Monday, July 8, 2024

More Than Enough of Contempt

"To you I lift up my eyes, *

to you enthroned in the heavens.

As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, *

and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,

So our eyes look to the LORD our God, *

until he show us his mercy.

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, *

for we have had more than enough of contempt,

 Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *

and of the derision of the proud."

--Psalm 123

It has been quite a fortnight in our country, hasn’t it? I know a lot of folks say that politics needs to stay out of sermons (or, in this case, blog posts) – and when it comes to endorsing candidates or parties, I agree with that – but saying we should or we even can forget about what is going on in the world around us when we show up to church on Sunday mornings is just not realistic. During the last two weeks we witnessed a presidential debate that literally everyone has called a disaster, with two gentlemen who are, how shall we say, divisive for a lot of folks. The highest court in the land made some decisions that could have harmful ramifications for the future of this democracy. In the midst of all of that, just a few days ago, we donned our red, white, and blue, made some jokes at England’s expense on social media, and celebrated being Americans, though I’ve wondered what exactly we’re celebrating. It’s been a tough two weeks. 

The presumptive candidates for President of the United States.

During that time I did what I do first thing each work day when I come to work: I prayed. I went into the sanctuary of our parish, sat in the second pew on the left (my family's pew in the church where I grew up), and read Morning Prayer. On Tuesday of last week one of the Psalms appointed was Psalm 123 – the same one that we read together in church on Sunday– and later that same day I made a post on social media asking: are there any better words right now for us in our country than the last two verses of this Psalm: “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and the derision of the proud.”

When something shows up in the readings twice in one week, I usually see that as a message from God that I sure better preach on it, which is exactly what I did on Sunday. The circumstances around the creation of this Psalm, this prayer for deliverance, are never stated. It’s generally understood to have been written during the period of Jewish exile in Babylon, when trust in God seemed to have failed, and scorn and contempt were all around. The prayer is a petition, an ask, one so sincere and fierce that the author makes it twice – have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy. And what IS this mercy? It is a free, undeserved act of enormous kindness, and it is the most often-repeated word in English translations of the Hebrew Bible. The Christian New Testament might, instead, use the word grace. Personally, I’ve always seen them as going hand-in-hand, the grace and mercy of God, undeserved, free gifts of God’s abundant kindness. This is what the Psalmist most needs and wants and counts on from God. 

The Psalms are so wonderful because they speak to the whole human condition, and thus are timeless. How many of us, I wonder, have made similar pleas in recent weeks? We have had far too much of our share of contempt. The rich continue to be indolent; that is, averse to any activity or movement of change, filled with scorn at those who cry out for something different because it would mean losing their power, prestige, and possessions. The proud deride those who cry out for the indolent to be stirred out of their stubbornness, just as the prophets of old cried out. The rich keep getting richer with no consequence, while the proud remain so stubborn that they’ll go down with the ship. It’s not hard to find the similarities between what we’ve been seeing and what the Psalmist saw.

The remarkable claim of Psalm 123 - the "Good News," if you will - is that God’s mercy can override the contempt that we experience because that mercy is the only thing that is constant in such a struggle. It is a sense of God's presence and solidarity, a courageous refusal of the rich and proud, even when we are at our lowest points.

Our Gospel text on Sunday tied in nicely with the Psalm, as it portrayed Jesus at one his lowest points, being met with scorn and contempt from the very people that, one would think, knew him best:

'Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.'

--Mark 6: 1-13

How discouraging it must have been for Jesus to return to Nazareth, only for the folks there to ridicule him in such fashion: . Who is this, they say? Isn’t he one of Mary’s kids? Where does he get off thinking he can talk like this? They’re too proud to see Jesus as anything more than the little boy they once knew, and in Luke’s version of this story, they even try to kill him. That couldn't have been easy to take. Why couldn't they see what was actually going on around them? 

Image of Jesus rejected at Nazareth (artist unknown).

When a leader gets discouraged, what happens to the ones following? No doubt the 12 were feeling pretty low at that point. How is this going to work if Jesus’ own people refuse to support him? Yet despite the rejection from his hometown, he withdraws and calls the 12 together and commissions them, sends them out – this is why they’re called apostles, because they are sent. Despite opposition, Jesus’ mission can and will regroup, refocus, and continue. 

And how does he send them out? In pairs. No one goes alone. Not even Judas! That's because we can’t do the work of Jesus alone. We can’t preach love to a world filled with contempt, we can’t offer good news to the poor while the indolent rich remain in power, we can’t create something new as those stuck in their pride deride us – none of it can we do by ourselves, nor were ever meant to. He sent them out together for a reason, because they’re gonna need each other. You’re gonna need each other. 

The road is tough at times; it was for those 12, why should we be any different. Like them, we go where Jesus directs us, like them we run into dangers, and like them we even find ourselves in abusive situations and relationships. But also like them, we are not meant to remain there, and like them, when we need to walk away and shake the dust off our feat as a testimony to such derision. But even that we do with the grace and mercy of God in our hearts. How? Through the Spirit that has marked us as Christ’s own forever, and though we may be dismissed by a harsh world, we trust in a different verdict, as confident of such a verdict from that same Spirit, as we are needful of it. 

Times may be worrisome and downright scary. The path forward unclear, but God is good…all the time. We know this. Like the Psalmist we cry out for God’s mercy and deliverance and at the same time we do the work Jesus has sent us out to do. St. Augustine said to pray as if everything depended upon God but work as if everything depended upon us. This is precisely what we do, and this work is never done alone. 

So take heart. Come what may, you have been given everything you need for the journey, including each other. And at the Table of the Lord we get food and drink to sustain us in that journey. This is the gift we receive so as to carry it and give it away. Despite opposition, the work of Jesus will always regroup, refocus, and continue. Trust in the God of love and grace, the God of deliverance and mercy, who, no matter what happens in the world around us, no matter how much scorn and contempt we must endure, always, always wins. 

Monday, July 1, 2024

Holy Interruptions

'When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.'

--Mark 5: 21-43

One of my spiritual heroes is Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest, who was also a writer, professor, and social advocate.  After 20 years teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, he devoted the remaining 10 years of his life to living and serving among the L’Arche Daybreak Community for Disabled Adults in Toronto.  As he put it in his book In the Name of Jesus, he moved from the best and brightest at Harvard, those who want to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of society.  In that book Fr. Nouwen talks about the struggles of that move, how so often he just wanted to do the basic ministerial work of teaching and administering the sacraments, but so often he would be interrupted by the needs of someone in the community. It got really frustrating at times, but he came to see those interruptions as a gift. At one point he wrote, “I used to complain about all the interruptions to my work until I realized these interruptions were my work.”  

Father Henri Nouwen

Isn’t that interesting?  How often are we in the middle what we believe to be our work, only to be interrupted? Maybe we don’t give an audible Charlie Brown “UGH!” but our nonverbals – a heavy sigh, slumped shoulders –  communicate pretty clearly that we would rather be doing more important tasks. With such a mindset, interruptions seem at best rude and a waste of time, hardly at all the very work God calls us to be doing. But what if they were? 

Our Gospel this morning has Jesus being interrupted, not once, but twice.  We find Jesus coming off of a boat and entering a town, but immediately as he gets off that boat he is met by Jairus, a synagogue leader, who asks Jesus to come and heal his daughter.  There’s interruption number one; but sure, Jesus is a healer, it’s his “job,” if you will, so he allows Jairus to interrupt whatever it was he had planned to do when he came ashore.  Of course, then a large crowd gathers around Jesus, and a woman who’s been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years—which not only left her in physical agony but also made her perpetually unclean according to the Law—seeks out Jesus to be healed.  Even Jesus’ interruption gets interrupted!  No doubt those around thought Jesus should have just moved on, especially Jairus, but Jesus instead meets the woman and engages with her, and in doing so he not only restores her to physical health but also restores her to the community, and this only happens because he allows himself to be interrupted.  

Notice how Jesus does not treat the woman like an inconvenience, nor does he complain that he doesn’t have time to go and complete the task of healing Jairus’ daughter, even though many in the crowd were complaining that she was already dead.  Perhaps it is because Jesus does not treat time as a commodity, as something that can be controlled, like so many of us do; after all, we cannot “waste” our time, can we?  We cannot devote time to something or someone that is unimportant, right?  This is partially due to our uniquely American, Puritanical, and capitalistic work ethic that has formed us to think that there is actually such a thing as a task that is wasteful, and that we should treat our time like our money, very carefully.  Jesus does not do this.  He does not choose which person is more important—the poor, unclean woman or the daughter of a big deal religious official —instead he treats both interruptions as opportunities to show God’s love and mercy to not only these people but all those who witnessed the two moments of healing.  For Jesus, the interruption is the work.  

Jesus healing the woman with hemorrhages, from a wall painting in the Roman catacombs

There’s a really cool literary technique that the Gospel of Mark uses called A-B-A; which means that Mark will introduce a situation (A), move on to something that might not immediately seem like it’s connected (B), then come back to the original (A again). The example of that today is Jairus asking for help, the woman interrupting Jesus, and then Jesus going to the house to heal Jairus’ daughter. For writers of all sorts, A-B-A is a well-known technique that loops folks back in after an interruption in a text or story – comedians use it all the time, heck, I use it often in my sermons. When applied to our lives, it’s a holy gift, because it helps us remember that the B, the interruption, is every bit as important as what brackets it on either side. 

I remember a time several years ago when I had an A-B-A moment. It was Vestry day – yay! – and I was doing everything from getting the agenda put together to setting up for the worship service we always did beforehand. That was A. Roughly an hour before the meeting, someone interrupted that work and showed up to the church needing food and gas.  There’s B.  “I don’t have time for this,” I thought.  This man had interrupted what I considered very important work.  As it turned out, I had recently read In the Name of Jesus, and I remembered what Fr. Nouwen had said. Perhaps, I thought, this interruption was the work that God was calling me to in this moment.  So what if I ended up being late for Vestry?  So what if other tasks I had planned to complete that day were not finished?  This interruption, this man standing in front of me, was my work. And, of course, I returned to A and did have that Vestry meeting that night as usual, but it was important that I understand that what I first thought was an interruption was the very holy work to which I was called.

As I told the congregation where I am currently serving as the Interim Rector, they had a pretty serious interruption around a year ago. The whole system seemed to be upended when a longtime, beloved Rector retired and took the organist with her (the organist was married to the priest). Many felt, as would be expected, that they didn’t have time for that! They had momentum and excitement for what God was doing, but then all of a sudden, a new concern arose. And how did these folks handle it? With grace and attention. They did the work that this interruption called them to do. They were at A, right now they're in B, and soon they'll be back to A. All of it is the work of the church. 

St. James' Episcopal Church in Skaneateles, where I am currently serving as the Interim Rector

Like Jesus, interruptions come for us, and they make no distinction between what or who is more or less important. The fact that Jesus treats the woman suffering with hemorrhages the same as he treats the daughter of a religious leader is significant. How we treat our interruptions matters. Because the truth is that when our work is the work of Jesus, the work of restoring all people and all creation to God, and by doing so through prayer and worship rooted in justice, peace and love, then there’s no such thing as interruptions because it’s all the work – the mission, if you will – of the church; and that’s not just me, that is straight from the Catechism on pg. 855 of the Book of Common Prayer. You can look it up. 

What might our lives look like, if instead of sighing heavily and bemoaning interruptions, we saw them for what they are: blessed gifts, as Fr. Nouwen called them, and the holy work that God gives us every single day? 

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Lessons from Job, Sitidos, and My Mammie

'The LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

"Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped'?"'

--Job 38: 1-11

I wanna tell you about my Mammie. Her given Christian name was Eula Silcox, and she was my maternal grandmother. Eula raised five kids in the projects of Bristol, VA, practically all on her own: they were Sam, the oldest and most rebellious, whom everyone called Bobo, Roncie, who was the father-figure among his siblings, Patsy, the oldest daughter and fun-loving jester of the group, the youngest daughter Sharon, who was gentle, kind, and deeply spiritual, and my mother Susan, who always seemed to be the glue that held everyone together. My Mammie was tough and had a lot of curveballs thrown at her – from being shunned by certain family members to an often abusive relationship with her husband, my grandfather Joe. She worked in a paper factory and a hospital, and sacrificed more than I’ll ever understand for the sake of her family. Of all the qualities I heard repeated about my Mammie, everyone said she had the patience of Job.

My Mammie, Eula Silcox, after she married her husband Joe.

Odds are that we all know someone like that, about whom others said, “They’ve got the patience of Job.” While I agree that my Mammie was a patient, loving person who never seemed to waiver in her faith, I have to say it’s not the best description because, well, even Job broke. 

Unfortunately, the reading we just heard is the only one that we get from Job on a Sunday morning this whole year. Taken out of context, it’s hard to tell what’s going on, but I’ll try to set the scene for you. God makes a bet with Satan that Job can have everything taken away from him, including his own children and his very dignity and still won’t curse God. Calamity after calamity befalls him. While his friends try to rationalize this ridiculous string of bad luck, Job very slowly begins to see things from a perspective that these privileged men don’t have: the perspective of those who suffer. Still, Job stubbornly sits in silence on a dungheap, isolating himself and wallowing in his pain, seemingly alone in a sort of “Why me?” state. Job’s wife Sitidos – who doesn’t get named in the story but is given a name by Jewish Midrash – suffers too, though, and she understands that sometimes existence is cruel and makes no sense, even if there is a supposed God of right and wrong. As a woman she knows what it's like to have no control over her life, and she understands that no one gets what they deserve. She only has one line in the story, in which she yells at Job for persisting in his foolish pride and integrity. She even throws bread at him on the dungheap so that he doesn't starve (her name even means 'bread').  Finally, patient Job breaks all the way down and curses the day he was born, angry that it seems God doesn’t care at all about him. The reading we have this morning is the beginning of a three-chapters long response from God. The TLDNR version of that is: who do you think you are?! All of existence suffers, why should you be so arrogant as to think you’re any different? The final realization for Job is a new understanding of God, apart from simply a moral understanding of right and wrong; God is the one who is present with him in the tempest, both the chaos of the storm and the presence of order within it. I encourage all of you to watch the video below for Song of Sitidos by Kristen Leigh for a deeper understanding of the Job story from the perspective of his wife.

Song of Sitidos, performed by Kristen Leigh (with Eric Traynor and West McNeil).

God is in the tempest, in the adversity. This is what Job learns and what Jesus literally embodies in a moment in the Gospel of Mark when he and the disciples are caught up in a windstorm on the Sea of Galilee. Darkness has descended and waves of terror threaten to overwhelm them, and there he is, nestled like a baby on the cushions. “Teacher!” they say, “Wake up! Don’t you care that we’re perishing?!” Don’t you care? Are you even awake? 

We get caught in our tempests, tossed to and fro by the winds of change and confusion. Things happen that make no sense and no one gets what they deserve: Children die of cancer. Good people remain loyal to their bosses only to lose their jobs to corporate greed. Hospitals and schools are bombed in the name of keeping people safe. Autocrats and would-be dictators are propped up for the sake of upholding democracy. Don’t you even care, God?! Are you even awake?! Do you see our sinking condition, our little Mother Earth being swamped by more than she can bear as she tears herself apart? We don’t need the patience of Job. We need the righteous fury and anger of Job. Or, at least, that’s what we tell ourselves.

What’s the difference between us and those disciples in that boat? Have we drawn our conclusions before Jesus even gets to say a word? Isn’t that what Job did when he cursed God? The reality is that getting into a boat with Jesus will not assure us of smooth sailing . A life of devotion to this God won’t yield vast riches or large families, as the heretical Prosperity Gospel would have us believe. The fear felt by the disciples in the boat had moved into full-on despair, similar to the place Job went. Even with Jesus there, they cannot help but be stuck in their fear. It’s not that fear is the opposite of faith – a healthy fear, the kind that stands in awe of the magnitude and power of God can strengthen faith – but when we get stuck there, in our anger and pain, unable to see the ones suffering with us, unable to even imagine a different scenario, that’s when we are consumed by fear and despair, and curse the very day we were born. 

An Eastern European icon of Jesus in the boat with the disciples.

But Jesus speaks. “Peace! Be still!” Does he really say that to the raging sea or the despairing disciples? Or both? From his quiet repose on the cushion in the stern, Jesus sees and understands all of the troubles of the human condition – let’s not forget how he lived, suffered, and died. He understands, from Gethsemane, what it means to fear, and from the cross, what it means to despair. It’s precisely because he knows our conditions that he meets us with that same still, small voice. Even as the storm clouds are raging all around our doors and we think to ourselves we can’t take it anymore – to borrow a line from another singer-songwriter – Jesus is there, with us, in the storm.

The hard truth that Job teaches us is that sometimes the world is chaotic but God doesn’t leave us. My Mammie knew that. She had a good bit of chaos come her way. It wasn’t about having more patience, just knowing that we’re never alone. We may want something more tangible when all around us is falling apart, something that proves God cares or that Jesus is paying attention. But what we get is “Peace! Be still.” It’s the oldest lesson God taught us: that there is never a place we can go that God isn’t. There in the boat. Up on a cross. Cause in the tempest, we will see, that God is in every adversity. 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Starting Small

'Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.'

--Mark 4: 26-34

Do any of you know what the opposite of a green thumb is? Because that’s what I’ve got it! Around the time Kristen and I were engaged we tried planting a vegetable garden in a raised bed on the side of our house. We planted corn, tomatoes, green beans and okra. To our utter astonishment, the corn sprang up immediately, so did the tomatoes, and the okra were huge. I was so excited that something I planted finally flourished, but then everything died because the soil was too rocky and shallow. It also turns out that you don’t want okra to get huge. Who knew? In the years since Kristen has had some success growing herbs or caring for plants, but I remain utterly bumfuzzled by the whole enterprise.

Seen here: the corn the sprang up and immediately died.

I think that’s because there’s a mystery to it all, something that is outside of our control. We can water and be sure seeds get proper sunlight, but at the end of the day, we don’t know what’s going on. Take the farmer in Jesus’ first parable today about the Kingdom of God, someone who scatters some seeds, goes to bed, then wakes up and finds them flourishing but doesn’t know how it happened. Ain’t that the way of God?! 

A common theme we hear preached in churches is how we are called to plant seeds of the kingdom of God. This is part of the already-not yet aspect of God’s kingdom, which is present here on earth – represented by the seeds we plant – and has also not been fully realized – represented by the unseen harvest that is to come. We sow these seeds not knowing how they will grow but still hopeful that the harvest will indeed come, even if we are not the ones who will benefit from it. 

To be honest, that is how I have viewed my own role during this interim time at the parish where I currently serve in Central New York. I plant seeds and work with these good folks to till the soil while I’m here, trusting that the harvest will come, even if I am not personally around to see it. I believe that this is an essential part of what it means to claim Jesus of Nazareth as our Lord, our Savior, our teacher, and our friend. We are part of something so much bigger than ourselves, so old, whose seeds were planted by our ancestors so long ago. They didn’t always know what they were doing, but look at the harvest now! The same is true for us. How often would we say we know what we are doing? But like the farmer who plants and goes to sleep, we trust that there will be some sort of harvest in the morning. Surely, when I look around this place I not only see what these folks have reaped from the seeds sown by their forebears, but I also see the seeds being planted for the future of this particular community of faith. It’s a wonder to behold, and let me tell you, it starts small.

As small, Jesus might say, as a mustard seed. I love so many things about this particular parable. For starters, I love Jesus’ use of hyperbole. The mustard seed isn’t the smallest of all seeds – there are many that are smaller, including orchids. Then there’s the irony of the whole image and its subversive nature. Empires such as Rome were often compared to large trees, like a mighty oak. Even the prophet Ezekiel describes the empire of Babylon as a lofty cedar. These were firmly rooted, unshakable in their might and power. Surely the kingdom of God must surpass even these, right? Jesus instead compares the kingdom to a mustard seed that not only starts small but turns into…the greatest of all shrubs? You sure about that, Jesus? Because mustard plants were weeds, invasive and unwanted. THIS is the kingdom of God? An ugly, shrub-like weed?! Indeed. Mustard plants may have been ugly, but they were handy; used as medicine and food and one of the sticks served as a toothbrush! While empires are large and impressive to the eye, the already-not-yet kingdom of God starts small but benefits its people.

An Orthodox icon depicting the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

While the already-not yet nature of the kingdom may not make much sense – how can something be both already here and not yet here? – there’s a similarly confusing dichotomy at work in us, and it has to do with our role in planting the very seeds of which Jesus speaks. Those seeds, which will grow into the ugly-beautiful, mighty-humble, majestic-meek kingdom of God, have been placed into our hands. Every single one of us has been given them, by parents, teachers, clergy, friends, enemies, folks fer us and folks agin’ us (as we say down south). And these seeds look like what exactly? They look like manna – the reassurance that God always provides as long as we remember that there is enough to go around for everyone to have what they need. They look like mercy – God’s promise of forgiveness and kindness, even to those who don’t seem to deserve it. They look like grace – remembering that we don’t have to try so dang hard to earn love. They look like resurrection – the Good News that life always comes after death, which is something we must practice every day. Yes, the seeds are in our hands, and they almost always start small, so it’s up to us to plant and till and care for them.

But what isn’t up to us – the other side of this confusing dichotomy - is how and when those seeds will grow or what they’ll even look like. That is entirely up to God. Just like the farmer cooperates with the soil, sun, and water, knowing that it takes time and space for anything to come into the fullness of its true nature, we must cooperate with God and remember that whatever is yielded is not up to us. Yes, there is active waiting on our part, but whether something grows into the tallest of trees or the frumpiest of shrubs isn’t on us. We are told such things are up to God, and we say we believe it, but our actions often prove otherwise. We call this functional atheism, when we say something is up to God but we act as if it’s up to us.  Against such self-importance stands the sometimes subtle, hidden presence and power of God.  Do we have enough freedom from ourselves to let God do what God is going to do?

Before we left that house where I grew oversized okra, we tilled the soil one more time and threw down a bunch of random wildflower seeds. We had no expectations of anything growing because of the soil, but wouldn’t you know who won the pony, the day we left that raised bed was full of wildflowers. Sometimes God gives growth when we don’t expect it. 

The wildflowers that unexpectedly grew in the bed where we thought nothing could grow.

We are invited to let go of expectation and the oversized sense of responsibility that we often place on our own shoulders. We are called to do our part, but in the end it’s God’s kingdom that is being sown, not ours, and whatever seed you plant, no matter how small you might think it is, matters. This is a kingdom that always starts small, but one that subverts the very notion of what a kingdom is supposed to be. We may not know how it happens; we need only take what has been given to us – seeds of manna, mercy, grace, and resurrection - plant and nurture them, and get out of our own way, so that God can do what God always does. 

Monday, June 10, 2024

Everything You Know (About Original Sin) is Wrong!

'They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat  all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”'

--Genesis 3: 8-15

'The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 
And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”'

--Mark 3: 20-25

Years ago Weird Al Yankovic had a song called Everything You Know is Wrong: black is white, up is down, and short is long, he sang. What if I told you that everything you think you know of the doctrine of original sin is wrong? 

Our story from Genesis is a familiar one, maybe a little too familiar. We know the basic outline, perhaps from Sunday School: God makes Adam and Eve and tells them not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; Eve disobeys and eats an apple from the tree anyway, and the whole world has been paying for her actions ever since. This tendency to disobey God is thus passed to through our parents, a condition of rebelliousness, which we’re told is the original sin. 

Adam and Eve as seen in a Russian Orthodox mosaic.

The word sin has its roots in the Greek word hamartia, which is an archery term that means ‘to miss the mark.’ And let’s face it, we all miss the mark from time to time. This particular understanding of the Genesis story, though, isn’t how our Jewish siblings have understood it; in fact, it arises in the Middle Ages during the days of feudalism, and Jesus becomes the one who appeases God’s wrath when he is sent to die to pay for Adam and Eve’s original sin and our own. But there’s more to this misunderstanding the story, and when we unpack it for what’s it’s truly worth we find how it ties in with the Good News of a table of sinners eating with Jesus.

Let’s get this out of the way: not only is the fruit not an apple - the text never says what it is -  Eve is NOT to blame for bringing evil into the world. The serpent, who is a kind of trickster character that Christians will later identify as Satan, already existed within the created order. In other words, the undermining agent of confusion was already present, even before Adam and Eve came into full consciousness.  Furthermore, the serpent didn’t actually lie to Eve. He told her that if she ate the fruit she wouldn’t die – as God had said – but she would be like God, knowing good from evil, which is exactly what happens. And once she and Adam eat their eyes are open, they see the world in terms of good and evil, and they feel ashamed. The shadow side of this consciousness and their newfound ability to pass judgement – something only God could do up to that point – is the fear of being judged themselves. And so they cover themselves with fig leaves and try to hide, both from God and each another. 

God, of course, finds them and asks what they’ve done. Immediately they begin to scapegoat one another and play the blame game. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. And thus begins a vicious cycle of blame and scapegoating and self-justification that has had disastrous results for us as a species, as well as our planet as a whole. We grasp at something like divinity, we try to hide the most vulnerable aspects of our humanity, and we blame someone, anyone else, for nearly everything that happens as a result. 

THIS is the original sin: scapegoating and blame. It can't be disobedience because how could Adam and Eve have disobeyed if they didn’t know what disobedience was because they hadn’t come into full consciousness yet? This is where it all begins, and the very next story in Genesis is, you guessed it, Cain killing Abel, precisely because he blames Abel for his own shortcomings in the eyes of God. 

A strong case can be made that every single human conflict comes down to this, our own fears of judgment – and therefore of death – leading us to take up defensive postures, and lash out at one another, both with words and with weapons. Enough blame goes around that any hope of reconciliation feels lost.  It happens in interpersonal relationships, in family systems, and even on the world stage – we see it right now. There’s plenty of blame to go around. And while it is disingenuous for a Christian priest to say that Jesus is the only answer to this problem, I believe that his life and death offer the world another way apart from the scapegoat mechanism. 

Often we focus on Jesus’ death as the agent that was meant to eliminate our perceived need to scapegoat. He willingly dies, not to appease a bloodthirsty God, but so that by taking on the shame, the guilt, and the blame, he would free the world from ever giving in to this temptation again. This is true, but I worry that in focusing on his death we neglect the way he lived, and how his very life is a testimony against the original sin of scapegoating. 

Jesus at table.

In our reading from Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus in the early days of his ministry, and boy howdy, is he coming under fire. Sure, he’s curing people and casting out demons, but it’s HOW he’s doing it that infuriates the authorities. They compare him to Satan – to the serpent – who is deceiving these people just as Adam and Eve were deceived. And just as Eve blamed the serpent, they blame Jesus for breaking the commandment about the sabbath, setting a bad example, and drawing people away the corrupt collaboration system between the Temple authorities and the Romans. They blame Jesus for leading the people astray, just as they blame the people for their own ills and plights; after all, if someone is born blind, or if a young woman is driven into prostitution, it was due to their own sinful nature. But right here in this very Gospel today we see Jesus undo this by inviting these very folks – along with a host of others whom the authorities scapegoated and blamed – to a table, to a meal. In a house. In a safe space, where judgement is not passed, only food and drink are. Plenty of folks in this story think Jesus is either out of his mind – as the authorities do – or is veering into territory that is going to get him in trouble – as his family does. But Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the Good News that the kingdom of God has come near – his first words in Mark’s Gospel – and the kingdom is a mindset, a way of being that has no need to blame others, to lash out in fear, but lets it all pass through the hands of Jesus.

His hands are the birth canal through which abundant life flows. And his table is the place where all of burdens are laid, where all fear subsides, where scapegoating and blame come to be transformed into love and light: at that table in the crowded house that day, in the field when he fed 5000 folks, in the upper room with his friends, and at the table we set each and every Sunday. 

There was another tree in that garden, do you remember? It was the Tree of Life, and though it’s never said explicitly in Genesis, Jewish scholars have offered that it was the tree from which all life – even Adam and Eve – ate. Jesus is that Tree of Life for us. He takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us his very self in the palm of our hand, and in doing so, he frees us from the need to blame or pass judgment on others. If the cycle of the original sin is to end, we need to build longer tables, not bigger walls.

If you’re holding on to blame or feeling the urge to scapegoat – whoever you are, come to the Table of the Lord, to which Christ himself invites us and meets us. Feed on the bread of life. And be made whole.

Monday, June 3, 2024

Shomer Shabbos!

'One sabbath Jesus and his disciples were going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.'

--Mark 2: 23-3" 6

Possibly the greatest film of all time is The Big Lebowski, the story of The Dude, who was, well, the man for his time and place – a man who, in his own words, abides. The Dude is a bowler, and in one of the film’s many memorable scenes, he and his teammates –Donny and Walter – are scheduled to roll on a Saturday. This infuriates Walter, a convert to Judaism because, as he points out, he is Shomer Shabbos, a Hebrew term meaning, “Sabbath observer.” When Donny asks what that means, Walter explains that Saturday is the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, and that he doesn’t work, drive a car, ride in a car, handle money, or turn on the oven, and he sure doesn’t roll! "Shomer Shabbos!" Walter keeps yelling, along with several expletives.

The Dude, Donny, and Walter

Despite being a convert, Walter takes the 4th commandment quite literally. No effort is to be put forth, no work done from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. This commandment shows up in the Torah at two different times, first in Exodus, chapter 20, when it is connected with God’s own sabbath rest following the six days of creation; and again in Deuteronomy, chapter 5, when Moses gives it as a reminder about the Hebrew people’s forced labor under the yoke of Pharoah in Egypt. It is meant not just for them but for everyone under their charge, so that they will not take advantage of the labor of others, as the Egyptians took advantage of them. 

The idea of sabbath was not only a law to be obeyed, but it formed the theological core of what it meant to be in relationship with this God. Beyond just the commandment to rest, sabbath was intertwined with the idea of the jubilee, a time when all debts were erased, lands returned to their original owners, and the people restored to God by returning to the wilderness. Sabbath and jubilee both are about rest and restoration. Our modern, fast-paced, consumer-driven culture has lost sight of the need for sabbath, but the teachings of Jesus are fundamentally rooted in reclaiming and restoring a deep sensibility of sabbath, which has to do with the humility to understanding that as creatures of a Creator that calls us good, we are, fundamentally, enough. We don’t have to earn anything, and sabbath is our invitation to stop trying to do so, to remember that we are not as big and important as we think we are, and that it is not all up to us.

This is the understanding of sabbath that Jesus embodied – and that Christians today are still given glimpses of through the gifts of Centering Prayer, the Daily Examen, and the Divine Hours – but this isn’t the understanding of sabbath held by the folks who confronted Jesus in the early days of his ministry. 

Not once, but twice, Jesus is accosted by the religious authorities for breaking the 4th commandment, for not being a Shomer Shabbos and observing the sacredness of the sabbath day. It first occurs when his disciples are caught plucking heads of grain on a Saturday, and the second happens later the same day during the time of study in a synagogue, when Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Jesus uses a story from the Book of Samuel about David eating the holy bread in the tabernacle of Nod, as a way of showing that the Scriptures themselves supply a precedent in which human need takes priority over even divine law. Some, though, are so insulted by Jesus’ actions that they begin to conspire with the followers of Herod – the Roman’s puppet King of the Jews – to find a way to kill Jesus. 

When we hear stories like this it is extremely important to not fall into some kind of antagonistic mindset as it pertains to the Pharisees. They were not the villains of the story – Rome was. The Pharisees, scribes, and other authorities held onto these strict, fundamentalist interpretations of the Jewish law as a means of silent revolt against their Roman occupiers, maintaining their customs and way of life in the face of occupation. Jesus frightened them because they were scared he would rile up the Romans, who then would bring their full wrath down on all the people, eliminating their very way of life. They may have been strict adherents to the law acting out of fear, but that doesn’t’ make them evil. 

This story also doesn’t make Jesus some kind of anarchist who hated the law. Jesus doesn’t abolish the sabbath, but rather insists that the principle of doing good and addressing human need should govern not just the law concerning the sabbath but every law. We wrestle with some of the same legalistic issues that are at play here; after all, just because something is technically illegal doesn’t mean that it is morally wrong. In the antebellum South, for example, it was illegal to teach a Black person to read or write. This week we mark the beginning of Pride Month, in which we honor the beauty and bravery of our LBGTQIA+ siblings, many of whom still remember the days when it was illegal to simply gather together in a bar or hold hands with the person they love. A law put in place that ignores the needs and denies the dignity of a person is not a law that has anything to do with the God of love. When we look around we see laws on the books in several parts of our own country that deny critical, life-saving health care to young people and those who are pregnant, putting doctors and nurses in the heartbreaking position of risking their careers in order to address serious human need. What, we ask, is the Christian ethical response? 

The sabbath was made for humankind, Jesus said, not humankind for the sabbath. The commandment was a gift for people, to restore them to God and to be sure they wouldn’t make an idol out of work or take advantage of others. The way the authorities respond to Jesus here is exactly what happens, Larry, when the letter of the law becomes an idol more valued than its spirit. When “following the rules” becomes the excuse for denying people’s dignity, legalism has replaced the love of Christ. Laws put in place to simply be obeyed without question are not laws that maintain an ethic of Jesus. It may seem trite, but it’s always worth asking, in all seriousness, what WOULD Jesus do? Would he march or protest in the streets like the drag queens of the Stonewall Inn? Would he remind his officials that human need trumps blind obedience? Would he urge us to do the same, and more?

Stephen Mattson, author of On Love & Mercy: A Social Justice Devotional once said to always trust the inclusive love of Christ over exclusive legalism. Or, as Johnny Cash put it, “I choose love.” And choosing love means placing human need – the needs of those made in the holy image of God – above all else. We, human beings, are the very clay jars of which St. Paul wrote,  each one holding the greatest treasure of all, the grace, love, and mercy of God. But these jars of ours are fragile, so we must be careful, not just with our own, but with each other’s. Take care to be ever-present to the needs that are around us, and we may only abide with each other, but abide in the love of Christ, and at last find our true sabbath rest and restoration. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Trinity Sunday: The Sacred Mystery

How do you explain the inexplicable, or comprehend the incomprehensible? How do you preach on Trinity Sunday? A lot of clergy bemoan this day – and plenty of rectors pawn it off on deacons and other ministers to preach. Could they just be scared of committing a heresy?

Or could it be that in our modern, western way of thinking and being, we have simply forgotten how to dwell in the realm of mystery? In our post-Enlightenment world we are told that everything can and should make sense. If something cannot be proven, that it cannot possibly be “real.” For some, the fact that the Trinity makes so little sense is enough for them to say the whole thing is gobbledygook. But we mustn’t throw out the baby with the holy water. As my theologian wife has reminded me on several occasions, if we understand the world out of which the doctrine of the Trinity developed, and if we can re-learn to embrace mystery, then it’s perfectly reasonable to affirm the Three-In-One-and-One-In-Three. And that there is good news in the Trinity, even for us now. 

First off, the word Trinity is nowhere in the Bible. The only reference we even get to ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ shows up at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew (in what we call the Great Commission), when Jesus tells the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” You’d think our lectionary would use that Gospel every Trinity Sunday, but it only shows up in Year A, the year we read Matthew’s Gospel, so you’ll see it again in 2026. 

But notice I didn’t say that the Trinity isn’t in the Bible, because it is, albeit not explicit. God as Father – or Mother, or Creator – is all over the Bible. God creates the world ex nihilo, from nothing, and creates it out of love, a stark contrast to the creation stories of the ancient world that were rooted in violence. This is the God that Jesus of Nazareth calls Father, or Abba in Aramaic. Jesus is described as the Son of God, making him equal to God in stature, but the prologue to the Gospel of John goes even further and states that Jesus is the Word, the logos in Greek, that existed from before time itself, in the beginning with God. This logos, this Word, this Jesus, is not just the carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth but is also God made flesh. The Holy Spirit, who showed up amongst us last week, is the breath, the wind, the ruach in Hebrew of God, which both moved over creation and spoke through the prophets. It’s not hard to find references to the Trinity, to God’s threefold action in the world, but how, when, and why, did it become such a core piece of being a Christian?

For roughly the first 400 years after Jesus folks struggled to figure out the question of who this person they called their Lord and their God was in relation to the God of the Hebrew Bible and this Holy Spirit that they were told came upon new believers. All the while publicly worshipping and professing this faith was illegal in the Roman Empire, seen as seditious. That is, until 313 when Constantine the Great declared it to be legal in the Edict of of Milan, and 10 years later gathered a bunch of bishops from both the Latin-speaking West and Greek-speaking East of the Church at a place called Nicea and locked them in a room and said: don’t come out till you figure out how who Jesus is. Well, they did, sort of. They declared that Jesus and God were one in the same, but they stopped short of explaining the Holy Spirit. That work did get done at the Council of Constantinople – not Instanbul – in 381, where three bishops called the Cappadocian Fathers said that God was three hypostes (persons) in one ousia (substance). One of those bishops named Gregory of Nazianzus coined the term perichoresis – the eternal dance - to describe the nature of this Trinitarian God, who was engaged in an endless waltz of the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The document that came out of that council was the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which got shortened to just the Nicene Creed, and, of course, we affirm it every Sunday.

The Creed did more than declare who God is, it told us who God isn’t. There were, after all, lots of theories out there, which fractured and splintered this fledgling church-thing. They’d be declared heresies, but I assure you, they’re still around: Arianism said that Jesus and the Spirit weren’t divine, they were just creations of the Father: like the sun – you have the star, heat, and light, but the heat and light aren’t the star, just products of it. Modalism said that each Person of the Trinity had a specific jobs or modes, which didn’t intersect with each other: like water that exists as liquid, ice, and vapor, all separate modes. And then there’s Partialism, that stated the three Persons composed 1/3rd of God individually, which is, of course, like Voltron, the Defender of the Universe, who is composed of five robotic lions that merge into a giant robot samurai that fights evil alien monsters. Maybe you can guess which of those heresies is my favorite.

Voltron: Defender of the Universe

This teaching that God was Three-In-One became church law as a means of creating a common, unified faith, and without an affirmation of the Trinity a group can’t really be considered Christian by the historic definition of that word. But what’s the good news about the Trinity now? Very simple, it’s relational. The Most Rev. Peter Carnley, who was Archbishop of Perth and my seminary ethics professor, once said that every single conversation about God begins with the Trinity because every conversation about God begins with relationship. God models relationship for us. The Trinity is not hierarchical. There is no power-over in it, simply co-existence. One of the best modern allegories for the Trinity is the book The Shack. While it’s not super strong theologically, it gets the point across, especially a scene where Jesus – depicted as a Palestinian carpenter – and the Holy Spirit – a teenage Asian woman – are playfully dancing together. God the Father – shown as a well-built Black woman – says to the book’s author, who is spending a weekend in a shack with the Trinity, that that was the dream for humanity, that we might dance together the way the Trinity does. That’s our good news, that the Trinity is the model for all of our relationships. There’s no leading or following, no power-over. Just….the flow. Anyone who has ever seen a preacher just let loose and be led by the Spirit, anyone who has ever done any kind of theatre improv, those who understand the music of jazz or hip hop, know what “the flow” is all about. Flow is about creativity – play and life. It involves both letting go and being fully present to the movement of what is happening. The flow state is a divine state. The flow is the Trinity.

Is it even possible? That we could all be in relationship with each other as perfect as the relationship God is in with Godself in this flow? For humans by ourselves, left to our own devices, maybe not. But anything is possible with God. Such is this holy mystery. The Trinity is not a question to be answered, a doctrine to be understood – trust me, you’ve probably already committed a heresy today. The Trinity gives us the freedom to dwell in mystery, to not have all the answers, to rest in and dance with our God.