Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Healed"

Sermon 9/27/09, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Be Healed

Today’s gospel lesson of those times when I feel like the author had a few scenes of Jesus’ teaching that he didn’t know where to put, and just sort of jumbled them together in one scene. We have several snippets in today’s text, words from Jesus, that at first don’t seem to go together. Follow me through the text. First, we have the disciple John coming to Jesus apparently upset because someone else was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, someone who was *not* one of the twelve. Apparently, this bothered John and the others – they tried to stop the man because he wasn’t one of the inner circle. But Jesus tells them “whoever is not against us is for us,” and he tells them to let the man continue in his work. Then, Jesus says, “For truly I tell you,” implying that what he says next will be a conclusion to what he has said so far. “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Next, Jesus begins warning against putting stumbling blocks in front of any of “these little ones” – here I assume he is speaking about the child that still must be at the center of their circle, the child Jesus used as an example of who to welcome in our reading last week. He says that anyone that puts a stumbling block in front of a child would be better off with a great millstone hung around their neck, thrown into the sea. Then Jesus, still talking about stumbling, seems to shift gears a little, saying whoever has an eye or hand or foot that causes them to stumble in sin would be better to cut off these body parts in order to enter the kingdom of God than to end up going whole into hell, certainly a vividly memorable and compelling image! And finally, Jesus says, again, as if it relates smoothly, “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

What’s the message for us in this jumble of texts? Can we find a lesson in this mix of teachings? Turning back to the beginning of our text, we see that the disciples are upset because someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Why are they upset? If already, so early into Jesus’ ministry, and early into the disciples’ own outreach, if already, others are taking up the cause, taking the message of Jesus, and using God’s power to heal, to free others from demons, wouldn’t this be a good thing? Shouldn’t they be happy to hear the effect that their message has had already? But instead of being happy about the obvious success of the message of the kingdom of God, they are upset and possessive – they want to control the message – control who spreads and how and who gets credit for it. So they try to stop this man, saying, “because he was not following us.” Already you can hear in their response that they are speaking of who is following the collective them, rather than who is following Jesus. Already they’ve forgotten that they aren’t the leaders – they’re servants of the one, the only one, they’re following.

Would we be any different than the disciples if we were in their place? Actually, I think we are in their place. We’re much the same as the disciples. Unfortunately, the church universal today is the center of a lot of fighting among its members – fighting among the various denominations, fighting among the various members within denominations. What is everyone fighting over? Our fighting may take different forms, focusing on how to interpret the scriptures, or social issues like sexuality or abortion, or even on organizational structure – but the main idea is usually the same – we believe we do things the right way, and that the others are doing things the wrong way. That’s perhaps to be expected. But, often, because we believe we do it right and they do it wrong, we actually spend more energy trying to stop them from doing what they’re doing than we do just doing what we’re doing. In the long run, Christianity as a whole doesn’t have a great public image. Right now, we are struggling to remain relevant and important in people’s lives. But instead of functioning together as the body of Christ, we compete with each other, in congregations, denominations, and between them, and end up losing the interest in the process of those with whom we seek to share the gospel – the good news about God’s redeeming, unconditional love.

Jesus tells the disciples that even a small gesture like giving a cup of water is an act that is part of this kingdom of God – and so even a man casting out demons who is not one of their group – if he is doing it in the name of Christ – as an act of the kingdom – this man too – this act too – it is an act worthy of God’s reward. It may not be the way the disciples wanted it done, and it may not be done by who they wanted to do it. But frankly, Jesus indicates, it isn’t up to them to decide. In fact, he continues, they do more harm by criticizing than the other man does by casting out demons. He says that what they’re doing is putting stumbling blocks in the way of others in their journey of following Jesus. And Jesus says that putting stumbling blocks in another’s path is the greater evil. In fact, he feels so strongly about this that he says it is better for a person to throw themselves into the ocean with a millstone around their neck than to be the one who puts a stumbling block before another. Those are very strong words – an expression of hyperbole or exaggeration to be sure, or indeed, we would all be without eyes, hands, and feet. But the image lets us know exactly how Jesus feels.

We all make mistakes. We all sin. And God asks us to repent and again journey in God’s direction instead of our own. Our own sin is one thing. But when by our actions we lead others into sin – that’s another, more serious matter. When, by our actions, we keep others from following God, and prevent them from answering God’s call to them, Jesus tells us that this is a very serious thing. So, in the life of the church in the world, when we work against each other and not with each other, or at least in support of one another, we not only restrict our brothers and sisters in Christ from doing what God has called them to do, we also keep them from reaching people in need of God’s message of love.

When Jesus talks about the eyes and hands and feet that cause sin, I think he’s saying that when someone stumbles on a path, it’s smarter to remove the cause of the stumbling than to remove the person traveling, or to have the person change paths. The person is right, the path is right, it is only the source, the stumbling block, that is getting in the way. We have to be more honest with ourselves. Most of us, thinking about stumbling blocks, can probably quickly call to mind times when others have been stumbling blocks for us. That’s easy. But that’s not what Jesus is saying. He is speaking directly to us: “If you put a stumbling block before [some]one . . .,” “if your hand causes you to sin.” Jesus isn’t asking us to think about what others have done to us. Jesus is asking us to think about our actions toward others. Today, each of us must think about our actions, and our actions only. Where in our lives have we caused someone else to stumble? Where have my actions – your actions – prevented someone from answering God’s call? We hope, I’m sure, never to be responsible for such a thing. But I’m ready to admit that sometimes I want to tell others they’re doing it wrong, going about ministry wrong, getting the details wrong, following God wrong. I’m tempted to tell them how to do it right, like I do. I’m tempted to put a stumbling block in their path, even though I wouldn’t want to call it that, but you can believe that as a pastor, there’s not a thing in our spiritual lives that I don’t have at least an opinion about! But if what I do – if what you do – if what we do as a congregation, or denominations, or as an entire faith tradition actually puts distance between someone else and God? Jesus says we better think seriously about the consequences of such actions.

I’ve mentioned to you that James is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and it is again the source for our second text today. In part, James is a favorite because James is very practical and straightforward in talking about how to live as a disciple. The apostle Paul might get the credit for his theological depth in all his letters to the churches, but to me, James does the important thing – he tells us how to live. He translates what Jesus has taught into how the early Christians should act with one another. And so James tells us what it looks like when we stop working against each other and start working with one another and for the sake of Jesus. In our passage today, James is writing about the power of prayer, which is just to say the power of actually talking to God, and the power of acting out of concern for one another. “Therefore,” he says,” confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” Healing in the community comes from this mutual relationship of intentional care for one another, under God’s love.

This congregation has certainly been through a long time of transition. Now, I’ve been here with you for three months, and I’ve been working to get a sense of where you’ve come from and who you are. But I think, after a time of transition, a time of waiting and preparing, you are also ready to move forward. There’s a lot going on in this congregation that I’m excited about. The Spirit of God is moving among us. God is calling us. We are ready, I think, to follow Jesus, down the challenging, surprising ways paths of discipleship. But before we go any further, I want us to pause here today – to pray for healing, to ask forgiveness, to share forgiveness, wherever there has been pain or hurt in the process of transition. I want us to pause here today and try to identify the stumbling blocks on our path – what is holding you back from following Jesus with your whole being? Where can you help clear someone else’s way? Today, following the benediction, I will remain in the sanctuary to offer prayers with you for healing, any kind of healing that you might need in your life – physical, emotional, spiritual. If you choose, I invite you to come to the rail, kneel or stand, and I will make the sign of the cross on your forehead with holy oil, and pray for God to guide your life on a clear path of discipleship.

And today, I’m asking all of you to pray for God to help us to remove those stumbling blocks from our path, so that nothing stands in the way of our walking with God. Because I think we’re standing on the edge of the wonderful things God is hoping and dreaming for this community. I think we’re standing at the starting line, and I’m so anxious for us to really embrace this journey together.

Jesus said, “whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will be no means lose the reward.” Amen.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Last"

Sermon 9/20/09, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Be Last

I have to confess to you – it may not seem like it to you at first – but I’m actually a very competitive person. I like to win, and not so much even just to win, but to be the best. Now, I don’t mean that I will get upset and be a bad sport if I lose a game of Scrabble against you. But you might catch a glimpse of what I mean as we approach the CROP Walk next month – I will really want us to raise more money than any other church. Yes, because it will help hungry people, of course. But also, because I want us to be in first place! Throughout school Todd, my youngest brother, and I would always compete over grades and other academic achievements – Todd had a higher rank in high school than I did, but I had the higher SAT score, and we still argue about which is more important, even though now we are both well out of any situations where it matters!

So I have a competitive spirit. Most of the time, I can use this for the good. But sometimes, I have to be careful, and aware of when that competitive nature might be distracting me from what is important or right, or what God is calling me to do. Some of you might know that when I was serving in New Jersey, part of my plan was to return to Drew, where I went to seminary, to pursue a PhD. A PhD is on of the highest academic achievements you can achieve in any given field – it’s the “best,” in a sense, and I wanted it. And it had been my plan since high school to eventually seek my doctoral degree, part of the mental schedule I had mapped out for myself.

Now, I’m a big fan of learning, and higher education, and continuing education, and generally using our minds, the precious gifts that God has given us, to learn more and experience more of this world God has created. But suddenly, as I was going through the application process for the PhD program, I couldn’t figure out why I was doing it – why I wanted to go back to school. I didn’t want to teach in seminary, or work at an agency that might require the degree. I was missing Central New York, and my family. And I didn’t have the drive, right then, for the course load that I would have to take and try to balance with my church work. Finally, I realized that I just wanted the title because it was available – and I wanted the best degree available – the highest, top level thing I could get. But nowhere in my reasoning did I feel like going to school was necessarily what God was calling me to do, or what I felt like was going to really enhance my ministry as a pastor. And I try, always, to make my important decisions by listening for God’s leading voice. I still might go back to school some day. But if I do, it will be in God’s time, and for a purpose, and not in my time, and for a title.

Why were the disciples following Jesus? What was their purpose? As we look at our text today, our motivations are brought into sharp focus. We skip ahead a little in Mark this week from where we left off last week. But the conversation is a bit the same as it was in our text last week at the start – Jesus is sharing with the disciples, as they are passing through Galilee, that the will be betrayed, killed, and then rise again. We read that the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, but wisely, this time, Peter does not rebuke Jesus for his words. Unwisely, however, when they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about along the way. Rather than trying to figure out what Jesus means about this betrayal, killing, and rising, they’ve been arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

In response, Jesus sits down with the twelve and says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then, by way of example, Jesus takes a little child and put the child in the midst of the group. He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

At first it strikes me as funny that the disciples are actually arguing about which one of them is the best – how could they get caught up in something so silly – they, who were following Jesus, who couldn’t be more obvious in his lack of caring about matters like status and power and titles and places of honor. But on the other hand, if I can let myself really imagine the scene, I can see how it might unfold: These disciples are a group of twelve people, probably never chosen for anything before, and now, just twelve out of so many, they are called, by name, to follow Jesus. And Jesus is something of a celebrity, this man who teaches with authority, goes toe to toe with the Pharisees, and feeds people, and heals the sick wherever he goes. To be a disciple is like being in a pretty small inner-circle. I can see how over the course of three years with him, the disciples might start arguing, pointing out who was called first, or who Jesus confided in most, or who Jesus sent out most frequently, or who Jesus corrected most often. Which disciple was the best? The greatest? I can see how it would happen, as it happens to us in so many situations today. We get caught up in our own importance, and want to know where we stand in relation to everyone else.

Jesus clears this up really quickly: if we are to be his followers, where we stand in relation to everyone else is last, at the end of the line, serving others. That is some concise and clear perspective. And to illustrate, Jesus brings a child to the center of the circle, and talks about welcoming them. The child is at the center, and the disciples are moved to the edges of the circle. Now, today we come upon the first of three weeks of texts where Jesus talks about children, a rare topic of conversation in the Bible. And I think most people like these little passages, because children today are so treasured. We value children, love children, dote on children. And so, when we read these texts, we get these heart-warming pictures in our heads. Indeed, images, paintings, sketches of this text, and the ones that follow today’s selection usually depict a happy friendly Jesus bouncing some cute and rosy-cheeked baby on his lap. Sweet, touching pictures of Jesus with children that make us smile.

But such images don’t tell the whole story, let us know how significant these mentions of children in the Bible are, or help us to understand what an important point Jesus is trying to make here. Every time we hear the size of a crowd quoted in the gospels, the number given would be the number of the men only in the crowd. As the texts sometimes explicitly note, women and children were not counted in these numbers, because they weren’t considered important enough, or significant enough to count. What mattered in Jesus’ day was how many adult males were present. Women were considered less important, and children were even less so. Children were certainly loved, and they were important in terms of being able to carry on a family line. But children, in Jesus’ day, were not what they are today.

Why was this? Were people just less loving in Jesus’ day? No – they loved their families like we do, I’m sure. But children were vulnerable. Perhaps as many as half of all children simply wouldn’t survive until adulthood. And children didn’t have any social or legal standing or status in society. They had no power. They were simply not-yet-adults who were being trained to be adults, and they would count for something when they became adults. So when Jesus talks about children, he’s bringing to the center of attention a group of people that no one else is particularly interested in. Jesus is talking about people who weren’t even really considered worth counting, thinking about. He’s making them the focus of his example, the object of his teaching, the important center of attention.

The disciples, for all Jesus had taught them, were still interested in power and status. But, Jesus says, the way to be first where it matters is to welcome those that are not just lower in status – but to serve those who had no status at all, who weren’t even high enough to be counted or given a status. Jesus wants us to take those who don’t even count, and put them at the center. In doing so, we take ourselves out of the center, to the edges, placed as servants. In doing so, we welcome Jesus, and welcome God. And the one who welcomes God to their table – surely this person would feel themselves to be the greatest in a way that actually matters.

The only question left for us then is this: who is it who is like the unseen, uncounted child for us today? Who are we not counting? Not seeing? Not including? We can ask ourselves that question in many settings. Who don’t we see right within the walls of this church? Whose opinion do we count as less than our own? Sometimes we look at someone who has been here less years than someone else, and we don’t really see them. Sometime we look at someone who has been here their entire life, and we don’t really count them. Sometimes we overlook someone because they are too young to take seriously. And sometimes we count someone out because they are too old. I don’t believe we do things so intentionally or overtly – but whenever we become very focused on making sure thing are how we want them, we’re probably putting ourselves at the center of the circle, and not leaving room for someone else. Who don’t you see in your community? This week I encourage you to think about who we don’t count in society – who don’t we even notice? Maybe it’s a waiter bring your food to the table, or a bus boy cleaning up your dirty dishes. Maybe it’s the person collecting your trash, or checking you out of the grocery store. Maybe it’s the immigrant we overlook, or the teen dressed in something we can’t understand why they’d wear, or the person trying to discreetly buy food with food stamps. Jesus wants us to welcome them, welcome them, by putting them at the center of our attention. And the only way we can do that, is if we get out of the middle of the circle, and take a spot on the edge, so that there’s room, a place, for the ones who don’t get counted. And then, we serve.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” Amen.

Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Followers"

Sermon 9/13/09, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

Be Followers

This week, at the eighth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, like many people, I thought about where I was and what I was doing when I first heard word of what was unfolding in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. I was in my second year of seminary at the time, in Madison, NJ, and I had just started my internship at the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the ecumenical and interfaith agency of the United Methodist Church, which is located in Manhattan. I had worked just two days so far, and was feeling pretty brave for commuting into the city, making my way on the subway, and getting to the busy location of my workplace. Now, September 11th was not one of the days that I was in the city – but going back to my job afterwards – there was such a climate of fear and anxiety, I can’t even explain to you. Every time a subway car stopped on the tracks between stations, people were afraid. When we had a fire drill in the building where I worked, people were afraid. When the train back to NJ had an anthrax scare, people were afraid. For the first time in many people’s lives, there was a realization that perhaps we weren’t really safe. We feared, in a way we hadn’t before, for our safety. For our personal safety, our physical safety, but also for our sense of national safety, safety for our society, a way of life we’d gotten used to. We desire, hope for safety in our lives – safety in our homes, schools, communities, on our streets, in the air – aren’t we seeking after a world that is safe?

Thinking about these issues of safety, keeping those thoughts in your mind, we turn to our text from Mark’s gospel. It’s another text that appears more than once in the lectionary, and we usually associate this passage with the season of Lent – when Jesus talks about denying ourselves and taking up crosses – that’s imagery that fits in with giving up or taking up something for Lent. But here it is, at the edge of fall, and we find this passage again. Our scene opens Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer truthfully that some speculate that Jesus is John the Baptist back from the dead, or that he is Elijah in his second coming, or at least one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks a more personal question: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” This is the first time that Jesus is so identified by the disciples in Mark’s gospel. Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, for the first time. Jesus wants to know: what do I mean to the people? Who am I to them? And who am I to you? And the people, the crowds, the religious leaders – they’re confused, questioning. They all misname Jesus, misidentify who he is and what he is about. But Peter, for once, gets the answer right - You are the Messiah, he tells Jesus. Peter's answer shows that he knows who Jesus is.

But just as soon as Peter makes this identification, we find ourselves in the second section of this scene – Jesus describes for the disciples the events that will happen in their coming time together – the Son of Man will undergo great suffering and eventual death, and then rise again. Mark notes that Jesus “said all this quite openly.” Peter wasn’t pleased, apparently, with such openness. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. But Jesus turns the tables back on Peter, with blunt words. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Then Jesus calls the crowds and disciples together. “If any want to become my followers,” he says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Denial. Crosses. Saving and losing lives. Gain and forfeit. Jesus’ words are tongue twisting and circular and confusing. To save our life we must lose it, and if we lose it, we save it. What does it mean? For answers, perhaps we can look to the first part of this passage again, where Jesus has a rebuking showdown with Peter. What triggers Jesus’ reaction, I wonder? If someone you loved told you that all sorts of terrible things would happen to them, even if they thought those things were necessary, wouldn’t you want to stop these things from happening? Wouldn’t you insist that it wasn’t true, that they were just pessimists, with bad outlooks on the future? Isn’t Peter just trying to get Jesus out of this negative state of mind?

But then, on the other hand, I wonder: Are Peter’s motives really so selfless? Does he rebuke Jesus just because he does not want to hear about what his master will have to endure? Is he really just unable to bear hearing what Jesus will endure? If that’s the case, why does Jesus respond to him so harshly? Wouldn’t Jesus know Peter was speaking and reacting out of love? I wonder, then, if perhaps Peter was speaking out of fear – not for Jesus, but for himself. He has been following Jesus day to day, step to step. Now Jesus is talking about a path of suffering, rejection, and death. Won’t Peter have to follow Jesus on this path, too, to continue his discipleship? Perhaps Peter is not ready to give, or give up, what it takes to follow Jesus. Jesus is offering salvation – but perhaps Peter is looking for safety instead.

This is the crux of the passage. This is what I’ve been wondering about as I’ve been thinking about 9/11 this week. Are we looking for salvation? Or just safety? Because I think there is a big difference between being saved and being safe. Being safe means that we are protected from threats, protected from harm. But being saved – the word save is connected to the world salve, as in a healing balm. Being saved is something that brings wholeness, wellness, and life. But there’s no guarantee of safety. The thing about following Jesus is that he never promises that it will be safe to follow him. He’s very clear about that with Peter and his disciples in our text today. Following Jesus involves denying ourselves and taking up a cross, and actually following Jesus. There’s nothing safe about that at all. It’s risky, actually. But Jesus is taking about saving our lives, when we stop hanging onto our safety.

Are you looking to be safe? Or saved? If we think about the ways that we give – of ourselves, our money, our time, our possessions, our talents – we usually are willing to give so long as it doesn’t make us change our usual patterns and behaviors. I’ll give as long as I don’t have to give up something else. We serve, but within our comfort zones. We love, but with limits to protect ourselves. We risk, but not so much that we’re really be in trouble if things don’t work out. We, like Peter, fear being asked to give more than we’re able – to give our very selves. We can think of the motto, “Give until it hurts.” This sounds like an apt description of Jesus’ plan for us, doesn’t it? Laying down our lives? Taking up a cross?

But Jesus doesn’t see it this way. He turns our usual understandings upside down and inside out. To live you must get rid of your carefully constructed safety nets so that Jesus can actually save you. And to save, you must lose. After all, Jesus asks us, what can you give that equals the gift of your life? Not giving until it hurts. Giving until it gives you life. Unless we give up what we’re holding onto so tightly, unless we stop hanging on for dear life to our safety, we won’t be free to take up the cross that Jesus is offering to us. And we want to take that cross, though it seems hard to bear. Because if we don’t take up that cross, there is only so far we will be able to follow Jesus, only so far he can travel with us, before our paths must part. His path leads to the cross and beyond – to salvation – wholeness – life. His path may seem painful, but it is the path to the fullest kind of life we could desire. It is the path that will meet our deepest hopes. It is the path of abundant life. What can we give to walk such a path? Everything! “If any want to become my followers,” he says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus gives us the choice, as he gave to Peter and the disciples. Safe, or saved? Safe, but empty, unsatisfied? Or saved, risky, but whole, well? Your life, your real life is at risk. And saving it is worth giving everything. Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Whoever wants to be frist must be last of all and servant of all."

From the lectionary this week: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Mark 9:35b

I've posted this quote before, but in light of this week's scripture text, I've had it on my mind, without being able to really work it in to my sermon:

From Kent Carlson's Soul Journey: "I am convinced that personal ambition, and a pastoral ethic centered around productivity and success is brutal to our souls and destructive to the souls of the people we lead. I believe there is a better way. But it requires us to walk right into the messiness of our own ambitious hearts, ready to die to those ambitions. We must become skilled at detecting the odor of personal ambition, then flee from it as if the church's future depends on it. For I believe it does."



Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon 9/6/09, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37


Be Opened

This week, we’re starting a new focus in worship, centered on asking ourselves the question: Who and what is God calling us to be? Who are we meant to be, each one of us? Who are we meant to be as a congregation? Each week, through October, we’ll look at a different aspect of what God seeks for us to be, and think about how we can live out God’s hopes for us. This week, we start with a challenging beginning.

No matter how many times I read this gospel lesson from Mark, I can’t quite come to terms with it. I’ve read commentaries and articles and scoured sources for inspiration. Nothing satisfies me. I want a clear explanation of the passage. Tell me why Jesus says what he says to this woman, please. I even find myself going back and forth in my own understanding and interpretation of the passage. This text appears in more than one gospel, and so it shows up in the preaching cycle every year. I’ve preached a few times on this passage, in some form, and it never fails to stretch me. The first time I preached on the passage, I thought perhaps that Jesus had simply had his understanding of his own mission widened by a persistent woman who demanded attention. She shared grace with him. A role reversal of sorts, but one that foreshadowed the universal nature of the gospel message that would come in the fullness of time. Another time I preached on the text, I figured that actually, Jesus gave in to the woman’s demands so easily that he could not really have meant to not heal her daughter in the first place. Jesus was somehow playing a role or something. And somewhere in the process of struggling with this strange text, I barely even remember to study the second half of our passage for today – a second healing, where Jesus opens the ears of a man who is deaf.

Let’s look at this strange set of healings more closely. Our passage begins with Jesus setting out after his teachings to the scribes and Pharisees, disciples and crowds, about what is clean and unclean, the lesson we heard just last Sunday. Jesus reminds them that it is what is inside a person that can make them clean or unclean, not what is outside, external, what goes in. It is not the superficial that makes us unclean or clean, but the contents of our hearts. Jesus reprimands the religious leaders for holding onto human traditions so tightly that they miss the point of the commandments of God to love.

After this confrontation, we find in our text for today that Jesus has set out for the region of Tyre. Tyre was a region that was primarily inhabited by Gentiles – by non-Jews. We’re told that he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. But, as usual, “he could not escape notice,” and a woman comes to him with a “little” daughter who has an unclean spirit. She comes to him because, we read, she “immediately” heard about him when he came into town. She falls on her knees before Jesus and begs him to heal her child. Jesus’ response? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. Meaning has changed somewhat over time, but calling a woman a dog – even, in this situation, something like a ‘puppy-dog’, wasn’t exactly nice then either. Jesus seems to be saying that she doesn’t count as one of the children he’s trying to feed, but is like a dog begging for their food. But the woman has her own snappy comeback for Jesus – “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” This somehow suits what Jesus was looking for apparently, because he says to her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” After this healing, Jesus takes an awkward route by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee. Here, a man who is deaf and who has a speech impediment is brought to Jesus. Jesus heals with a command – “Ephphatha – be opened.” Jesus tries to keep the healing quiet, but of course the news spreads quickly. People say of him, “he has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

When I’m confused about the meaning of passages in the Bible, it often helps me to check the immediate context – what happens right before and right after this passage. Knowing where the story falls in the overall scheme of things can help point us to what the story means, instead of trying to take a passage out of context as a stand-alone teaching. In context, we can ask: Why is the story here? Does it illustrate a point made in an earlier scene? Is it setting the stage for what comes next? If we look at the ‘before’ to today’s passage, and remember that Jesus was talking about it being what is inside, not what is outside, that makes a person clean or unclean, and then see him interacting with a woman who was, well, a woman, and a foreign woman, a Gentile woman, a woman of a different race, a woman with an unclean, demon-possessed daughter, a woman begging on her knees, strike after strike against her, according to ritual, custom, tradition, practice – where is this story leading us? If Jesus had been teaching about what really defiles a person, and how people weren’t unclean for the superficial reasons the Pharisees insisted on, and then he went from there directly to a region where the majority of people were foreigners, unclean under purity laws, for no apparent reason, what can we suspect about Jesus’ intentions with the woman? Despite appearance to the contrary, it seems Jesus must have gone to Tyre on purpose to interact with non-Jews. He must have at least anticipated a non-Jew coming to him for healing. And though his first words to her are at first hard to hear, what strongly held belief against healing her could be so easily overthrown after a one sentence exchange? I must believe, given the positioning of these two passages, that Jesus’ trip to Tyre is an illustration, a demonstration of his point about what – who – is clean and unclean, unaccepted and accepted in God’s terms over human terms.

If we turn to our epistle lesson for today, the meaning of the interaction between Jesus and this woman becomes even deeper. This letter is one of my favorite books of the bible, written by James the brother of Jesus, but it is almost overwhelming in its depth of convicting teaching. Today, we read his most famous words: “Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” James, much in the vein of last week’s gospel lesson, is writing that it is not a person’s outside appearance, outside status, outside position that matters in the eyes of God. Such a simple lesson, isn’t it? Haven’t we known this since we were children? Been taught this since kindergarten? Perhaps in a way, James’ text can seem to us patronizing, or even, at least irrelevant. Do we really need someone to tell us not to judge people by what they’re wearing? We must really be advanced from the folks of Biblical times by now, right? But I suspect that actually we are often like I was in show and tell all those years ago. We’re ready to dole out expert advice because we’ve read the Book, but we’ve never actually put its contents to use yet ourselves. What does our living say about our believing? James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

James’ understanding of faith and works can be applied even to Jesus’ ministry. Faith by itself without works is dead. Teachings about what is right, knowing and being able to say what is right, means absolutely nothing if you don’t actually do what is right, and live rightly. How many followers do you think Jesus would have had if he had talked all this good talk about who was clean and unclean and then refused to be in ministry with those who were outside the typically accepted community? If such leadership cultivated followers, we could all have our own disciples, because we’re mostly very good at knowing the basics of faith. It is the living-out-of-faith part that causes us to stumble, where Jesus did not.

The problem with our understanding of “loving your neighbor” is that we have sculpted our lives until our only neighbors, the only ones we interact with, are people who look like us, who dress like us, who shop where we do and own the same kinds of things we do and who generally believe the same kinds of things we do. Despite Jesus’ living examples to the contrary, despite his habit of literally walking miles out of his way to find himself among people different from himself, we always seem to define neighbor in the narrowest, most literal ways possible. Hey – living, as I do, above a quiet insurance agency, on a block that has only two other homes, one of which is empty, I can declare that I get along with all my neighbors perfectly. But Jesus literally traveled across the country to find examples of what he meant by neighbor. He went from region to region to show us the full scope of what it means to love your neighbor, putting into practice all that he was teaching.

If we finally go back to the second part of the gospel lesson, where Jesus heals a deaf man, I’m now struck in particular by some phrases in the text. Jesus says, “Ephphatha – Be opened!” And the people react, “He has done everything well; he makes even the deaf to hear.” God’s words seem so often to be lost on us – we’re unwilling to hear what God is shouting, unwilling to accept God’s love for ourselves and God’s love for others. But even those of us that are seemingly deaf to God’s calling to us, Jesus has, can, will open us. How does God need to open your heart? To whom do you need to be opened? Whose voices are you unable or unwilling to hear? Will you let Jesus help you hear God’s persistent calling?

Let’s not be distracted from the heart of the message this week – don’t be so caught up in how Jesus addressed this bold Syrophoenician woman that you miss the bold things Jesus did for her. He crossed a boundary, and reached out a hand, and extended God’s grace, where no one else deemed the people worthy of receiving it. He has done everything well. Let us go and do likewise.

Amen.

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Inside Out"

Sermon 8/23/09, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Inside Out

Are you all familiar with the story and music from Fiddler on the Roof? When I was in high school, I was in a community theatre production of Fiddler, and have most of the lyrics and choreography permanently imprinted in my mind. In the opening scene, Tevye, the lead character, a poor milk man, asks the question and gives the answer that frames the whole story: “How do we retain this fragile balance in life?” He can tell you in just one word: Tradition! Throughout the musical, Tevye’s three daughters marry in turn, but each match poses a challenge to Tevye’s sense of tradition and how things are meant to be done. His oldest daughter, Tzeitel, asks her father to be let out of the arranged match for her, so that she can marry the man she truly loves, Motel, the tailor. Tevye groans and complains, but finally agrees that they can marry for love. Then his second daughter, Hodel, wants to marry revolutionary Perchik. When the approach Tevye, they tell him they are not asking for permission, only for his blessing. Again, Tevye is distressed and refuses at first, but finally gives in. And then finally his youngest daughter Chava falls in love with a Christian man, Fyedka. She, too, seeks to change her father’s heart about her match, but Tevye says “enough” – he has bent enough and let go of too much tradition. Here he will not bend. Near the end of the story, he does pray God’s blessing on Chava and Fyedka. Tevye is not able to accept Chava and her marriage with open arms, but he is at least willing to keep Chava connected to his life.

As enjoyable as Fiddler is as a musical, as much as the songs make you (or me at least) want to sing along, and as much as the script makes you laugh, the questions asked are serious ones, important ones. How far should you change traditions to meet the demands of an ever-changing world? How far is too far to bend? When do the traditions hold us to what is good and important, and when do they keep us from moving forward, from growing and changing in healthy ways? What traditions are based on simple habits that have extended over generations, and when to they represent the unchanging truth?

Traditions can be such wonderful parts of our lives. We take comfort in traditions. They give us identity, and order, and bind us together when traditions are shared. No doubt you have favorite traditions that have shaped your childhood, your adulthood, your family and identity. I remember with clarity and affection the traditions, for instance, that guided our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. I remember being in charge of making the place cards every Thanksgiving – decorating them with stickers or corn kernels, while watching the Macy’s parade. I remember spending every Christmas Eve at my grandparents, first eating dinner with them, then going to church with them, and then opening presents from them. But these traditions eventually changed. The process of change was sometimes hard – indeed, is still hard. My youngest cousin is in high-school now, and it is extremely difficult to gather the full extended family together for holidays, as once was commonplace. And I’m still getting used to my brother and sister-in-law staying home with my nephew Sam on Christmas morning, rather than spending the night at my mothers! It’s hard to let go of these things that have brought us so much joy. But today, my family celebrates new traditions. For a few years, we’ve been going to my aunt’s in Cortland for Thanksgiving, and it turns out she’s wished for years that she could have a chance to play hostess! My Christmas Eves look quite different these days too, naturally. Traditions are so important, so powerful. But there are circumstances and situations that call us to reconsider what has been tradition.

Today we finally leave John 6 and return to Mark in our gospel lesson, and Jesus is gathered with the some of the scribes and Pharisees, and tradition is the underlying topic. In Mark’s account, this scene happens just after the feeding of the five thousand, which we read about in John. The Pharisees and scribes right away notices that Jesus and his disciples are eating with unwashed hands – defiled, ritually unclean hands. Mark goes on to elaborate how concerned the Pharisees are with following the tradition of the elders when it comes to these rituals of cleanliness, rituals prescribed since the days of Moses. The scribes and Pharisees call Jesus out on his behavior – why don’t you and your lot follow tradition and wash your hands before you eat? Why eat with dirty hands? Jesus responds by calling the Pharisees out too – “You hypocrites,” he says. And then he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” Jesus concludes, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” And then Jesus calls the whole crowd into the conversation. “Listen,” he says, “understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” In the verses we skip in our passage today, there is more of the same – Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”

Today when we read gospel lessons featuring the Pharisees, we tend to think of them as the bad guys in the story, because Jesus is usually calling them hypocrites and telling them they’ve got their beliefs and practices all mixed up. But we have to remember, the Pharisees were the religious folk of the day – the active folk in the community of faith, who dedicated their lives to studying God’s word. In other words, they were the first century equivalent of active church-goers. Whenever we read a scripture passage featuring the Pharisees, it easy to fall into a pattern of scapegoating these religious leaders. We know we’re not supposed to do what they do. But we should always seek to see in ourselves the Pharisees that Jesus so challenges. How are we like the people he describes? How do we engage in the same practices Jesus talks about here?

As I think about this conversation with the Pharisees, I’m struck that what they’re saying to Jesus isn’t so crazy at core – after all, we certainly would recommend washing your hands before you eat, washing your food, and washing your dishes! The practice itself is not what upsets Jesus. It’s that the practice they’ve developed has become more important than the reason they were meant to do it in the first place. While our washing practices are centered on hygiene, the Pharisees valued cleanliness because these acts of cleaning were part of the law that they sought to follow to the letter. But in following the law so carefully, they forgot that for them, the meaning underneath their rituals was symbolic of being pure in heart when coming before God. They’d forgotten that though, and were following the rules – and enforcing those rules – without caring anymore whether the reason behind the practice was in tact. They may have had clean hands, but Jesus wasn’t convinced about their pure hearts.

I wonder if sometimes we, like the Pharisees, don’t lose sight of why and what we’re meant to be doing, because we’ve become so focused and concerned with making sure we get the details of how we going to do it “right.” I only just recently learned, for example, that the coverings that we use over the cup and bread during communion came into usage simply to keep flies off the food and out of the chalice. They didn’t begin with any spiritual significance. But now covering the elements is seen as a sign of respect, perhaps even indicating the veiled nature of the mystery of the gift of communion. There’s no problem with viewing the communion coverings with this extra layer of meaning, but only as long as we don’t confuse the tradition of the practice with something that God is actually worried about whether we do or not!

For Jesus, the way in which we do something, how we go about doing it, is never as important as actually doing the thing in the first place. It’s about following God’s commandments to us – that’s much more important than how we follow, the details, the practices. Jesus told us that the greatest commandments are that we love God, and that we love one another. But too often, we worry so much about how we will implement a plan for following those commandments. We become obsessed with the details, the plans, and the right ways to do it. We get upset when others won’t agree to our plans. We’re sure we’ve got the best way figured out. And somehow, before we know it, we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out a good system for loving God, and loving others, and spent very little time actually loving. Jesus calls us, as he calls the Pharisees, to put things back in the right order. The way we do things isn’t unimportant. And Jesus isn’t saying you should change things for the sake of changing. But the methods and practices we use to carry out our mission, following God, can never become the most important thing. Because whenever we hold too tightly to how we want things to be done, we end up not having room in our hands for God’s grace, and then, we are really in trouble.

Jesus reminds us that it is not the things outside ourselves that make us who we are. Our practices, traditions and rituals can and should show our love of God and our service to God, but God does not love us because of our traditions. Who we are is what is inside of us, and God hopes that what is inside of us is love. Love for ourselves, love for God, love for one another, without condition. Let us live as God’s precious children, a life of love from the inside out. Amen.