Monday, December 17, 2012

Third Sunday of Advent

3 Advent, Year C
December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4: 4-7
Luke 3: 7-18

+ In the name of the God who creates us, who redeems us, and who will never leave us alone.  Amen.

            Today is the Third Sunday in Advent, otherwise known as Gaudete Sunday.  The word “gaudete” is the Latin word for “rejoice,” the word that began our Epistle reading today.  We note this Sunday of rejoicing in an otherwise solemn season by lighting a pink candle.  Sometimes the Third Sunday in Advent is also referred to as “stir up Sunday,” from the first words of the collect for today:  “Stir up your power, O Lord.”    Today’s lessons give us both cause to rejoice and to stir up our own hearts.  Let’s see what these lessons might have to tell us today.
            Our reading from Zephaniah is meant to comfort and encourage the early Hebrews living in exile, to reassure them that God won’t let the time in Babylon last forever.  All of this reading’s phrases speak of joy and comfort.  “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.”  Likewise, “The LORD, your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.”
            The first song of Isaiah reinforces the sense that God loves us, that God offers us care and protection rather than judgment.  “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.  For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.”  If you’re not feeling loved and protected by now, Philippians will surely reassure you with some of the most comforting words scripture has to offer:  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
            All of these readings are wonderful for us to hear on this Third Sunday of Advent.  It’s hard for us, in our time, to feel such assurance.  We’re worried about our jobs and our access to healthcare.   We’re worried about our environment and the likelihood that there will be a livable earth for our children and grandchildren.  At home we lock our doors and turn on burglar alarms, and far away, our thoughts turn uneasily to the political tinderbox that is the Middle East.  Most disturbing at all, not even forty-eight hours ago, twenty schoolchildren and six adults lost their lives in a mass shooting in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.  When children aren’t even safe in a place dedicated to their nurture, we have to wonder if there’s any safety for any of us anywhere at all.
            If we listen to Zephaniah, Isaiah, and St. Paul, we get to escape from our daily worries into a world where God takes care of us, where life is safe and secure on many levels.  These readings give us the same warm feeling that we might feel on a chilly night when we’re snug in a warm house with our nearest and dearest, with a fire crackling in the fireplace, and some fragrant gingerbread in the oven.  It’s very comfortable in this emotional space, and we’d like to enjoy it forever and ever.
            But we’re not done with today’s readings.  What do we do about Luke’s account of John the Baptist?  John blows through our door like a very unwelcome cold wind.  You might wonder what he’s doing here.  You might wonder exactly what the makers of the lectionary were thinking when they assigned this Gospel to the same Sunday as the other readings.  John’s not very hospitable, to put it mildly.  Crowds have come to be baptized by him, and the greeting they get from him is, “You brood of vipers!”  These words didn’t sound any friendlier two thousand years ago than they sound to us now.  John has more to say that’s uncomfortable for us to hear.  John talks about judgment.  He talks about cutting down trees with an ax and throwing branches into the fire.  Why should we even listen to him?  It’s very tempting to tell him to just go away.
            But John isn’t going anywhere.  He makes us awfully uncomfortable, but we need to hear him.  John has something important to tell us today.  He’s announcing Jesus’ coming, and he’s telling us something else as well.  John is telling us about the way God works in the world.  God is well known for working in mysterious ways.  God tends to send messengers who may seem quite inappropriate.  God tends to send messengers who shock us out of our complacency. And, God sends messengers whose news doesn’t necessarily sound like good news to us.  John is one of those messengers.
            John’s message is a rather blunt way of telling us to get ready for the coming of Jesus.  Getting ready means doing some serious spiritual housecleaning and reorienting. Getting ready means repenting.  The word “repent” literally means “to turn.”  Part of repenting is leading our lives differently and caring for our neighbor:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  If we have a position of power, as the tax collectors and soldiers in our reading do, repenting means not abusing our authority to oppress those who are powerless.  John cautions that it’s not enough just to be one of God’s chosen people.  It’s not enough just to be a descendant of Abraham.  John tells us to clean our spiritual house and prune our spiritual orchard.  Whatever isn’t bearing good fruit needs to be cut down and burned.  John announces that one who is more powerful than he is—Jesus—is coming after him.  Jesus will sort out the chaff from the wheat and throw the chaff into the fire.
            This talk of fire is very unsettling.  When we hear about fire, we tend to think about hell-fire.  We twenty-first century Episcopalians don’t like to think very much about hell.  If pressed, most of us would say it doesn’t exist, or if it does exist, that nobody’s there.  We don’t even much like talk about judgment.  So, how then do we reconcile today’s Gospel with our other readings from scripture?  There seem to be two opposing views of reality here.  Which is the right one, and how do we figure that out?
            It’s possible, likely even, that both of these views are right.  We may not need to choose between them.  It’s not an either/or situation, but a case of both/and.  The first thing to keep in mind here is that God operates in ways that to us are hard to fathom.  We can’t say this often enough.  We’re so used to the story of Jesus that it’s easy to forget how strange it is that God would choose to take on the flesh of a baby born to a poor Jewish girl in Nazareth.  But God does exactly that.  It’s even stranger that God’s saving act in Jesus would involve being executed by the Roman government.  But God does exactly that.  God defies conventional wisdom over and over again.  So as strange as John the Baptist might appear to us, his strangeness and his harshness don’t his behavior a departure from God’s way of acting in the world.
            John’s words are strange.  They’re frightening.  This is the time to remember that God is a God of mercy and not of wrath.  If you look at our collect for today, you’ll notice that it contains the petition, “let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”  In a little while, we’ll all say the Nicene Creed and the words, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.  For us and for our salvation.  FOR us.  God’s purpose for us is a saving purpose.  God isn’t against us.  God is for us.  Not only is God for us, but God has a dream for us.  God’s dream for us is that we’ll live in a reordered creation, where we will care for our neighbor in need.  Those who have material goods in abundance will share with those who have none.  God’s dream for us envisions a world where those of us in positions of power will refrain from exploiting and oppressing those who have no power. And, I think, God’s dream for us envisions a world in which small children sent off to school in the morning come home safely to us in the afternoon.
            So there is room for all the viewpoints in today’s lessons.  ALL of their points of view are the gift of God.  God so wants us to draw near that God is willing to shake us up in order to make sure that we are ready to welcome Jesus and to attain God’s kingdom.  Zephaniah, Isaiah, and St. Paul give us the vision to keep before us.  Luke’s John the Baptist gives us the wake-up call that will make sure we don’t lose sight of that vision.  God loves us enough to rouse our spirits out of sleep, to stir up our hearts, so that we don’t miss out on God’s promise incarnate in Jesus.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.  Let us rejoice and prepare to welcome Jesus into our midst. Amen.


Christ the King Sunday


November 25, 2012

John 18: 33-37

+In the name of God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer.  Amen.

            Today is the day in our church calendar when we celebrate Christ the King.  Since we’re members of the Anglican family of churches, we Episcopalians are a bit more fascinated with kings than are members of other denominations.  Not surprisingly, we’re especially intrigued by one king in particular:  Henry the Eighth of England, who was king during part of the sixteenth century and who was the king most closely identified with our history.
      Henry is a fascinating character.  The young Henry was reputedly handsome; we get some idea of his looks from the famous Holbein portraits of him in his prime.  As Holbein portrayed him, Henry was tall and powerfully built.  His posture and his facial expression in these portraits contributes to the impression of forcefulness.  Henry’s obviously expensive clothing displays wealth as well as power.  He was reputed to have possessed a formidable intellect.  He wasn’t easy to intimidate.  Henry didn’t cower before anyone in his time, not the other rulers of Europe, and not even the Pope.
      Henry the Eighth was all about power and about asserting his will.  The object of that will for all of his reign was a male heir to succeed him.  Nothing, not even his famously devout Catholicism, was going to stand between Henry and his desire for an heir to his throne.  As we all well know, the Pope refused to grant Henry the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, which he needed to marry Anne Boleyn.  So Henry broke with the Pope and became head of his own church in England.  He married four more women after Anne.  Henry’s quest for an heir involved considerable bloodshed.  He had two of his wives beheaded.   He had several clerics and courtiers tortured and executed as well.  For Henry, maintaining and assuring the future of the monarchy was a violent business indeed.
      Henry is hardly unique in the  history of monarchy.  Kings tend to use brute force to preserve their power.  They often operate in a culture of violence.  They are often surrounded by courtiers and soldiers who swear allegiance to them, but yet can never be completely trusted.  As King Henry the Fourth said in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”  As history will attest, kings must constantly be on the lookout for the next attempt to usurp their throne.  For all their power and might, a sense of safety and security and peace isn’t theirs.   
       Since today is Christ the King Sunday, it’s natural that we might wonder how Jesus fits in with these ideas of monarchy.  He doesn’t seem to fit into any traditional conception of monarchy at all.  So how can we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and still be faithful to the Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, the Jesus who laid down his life for the sheep?  Well, we’re going to have to revise our ideas of kingship somewhat.  Actually, we’re going to have to revise those ideas completely.
      Imagine you are a bystander in the scene we have in today’s Gospel lesson.  You’re in Pilate’s rooms when some soldiers bring in a man.  This man, Jesus of Nazareth, is someone you might easily pass on the street without noticing.  He’s not remarkable in any way, at least in any good way.  He’s not very well dressed, and he looks like he’s been roughed up pretty badly by the soldiers who brought him in. His shabby clothing is torn and not very clean.  His grooming leaves something to be desired; he’s quite dirty and bloody.  You might be able to come up with several adjectives to describe this man, but “royal” or “kingly” wouldn’t be among them.  As you look at this man Jesus, you realize you’ve seen him before, followed by a rag-tag band of associates who seem to hang on his every word.  But now his friends are nowhere to be seen. Another bystander tells you that the friends disappeared the moment Jesus was arrested. Even worse, his closest associate wouldn’t even admit to knowing him.
      Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus’s reply is, to put it mildly, rather strange.  “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
      Pilate hopes to get a clearer statement from Jesus.  So he asks Jesus, “So you are a king?”  Jesus’s reply this time is as baffling as before. “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
      Jesus’ notion of kingship doesn’t begin to fit Pilate’s frame of reference.  This man Jesus is about as different as anyone can be from Pilate’s own king, Caesar Augustus.  Pilate can’t think of anything else to say except, “What is truth?”  Pilate is done with Jesus at this point.  Jesus doesn’t fit Pilate’s idea of a threat to Roman rule, and anyway, Pilate isn’t interested in having a philosophical discussion.  He offered to release Jesus to the Jewish authorities, but they preferred to have a man named Barabbas released instead.
      While Pilate was done with Jesus, we aren’t.  Far from it.  The question for you and me on this Christ the King Sunday is, “What kind of king IS Jesus?”  What does his kingdom look like? What are we praying for when we say, “thy kingdom come?”  The answers to these questions aren’t obvious.  The disciples certainly didn’t understand Jesus’ kingship.  They squabbled about who was going to sit at his right hand.  Jesus reprimanded them.  He reminded them that in his kingdom the first would be last and “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
      Jesus’s kingdom is every bit as unusual as its king.  It doesn’t make any sense in the conventional understanding of kings and kingdoms.  Jesus’s kingdom has no borders to be defended.  Jesus’s kingdom has no army to fight against anyone who might attack it.  Jesus’s kingdom has no stockpile of weapons.  While there is certainly great power in Jesus’s kingdom, that power lies not in might but in service.  In Jesus’s kingdom, might isn’t right and the strong and rich don’t dominate. Those who would otherwise be insignificant in other contexts matter in Jesus’s kingdom.  The lost sheep is found and brought back into the fold, not left to be eaten by the wolves outside.  The wounded man left by the roadside is picked up and cared for, not by a priest or a Levite, but by a Samaritan, of all people.  The prodigal son is welcomed home before he can even begin to beg for his father’s forgiveness.  Jesus doesn’t shun sinners, tax collectors, and even prostitutes.  He invites them to be his dinner companions instead.
      Jesus’ kingdom is unusual in another respect.  Other kingdoms only exist in a single time period.   But Jesus’ kingdom existed in first century Palestine, it will exist when Jesus comes again in glory, and it exists in the here and now.  Here-and-now.  Jesus’ kingdom exists right here, right now, in Wake Forest, North Carolina.  Imagine that! You can find bits and pieces of Jesus’s kingdom all over this town, wherever people who are hurting, hungry, or homeless are healed, fed, and sheltered.  Tri-Area Ministries’ food pantry is part of Jesus’s kingdom.  ChurchNet, which helps people in need pay bills, is part of Jesus’s kingdom.  The dedicated folks who run our local Meals on Wheels are part of Jesus’ kingdom. These are just a few of the places where you can find Jesus’ kingdom alive and well every day, right here.
      Next Sunday is the First Sunday in Advent.  Then we’ll begin to anticipate actively both Jesus’s entry into the world as a homeless baby and his coming again in glory.  As Matthew describes the scene in his Gospel, when Jesus returns he will sit on the throne of his glory, and say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”  Amen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

New Blog on the Block: Veritable Verger

My fellow Episco-nerds may want to check out my friend Mick's new blog, Veritable Verger--see my bloglist.  Before ordination, I served as verger at a couple of churches.  I'll let Veritable Verger explain just what it is a verger does and why vergers add so much to the liturgy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Proverbs 31: 10-31
Psalm 1
James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9: 30-37

+In the name of God, our creator, our redeemer, and our sustainer.  Amen.

It’s only the twenty-third of September, or on the church calendar, the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The weather has just begun to cool off after our horrendously hot summer. Fall is definitely in the air.  While we’d like to savor the season, our nation’s retailers are pushing us on towards Christmas with those catalogs that have started to show up in our mailboxes.  Though the church calendar keeps us firmly rooted in the present, today’s Gospel reading nevertheless makes me think ahead, too.  It makes me think about Santa Claus.  You’re probably wondering what I’m thinking of at this point, but please let me explain.
According to the song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Santa Claus knows if we’ve been naughty or nice even without being able to see or hear us.  He’s making a list and checking it twice.  This idea is a wee bit disconcerting, to say the least.  Popular culture endows Santa Claus with the omniscience that we usually attribute to God, who also knows when we’ve been sleeping, when we’re awake, and if we’ve been bad or good.  You know the rest.  When I was a small child I remember feeling some confusion between God and the bringer of Christmas presents.  Maybe you did too.  I thought that Santa Claus both loved little children and could read their minds.  I also thought that God made lists and kept score.  It wasn’t a comfortable idea at all.  Reward wasn’t guaranteed. Punishment—in the form of coal in one’s Christmas stocking or something eternal—was a real possibility.  Please hold that thought for a little while.
            Let’s go back to our reading from Mark now.  As Jesus and the disciples travel through Galilee to Capurnaum, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and then rise again in three days.  Mark tells us “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”  Now we’ve heard this story over and over again through the years, and it doesn’t strike us as strange or frightening, even though it certainly is.  We affirm Christ’s death and resurrection every Sunday when we say the Nicene Creed.  We know how it all comes out and we know that through the terrible event of the crucifixion comes the salvation of the world.  But the disciples aren’t us.  They are first century Jews living under Roman oppression, walking down a dusty road with the man they’ve given up everything to follow.  They don’t know the end of this story, not in their hearts.  They’re scared.  So what do they do rather than face their fear?  They focus on something they can handle, something they can understand.  They argue about who will be first in Jesus’ kingdom; they argue about who is the greatest among them.
We know that they argue because Mark tells us that they do.  Mark doesn’t include the argument itself.  He doesn’t let us in on which disciple claims the top spot for himself.  We don’t get to hear the dispute, and Jesus apparently doesn’t hear it either.  Jesus asks the disciples what they’d been arguing about, and understandably the disciples don’t want to tell him.  If they’re afraid to ask him about what he’d been teaching them earlier, they’re even more afraid to tell him that after hearing about Jesus’ eventual death, all they’ve been doing is fighting over who’s going to be number one.
It turns out that Jesus doesn’t need to ask the disciples about their dispute.  Without being told, he just knows what they’ve been bickering about.  Mark doesn’t say so, but I think we can safely assume that the disciples were caught up short.  Here is one more sign—on top of all the death and resurrection talk—that their teacher is no ordinary rabbi.  Here too is a clear indication that the disciples have displeased their master.
If the disciples expect a reprimand, they don’t get one, or at least not the kind of reprimand they expect.  Jesus simply calls the disciples and says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  What Jesus does next is even stranger.  He takes a child and puts it among the disciples.  The twelve would have been taken aback.  We’re used to seeing pictures of Jesus with children and probably grew up singing songs like “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “Jesus Loves Me.”  In our time and culture children are cherished and singled out by law for special protection.  But the culture of first century Palestine was not like our culture today.  Children were virtually invisible in that society; they might as well have not been people at all.  It’s quite possible that their low status was the response to their high mortality rate; an alarming number of children of that time didn’t live to grow up.
For the disciples, Jesus’ next words are also deeply shocking:  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  In a few words, Jesus undermines the disciples’ assumptions about how God’s kingdom works.  Jesus demonstrates by word and action that everything and everyone the world holds up high is not as valued by God as the littlest and least among us.  No one counted for less in first century Palestine than a child, but Jesus tells us that even the little child is precious in his sight and in the sight of his Father.  The disciples’ notions, and our notions, of who will be first in God’s kingdom mean nothing at all.  God has a different value system entirely.  God cherishes the very ones who were of so little account in Jesus’ time as to be almost invisible.
In our Gospel lesson today the disciples’ notion of who matters in God’s kingdom has been completely turned upside down.  Maybe our notion of who matters in God’s kingdom could stand to be turned upside down too.  Who are the last and the least in our world today?  The undocumented farm worker who picks the food we eat is one of them.  The person standing on the median strip in the intersection with a “Please help” sign is another of the last and the least in our world.  The young mother with several children who stands in endless lines for food and clinic services is among the last and the least.   So is the person in the nursing home who never seems to have any visitors and so is the person with schizophrenia who talks to people we can’t see.
  While most of us here today are relatively privileged people, we’ve all experienced lastness and leastness at one time or another.  For the young, it’s not being picked for a sports team or not being invited to that party that all your friends are talking about.   In our middle years, it’s being laid off from a job or being cast aside by one’s spouse of many years.  As we age, it’s people treating us as if we’re too old to contribute to society any more or as if our opinions no longer matter.  For the rest of us, feeling last and least is what happens when others see our color, gender, or sexual orientation and ignore everything else about us.
The last and the least will be first in God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us.  In a few words Jesus tells us what the kingdom looks like and what being a disciple entails.  Like Jesus and the One who sent him, the disciples are to welcome those whom the world  values least.  As Jesus’ twenty-first century disciples we are to do likewise.  NO ONE is of so little account that they are beyond God’s love and concern, and NO ONE is of so little account that they should be beyond our love and concern either.
Like the disciples in our reading today, we won’t always succeed in living into this charge.  We may fall back into just the kind of disputes that prompted Jesus’ correction of the disciples.  God will know when we welcome the least in the kingdom and when we fail miserably in doing so.  But we don’t have to worry about whether we’ve done well enough to deserve the Christmas present or whether we’ll only get the piece of coal in the stocking.  God isn’t in the business of reward and punishment, and God isn’t in the business of assigning high and low status.  Jesus takes the little child in his arms.  That little child is each and every one of us.  My prayer for us all this week is that we will welcome all the little children among us as we ourselves have been welcomed.  Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

News from Downtown Deacon

After some time off for r and r, Downtown Deacon is now a suburban deacon assigned to a parish in a suburb of a southern city.  Stay tuned for a new sermon later this month.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Vigil

Genesis 1:1—2:4a

Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13

Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21

Ezekiel 37:1-14

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How is tonight different from all other nights? That’s the question that Jewish children were asking at Passover seders last night. It’s an equally good question for those of us gathered here this evening.

Let’s start with the most obvious difference. We are at church at nine o’clock at night; that’s different in itself. It’s pretty dark in here. The only light we have comes from the candles. You’ve heard the Exsultet chanted, so you know that “This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”

I’ve heard it said that if a person only goes to church once a year, the Easter Vigil is the service to go to. You might think that’s because so much scripture is read at this service that it packs an entire year’s worth of church into one evening. We’ve certainly heard a lot of scripture so far, and we’ll hear more later as well. Tonight we’ve heard about God’s creation of the world and all that is in it. We’ve heard about God’s promise to humankind after the flood. We’ve heard the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. We’ve heard the story of God breathing life into the dry bones.

This is the night when we’ve had the chance to hear, in one sitting, the foundational stories of our faith. They form part of the rock on which our faith is built. These stories provide a context for the overarching story of the night, the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. They are stories that took place a long time ago. Everyone in these stories and the people who wrote them down are dead. But the stories aren’t dead. Far from it.

These stories live today. These stories live in you and me. They’ve been told down the generations. Our many times great-grandparents heard these stories and passed them on. If we were lucky, we might have first heard them sitting in the laps of our own grandparents.

Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. These stories endure today because they are about love. These stories endure today because they are about God’s great love for us, about God’s faithfulness to us throughout history. These stories endure today because they are about God’s faithfulness to us throughout history even when we haven’t been particularly faithful to God. Did God deliver perfect, faithful people out of the wilderness? God most certainly did not. God delivered a group of people who whined, who complained, and who didn’t appear in the least grateful for God’s care for them. But God delivered them out of Egypt anyway. Consider that the next time you think you’re not worthy of God’s attention. God is faithful, even if we come up short.

These stories live also because, if we look at our own lives, we’ll find that we’ve lived these stories ourselves. If you’re shaking your head because you weren’t around for the creation of the world, or the great flood, or the parting of the Red Sea, just wait a minute. Creation is still happening every day in our lives. Look at the green shoots on the trees and baby birds in the nests. While God promised never to repeat that great flood, you’ve been around for a natural disaster or two, and you’ve seen the damage repaired and lives put back together. I remember seeing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in coastal Mississippi and thinking I’d seen a disaster of biblical proportions. If you’ve ever been lifted out of poverty or learned to enjoy life again after the loss of a loved one, you have some idea what it must have been like to have the Red Sea parted in front of you and to have been delivered out of Egypt. Like the Israelites, you probably did some moaning and groaning along the way. I know I have! But God has been faithful, despite our lack of appreciation for that faithfulness and even despite our lack of cooperation with it at times.

And then, of course, there’s the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This is the story that may be the hardest to get our minds around, the one we find stretches our credibility to its limits. And yet, it happened and it continues to happen. Jesus lives. At any given moment, someone somewhere is celebrating the Eucharist, remembering Christ’s death and resurrection by consecrating bread and wine. There’s resurrection in the natural world as well. Have you ever seen a forest that’s come back from a devastating fire? Have you ever learned to love again after having your heart broken? Those are resurrections in more familiar form. I love the story about the pastor, who when asked if she believed in the resurrection, replied that she had seen it happen too many times NOT to believe.

Like our Jewish sisters and brothers at their Passover seders last night, we are a people with a story. We are people with more than one story. Our stories tell of the God who loved us enough to create us, who cares for us in times of tribulation, and who can bring us from death into newness of life. These stories are the fabric of the Christian community; these stories are part of the limbs and sinews of the Body of Christ.

So how perfect it is, that the night on which we retell our stories is also the night on which we welcome a new member of the Body of Christ. This is the night when M. will make these stories HER story. This is the night when she will make promises to share these stories as well. She’ll promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. She’ll promise to persevere in resisting evil, and when she fails to do that, to repent and return to the Lord. She’ll promise to proclaim both with her lips and in her life the word and example of the Good News of God in Christ. These are mighty promises indeed.

Tonight M. will also promise to live into the love that our stories contain. She’ll promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to love her neighbor as herself. She’ll promise to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.

The promises of the baptismal covenant reach to the heart of what it means to be part of the stories we’ve heard this night. Our faith isn’t just about WHAT we believe. It’s about HOW we believe it. While our faith is grounded in history, while our faith has been passed down to us through many generations, it’s not JUST history. It’s about how we live now. Diana Butler Bass said in a recent interview that the Christian tradition isn’t about dead dogma. It’s about whom we love, how we practice that love in the world, and who we practice it with. In other words, it’s about loving God in Christ, about loving our neighbor as ourselves, and about living into this love in community.

WE are that community. So let us prepare to welcome our sister M. into the household of God. Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

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6th Sunday after the Epiphany Year B
February 12, 2012
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One Sunday last month The New York Times ran an article about the growing number of luxury suites in hospitals. One woman they interviewed said she woke up in a Manhattan hospital and for a moment, mistook it for a five-star hotel. The bed linens were clearly expensive; the en suite bathroom was decked out in marble. The views of the East River were impressive indeed. A man in a black vest and tie appeared with a menu and announced that he was her butler. The care provided apparently matched the amenities according to the woman, who said she was supposed to have been in Buenos Aires on vacation but ended up in this New York hospital instead. “I’m perfectly at home here — totally private, totally catered,” she said. “I have a primary-care physician who also acts as ringmaster for all my other doctors. And I see no people in training — only the best of the best.”
Only the best of the best will do for very important people, it seems. Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, was an important person indeed. He would certainly approve of such a fine healthcare facility; only the best would do for him. While Naaman was “a great man and in high favor with his master” and “a mighty warrior” as well, he had the misfortune to suffer from leprosy. Leprosy wasn’t a single disease but a name given in biblical times to a variety of repugnant skin conditions. Leprosy wasn’t just unpleasant and messy for the person who was unlucky enough to have it. It carried the taint of sin—which I’ll say more about shortly—and made a person ritually impure. So even a powerful person needed to do something about this condition, and he needed to do it quickly. Naaman would have done anything to be cured of this affliction, or so one would have thought.
When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house expecting to be cured of his disease, he was greeted not by the prophet himself but by a messenger. The messenger told Naaman to wash seven times in the River Jordan in order to be healed. Naaman was incensed. He expected the personal ministrations of the prophet. He was a great man after all. Naaman was as affronted as the woman in the luxury hospital suite would have been if she had been visited by one of the medical residents instead of a renowned specialist. Fortunately Naaman’s servant persuaded him to go wash in the Jordan as he had been told. Just as Elisha had said, his flesh was made clean again.
In the first chapter of Mark we have another healing from leprosy. It contrasts sharply with the account in Second Kings. “A leper came to Jesus.” This man didn’t come with a resume like Naaman did. He didn’t even come with a name. His identity was his disease. It was as if the name of his disease told us all we needed to know about him. Specifically what the name of his disease told people was that they needed to avoid this man. As I mentioned in the story of Naaman, leprosy was more than a physical illness. It had a societal dimension. People who had leprosy weren’t considered fit for society, period. Leprosy had a moral dimension as well. People who had leprosy were believed to have sinned in some way or another. The affliction was seen as the just punishment for that sin. A person with leprosy was to be avoided at all costs. A person with leprosy ceased to be a person and became a “leper.” Leviticus 13 is quite clear that a person with leprosy is excluded. It says: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” It doesn’t get much clearer than this.
We would be mistaken to think that this ancient attitude to disease is no more. A few years ago I visited a shelter resident while he was in the hospital for tuberculosis. Normally HIPPA protects a patient’s right to privacy. Not so in the case of the TB patient. Hospital personnel who previously would have told me nothing about this patient were suddenly offering information, more personal information than I felt the situation warranted. All I needed was to be told was the diagnosis and to wear a mask and gown.
Patients’ rights and even dignity seem to fall even farther if the disease happens to be HIV-AIDS. Before my husband’s cousin Mark died he suffered more than the ravages of the disease. He suffered unnecessarily cruel treatment from clinic and hospital workers. One memorably refused to touch anything Mark had touched; the man refused even to push Mark’s wheelchair. Others were openly scornful of his condition, implying that it was his fault. These people didn’t see or treat Mark as a person, the loving son, partner, brother, and uncle that he was. No matter that before his illness he’d graduated from MIT and had a successful career as an engineer. Instead of a person, they saw a disease. Instead of compassion, they felt fear and disdain.
Such is the condition of the person in today’s Gospel who is known to us only as “a leper.” He was an object of fear and scorn. He was someone respectable people in his community crossed the street to avoid. No one would touch him. Any contact with a person with leprosy would make the other person ritually impure and outcast himself. No one would risk touching him. No one except Jesus, that is.
The man with leprosy in Mark’s Gospel stands in sharp contrast to Naaman. He doesn’t come demanding to be healed or argue about the manner of his healing. He comes as a supplicant. He comes and kneels. He says to Jesus, “If you will you can make me clean.” The words “if you will” might not have any particular resonance with us. These words might even sound like a challenge to us. But a first century reader or listener would have recognized the words “if you will” as the language of prayer. By approaching Jesus in this way the man with leprosy acknowledges both Jesus’ relationship to the divine and the proper way to approach divinity.
Jesus is “moved with pity.” We might think, “Well, of course. The man was clearly suffering.” We might feel revulsion, but we know we’re supposed to feel compassion. But in Jesus’ cultural context any so-called sane person would have only been moved in the other direction, to get away from this source of impurity as quickly as possible. Jesus does the opposite. Jesus does the unthinkable. Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I will. Be made clean!” And as the Gospel says, “Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”
As immediately as the leprosy left its victim, Jesus returns to the realities of his time and place. He tells the man two things. First, to go to the priest, make the required offering and get the official pronouncement that would restore him to society. Second, to tell no one. We’re not told that the man fulfilled the first part of Jesus’ instructions. Likely he did. But the Gospel clearly tells us that the man ignored the second part and spread the good news of his healing far and wide. “He went out and began to talk freely about it,” even though Jesus told him not to.
Wouldn’t you? I hope I would. How could you possibly keep such good news to yourself? What Jesus has done by curing the man with leprosy is every bit as miraculous as raising him from the dead. Jesus may just as well as have taken him out of the tomb the way he did with Lazarus. A person with leprosy in first century Palestine was worse than dead. Jesus didn’t just cure this man’s skin condition. Jesus gave him back his very life.
So it’s no small wonder this man didn’t keep silent. Thank heaven this man didn’t keep silent. Thank heaven he and others like him, down through the generations, didn’t keep silent about the great things that God in Jesus did for them. Thank heaven that someone told each and every one of us here in this place today that God in Jesus Christ did, can, and will work miracles in our lives. Thank heaven that we’ve heard the good news that there is no dark and hurt place in our lives that Jesus will not go to heal us. So when God in Jesus has done great things, share the good news. Give glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.