Sunday, June 28, 2015

in the margins

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 8, Year B, 2015

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

You’ve heard me fondly refer to Mark’s Gospel as the comic book Gospel. While I maintain that claim because of Mark’s quick jumps from action to action, I would be remiss not to give Mark credit for instances of elegance and symmetry found in the midst of those actions. 

We have before us today a story within a story. Both tales deal with healing, with the unclean, with the marginalized. While there are many parallels, there are also several contrasting elements. On the one hand, we have Jairus: a religious leader, respected member of society, and most likely a pretty wealthy man. On the other hand, we have the hemorrhaging woman: unnamed, unclean, unimportant. They couldn’t be more different from one another, yet they both approach Jesus in a state of desperation, and risking their reputation and perhaps even safety, they throw themselves at Jesus’ feet.

Jairus’ persistent pleas are met with silent consent; Jesus gets out of the boat and begins to follow Jairus, the crowd pressing in around them. This is the moment when the hemorrhaging woman makes her move. 

Now, when reading the Bible, it is important to note when people are named. We know Jairus’ name, but the woman remains anonymous; and yet we are given the woman’s back story and are even privy to her thoughts, so in a way, we know more about her than Jairus. The woman has been suffering from this blood disorder for as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive: 12 years. She’s done everything she could—spent all of her money—on trying to come up with a cure, to no avail. She hears about Jesus and, having absolutely nothing to lose, not even her dignity, she sneaks into the crowd and reaches for his robe. 

Now, Jesus could choose to ignore the woman’s touch; after all, he is on his way to the house of an important spiritual leader whose daughter is on the brink of death. But, in typical Jesus fashion, relationship trumps status, and Jesus stops, the whole crowd halting with him. He has sensed power leaving his body, perceived that someone has believed in him. And rather than disregard it, he wants to talk to this person face-to-face. The woman benefits twice from this act: she has been focused on her mission for so long that she cannot think about anything beyond physical healing. When she confesses to Jesus that she is the one who has touched him, he affirms her faith, but also acknowledges in front of everyone that she has been healed; she is now able to return to society. What’s more, by naming her “Daughter,” he has invited her into his family, recognizing her identity as a child of God. 

As Jesus is saying these words, messengers come to relay the news that Jairus’ daughter has died. Now it is the little girl who has become unclean. She is a child, considered property, and even less valuable than a boy, who at least can carry the family name. Rather than leave well enough alone and focus on the many sick people around him, Jesus leaves the crowd and most of his disciples behind and goes to Jairus’ house. Once again, Jesus has demonstrated that he prioritizes the marginalized. Evoking memories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, the only other people to have raised the dead, Jesus tells the little girl to “get up” (Mark 5:41). Then Jesus asks them to give her something to eat (Mark 5:43), showing his care for the child as well as foreshadowing his own post-resurrection meal on the beach (John 21:12-14). 

There is another element of this story that we lose in our modern context, now that we don’t live our lives according to the Laws of the Old Testament.

Because of the effects of her particular disorder, the hemorrhaging woman is considered unclean, untouchable. She is supposed to warn people of her presence so that they can get out of her way. Imagine going 12 years without touching or being touched by anyone. Reports have shown that infants can have all the required basic necessities: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, but if they are neglected—if they are not held or touched enough— they will die. While it may not be life-threatening for an adult, the psychological and emotional devastation is huge. 

We may think that we are immune from this type of neglect, that we Americans are much more advanced than the orphanages in Romania, where after the Communist government fell, thousands of orphans were crowded into orphanages and abuse and neglect ran rampant. We might think that we are way more civilized than Jesus’ first century Palestine, under vicious Roman rule. 

And in many ways, we are. But in many ways, we are also not so different.

Let us not forget that for hundreds of years in our own country we thought that slavery was not only okay, but authorized by God. And that even when slavery ended, laws were created so that African Americans were not allowed to drink from the same water fountains, swim in the same pools, shop in the same stores, go to the same schools, or marry someone who was white. Imagine the effects of that kind of discrimination, of being seen as less than, over the years. It turns out we are not so very different from the society that shunned the hemorrhaging woman.  

I think this is why we are so moved by stories of people who cross societal boundaries to aid in the healing process of others: think of Mother Teresa bathing lepers, of nurses caring for AIDS patients in the late 80s and early 90s, when the process of transmission of the disease was still unknown. And not just healing in the sense of sickness, but healing divisions, as well. People like martyr Jonathan Daniels, who 50 years ago left seminary early to come down to Alabama and help with the Civil Rights Movement. People like the Lovings, who fought for their right to marry the person they loved, regardless of race. And people like the members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church’s Bible study, who warmly welcomed a young white man into their sanctuary. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us that he consistently prioritizes people on the margins of society. He is inviting us to reflect on our own lives:  Who have we welcomed into our family, and who have we left out? What things or people claim our attention? How can we take part in the healing process?  

In our baptismal covenant, which we renew every time someone is baptized or confirmed in our church, one of the things we vow to do is to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305). We recognize that we have a long way to go, but we do not face this journey alone. God is with us, and we will be able to accomplish everything “with God’s help” (BCP 305). 

Photo by Elliott Erwitt found here.

Image found here.

Image found here.

Image found here.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

get in the boat

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 7, Year B, 2015 

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

"Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38)

These are the words of Jesus’ disciples: terrified, anxious, panicking because of the waves beating fiercely against the boat. The incident takes place early on in Jesus’ ministry, and the disciples call Jesus “Teacher,” not yet realizing that he is the Son of God. They cry out in their fear, completely taken aback that Jesus is not interfering when their lives are in danger. 

Today we find ourselves also faced with a storm. The horrific killing of nine Christians at Mother Emmanuel AME Church last Wednesday night have us crying out to God, just like the disciples, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” 

Every time we are faced with senseless death, we repeat this question to God. Following natural disasters, upon being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or after freak accidents: “God, do you not care that we are perishing?”

But today the storm that we face is a storm of our own making. And now it is our brothers and sisters of color who are crying out to the privileged—to you and to me—“Fellow Americans, fellow Christians, fellow children of God, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Too often we have responded to acts of violence with passive hopelessness. We are quick to quell protests, claiming that we seek peace, and protests are not the way to achieve it. But our mantra of “Peace! Be still!” only serves to stifle the voices of the people who are suffering. When we advocate for peace, what we are really advocating for is maintaining the status quo. Change makes us feel uncomfortable. We don’t want to change, because the truth is, we benefit greatly from the way things are right now. But you and I have benefited far too long at the expense of our sisters and brothers of color. 

Fifty two years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, and wrote a letter to white Southern clergy responding to their claim that it wasn’t the right time for action. He lamented their lack of participation, saying “all too many [religious leaders] have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows” (MLK, Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail). He grieved that white people of faith were choosing not to get involved, pointing out the blindness of their privilege “I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action” (ibid.). 

The month after Dr. King wrote this letter, he addressed a congregation in mourning. The reason for their grieving? On September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing 4 young girls. Four white men, motivated by hatred due to their racist beliefs, took the lives of four innocent children as they sat in church learning about God. The bombing became a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, helping lead to the passing of the Civil Rights Act the following year. 

What happened last week in Charleston is really not all that different from what happened at a different church in a different town 52 years ago. Just as a moment of tragedy was a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement back then, let us honor the lives of the 9 martyrs—Sharonda, Cynthia, Tywanza, Depayne, Susie, Ethel, Clementa, Daniel, and Myra— let us use this moment of tragedy as a turning point for us. 

Dr. King’s words in that jail cell 52 years ago still ring true today: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation” (MLK, Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail).

As Philadelphians, we are well-acquainted with the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence). As Derrick pointed out to me the other day, “there’s a reason why ‘life’ was listed first, before ‘liberty’ or ‘pursuit of happiness’”. It seems we have been confusing the order, placing the pursuit of our own happiness before the lives of others. It’s time to change that back around.

Earlier this morning we welcomed a little girl named Fiona into the Body of Christ through the waters of baptism. Every time we baptize someone, we recommit ourselves to following Christ by renewing our Baptismal covenant. One of the things we vow to do is to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305).

So, where do we start? First and foremost, we begin with prayer, both personal and communal. Prayer reorients us to right relationship with God and each other. But we can’t stop there. We also need to get involved in conversations about privilege and racism. Intentionally seek out and listen to the voices of people of color. Read articles and books on these issues. Call people out when they make racist jokes or treat people differently based on the color of their skin. Get involved in community events and learn to know our neighbors. To this last end, this Wednesday night at 6:30pm the Wissahickon Faith Community Association, a local interfaith group, is hosting a Solidarity March to “stand against hatred, violence and intolerance.” The march will conclude at Bethlehem Baptist Church with a healing service. I hope you will join me. 

One of the most poignant things about the events of last week was the response of the family members of the martyrs. They shared their pain and grief with the man who murdered their loved ones, but each one of them spoke words of forgiveness, as well. If that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ lived out, I don’t know what is. In the face of tragedy and in the wake of such a demonstration of love, we are compelled to act and respond to our sisters and brothers, “Yes—we DO care that you are perishing!”

Toward the end of Dr. King’s letter, he remarked, “…[T]he judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century” (MLK, Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail).

Jesus is calling us to action. It’s time to get in the boat with him and “go across to the other side” (Mark 4:35). 

The 9 martyrs of Charleston
(image found here)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

those crazy Christians

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 5, Year B, 2015

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen. 

When we picture Jesus, I imagine most of us have an image of a long-haired, sandal-wearing, roaming preacher who healed the sick and spoke gentle words of love and peace and forgiveness. I’ll admit this is the first image that pops into my mind, as well. But this is not the complete picture of Jesus, which is made quite clear when we have passages like the one today.  

In this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is in the very beginning of his ministry. He has traveled around the Holy Land, teaching and healing the sick. Just before today’s reading, he has chosen the last of his 12 disciples and now he has made his way back to his hometown. Rather than welcome him with open arms, however, his family comes to where the crowd has gathered around him to bring him home because they think he’s gone crazy. The townspeople are afraid of the miraculous things Jesus has been doing, especially his performing exorcisms. Now, I don’t think that exorcisms happen the way they do in Hollywood movies, but the fact that we have horror films entirely devoted to this rite demonstrates the power of the evil that is represented; demons are not something to mess around with, and the townspeople know it. The only logical explanation the townspeople can come up with is that Jesus must be in league with the devil, otherwise how could he have the ability to counter such a powerful force? The other option is that Jesus has lost his marbles. 

As Christians, we may find ourselves in a similar situation as Jesus. The world, and especially the U.S., is becoming increasingly secular, and as a result, it is no longer out of the ordinary to find people who do not identify as Christian, whether religiously or even merely culturally. In fact, a growing number of people have not grown up in a faith community at all. As this trend continues, cultural perspective is shifting. Gone are the days when Sunday was a day of rest and holy obligation; now we have sports and rehearsals and brunch taking up that sacred time. People now might wonder: Why would you get up early when you have the chance to sleep in? Why would you make the kids come to one more thing when they are already so over-programmed? In this day and age of incredible scientific advancements, isn’t believing in God old-fashioned or naive, like the adult version of believing in Kris Kringle? 

Maybe some of those same questions have run through your mind before. Maybe you’re struggling with these issues right now. I know I’ve thought about them often! 

But I think that we—you and I—whether we are aware of it or not, are here tonight because something about Jesus’ life and ministry has made an impact on our lives, or we have felt the tugging of the Holy Spirit, masked as a yearning for something deeper and more profound. We have realized the truth found in the Gospels, the truth of a God who loves us so profoundly that God took on human flesh, lived among us, and showed that not even death can keep us from God’s love. 

If you think about it, Jesus’ teachings don’t make sense--not by the world’s standards, anyway. Where society says “me and mine first,” Christ answers “love your God and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31, Matt 26:38-39, Luke 10:27). Where the world says the goal of life is to achieve success and wealth, Christ counters, “[the] first will be last…[and the] last will be first” (Matt 19:30, Luke 9:48). Where leaders, filled with greed and lusting for power, plot wars against each other, Christ responds, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). 

The Good News of Jesus is radical, flying in the face of society’s messages of consumerism, violence, individualism, and corruption. To be a Christian in this day and age is to go against culture, and people may think us crazy for it. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “We are fools for the sake of Christ…[w]hen reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day (1 Corinthians 4:10, 12-13). 

When people told Jesus that his mother and brothers had come to collect and restrain him, Jesus looked out at the crowd and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35). 

Jesus welcomes all who follow him into the Body of Christ. We are all fools for Christ. And we are in good company.

Image found here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

responding to God

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Trinity Sunday, Year B, 2015

I speak to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

We find ourselves once again faced with that enigma of all enigmas: the Trinity. Many brilliant theologians and scholars have grappled with the concept of a God that is three-in-one and one-in-three. And over the years many members of the clergy have groaned as they attempted to write a sermon that addressed the concept of the Trinity (which they themselves don’t fully understand) in a way accessible to people with little to no theological training--without preaching heresy. It is an extremely delicate dance, and this is why on this day, you are more than likely going to see a guest preacher, seminarian, or assistant in the pulpit. 

While the word “Trinity” does not actually appear in the Bible, there are many examples of a trinitarian understanding of God. The most obvious illustration is when Jesus is being baptized by John and the sky opens to reveal the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove, while the Father’s voice is heard naming Jesus as God’s beloved son, “with whom [God is] well pleased” (Matt 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, what we today call the Trinitarian formula (Matt 28:19). The apostle Paul ends at least one of his letters by saying, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, [be] with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). The concept of the Trinity has been a part of Christian theology since Christianity began. 

To appeal to those of us who are less theologically inclined, people have attempted to explain the Trinity in images and metaphors. Some familiar ones (some of which I preached before I went to seminary) include the Trinity as an apple, composed of peel, fruit, and seeds, or as ice, water, and steam. The Trinity as Neapolitan ice cream or a s’more. The Trinity as how one person can simultaneously be someone’s co-worker, someone’s wife, and someone’s godmother. All of these examples are fun, easy to understand, and explain some of the truth of the Trinity. Yet all of them are also heretical: God does not have 3 modes or masks to switch between; God is 3 distinct persons. But God is also not 3 different gods.

For most of the last 2000 plus years, we have referred to the Trinity as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The 2008 bestseller The Shack, while flawed in many aspects, paints a different picture of the Trinity. In the book, the person of Jesus sheds the western image of a man with blond hair and blue eyes for a Middle-Eastern man dressed in plaid with a tool belt around his  waist. The Holy Spirit is an etherial Asian woman named Sarayu, the Hindi word for wind. And the Father takes the form of an African-American woman, affectionately referred to as Papa.
Though interesting, The Shack model of the Trinity, like the examples I mentioned before, also has shortcomings. It seems we simply are unable to quite grasp the notion of three-in-one and one-in-three. This can be extremely frustrating, but to me it also brings some relief; if we could solve the riddle and fully understand this enigmatic God that we worship, I’m afraid we might lose some of the sense of awe that comes with the mystery. Our brains aren’t large or complex enough to comprehend God; we can’t fit God in our pocket.

At various times in our lives we might relate to one person of the Trinity more than the others. If we had a difficult home life growing up, viewing God as a parent figure might be less comforting than experiencing God in Jesus of Nazareth, who considered all Christians his brothers and sisters (Matt 12:48-49; Mark 3:31-35). If we are battling an illness, we might pray to God the Father, Creator of the universe, who “knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13) and who promises to “make all things new” (Rev 21:5). If we are faced with a difficult decision, we might pray to the Holy Spirit: the Advocate, Comforter, Helper, and Adviser. 

The persons of the Trinity exist equally, simultaneously unique and yet not separate/individual. The best way I can describe the Trinity is God as the essence of relationship. God is in relationship with God’s Self, which helps us to understand how we are to be in right relationship with each other. And God, emblematic of the perfect relationship, wants to be in relationship with us, God’s creation. The Triune God is not just a passive genie that we pray to when we need or want something. We are in relationship with God, and God asks things of us, too. How should we respond?

In the Old Testament the most common response to God is “here I am,” appearing over twenty times in Scripture. Abraham, Esau, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, and others all answer the Lord in this way (Genesis 22:1-14; Genesis 27; Genesis 37:12; Exodus 3:1-12; 1 Samuel 3:1-10; 2 Samuel 7--NIV; Isaiah 6:8). Now the phrase “here I am” doesn’t just mean, “I am right here.” It means “I am here, present to you in this very moment in time, open to seeing where you are calling me to go.” It doesn’t mean the people who answer are chosen because they are worthy of their own accord; after all, Jacob tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright, Moses murders a guard, and David has a man killed so he can marry the man’s wife. But regardless of their past, God chooses them to carry out God’s plan. And, like Isaiah in today’s reading, despite fearing not being good enough, Isaiah responds to God’s call with “Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

God is calling us, too, and God chooses each one of us for different reasons. We have been given gifts which we are to share with the world. Every single day there are opportunities for us to show up and be present and receptive to God’s call. In our baptismal covenant we vow before God and each other that we will study Scripture, break bread, and pray together (BCP 304). We vow to do our best when faced with sin and evil, and when we mess up to repent and return to God (BCP 304). We vow to share our faith with others in word and deed, to serve Christ by loving our neighbors, and to work for justice, peace, and respect for all people (BCP 305). 

We take these vows seriously. Answering God’s call is not easy; God asks a lot of us. That’s why we repeat these vows every time there is a baptism, Confirmation, Reaffirmation, or Reception. Every time we say them together, we are reminded of what we need to continue to work on. We say them together so that we can hold each other accountable, help each other out when we are falling short, and celebrate when we are able to take up our cross and follow God (Matt 16:24).  

As Christians, and as part of the St. Thomas’ community, we are here for one another. And we are not alone in answering God’s call. Last week we remembered the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Advocate, at Pentecost. The God who created the universe, who took on flesh, died, and rose again, and who breathed life into each one of us, will never abandon us. We are God’s beloved children, adopted by God (Romans 8:14-15). In the waters of baptism we are “born of water and Spirit,” becoming members of Christ’s body and heirs to the kingdom of God (John 3:5; BCP 858). 

We press on, knowing that we are following in the footsteps of a mysterious, complex, Trinitarian God who loves us completely and unconditionally. God is calling us. May we, like those who have gone on before us, have the courage to respond, “Here I am; send me.”

Image of the Trinity found here.

**For a great explanation of what the Trinity is and isn't, read this article.**