Sunday, July 17, 2016
Proper 11C1 Luke 10: 38-42
So the pilgrims from Galilee are getting closer to Jerusalem: here in Luke 10 arriving at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, in the village of Bethany--the suburbs of the Holy City. But Jesus isn’t ready to make his dramatic Palm Sunday entrance yet. That won’t happen until Luke 19! Instead for a while he is going to move around the outskirts, the nearby towns and villages of Judea. This had been ground zero for John the Baptist and his movement, and now folks seem to be coming from all over to hear John’s cousin Jesus, the famous rabbi from Nazareth in Galilee, remembering things John before he was arrested and killed had said about him. Jesus, the one everybody’s been talking about—stirring up the common people and making the religious and secular authorities increasingly nervous--sermons and teaching, healings, exorcisms, amazing miracles. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are apparently old friends, in the wider circle of disciples--and of course we read more about them, and especially the story of the raising of Lazarus, in St. John’s gospel.
This is a brief vignette in Luke 10 with Mary and Martha. Familiar to us in part because from the story we get the idea that “a Martha” is someone who fusses a lot with the distractions of the day while “a Mary” is a more intellectual or contemplative or spiritual type. We know from the way Mary and Martha interact with Jesus in St. John’s gospel that this is an oversimplification of their characters and their relationship with Jesus—but nonetheless the contrasting behaviors in this story in Luke have become a part of our common vocabulary.
It’s interesting I think that we’re told in verse 38 that Martha “received” Jesus “into her house.” Not into “their house,” Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. And actually Lazarus doesn’t get mentioned at all in this story. It’s Martha’s house, and her younger sister and brother have apparently come to live with her. Which would explain perhaps why Martha seems to feel with greater emphasis an ownership of the responsibilities of hospitality. Explains also her additional annoyance with Mary. Her sister is acting like a guest when she should be supporting her efforts of hospitality--helping her to set the table and get the roast out of the oven, and so on. “Do I have to do all the work around here?”
In any event, the contrast of the two sisters does seem to be the point of this story, what we’re supposed to notice. Martha, “distracted with much serving . . . anxious and troubled about many things.” Mary, sitting with the disciples at the feet of the Lord and listening to his teaching. And Jesus giving the obvious moral of the story, “one thing is needful.” Mary has “chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” Two ways to think about our personal relationship to Christ, the nature of Christian discipleship, the life and mission of the Church.
On the eve of Holy Week, a little ways down the road, just before Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples will be back in this house, as we read in John’s gospel, it will be Mary who will anoint the feet of Jesus with aromatic oil and then dry them with her hair. This tender act of devotion, which perhaps we see foreshadowed in the story this morning. For Mary it’s always, always, all about Jesus. To drink in his words, his teaching, to bask in his presence. Open eyes, ears, mind, and heart: and to offer worship without restraint or calculation, giving everything to express the tenderness of her love.
We’ve just come as we read this chapter of Luke from the scene of Jesus and his street-corner debate with the Teacher of the Law and the Parable of the Good Samaritan—which left us with the question: who will be our savior when we are beaten and bruised and left by the side of the road? Not the institution, it turns out—rabbis and lawyers, chief priests, popes and bishops, councils and conventions, rectors, vestries, committees and projects, not ceremonies and sacrifice—but God himself, appearing as one despised and rejected, yet offering himself to pay the full cost of our healing, to bring blessing and peace and life. That wounded traveler certainly could have sung about his Samaritan savior, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
And now in the very next scene, Martha, who welcomes Jesus with formality into her home, but she is so taken up with the externalities of setting the table and preparing the meal that she is just about entirely disconnected from the one she has invited in. So busy that she misses the moment. And in contrast: Mary sitting at the feet of the Lord. An icon. A picture, a reflection of what it looks like, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength. The first and great commandment. An icon of the faithful church, of each individual Christian. At his feet, listening to his teaching. Drinking it in. The whole rest of the world fades away, and he is all in all. Jesus is everything. Mary opens her eyes and her ears and her mind and her heart, to receive, embrace, breathing-in his every word. Remember what the heavenly voice said to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration just a short time ago in the 9th chapter, as this journey to Jerusalem began: “This is my beloved Son: Listen to him!” Mary has chosen the good portion, Jesus says. The good portion.
Hard not to think of phrases of Psalm 119 as they might well up in the heart of Mary of Bethany. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not stray from your commandments. My delight is in your statutes; I will not forget your word. This is my comfort in my trouble, that your promise gives me hope. Your statues have been like songs to me wherever I have lived as a stranger. The law of your mouth is dearer to me than thousands in gold and silver. Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. Early in the morning I cry out to you, for in your word is my trust. I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight.
Watching Mary this morning, sitting at the feet of Jesus, I think about our summer book this year, Mark Ashton’s “Christ and His People.” Mary as an icon of the individual Christian and of the faithful church. Ashton begins his book by unpacking this complex sentence: “the word of God does the work of God through the Spirit of God in the people of God.” A good English Evangelical like Ashton doesn’t talk much about having a “patron saint,” but certainly in spirit Mary of Bethany would be just right for him and for his congregation. Perhaps for all of us. St. Paul in Romans talks about faith in Christ as being something that lies asleep in us, until it is awakened by the Word. Which is why teaching and preaching and Bible Study and spiritual conversation are all so important. In the words of Archbishop Cranmer’s Collect for the Second Advent Sunday, on Holy Scripture: “ Grant that we may in such wise hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” It is when we take in the word, each one of us—each one of us like Mary at the feet of Jesus—that the church comes to life, that the mission of Jesus begins in us.
We all have a bit of sympathy for Martha. I mean, it is certainly true that sooner or later somebody is going to need to get to the dishes! But it is so easy for us too, and almost tempting sometimes I think, to be like her, “distracted,” caught up so much in the things that matter less, that we end up missing what matters most. To forget about the main thing being to keep the main thing the main thing. We remember the saying, “no man on his deathbed ever said that he wished he had spent more time at the office.” Perhaps to say, “no one of us in our relationship with Christ, as he has come near to us and into our homes and our lives, will ever say with Martha that we wished we had spent more time in the kitchen.”
The point isn’t to be judgmental for the Martha in us, or for our involvement in programs and activities and the general busyness of our lives. We all would strive to do the best we can in a complex world. It’s just a tap on the shoulder about perspective, about remembering why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. About finding our “inner Mary.” Each one of us. “This is my beloved Son: listen to him!” That’s the invitation this morning, and as we have heard his word in Holy Scripture, as we approach the Holy Table. Taking a breath, opening our eyes and ears, our minds and our hearts, leaving the dishes in the sink for a little while, whatever that image may stand for in our lives--and instead going on in to the inner room, to sit at his feet: to be with Jesus.
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Proper 10C1 Luke 10: 25-37
The dramatic journey continues in Luke from the Mount of the Transfiguration to Jerusalem and Holy Week. First as we read two weeks ago in Luke 9 there was the incident at the Samaritan village—as Jesus and his disciples were refused the customary hospitality of travelers. No room in the inn for them! And then, in last week’s reading from the first part of the 10th chapter, the mission of the 70, sent out two by two to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Savior and his Kingdom. There were some amazingly positive things that happened, we’ll remember, but also doors slamming. Rejection. An early foretaste of what it would mean to be “lambs in the midst of wolves.”
Now the pilgrims, becoming something of a crowd as folks come out to see them, are stopped in one of the towns along the way by a lawyer--which we probably should understand not quite in our modern secular sense anyway. What we might in our context call a “canon lawyer,” in this case a rabbi specially trained in the scriptures, a teacher of the Law of Moses, a “Torah expert,” an important leader, someone to whom the community would go for questions and judgments on matters of Jewish religious law and custom. He approaches Jesus to “test” him, which is an interesting word. It’s a question addressed by one debater to another. It’s strategic, an opening move, searching out a weak spot. Tell me, Jesus, “what must one do to inherit eternal life?” Throwing down the rhetorical gauntlet: show me what you’re made of.
This Jesus crowd must be creating quite a stir, a buzz, and those in the villages who heard the message of the 70 now have come out to see what is going on. The authorities can’t ignore it anymore. They feel forced to step in now to see if they can’t nip this business in the bud. To demonstrate that they are the ones the people should trust and follow--and not this charismatic but uncredentialed country preacher from Nazareth.
Jesus is quick to turn the tables: “You tell me.” The Lawyer then quotes Deuteronomy 6 to show that he is on top of his game. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Right in the heart and center of Biblical Jewish teaching. But the lawyer tries another move to see if he can’t find something he can use: “All right, then, Jesus: who is my neighbor?”
Jesus doesn’t quote scripture. Instead he steps into the preaching role that has been so effective in his ministry in the Galilee. He tells what is for us of course the familiar Parable. A wounded victim, two stock religious officials. We might think of them as colleagues of the Lawyer, both of whom of course would have recited from memory the same verse that the Lawyer has just quoted about loving God and loving neighbor, even as they pass by and look the other way. In Matthew 23 Jesus tells his disciples to pay attention to the words of these religious leaders, but not to follow their example. Probably a good bit of advice in any era. They talk the talk, but they won’t walk the walk. “Whitewashed sepulchers,” he calls them. Like tombs that are beautiful on the outside but full of death and corruption within. --And then, finally, famously, the Good Samaritan himself-- the last person in the world the rabbi or priest or Levite or any even marginally observant Jew would ever have pictured in such a role. The hero of the story—the most unlikely character of all ends up embodying the values that the official defenders of the faith can’t seem to put into practice in their personal lives.
It’s not hard to find the kinds of analogies that we would search for to get the impact of this. Thinking this week with a heaviness of heart about the polarities and divisions in our own society, Questions about who our neighbor is. In the tensions in the African American community and among those who serve in police and public safety positions, issues of trust and connection--and in all the latent electricity that gets sparked across the political spectrum and in the press and media and social platforms. We imagine settling down to talk with a circle of Palestinian villagers in the occupied West Bank, and to share with them the Parable of the Good Israeli. In Apartheid South Africa we venture into a shebeen in the urban sprawl of Soweto and recount for the gathered crowd the Parable of the Good Afrikaner. Perhaps we gather a few Hillary supporters and tell the Parable of the Good Trump Supporter!
We just so often put our trust in all the wrong places. That’s the idea that makes this story work. We expect one thing, we get something else altogether. What we think is going to save us when the chips are down, when our backs are against the wall. Who and what we think we can count on. Those two religious officials: if the victim of the mugging was awake at all, he must have rejoiced to see them coming down the road! We all have our own items on the list. Our financial resources, our education and careers, our physical fitness, our intelligence, our respectability, our friends, our families, our political and social and religious institutions and leaders, the fact that we go to church on Sundays or give to good causes or support the right causes and candidates.
If we were doing an analysis of this story in an undergraduate English Lit. course one of the bright students would probably point out fairly quickly that the Samaritan is “a kind of Christ figure.” The unexpected outsider who gives sacrificially of himself to save one who has done nothing to deserve that precious gift. The stranger who pays the debt in full, before the debtor even knows how much he owes. It is precisely in and through this Samaritan, of all people, and not through one of those religious leaders, that the peace and hospitality and gracious blessing of God’s kingdom is revealed.
If the Lawyer posed the question in the first place to “test” Jesus, Jesus is testing him right back—and testing us too, I guess. Because we all know, don’t we, that all those places where we most of the time turn to find our help in the day of trouble, they’re like the house built on sand that Jesus talks about at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7. Deep down we know, though we try to pretend otherwise, that one heavy storm will wash the whole thing away. In the end none of that will save us, just as the priest and Levite who passed by would save the man by the side of the road. They just didn’t have it in them. None have foundations deep enough to stand against the storm of sin and death. We know that. None of them are able to pay the price that needs to be paid. What the crowd may be thinking as they look at their canon lawyer this morning. The thought that may go through all our minds. Who will be the one who will stop for us?
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.
Sunday, July 3, 2016
Proper 9C1 Luke 10: 1-20
Baptism of Brody Potter Harris
Good morning. A holiday weekend, and we might note for Brody’s Baby Book that on the occasion of his baptism there were flags and parades and fireworks from sea to shining sea! Especially appropriate for a family so dedicated to the service of our country here on the eve of Independence Day. A celebration here in the Church Militant, and we know in the realms of heaven, as the Church Triumphant joins the choir with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. That’s poetry in a way, but also reality. It’s a simple thing that happens at the font, but simplicity is often deceptive. There isn’t anything more important in heaven or on earth than what happens when Christian people gather faithfully by and in and through the waters of baptism to be joined to the death and resurrection and eternal life of our savior Jesus Christ. The ancient stain of our sin and rebellion against God washed away by his sacrifice. The power of the Evil One turned to crushing defeat. A truly new life begins!
Last Sunday in the second part of the 9th chapter of Luke we turned a corner in the story as Jesus and his disciples come down from their mountaintop experience of Transfiguration. The time has arrived, his “hour,” and he “sets his face toward Jerusalem.” Now begins the long procession toward Holy Week and the Cross. In last Sunday’s gospel reading we’ll remember that the party attempted to stop on the first night in a Samaritan village—but that they were turned away, refused hospitality. Just the beginning of what will be a steadily gathering crescendo of rejection, opposition, persecution. The disciples didn’t handle the situation well. We might say, not a very Christian response. They immediately wanted to call down a blast of fire from heaven to punish and destroy the Samaritans. Jesus calms them and encourages them to continue on the journey in a different spirit.
This morning’s reading from the first part of Luke 10 gives us another moment in this journey to Jerusalem. We notice that in addition to his near circle of the 12 Jesus is accompanied by a larger crowd. Here he sends a group of 70 two by two to announce his coming in the towns and villages along the way. The point not simply to arrange for lodging and hospitality, but even more to preach the Good News and to recruit new disciples. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins. To announce that the savior is on his way to Jerusalem. “The harvest is plentiful,” he tells them. “The laborers are few.” Even 70, traveling two by two, won’t be enough to knock on every door. (So Brody doesn’t need to worry at all that there won’t be anything left for him to do in the life and mission of the church when he gets a little older and is ready to help!) At the same time the incident of the Samaritan village is fresh in their memories, and Jesus reminds them of that as well. There are going to be doors slamming in their faces, and worse. “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” There are some who will welcome them and him, who will hear the word and receive it with joy. Others will turn away with a sneer, or worse. Being an ambassador of Christ isn’t going to be all sunshine and fair breezes. There will be opposition all along the way.
That’s the reality of the life we are dedicating Brody to here this morning. Joy in the Lord, but not an easy joy. To paraphrase the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote about "Costly Discipleship," today we approach a “costly joy.” The life of faith and obedience always to encounter cross winds and storms and steep uphill climbs. Sometimes the edge of the sword, even torture and death, and sometimes simply what happens when you’re swimming against the tide of time and culture. Sheep in the midst of wolves.
The disciples are encouraged to be steadfast as they head out into their mission. I’m reminded of the wonderful verse in First Peter chapter 5 that is one of the set readings from scripture in Compline, the Prayer Book service before going to bed at night. “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, like a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist steadfast in the faith.” I remember hearing that verse as a child and being so caught up with it. A roaring lion! It may be that we tell our kids as they go to bed at night that there are no monsters under the bed or in the closet. But of course we know better. When Brody gets older we’ll need to explain this to him: there are monsters. There is a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. This is situation normal. Sometimes the enemy out in the open, sometimes in deep disguise. The small Jewish villages of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum might have seemed like friendly territory at first, certainly safer than that Samaritan village. These were the hometowns to many of Jesus’s disciples, right down the road from Nazareth. Places where many are willing to greet Jesus with a round of polite applause. He was a local boy, after all, from down the road in Nazareth. But appearances can be deceiving, and the spiritual reality sets them with Sodom and Tyre and Sidon and all the great cities that have fallen under the shadow of darkness by choosing the path of sin rather than the way of obedience to God. We expect our enemies to look like enemies, dangerous monsters to look like monsters, lions to look and sound like roaring lions--but the betrayal and rejection and opposition that the disciples will face will so often come from those who are near. Who look like friends and family.
So the word to Brody this morning—this isn’t an easy course we’re signed up for. Starting right here at this font. Fun baby pictures and balloons and cake and family celebrations are entirely appropriate, but even so, this is serious business.
Then in our reading this morning the conclusion of the mission of the 70. Pretty exciting. Even in a world of monsters and wolves and roaring lions! If the disciples got failing marks at the Samaritan village, this time things go much better. The word is proclaimed with clarity and strength. The workers sent into the harvest to announce the transforming power of the gospel--and “even the demons” scatter at their approach. Teacher Jesus writes a glowing comment of encouragement at the top of the paper. “A+, guys! While you were out there, I could see “Satan falling like lightning from heaven.’” What you are doing in these little villages along the road today may seem small. The conversation with a villager. A quiet prayer with someone ill or distressed or in grief. A word of encouragement and forgiveness and hope to one who is lost in sin and doesn’t see any way out. To stand at the door of a home and pronounce a blessing in the name of the Lord. No headlines there. No earthshaking miracles. But nonetheless of eternal significance. You’ve seen wonderful things happen around you, disciples and friends. Certainly worth celebrating. But celebrate this, that though these victories seem small and transitory, they are recorded in heaven. Our cheers here simply a foretaste of the abundant banquet of joy and feasting and thanksgiving in the realms of the Father. And you, and we, are part of that.
Here at this font on a summer morning. What a joy and privilege. Thank you, Mike and Anna, and Bradley and Brycen, two great big brothers, I know--and our godparents and family and friends and good people of St. Andrew’s. The reality is that all creation, everything in heaven and on earth, turns to this place and to this moment. To welcome the Lord to his holy Temple and among his people and in their hearts and minds and lives, to hear and receive his Good News. “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” A big deal. The key moment in the story. A joy and a privilege as disciples of Jesus to be a part of it.
Now I would ask Brody Potter Harris and his family and his godparents to come forward to continue the baptismal office.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Proper 8C1 Galatians 5: 1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62
The 51st verse of chapter 9 marks a major turning point in Luke’s gospel: “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
The story of the earthly ministry of Jesus begins in Luke in Chapters 3 and 4--at his Baptism in the Jordan and Temptation in the Wilderness--and then continues as Jesus gathers his disciples and begins his work of preaching and teaching and healing, miracles and exorcisms, all in the region around the Sea of Galilee, little towns like Nazareth and Capernaum and Cana. At the beginning of Chapter 9 this first phase of his ministry comes to a dramatic high point at the Mountaintop of the Transfiguration, as Jesus is revealed in all his transcendent glory.
And then they come down from the mountain. “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
The last leg of the journey to the Cross that began on that holy night in Bethlehem many years before. The Lord returning to his Temple, as prophesied by Isaiah and announced by John the Baptist, “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It’s almost like a liturgical procession—but not one filled with song and praise and celebration, except for that brief, deceptive moment on Palm Sunday. Instead, it becomes a long march into ever deeper darkness. A hard road, to be marked by an ever-rising tide of rejection, conflict, opposition, plots and intrigue. A gathering murderous storm. All the forces of evil and sin and death rallying for their last stand.
Jesus has spent these past months and years, teaching and preaching and preparing his disciples for what was to come, for a life of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “costly discipleship.” For what it’s going to be like to live in him and for him, with one foot still in this world. Costly Discipleship. For Jerusalem and Holy Week, and then for what lies beyond, in the years and centuries to come. If this is what they do to the teacher, so it will be for his students. Continuing in our own present time in Iraq and Syria with ISIS, in East Africa with Al Shabab and Boko Haram. It always is unsafe to be a Christian somewhere.
So his preaching and teaching and his prayers for them, giving shape and direction to his church . . . . To build them up, to encourage them and guide and sustain them in the coming days and in all the generations to come. And now here we are, Luke 9:51, and that preparation is going to be put to the test, its first test, as we can see just in the very first incident on the first day of the journey. And I guess we would say on the first time out for these disciples, for the life of the church—well: not a passing score. It’s actually almost embarrassing.
Jesus and company leave their hometowns, and as the first day of travel comes to an end they approach a Samaritan village. Some run ahead to make arrangements--to seek a resting place, somewhere to stay the night, perhaps an evening meal . . . but they are refused, turned away, rejected. Not clear that these villagers had any particular idea who Jesus was. Just that this was a party of Jews on their way to Jerusalem. Reason enough in the context of ethnic and religious prejudice between Jews and Samaritans to shut the door and put up the “No Vacancy” signs. We don’t want your kind around here.
(Perhaps as a side note--we as readers of this gospel will pause here for a moment of context, as we recall that just a little while later along this road to Jerusalem Jesus is going to tell his disciples in Luke chapter 10, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Just to keep this morning’s story in mind when we get to that parable in our lectionary reading in a couple of weeks.)
In any event, our Samaritan villagers here are for sure violating traditional norms and customs of Middle Eastern hospitality—but I guess we could say that compared to what was coming for Jesus and his friends this is really not all that big a deal. It’s not Good Friday yet. So what is so interesting is the reaction of the disciples. They go ballistic! Over the top! They immediately want Jesus to call down a fiery blast from the heavens to consume the village, to sweep them all up, men, women, boys and girls, to wipe every last one of them in one horrible punishing and incinerating pulse from the face of the earth. Wow. Talk about a short fuse! None of that classic Anglican “Keep Calm and Carry On” spirit, that’s for sure . . . . And so maybe we can hear Jesus sigh--like a schoolteacher looking over the weekly quiz after the kids have had their first lesson in fractions. Clearly we’re going to have to spend some more time working with this bunch. I mean, is anybody paying attention?
Just a few days before these very same disciples had all sat with him as he preached. From Luke, Chapter 6, in what we sometimes call his great Sermon on the Plain (usually appointed for us in the lectionary on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C, but we didn’t hear this reading this year because Easter was so early. Perhaps we remember it from three years ago, or from other times when we’ve read and studied Luke’s gospel.) Words for his disciples, his church, all of us.
“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt . . . . If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same . . . . But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Needless to say, it’s hard to find much in there about a destroying fire raining down from on high upon those who reject us.
Echo in the reading from Galatians 5 as we heard it this morning as our first lesson: the Old Adam and the “works of the flesh”-- Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing. A partial list, but we get the idea. (We all did get the idea, right?)
Killing our enemies, or even wishing them dead, or even in our own hearts and minds stripping from them their dignity and humanity and value--anything short of love and prayer for them--that’s not Kingdom living. It’s where we are with the disciples as we come to the first night on the journey to Jerusalem, but it’s not where Jesus wants to leave us. Not who we are, who we would pray that we are becoming, as we are walking with him along this road. What we learned from him—what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” A great list: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
This Luke 9 moment on the first day of the journey to Jerusalem made me think some in the past couple of weeks about the angry times we live in. Politically, socially. Divisions and polarization, from every side and point on the spectrum, left and right, conservatives and liberals, and fueled at least in part by the instantaneous reactivity of politically segmented media and the white-hot rhetoric of social media. Rage and more rage. The election cycle here, and perhaps reflected in the election in Britain this past week as well. All kinds of anger and polarization.
And so, again, a memo to myself, with this incident at the Samaritan village in the background. The disciples miss the boat big-time. But Jesus doesn’t leave them there. “Let’s keep going,” he tells them, and see what we can find together down the road.” A yellow post-it for the mirror, to see in the morning while I’m shaving and getting ready to head out into the day. Stick close to Jesus. Listen. Pay attention. Learn from him. Fortunately, he’s not leaving us on the first day of the journey. We still have miles to go; he’s not finished with us yet.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Proper 6C-1, Luke 7: 36 – 8:3
One of the earliest Christian prayers we have is preserved in the New Testament the Aramaic language of Jesus and the first disciples. Paul quotes it at the end of First Corinthians. “Marana tha.” It’s an imperative. Literally, “Lord, come!” An urgent prayer echoing from those first days, for Christ’s return, for judgment and for the full expression of the Kingdom of God. As these new Christians are isolated, persecuted, struggling day by day. A prayer to God to come and set things right. Now. “Marana tha.”
Howard Thurman, the great African American theologian who was so influential for Dr. Martin Luther King, wrote a fascinating and challenging book called “Jesus and the Dispossessed” in which he talked about the heart and soul and authentic essence of the Christian gospel as a word of hope and meaning for “the man whose back is against the wall.” A great phrase. “The man whose back is against the wall.” Thurman wasn’t interested in comfortable establishment religiosity. Not faith as a hobby, not about having an interest in “spirituality” or about heading out on a pleasant Sunday morning to “enjoy a worship service.” Instead, he says, if this story, this gospel, is about anything, it is about who is going to be there for you when no one else is or can be. When you’re at the end of your rope. Nowhere to hide. When it’s Jesus or nothing. That’s the only prayer in the Prayer Book he’s interested in. “Come ! I need you, Lord, and I need you now.”
It’s not that we don’t reference that prayer in the settled and routine life of the church, at least as we share in the formal liturgy and creed. “He will come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.” That sounds like a good thing, but as we recite it in the Nicene Creed on Sundays pretty much every week perhaps without quite the edge in our voices that those first Christians had in their longing for his return. Or as perhaps our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria and Egypt and Nigeria might pray the prayer today. Looking down the road for the approaching terrors of ISIS or Boko Haram. Waking up every morning, to the first thought: Let it be today! “Come quickly, Lord.” The cries of the crowds in the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Hosanna.” Which doesn’t mean “hurray for Jesus!” It means, “Lord save us.” We’re drowning out here. Image of the church like Peter after his brief attempt to step out of the boat and to follow Jesus across the water of the Sea of Galilee. Slipping under the waves: “Reach out to take my hand, Jesus, before I’m lost . . . .
Which maybe is one of the reasons this moment in our reading this morning, in Luke 7, strikes us somewhat uncomfortably, as Jesus is invited to dinner by the rabbi of the local synagogue. We’re reminded in a way as a parallel but also a contrasting moment of the beautiful and tender moment in John’s gospel on the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday when Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and then wipes them with her hair. But this is different. Not in a safe place, a close circle of friends. Here the woman’s approach to Jesus is public, and full of risk.
We see this contrast: on one hand the host, this village rabbi, who has received Jesus into his own home, but who doesn’t even seem to get what a big deal that is or could be. It’s like Jesus should be grateful to him, not the other way around. And then on the other hand this almost overwhelming gesture by the woman. The outpouring of her heart. The woman is a stranger and unknown to Jesus, though she seems to be well-known in the community and by the rabbi, and not in a good way. A sinner. Nothing more than that is specified. Apparently it’s really not important how or why she is labeled in that way--some kind of sin. Some moral offense perhaps, lying, cheating, stealing, unchastity in her singleness, infidelity in her marriage, or perhaps she has some ritual uncleanness. We just don’t know, and neither it seems does Jesus. The point isn’t why she’s desperate. It’s just that she’s desperate. For her life cannot go on as it has been. She’s trapped in her sin, sliding into quicksand, weighed down by an overwhelming weight. And so her extravagant gesture in the very presence of those in the community who have known her sin first hand. Heads shaking; eyes rolling. “Of all people, what is she doing in here?”
The woman is exposed and vulnerable and humiliated. But in her humiliation she pays no attention. In a way, she is in perfect agreement with the rabbi. She doesn’t belong there. She doesn’t “belong” anywhere. She is filled with remorse, with grief, with regret. A stranger, an alien in her own village, in her own family. She doesn’t want to be told that she’s o.k., that everything is fine. It’s not. We don’t know the details, but we can see it as we watch the scene play out. She needs a complete reset. She needs to be forgiven. And nothing else matters.
Thurman could have been talking about her. Her “back is against the wall.” She’s at the end of her rope. The cost here of this moment not simply the cost of the expensive oil but even more the emotional pain and psychological trauma, as fingers are pointed, as she is exposed before them. But she’s entirely willing to pay whatever it costs. To get to this place. Sometimes when we have sinned perhaps we have the strategy to lie low, to hide-out, or to move, to find a fresh start somewhere else. The last thing we want to do is to be forced to deal with the reality of our shame in public, to be encircled by those who know just how bad we are, just what we have done.
But there she is. And she doesn’t care. She doesn’t react to the comments of the rabbi. She doesn’t even seem to look up. She’s heard it all before, and she knows that it’s true. That she is a sinner. Think of the speech the Prodigal Son practices on his way home to the Father. I have sinned against God and against you, and deserve nothing. She needs something to happen, this woman of the village. She has just one focus. She puts it all out there, every last bit of it. Holds nothing back. The cost is real, the pain of her life and the humiliation of her life are real, and if the rabbi’s words of condemnation cut deeply, no matter: all of that fades in the brighter light of what she knows, deep down, as the most important reality of her life—which is that she needs a savior. She needs mercy. Grace. Forgiveness. A fresh start. She needs Jesus. And she needs him now. “Marana tha.” Come, Lord.
She has repented of her sin and has only this one desire, the desire to walk again in the path of God’s friendship and blessing. To be absolved. To be reconciled to the Father. To have things set right. Now. And she knows, somehow, somehow, that he is the door, Jesus, the gate, the way forward. And how does she come to know this? What memories of Bible stories as a child and the prayers of her family as she grew up, times of worship in that local synagogue, the life of friends and family. And now she’s heard something about this man—about what he has been saying, about what has been happening around him. Demons cast out, the sick given healing, words and blessings of grace and mercy that don’t just fade away into the air, but that seem to take hold and become real. And so nothing else matters, nothing at all. No cost is too great, no humiliation too painful to face. For her now it’s Jesus and only Jesus. Who alone can speak the word of light and life into her darkness.
When she heard Jesus was coming, nothing could keep her away. And just as that Prodigal Son was swept up into the arms of his Father before he could even begin to speak the words he had been practicing along the road, so for her. And if we would open our minds and hearts to hear with her what he said: “your faith has saved you; go in peace.” To have feel with her the lifting of that weight. With her, to be able to breathe again.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.
Monday, May 9, 2016
The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice, let the multitude of the isles be glad. (Psalm 97)
Good morning, and grace and peace in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ especially on this Sunday--who was born for us as a gracious gift in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, though we neither expected nor deserved him. Who lived among us, who called us to attention, who invited us to turn our lives around and to follow him in holiness and righteousness, in compassion and mercy, according to God’s Word. Who in love went up willingly to the Cross in our place, to bear the weight and consequence of our sin. Though we neither expected nor deserved it. Though we neither expected nor deserved him. Who rose from the dead on the Third Day in triumphant victory over the power of the enemy. Who was exalted in his resurrection body into heaven in perfect communion with the Father. Who will come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.
The great season of Easter comes to its conclusion in a 10 day fireworks and all-the-stops-out celebration of The Ascension. (And what a wonderful service we had here at St. Andrew’s this past week on the evening of Ascension Thursday, with our St. Andrew’s Choir and along with them the choir of our neighbors at Calvary Church, and with mycolleague T.J. Freeman’s fine sermon.) Of course we here will always turn our eyes in the season of The Ascension to the lovely Clara Miller Burd window in the North Transept.
It’s a new world now, as the story that began in the quiet night of the Holy Stable in the backstreets of Royal David’s City now becomes for us a bright and full light shining from shore to shore and to every corner of the universe. Though we neither expected or deserved any of this. God has gone up with a triumphant shout. This is the pivot, the gateway, as the earthly ministry of Jesus is completed and as his Spirit-filled Body the Church moves toward center stage, with Whitsunday and Pentecost ready to launch.
We are his witnesses. His servants. Each one of us, called in Christ to this new life—this new citizenship. Our passports issued and stamped. To be in our hearts and minds and our lives still entirely planted in this old world as it is passing away and yet at the same time, in this same time, for us this morning, to be already fixed forever in the life of the world to come. Singing our hymns this morning with whatever imperfect voices we can muster--but knowing with full confidence that we are already in the great and perfected choir of heaven singing with saints and angels before the Throne of the Almighty Father and in the presence of the Lamb.
I’ve been talking in various ways about “Christian Stewardship” over these weeks of Easter season, and as the season nears its end I would want to say here this morning that the simplest definition of the term is something like this: Stewardship is “to live now here as though we were already there.” Which is the heart and key message of the Ascension. We are already there, incorporated into the Body of Christ, that Body that has processed to the Kingdom of the Father. To live now here, as though we were already there. To make our lives here and now visible signs of the kingdom. Not that in this world we can ever do that perfectly, but to have that desire and longing and that spirit and that character as our defining characteristic. If you want to see what Christ’s Kingdom is, just look: look at his church, look at his people. Not as completed and perfected examples, for sure, but as they are in love and charity, with renewed praise and joyful obedience, moving forward with intentionality day by day, as his church, and each of those who would go by the name Christian. On their way to becoming the kind of people they truly are and will be in the Kingdom. Christian stewardship: what happens in our lives when we are desiring with all our hearts and striving with all our will to respond to his upward call.
How we treat our bodies and how we use our bodies, as signs of the resurrection. How we cultivate our thoughts, our intellect. How we conduct our relationships, marriage and family, at home, at work, in the neighborhood, how we raise our kids, (on this Mother’s Day) how we treat our parents, how we spend our money, how we care for our friends, how we talk about and treat our enemies, how we are good custodians of the planet. What we post on Facebook, for that matter. How we talk about others when they aren’t in the room. How we relate to the people who work with us, for us, or for whom we work. Big ways and small ways. As signs of his resurrection. You and me. It’s all about the sacramentality of converted life in Christ. Water in baptism, Bread and Wine in the meal of remembrance. Ourselves, our souls and bodies. This St. Andrew’s Church. The place, the people. Outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. Rooted in the soil of faith, nourished by the Word, given shape and direction by the Holy Spirit. Like Paul and Silas in Philippi, in the reading from Acts this morning. The perfect is still to come, but to know the gift of our citizenship in that heavenly country today, this morning. To live already, on this side, as we will live in him.
The spirit-possessed slave girl of Phillipi sees something in an instant in Paul and Silas. As she sees the Apostles walk through the streets first on their way to the place of prayer down by the river. The girl follows them through the city day after day shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Maybe there is something supernatural in her discernment. Or maybe she’s just watching them and listening to them with open eyes and ears. In her bondage, she is yearning for a savior. Yearning to be freed from her slave-owning masters, even more, yearning to be cleansed and healed and delivered from the power of the Evil One. And something really catches her attention about Paul and Silas. Their preaching and teaching, or maybe something more. The point of this episode is that even the enemies of Christ can see in an instant when he has entered the room. Especially his enemies. The whole thing causes a disturbance, and Paul and Silas are arrested. Which kind of reminds me of the old saying, “if it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
In any event, our reading this morning moves on with the story of Paul and Silas, and their night in the Phillipi jail. The jailer nods off at his desk listening to these crazy guys in their cell singing hymns and sharing prayers deep into the night--fearless, joyful even. He probably figures they’re crazy. Certainly they don’t realize the kind of trouble they’re in. But when he wakes up later with a start and sees the doors of the jail wide open, the tables are turned. Now he sees his whole life pass before his eyes. His career is over for sure. All his life plans. His reputation destroyed, his name marked by catastrophic failure and shame. Ruin for his family. And not to mention the likely criminal consequences. Sleeping on duty. Negligence. In the Roman system if a prisoner escaped, his guard would be required to take his place, whatever the sentence may have been. He decides in that moment of overwhelming despair to end it all--like one of those stockbrokers on Black Friday in 1929 who just couldn’t face what was coming.
But then this amazing reversal, amazing as the prisoners come to him, call out to him before he can end it all. Stop! Put the sword down! These crazy hymn singing praying out loud disturbing the peace fanatics. They give his life back to him. They could have had their freedom. But at what cost? It appears they never even considered leaving him. His eyes open wide, his life is restored to him as quickly as he had felt it snatched away. And his heart is moved. Suddenly. Completely. He says, “whatever it is that is going on for you guys, I want to be a part of it. Whatever it is that makes you the kind of people you are, sign me up. And then they share the news. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Acts 16 and every chapter in Acts drawing us upward to what I’ve come to understand for this central book of our New Testament to be the key chapter, chapter 29. The part St. Luke writes about the Holy Spirit-filled apostolic Church coming to an end in chapter 28. And then our chapter, you and me the stars of the show: we who receive the baton from those who have completed their portion of the race: we now are the ones to be his witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea and to the ends of the earth. His servants. Each one of us, called in Christ to this new life, this new citizenship. To be in our hearts and minds and our lives entirely planted in the old world as it passes away and yet already fixed in the life of the world to come. Already there. For Paul and Silas the Phillipi prison isn’t really a prison at all, but a bright and shining and beautiful corner of the New Creation of God. The place where his Lordship is being manifested and will be manifested with power and glory and joy for ever and ever. The Ascension. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father--whose kingdom is from everlasting to everlasting.
And here we are: singing our hymns this morning like Silas and Paul, with whatever imperfect voices we can muster--but knowing with full confidence, knowing and living, walking the talk, not only with our lips but in our lives--knowing that we are already right now in the great and perfected choir of heaven singing with saints and angels before the Throne of the Father and in the presence of the Lamb.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.