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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)

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)

 

 

A Righteous Advent

November 29, 2015 Leave a comment

 

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Last week I was scheduled to give you a brief talk about stewardship, particularly stewardship of creation. Now for me there is not that much of a stretch between these two themes – creation and advent – so I was thinking just maybe we could merge them into one message. It will either come together brilliantly or fail pathetically, but you are owed at least an attempt at what you missed from me last week. We shall hope for brilliance. And if it never gets there, there’s always coffee to discuss it over after the service.

So let’s begin this adventure with our first reading today from Jeremiah. Notice how the readings are prophetic and apocalyptic. The one thing we draw towards in this season, the one focus as the natural daylight fades and the amount of darkness increases IS the new Light – with a capital L. Or maybe more appropriate might be RE-newed Light. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, what we do in Advent is recollect ourselves and prepare for the second coming of Christ. The prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah tell us of the first coming. That prophecy was fulfilled just over 2000 years ago. That is why today we focus on the renewed Light, represented by the candles in the beautiful wreath. We are to bring ourselves back into a state of going about our business in a right and proper manner. And we’re told of that second coming in the writings of the Gospels and Epistles; here today we’re reading Luke’s version and the self-prophecy of Jesus describing the future. So we wait in hope with our candles lit to drive away the darkness that tries to consume us.

And do it how? In righteousness. Now this word has an effect where when we are confronted with it can often confuse as well as annoys us. Righteousness. It’s a word that you seldom hear outside of religious circles. Someone makes a comment about how someone is a sinner for doing something that the good book says they will be condemned for. Another hears this not-so-nice comment and responds with “you aren’t supposed to judge others!” That response is immediately met with the first person saying “I use righteous judgement like the bible says to do! So don’t judge me!” And another opportunity to learn from and educate each other is wiped out because now both parties are in defense mode and there is nothing that can be said that will change their minds.

How did this situation get so convoluted to start with? Again, I think it comes down to how we view that word “righteousness”. It sounds so authoritative. Yet Jeremiah convincingly and lovingly cries out with hope that the Lord will cause a righteous branch to spring up, and there will be justice and righteousness, and everything will be so wonderful and fulfilling that the day shall be called “The Lord is our righteousness.”  …   Let’s ask ourselves how that compares with the form of being righteous I just mentioned.

There is a difference. True righteousness is not an attitude or an absolute standard. It refers to how we conduct ourselves in staying in line with God’s purpose – God’s ‘will’ – if you wish. In the Feasting on the Word Commentary, Gary Charles says that “It is doing the good thing and the God thing: right doing as opposed to wrongdoing, and doing as opposed to being.” What we see and hear of all too often is Self-righteousness which is nothing more than the inflated ego of self-approval; He says further “righteousness is the humble ethic of living toward others in just and loving relationships.” We as a congregation will be comforted and motivated by preaching and teaching that brings this kind of Jeremiah righteousness into its language and life. It will be a challenge that causes us to reflect on our integrity in the world. So is the Lord our righteousness? Are we willing to welcome the day when God’s justice and righteousness will be fulfilled? Can we read Jesus’s words in Luke and accept that what he describes will come true?

I don’t know how you understand it all but for me, this acceptance of Advent just doesn’t fit into the secular world this time of year. How soon after the pumpkins were carved did we see tinsel and trees and inflatable snowmen, santas, and yes – even inflatable baby Jesus’s placed on the shelves where just a day or two prior sat bags of black and orange wrapped candy. Advent doesn’t fit into the secular world these days because it’s antithetical to capitalism. We mustn’t be contemplating our inner lives and making space in our hearts for more peace and hope and love and joy when Christmas gets here. We’re supposed to have already opened two new lines of credit, preordered all the latest tech gadgets, and stocked up on every bottle of cheer and box of candy we can find. That’s what will make us happy! And it will make us happy now! Because if we’re happy now, we are sure to be elated on Christmas morning. Or Christmas Eve more than likely, the way we are forced to keep moving everything further ahead these days. So Advent just doesn’t fit into the ways of a kind of world that wants us to be in and OF it.

There has to be a balance where we can nurture the space not of this world. A space where candles are filling in the shadows with their light, while we do what is needed to be done in the world with the challenge not to become a part of it. This is where stewardship enters the picture. We must make the best use of and be able to balance our time, our energy, our work load, (our check books), and our prayer time; so that we don’t forget what is most important to us. Also, what is important to God and God’s purposes – God’s will – that way of righteousness that is humble, just, and loving to every creature on this earth.

I use the word “creature” here to mean everything that was created. When we use creation language we are more apt to view everything around us as something sacred and holy whose substance exists from the beginning of time, back when – as Paul says in other parts of his letter to the Thessalonians – Christ was before all things came into being and nothing came into being without Christ. In all things. Created all things. Yes. Christ was, is, and is to be. Everything that God made – and God continues to make – was and is declared by Him to be good. It is because of this I’m inclined to believe that any destruction of the creaturely nature of earth, our island home, is not a very righteous thing to do. Which is why I’ll always try to be a prophetic voice for those creatures who cannot speak for themselves.

Advent takes work, commitment, and an open mind that is willing to break loose from the material objects that we are told will comfort us and bring us joy. Advent makes us wait in candle lit silence in preparation for the second coming. Advent takes a righteous kind of thinking that will seek out God’s purpose and will. We are in a time that is constantly trying to drag us away from what we are supposed to be doing and apart from the people we need to do it with. May we as a congregation join together this Advent and become the light of a candle for our community that allows them to see the light of Christ whose return we wait for in this world. Amen.

Deacon Pete

Ref:  RCL Year C, First Advent.

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

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)

Ascending into the heavens… for the glory of God.

August 1, 2014 Leave a comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarlier in the week I was writing my article for the Sentinel on this same subject, the Ascension, and it was difficult to keep it to a few paragraphs. I wanted to go on and on but had to cut it short. How much can one person comprehend from today’s lessons? We have Jesus promising an advocate, the Holy Spirit, to fall upon each of them and be their guide for the future. We have Jesus rising up into the sky as he departs from his friends.   Then we have Peter admonishing a group of disciples; probably for being afraid of the tortures they’ve begun to bear in the name of Christ, telling them to take it all for the glory of God who now holds them in the power of His hands. And finally we have Jesus asking God to glorify him so he may glorify God.

            But let us not forget we also have our present lives. If I may steal a little quote from someone, probably from more than one person, we are an “Ascension Church”. We have been resurrected through changes that were beyond our own doing, and now we’ve been drawn into the “in-between” stages of our wonderful community of St. Luke’s. Having to deal with being “in-between” can make us restless and anxious to move on. We may want to hurry things and be on our way. But we must remind ourselves that that type of thinking might have been why we got ourselves where we are in the first place. There are some things in life that can be taken for granted and won’t hurt us like what flavor of ice cream should I buy for dessert. But this isn’t one of those things. Jesus’s call to us and the instructions he gives us on the day of his ascension finally take hold on the disciples and they begin to understand. And I know we are praying that we all understand as well.

What happened right after the resurrection is a different story. At that point in time the disciples still didn’t understand what it was they were to do. It wouldn’t be for another 40 days – that recurring bible number – that the eleven, along with their friends and families would grasp it all. Right after Jesus resurrected from the dead, visited every one of his disciples, and even after appearing in the room with the locked doors where he convinced Thomas of who he was, even after all of the reports of Jesus’s visits, what does Peter do? He goes fishing. Not a bad idea to do myself either, I think, being a life-long angler. “See any walking dead people today Deacon? Sure did! I think I’ll go fishing and clear my head awhile.” But not only does he go! Most of the other 11 join in and go with him! I imagine today it would be like taking three or four pontoon boats out on Raystown Lake and tying them together. Everyone walking gingerly about. Trying to make another cast and see what they catch. And then off in the distance on the shore we see another figure that looks like … Jesus! Again! This time he’s over on the shore with a charcoal grill and a cooler of your favorite drink yelling, “Come on over and join me for breakfast!”

Imagine now their lives go on seeing him again and again for days, weeks. The fishing gets better and better. Eventually the disciples are paying more attention to Jesus then they have before but something is different. They seem to be grasping things a little differently now. Sure, they ask over and over to have Jesus show them this father he keeps talking about. Perhaps this is a real lesson on patience; for all of them. But all of a sudden, one day, things change drastically. There they are, once again all together on a hillside. Someone says, “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus announces that the date or the hour is not known, however when he gets to his Father he will send them the Holy Spirit who will guide them in the days to follow. And then we encounter that magnificent scene that has been replicated and recreated time and time again on stained glass and greater than life size paintings. Many artists have worked on it and some still do. Jesus floating in mid-air amongst the clouds with an angel on each side and the crowd standing around dazed and amazed at what they see!

This is the point that has contemporary biblical historians and theologians like Crossan, Berg, and Spong, finding it inconceivable and beyond reason that anyone could just disappear into the sky. So they deny that the Ascension ever happened and simply forget about it. And then I have to ask them, how much of what has gone on previously in the written life of Jesus does sound reasonable? Yet they have now have another obstacle to deal with. How then do you go about with the rest of Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul, both written within about the same time period; all of them collaborating on the same theme. By the way, I don’t see any of the other evangelists finding a way to write Jesus out of the story line. They must have just given up. Except for John. He finishes his gospel saying that if everything were written that Jesus did there would be more volumes than we’d ever know. Sneaky!

What can we learn from this Ascension and the next ten days then? And what, besides the celebration of Pentecost next week (wear red), does this teach us? For starters, it teaches us that Jesus didn’t just disappear. You can believe the written account of him being raised up. You can imagine within the context of metaphysics that he was taken into the cosmos as the mystics see it. Or you may imagine him transcending this ordinary earth into a real heaven and becoming one with God as we’re told in the creeds and our catechisms. Then let us look again at how the disciples reacted to his leaving them here as opposed to his first leaving them at the crucifixion. At that time they were scared and all but for one that we know of, ran off to hide. Here – as their teacher goes to wherever, we find them confident and trusting in their Lord, making their way – not afraid and fearful for their lives – but with a countenance not seen before – making their way back to the upper room to be together and to pray.

If we are – and I am sure we are – an Ascension Church, we should really understand the idea of coming together and praying. That’s not just one concept; coming together and praying are two parts to the equation. First: We come together. —- I’m very happy that during this time of waiting we have Father Chris and Jeanne with us. Some seemed to think we were going to have someone around to fill the gaps while we called our next rector. I kept telling everyone; “no, we’re getting a trained interim who will help us discover who we were, who we are, and where we are going.” THAT is being played out in sessions like we’ll have — (after our service this morning) (had prior to this service). Fr. Chris is guiding us through a process we need to go through. He and Jeanne have richly blessed us with their presence and work here. He’s already helped us discover a great deal about the reality of where we are when it comes to our financial status. There is a great deal more to go through and so we must come together! We are an Ascension Church. We must come together.

Second: we pray. I’ve heard many thoughts on how and why we pray. I won’t go into the many ways and means of prayer right now, other than to say that when two or three or five or fifty are gathered together in Jesus’s name we KNOW that God is in the midst of us, and we KNOW that the Holy Spirit will give us answers to guide us just as Jesus promised. — The opportunities to pray in this parish are endless. We do pray!

And Third: we listen for the Holy Spirit to guide us through our lives in everything we do; everything we think; and everything we ask. You see the day of Pentecost came to us two thousand years ago… the Holy Spirit is with us! We can stop waiting for that part to hit us. But as a church, as a parish, as a community, and as individuals which is what each of the original disciples were … we are an Ascension Church. And as St. Luke tells us, it was well worth every second of the coming together and all of their prayers, because when the day of Pentecost came to them, it was a time of great celebration!! We can do this. We can grow out of this time of waiting and we will see us prosper in the future … but … there is a but … you’ve heard me say it over and over: We must come together through the process, giving prayers of thanksgiving for what we have been given… and prayers for guidance as to where to go from here. We have all the tools we need to make it through our Ascension time of waiting. Let’s use them wisely, with love, and give the glory to God! Amen.