Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, September 30, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 19

Pentecost 19, 2018
Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50


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

In case you haven’t heard me bring it up in the last five minutes, I grew up in the Lutheran Church.  As a result, I have a strong commitment to what is called the “law/gospel dialectic.”  In simple terms, it’s what you and I would call a bad news/good news thing.  First, you lay out the bad news; then you announce the good news.  Here’s the problem; here’s the solution.  You crashed the car and are being sued; but Jesus has fixed the damage and made possible the reconciliation with your neighbor outside of court.  Bad news, good news.  Law . . . then gospel.

In many cases, the readings lend themselves to this kind of law/gospel thinking, with the gospel reading providing the answer to the question, “Who then can be saved?”

In today’s reading, there is gospel and there is law.  And therein lies the problem.  Apparently, the writer of Mark did not grow up Lutheran.  Because today, with all due respect, Jesus has it backwards.  Right off the bat, we get the good news, which is then followed by a big long list of big bad news.  Millstones, and gouged eyes and severed limbs burning in the trash heap of hell . . . where’s the gospel?  It’s almost as if Jesus asked, “Do you want the good news first or the bad news first?”  And some idiot said “Good news first, please.”  Asking for the good news first is a rookie mistake, like starting a game of “Rock Paper Scissors” with Rock.  Everybody starts with rock, which is why you start with paper!  But I digress . . .

Now, although I don’t feel I have the authority to re-write the gospel where necessary, I do feel empowered just enough to approach it in the order that works best for my own personal purposes, which is what I’m now going to do, by switching it around, so that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

So, in what I will call the “first part” of today’s gospel, Jesus is giving a series of warnings to various people.  For those who put a stumbling block in front of one of these “little ones,” it would be better to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea.  Now, at the risk of making your eyes glaze over, let me stomp around in the muddy waters of the Greek language for a moment.

The phrase that gets translated here as “little ones who believe in me” is mikron pisteuonvton.  If you’re like me, you probably imagine little children when you hear the phrase “little ones.”  But it doesn’t mean, “children;” it means “little faith ones.”  It’s like a term of endearment:  My little faith ones.  Better to have a millstone tied around your neck than to mess with one of my little faith ones.

A millstone!  Have you ever seen a millstone?  Huge chunk of rock with a hole in the middle.  Like a giant stone bagel.  Tied around the neck.  This is Jesus saying this.  I find it compelling (and perhaps a glimmer of hope) that this is not a punishment for causing a little faith one to stumble.  No, Jesus is just saying, “Given the choice between causing a little faith one to lose faith, and swimming with the cement necklace, you should choose the river.”  Now, I am not clear on how much hyperbole to read into this statement.  So I have nothing more to say.

We then move into the next section, which is where we get to the severed limbs and stuff.  This is violent, bloody, gruesome, horrific language.  And yet, the words seem to be delivered like advice from the Farmer’s Almanac. “If your hands get cold, put on your gloves.  If your eye causes you pain, see a doctor.  If your foot causes you to stumble, have that heel checked.”  The lack of passion in the phrases makes me think it is a teaching moment, not a damning moment.  After all, Jesus is talking to his friends here.  I would guess he’s using dramatic language to make a dramatic point.  And I think the dramatic point is this: 

Before you go throwing someone out because he or she challenges the faith, consider whether you would just as likely cut off your hand.  Before you reject someone from the community on the grounds that they are different, consider whether you would cut off your foot for this.  Before you bring someone up on charges of heresy, consider whether you would cut your eye out over this issue. 

By all means, there are times when drastic action is called for.  It’s better to lose one part of the body than for the whole thing to be destroyed.  It’s better to reject a crazy but charismatic guy from your midst than to have the entire body end up drinking kool-aid out of paper cups or trying to hitch a ride on a comet’s tail.  But, Jesus is saying, think carefully.  Remember the example with the severed limbs.  (And how could we not?)  That’s the kind of damage you’ll do to the body of believers.  Dramatic language to make a dramatic point.

And this “first part” of Mark’s Gospel in George’s Order ends with Jesus saying, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”  Now, I have no idea what this means.  I understand the words, mind you.  I just don’t get the connection between salt and peace.  (I have read a complicated explanation about salt and Temple sacrifice, but we don’t really know.)  Salt and peace.  Maybe Jesus is just saying, with a pinch of salt you can get along with anybody?  But that’s okay, because now we move the “the end” of today’s reading, by which I mean the beginning, where we find the gospel in today’s gospel.

The set up is, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Hey, some guys are casting out demons in your name and they forgot to make a pledge with the church treasurer!”  Jesus responds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Whoever is not against us is for us . . . where have we heard that phrase before?  From the rubble at Ground Zero?  From the deck of an aircraft carrier?  In a campaign stop in 2016?  Not quite.  What we heard in all those instances (and many more) was this: Whoever is not for us is against us.  Which is dramatically different from “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  To say that the ones not “with you” are your enemies is in fact the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying.

The politician rules out all who do not tow the line.  The savior of the world rules in all who do not exclude themselves.  The politician says agree or get out.  The savior says agree or disagree; all are welcome.  The politician draws a line in the sand.  The savior draws all people to himself.  Jesus' disciples want to be partisan politicians, but Jesus wants to save the world.  As I say, a dramatic difference.

Jesus does not count people out.  Jesus does not throw people out or cut them off or hunt them down and kill them.  Jesus welcomes all people.  Jesus welcomes all sinners.  And this is truly good news.  Because that means you and I are welcome, no matter what—even when we don’t fill out the pledge card at the church office.  If we are not against Jesus, we are for Jesus.  Simple as that.

And the best news of all is this:  even when we are against Jesus--when we doubt, or criticize, or give up--even then, Jesus is for us.  Literally.  When we come to this table, Jesus is for us.  In the body broken and the blood poured, Jesus is for us.  Freely offered to all, even when we are against him.  And that’s the whole point.  Jesus offers himself for our sinful fallen world, laying down his life for all.  He is not against us.  He is for us.  He is for me.  He is for you.  He is given for you.

Amen.   

Sunday, September 23, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecsot 18

Pentecost 18, 2018
Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

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

I think everyone would agree that this gospel reading is an adorable story, right?  Jesus picking up a little child, and telling the adults in the room that little people are important.  And it's the adorable part we remember, because . . . well, it’s so adorable!  That’s why people watch videos of cats and dogs online: because they’re adorable. 

But, of course, there’s more to the story we just heard.  Jesus’ object lesson with the little child is in response to something the disciples were doing.  You remember, today’s gospel reading starts with Jesus telling his disciples about how he must die.  The Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands, they will kill him, and he will rise again.  The disciples did not understand, and were afraid to ask him.

And so instead, the disciples do what any reasonable person might do.  They start arguing about who is the greatest among them.  You know, because that makes sense.  It is interesting to me that we don’t hear how they are arguing.  It is tempting to assume that they are each making the case for themselves.  You know, Peter is saying how he is the most inspirational, and Thomas is arguing that he is the most intellectual.  Judas claiming he’s got the corner on fundraising.  But it’s also possible that the disciples are arguing for one another.  That John is propping up Andrew, and Peter is defending Judas.  It could be like arguing over who is the best guitarist, or who is the best quarterback.  We don’t really know.

What we do know is that this arguing comes hot on the heels of Jesus’ explaining how he must die.  And this is not the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus does this.  Last week, for example.  And not the only time that the disciples react the wrong way like this.  Last week, for example.  In fact, this is the second of three times he tries to tell the disciples about his mission, and how his mission is leading to his death.  And in all three cases the disciples not only miss the point, but take off on a completely inappropriate conversation.

Imagine that you’re telling someone about how you see that the end of your life is approaching, and they respond with arguing about who is the best dancer, or who bakes the best cakes.  It’s not as if the disciples are hearing and not understanding.  They’re hearing and not even pretending to care!  Are they just overwhelmed?  Is this just all too much for them? 
What’s going on here? 

Well, this lack of understanding is a theme that runs through the gospel of Mark.  But it’s a lack of understanding by the ones who are closest to Jesus:  The disciples, the friends, the close companions.  These are the ones who just don’t get it.  In Mark’s gospel, you know who actually does get it?  Who actually understands who Jesus is and what he is doing? 

The demons!  The demons are the ones who consistently get it right, calling Jesus “Son of God.”  Recognizing his power as God’s son, which is rooted in his death and resurrection.

The disciples keep clinging to some kind of earthly power.  The disciples want Jesus to come blasting in kicking butt and taking names.  This is the one who’s going to finally make everything turn out right.  The disciples have left their homes and families, and quite frankly, they’ve given their lives to him.  So when Jesus starts talking about how he’s going to suffer and die . . . well, with all due respect, Jesus, that’s not exactly what we had in mind?  And so, they start arguing about who is the greatest.  It does kind of make sense, when you think about it.  Jesus is the one who is being inappropriate, in their minds.  I mean, how can his mission of overthrowing the oppressors, and setting the captives free, and all that, how can that possibly be accomplished if he’s intending to go and die on us?

Right.  So they argue about who is the greatest.  When Jesus asks them what they’re arguing about, they’re all suddenly like . . . silent.  Kicking the dirt.  That kind of thing.  But of course, Jesus knows.  And I don’t think Jesus knows because he has some super extra lucky magic mind-reading power.  I think Jesus knows because Jesus is fully human.  He knows how we are.  He knows what makes us tick.  And notice how he responds.

He gathers the disciples in a circle.  And he takes a child and places her in the middle of them.  Stop right there and remember, a child in that culture has absolutely no power, no status, no worth, no nothing.  So he sets the child in the middle of them, wraps his arms around the child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  Stop again and notice that Jesus wraps his arms around the child in the midst of the community of disciples.  Jesus does not run out into the desert and wrap his arms around the child.  Nor does Jesus pick out a child already standing in the community.  No, Jesus picks up the child, and sets her inside the community first.  What does that mean?  Maybe nothing.  Maybe everything.  But I think it is significant that when Jesus is showing his disciples how to be welcoming, he puts the child in the middle of them.  We move on . . .

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.  Think back to what the disciples were doing right before this moment.  They were arguing about who was the greatest right?  And Jesus has now placed before them one who is the least.  The smallest.  The most insignificant.  The one who is not going to be noticed by a group of people busy arguing over who is the greatest.  When we think about welcoming Jesus, we probably think about looking busy, or dusting off Bibles, or preparing our humility badges.  It’s really, really hard to think about welcoming Jesus by welcoming a child . . . isn’t it?  When we look for Jesus, we want to look up, not down.  To the clouds shining in glory, not the kid playing in the sandbox.

But there’s another side to this welcoming the least among us.  And that is, each one of us is also the least among us.  Each one of us is also in need of being the child in this example Jesus gives us.  I need, and you need, for Jesus to pick us up, set us in the middle of the community of disciples, and then scoop us up in his arms.  I welcome the child as Jesus says, but I am also the child being welcomed.  Jesus asks each of us to welcome a child in his name, but he also asks each of us to let ourselves be welcomed in his name.

And, just as importantly, today he asks that you let him welcome you, here, at this Altar.  Jesus promises to meet us in this meal, promising, “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  And the only way to accept that promise is to receive it as a child.  Take it on faith, as a child does, because—let’s be honest—it hardly makes sense to our rational brains. 

We accept it as true . . . or, we hope to accept it as true . . . but the more you try to explain what happens here at this Altar, the farther it slips out of your grasp.

 And how fitting it is that we receive Jesus as a child might accept a gift.  Hands outstretched, and empty.  Reaching out our hands to receive him, offering nothing in return.  With our hands held in front of us, accepting what seems impossible: that God’s embrace comes to us in our own outstretched hands.  We extend our hands, and say “Amen” to the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  We accept the embrace of God within this community, gathered here.  And, today, you can accept the gift of life offered here, because God has picked you up, set you in this community, and wrapped you up in the embrace of God’s love.

Amen.

   

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.