Sunday, September 30, 2012

Proper 21 Yr B, by Deacon Marty Garwood


Lord, open our lips.
And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.

So the journey to Jerusalem continues.  We have seen amazing things as we have traveled this road with Jesus.

Yet we continue to miss the point.  Jesus has asked us hard questions.  Jesus asked us “Who do you say that I am?”.  Jesus has tried to tell us what to expect in the days to come but the idea that He will be killed and then rise again is impossible for us to understand – to wrap our minds around.  And we are afraid to ask how that can even be possible.

We argue about which one of us is the best disciple ever.  And somehow Jesus knows that is what we were talking about.  So He tells us that whichever one of us wants to be first must really be the last of all and servant of all.  What in the world does He mean by that?  And to top it off, he holds up an inconsequential child as an example of how we should welcome others – others that are really Jesus and the one who sent him.

And when we see someone outside of our close-knit group casting out demons – and daring to do it in our teacher’s name – we expect Jesus to stop him.  But no.  Instead of understanding our point that if that person is not with us – he is against us, Jesus turns it around on us and says that whoever is not against us is for us.  That simply is not the way it is done.  Doesn’t Jesus care about his honor – our honor?

I have deliberately used the present tense in recapping the Gospel readings for the past few weeks.  Although the Gospel of Mark was compiled nearly 2,000 years ago, it sounds strangely like today.

The Christian community today still argues about which is the best form of discipleship.  The concept of putting ourselves last is still counter-cultural.  That is not what society holds up as the standard for success.  

And even today we Christians can have a tendency to want to keep “our” Jesus tucked into a nice safe box of our own creating.  We take pride in our methodology and may have little tolerance for other theologies and forms of worship.

If they are not with us – then they must be wrong.

They must be wrong – they are too liberal –.

They are too conservative – they must be wrong.

They are too literal.  They don’t take Scripture literally enough.

They welcome in just anyone – even the sinner.

They exclude people – even the sinner whom God loves.

How can our God be their God?

Even we Episcopalians can fall into a way of thinking that pits us against them.  We have a little slogan that goes something like “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You & You Don’t Have to Check Your Brain at the Door”.  Yes, it is meant as an invitation  with a touch of humor and probably has served as an attraction for some.  But we need to guard against using it as a form of arrogance or elitism.

We Christians need to be constantly reminded that God does not belong to us.  We belong to God who loves each of us intimately and infinitely.   We belong wholly – as in completely – to God.  And we belong holy – as in sacred – to God.   We can not contain God into a box of our making – even a box that we call a denomination  - a box which has been created by human minds.  God is greater by far than the sum of all Christian denominations and world religions.

The human trait to contain and to claim apparently runs deep in our DNA.  The disciples – in their humanity – were threatened by the actions of someone outside of their community.

Peter and Paul – in their humanity – struggled with the question of how to claim the gentile converts.   They were of differing opinions on whether or not it was necessary for those Gentiles to be circumcised and to bear that mark of conversion to the Jewish faith in order to follow the teachings of Jesus.

We – in our humanity – often struggle with the difference between tolerance and respect.  Sometimes our tolerance may even teeter on the brink of intolerance.  But respecting the differences often comes with difficulty.  We may find it incomprehensible that other denominations or faiths are indeed doing God’s work when it may look so different than how we have been called to live out God’s mission.

God’s work is God’s work.  God’s people are called by God and God’s ways are infinite.  We have all been given gifts and strengths to carry out that mission in the world.  God’s action in the world is not limited to only those practices with which we are familiar.  Jesus continually taught that if we are inflexible in our thoughts, our deeds, or our worship, we are missing out on the fullness of God’s kingdom.

My gifts are not your gifts.  Your strengths are not my strengths.  Our ways are not their ways.  Their practice is not our practice.  Does that make any one less than the other?  No it does not.  It bears witness to the infinite vastness of God’s creation.   The thing that runs deep and true through every one of us is the love that God has for us.  Love does indeed win.

In the last two petitions of our Baptismal covenant we are asked if we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  And we are asked if we will strive for justice and peace among all persons and if we will respect the dignity of every human being.   Seeking and serving Christ, striving for justice and peace, and respecting EVERYONE’s dignity – and yet not one word about intolerance or even merely tolerating the different.  It is certainly a good thing that we acknowledge that we can do none of those things without God’s help.   It is because of God’s help – because of God’s love – that we can rise above the notion that if they are not with us – they are against us.  With God’s love illuminating who we are and whose we are – we can be open to the sacred knowledge that if they are doing work in the name of God – they are part of who we are – and yes – we are part of who they are.

We can heal the divisions which are caused by the mind-set of us vs. them.  We are all beloved children of God struggling within the limited knowledge of our humanity to live the lives God calls us to.   There should be no we or they.  There should only be peace among us as we work together bringing the love of God to the world.

Like those disciples of so long ago, we continue to follow Jesus – even when we don’t get it right.   We continue to make mistakes.  There are times that we simply aren’t sure what we are doing. And we do get it right on occasion.    But we know that Love wins and we know that God has faith in us even in those times we aren’t sure of our own faith.

Because we keep stumbling along trying to live into the image of God that we are meant to be, we become seasoned veterans in this life of discipleship.  The concept of seasoning or salting is two-fold.  If something is well-seasoned, it will last longer.  For instance, a cast iron fry pan which has been well seasoned with oil and heat will cook more evenly and won’t rust as easily.  In the days before modern refrigeration or artificial preservatives, a heavily salted barrel of meat or fish would still be edible months later.  

As seasoned disciples, we become stronger and wiser in how we are to share this journey with other disciples.  We become aware of how limitless is the variety of ways in which disciples accomplish the work of God.  We are meant to be preserved by God’s love in living this life which we have been called to.

The other aspect of seasoning – of salting - is creating flavor – that burst on your tongue that makes you want to take another taste and then another taste and then another.   I believe that as well seasoned disciples we are meant to be that burst of flavor in a bland and tasteless world.

Last weekend on the public radio program called “The Splendid Table”, I heard an interview with a woman who is in her nineties and still owns and manages a restaurant in New Orleans.  As I thought about this homily, one of the things she said kept coming to mind.  She talked about the difference in people who merely exist rather than really living.

As disciples of an incredibly loving God, how can we merely exist?  We have been salted with Jesus.  As disciples we should be fully alive in Christ.  We are called to truly live in the full flavor of God – in that mix of salt and yeast of the bread – in the pungent full bodied flavor of the wine – the bread of life and the cup of salvation!

When we live our lives in Christ with enthusiasm and zest it is apparent to the world that there is something different about us – something delicious if you will.  Because we have been salted with love, our lives have been consecrated and transformed.  Others will see that we are full of flavor and they will want to come for a taste of what it is that we have.   They too will then be consecrated and transformed.  By truly living, rather than merely existing, we are symbols of that Splendid Table that is our promise of life in Christ.

My beloved brothers and sisters, if we are to have salt in ourselves as the Gospel tells us, then we may on occasion need to remind ourselves of the incomparable words of Emeril Legasse.

BAM – kick it up a notch.

Amen.









Saturday, September 22, 2012

17 Pentecost Yr B Proper 20

Leaving there, they went through Galilee. Jesus didn’t want anyone to know their whereabouts, for he wanted to teach his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.” The disciples didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it. They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?” The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest. Jesus sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”

In Mark, whenever the disciples and Jesus were passing through, they were on their way to Jerusalem. And you and I know what happens in Jerusalem, Jesus is hung on the cross. The disciples in this story were afraid, but not sure of what it was they were afraid. And yet, on the road, Jesus surmises that they are arguing about which one of them was the greatest, something that Jesus was not concerned with at all. Jesus' concerns had to do with teaching the disciples how to live out God's reconciling love. The disciples were concerned about themselves.

And then Jesus tells them that following him is not about them at all, and Jesus sets as the example of the kingdom, the welcome, the embrace of a child. Jesus shows us that following him is about that sort of welcoming embrace, following him is being the servant of all, following him is not being the greatest, but being vulnerable. This is truly a radically counter-cultural image. History shows us various views of children in society. In contemporary American culture we have gained much around the protection of children in families and with child labor laws in the workplace. Children were taken out of factories and the public education system was established only recently, as late as the 19th century. Children have been variously valued as workers in the fields, as extra mouths to feed, and as dispensable commodities.

In the first century Mediterranean world, where space is divided into women's space and men's space, men's space was public space, women's space was private space in the home. A child was most definitely not seen and not heard in public space, and not in men's space in the home. For a child to be in the same space as these men is quite odd and unusual. For Jesus to embrace the child is a radical statement of the change that takes place because Jesus is in the world. What Jesus does in this seemingly tender embrace is to show that even a child, with no status, no possessions, no honor, is loved abundantly by God. What Jesus does is to confer new life on this child.

Jesus also sets as the example of the kingdom a description of what it looks like to be a follower. Followers of Jesus are to be like servants, followers are not to be the greatest, but are to be vulnerable, like the child.

You'd think after reading these stories about Jesus and the disciples we'd have it all figured out by now. But is seems like we have to keep being reminded what discipleship looks like, it seems like we keep forgetting that following Jesus is not about being the best, or the greatest, or the most honored. But following Jesus is about being vulnerable, following Jesus is about being a servant. The disciples kept forgetting, the disciples needed reminding, so do we.

It's tough, in this world where we just keep seeing and hearing about people who grab power, who grab attention, who grab money, for us to follow the path of giving, of serving, of laying down our selves. But that's what following Jesus looks like. And that is where Love really does win. what we really want to do is to hide our true selves. The self that is not perfect, the self that gets hurt and hurts the ones we love most. We try to stuff our brokenness and our warts and our shallowness, and our inability to forgive and our desire for life to be all about me, into our briefcases and our backpacks, or maybe under our beds or into the dark recesses of our basements, so that we don't have to look at all of that darkness, and so that no one else need see our imperfectness. We work so very hard to keep all of that away from the light of the world, away from those who love us most, because, like the disciples, we are afraid. But Jesus says, "take the last place, be the servant." Jesus says, let go of your control, put down your burden, be vulnerable, let my love seep into the hard places of your heart, let my love soak through that hard exterior, let love win.

When we do, amazing things happen. Discipleship is not just about doing the right thing, it is that but it is so much fuller, so much more complete. Following Jesus is about being loved and offering love. Following Jesus is about being treated to grace, and mercy, and compassion, and treating others with grace, and mercy, and compassion. Following Jesus is about being broken, and being healed. Following Jesus is about laying our selves down, and when we do that, we can truly be ourselves and be filled with God's spirit. We then can truly be disciples.

And following Jesus is not just about you, but about all of us. Which brings us back to the children. Here at St. Andrew's, we are one part of the body of Christ, and one of the ways we live that out is in offering hospitality to all who come, no matter what, no matter who, because we believe that Love wins. We believe that God's love, grace, and mercy are available to all, no matter what. We believe that God calls us, as individuals and as a community, to participate in the building of God's kingdom.  God's kingdom that looks like embracing children, and everyone. God's kingdom that is revealed in the wisdom and the innocence of the youngest of these. God's kingdom that is made real in the bread and the wine, in the body and the blood. God's kingdom that looks like the community of children encircling the table. God's kingdom that looks like hands held up, to be filled with Jesus. God's kingdom that looks like the least who are first. God's kingdom in which Love wins.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

16 Pentecost Yr B

Just a couple of days ago I was taking the August calendar page off the wall, as I did I paid attention to the funny illustration on the page. There is a group of men in a boat, disciples I imagine, watching a character whom I assume is Jesus, walking on the water. The dialogue bubble over the guys in the boat says, "Sure, he can walk on water, but does he really fit our parish profile?"

Rick was having a conversation with Mike Tatmon recently, about football at the School of Mines. The conversation was around the hapless state of Mines football, and the hope that the new coach would change all of that. Rick's observation is that they were looking for the savior, but what they got was one of the disciples.

We do that all the time, don't we. We look for the one who will save us, who will get us out of a mess, who will make life easy for us, who will tell us what to do and how to do it, so that we can enjoy the accolades, so that we can enjoy the success, so that we can enjoy the notoriety that comes along with showing off our wealth, or our talent, or whatever it is we have. But thats not really the way it works, no matter how much we wish for salvation from the difficulty of the situation, life just isn't that way.

The truth of our lives speak about the path of pain and suffering, and I know, I've watched enough football and been on the loosing side of some massive scores. The truth of our lives speak about the path of poor decisions, misplaced trust, so called "love" gone horribly wrong. The truth of our lives speak about the effects of the ravages of disease. And there is no one and nothing that can just swoop into any of that and make it all pretty.

But the truth of our lives also points to life after death. The truth of our lives points to hope rising out of the ashes of despair. The truth of our lives points to crashing and burning followed by baby steps of recovery. The truth of our lives show us that there is always resurrection, but resurrection never goes around pain and suffering, resurrection is on the path of pain and suffering.

Today's gospel reading is all about this path, this pilgrim path. It is all about being a follower of Jesus. This path doesn't result in success, at least success as defined by wealth or possession. This path doesn't result in ease of living. This path doesn't result in the absence of disease. It is not a gospel of prosperity. This path, Jesus says, is to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and follow.

Now, just in case any of you hear that as a call to suffer in silence, or just take what the world throws at you, or even taking abuse at the hands of the one who professes to love, that is not what this is about and it is not what I am saying. This gospel has been used as a weapon to keep people in their place with that kind of interpretation, but this is not what Jesus was talking about. Jesus was talking about the new creation, Jesus was talking about reorienting the culture as they knew it, Jesus is talking about being the change that makes the world just, Jesus is talking about the kingdom that is God’s love for all of creation, no exceptions, no exclusions. Jesus is saying that Love wins.

Actually, the pilgrim path, the path of discipleship, isn't about the results at all. That's really why the path of discipleship is radical. That's why the path of discipleship is counter-cultural. Jesus is saying that we indeed must lose our lives to save them. But what looks to the world like loss is not loss at all. You see, on this path of discipleship, new life is what we live on the way. On the path of discipleship, we lay down our selves for the sake of the kingdom, we lay down our selves for the sake of compassion, mercy, healing, justice. Indeed, these are the characters we encounter on the path of discipleship.

And, the path of discipleship isn't about you at all. The path of discipleship is about God's healing mission in the world. When we walk this path with all the others, with the community of disciples, we bear witness to God's love and healing in this hurting world. We make real to the world that Love wins. We are not in the business of persuading others of the truth of the gospel story through propositional argument. When we are on the path of discipleship, we are rather about the work of living out this story that is true, this story that makes sense of our lives.

But there is more. This path of discipleship is about breaking bread with outcasts and sinners, healing the sick, and proclaiming good news to the poor. It is about changing the structure of this world to be justified with the rule of God’s kingdom. It is about putting the other first, and ourselves second. It is about speaking truth to power.

As Episcopalians we make a unique proclamation as we follow Jesus on this path. People make that proclamation on our behalf when we are baptized, and each time we baptize a new member, like when we baptized Emma and Trina a couple weeks ago, we make that proclamation again. I've been reading a little book by Bishop Andy Doyle, called Unabashedly Episcopalian. He put together a guide to living as a disciple on the particular path we call Episcopalian.

We reflect on Scripture, the apostles' teachings, communal prayer, and life lived in connection with breaking bread together. Mission is the work of God, who was sent into the world and sends us into the world. We bear Jesus into the world. Mission and outreach are holistic. We seek to meet the needs of the whole person, spiritual and physical. We proclaim in voice and in action the good news of God's kingdom. We teach, baptize, and nurture all those who seek Jesus. We respond to human need by serving others. We transform unjust structures of society. We seek sustainable and renewing initiatives that redeem not only humanity but the creation in which we live. Our outreach and mission are always rooted in Scripture, tradition, and reason. We make a greater witness to the world around us when we join hands with one another whether we agree with them or not. We are changed by serving and walking with others. We are incomplete without others, those who are different from us, by our side. We are loved, absolutely and abundantly. (Unabashedly Episcopalian, p. 88, by Andrew Doyle).

This is indeed what makes sense of our lives. It is the particular story which gives meaning to the chaos of a world ruled by powers and principalities. It is the particular story which gives meaning to our lives. It is what we have been given by Jesus, it is the truth that Love wins.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

15 Pentecost Yr B

Just close your eyes and imagine this story. Jesus went away to a region in Tyre to get away from everyone. Maybe he’d been walking all day, his feet were dirty and sore, his back was killing him, all he wanted to do was find a comfortable bed and take it easy for a while. While he was imagining the wonderful foot wash and nap he was going to have, a woman approaches him. Not a Jewish woman, who knows her place, who would have known better not to talk to a Jewish man in public, but a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician at that, a woman so very far outside of Jesus' immediate neighborhood. This encounter that we read this morning between Jesus and this particular woman is an encounter that changes Jesus’ ministry, but at the same time it is an encounter that just seems and sounds bizarre.

Now this woman who had no right to speak to Jesus, or any man, just by opening her mouth and speaking, claims Jesus’ time and power. The worst part about it was that he recognized her, she’d approached him before about healing her daughter, he wished she’d just go away and let him rest. So as soon as she said something to him, he barked back at her. We've all done that ourselves. So hot and tired, so sore and thirsty, anybody bothers you and you're quick with curse. But just by responding to her, even in the cruel way he did, Jesus affirms that she has status in his eyes. This is a profoundly counter-cultural encounter. But even at that, Jesus comes up with the worst insult he could imagine at the time.

“I’ll feed the children before I feed you, you dog.” A good Jewish home would never have a domestic dog in it. Dogs were unclean, impure. He insulted her and everyone she was related to with that one. Her comeback was quick. She gets right in his face and reminds him that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. This is quite a show of verbal sparring, better than any we've seen recently. With that, Jesus has been bested, and he heals her daughter, and eventually he went on to heal the deaf man. He doesn’t get the rest he's been seeking however.

What we have here is a classic literary tool filled with wordplay and juxtaposition. The writer of the gospel sets this up so that there is opposition between the “children”, who in this story are the Jews, and the “dogs,” who are the Gentiles. The woman in this story showcases not only her debating skills, but her faith. She dares to take his metaphor and turn it back on him. “Children get fed before the dogs? You’ve got that right. But even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs; even the pets get the scraps that fall from their master’s table!” She is arguing that even on his own terms, there should be something from him, some scrap of grace, for someone like her who comes to him in faith. She is challenging him.

Her role in Jesus’ mission is utterly important. It is her willingness to engage Jesus, to challenge and question him that causes him to see that it is not just the Jews that he has come for, but the Gentiles as well. It is this mission of inclusiveness that she calls him to. This becomes the day that Jesus’ gospel goes to the dogs. Where the traditions of the elders and the religious law could see only an outcast, Jesus finally sees the woman’s heart of faith. He heals her child. From this point on Jesus does not hold his saving power in reserve but expands the circle of God’s mercy to include those once considered outsiders. Jesus opens himself to the whole world in mission. He welcomes all who put their faith in him. It is at this very point that Love wins.

This is a story of Jesus' change of mind. Previously he thought his work was only with the Jews. She challenged him and he changed his mind. I think this portrait helps us to see Jesus’ full humanity. I think this shows us that Jesus is moved to mercy, Jesus is in fact affected by the affairs of our lives, this story reveals Jesus’ compassion and true humanity.

The result of this encounter is that there are no outsiders. Jesus opens himself to the whole world in mission. The woman in this story encountered Jesus and challenged him to include all people in his mission. Therefore, God’s love and mercy are available to each and every person. There is no one outside of the circle of God’s love and mercy. These are powerful words. But do we take them seriously? Do we even believe them? First and foremost this means that you are not outside of God’s love and mercy. In a world where you have to be good enough, fast enough, slender enough, rich enough, to share in the rewards of our culture, it is nearly impossible to believe that you already receive God’s love and mercy without having enough of anything. In a world where you can change anything about yourself, a nip and tuck here and there, a new wardrobe, an extreme makeover, there is nothing you can do to make yourself any more desirable to God. In a world where you can be an American Idol, you can dance with the stars, you can show yourself off in America’s got talent, or even be a Super hero, right here in God’s midst, who you are is just right, just enough for God’s love and mercy.

The woman in our story today challenged Jesus to expand God’s mission to you and to me, but it is up to you and to me to respond to God’s love and mercy in ways that will bear fruit. Our response to God’s love and mercy will bear fruit when we act in the same way Jesus acts in this story. When we make room in our lives for those who are not ordinarily a part of our circle of friends, like the woman Jesus encountered, we do bring to the center those who are on the margins, we do encounter differently those we don’t like very much, we bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God, and we participate in bringing that Kingdom closer.

I think that's what we hear in the reading from James. It is a combination of faith and works that is our response to God's love. It is not just faith, it is not just works, it is the balance of both that is our response to God's love. Do not ever be mistaken that there is a particular amount of faith gets you closer to God, in into heaven, or whatever reward it is you want. Do not ever be mistaken that serving others without regard for yourself gets you a seat next to Jesus. It is entirely the other way around. God loves you, no matter what. God loves you, absolutely and abundantly. God has faith in you. God is working on your behalf. That is what the Syrophoenician woman shows us.

That is why we are whom we are, that is why we do what we do, we respond to God's call, God's call of love, God's call of mercy, God's call of compassion.

All are loved, all are welcome, in this place, at this table, we must remember that whether we think we are worthy or not, all are welcome, we must remember that whether we agree or disagree all are welcome, we must remember that whether we think others are right or wrong, we are all welcome. Love wins.