Monday, September 28, 2015

If You're Not Against Us, You're For Us

"Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp.  And a young man ran and told Moses, 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.' And Joshua, son of Nun, the assistant of Moses and one of his chosen men, said, 'My lord Moses, stop them!'  But Moses said to him, 'Are you jealous for my sake?  Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!'"
--Numbers 11: 26-29

"John said to Jesus, 'Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop them, because he was not following us.'  But Jesus said, 'Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of good in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.'"
--Mark 9: 38-40

My hometown had a bunch of different churches.  There was the Free Will Baptist, the Independent Baptist, the Primitive Baptist, First Baptist, and Methodist.  I grew up in a place that had no Episcopalians, not even Lutherans or Roman Catholics or folks that even resembled my church.  So it wasnt uncommon for me to have fellow members of the Body of Christ tell me all the ways that I and my church were wrong:  you have real wine at communion, your pastors a woman, your church welcomes gay people, you use that Catholic Bible, not the real Bible (that ones my favorite).  All of these were damnable offenses are far as some folks were concerned, and I remember thinking when I was a teenager, why are these folks so up in arms over my faith when it is actually the same faith that they have.  We both believe in Jesus and the salvation that comes from his love.  So why all the fuss?

We are often too apt to condemn that which we do not understand, even when its not so different from ourselves.  Take the case of our stories from both our Old Testament text and our Gospel today.  In both cases we see the two most important figures in their respective testamentsMoses in the Hebrew text and Jesus in oursoffer a bigger vision of what discipleship looks like.  In Numbers the 70 have completed their prophecies, and while we dont know what they prophesied, we know that once they were done, that was it.  And then these twoEldad and Medadstart to prophecy, and it gets the people rattled.  Prophets spoke with authority, and in the case of the 70, that authority had come from Moses calling them together and praying for Gods Spirit to rest on them.  But Eldad and Medad, it would seem, claimed no such authority.  This makes them false prophets, so they people cry out for Moses to stop them.  But rather than condemn them because they are acting in this unusual manner, Moses commends their prophetic spirits:  Would that all the Lords people were prophets! 

And the same goes for Jesus.  John complains to him that there are folks casting out demons in his name, but theyre not among the chosen apostles.  Like Eldad and Medad, they have not been given that special authority to go and do this work, and so John and the others would naturally expect Jesus to tell them to stop.  But Jesus, like Moses, lets them continue on.  Whoever is not against us, he says, is for us. 

We've talked a lot lately about changing the narrativeredefining who we are and who we can be by saying that we will no longer accept and live by the dysfunctional standards of our past.  The narrative Jesus changes here is that old narrative that if youre not with us, youre against us.  Weve heard it time and time again in a variety of settings.  This narrative is the one that the Israelites in Moses time lived byafter all, they killed nearly every person who lived in Canaan when they arrived.  Its the narrative Jesus apostles lived by, and we see play out several times when women and Gentiles start thinking that they too are worthy of this message.  And its the narrative so many folks I knew growing up lived by.  It is an absolute.  But Jesus changes the narrative:  its not if youre not with us youre against us, instead it is if youre not against us, youre for us.  Now the tent gets bigger, theres room for multiple interpretations and manners of doing things.  There are no more absolutes.  Jesus, as we see so often, does not deal in absolutes.  Jesus deals in tolerance. 

To be tolerant is to admit that more than one possibility of truth exists.  Every person has his or her own truth.  You have yours.  I have mine.  Your truth is a shield, you lean on it, and it protects you.  To practice tolerance is not to give up your truth but to admit that other truths besides your can actually exist and can actually be right.  Both Moses and Jesus show us what tolerance can look like.  Having the courage to say that there can be more than one truth besides our own is an act of humility, an admission that we might not actually know everything that we think we know.  We might not have it all figured out, and there might just be some folks out there who have a different perspective, a different way of doing things, and I maybe, just maybe, that different perspective could teach us something. 

Sometimes our perspectives can be too small, like some of those folks I knew growing up.  But we must remember those words from Jesus:  those who are not against us, are for us.  If youve been following the news recently you may have heard that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is looking into possibly dissolving or redefining the Anglican Communion, that worldwide body of which we are a member.  Basically, the new vision of the Communion would severe the ties between those members who have such strong theological differences.  This would mean that the church here in the US would no longer have to worry about criticisms from churches in places like Nigeria and Uganda, who have strongly criticized the Episcopal Church for its ordination of openly gay and lesbian folks and its election of the first female archbishop.  For the better part of 15 years we have butted heads with our brothers and sisters over these issues, and now Archbishop Welby is proposing an end to our partnership.  The Lambeth Conference, the gathering of every single Anglican bishop in the world, which is held every 10 years is scheduled for 2018 and its looking less and less likely that it will happen.  And while I have no say in the matter, I must voice my opinion and say that I pray this proposal does not go through.  Folks on the extreme sidesboth conservativee and liberalhope that it does, so that we can get on with the work of the Gospel without worrying about the folks with whom we disagree.  But I do not think thats the answer.  What makes our church so special is that we are made up of so many kinds of people with so many perspectives, so many truths.  If we go out separate ways, we would be admitting that our perspective is just too small, that there is no room at the table for someone who does not believe what we believe.  Thats not Anglican.  The tent of God is big enough for all of us because we are bigger than our differences, no matter what they may be.

Pope Francis is wrapping up his visit to the US, and everyone has by now seen what he had to say to Congress.  Folks commend the pope for all he has said, that he is taking the Church in a bold new direction.  However, he has not actually DONE anything.  Francis has said numerous times that the hot button issues,  gay marriage, abortion, and women's ordination, are off the table.  He's not talking about them because he knows that to talk about them will only create more conflict.  So, he says, we should focus on the things that unite us, the things that we can actually agree upon--like caring for the poor, giving hope the those in prison, and leaving our planet in better shape than when we found it.  Francis gets what tolerance looks like.  It doesn't always agreeing, and it doesn't mean giving up on our own beliefs.  It looks like moving beyond the differences to see that we are all part of the household of God, part of one great big family, regardless of what labels we give ourselves.

Maybe you find yourself today dealing with someone who’s truth, whose perspective on life and on God, is so very different from your own. Maybe they're in church or at work or at school.  Maybe you’re struggling with how to care for and love someone who claims to follow Jesus but, in your eyes, has a really messed up way of showing it.  Remember Jesus’ words:  those who are not against us are for us. Practice the kind of tolerance that Jesus shows us today.  Hold fast to your truth but do not be so tied to it that you reject the truths that others hold. And remember that we are called simply to love.  To love.  And God takes care of the rest.  Love covers a multitude of sins and it can widen our narrow perspecitives.  Because the only absolute, the only Truth with a capital T, is the love of God.  Infinite.  Unchangeable.  And big enough to hold you, me, them, everybody.  That's what tolerance looks like.  And that is Good News.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Servants of All

"Jesus asked them, 'What were you arguing about on the way?' But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the 12, and said to them, 'Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.'"
-Mark 9: 33b-35

They were arguing over which one of them was the greatest.  One said he could be trusted over all the others. Another said that his track record spoke for itself.  Another said he knew what the great plan was and would help see it through as he had done over the past few years.  And another told all of the rest of them that they were morons, losers, that he alone had it all figured out.  This was the scene. 

That may have been the scene on that road to Capernaum, but I've noticed it's a repeated scene every time I turn on the TV and see a presidential candidate speaking!  There is truly nothing new under the sun, is there?  Perhaps it is simple human nature to try and one-up each other.  Maybe we cant help but seek our own fortune, our own fame and prestige, and to hell with anyone else.  It doesnt matter if we are actually in the right or know what we 're talking about, all that matters is that we continue to build ourselves up, that we keep climbing that ladder higher and higher and higher. 

The apostles, er, Republican presidential candidates, argue about who among them is the greatest.

It's not hard to imagine the apostles throwing each other under the bus in the same manner.  Simon Peter was probably called out for always stepping up first to say or do something:  who does he think he is trying to impress Jesus like that?  Matthews past as a tax collector surely couldnt be trusted.  James and John, Jesus called them the Sons of Thunder, he mustve thought pretty highly of them; surely theyre the best.  I dont even wanna know what Judas said to make his case.  All the while Jesus is walking ahead of them, listening.  Probably shaking his head.  And when he finally calls them on it theyre silent, like children caught misbehaving. All this time they have been walking around with him, performing miracles and preaching about the kingdom, and they still dont get it.  I mentioned last week that one theme of Marks gospel is that the apostles just dont get it.

To hammer his point home Jesus sits down.  Whenever he sits he means business.  Thats because whenever a rabbi or a philosopher was teaching in the ancient world and really wanted to make a pronouncement he sat down.  Jesus deliberately takes up this position so that his point would be made more clearly.  And here he spells it out:  whoever wants to be first among you must be last of all and servant of all.  In other words,  if you seek the greatness of the kingdom you will only find it by being last, not first, by being servants, not masters.  It was not that Jesus told them to abolish their ambitions.  Rather he transforms ambition.  He turns the ambition to rule into the ambition to serve.  He turns the ambition to have things done for us into the ambition to do things for others. 

Im a pretty a-political person, so maybe Ive missed a few things, but Ive never noticed anyone vying for a position of public trust whose ambitions look like this.  What if they did?  There is a story about a man in ancient Sparta named Paedaretos, and if you dont know who he is, dont feel bad, theres really no reason that you should.  The story goes that Paedaretos was running for the Spartan council, which consisted of 300 men who assisted Spartas two kings in their rule.  He was not elected, and several of his fellow candidates and his friends said what a shame it was that he didnt make it, that he would have been great for the council and that those who made it couldn't hold a candle to him.  But Paedaretos response was, I am glad that in Sparta there are 300 men better than I am.  Here is a figure whom history remembers not because he won or threw a fit after losing.  He is instead remembered because of his selflessness, his willingness to put the needs of the whole ahead of his own.  Could you imagine any person running for public office saying something like that?

It sounds like an impossibly idealistic view, but it is Jesus view.  The truly great among us must be the one who works for the benefit of not his or her own life but for the the lives of others.  It flies right in the face of what our modern sensibilities tell us.  Get more money, get better job, gain more prestige, look out for yourself.  But what would it look like if we changed that narrative?  Give more money.  Get the job that benefits others.  Retreat from prestige.  Look out for our neighbors.  What if, instead of trying to get higher and higher, we got lower and lower and lower?

We have a model for what this kind of life looks like, and weve had it for almost 2000 years.  Its called the diaconate.  It began when a small number of people were commissioned by the apostles to go and take care of a group of neglected Greek widows in the midst of a famine.  Those individuals sought no power, no prestige, and gave of themselves for the sake of others.  One of them, named Stephen, was even killed.  Deacons embody the call to serve that is given to each and every one of us.  Ask any deacon why they do what they do and they will tell you the same thing, that they are called to serve.  Deacon means servant," and in our tradition--and the tradition of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church--all ordained people begin their lives as deacons because no matter where they may go their ministry is grounded in that of the servant. In my time at Christ Church Cathedral I was blessed to serve with The Rev. Paula Ott, our cathedral deacon, and she taught me what being a servant looked like.  In a time when all I could think of was becoming a priest, Deacon Paula called me back to where I was and showed me that my place was that of a servant.  It's a lesson I've tried taking with me into the priesthood.  I've seen that servant spirit embodied by my Dad, Preston Mitchell, who was made a deacon six months after I was.  And in the parish I currently serve, my people will tell you all about Deacon Jack Ogburn, their faithful deacon who served for more than 30 years, retiring earlier this summer.  He continues to inspire them--and me--with his selflessness. These folks have heard Jesus voice and they have responded to it.  They sit at bedsides with those who are dying, they work food pantries and organize mission work.  They sit on church councils, proclaim the gospel, send us out into the world, and they do it all for absolutely no money.  Talk about flying in the face of modern sensibilities!  Who among us would dare do anything without getting something in return?!  But they DO get something.  They get that grace that Jesus is talking about that comes when we put the needs of others ahead of our own.  They get glimpses of the kingdom.  And so do we because they are our model.  Not priests.  Not bishops.  But the ones who St. Ignatius of Antioch said were the highest of ministers because they embody the very ministry of Jesus Christ.  Ask any deacon why they do what they do, and you'll get the same answer:  because I'm called to serve and because this is what God would have me do.  If you haven't before, spend a few minutes with a deacon and see what servant ministry really looks like.  

A few of the deacons who have shown me how to be a servant.  
(Clockwise) The Rev. Lois Howard, The Rev. L. Sue Von Rautenkranz, The Rev. Paula Ott, & The Rev. Preston Mitchell

Being a servant does not mean giving everything up.  No one is being asked to take a vow of poverty and join a monastery or a convent.  Jesus knows that that is not for everyone.  But being a servant does mean transforming our ambition, our very outlook on life.  It means focusing our energies outward, rather than inward. It means redefining what leadership really looks like.  It means asking God, "What would you have me do?" and asking ourselves how we can use what God has given us, not for our own prestige and our own glorification, but for the building up of God’s people; for when we do it to others, we do and for the Lord Jesus.  How can I use what I have to take care of someone who is sick, to provide a meal for someone who is hungry, to give hope to someone who is in prison, to show welcome to someone who is a stranger or who has been hurt by the church.  How can I transform my ambition and be servant of all? Will you be a servant?  Be as Christ to your brothers and sisters?  Will you have the grace to let them be your servant too?  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Who Do You Say That I Am??

"Jesus asked them, 'Who do people say that I am?'"
-Mark 8: 27

Now that is a pretty big question:  Who do people say that I am?  Who is this Jesus of Nazareth, really?  When Jesus puts this question to the 12 they give a variety of answers.  Some folks, they say, think that youre John the Baptist come back to life.  Some think youre Elijah, that great man of God who was taken up in a whirlwind and who, Jewish tradition has it, will come again to usher in the reign of the Messiah.  And others think youre a prophet, like those prophets of old, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, calling Gods people to new life.  Oh, and some think youre absolutely nuts, maybe even a heretic, who is destroying Judaism as we know it.  The Gospel writers didnt include that one, but we know that interpretation was out there too. 

Then Jesus plays his trump card, and he asks the one question that is bigger than Who do people say that I am?  Who do YOU say that I am?  You.  My friends, my students, my beloved.  Who do YOU say that I am?  I've always pictured there being a long silence, each apostle looking at each other, waiting for someone to be bold enough to say something before Simon Peter says very plainly, You are the Messiah.  

Ive wondered what answers Jesus wouldve gotten had he asked that question to each individual apostle.  I suspect he wouldve gotten 12 different answers.  Because while Peter is, of course, correct in his confession of Jesus as Messiah, there was no single, simple answer to this question.  One couldve said the Messiah, one couldve said a prophet, one couldve said a rabbi, a carpenter, a homeless person, a friend to sinners, an outcast.  The amazing thing is that they all wouldve been right.  In the same way, if any of us asked someone Who do you say that I am?  we're bound to get a variety of answers based on our relationship to the person, or based on what we do for a living, or based on our personality.  Still, we are not defined by one single characteristic about ourselves.  I am not just a priest, for example.  Im a toy collector, a comic book nerd, a (very bad) fisherman, a dog lover, a theatre kid, a hillbilly (not a redneck, the difference is elevation!), and a washed-up ballplayer.  I am not defined by any one of these, nor are you defined by any one particular facet of your being.  The same was true for Jesus in his day and in the days after his Resurrection and Ascension.

Thats why we have so many gospelsand trust me, there were way more than just four.  But these are the ones Holy Mother Church affirmed, and each tells a different narrative and paints a different picture of Jesus in a particular time and place.  For the earliest community, the one of Marks gospel, Jesus is a political revolutionary who comes and turns the world on its head and proclaims to Rome that God, not Caesar, is the supreme authority, and he proves it by turning an instrument of death into an instrument of life.  For the community of Matthews gospel, Jesus is the new Moses, giving the Beatitudes up on the mountain side like Moses gave the law, and while he is the Messiah that Israel has longed for he does it all in the context of being a rabbi, constantly teaching the people around him.  For Luke Jesus is not only the Messiah of Israel, but he is the Savior of all humanity, as that gospel is written in the form of a book addressed to a man named Theopholis, a Greek, a non-Jew, and so the whole of that gospel raises up those who previously had not had a share in the story of Gods people, namely Gentiles and women, and thats why the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Song of Mary only show up in this gospel.  Then theres the Fourth Gospel, written almost 100 years after Mark and taking the name of the disciple many believe Jesus loved more than anyone, and in that Gospel Jesus is not only the Messiah of Israel, not only the Savior of the world, but God incarnate, the living Word, and as such he is always in control of a given situation.  I think its fascinating that in this yearYear B of our lectionarywe get to alternate between Mark and John and get to see just how different Jesus is in those two gospels. 

So which one got it right?  All of them.  And none of them.  And maybe thats the point.  There is no one definitive narrative about Jesus.  We dont get to put him in a box and place a label on him the way we place labels on ourselves.  This is something that films like Son of God or The Passion of the Christ get wrong.  They try blending all of the stories into one, but the gospels were never intended to be read like that. Each was written for  specific audience in a specific time and place and with a specific set of circumstances. And just as the interpretations of who Jesus was evolved over time for each gospel writer, so it is with us today.  Ask anyone at any given time in history who Jesus is and youll get a different response. Still, we know that Jesus the Word is, in many ways, the same now that he has always been.  That's why we have a common affirmation of faith, our Nicene Creed, which tells us what we as the Body of Christ believe about Jesus.  Yet that question continues to be offered to each one of us individually to this very day:  who do YOU say this Jesus of Nazareth really is?  And how will you show your answer to others?

In the parish I serve we have answered this question in a variety of ways and have lived out those answers in our many ministries, which we highlighted at our recent ministry fair.  Jesus is the king worthy of worship and praise, exemplified by our acolytes, lectors, eucharistic ministers, and alter guild who serve him in and take care of our sacred spaces each week.  Jesus is the one who made table fellowship with others and welcomed the stranger, and you see that in the ministry of the parish life committee, the fellowship committee, and our greeters and ushers.  Jesus is the one who welcomed children and their questions, and you see that in our children and youth programs. Jesus is the one who called us to serve the least of these, and you see that in the partnerships and programs developed by our mission outreach ministry.  Each community has a different answer to the question and different methods by which of showing that answer to the world.

But brothers and sisters, I wonder:  if I were to ask each of you individually, "Who do you say Jesus is?" what would your response be?  It could be that some of you out there don’t even know how to answer that question?  It’s ok.  Sometimes I don’t either.  But maybe, through prayer and conversation, we can find the answers together.  Maybe we can explore just who this Jesus of Nazareth is for our time, our place, and our set of circumstances in this ever-changing and confusing world.  And then together, with our words and especially with our actions,  maybe we will show the world just who Jesus is.