Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 17

Pentecost 17, 2018
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In today’s gospel reading, Peter calls Jesus the Christ, or the Messiah.  You and I just kind of gloss right over this and say, “Well, yeah.  Welcome to the club, Pete.”  But it’s important to see this reading in the scope of Mark’s entire gospel.  In the first chapter of Mark, in the first verse, we read, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus [the] Christ, the Son of God.”  Right at the start, Mark calls Jesus the Christ.  And then . . . nothing.  All this exciting stuff happens for 8 chapters, healings, and teachings, and feedings, and nowhere is Jesus called the Christ, or the Messiah.  It’s like Mark forgot about it, and no one thought to mention it again.

And then, suddenly, we come to today’s reading.  Chapter 8, verse 29, Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, the Christ.  And we would expect Jesus to say, “Exactly!”  But he doesn’t, does he?  Well, before that, Jesus asks them, who do people say that I am.  And they give that list: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.  And then Jesus asks “But who do you say that I am?”  Or, actually, what he asks is more like, “Who are you saying that I am?”  You know, when you talk to people about me, who do you tell them that I am?  And Peter answers, we’ve been telling them that you are the Messiah.  The Christ.  By which, Peter means, We tell them that you are the one who has come to take over the world, and destroy Rome, and restore Israel to its rightful place.  And then Jesus sternly orders them not to tell anyone.

Why?  Why doesn’t Jesus yell, “Yeah buddy!” and high five everyone in the group?  I mean, this is the One they’ve been waiting for.  Jesus is the one foretold by the prophets, the one proclaimed in the Psalms, the one who will finally lead God’s people to victory over their oppressors.  And Jesus says, don’t tell anyone?  What kind of PR strategy is this?  And then it gets even stranger, as Jesus starts describing what he is going to endure.

A suffering Christ makes no sense to the disciples.  How can he redeem Israel by failing?  It’s as if Peter says Jesus is the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, and Jesus says, no, he’s actually the 2017 Cleveland Browns.  These are completely different visions of what it means to be a champion, right?

And after Jesus gives a true description of what he must go through, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him.  And then Jesus rebukes Peter.  And then calls him Satan, for setting his mind on human things, rather than divine things.  I mean, wow.  This story does not go where we would expect it to go, does it?  Instead of heading to the front of the class, for having the actual right answer, Peter is called Satan and is told that the right answer is the wrong answer.  How did this happen?  Well, we get our answer in what Jesus says after his rebuke to Peter's rebuke.

It’s important to keep in mind that Peter has this Hail the Conquering Hero mindset about the Messiah.  And he’s not alone . . . everyone did.  God’s Messiah was supposed to be a great military leader, riding victorious over God’s enemies, because the only way to beat military strength is through greater military strength.  That’s how the world works.  Remember President Reagan’s slogan of Peace through Strength?  The Roman Emperor Hadrian—who was born around the time Mark’s gospel was written—said, “Peace through strength or, failing that, peace through threat.”  To bring peace, God’s Messiah would need to be a powerful warrior, in order to overcome a powerful oppressor.

But Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake . . . will save it.”  This is not how we think.  You save something by losing it?  You lose something by saving it?  This makes no sense to us.  If you want to win, you have to be strong.  That’s how winning works!

We want to stand strong for God.  Stand up for God.  Be the Christian nation that conquers for God.  We want to be the 2016 Cavs, not the 2017 Browns.  To show God we are winning.  But God comes to us in our suffering.  We want God to see us standing strong; but we need God in our weakness and pain.  The idea that Jesus prevents suffering is a lie.  (We have all suffered plenty in our lives.)  And the idea that Jesus causes suffering is also a lie.  (Jesus spends all his time healing people, and feeding people, and helping people, not hurting them.  But those are two lies that are hard to shake.  The earliest Christians were tortured and killed.  But in our modern understanding of Christianity, we like to believe that Jesus will keep us safe.  And yet, we know that’s not true.  Jesus does not save us from suffering.  Jesus saves us in our suffering.  Which definitely is not the same as Jesus saves us because of our suffering.  The idea that Jesus prevents suffering is a lie.  And the idea that Jesus causes suffering is also a lie.

So, Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake . . . will save it.”  This is radical to Peter.  And it is even more radical to us.  Every message we hear is the opposite of this:  Get more, hold tighter, secure the border, protect what’s ours, take from the poor and give to those who already have plenty.  The idea of laying down our life for others is radical, foolish, stupid, and even rebuke-able.

We think that more will make us happy.  Jesus says less will.  We say strength gives life.  Jesus says weakness does.  A world where you win by surrender, and gain by giving away?!?  Who wants THAT world?

Jesus does. 

Look.  Nobody said Christianity is easy.  Well, that’s not true.  Everybody says it is.  Everyone except Jesus.  Which should tell us something about what we think being a Christian is all about.  We must be careful not to tie Christianity to world domination.  Or winning.  Or defeating our enemies through strength.  In today’s culture, that is easy to do.  The military and the cross are two very different things, literally representing victory and defeat.  To conflate the two brings a rebuke from Jesus.  We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  And let me be clear:  I’m not saying having a strong national defense is wrong, or that protecting us by serving in our country’s armed forces is wrong.  Each country needs to protect its citizens.  I’m just saying that conquering our enemies is not what Christianity is about.  How do I know?  Because Jesus says so.  Right here.

Peter calls Jesus the Messiah because he is counting on a righteous military overthrow of the enemy.  He is planning to follow Jesus with a sword into victory.  And Jesus says, yes, follow him.  But carry your cross, not your sword.  Only by walking into death with Jesus will we rise to new life in Jesus.  This is what baptism is all about, and that is why it is the entry point into the church.  We are drowned in the waters of baptism, and lifted up into new life with Jesus.  In some ways, that dangerous, powerful imagery of the Rite of Baptism gets lost in the gentle sprinkling of drops on a baby’s head.  But the message is still there:  Only by giving up will we gain.  Only by dying will we live.  Only in the death of Jesus will we find new life.

Jesus came to serve on earth, and now rules in heaven.  Peter got it backwards in today’s gospel.  But it’s easy to see how that happens.  We worship the one who laid down his life for us.  This is a hard teaching.  This is an upside down teaching.  This goes against everything we know and trust about the world.  But it is what Jesus tells us.  And it is what Jesus shows us.

And you can see it most clearly in the Eucharist.  Only by laying down his life can Jesus be present at this Altar.  The one we gather to worship promises to, somehow, be present in this bread and wine.  He offers himself to us again this morning in a tiny piece of bread and a few drops of wine.  He gives himself to us so that he can live inside us, providing healing, and forgiveness, and hope to a broken world outside those doors.

These mysteries are hard to understand.  Christianity is not easy.  Jesus told us so himself.  And it's okay that we get it wrong.  But today, may God give to each of us the courage to surrender, the strength to serve, and the will to lay down our life for others.

Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 16

Pentecost 16, 2018
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, first of all, if you’re not appalled by the words of Jesus this morning, then either you weren’t listening or you simply have no heart!  "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs?" I mean, who IS this person?  The Jesus we tell our kids about would not call someone a dog when she asked for help.  The Jesus we gather to worship does not dismiss people with rudeness when they come asking for healing.  She begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter, and he says, essentially, “Your kind doesn’t deserve the food that the humans eat.”  What is going on here?

Well, to show my hand from the start, I would tell you that taken as a whole, the point of this lesson is the exact opposite of that harsh sentence from Jesus’ lips.  He is playing devil’s advocate, in a way.  But before we get to that, we need to back up to last week.

In the section of Mark’s gospel that we heard last week—which comes right before what we heard this morning—Jesus is having an argument with the religious leaders over what kind of food is unclean.  As you probably know, our Jewish brothers and sisters have very specific dietary laws and practices, most of which are quite specifically laid out in Leviticus and elsewhere.  Jesus says to them and the crowd,  "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

In other words, in one sentence, Jesus declares all food clean.  All foods.  For centuries the Jews have avoided certain foods, practiced strict rules regarding cleanliness, and tried hard to follow God.  As far as anyone could tell, this is what God wanted.  And here comes Jesus, saying one is not defiled by what one puts into his or her mouth, but by what comes out of it.

I want to remind us of that reading from last week, because it takes us right into the reading we just heard today.  Jesus leaves that confrontation, having declared all food to be acceptable, and comes to a city that is outside the Jewish realm.  He moves out of the physical land of his Jewish faith and goes to a geographic place that would have been, essentially, declared unclean.  In fact, into a house in that region.  And while in the unclean house, in the unclean region, having just eaten unclean food, along comes an unclean person . . . a Gentile.  A Syrian.  A Woman!!!!  Three strikes.  Plus, with her daughter suffering from demon possession, that would signal a ritual defilement on top of everything else.  Four strikes.

It is hard for us to understand the extent to which this woman is kept at arm’s length in her culture.  While we consider it bad form to discriminate on the basis of gender, in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day it was considered good form to do so.  In fact, it was God’s law that women be subservient.  Women were "unclean."  And no respectful Rabbi would ever have a conversation with a woman.  A Jewish leader in Jesus’ day would not speak to a woman, let alone have a religious argument with her.

To the people who had gathered around Jesus in that house, this is high drama.  Everyone around that woman—her whole culture—says that she is worthless, pointless, unloved, unemployed, unworthy, undignified, down and out, nobody, nothing, less than human: unclean.  She has been cast aside by a society that finds its own value in pushing others down.  Systematically pushing others down.  We certainly do the same thing ourselves; we just don’t have it written down as law . . . anymore . . . at least not all the time.

It is human nature to seek our own sense of worth by taking away someone else’s.  We naturally assume that not everyone can be valuable.  Not everyone can be the teacher’s favorite.  Not everyone can be as good as me.  If black people sit in the front of the bus, or drink from my water fountain, that somehow makes me less.  If a same-sex marriage is declared equal to my marriage, then my marriage is somehow worth less.  I find my value in making you less.

This is what economists call a zero-sum game.  The pizza is only so big, and every piece you get means I get one piece less.  While that zero-sum game is true for bottled water and fossil fuel, it’s crazy to apply it to things like love and acceptance and dignity.  As parents know, you swear you could never love anyone as much as your first child, and along comes a second, with plenty of love to go around.  There is enough love for more than one child.  Children still think love is a zero-sum game (which is why they compete for it, especially in unhealthy relationships), but love expands as it is given away.  The more we love, the more capacity we have to love.

So, back to Syria.  This woman comes to Jesus and asks for help.  You know what you expect Jesus to say, right?  Jesus is supposed to say, “Your faith has made you well.”  Or he is supposed to say, “Truly I tell you, this day, you and your child are forgiven.”  At the very least Jesus is supposed to say, “Go and sin no more.”  What Jesus is NOT supposed to say is “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The thing is, everyone around Jesus would be nodding their heads in agreement with this statement.  The whole system was based on keeping some people down, and a Syrian Gentile woman with a sick child is at the bottom of the heap of humanity, just above lepers.

But here’s what I think is going on.  Jesus is leading the crowd along by appealing to their limited thinking.  They agree with these harsh words spoken to a desperate woman.  They’re all saying, “Yes, in our zero-sum game world, there is only enough bread for the children of Israel.  No dogs allowed.”

It’s like Jesus is doing a magic trick for children.  “Hey kids, you know flowers don’t grow in sleeves, right?  Rabbits don’t live inside top hats.  You can’t give the children’s food to dogs, right?”  And all the children nod and laugh at the absurdity of anyone who doesn’t know these obvious laws of nature.

At which point Jesus takes a step back, the spotlight switches to the Syrian Gentile woman, and she says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Ta-Dah!

In the presence of Jesus, food multiplies (remember the loaves and the fishes?).  In the presence of Jesus, things reach their full potential (remember the mustard seed turning into the largest shrub?).  In the presence of Jesus there is so much extra that the crumbs falling under the table are enough to sustain life!  In the presence of Jesus the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead come back to life, and the ones who were cast aside are raised up and welcomed in.

This woman comes to Jesus and he accepts her.  All the societal pressures of the time would be pushing her away.  In her desperation she dares to defy all that pressure, maybe risking her own safety.  Maybe she comes in ignorance, unaware of what she is doing.  But I like to imagine her knowing exactly what she is doing, having prepared her case in advance.  Because Jewish law requires helping the needy.  Supporting the widow and the orphan.  Helping a person in need.

And I remind you of the words we just heard from James:  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”  What good indeed?  People have value to God.  People are not dogs; people are not animals; people are made in the image of God.  ALL PEOPLE.  This woman comes to Jesus and says, “I am a person.”  She has value merely by existing.

Which is exactly the value you and I have.  The same value all people of all time have.  We exist, and that makes us worthy of the redeeming love of God.  Jesus finds you worthy of redemption exactly as you are, no matter what you have done, are doing, or will do in the future.  You have value because . . . you are.  Or, to bring last week’s lesson into this week, it is not who comes into your assembly that defiles.  All foods are declared clean; all places are declared clean; all people are declared clean.  In the presence of Jesus, the entire world is redeemed.

So, is the old system really gone?  Is Jesus overthrowing his own religious tradition?  What does all this mean for our Jewish neighbors?  Those questions suggest we’re back to that limited thinking of pizzas and bottled water.  Instead, I would say that it’s about expanding the kingdom.  Because if Christianity simply replaces Judaism as God’s religion of choice, then all Jesus does is change the color of the paint.  We’re right back where we started, saying that there is only so much love to go around, and in order for God to fully love me, God has to stop loving God's Chosen People.

Notice that Jesus never says the “children” should not have their fill of bread at the table.  Israel is still God’s chosen people; there is never any indication in scripture that they have stopped being so.  What has changed, what is radically different, is the fullness of the kingdom.  The expansion of the gospel.  Because of Jesus, the mere crumbs from the table are enough.  Any bread is enough when Jesus is in the room.  Crumbs will do. 

Just as the crumbs from this table are more than enough.  The bread at this altar is enough to sustain us, to bring healing, to assure us of God’s unending love and acceptance.  And because of Jesus, at this table, all are welcome.  All, are welcome.  You, are welcome.

Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 15

Pentecost 15, 2018
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We humans have a thing about food.  And I don’t just mean these days, or here in the United States.  Humans have always had a thing about food.  And it’s a complicated thing.  If you think back through your life, I imagine many of the more significant events involved food in one way or another.  Birthdays, holidays, weddings, funerals, baptisms, graduations . . . Life is kind of one long series of significant meals, with the time between marked by less memorable meals.

When someone starts or leaves a job, we have a meal, or at least some cake.  Birthdays we have cake.  Anniversaries, cake.  Because cake is just the more convenient version of a meal.  And people can eat it standing up.  Cake is like short-hand for “meal.”  And with the combination of flour, sugar, and eggs, we can see that most of the major food groups are represented here.  We give someone a cake because, for whatever reason, a full-on meal is impractical, or impossible.  In other words, though we want to provide a meal to mark an important event in someone’s life, sometimes a cake stands in as substitute for the big sit-down dinner.

So meals are important to us.  We do not just eat to stay alive.  There is a strong connection between food and significant events.  Tomorrow is Labor Day, and I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who is planning to grill.  I have no idea what else I will be doing tomorrow, but the one thing I do know is that there will be grilling.  And the more grilling the better, in my opinion.

So, okay, you got my point by now: food means more than just food to us.  And so we move to the next point: location, location, location.  Do you remember the first time you ate at a friend’s house and they didn’t cook the food right?  I mean “right” as in how you’re used to.  For me, it was a revelation when, as a kid, I slept over at my friend’s house and his dad cooked scrambled eggs with milk in them.  Scrambled eggs were supposed to be yellow, not off-white!  Imagine my horror when I learned that this same family boiled their pork chops!  And ate canned vegetables instead of frozen.  These people were making their food wrong, plain and simple.

If they wanted to make their food wrong, that was their problem.  But, if they wanted their food cooked the right way, they would obviously have to come to my house.  Come spend an evening in the Baum house of my childhood and my friend would see that hamburger is supposed to be thinned using oatmeal, and coffee is supposed to look like tea, and pizza is supposed to be made from a mix out of a box called Appian Way.  I mean, that’s the way food was supposed to be made.  Though I’ve outgrown those childhood understandings, the idea remains: You’re welcome to make your own food however you want, but I will not be attending your event if you make it the wrong way.

And that brings us to today’s gospel reading.  You remember what we just heard?  Well, what I should say is, do you remember the beginning of what we just heard?  Since that reading ends with what sounds like a lot of bad news and condemnation, you might have forgotten how it began.  The Pharisees and Scribes gather around Jesus.  They’re like, you know, hard-core religious people.  They stand there wagging their fingers like the lady on the Delta safety video.  And they ask Jesus, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"

Now, of course, the reason they ask this might actually be that they want to help Jesus bring his disciples in line with doing things the way they’re supposed to be done.  Jesus is Jewish, and a teacher of the Law, so he would want to be living up to the Law.  At which point, we need to step outside the story for a second and talk about the Law.

For faithful Jews, the Torah is the basis of everything.  That’s the first five books of our Bible.  Genesis through Deuteronomy.  According to Jewish tradition, all five of these books were given by God directly to Moses.  They are the basis of Jewish community.  The rules from God, given in the Torah, are sometimes called the Law of Moses.  From God’s lips to Moses’ pen, therefore the most sacred rules for living.  So sacred, in fact, that they need a barrier, what is called “a hedge.”  There is a longstanding tradition of building a hedge around the Torah, for people’s own good.  The idea is that, in order to prevent a person from breaking the Law, we add layers of security to lessen the chance they will accidentally do so.

Here’s an example:  According to Torah, men and women are not allowed to be intimate with one another during  . . . certain times.  So, a hedge is placed around that rule, saying that the couple also must not hold hands, or kiss during those times, or even pass a plate across the table, lest one thing lead to another.  Keep the Law safe by preventing our getting too close to it.

The point here is, there are rules about food in the Torah, but all this stuff about washing the pots and pans and hands is a ritual hedge that was added over the years by Rabbis.  That’s why, as Mark says, the Pharisees are following the “tradition of the elders.”  It is not the Law of Moses the disciples are violating; it is the tradition of the elders, the “hedge” around the Torah.  And Jesus tells them, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human practice.”  In other words, you ignore the beautiful Torah itself, and spend your time glorifying the hedge.

So, back to the hedge around food.  All these laws about washing pots and pans and stuff would mean something very specific when it came to sharing meals with others.  Although I could invite someone to my house (where all the pans were meticulously washed according to the tradition of the elders), I could not risk going to your house if you didn’t follow those same traditions.  You could have dinner with me, but I could not have dinner with you.  You could come and celebrate the big events in my life, but I could not come and celebrate yours.  You can be there for me, but I cannot be there for you.  The hedge is so high, it distorts relationships.

That’s not the intent of the hedge, right?  The intent is to prevent people from violating the Law of Moses.  But the result is throwing one another under the bus called the “hedge.”

People get sacrificed to the tradition of the elders rather than being guided by the love of God.  The Laws given on Mt. Sinai—the 10 Commandments, as we call them—are considered a gift from God by the Hebrew people.  The Law of Moses is seen as a sacred bond between God and God’s people.  So sacred that a hedge has to be built, a hedge that can become so thick that we can no longer see the gift that is hidden inside.

In a sense, Jesus is pointing out to the Scribes and Pharisees that they’re missing out on the gift because they’re focused on the gift wrap.  They’ve become distracted from the beauty God intends because all their attention is focused on the system that was built to protect that priceless gift.  It’s like walking through Tiffany’s and only seeing the security cameras.

Now, we could draw a lot of conclusions from today’s Gospel from Mark.  We could focus on the list of things that comes after that conversation.  About how evil comes from within rather than without.  We could talk about the evil things that people do and then talk about the need for redemption that can only be found in Jesus.  But for today, I would like for us just to focus on the food.

I would like for us to go back to my first point.  That we mark our  significant days with meals together.  We share meals with one another to make those moments holy in some way.  And the more people we welcome into those celebrations, the more holy those moments become.  Because the more people we include, the more our celebrations begin to look like the kingdom of God:  The place where all are welcome . . . Regardless.

When we allow the hedge to become too thick, if the rules we set up to protect what we love turn out to be too high for others to see over . . . Well, it is our loss, my friends.  We will have missed the beautiful gifts of God, because we are all standing outside the hedge, not inside.

May we always keep our hedges low, and may St. Timothy’s Church continue to be a beacon for those who are seeking to celebrate the most precious meal of all:  The Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.

Amen.

The Marriage of Amanda and Brandon

A Marriage of Smiths
September 1, 2018
Ephesians 5:1-2, 22-33
Colossians 3:12-17
John 15:9-12

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  Usually, when I give couples the options to choose for the readings at their wedding, I intentionally leave out that reading from Ephesians.  You know, the one we heard a few minutes ago, with that stuff about wives be subject to your husbands and all that?  And the reason I leave it out of the list is because we are apt to misinterpret Paul’s words, unless we also have a two-hour sermon so the preacher can unpack it for us.  Since Amanda and Brandon have chosen that as one of the readings, settle in for some preaching, everybody!

I’m kidding, of course.  I’m just not going to talk about that reading today.  There isn’t time.  But the reason I can ignore that text is because these two have also chosen an excellent text from John’s gospel, where Jesus talks about his commandment to us.  Normally when we hear the word commandment, we assume there’s going to be some complicated lesson telling us how to behave, or what to eat, or what to believe.  And we probably all carry in our minds the expectation that a commandment is followed by a threat of punishment.  So, okay, Jesus is going to give us a commandment.  What is this thing that Jesus wants us to do, on top of all the other things we’ve already been told we’re supposed to do?  We’re ready Jesus:  give us the bad news . . .

And Jesus says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Seriously?  That’s it?  Nothing about shellfish or coveting or gluttony?  Nothing about adultery in our hearts and killing with evil thoughts?  Just . . . love one another?  Oh, wait.  Love one another as you have loved us.  You knew there had to be a catch, right?  We’ve got to see what it means to love like Jesus loves.  So, let’s consider the question:  How does Jesus love us?

Ah.  And this gets us right back to why we are gathered here today, and maybe why Amanda and Brandon chose this verse for today’s reading.  Jesus loves us unconditionally.  Whether we are rich or poor.  In sickness and in health.  For better or for worse, you cannot make Jesus stop loving you.  You’re stuck with him, whether you like it or not.  Jesus will always love you.

And that’s what makes this such a perfect thing to hear on such a happy occasion.  Jesus calls us to love one another as he has loved us.  It obviously applies to the couple getting married.  But it applies to all of us as well.  You want to know the best wedding gift you could give these two?  The best gift is for you to love them.  Unconditionally.  Support them in their love for one another.  Forgive them, encourage them, walk with them, and love them.  And together, let us wish them many, many happy years together.

Amen.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Do Not Mess With the Woman's Auxiliary!


So, the electric company had to replace three transformers on the pole outside our church this morning.  I was sitting in the dark, reading a 1943 edition of our Diocesan magazine, “Church Life,” like you do.  And I ran across this  letter written to a movie reviewer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.


June 1943
Church Women Protest Cleveland
Plain Dealer Writer’s Views on
Japanese Children’s Christmas Gifts

Dear Mr. Marsh:

On behalf of, the Executive Board of the Woman’s Auxiliary of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Ohio, I am writing to protest a reference in your recent “Moon Is Down” review in which you spoke contemptuously of people who send toys to Japanese children, as you heard “was done in one place.”

The one place this was done, Mr. Marsh, was the whole United States of America. And while we are a free nation it is the sort of thing that will always be done.

We have no wish to enter into any controversy with you on the subject of hate, though we believe plenty of proof could be brought to the argument for the other side.  As, for instance, the British have stopped the teaching of hate to commandos. We consider it spiritual immaturity to confuse hate of a loathsome disease with hate of those who have it. We recognize the need to exterminate the rabidly infected Nazi-Fascist, Black-Dragon ridden militarists, but we do not consider it necessary to hate each individual of the nationalities most affected.

We are not pacifists nor isolationists, Mr. Marsh, nor soft sentimentalists.  Many of us hated this Thing long before you, apparently, were aware of its menace to us-—in your own words you were a most ardent peace lover “before Germany marched into Poland and . . . . the Japs blasted Pearl Harbor.”  Do you think these were the cause of the war?

Many of us have hated this Thing since it started the downfall of Germany around 1928; through the invasions of Manchuria and Ethiopia, the rehearsal in Spain and war in China; through Munich and murder of Czechoslovakia, our hatred increased until we would go ourselves to fight the ugliness on any battlefront, if such action would help. We hate this cancerous disease wherever it is found--and it can be found even in Cleveland.

It is found, Mr. Marsh, in blind prejudice against children who happen to be born to a race with whose homeland we are at war.

1f you are well informed, you will know that most of the Japanese who were sent to relocation centers are loyal to the United States. Very many were born here and are citizens who surrendered their constitutional rights to protect their country from possible subversive activity by the enemy alien minority they knew existed among them. They gave up homes and means of livelihood and freedom itself to help beat Japan. Many are in the U. S. Army. The F. B. I. has now had time to double check on them and you can if you take the trouble, learn more about them from the War Relocation Authority office here in Cleveland.

The Relocation Centers are not beds of roses, Mr. Marsh. You wouldn’t like having to take your family and live in these barren quarters behind barbed wire and under guard. For the high percentage of professional people especially, life has become a pretty bleak affair. Christmas was coming, and there was nothing to brighten the season for thousands of restless children who had faith in Santa Claus and American Christmases.

The Women’s Department of the Home Missions Council recognized the desperate need of keeping this faith alive, and appealed to women of all Protestant churches all over the United States.  Catholic and Jewish women may have done the same sort of thing. The response was what Hollywood might term colossal. We had feared that the prejudice you reflected might prevent the success of the project. But toys and money poured in, and that Christmas in camp was proof to people in a cage that America is still a healthy-hearted nation. It was a little thing, but it came from countless people who had the vision of the real spirit of Christmas.

Anyway, Mr. Marsh, you may call this soft and pantywaist if you will. It is cheap and easy to lump all these people together and condemn them. The Christian way is harder and takes more courage--but it is the only way to free the future from the appalling effects of a moral sickness whose byproducts are hate and war and eternal tragedy.

We are proud of having had a small part in one action to rebuild hope and faith and love.

With best wishes, believe me

Sincerely yours,

JOSEPHINE V. COWIN,
National Executive Board
Woman’s Auxiliary, Protestant Episcopal
Church in U. S. A.


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Sunday, August 26, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 14

Pentecost 14, 2018
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, at our midweek service on Wednesdays, we usually honor some saint of the church, using the readings from Lesser Feasts and Fasts.  And in place of a sermon, I usually read a meditation on the day from Sam Portaro, an Episcopal Priest and writer.  This past Wednesday, we honored St. Bernard, a monk from the 1100s—not the dog from Swiss skiing accidents.  Anyway, in the mediation from Sam Portaro, he talked about the dual nature of compulsion, and how we generally think of compulsion as a bad thing.  Something to be resisted.  But there is another side of compulsion, a side where we cannot help ourselves from doing the right thing, no matter what our brain might tell us.

For example, we think of putting a leash on a dog and compelling her to go where we want on a walk.  (Well, you know, a small dog.)  But if you shine a little red laser on the floor, your cat is actually compelled to chase it.  They cannot stop themselves.  Or, like we think of someone being found guilty of a crime, and being compelled to go to jail.  But I am sometimes compelled to hold hands with my wife in a gazebo.  Point being, sometimes we can’t help ourselves from doing something good, or fun, or worthy.  We are compelled.

I was reminded of that duality of compulsion when I was looking at today’s gospel text.  And we’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, I just want to let you know, that we have come to the end of the bread series.  This is the fifth and final Sunday of hearing Jesus talk about being the bread that has come down from heaven, and that the Israelites who ate manna in the desert did not live forever.  It’s been a long run, I know.  Believe me, I know!  Every three years we get this five week series, and every three years, many priests decide to take their vacation in August, rather than in July.  Because there’s only so much you can say about bread, right?

On the other hand, since Communion is the central and most important part of our weekly liturgy, it really should be the easiest thing to preach about.  You know, in theory at least.  However, if you read through the second half of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, where all these readings come from, it does get a little repetitive.  It’s almost the same reading for five weeks in a row.

Jesus keeps saying, I am the bread of life, which has come down from heaven.  Not like the manna that came down from heaven, which your ancestors ate and died.  Those who eat my flesh will live forever.  Then someone questions how this can be true, and Jesus says it again.  Then someone scoffs, and Jesus says it again.  Rinse and repeat.  And then in today’s reading, some of the disciples start grumbling and leave, and Jesus asks the 12 disciples if they want to leave also.  And we get that line from Peter who says, ““Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  And that’s the side of the compulsion that I want to talk about.  Eventually.

But first, let’s go back and look at the other side of compulsion.  The time when the manna came down from heaven.  Do you remember that story?  Back in the 16th chapter of Exodus, Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt.  And they have crossed the red sea and are now wandering around in the desert, and they have run out of food.  And the people begin to “murmur” or “grumble” to Moses and Aaron that they would have been better off back in Egypt, where at least they had food to eat.

And flipping back to John’s gospel, we hear that the disciples are complaining at this hard teaching from Jesus.  But the word that gets translated as “complaining” has an intentional connection to the “grumbling” back there in the desert.  The connection gets lost, because, well English.  But the words are intentionally similar in origin in order to make this connection:  The people in the desert have the same reaction to the promise of manna as the crowd has to the promise of Jesus being the bread from heaven.  They scoff, they grumble, they complain.  Same reaction to the promise of being fed by the bread of heaven.

Which leads us back to the compulsion I mentioned.  In the case of the Israelites, following Moses around the desert, where else are they going to go?  They might complain, but they are compelled to stick with Moses.  They have no choice.  It’s not like they can walk away and join up with some other group of people wandering around the desert for 40 years.  Though they may grumble, the compulsion to remain is real.  It’s Moses or death.

Now, let’s cut away to Joshua for a moment.  In today’s first reading, we’re at the end of that 40 years of wandering.  The people have found their homeland, the promised land.  And Joshua is going to die soon, and wants the people to decide which god they will serve.  The reading as assigned jumps from verse 2 to verse 14, but that whole section that gets left out covers everything God has done for the people, from freeing them from Pharaoh, all the way to living comfortably in the land that was promised.

And then, Joshua says, given all that stuff that God has done for you, freeing you, feeding you, saving you, housing you, you all go ahead and choose which of the available gods you think you’d like to serve.  “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  And, well, given the reminder of everything God has done for them, the people choose wisely and say, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”  So, this is the middle ground between the Israelites in the desert and the Disciples in Capernaum.  The Israelites in the desert were compelled out of necessity; they had no choice.  The Israelites in the Promised Land with Joshua look at the history, and logically decide to dance with the one who brung them, or whatever that phrase is.  They are not compelled so much as making a decision based on evidence.

Now . . . let’s look at the compulsion of the disciples.  Remember, the set up is similar: Jesus says that there will be food from heaven, just like in the desert; the people listening begin to grumble, just like in the desert.  BUT, whereas the Israelites have no choice but to stick with Moses, in today’s gospel  we heard, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  The twelve did not leave, but some other disciples did.  They all had a choice whether to continue to follow him, and some decided not to.  These others were not compelled out of necessity, as the Israelites in the desert were.  They were not convinced by hearing the long history of God’s saving work to dance with the one who brung them.  They just . . . walked away.

But what about the 12?  Were they compelled by having no choice?  No.  Were they are argued into staying by hearing the history of God’s saving work?  No.  They were compelled from the other side.  Not from fear of death, but from the hope of life.  Compelled not by the law but by love.  Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  The Israelites were compelled by fear: Don’t die.  The Disciples are compelled by love:  Choose life.

We could sum up these five weeks of readings with this idea of flipping compulsion to be a good thing rather than a bad thing.  In the desert, God’s people were eating just to survive, compelled to follow Moses to stay alive, and they still died.  But because of Jesus, God’s people are eating to have life, compelled to follow Jesus out of love, and now have eternal life.

May God continue to draw us all to follow the way that leads to life.  Not out of fear or necessity, but because we are drawn to the one who is our only hope:  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the living bread who has come down from heaven.

Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 13

Pentecost 13, 2018
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14    
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20    
John 6:51-58

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In case I haven’t told you a million times by now, I grew up in the Lutheran Church.  In fact, I grew up in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.  For those of you attuned to the flavors of Lutheranism, you’ll now finally understand why I’m so quiet and reserved.

Anyway, like many church bodies, some Lutherans require that a person be confirmed before coming to the communion table.  In fact, in the Missouri Synod, the person must also be a member of that specific church body—you and I could not take communion there.  (The technical term is “Closed Communion.”)  The requirement for confirmation is, of course, a way to ensure that the young people fully understand exactly what is happening in the meal.  Just like the rest of us, right?  And the requirement of church membership is to ensure that every single person believes exactly the same thing when they approach the altar.  An admittedly lofty goal, to be sure.

Of course, since in the Episcopal Church we are bound by worship, as opposed to belief (broadly speaking), our only requirement is that the one taking communion be baptized.  Certainly makes things easier on the priest, I have to say.

But I want to come back to that idea of shared belief for a minute.  The justification for putting other barriers to communion is that it really is for your own benefit.  As Paul writes to the Corinthians,  “Those who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  In the best construction, closed communion is an effort to save you from damnation.  Only by the pastor being convinced that you fully discern and understand can they know that you are not eating and drinking to your own damnation.

And, as you know, different denominations have different understandings of what is actually happening at the altar, right?  Some say it’s just a memorial to remind us of what Jesus endured; and at the other end, some say the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.  True to form, in the Episcopal Church, we allow for the full spectrum.  We do not tell you what it is you’re receiving, per se.  And, thanks to the Elizabethan Compromise, the rubrics allow the priest to pick and choose directions on the map as we go, to emphasize certain understandings.  Our liturgical map comes with an implied message: Be ye warned!  Here there be theology!

Since I lean toward the “real presence” understanding, I regularly choose those options throughout the service.  A specific example of this is that I merely announce, “The gifts of God for the people of God,” since the optional add-on sentence about feeding on him in your hearts is there to reassure those who don’t believe Jesus’ body and blood are truly present in the sacrament.

Wow.  You’d never guess that my main point is to steer us away from doctrine, would you?  I promise, we’ll get there.

Okay, so different expressions within the Church have different understandings of what is happening in the Lord’s Supper.  And different denominations have different barriers to the table.  The Episcopal Church still officially holds the minimum requirement that one be a baptized Christian in order to partake.  So that’s where we stand, here at St. Timothy’s today.  And with all that wandering around out of the way, let’s go back and look at the text we have before us . . .

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”  Rather than talk about what he does say here, let’s look at what he doesn’t say.  There is nothing in this text about prerequisites.  Nothing about requirements.  Nothing about barriers.  No mention of belief, or membership, or understanding.  It’s just a flat-out claim that the people who eat and drink will have eternal life.  “Boom,” as the young people say.

You want more?  Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  When you eat stuff—as I mentioned in last week’s biology lesson—it isn’t just fuel for your body.  The food you eat replaces your cells over time.  You really do become what you eat.  “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”

If we take Jesus at his word (and since you’re sitting here today, I’m guessing you do), he seems to be saying quite clearly that eating his body and drinking his blood gives us eternal life.  And that doing so means he abides in us . . . lives within us.  Now let’s circle back and look at that first quote I used from today’s Gospel.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”  Nothing suggesting a right understanding, a sound doctrine, or even any belief at all!  Based on this text, you don’t need to understand, or believe, or make some special effort at being worthy, or have a contrite heart, or anything.  Sure, our Outline of the Faith says, “we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people,” and the Episcopal Church does hold out the requirement of baptism as a pre-condition.  And there are very good reasons for that, given our understanding of baptism being the entry point into the Church.

But notice that it is not the belief or understanding or doctrine or anything else that seals the deal.  It is not our words, but rather it is the words of Jesus.  It’s a simple factual statement from him: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”  No conditions.  No exceptions.

Of course, we are always free to say no.  We are always allowed to stop ourselves from accepting a gift.  Always permitted to say, “That food is not for me.”  You don’t have to stretch out your hands and receive the body and blood of Jesus.  You are always given all the time you need.  There is no pressure, no deadline, and the invitation is always there.

The church of my childhood would keep you and me from this altar.  We would be closed off from the Sacrament.  But Jesus gives us no restrictions.  Do you want life?  Do you want Jesus to abide in you?  Do you want to be raised up on the last day?

If the answer is, “YES,” then I invite you to come forward this morning, and I ask you to believe the words of Jesus.  “The one who eats this bread will live forever."

Come to the altar today.  Come and receive the free gift of life: the bread of heaven, and the cup of salvation.

Amen.