Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Power Play

(A sermon on Mark 9:38-50, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 9/27/2009)

My mentors have always told me that the simple key of preaching the gospel is to share the good news found in the text.

Sometimes, when you have a text that does not seem to cooperate in bringing much good news, the preacher has a few options. There are, after all, two other readings to choose from. If the preacher feels obligated to preach on the Gospel, one can focus on a snippet of the text. This morning the best candidates are the little bit about saltiness at the end, and the statement “Whoever is not against us is for us.” A legitimate and often used technique of preaching would be to cling onto one of these images for dear life...hoping the good news found in the highlighted text will outweigh the uninspiring or disturbing images found in the rest of the passage.

The other option for the non-fire and brimstone preacher is to attempt to put the entire passage in the original context, and hope that there is good news to be found in the understanding of what the passage as a whole likely means.

I’m going to try this technique this morning, but I’m going to keep the snippets in play to perhaps bail me out with good news at the end.

The overall question of the morning again concerns community. John, one of the core disciples along with Peter and James, brings forth a troubling encounter with someone who is casting out of demons using Jesus’ name...someone who is not a disciple of Jesus...someone who was living by different standards and customs then those who followed Jesus. The very human desire of the disciples was to stop this person, or at least be sure that the rules are followed:

Hey, that’s trademarked material! Don’t you know that there rules associated in invoking Jesus? Do you know who we are? We’re Jesus’ inner core...and we’ve been doing this a lot longer than you. If you’re going to heal people using the Jesus system, you have to live by our rules and work within our framework.

When the disciples report back to Jesus, they want to hear from him that, by virtue of their closeness to him and the things they have left behind to become disciples, that they have some control over the transformation that is happening in the world. They want to hear from Jesus that everything that they have done to follow Jesus is the way things should be done...that their path is the right path. Part of the way that belief is affirmed is declaring different ways to be wrong, or at least inferior. At the very least, the disciples want to hear from Jesus that because of all the work that they have done, that they have special privilege to use his name for good than others...a privilege others should not have until they do everything they’ve done. Let others pay the dues we have, and THEN they can start using your name to heal others.

Jesus rejects this type of thinking. It is not a rebuke to the path of the disciples, but it is a message that not everyone needs to take the same path as them. Jesus says that those that do deeds of power with his name are clearly for you, not against you, and that the power of transformation is just as present with them as with the disciples.

The next paragraph is directed to the community that follows Jesus. Just because you have followed my path and advanced in knowledge and power does not give you special rights and privileges over others. The statements that follow seem harsh and gruesome...millstone around the neck and thrown into the sea...cutting off hands and feet and tearing out eyes. Icky stuff. Jesus is really graphic here, but if you look closely, we can see that he’s not really talking about self-mutilation.

The subject matter here is “putting a stumbling block in front of little ones.” This often gets used as a message to protect children...but that’s only part of the meaning. In the prior passage, little ones, a child, were compared to the “servant of all,” meaning the one without power and the one who is vulnerable. So in terms of a community, the “little ones” would include anyone with less power than others in the community. So, for a community like ours, this would not only include children, but a number of other groups of people. Newcomers would fall into this category...for they rely on the experience of those who have been here longer to find their way. Shut-ins depend on those with more mobility to keep them connected to the community. In addition to groups, there are the individual relationships where some have more power...either real or perceived.

The most obvious starts right here with me, the priest. The potential is there in the midst of any conversation about the church for me to pause, point to my clergy collar, and effectively end the conversation. That potential of using power is this way is true for wardens and vestry members, for heads of ministries, as well as senior members of the church, and anyone who does a lot of work in the community.

The passage this morning is a warning for those with power in the church community. Jesus earlier used the metaphor of the body to explain how we all function as one while doing different things for the whole: some are the feet, the hands, the eyes, and ears of the church community. This time, Jesus uses the same metaphor to discuss power. If a foot causes the stumble, it’s better to cut it off. That’s a direct message to those in community: if you use your power or your ministry to push people around or to kick people down, then it doesn’t matter how effective you are at the task...it’s better to cut you off then to say “well, at least the job is getting done.”

So: is there good news to be found here? Verse 49 says, “Everyone is salted with fire.” Salt, in Jesus’ time, was very precious...and pure salt a true rarity. Jesus has emphatically called his disciples to be salt with fire: to use their gifts, along with their experience, to make a difference in the world. We are all called in different ways to give of ourselves to each other. When we do so, we gain power...it’s a fact...name of Jesus is powerful...with it we can out the demons of this world: poverty, shame, famine, violence, and even fear.

Managing our power, however, is no easy task, and it is of primary concern to Jesus. Power is always to be approached as the servant of others...used to build up each other, and never to destroy. The world has always struggled with this tension...we see big examples of it in the way nations act towards each other, but just as often it gets played out in our individual lives. The new school year often brings one teacher who makes you feel like you don’t know anything. The new job you take always has at least one person who makes it clear that they have the expertise, not you. The new group of friends often has someone ready to test your worthiness to belong. Even the random gathering you attend often has someone there who feels that his or her place is higher than yours. The church community is called to model power in a different way: the one with the most authority is to be the servant...the one with the most money receives the least reward...the one with the greatest claim of privilege from time and experience is to be last...and our worthiness to God is never a matter of comparison between each other

All this from the One who gave away his power for the sake of all.

This morning’s Gospel news is powerful, thought-provoking, and challenging…and it just might even be good news as well.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sill Haven't Found...

(A sermon on Mark 9:30-37, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Littleton, NH on our Ministry Fair, 9/20/2009)

Our opening song of praise for this liturgical period is “A Song of Pilgrimage” from the book of Ecclesiasticus (51:13-16, 20b-22). It’s really quite beautiful.
“I sought wisdom openly in my prayer. In the forecourts of the temple I asked for her, and I will seek her to the end. From first blossom to early fruit, she has been the delight of my heart.... To the one who gives me wisdom will I give glory, for I have resolved to live according to her way.”

A pilgrimage is a journey or search of great moral significance, often over a length of time and distance. Most of you know that I have been on a U2 Pilgrimage: U2’s this band that’s been around for the last 33 years. I’m going to 3 shows in 8 days, two last weekend in Chicago, and a final show in Boston tonight. Last Saturday, I joined over 70,000 people gathered in Chicago to witness U2’s music. As one classic song began, Bono said, “It’s time to go to church. Sing out loud, and I’ll listen. Sing out your souls.”

So we all sang...
I have climbed the highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you
I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for

This last phrase, the title of song, is shocking if you think about it...especially in terms of this concert. All these people have journeyed to hear U2. Some have traveled great distance, and certainly money spent for what is for many, a once in a lifetime experience...pilgrimage, if you will...and the person reaches what appears to be the goal: only to be with you...only to be with you....

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

This special, special event, is not what we’re really looking for. That’s not to say what we find today isn’t great or important. It is. Today, thanks to the efforts of many people, we have a new pilgrimage to undertake, starting off with a wonderful Ministry Fair. The Parish Hall has been transformed into a grand display of the many ministries here at All Saints’. Even more impressive is what they represent: a commitment to God, to each other, and to the greater community. It is my hope that you all spend some time in the Ministry Fair. Enjoy the many photos, a gift of Hemmie’s time and talent. Sign up to join, learn about, or recommit to a few ministries. It is a wonderful opportunity, through your gift and time and talent, to encounter God in a new or renewed way, where you will likely find satisfaction, comradely, and, I hope, a sense of joy and accomplishment.

There is, however, a word of warning to be found in the shocking conclusion to today’s Gospel of Mark. With the welcoming of a little child, we tend to go all gentle Jesus in the moment...play up the cute factor, but in doing so we might miss the point. The parallel here with the child is the “servant of all,” who is the least, the one who is last among the servers...receiving only what is left after everyone else has received. In Jesus’ time, both are without “honor,” or high social standing, and vulnerable. Sharon Ringe writes that one would obtain no benefit from according to a child the hospitality or rituals of honor or respect that one might offer someone of higher status or someone whose favor one wanted to curry. Children and servants were of equally low social status. The offensive teaching of Jesus is not only that he honors and welcomes the child, but the claim that this is how one welcomes Jesus and even God. (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, edited by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

The warning for us today is that the ministry before us...be it fulfilling, rewarding, respected, or completely necessary...is not what we’re looking for. No ministry is to, in and of its self: define us, remains only ours, be the complete picture, or require our protection from change. We should be wary of any ministry that seems to produce more power and status than it does relationship and humility. Now may be the time to take on something new, and, perhaps, leave something behind... For that to happen, some of us must stretch...some of us must risk...some of us must take on new things, some of us must share our wisdom with humility...especially as we encounter new ideas, and change, and with out a doubt, we must carry the message beyond ourselves, and grow.

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well, yes, I'm still running
You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
And my shame
All my shame
You know I believe it

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for

The point is this: pilgrimage isn’t about the destination so much as it is about the journey, and the inevitable question concerning reaching the destination: So what? What does it all mean...how are lives transformed? Our life is to be our pilgrimage, our greatest joy is to be that we may walk it together, and there are to be many destinations along the way. Each destination asks us how will we live tomorrow...how will we reflect the love and humility that Jesus showed to us. And our assurance is that, when we finally rest in the eternal peace that is the completeness of God, we will have then found what we’re looking for.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, September 21, 2009

U2 Pilgrimage: Saturday's U2 Adventure "LET ME IN THE SOUND"

4:14PM: We're now under the bridge that marked "the front of the line." It's where we wanted to be earlier...not just to be closer to the front, but shaded by the sun. There are at least 200 people under this bridge...we're now ahead of some who were behind us earlier, and some who were behind are now in front. Some grumpiness, but excitement is trumping. The only question is do the security people have a clue on what to do next???

4:18PM: A word about "Lucky Dave." Jason's friend Dave has the best U2 karma ever (no relation to Roger). Dave has met Bono twice (getting his picture both times...but once blocked by Bono's fingers' doing a peace sign in front of his face...true story), and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. For once, Dave is behind Jason in the line...at least, that's how the day started. Jason gets a text...Dave's about 50 people behind us...for now.

4:21PM: Smart move by security. Just ran a rope that divided the first group of people from the second, held by security. They walked the first group of to the entry gate, and the next group forward in a very organized manner. We just missed the first group, but everyone is really impressed. The crowd charts chanting the security head's name: "TONE---NY---TONE--NY---TONE---NY!!!!!"

4:28PM: Tony apparent let his fame go to his head...instead of repeating the process, he just got a group of security to walk in front of us and say "walk, don't run." Right...we all get shuffled around, and the four of us end up in different turnstiles.

4:39PM: The event people are all doing different things, some are putting wristbands on people, others are yelling at each other, and some just don't have a clue. WILL WE EVER GET IN!

4:44PM: Somehow we all get back together and we all "walkrun" to the next checkpoint to stand and wait. I nearly run into a rail guard in the middle of the walkway that comes up to just below my waist...would have been really bad. Then again, I could have easily then sung the high parts with Bono...

4:58PM: We're on the Solider infield!!! The Claw/Spaceship stage is incredible!!! It towers over us. The floor is covered with plastic coated stuff so you can't see any of the turf. The Bears organization will love that next week... We have to make a quick decision: the stage and viewing areas are shaped like a bull's eye: The circular stage, a section to stand, an outer walkway for the band, and more standing area. Do we go into the middle, where we will be surrounded by people and is quickly filling??? Or do we grab the rail of the outer standing area where we will have no one in front???

The stage is really high, and imagining being compressed on all sides isn't a pleasant thought, so we opt for the rail.

5:02PM: We are at our viewing places for the U2 Concert!!! We're 30 feet from the main stage, 5
feet from the walkway with no one in front of us and a rail to hold onto. We're happy.

You can see our view of the stage!

The picture of the entire stage is from after the concert, so you can see where we stood: just to the right of the front left leg of the claw. In front of the walkway is a fence and rail, just to the left of the two security guards in red.

5:03PM: Two hours now to wait until the opening act, Snow Patrol!!!

5:08PM: Jason just got a text..."Lucky Dave" squeezed into the center standing area...go figure.

7:06PM: Snow Patrol, from Ireland, gives an excellent opening act...by far the best opening band at a U2 concert I've ever seen. The band is fun and really into it, and the sound is great! Gary Lightbody, the lead singer, is wearing a Chicago Bears shirt...nice touch. The floor shakes with vibration!!! They say that they are honored to open for U2, at that we are in for one of the greatest experiences of our lifetimes!!!

7:42PM: DeMink Moment #2: Chris turns to Jason and me after Snow Patrol finishes. "I dropped my ID again, but this time I found it on the ground before someone else did!" Jason and I are speechless...

7:44PM: The changeover begins! It's amazing all that is going on. I'm facinated most by the triple spotlights that fit under each leg of the claw.

Three people sit on this contraption, each working their own spotlight. They strap them in with safety harnesses.

Then the three of them get lifted into the air about 50 feet, connecting to the top of the claw!!! What a great job!!! Terrifying, but great!!!

The prep continues: guitars are tuned, cameras adjusted, lights tested, and we all stand, wait, and buzz in anticipation! U2 is scheduled onstage @8:30PM!!!

8:26PM: Minutes away, just time enough for the security guard to take our picture.

8:34PM: There's been quiet music playing in the background, but any time now, the real sound will be turned on. U2 always has an "entry song." This tour, it's David Bowie's "Space Oddity," to go with the spaceship stage. All ears are waiting!!!


(U2 takes the stage next time...I promise!!! KURT)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

U2 Pilgrimage: Will continue...

Sorry all! Work at the church has delayed the posting of the next part of the "U2 Pilgrimage" (how dare work interfere!!!)

Will Kurt, Chris & Jason ever get in the stadium?(yes!)

Will Chris lose his ID again??? (most likely)

Will Jason finally have better U2 karma than "Lucky Dave"??? (Unlikely)

Thanks for those who have asked for more...will get to it ASAP!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

U2 Pilgrimage: Saturday's U2 Adventure Outside the Stadium

Here is the recap for Concert #1 in Soldier Field, Chicago (First show of the North American tour):

4:30AM: Alarm goes off...God, it is early! Get that coffee brewing!!!

5:42AM: Jason Nester and I leave my parents house to pick up Chris DeMink from his parents house. On our way, we get a text: "I'm getting my boots on!" Jason, master of incorporating U2 titles and sayings into his everyday speech, already likes my childhood friend.

6:25AM: We arrive at Solider Field ($45 to park). There are around 150 to 200 people already in line. We take our place: one of the last few to have a wall to sit and lean up against. We let people know that a fourth person is coming late, so no one will be surprised.

6:35AM: DeMink moment #1: Chris realizes that he has lost his ID and money. For those
of you who know my childhood friend Chris, you will not be surprised. Just out of the parking garage, upon seeing the people already gathered, Chris takes out his iPhone to take a picture. What he doesn't realize at the time is that his ID...with several $20 bills clipped to it...comes flying out as well. He searches the path, checks the garage and car, and asks the event security...but no luck.

7:30AM: Jason calls Southwest Airlines and finds out that Chris can get on his plane tomorrow with his credit card he thankfully left at home, so long as he summits to a full search. Chris sighs in relief, although not looking forward to the search. I get into a few conversations about being an Episcopal Priest.

9:12AM: Just as Chris steps out of line to go to the restroom, I hear "Chris DeMink! Chris DeMink!" I think it's someone who must know him, but instead, it's a friend of a guy who found Chris' ID! The dude is sleeping in a hammock about 20 feet from us. They not only posted a sign to try and find him (see picture), they actually earlier tried to borrow tape from us to hang the sign!!! All of his money is there, and Chris is very grateful.

9:18AM: We toast the good people in line with are refilled water bottles (notice the Chicago yellow tinge).

11:33AM: We're getting hungry. Chris gets the idea to order a pizza. "They won't deliver here," I laugh. Jason's iPhone comes in useful again, and DeMink calls the pizzeria: "I'd like a large half cheese, half pepperoni pizza, and a small all meat pizza. By the way...will you deliver to just outside Soldier Field???" I'm not very hopeful.

12:25PM: Chris' hears from his friend Roger, who's using the fourth ticket. His plane has arrived, and he's renting a car to come into the concert.

12:43PM: The pizza actually arrives! Unbelievable! We share it with our new friends (everyone around us). Chris saves some for Hammock guy to thank him again. A guy in front of me proclaims that I am the coolest priest he's ever met. My ego stroked, the priest collar comes off for now: to quote Cole Porter, "It's Too Darn Hot!"

1:48PM: I may be a "cool priest," but I feel anything but...why did I wear this black clergy shirt??? My scalp is burning, so I "force" myself to buy a U2 hat.

2:42PM: No Roger...we're getting worried. In/Out privileges in the line have been reduced to bathroom only. Chris calls and finds out that Roger drove by Solider Field to find more affordable parking. Uh-oh!!!!

3:31PM: The line gets crunched together. We think at first that we're about to be let in, but it turns out to likely be a Blackberry sponsored video opt that wanted to show a "massive crowd outside the stadium. So, the couple of thousand people nicely spread out in an orderly line are now a hot, grouped mob of people. Roger better get here soon!!!

(PS: Far left, yellow T-Shirt and beard is "Hammock Guy!" He rules!!!)

3:58PM: Chris is thinking of getting out of line to make sure Roger gets his ticket. Jason and I are not happy with the guy we have never met, and not happy with the idea of Chris losing his spot after waiting all day.

4:03PM: Roger arrives, slips into line. No one says a word of protest. Lucky lucky lucky!!!

4:08PM: The mob moves: chaos erupts as the security guards appear uncertain what to do next. Any sense of a line is gone, except that it's clear that if you aren't in the roped off area, you aren't getting in. Did I mention how lucky Roger is???


Monday, September 14, 2009

U2 Pilgrimage: Sleep Deprived Version

I feel like I've been hit by a freight train (but in a good way) after the all day Saturday and then two nights up past 1AM...

(Not that I'm expecting any sympathy...after all, I've just seen U2 twice in 24 hours.)

Recaps are coming after some more sleep...


Friday, September 11, 2009

U2 Pilgrimage: Friday

I'm in Chicago for the beginning of my "U2 Pilgrimage." Exploring the music of U2 has always been a spiritual quest: from the searching and questioning throughout the lyrics to the community that gathers at concerts. It's no coincidence that U2charists...church services that features U2's music...have sprung up all over the world: for within the music lies a place to explore our spiritual connection to God and each other. People may be surprised that this comes from "secular" music, but the truth of the matter is that U2's music is, in some ways, sacred.

I get to quote me, from an article by Jennifer Gonzales about U2charists:
Wiesner said U2's music can be considered sacred because it concerns itself with religious themes.

"The band explores the cause, nature and purpose of the universe and human beings' relation to it," he said. "That type of questioning absolutely belongs in church."

(Note: that was fun!)

The line between secular and sacred isn't as clear as people often think. (I wrote on this back during the President Obama's inauguration called "Invocations: Declaring the Secular Sacred.")

So, here I am, on a new U2 Pilgrimage: My childhood friend Chris DeMink and my Trinity Cathedral Cleveland friend (and U2charist tech guy) Jason Nester and I are leaving at 6:15AM tomorrow for Solider Field, Chicago, the site of the first North American U2 concert for this tour. We're standing out all day in our quest to get as close to the stage as possible. To symbolize the sacredness of what I think this experience can be, I'm going in my clergy collar. Perhaps it will lead to some interesting conversations...or perhaps just strange looks. Regardless, it's another chapter in the binding connection between religion and popular culture.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Slap in the Face: Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

(A sermon on Mark 7:24-30, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Littleton, NH)

This morning’s gospel begins with Jesus going out to the region of Tyre. We are told that he enters a house and wants no one to know that he’s there. Apparently, Jesus is tired, and trying to get some rest. Of course, it’s hard to keep the news that he’s in town quiet, and it’s not long before a woman comes to Jesus, begging for help for her sick little daughter. She’s a Gentile: a Syrophoenician woman. Now comes the time of the passage where Jesus is to surprise everyone with his generosity of time and spirit.

Instead he says this: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

That’s not the way I expected Jesus to respond to the woman in need. In fact, I don’t know how this sounds to you...but I think Jesus just called this woman a dog.

For the last 2000 years, many people have attempted to explain this passage’s presence and meaning in the Gospel of Mark.

Many have suggested that Jesus was testing the woman with his words. While I was growing up, this was the most prevalent understanding. I have seen some versions of the Bible include the words “in order to test her.” Well, I for one can’t imagine that this is true: and if it is, I personally think that’s even crueler than the words at face value. This woman’s child was in torment! Is this a time to test her, to see if she can give the right answer? Of course not.

Some have claimed that Jesus words are meant as a compliment: that in comparison to the children of Israel, Jesus was going beyond the accepted norm by saying that Gentiles were not really enemies, but sort of like the faithful family dog. I wouldn’t even know where to begin in listing all the problematic things with this interpretation, but I will clearly say that it’s an understanding I don’t personally accept.

Others have concluded that Jesus never really said these words. These others include the majority of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, whose work I greatly respect and often use. The Jesus Seminar concluded that the dialogue of this story was the storyteller’s: not Jesus’ actual words. They soundly point to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ teachings suggest openness to pagans and gentiles: think about Jesus’ travels outside of Galilee, the story of the Good Samaritan, the encounter with the woman at the well, and so on. (The Five Gospels, Funk, Hoover & The Jesus Seminar p. 70 & p. 204)

There’s sound reasoning here, but what bothers me is this: why include the dogs comment, found in the Gospel of Matthew as well? Assume for a moment that this passage is a creation of the writer of the Gospel of Mark: putting words into Jesus’ mouth for a reason. What reason might that be? How does this account help make a persuasive argument that Jesus is Lord? The only apparent reason to have Jesus use these words is to suggest that Jesus understood his ministry to be within Judaism. Fine. Why then, include the woman’s retort and Jesus acceptance of it, granting her request? Any potential benefit to the story is now lost, and the results it that Jesus does not come off well in anyone’s eyes: the Gentile would be offended by his initial evasion, the Judean offended by his acquiescence to the woman. This story simply does not make Jesus look good to anyone, and seems unlikely to be made up for sake of furthering the new Christian community.

To me, there is a much more obvious explanation of this text, even if it’s a conclusion I don’t like. Jesus, my Lord, the one through whom I know the love of God...either due to his understanding of his ministry, or perhaps just because he was tired...attempts to evade this woman seeking his help, and for all intensive purposes calls her a dog.

My gut reaction is that I’d like to simply get rid of this passage, for it makes me uncomfortable. But upon reflection, I’m hesitant to dismiss it. This is one of the only times in our scriptures where we have a Jesus moment that does not speak well of him. Perhaps it is here because it was a story that refused to go away. Perhaps there were those who, in the midst of sharing the stories of Jesus said “But what about that encounter with the Syrophoenician woman?”

I once encountered a unique illustration of this story. Richard Swanson is a Biblical Storyteller and a professor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. He created a project called “Provoking the Gospel.” The students in his troupe are committed to the notion that biblical stories are dramatic, engaging, and provoking texts. They have been developing what they call “performative midrash,” which is a way of exploring texts through their embodiment, finding the tensions within the text. Their website says, “We do our work by poking the text and provoking it. We expect the text to poke us back, and to provoke us.”

I watched a video example of this technique. Two college students...a man and a woman...reading this passage in its entirety out loud, straight from the text, with the man speaking Jesus’ lines, and the woman taking on the unnamed Gentile. They read the text numerous times, and as they started to commit the passage to memory, they started to really interact with one another. Over and over the woman heard the man...Jesus...imply that he would not heal her suffering daughter...say that he would not throw the children’s food to the dogs. Finally, it sunk in: for one reason or another, she was not worthy of Jesus’ time.

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”


She slapped him across the face...and she exclaimed bitterly: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Somehow, the young man stayed in character. With his palm cooling his stinging cheek, he said to her, in a stunned voice: “For saying that, you may go---the demon has left your daughter.” And...still in shock and perhaps only now glimpsing how he had wounded her...he turned away and left the scene.

Provoking the Gospel, indeed....

Think about this. Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus, a faithful Jew, would have originally thought that his ministry was supposed to be with his own people? His people were under Rome’s thumb, and were being taken advantage of by their own religious leaders. So he focused on them, but they struggled to understand. Even his handpicked disciples seemed clueless to the simplest of his messages. Jesus desperately needs some rest, and he finally gets away to a place where he thinks his time will be his, but instead finds yet another person in need: a gentile woman. His patience at an end, he attempts to push her away with what is either an unfortunate choice of words, or a not so cryptic dismissal that she is not “one of his people.”

But he underestimated her...she pushes back.

Perhaps at that moment, Jesus remembered his own bold and prophetic words that we heard last week: “It is not what goes in, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Mark 7:14-23)

What I think this means is that our capacity to do wrong is part of our human nature: we do not become infected with sin by breaking customs, like the Pharisees were trying to suggest. The capacity for sin...thoughts, words and actions that isolate us from God and each other’s love...comes from within ourselves, and is part of being fully human.

We teach in the church that Jesus, while divine, is also fully human. Do we really believe that? Will we allow Jesus himself to be fully human? Will we allow Jesus a mistake along his path of faithfulness to God’s call?

If we are able to, I think we begin to see the power in having Jesus learn something new... something so powerful that it changed the scope of his ministry...a ministry that would from this moment on especially focus on the outsider and the person marginalized by the community.

I am grateful for a portrait of Jesus that shows growth in his character from his experience with others. It proves to me that his encounters with people were real. There was the opportunity for all, including Jesus, to be transformed by each other. It shows that Jesus’ ministry changed over time... that it grew and blossomed in part by the people he met along the way. It suggests that even Jesus had to discern his ministry, just as we are all called to do.

Perhaps it might feel strange or uncomfortable to suggest that Jesus wasn’t perfect, but it might be just what we need: for such an understanding of Jesus might lead to a gentler and more patient way of our interacting with one other. After all, none of us are perfect...we all make mistakes...and the question often becomes how will we interact with people who have fallen short of our expectations. In proclaiming a fully human Jesus as Lord, we are called to follow in his footsteps and be a people vulnerable to a change of heart: open to new ways and understandings beyond our preconceived notions, and generous in our forgiving one another. In this way, the world might be transformed, and move towards God’s vision of heaven on earth. That's really good news from an uncomfortable text.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What Really Defiles

(A sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 preached at St. Matthew's Summer Chapel in Sugar Hill, NH)

I was a pretty good teenager, all things considered. Sure, I got into my share of trouble, but nothing really serious. I did well in school, and for the most part, I respected my parents’ wishes without creating an overwhelming amount of anxiety.

My relationship with my father was a bit strained. He was always looking to bring out “the best” in me, and prepare me for his world: the business world. So life, especially the dinner table, was a series of corrective comments: Sit up straight, elbows off the table, pronounce your words clearly, without food in your mouth, don’t smack your lips...yada yada yada.

For my part, I was a bit of a wise guy towards him. (If I weren’t in church, I’d tell you what I really was...) I was convinced that my father was more interested in creating a “successful me” than caring at all about who I was. So I was constantly looking for hypocrisy in his words, so I could casually, like only a teenager can, throw his words back in his face. I got pretty good at it to.

In preparing this sermon, it suddenly occurred to me that I missed out on a great source of material during my teenage years. Yes, I’m talking about the Bible! “Honor thy father and mother” was drilled into my head so well, that I figured the Bible must be stacked against the teenager. It never occurred to me that Jesus opposed authority on such a regular basis. In fact, you could say that Jesus was the ultimate expert at tweaking the nose of the rule following crowd: constantly telling them that they were missing the point, or being hypocritical. Alas: if I had only listened more careful on Sunday mornings!!!

Today, we have a very clear passage where the “rule followers” are wrong. The Pharisees and some scribes come and point out that Jesus’ disciples are eating with defiled hands. To be clear, this is not about hygiene (although the purity law may have been originally designed for just that.) Their gripe was about a religious tradition of washing: a ritual established from earlier generations that the disciples did not follow (at least, on this occasion).

Jesus bashes these Pharisees, quoting scripture, Isaiah, to say that these guys are hypocrites...abandoning the commandment of God to hold human traditions.

Jesus then gathers everyone around and tells them that nothing from outside the person can defile them (ie: make them unclean). Instead, it is what comes from with the human heart itself that defiles them. It appears that the case is closed: religious customs and practices mean very little, it is one’s heart that matters.

I would have loved to toss that one back at my dad as a teen...

But before we shut the door on this Gospel, we must get to the heart of the matter. What is really being said about religious custom, and what defiles a person?

We must remember that Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees as an insider: as a faithful, religious Jew. He does not condemn the ritual practice itself, or Judaic leaders as a whole. There is nothing wrong with ritual washing. Douglass Hare points out that the verb translated “defile” in the NRSV Bible throughout this chapter is based on the Greek adjective koinos; its meaning is “to make common,” that is, ordinary. In discussion of Jewish purity it means “render unsanctified, make unholy,” and the corresponding Hebrew verb is translated “to become unclean.” One became unclean in many ways...it was not necessarily sinful action that made one unclean...all sort of things made you unclean, but one was to ritually remove the uncleanness before doing things that invoked God: and eating was certainly one of those things. (Douglass Hare in Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, Eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

The ritual practice of washing was designed to invoke a sense of sacredness to the moment. When done in community, it is a practice that draws attention to the desire to move towards the holy. It is to remind us that we belong to God, and that God dwells among us, even in the everyday thing of something like eating.

There is a direct correlation here with our tradition of Sunday worship. All of our practices: not just the individual choices of standing and kneeling, or bowing and genuflecting, but every part of our ritual...from the opening prelude to the closing hymn, is designed to invoke the holy, and draw our attention to the sacredness of our common lives together.

Jesus rightly points out that these actions themselves are not the sacred. Doing x, y & z faithfully will not make us clean or unclean in God’s eyes, and getting upset and agitated as to whether or not others are observing and going about the ritual correctly is not only folly, but hypocrisy. Loye Ashton writes that religious hypocrisy is particularly destructive, for it is a denial of our authentic self in favor of the fabricated persona that we wish to be...distorting the rituals that were designed to invoke the holy into idols. (Loye Ashton in Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, Eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

Jesus says that it’s what comes from within our heart that defiles a person. What makes us common, ordinary, or unclean is acting on the darkness found in the depths of our being. The implication is that the Pharisees raise an objection to Jesus’ disciples not because they are genuinely concerned about the actions of the disciples, but out of jealousy towards those following Jesus...or perhaps because of their own insecurities...or perhaps because of guilt because they are hiding something, or benefiting from a system that lifts up some while keeping others down...or over worry about what it means to their place in the power structure...or something else along these lines. The hearts of these Pharisees have turned away from God and the well-being about their neighbors.

The good news here is that the same human heart that defiles us is also capable of renewing and enriching us. God is concerned about our hearts, and desires nothing but the very best of who we are. When we turn our hearts to God, we additionally love our neighbors and ourselves. We are invited to explore what it would mean to live faithfully from the goodness that is also found in the human heart. Dawn Wilhelm asks: “What kinds of ritual activities or practices might help us develop meaningful relationship with God and our neighbors? How do practices of Sabbath keeping, charitable giving, public worship, private prayer, service work, hospitality, and forgiveness deepen our sense of God’s presence and power among us?” (Dawn Wilhelm in Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, Eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

How can we treat each other with gentleness and patience? How can we be good stewards of the earth? How can we raise the standard of living of the poor? How can we care for the sick and the lonely? And how can we promote justice and peace without resorting to violence?

Jesus’ words this morning are deceptively difficult and challenging for us individually and as a church. Within them, however, lies the hope of renewing our attitudes and actions so that we might reflect God’s loving intentions for humanity, and the whole world.