Saturday, September 22, 2012

Behind again: Proper 18

Proper 18B 09/09/2012

Mark 7:24-37

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go-- the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

Today, I’d like to talk about something else that is important to any Christian community.  Part of my vocation as a priest and as a preacher is to reflect on and relate the world and the church. Something I read earlier this week really caught my eye.

It was along the lines of “In order to grow, churches have to die.”

Well, that is a headline that will catch the attention of anyone who works in the church – and honestly, should catch the attention of anyone who worships in a church.  When you read a bit further, it did make sense – and it makes sense in terms of today’s epistle and gospel lessons, one which are full of import for us – and for those outside the church.

Have you ever noticed that the deaf mute in this morning’s gospel was brought by his friends?  He did not come on his own.  I wonder if the friends had to drag him to Jesus.  Perhaps they couldn’t figure out how to tell him where they were going.  But they loved him enough to take him to the Teacher who could possible heal him. 
And he’s the only deaf mute who is healed in the Gospels. 

It’s important to remember that in Jesus’ time, people with handicaps were considered to be sinners and therefore unclean. His friends loved him enough to risk that his uncleanness would contaminate him and take him to Jesus.

And the SyroPhoenician woman – she too is unclean. She’s both a woman and a non-Jew, so you could say that she has a double disability in the eyes of some in Jesus’ time.  She doesn’t care – what she does care about is her child. 
What a risk she took. And at first, it did look as if she was going to be dismissed. Jesus points out that he did not come for the likes of her. Brazenly, she rebuts him, speaking of crumbs. She’ll take anything. We will never know if her words were what changed Jesus’ mind or if he intended to heal the child all along and was testing her perseverance.

One of the things I always wonder about in the Gospels is exactly who it is who is blind, or deaf, or in some way disabled or on the margins.

Unfortunately, more often than not today the deaf and blind folks are the ones already in the churches.
Yes, that’s what that headline was all about.

You see, the world has changed, and is changing around us, and we have been deaf and blind to those changes.

I’m not talking about changing the Gospels. I’m talking about changing us – so that we meet the ones who need to hear the gospel where they are –
Yes, where THEY are, not where we are.

 John Donohue, a New Testament scholar, says that a church that is to witness to the example of Jesus must be partial to “those who are bowed down” and through its healing presence give a voice to the voiceless.  And when we give voice to the voiceless, we give them back their humanity as God’s own beloved.

And who are the most voiceless in our community?

The most important group of voiceless ones are the ones who are not here.  They are the ones who do not know the love of Christ, because no one has spoken the good news of the Gospel to them. There are others – children, seniors, handicapped, the sick, the shut-ins, those who live in fear, fear of aloneness or illness or a number of other fears. 

We need to be listening to them and listening for them.  That’s what Jesus died for.

When I was in m seminary, I spent about a month in San Antonio, doing Spanish language immersion.  The program I was in was Roman Catholic, and I was the only “Protestant Girl”, as they called me. So on Sundays, I looked for my people – the Episcopalians!

One church was so focused on themselves, that the newbies like me, and there were others, were totally ignored. It was quite an interesting coffee hour, standing there by myself. Of course, I finally left. They did not know I was in seminary, they did not know if I was the person they were looking for to head one of their ministries, they did not know me as a person – because I never had a name there.
Here’s the interesting thing:  I don’t remember the name of that church.  I just remember them as the navel-gazing church.

The second place, I was welcomed as I walked in the door, I had someone sit near me to make sure I was familiar with the BCP, I got a gift at the close of the service, and somebody had made sure to tell the Rector my name – and when he found out why I was in San Antonio, he did invite me to lunch, which unfortunately, I couldn’t do. Guess what – I remember the name of  that church and I’ll go there again if I am every in town. I can’t ever recall being quite so welcome, even among folks who already knew me.
What a thought!

I’ve heard church growth specialists say that if a church is entirely focused on growth, it’s already dying.
I think that’s sort of right and sort of wrong.
It’s the navel-gazing, the self-focus that is deadly.

Instead, we should focus on the why of growth.

You and I ARE called to evangelize the world and bring folks to know the saving love of Jesus, but where does that fit into church growth?   Are we interested in growth only for the sake of keeping the doors open, or are we interested in growth because Jesus died for us and others need to know that?
Are we interested in what the voiceless ones have to say, or do we only care that they start to mimic us?
Are there other ways we exclude the voiceless ones, marking them as outsiders?
Are we deaf and blind to the needs they might have, as they walk in our doors?

Is growth the only way we identify a healthy congregation?  
Or is it more important to witness to Christ, in our living and perhaps even in our dying?

I’ve seen it in other places. 
Start living the Gospel, and people are attracted by it.
Live the Gospel by listening, and people know they are valued. 

Live the Gospel by celebrating the Eucharist.  Simple, huh? Break bread together.
Live the Gospel by not just feeding the poor but inviting them to church.
Live the Gospel by making sure everyone feels like an insider, not an outsider.
Live the Gospel by asking   IS THIS WHAT JESUS DIED FOR?

That focus on what Jesus died for leads to growth, I am convinced. 

Not just growth in numbers, but growth in discipleship and fellowship.

He died for the people, not the official church records of who is here and who is not.  And he didn’t care how they got to him, just that they came.  He also didn’t care that they were outcasts, or Samaritans, or sinners. 

I’ve seen a video with of a listening session with 18 young adults, aged 18-30, all about why they did and did not attend church. The biggest thing they asked for was acceptance. Acceptance for the way they looked, they way they talked, and the way they felt called to do ministry.  They wanted to be heard and not talked down to, to find places in the church’s life of ministry that were of value, not just make-work to keep them present on Sundays. 
One young woman even said that she was far more willing to work in the church’s soup kitchen on Saturday than she was to attend worship on Sunday. 

I also heard many of them say that they felt voiceless in church.  And I sat there thinking that those folks aged 18-30 are no different from those under 18 and those of us well over 18.   We just want to be accepted the way we are, and feel that we are valued, and can make a difference in this world.
Often we could make a good start by knowing their names.

I don’t have an ending for this sermon, and that’s intentional. I offer this sermon was a way to get us all thinking about the focus of all our ministries here in the communities where we live and worship.

And when we do that, I think that growth will take care of itself.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Sometimes the simplest toys are best

Who knew that cat food cans are great building blocks? 
J was about a year in this pic and S was 4 1/2.

Job satisfaction

I started out thinking that this post would be called "I love my job," but that is not always true.

Heck, for most of us, jobs are ways we make money to support families, friends, and ourselves.  If we are really lucky, however, there is some point at which we can say that the "love my job" (or even "enjoy my job") moments outweigh the "hate my job" moments. 

But for myself, I am surprised to realize, in reflection, how those moments have morphed and changed over the years.  The same repetitive tasks that I hated at one point in my job became refuges of peace and quiet and meditation when my parents became ill and we careened from one health care crisis to another, as I say.  Honestly, the whole job became a refuge, because although it was more often than not wild and crazy, it was a predictable wild and crazy.  A controllable wild and crazy.  And my life caring for parents was a never-ending roller-coaster of unpredictable wild and crazy.

Today the very thing which I thought I'd love about being a priest, some flexibility, is often a problem. My calendar is a wreck, and I despair at the time it takes to manage it!  But being able to be flexible enough to sit and listen to the elder who drops in and, I suspect, has no one to listen to him, is a gift.  Yes, it's all in the perspective. 

I think it is a gift to have a moment to think about the jobs and vocations we do have:  there is usually something positive there. Making a difference, making a good product, making a good living are all important positives.

And if there is nothing positive AT ALL, maybe it's time to talk to God about next steps. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Because we've always done it that way!

I remarked in the sermon yesterday that the famous last words of the church* are



An astute member of the congregation reminded me of this story:

A man watched his wife prepare the country ham for their Christmas dinner.  First she cut off one end, and then the other, and then placed the large center in the pan.  The two ends were included, wedged in, just no longer attached.

He asked her why she did that.  "Because my mother did it that way!"

A call to mother ensued.  "Why did you do that?" "Because my mother always did it that way!"

Finally, the call the Grandma.  "Why did you cut the ends off the ham?"
"I don't know about the others, but my pan was too small to hold the whole ham."

Let those who have ears listen.  

*And I mean any church, but of course, if the shoe fits, Episcopalians, wear it!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The sermon for September 2: the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 I have to issue a disclaimer here.  I am occasionally hard on Pharisees, and often they deserve it. 

 But if we examine their actions, often we find them no worse than ours.  They observed distinctive practices, such as kosher food and circumcision, that helped the nation of Israel to maintain its identity as God's people in a world that tempted them to worship their neighbors' gods. These traditions, which come into question in this text, grew out of a need to maintain their religious identity. 

 The Jewish law, called the Torah, while quite detailed, leaves room for interpretation in many situations. The Pharisees, out of a desire to obey God, established rules to clarify the law in those situations.  As time passed, these rules hardened into a surrogate law that Jewish leaders regarded as equal to scripture. 

 They lost sight of the line between God's law and their opinions.

 Both before and after this particular lesson, Jesus has been about the countryside doing good works and miracles. But the Pharisees instead focus on nitpicking about the ways of the law.

 Ritual cleanliness has nothing to do with hygiene. Pharisaic handwashing involved the use of only a small amount of water poured over the hands to wash away ritual defilement, such as that caused by touching an unclean object or person (i.e., a bodily discharge such as blood, a dead body, a leper, or a Gentile).  While most of us would want to wash our hands for hygienic purposes in many of these circumstances, for example, if we came in contact with blood, the manner in which ritual handwashing was done offers no hygienic benefit. 

 Have you ever heard the story of the cat in the temple? 

 Somewhere long ago, in the East, a wise man sat in the front of the village temple, teaching his apprentices and the local villagers the tenets of their religion. But prowling around the grounds of the temple was a yowling tomcat, repeatedly drowning out his words.  Finally, the holy teacher asked his disciples to tie up the cat to one of the pillars at the back of the temple. They did so, and while the cat was still noisy, the disruption was in the background and he was able to go on teaching. 

 And three hundred years later, in an honored tradition in the same village temple, students of that religion and followers of that teacher still tied cats to the temple pillars.  And no one knew why.

 "The tendency that Jesus criticizes in the Pharisees and scribes appears in most religious groups. People come to hold on to merely human traditions as if they were divinely revealed." [1]   

 The Pharisees knew why they did what they did – they had rules that said they did these things to honor God and to keep their religion pure – but they had lost the sense of what God had called the people to do.  Instead they substituted their own rules and opinions.  

 That’s where Corban comes from. Under the law as interpreted in Jesus’ time, the religious scholars had made a determination that in the interests of charity, a person could dedicate a portion of all their possessions to God.  And what you gave “to God” could be what you would otherwise use for supporting your parents in old age. 

 “Gee, Mom and Dad, you know the commandment about honoring you?  Well, I have!  I have given all your support to God!  Isn’t that wonderful!? 

 Huh?  How am I going to support you in your old age?  Well, I don’t know.  It’s not my problem anymore.”

 Corban was a legal dodge, a legal commandment dodge, you might say.  A legal way to avoid the obligation laid on you by the Commandments. 

 It was not only legal, but encouraged by the religious authorities,because of course, they were the ones who benefited from this legal commandment dodge.  Anything dedicated to God ended up in their hands.

 The problem is that both concepts – honoring God and honoring parents – have been honored in the breach, you might say. 

 The Pharisees had so corrupted valid laws from God as to make them unrecognizable.  Corban was a scandal in Jesus’ time because elderly people were left destitute by their children.

 Jesus tells us the story of the Good Samaritan to make a similar point.  The priest and the Levite passed by the injured man because he was bleeding and therefore unclean.  And they would not have enough time to ritually purify themselves before worship.  So, instead of offering comfort to someone injured, they walked right on by.

 And the law that God had given them,to honor and respect other human beings as fellow creatures of God,fell victim to ritual purity requirements. 

 That was what concerned Jesus.  And it should concern us.

 Ritual actions or their lack, do not make one pure and they don’t make one impure.  Eating with Gentiles did not and does not affect your status with God, nor did whether or not you had handled a dead body recently.  And certainly, whether or not you washed before you ate was not as critical as the Pharisees would have you believe. 

 In an interesting turn, Jesus is doing exactly what he accuses the Pharisees of doing:  changing the rules. But Jesus has changed the rules to refocus them:  your religious actions, what we call piety, are not what is important. What is important is your behavior in light of God’s commandments.  Your uncleanness comes from your own heart, not from any external source.   

 The Pharisees, rather than look for some teaching that will guide them to live a better life,
focus on a pious action of human origin. 
 Instead of looking to the words of hope and encouragement that Jesus has been offering to those who hear him,
they are looking for ways to tie cats to temple pillars. 

 I opened with a disclaimer because this is where the Pharisees start to seem quite a bit like us.
 If you asked one of them why they washed their hands that way, I bet they’d reply, “Because we have always done it that way.”

 Okay, Episcopalians, are those some words that sound familiar?

 Because we have always done it that way? 
 Because we have done it that way without thinking about it? 

 We need to be very careful that we know that what we are doing serves to honor God’s commandments – and not our own preferences.

 That’s not always easy to know.  And sometimes the questions need to be asked over and over again.

 When your elderly mother is hooked up to machines that keep her alive and you know that she would not want that, the relationship between commandment to honor human life and the commandment to honor one’s parents can seem pretty hard to figure out sometimes. 

 When a child of eleven is raped by a family friend and ends up pregnant, where does the command to not kill stand between her baby and her own body that is not physically mature enough to bear a child?

 And with apologies to Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas,in a religion with a commandment to not kill, and a savior who tells us to turn the other cheek, is there really such a thing as a ‘just war?’

 This Gospel is not intended to render us helpless, but to make us see a true problem, the challenge before us as people of faith. 

 Because it is not always easy to know the way that God would have us live out the commandments. 

 Despite what some would have you believe,following Christ is not always slam-dunk easy.

 What we do require, at the center of our being, is for God to create a new heart in us.  And this needs to happen, not one time only, but continually.

 Over and over again the transforming grace of Christ must find a home in us, help us understand those difficult places where justice and mercy and commandments all seem to collide. 

 Along with the Pharisees, we have to be set free from our own opinions and speculations, and become susceptible to the transforming work of God at work around and within us. 

 I think there are two basic requirements to knowing what it is that God is asking of us, each and every day.

 The second (yes, the second!) is to discernment in community. 
 Together, we can look at the tough questions of where justice and mercy lie, and struggle with them. And the struggle to find where the lines of justice and mercy lie is much easier when we do it as a community of faith.  We will each bring our various gifts to the table and together seek God’s will for us, both as a community and individually.

 But the first and most important requirement is something that we may not think about often enough. We must be emptied of ourselves. 

 We must let go of human-made rules to be enabled to hear God’s word to us.
 We must let go of everything except Jesus Christ.

 Sometimes our insight into Scripture can be enhanced by hearing a story from another source.  Or another story. 

 There once was a teacher of Zen Buddhism in Japan, named Nan-in.  It seems that one day, Nan-in received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.  Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. "It is overflowing!  No more will go in!"

 "Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"  [2]

 How can Jesus Christ show us the Way, the Truth and the Life unless we first empty our own cup?  

 When our hearts and minds are free of rules about handwashing AND emptied of ourselves,
 then we will be able to hear and know the words of justice and mercy which Christ speaks to us.

[1] Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation:  Mark.  133.
[2] The story of Nan-in comes from by Sermonwriter Dick Donovan, in his proper 17B email of 8/17/06.