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, September 30, 2012

What kind of welcome?

Pentecost 18, Proper 21B
Mark 9:38-50

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living.  Amen.

It’s been fascinating to me to discover just how many of my sermons have a beginning – whether spoken or unspoken – that is somehow related to social networking tools: Facebook or Twitter.

This sermon began as a “status update” that I began seeing on a few friends’ Facebook pages.

My status update this time of year often is something like: “Yay! Finally found the LSU Tigers on TV!  It’s sometimes tough to be in exile!”  It was a way for me to claim my heritage in a strange land, and a way to reach out to my people back home over a shared experience.  So a status update can really be anything.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a debate emerging on a few of my friends’ status updates.  It’s an update of the “conversation starter” variety.  It says, simply, “Indiscriminate inclusivity or Discriminating exclusivity, which do you prefer?”

Think about it.  If you only had the two choices, which would be more desirable?  Would you want to be inclusive if it meant that you had to include absolutely everybody?  Might it be easier if you could pick and choose just a little?!

We certainly tend to value our inclusiveness.  In the Episcopal Church in particular, we are generally proud of the fact that we welcome everyone.  Our signs say, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”  If you go to our parish website, one of the first things you will see is a welcome.  You don’t even have to click anywhere.  It’s right there on the front page, saying, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome at Good Shepherd.”  That’s a quote. We’re trying to say that we really mean it!

But it’s not just a Christian value – this valuing of inclusiveness.  We, as a nation, declare ourselves to be inclusive.  We’re proud of our inclusiveness.  In her poem, “The New Colossus”, Emma Lazarus describes the Statue of Liberty – that most powerful symbol of welcome – as the “Mother of Exiles”.  On the statue’s tablet, Lazarus’ words are inscribed: “Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, /The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  /Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,…”.

They were Lazarus’ words.  They became the words of that “Mother of Exiles”.  And each of us, in our schools or in our families, was taught to make them our own.  We were taught to take pride in the fact that we are a part of a country such as that – a land where all are welcome.

So the Facebook debate seems pretty simple, right?  “Indiscriminate inclusivity or Discriminating exclusivity?”  We’re Christian.  We’re American.  We value inclusiveness, so we should be inclusive.  Moreover, we should demand it of others.  It’s that simple.

The problem is, it’s not that simple.

As Americans, we’re not exactly as inclusive as Emma Lazarus had dreamed we might be.  A wall is being built along our border with Mexico, because we seem to think we have enough of them.  And though the policy recently changed, people who are HIV-positive have been, for years, denied the possibility of immigrating to, or even traveling to, the United States.  We’re afraid that they might create a health crisis!  (As if we didn’t already have one.)  Even students from other countries who hope to come to the United States to further their educations must demonstrate financial sustainability by proving that they hold very large sums of money.  We certainly wouldn’t want poor people getting stuck here.  They might be a burden to us.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?  Well…  Sure.  So long as they’re not tired, nor poor, nor parts of huddled masses.  We don’t want them!

Wherever there is a “we” or a “them” the ideal of inclusiveness hasn’t been reached.

Christians also have a long history of struggling to adhere to our value of inclusiveness.

One of the much talked about scandals of the Lambeth Conference in 2008, when I was there, was in the opening worship service in Canterbury Cathedral.  Many people were offended that the Bishops of the church were asked to sing that great hymn, “All Are Welcome”.  The scandal there was two-fold.  First, it was a ticketed Eucharist.  Only those closest to the center of the Conference activities were allowed to attend.  Those of us “on the fringes” of the event were politely uninvited.  We most certainly were not welcome – despite whatever hymns might have been sung.  But, perhaps more seriously, was the fact that Bishop Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire, had been politely uninvited from the Conference altogether.  The pain of his exclusion was still raw for many of our Bishops, and fortunately, the irony of them being asked to sing that song at that time and place was not lost.  The church could not sing of its inclusiveness in the midst of an act of exclusion without someone noticing.

In the Gospel lesson that we’ve heard this morning, we hear this same Facebook debate roiling among the disciples and Jesus – are we to be indiscriminately inclusive, or discriminating and exclusive?  Like a 7-10 split, Jesus instructs us to aim for both of these contrasting ideals.  He calls us to be discriminating and inclusive.

With regard to those outside the fold, the exchange is telling: “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’  But Jesus said, ‘Don’t stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”

So long as they’re not causing us harm, they are welcome.  Even if they’re not following us, they’re helping us in their own way.  We don’t need a monopoly.  “All are welcome!”

The real discriminating, however, should happen within ourselves.  Jesus instructs us to be always mindful of the ways that our own deeds can be a hindrance to the work of God.  Though we are on the inside, it would be easy for us to cause either ourselves or others fall away from the fold.

It’s counterintuitive.  Everything in the world tells us to “look out for number one”.  We want to find ways to get ourselves included, but we are naturally given to being discriminating about who we’ll let in – either into ourselves and our lives, or into our circles of influence.  Jesus turns all of that on its head.

The disciples were worried that their power would be diminished if it were indiscriminately shared.  But Jesus knew the paradox – in sharing himself and his power, it could only grow.  And so the same was true for the disciples just as it is true for each of us.  When we share ourselves and our power and our influence, we don’t run out - we grow.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes: Mother Theresa once said, “I have uncovered the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt – only more love.”

That’s the message of the Gospel.  That’s the answer to the Facebook debate.  That’s the discriminating inclusivity to which Christ calls us.  Because it’s precisely in that openness to others that we find the living Christ.  Amen.

*reworked from a previous version posted HERE

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Back to normal

**Note: I hope to get videos going again, but I haven't figured out the logistics of it yet in my new place.  But here's the text of the sermon.

Pentecost 17, Proper 20B

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So I have a bit of confession to make.  I went pretty easy on you last week.

For those of you who were here in the morning, you know we had a simple service of Morning Prayer.  I offered a very short little homily, where I focused on the part of the Gospel that we read last week where Jesus said, “Who do people say that I am.”

Frankly, I skipped over all the challenging parts of that text, and used it as a simple way into introducing myself to the congregation.

I figured we all had a lot on our minds.  What with Celebrations of New Ministry, and meeting new people, and having a lot of guests and all that…

As I’ve reflected on our time together last week with a number of people, the thing I caught myself saying over and over again was: I’m ready to starting finding whatever normal will be here.  That first week was filled with so many unusual aspects, that it hardly felt like we’d really begun.  I found myself looking forward to this week more than the last - my first time to preside at this altar, our first time here together without the bishop and all of our guests.  I’ve been ready to get to work - without all of the other “special” stuff getting in the way.

Well, they say that one of the ways that God punishes us, is by answering our prayers, and this week my prayer was answered.

Our Gospel text this week leaves no room for an easy out - and in Jesus-terms, that’s about as normal as it gets.

There are hard truths this week - so hard that the disciples can hardly bear to hear them.

If you were paying close attention last week, you may have heard some of those ‘hard truths’ that Jesus repeats again in this week’s text: all of that stuff about being betrayed and suffering and dying and rising again.

In our popular culture, we have this image of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” perpetually stuck in our heads.  We tend to imagine him through the lens of early 20th century American illustrators like Warner Sallman - who painted that now-iconic image, “Head of Christ”.  You know the one - the picture of Jesus looking pensively off into the distance.  One of my professors in seminary used to refer to it as Jesus’ high school yearbook portrait.

We imagine his flowing hair, and his knowing smile.  We see him gently stroking the heads of the children and hear him saying things like “blessed are the peacemakers”.

That’s the Christ that most of us feel most comfortable with, and call to mind most easily.

But it’s not the full picture of Christ.  Christ is in those images that make us comfortable, but Christ is also daring and scandalous.  Christ is challenging.

Jesus often presented a very different image of Christ than the disciples were expecting to see, and despite the fact that we’ve been hearing these stories for two millennia, a very different image than the one we’re most comfortable with seeing, as well.

Earlier this week a Facebook meme was circulating that said, “Next time someone asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that freaking out and flipping tables is a viable option.”

Jesus doesn’t always give us the neat and tidy packages that we want or expect.

The disciples had a hard time hearing the hard truths from Jesus, and very often we do, too.

One of the reasons that the church has been struggling so much for most of the past generation or so is that the wider culture has come to realize that life isn’t always as neatly packaged as we, in the church, have too often tried to present it.  Sometimes life is messy.  Sometimes truth is hard.

For too long, the church has tried to sugar coat things, and to not challenge people.  We’ve aimed for the lowest common denominator.  There’s something dishonest about that, and the people we’ve been trying to reach are calling us out on it.

One of the reasons that I became an Episcopalian was because I was captivated by the ways that we, in the Anglican tradition, live in tension.  We aren’t easily lured into putting up veneers that hide the uncomfortable truths in life.  We’d rather face them head-on.

The Anglican idea isn’t that we share a certain set of beliefs or doctrines - it isn’t that we all fall in line under a specific leader or even a specific structure.  The overarching idea behind the Anglican way is that we are united in prayer.  In everything else, compromise is not only possible, but necessary.  But in prayer, we stick together.  Common prayer.

In recent years, this tradition has been challenged over issues like women’s rights and sexual morality, but the tradition that brought us this far remains unchanged.  Within the Episcopal Church and throughout the Anglican Communion our fortitude has been tested, but time and again it has proven true that where we remain united in prayer, our different ideas about how to exercise our Christian faith and life have survived in tension.

We don’t have to agree on every specific, we just have to remain committed to the relationship.  The relationship is always more important than any specific disagreement.

I think it’s a message that can resonate in our wider culture right now.  This idea of living in tension with uncomfortable truth is a gift that we can offer to the rest of the world - a world that largely believes that church and faith are no longer relevant in their daily lives.

As we move into the final weeks of this contentious election cycle, the culture of disagreement and disunity may seem all the more acute.  What would it mean for us to bear witness in the wider world to another way?  What would it mean if, in the face of disagreement and dissolving relationships, we proclaimed a message of remaining committed to one another despite our uncomfortable differences?

It would be countercultural.  It might even sometimes be hard.

But Christ’s call to us isn’t always easy.  Sometimes the message is uncomfortable and the truth is hard to hear.

It was certainly hard for those first disciples, and it remains so even now.  But the Christian vision isn’t served by dodging discomfort.  When we face those hard truths, we are our most authentic selves and we are most like Christ.

The world doesn’t need anymore pretty veneers.  The world needs truth - even if it’s hard to hear.  Amen.