Preaching the Bible

People who do what I do for a living, preachers, are often admonished that we mustn’t preach about politics from the pulpit. The reasoning behind this, I suppose, runs along the lines of the old saying, “Don’t wrestle with the pigs, you just get dirty and the pigs like it.” In other words, we mustn’t lower the level of discourse in the church to the mundane and profane world of earthly politics.

Some have disagreed with this. The eminent 20th century theologian Karl Barth once famously said that preachers should walk into the pulpit with the bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Walter Brueggemann would likely say that we don’t have to talk about politics, all we have to do is talk about justice and the politicians will squirm.

I for one am resistant to talking about politics from the pulpit. My reasoning has something to do with the constitutional principal of separation of church and state.  This is a doctrine that protects both church and state from being too much of an influence on the other. I never have been too comfortable when the government and any particular religious institution get too cozy with each other. I believe that the community of faithful people, all faithful people, is at its best when it presents itself and behaves in such a way as to make the dominant political and cultural forces of our world kind of uncomfortable. I like the idea of governmental leaders of any party, as well as industrialists and CEO’s, saying about people of faith, “I wish those people would shut up.” This is why I make fun of things like Sugar Pops and Hummers. I don’t mind fighting the culture wars but I’m not one to lightly dive into the political waters from the pulpit.

All of this having been said, I feel the absolute need to respond to something that was said in the political world, by a politician, last week. In justifying a new policy of separating children from the parents of people seeking asylum in this country, our Attorney General cited biblical authority, specifically Romans 13. I felt blindsided by this. I shudder at the idea of misusing biblical text to justify a policy as cruel and hateful as this one. Even so, I will still resist the temptation to talk about politics from the pulpit. So instead, I’m going to talk about the Bible.

Romans 13 says this:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

I once had a seminary professor who said that there were three things you needed to consider whenever you’re trying to interpret what any given passage of scripture means. These three things are context, context and context. You can’t simply pick out a line of scripture and assign to it a meaning that is truth and law for all time and in all places. There’s a term for that, it’s called proof-texting, and it must be resisted. And there are all sorts of contexts, historical, literary, the context of to whom the passage is addressed. I want to focus this morning on the last of these, Paul’s audience, the people to whom Paul was directly speaking.

The letter to the Romans was written some time around the year 55 of the common era. There was no Christianity as we know it…nothing close. Paul’s audience was a small and downtrodden group of people in Rome, mostly Jews, who had begun to follow Jesus Christ. They still considered themselves Jews and as such, they were being persecuted where they lived. The emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome a few years earlier, making these people “illegal.” (imagine that.) There was a new emperor but that new emperor was Nero, so there was not much future in that either. The members of this group of persecuted people were isolated and afraid, but also angry and possibly feeling rebellious. Paul was telling them to stay out of trouble, let the powers be; he was trying to save their lives.

The fact that Paul was directing his words to this particular group of people is immensely important. Paul was talking to the poor and downtrodden. (The poor and downtrodden are those most favored by God in the scriptures by the way, but that’s another sermon.) Paul was most assuredly not talking to those in power. The emperor Nero wasn’t reading Paul’s letter to the Romans

There are probably hundreds of times that Romans 13 has been used to justify ugly abuse by government. In the 18th century the passage was used in the American colonies by clergy in the Church of England (that’s us folks) to condemn any talk of American independence. This is interesting to note with the 4th of July right around the corner. In the 19th century the passage was cited by preachers in the American south to justify the continuation of chattel slavery. In the 20th century Romans 13 was preached by those who supported Nazi Germany and later by those who were behind South African apartheid.

All of these uses, or misuses I should say, of these few lines of scripture, depend upon the lines being taken utterly out of the context in which they were written. In order to use this passage in these ways one must completely ignore the fact that the audience was the poor and persecuted downtrodden and not the powerful. To say that Paul is telling those in authority that they can do anything they want, since God put them there, is more than ludicrous. It would mean that we should have never ended slavery in this country and never fought the Nazis in Europe.

Last week, the United States Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions (you can’t make this stuff up) cited Romans 13 to justify a policy under which armed governmental agents are tearing apart families, taking small children away from parents who are seeking asylum in this country. In doing so, he is interpreting this out-of-context piece of holy scripture in a way that says that because he is acting under the authority of the US government, then God approves of this policy. He is wrong, As I say, it is more than ludicrous. It is wrong; it is sinful; it is evil. This is not politics. This is inhumanity.

I believe that it is important for people of faith, especially leaders, to speak out against policies that dehumanize our brothers and sisters, of any nationality or faith or situation in life. I fear that there is a tendency, especially among those who are new to faith or who are wrestling with faith issues, to hear something like what is being said from Washington, and then to dismiss the bible and any biblically based faith tradition as supportive of these evil policies. Please don’t fall into that trap. This is why I feel I must speak to this. History is rife with those who have attempted, sometimes, sadly, successfully to hijack the bible and to justify all sorts of human misbehavior, nearly always committed by those in power or authority, against those who are poor, weak or different. Don’t allow those who use good to commit evil to undermine your faith.

We can’t solve the world’s problems from the north side of Richmond. But as Desmond Tutu once said, “I can’t solve world hunger, but I can feed that guy.” Together we can keep our faith and do the next right thing that is in front of us. Let us do that and trust in God. It’s hard some days; I know it is. But it’s what I’m learning how to do. Let’s help each other out to do the same. Amen.

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The Canaanite Woman

Our reading this morning from Matthew is considered by some to be one of the most difficult passages of any gospel for us to really wrap our brains around. One of the main things that troubles us is Jesus’ behavior towards the Canaanite woman who approaches him for much needed help; her daughter is possessed by a demon. I want to talk about this, but first let me say a few things about the rest of the reading.

First, there is the matter of the Canaanite woman initiating contact with Jesus in the first place. In approaching Jesus and speaking to him as she does, the woman violates all sorts of the societal norms of her time. Her behavior is not comfortable for those who observe it, she is not respecting the proper boundaries. She is described as a Canaanite who lives in the land of Tyre and Sidon. This says a lot. She is a gentile, she probably worships either pagan gods or Herod. As a Canaanite, she is member of a group of people, a tribe, who were historic enemies of the Israelites, the people the Israelites displaced when they first came into Cana under Joshua.

To make matters worse, women in those days had no business engaging men they don’t know, especially in public. She shouts, she is insistent and she has a daughter who is possessed by a demon. This last fact more than likely makes her personally ritually unclean, an untouchable if you will. Some in modern times might declare that she is indeed a nasty woman. (and yet she persisted).

The Pharisees with whom Jesus argues in the beginning of the reading would certainly say she was unclean, ritually impure. By violating the norms that she is violating, the rules that have been set down and followed for generations, she is defiling; she represents a defiling presence in the face of Jesus and his disciples.

This brings us to the first part of our reading for this morning, and Jesus’ comments on what defiles. Jesus makes it clear in rather graphic terms that the things that we take in are not what defile; that instead it is the things that come from our hearts when we are not centered in God that defile.  It is hatred and mistreatment of others, things done with malevolent intent, killing others, sexual exploitation of others, lying, stealing, slandering.

The literal translation of the word that is translated as “defile” is to make common. In other words, it means to attempt to take away something’s or someone’s special status as a creation of God, to de-sanctify.

All of the created order stands in special relationship to God, all people stand in special relationship with God. We are created in God’s image. We defile something or someone when we deny that relationship. Indeed, we defile the entirety of God’s kingdom when we attempt to disqualify anyone or anything from their rightful connection with God. When we claim a special status with God to the exclusion of others, we defile. Those who assert the superiority of their tribe by driving cars into those they deem as inferior are those that defile. And they don’t just defile the ones they hurt, they defile themselves and everyone around them. They defile the Kingdom of God.

The Canaanite woman would have been seen as someone who was denying Jesus and his disciples their rightful special status with God by her behavior. She was not treating them with the dignity that the rules of the day demanded. She was a woman daring to talk to a man. She was a gentile daring to talk to a Jew. She had an unclean daughter and dared to talk to a great healer. She was denying Jesus and his disciples the inherent privilege of place and status, and so many in her context, actually pretty much everyone in her context, would have said she was defiling them.

And this brings me back to the very first thing I said about this passage. We are uncomfortable with the way Jesus treats this woman at first. The first thing he does is ignore her. That doesn’t sound like Jesus to us. The disciples tell him to send her away because of her shouting. They do not like her potentially defiling behavior. Here is where Jesus says those things that make us so uncomfortable. He says he is sent only for the lost sheep of Israel. He basically calls the woman a dog after she came and knelt before him and pleaded for his help. This doesn’t sound like Jesus to us.

Here’s what I think is happening. I think there is a very good reason that this story of the Canaanite woman immediately follows the interaction with the Pharisees about purity and defilement and immediately precedes the second feeding miracle, the second feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew, when Jesus feeds the gentiles. Jesus was a teacher. Mary Magdalene identified him as such when she first recognized the risen Christ. She said “Rabouni!” which means teacher.

And this moment, when this woman of questionable ritual cleanliness kneels before Jesus and begs him to heal her possessed daughter, is a profound teaching moment for Jesus. Jesus in his ministry didn’t hesitate to teach by using extreme measures, hyperbole, even anger, as when he destroyed the tables of the money changers. So Jesus blatantly insults the woman, calling her a dog. In doing so he exposes the shallowness of the rigid rules of exclusion the Pharisees insist upon, and exposes the ugliness of taking these rules too far. I imagine that even the disciples were made uncomfortable by Jesus’ comment to this woman who was kneeling before him. I imagine they learned a powerful lesson when he healed her daughter.

She persisted and Jesus said to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!” I don’t really think that Jesus was swayed by her pithy retort about the dogs eating the crumbs. I think Jesus intended on healing her daughter all along. I think that Jesus was being a teacher. The fact that he next went on to heal others in that same region, and then feeding the masses of gentiles, lends credence to this.

And what is the lesson learned? Well, perhaps they are legion, to turn a phrase. But at the least Jesus teaches us of the ugliness and pettiness of our insistence that our tribe is the one with the greatest connection to God. There is no theological or biblical basis for us to ever judge anyone. In fact, we are pretty much specifically instructed not to. Those who go too far down that road, those who over-identify with their tribe and forget that we are one human family, created in God’s image, run the risk of committing horrendous acts of defilement, or having such acts committed in their name. Our relationships, as strong as thy can become when grounded in God, become much too fragile when we even glance down that road.

And finally, Jesus teaches us that we can expect and even know that God will be God in the end. God is the God we know in our hearts, the God who wrote the law in our hearts, the God of radical acceptance, radical abundance, radical forgiveness and radical grace.

Thanks be to God….amen

Pleased to Meet You

There’s a quote I saw recently that must have gone around on the internet a while back. I heard it and then had no problem finding it again with a simple search. So, if I found it on the internet it must be true, right?

The quote goes like this: “Someone once told me the definition of hell; on your last day on earth, the person you could have become will meet the person you became.” I’ll read it again…

I find the quote compelling, and the idea of meeting the person we could have become is very intriguing to me. But there is something that I don’t like about the quote, something I had a hard time putting my finger on. I’m not sure that I can perfectly articulate my strong ambiguity but let me give it a try. I find the quote overly negative in a judgmental sort of way. Whoever wrote it chose to talk about meeting the person who we could become in terms of Hell or punishment. I think it serves us much better to think of meeting the person who we have the potential to become as a moment or time of grace, a profound gift, an encounter with a vision of pure redemption and even salvation.  And I don’t think we need to wait until the end of our lives to envision such an encounter.

Think about what it means to live up to your fullest potential as a human being, a child of God. What is the best there is within us? We know some things that it is not. At least I hope we do. It is not fame or notoriety; it is not material wealth; it’s not power. If we believe it is these things, and strive all of our lives to attain these things, we are sinners. We are idolaters. We worship things that are not God or of God. However, if we are presented with these things as a result of fulfilling a God-given call, and if we are good stewards of what we are given, well then that’s different. It gets complicated. And yet the question is still there; what does it mean to become the person we *can* become.

Today we baptize a baby. It’s a perfect day to baptize a baby. We celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus in our liturgy today and today is youth Sunday; all of or service participants are young people…except me. (I felt I needed to say that before somebody else did!) So today is an especially appropriate day to do what we are about to do. It’s a beautiful service, full of some of the most powerful language there is about what it means to be a Christian. We all reaffirm our own baptisms by promising again to worship, repent, proclaim, love and respect the dignity of every human being. We hear the promises made by the Godparents on behalf of the infant being baptized and, in the first thing in the service that we do together, as a congregation we make a very profound promise. We promise to, through our prayers and witness, to “help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ.”

Now *that* is a promise. It’s a promise that brings me back to that internet quote I was talking about. We are about to pledge to help Emma Grace to become the person she is capable of becoming. The struggle in our lives, for all of us, is to become the person we *can* become, and we reach for that goal when we grow into the full stature of Christ.

This, for me, is the nuts and bolts of the incarnation, the true meaning of God made human in Christ for all of us as individuals. God, by becoming fully human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, has planted the seed within the deepest soil of our being. When we, with the full help of our communities, create a life for ourselves that allows us to at least try to grow into the full stature of Christ, then we become whole and we become the person we want to meet on that last day.

Have you ever heard the expression that “you are what you eat”? This brings up another story I read, from the Native American tradition; here it is:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

What are we feeding ourselves? What are we feeding our children? Are we feeding them, and ourselves, the food that will nourish the good wolf; that will grow us and them into the people we want to meet when we meet ourselves; the best that we can become?

We are today. In this beautiful, existentially enriching and nourishing, mystical and mysterious combination of Baptism and Eucharist, surrounded and assisted in our worship by young people, we are taking in the most nourishing food our faith, our church, has to offer. By baptizing this baby, and in reaffirming our own baptismal vows, we are bathing in the healing and nourishing waters of redemption, reconciliation and new life in Christ. We are sharing with the newly baptized the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ and promising to do all in our power to support Emma Grace in her life in Christ. We are promising to feed her, and each other, the good food, the nourishing food, the food that will allow the good wolf to grow if you will; to allow her and us to become the person we want to meet when we encounter our truest selves.

And in sharing the Eucharistic feast, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we are keeping those promises. We open ourselves to the sanctification of God’s Holy Spirit in a way that will allow us all to grow into the full stature of Christ and become fully ourselves, the people God intended us to be.

Reacting

photo-police carMany of you know that I recently attended a preaching conference held at VTS, my old seminary. It was a very positive experience for the most part and I felt that I got a lot out of it. One of the things we had to do was to submit three sermons that we had preached in the past for someone who was an experienced preacher and teacher to look at and to offer suggestions. (That’s a nice way of saying “criticize”.) My person was a gentleman a bit older than I who had a lot more experience in preaching than I do. He had some very nice things to say, and also offered some suggestions. One of these had to do with a couple of my cultural references. It seems they were too dated. He suggested that I find some more modern references to make whatever point I am making.

So today I want to bring up a song written and performed by the Kingston Trio. Hey….I’m a slow learner. The song, The Merry Minuet” is one that they performed live in 1959. But the thing is, it is highly relevant today, some would say that it is frighteningly relevant today. It speaks in a humorous way about the human condition, the lot of mankind. I say humorous, but the thing is, it’s one of those songs that when you first hear it, you laugh…but then that laughter gets more and more uncomfortable. One day, not in church, I’ll play the whole song for you. But the bridge, the middle part, goes like this:

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans. The Germans hate the Poles.

Italians hate Yugoslavs. South Africans hate the Dutch

and I don’t like anybody very much…[1]

 

We’ve all had days like that… But here’s the thing…here’s what I believe is a very important thing to take from this song. In the song’s overall trajectory, about the state of the human condition and about how we see one another, the song is not really speaking the truth. It is not our nature to hate. We are not born that way, we were not created by God to be that way, Jesus Christ did not become incarnate and enter into the essence of our human nature for us to be that way. If we hate, we learned how to hate. And if we learned how to hate, we can unlearn it. We can unlearn it by doing what God wants us to do, by being fully human, created by God in God’s image, created in love…created for love.

I refuse to be despondent. Or perhaps I should say that I refuse to remain despondent. When I go to bed with one violent shooting on my mind and wake up to hear about another, I feel all of the negative emotions and I, like any other human being, seek someone or something to blame. Brene Brown, who speaks and writes so eloquently about shame and redemption, said it very well:

I woke up this morning looking for someone to blame. Someone to hate. Someone who I could make the single target of my fear about the officers killed in Dallas and the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It was such a desperate feeling to want to discharge the uncertainty and scarcity. Then it dawned on me that this is the exact drive that fueled what’s happening right now.

Instead of feeling hurt we act out our hurt. Rather than acknowledging our pain, we inflict it on others. Neither hate nor blame will lead to the justice and peace that we all want – it will only move us further apart. But we can’t forget that hate and blame are seductive. Anger is easier than grief. Blame is easier than real accountability. When we choose instant relief in the form of rage, we’re in many ways choosing permanent grief for the world.[2]

 

I’ve spoken before about the differences between our reactive tendencies and our thought out responses. We react in ways we have been trained to react. Many of us learned as children to react in shame by either shaming ourselves or the perceived other. We learned this in order to survive. But when we sit with our losses, when we let God into our depths, we become the humans that God created, free to truly grieve and finally to grow.

The parable Jesus offers today speaks of what our shame and fear can lead us to and also what we can become when we let go of that shame and fear. The priest and the Levite acted, or failed to act, primarily out of fear and shame. They feared losing what it might “cost” them to “get involved”, they were ashamed of their own fears and limitations; they didn’t know what to do.

It’s a valid question…what can we do? It all seems so big, hunger, poverty, violence. One thing we are not allowed to do is cover our heads and build walls. The Prophet Amos tells us that.

In the magazine “Weavings, A Journal of the Christian Spiritual life”, Christine Valters Paintner writes:

An…ancient wisdom saying from the desert fathers advises, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” We need to stop feeding the consumer machine, which tells us our worth according to the newest gadget we have purchased (while we throw the last one in an ever-growing landfill.) We need to stop perpetuating the cycles of violence by denouncing war while we relentlessly judge ourselves and the people we encounter every day.

We need to go off to our metaphysical desert or wilderness to reevaluate our priorities. More than likely this is an oasis of silent moments in the midst of a day full of competing priorities. We are called to remember what it is that really nourishes our hearts. What comes to mind when you ponder that question? What makes you feel nourished, fed, and alive?

Never underestimate the power of small kindnesses in daily life to transform our corner of the world. Instead of moving through our days with gruffness and anger, we can commit to treating each person who crosses our path with respect and dignity. The grocery clerk, the bank teller, and our own holy selves will thrive under this loving gaze. These are some of the concrete ways we can respond to the devastation we see reported on the news in places faraway, by remembering the love we can offer right here and now. The doorway of the heart is open. [3]

Desmond Tutu, in the film “I Am” says it this way. He says, “No, you can’t solve global hunger.” Then his eyes brighten, and he smiles broadly, and he says, “But you can feed that guy.” [4]

It is not our nature to hate, to blame, to shame. It is indeed our human nature to commiserate, to help, to value other life. The Kingston Trio song is cautionary, it frightens us in a humorous way by giving us a glimpse of what we can become if we forget who we are, who’s we are. The church, you and me, the body of Christ, exists in the world to remind us all of who and who’s we are, beloved children of God, worthy of respect, dignity and justice, loving God and loving each other, and remembering what Jesus says. The kindness of one Samaritan to one person in trouble can change the world. We must take care of our neighbor.  We must go and do likewise…

Amen

 

[1] The Kingston Trio. The Best of the Kingston Trio. Capitol, 1962. Vinyl recording.

[2] Brene Brown. (2016, July 8), I woke up this morning looking for someone to blame: [Facebook update] Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/brenebrown/?fref=nf

[3] Paintner, Chistine Valters. “The Unraveling Towards Love.” Weavings A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life XXXI.4 (2016): 4-14. Print.

[4] I Am. Dir. Tom Shadyac. Perf. Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky. Flying Eye Productions, 2011. DVD.

Psalm 42

The psalmist says: “As a deer longs for the water-course, so longs my soul for you oh God,” and in so saying, describes the human condition as well as anyone ever has.  We may not know it, we may not want to admit it, we may want to deny it and insist that we can do this all on our own. But we know better. Somewhere in the essence of our being we know this longing. We can’t do it alone. We need God. And we need each other, because so often that is where we find God, in each other.

As a community of baptized people, a community that has sworn together to, among other things, “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” we are mightily tested when evil rears its ugly head as was the case this past weekend in Orlando. I don’t know how to wrap my brain around the horrible events that took place, and I wonder how I can respond. In the furthest recesses of my heart I know that what the psalmist says is true. I long for God, to make sense of it, to tell me what to do, what to say, to reassure me, motivate me, comfort me, to point me in the right direction.  I want God to make sure I fully know that God is with me and with all of those who are so much closer to this tragedy than I am. The Psalm speaks of them: “My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long they say to me, ‘Where now is your God?’” Those who are closest to the tragedy must be wondering about that very question.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus frees the man from the country of the Gerasenes of the demons that have been possessing his spirit. When he does, he asks the unclean spirit his name. The response: “’Legion’; for many demons had entered him…”

The writer of Luke could have chosen any number of words to use to get the point across that the man had many demons. The use of the term “Legion” to name the demons was purposeful on the part of the writer. He was getting in Rome’s face, he was naming the powers and principalities exactly how they were seen, as demons. It was a gutsy way to tell the story!

I have often, in a way that is a lot less courageous that the writer of Luke, poked fun at our dominant culture. I say that I do it with a lot less courage because I tend to mock and make fun of things like Sugar pops, Marlboros and Jolt Cola, little things. When I do this, when I make fun of culture in this way, my point is often to shed light on the way in which we humans try to deny the truth expressed in the psalm, that our souls yearn for God. My point is that we have created a culture that makes a living selling to us those things that we use in order to live in that denial, the denial that we need God. While I was writing this sermon on my computer I got an email from my cell phone company with the heading, “A new way of life is here!” … I didn’t read it. And, as Christians, it is important for us to ignore those petty things that seek to usurp our language. AT&T cannot offer me a new way of life. Jesus Christ can. Radical trust in God can.

When a larger tragedy takes place, however, our dominant culture, political and otherwise, sends us messages that are far more insidious. I have heard a number of them. I have even allowed myself to be drawn in by some of them.

We have a natural tendency to want to find someone to blame. This tendency is not what Abraham Lincoln would have called one of the better angels of our natures. It is a human flaw, and we have plenty of them. The voices out there in the world are supplying us with possibilities for blame that are legion. One pastor who calls himself Christian has said that the victims of the shooting brought their murders upon themselves because of their lifestyles and orientations. He preaches a gospel with which I am not familiar.

There are many other voices that tell us who we need to blame, to accuse, to hate. Don’t listen to them…any of them. If you find yourself listening to someone and reacting, as I have, in a way that makes you angry at “those people”, stop listening. “Those people” are the ones you need to talk to. Evil feeds on distrust, anger, blaming, hatred. Evil cannot survive in a world dominated by love.

I don’t know what the solutions are to the violent nature of our culture, our world. I do know that I can dream of a time in the country that I love where there will be nobody shooting and killing each other. Unrealistic? Maybe, probably, but it is the country I yearn for, and it is possible in God’s kingdom. We can get there, but we’re not going to get there by pointing angry fingers.

So what *do* we do? To begin with we ignore the voices that tell us to abandon our baptismal covenants and to ignore the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We continue to respect the dignity of every human being. We follow Jesus.

When John the Baptist sent word from prison asking Jesus if he was “the one”, Jesus sent back this response: “…he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’” When the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus by asking him which was the greatest commandment he said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In short, we can respond in love. Evil cannot defeat love. We are the foot-soldiers of the Kingdom of God. We walk on the forward edge of the coming of the kingdom. We are Jesus’ hands and feet on this earth. And we have a hard job. Sometimes it looks hopeless. Sometimes it appears that the longing of our souls for God will go forever unacknowledged. Hear more of what the psalmist says:  “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me? Put your trust in God; * for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.”

Put your trust in God, live into the promises you made at your baptism, follow Jesus. Not easy, not simple, almost never a clearly laid out path. But it is what we are called to do nonetheless. It is a good thing that we don’t have to do it alone.

Letting Go and Letting God

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus says in part: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell..” I have said this before, and I’m not sure if I said it here in a sermon, but this is one of those readings that we come across from time to time that makes me really glad I’m not a strict fundamentalist.

Some of you might remember the film “Little Big Man” which came out in 1970. It told the life story of Jack Crabb, who was a white man raised by Native Americans and who led General Custer into the Battle of the Little Big Horn. There’s a character in the film, a sort of huckster type snake oil salesman who appears from time to time throughout the film. He is always managing to anger the town-folk wherever it is he goes, so that each time he shows up in the film, he seems to be missing another body part. Perhaps those town people did take that passage literally, except that they didn’t leave it up to Mr. Merriweather to do the cutting.

What can we learn from the passage? What do these words of Jesus tell us about the Christian life as we live it now; how do they guide us to be closer to God in the 21st century. I believe that scripture is the living word of God and with the help of the Holy Spirit we can find meaning in all of what our Holy writings have to say. There are a couple of things that come to mind as I have been reading this passage from Mark.

One is what I’ve already alluded to. We needn’t struggle to find a way to take these admonitions by Jesus literally. Although I can’t say for certain, I feel strongly that Jesus isn’t calling us to this kind of physically self-destructive behavior in response to our sinfulness. There is a deeper message beneath these words. And that’s the thing. This is true with all of scripture.

Many I fear tend to look to scripture too much as a rule book, a safe haven if you will that tempts us to compartmentalize our behavior, to follow the rules rather seek a deeper understanding about what Jesus or any other part of scripture is telling us about true holy relationship with God and with each other. The Bible is a collection of all sorts of different kinds of writings including poetry, storytelling, history, lament literature, and yes, law. Jesus himself speaks in various ways at various times. He tells parables, he shows anger, sadness, joy. And, in this instance, he speaks in hyperbole. If your eye offends you, pluck it out! Jesus is not asking us to blind ourselves. I believe Jesus wants us to see. There is, after all, a lot to see in the wonder of our lives.

I believe also that there is a broader interpretation of what this passage is saying. In a way that you all may find a little convoluted, I think it’s possible that we are being asked to ponder some fairly important questions about human nature and sin.

Sin is always a good thing to talk about. There’s the story of the farm woman who asked her husband if he had been to church. He said that he had. She wasn’t so sure, so she asked him, “Well what did the preacher talk about?” He said, “Sin.” Folding her arms and tapping her foot she asked, “Well what did he say about it?” He replied, “He was against it.” For the record, so am I.

But how helpful is being against sin? Aren’t we all? Why do we sin anyway? Before we can ponder these questions let me say a little about what sin actually is. I could speak a long time on that subject and we could wind up right where we started, so I’ll just say a little. The origin of the word we translate as “sin” is a Greek word that was often used in the context of archery which meant “missing the mark”. Our sin is not the committing of bad acts so much as it is more like our inability to live up to the potential that God has given us. We miss the mark, we live too much in our brokenness and not enough in our grace. I sometimes think that almost all sin can be described in terms of idolatry; we give godlike qualities to things we can possess instead of letting God be God and letting us be God’s children. It’s in our nature. We’re not so much sinful because we walk around committing bad acts. It’s more like we try to find fullness in things that are not God, not because we are evil, but because we are broken and desperate. We have a God sized hole in our hearts and we haven’t figured out how to fill it.

So what does this have to do with body parts? Again, I’m not at all sure that body parts is the main point here. Instead I believe it has something to do with letting Go and letting God. The reading today is about staying out of God’s way. The part about the person casting out demons has to do with staying out of God’s way as God acts through the good works of others. The part about the little ones has to do with not being a stumbling block to God’s innocents. And the last part, the part about stumbling ourselves, has to do with getting in our own way as we walk and work towards letting God be God.

We are geniuses in doing that. We have a remarkable ability to miss the mark, to forget that we are God’s blessed children. We turn possessions into gods, we turn rules into idols, substituting blind obedience to our safe harbors for open and loving relationship with our fellows and with God. But it certainly doesn’t have to be so. By not becoming stumbling blocks, by not holding on to those things that separate us from each other, we can begin to break our patterns of sin. Let love be our motivation to accept the grace God has given us. Let our prayer be to ask God to help us live lives free of missing the mark, not by following the rules but by doing the next right thing in a response of gratitude and honor to God for God’s good gifts to us.

Hey Mikey, It’s a Demon!

How many of you have ever seen a demon rebuked and cast out? Yeah…me either.

And yet, just this past week, I read an article that began with the question:  What do people want in a sermon?  As you can imagine, this got my attention.   According to a poll conducted by the Lilly Foundation, who researches this kind of thing, the number one thing people want is for the sermon to help them understand how the biblical passage informs their daily lives, how they can integrate the ancient wisdom of the scriptures into the here and now.  And while background and historical context on the biblical texts may be helpful to understand a passage, most hearers are fed by a sermon when they can hear how the two-thousand year-old story helps them think more deeply and faithfully about their twenty-first century challenges, their questions, and their struggles.

And so I ask again, how many of you have ever seen a demon rebuked and cast out? Yeah…me either.

How do we relate to this story of Jesus rebuking and casting out an unclean spirit, a demon? And what really happened when Jesus did this anyway? What exactly was this miracle, this healing, this exorcism? What were the mechanics of it; how did it work? The gospels never really answer these kinds of questions. The writers of these texts didn’t have to explain exactly what was going on. The miracles that occurred through Jesus were signs of his divinity, his authority.  The first hearers of the gospels were those who possessed 1st, 2nd and 3rd century minds. They accepted without much question that Jesus worked these miracles and that since he did, he must have had divine authority. This is not because they were any less clever then we are, they just didn’t have the same information we did. They didn’t have what we think of as a natural propensity to question things that “don’t make sense”. For them, the miracles of Jesus made perfect sense.

Life for them was a cosmic struggle being fought between forces of good and evil. There was no real science; there was no germ theory of infectious diseases. If you had a cold, you had a demon. If you had epilepsy, you had a really bad demon. If your cow gave birth to a five-legged calf, there was some evil involved. The concept of a genetic mutation, an accident, or a mental illness that would cause you to speak and act inappropriately, was totally foreign to them, and not just foreign, it was purely unimaginable. For us, this sort of rational explanation would be the first thing we think of if we saw a five-legged calf, or a two-headed snake, or a man yelling out strange utterances.

Today we think with different minds, not necessarily better, but different. We are products of what began in the 16th century and what has driven the way we think for the last half of a millennium. We are products of the Enlightenment.  We question everything, and we believe that humans are capable of finding the answer to every question. The concept of proving Jesus’ divinity through his miracles is a much more difficult concept for us to grasp than it was for those who came before. We are skeptical, we want the facts. We don’t really believe in demons.

And yet, if we really look hard enough, if we open our minds and hearts to the real possibilities, we may see that there are demons all around us. We find it very hard to see them simply because of the way we tend to define them – based on Hollywood-fed images of heads spinning, bodies levitating and objects flying through the air.  The writer and pastor David Lose proposes an alternative way of understanding the demonic – as any force diametrically opposed to God’s will.  Rather than bless, they curse; rather than build up, they tear down; rather than encourage, they disparage; rather than promote love; they sow hate:  rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart.  In other words, demons are simply the forces of evil that rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for them?”[1]

Defined this way I think it becomes much easier to spot those demons in our modern, post enlightenment world. I don’t know about you, but at any given moment I have plenty of those demons, shouting inside me, telling me that the tree full of monkeys that is my sometimes over-caffeinated brain has better ideas for me than God does. Telling me that the tilted and slanted world that I grew up in, the one that tells me that I am only as good as that which I produce and that the answer to my internal angst is Life Cereal and a house full of shiny new stuff, is the real world, the true world.

And when confronted with the real truth, as the man in our reading with the unclean spirit was, I react in fear. When faced with the truth that I am marvelously made by a God of love who has created me *for* love, I cower. I say, “What have you to do with me? You have come to destroy me.” I am comfortable with my demons and I am used to the slanted world in which I grew up.

Our demons are legion; we learn this in another story about swine being led off a cliff. Here are just a few:

  • Our reliance on caffeine or sugar or alcohol or food or cigarettes or Life Cereal to give us a lift when we need it;
  • our need to be in control;
  • our fear of looking foolish;
  • our need to be busy so as to be deemed of value;
  • our old grudges which still sting when we turn our attention to them.

There are many, many more. And when we look at them from a little distance, we can see how they steer us away from God, how, as David Lose says, they oppose God’s will for us, which is to love God, ourselves, and each other.

But when we examine them closely, when we begin to acknowledge how deeply ingrained some of these demons are, and how much we rely on them to go about our day to day lives, we respond in fear when love confronts us. When we come to know how truly adored we are by the God who creates us, sustains us and redeems us, it is at first a frightening concept. I believe this is so because this is when we come to understand that this love calls us to respond in a way that is very difficult. We are called to respond by becoming fully human, to allow ourselves to be our authentic selves, living into the profound love of God. This is hard. We are used to the slanted world, of our constant striving to prove our worth, and by the constant messages that we need to accumulate accolades or antiques or apple computers in order to feel full.

Fortunately for us we don’t have to do this alone. This is good news, since we simply cannot do it alone anyway. We need, and we have, God and each other, to nourish us, to fill us. We are all members of Christ’s body, and so we are all able to respond to God’s call to live into our wonderfully made humanity, to accept that we are indeed made in God’s image, and that, as God said when God created us, this is good; this is very good indeed.

[1]   David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org  4 Epiphany, 2012.mikey