relationship with Jesus, this is about us. Because this cross of ours is made from the stuff of our lives. Yet, no matter what it is that forms it—it’s still a cross, just like everyone else’s.

And if the fact that all of us share in the experience of having crosses weren’t a powerful enough sign to us; Jesus goes so far as to ask us to take up our crosses. He bids us not dwell over our crosses, or be overwhelmed by them. Instead, he tells us to shoulder our pain, our sorrow, our joys—and carry them right behind him. He invites us to bear our crosses as a sign of victory. 
The thing about carrying a cross is the fact that in bearing it up—even if it is to one’s own crucifixion, it’s a sign of dignity, and victory. Because by lifting one’s cross, it shows that no matter how overwhelming the situation may appear, we won’t be crushed or defeated by it.
Jesus calls us, then, to not be crushed by the weight of our cross. He instead calls us to join him in making a sign of death into a sign of victorious life by showing the world that we will not be outdone by the pain of this life.
Taking up our own cross means that we refuse to be martyrs to ourselves for ourselves—but instead will bear it on as a standard. And even if that pain means our death—just like the one who leads us, we will one day lift up our cross as a reminder to ourselves and others the hope and victory that is promised us in Jesus Christ—the one who would never be defeated by his cross or death.

I suppose the misleading part about bearing our crosses is that we might think it will be an easy task—especially since our own cross is so familiar to us. But the truth is that we need to practice. We need to daily take up our crosses (daily die to ourselves as St. Paul says), and always ask Christ to help us bear it. This dying thing actually takes practice, as it turns out…And what better time than the season of Lent to get that practice?
Because the mystery of the cross—even our own cross, is that when we are able to see beyond it; understand it as something victorious; we rob death of its victory, and claim it for our own.
That is our message to proclaim, and our promise to hope for…

Epiphany 6 2012

Epiphany 6, 2012
          I have this birthday card that we bought for my grandmother a couple of years ago. I never really got around to sending it. I was working in two parishes, and Charity was beginning her work as a counselor, and—of course, Gareth had just come along, so we had two little boys to look after… At least those were all of the reasons I gave myself for why I never wrote anything in it, and I never sent it.
We actually bought the card the same year that my grandmother had gone into a nursing home. She had lost most of her vision from macular degeneration, and was showing the beginning signs of dementia. And after a long bout with shingles, she never fully recovered her mobility.
Anyway, I think that part of my reason for never sending the card was that I wanted to hang on to something—it was like my denial that she would never be in her house again, and that she would always be there to be my advocate.
Now, something you have to understand is that I’m the youngest of three children, and the only boy. This, of course, gave me great advantage in many areas of life—especially with my grandmother, who constantly reminded me that I was going to carry on the family name (and all of that). Well, once I reached adolescence and became less and less likable; it never seemed to matter what I’d done, or what kind of trouble I was having in school. My grandmother was always an advocate for me, and her house was always a safe place for me to land. And I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had her in my corner. In fact, I might not be alive if she hadn’t been there to knock sense into me when I needed it.
As I thought about this card and my grandmother—more than sentimentality—I realized what an amazing gift I was given in her. Y’know, just to have a safe place, where I was accepted unconditionally gave me some grounding—even just a place to get my head straight (and often she was the one to provide the straightening).
And in a world where young people are killing themselves because they can’t handle the pressure put upon them; or because of bullying…I have to say that having that safe place was essential to me getting through those years.

What got me thinking of all of this was something I had read in a commentary on today’s reading. This story where a man with leprosy approaches Jesus and asks for healing, and Jesus performs the healing, and sends the man away…yadda-yadda (very Markan Gospel). But as it turns out, there is a textual issue that could add a whole extra dimension to the story.
The word is that in older forms of the text, Jesus’ reaction is not “pity” as we have it in our translation. Instead, it might be translated as “anger” or “indignation.” Apparently Jesus was “moved to indignation” when he saw the man with leprosy…
Now there are a couple of ways that we can look at this; either Jesus was frustrated that his mission to preach the coming of the Kingdom had been stalled by one more sick person—not a really positive image. Or he was angry at what this man’s plight represented about society. Namely, he was a reminder of a social system which had become divine judge and jury to the sick and the lame. A system which forced people who needed help and support into isolation.
But, judging from the way that Jesus responds with a willingness to heal the man, (and a touch to confer that healing)—I would have to say that the latter understanding is most appropriate. That, in fact, Jesus was moved to heal the man out of compassion, but moved to indignation by what the man had gone through. The sins of the world, I guess you could say.

Historically, we know that people with leprosy were outcasts because of how contagious the disease was to people. In Jewish religious life, a person with leprosy was not only considered physically unclean, but also ritually unclean. Levitical Law was clear about what was expected of people with leprosy. Effectively they were to live outside of civilization. They were not permitted to share in the daily life of the community, and they were prohibited from worshiping in the religious community. And only in the case of miraculous recovery could a person return, after having seen the priest and given the appointed offering.
This was such a strict practice that (if we remember from our Old Testament reading), even Elisha didn’t touch Naaman when he came to be healed. However, here in Mark’s Gospel, we have Jesus not only healing the leprous man, but touching him and sending him to be readmitted into civilization both socially and religiously speaking.
Now, I wasn’t on a quest to try to figure out who would be considered a leper in today’s society—that just seems vulgar and opportunistic. But I am interested in this “indignation” idea, and I’m especially interested in our own response to the way our society seems to fail so miserably at caring for those who need it—even if it’s just a matter of giving people a safe place to land.

The truth is that I probably could have worked up a laundry list of things for us to respond to, and that wouldn’t have been terrible. But sometimes indignation calls us to outward action, and sometimes it calls us to a new kind of openness.
 This is why I keep coming back to this idea of a safe place…a place like the one my grandmother made for me…a place where people could be accepted no matter what.
Perhaps it sounds overly simple, but it makes me wonder what could be different if we made a safe place for people.
I mean what if a safe place meant keeping young people who are gay from committing suicide because they feel like they don’t belong anywhere else? Or any young person for that matter? What if a safe place meant making room for a divorcee who has been disowned by other churches? What if a safe place meant making a home for broken, faulted, lost people?
I can imagine that we’d be able to find more than a few people to join us.
Outside the door that leads to the sacristy, we have one of those familiar metal signs which reads: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Maybe some of us have gotten so used to seeing them around that we forget how powerful a message that is… But for the people who do see it, and can really believe it, the Episcopal Church might just be the touch and word that could bring them back to a relationship with God and God’s people.

I think I can speak for all of us when I say that this is certainly a place of transformation. So, people could definitely find this to be a safe place.
And just imagine if we had more than just the metal sign to tell people, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Better still, what if by our life and love and welcome in this place, we could tell people that God welcomes you…? I imagine all that it would take is for those of us who have found our own safe place here to offer the same hospitality to others.