Sunday, July 01, 2018

At the Feet of Jesus


Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 7, July 1, 2018
Mark 5:21-43    
            21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
             24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.
25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
                35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

           All over the country, people are rallying to defend immigrants.  And others are rallying to defend the anti-immigrant policies being handed down by our current administration.
           Sometimes they are rallying in the same place.  A few days ago, at a rally in support of immigrants, a woman wearing a red baseball cap placed her face about six inches away from a fourteen year old boy.  She said to the child “You are going to be the first one deported…you dirty Mexican.”
           Now, I’ve seen the picture, and I’m pretty sure the kid is Salvadorian, but whatever.  This is the way we talk to each other and to children whom we can vilify these days. 
           And its not just the right.  As she was overheard, another woman approached, called the first woman a vulgar name, and pushed her.
           There is an epidemic of hate in this country.  It flares up out of the current political scene, but it started before Trump took office.  You see it on billboards and in social media posts and well, pretty much everywhere.
           Last week I was driving behind a semi truck with a sign that said “Don’t like trucks?  Quit buying stuff!”
           That’s the way we speak to each other these days, and it’s not just a crisis of manners.  It’s a moral crisis.  It’s a crisis of demonization and hate.
           Scientists who study the brain say that the problem is in our amygdala.  When the level of general discourse lowers to the point at which we find it today, it creates a snowball effect.  Being exposed to rudeness and anger causes adrenaline to rise, and we respond with rudeness and anger.  We’ve seen it, right?  In fact, if we’re really being honest, and we are, we’ve done it.
           And we seem to be powerless to stop it—the hate, the incivility, the willingness to dehumanize children and immigrants and persons of other races and political persuasions.  It’s like a steamroller, flattening the better angels of our nature into paper dolls.  It plagues us on all sides. 
           So what do we do?  Where do we go?  We can’t seem to solve this on our own.
           What do we do when confronted with problems beyond our capacity?
          
           This morning we are presented with two stories about people who have problems they can’t solve on their own.
           What do they do?
           They go to Jesus.  They fall down at his feet.   
           Jairus falls at the feet of Jesus to ask Jesus to heal his daughter.  He can’t find the healing he needs for her on his own.  So he falls down at the feet of Jesus and begs for help.
           And as Jesus makes his way to the leader’s house, a woman comes.  A desperately ill woman who had been bleeding on and off for twelve years.  Confined away from her people until the blood had stopped for days. 
           She had tried other means.  Physicians.  Painful and expensive treatments.  She had spent all of her money and was probably about ready to give up. 
           She couldn’t save herself, so she sought the healing that she had heard Jesus could offer.  She grasped at him, hoping for exactly what happened:  for power to confer from his body, through his clothing and into her body.  And in a split second, it happened.  The Power of Jesus healed her body.  She knew it.  She felt it.
           And so did Jesus.  He realized that there had been a transactional shift in power and he asked his disciples about it.
           And they were…get this…perplexed. 
           “What do you mean, Jesus?  There’s all these people here!  How can you say someone touched you?  They’re all touching you!”
           They were all touching him, but only only was trying to such power out of his body. 
           Know she was found out, the woman came to Jesus.  Here’s how Mark describes it:  “But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”
           And Jesus looked at her and said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
           Your faith has made you well.
           The woman was healed.  Jairus’s daughter was healed.
           The power of Jesus was conferred to two people who had nowhere else to turn, because they threw themselves at the feet of Jesus and put all of their faith in him.  Put all of their trust in him.
           What would it take for us to do that?
           What would it take for us to take all of our pain, our suffering, our frustration, and kneel down at the feet of Jesus?
           Imagine what it took for Jairus to do it.  A leader of the synagogue.  In front of his people, falls at the feet of Jesus.
           Doesn’t get much more vulnerable than that.
           And vulnerability is in short supply these days, isn’t it?
           Lots of people are vulnerable to forces beyond their control.  I don’t mean that.
           But how many of us live in fear of the people near us figuring out that we don’t always have the answers.
           I know I fall squarely in that category.  I’m supposed to have answers.  Not questions!
           But I don’t have the answers for this time in our lives.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t think any of us know what to do. 
           So we really have no choice.  We need Jesus.  We need to throw ourselves at his feet and admit what we know—healing this pain is beyond us…and we need help.
           Don’t we?

           So we’re going to ask for it today.  We’re going to sing hymn #752, and we’re going to pause between each time through and pray to Jesus.
           For ourselves.
           For our country.
           For those things we need that we can’t seem to do on our own.
           Jesus, we give you our faith.  Heal us.
            

Mustard and the Missional Imagination


Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 6, Pentecost + 4, June 17, 2018
Mark 4:26-34
           26Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
           30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
                33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

           Mustard is not indigenous to Northern California.  Yet if you drive through the region north of San Francisco—especially the valleys: Napa, Sonoma, Russian River—you will see fields festooned in brilliant yellow, from just before the plentiful grapevines begin to bloom until after the harvest.
           Historians of the area agree that all that mustard was likely brought by one man, Father Jose Altimura, a Jesuit priest.
           Altimura was part of the first Spanish expedition to explore the Napa Valley, an expedition led by Don Francisco Castro, whose name now adorns a street you might have heard of.
           Altimura was an intrepid explorer…with a bad sense of direction.  So, the legend holds to this day, slung over his shoulder as he walked was a canvas sack full of mustard seeds, with a small hole in the bottom corner.  As he walked, he left a trail of mustard seeds wherever he went.  If he ever became terribly lost, the fast-growing mustard would send him home, like the lights down an airplane’s aisle.
           It didn’t hurt that he also liked mustard.
           And it doesn’t hurt today that mustard turns out to be a natural insecticide, which has for decades protected the delicate vines which generate a multi-billion dollar wine industry in those beautiful valleys.
           In fact, if you drive through Napa on a Spring morning, you are much more likely to notice the mustard, rather than the still dormant vines preparing to bring forth grapes.      Mustard is a powerful plant.  I’ve never seen it grow as a shrub, but apparently it did when Jesus was a boy.  He liked to use it to talk about the power of the kingdom of God.
           The kingdom of God is like someone scattering seed.  It just grows—lucky for Jose Altimura. And for us.
           The kingdom of God grows.  We might not see it or understand it.  That’s okay.  It’s there for us when we need it.
           Kinda like all that mustard that Jose spread across the wine country.  It was years before agronomists realized how deep their symbiotic relationship with the grapevines went.  In addition to keeping the vines free of nematodes—which are just as nasty as they sound—the vines provide essential nutrients at the end of their blooming season, when grapes are coming into full ripeness.  And vineyards provide a safe growing space for the wide-ranging mustard.
           Many years passed before anyone fully understood that.  And even more years passed before somebody thought to make a condiment out of all of those plants.  Now you can buy dozens of different pricey mustards from the region.  There’s even a Mustard Festival held each year.
           The missional imagination takes a while to develop.
           But that’s okay.  As Jesus reminds us this morning—the kingdom of God just grows, even when we don’t understand it.  The kingdom is strong, and consistent, moreso even than the Bible.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell this parable about scripture.  Because he knew that the relationship we would have with scripture would be more tricky than our relationship with God’s kingdom.  Scripture is not always consistent.  Heck, even Jesus argued with scripture.  He knew that you could find bits of scripture and twist them to justify all sorts of things.
           Men were justifying the abandonment of their wives with Moses’ words about divorce.  People were strictly interpreting the teaching on love to love those close to them and ignore their neighbors further away.  They were valuing the teaching about right worship and ignoring the teaching about care for vulnerable neighbors.
           Heck, we’re still doing it, aren’t we?  There was a firestorm this week, after powerful persons in Washington and beyond tried to use scripture to justify separating children from their parents. 
           “It’s biblical,” said one.  “Look at Romans 13,” declared another.
           So, in the spirit of attempting to understand that mystery known as the kingdom of God, and how God is calling us to live in the kingdom, let’s look at Romans 13.
           The part that gets quoted to justify unjust laws all the time is the first verse:  Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 
           That is the part quoted this week to justify this draconian practice. 
           We don’t read scripture a verse at a time, though, do we? 
           Of course not.  We read scripture in context.  And the context for these verses is a doozy!  If you read just a few verses down, you will see an admonition to pay taxes—haven’t heard any of those same folks mention that one.  And then this, starting at verse 8:
       Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
           Look.  I don’t expect us to understand exactly what the kingdom of God is about. Jesus didn’t expect us to understand what the kingdom of God is all about!  It is a powerful thing.  It grows without our understanding, and sometimes without our help.  It is growing all around us today, even as horrifying deeds are being done in our names. 
           We will regain our moral center—sooner if we choose to speak out, and slower if we don’t.  The kingdom of God has been growing all around us, even in the midst of a time when so many forces are rebelling against God’s call to love and serve all people.  We may not see the kingdom, but we know, because Jesus tells us that it is growing, and it is prepared to make shelter for those who are flying and those who are fleeing. 
           Our task is twofold:
1.  Train our eyes to see the kingdom.  To see God at work in our midst.  To see the entry points God has created for us to enter into God’s work.  This moment, while not created by God, per se, is an opportunity for us to find our voices as Christians—to stand up for the least of these, and it doesn’t get more “least” than the vulnerable child of an undocumented immigrant.  Make phone calls.  Sign the letter your pastor has written to our senators.  Stand up for the fulfillment of the law:  love.

Number 2 requires imagination.  Each of us should imagine that we are carrying the seeds of the kingdom of God with us.  We have a virtual seed bag which never runs out of seeds.  There’s a little hole in it, so the seeds of the kingdom spill out and begin to grow wherever we go.  So we should go to places where the kingdom should be growing, and we should recognize that we are planting those seeds, and we should even water them with other nourishing deeds of love for neighbor.

           God is planting a kingdom of love and justice all around us.  God is planting a kingdom of love and justice right within us. 

Fear and the Megas Storm


Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 7, Ordinary 12, June 24, 2017
Mark 4:35-41                  
                35On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with them.
           37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke the Lord up and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
           39Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
           40Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

           Every October since 2014, sociologists at Chapman University in Southern California release the results of their Survey of American Fears.  In 2014, the survey lined up pretty well with the researchers’ hypotheses about people’s fears.  The top fear was crime, which they anticipated. 
           The 2017 survey, the last one released, was a surprise.  It showed a real shift in American fear, one which surprised the researchers (maybe more than it will surprise all of us.)
           First of all, we are way more afraid these days.  Before this survey, there was only one category about which a majority of respondents were “afraid” or “very afraid.”  Crime.  Specifically, “walking alone at night.”
           In 2017, there were five such categories.  Want to guess the number one fear?
           Corruption of government officials.  Seventy-four percent of those surveyed said they feared government corruption.  Before 2017, the highest percentage that feared any one thing was 60%.
           I’m just going to leave that there…except for this timely factoid:  guess where “illegal immigration” falls in the ranking of American fears?
           Forty-ninth.  Below credit card fraud, drones, and sharks.
          
           So…there’s some evidence for what you likely knew, if you’ve been paying attention.  Fear is on the rise in America.  About a bunch of stuff.  In addition to government corruption, a majority of those surveyed fear the American Healthcare Act, or Trumpcare—which was being debated as this survey was released.  The other top five were pollution of waterways, pollution of drinking water, and running out of money.
           We are afraid.  Of a lot of stuff.  Our government, environmental devastation (4 of the top 10 fears), and war.  But not illegal immigrants.  Four out of five of us are not afraid of illegal immigrants.
           And a few of us, 5% and 7% respectively, are afraid of zombies and clowns.

           Fear is for real, and it appears to be here to stay for a while.  Most of the stuff we are afraid of is for real. 
           Which makes us just like those poor maligned disciples on a boat with Jesus.             There really was a storm.  It was a big storm.  The Greek word is megas, which means what it sounds like it means.
           It was a mega-storm.  They had every right to be afraid.  After all, these were fishermen, mainly.  They aren’t going to be afraid of a micro storm. 
           And Jesus was just sleeping rough the whole thing.  Like nothing was happening.  (Don’t you still have some friends like this?  They are still convinced that nothing is wrong, when you know that Nothing Is Normal?)
           So they wake Jesus and say, “hey, what’s the deal, Lord?  Do you not care that we are perishing?!”
           And yeah, an accusation of indifference is kind of a rude way to wake someone up, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that Jesus is cranky.  But his response goes a little beyond cranky, doesn’t it?
           Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”
           Dang, Jesus!  It’s a megas storm!  Cut us some slack!
           It does seem as if he is overreacting a bit.  Unless you know what happened in Chapter 3. 
           Mark 3:14-15:  14And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message,15and to have authority to cast out demons. 
           He appointed twelve.  To proclaim the message.  And he gave them authority to cast out demons.  If you’ve been paying attention as we’ve been making our way through Mark, you will have noticed that casting out demons is an important skill in this gospel.  A big skill.
           Someone with the authority to cast out demons might could also do other cool miracles.  Like stilling a megas storm.
           Did the disciples try out all of their new authority on the megas storm?
           No, they did not.  They just woke up Jesus and accused him of heartlessness.
           Perhaps his irritation is starting to make sense.

           Maybe the greatest of the feats Jesus performs is not a miracle.  It’s more of a bit of pedagogy. 
           By the time he leaves them, Jesus has to teach the disciples the nature and extent of the power they have received from “on high.” 
           That task takes a while, doesn’t it?
           They are continually placing limits on their power and authority—except maybe James and John, who think that Jesus gave them power to abuse Samaritans.

           They sat there, in the boat, wringing their hands and worrying about the storm, instead of at least trying to use the authority that Jesus gave them to do something about the storm themselves.
           They were suffering, in other words, from a lack of faith. 
           Lack of faith in themselves.  They didn’t think they had the power and authority.
           Lack of faith in Jesus.  They clearly didn’t believe in the power and authority that he conferred on them when he called them to be disciples.
           Lack of faith in God.  From whom all blessings, and power, and authority, flow.
           But you know…fear does that.
           Fear and faith struggle to coexist.  The more fearful we become, the harder it is to believe that we have the power and authority to do something about the thing we fear. 
           And fear can preempt even rational thought.  All those people who said “crime” was their greatest fear were living at the end of a twenty year decline in violent crime.  But what they were telling the researchers was that their faith in the US as a safe place was low.
           Fear and faith struggle to coexist.  Even when fear is rational and understandable—in fact, especially when fear is rational and understandable—we need to find the power of our faith.  We need to find our faith in power—in God’s power to overcome evil, in Christ’s power to raise up disciples, and in the power of those disciples
           Jesus needed his disciples to believe in their power.  The power he gave them.  The power of God.
           Jesus needs us to believe in our own power.  To claim the power of God’s word.  The power of God’s word can overcome the megas storms in our lives.  The power of God’s word can be a megas joy in the lives of people living with uncertainty and fear. 
           Find the power.  Fight the fear.  Amen.

Let the Main Thing Be the Main Thing


Gospel: Mark 2:23--3:6
                23One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not Lawful on the sabbath?” 25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not Lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3:1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then he said to them, “Is it Lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
1Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
  
2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
  
10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” [11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
  
15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
  
19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.]

           Bishop Roger has a phrase he uses to remind us in the synod office to stay focused.  “Let the main thing be the main thing.”  It’s not an original phrase. The organizational guru Stephen Covey popularized the phrase, not surprisingly.  It’s part of the organization-speak that is annoyingly helpful.
           Let the main thing be the main thing.

           So we are finally back to Mark’s gospel, after a long detour through mostly John in Easter and Pentecost.  Most of our gospel texts for the rest of the church year—through Christ the King Sunday on November 25—will come from Mark.  So fasten your seatbelts!  Because who is Mark’s Jesus, Sunday School Class?  [Man of Action]  He’s not a different Jesus, of course, but every gospel writer looks at Jesus through a slightly different lens.  That’s why the canon kept all four of the gospels:  if you look through the four lenses you get a three dimensional picture of Jesus.
           Math.
           In John, he talks.  In Matthew he talks to Jews.  In Luke he does a bunch of stuff, eventually.  In Mark, he works.  By the end of the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has healed multiple sick people, cast out multiple demons, and preached throughout the Galilee. He has also been baptized and tempted by the devil in the wilderness. 
           Chapter One. 
           Jesus doesn’t even appear in Chapter One of Luke’s gospel.
           Our lesson for this week comes from Mark 2, where Jesus first encounters the friendly neighborhood Pharisees.  It won’t the last encounter, as you might imagine, because the things that irritate the Pharisees about Jesus are often rooted in stuff he does.  And he does a lot of stuff in Mark.
           If we review that stuff—that Pharisee-irritating stuff which Jesus does—we are likely to come to a familiar place about which our bishop warns. 
           See, Jesus is really good at keeping the main thing the main thing.  Really good at it—like supernaturally good.
           What’s “The Main Thing” for Jesus?
           Love.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  The commandments which allow us to love our neighbors are super important.  They are the main thing.
           The Pharisees were the holders of the Law.  The big Law, the one that encompassed not just the Torah, but the writings, and the prophets, and the Midrash—the scholarly interpretation of the Torah and the writings and the prophets.  They knew all of the fine points of all of the Laws.  The six hundred thirteen Laws that made up the Mitzvot—the Laws in the Torah.  Plus the various interpretations in other sources.
           It was a lot to order.  It was a lot of order.  And, with apologies to Stephen Covey, Order isn’t Righteousness.  The Pharisees had a tendency to be blinded by the former, to the detriment of the latter. 
           The lesson before us this morning shows us why this is a problem.  The scenario is a simple one:  Jesus and his disciples are travelling in the Galilee on the Sabbath.  The disciples are plucking the heads off of the stalks of grain.  They were gleaning, in other words, which is permitted by the Law.  That’s why the text is careful to say that they were “plucking” the grain, rather than “harvesting” it.  The poor and travelers were allowed to pick grain for their own use.  They weren’t allowed to use a sickle, or harvest enough grain to keep. 
           Gleaning is a provision for “daily bread,” a promise God has made to God’s people since they were wandering in the wilderness and God provided manna.  We still pray for daily bread.
           So the disciples were following the Law in their gleaning.  But the Pharisees thought they might be opposing another law—the commandment against working on the Sabbath. 
           The Law says that people can have daily bread, and gives provision for them to secure that daily bread.  But it also says no work on the Sabbath. 
           This is a problem, right?  Do we need a lawyer?
           Nope.  Who do we need?  We need Jesus.  Keepin’ the main thing the main thing.
           “Rabbi,” the Pharisees declare, “Your disciples are doing what is not Lawful on the Sabbath.”
           “Yes,” Jesus replies, “Just like King David.”
           Any scholar of Jewish Law knows that The King David Smackdown is a winner.  But it isn’t some wildcard played to win the hand.  Jesus is making an important point.  Yes, there are laws about the proper keeping of Sabbath.  Four of them, to be precise.  But the purpose of the Law is to make our lives better—to enable us to live together better.  The Law, including the laws about Sabbath, was created for us—not the other way around.
           It makes no sense for the Law to be used in a way that hurts people.  That’s not its intention.  And just to be clear, allowing people to go hungry is hurtful.  All who claim to be a children of the God of Abraham—meaning all of us—should be doing what they can to make sure no one is hungry, no one is hurting, no one is in danger.
           That’s the main thing.  Love of God and love of neighbor, which are, of course, two sides of the same coin.  We love God by loving our neighbors.  And we love our neighbors by keeping the law.  Leaving grain in the fields for hungry travels and the needy.  Giving alms to those who request them.  Paying a living wage—yeah, there’s a law for that. 
           The second part of the lesson is pretty anticlimactic for those of us who know Jesus and who paid attention to the first part.  Jesus entered the synagogue, where there was a man who was suffering.  Mark tells us that the Pharisees, “watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.”
           Were any of you hanging on the edge of your seats when I was reading it?
           Did you already know what he would do?
           A man was suffering, and Jesus had the ability to help him.  Any law that would prevent a believer from helping someone in need is superseded by the command to help a person in need.  It’s that simple.  Let the main thing be the main thing.
           And the main thing is loving our neighbors. 
           It can be pretty easy to get distracted these days.  It seems to be harder and harder for us as a people to love one another.  So much meanness in the world.  I find it really troubling—how ‘bout you?
           Following Jesus isn’t always easy.  Especially in an age when we hear things attributed to the Christian faith that couldn’t be further from The Main Thing—love of God and love of neighbor.  Personally, I’m finding it hard to love a lot of fundamentalists right now.
           But the Main Thing says I have to do that.  Love ‘em.  And stand up for the gospel when what we hear is a perversion of the Law.
           We gotta focus on the main thing.  Which means listening for God’s call, watching for the neighbor in need, being tuned in to opportunities to serve.  That’s how we focus.  We listen.  We watch.  We do.
           And just as important as the how is the why.
           Why do we focus on the main thing?  Because we live in a time when there are too many other things vying for attention in our communities.  In our nation.  And God needs us—needs us—to focus on building the kingdom on our midst.  God needs us to be like Mark’s Jesus—getting busy for the sake of the kingdom.  Healing, proclaiming the kingdom of God, feeding the hungry.  We need to be people of action!
           And yeah, we’re busy people, too.  So maybe as we are focusing on letting the main thing be the main thing in the big sense, the loving God and loving our neighbors, maybe we also need to spend some time discerning what our main thing is. 
           We know what God has called all of us to do.  We need to listen for what God is calling each of us to do.  What God is calling us to do as a congregation.  As individuals. 
           We need to find our main thing.  And then we need to let it be…the main thing.
           People are hungry.  More than every before in this country, this rich rich country, people are hungry.  Maybe your main thing is making sure they have daily bread.  Or making sure they have affordable housing.  Or making sure they can read by third grade, so that they can have opportunities when they grow up.
           And maybe your main thing is caring for God’s creation.  Fighting for safe schools.  Could be anything.  I don’t know what your main thing is.  You might not know either.  Here’s what I do know:  God has a main thing for you.  God is calling out a main thing to you, just as God was calling Samuel.  So it’s okay if you don’t realize the first few times that it’s God.  Samuel was a really great prophet and he didn’t recognize God’s voice.
           Until he did.  And then he did great things.
           And so will you.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Prophets of a Redemptive and Transforming Love


Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Pentecost, May 20, 2018
Acts 2:1-21
           When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
           5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
           8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
           14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
           18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’


           According to Genesis, Chapter 11, when people began spread across the earth, they spoke one language.  But they decided to settle in “the land of Shinar”—in Mesopotamia—and to build a tower that reached up to God.  The tower came to be called the Tower of Babel, because it was built on the site of Babylon. 
           God was not pleased that the people were trying to build the tower and control their destiny thusly, the story says, so God decided to “confuse their language” in order that they wouldn’t understand one another and wouldn’t be able to work together.
           Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

           When the day of Pentecost came, Jerusalem was filled with people…people from all over the known world.  They spoke all of those different languages that God had laid on them back in Babylon.  There were also these twelve guys—eleven of the original disciples, plus Mathias, who had just been chosen by the casting of lots to replace Judas Iscariot.  They spoke Aramaic, knew Hebrew.  Matthew the tax collector surely had some fluency with Greek.  As far as we know, none of them spoke the language of Phrygia or Pamphylia.  But those folks were there in Jerusalem that day.
          
           In London yesterday, a biracial American married a prince.  Maybe you heard about it. 
           It was a lot like that Pentecost day.  The people inside the room were mostly what you would expect—lots of British aristocracy, with enough British and American celebrities to keep things interesting.  They spoke mostly English.  But outside the doors of the cathedral is a community in which 250 languages are spoken.  London is the most linguistically diverse city in the world.
           The presider for the ceremony was, of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.  He speaks lovely British English.
           The preacher was an English-speaking Anglican too…but a different sort.  Michael Curry is the first African-American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA.  And he can preach.  Before he was presiding bishop, I saw him at the Festival of Homiletics and was enthralled.
           Yesterday, the world was enthralled, by a sermon gifted by the Holy Spirit to a royal couple and the rest of the world.  Curry set the tone by quoting from Martin Luther King:
"We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this whole world a new world. But love, love is the only way."

           It was a wedding sermon.
           But more than that, it was a Pentecost sermon.

           When the day of Pentecost had come, there were some apostles, still all together in one place. 
           They were there because the last words they heard from Jesus were a command to “remain in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
           They were probably also afraid.  Jesus told them to stay in the city.  He didn’t tell them to lock the doors.  But we get this wrong all the time.  We stay where it is safe because we’ve been told to stay together.  But together in the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t mean safe.  It should not mean safe.
           They were locked up together, awaiting the promised power, and fearful of the power of the Roman authorities and the power of the Jewish authorities…
           …and, I suspect, of the redemptive and transforming power of love…the redemptive and transforming power of love which Jesus had shown to them, and which Jesus had charged them to share with the whole world.
           They were locked up there in that room because they knew that when they shared the gospel of God’s profound love for the whole world, it would change their lives.  It would change the world.
           The gospel does that, right? 
           I think those apostles were holed up in that room because they weren’t quite sure they wanted to change the world.  Changing the world is difficult and even dangerous.  Dr. King preached about transformative love and nonviolence and it got him killed.
           The apostles were rightly concerned about what might happen to them if they went out there and did what Bishop Curry did yesterday. Called the world into the redemptive power of love.
           When that power came down, as Jesus promised it would, there was no mistaking it.  There was no looking away from it.  There was no pretending that you didn’t hear it, or you heard something else.  Because it spoke directly to the heart of every person there. 
           And then it spoke through the mouth of The Rock.
           “People of God,” he said, “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17’In the last days it will be,’ God declares, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’”

           People of God—God has called us to be prophets of love.  Prophets of a love that redeems and transforms the world.  We can ignore that calling.  We can turn away, we can hide away, we can throw away the calling which God has placed on our hearts, but sooner or later, the Holy Spirit is going to get us. 
           Sooner or later, we are must throw off whatever keeps us from prophesying in God’s name and speak out for love. 
           Because only the power of love—the redemptive, transformative power of love—is going to carry us through this time of division and chaos, into the new day we all want.
           And we do want it, right?
           We do want to change the world, right?
           Then we must open our minds and our bodies to receive the Spirit, and to speak the words of love God has given us. 
           We must find a way to hear what others are saying, even when it sounds like a different language.
           And we must find a way to speak so that we may be heard.  Words of love, through the power of the Holy Spirit.