You can’t steer a parked car

Preached on 22 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B, Thematic track

 

What distinguishes the church from other charitable organizations, social service agencies, or organizations working for social justice?  I would say it’s that we do acts of charity and we strive for justice and peace in response to God’s invitation, to God’s call.  We understand ourselves to be continuing the mission that Jesus began two thousand years ago; a mission that has continued through Jesus’ disciples, guided by the Holy Spirit, from those early days in first century Palestine all around the world and all the way to today.

It’s not that our way or our motivation is better.  And it’s not that we are the only ones called by God or following God, but that is, I think what we do.  And today, I would like to focus on what we do as disciples of Jesus, as apostles sent out to continue the work God gives us to do, as we say in our prayers each week.

Now, hearing God’s call, responding to Christ’s invitation, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that requires discernment.

You see, you can’t steer a parked car.
By the same token, you can’t guide someone who is hurtling down the road at breakneck speed, darting in and out, going so fast that there isn’t time to read the signs much less say, “turn here.”  And there certainly isn’t a chance to double check the address to make sure you’re headed for the right goal.

There’s a lot of middle ground between standing still and reckless driving.

Discernment happens through a rhythm of prayer and meditation and action and reflection.  Asking through prayer, what God would have us do and listening for a response, not only in the quiet of meditation but in our lives, in the news, in our community.  What’s happening?  What stirs us?  What catches us up short?  What stops us in our tracks?

Then we move, we act, we do what we think God might be calling us to do.  Remember God can’t steer a parked car, it has to be moving.

The final step before beginning the rhythm again is to pause and reflect on our action.  How was God present?  What were the fruits?  Part of the reflection is the return to prayer, asking for God’s response and guidance.

We find this same rhythm in much of Jesus’ ministry.  We see it in his guidance of the disciples.  A couple weeks ago, we heard him send them out in pairs, remember?  They were to go and be guests, taking no supplies, no bag, no money, not even a change of clothes.  They were sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God, to heal the sick and cast out demons.

Today, we come into the story just after they have come back.  Can’t you just feel the excitement in the air as they each tell the others all their experiences?  And Jesus says to them, ‘come away to a lonely place, a deserted place, all by yourselves to rest for a while.”  It’s time to pause and reflect.

They didn’t get much time, though, just the journey on the boat.  By the time they got to the other shore, the people were waiting for them.

That’s what life is like though, isn’t it?  In their case, God’s call is right in front of them.  Jesus is moved by compassion and begins to teach the crowds.

The lectionary skips around a bit in today’s reading.  What it leaves out is that after a long day of teaching, the disciples point out that the people must be hungry; they tell Jesus to send them away to go buy themselves something to eat.  But Jesus tells the disciples that they should feed them.  And here we have Mark’s story of the feeding of the 5,0000, in which it is the disciples who feed the people.

Again, we would see the rhythm of acting and then pausing to reflect.  As soon as the crowd is fed, Jesus sends the disciples ahead in the boat while he goes apart to pray.  That night, he joins them, walking across the lake.

The lectionary starts up again when they reach shore.  The crowds come, bringing the sick to be healed.

Sometimes the demands seem relentless.  For Jesus.  For us.  Whether it’s the demands of home and family, a family member who is ill or disabled and truly needs a lot of care, for example, or the demands of the endless stream of needs that are always before us in our community, in the news, in our facebook feed.  We can’t even begin to do it all.

But the thing is, we can do some.  What is it that God would have us do?  How do we discern?  We discern by entering into the rhythm.  And we can enter into that rhythm at any point in the cycle.

We have to remember, though, that God can’t steer a parked car; nor can God navigate one that’s hurtling down the highway at breakneck speed with a driver who’s ignoring all the signs along the way.

In the end, you see, it’s not about us.  It’s Jesus who invites us to serve.  It’s Jesus who invites us to rest and reflect.  It is Jesus who sends the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us, and to equip us to do the work we are given to do.  God is already there, going before us, waiting to meet us in the poor, the needy, the marginalized, those to whom we are sent.  God is surrounding us and filling us with God’s grace and love.  That’s what distinguishes the church.

Thanks be to God.

 

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The Kingdom of Herod vs the Kingdom of God

Preached on 15 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year B, Thematic track

This morning, I want to dig around in the scriptures a bit and see if we can find a treasure.

Amos is one of my favorite prophets.  I like his use of language, the imagery it portrays, and his writing is relevant to today.  He could be writing about us.  Of course, when you consider what he says, that’s not necessarily a comforting thought.  He offers almost no hope in his prophecies.  Now we don’t often read from Amos and this passage is offered without context, chosen for its connection to our gospel reading today.

Amos lives and prophesies during the divided kingdom – that’s after King David and King Solomon when the kingdom is divided between Solomon’s sons. It’s not long before the fall of the northern kingdom, Israel, to Assyria.  That’s when the northern tribes are carted off to the rest of the world and don’t return.  But for now, they are enjoying a time of prosperity – at least for the wealthy, but it has come at the cost of the poor.   This economic injustice is a primary theme in Amos’ prophecies.

Amos is not a prophet by profession.  He is probably a man of means – a landowner who keeps flocks and orchards.  He humbly describes himself as a shepherd and a vinedresser, as if he’s little more than a hired hand.  He’s more likely the owner.  He lives in Judah, the southern kingdom.  But God calls him to go up north and prophesy there.

But talk about a downer!  He starts by railing about the surrounding nations; listing all their crimes and God’s punishment to be meted out.  Then he gets to the tribes of Israel and really lets them have it – a long list of offenses and no escape from God’s judgment.  They will be overrun by Assyria, their king will be killed and the people will be taken from the land.  God will not save them.

The book goes on to recount a series of visions of punishments, one of which we heard today.  Each vision is about God’s judgment; judgment about justice and mercy.  It is largely about the treatment of the poor.  Amos chastises the wealthy and powerful, condemning them for their overindulgence on every level while they abuse others.   “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7).  Hmm who made my sandals?  Can they afford sandals?

In the vision we heard today, in the NRSV translation, it is about a plumb line.  While that’s probably an inaccurate translation, Amos is using it as a symbol of God’s judgment for Israel’s failure to fulfill its moral obligations to God; a measure by which all will be judged.  God gives us a measure, a guide, and God holds us accountable.

Now, not surprisingly, the priest who has the king’s ear, is not too happy with Amos.  He challenges him and tells him to go back where he came from.  He’s not wanted here.

A story about a king who by all outward appearances is very successful, in conflict with an outsider, an immigrant; a prophet.  A story about a king who is so distracted by his abundance of blessings, that he ignores the source of that abundance, thinking he himself is the source.  A story about a king who is about to go down.

Now let’s hold that story up alongside the story of another king, another prophet.

Mark is all about the kingdom of God and what it’s like.  And he’s succinct, thrifty with words.  He gives just enough detail and no more.  He’s in a hurry to get his point across.  So far in this gospel, Jesus has been going around Galilee proclaiming God’s kingdom, explaining it in parables and metaphors.  At the same time he is embodying the inbreaking of that kingdom: healing, casting out demons, and such.

Today’s story is bookended by two significant stories.  Right before, Mark tells of the sending of the disciples, expanding Jesus’ mission and message.  Immediately following it, Mark tells of Jesus feeding 5,000 people, multiplying a few loaves and fish.

And in between, we find Mark telling the story of Herod and John the Baptist; another king, another prophet.  He draws out the telling in painstaking, gruesome detail.  Jesus isn’t even in the story.  IT’s told as a flashback, beginning with Herod’s fear that this Jesus he’s hearing about is actually John come back to life, and possibly more powerful and more threatening than before.

This story may be told as something of a parable.  In it we see a stark contrast to the kingdom of God Jesus has been teaching.  Herod’s is a very different kind of kingdom, the kind that happens when we go so very, very wrong.  Herod is drunk with power and yet insecure.  He has to continually assert his power, abusing people because he can, because he’s afraid of losing his power.

This contrast shows what happens when we trust in our own merit, our own knowledge and wisdom, amassing power, and then, without regard for anyone else, doing whatever it takes to hold onto it and amass more; more power, more wealth, more status while trampling on others, showing off, using other people as if they have no value except to serve our own purposes and then to be discarded or destroyed.

They then do whatever it takes to preserve their own lives and what they have and the evil progresses down the chain.  Trickle-down evil is real.

In each of these stories, we see Truth in conflict with Power.  Power doesn’t like to hear Truth and tries to challenge it, shut it up, destroy it.  But they do so at their own peril.  On the other hand, the prophet of Truth is also in peril.

Which will we choose?
The kingdom of Herod or the Kingdom of God?

A life of striving for wealth, status, and comfort; where your value is in your usefulness in enriching the king, or the person one rung up on the ladder?

Or a life of Truth, Justice, and Mercy where your value is in the truth that you are a child of God?

A birthday banquet where John’s head is presented on a silver platter?

Or the heavenly banquet where God offers God’s own self to nourish and nurture and strengthen us?  The banquet where all are welcome, all are fed.

 

Stymied

Preached on 8 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year B, Thematic track.

Jesus is stymied.  He’s been on a roll, going from village to village, crisscrossing the lake and attracting crowds everywhere he goes.  He has been teaching, healing, casting out demons, even raising the dead.  He has decided he might be ready for the toughest crowd so far – Nazareth.  Home.

He goes to the synagogue on the sabbath and begins teaching.  At first, it sounds like the people are impressed by his wisdom and knowledge and insight.  “Where does he get it,” they wonder.  It soon becomes apparent, though, that this is just too much.  “Wait a minute,” they protest, “we know who you are.  We know your family.  We watched you grow up.  You’re just the carpenter!  Why should we listen to you?  You’re no different than us.”  He doesn’t have the right credentials.  They don’t recognize his authority.

Jesus is stymied.  He is powerless to do anything more than cure a few people.  What to do?

So, he partners with the disciples and sends them out in pairs.  He grants them his authority (the authority the crowds in Nazareth dismissed).  He grants them authority to cast out demons and to go to the villages to continue the work.  He sends them out to be a blessing.

He sends them out purposely unprepared – no provisions, no money, not even a change of clothes or a bag to carry so much as a snack.  No, they are to go out into he world as guests, reliant on the hospitality of others, of strangers.  They go in pairs so they’re not alone, but they are very vulnerable.

There is one thing they are prepared for, though: that they may be rejected.  People may not want the blessing they have to offer.  They, too, may be stymied, unable to help.  Then what?  Then move on.  Let it go, leave it all behind so it doesn’t get in our way at the next village.  Shake the dust from your feet.

Let’s think about that a little more from the perspective of our own context.

I often think that the goal, the purpose of the church is not to figure out ways to get people to spend more of their lives at church.  Rather, the purpose of the church is to inspire and equip people to spend more of their lives being church, wherever they are.

I see this story about Jesus sending the disciples as an example of that.  They have seen him do works of power – power over illness, power over demons, power over the weather, even power over death.  They have seen the crowds, the gratitude, and the changed lives.  They have also seen the rejection, the hostility, and the threats.  And here they see him virtually powerless.  It’s a whole package.  They can’t take just the bits they like.

And now, he sends them out to be church, so to speak, to offer this particular work in this particular way – as guests; vulnerable, reliant on the kindness and hospitality of strangers.

Let’s talk a bit about the spiritual practice of being a guest.  At its heart is a spirit of openness.  Openness to the other’s experience and ideas and culture.  It’s graciously accepting what they offer.  Remember, Jesus said to stay in one place; don’t go looking for better digs or go social climbing.

At the same time, it’s openness to sharing of ourselves; our stories, our experience and ideas and culture.  It is to graciously offer of ourselves with open hands.    Being a guest is reliance on the kindness and hospitality of others without being entitled to it.
It’s a position of vulnerability.

This sounds so foreign to American culture, doesn’t it?  Even when we’re a guest, we often think in terms of reciprocity.  We offer something in return: a bottle of wine or chocolates or flowers or something, and almost an implied promise of a future invitation in return.  We go in knowing that if we weren’t there, we would be able to do for ourselves.  We go in with a sense of self-reliance, rather than vulnerability.

But, you know what?  Self-reliance is a delusion.  Whether we like it or not, whether we recognize and acknowledge it or not, we are dependent on one another and we have a responsibility for one another. When we enter into that position of vulnerability; when we engage in a spiritual practice of being a guest, we develop and nurture our capacity for compassion and empathy and kindness; all necessary for discipleship; for being a decent human being, for that matter.

Jesus sends the disciples out to cast out demons and heal the sick.  That is one way of being church but there are many ways.  Throughout Scripture, we hear, “The Lords says, ‘I will bless you that you might be a blessing.’”

Perhaps that, in a nutshell, is what it means to be church.  We are blessed by God in order that we may be a blessing to the world.

Which brings us to the topic of blessing.  So often, when we count our blessings or say, “I’m blessed” what we’re really referring to is good fortune.  But blessing is not about good luck; it’s not about receiving or experiencing what we like or desire.  Blessing is more than that.

In the Great Thanksgiving we pray, “You blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.”  Not the usual blessings we name when we count our blessings – until we lose them.  Maybe our blessings are those gifts we receive that enable us to do good in the world.  Blessing is not so much a large paycheck as it is meaningful work, for example.

You may be blessed with the ability to teach or care or heal; to design or build or to create beauty.  You may have blessings like friendship, compassion, hospitality, courage, wisdom, or the ability to see reality and to Speak Truth.

We are blessed not only to help those who suffer or are in need, but also to resist the cause of the suffering – whether a person or a system; oppressive or abusive people or systems or even the one person with just enough power to enrich themselves at the expense of others, or just enough to make someone else miserable.

What we do matters.  Being church is not about self-confidence or certainty in a message.  It is about certainty of God’s love for the folks right in front of us.  Acts of kindness and compassion are holy; and the ground we stand on is holy ground.  That’s what being church in the world does; it makes all ground holy.
At the same time, indifference or apathy, unkind acts or dismissive words or attitudes are tragic.

God blesses us; blesses you, equips you, to be an agent of grace.  God invites you to a life of holiness rooted in everyday acts of kindness and courage; ordinary actions, yet extraordinary in the difference they make to those around you.

You are the church when you leave this place.  The ground you tread is holy ground.  Always remember that.  You are blessed by God and you are a blessing.

And I thank God for you.

Tragedy or Statistic

Preached on 1 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 8, track 2

One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.
~Joseph Stalin

We get non-stop, instant news from around the globe.  It can be exhausting.  And numbing.  As soon as something happens, news crews are on the scene and we can be right there with them, live.  Even though there may be no information available yet, still, to fill dead air-time, we hear their speculations.

There’s a risk in this non-stop news, though.  We can spend so much time watching what’s happening on the screen, feeling more and more helpless and even hopeless, that we don’t engage in those actions that could actually help, that could effect change.

There is risk at the other end of the spectrum, too.  If we turn it off, disengage completely and go about our lives, our hearts may grow hard, we may close our eyes and ears to the suffering of others.  We may attribute their suffering to their own choices and ignore our own part in it.

Or we can open our hearts, allowing them to break, and to fill with compassion until our love for our sisters and brothers, our neighbors, the children in our community, until our love for the children of the world overcomes our fatigue and our desire for comfort, and overwhelms our fear and stirs us to act, to give, to heal, to restore, sustained by our faith and by hope.

I wonder if Jesus ever felt compassion fatigue?  Especially in Mark’s fast-paced gospel, the demands seem unrelenting.

Today, we come into the story with Jesus and the disciples arriving back on the western shore of the sea of Galilee.  Remember last week, we heard about them crossing to the eastern shore and a huge storm nearly killed them.  In between, these two crossings, Jesus goes to the land of the Gerasenes where he is taken to a man who has suffered for years, possessed by a legion of demons.  Jesus drives them out and the man is healed and restored.

And now, he has barely touched land and we hear one of Mark’s trademark story sandwiches.  He starts to tell one story and then interrupts it with another, and then finishes the first.  By juxtaposing the two, he allows them to interpret each other, in a way.  Today, we hear two heart-breaking, gut-wrenching stories.

Mark starts with Jesus arriving by boat to the western shore.  A leader of the synagogue pushes through the crowd, making his way to Jesus.  He is distraught, desperate. He falls at Jesus’ feet and begs for help.

Now, let’s get this into perspective.  As the leader of the synagogue, Jairus is an important, powerful, well-respected man in the community.  Jesus has made a name for himself and is attracting crowds, yes, but he is not exactly on the who’s-who list of the upper crust.  He’s a poor, itinerant preacher, often at odds with religious and political authorities.  But this man, Jairus, is so desperate, he kneels before Jesus and begs for his help.  His daughter is dying.  He feels helpless and will do anything to save her.  It breaks your heart.  You can feel his anguish.

Jesus’ response is immediate, compassionate.  Of course, he will go, despite the rumors that the leaders of the synagogues are plotting to bring him down.

Then, on the way, he’s interrupted.  A woman – about as different from Jairus as you can be.  Unlike Jairus, nobody knows her name.  She is excluded from the synagogue because she is bleeding, hemorrhaging, and has been twelve long years.  This makes her unclean and bars her not only from the synagogue but from ‘respectable’ society, from her community.  She is in pain and suffering. She is destitute from paying for doctors and medicine that don’t help.

Her faith gives her this tiny flicker of hope to desperately try one more time.  She makes her way through the crowd until she is just close enough.  She reaches out, touching his clothes.  She steals a healing.  How gut-wrenching!  And this act causes a crisis.

Immediately, Jesus feels it and stops, demanding to know who touched him.  Slowly she comes forward and explains.  “Daughter,” he calls her, naming her, claiming her as family, “your faith has saved you.”  She is healed; not only her body, but she is restored to her community, to relationships.  Her salvation is in healing and restoration.

Now, Mark returns to the first story; to another daughter.  Messengers arrive to say they’re too late.  Jairus’ daughter has died.  Can’t you just imagine the anguish of her father and mother; losing a beloved daughter, their little girl.  Imagine the rage welling up in him, blaming “this woman” for causing her death.  But Jesus calms him and assures him it’s not too late.  “Have faith, believe,” he says.  Arriving at the house, Jesus reaches out and touches the twelve-year-old girl and tells her to get up; and she does.  She’s alive.  She is saved; healed, restored to her family.

Two daughters; so different and yet both inescapably vulnerable.  One who had suffered for as long as the other had been alive.  Both receiving Jesus’ compassion and healing.  Both receiving salvation.

When there is distance of time or space between ourselves and stories like this, particularly when we have heard them over and over, it’s easy to distance our hearts as well.  If this were happening to a family member or a friend, our hearts would break.

How do we keep ourselves from seeing stories like these as statistics instead of as individual tragedies?  And at the same time prevent our slide into compassion fatigue or despair?  I don’t know the answer to that question, other than to hold them before God.

Mark has shown us a way to set two stories alongside one another to interpret each other.  We can set the stories, the experiences of our lives and of our world alongside these Scriptural stories, not as a way to make sense of them, but rather as a way to hold them before God; as a way to look for God within our lives, active in our world.

Do you have a story to set alongside this one?  Maybe it’s a personal experience of loss or tragedy or illness.  Or maybe it’s the seemingly endless tragic stories that bombard us in the news.

They are stories of faith, whether faith in God or faith in democracy or American ideals or the basic goodness of humanity or myriad other possibilities, but faith born out of desperation that doesn’t allow them to give up, to surrender.  It is the faith that spurs them to carry on in hope, to do whatever it takes: a father begging for his daughter’s life, a woman stealing a healing.  People desperately seeking salvation; life, healing, wholeness, restoration, community.  That’s what faith looks like – white-knuckle desperation as one person phrased it.

What is the salvation they need?  In these cases, it’s healing and wholeness.  It’s restoration to the arms of family and to participation in the life of the community.  This is not about Jesus being nice or kind.  This is Jesus raiding the household of the strong man we heard about a few weeks ago and freeing his captives.  Where do we see signs of salvation in the world around us, in the lives of people?  Where do we see restoration, healing, wholeness, community?

How do we open our hearts, allowing them to break over and over again, so that they may fill to overflowing with compassion until our love for our fellow human beings overcomes our fatigue, overcomes our reluctance and fear and stirs us to act, to give, to heal, to restore, strengthened by faith and filled with hope?

I think the answer, in part, is to balance the tragedies with the stories of hope and joy and celebration that are also all around us.  Yesterday, I went to a baby shower and was reminded once again of the hope that is in us.  My hope is renewed every time I see moms and dads with their kids – loving them, playing with them, caring for them, doing their absolute best to help their children thrive.  My hope shines brighter when I see moms and dads doing everything they can, risking their very lives, even, for the sake of their children; to give them a good life, to save them.

Children and babies are signs of hope.  Not only the hopes and dreams that the parents and even their extended families and communities have for those kids.  But more important, they are signs of God’s hope in us.  Every time a baby is born, it reaffirms God’s hope for us, God’s faith in us, and God’s boundless faithfulness to us.  Every baby is a sign of God’s steadfast love for us.  Every. Single. One.

Thanks be to God.