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, July 21, 2013

It’s not always about doing something.


Pentecost 9, Proper 11C
Luke 10:38-42


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

One of my favorite television shows of all time is The West Wing.  Partly because it’s mostly good writing, partly because it feeds my inner political junkie.  But every summer - when most current television shows are on hiatus - I dust off my West Wing DVD and watch the series again.  I can’t seem to get enough.

Pretty much every situation I encounter seems to have a West Wing reference that works for it.

This week, as I read the Gospel lesson, I thought of a scene with Leo McGarry - the White House Chief of Staff.

It was one of those awkward, in-between moments in the Oval Office - a speed bump between crises and decisions - when the President asked what he should do next.  Leo says, “This office isn’t always about doing something.  Sometimes it’s about not doing something.”

Last week, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the moral of the story was, “Go and do…”  Just as the Samaritan had cared for the one who wasn’t like him - just as he had done more than anyone would have expected him to do - we should do the same.

Go and do.

But this week, the moral of the story is a little different.

It’s less about doing, and more about being.  It’s not always about doing something.

Martha had welcomed the traveling Jesus into her home.  As soon as he arrived, she set about to the many tasks of entertaining.  But her sister, Mary, wasn’t so consumed.  Instead, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening.

Martha must have been fuming.  There she was, doing everything.

But following Jesus isn’t always about doing something.

In our culture, doing is highly valued.  “What do you do?” - we ask when we meet someone.  We celebrate people who can prove they’re busy.

But faith isn’t always about doing something.  Sometimes it’s enough to simply be in the presence of Christ, and to soak it all in.  Sometimes we do so much that we miss the bigger picture.

So last week, the moral of the story was to “go and do”.  This week, the moral of the story is to not do quite so much.

Living as Christians means taking both lessons to heart.  We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  It is our duty to do the work of Christ for our neighbors: to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick, and to comfort the afflicted.

But sometimes we get “worried and distracted by many things”.  Doing the work of Christ is essential, but when it devolves into worry and distraction, we’re missing the point.

Sometimes, the “better part” is sitting at the feet of Christ and taking it all in.  Sometimes we’re called to “go and do”, but sometimes, what we need most is to learn, and to listen, and to love.

They both are a part of a full Christian life.  Just as it wouldn’t represent the fullness of the Christian life to sit apart from the world always in contemplation and prayer, so, too, does it not represent the fullness of the Christian life to always be busy.  We need both.  Last week AND this week.

The challenge is to lead a life of sufficient discernment so that we know which job is when.  When to do, and when to be.

Jesus’ lesson was probably frustrating for Martha.  When we’re wrapped up in doing, we often can’t even think of anything else other than getting done.  Maybe she had a “light bulb” moment right then, where it all made sense, but more likely, she found the whole exchange really annoying.  It probably wasn’t until much later - maybe even years later - that she figured it out.

Maybe sometime after he’d died she began to realize that moments with Christ are fleeting.  They shouldn’t be taken for granted.  They’re a rare gift.  When one comes along, we can’t waste it by being “worried and distracted by many things”.  We need to embrace those moments.  We need to revel in them.

It’s true that sometimes we need to “go and do”.  Sometimes we need to be Martha.  But sometimes we need to be Mary, too.  Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The parable of a good Samaritan


Pentecost 8, Proper 10C

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the more defining stories of our faith.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record in my telling you that the gospel of Christ is about bridging differences and breaking barriers and uniting under the one light of truth in the service of moving ever deeper into relationship with the God of Love.

But I didn’t make it up.  It’s right there - in the parable of the so-called “Good Samaritan”.

I say “so-called” because there’s a subtle injustice in how we hear that name - the one we call “the Good Samaritan”.  Have you ever noticed?

We don’t call him “a” Good Samaritan.  It’s not “the parable of a good Samaritan”.

We call him “the” Good Samaritan.  The one.

Quietly, lurking in the background of what we’ve all been taught, is that lesson.  There are some people we expect to be up to no good.  There are whole segments of people from whom goodness should come as a shock.

This Samaritan - this foreigner - this outsider - should be expected to be up to no good.  His default position - from the perspective of us on the inside - is no good.

So it’s remarkable that we found the one good one.

But that’s exactly why this is such a defining story for our faith.  It instills in us, again, that our presuppositions and our prejudices, our biases and our expectations, our races, divisions, and classes - they all fall apart in the economy of Christ.  They cease to have the importance and the weight that we have been trained to put on them.

Of course the priest and the Levite should have been the ones to help the beaten man.  They’re supposed to be the ones closest to God.  But they didn’t.  And not only did they not help, but they actually avoided the situation.  They passed by on the other side.  They saw the awkwardness, and the inconvenience, and the mess, and they looked away.

The Samaritan is the one Jesus’ listeners would have expected to be up to no good.  But as it turns out, he was as good as anybody else.  Even better than some.

Therein lies the danger of following society’s norms and expectations and prejudices: too often they’re wrong.  Too often they lie in opposition to the teachings of Christ.

Like many of you, I’m sure, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been following the trial of George Zimmerman.

I preached about the story of Trayvon Martin and GeorgeZimmerman about a year and a half ago when the story was just beginning to capture our national attention.  I said then, and I still believe, that the reason Trayvon Martin died was because someone saw him as “other”.  And because of that “otherness” he was assumed to be dangerous and defended against.

If we learn anything from this parable of a good Samaritan, I hope it is that we can’t rely on our fear when meeting our neighbors.  I hope it causes us to examine what “others” we’ve set apart in our own lives.  I hope it makes us think about and engage with the people we meet each day that cause us to “pass by on the other side” of the road - the people we’d rather not help, and rather not know.

And if we learn anything from Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, I hope it’s not to keep living in fear.  I hope it’s not to keep distrusting one another.  I hope, instead, that we’ll ask ourselves who our “other” is.  I pray that we’ll examine our lives and our relationships and identify the Trayvon Martins and the George Zimmermans that we know and fear and avoid and attack.  And most of all I pray that we’ll see the ways that we are Trayvon Martin and the ways that we are George Zimmerman.

In this social game of divide and conquer we are all the victim and we are all the accused.

We all lose.

The only way we win is when we love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind, and when we love our neighbor as ourselves.

And who is our neighbor?

Trayvon.

George.

The ones who are foreign to us, and the ones we fear.

The awkward, and the messy, and the inconvenient.

That’s who we’re called to love. 

O Lord, receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also that we may have the grace and power to accomplish them.  Amen.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Leave your baggage behind

Pentecost 7C, Proper 9
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


Grant us, O God, the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another through Christ.  Amen.

It’s now less than three weeks before I leave for this adventure in Kenya that you’ve been hearing about.  In fact, tomorrow is one month from the day I return to the US.  The trip is right around the corner, and I’ve already begun to get ready.  I’ve even started to think about packing.

When it comes to trips like this - I usually pride myself in traveling pretty light. I once spent 10 days living in a tent in southern France, and only took with me a carry-on sized suitcase.

But as I read the gospel lesson for today, it occurs to me how much I really do take with me.

As I’ve prepared for this trip, I’ve had four vaccinations.  I’m taking two visas with me - for the two countries where I’ll spend some time - Ethiopia and Kenya.  I’m taking four prescription medicines with me: a “just in case” antibiotic prescription, one to protect me from getting malaria, and a couple of prescriptions for pain medicines, since I have a bad back.  I’ve purchased special strength mosquito repellent.  I’ve bought a hat to protect me from the sun.  I’ve borrowed binoculars and I have a huge supply of batteries for my camera.  To say nothing of clothes, and books, and iPod, and, and, and…

The Lord says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…”  I’ve got all of that and more.

By most standards, I tend to travel light.  But by Christian standards, it seems I have a lot of baggage.

Of course the things we’ve packed away in our bags aren’t always the only baggage we carry.

On my upcoming journey, some of the baggage I carry includes things like fear and anxiety.  As a Westerner in an African nation still reeling from the often-damaging effects of globalism and colonialism, I carry some baggage.  To be a white person in Africa, and in a global system that still oppresses Africans and their descendants, means that I’ll have baggage.

Whenever we go out into the world - whenever we leave our own comfortable, trusted environs and we meet God’s people where they are - we’re likely to have a lot of that kind of baggage.

And Jesus tells us to leave that kind of thing behind.

It gets in the way of proclaiming the kingdom.  It gets in the way of God’s mission.  It gets in the way of the ministry to which we’ve been charged.

“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.  Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’  And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.  Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.  Do not move about from house to house.  Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’  But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.  Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’”

Of course any biblical scholar worth their salt will tell you that everything I’ve said so far today is bunk.  At least sort of.

Of course that’s not really what the text is about.  It’s not about some 20th-century, pop-psychology interpretation of the word “baggage”.  At least that couldn’t possibly be what Jesus had in mind.

If you read the scholar’s interpretations of this story, they’ll tell you that this is a story of stepping out in faith - faith that God will provide for our needs when we’re doing God’s work.  They’ll tell you that this passage instructs us to develop the spiritual disciplines of vulnerability, and of accepting the hospitality of others.  They’ll tell you that these spiritual disciplines free us from the chains of dependence on the physical world, and that once freed, we’re more available to experiencing the gifts of the spiritual world.

And of course they’re right.

But while our physical attachments - that literal “baggage” - do affect our spiritual lives, they’re not the only things that do.  Our spiritual baggage holds us back, too.

Our presuppositions about others often keeps us from really experiencing them.

Our anxieties about people who are different from us keeps us from learning from them.

Our fear of all that is unknown can cripple us from becoming vulnerable enough to really be “united to one another” through Christ.

It’s telling to me, that in these instructions from Jesus, whether the messengers are welcomed or not; whether they’re greeted with gracious hospitality or deep disdain; the message is the same: “The kingdom of God has come near.”

We’re not called to go out to the places that welcome us.

We’re not called to go where they’ll give us what we want.

All of that is extraneous.  We’re called to show and to say that the kingdom of God has come near.

We might be welcomed or rejected.

We might be met with peace or with anger.

Whatever the case, the mission is the same: to spread the word of God; to be the hands and feet of Christ; and to be a sign of the Holy Spirit still moving through the world.

"Christ has no body on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now." (St. Teresa of Avila)

To do all of that, we’ll need to leave some baggage behind.  There won’t be room for fear, or for anxiety, or for presuppositions about who and what we’ll find.  The message and the mission are enough for us to carry; and, they’re enough to carry us.  Amen.