Monday, July 30, 2018

Trying to Welcome and Serve All

Trying to Welcome and Serve All 
Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56  

There is clear diversity within the wide reaches of humanity. We are distinctive in language, culture, and influenced by our respective geographic regions. There are remarkable differences between the races, and, if we are candid, there are remarkable differences within the individual races. I had a roommate from Taiwan who was nearly 6 feet tall, who encouraged me to accept that there are vast differences among the people of China, not all Chinese are short and thin. 

The letter to the church in Ephesus might have been written by Paul, but it is not like the letters we commonly identify as authentic letters of the apostle to the gentiles. In the passage we have today, “the church” is represented as the wider church, the vessel for holding and bringing souls into communion with God. Paul’s usual way of writing is to address specific local issues. 

The epistle writer’s words, and the message from Mark’s gospel, provide assurance that Jesus has made all of us one, and equally valued.  This is a useful reminder to both this local congregation, and the wider Christian community as well. In an age where the culture tries to define and protect borders, and justify inhumane treatment of others, we are well served to remember that in Christ we are all one.

It is also helpful to remind American Christians, in all of our various ethnic backgrounds, that not all of the apostles were convinced it was a good idea to offer the Good News of the Christ to just anybody, especially those suspicious gentiles. We were originally the fringe group. 

I often think about the difficulty of having any sort of a membership list for a congregation like ours, where the boundaries are so permeable. People come and go, usually based on their own wishes, and occasionally as inspired by God. At this point in our history, membership becomes important when we come to vote on issues of significant impact on the congregation’s future, and who is eligible to exercise formal leadership. 

In this sort of a congregation, it is more useful to expend the greater part of the energy we have in feeding the fire that calls hearts to the love of God, and provides a useful way to call others to enter into the community of the faithful. We carry folks into the presence of God on Sunday morning, and with participation in the choirs, the youth program, the fellowship on Sunday and Wednesday night. We are reminded to keep looking out for the ones who are not here, but God is calling to be here. 

In reading for today I encountered the reminder that communication is a fundamental mission of the church. We have received Good News, and are compelled to share that Good News with others. The God we know, love, and serve; is caring, forgiving, and compassionate. The gospel lessons underline the wide sense of welcome that Jesus embodies. The commandment to share the word might predict that we would be early adopters of communication technology. But even I do not begin to get Instagram, and I am not good at Twitter at all. 

The gospel passage reassures us that if we are becoming fatigued, we may not be doing it wrong. There is so much work to do. When we see with the eyes of the Christ, we see souls that are out of touch with the family of God and God’s great love for creation. It is a daunting task to be the voice that cries out a word of welcome and forgiveness to all. 

Some people in our age have withdrawn from faith communities over sophisticated theological differences. Some withdraw over personality conflicts, initially thinking life is better without the hassle; but in time they feel disconnected. In ever increasing numbers, there are thousands who have never known a faith community that has been good to them, or good for them. Here is where the heart of Christ, that we share, compels us to keep on reaching out. 

The sense of being connected to the church, provides a useful and practical way to being connected to God and neighbor. We are here to rehearse and be reminded of our deeper connection to all that is right, holy and just. It is so hard to keep our focus on the God of love when we are distracted by the buzz of current events. 

We return on Sunday to hear the challenge of doing all we can to love one another. We return here to be encouraged, even as the public voices make their incessant pitch for us to descend into fear, and become reactionary. It is easy to allow the loudest voice to name the tune, before we apply the filters for accuracy, the concern for justice, and the need for compassion. We try to respect a call for ‘law and order’ and concurrently scan the law for the telltale signs of corruption and abuse to the advantage of the few. 

The events of the last two weeks in the international travels of the President have aggravated me in ways I have not been politically aggravated since I was a teenager. I was involved in protests against the war in Viet Nam. Even then I was able to distinguish between my friends and family members who served in uniform, and the military-industrial complex whose greed and lack of compassion fueled that violence. 

I am not so naive as to believe that use of the military is always wrong. I am not so naive as to think it is appropriate for the US to devote mammoth amounts of the annual budget to the defense department. If we would value diplomacy, and actually learn how to use diplomacy wisely, we could have greater influence than threats and smart bombs could ever achieve. Diplomacy rests on building and maintaining relationships with those where we share values and interests. 

We are bombarded with small minded thinking on every side. It is tempting to believe that the world is rightfully reduced to hundreds of ‘either/or’ choices. We can only have diplomacy OR defense. We have either no screening OR no refugees. The people of the US are not usually that narrow minded, unless they are hounded by fear and misrepresentation. 

I fight to keep my perspective. What really happened? Where did it take place? What was the situation? Has it been represented accurately and fairly? Then I choose what reaction and what preparations I should make to influence what comes next. 

Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples to carry the good news to crowds of hurting people. Some in the crowds are Jews, and some are strangers. The crowds of hurting people are still with us. The crying need to share the love of God is still with us. We can offer a sense of belonging, especially to those who do not feel like they belong. 

I have a friend who is now too sick to live alone. We will call him Martin. Marty has a last name that is not pronounced anything like the way it is spelled. As a boy I expected that people whose names had ‘Americanized’ spellings, would accept ‘Americanized’ pronunciations of their names. Marty does not. I am sure he was ‘corrected’ for mispronouncing his own name his whole life long. Can you imagine a lifetime of being denied your own identity? 

He managed to mingle in his small town because of the wit and charm of his wife, who was a darling. Together they were an odd couple, but very loving and generous in their own way. When she died, he was without the social support he needed to get along well with others. His memory of past hurts was amplified by the profound loss of his wife. 

Honestly though, Marty is great to talk with. He has an intensity in his eyes that comes from years of keeping his own counsel. He is especially generous to others who ‘could not fit in’ or were judged unfairly. He protects his personal bubble with liberal use of mild profanity. It makes him sound tough and thick-skinned. 

Marty makes me aware of all of the years I felt proud looking down on women who dressed too much like men for my satisfaction; or men who were too feminine; or people whose facial features were ‘distractingly’ different. I get a reminder all of the time when men wear their hats indoors, or young men’s jeans hang too low, or cell phones appear where I think they are out of place. I get reminded again and again that I need to give up judging, which is not my job, and focus on loving, which clearly is my job. 

And there it is. We are called to broadcast the Good News of Christ, to the real world. We are best when we really welcome folks, just as they are - and not how we prefer them to be. We do our best work when we can meaningfully proclaim; that we are all one people, who share the love of a loving creator, who is making all things new. This faith community, like that of the Ephesians, must recognize ourselves as adopted by Christ and compelled to reach out to others. We gather to be a people who are good to others, and good for them, too.  

Monday, July 16, 2018

Saints and Prophets Are Not Always Loved

Saints and Prophets Are Not Always Loved 
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 Mark 6:14-29  

Sex and violence; we cannot get away from it even in the scriptures. We have already noted that David’s love for Jonathan made his relationship with King Saul an ongoing battle. In an effort to distract David, and keep a close eye on him, Saul arranged to have David marry his daughter Michal. 
Michal admired David, and initially found him very attractive. This episode, where David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, marks a turn in their relationship. Most of the biblical scholars I have read claim that David was wearing a minimal loincloth while dancing mightily, bringing the Ark to Jerusalem. 
If we are able to name and reconcile David’s bi-sexuality, it is easy to understand Michal being disgusted by him prancing around, gathering the attention of the women and the men. Why can’t he just sit on a throne like a King and let the people do this task under his watchful eye? Why must he put on such an exhibition? It appears that her father’s anger and disgust with David has passed across the generation to her. It happens you know. 
So David brings the Ark, the visible representation of the presence of the almighty God to his capital city. It is an achievement marked without incident. David is generous to the people, as the presence of God ought to cause all of us to be generous. I will not be dancing near naked before the altar of God today, dancing is not one of the gifts God gave me. I believe Michal’s response is an indication that even when we are giving our all in a faithful way, there are always a certain number of detractors. People see things from their own point of view. 
The story of John the Baptist meeting a violent end is also wrapped around another story of dancing and sensuality. Herod, the son of Herod the Great, is ruling the portion of the land with the illustrious capital city of Jerusalem. Herod the ‘not so great’ has been lampooned in public by the preacher and prophet John the Baptist. Finally tired of his attacks, Herod has him arrested. Herod is fascinated by the eccentric prophet, and has engaged in thoughtful conversations with him. 
At a party, Herodius, his daughter-in-law by marriage, entertains the crowd with her dancing. Herod is aroused by the dance. He swears boldly to present her with a lavish gift. I have always imagined that this scene is fueled by alcohol and sexuality. The scripture does not explicitly say that, perhaps it is more reflective of my own limited experience. 
The young girl consults with her mother. Curiously, mother and daughter share the same name. Speaking her mother’s wishes, the dancing queen asks for the head of the prophet John the Baptizer. This appears to pain Herod the ‘not so great’ but he does not want to disappoint the women in his life. The prophet is beheaded. 
Before we go any farther let me interject a specific comment here. John the Baptist is not being penalized by God for his sins. John is not suffering for the sins of his father. John is not suffering in order to ‘learn a lesson.’ 
The popular notion that, ‘everything happens for a reason and is ordained by God,’ is not true and not useful. Bad stuff happens because people choose to be hurtful. Bad things happen because of chance. Bad things happen because human systems are manipulated to serve the rich and powerful, without regard for the suffering of the poor and powerless. 
So let this be a part of today’s lesson. Do not wallow in guilt because of some circumstance beyond your control. You may or may not find a lesson to be learned. You may or may not use the experience to appreciate the presence of God in your life. God does not choose to teach John the Baptist a lesson by having him beheaded, or teach you a lesson by suffering from disease, or being in an accident. God will not abandon you in your troubles, but God does not cause troubles in order to be praised by ‘fixing’ the problem he caused. 
The other thing we should add here, is that John has been very faithful. He has preached the message he was give to preach. He has prepared the way for the arrival of Jesus. He has spoken the truth to power. You can be perfectly faithful to God’s calling and not be appreciated by the powers of this world. In John’s case, his gifts were even appreciated by Herod, and even that did not protect him. 
So today we get a glimpse of the complexity of life, and challenge of being faithful in the world. The world does not always recognize the perspective of being true to God. People have people sized priorities. Alcohol and sexual stimulation can cause people to make inappropriate choices, even if they have been touched by the hand of God. 
Herod ‘the not so great’ was learning and listening to the man of God. He had found the message intriguing. His brain and his heart were stimulated; but not enough to hold the line against alcohol and sensuality. In the final analysis, Herod was ‘not so great.’ 
Do not be persuaded that if you are faithful to God that you will win the day and bask in the glory of the world. The world does not often choose good theology. The popular media is not given to the renderings of the contemplative mind. Sure, we enjoy the one-liners from the Dali Lama, but seldom do we wrestle ourselves for hours with the philosophical and theological challenges that arrived at the door of truth. 
During our Lenten study, Phillip Gulley’s book “If the Church Were Christian” invited us to think about the choices we would make as a faith community if we chose to follow Jesus rather than settle for “belief” in Jesus. We discovered in those conversations, that we have the authority to ask questions of our faith, and question the practices of our faith. This enhances our ability to live more purposefully and more genuinely. 

It can also put us in a precarious position from time to time. Being faithful to God is not sufficient protection from the corrupt powers of the world. But that is ok. We have the presence of God in our lives, strengthened by our place in the faith community. God’s love and grace will never abandon us. And should the axe of those who do evil bring about our sudden departure, then we will know the presence of God in unspeakable glory. On that day, I may dance before the altar. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Faithfulness in Unexpected Places

Faithfulness in Unexpected Events  

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Mark 5:21-43 

David survives the battle where both Saul and his son Jonathan are slain. This makes David, the apparent King of the land. He could selfishly celebrate his newly acclaimed leadership. Instead, David as the leader, calls for the community to mourn for the losses sustained in the war. Victory for David is not achieved without costs. 

David and Saul struggled personally and professionally. Saul did his level best to hem David in, as part of his entourage, as a son-in-law, but still David maintained an independent public personna. The story of David and Jonathan closes in David’s final public declaration of love. As Jonathan fought to the death, in an attempt to preserve his relationship with his father; Saul, meets his own death, conflicted and wounded in body and soul.  

In Mark’s gospel story, Jesus is being pulled in multiple ways all at once. He sets off to do one thing, and is pressed on to do another. No sooner does he redirect his attention, when someone is straining to use his power for their own needs or healing. 

Jesus returns from the events of the storm and in the Golan Heights on the east side of the Galilean Sea, only to be begged by the leader of the synagogue. There is no subtlety intended here. Jesus has been rejected by multiple levels of the “establishment,” and still, when confronted by personal pain, they look for Jesus. More than simply look for Jesus, here the synagogue leader fell at his feet. 

Humility before the power of God is a consistent theme in this portion of Mark’s gospel. In troubled times, when we presume we know too much, or expect head of the line privileges, we should be reminded that the God we know through Jesus, gives priority to those in pain. This theme is also apparent in the Old Testament, though the passages from the Old Testament that speak to protecting the stranger and the alien and the poor, are in disfavor in the culture today.    

Richard Rohr writes, “Jesus critiques and reorders the values of his culture from the bottom up. He ‘betrays’ the prevailing institutions of family, religion, power, and economy (i.e., controlling resources) by his loyalty to another world vision which he calls the Reign of God. Such loyalty cost him popularity, the support of the authorities, immense inner agony, and finally his own life. By putting the picture into the largest possible frame, Jesus called into question all smaller frames and forced a radical transformation of consciousness upon his hearers. Most seemed unready for this paradigm shift, including his inner circle.”

Our times are awkward. Voices on the far right seemingly exalt in attacking the poor and community resources for the poor. Nearly 41 million people in the US population now live below the poverty line. One in five children do not get enough to eat. While the US Ambassador to the UN cries foul at the suggestion that studies need to address the reality of poverty in America, attacks against programs that protect the poor, and health insurance for the poor, and even simple feeding programs, are targeted. 

Distractingly, the voices on the far left resort to name calling and demonizing. In a day and an age when facts are more readily available than at any time in human history, the daily noise appears to be devoted to characterizations and personal attacks.  

I try to be aware of the issues talked about at the extremes, and then try to seek the facts. It takes some genuine effort at times. But we know, relationships are like that. We have to do our best to listen, and be prepared to enter the give and take of negotiations in order to preserve a relationship with respect for the other. 

Jesus could easily brush off Jairus. We have read how the authorities are already looking to bring Jesus to defeat. The entire plot line of Mark’s telling of the Jesus story is driven by the determination to destroy Jesus based beginning with the first verses of Chapter 3. Still, Jesus is moved to compassion for the pain of the man who seeks his help for his sick daughter. So while it is pretty common to speak of the “preference for the poor,” we might acknowledge the theme is to recognize Jesus’ compassion for those who suffer. At the Offertory I will sing you, “One Great Day” a meditation on those who live with chronic pain, and those who love them. 

As Jesus agrees to go to the leader’s daughter, they push through the crowd. The picture here is of a mural displayed in a chapel of the women’s center being constructed at the ancient site of the town of Magdala. Mary Magdalene is from the town of Magdala on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. All we see is the hand of the woman, reaching out just to touch the hem of the robe of Jesus in the midst of a crowd. To be on the ground within a crowd, is a very vulnerable position. It is a very graphic depiction of a woman in need of mercy. It is the same posture as the synagogue leader, and the demoniac in the previous encounter in the gospel, only this woman is not given an audience and is in danger of being crushed by the crowd. 

The woman reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe as he pushes through the crowd, is a case study in humility and need. There is no apparent attempt to get attention. There is no posturing. She is sick. She has spent all the money she can in order to seek healing at the hands of ancient physicians, who are unable to relieve her suffering. 

As she reaches out to touch “the hem of his garment” Jesus is aware of power passing from him to her. No one has seen her. No one knows what has happened. Still Jesus interrupts his march to the house of the leader to speak with this woman. 

She comes to him, likely in fear of being berated, perhaps this holy man will chastise her for taking without permission, or payment. Instead, Jesus commends her faith and sends her on her way. 

Now word comes that during the delay, the daughter has died. Jesus tells the leader, “Do not fear, only believe.” 

That is so hard to do. It is so hard to stare frantically at the spread sheet and believe that a community of faith can continue, while the financial news is distressing. 

It is so hard to trust that the power of God includes restoring life, where liveliness seems to have been spent. “Do not fear, only believe.” 

So we believe that it makes a difference that we care. We believe it makes a difference to greet the visitors and talk with them in Fellowship Hall after the worship service. We anticipate the arrival of the new pastor. We believe that God has plans for this congregation. 

We will take communion together this morning. We will be aware of the presence of Christ within and among us. We will allow the sights and scenes of worship to supersede cold objective reasoning, if only for awhile. We will rest our hearts on the promises of a good and generous God, and try again, to be good and generous for another week, another month, another year. And in the model of the Christ, we will look for God first, where there is pain, Amen.