Monday, July 16, 2018

Can you handle God's Truth?

From sermon at Ascension, Towson - July 15. Mark 6:14-29; Amos 7:7-15

When Herod first hears about Jesus, he has a flashback, and he wonders if John the Baptist has risen from the dead. Because there are so many similarities between John and Jesus. Both are radicals. Both are prophets, proclaiming God’s message outside the religious and political establishment. Both are poor men, relatively powerless in the world. And both John and Jesus scare the bejeebers out of Herod.

Herod recalls the night John met his demise. Here’s what led up to it. Philip and Herod were brothers. They were also both uncles to Herodias. Philip married Herodias and they had a child together, a daughter. Herod was married at the time, too. Well, Herod and Herodias got the hots for one another, and they decided to divorce their spouses, one of which is Herod’s own brother, so they could marry each other. (This is like something on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, right?) 

So that’s what John’s ranting about. And Herod doesn’t know how to shut him down. But his wife does. When Herod offers to give his stepdaughter anything she wishes after performing what must have been one amazing dance, she consults her mother for advice. Backed into a corner, Herod grants her wish, the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

You can see how that might be the sort of thing that would haunt Herod. (It haunts me, and I’ve only read the story in the Bible.) So, hearing about Jesus leads to this traumatic flashback for Herod. And this story of John speaking God’s truth and being killed for it, serves for us, the readers of Mark’s gospel, not as a flashback, but as a flashforward. A foreshadowing of what’s about to unfold in the story of Jesus. 

There’s something for us to learn, as well, as people who follow in the way of Jesus… who followed in the way of John… who followed in the way of the Old Testament prophets… We come from a long tradition of people who were called to speak God’s truth to a world that finds that truth threatening. 

Today’s first reading is from the prophet Amos. It talks about a plumb line that God puts in the middle of Israel. A plumb line is something people use in construction to make sure walls are built in a straight line. 

Amos says that God has a plumb line, too. It’s the line of God’s righteousness, and God’s people are judged according to how their lives line up with God’s righteousness.

Jesus introduced a plumb line of his own. He called it the Kingdom of God. The challenge for us as Christians is to take the vision of the Kingdom of God as it’s revealed to us by Jesus, lay it alongside the ways of the world and ask, how do they line up? 

Now, the only way to get a handle on what the Kingdom of God looks like is by studying the Scriptures. And when we study the Scriptures, we learn just how radically different the Kingdom of God is from the ways of the world. 

We live in a world that rewards people based on their merit and insists people get what they deserve, but in the Kingdom of God, people receive grace, which has absolutely nothing to do with what they deserve. Our world insists strength is shown by exerting power over others; in the Kingdom of God, strength is shown in service and giving yourself for others. In the world around us, when someone hurts us, we strike out and hurt them back; in the Kingdom of God, we respond to hatred with compassion—we turn the other cheek and pray for our enemies. 

And the really big thing we learn when we study the Scriptures, in particular the way of Jesus, is that God has a bias toward the bottom. God sides with the poor, the outsiders, and the oppressed. As people who are affluent, well-positioned in life, and who benefit from the status quo, that’s not something we want to hear. 

When we lay the ways of the world around us alongside the ways of the Kingdom of God, we can’t ignore the disparity or look the other way. We see God’s truth. How do we respond to it?  

Now this is hard for most of us. But I don’t know if you realize what a struggle it is for those of us who preach. It’s the sort of thing that has me tossing and turning on Saturday nights.  

I want you to like me. It would feel so good to stand before you week after week and tell you funny stories, and talk about my grandkids and my cat, and assure you that God doesn’t want any of us to change. 

I really don’t want to ruffle your feathers or become a source of anger for you. And that presents me with a dilemma. Because I can’t preach whatever I want to. I’m called to proclaim the truth of the Scriptures to you. And I work as hard as I can to do that—praying that the Holy Spirit will guide me. 

I know that many people have been conditioned to believe that preachers aren’t supposed to talk about politics from the pulpit. I’m not sure where that idea comes from, but it couldn’t have come from anyone who actually reads the Bible. When you read the message of the Scriptures—and I’m not talking about snacking here and there, but really feasting on the whole enchilada—a major theme of the Scriptures is speaking truth to power. 

That’s how it all started for God’s people when a motley group of slaves sought freedom from their oppressors. It was the message of the prophets in times of corruption and years of exile. During Jesus’ time, Israel was living in subjugation to the Roman Empire. That political reality colored everything Jesus said and everything he did. 

Partisan politics, that is endorsing a certain political party or candidate, has no place in the church. But addressing the political world is another matter. When we consider the witness of Jesus and his followers, seeking faithfulness to that story and relevance to our own, we have to ask, how do we faithfully respond to our own Empire?

This isn’t just a struggle for preachers. It’s a struggle for all of us as God’s people. And it’s a struggle for the Church as an expression of Christ’s presence in the world.

We don’t have the option of remaining silent so that people will like us. We may be considered offensive at times. We may be considered impolite. Like Amos. Or John the Baptist. Or Jesus. We may not get invited to many parties and when we are, we may end up the main course. 

That’s what happens when you lay the Kingdom of God alongside the Kingdoms of this world. You notice the difference and it’s not something you can live with.  

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The importance of being right

When I was in college, my roommate was dating a grad student who was way smart. I always thought I was well endowed in the brains department, but he had it all over me. His mind sucked up facts like a vacuum cleaner. Every night during supper, when Jeopardy came on TV, he enjoyed sharing his vast knowledge with us. I listened and silently gnashed my teeth, never daring to challenge him because he was just about always right. 

When I was handed an unexpected opportunity to stick it to him, I couldn’t resist. I happened to watch Jeopardy while I was home for Christmas break. Then, when I returned to school, lo and behold, an exact same episode that I’d already seen the week before was being aired on TV. It was like a dream come true! I pretended that I had never seen it before, as I called out all the right questions, including a few that he missed. Although I acted as nonchalant as possible about it, inside I was whoopin’ and hollerin’ and jumpin' up and down. Yes! 

It felt so good that I never told him the truth. To this day he thinks that I mopped the Jeopardy board with his face that night. Actually, he’s probably forgotten all about it. But not me! I will never forget it. At the time, I thought of it as an impressive victory. Now I look back and I realize it was NOT one of my finer moments. How could I have been so deceptive?

I wonder how many people in a similar situation would be able to resist such an opportunity? I mean, isn’t being right a rush for all of us? There’s something about it that satisfies us on a basic level. Why is that?

I suspect it’s a competitive thing. If you’re right, that means you’re superior to the person who is wrong. And who doesn’t love feeling superior? If we can point to someone else and say, “I’m better than she is!” it’s proof positive that we’re worthwhile.

Maybe this is one reason why some of us are so offended by the notion that God unconditionally loves ALL people. In the church we call it grace. It’s love freely given, with no strings attached. It’s loving someone just because. That’s exactly the way God loves us -- just because.

For those of us who have a need to feel we’re special, and I suspect that’s pretty much all of us, the undiscriminating grace of God can leave us feeling slighted. Of course, to God, we’re special, and that’s fine with us. But the problem is that, to God, EVERYONE is special. How can anyone be special if everyone is special? And how can we feel superior to other people if God loves everyone the same, whether they’re perfectly right or terribly wrong? Now, I realize that’s a very human perspective and I think it’s safe to say that a God of grace doesn’t see things that way.

Certainly, our need to be right takes on epic proportions when we align our rightness with God’s. It’s not so much a problem when we try to think like God; it’s when we convince ourselves that God thinks like us. And when we’re so hell-fire sure that God thinks like we do, well, we have to be right, by God! We’ll fight to the death to prove that we’re right because so much is at stake. It’s a scary place to be. And, ironically, it is exactly what a life in relationship with God is NOT.

To be in an authentic relationship with God, we have to be able to utter three words that so many of us find it pert near impossible to say: I was wrong. Until we can acknowledge that we’re not always right and quite often we might actually be wrong, we’ll have so much invested in proving we’re right that we can never let God be God.

Do you have an aversion to the words, I was wrong? It’s a true spiritual handicap that isolates us from God, as well as other people. And it keeps us from growing into the people God created us to be. That’s why, as painful as it is, every once in a while, it helps us to be reminded that we can be wrong. You might say that an occasional serving of crow is good for our spiritual health.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Get Out of My Way!

Preached at Ascension Lutheran Church, Towson MD - July 1, 2018. (Mark 5:21-43)

I hope you’re up for a sandwich this morning. As in a Mark sandwich. His gospel is a veritable sandwich shop. He will begin with story A and then, before he finishes it, he inserts story B, and then he goes back to story A.
Today’s Mark sandwich could be called the Women in Crisis Sandwich. We don’t know their names, but they’ve both become outsiders. And Jesus is not only dealing with healing them of their illnesses, but he’s also erasing the lines that separate them from others.

The religious laws of the time said that neither a menstruating woman nor a dead person should be touched. If you touched them, then you’d become impure and you’d have to go through a lengthy, involved ritual to be made pure again.
Now, as the leader of the synagogue, Jairus knows all about those purity laws because he’s the one who must enforce them. He is a person of prestige in his community. Well-respected. The one other people listened to. And so, the public display he makes of himself here is really quite shocking. He falls at Jesus’ feet and begs Jesus to help his daughter. And, just like that, Jesus is on his way to Jairus’ house, with a large crowd of people tagging along.

Then, right there on the road, Jesus’ mission is interrupted. This is no doubt upsetting to Jairus, who was in a hurry to get Jesus to his daughter before it was too late to save her.
There’s a woman in the crowd. A woman who’s been bleeding for 12 years, which, we learn later, is the age of Jairus’ daughter. The entire time this little girl has been alive, the woman in the crowd has been on her period. Perhaps only a woman could appreciate what that might have been like, but a good word to describe the woman would be tired. The worst part of this for the woman isn’t physical, though. It’s relational. Her sickness has completely removed her from contact with other people.

Not only did the purity laws say that you can’t touch a woman who is menstruating, but you also couldn’t even touch anything that SHE touched, or you’d be unclean. So, for twelve years, the woman has lived in social isolation. Like Jairus, she’s desperate. And, like Jairus, in her desperation she’s prepared to take a big risk.
She’s heard about Jesus’ power and thinks that maybe if she can just get close enough to him, she could be healed. She figures out a way to do it so that no one even has to know. It could be a stealth healing. If she blends in with the crowd and just gets close enough to touch the edge of his cloak, she might go undetected.

It doesn’t work. Jesus stops in his tracks and asks, “Who touched my clothes?” This is an absurd question. With the crowd pressing in on him, everybody’s touching his clothes. But one person in the crowd knows she’s been discovered.
Now, remember Jairus? He’s got to be out of his mind about now. He is taking Jesus to save his dying daughter. They don’t have a moment to spare. And here Jesus stops to have a conversation with this random woman. To Jairus it must seem like Jesus has chosen to help some worthless woman instead of his precious little daughter.

Imagine the dilemma that Jesus faces in this story. Either he hurries to the daughter of a rich man, or he stops to heal an outcast woman. He either helps an important person, or he helps a nobody.
Well, what may seem like a dilemma to you or me is no dilemma for Jesus. He doesn’t choose, he does both.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t go out seeking the bleeding woman. He’s on the move, and she’s in his way.
And that’s where ministry opportunities so often find us. We don’t have to go out looking for them. If we open our eyes, they’re right there in our path… Often what we consider an interruption or an obstacle. You may wish they’d just go away, because you’re headed someplace and they are in your way!

It’s a lot like the story of the Good Samaritan where the good religious folk find a man in their path who needs their help. They can’t be bothered, so they walk on by on the other side of the road and pretend not to see the poor man who’s been beaten and left for dead. But the Samaritan sees the man in need and stops to help.
Are there such people we in our path? Perhaps they’re people who find us, or, maybe they’re people God places in our path.

Who is God placing in our path here at Ascension? When we’re longing to follow Jesus and the needs of the world around us seem overwhelming, it’s a good question to ask. Who are the people God is placing in our path?
Can we see them? Are there barriers that keep us from responding to them? Discomfort? Fear?

Lately, we seem to be overly concerned about who’s on our side and who isn’t. Who is worthy of our care and who isn’t. Who we’ll serve in a restaurant and who we can refuse to serve. Who we will bake a cake for and who gets no cake. Who we will respect as a human being and who we will not.
That’s never the way Jesus encounters people. They’re more to him than the laws that keep them in their place. They’re more to him than the labels assigned to them by society. They are God’s beloved. As unlovable as they sometimes are to everyone else, they are always God’s beloved.

As Jesus people, we’re all about living the Jesus Way in the world. This is what it looks like…

What are the lines we draw that make it so difficult for us to see other people as God’s beloved? Pure/impure. Old/young. Rich/poor. Christian/Muslim. Brown/black/white. Republican/Democrat. Gay/Straight. Legal/illegal. Us/them.
Instead of erasing those lines, we’re drawing more of them every day. Those who take a knee for the National Anthem/those who stand for the National Anthem. Those who refer to Donald Trump as the current occupant of the White House/those who refer him as our president. Those who believe everything they hear on MSNBC/those they believe everything they hear on FOX News.
We have doubled-down on our boundaries and shut out those we’ve separated ourselves from. We don’t listen to opinions that differ from our own anymore. We shut them out and only listen to the others who occupy our own tiny boxes.

Friends, this is not the Jesus Way. Our life together, as a community of faith, embodies the Jesus Way. When we enter this place to worship, none of those lines we draw between ourselves and other people matter.
At no time is this more evident than in the meal we share. Do you realize what a radical concept this is in our world today? If Sarah Huckabee Sanders came to our communion table today, of course we would serve her. If a transgender person came to our communion table today, of course we would serve them. Come to the table here and we will serve you, no matter who you are.

Thomas Merton has said it so well: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”
In our little love laboratory that we call Ascension Lutheran Church, we practice the Jesus Way of love so that we can live the Jesus Way of love in the world. That’s how we usher in the Kingdom of God, by living the Jesus Way in a world that’s about as far from the Kingdom of God as it could be.

We can begin by really seeing the people we encounter, not as obstacles in our way, but as God’s beloved.