Monday, September 28, 2015

the flavor of life

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 21, Year B, 2015

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, * O LORD, my strength and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Amen. 

One of the things I love most about Jesus’ disciples is how comically human they are. Yes, they are the founders of the Church and do many incredible things, but they also fail to grasp key points of Jesus’ teachings. Last week, we heard how they were arguing on the road about who was the greatest of them. Jesus tells them that they’re missing the mark; they should be humbling themselves rather than trying to outdo one another. 

This week’s reading shows us that they haven’t seemed to learn much. John, presumably hurt by Jesus’ gentle correction and wanting to regain Jesus’ favor, tells Jesus that the disciples saw someone the other day performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name, and since he wasn’t a follower, and since the disciples had been unable to perform an exorcism themselves earlier—which made the disciples look bad (Mark 8:14-29), they tried to stop him. Maybe John expects a pat on the back, but even Jesus doesn’t appreciate tattle tales. Jesus turns around and, harking back to Moses’ rebuke of Joshua (Numbers 11:26-29), admonishes John and the disciples, saying, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). 

You see, a big theme in Mark’s Gospel is the cosmic battle between God and the forces of evil. In fact, the first of Jesus’ public demonstrations that Mark writes about is an exorcism of a demon (Mark 1:21-28). In this ongoing war, help is not needed, but is definitely noted and appreciated. Furthermore, in doing deeds of power in Jesus’ name, the exorcist might be inspired to become a follower of Jesus. 

Jesus goes on with his teaching, further correcting the disciples’ behavior by sharing some pretty violent metaphors. I’m pretty sure that all of us can agree that our hands, feet, and eyes are important parts of our body, and so I don’t think Jesus is saying that he literally wants us to chop them off and tear them out; Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. 

And the point he is trying to make is that no one should stand in the way of other people’s faith in Jesus, especially other Christians, and leaders, in particular. If the disciples are arguing among themselves over who is the greatest, what message does that send to followers? And if the disciples prevent someone from exorcising a demon and freeing the person just because the exorcist isn’t part of the inner crowd of disciples, how does that reflect on Jesus and his message? 

Jesus continues with other metaphors, this time using salt. Most everyone loves salt; it preserves food and provides flavor to meals. The Good News of Jesus Christ is what flavors life, and this is what Jesus’ followers are called to do. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls his followers “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). As Jesus said in today’s lesson, “salt is good” (Mark 9:50), but salt can also be misused. Too much salt can ruin a meal and salt rubbed in a wound is a form of torture. There are also stories that during the Civil War, after an army destroyed a town, they would sometimes sow salt on the fields to ruin them so that the townspeople couldn’t grow crops, causing a food crisis for their enemies. 

We in the Church are not exempt from the ability to cause harm to others. When we are jealous, hateful, or exclusionary, we lose our effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel; we lose our saltiness. Here’s where the part about “everyone [being] salted with fire” comes in (Mark 9:49). The image of being salted with fire symbolizes cleansing, purging, and refining. Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but he does expect us to try our best to follow him and when we stray, to admit our wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. 

Today’s passage is calling us to self-reflection: what stumbling blocks are we putting in others’ way? When have we prevented someone from receiving the Good News of Christ? What parts of our lives that we think are essential are actually separating us from God?

Perhaps no one in the past few years has done more to spread the Gospel of Christ than Pope Francis. His actions have brought hope to millions of people, Christian and otherwise. Actions like refusing the fancy clothes, cars, and housing typically reserved for the Pope. Like sneaking out of the Vatican at night to feed the homeless. Like spending some of his limited time in Philly meeting with prisoners to highlight the problem of mass incarceration in this nation. 

What appeals to people about Pope Francis is his humility and compassion; the Pope points to Christ with his words as well as his actions. In his speech to Congress, among other things, he said, “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton” (Pope Francis’ address to the U.S. Congress, September 25, 2015). 

We need reminders from time to time of how and why we need to lead our lives according to the Gospel. Pope Francis lives out the Gospel of Christ, adding flavor to this typically cynical, bitter world.

The Pope’s message is the same as Jesus’. We are being called to live into our baptismal vows of spreading the Good News and recognizing each person as a beloved child of God. May we be inspired this weekend by Jesus’ words and the witness of Pope Francis to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

Waiting to see Pope Francis drive by in the Popemobile
Saturday, September 26th, 2015

Monday, September 7, 2015

be opened

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 18, Year B, 2015
Audio version here.

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

When you picture Jesus, what is he like? Most often I imagine him walking through the streets, surrounded by a crowd, teaching, preaching, and healing people. Sometimes I picture him sitting around a table with his disciples, cracking jokes, grateful for a chance to rest after a long day. Jesus must have had a magnetic personality to attract so many followers. Perhaps it’s because I’m an introvert, but I tend to envision Jesus speaking not so much with a booming voice, but commanding respect from a place within of deep peace and conviction, with a twinkle in his eye.  

To be sure, these are all safe images. I would venture to say that most of us do not like to think about the angry Jesus who throws the tables in the temple over and chases people out with whips or the Jesus who turns away a disciple because he wants to bury his father first. But all of these images together make up a more complete picture of the complex person who we know Jesus to be. 

We are faced with another uncomfortable version of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus has been traveling around for some time now, healing and teaching and performing miracles. He has selected his disciples, lost his cousin John the Baptist, fed thousands of people, walked hundreds of miles on dusty roads surrounded by crowds, and as we heard last week, the Pharisees—religious leaders—have been on his back, criticizing his methods. He’s undoubtedly exhausted! So he heads up into a land occupied mostly by foreigners where no one knows him so he can escape from all of it for a while. The text says “Jesus…went away to the region of Tyre…entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (Mark 7:24). However, his respite is short-lived; he cannot “escape notice” for a local woman hears about him “immediately” (vv. 24, 25). 

I don’t know about you, but I tend to get a bit grumpy when I don’t get enough rest, especially when I’ve been traveling for a long time. And my attitude is not improved when, just as I’ve put my feet up and begun to relax, someone asks a favor of me, especially when that person is a stranger and not a close friend or family member. So I can certainly relate to Jesus’ impatience when the Syrophoenician woman interrupts his well-deserved vacation. 

The woman is desperate; her little girl has “an unclean spirit” and she is at her wit’s end. She has heard a rumor that a healer is in town, one who has cast out demons on several occasions. Maybe he can heal her daughter!! She busts into the house where Jesus is staying and throws herself at his feet, begging him to cure her child. 

The woman’s request is not an unusual one. Jesus has already cured a Gentile man possessed by demons earlier in Mark’s Gospel (5:1-20). Why is his reaction to her so strong? Jesus’ rude response calling the woman and her daughter dogs is not simply a retort from our weary, aggravated Lord. No, this response comes from a place much deeper than that. Jesus has grown up a Jew, the son of Jewish parents, in a Jewish community. Being Jewish, as far as his family and community are concerned, is his primary identity. The Jews of the time keep to themselves, as do the other ethnic and religious groups. The Jews are God’s chosen people, and there are laws in place preventing them from mingling with people of other faiths, lest they become tempted by their neighbor’s gods. 

When we segregate ourselves we begin to view people not part of our group as “other”, which can easily translate to “less than”, especially if there is a power differential involved. In this case, the wealthy landowners in the region of Tyre have been exploiting their Jewish neighbors.* And so it is from this place of deep-seated distrust and prejudice that Jesus calls the woman and her little girl dogs, not worthy to receive the same treatment as God’s chosen children. 

Let that sink in for a moment. In this passage we have been privy to a very human moment in Jesus’ life. This is not the kind, compassionate Jesus we like to think about. Jesus’ prejudice is showing, and it is not pretty; prejudice doesn’t look good on anyone, least of all the Son of God. 

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. The courageous woman comes right back and declares that God is big enough to also provide for her and her people, even if they are dogs and not God’s chosen children. There is room for everyone at God’s table. 

I can imagine the look of shock on Jesus’ face at being spoken to in such a way by a Gentile woman. And then almost as quickly the dawning realization as the woman’s words begin to sink in that his mission is much larger than he initially thought. The Syrophoenician woman has done the incredible: she has changed Jesus’ mind. 

There are only two times in the Bible where Jesus changes his mind. One is this instance today, and one is at the wedding in Cana, when Mary convinces Jesus to perform his first miracle and turn water into wine (John 2:1-11). Both times it is women who convince him to change. In a patriarchal society, this is huge!

The woman’s love, courage, and conviction change Jesus’ mind, opening him up to expand his ministry and reach out to all people, and not just his own.  

The next story in today’s passage is another healing one, and it serves as a metaphor for Jesus’ newly-broadened vision. Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment. Just as the man’s ears are opened, Jesus has been opened to the universality of God’s love. 

The Good News of God’s universal love is especially pertinent today. The Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, sent a letter to clergy this week, “calling on Episcopal congregations to participate in ‘Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday’ on September 6.” In light of the systemic racism found in our society brought to the Church’s awareness especially on June 17th in Charleston, South Carolina, we are joining our sisters and brothers in the AME Church and other denominations in praying for and working toward an end to racism. In the Presiding Bishop’s letter, she quoted AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who said, “Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking. This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, this includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.” 

Katherine Jefferts Schori’s letter goes on to inform us that this summer at General Convention, a resolution was passed stating that, “The Church understands and affirms that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant” (Resolution C019 of the 78th General Convention). 

The vows we make in our Baptismal Covenant include the promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305). We are called to examine our lives to see where our prejudice shuts people out rather than welcoming them in, and where our privilege gives us unfair advantages over others. 

In our world we are inundated with information and images. Every day we hear of horrible things happening around the world and in our own backyard. Admittedly, the enormity of the pain and suffering and tragedy is overwhelming, and it’s much easier to block out the sound of distress than to try to choose where to start helping. But we can no longer keep all of this at a comfortable distance. We can no longer make excuses to ignore what's going on around us. Like the deaf man, our ears must be opened to hear the cries of our neighbors in distress. Like the deaf man, our tongues must be loosened to repent of our discrimination and call for reconciliation and justice. Like Jesus, our vision of the children of God should be widened to include all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, age, or socioeconomic status. 

So...where to begin?

This Saturday there is a 5-K to support St. James School, an Episcopal middle school in North Philadelphia that serves children growing up in low-income families in the neighborhoods surrounding the school. Not only do they teach children the core subjects, but they also have an anti-racism curriculum. The effect of the education goes beyond the students to their families and community, as the students are required to do community service. Our middle and high school youth groups have been tutoring students once a month this past year and have found it to be an eye-opening and incredible experience. I invite you to join us in tutoring one Saturday to get to know these wonderful kids who come from a different walk of life. 

This fall we will be offering a book study to begin examining racism and privilege in America. During this time we will listen to and share stories to examine how privileges and challenges have affected our lives and the lives of our neighbors. It will give us an opportunity to broaden our perspective. I hope you will join us!

On October 17th the Diocese is hosting a symposium on the history of race, slavery, and discrimination in our diocese. This is a response to the resolution from General Convention that I mentioned earlier. 

These are just some of the ways to educate ourselves, to open our eyes to where our prejudices cause separation among God's people. Jesus didn't come to the realization of God's universal love on his own; he listened to the Syrophoenician woman's story and his heart was changed. May our own ears be opened to listen to our neighbors' stories, our hearts opened to expanding, and our tongues loosened to go forth into the world rejoicing in the spirit and proclaiming God's all-embracing love. 

Image of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman found here.

*Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. “Mark 7:24-37.” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3. p. 47.