Location, location, location. We all know what that’s about. The value of your home depends on the neighborhood you’re located in. The success of your business is determined by where you’re positioned. And even in the church world, it’s considered a sure prediction of failure if your building isn’t on a visible thoroughfare.
Your perspective on life is shaped by where you are. I don’t know about you, but I’ve moved an awful lot. Up until recently I averaged one move for every year of my life. Most of my moves were hopeful – a new place, a new beginning, a new job. Some were exciting – moving to a foreign country, moving in with my new husband. Each move included a fair share of anxiety. How would I find my way in a new place? Would I find a community of people to be part of? Would I be safe and secure? Would I like my new life enough to make up for missing my old one?
There is an assumption that every move, every change will be a move up, a better opportunity, a more secure future. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we find ourselves in a strange and difficult location, with all we had relied on stripped away. Sometimes we find ourselves in a wilderness place.
That’s where we meet the great figure of Advent, John the Baptist… in the wilderness. He left the promise of his early life, his security in Galilee, his family and everything he possessed in order to respond to the call of God. John preached about radical transformation. He spoke of beginning a new life. His was the call of prophecy, which is less about predicting the future and more about being a conduit for truth and the word of God.
His father, Zechariah had predicted his important future role on the day John was born. Today we sang the Canticle of Zechariah where Zechariah speaks to John and tells him, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way…”
And yet, for all his importance in terms of the coming Messiah, John was far removed from the places of power. If you listened carefully to the Gospel reading and all the foreign names and locations, you will have noticed that it opens with a listing of all the powerful people of the time and the areas and peoples they rule over. After a lengthy list of emperors, procurators, tetrarchs and high priests, we finally get to hear about John. While the rulers are centered in the cities and population centers, John is running around in the wilderness, where anyone who wants to hear what he has to say will have to travel miles to get to him. The wilderness doesn’t have a high walkability score!
It reminds me of when I go camping. At night the noises are completely different. When there are no streetlights, billboards or sky scrapers, the night sky is incredibly brilliant. And without the sound from cars and people, it almost seems as though you can hear the song of the stars. In the wilderness you are far away from business, commerce, politics, advertising and all the hustle bustle. Because of the remoteness of your location, you just might be able to listen to God and to your own life. Location makes a difference.
There are other places we might go to hear the word of God, to be confronted with those realities that are often hidden in plain sight. You will find one of our current day prophets crying out in the wilderness of Grays Harbor County where there is a homeless encampment alongside the river between Aberdeen and Hoquiam. The camp has been there for a long time on land that was private until the City of Aberdeen recently purchased it. Economic conditions in this former lumber and fishing town are some of the very worst in this state. Decades of suffering and poverty have combined to force people out of work, homes and security. They are camping in tents, improvised structures and broken down RV’s. The ground has turned to mud. They rely upon the community they have created and assistance from visitors, volunteers and others who care.
But now, those visits have been restricted by the City. The camp has been fenced off. It will soon be cleared and the people will have very few places left to go. Only outsiders with a City-issued permit can now enter the camp. This is the place where for the past 5 years, the Episcopal ministry, Chaplains on the Harbor has been providing comfort, food, pastoral care, and services. All of this is led by a Grays Harbor native, the Rev. Sarah Monroe. In her black and red plaid clergy shirt, she is well known and loved by those who live on the margins. She visits the encampments, she visits people in jail, and she conducts last rites and funerals for the many, many people who have died outside.
But she can no longer legally visit the camp by the river. Her application for a permit was denied, in part because she couldn’t provide a regular schedule for when she would be present. How can you schedule when someone needs an emergency ride to the doctor? How can you schedule a pastoral crisis? How do you know when you might be called upon for last rites?
Sarah has chosen to call the powerful to account. She and others who have been shut out from their friends, parishioners and family have filed a federal lawsuit. She is literally a voice crying out in the wilderness, calling for justice, asking for a change of hearts and minds. The message is “Repent. The Kingdom of God is near.”
John was located in the wilderness so that all who came to him could take stock of their own lives and repent of all that had taken them away from God, their true center. He was located outside of the centers of power so that he might speak a word of warning and rebuke to the powerful. Like any good prophet, he called his society to wake up from their sleep of comfort and pay attention to the signs of suffering all around them. A modern-day John must have written the following on a bathroom wall. “If you’re not out on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”
John asked people to examine their lives and to prepare a way, a road, a highway for the Messiah to come in. Sometimes I visualize what that might look like, a smooth road, free from obstacles, level and flat. It sort of sounds like those moving sidewalks they have in big airports, but I don’t think that’s at all what the prophets have in mind. They know we will still have to walk every step of the way. The way is prepared by our repentance, our change of heart, our willingness to give up old ways and to embrace love, forgiveness, mercy and faithfulness. There will be suffering along this way and disruption. We will be led through a wilderness. This is not a passive preparation but one which will require that “long obedience in the same direction.”
That’s the way it is with the spiritual life. Jesus asks, “Where is your heart?” “What is at the center of your being?” “Where do you find your true home?” It’s a question of location. Are we in the comfortable middle, enjoying the fruits of the wealthiest civilization in history while many others suffer in poverty? Are we oriented towards superficial success and the noise and acclaim of power while the deeper life of the spirit withers away? Have our vices and habits taken over our own best true selves and robbed us of healthy and full lives? These are the questions of Advent.
When we enter the wilderness of soul examination, we do not do so alone. Jesus entered the wilderness with John and he comes to us in our wilderness places. He brings those from the margins into the center. And it is there in the wilderness that God speaks. “You are my beloved.” Jesus breaks open the gates and walks right through into the most difficult and desperate parts of life. He is not afraid of mess or shame. He doesn’t leave us alone or abandoned in our despair. You know his location. He pitches his tent right in the middle of our existence. He abides with us.
Advent provides the wilderness of quiet and reflection in the midst of the loud and busy secular holiday season. We are offered the opportunity to prepare the way of the Lord, to open our hearts to God and to one another in new ways and to trust that God will be our heart’s true home. Amen.
2 Advent, Year C (RCL)
Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)
Today’s readings make me sweat a little under the collar, they always have (perhaps they always should). The way I tend to read them is that either you give away the farm to those who are in greater need than you, or you’re selfish for holding onto any material gain—and God knows when I’m being selfish! Where is the grace in that? Today we are faced with two renditions of the ‘woe to the wealthy’ literary formulae. The passages from Amos and Mark are squarely aligned with a long prophetic tradition that culminates in Jesus’ teachings on the upside-down kingdom of God, where the last are first and the first, last. I take some relief—and I hope you do, too—knowing that the disciples were exceedingly perplexed by these teachings.
The other challenge with these texts is that they are riddled with a number of familiar phrases that stand out from years of hearing and reading scripture. Who here has heard a sermon or two on the ‘rich young ruler’? Or, how about cherry-picked phrases like, “for God all things are possible.” Lesser in popularity, though a personal favorite of mine, comes from the letter to the Hebrews. Certain Protestant traditions are not terribly keen on the priestly language, but who can forget the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword; able to judge thoughts and intentions of the heart.” There’s nothing quite like the image of getting spliced open by the Holy Spirit to spur on fervent prayer.
And then the saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” That one has kept me awake from time to time (especially when I find myself preaching on it). In fact, on my bookshelf at home sits one of Peter Brown’s formidable tomes with that very title: Through the Eye of a Needle: wealth, the fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. In a mere 500+ pages, he charts out a 200-year history of the early church’s relationship with money and a falling empire. It is a history of soul searching and mixed responses. Throughout the church’s history, there have been times when Lady Poverty was (or continues to be) honored to great effect, and other times when she has been neglected in the corner. As we heard last week, Saint Francis was one who elevated her to renewed status. And to this day, the subsequent monastic tradition of the Franciscans continues to instruct us on the way of self-denial. Their approach remains one among many. We may not come to conclusive agreement on notions like “wealth” and “stewardship”—or even who is wealthy, or who is responsible for stewarding resources—this is one needle that will continue to prick us, the church, for a very long time.
Wealth and justice are fully intertwined in today’s texts. In Amos, we learn that the Israelites who have accrued wealth have also neglected justice. In the gospel reading, Jesus lovingly suggests to a potential disciple that he exercise radical generosity. In the Hebrews text, wealth and justice are addressed through discernment of thoughts and intentions, and we are reminded (echoing Amos) that there will come a day when we open our books to none other than God in Christ.
I want to invite us to listen closely to these hard teachings, together. And, following the letter to the Hebrews, let’s invite the Spirit to bring discernment, to illuminate our way, as we move toward the seat of grace. (Come, Holy Spirit.)
As I was sitting with these passages, allowing them to be both familiar and yet alien, a phrase in Amos stood out in its repetition: “in the gate.” It shows up three times. The first instance states, “they hate the one who reproves in the gate.” The second instance shifts from ‘they’ to ‘you,’ meaning Amos’ listeners, the Israelites, “and push aside the needy in the gate.” Finally, the third changes verb tense to a directive, “establish justice in the gate.” In the repetition of this one phrase Amos spells out a fairly clear picture of what is wrong within the nation of Israel at that moment, and the remedy for what needs to happen to correct.
But why a gate? What is important about the gate? In the ancient world, they were the thresholds into a city where people gathered daily. Vendors occupied market stalls, elders adjudicated cases, gossip percolated. Imagine something like a city plaza—an open area between two passageways—and that comes close to how gates in ancient cities functioned. The heart of a city could be discerned by noticing what activities occurred at the gate. Do widows and the poor receive food? Are the cases of less wealthy citizens heard with the same sobriety as those with status and influence? How do vendors price their goods, and how are they treated by authorities? In other words, how wealth and justice are performed, how they interact, in the gate defines an urban culture, and is a primary concern for God.
At the first mention of the gate, an undefined ‘they’ has targeted ‘one who speaks truth’ as an enemy. Amos, being a prophet, happens to be one who speaks truth—it’s his job description, you could say. Given the nature of the prophetic message, the ‘they’ here is likely to point to those in positions of power and authority [wealth implied] who may or may not be among the prophet’s listeners, but they are certainly perturbed by the message. In the second instance, what should be a visual cue in the form of vulnerable persons is, quite literally, pushed aside altogether. The prophetic voice has likely been silenced, and now visible need is not only ignored, but forcibly moved. The third instance offers an opportunity to turn things around. Seeking good, loving good, looks like [re]establishing justice in the gate/out in public—sharing bread and beverage with those who do not own fields or have the ability to make their own food, listening to wisdom from those who know and follow the way of the Lord, dealing honorably with one another (and not taking bribes or using privilege for gain). If only the people would seek God and live.
At this point in our journey through the texts, we could go down the path of constructing a political agenda that would be faithful to scripture. Or we could come up with all kinds of social commitments that would keep us busy, for the sake of the kingdom. I certainly have my biases in this department; perhaps you have one or two. In Mark’s gospel, too, it seems pretty clear that economic justice here on the earth has something to do with the kingdom of heaven. Yet, I believe we would miss something important if we only read this to further a cause. (So,) What might we find in the particulars of this encounter?
A rich man runs up to Jesus, kneels down, calls him “Good Teacher,” and asks what can he do to inherit eternal life. He does this, not when Jesus is teaching somewhere publicly already, where he would have to angle his way through a crowd, but when Jesus and the disciples are on the way (to Jerusalem). Presumably, Jesus had already been teaching in that area—had the rich man gone to hear him and been impressed? Or had he heard about this man, Jesus, and decided to catch him on his way out of town (kind of like getting a back stage pass)? Why would the man call him “Good Teacher” instead of “Rabbi,” which was more common? The scene Mark paints illustrates an aggrandized display of deference on the part of the rich man—who perhaps thinks very highly of himself to make such a showing. Jesus doesn’t exactly respond accordingly. (He never does.) Notice that when he recites the commandments, an extra one is thrown in. Recognizable are, no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness, and honoring one’s father and mother. To these Jesus specifically inserts “no defrauding.” Naturally, the man says he’s followed the rules since his youth, but it would seem he doesn’t quite catch that extra one. Jesus addresses those commandments that deal with how we treat one another, then includes another term that explicitly points to economic and power differentials. When that passes the rich man by, he reiterates by saying, “you lack one thing; go [get up], sell what you own [land, property], and give [the proceeds] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus looks at this man, loves him, and attempts to redirect his gaze from eternal life, to seek good exactly where he is.
Perhaps this form of redistribution sounds familiar; remember the command concerning the year of jubilee, when the land and all people are to have a sabbath year? Early on, the Israelites are instructed, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants…In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another.” (Lev. 25.10,13-14) This command had social, economic, political implications (and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, was never practiced), and in the moment between Jesus and the rich man, the reverberations of jubilee are intended to strike a chord within the rich man, calling him to turn away from material status, to follow Jesus (the Messiah) into a new way, into life. The story of the rich man is just as much about the larger socioeconomic systems of disenfranchisement as it is an invitation to an individual to seek out and to love justice.
As we see in today’s readings, seeking good is locational. In Amos, it happens in the very public place of the city gate. In Mark’s gospel, it happens on the road, along the way, as Jesus himself is facing the gates of Jerusalem.
Recently, I watched a documentary film that offers an example of (re)establishing justice in a place, and in such a way that brought disparate communities together. The Return of the River is a film, released in 2014, that follows the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, over on the Olympic Peninsula. It follows the story of the river itself, from the mountains out to the Strait, and the dream of one man to bring electricity and industry to this furthermost corner of the United States, which he did. At the time the dams were built, timber was a vital industry. It employed and fed families in the Port Angeles area, and the dams provided affordable power to a great many people. Yet, for the good they did, they also cut off entirely an essential conduit of salmon and trout from the sea to the inland portions of the river. The priorities of one community superseded the local indigenous communities, as was the case more often than not at that time. Until the mid-1990s when the timber industry was in transition, and environmentalists started to petition for the removal of the dams—an unprecedented proposal. It took nearly two decades for a plan to come to fruition, but eventually, these engineering feats were blasted back to rubble, the river flowed, and the fish returned. (I cried, through the whole thing.) This is not everyone’s definition of justice, however, it is one example of what it can look like to honor those who have been economically, politically, even religiously pushed aside.
Loving good is particular to the individual heart/soul just as it is locational. We are all invited to follow the way of Jesus, each according to the way Jesus calls us. This does not mean that we may remain naïve to the systems of oppression and privilege at work in the world. Yet, we may approach the throne of grace boldly, knowing that Jesus will ask some very difficult things of us and that God will provide a Spirit of grace, creativity and truth in order to do what is asked of us. May you receive exactly what you need for this day, and every day. Amen.
The Episcopal Church, like the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches, celebrates faithful Christians, who by their lives and witness are remembered as saints. We’re a little looser on the designation than some denominations. Miraculous events after death are not necessary to get yourself designated a saint in our book.
We adopted most of the Roman Catholic saints when we separated from the Church of Rome in the 1500s. Since then we’ve added folks along the way, expanding our corporate identity beyond apostles, virgin martyrs and weighty theologians to include people like William White, the first Episcopal bishop of the United States, Julia Chester Emory who pioneered women’s ministry in the 1800s and Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist!
We like to name our churches after saints. Some are fairly common, like St. John the Baptist, others are more obscure like one of my favorites, St. Swithin. Here in Ballard, we are St. Luke’s, one of five St. Luke’s in the Diocese of Olympia, which is made up of 90 churches in Western Washington. Interestingly, we were originally St. Stephen’s but somewhere along the way the congregation went through a major upheaval and was renamed for Luke, the physician, evangelist and gospel writer.
It was an inspired and prophetic change for this church because in the 1960s a new wind from the Spirit blew into town and transformed this congregation. It was the era of the charismatic renewal movement in the Episcopal Church and St. Luke’s was right in the center of the excitement. All manner of people began to experience God’s presence in very tangible and transformative ways. Enthusiasm for prayer, worship and service grew. People were hungry to learn from Scripture and to develop the gifts of the Spirit in their own lives.
Many were healed. Some physically. Some emotionally and psychologically. Some permanently and others for a time. If you visit my office and look at the top of my bookshelf, you will find copies of the many, many books on healing and the gifts of the Spirit written by lay and clergy ministers from St. Luke’s. There are still hundreds of tapes of sermons, teachings and workshops on healing in body, mind and spirit downstairs in the archives. And there are some present who remember and continue as part of that ongoing movement of God’s Spirit.
They, along with others share the ministry of praying with and for others in a ministry of healing. At this celebration of the Feast of St. Luke we will offer anointing with oil and prayer for those who wish to receive it in the name of Jesus, our great physician.
Most of us weren’t around during the 1960s, 70s and 80s when thousands flocked to this little corner of Seattle bringing curiosity and hope along with their wounds. I can only imagine that there was a strong desire on the part of many to get as close as possible to the source of love and light, hope and healing. We all want to be at the center of the action, right up close.
Maybe you’ve waited in line for hours to get the best spot in the house or stood outside a stage door to catch an autograph, or walked for miles to a place of pilgrimage. We can measure our importance and impact by how near we are to the most important person in the room. It would be so great to be either at the right or left hand of the one we admire and desire. And if they have time for us, pay attention to us, and share a small measure of their glory with us… Wow! We feel incredibly special and set apart. We can dine out on the story of the time we were noticed by ______ (fill in the blank) for years to come.
That’s what happened for the disciples of Jesus. They witnessed lives transformed around him. They saw people healed from physical infirmities and delivered from the demons of mental and emotional distress. They experienced a new sense of belonging in the community of those who became brothers and sisters beyond the ties of blood. And they discovered a radical love and acceptance from a man who had neither wealth nor power but still drew many to himself.
Still they wanted more. More influence. More recognition. More approval. More status. More attention. It wasn’t enough to simply be among the twelve disciples, who were closest to him. James and John jockey for a more intimate connection. They want to be special. They want Jesus to give them places of privilege. And that all-too-human desire threatens to tear their fellowship apart and set back their spiritual development.
I’m so glad that this type of behavior doesn’t surprise Jesus. Diocesan Convention is coming up next week and I know I’ll probably have to wrestle all over again with my desire to be special and noticed. My own petty jealousies and resentments will make me cringe. And I won’t be alone. Many clergy, including my dear and saintly husband struggle in the company of other clergy. We aren’t nearly as kind and compassionate to one another as Jesus hopes we would be. Pray for me.
There is an antidote to this common human failing. I feel like I should alert you right now that you might want to tune out from what’s to follow. It’s not easy. It’s not nearly as simple as being a nice person, or being kind to strangers or even following the rules. The solution for our human tendency to place ourselves above others and to fake holiness by proximity isn’t complex but it’s not achievable on our own power.
It begins by allowing ourselves to be served. It starts with receiving. To be delivered from all the ways we try to separate ourselves from others, promote our own interests and make ourselves look good, we are to join Jesus in his calling through baptism. This is the same baptism that took him first into the wilderness to confront and repel the demons of worldly success, relevance and privilege. It is a baptism that foreshadows death; death to self-governance and self-will and surrender to the will of God. It is baptism in which we are raised to new life and given an eternal identity as the dear child of God, the beloved one. It is nothing we earn or deserve but is conferred upon us as gift and blessing.
We receive the cup of new life when we drink the cup of Christ’s death and resurrection. When we share this cup, we are united not only with the eternal and holy one but with all our sisters and brothers. And we are initiated into a life of holy service in Christ’s name. We who receive may then give. We who are forgiven, forgive. We who are served, are called to serve others. We who are healed and delivered have the power to bring healing and deliverance to this wounded world.
Today each one of us has our unmet needs and wounds both open and secret. Some have been with us from childhood and involve trauma, neglect or abuse. Some are the result of medical or mental conditions that are chronic and debilitating. We may have ongoing struggles with anger, lust, addiction, self-hatred, guilt and broken relationships. None of us is whole. All of us long for transformation, redemption, healing and peace.
For each of us the invitation is clear. Jesus says, “Come, be baptized with my baptism. Come drink the cup which I offer you.” Your pain and suffering will not be miraculously ended. But I will share it with you. I have already gone before you and can bring you through. With me you will have the grace to carry on. You will not be alone.
No matter what you are going through now, you are not alone. All around are signs of God’s presence. There is the water of baptism to remind you of who you are. There is the holy meal to unite you with God and all the saints. There is healing oil as an outward sign of inward grace and there is the prayer of your companions on the journey whose hands are the hands of Christ upon you.
“She will call upon me and I will answer her;
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue her and bring her to honor.
With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Proper 24, Year B
Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Twenty-five years ago this month, I was sitting on a rock in the middle of a river in Yosemite with three other first-year Seminary classmates. We were visiting the park for the first time and had come from Berkeley for a long weekend. Out of a class of 36 we couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds.
I was a multi-denominational mutt with an evangelical bent and had been an Episcopalian for less than 2 years. The only male was an exchange student from Britain, the son of an Anglican priest, very traditional and Anglo-Catholic. My friend Lucretia is a cradle Episcopalian who spent years in the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. The youngest gal was a recent Smith graduate and a radical who wanted to challenge and upend the church’s oppressive traditions.
It was a gorgeous day in autumn and we had just completed an awe-inspiring hike to the top of the falls. We climbed onto a rock to celebrate the beauty of that astonishing place and to have lunch. After the meal, with all my naiveté and enthusiasm, I said, “We have bread and wine. Let’s celebrate communion.” What ensued was an hour-long debate about the nature of the Eucharist, the canons of the church and the role of the ordained in the sacraments. I don’t even remember if we ever ritually broke the bread and drank the wine, but I did begin to realize the complexity of worshiping God within a particular faith tradition.
So much brought us together and so much divided us. The meal that Jesus instituted for his followers as a way to celebrate his presence and be re-membered into his One Body has also separated and kept Christians apart for centuries.
In the Book of Numbers, the power of God’s Spirit is poured out on the 70 leaders chosen by Moses so that God’s word and work can go forth into the world and God’s people can be adequately cared for. Two, Eldad and Medad, receive the Spirit even though they aren’t on the mountain top with everyone else. They are literally in a different camp from the rest of the chosen ones, outside the tent. How quickly this causes controversy and an order to shut them down. They’re not authorized, they haven’t been properly prepared and anointed, and they are under suspicion by those who follow the rules and procedures. The amazing gift of speaking God’s word through prophetic inspiration is so often controlled and shut down because it comes to the wrong people, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We’re so good at making distinctions, differences and divisions. We start with our closest relationships, in our own families. I’ll never forget the year and a half my sister and I had a masking tape line down the center of our shared bedroom. That simple division came with a warning, “Thou shalt not cross over!” It was childish then but the fact that we now rarely speak to one another as adults is a source of great sadness. Many of you have these kinds of family divisions, where anger and hurt keep us apart.
We’re keen on our differences as well. In the church there are important distinctions between the charismatics, evangelicals, Pentecostals, social justice liberals, liturgical perfectionists and conservative Christians. Many of us have stopped talking to one another. Jesus’s final prayer for his followers was that we “might all be one as He and God are one.” Sadly we are often more allied to our strongly held points of view than we are to the sacrificial act of truly listening to someone we disagree with. I’ll never forget the tiny church in Hawthorne, Nevada. They had enough resources to stay open with their small congregation of seven members but the bishop was forced to close them because 3 of them refused to be in church at the same time as the other 4.
And Lord knows our politics are divided. This bitter, disturbing week of hearings saddened, scared and triggered many of us. Somewhere in the mass of statements, opinions, pontifications, denials and demands there are wounded and damaged young people who have been terrified, alone and hurting for 35 years. The truth of the original wrong, the years of suffering and the current consequences are caught up in a firestorm of partisanship. We’re all in our camps now and there is precious little room for the healing balm of truth, reconciliation, humility and compassion.
Once again I am amazed and convicted by the radical way in which Jesus goes beyond our human limitations and failings to bring us closer to God and closer to one another. John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, comes to him with a complaint against someone who is outside the fellowship, a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong with those on the inside, the close followers. John is jealous and zealous. He wants Jesus to shut down someone who is using the name of Jesus without authorization or proper credentials to free people from demonic influence.
Jesus is still sitting there with a child in his lap, having told his disciples, just moments before, that to be great, you must serve the least, the invisible, the silenced, the ones who cannot defend themselves. And here comes his beloved disciple complaining because people are being delivered from their bondage by someone who doesn’t have the proper identity. You can almost hear the frustration in Jesus’s words. Stop it. Stop putting up obstacles to the work of God. Stop trying to bolster your own standing by protecting my name and reputation. I don’t care about my name and reputation. I do care about the little ones. I care so much that I tell you it is more important for you to put yourself at risk for their sake than it is for you to try and protect me. It is better for you to be more concerned for them than you are for me.
It is more important for you to stand up for others, to rub the salt of your truth-telling, compassionate care for these little ones into the entire wounded, bloody body of this world, seasoning it with your tears for the ones I love.
We who are so privileged to know the love of Jesus are called to serve others in his name. What would happen if instead of protecting our own–our own image, comfort, success and identity—we worked at removing the obstacles experienced by others? What might it mean to try harder to hear the different voices, from the “wrong” places, without the proper credentials? What would happen if we first tried to remove the obstacles we put between us and others, the barriers that prevent us from fully being engaged with one another? How can we allow God to make a way where there is no way, to clear the path to true connection and community?
At the beginning of this past, difficult week many of us got to see a glimpse of what that kind of communion might look like at the Edible Hope fundraiser. At least 200 people from all walks of life gathered together to care for this community. The week before our bishop asked with incredulity, “How did you sell out your fundraiser when your church is so small?” Well, “whoever is not against us is for us!” And our community is so much bigger than our Sunday morning attendance. Nancy Rogers and Robert Loomis made it clear that we feed people in the name of Jesus.
We are joined by many, many others who may or may not share that conviction. We are united not by politics, ideology, denomination, economics or education. We are united by a willingness to care, a desire to serve others, the belief in the dignity and worth of every human being and the simple compassion of providing a warm room, a good meal, a cup of something to drink and human connection. We offer food for the soul and the cup of new life with God’s help.
The love of Jesus is more inclusive than any one of us is ever capable of. Perhaps you need the love of Jesus this week to bring healing where you have been wronged, abused and humiliated. The oil of anointing and the prayer of the faithful are one of many resources for you in your time of pain and grief. Maybe you need the love of Jesus to mend a broken relationship where there are obstacles or distance, maybe years of hurt and anger. The grace of God poured out within our hearts and nourished at this table of love can strengthen us for the work of reconciliation. It could be that you need to tell the truth, to face shame, failure and self-loathing. You can begin in corporate confession with your fellow sinners and companions on the journey.
Proper 21, Year B
Numbers 11: Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20; Mark 7:38-50
We live in a time of outrage, resistance and protest; of uncovering what is wrong and speaking truth to power. Every news cycle contains new revelations of sexual misconduct and cover-up, of egregious racism leading, in some cases, to wrongful death, and of political skullduggery which cheapens democracy and the integrity of our common life.
The church cannot be silent or collude with the evil that so often damages the most vulnerable. Preachers are called not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable. We are to prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, attentive to the conflict between the prophetic Christian message and the complexities of an imperfect and sinful world.
And so, for the past six weeks, this Christian preacher has been wrestling with the many ways we fall short of the ideals to which we have been called, both as individuals and as a community. According to Matt, who was here for all of the previous five weeks until he and Nora left to move to Michigan, “You’ve been on fire!” I think that was meant in a good way!
We have a strong Judeo-Christian tradition of telling it like it is. The prophet Nathan is a great example. After the greatest King in Israel’s history commits horrific abuses of power, lust and cover-up in the rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah David thought he had gotten away with it. He even married Bathsheba and was expecting their child, his heir. Her fragile position forced her into shame and secrecy. Only David’s battle captain, Joab, knew what really happened and it was to his advantage to keep silent.
So David has no idea what’s coming when Nathan visits him and tells his little story about the rich man, and the poor man with his one beloved lamb. David rationalized his own behavior so much that he does not recognize the trap set by Nathan’s tale. In his own righteousness, David is outraged. He is quick to condemn the rich man. He is anxious to show his own compassion. He wants to take matters into his own hand to punish the wrongdoer and set things right for the victim. He once again thinks that he knows best, that he has the power and can control things to determine the outcome. He has forgotten the source of truth, the judge of all, the good shepherd who cares for each lamb.
Sin is so predictable. The methods may be different but through the ages the impulses are all the same: greed, lust, power, selfishness, pride. Sin doesn’t vary that much. What is interesting about sin is God. God’s approach to sin and the sinner is always nuanced and personal. Grace is never formulaic. God’s intricate weave of justice and mercy is wiser and more subtle than any system of punishment and rehabilitation that we can conceive.
David convicts himself by his own judgement. “You are the man,” proclaims Nathan and all his justification and avoidance is destroyed. The great revelation is that God has never been apart from David. God knows his heart and cares deeply about all those he has wronged and wounded. What had been secret will now be in the open. The shame of David is uncovered. The consequences he faces are awful; the death of his and Bathsheba’s son, unending strife and more rape and murder within his own family. As he begins to fully experience the weight of it all, David finally says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
From this confession and repentance, something new and surprising is birthed. From death and destruction there is an unexpected renewal and hope. It is no shock to God that David has sinned so badly. After all, it is what every human being does, each in our own way. It’s only more spectacular because of David’s status and how far he has fallen from his own self image. Sin doesn’t surprise God and it shouldn’t really shock us either.
After all, every time we are outraged about the despicable behavior of another, we might have to face the words, “You are the one” in relation to our own greed, lust, pride, and hatred.
I became aware of this in my own life recently. The diocese has joined an ACLU lawsuit to prevent the seizure and destruction of the personal property of the homeless. I was called upon to give a deposition and I know the real pain that is caused when people lose what little they have. But this past week I was fed up. I was determined to make sure that no one was camping or dumping their stuff on our property. It’s an eyesore, it attracts more campers, it makes our neighbors crazy and our tenants nervous. I was so frustrated that I considered hiring a truck with two big guys to come and take away all the crap on the parking strips. Until… I read the story about the poor man who had so little, just one lamb and nothing more. What would it mean for me to take away the few meager possessions of the poor? After all, it would take an entire moving van to fit all the junk I own. “I am the man!”
Scripture is so dang convicting. God is so dang sneaky. God has more ways to reach me than I can possibly keep up with. We can hear how David responded to the preaching of Nathan and the conviction of his heart and spirit. We can share with David in a heartfelt response to our sin and God’s presence in our lives. With David we can move from denial, justification, and digging ourselves deeper into a bad situation. We can experience grace and renewal by growing in humility, prayer and compassion.
We can do so by joining David and every repentant sinner over the centuries in praying Psalm 51. It is the classic text of one who has faced her failure and turned back to God. It encompasses any possible wrongdoing but it doesn’t leave the one who messed up focused primarily on how he has screwed up.
This psalm is a plea for God to make it right when we cannot. It is prayed with faith and trust that we will not be left forever in shame and condemnation. The one who prays Psalm 51 is one who believes that God will not ever abandon her. There is hope that we will be restored, that we will once again experience the joy of God’s Spirit. There is faith that we can have a renewed and right spirit again.
When we come back to God in honesty and repentance, we come into true humility. Not humiliation. Humiliation just leaves us in shame and blame. Humility reveals our true nature in relationship to God and our neighbor. Humility allows us to see ourselves and others as both flawed and deeply valued. It grounds us and gives us a solid place from which to effect true change in our lives and the world. It reminds us that we are not God and that God is good.
When we confess the truth about ourselves and God we are brought back to a life of prayer. Relationship is restored. Blockages are removed. Barriers are broken down. We begin to experience that unity spoken of in Ephesians. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” We are not separated from God or others but belong to one another. We are given the opportunity to pray for others and to let them pray for us. We learn the strength of vulnerability as we open ourselves up in prayer.
Finally, to pray Psalm 51 is to enter more deeply into the compassion and mercy of God, the grace that first comes to us and is epitomized in Jesus. We can come before God in the middle of our screw-ups not because of ourselves, but because God has intervened for us in love in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The forgiveness of God frees us to have compassion on others and to see them through the lens of love. We are literally broken open so that we can reveal our authentic selves and receive others into our broken open hearts.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to go to one of our homeless neighbors to apologize for not treating them with dignity and respect. I can’t tell you how hard it is right now to believe that some of our political leaders are human beings deserving of compassion. It’s going to take daily praying Psalm 51 to help me work effectively in our church to respond to systemic racism and sexism and my part in it.
But we are people of faith, hope and love. We have the story of David and we have the life of Jesus. We know how bad things can be and we know that there is redemption and grace to cover a multitude of sins. And we trust that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God and that we will all be one in spite of our sins and sorrow, we will all dwell as part of one body which is built in love.