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Preaching a False Gospel

June 26, 2016 Leave a comment

DSC_0204Greetings and good morning. We welcome everyone here on this Memorial Day weekend. I’m full of questions this morning. I’m not sure what the answers are or if there is any one correct answer to some of them. But I think every so often it helps to sit back and do a self-examination to see if our actions match what we think we believe. In a way, this is what Paul is up to with his address to the church in Galatia. He knows they have been taught the ways of Christianity. What he sees them doing is something completely different. Even in this young church not even decades removed from the actual life of Jesus, he recognizes there are false teachings taking control of the people and moving them in a direction contrary to the what the Gospels teach. That would never happen today, would it? Could the words of Jesus as written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John be set aside for some other agenda? For some other ploy to distract us from what our true purpose is? That answer is easy. I hope nobody missed that one.

In so many ways, this Epistle almost seems out of place. Right from the beginning we have language uncommon to the other letters. Where Paul usually goes on and on with his greetings and blessings and congratulatory one sentence that lasts two paragraphs worth of words with a tone of thanksgiving and gratitude; within 6 versus he is straight at the heart of a problem and addresses it without hesitation. The new church has been one where the sole teaching, the one true gospel, was the gospel of the love of Christ in the world. And with each member of the church being the body of Christ, the hands, the feet, the eyes, the mouth, it was that love that was conveyed to the world through the actions of its members. The Galatians seem to have forgotten this. For some reason or reasons they have allowed themselves to be taken over by an alternative theology, if not Christology! These people have been lured into something other than what Jesus taught. As directly quoted here verses 6 and 7 “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ”

Here’s another question: Who in the world today would want to confuse you and pervert the gospel of Christ for some other purpose than love? Or for some other purpose than building strong relationships with our neighbors? Not being divisive by building walls and making false derogatory accusations against others? Those are the kind of things that turn people against each other. When we look for ways to show the love of Christ to others we can be assured we are heading in the right direction. Having sympathy and empathy always do more good in the world than a complete lack of concern. And that is almost as bad as causing intentional harm, both at home and throughout the world.

Because If there is one thing that will dissolve a congregation quickly and without much warning it is apathy. Not just an apathy toward the structure and teachings of the church; but an apathy toward God and God’s people. Take away the heart of any creature and it dies. Take away the intentions and focus of love from a Christian and see what becomes of their attitude towards others. Is this where prejudice forms? From an uncaring attitude about another person’s gender, race, culture, or religion? When that apathy creeps out into the community, out into the counties, states, country, we only have to turn on the nightly news to see how far that has gotten us. Gone are the days where we listened to real, educated journalists report facts and give us information that allowed us to form our own opinions and ask important questions that made sense. A lack of love and empathy has led us to calling each other names and ridiculing those we don’t know a thing about. All of that because instead of reaching out to someone to learn more about them we retreat in fear and make them our enemy.

It’s true, there is no difference in what the church of Galatia was doing in 45 CE than what a great number of churches in America are doing in 2016 CE. Outsiders are on the inside trying to teach us a false and perverted gospel.

Perverted by everything under the sun by placing everything first that shouldn’t be there. Which brings me to another question. What really comes first in our lives? God? Family? Country? Work? Politics?

I’ve been on a rant here for the last seven or eight minutes asking questions but that last one is the one that really should make us think. Especially on this holiday weekend. You know, so often we’ve been singing those hymns telling us how God is with the United States, God leads us into battle, God will bring us victory, and yes, God will even preside over our team’s football game and make them win! But it’s an old hymn that dates to the beginning of time from the first moment a myth was teamed up with a ritual and a battle was fought to protect an ideal. And it’s an ideal that Jesus wanted us to break away from but for some reason we just can’t do it. We can’t seem to put God first. We can’t seem to maintain that Christology that says the gospel is a gospel of love and thinking it is anything else is just wrong.

Unfortunately for many, this apathy, this perverted gospel, this long lost vision of a world living in the love of Christ is why we celebrate Memorial Day. We gather on this day to honor those who lost their lives serving a cause sometimes bigger than them, sometimes much smaller than they ever were. Today we won’t argue the right or wrong of the wars they fought or debate which is more important for us to be, a Christian or a patriot! Today we will pay tribute to their lives that were always cut short because of war. Being the son of a veteran and one myself I can tell you that knowing someone who lost their life in war is hard to bear. Perhaps it’s because you know it can happen any time to any one, or at any time to you. It doesn’t matter whether war is just or unjust, it just matters that another son or daughter lost their life fighting for someone else. In the end all we can do is pray for them and the ones they left behind, pray that eventually it won’t have to be this way anymore, and pray that other souls know nothing about the apathy that put their brothers and sisters where they are now.

There’s a song I’d like to play for you that seems to sum things up. It was recorded by the American Singer-Songwriter Edwin McCain and it’s called “A Prayer to Saint Peter”. I’d like to close with it now. “Prayer To St. Peter”

“Let them in, Peter – For they are very tired – Give them couches where the angels sleep – And light those fires – Let them wake whole again – To brand new dawns Fired by the sun – Not war-times bloody guns – May their peace be deep – Remember where the broken bodies lie – God knows how young they were To have to die – You know God knows how young they were – To have to die Give them things they like – Let them make some noise – Give dance hall bands not golden harps – To these our girls and boys – Let them love Peter – For they’ve had no time – They should have bird songs and trees – And hills to climb And tell them how they are missed – But say not to fear – It’s gonna be all right With us down here.”

Deacon Pete

(Ref Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, Proper 4)

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Your Illusion of Christ

June 26, 2016 Leave a comment

long lotus

Here’s my question for the day: “What illusions do you have about what Jesus expects of you when you choose to follow him?” Let me repeat that: “What illusions do you have about what Jesus expects of you when you choose to follow him?” For many years I was under the illusion that if or when I would finally be answering His call, everything in and about life would suddenly be like a movie. The butterflies and birds would fly around in circles near my head. Everyone would treat me kindly and I’d see the perfect utopia that we all dream about. Rainbows everywhere, and hunger, fear, disease and poverty were too far out of sight to be brought to mind for even the slightest moment.

I had a lot to learn and learned a lot in a very short time once I stopped the kicking and screaming as I passed from one Committee on Ministry to the next in my diocesan ministry discernment process. I was second-guessing myself right up to almost having to be dragged down the aisle by the saints and angels to have Bishop Baxter lay his hands on me to be ordained. Even the next Sunday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning, so afraid I’d sleep in, that it hit me hard – this was for the rest of my life! This following Jesus thing was now for real! But did it have to involve wearing a collar? There were so many good lay ministers out there that seemed to be more in tune to what it meant to be a Christian than I ever thought I could be. In short, I was like John and James, wanting to know where those lightning bolts were to hurl around at something… just anything… to prove a point. I couldn’t tell you what that point was but I was positive that since I was now following Jesus I might as well go and do some rebuking of my own!

But when we read today’s gospel we find that all of that fluff that we dream about happening couldn’t be further from the truth. What do mean we can’t call upon the heavens to destroy some civilization that is being mean to us? It wasn’t part of the Old Testament lesson for today, but we just read about Elijah, Isn’t that what he did? Didn’t he request that God send down fire to wipe out enemies? Surely we can take revenge on those who harm us. It’s in the bible. We just read it. Oh, and still yet, didn’t Elijah let Elisha, who wished to continue on and follow him go home to say good bye to his family? But now Jesus won’t allow this one potential disciple leave to take care of the bones of his deceased father and then return and continue on with him. Why is there such a difference between what we hear in the old testament and what we hear Jesus doing when it involves the same situations?

Unfortunately, when we try to relate to the bible and look there for answers to what it is we should do in our daily lives, so many of us get caught up in the laws, just as the Jews did, just as the Greeks did, just as the Romans did. To understand Jesus, to understand what it takes to be a Christian requires us to unwrap our brains from the rules and regulations and sink our souls into the Spirit of Christ. I couldn’t remember where I first heard the saying that “You must never break a law unless you know the reason why the law was written in the first place.” Seems that you’d have to be a bit of a renegade to do that. But then again that’s what Jesus was. He healed on the Sabbath, he hung out with the homeless and the sick, he crossed religious and cultural boundaries tending to those different than him, and he opposed war, revenge, and violence.

Looking at those traits, what do many who claim to be Christians do today? Cities are finding ways to make it more and more difficult to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. Money is withheld from or refused by agencies whereby that money would enable those who need health care the most to get it. Lies are spread and traps set to lure others into fighting instead of seeking to compromise on issues and work things out in peaceful fashion. We could go on and on with these comparisons, and even try to make them political, but the fact of the matter is they are issues not about countries or cities or governments but issues that affect the dignity of human beings everywhere. I’m saying these things today; Jesus was explaining it a couple thousand years ago. Not much has changed except the time and place.

What does all of that have to do with me being a Christian, you might ask? According to Jesus, it has everything to do with it. When we talk of being a Christian so many people like to wrap themselves up in their own little cuddly blanket thinking that to say they are Christians is enough. They wear crosses and put tag lines on email addresses and maybe even have a Shield on their car. They do the duties in church that are needed for the congregation to survive like tithe, volunteer and assist with the services. They do everything they’ve heard they should do and have read – like the ten commandments – from the old law. Yet still we find something missing. Something that nags at us from time to time and we can’t quite put our finger on it. Eventually it comes to us, some late in life, some early, some early, then late, then even late after that. Those are the ones like me who had the call at the age of 10, then put it off at the wise old age of 13, then on again around 35, off at 40, on at 45… until finally we think we “get it”. And then we find out there’s way more to what Jesus kind of said would happen but we glossed over it and act surprised when it does happen.

We find that following Jesus and being a Christian means what Paul said today, that now we are led not by earthly, material things (the flesh as he calls it) but we are led by the Spirit and so must live the way of Christ. We find that living in Christ means that our first response to a crisis is not about what happened or will happen to our property, but we move forward with an automatic concern and compassion for the people who may be effected by that crisis no matter if it’s from a natural disaster or an act of violence, revenge, or war. And we find that living in Christ means we know the reasons why rules and laws were written and made and if the time comes to break that law in order to save lives – be it human or animal, domestic or foreign – we will act in the spirit of the law of do what is right.

Looking back at my own illusion, what I thought what being a true follower of Jesus would be like, all I can say is, “it’s not the same animal, not even the same species.” But once we understand the nature of Christ, not the superficial one some talk about, but the Christ that feeds us with grace and inspires us through the acts of others; once we begin to understand that, we can begin to accept that not everything about being a Christian is butterflies and rainbows. You’ll often be on the wrong side of history. You’ll often have an opposing view of current affairs from what your friends have. You’ll often be in the middle of some illness, some crisis, some dilemma – either yours or other’s – that needs professional help. You may not have it all as far as others are concerned. Having it all is the illusion that you started with. But you will have more than you will ever need or know through this Grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Deacon Pete

(Ref Revised Common Lectionary:  Year C, 6 Pentecost, Proper 8, June 26 2016)

 

 

Raised Up Like the Serpent

March 15, 2015 Leave a comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA “For God so loved the world…”  John 3:16.  This verse is probably one that most everyone knows.   It’s probably one that most everyone as heard or seen.  And if you have ever watched even a dozen or more athletic events through the years, especially golf and have seen the signs raised up with this notation on them, you may even gloss over it as fast as it enters your mind.  I’ve always been amused with that aspect of this one sentence; that so many or our Christian brothers and sisters use it to get attention.  Because while on one hand there are believers in Jesus who use it as their mantra to explain how anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus as their lord and savior is condemned to hell; others hold it in their hearts that this is too hard to believe.  That if God not just loved the world, but is Love and the one true light – as we are also taught by John (among others) – how could not believing or not even knowing this gospel separate someone from God?  In other words, does the passage from Paul we read today really mean what John Calvin believed?  That there is an elect group of people who God has chosen to receive salvation and no one else gets in, defying the forgiving virtues of grace that we know so well?

This is such a difficult teaching, not only to comprehend without throwing our human thinking out the door, but to break down theologically as well.  And it leaves many preachers leaving it tucked into the gospel reading and heading toward the other lessons.  As I will do… for a moment… then we’ll return.  Because leading us into this creed of believing is a reference to the Book of Numbers that was given to us for this day.  Jesus said “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up…”  Now Jesus very often uses scripture to show the relationship between himself and what the prophets were speaking of.  (It always fascinates me how people who had so few books could remember so much written material.  This is just a side bar on the subject but it shows how far too much information we have on our minds these days.  I have a very hard time just remembering names, a few passages and psalms here and there, and a tenth of the grocery list I left at home.  This is proof of how much we really do need the bible in our daily lives and not just on Sundays… keeping the scriptures alive as so many did before us.)  But; let’s look at what the serpents or snakes represent.  This is one of the times the people are grumbling and complaining about what they don’t have.  Keep in mind they are now free from bondage.  They are on their own, traveling around the wilderness searching for a new home.  There is no food or water… and here comes one of those lines that completely befuddles you, how can there be no food or water and have the food be so miserable?  It really does represent extreme dissatisfaction when you detest the things you don’t have!  So God thinks, “Well, they are once again placing troubles over freedom.  I guess it’s time for another lesson.”  So snakes are sent, fatally poisonous ones at that, and as more Israelites are bitten the more they die, until at last the people look at it as punishment for their groaning and complaining.  And as Moses usually does, he talks to God to try and intercede for them and we have the bronze serpent mounted on a pole that heals those who are bitten.

One word we can throw out with this: Idol.  We can be led to think this is a form of idolatry but keep in mind they are not giving praise and bowing down to the statue.  They are using it as a representation of their problems and a means of coming to terms with those things that are killing them.  Well into the future, where 500 years later this same snake is in the temple in Jerusalem, people had made it into an idol, and came to revere it so much they gave it the name Nehushtan.  King Hezekiah then had it destroyed to put an end to it.  For as much as many people hate them, snakes and serpents are used throughout cultures as representations of one aspect of life or another, in many ways as a good thing.  For instance we are aware that the emblem worn by people with the American Medical Association is that of a snake entwined on a staff.  That symbol comes from the Greek god of healing.  We are told back in Genesis how wise the serpent was.  And other cultures depict it as symbols of fertility.

But for the Israelites the snakes sent by God meant one thing:  sin.  It was for their sins that the snakes were sent and it was by looking up at a snake that they repented.  There’s a saying that goes along with this that says ‘that which kills, heals’ or if you’re into the pop singer Kelly Clarkson one of her songs has a line; ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ For many poisons and diseases it’s the very thing that causes you pain that is used for the serum.  We build up immune systems and create vaccines from the very viruses that give us the flu and other communicable diseases.  The venom from snakes and spiders is milked to make a serum that will reverse the effects of their bites.  The snakes can also be thought of as the things in life that become our downfall.  We may first think of it as our diseases or our illnesses, but are those things mostly our faults?  Perhaps we can think of the serpents as our faults, our grumbling, our moaning, our inequities, yes – our sins, all of these and more are what keep us from living a healthy and spirit-filled life.  These are the things that spread some of the true sicknesses throughout the world; the sickness of hate, of greed, of indifference, of intolerance, of exclusion.  I don’t know if they are dangerous or deadly until they come back to bite me.  And then they show how bad they really are.  In fact in some interpretations of this the Hebrew word used is the same as fiery!  Another says flying!  Flying, fiery serpents!  Were they really fire breathing dragons or perhaps was the sting of the venom so bad it felt as if you were on fire?  I like to think that the realization of what keeps us back and truly is a sin against God and our neighbor can be enough to cause you to feel a little sick, and perhaps if it’s bad enough maybe even some fiery heart burn.

But how will this same item bring you relief?  How can our sins bring us grace and forgiveness – new life?  The revelation here is that once we’ve identified what ails us, once we come to grips with our faults; we hold them up in front of us and examine them for what they’re worth.  Just as the Israelites looked up at the bronze serpent on the pole to be healed of their wounds, we hold up our wrongdoings and reflect on them.  And once we admit the shortcomings and change our way of thinking (or repent), we are healed and forgiven, and the grace of God carries us on.

So it’s no coincidence that these passages are used in Lent.  We are in a season of repentance.  More and more people are using Lent as a time for an inner journey, finding the things in their lives that do them or others no good, and making the necessary changes to move on.  We are creating the same story for ourselves as the Israelites did who held up the bronze serpent.  It is nearing the time in Lent where we will look up at the son of man being raised up on a cross.  Jesus spoke the words.  He was raised up.  Except not just raised up on a cross for our viewing.  Not just raised up in atonement.  Not just raised up to cure us of our ills.  But raised up in his own pain and suffering – for us to see and feel the healing power of Christ – in our personal lives, the healing power of Christ in our family and neighbor’s lives, and the healing power of Christ in the life of the church.  Yes, God so loved the world… that He gave his only begotten son… and we are left with the mystery of how it all works… a mystery of which the more you believe, the deeper the mystery becomes… until nothing matters because the only thing you see is the light.  Amen.         Deacon Pete

citations:  RCL; Year B, 4th Sunday in Lent

A Call and Response

February 14, 2015 Leave a comment

IMG_2129How can we preach about servant-hood and make the best use of the readings to weave them into what we as Christians are called to do – namely through our baptismal covenant that we renewed a couple of weeks ago – and also by explaining how the Gospels relate to this calling? Throughout this season that began with the Feast of the Epiphany, we are being called to make some very big changes in our lives. It begins by announcing to the world that the almighty, the king of all, has finally been born. But perhaps more than an announcement, it calls us – and again I use the word “call” – calls us to respond to this announcement that the almighty is with us.

I have to comment here about the word “almighty.”   You see when we use the word almighty in the modern English context it sounds good but doesn’t quite have the kick to it that the original Greek word ‘Pantocrator’ has. It entails more of a godly power of omnipotence rather than the earthly power of a mortal ruler. The Pantocrator is the One who has been, who is, and is to come. Speaking of Pantocrator, we have more than a few orthodox icons in our home, some we use for prayer and meditation, others we have displayed here and there as reminders throughout the day that God is with us.

One day back when I was attending the school of Christian Studies the class was at a church looking at some of the artwork and I noticed the icon of Christ the Pantocrator over on a shelf. I pointed it out to a few others who were around me and I said “I love this one, it really draws me in when I’m praying.” And someone asked me if I knew what it was called. Now sometimes I get words mixed up and this was one of them because I responded “Yes, that’s Christ Procrastinator!” Not missing a beat someone chimed in; “well, that explains why we haven’t had the second coming yet!”

Pantocrator, almighty, Christ, King, the Lord; whatever term we use we have to understand that it’s not merely a title. As I said, His arrival calls us to servant-hood, but at the same time we need to respond to that call. And that makes all the difference. Today we read about the responses from Simon who was to be Peter, his brother Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, John and James. Last week we heard about Nathanael and Philip. The week before we even saw Jesus’s response by being baptized. You might be saying, “Sure, all of these incidents show a call and people responded by saying yes.” But it goes so much deeper than that. It requires us to do more than just say “yes.” We’re sitting here in church and hear the call to say the Nicene Creed, we respond by rolling right on through “I believe in God…” now what? The answer to “now what” is found right here in these gospel readings.   Once we acknowledge the call and respond to it we should be as Samuel in last week’s OT reading saying; “Here I am, Lord. Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Peter, Andrew, John and James responded by setting down their nets, walking away from their boats, and yes; even walking away from a father and the family business. Nathanael and Philip have it revealed to them that they no longer have to read about Jacob watching angels ascending and descending. They will be shown the holiness of their own ground, and that heaven is here on earth if we know how to look for it. The story of the Magi has several responses within it; one being to follow a star, a light, a beacon that will guide them to the Messiah; another response is that once we’ve become aware of Christ in our lives, we need to turn and go a different way, a new direction, and avoid the King Herods that ruled our lives previously in this world.   And when Jesus is baptized, he also responds by going a new direction; following the Spirit and venturing into a place unknown… the wilderness.

Yes, Epiphany is perhaps more about what we do with a revelation than the revelation itself! These lessons in the Gospels are here to guide us on the journey. But it won’t do anyone one bit of good if we don’t respond to them. Imagine if Peter, John, and James would have said, “Yeah, wow, that’s cool. We’ll be following you in just a minute, though. A cold front is moving in, those fish are going to be schooling together, let’s get the nets loaded up and haul us in a big catch!”? For us it would be the same response as seeing the fish hatchery truck and follow it up the stream to see where it was going to stock. It wasn’t that they acknowledged the call, it was that they acted upon this realization that something life-changing was available to them and they couldn’t miss out on what lie ahead. They didn’t allow the normal routine to get in their way and cause them to retreat to the normal way of doing business.

Now some people call that crazy. To watch others turn away from something that, to them, seems like a stable and rational way of living, and follow a stranger who showed up on the sea shore and watched you repair nets for a minute or two isn’t normal. You know, I can imagine myself, standing in the middle of a stream on a beautiful day just made for fishing, trying different lures, taking my time, when someone walks down to the bank and says, “Hey friend, I saw you sitting under the dogwood tree earlier. You’re a very spiritual kind of guy. I want you to come along with me right now.” If anyone else around is watching, they surely would be guessing that that other guy is on drugs or just not right in the head, just knowing that I’d be out of the stream onto the opposite bank, leaving a trail of fishing tackle along the way! And imagine the shock on their faces if I waded over to him, dropped my vest and rod on the bank and started walking down the trail with him!

These are the kind of changes that happen when we truly have that epiphany – that true knowing – not just temporal, not just a passing thought – but the knowing that rattles from head to toe. The knowing that makes you turn away from what you are doing and points you toward something you never imagined before. There is excitement in it and something says “go for it!” My story of answering was confirmed for me one spring morning as we drove up route 15 to Lewisburg for classes. I was born with a rod and reel in my hand and rarely missed an opening trout day. We started driving past a large stream that hugged the road and there were numerous cars parked on the shoulder with people putting on fishing vests, hip boots and waders everywhere you looked. My first thought was “Wow, what a great day for fishing, I hope they have fun!” Perhaps the year before, not having reached the point of making a turn in a new direction I probably would have said “Dang, they’re out there fishing and I’m stuck in this car going to some stupid class!” Yes, I did realize my new and different reaction and that made all the difference in the world, knowing that my focus was not on the old way of doing things.

That is just one type of call that we have when we realize the Christ, the Almighty, the King of All, the Lord, has been made known to us. And that’s just one type of response. We all have our call – sometimes even more than one during any lifetime – and we need to respond. You may have a call to inquire on the needs of the hungry and homeless and plan a meal for them on a regular basis as some of you have done. You may have a call after hearing of some disaster and find out the victims need blankets, coats, socks, or water, and then plan on a way to collect these items and get them where they are needed. You may have a call to stand with the others on this altar every Sunday and serve Christ by helping set the table, serving others, and cleaning up. Or you may have been called to lay on hands and pray for the healing of the sick as we’ll do here momentarily. I can’t tell you what your call is, Mother Daphne can’t tell you, and Father Ed couldn’t tell me when I walked into his office eight years ago asking the question “How do I know if I’m called to be ordained?”

Sometimes, as are the cases in the gospels, the call is clear and distinct; “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Other times it may come in the form of a question; “Do you think you could find out where help is needed in the community during cold weather?” Either way, it requires a response and a change in direction. We can’t go back to the old King Herods. We can’t go back to sitting in a boat all day. We can’t go back at this moment in time thinking we have the same resources as a church we had in the past. It’s not saying we won’t ever have that back, it’s saying we need to face a new direction now. We can’t go back, we need to go forward. As we look to the next few weeks of Epiphany, let us look at ways we may have been called to do more. Let us do it together as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, and let us help each other through prayer and support, in finding out what things we need to leave behind and which ways we need to be going. And may we find all of those things by, with, and through Christ who is the one that calls us. Amen    Peace!  Deacon Pete

Citation:  RCL;  Year B, 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (Mark 1:14-20)

NOTE:  An edited portion of this sermon was published here:

http://cumberlink.com/news/religion/faith_in_focus/faith-in-focus-a-call-and-response/article_55ac3b6c-e890-5c5a-a8b1-c023ea585503.html

 

Breaking the Law; Healing the Sick

February 14, 2015 Leave a comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStepping up in a crowd to take action can move us out of our comfort zone, but at the same time it stretches you and builds your confidence for even greater things than these. This idea of stretching ourselves is woven through the scriptures and especially what Mark is telling us in the Gospel. Paul gives us more than just a hint about the need to change things up in today’s Epistle. But of course it all begins with Moses telling us that one day there will be Prophet raised up by God to show us the way.
Moses makes the promise, Mark gives proof that the promise has been fulfilled, and Paul demonstrates a way in which we respond. Now to get us into the main storyline of Jesus’s actions in the synagogue performing this exorcism, let’s reflect on what we know about Mark. We know the text attributed to him was the first gospel ever recorded. We know it is not a text on morals or ethics such as can be said of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The fact that he omits what some consider the core of Jesus’s message: the sermons on the mount and the plain; shows us that we’re hearing about what Jesus does more than what he says. It is a story that includes as much history as it does theology. It is a story that sets out to tell us that Jesus was not someone who reverently sat in the pews during service. He was someone that grabbed our attention when we least expected. And He was someone who would rather break a rule for the sake of saving a leper than to blindly obey laws that had long lost their true value.
Mark is personally one who knew Peter and Paul and had not only the firsthand knowledge of Jesus’s authority on earth through their teachings, but also witnessed that authority through the healing miracles performed by those two Saints. We can see through Mark what Jesus did during his time with them, and so he sets the tone of Jesus’s ministry by beginning with an exorcism. These are some very tricky versus for our time and place – where a watered-down Christianity wants to make everything more comfortable for us by maybe trying to replace the word ‘demon’ with ‘illness’; or even by saying that these readings are all metaphors. But if we try to explain away the images and written words that appear here as some Grimm Fairy Tale, we will completely lose what Mark is trying to tell us.
Mark wants to show us that Jesus is not just another teacher, another rabbi in the community. He is one who has authority. He doesn’t just walk into a place all calm and collective, read a few scrolls, say what’s on his mind, and sit down without raising even the slightest eyebrow. Because Jesus has what has never been seen before; the authority of God, the meeting just got a little more exciting. Let’s compare images of how things might have gone before and after His arrival. The scribes are in the synagogue reading the scrolls, then maybe go off on some long, boring sermon about what they think it means. Or maybe they’ve already had their discussion beforehand in the form of Midrash and are giving the people their findings. Everyone shakes their head and nods, exchange some handshakes, sit down and break bread and drink some wine and go home to feed the cattle and tend the sheep.
Jesus walks in and it’s his turn to read. He stands up, takes a scroll, reads and then begins to teach a new teaching. He starts interpreting the words in ways which they hadn’t heard before and now are finally making sense. Instead of people nodding to be nice and mumbling in unison, they’re applauding the words and gasping at the fresh air. Mark uses the word ‘immediately’ throughout his book. In most translations where modern writers frown on using the same word over and over again they wind up replacing this with other words that may just lose some of the intensity such as ‘at that time’, or ‘then’. There is a reason for Mark’s selection of adverbs and this one is to set a rhythm and tone to the events as they unfold. He wants to show the impact Jesus has on people. And impact them he does, for two other words he uses over and over are ‘astounded’ and ‘amazed’. They are always astounded and amazed at what Jesus has done.
What we can draw from this so far is that first, we are to be sure that Jesus teaches with authority, unlike the scribes. He came not to read, but to teach! And his teachings were alive and fresh… think about that… what it would be like to sit down in church and have someone preaching for hours and you are so rapt up in this person’s ideas and presentation that you completely forget about your Sunday pot roast simmering in the oven. (Remember those days?) The pot roast – not the sermons. Secondly, we can see that his authority stretches out beyond the confines of a stone building, beyond the words he speaks, beyond our wildest dreams because he has complete command and control over evil… something that up to this point only God had control over.
But what about Paul’s letter? How might that tie into the idea of being in control of instead of being controlled? Paul’s lesson is one that deals with the moral and ethical problem of doing something that is legal and okay with us, yet might cause another harm. For example, I know of a few alcoholics and drug addicts. Exchange meat for alcohol in Paul’s letter and you can see what he’s saying. I would not invite an alcoholic to a party where wine, beer and liquor was being consumed by everyone else without letting him know that up front. To have him show up unaware could be more temptation than he could handle and I could be liable for sending him back into rehab. Another example of this is a real life case that just happened in Paris with the Charlie newspaper. Do we have freedom to print what we want? Here in the western world, yes. But before we make something public, perhaps we might want to consider what the consequences will be if people radically disagree with our thoughts. Just because something is legal to do doesn’t mean it should always be done. Paul tells us it’s our responsibility to look out for the greater good in all we do.
Which is another vein of thought we get from the gospel. We can easily infer that people who were possessed with demons (or were ill, sick, dying, hungry, homeless, etc.), these people had previously sat around on the perimeter of the crowd and yet had been ignored by the rest of society. Nobody turned to them when they cried out. Nobody asked how they could help. Nobody ventured into that safe space between themselves and the ones in need because most everyone has a fear of the unknown. This is more of the wilderness we spoke of last week. The wilderness that Jesus walked into after being baptized. It’s were we all need to go. And nobody dared to go there then and few dare these days. They – we – just sit pretending to be comfortable and not take notice. Everyone except for Jesus.
Yes, they sat back and ignored everything around them. When we sit back ignoring what’s wrong in the world and allow evil to be evil we give it power. Jesus refused to allow evil to have power over him and with him in our lives we can be sure it has no power over us. But if we don’t stand up to what is wrong and turn it away, if we sit back and say “nope, that’s none of my business, let someone else take care of it” we are just like the scribes who told the same old story time after time after time. To do nothing about a situation allows the problem to persist and more than likely get worse.
Jesus knew the needs of others then as he knows the needs of others now. Through Mark, he shows us that not only is he a talented teacher of morals and ethics, but he shows us that he also has the authority to make all things right. Do we have the courage and strength to do what is necessary to stand up to evil in the world, no matter how it presents itself? Do we know and trust that as Christ’s own, we have his authority at our beck and call whenever we need it? It continues to be one of those call and response situations we encounter during this time after Epiphany, and that we talked about last week. However in this case, it just might be that we are the ones who are calling to Jesus for His response and authority in a time we may need it most. So will we call and be amazed and astounded at the result? Or will we sit around nodding our heads and mumbling with the crowd? Let’s hope we can tell everyone how amazed we were at the power and authority of Jesus! Amen.       Peace!  Deacon Pete

Citation:  RCL; Year B, 4th Sunday after Epiphany (Deut 18:15-20, Cor 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28)

Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law (or: Jesus’s First Deacon?)

February 14, 2015 Leave a comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The last few weeks we’ve hit upon one of the themes woven into Epiphany – that being how we hear the call, each in our own way – and are expected to respond to this call. Last week we even ventured into how we call upon Jesus and how he responds in kind to our requests. The same words keep coming up over and over; call and response. But not just a response of “okay, I hear you, Lord”; but a response that moves us in a manner that we change our behavior and start in a new direction, begin a new way of seeing and hearing. And most often it’s a response that calls us to serve. And that is where today’s gospel begins.

For Mark, two things stood out in Jesus’s ministry. He heals the sick and feeds the hungry. In Matthew he preaches and teaches a lot. But here it’s what Jesus does that is supposed to get our attention. In a few lines of verse there is a call, a response, and we head in another direction. A condensed version would be; Simon calls to Jesus to tell him about his mother-in-law and he responds without question. The word get out to the entire town and when those people are healed Jesus restores himself through prayer and they head out in a new direction to spread this ministry of healing to all who ask. Tucked in there is another response that some may have been taking the wrong way. And that is the response to serve after receiving a gift. Some have interpreted the act of serving that Simon’s mother-in-law jumps into as a menial task of serving lazy men. After all, she has been in bed with a fever, and in those times a fever was no small ailment. Many died because remedies were not well known and recovery times were often long and dangerous. So when we read of how she immediately jumped up and started serving we can be misled into the thoughts of a patristic and misogynistic society where male domination meant everything, even to the point of disregarding someone’s health.

Allow me to present another rendition. Jesus was just beginning his ministry. He had left the synagogue where his authority was revealed through his new teaching and the healing of a man possessed by demons. He arrives at the home of Simon Peter and without question, without words, without ceremony or ritual, touches a woman and she is healed. At once – or ‘immediately’ as Mark so often says – she gets up and serves him. … How often do we respond immediately to the healing moments in our lives? The ones that come out of the blue without any notice; without being requested? When all we might do is mention to someone that a friend is sick and we find out that person is on the prayer chain and begins calling people to pray together. Or we sit anxiously awaiting the news of a loved one who is hospitalized, only to have a stranger sit next to you who begins humming an old forgotten hymn that at once comforts and soothes you. What is our reaction to those moments? Do we sit quietly, absorbing it all for ourselves? Or do we accept the gift of peace and love and mark it in our hearts to do the same for another when given the opportunity?

I truly believe that in this case, the un-named woman realizes the gift of Jesus’s healing power and acts in the only way she knows of to give thanks; she takes on the role of being the first servant to him. She has a servant’s heart and she is now serving the one who came to serve, the Messiah. It will be a long time until these lazy men understand the concept of what Jesus is preaching. For many of them it won’t be until after he’s gone from this world that they fully understand what servant-hood means and what their response to a new calling will be. But for a moment, long before Peter and John and James and the rest of the apostles select seven of the disciples to serve the needy while they continue spreading the gospel; long before these seven were selected to be the first deacons in the new church; Simon’s mother-in-law demonstrates what true diaconal ministry is by leaving her old ways behind and serving Christ, Himself. She is the first of his servants and therefore arguably the first deacon to serve in his ministry.

Now if you’re saying, all well and good, but Jesus isn’t here, we already serve him in his church, I have to say, yes that’s true… but… If you’ll humor me a bit here, let me take you to another situation in another time and place. The year is around 1200 ce. We’re in Italy were a monk named Francis is walking around the countryside. He hears the clanging of cans approaching, the cans tied to the legs of lepers who wear them to warn others that they are in the area. But for some reason Francis doesn’t run. He doesn’t hide. He immediately feels overcome with compassion and runs over to great the leper, hugging him, and kissing his sores.  When Francis looks up, instead of the leper, he sees it is Christ himself who has been welcomed and loved! And this humble saint realizes that to serve others is to serve Christ. From that moment on he saw each and every person he met as a means of serving his master while serving all of his brothers and sisters on earth; yes, even seeing earth as it is in heaven.

There is no difference between us and that first woman who served Jesus. We have been blessed with having the history, the stories, the theology, and the mystical experiences handed down to us from those who were the first to be called, the first to respond, and the first to make that change that called them from within; that knowing that can’t be turned away from. They may be the first who saw and the first who believed, but as I said, it doesn’t mean that just because the physical being of Jesus is no longer with us, that we don’t still have that call. The call is there – one way or another – for each of us who have discovered Christ in our lives. Will we, or should I say, “how” will we choose to respond and serve him in today’s world? Perhaps Christ will show up in the most unexpected person or place when we let go of ourselves and open up our compassion and become the servants we were called to be.

Citations: RCL; Year B, 5th Sunday after Epiphany (Mark 1:29-39)

Maundy Thursday

April 18, 2014 Leave a comment

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This evening is special. Maundy Thursday. The lead-in to what we call the Triduum; consisting of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The root word of Maundy is the same as ‘mandate’. Mandate Thursday. The day in which Jesus gave us a mandate to love. After all it is John’s Gospel. John’s message is one of love and so we must hold that in mind as we go through all of today’s liturgies. And we have just heard John’s version of the meal that was had prior to the betrayal. In this gospel we get a different side of the story and perhaps combined with the synoptic gospels – a more complete telling of Jesus’s last night. It’s the focal point of our worship and the foundation of what Christianity used as its starting point to gather the body of Christ together. But this is the only day of the year you’re guaranteed to hear John’s version of Jesus’s last night not with the bread and wine, but with the washing of feet.
So keep in mind as we progress through this and every service where we celebrate Holy Eucharist, that if the only Gospel we had was John’s, people would be wearing sandals to church each Sunday in preparation to have their feet washed. Easy off, easy on. Instead of bread and wine we’d have warm water and fragrant soap. Instead of corporals and purificators on an altar we’d have sponges and towels on a dry sink. And perhaps instead of a communion rail we’d have a row of benches along-side a trench that carried the water to a drain. The Jewish custom of celebrating Passover with a meal would not have the slightest role in our services because it would now be a Christian service based on Love and spreading that Love by caring for each other. Instead we carry on with a worship service gleaned from what we Episcopalians cherish most: Food.
Today’s lectionary gives us a good overview of how Passover evolved into a liturgy of the Holy Eucharist. Along with John’s narrative we have the telling of the Passover, where the legacy of sacrificing a lamb saved the first born of the Hebrews. We have Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth, with an understanding that prior to this instruction, he is scolding them for turning the Holy Eucharist into a feast where only the upper echelon of society gets served, and the rest go hungry or beg for scraps. And sandwiched in between those two readings we find one of the Hallel psalms that’s known to all who speak Hebrew. The word ‘Hallel’ means praise. Add Yah onto it which means Lord, and you have Hallel-Yah, accurately interpreted as: “Praise the Lord!” Easily heard in our time as Halleluiah. Some of this small cluster of psalms are very often used in thanksgiving and worship services to show praise and honor to God. And they were also used during the Seder dinner at Passover.
So this Hallel psalm is particular to today’s readings. It allows us to say with a fair amount of certainty that Jesus recited this psalm on his last night. If you’ll humor me for a moment imagine a group of ten, twenty or so people gathered in a large living area, maybe the size of the chapel. They’re spread out across the floor or leaning against a wall. There may be a table that the food was setting on, and around that table we might find Jesus preparing to bless the food. He begins reciting psalm 116; perhaps from memory or perhaps from a scroll. He starts out, “I love the LORD.” The people in the room turn their attention to Him, already knowing the words that come next. The scrolls were their book of common prayer and they knew them well. He continues to read and further down he says, “What shall I return to the LORD?” I’d like to think that at this point he knows what he is about to face. He knows that it is his life in this world that is about to be returned to the LORD. Maybe at this point his voice begins to quiver in anticipation of the next verse; “I will lift up the cup of salvation.” We can see him glance at the cup of wine in front of him. It is this very cup he will bless and from it an eternal sacrament will be born. We have to wonder then, how he manages to make it through the next few verses. Especially verse 15, “Precious … is the death of his faithful ones,” knowing it is He that is precious because of his imminent death. And, maybe also knowing the fate awaiting those who sit around the room with him.
We can see how he had already started planning to act on the next verse “O LORD, I am your servant” and he begins by preparing to break the bread to be passed out to all who are there. Yet he won’t stop until everyone has been fed, and not only fed, but washed up as well, by performing the humble act of washing the disciple’s feet. For the verse continues; “I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid.” You can’t be much lower than that on the rungs of the ladder of society; the child of your serving-maid. And so it remains as it is written, that he must show this group that their job is not to be served, but to serve others. Do not become like those Paul speaks of in Corinth. They are not to raise the cup and pass it around to an inner group of friends and cohorts. It is not a cup of luxury and perverted honor, but a cup of selflessness and humility that says “You have loosed my bonds.” I am a servant, yes, but a free servant because it is the LORD that I serve by serving others in His name.
Yet there is still more, still something deeper than the psalmist goes. Because you see, as if it weren’t enough to be set up to be murdered, it must also be a sacrifice. A sacrifice in thanksgiving. He offers Himself willingly with Love! Just as he lifts up the bread and wine and asks us to re-member this every time we share communion with our sisters and brothers in Christ, we are asked to receive it with Love and give it in Love to re-member with Him again and again and again. That is what it is all about. Re-membering in the Love that he gave his disciples. Re-membering in the Love that they grew in and passed on to others long after he was gone from their sight. Re-membering in the Love that he continues to give us and the love that we have grown in, and that we pass on to everyone, including those we do not know. At different times Jesus talked in different ways, using different styles of teaching. He used metaphors, analogies, and parables but when he wanted to truly get the point across he did so by being a living example.
We come together to share in having our feet washed once a year. Whether you think that as a good thing or a bad thing, you have the Gospel writers to praise or blame because they are the ones who used the meal a majority of the times. Having your feet washed by someone can be a transformative experience. Many have done it in the past and many more will do it today and in the future. It is purely by personal choice and nobody will be judged in any way. But if you’ve never participated in this. If you’ve never allowed another to humble themselves by kneeling before you to wash your feet, then I ask you to consider it. They say that Holy Communion is in two forms, the two elements of bread and wine, the body and blood; but now is the chance to receive in a third kind: The humility of being served in the name of The LORD by someone who is humbling themselves by serving in the name of The LORD. Amen.

Deacon Pete