How Important IS It?

Preached at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Mercer Island on September 30, 2012.
Proper 21 (Year B)

How IMPORTANT is it?  We answer that question dozens of times every day.  Most of the time we don’t really even think about it – it’s a no-brainer.  It’s easy to let go of the little things:  the other driver who wasn’t paying attention and wouldn’t let you in, that homework assignment that is just busywork, but you have to do it anyway, something your boss said at work today. You let it go and move on.

Then there are the gray area decisions.  Do I just let it go when the person in the next cubicle thinks racist jokes are funny?  Do I spend extra time writing that paper for class or do I go shopping with my daughter for things she needs for her prom next week.  Prom is once in a lifetime and she will be moving out soon.

But sometimes we face more challenging situations.  The ones that seem like there is an obvious answer the other way – of course we can’t let THAT go.  It may be closely tied to our identity or societal norms and expectations.  It may involve something that seems to be essential to life or even something we hold Holy.

When it comes to such essentials, for what are we willing to let them go?

Jesus seems to be getting a bit desperate and frustrated in today’s gospel.  In the course of the story, Jesus is nearing the end. He and his disciples are on the final journey to Jerusalem and the Passion.  It was just a few days ago, at the beginning of this chapter, that Jesus took Peter and James and John up the mountain where he was transfigured and they saw talking him to Elijah and Moses and they heard the voice from the cloud.  The one that said, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”  Now they’re travelling through Galilee toward Jerusalem.  By the end of the next chapter, they will be at the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Jesus is using these last few days to teach his disciples just exactly what discipleship demands.  And they don’t seem to be getting it!  In his storytelling, Mark sets up a pattern that he goes through three times:

  1. Jesus prophesies his Passion – his death and resurrection.
  2. The disciples don’t understand.
  3. Jesus teaches them about discipleship.

Today, we’re in the middle of the second iteration.  Last week we heard the prophecy of the Passion and the disciples confusion.  They were afraid  to even ask him to explain.  We heard Jesus teaching about discipleship means serving others in his name – especially serving those on the fringes; those whom society considers of little account, and he brought a child into their midst to make his point.

Today we hear a series of teachings about discipleship:

  • Don’t concern yourself about who’s in and who’s out, he told them.  When they saw someone who wasn’t one of them driving out demons in Jesus’ name, he told them don’t try to stop him.
  • Hospitality and kindness are important.  Anyone who so much as offers a drink of water to someone who comes in Jesus’ name will be rewarded.
  • And then he comes to the teaching about stumbling blocks and leading others astray.

In shockingly graphic detail, he tries to drive home just how important this is.  Living in the kingdom of God, living in eternal life, living in intimate relationship with God – right now, not as a reward after you die, but RIGHT NOW – is worth more than anything!  And you can’t come in if you’re at the door, keeping others out.  Don’t let stumbling blocks remain in your way, he teaches.  And don’t put stumbling blocks in the way of others.  Just in case they don’t get it he talks about drowning with a millstone around your neck and cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes.

This is our invitation into the kingdom.
It’s a good time to examine our lives – as individuals, yes, but even more importantly as a community.  It’s important to remember that we are One Body.  One Body not only with other Christians, but One Body with all other people, especially “the least of these” as Jesus so often said.

So, what are our stumbling blocks?  What gets between us and God?   What do we hang onto so tightly, thinking that it is absolutely essential, when it is actually hiding the Good News.  It gets in the way of the Gospel and keeps us out of the kingdom of God right now.

What stumbling blocks do we put in the path of others – especially the marginalized, leading them away from God’s love; making it difficult for them to even hear the gospel?  We cannot live fully in God’s kingdom while others are left out and suffering.

Now, it’s budget season.  It’s stewardship season.
And in case you missed it, it’s election season.

The decisions we make together are important.
They matter.
They are discipleship decisions.

Will we concern ourselves with deciding who’s in and who’s out?     Will we extend hospitality and kindness in Jesus’ name?  Will we be led astray? Or lead others astray?Will the budget we develop over the coming weeks be one that fosters discipleship?  Will your vote (or your pledge) put up stumbling blocks?  Or will it open wide the doors of God’s Kingdom?  These are hard decisions, but just as Jesus teaches, it’s worth it.

As disciples of Christ, we can make a difference.
Thanks be to God.

The Church as First Responders

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle on Pentecost, 2012  (Year B)

For years, I wore the same kind of sneakers.  It was great, when they wore out, I could just walk into the store and say I need this shoe in this size, pay for them and walk out of the store with a pair of shoes that I knew would be comfortable and fit me.  Then, one day, they were gone.  They suggested an alternative, the shoe that replaced the one I wanted, but it didn’t fit right and wasn’t as comfortable.  Back to shopping.

Have you ever had that happen?  You go in to buy an old standby and it’s now “new and improved?”  Improved beyond recognition sometimes.  Or worse, it’s just not available anymore – not enough demand.

Are you ever afraid that will happen to your church; that it will be “improved” beyond recognition or worse, that demand will drop so much that it just won’t be available anymore?

I imagine that Peter might look at us and think we are “new and improved” beyond recognition.
At Pentecost we look back and remember the very beginnings of the church.  We all wear red to symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit that ignited this incredible movement that has spread across the globe.

It’s also a good time to reflect on what it means to be the church; what it means for us to be church – especially in this time of transition – to look forward to what God is calling us to become as church.

There are a lot of metaphors for the church.  Museum for saints is most often used as a metaphor for what we are not – and for what some people think we claim to be and therefore it makes us hypocrites.  It’s usually used in contrast to another metaphor –a hospital for sinners.

Metaphors are helpful up to a point but sometimes we take them too far.  For example the metaphor of the Church as a Shop. Eugene Peterson wrote about this in his book, Working the Angles

The pastors of America have [become] a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists.

Churches do share some attributes with business.  We incorporate and register with the state, we name officers and are run by a board of directors.  We own property, buy insurance, and hire employees.

Maybe we’re taking the metaphor too far, though, when we wring our hands wondering why we don’t have as many customers as we used to.  Is it because we’re not trendy enough?  Or are we too trendy?  Maybe it’s our “product line” or inadequate “marketing.”  And what is our product, anyway?  God? Jesus? Programs? A nice nursery? The Gospel?

If the clergy are shopkeepers, what about the people in the congregation?  Are they all customers? Or are some in Sales or Marketing or Customer Service or even Production?  Maybe Church as shop is not adequate.

This morning I would like to offer a different metaphor for the church and I hope you will ponder it in your hearts in the coming weeks.  What if we were to think of ourselves as a community of First Responders?

Many people these days, are talking and writing about what’s going on in the world – the changes and especially the pace of change.  They’re describing not only the details of specific changes but the global, long-term ramifications of these changes.  I have found that Diana Butler Bass articulates it very well in her most recent book, Christianity After Religion.  She is an Episcopalian and a historian who writes about the church and teaches at our seminaries.  I’ll let you read the book for yourself, but one of her central points is that what we have been observing in our churches is happening, now, all across the country, in every denomination.

And what’s happening in the church is just one little piece of the shifting that is happening in the world.  She and others claim that we are in the middle of a major paradigm shift.  Increasingly people don’t trust traditional principles and institutions.  We’re finding that the things we used to stake our lives on are no longer reliable.  This paradigm shift is something like an earthquake in people’s lives.

Now, we know something about earthquakes around here and about the importance of earthquake preparedness.  We’ve heard the three-days-three-ways commercials and we’ve heard Liz Osborne talk about how to prepare our homes and cars, and workplaces so that we’re ready when the Big One hits.

Well, I suggest that we, as the church, put together earthquake preparedness kits of sorts so that we are ready to respond as this earthquake of a paradigm shift progresses.  The thing is, the purpose of this kit I’m talking about is not to help us survive; it’s so that we can help others – so that we can be First Responders.

What shall we put in the kit?  What will be the food and water, the flashlights and roadmaps, the emergency blankets and first aid supplies that people will need when the dust settles and the earth stops moving for a moment?

Jesus calls us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to bring light into darkness, to bring comfort and sustenance to those in pain or in need – whether it’s because of a personal crisis or a chronic longing for God, or a radical shift in how they view and understand the world – when their home has been shaken off of its foundation, so to speak.

So, if we are to be a community of First Responders, then maybe the building is to be a base camp or aid station.  It’s a place for us to come for rest and renewal, for refreshment through holy food and drink with our community; for comfort and encouragement, for sharing our experience and learning new skills.  It’s a place to store supplies for our emergency kits and to receive  “9-1-1” calls.

But most calls for help won’t come through the church’s phone.  Most will be simply a look or a whisper or even an angry shout or an act of violence.  We need to be prepared to recognize the call and to respond with what is needed; to offer salvation in many forms.

You know, Jesus and the apostles didn’t offer one-size-fits-all salvation.  They didn’t set up shop and persuade people that they needed and should buy what they had to offer.  No, they went to the people, bringing the salvation they needed.  Sometimes salvation was healing of an illness; other times it was casting out demons or raising the dead; it was restoring people to their families and communities, or on occasion, forgiving sins.  For some salvation was a bit of fish and a piece of bread or even words of hope.

And so, as we dress in red and remember how the Holy Spirit came like flame to ignite the church on Pentecost, what is our prayer?  Are we hoping it doesn’t happen to us?

Or do we pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us now and light a fire in our hearts and in our church that we may continue Christ’s work in the world, bringing salvation as First Responders.

Jesus! What are you thinking?!

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle on February 12, 2012
(Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B)

Jesus! What are you thinking?!
That guy is unclean!  He’s outcast!
You know, you touch him and you’re unclean, too; you’re outcast.
You don’t have to do this you know.  You remember when Elisha healed Namaan.  He didn’t even come out of the house!  He just sent a messenger to tell him what to do.  Say the word and this guy will be healed.  You don’t have to risk your own holiness for his sake!

Oh.  Right.  Holiness.  And risk.  That may be the shocking message of this story.  And I have always missed it.  Usually I get stuck somewhere when I try to come to terms with this story.  Sometimes I stop with the miracle.  Wow!  This guy just says,  “If you choose, you can heal me” and Jesus does.

Other times I get stuck on the “choosing” part.  Why would Jesus choose to heal some and not others.  What about all the other lepers?  What about all the people who pray for healing and continue in their suffering; People, good people, of deep faith praying fervently.  I could get angry about it – especially with all the truly horrific things we see happening in the news or in our communities; innocent children suffering, dying. 

If you can choose to heal some, Jesus, why not choose to heal all?

Some of the ancient manuscripts say, Jesus was moved with anger, and scholars ask, anger at what?  Was he angry with the man for interrupting him?
Was he angry at the disease and its devastating, disfiguring effects?
Or was he angry at the systems and the religious authorities that marginalize and ostracize such people?

Translators struggle with this particular line.  While some manuscripts say anger, others use a word that could be translated pity or compassion, although neither is adequate.  However it is translated, it is about an intense emotion that propels Jesus forward; compelling him to act; to touch the untouchable.  In so doing, he challenges the religious authority.  The challenge continues as Jesus angrily instructs the man to go back and show himself to the priests, and offer the appointed sacrifice as a witness against them.

So maybe this story is not simply another miraculous healing.  Mark is galloping along at breakneck speed, setting the stage for what is to come.  It’s still just the first chapter and already:

  • Jesus is identified as the Son of God
  • John the Baptist preaches & baptizes
  • Jesus is baptized and tested in the wilderness
  • Jesus preaches and teaches with authority
  • He calls the first four disciples
  • In the Synagogue, Jesus teaches with such authority that even the demons obey.
  • In a home, he cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever.
  • And in the countryside, Jesus violates Jewish purity law, touching a leper, and challenges the authority of the religious establishment.

It’s not surprising what comes next.  Chapter 2 begins with an explicit question about authority.  Who has the authority to heal and to forgive sins?

Jesus violated the holiness codes – those that define what is clean and unclean; holy or defiled.  The expected result was that both would be defiled.  And according to the “rules,” I suppose they were.  Except for one thing.  The leper was cleansed.

When Jesus touched him, both became Holy.

When Jesus touches us, we become Holy.

He touches us in the incarnation itself in becoming human.
He touches us in the water of baptism, in the bread and wine of communion, in the oil of healing, and through the hands of other people.

And by extension when we serve others, especially when we reach across the boundaries to touch the untouchable, we both are made Holy.

Holiness involves risk and it requires action.

One might have asked, “How can he be Holy if he touches what is not holy?”  But Jesus shows us that the actual question is,
“How could he be Holy if he did not?”

How can we be Holy if we do not?