Proper 16 B
John 6: 56-59
A hero of mine died last week. I learned through the Episcopal News Service that the Rev. Austin Ford had passed, priest and resident gadfly in the Diocese of Atlanta. Although it’s unlikely that anyone here would have heard of him, he was a giant in relentless pursuit of justice for the oppressed, for those who had nowhere but to the gospel to turn. I was privileged to work at Emmaus House, the social service agency and chapel he founded in one of the most neglected neighborhoods in Atlanta, having gone there from a thriving parish in the suburbs. Emmaus House a place was a place where one could get a hot meal, receive one’s mail and attend services in a nearby chapel where one of the corners was held up by a car jack. He was a man accustomed to offend by his audacious devotion to the gospel and easily holds the record in that diocese for the number of arrests for civil disobedience on behalf of the rights of the poor. But he understood that it is important to offend when the integrity of the gospel was at stake, that challenge can be the deepest form of love.
Offense is in the air this morning as we hear the consequences of the challenge of Jesus to the crowds, that, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” It is not an easy message for the crowds or for the disciples, already slack-jawed at this deliberate provocation. But Jesus is willing to push them even further, these people who had already seen the walking on water, the feeding of the five thousand and has placed them in the context of belief, belief in the Spirit that is the foundation for all he is saying and doing. But it does not stop the crowds from drifting past Peter and the other disciples, not only the skeptics but those who have seen the miracles and have been changed by their own witness.
It is in this weaving of challenge and love that Jesus finally confronts his disciples and Peter speaks for them all. He is, after all, a good Jewish man, bound to the laws he has observed, laws thousands of years old, about cleanliness and diet, things that are as much a part of who he is as his own parentage, the place where he grew up. To think of eating anything with blood in it would be an outrage, a betrayal of everything he believes he is. But he stands there, staring across the room at someone who is not only driving off hard-won believers but tearing from him the very way he understands his world. He cannot move, jostled as he is by hardened faces moving in the opposite direction, any more than he can take back the life he has left behind. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He speaks for all the disciples, then and now, those whose lives are defined by hardship, even by what repels them, those who give themselves to a life of struggle on behalf of a God who offers us back our lives in the midst of what most challenges, even offends us.
What Peter asks in response to Jesus’ question is the most profound offer of discipleship we can make: “Lord, to whom can we go?” It is not because Jesus represents the best of unpalatable options but because it is seeing faith as a collective enterprise, something we know because we are so intimately acquainted with what offends us, the scandal of the Word made flesh to the scandal of a cross. We stay rooted to where we are because we are in this together, and our discipleship, if not our humanity, depends on it.
I have two friends who met in a very peculiar way. The father of one was passing in front of the house where my friend was a chaplain at a university; from upstairs, she heard the sound of a body being struck by a car and immediately hurried onto the street, where she held the man until the ambulance showed up, just moments after he had stopped breathing. When the man's daughter arrived, she asked my friend why and how she had been able to do such a thing. She said that someone had done the same for her sister when she had been hit by a car some years before. It is the things that most repel us, the things from which we would like to walk away, that give us life. Lord, to whom can we go?
When we encounter that love and challenge in the Eucharist, it is easy to hear the words of Jesus in the ears of John's late first century audience, those who were understood it as the most intimate act to which they could commit themselves. It was a meal with the Lord in the midst of them, the living God to whom they were giving themselves and their households. But the words of the gospel seem calculated to disturb: whoever eats me will live because of me. The image is so graphic that it compels us to look at our faith, outside our vestments and our processions and even the beauty of our liturgy, to see and hear what most disturbs us and to ask ourselves if we also wish to go away. To simply stand, in what is most broken in ourselves and in the world, to struggle with our lives and our faith, teaches us most deeply what it means to trust, to trust in the things we do not and cannot understand.
As it did for Peter and the earliest disciples, this eating of flesh and drinking of blood has a cost and it is important to understand what it is. We are bringing with us not only our selves, souls and bodies but our heartbreaks, the hopes we have had, the people in our lives we have lost. The discipleship Peter is accepting is one that is bound up with not knowing why, but knowing that eternal life lies at the end of all the woundedness and the incomprehension we bring to the table.
To see the divine in what most deeply challenges us is something that happens by degrees, a life, as Dorothy Day has said, of very small steps, not giant strides. “We are living in this world and must make choices now,” she says, “choices which may mean the sacrifice of our lives, in the future, but for now our goods, our reputations even. What a paradox it is, this natural and this supernatural life… and it is to spread the gospel of peace in an unbelieving world.”
Spreading this gospel, I think, is to be deeply acquainted with what tries us. But I don't think God cares much for the decorousness of our lives, what our reputations will bear. It is in those places where we are compelled to ask the most uncomfortable questions of ourselves, where we hear the voice asking if we also wish to go away, that we find ourselves. And when we do, when we are able to stand in the midst of all that pulls at us to leave, we too come to believe and know the Holy One of God.
Proper 15 B
John 6: 51-58
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
It’s hard to imagine words that have caused deeper misunderstandings within western culture than the eating of flesh and drinking of blood. It was the source of persecution in the early church; the authorities used words like these as pretexts for the oppression of a small movement in a dusty corner of the empire, the eating of flesh as revolting to their sensibilities as it would be to ours if we had not heard these words so many times. After all, what Jesus is talking about, if we hear these words literally, is the violation of one of the great taboos we have, in his time or ours; we are hard-wired to flinch at what he is saying. If we try to hear these words with the ears of the Temple authorities, the crowds, even the disciples themselves and are not squirming, then John is not doing his job.
But we are the insiders on this scene. There is no account of the Last Supper in John’s gospel, none where Jesus offers the bread and wine with the words of blessing we hear in the other gospels. Instead, we are compelled to wrestle with Jesus’ own outrageous claim that it is his flesh and blood taken into us that gives us life. With the distance of two thousand years, we know these words were meant for that small group of believers who understood that Jesus was talking about a practice that had already begun among them, one in which we will participate in a few minutes. As often happens in John, it is the misunderstanding itself that takes center-stage, the distance between his words and how we understand them; Jesus is, as Rowan Williams elegantly puts it, refusing to make the sense that people want to make of him. It is not a recipe for church growth, but that is not what Jesus is after. He is forcing them into a choice, not only between the literal and metaphor, but how we understand him and the life he is offering.
Lately, I have been given a crash-course on what it means to be the outsider, the one who has to suspend judgment on what he is experiencing in order to have any hope of understanding. On the trip Kelly and I took to India, the number of experiences of cultural disconnect were too many to count. For me, they began before we landed in Mumbai, with the corrugated-iron shacks of the slums juxtaposed against skyscrapers and the affluence that built them. The beautiful hotel in which we stayed, recommended by a friend, was surrounded by a wash of humanity that included extended communities living under plastic tarps. We ate wonderful meals in restaurants and were greeted by cows and water buffalos as we left, experienced smells that were overwhelming and sights only on the edge of what I can describe. But in it all were layers of meaning in ritual woven into everyday life that may only be possible in a culture so intent on preserving the sacred while finding its way in a modern and increasingly westernized world. In its own way, this place of incredible beauty and need was forcing us to be alive both to the spectacle of what we were seeing and hearing and the undercurrent of what I believed could only be felt, at least by this westerner.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. What lies behind the words, stark as they are, is the act of one who is lovingly stripping away all the preconceptions we have about him, so much so that that what we do during this eating later became known as sacrament, literally a mystery. And as a very literal people, we have to rest in it, abide in it, which may be most difficult for those who cannot understand. To abide in the love of Christ is a hard thing to do and an even harder thing to understand. John's use of eternal life doesn't speak about the life we will have after we leave the lives we know. It is about a life that begins right here for all of us, whether we are sharing a sacrament together or huddled around a table, trying to eat something that we can barely identify, much less enjoy. We abide in the love of God because we were created that way, and we cannot be complete or whole without it. It is this love of God that reminds us how much we were made for each other, that eternal life includes the idea that we are tied together in ways that are critical not only to each other but the deepest part of ourselves. As Anthony, the first monk in the Western tradition said, “God has gathered us out of all regions…to teach us that we are all of one substance and members of one another. Therefore we ought greatly to love one another. For one who loves one's neighbor loves God, and one who loves God loves his own soul.” We are dependent on this love we have for each other, even for our own souls, and it is the bread we share that makes it possible.
Part of what struck me about the culture of India is the way it makes what is implicitly sacred explicit, especially when it came to food; much of the meat we take for granted cannot be eaten, because it comes from animals that are either holy or impure by the Hindu or Muslim people; it became hard for me to think about ingesting an incarnate God where there is so little flesh to eat. What it taught me, in those rare moments when there was meat, actual flesh in front of me, is that the holy cannot be domesticated, as much as we want to root what we have heard in doctrine about the Lord’s Supper. What Jesus is saying is rooted in scandal, just as the idea of the word becoming flesh is both scandalous and holy. It is that wall Jesus is breaking down in us, the divisions we want to place between what is holy and what is not, and we have to take this incarnate God at his word if we are really to have life
I believe it’s appropriate that something so central to who we are should be rooted in scandal, literally a stumbling block. As hard as many of them were for me, I was grateful for the stumbling blocks I tripped over on this journey, if only because it made me consider how much I take for granted, even in the lives of the people I love. Regardless of how the authorities or the disciples hear Jesus’ words, they make it clear that the life we try to embrace is not a spectator sport, simply a matter of filling a spot in a pew for an hour a week; it involves engagement on the most intimate level, to taste, touch and feel in a way that rends our ability to understand. Because Jesus, at least the living, embodied, enfleshed Jesus we meet today, does not want our assent, our yes to an intellectual proposition. He wants us, all of us, his flesh in our mouth, his blood running in our veins, and it is up to us whether we will give it to him.
Proper 12 B
John 6: 1-21
Sometimes I wonder if the way we understand miracle stories, the ones we hear in the gospels, doesn’t do more harm than good. The Christian Testament is full of them; the walking on water, curing of lepers, even the raising of the dead, all of them were the milk that nursed the early church into being. However briefly, they penetrate the membrane of the world we experience to the deeper world that lies behind it, where sickness, social exclusion, even death do not have the last word. Having just presided at one funeral and participating soon in another, I can tell you just how meaningful it is to be reminded of the world beyond the limitations that we take for granted. But these miracles, wonderful or life-saving as they seem, often have a price: they provoke a general skepticism—when was the last time you witnessed someone paralyzed from birth take up their mat and walk—or they make it seem that there is something like a formula, that with enough prayers or the right ones—if we had enough faith, in other words--we should all be able to receive the miracle we need. I don’t know how many people have been hurt by this mail-order faith and the guilt that goes with it when things don’t turn out the way they hoped, but my experience is that it wounds many folks who would otherwise have had to deal only with the loss.
Because it has been so hot lately, I want to tell a Christmas story, one that happened in my own family. I had been helping to decorate the family tree and was the only one in the room who was willing to try to put the star on top. This was among a group of folks who had enough advanced degrees in specialized disciplines that I was afraid I would have to write some kind of proposal before I actually tried it. As it happened, that star had not been lighted for years; when I put it on the top of the tree (why they started at the bottom is a different question, for another time), the thing lit up exactly the way it was supposed to. My dumbstruck father-in-law, retired professor from Jefferson Medical School and skeptic extraordinaire, told me that it was a miracle and asked me, with a smile, if I could use it in a sermon somewhere. I mention it only because in his playful way, he was right: it is in the ordinary that we find the truly miraculous.
The feeding of the five thousand is so important that it is found in all four gospels and I believe it is in part about the assumptions we have about scarcity and abundance. In Mark’s gospel it is clearer: Jesus has the crowd sit down in groups of fifty, organizing them into manageable units, blesses the five loaves and two fish; after the meal is over, the disciples dutifully pick up twelve baskets of fragments. “These people must have sensed that they were participants in a wonderful event,” the teacher Parker Palmer has said, “one in which a new reality was being revealed, a reality far removed from the conventional wisdom but as close at hand as the human heart… a meal of abundance that had arisen from apparent scarcity.” We cannot afford to ignore this view, where those who respond to the generosity of Jesus by bringing out of their own stores enough to feed themselves and their neighbors, as there are no outsiders in the kingdom of Heaven. There could not be a more welcome story in our national debates about how limited our own resources are.
But John’s story operates on a deeper level and it has to do with the claims Jesus makes about himself. It is, after all, the “bread that came down from heaven” who is speaking here, and he gives them more than a meal to satisfy hunger. For me, the miracle is not so much in the multiplying of loaves and fishes as it is in the calming of our anxieties and the encouragement of all of us to get up and walk, even if it is to our own Golgothas. Because what lies on the other side of that membrane is hope in the person of the living God, a faith that coexists with doubt, the courage to see life through the membrane of death. As we will all affirm in a moment, it is the bread of life that is among that crowd. It is why I believe John inserts the detail of the boy who offers the food that makes the whole event possible. It is both ordinary and extraordinary, that we are nourished not by ordinary bread but by the presence of God in our midst, a miracle not about the literally incredible buthow we are saved by the divine that has made the whole of our lives a miracle.
If this dispelling of fear, of trusting in this God-with-skin-on, is the real miracle among the loaves and fishes, it becomes even for crucial during the disciples’ trip across the sea of Capernaum. They are all together in the boat, nothing much separating them from the chaos of the open water, when a figure approaches the boat, asking them not to be afraid. We can only imagine their reaction, staring at each other, three miles out at sea. Here is a vision of our teacher, something we don't understand, approaching us at our most vulnerable. But he identifies himself, trying to give their minds something to hang onto, even if their bodies are frozen in terror. “It is I,”, he says, “Do not be afraid”.
But John's Greek tells us something more. Jesus literally says, “I am”, and they are words that we have heard before, the oldest answer to the question of who God is. I am. I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am the Good Shepherd, I am the bread of life. It is both a claim of identity and a promise, that the membrane between this life and the eternal has been broken. It is at this point that the disciples want to take him into their boat. “I am; Do not be afraid”. The rubbing together of the claim and the assurance is the point where the disciples' faith begins, where they are willing to invite him among them, into the boat where nothing seems assured except the presence of the divine.
John’s position, however, is that the assurance is all we need. If we are honest, it's an assurance we carry with us into the darkest corners of ourselves, into the parts of our lives that are pervaded by mystery. I am. In the midst of our joy, of our becoming a mother, a grandfather, I am, he says. When we are overwhelmed, when the job is gone, when we are sitting by the phone or trying not to, waiting for the results of the tests from the doctor, I am. In everything we do or are that promise is the same. When we feel as though we are most abandoned, our own boat miles out at sea , the promise is unchanging: “I am; do not be afraid.”
So the promise of God is this, and I believe it underlies all discipleship. There will be moments when we are afraid, when we will not know whether our next paycheck will be our last, when we will wonder if she will ever come home from the hospital, when will the shootings stop, whatever it is that makes our own mouth go dry. It is at that moment that we will hear the voice telling us not to be afraid. And out of the corner of our eye, we will see the figure approaching us, in the most impossible circumstances, offering himself as bread for our souls and waiting to join us in our boat.
Proper 11 B
There are few things that are more instructive to me than the time I have away from my usual routines. My wife Kelly is confirming that insight for me this week; she is helping to settle her daughter in Colorado for an internship and knows that I will be fine while she is away, but I had forgotten until a few days ago that she was going to be gone, especially as we are getting ready to go to India in a couple of weeks. Sometimes I think a lesson in using the calendar on my i-phone instead of relying on my appointment book would have helped, but knowing my track record with gadgets, I doubt it. In any case, I was looking forward to getting all kinds of things done in her absence until I realized that, in this dialogue we have in our lives between doing and being, I am pretty lousy at simply being, and that taking some care with my inner life this time would not be such a bad idea.
I like to think that I am not the only one who is saved from himself by incidents like these, but if I had been more attentive to the gospel for this week, it would not really have had to worry. When Jesus tells his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for awhile,” he is speaking to all of us, even those who have to be reminded that rest, genuine Sabbath time, is something enjoined on us by scripture and tradition, not simply good old-fashioned mental hygiene. The difficulty for the disciples, who had neither appointment books nor i-phones, is that they don’t have the luxury of time away, even after a busy healing tour; the crowds pursue them so relentlessly that they cannot get away, even by boat. Compassionate even in exhaustion, Jesus teaches and heals the crowd, those “like sheep without a shepherd”, and silently rebukes the authorities who are either uninterested or can do little to help them.
If we are going to approach this story honestly, we have to hear it also from the perspective of the crowds, the ever-present crowds who cannot leave Jesus alone because they are not being fed, cared for or nurtured. Jeremiah has only harsh words for this abdication of responsibility, those who have scattered the flock, driven them away and not attended to them; the promise is reserved for the sheep themselves, who will be gathered and brought back to the fold, who shall be fruitful and multiply. It is on these crowds that Jesus has compassion, literally suffering with them, and what he gives is himself, his own being, authority and teaching. Seeking rest for himself and his disciples, he finds endless need arriving on mats, a rush of humanity seeking a word and relief from suffering.
It is the disciples themselves who are silent in this picture of perpetual movement and, if you are like me, you understand their reticence. They are caught between the promise of the living God for rest and the sea of need that meets them practically before the words are out of Jesus’ mouth. I suspect that most of us live in this state of caughtness, pressed between the demands of people, the work around us and the unspoken, even barely acknowledged recognition that we are human and need time for ourselves to meet those needs. The insistence on the holiness of Sabbath, a divinely inspired idea if ever there was one, is centered on the idea that the ongoing creative work of God is punctuated by periods in which God simply has time to be. It is not just the absence of activity; it is the understanding that the creative, healing work of God in the world, work in which we are participants, is made holy by the time taken in-between; like the pauses in a piece of music, the silence is as essential as the notes themselves. When we recognize that need, not out of a self-help book but as an idea at the heart of our identity as creatures of God, we are not only rescuing ourselves from ourselves but participating in a divinely-ordained rhythm, one we break at the peril of ourselves and everyone around us.
One of the great temptations is that we see our time as a vessel to be filled so that we could avoid really looking at ourselves and what our time means to us. After all, to be honest about how we rest means that we have to be equally honest about who we are and who we are becoming. It is because we have this illusion that we are in ultimate control of what we are, that we are what we do, is so damaging to us that participation in the divine rhythm of work and rest becomes so necessary.
William Barclay, a mid-century British scholar, spoke about this rhythm as, “the alternate meeting with God in the secret place and serving people in the marketplace.” If it is viewed as an alternation integral to the divine order, the rest Jesus suggests is not the granting of time off for good behavior. It is a beckoning: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” He does not say that their work is over; after all, this part of their journey is only beginning. He is instead inviting them to acknowledge that part of their participation in the divine economy is to cease their doing and simply be, to see their identities as divinely made and sustained. Their willingness to rest awhile means something more than staving-off collapse. This need to come away is built into us; more than our health or even our sanity depends upon it.
It is harder, of course, to recognize this need for rest in our participation in the life of the holy when we have masses of eyes staring at us from across the water. I cannot guess what the disciples are thinking because they are, of course, silent. What I do know is that the enemies we face, before whose presence the Lord spreads a table for us, is often the ability to believe that we can do it all on our own, that we do not need the opportunity for renewal that God places in front of us. All of us have our own enemies, our own temptations; the urge, at least for me, would be to steel ourselves for yet more work or another ministerial endurance contest, maybe to calmly suggest that we turn our boat around. But Jesus does none of this. Nor does he ask anything more from his disciples. It is Jesus that the crowds want, just as we want him, and what he offers is for the benefit of all, those in the boat as well as those he meets on the other side. The ministry in which we engage is not a sentence to be served but a joy in which to participate, and part of the goodness and mercy in which we share is the time we have all by ourselves for a while.
Crazy Christians. At the heart of this goodness and mercy is presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s idea that we need to be a little crazy in the world’s terms in order to be more like Jesus, the world that can eat us alive with its own demands. Surely this idea begins in the table that will be spread before all of us in a few minutes. We cannot be a part of the rhythm of God’s work in the world without acknowledging that the time we set aside for God’s sake begins here in the presence of all the disciples, the ones on our right and left, as well as those who have come before us. In my view, part of that craziness is to lay down our expectations of ourselves and join the banquet prepared for us. We cannot be the people God intended without allowing ourselves to simply be, away from the expectations of the crowds and everyone around us, and that begins here at the altar. So come away for a while: the giver of all goodness and mercy is beckoning us.
Proper 10 B 2018
Mark 6: 14-29
If you are like me, we cannot help living in a world where we cannot get what we want exactly when we feel we want it. I’m not talking about what the choices are for dinner on any given evening, or even where we plan to go for vacation this summer. I’m talking about the hard choices that many of us feel when we are pulled in two directions at once, pitting our own tendencies and desires against the needs of others. Any walk through downtown Philadelphia these days will tell you what I mean, when there are more people sitting on the sidewalk looking for help than you can possibly count and you want to preserve the money in your pocket for the SEPTA ride home. Or, more seriously, the battles we face about supporting the causes we believe in, wanting to be the best citizens of the world we can be, while having enough money for college tuition or our retirement accounts. We want to believe that we are the folks the psalmist writes about, those who will listen to what the Lord God is saying, to those who turn their hearts to him, but for pity’s sake, a little guidance, please!
Most of us, I'm afraid, live in the world of Herod more than we care to admit. Not that we are kings who throw lavish parties, with the need to satisfy the whims of the powerful at the expense of a prophet's life. But our world is riddled with compromise, promises made in the dark about things we barely understand, and times when we are manipulated, caught in a world where our good name is at stake and we will do whatever we can to defend it. Most of our own compromises happen on a smaller scale, the balancing acts we do with our families and our professional lives, the deals we make with ourselves about our prayer lives-- I can skip it today if I work twice as hard at it tomorrow, right?-- the visit to our parents that we can put off for one more week: they aren't going anywhere, after all.
The martyrdom of John the Baptizer is written on such a grand scale that Richard Strauss and Oscar Wilde actually wrote an opera about it; even if they had not, someone would would have had to. And it is not only because the details are so fantastic: a wife furious with a holy man's pronouncements, a drunken old man who cannot risk breaking an oath to his guests, a young girl manipulating and being manipulated at the same time. It is because we feel the effects of compromise all the time, and the way it can eat at every sense we have of our own integrity.
But what makes this story so vivid are the episodes that surround it, the commissioning of the disciples that we heard last week and the miracle stories that follow, the walking on water, the healings in Gennesaret and the feeding of the five-thousand. The hinge in all these stories is the idea of promise, that a world that could not be imagined has appeared among us: abundance in the feeding of multitudes, the presence of the divine with us in the midst of our terror, the sick who are healed simply by the touch of a cloak. It is a promise that does not even need to be spoken, a promise of the divine, no matter how incompletely or haltingly we understand it.
Herod, however, could not be more explicit about the promises he makes, and they are of a different kind. He offers the girl anything she wants and, in case we miss how desperate he is to please, he makes the same offer twice, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom”. And so our response echoes that of the girl :”What should I ask for”? Among all the choices, what can you offer me that will buy me the affection of my mother, the admiration of my friends, or, better yet, freedom from the fears that gnaw at me? In the marketplace of promises today, where can I find the best deal available?
The trouble is that these promises are at best half-truths and are as calculating as those they seek to please. If you don't believe me, five minutes of T.V. commercials ought to help. And why not? They feed our sense of generosity, they offer at least the appearance of sincerity, and, for the time being, they give us the illusion of power over the things in our lives that are most threatening.
The alternative is in the stories that frame the one we have just heard, where implicit is the promise of a whole kingdom, even to those who don't completely understand it yet. The disciples are commissioned to go out among the villages of Galilee, teaching and casting out demons, with only a staff, a pair of sandals and a single tunic. After they had told him of what they had done, he offers them a view of what real promise looks like, an abundance of food for the hungry, hope for those in the deserted places, and a vision of a life transformed for those who dare to trust in something other than the promises of this world.
I remember working in transitional housing many years ago, in a small building behind the church we attended in Atlanta. There were many young mothers there, most of whose lives had become broken and they were trying to re-build a life for themselves and their children. Each time one of them would leave, the director of the house, an older woman with grown children of her own, would give them a bag full of diapers, pacifiers and other items they would need. There were lots of tears and I believe they were not only for the leaving, which is always difficult, but for the trust they were being given, trust that there are people who have treated them as children of God in a world of empty promises..
It is trust that is absent in the cascade of events leading to the death of John, and it exposes those promises for what they are worth. Herodias has nothing but hatred for the holy man who has told all that would listen that her marriage is unlawful, and Herod feels he cannot risk compromising his weak political position by refusing the oath he made to his guests. But the trust in the promise of the kingdom stands outside all concern with social standing, outside the assumption that loyalty and honor are scarce commodities; it is trust that is bound up with the promise of the kingdom is one of abundance, where the sick are healed, the hungry are filled, even the dead are raised. This trust has nothing to do with the halls of power. William Sloane Coffin has said: “those listening to Jesus were no Roman centurions, no King Herods, no Pharisees. These were ordinary folk, the kind likely as not to stone the prophets, to beg Moses to lead them back to Egypt. Yet it was to them that Jesus said, 'You are the light of the world'. Has common humanity ever received so high a compliment from such an informed source?”
Indeed, the world is lighted not by our confidence in the world of Herod but in a world we see appearing whenever we dare to trust in the abundance of the promises of God. The compromises the world asks of us will not disappear, but behind them look for the invitation, one extended to ordinary folk like us, to see something greater. It is the invitation not the glitter of palaces and their intrigue, but the simple yes to a world where the abundance of God is there for all of us who have eyes and imaginations and hearts to see it being born. So what should we ask for? Ask to see the young woman remaking her life, ask to see a world turned upside-down by the smallest of things, ask for the trust in the promises of God to accomplish it.
Proper 8 B 2018
Mark 5: 21-43
I have a friend who is a priest and who has a beautiful glass paperweight in his office at the top of his bookcase with a single word on it: “believe”. I think of him when I hear the intertwined stories of Jairus and his daughter, and the woman with a hemorrhage because they are so personal, and it is a challenge to sort out what belief actually means in them. This priest I know has spent a long time in parish ministry and is an amazingly faithful person, but it is hard to tell whether he is trying to convince himself of something or whether there is something he knows in the bump and jostle of our lives that can make belief a scarce commodity, like spending time in a pediatric cancer ward. Do not fear, only believe.
The stories have the kind of detail that is rare in Mark. We never find out in Matthew's version of these stories what the name of the girl's father is, but Mark leaves it here like a fingerprint-- Jairus, a wealthy synagogue official who is so desperate that he is willing to reach outside all bounds of respectability and throw himself at the feet of the local healer, who has already crossed the religious establishment more than once. It is, after all, his “little daughter”, at the point of death, on whose behalf he is abasing himself. He is enduring this shame the same way that any parent who is crazy with fear and grief would, convincing himself that anything would be worth the life of his “little” one, whether she is two or twelve or twenty-four. It is his last opportunity and he knows it, on his knees in the mud by the Galilean sea.
Jesus follows the man, but we barely have time to think about what all this means in terms of belief when they are interrupted by a woman with a hemorrhage that had continued for twelve years; she is in pain, ritually unclean and equally out of options, unless it is in this miracle worker toward whom she is clawing her way through the crowd. If I can only touch the hem of his cloak, she says, I can stop this thing that is eating at me, inside and out. When she has reached him, she feels at once a change within her and the “fear and trembling'' that we recognize in Jairus, the knowledge of the presence of the divine in what appears impossible to redeem.
Before he has finished speaking, word arrives that the daughter of Jairus has died; it is now that Jesus tells him not to fear, only believe. Anyone who has a child or has spent five minutes with one can scarcely guess at what those words must have sounded like, especially to someone whose world has gone dark in front of him. Believe in what, and why?
When he reaches the child, he addresses her intimately, in the only words of his native Aramaic in the entire gospel, “Talitha cum”. Little girl, get up. And she does. And there is more amazement, not only by Peter James and John, who had been with him, but the crowd who laughed when he declared that she was only sleeping.
They laugh, I think, because the line between grief and laughter is such a thin one, that real belief is such a rare commodity that it is easier to opt for cynicism and derision, which you can find anywhere. Derision is easier because we put what we call belief in a glass case and hoard it, as if it were the item we need to change our lives, to make the shootings stop, to get grandmother out of the hospital. We treat belief as if it were something we can control, something we can manipulate to make our surroundings, our community, our lives, more like what we think they should be. And that is where our idolatry starts.
Belief is such a slippery idea for us because we think that it has to exist prior to God’s redeeming work in our lives. We think that if only our belief were stronger, we would not have to confront the things that tear our lives apart, the children who die, the parents whose health are failing. Our belief at any given moment, however, is a small matter next to the depth of God’s belief in us. It is a thread that runs through all the scriptures, that, as the Book of Wisdom says, “God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity…”, the same God who does not delight in the death of the living. It is why the creed that we will repeat in a few moments is a collective one, in which we affirm together the triune nature of God in trying to understand the work of the divine in the world. A retired bishop of Atlanta I knew once was asked if he believed everything in that creed. He answered, “Most of the time”, and said he relied on those standing around him when he had his own doubts. The call is to believe is to know in the deepest part of ourselves that God believes in us, regardless of where we are on our journeys.
Do not fear, only believe. These are indeed miracle stories in the gospel we have just heard, but the miracle is not just in the bleeding that is stopped, in the little girl that stands up and begins walking around to the astonishment of everyone. The miracle is in the way belief is transformed, not the idea that if only we had more belief that things would be different, but the confidence that God believes in us. That is the only belief that matters. It is the belief that God loves us too deeply to ever let go of us, no matter what the outcome. That is the belief that changes things.
The richness of these stories comes, in part, from the way they mirror the paths in our own lives. The easy variety of belief is abundant enough, when things are going smoothly, when their very evenness confirms for us how faithful we are. But there are plenty of times when we have spent all we have, our patience, our time, our love; there are times when we too are on our knees in the mud. It is then that God whispers at us most intimately, whispers in God's own language, get up. Get up not because you have the finest resources or the greatest prayer life imaginable but because God believes in you, has believed in you since you were a thought in the mind of the divine. It is then that our own belief becomes more like prayer, one of gratitude as creatures of God and not toward a world to be manipulated.
We feel this love of God in the cascade of events that form these stories. Jairus is hardly able to make his petition before the attention of Jesus is drawn away by the woman and her need, and given again to Jairus only after he is told that the child is dead. This kind of bump and jostle is inescapable in our own lives. We almost become numb to it after a while, the violence, the sickness of people we know and love. But God's belief in us penetrates it all, in the grief and in the laughter that overwhelms us, and in that love we find the people we were meant to be.
So he says to all of us, get up. We who are alive to the world around us and we who have forgotten what it is to be alive. We who think we believe most of the time, or some of the time, or those who have long since forgotten what it is to believe. The God who believes in us, who whispers in our ear and gives us life, is calling us out of our sleep, out of our fear, and into a love for which we cannot help but be overcome by amazement.
Proper 7 B 2018
Mark 4: 35-41
God in the Boat
As some of you know, my extended family has been in a time of transition, readying my mother for a move to NJ to live with my sister and we have been overwhelmed by offers of help, for which I am exceedingly grateful. This transition has been a time for learning, as transitions often are. Somewhere between filling the third dumpster outside her house and packing the twentieth box of things for her new apartment, all the while trying to reassure her about the wisdom of this move, I was reminded of what a creature of habit I am, how often I crave what I believe is certain, as does my mother. Those closest to me can tell you that I have a particular way of doing things that I rely on to give my life stability, and I can see the worry etched in my mother’s face about what an immense change this will be for her. That is why I feel immense sympathy for the disciples in this morning's gospel. These otherwise ordinary people have given up all they know, all they have been, in order to follow this strange figure from Nazareth, one who seems to be able to do anything but compel belief. They have laid down their nets, left their collection booths, exchanged their identities for something they cannot fully understand. Their own certainty has been reduced to the water that is swamping their boat, to the chaos they feel is about to overwhelm them, and to the knowledge of their own communion; they are, after all, in this together.
We are in the same boat as the disciples, so to speak. Whether we have asked for it or not, we are inundated by change, change in our parish, change in a world where professional and personal insecurity are the watchwords of our times, a world stretched to breaking by strife and violence, and it is easy to feel disoriented, even fearful in the midst of these changes. Much of the time, we don't have to look farther than ourselves to feel these uncertainties and the anxiety they breed.
In the time I was a hospital chaplain, I spent several months getting to know a man on the floor I served. He had come to the emergency room with abdominal cramps and had been admitted with a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. In our conversations and our prayers, he would mention what the change of his absence would mean, for his family, for the people who loved him and relied on him. Amid these changes, our cry becomes one with the disciples, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing”? It's something we feel all too deeply these days, when the fellow down the hall at work finds out that he won't need to return next Monday, when a sea of college graduates are turned loose on a world of radically reduced expectations, when we feel caught in the middle, doing the work of four people and trying to maintain some semblance of family life;” Lord, do you not care...”
The response of Jesus is a revealing one. He does not say, “Why all the questions”, or “why do you doubt”, but “where is your faith”? Faith for us is not what is left over when all our doubts are removed, when all our disagreements are resolved. It is what we carry with us in our uncertainties, for ourselves, for the church, for the community we belong to. When he was asked what holds us together amid all our differences, Desmond Tutu said, “We talk.” We talk of our hopes, our concerns, our beliefs, even our fears, knowing that the truth, and the presence of the risen Christ, is somewhere in the middle. In this is a holy tension, the tension between knowing that Christ is in our boat and being able to live with our questions, even our doubts. By acknowledging this tension, we risk our certainties, but we become more faithful people.
I remember the tension of those doubts very early in my life. Each summer, my parents took us to Cape Cod; they rented a cottage near the shoreline at Chatham, which is now a huge resort but at the time was a small gathering of weather-beaten houses on the inland part of the Cape. The waves were small, and I imagine it was relatively easy to keep track of small kids, with their kites and their buckets full of shells. Once in a while, though, we could convince our parents to take us to the other side of the Cape, where the winds were higher and the surf much stronger; they would not let us in the water, but I remember feeling the power of the waves, especially during the storms and how threatening they were to a six or seven-year-old, like pure chaos, something that could only be controlled by God. It was this mystery that has stayed with me all these years, and it has formed the way my siblings and I have looked at our lives, that there are things in our lives where, as we have heard in Job, “Thus far you shall come and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”. It was there, I believe, that whatever I thought of as my faith could bear the weight of my doubts, the awe at the magnificence of God’s creation of which I and everyone I knew were irreplaceable parts.
Lord, do you not care that we are perishing? It is especially important these days that we learn to live in the tension between our uncertainties and the presence of the living God, especially following the appalling violence in Parkland, those suffering and displaced in Guatemala, for the families of those killed and for the questions they ask of us all. The danger is that, over time, they will become another statistic in the litany of violence and tragedy we have experienced in recent months; the alternative is to understand that the gospel we preach is embedded in a world of uncertainty but also in the company of a God who is with us in our own darkest moments. Even in the horror of acts we cannot begin to understand, it is imperative that we bear that faith along with the grief, because the wounds of those families are our own and we are all diminished unless we recognize that we have all been in their boat.
Years ago, I saw a mosaic in St. Mark's basilica in Venice that was a depiction of today's gospel story. It was made in the twelfth century, in a time of political and social upheaval in that part of the world and it is fascinating to me because the figure of Jesus appears in it twice, both in the prow and at the stern of the boat. But what is most interesting is the reaction of the disciples. A few anxious ones are looking toward the figure in the rear, serene and asleep on the cushions. A few others are gazing at the figure in the front, one with a placid expression and upraised hands, who is calming the storm outside and transforming their world.
My favorite, though, are the disciples in the middle. They stare back at me out of the picture, a little wide-eyed, but with something like wonder on their faces. They appear to realize, and they remind me, that the presence of Jesus, even in what seems most unsure, is the only thing they need, but they have to work out what that means for themselves. They are having their faith redefined, not as a fixed set of beliefs but as something that allows us to see transformation, to see change not as a threat but as an opportunity to be at the center of something wondrous.
It isn't an accident that the church is often depicted as a boat, which this unknown artist might have intended. We are in the midst of constant change, in our workplaces, our schools, even in our church. As in any time of change, even among all the wonderful things we will see, there will be questions. But that is as it should be, for those of us who are trying to live as faithful people in this new thing that God is doing among us. As one who is winessing a fair amount of change lately, I invite you to join me in embracing this holy tension. In it we find the faith to live as people at the center of the storm, in a world that is both uncertain and full of wonder. There are few guarantees, except that God is in the boat with us, calming not only the wind and waves but our hearts, and transforming our lives in the process.
Proper 6 B 2018
Mark 4: 26-34
As much time as I have spent with plants, helping my mother in the gardens as a boy and watching the gardeners’ efforts germinate in the back of St. Paul’s, I have always been more comfortable with the idea of gardening than the actual work. Partly it is because I am a world-class procrastinator, which is another way of talking about laziness, but I think that part of it is the challenge of seeing hope where all there really is to look at is dirt, dirt with a few small hard things that we throw on it, along with some fertilizer and water, and maybe a prayer or two; then we wait. But really what we have are these small things that look like rocks and a lot of ground to scatter them; to someone who would like to have something to show for his hour-or-two outside, like a mown lawn or a litter-free parking lot, investing so much of myself with these little hard things hardly seems worth the time.
But the parables we have just heard tell us how deeply bound our waiting and our hope are. The sower scatters his seed and then waits; one day, the earth shows forth what has been taking life inside it, and the process is a mystery to both the sower and to us. A mustard seed, so small that it can be as easily lost as planted, produces in time a shrub that gives shade to all who want it. It is hope we are seeing blossoming before us, but all of it happens according to God's timetable, not ours.
Waiting is woven into our DNA. The long days of Lent and Advent teach us to wait, they show us how much waiting is a part of who we are. But the parables we have just heard make it clear that it is not the things we see, but the things we hope for that are most important, the living things that germinate in us and the work we do that make us who we are. It happens slowly, sometimes painfully slowly, over the days and nights that we sleep and rise that one day we wake up changed, and we truly do not know how. We scatter our seeds, even the smallest ones possible, a kind word to a stranger, a meal set in front of someone as starved for companionship as for food. We haltingly draw those around us into relationship, we try to overcome the barriers of enmity and mistrust, and when the stalk peeks above the ground, we cannot help but be astonished. It defies what we think we know about the world, a world where practically everything can be quantified, and gives us a glimpse of how deeply intertwined the eternal is with the here-and-now. We become people of the kingdom, gardeners who work the soil of the world around us, and this work changes us, helps us to glimpse life where before we could see dirt and the small, pinched things we scatter onto it, enough life to provide shade for all around us.
Part of our impatience , at least those of us like me who expect results more or less instantaneously, is that we expect the world to adhere to our timetable. I remember, as a seminarian, being assigned to a chapel in an inner-city parish. There were lots of things to do there, but the very wise priest had the interns go to the grocery around the corner every week to buy some small item, a couple of cans of soup for the kids, cookies and snacks for the kids, from a place with thick black bars on the windows and Plexiglas in front of the register. The items were small but the opportunity enormous, especially when the owner's expression softened on seeing us toward the end of the year. It was a chance to learn about how to nurture relationships when the dirt seemed thin indeed, even when it takes months to see anything break the topsoil.
It is this hope rooted in the unexpected that God plants in us. Ezekiel speaks about the cedars of Lebanon, trees so large that they provide shade for all kinds of birds, trees that make our mustard seeds look laughable by comparison. But in the work of the kingdom, it is the smallest of seeds that provide the same shade, the work God does with us in the most limited circumstances. It is not in the foundation gift but in the smallest of offerings that the kingdom flourishes, the branches of its tree large enough to provide shade for all. It is because the soil on which we are planting is ourselves and our own souls; with the promise of the gift emerging in front of us and the patience to see it through, the harvest can be limitless.
The gift in this work is in allowing us to confront our own expectations. I would wager that most of us, given the chance, would love to cultivate the cedars of Lebanon rather than what we know will come of our mustard seed. But part of the work of the kingdom is acknowledging that the expectations of the world have nothing to do with the growth that God is nurturing in us in God's time and in ways we can hardly predict, much less quantify. There is the desert plant that Annie Dillard describes, which “looks like a dried chunk of loose wood. It has neither roots nor stems; it's like an old gray knothole. But it is alive. Each year, before the rainy season comes, it sends out a few roots and shoots. If the rain arrives, it grows flowers and fruits; these soon wither away, and it reverts to a state as quiet as driftwood.”
Mark’s gospel almost explodes off the page at us, with John the Baptizer’s proclamation that the world has been made ready for the fulfillment of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus, so these parables can seem odd in describing the sleeping farmer, the patience it will take for the harvest to arrive, especially in as small a package as a mustard seed. But in the weeks since Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has reached rock star status, not only in the church but in popular culture, he has led several events in Washington as a kind reclamation work, not unlike the lots we had to reclaim before beginning our garden behind St. Paul’s. It is a movement centered not in political orientation but, as Christians, seeing Jesus at the center of all we do and all we are. It is the beginning of planting the idea that, in potential, we are bigger than the things that divide us, that all can find shade under the shade of the tree of the kingdom.
Dillard calls this “flying in the teeth of it all”. But that is what hope is, after all. It is in locating the gifts we have, and finding them enough to cultivate the kingdom, a kingdom not about the greatness of the world but of the fertility God has given us. The question is not whether it is worth the time or effort, because God has already decided that we are worth the effort. All we have to do is scatter our own seed and watch the grain ripen around us.
Proper 5 B 2018
Mark 3: 20-35
Who are my mother and brothers? Two years ago, as my father was going through his final illness, my siblings and I went through a crash course in what it means to be family amid apparent chaos, to offer ourselves as best we can to each other when infirmity, the demands of careers and children all seemed to conspire to draw us in different directions. This learning has intensified for us as we have been drawn toward the needs of our aging mother and her impending move to my sister’s house in NJ. We do it out of love, we say: taking very independently-minded people to hospitals, rehabilitation centers and doctor’s appointments, but we do it also out of memory, memory of the kind of family my parents tried to nourish through many moves around the country, three brothers and sisters with very different interests and goals for our lives. Yet our parents tried to say yes to each of us, not just what we did but who we were, and that sense of family is what I have carried with me, especially as we have grown older.
It is something like what we try to be, right here and right now, mothers and brothers and sisters. We recognize how different we are and yet we understand that we are family, attempting to discern and do the will of God, helping to grow the kingdom as best we can. That is why, when Jesus answers the words of the crowd, that his mother and brothers and sisters are here, it can perplex us. We all want to be insiders, to be part of the elite, but that is exactly what Jesus rejects in the presence of the scribes who know all the rules, who have put their own stamp on what it means to be holy. Just after he has appointed the twelve disciples, he has given them, and anyone else who will listen, new rules about what it means to be family, to be holy, in the midst of a world which will call them crazy or possessed. And that is what we try to do, to be family, to try to do the will of God in a time and place that says we cannot make a difference; we try to become who we were meant to be when we are told that we don't have the right credentials and, in spite of the resistance, we do everything in our power to bear witness to the changing of the world.
Who are my brothers and sisters? Several years ago, at the end of a week spent in Central America building houses at an Episcopal Relief and Development site, several of us who had been working there shared lunch together and then had a Eucharist, local workers and foreigners together at long tables. We had spent many hours working with shovels under an impossibly hot sun, digging ditches for houses and a church, making concrete blocks and handing each other dozens of water bottles. As we got up to leave, our guests thanked us for our time together, which we returned in our halting Spanish. Then they asked us for our boots. We looked down at them, torn and smeared with sweat and concrete, and I'm sure more than one of us wondered why they would want to keep them. But I believe that those boots, ruined as they were, were sacramental for both of us, a reminder of the bonds we shared in spite of the few words we had in common, a family grown out of our commitment to our shared dignity and the work of the kingdom.
It is out of the depths of ourselves that we make this recognition of how intimately bound we are, how dependent we are on each other in a community founded in love. Often, we are compelled by the frenetic nature of our lives to seek quick solutions to situations that require calm deliberation and patience. We have to cultivate the ability to wait upon God, to see the slow resistance to change, to begin to dissolve before we can view each other differently. This willingness to wait has been growing in my own family and it has given us a chance to see each other differently, not only in the roles we assume but in the mutual interdependence that has slowly become a part of all our lives.
All this talk about seeing our mothers and sisters and brothers differently gives some light to the restraint that the family of Jesus tries to put on him, after the crowds have decided that “he is out of his mind.” Desmond Tutu, who has been called Beelzebub and worse during his own lifetime, says that in Africa when you ask someone, “How are you?”, the reply you get is in the plural even when you are speaking to one person. A man would say, “we are well”, or “we are not well”. He himself may be well, but his grandmother is not well and so he is not well either. Our humanity... is caught-up with one another's”. It is, as Paul says, looking not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen, as what can be seen is temporary but what cannot be seen is eternal. When Jesus looks around him and sees his mother and sisters and brothers, he is asking us to stretch our imaginations too. When we exchange the peace with one another, work in a community feeding program that happens at St. Paul’s each week/ St. John’s or even showing kindness to the strangers we encounter all the time, we are doing so for our brothers and sisters, because there is no “I” in in the kingdom of God.
Nothing can be more radical than to see how we are bound this way. We live in a world that tells us that we can go it alone, responsible to no one but ourselves, but if we are looking with our hearts, we can see the people who have come before us worshiping with us in this very room, people half a globe away, who are yearning for the will of God exactly as we are. If you ask me, the sin against the Holy Spirit, is the subtle and malign way we look at ourselves and say yes to the self-made people we want to be, instead of the deeply interwoven people that we all are in the mind of God. To begin to do the will of God is to know that we are tied together deeply in ways that we can only partly understand and in ways only God can know.
So when we ask who are my mother and my brothers, we are asking something much bigger than we can answer on our own. It means saying yes to those with whom we disagree, the person we would rather avoid, the aunt or sister whose phone calls we would rather not return. It means looking for the kingdom of God in the places we do not want to go. I still remember a woman who tried to exchange the peace with someone with whom she was in conflict and was told, “I'm just not feeling very peaceful today,” and her remark to me was that it was not her peace to share: it was God's. We find our mothers and brothers and sisters, in Tutu's terms, when we recognize that we “are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they were”. The alternative is to say yes, yes to a world in which we are all searching for the will of God, because it is there that we will begin to understand what family really is.
Proper 4 B 2018
Mark 2:23- 3:6
If you are like me, when we think of sabbath, many of us think of the Blue Laws, with which many of us have had some experience in this commonwealth or in another state. Now, of course, we can do almost whatever we like on a Sunday, and their value is mostly nostalgic. I know this from my father; having grown up in upstate NY, he used to smile wistfully at his memory of having one day when he and his brothers would not have to go to the market, who used to find creative ways to entertain themselves after church without the movies, such as disengaging one of the brakes on the family Model T and spinning it across the lake in wintertime at his parents’ farm, or disassembling a cart and putting it back together on top of the barn. But whether we see them as having a purpose beyond state restriction of commerce, these laws were a reminder that rest, state sanctioned or not, had a purpose of its own, as break from a daily obsession with the things we own or would like to. These are issues that have historically provoked a larger discussion about the meaning of Sabbath and whether they infringe on what we think of as our own liberty, the freedom to do what we choose when we like.
But before we get into discussions about forced rest and freedom of action, it is a related but different premise that Jesus is challenging this morning. The conflict is not about whether a Sabbath is a good thing or not but whether we have distorted its meaning. He is asking us if are using it to create a God in our own image, whether we are constructing limits around what we believe God is or will be, and it is this issue that forces the conflict with the authorities. Having healed a paralytic and called the first of his disciples, Jesus is walking through a field with his disciples, plucking heads of grain on the sabbath, something forbidden in that time and place. The scribes see it as a deliberate provocation and it is, but not for its own sake. At stake is whether our God can be contained in our categories, domesticated through our own time-honored rituals. Jesus is explicit about the terms of the debate: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” He is confronting the religious establishment on its own turf, questioning whether we see law and tradition limiting the scope of God’s work. If we are listening, his rebuke asks a question of us too. We instinctively resist a God who wants to transform our collective landscape, especially one who identifies himself with David and the reference to the Messiah that it implies. These are not boys having fun at the expense of the authorities but a would-be Messiah attacking the very ground of that authority. As the psalmist says, the Pharisees are intent on honoring the sabbath and keeping it holy, but it is on their terms. At the beginning of Pentecost, we have to recognize the act of overturning expectations as holy work, asking us all what is holy in our lives that we would prefer to remain limited and finite.
The stakes become even higher when Jesus confronts the man with the withered hand in the synagogue and it is the only time in the gospels when Jesus shows actual anger at the response of the religious establishment. It’s not hard to feel the tension in the room, especially when Jesus looks at the Pharisees gathered there and asks, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”. The silence of the authorities becomes our own; we too are being asked if there is an appropriate time to offer healing, whether we need to make the suffering of others conform to our own timetable, no matter how sacred it may seem to us. The depth of the need is clear: this isn’t just a man but a human being in front of him, with all his woundedness and in the balance is how we think of our own humanity, especially weighed against the custom of authority. Risking change is not easy, in our families or even in our churches, but the kind of answer that Jesus demands means risking who we see ourselves to be. After all, boys playing a prank with a car can expect consequences, but Jesus is posing an existential threat to everything the Pharisees stand for, even in the face of providing relief for the most vulnerable, and the cost for him is much higher.
Today, that vulnerability is center-stage. The son-of-man is indeed lord of the sabbath (and we are used to thinking of him as “Lord”), but the words identify him literally as a human being. Even amid the miracles at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, cleansing lepers, casting out unclean spirits and healing paralytics, he is, in a deep sense, at one with whom he heals. This “son-of-humanity” or “the human one” is the link between his pronouncement to his claim as being the son of David and his identification with the man with the withered hand. We can also see where this conflict is heading, with the Pharisees and Herodians already beginning their plot to destroy him. If he cannot be contained, as they have tried to contain the holiest of days, then he cannot be allowed to continue among them.
That threat is not confined to the Pharisees. Jesus is looking as much at us as the religious establishment. How is it that Jesus threatens the order we want to maintain for ourselves, the schedules that are so murderously complicated that often we cannot even think about our own sabbath, much less keep it holy? How does Jesus threaten our tenuous sense of order in our overscheduled lives? How is Jesus trying to redefine our relationships to God and to each other? This is not only holy but dangerous ground we are on, challenging all that is decent and in good order in our lives.
Several times a week, I have the privilege of going to Chester Eastside which, on Monday and Wednesday mornings, is one of the most blessedly chaotic places I have had the privilege of being. The staff and volunteers do what they can to establish order and eventually all are fed, but what guides that order is the Holy Spirit more than any human agency, as far as I can see. It is a place I go when I feel I need to be threatened, or at least freed, from my image of a God that I can confine in any way. Because what I can contain eventually becomes an idol, a God-in-the-box that I can examine at my convenience. But the lord of the sabbath is lord of my life, including the sabbath I try to keep holy and, if you are like me, we need a God who threatens us and all we hold sacred, if we are to believe our own selves as the limited but sacred creatures we were created to be.
Pentecost 2018 B
No matter what our political orientation, there is something in us that loves the idea of a conspiracy, a gathering of folks whose motives we may hold in question but who hold a common vision of what they are seeing in the world and are determined to respond to it. If we subtract the negative connotations, it is what we have this morning, because the real meaning of the word is to breathe together, to gather in the same place and feel the breath of God among us, to feel its movement among us. Even if we don’t understand it, it is impossible to ignore, and whether it happens between two of us or in a gathering of a hundred or more, it is a reminder of two things. It is a reminder of the inscrutable presence of God; in contrast to the conspiracies we feel we know, when it appears as the spirit of God, there is little we can do except recognize it as something we cannot control, only feel its presence, how it changes us and everything around us. And for those of us who pray for the church and the work of the spirit in our lives, we pray that we may bear the spirit of God into the world just as those completely unremarkable people took it from Jerusalem and spread it throughout the world, even now as we spread it around these walls and all the places and lives we touch.
But that cannot have been the thoughts of these men on that morning, just after Jesus had ascended into heaven, promising the guidance of the Holy Spirit but not suggesting what they might be looking for, after they had found Matthias to complete their number following the death of Judas. That is what they wanted, after all, completeness, especially in the face of so much they could not explain, where the death and resurrection of a beloved teacher had changed everything for them. They were seeking something stable to hang onto, something that felt like normalcy, a community of twelve that had been the focus of their lives long enough for them to know that they could not go back to the way things had been. And if we are honest, it is not so different for us, the way we crave normalcy when everything else around us feels so uncertain, when all feels at the whim of numbers and people and circumstances that we cannot understand, much less trust or predict, school shootings, political scandals and all.
Predictability is not what they have this morning. What they have are divided tongues of fire resting on each of them and the sound of a violent wind; it isn't an accident if we are reminded of the wind moving through the chaos, over the waters at the beginning of creation. It is because every movement of God in our lives together, especially for the church we are now and are becoming, is about God's continuous act of creation, the working-out God's plan in our lives and the lives of the people we love and serve. It is the very unpredictability of our lives together that is the sign of how deeply God is embedded in them, changing the way we look at one another and the work we do together.
Maybe that is why I have such sympathy for those in the crowd who sneer at what they are hearing, languages from all the known world coming from these most ordinary men. They are trying to frame the work of God in some kind of context that makes sense, even if it is unflattering to these men who don't understand what is happening any more than those who are accusing them of being filled with “new wine”. It is Peter who tries to help them make sense of it all, that “God will pour out his spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” But it is a prophet's explanation, and it is maddeningly unhelpful to those of us who want to chart a course for the church, who pretend that the church's responsibility is to conform to our own private agendas. Pentecost is a reminder that it is we who work with the spirit of God, not the other way around. We have a responsibility as stewards of the church to make the best decisions we can with our resources, but it is our attentiveness to the movement of the Spirit that will tell us how faithful we are.
One thing that makes it so hard to talk about the Holy Spirit, to begin to understand what it means, is that we tend to treat it as a private event or even as a personal attribute, something we have or we don't. We all have experiences in our lives that we cannot understand, the relationship restored with son, daughter or parent that seemed beyond redeeming, the meeting you fear because you know there will be as many different opinions as people, and somehow consensus emerges, or more ideas than you could have imagined. The Holy Spirit works among us in ways that stretch us, reminds us that our hearts have to be bigger than what we think they can be. William Sloane Coffin, the late pastor of Riverside Church in NY, spoke about the need to broaden our hearts to accommodate the love of God. “If indeed we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds and strength”, he says, “we are going to have to stretch our hearts, open our minds and strengthen our souls, whether our years are three-score and ten or not yet twenty. God cannot lodge in a narrow mind. God cannot lodge in a small heart. To accommodate God, they must be palatial.” Indeed, the Holy Spirit is not a private identification card for our spirituality but shows us how unbelievably large God's love is for all of us, and how large our hearts have to be in return.
It's worth remembering for those of us who are longing for something that feels like normalcy. Because we are not called to be normal. Like Matthew the tax-collector, Peter the fisherman and the rock and the numberless saints that have come after them, we are unremarkable and extraordinary at the same time. The missionary work we have on this day and each day forward is seeking-out the Spirit among us, seeing where it is drawing us. And if we need something to hang onto, let it be the idea that we cannot be who we are meant to be without letting go, letting go of our need for explanations and letting the spirit of God give us tongues to speak, maybe even set our heads and hearts on fire, and breathe all we are into divine life.
So the calendars will tell you that the rest of the Sundays after Pentecost will happen in ordinary time, but don't you believe it. There is nothing ordinary about the love of a God who causes this blessed chaos in our lives, whose spirit blows through everything we do and are. All it takes is a little training, to learn to exhale when things feel a little dicey. Mostly what we need, though, is to expand our hearts to take in all this blessed, messy, chaotic love. What we will experience in our lives will often seem completely out of our control but, believe it or not, it is supposed to feel that way. And if we do believe it, we might find that that is when we have our souls, our hearts, even our heads on fire with love for this God.
Easter 7 B
John 17: 6-19
On this Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension of Jesus to his Father, I have been thinking about the time I learned to pray, and I remember it being a time of bewilderment and wonder. I remember being taught by my parents what to say, the words to use, the names to include, but it was not clear to me why I was saying these things, because I couldn't imagine what effect I could have on the lives of others, kneeling in the moonlight in my room at night. After all, most of the people whose names I would use could look after themselves and, being small, I was not sure that anything whispered in a dark room, would make any difference in the lives of people who often lived far away from us. Yet I remember saying those words like I remember the wallpaper in my room; I remember the sense of wonder they formed in me, that what I thought and said, a conversation I began then and that still continues, could somehow have an effect everyone around me.
On this last day of our Easter celebrations, we have a window onto a life of a community that is about to be changed completely, and prayer is at the heart of that change. Jesus is finishing his goodbye to his disciples, yet at the end of this long farewell, he is not issuing last minute instructions. Instead, his final moments are spent in prayer to God on their behalf. He asks the Father to be their protection in the world, “to protect them in your name, that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one,” to sanctify them in your truth—your word is truth”, to send them out into the world to change it. He is asking for the completion of his mission through three hard years of ministry and the love it has borne through all his disciples.
We do not have the reaction of the disciples to the prayer, but it must have been bewildering. He has been at the center of all their lives through all the miracles, the teachings, the promises of what is to come, hearing them on the eve of betrayal. We, however, hear them all through the filter of the resurrection, where their world and ours has been thrown into disarray by this wonderful, impossible event that has taken place in the risen Christ. It is in the light of this event that we have focused on him, on his presence with us, what it means for our relationships with the estranged father or daughter or colleague, what it means to seek out the Christ in everyone we see.
This morning is really about the Ascension and how it has changed all our lives. One of the great privileges of being a part of this place is being alone here some days in the late afternoon, when the sun strikes the windows around the nave and lights up everything in this sanctuary in a completely different way than we see on a Sunday morning, the light refracting in reds and blues off everything in the chancel. It's something like this that happens for us after the Ascension. For weeks now, Jesus himself has been the light on which we have been fixed, bringing us back to the fold, the one who has called us friends instead of servants. But even after he is out of our sight, he becomes more a part of who we are and how we see our world. Instead of being the thing we are looking at, he becomes the window through which we see everything around us, the work that engages us, all that has meaning in our lives. He is no longer the thing we see but the way we see, our way of viewing everything through the promises of God. We look through this window and see everything changed, and we too are changed in the process. It means, says Rowan Williams, that “we think about Jesus not as someone completely outside us, but as the power in us gradually setting us free to see the world with clarity, hope and love. Jesus does not demand attention for himself: he...enables us to go on our journey toward God the Father as he himself did, by the path of commitment to the world.” However badly we want to gaze on this figure that has changed our lives, it is our own view through him that compels us to see our world and each other differently.
Seeing our world through the window of Christ helps us to understand the eternal life that is at the center of Jesus' prayer for those who have been with him throughout his ministry. At the heart of that life is the willingness to see the smallest of our steps toward God and each other as the eternal life for which Jesus prays: the way we reach out to an estranged colleague, the family that comes together around a sick relative. It is just because these steps can be so difficult that they are so crucial because they allow us to see ourselves as beloved of God; it is only in seeing ourselves as parts of each other that we become the people we were made to be. Eternal life means being bound to God, we who have been made in God's image.
Looking through that window forming within us also changes the way we think about prayer. The church I attended in Atlanta, the one that supported my journey toward ordination, was much like this one, one that took its mission seriously but one that welcomed people from every possible background. There was a pew under a window depicting the Ascension and, as I would watch children crawl into it on a Sunday morning, I would think about my own struggle with prayer as a child and all our struggles with our own holiness. Allowing Christ to be that window formed inside us lets us see in our prayers that “there are no surplus people, people whose needs or claims we can safely ignore-- the handicapped, the dying, or those who are just far away from us...The loyalty of any Christian can't be given to anything less than the human race to which God has made commitment.” Our prayer on this Sunday is a refraction of the prayer Jesus offers his own Father because it illuminates all of God's children, from those as bewildered as I was to those who have given their lives to the realization of the kingdom. It allows us to see that we cannot really see the divinity of the creator without acknowledging the holiness of each of us who were created in the image of God.
Seeing that relationship between Father and Son through the window of the Ascension reminds us of who we really are. In Jesus' terms, we do not belong to the world, just as he does not belong to the world, but we have a dual citizenship, in the world we encounter every day and in the eternal. After all, we are very much in the world, but, changed as our view is through the window of Christ, it cannot look the same. It is shot-through with light, the light of clarity, hope and love, the love of a Father for a beloved son, and the love of a son who has given us a view of a new heaven and a new earth.