Monday, October 15, 2018

What We Really Need

On Sunday, October 14 the fine folks of Good Shepherd in Asheboro held church as usual.  What made the day different, however, was that they did so without any electricity at all.  There may have been a time when we would've simply canceled our liturgies, given that our church building gets very little natural light, so both the chapel and the sanctuary are ridiculously dark, even in the daylight.  Still, we gathered as our ancestors did in the catacombs, in the dark, huddled together by the light of candles.  Say what you will about how a church with carpet everywhere shouldn't use hand-held candles, but on this day it was perfect!  With the light of Christ in our hands we gathered to worship, to sing in the ancient call-and-response style, and to break bread.  And wouldn't you know it, but Jesus showed up!

Good Shepherd, Asheboro worshipping in the dark this past Sunday morning.

I found it poetic and lovely that THIS was our Gospel text that day.  As Episcopalians, we are often held captive by a lectionary that sometimes does not give us much with which to work.  Not so on this day!  As if by divine providence, on a day when we were sitting in the dark with no electricity, no air conditioner, and no organ, we heard a Gospel proclaimed that called us to let go of all of our stuff.  As I said to our folks that day, we may not have had electricity, but thanks to this Gospel, we were reminded that we definitely had power!

'As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”'
Mark 10: 17-31

As most of y'all know I am a big comic book fan, and one of my favorite stories is a graphic novel called Marked by Steve Ross.  There are a lot of comic book versions of the Bible out there, but what makes this one different is that it is focused on one specific book, the Gospel of Mark, and rather than a bunch of bright colors and your usual, run of the mill images of a caucasian, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, Marked is done in black and white and features a Jesus that is not quite black, not quite white,and just a tad androgynous.  It's a great read, and I highly recommend it.

You can order a copy of Marked here. 

One of my favorite moments in Marked is its version of this story of Jesus and a man whom later gospels will describe as both rich and young.  The graphic novel version plays out the same way with the  man asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, to which Jesus responds that all he lacks is to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor.  At this point the image in the book pans out and up, and the reader sees that the man has been carrying all of his possessions on his back.  As the weight of Jesus' words hit him, the weight of all those possessions gets greater, until it all finally collapses on top of him.

Our culture tells us we need more and more stuff: more power, more prestige, and more possessions. It was true in Jesus' day as much as it is for us now, and then, as now, the culture preaches a gospel that tells us all of those things will fix our problems and make us happy.  What the culture does not tell us is that there is a tremendous burden that comes with all of those things, a burden that weighs us down like the man in the graphic novel version of this story, until one day it all collapses on us. This man has become so attached to his stuff that it has become his master, resulting in him walking away grieving when Jesus presents him with the opportunity to follow him.  Sadly, he is the only person in the Gospels to reject Jesus' call to follow along the way because he is held in the grip of true master.

It's worth pointing out just how perplexing this moment is for the disciples.  For weeks now we have seen them struggle with this notion that what Jesus offers is nothing like the power and greatness of the world.  They, like many folks today, saw wealth as a sign of God's providence and favor.  No one used the term back then, but nowadays we would call this the Prosperity Gospel, the idea that our money and possessions are a sign that God has blessed us, and if we are poor, well then, that means God's not happy with the lives we've been living.  Wealth is the measuring stick for how much God loves us, says the Prosperity Gospel, and truth be told, the disciples and most of the people in Jesus' time believed this as well.  Times haven't changed that much. This is why Peter, having finally lost all patience with Jesus, asks point blank:  What's in it for us?!  We've given up everything to follow you? So what do we get in return if it's not power, prestige, or possessions?

Human culture has been preaching such a message as long as there has been human culture.  What power, prestige, and possessions allow us to do is take control of our lives.  We wield our power over others, yes, but even if we are simple, poor folks this message tells us that we can have power over our own lives, if nothing else.  Prestige then becomes important in order that others may know who we are and validate our worth, while our possessions become signs and symbols of our importance and the level of power and prestige we wield.  Our culture tells us we need these things because if we place all our trust and hope in God then we will be let down.  Jesus, on the other hand, comes along and preaches something completely different.  True life, he says, is not found in any of these things, but in God alone.  God is the one with the power, true, but God is also the one that gave up all power, prestige, and possessions when coming into the world.  In doing so, God (in the person of Jesus) has come to redefine what a kingdom really looks like.

We talk a lot about the Kingdom of God, but do we really understand that God's Kingdom, the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed was both coming and already here, is not a kingdom like Rome or even a republic like the United States?  In those contexts, the rich are the ones wielding their power of others, thus in order to be somebody we must adhere to the culture's message of accumulating all of that stuff. Yet the Kingdom of God, as Saint Jerome said, is a kingdom which desires for its citizens a soul that soars aloft, free from all ties and hindrances, including our power, prestige, and possessions. What's more, Jesus' command to the rich young man is to sell, not part, but all of his possessions, and then give the money, not to his wife or his children or his friends, but to the poor.  If we are to inherit the Kingdom we must be willing to let go of everything we fear to lose, especially our possessions; after all, ain't a one of us leaving this world with any of them!  Another of those ancient church teachers, Saint Augustine, put it this way:  "Riches," he said, "are gained with toil and kept with fear.  They are enjoyed with danger and lost with grief.  It is hard to be saved if we have them, and impossible if we love them."

Augustine of Hippo (left) and Jerome (right).

"So who can be saved?"the disciples asked.  If there's no hope for the rich and powerful, what hope is there for anyone?  Oh but there is hope!  There is hope in Jesus!  There is hope in the crucified one who calls us to be crucified ourselves to all of the vanities of this world that hold us back from truly embracing and loving him.  There is hope in the one who calls sinners of all shapes and sizes, rich and poor alike, to be healed of all that plagues us.  There is hope in the homeless preacher who came daring to preach to those who are poor and calling it Good News.  There is hope, brothers and sisters, in Jesus, for just as he surrendered all of himself to God, he calls each of us to do the same, for it is in God alone that we find our worth, not any of the vanities of this world.  While time and rust will consume and destroy all of our possessions and kingdoms and republics will rise and fall, Jesus endures, and his grace makes it possible for us to be free from the bondage of our need for power, prestige, and possessions.

The rich young man did not know he was being held in such bondage.  He comes to Jesus humbly on his knees and raises a serious existential question about eternal life.  Furthermore, Jesus in no way challenges or mocks this man's integrity in doing so.  He's a good guy, but he is held captive by his wealth, and he doesn't even know it.  So many of us who follow Jesus are held captive and don't even know it.  He thought it was enough to keep the commandments.  We often think it's enough to come to church on Sunday, say our communal confession, get our Eucharist, and head home.  When Jesus invited him to see things differently and challenged his thinking by pointing out that no, in fact, that wasn't enough, his response is grief.  I'd be willing to bet that if I asked each of you if you would give up all of your possessions were Jesus to ask you to do so right here and now, I'd wager each of you would say yes.  I know I would.  But who among you and your friends has ever willingly done that?  Nobody that I know of, save for a few monks and nuns.  It's a nice thought, but actually doing it is nearly impossible, so long as the culture preaches such a message to us that if we gave all of that stuff up we would be lost, hopeless, and terrified.  Nevertheless, Jesus is still there inviting us into a relationship with him that tears through that false gospel.

Perhaps Jesus is not literally inviting you to sell all that you have and give the money to the poor, but it's worth asking:  would you be willing to do it if he did ask?  Would any of us?  Sitting in a church in the dark, worshipping as our ancestors did, we were reminded that we don't need all of the stuff that we think we need.  Jesus continues to invite us all daily to consider what the things are that we think we need but which we really don't.  The culture may still shout to us that we really do need the stuff, but we Christians can be the ones that model something different for the culture until, very slowly, we shift the whole paradigm.  We can and we will, with God's help!  Until that day, let us ponder what it is that Jesus is calling us to let go of, and let us be willing to surrender completely and utterly to the majesty and love of God in Jesus.  Do that, my brothers and sisters, and you will truly have treasure in heaven!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Children of the Kingdom

'Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.'
--Mark 10: 2-16

I would be remiss if I did not comment on how difficult this Gospel is, as Jesus unpacks the Levitical law regarding divorce.  Three years ago I wrote on this part of the Gospel, but this year the Spirit was leading me to focus more on that last paragraph, on a part of the text that I left untouched for y’all the last time around.  So if you’d like to know my thoughts on the divorce piece, I invite you to check out my blog post from October 5, 2015, which you can find here    My wife Kristen also has written an excellent piece on the divorce for the blog Modern Metanoia .  As for today, I’d like to invite us to unpack what Jesus means when he talks about children and the Kingdom of God.

A typical storybook image of Jesus and little children.

For the last three weeks Jesus has used small children as part of his teachings.  Two weeks ago it was a child that he took in his arms and placed among those gathered, saying, :  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  Last week, as he reminded folks that whoever is not against us is for us, he pointed to the children in the crowd and said:  “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  Clearly, Jesus wants people to honor the children among them as full and equal members and co-recipients of the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps this is why the actions of the disciples, who instinctively brush the children aside, seems so harsh.

We have to remember that, as usual, the disciples are not entirely wrong when they try to prohibit the children from coming to Jesus.  They are merely enforcing their social norms.  No parent would let a child interrupt a rabbi when he was speaking; after all, it's just plain rude.  What's more, it was a poor reflection on the parents themselves, much more so than the children. So by trying to stop the children the disciples do what they always do: they act in accordance with how their society would expect folks to act.  And once again their behavior illustrates that the disciples just don’t get it.  They fail once more to understand that one of the major points of Jesus’ ministry is the inclusion of everyone, especially those on the margins.  And it isn't just about children.  To welcome the children means also welcoming their mothers, who, let’s not forget, would not have been offered the same privilege as men to sit and listen to this great rabbi  Thus, Jesus' action flings the doors of the Kingdom wide open!  It is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.

Such as what, exactly?  Modern readers have a tendency to romanticize Jesus’ words about children; we look at a child and we use words like ‘innocent’ or ‘loving’ or ‘sweet’ to describe their behavior. The Kingdom must then belong to folks who exhibit these qualities, we might say, but ancient societies, including that of Jesus, lacked such romantic notions of childhood.  We must understand that children were not considered people.  Not yet, anyway.  Women and children both were treated as property belonging to the pater families.  When the disciples dismiss the children they are not, in their view or the views of others, dismissing cute little innocent people, but rather they're dismissing non-people.  The child in antiquity was radically dependent upon the parent, even more so than a child today might be; in fact, the father often decided whether the child would even be accepted into the family, which is why it was not uncommon for deformed children to be dismissed from their homes altogether.  Children belonged to their father and remained so even into early adulthood, especially if they were female, in which case she belonged to the father until being given away to her her husband, at which point she became his property.  The point Jesus is making is that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these, to those who are considered non-people, who have no rights and privileges of their own and are completely dependent upon others for their needs.

This is the great teaching for the disciples.  They are being challenged by Jesus's words about receiving the Kingdom as a child to identify with a group of non-people, to turn their attention to such folks and realize that these are the ones with whom God has most associated the Kingdom, which means that these are the folks with whom the disciples themselves must associate.  This is hard for them, as we heard the disciples two weeks ago complaining about who is the greatest.  Last week they tore down the freelance exorcist to make themselves look better.  Mark’s Gospel is filled with constant imagery of the disciples trying to build themselves up over and over again—and the trend will continue next week—but Jesus offers a radical alternative.  What if, instead of using their own social norms and constructs and talking about greatness in a worldly sense, the disciples focused more on identifying with the very individuals that they would consider not-so-great?  What would happen if they really saw such folks, and instead of treating them as if they didn’t exist or as charity cases for them to throw a nickel at, they began to identify with such folks spending time with them, welcoming them into their social circles, maybe even into their worship spaces?  What would happen to them and their community if they acted in such a manner?

In short, Jesus’ language about receiving the Kingdom as a child, means that hose who hear it are to identify with the powerless persons, with those weak and vulnerable ones who have no claims to stake out and no demands to make, and to be as one such person, in order to truly be recipients of the Kingdom.  Yes, God’s grace has made it possible for all of to be inheritors of the Kingdom, but what if folks focused less on getting into the Kingdom when they die and more on building the Kingdom while they are alive?  After all, that is what Jesus’ teachings focused on, not the Kingdom that is to come but the Kingdom that is right here and now.  Remember his first words from the Gospel of Mark:  "The Kingdom of God is at hand!"  So if we who are the Body of Christ are to be the ones proclaiming that Good News—with a capital G and N—then these words today are for us as much as they were for those bull-headed disciples.  They kept wanting to look at the Kingdom of God like it was a Kingdom of Humanity.  They wanted God’s greatness and power to look like the kind human beings seek, but it’s not.  It looks like the most vulnerable, the powerless, and those who are utterly dependent on others for their own survival.  Like the disciples, we too must redefine for ourselves what true greatness and power look like, and not only reach out to, but identify with the people on the very margins of our communities, those who have historically been ignored, treated as though they were non-people.  Can you imagine what our world might look like if we who are powerful identified with the powerful, if we are who are loud identified with the voiceless, if we who are privileged identified with the unprivileged?  Jesus has already welcomed ones such as these, and as his Body in the world today it is our baptismal call to be Christ-like in everything that we do.

Perhaps no one embodied this call better than St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was this past Thursday and whom we will honor with our Blessing of the Animals next week.  A man born with great privilege, Francis gave it all up to not only minister to but identify with the most vulnerable of God’s children.  His example, which has inspired everyone from the current Bishop of Rome to a little farming community in Siler City, both of whom took his name as their own, that example stands as an invitation for us all to redefine what greatness and power really look like; for as Francis himself once said, “Let it be your privilege to know no privilege.”

This guy got it!

So we must ask ourselves:   Who is the vulnerable one?  Who is the one who, like a child, has been silenced, ignored, and brushed aside?  Who are the unprivileged whom our societal norms keep telling us we should not listen to or care about?  You know such a person.  We all do. The next time you see them, remember Jesus’ words.  The Kingdom of God belongs to such a one.  And may you have the compassion and grace to embody the spirit of Francis, to not only address their need but to step into a relationship with that person and together, as co-recipients, build up the Kingdom here and now. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Those Who Are Not Against Us

"John said to Jesus, 'Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, 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

When I was growing up my sister and I fought like crazy.  Everything from what channel to put the tv on to who got to sit in the front seat:   “Mom, Joe spit on me!”  “Dad, Ashley punched me!”  Round and round we went for the better part of 12 years until my sister finally moved away for college.  It seemed as though we were all too eager, all too quick to jump in with whatever misdeeds the other had committed, as if pointing out how bad the other was would somehow make us look better by comparison.  I suspect such a rivalry is common for most households where there are multiple siblings; after all, every kid wants to feel special.  It’s just that sometimes we think that in order to feel special we have to tear someone else down.  

Adults are not immune to this sort of behavior though; in fact, we see this problem in the very first Gospel with behavior exhibited by none other than Jesus’ disciples.  Earlier in this ninth chapter of Mark the disciples tried casting out a demon with no luck.  You may recall that last week the 12 got into an argument over which of them was the greatest, to which Jesus scolded them like a parent admonishing the dysfunctional behavior of children.  Perhaps in response to that, and in order to regain favor with Jesus and feel special once more, John, acting as a spokesman for the rest of the 12, points out that the disciples had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but because he was not one of them, not part of their community, they tried to stop him. We can almost see the look of pride on John’s face, can’t we?  That guy isn’t one of us, Jesus, so we told him to quit it!  Aren’t you proud of us?  But this episode isn’t really about exorcisms, is it? Instead it’s about the fact that the disciples are all too quick to condemn this man because he is not part of their group; after all, they have the market cornered on this whole Jesus phenomenon, and if someone else is doing their work—and doing it better than them—then that’s a threat.  They don’t feel special anymore, and they aren’t afraid to tear down this freelance exorcist in order to regain favor with Jesus.

What we see from the disciples is a phenomenon that still plagues a good many of us who call ourselves Christians, something that is born out of our belief, our assurance, that through Christ we have been made part of the elect, part of those whom God has called to live into the work of the ministry of Christ here on earth and to be joined with him in Paradise when that work is done.  But, as Walter Brueggemann  points out, the awareness of being God’s elect has often bred a form of elitism, a sense of self-importance that subtly builds barriers between groups and persons rather than bridges.  For whatever reason, he says, the need to be loved, to feel special, can lead to a lack of self-criticism and an increasing mistrust and questioning of others.  This is what we see from siblings who point out each other’s faults so that they will gain favor with a parent, and we see it in the disciples who criticize the freelance exorcist in order to get back into Jesus’ good graces.  Very often we still see it on a day-to-day basis whenever folks take up a defensive posture against someone they presume to be a threat. 

It is not uncommon for any of us to take up a defensive posture from time to time.  Especially in my life in the church I have seen this, and to be fair, I have fallen into this way of being myself.  I’ll give you an example.  In my last semester of seminary I took the General Ordination Exams.  They consist of seven lengthy questions over five days time, and depending on if you have a strict bishop or not, you may need to pass all of them, most of them, or maybe even none of them, in order to get ordained.  As my time in seminary was coming to an end and I was looking for my first job, I got word that my ordination would be delayed.  The reason:  I had not passed all of my General Ordination Exams.  Later, I found out that another seminarian from my diocese had also not passed all of the Exams, and what’s more this person had passed even fewer than I had yet was still scheduled to be ordained before me!  I was livid and got pretty defensive.  What about that other person?! Why am I the only one being punished?!  My bishop and powers that be must have had some sort of personal vendetta against me.  And the other seminarian, through no fault of their own, was a threat, and animosity, jealousy, and righteous anger burned in me for this person. who was going to get ordained right out of the gate, in spite of having worse scores than me. I was all too eager to point out how everyone around me had made a huge mistake. It consumed me until someone finally pointed out that my anger was not holy and righteous but instead was coming from that place of self-importance.  I was going to be a priest, after all!  That made me important, special.  That sense of feeling special had morphed in that experience, and instead of being humbled to be given the chance to serve God in the church, I had become defensive of my own entitlement and fell into the pit of mistrust and the questioning of others..  Thanks be to God for dear friends, mentors, and spiritual directors who brought me out of that pit.  

The church certainly has a way of making us feel special, but it can also tempt us into thinking that we are more special than others, that we are immune to criticism or that anyone who is not with us is against us.  This happens whenever someone gets scolded for brewing the coffee or touching the thermostat, when those are , of course, someone else’s jobs and always have been.  It happens anytime someone feels threatened by another, especially someone coming into the church from another faith tradition, as though such a person does not truly belong to the church, as John felt about the freelance exorcist. Quite frankly, brothers and sisters, we Episcopalians have garnered the nickname ‘Frozen Chosen,’over the years in part because we have a reputation for being a little less than warm and friendly, and in part because our assurance in being among the elect has left us with a sense of self-importance.  

But Jesus offers us Good News (as he always does)!  Those who are not against us are for us, he says.  This is a pretty big flip-flop from what we’re used to hearing, and it’s powerful in its simplicity because it takes us out of those defensive postures.  The freelance exorcist was not against the disciples.  The powers that be that felt I was not ready for ordination were not against me.  And that person who you have had a really hard time with (perhaps a member of your church), is not against you.  Jesus’ words today are for all of us who have a really hard time remembering that there are experiences out there besides our own, those of us who go on the defensive the second we feel threatened!  There are feelings and opinions that others have that we can learn from, but if we stand in our position of self-importance then we will treat them as an adversary, and that is not at all what Jesus wants from us.  Like the 12 with the freelance exorcist, Jesus invites us to see our brothers and sisters as fellow workers on behalf of the Kingdom and to respect them and their work, just as we would our own, not being quick to point out their faults or taking a defensive posture when they are just trying to help, trying to be the best Christian they can be.  Faith is not a sibling rivalry!  We do not have to earn Jesus’ love, we do not have to try to be special and regain his favor over and over again.  We’ve already got it!  That is what grace is all about!  Grace has been given to all of us so that we may no longer be held hostage by the dark sin of self-righteousness.  

Have you ever paid close attention to the way that the Eucharist is celebrated?  The priest stands with arms outstretched and palms open.  It's a vulnerable position.  Likewise, when folks come forward to receive the Sacrament they do so with hands outstretched, often kneeling and with heads bowed.  These, too, are vulnerable positions.  The truth is that one cannot celebrate and receive the Eucharist from a defensive position!  What would happen if we received others and their experiences the same way we receive the Eucharist? If you are the kind of person who tends to take up a defensive posture, like John or I did, then let Jesus show you a different way.  Those who are not against you are for you.  May you not fall into the trap of trying to prove your own self-worth by tearing down others.  May you shed that old, outdated monicker of "Frozen Chosen," and embrace someone or something new and different.  Perhaps if you can let go of your defense mechanisms and commit to being more vulnerable, you will find your own faith strengthened in ways you could never imagine.  And that is good news!