Archive for October, 2018

Wrapping up the Scandal

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 10:46-52

1.

Today wraps up a larger section in the Gospel of Mark that began back in chapter 8, verses 22-26. I’ll read that opening story to you now; as I do, listen for similarities to today’s passage:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

There are some obvious similarities here: there’s a blind man; people bring him to Jesus; Jesus heals him. These similarities provide us with clues that the two stories are connected.

And yet, there are also some significant differences.

The blind man by the Pool of Bethsaida is rather passive, not saying anything that we know of and allowing himself to be led along by others; whereas Bartimaeus is proactive, shouting to Jesus even when the crowd discourages him from doing so.

At Bethsaida, Jesus never asks the blind man what he needs; with Bartimaeus, however, Jesus asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

Over here the man is healed in two parts—at first the people look like trees, walking, he said; he sees clearly only after Jesus lays hands on him a second time. Over there Bartimaeus leaps up and throws off his cloak, and his own faith makes him well.

Jesus tells one man to go home without even setting foot in the village; he tells the other man, “Follow me.”

Now, all these observations are worthy of contemplation. But the thing that scholars have long noted—where I want to dwell today—is that these two stories form a pair of bookends.

It’s characteristic of Mark: he does this elsewhere. He tells a story; a little while later he tells a parallel story; and everything in between relates to the bookends.

2.

So then, the easy question is, What are these stories about? Blindness, we answer.

But the more difficult, corollary question is this: How does everything in between relate?

This corollary question is not so easy to answer; but I think we can figure it out. For, if you’ve been in church at all since Proper 19—September 16th, this year—we’ve been talking about it every week—this in-between stuff.

That’s the last seven Sundays in a row, including today: How does blindness thread its way through these seven weeks?

So, here’s a quick review:

On Proper 19 I preached a sermon entitled, “Crying ‘Fowl.’” I told a story from my childhood of an encounter with a bobcat. My neighbor caught the bobcat by means of a trap with a spring mechanism.

This entire section of the Gospel, beginning with the man born blind and ending with Bartimaeus today, is sometimes called the Scandal of Mark. Skandalon, the Greek word from which we get our English word scandal, originally meant “a trap with a spring mechanism.”

We wondered together if Peter may have felt like he’d walked into a trap when Jesus rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Next, Proper 20, I preached a sermon called, “Greatness and Awkward Silences.” That day’s passage was structured around two awkward silences: the first because his disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them; and the second because they’d been arguing along the way about who among them was the greatest; and they were embarrassed.

At the conclusion of this passage Jesus called a little child to himself and said, “Whoever welcomes a little child welcomes me.”

On Proper 21 we wondered together what constitutes a community, for Jesus’ disciples had encountered a man who was doing signs and wonders in Jesus’ name but wasn’t a part of their community.

Like the disciples, we like to say we’re welcoming and inclusive, but what does this catchphrase really mean? I considered a few models with you—church as country club, church as museum, church as hipster joint—in this sermon entitled, “Called to Do Welcoming and Inclusive.”

Then, on Proper 22, in a sermon called, “The Kingdom of God and MeToo,” we took on a difficult passage about divorce, remarriage, and adultery, concluding that with the kingdom of God it’s not about what’s permissible but what’s possible.

We human beings like to come up with rules and regulations to govern our institutions, including the church. Jesus says it’s more about who we are called to be than what we should or should not do.

Again, he concluded by calling a little child to himself, this time to say, “Unless you receive the kingdom of God as a little child, you will never enter it.”

Next, on Proper 23, I preached a sermon called, “Wealth Intervention.” This was about the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

How difficult it is for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus warned—maybe because it blinds? Remember the bookends.

And last week, Proper 24, I preached a sermon called, “Assessing Effectively,” where we contrasted effective self-assessment with self-absorption.

James and John were at it again, their egos in charge, arguing once more about which of the disciples were the greatest. This time they asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand in glory. They were self-absorbed, not self-assessing.

And yet (we got our noses out of the details and looked at the bigger picture), after they learned to deny themselves and assess themselves effectively, in a kind of holy irony they did in fact become two of the greatest disciples ever.

Which brings us to today, and the story of Blind Bartimaeus.

Do you see (pun intended)? We began with the man born blind; we end with blind Baritmaeus. Everything in between complements and amplifies blindness; or, in other words, what it means to be spiritually blind.

3.

Now, here’s the hard part. Throughout this section, the Scandal of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ followers—not his opponents—are the focal point. It is his followers who demonstrate spiritual blindness.

It’s Peter to whom Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

It’s the twelve who do not understand what Jesus means when he says he must suffer and die and rise again.

It’s the twelve who fall into petty arguments along the way about who among them is the greatest.

It’s his closest disciples who shoo away the little children, the very ones whom they are supposed to be like.

It’s the rich young man who respects and comes to Jesus eager, wanting to learn from him—but then goes away sad because of his many possessions.

It’s James and John, who’d lived with Jesus day in and day out for three years, who approached him with an audacious, even rash, request.

And did you notice the crowd today? As the passage begins, they’re shushing and otherwise rebuking blind Bartimaeus. But then, when Jesus speaks up and says, “Call him here”—

It’s the fickle crowd who suddenly changes their tune. “Take heart,” they say, “get up, he is calling you.”

Bartimaeus may be physically blind; and yet, isn’t it blind Bartimaeus who really sees more than anyone else?

Throughout the Scandal of the Gospel of Mark, everyone around Jesus, including his closest disciples, is characterized by spiritual blindness. His followers are the focal point; and, today, we are his followers.

That means, like it or not, spiritual blindness characterizes us.

Whether you come to church just a few times a year, attend weekly, volunteer, sing in the choir, serve in leadership, or are ordained as a deacon, priest, or bishop—to some extent each one of us is spiritually blind.

Shouldn’t we work, then, to become more spiritually awake? Shouldn’t we pray daily that Jesus will increasingly open our eyes? Right now we see to some extent: people look like trees, walking. Shouldn’t we want to see people as they truly are?

4.

That’s the hard part: the bad news, if you will.

But there’s good news here too—there always is with the Gospel. We see it today in Jesus’ patience with us.

Jesus rebuked Peter, this is true. But very soon after that—through and beyond the rebuke—Jesus honored Peter. “Look,” Peter said, “we have left everything to follow you.” And Jesus said, “Yes, Peter, I get it. Truly I say to you, anyone who has left anything behind for my sake will receive a hundredfold in the kingdom of God.”

The rich young man came to Jesus and, looking at him, the text states, Jesus loved him.

Today, the crowd is fickle. They shush the blind man; then just as quickly, when they realize that Jesus actually wants to include the blind man in his mission, they welcome and include him. Yet Jesus doesn’t even make an issue of their fickleness. His patience towards them is beyond measure.

So it is with us. As a community of Christ-followers, we have our differences and distractions—whether wealth or ego or interpersonal squabbles or our inability to comprehend the mission Jesus left to us.

Does anyone have the patience for this kind of stuff?

But Jesus does.

Jesus’ patience with us is infinite and eternal. That’s the real scandal of the Gospel!

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Assessing Effectively

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on October 21, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 10:35-45

1.

Whenever I have a little extra time, I like to study congregational development. Congregational development is the term that’s in vogue today; twenty-five years ago it was church growth.

It’s the area of ecclesiology that wrestles with questions like: How can our congregation grow? What does it take for a congregation to attract more worshipers? What clues can we learn from local demographics? And—a question I was confronted with in Yuma—can a congregation of the Episcopal Church thrive in a geographic region where Trader Joe’s won’t open a franchise?

Trader Joe’s wouldn’t come to Yuma because there was not a high enough percentage of college-graduates there. I’d heard this rumor anyway; so I wrote to the company personally to ask if it was true. It was.

And yet the Episcopal Church’s demographic is high on education levels: How strong were an Episcopal parish’s chances for survival in a town whose education levels weren’t good enough for Trader Joe’s?

So you know, I’m not the only one concerned about congregational development. This area of ecclesiology has become a rather prominent focal point of not just the Episcopal Church but of most Christian denominations in the U. S. And not in just one segment, like Catholic, Protestant, mainstream, liberal, conservative, settled, or adaptable. But all of the above!

Numerous books have been published on the subject. If I wanted to attend workshops or other continuing education opportunities on this topic, well, there are so many available I don’t even know where to begin. It’s even a focus of doctoral study: I could go earn a Doctor of Ministry degree in Congregational Development if I were so inclined; I’m not.

Still, I take this area of ecclesiology seriously. In fact, the Bishop’s Committee and I have been working our way through a book this year on congregational development called Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter. We allot a chunk of time in each of our monthly meetings to discuss the ideas presented within.

2.

And today we’re confronted with this story.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus and ask, “Teacher, will you give us whatever we ask?”

And already things are sounding suspicious! I mean, whenever someone approaches me and says something like, “Tim, will you do me a favor?” my defensive radar goes up.

What is this “favor,” exactly, I wonder? What is it that the asker is trying to get me to do? Why hasn’t this person just come out with it and asked me directly? Am being manipulated?

And so I find a way not to say, “Yeah, sure. What do you need? Name it.”

Maybe Jesus’ defensive radar went up too.

Whatever the case, he doesn’t say, “Sure, what do you need? Name it.” Instead, without answering their preemptive request, he asks for clarification: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Oh,” they say—I imagine a little sheepishly—“well, you know, nothing much; just that one of us gets to sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory. No big deal. Won’t you do this for us?”

James and John’s is a recognizably audacious request. We could even call it rash. And thus there’s a certain tension here.

These two brothers are arguing about who’s the best, about who deserves to be in a place of honor in the kingdom. And—as if they didn’t already know—for the third time in this Gospel Jesus tells them what they must do to inherit the kingdom of God: be servant of all; be like a little child.

Now—though we’ve heard it all before—many times!—aren’t we a lot like James and John? Aren’t we rather audacious and rash in our faith and practice? When we go about our daily routines, isn’t it all too easy to put ourselves first and consider others only as an afterthought, if at all?

And what should we make of congregational development—how St. Thomas might become bigger and better; how St. Thomas might become more known in and around Temecula and Murrieta; how St. Thomas might pay off its mortgage once and for all?

Isn’t this similar to what James and John are doing?

We want a kind of glory for ourselves. We like to be in places of honor. We crave accolades. These are natural parts of our human condition.

Wouldn’t it be great, then, if St. Thomas became known as the best all-round parish in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego?

Heck yes!

Well, then, how are we gonna get there?

And so we think long and hard about congregational development.

But . . . as today’s Gospel shows us, we shouldn’t be self-absorbed, fighting for the top spot.

3.

This brings up two difficult questions. On the individual level, how do we combat self-absorption? On the corporate level, why should we concern ourselves with congregational development; isn’t it simply a self-serving exercise? (Spoiler alert: no, it’s not a self-serving exercise.)

Let’s take a step backwards, get our noses out of the details of the Gospel for a moment, and think about the bigger picture here.

Jesus rebuked James and John for striving to be on top; and yet, in the church history Hall of Fame, these two disciples in fact hold some of the top spots of all the saints. Jesus rebuked them for wanting to be the greatest; they nevertheless became some of the greatest.

As a parish, we shouldn’t be competitive about how well-known we are or might become because of our ministries; though St. Thomas may actually become a model parish in the Diocese of San Diego.

Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

And we nod our heads meaningfully, knowing this will in fact happen, though not as James and John envision it.

The bigger picture here is about effective self-assessment; which is different than self-absorption.

In today’s Gospel, James and John are good at being self-absorbed; but poor at self-assessment.

Like James and John, it’s natural for us to see the faults in other people; but not so easy to see our own. On the other hand, it’s very easy for us to see our own achievements and accomplishments, but much more difficult to see the achievements and accomplishments of others. It’s easy to criticize others and praise ourselves.

So, it’s only after James and John learn to deny themselves and assess themselves effectively that they are able to go out and accomplish Jesus’ mission—which makes them two of the greatest in the Faith Hall of Fame today.

What we should be after is effective self-assessment.

This is a skill that does not come naturally to us. It takes much effort; much practice.

For it to be effective, we look outward, putting others first; not inward, at our needs, wants, superiorities, entitlements, and biases. We don’t come to Jesus asking him to do something for us because, hey, we deserve it. Instead we come asking humbly, “How can I become a servant to all?” “How can I receive the kingdom as a child?”

4.

And this is precisely why I’m leading the Bishop’s Committee through Rebuilt: effective self-assessment! I don’t want St. Thomas to be self-focused; rather, I want the leadership to assess our congregation effectively.

But combatting self-absorption begins not with us as a congregation or even with the leadership but with all of us, you and me, as individuals.

Unless you and I learn to consider the needs of others as on par with our own needs; unless you and I rid ourselves of the senses of superiority and entitlement that tend to accompany our wealth, education, and ethnicity (I deserve to shop at Trader Joe’s); unless you and I see no distinction between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free as Christ sees no distinction—unless you and I, as individuals, see true equality between the faces seated around us and ourselves, we cannot move forward as the community God has called us to be in Christ Jesus.

Like James and John, it is only after we break free of self-absorption that we will be able to assess ourselves effectively—first as individuals and then as a community.

What is the purpose of the church? Is it not to go out into all the world and make disciples, teaching, baptizing, and healing? If I interpret this purpose correctly, then the church exists not for the benefit of its members but for those outside. It’s not about you and me; it’s about everybody else.

*****

How might we, St. Thomas Episcopal Church and School, accomplish this mission?

First, we rid ourselves of perceived entitlements and ways in which we feel superior to others; and thus receive the kingdom of God as a little child.

And, second, we seek to meet the true needs and hurts of those in the world around us; and thus become better servant-leaders.

These two actions are at the core of effective self-assessment. These two actions must be the focal point of every discussion we have about congregational development.

Wealth Intervention

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on October 14, 2018 by timtrue

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Mark 10:17-31

1.

Americans are wealthy.

Even if we don’t meet the Economic Policy Institute’s measure of the top 1% of America’s wealth—about $422K per year of household income in 2018 (minimum)[i]—we’re still wealthy.

We live in a wealthy country—one of the wealthiest in the modern world; and as for the history of humanity . . . well, most of us, even if we’re nowhere near that top 1%, live better than most royalty have lived in all of recorded history.

We hear about a widening gap between the rich and poor in the United States. While it may be true that the rich are getting richer, according to a Forbes article from June 1, 2013, the poorest people in our country are still richer than almost 70% of the world.[ii]

Eighteen countries were highlighted in this article. A bar graph shows a spectrum for each country: a red dot to the right on the bar indicates the top 10% wage mark; and a blue dot to the left indicates the lowest 10%. Everyone else—from 10% to 90%—falls somewhere on this spectrum.

When these 18 countries are compared, the U. S.’s red dot is the farthest to the right—but only just barely beating out Canada, Sweden, and Australia. Interestingly, the blue dots for these other three countries are to the right of our blue dot, meaning their poorest are better off than our poorest.

But that’s it! The poorest of the other fourteen countries are significantly poorer than our poorest; and—remarkably—the richest of seven of these countries are actually poorer than our poorest.

You heard me right: 90% of wage earners in Italy, Israel, Russia, Portugal, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico earn less than our bottom 10% mark.

This gives us some perspective. We are wealthy.

Wealth is something like a drug, isn’t it? The more we have, the more we think we need it; and the more we take for granted what we already have.

Our social, emotional, and even spiritual lives become chemically dependent on our wealth.

It fundamentally alters us.

We are a nation of addicts.

2.

So, a question: how does this wealth affect our church?

It’s a difficult question to answer.

We know, on the one hand, that the Episcopal Church thinks a lot about money. We are required canonically to have an annual pledge drive—which, by the way, is coming up shortly. We encourage tithing, though we don’t require it. Most dioceses have schools and camp and conference centers—big budget items. We have the Church Pension Group, begun by J. P. Morgan himself (so I’ve heard), one of the strongest in the nation (also, so I’ve heard). There’s even an organization called the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.

All this points to wealth.

But, on the other hand, it’s no secret that the Episcopal Church—along with mainline Christianity in the U. S.—is in decline. Membership is waning. We can’t make our budgets. Properties have been sold. Parishes have closed.

How do these factor into the church’s wealth?

Pew Research offers one answer. A survey they conducted looks not at churches per se, but at the individuals who attend churches: at average household incomes and religious identification in the U. S.

And their results, published on Oct. 11, 2016, are telling.[iii]

44% of those who identify as Jews in the U. S. make more than $100K per year of household income.

In second place, those who identify as Hindus; with 36% making more than $100K.

And guess who comes in third: Episcopalians, with 35% making more than $100K.

To give some perspective, Presbyterians come in at 25%; Mormons at 20%; Catholics at 19%; and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 4%.

The American average comes in at 19%, same as Catholics.

So, Episcopalians place third out of 26 groups; first of all Christian groups.

What does this indicate?

We are a wealthy church.

In fact, as far as churches go, we’re in the top 10%.

And that can generate all kinds of attitudes to watch out for—attitudes Jesus cautions us against—attitudes like privilege, entitlement, superiority, and anxiety.

3.

Now, with this in mind, today we come to Jesus, kneeling before him, eager; and we ask him a question:

“Good Teacher, you’ve blessed us with so much—this building, beautiful liturgy and music, a vicar, friends, hospitality, a community! And we’re trying really hard.

“We’ve got a Stephen Ministries team together and LEVs to get Communion out to our shut-ins.

“We watch what we say about other people, trying to build them up and not to tear them down.

“All the leadership is fulfilling the diocesan Safeguarding requirements.

“We work as a team and give credit where it’s due, paying our bills and working towards becoming a full-fledged parish.

“And we try to be honest in all our dealings with each other.

“Good Teacher, what more can we do?”

I find it interesting that this story comes right on the heels of last week’s story.

Jesus just finished teaching his disciples that unless we receive the kingdom of God as a little child, we shall not enter it.

When a little child receives something life-giving—food, maybe, or clothing—what does that little child do? Nothing—except say, Thank you!

And now we come to Jesus with this rich man and ask, What must we do?

Don’t you find Jesus’ answer curious?

I mean, Jesus just finished telling his disciples—through a difficult discussion about divorce and remarriage—that the kingdom of God is about what’s possible more than about what’s permissible.

Jesus just finished demonstrating that we shouldn’t rankle over lists—this is how to get a Christian divorce and still be in good graces with the church, etc.

And still the rich man asks, What must I do? Tell me. Give me a list.

And Jesus does not say, “Don’t you get it? Receive it, that’s all, like a little child receives a parent’s love!”

Instead, Jesus says, “You know the commandments”; and he names them.

Well, the rich man says, “I’ve done all these things since my youth.”

And so have we.

And we have a darn good church to show for it!

But there’s still this, Jesus says: let go of your addiction to wealth.

4.

But how? It’s easy to say; difficult to do.

Well, as I mentioned earlier, we’re about to launch our annual pledge drive. . . .

More seriously, Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher, professor, and Christian layperson whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. He published 58 books, many of them exploring the intersection of technology and religion—still very relevant for today. He is credited for the slogan, “Think globally; act locally.”

So, in his book entitled Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, he has this to say:

How [do we] overcome the spiritual “power” of money? Not by accumulating more money, not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings. The law of money is the law of accumulation, of buying and selling. That is why the only way to overcome the spiritual “power” of money is to give our money away, thus desacralizing it and freeing ourselves from its control. . . . To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.[iv]

How do we let go of our addiction to wealth? We give it away.

And, yes, the church is a wonderful organization to which you can give your money. Pledge according to your conscience.

But even more than I care about the church, I care about you.

Wealth is an addiction. The more you acquire, the more you want to acquire more; and the more you take on attitudes like privilege, entitlement, superiority, and anxiety.

Think of today’s Gospel as an intervention.

Do you want to be free from the love of money? Give away all that you possibly can. And when you’ve done that, give away even more.

Does this sound impossible? But for God, all things are possible.

[i] See https://www.epi.org/.

[ii] Cf. https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/06/01/astonishing-numbers-americas-poor-still-live-better-than-most-of-the-rest-of-humanity/#29eee57e54ef

[iii] Cf. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/11/how-income-varies-among-u-s-religious-groups/

[iv] As quoted in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4, p. 169 (WJK, 2009).

The Kingdom of God and MeToo

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by timtrue

220px-Brett_Kavanaugh_July_2018

Mark 10:2-16

1.

Today’s Gospel has it all, right? Marriage, divorce, remarriage, adultery, and little children! Sounds scandalous! We might say this passage is pregnant—tee he he—just waiting to give birth to all sorts of conflicting opinions and hasty judgments.

Not unlike modern politics!

So, to get us going today, here are some interesting recent statistics I looked up about divorce in the U. S. from the Pew Research Center:[I]

  • Every 13 seconds, someone files for a divorce.
  • 8 years is the average length of a first marriage.
  • The likelihood of a first marriage to end in divorce is 41%; of a second marriage, 60%; and of a third marriage, 73%.
  • 66% of divorces are filed by women.
  • 50% of children see their parents go through divorce.
  • 43% of children are living without their father’s involvement.
  • The number of divorces filed per year has decreased more or less steadily since 1995: about 1.2 million divorces were filed in 1995; in 2015, the number was about 800,000.
  • You’re more likely to get divorced if you:
    • Married before age 25;
    • Did not graduate high school;
    • Fight about money with your spouse;
    • Have a friend going through a divorce.
  • You’re less likely to get divorced if you:
    • Have a college degree;
    • Had happily married parents;
    • Are very religious;
    • Live in a blue state.

Divorce is Jesus’ starting point in today’s Gospel. Moses allowed divorce, Jesus says, because of humanity’s hardness of heart.

But from this springboard, Jesus moves on through the topics of remarriage, adultery, and children and comes around ultimately to the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God there will be no separating of what God has joined together; no divorce, remarriage, or adultery; no hardness of heart.

2.

Anyway, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and adultery are all related. But why does Jesus then bring little children into it? Why this juxtaposition? Is this some sort of mistake? Is the lectionary giving us too much: two separate and distinct topics?

It’s no mistake. Reading the text carefully, Jesus most definitely picks up the little children and blesses them in response to his disciples’ confusion about the kingdom of God; and the kingdom of God was where he took his divorce discussion.

These topics are definitely connected.

But how?

One thought has to do with children of divorce: in calling the little children to himself, maybe Jesus was saying that they are the real victims of divorce and remarriage, having no say in the matter and few if any rights.

Another thought, though, has to do with the connections between today’s Gospel and the one from two weeks ago. Just like in today’s Gospel, two weeks ago Jesus and his disciples entered a house where he then engaged them in discussion. And just like in today’s passage, two weeks ago Jesus welcomed a little child. These are some attention-grabbing connections.

So, do you recall what the discussion was about two weeks ago? The disciples had been arguing along the way about who among them was the greatest. Ego undergirded this discussion.

Today, the discussion revolves around divorce. Does ego play a part in divorce? (Does the bishop wear a funny hat?)

Yet, in both cases, the egos of little children—not to mention everything else about them—are often not factored into the equation at all.

So then, is Jesus giving us instructions here about how to live? Divorce may be a legal option, sure. But is it the most ethical option? What does a divorce—and, for that matter, remarriage and adultery—mean for children?

Maybe that’s it: instructions about how to live. Certainly, many churches want to go there. When is divorce acceptable, they ask; when is it not?

But we do ourselves a disservice if we stop here—if we think that today Jesus is merely offering wise counsel about divorce and remarriage.

Besides, in the end, when we make up rules and regulations about divorce and remarriage, aren’t we really just doing what Jesus’ opponents did? Aren’t we just asking what’s permissible?

Jesus’ response has little to do with what’s permissible. Instead, he turns the whole divorce discussion over on its head and tells his opponents and disciples—and his followers today—not what’s permissible but what’s possible.

Moses allowed divorce, he says, because of hard hearts. But in the kingdom of God, whatever God has joined together will not be separated. That beautiful, harmonious kingdom is possible in the here and now.

No, it’s not simply helpful instructions for living together that we see here today. This divorce discussion runs much deeper.

3.

How much deeper? Over the last year we’ve heard a lot about the so-called MeToo Movement. The discussion around this movement has become especially heated in the past few weeks surrounding the election of our newest Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

And I know, the pulpit is not an appropriate time or place to engage in the myriad details and opinions and emotions involved in current events.

Nevertheless, in the context of MeToo and SCOTUS, I exhort us to ponder, in the spirit of Jesus, not what is permissible but what is possible.

More specifically, let’s look at today’s Gospel again. Where does Jesus take us? What are his stopping points on his journey from divorce to little children?

Jesus’ opponents come to him to test him with a question. It is worded very specifically:

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Stop. Man? His wife?

Is it just me, or does this question sound patriarchal?

Jewish law—what Moses permitted—made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband. According to Jewish law, if a woman was unhappy or if her husband was abusive or unfaithful or whatever, she had no recourse except to hope and pray. In modern vernacular, she was trapped.

But am I being maybe a little anachronistic? Weren’t all laws of that day written only for “man”? And, if so, couldn’t that term be interpreted in a generic way, as in, “Is it lawful for a man or woman to divorce his wife or her husband?”

Well, that’s a nice thought. But the answer is, simply and clearly, no: Jewish law made no provision for a woman to divorce her husband.

This term, man—we know it refers to the male in a marriage precisely because of the contrast we find between Jewish law and contemporaneous Roman law; which did make provision for women wishing to divorce their husbands. A woman couldn’t vote in ancient Rome—or hold office or serve in the military—but she could divorce her husband.

So, look at what Jesus does! After he says that in God’s kingdom it’s not about what’s permissible but what’s possible, he targets this patriarchal mindset.

He says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her”—no surprise there.

But then—most surprising!—he continues, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (emphasis added).

Wait! Did Jesus really just go there? The law of Moses does not make provision for a woman to file a divorce; but the law of Rome does. Who does he think he is to come along and suggest that women ought to have equal rights? Has he sold out to Rome?

Jesus usurps the law of Moses. This surprises his disciples; and it should surprise us too, for in usurping the law of Moses he calls us out from what is permissible into what is possible.

A patriarchal mindset is permissible; true equality is possible.

It’s not just about what a man wants, or about a man’s career; it’s about MeToo.

4.

And as if right on cue, the disciples don’t get it: suddenly little children are all around; and the disciples shoo them away. Jesus, the text says, is indignant.

What does he have to do to get it through their thick skulls?

So, he calls the little children to himself, and says, Now do you understand? “For it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.”

And I do hope at this point the disciples said, “Aha!” It’s not in the text, so I can’t be sure; but I can hope. For here, everything Jesus has been getting at comes together.

Why this juxtaposition? Why do we find little children included in a tough passage about marriage, divorce, remarriage, and adultery?

In the ancient world, the only way a person could have all the rights was by being male. A female might get some rights, but she could never have all of them. And a little child—well, children were for shooing away and little else.

But the kingdom of God turns this patriarchal mentality on its head. The kingdom of God is about true equality—true liberty and justice for all.

So, whatever else we make of the MeToo Movement and SCOTUS, we cannot deny that a patriarchal mindset remains at work in our world. It may be only a shadow of what it once was, as some people argue; but a mere shadow contains far more darkness than the pure light of the kingdom of God.

Too often our debates revolve around what is permissible. But Jesus calls us to live into what is possible.

And what is possible, as the kingdom of God continues to break upon our shores, is true liberty and justice for all.

[i] As cited on https://www.divorcelawyersformen.com/blog/divorce-rate-us-2018/.

Called to Do Welcoming and Inclusive

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church on September 30, 2018.

Mark 9:38-50

1.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.” What a welcoming and inclusive phrase!

It reminds me, actually, of a story from Alexander the Great’s conquests. Maybe Jesus had this in mind too.

The year was 331 BCE. In his campaign against Darius III of Persia, Alexander’s army was making significant headway. Strategist that he was, Alexander reasoned he would divert his focus for a time to conquering Egypt. Conquest of Egypt would be advantageous for many reasons, not the least being the establishment of a strong coastal base from which he could communicate across the Mediterranean.

When he reached the town of Pelusium (in Egypt), he was met by a man named Mazaces, the governor who had been left in charge by Darius himself; but only Mazaces—no army, no navy, no kind of resistance whatsoever—for Darius had recently commanded all military forces to return to Persia.

So, Mazaces did the only thing he could think of: he handed over the treasury, 800 talents; and the royal furniture. Alexander installed a new governor, Cleomenes, but warmly received Mazaces, even appointing him to an administrative position overseeing finance and the royal mint.

News of this meeting spread. Later, having sailed up the Nile, Alexander and his navy reached the capitol Memphis. There they were received with a red-carpet reception. Alexander was hailed across the land as Savior and Liberator. As if to say, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” no battle of even the smallest scale took place. In fact, awed as he was by Egyptian culture, Alexander largely returned life to what it had been before Darius.

But this saying also reminds me of St. John’s Episcopal Church, in New Braunfels, Texas: the first Episcopal Church I ever attended, on Maundy Thursday of 2006. Soon after that, the bishop visited and confirmed Holly and me. At last, my family and I had found our spiritual home.

But about a year later, on a Sunday morning, from the pulpit, the rector announced, “After much prayer and discussion, the vestry and I have decided to leave the Episcopal Church. Next Sunday will be my last. In fact, we will march in procession out of these doors and down Guenther Ave. two blocks to where we have rented a new facility. Who’s with us?”

Is this the same thing as to say, “Whoever is not against us is for us”?

Now, the bishop was against him, surely. As for me, I didn’t really care what he, as a person, decided to do; but I was concerned about the parish, the community. I suppose, then, I was against him, in a way.

But what about all the other people, people like my dad, who was far removed from this drama and didn’t really care one way or another. He wasn’t against the rector; did that then mean he was for him?

Well, no.

So, I wonder, what about all those people in and around Galilee and beyond who were ambivalent toward Jesus? Was Jesus saying that, well, they weren’t against him so therefore they must be for him?

Um, Jesus, I’m not so sure it works that way.

We like to say things like, “Whoever is not against us if for us”; and “We’re welcoming and inclusive.” But in reality it doesn’t always flesh out like we think it’s supposed to.

2.

Whatever we make of Jesus’ words, today’s Gospel puts these ideologies to the test.

A man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name; and the disciples want to stop him, “because,” they say, “he was not following us.”

Jesus then says something unexpected: “Do not stop him”; and, “Whoever is not against us is for us”; and we think, rightly, that Jesus wants us to be similarly welcoming and inclusive.

However, did you catch what happens a little farther down? Jesus says it would be better to maim the body than to enter hell whole. Entering hell complete is still complete hell.

But here’s the thing: by body Jesus probably means the common metaphor for church; then what Jesus is now saying is that there is a time and place to be exclusive. Specifically, it is better to cut off a bad body part—better to exclude a present member of the community—than not to include an outsider seeking to come in.

Include the outsider yet exclude the insider? Is this a paradox? What gives?

At the very least, today’s passage brings up some difficult questions about communities that are formed in Christ’s name: churches.

Questions like:

Who is in the community; and who is not?

And:

Once a person is in the community, what are acceptable behaviors; and what are not?

3.

We, the Christian church, like to say we’re welcoming and inclusive. It’s a good thing to say. Nevertheless, what we do often demonstrates otherwise.

What do I mean?

Well, for starters, a church can become like a museum.

A museum is beautiful—and sacrosanct and awe-inspiring and all that—but at the end of the day it is mostly a place for artifacts, things that maybe once upon a time made the world a better place but have lost their relevance for today.

Chanting Rite I, facing east, wearing holy vestments from Roman times, burning incense, singing masses—these sorts of things are spectacularly and aurally beautiful, and no one wants to see or hear them fade out entirely; but when they become a church’s main focus, that church largely loses its relevance to the outside world.

A church can also become like a country club.

Now, don’t get me wrong, country clubs are nice places—the food, the recreational activities, the hospitality, the friends. But the reality is they are there to serve the insiders, the members, those who pay the annual fees. Apart from a modicum of marketing efforts, country clubs do very little for the outside world; and likewise the outside world is little concerned about what happens inside the country club—or the country club church.

A third analogy: I’ve heard statements made on many occasions like this: “That church is in hospice.”

The idea is that the church body in question is on its last leg, doing all it can to keep going another year or month or week or day before it is forced to close its doors. The focus is no longer on its life in connection with the outside world, but on life support: on how much longer it can be kept going.

Hospice facilities are good and necessary; and a very real part of the church’s responsibility is to focus on end-of-life issues. But death is just that: only part of the story. New life—resurrection—is the other part. And if you ask me, new life actually takes precedence over everything else. It’s the focal point in all our liturgies, even funerals. The goal of a “church in hospice” shouldn’t be to keep it going.

On the other hand, a fourth analogy, a church can just as easily become hipster.

But, regardless of how much a church tries to keep up with the times—technology, fashion, music, how cool the pastor is, whatever—trends toss and turn like the waves of the sea; yet the deeper realities and needs of humanity, the outside world, continue.

One more: a church can become a school of theology, where doctrine becomes the brand. What matters to a church like this is where you stand or don’t stand on hot topics—abortion or home-schooling or global warming, for instance.

I could go on, there are more analogies; but the point has been made. In each of these cases—no matter how welcoming and inclusive they say they are—these churches end up excluding those who are not like them.

And this is Jesus’ point today: even as communities of Christians, we humans naturally establish unwritten rules—shibboleths, invisible boundaries, walls—to keep out those who don’t see things the way we do.

But when these are stumbling blocks . . . it would be better to tie a millstone around our necks and plunge into the sea, Jesus says, than to put them in the way of those outside of our community who seek to come in.

I cannot stress it enough: Jesus calls us not just to be but to do welcoming and inclusive.

Greatness and Awkward Silences

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by timtrue

Delivered to St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on September 23, 2018.

Mark 9:30-37

1.

Who’s the greatest among us?

No, seriously, look around our world. What kind of person more often than not comes out ahead? Who fills the top leadership positions? Who wins?

Isn’t it all too often the pushiest, most self-promoting people? People in other contexts we might call bullies?

It happens on school playgrounds all the world over. It also happens in corporate America. In our individualistic and highly independent society, people don’t rise to positions of leadership by being meek and mild. Rather, they get there by fighting their way to the top.

After all, vying for the top job means you’ve got to compete against others; to make yourself look better than the competition.

I’ve said it before; the beatitudes is not a list of attributes anyone would want to include on a résumé. Vying for that top job requires a certain amount of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and relentlessness.

Even my former seminary dean—one of the meekest, mildest, and humblest men I’ve ever known—admitted to having to fight his way in order to get there.

Like it or not, it’s how we rise through the ranks. We figure out who the most important people are, we catch their attention, and we make ourselves look good in their eyes.

And it wasn’t much different in Jesus’ day.

A common Roman citizen could become a member of the equites, or even a senator—with enough hard work, networking, catching the attention of important onlookers, and a good dose of shameless self-promotion—to come out looking better than everyone else he was competing against.

Except . . . Jesus was a great man, perhaps the greatest man of all—no argument there—but he didn’t fit this definition! At all! Jesus didn’t compete with those who were in line to be the next synagogue leader. Jesus didn’t vie for social or popular position, hoping to catch the eye of the important persons in his community.

What do we do with Jesus?

2.

Which leads me to think about another way we sometimes argue about greatness. And I think this other way is what we find in today’s Gospel. Here’s what I mean:

So, today’s Gospel is structured around two awkward silences.

The first happens because, the text says, the disciples were afraid to respond to Jesus.

Jesus had been telling them some hard things; and they don’t understand what he was talking about.

But they don’t ask him to clarify. Instead, they remain silent. And it’s awkward; because, the text states, “they were afraid to ask him.”

I wonder if this has anything to do with last week’s Gospel. Last week, remember, Jesus started out by asking the questions, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

And after Peter answered, “You are the Messiah of Israel,” Jesus said then almost exactly the same things he says now:

The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.

But last week, when Peter tried to clarify, Jesus called him Satan!

So this week, apparently—I’m guessing—the disciples are afraid to say anything because no one wants to be called Satan again.

And thus: Awkward Silence Number One.

The second occurs some time later, when Jesus and his disciples have arrived at their destination, a house in Capernaum; and Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about along the way?”

Well, no one says anything because they were arguing about who was the greatest. That would be an embarrassing admission.

And thus: Awkward Silence Number Two.

And here’s how we want to interpret it. We hear about this second awkward silence and we, from our modern-day point of view, assume that the disciples must have been bragging, spouting off their credentials to one another, vying for position, competing, justifying why Jesus loves me more than he loves you.

3.

But I don’t think this is the right way to interpret today’s Gospel. Rather, I’m pretty sure this argument about who is the greatest directly relates to the first awkward silence.

The disciples were afraid to ask him to explain himself because no one wanted to be singled out.

Still, they must have been concerned. Jesus would be betrayed, killed, and resurrected? These are disconcerting statements. What in the world did he mean by them?

So, you know how it is when there’s a task that no one wants to do; one person says something like, “I’m not gonna ask him; you ask him!”

And a second disciple retorts, “Why should I ask him? I’m not even a part of his inner circle. That’s Peter, James, Philip, and Andrew. Why doesn’t one of them ask him? Why, all four of them are greater than me.”

And so the first disciple answers, “Good idea! Yeah, they’re greater than us. One of them should ask. I’ll go talk to Philip.”

But when Philip is asked, he feels in no greater position than anyone else—never mind that he was the first disciple ever called—what does that have to do with anything anyway?—and so he protests.

And so on.

Until most if not all of the disciples are in an all-out argument along the way about which of them is the greatest and therefore obligated, as the appointed spokesperson, to approach Jesus.

Which, when it all pans out, is really kind of embarrassing; and awkward silences result.

4.

Arguing about greatness can go both ways.

When it works to our advantage to be greater than the next person—competing for a prestigious position or whatever—we tend to promote ourselves, to tell everyone around us how great we are and why.

Or, when it works to our advantage to step out of the limelight—because there’s a hard task ahead that no one really wants to do or whatever—we tend to shirk it off, to tell everyone around us that we’re nobody special, really, and would therefore rather not be bothered.

Either way, however, after we boil down all the arguments for why we are or are not the greatest, the one substance remaining in the petri dish is ego. At the end of the day, we humans are wired to look out for number one.

And so Jesus calls over a small child.

Small children in Jesus’ day were thought of as sub-human, technically the property of their fathers.

Small children, in Jesus’ day, were insignificant shadows in their world.

In our day, thankfully, we pay a lot more attention to small children—in some ways. In public education, foster care, sports leagues, and many other ways we value our small children.

Still, in our arguments about greatness, have things changed all that much?

The relentless pursuit to become something or somebody greater, to amass more wealth, to acquire more clients, to increase in status, to become more well-known and respected—is a small child concerned with these things? Is a small child impressed by how much money you make, or how socially connected you are, or how beautiful you are? Is a small child the person we call on to do the hard tasks no one else wants to do?

Well, no, no, and no.

And so, sadly, for many people in our day, small children are just insignificant shadows.

But to welcome a small child in Christ’s name—to take the time to say hello to, read to, play with, spend time with; to welcome a small child not for any kind of personal recognition but for the simple joy of sharing Christ’s love—this is true greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

In short, to welcome a small child; to put a small child ahead of oneself—there is no ego in that.

The Kingdom of Heaven turns our world upside down.

Today we want to recognize some in our midst: commission the preschool teachers and staff. . . .