The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Transitions and sales

Pentecost 5; Proper 8C
Luke 9:51-62

In the name of God. Amen.

In every story there is a point where things shift – a transition that divides the world as we think we’ve come to know it from some truer version of the world that reveals itself.

We hear of one such transition in the Gospel lesson today.

Transitions can be frightening. Ask any of our recent high school graduates. Of course they will all tell you about how excited they are – they will recite the dreams that they have formed and are in the process of executing into reality. But beyond that, there’s something more. Perhaps it’s a bit of a wistful glance as they talk about the changes they are facing. Perhaps it’s the exasperated frustration of their parents speaking of the unusual tension in the house. Even amidst all the excitement, there’s some tinge of anxiety about all the change that lies ahead.

The children in such families know that their places in their families are changing. They are becoming less “children” and moving into their new roles as adults. But they don’t yet know all that that will entail.

Their parents know more, but still not enough. They know that their children will become adults, and that they will embark on a branch of life all their own – less defined by their parents and more by their own senses and experiences and decisions. They will go to school and get and lose jobs and fall in love and have their hearts broken. Some of their dreams will be fulfilled and some will change and some will die. A parent’s only hope is that they have instilled their children with the tools necessary to survive the ups and downs and fits and starts that make up a life. All else is chance.

In Jesus we hear the voice of a parent who knows a change is coming that his “children” – the disciples – can’t quite fathom.

“He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

These words came to life for me a few years ago when I was studying Orthodox liturgies of Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem. In the Orthodox tradition Holy Week is experienced as a kind of “Life of Jesus in brief” and our course instructors recreated that experience for us as we studied. At the beginning of the week we started in Bethlehem and remembered and walked in the steps of the birth narrative. As the week progressed we visited the shrines at places where Jesus taught and performed miracles. Then, when it was time for Maundy Thursday, we read this passage as we prepared to set our own faces to go to Jerusalem.

And this is what it means. Jesus knew what it meant to turn his attention from the countryside to the city. He knew that he was facing his last supper, and his suffering. And yes, he knew that he was facing the Resurrection, but there were miles to go before that joy.

In our own transitions, that’s the way it often is. Even when we can faintly see joy dawning in the distance, we know that there are miles to go before it is realized. It’s often hard to see what hills and valleys lay before the dream.

The disciples certainly could not see it. They still had visions of an angry God who longed to smite those others on the losing side.

“When the disciples saw that the Samaritans would not receive him they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” That’s not what the reign of God would be about. It would be about salvation, not vengeance. Even after all that he had taught them; they still did not get it. They still had much to learn.

Like a parent setting their children off to a new life own their own, there was still so much for the disciples to learn.

And the tension in their family system was growing. Jesus had been clear with them about what was to be expected: that he would face adversity. But still they followed him. They didn’t seem to grasp that following him meant following him into that adversity. When one of the followers said to him that he would follow wherever Jesus went, Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

It will not be an easy life. Just as the Samaritans did not receive them, neither will anyone else.

It reminds of a scene from the movie “The Princess Bride”. In this scene, Princess Buttercup says to the Man in Black – her latest captor, “You mock my pain.” He responds, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

As tempting as it may sometimes seem, the church does not exist to sell God to the people. It is not about selling to parishioners – it’s “clients” – some service; or, convincing them of the advantages of a particular way of life. The church is about doing the Mission of God. The church is the Body of Christ in the world: “proclaiming release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind.” It’s about doing those things that need to be done, but that no one else wants to do. It’s about being the followers of Christ, even when that means, “having nowhere to lay our heads”.

It would be a tough sell in anyone’s book. That’s why we’re not trying to sell it.

Good parents don’t try to sell their children on the advantages of adulthood. They only try to prepare them for it. For its joys, certainly, but, even more for its challenges and trials.

Jesus never tried to sell discipleship. You might even say that he sometimes tried to talk the disciples out of it. But he always tried to prepare his followers for the costs of following.

Like those first disciples in those first days after Pentecost, we, too, continue to transition into what it means to live as grownup Christians in a post-Pentecost world. Though the joy of the Reign of Christ dawns on the horizon, there are many hills and valleys to cross before we reach the goal. The path for following Christ is not easy. It’s not meant to be easy. Anyone who says differently is selling something. Amen.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The devils we know

Pentecost 4; Proper 7C
Luke 8:26-39

In the name of God. Amen.

The story we hear in the Gospel lesson today really is quite remarkable.

Of course, there’s the whole casting out demons thing; and then when they possess the pigs that then hurl themselves into the lake and drown – it’s nice flair. But that’s not really what I think is remarkable.

In all of the stories we hear about Jesus, those are the kinds of things we expect. Just in the past few weeks we’ve heard stories about people being healed and raised from the dead. And all of that comes on the heels of the weeks of the Easter narrative, followed by speaking in tongues and the giving of the Holy Spirit.

So really, a demon possession and some pigs that fall into a lake? In the greater scheme of the Christian story, it’s not really all that eye catching. It’s almost surprising that it was remembered enough to have been included in the final copy.

What’s really remarkable, as I see it, is what comes next: when the community sees that the demons who had been tormenting the man, as well as the whole community, have been cast out – they become afraid and ask Jesus to leave.

It’s remarkable.

Usually, when we encounter the stories of the miracles that Jesus performed, they are told with the presumption that the reason they happened was to show Jesus to be of God. Near the end of John’s gospel it says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

But clearly that wasn’t the effect in this story.

When the people of the Gerasene community learned that the town demoniac had been healed, and they found him clothed and in his right mind and sitting at the feet of Jesus, they were afraid.

Think about that for a moment.

They had been afraid of the man before. So much so that they kept him shackled and in chains to try to keep him subdued. The demons that tormented him were so powerful that despite his restraints, he would break free and run wild. He was such an outsider that he literally lived outside the normal community. He lived in the tombs among the dead.

So when they found him to be in his right mind, they were afraid.

It really is remarkable.

It many ways, it sounds like some of our communities. We grow accustomed to “the devils we know.”

A running joke among people in church leadership is that the guiding principle of many of our congregations is: “What we’re doing isn’t working. Don’t change a thing.”

It’s easy – and even attractive – to fall into ruts in our lives. Amidst all the “changes and chances” of life, we look for stability wherever we can find it – even if stability often means continuing in unhealthy patterns.

That’s what happened in the Gerasene community. This community, filled with people who are categorically “other” on the other side of the Galilee, is shown to be quite like us, after all. Just like us, they have their own “others”. Just like us, they are afraid to move out of what has become comfortable into a newer and more expansive way of seeing the world. Just like us, they would rather cling to their exclusion of those who are different or unfortunate instead of risking seeing themselves in the ones they were accustomed to holding at an arm’s length.

It’s really no wonder that the formerly possessed man begged Jesus to let him join the ranks of the disciples. He had found a community of people where he might have a chance at belonging.

I wonder what the Gerasene man might have thought of Paul’s words to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Might he have heard himself in those words? “There is no longer possessed or of right mind, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

He knew more than most what it means to be on the outside. And he longed to be on the inside with Christ.

But Jesus asked him to stay with the community that had excluded him. To stay as a witness to the saving power of God in Christ. To stay – and to be an agent of the incarnation in a land of complacency.

It’s an impossible vocation, this business of asserting one’s belonging in a world that only knows how to exclude. But he did it. “He went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

So, too, should we.

At various times throughout our lives we all, to some degree or another, are either the redeemed former demoniac or the exclusive Gerasenes. When we are the redeemed, it is our job to proclaim throughout the city all that Christ has done for us. When we are the others, it is our job to endeavor to hear those we have called “other”, and to see the good work that Christ has done in them.

The words of the hymn have never been truer: “In Christ there is no East or West, in Him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”

It’s remarkable.

My prayer is that we all, whether included or excluded from the communities of the world, may come to know that one great fellowship of love. Amen.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

No need for hospitality

Pentecost 3; Proper 6C
Luke 7:36-8:3

In the name of God: our Protector, our Teacher, and our Guide. Amen.

There’s a conversation happening now on one of the email listservs that I read about baptism. In this “spiritual but not religious” age it seems that many religious leaders around the country are finding parents engaging in discussions about the ethics of baptism.

In our culture, which not so long ago was clearly dominated by Christianity and its social norms, baptism was once basically assumed. For most of us it was assumed that we would be baptized as infants. But even in those traditions that don’t believe in infant baptism, baptism was nonetheless assumed. It was just a matter of timing.

Now parents are beginning to ask, more and more, whether or not they “should” have their children baptized. Sometimes this questioning grows out of their recognitions of our increasingly plural culture – even devout parents are beginning to recognize that their children may or may not spend their lives living out the faith they inherited. Other times, however, parents question the ethics of baptism because they know, in their own hearts, that they don’t really believe. Perhaps, in their efforts at practicing their own “spiritual but not religious” belief systems they are drawn to the ritual of baptism in spite of its inherent religiosity. Perhaps they’re simply giving in to the pressures of their elders who still assume baptism – “We’ll just do it for grandma.”

I have to admit, that I’m somewhat torn about the debate.

On one hand, I steadfastly believe in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Moreover, I recognize that universalism is one of the inherent qualities of Christ’s love. Whenever we participate in the sacraments – even when it’s “just for grandma” – even then, inward and spiritual grace is conveyed; for the ones who receive the sacrament as well as for the whole community.

On the other hand, if we’re not careful, universalism can breed complacency when it is not at least tempered with intentionality. Even the grandest, most beautiful liturgies filled with the most grace-filled sacraments won’t mean much if they are not borne on the wings of intentionality.

This is part of what we hear today in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: it is not “the works of the law” that save us. It is not our adherence to the right rules, or our participation in the right rituals, or anything that we can do that will bring us salvation. It is faith. Not doing, but being. Not ritual, but intentionality. It is the relationship between what we do and the underlying truth in our heart that spurs us to do it – whatever “it” is.

In the Gospel lesson today we hear the story of two hearts.

A Pharisee has invited Jesus into his home and to his table. In many ways, it’s a story about hospitality.

Hospitality is a biblical value, but in many ways, it’s one that has been lost to our modern, Western culture. As a culture, we don’t give a lot of value to the pursuits of hospitality. Too often, we associate it with domestic chores: cooking, cleaning – those things that, if we had the means, we would prefer to leave for others. When we do offer hospitality, it tends to be reserved only for those in our inner circles.

Because we don’t usually value hospitality very much, we also don’t usually spend much time thinking about it. But hospitality is about more than just doing chores for someone else. It’s about more than just doing nice things for people or welcoming them. Hospitality is a spiritual discipline that requires intentionality – the same as with any sacramental act.

One of the reasons that the church is facing this “spiritual but not religious” age is because we have undervalued the role of hospitality in the Christian life. People have too often experienced, seen and heard the evil side of religion. We promise to “love our neighbors as ourselves”, but the flaws of our humanity intercedes. We build walls and fences and we draw tight little circles around the communities of “neighbors” we prefer.

Our promise to “love” comes with strings.

During my first year in seminary I worked as a student archivist at the archives of the United Methodist Church, which are housed in a library at Drew. In one of the projects that I was working on I encountered a series of photographs from the early 20th century documenting the missionary efforts of a group of Methodists in Asia. They had sent the photographs to the church’s Board of Global Mission to demonstrate their success in converting the local people to Christianity. They were “before and after” shots of the converted. In the “before” shots the people would be dressed in the traditional clothes of their Asian heritage. In the “after” shots, they would be dressed in European clothing – men in dark, three-piece suits, women in conservative, long-sleeved and ankle length dresses.

While that might seem to be an unnecessarily extreme example, it’s the same mindset of exclusion that contributes to our proclivity against hospitality today. Hospitality is not about welcoming those who are like us, or even about converting them to our ways. Hospitality is simply about welcome. No strings – just welcome.

In the story of the Pharisee and the sinful woman we see two approaches to hospitality. The Pharisee was a leader in his community, and he did the socially acceptable thing by welcoming Jesus into his home. But he only did just enough.

It was the sinful woman, however – not the righteous man – who really offered the grace of radical hospitality. While the man gave of a portion of what he had, the woman gave all that she had – even her very self. She washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. The Pharisee, undoubtedly of substantial means, gave just enough. The woman, undoubtedly of humble means, gave even more.

But while hospitality is a spiritual discipline that merits our attention and our practice, it is not the goal. There is something more. Hospitality is simply a means to an end.

Hospitality is about welcoming others. But we are called through the example of Christ to break down the walls that divide us and to recognize that, in Christ, there are no others. We are one – with each other and with God.

The Dalai Lama said: “Because of the profoundly interconnected reality of today’s world, we need to relate to the challenges we face as a single human family.”

Whether oil spills or earthquakes or hurricanes or floods, we face the challenges of the world as one.

Despite the walls that we put up around our borders or around our hearts, we are one just the same.

The call of Christ is to recognize that oneness and to give of ourselves – of our possessions and of our hearts and of all that we have and are.

One of my favorite hymns has always been “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”. In one of the verses, when the writer is imagining a world where all needs are met it says, “No more a stranger nor a guest, but like a child at home.”

In the community of Christ there is no need for hospitality or even welcome, because we all are home.

Like the forgiven woman in the Gospel today, we practice hospitality because it’s as close as we can come. Amen.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

An ordinary sermon

Pentecost 2; Proper 5C
Luke 7:11-17

In the name of God. Amen.

When the weather’s nice I like to sit outside on my porch. There’s just something about sitting outside that helps me to think more clearly. It’s my favorite place to read, or to talk on the phone, or just to sit in the quiet. It gives me a bit of a chance to meet and get to know my neighbors as they stroll by – walking their dogs or doing their laundry or going one place or another. We exchange pleasantries and after some time, we get to sample a taste of one another’s stories – the ordinary happenings that make up our lives from one day to the next.

It’s now getting into that time of year when you can just sit on the porch almost any time.

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting on the porch, admiring the fullness of the spring leaves for the early afternoon shade they provide, when it hit me – more than it had at any time up to now in the year: summer is just around the corner. You can feel it everywhere around us in the world. It’s certainly warmer, but there’s more to it than that. Things are starting to shift. Through the rituals of graduations and vacation planning; first trips to the pool and weekend barbeques, we’re already readying ourselves for something different. Maybe something a little slower and gentler than the rigors of most of the year. We’re starting to ease into summer.

The same kind of shift is happening in the church.

We’ve spent most of the year thinking about “special occasions”. The fast-paced life of people consumed with celebrations and commemorations and the preparations that they require. There was Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Which seemed to be followed all-too-closely by Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Now, for the first time in a long time, we seem to be settling in to what’s supposed to be “normal”. We’re slowing down a bit and letting the preparations and worries of the special occasions of our faith rest for a while.

But while this is traditionally a time of year when the programs of the church begin to ease into their summer breaks, in many ways, the teachings of the church are just the opposite. We break from the cycles of commemorating the big events and milestones of the life of Jesus and settle into one of the primary reasons that we follow him: the stories of his teachings and miracles.

The church calls this season “ordinary time”. It’s not a festal season, or a time of preparation for anything in particular. It’s the in-between time. It’s the “ordinary” days of what it means to be a Christian and, quite naturally, we use them to study and celebrate the “ordinary” days of the life of Christ.

But the thing is, if Christmas and Easter have taught us anything, it’s that there are no “ordinary” times in the life of Christ. When Christ is alive, the extraordinary becomes the norm.

Today we hear one of these “ordinary” stories. Jesus and the disciples are wandering through the Galilean countryside. They happen upon an ordinary little town – Nain. It’s not a place of any particular historical or political significance. It’s the kind of place that you’d only happen upon on the way to somewhere else. The kind of place where unknown people live their usually unknown lives – with all of the joys and tragedies and everything in between that accompanies all of our lives.

It’s in this unexceptional time and place that Jesus and the disciples wander by.

Near the gates of the town they happen upon a funeral procession. A widow is mourning the loss of her only son. So caught up in her own indescribable grief, she probably doesn’t even notice Jesus and the others on the roadside.

So often when we hear the miracle stories of Jesus they are accompanied by proclamations like, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” The picture that is painted of Jesus is of one who endeavors, however unsuccessfully, to avoid being the focus. The writers of the Gospels know and convey the centrality of Jesus in the miracle stories, but they show a man who seems almost to wish he wasn’t so central to the story. One almost shy.

But this story is different. The mourning widow of Nain does not ask for healing for her son. She doesn’t even speak to Jesus. She is too overcome by grief to even imagine such a possibility. Instead, Jesus is compelled by compassion.

There are two aspects of compassion, as it is practiced by Jesus, that we should notice. First, compassion is always an avenue toward action. Compassion is never the end of the story. If it were, what we think of as compassion would be little more than pity. But also, compassion always requires the compassionate one to cross the threshold of discomfort before moving into a place where healing can begin. It certainly would have been easier for Jesus and the disciples to just look with pity on the mourning widow. They might have whispered words of pity for her from the edges of the roadway as she passed.

They could have done so with only a slight brush against the uncomfortable scene, then turned and continued down the road to wherever they were headed.

But we are called to do more than simply brush up against our discomfort. We are called to dive into it and to use it to look for signs of the living God.

It’s the same with us today. I’m sure if you were to talk with the volunteers who serve the homeless at the Interfaith Hospitality Network they would tell you the same thing: it’s only after they confront their own discomfort with seeing suffering and commit to action that they can feed and be fed by their acts of compassion. It’s only in the midst of discomfort that they find God.

In the Eucharist we break the bread to remember that it is through brokenness that we are made whole.

When we work to ignore the brokenness that is very real in ourselves and in the world around us, we deny ourselves the opportunity for healing.

Where might we, with the mind of Christ, cross the lines of discomfort that we encounter in the world around us?

Pain and suffering and grief and estrangement are ordinary in the world. So is the discomfort that we feel when we encounter them. But so is the love of Christ. It’s so ordinary, that we, like the widow of Nain may not even notice it as we wander by. But in the midst of our ordinary discomfort, the extraordinary love of Christ reaches out.

“I say to you, rise.”

Rise up out of the ordinary. Amen.