Purgation: Begin by Letting Go

A Sermon from 14 October 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.  19 You know the commandments:  ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words.  But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

If you ever have used the prayer tool called the labyrinth, then you know about the Neoplatonic understanding of the spiritual journey as a three-fold path – the path from the letting go of purgation, through the revelation of illumination, finally to the bliss of union.  Many students of scripture prefer to follow the biblical view of spirituality as a four-fold path.  A Way that begins with an understanding of our original blessedness in the Via Positiva, through the letting go of the Via Negativa, to the birthing of the Via Creativa, which leads to renewal – a new creation in the Via Transformativa (Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 2000, pp. 23, 26).  Both paths are ways of recognizing that the spiritual life moves through various predictable stages.  We do well to be aware of the ways lest the experiences of living drastically shock us when circumstances bring us to the next phase of the journey.

The labyrinth gives us a condensed experience of the entire spiritual journey.  It’s not any old backyard maze.  Standing at the opening of the labyrinth; one sees a large, four-quadrant circle having anywhere from three to eleven circuits or paths moving from the outside of the circle to the inside.  As an ancient tool for experiencing the spiritual journey, those who walk or trace a labyrinth give themselves over to about 30-60 minutes to go deeper with God.  I always encourage those using a labyrinth to go slow.  If walking one, unite each step with your breath in order to calm yourself enough to recognize the movement of Spirit within.  In every step, be deliberate.  Don’t worry that you think you’re about to be at the middle, then turn the next corner to find the path before you taking you far away from the center.  Feeling like you’re heading almost all the way back to the beginning.  The spiritual life’s like that.  The point is to keep walking.

As we enter the labyrinth, we let go.  Let go of the busy-ness of the day.  Let go of the worries that constantly gnaw.  Let go of any guilt we have over things done and things left undone.  It’s the purgation of the three-fold path or the Via Negativa of the four-fold one.  The critical phase of the journey.  Without which we wouldn’t get very far.  Because think about it:  if we won’t let go.  If we don’t purge things from our lives that continually distract, we’ll never hear the whispers of God’s Spirit.  Without purgation, nothing much will take place at the center of a labyrinth other than the continual chatter of the loop that runs in our head.  If we don’t let go – if we don’t release from whatever gets in the way of our daily connection to God – we can’t receive what God eagerly wants to give us:  new insights for the journey, a felt sense of the Presence of the Holy with us, peace amid life’s storms.  Nothing new will be born if we refuse what can be scary; but is the absolutely necessary step of letting go whatever stands between us and the incredible experience of union with the LORD our God.

The Master spiritual teacher Jesus knew the Way.  He knew that no matter how difficult the letting go can be, that release must happen.  The gospel of Mark shows us as it opens with Jesus’ first public words.  The invitation is to let go:  “The time is fulfilled,” the gospel reads.  “And the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus might as well have said:  “let go!”  Let go of the way you have been going.  Let go of whatever is separating you from God.  Let go of whatever keeps you here and now today from living in the kingdom of God.  . . .  No sooner is the proclamation made in general – the gospel not revealing to whom Jesus directed his first public words.  No sooner does the One baptized as God’s Beloved charge anyone who would hear to release whatever they must; than we’re told that Jesus passes along the sea of Galilee saying these words to Simon and his brother Andrew:  “Follow me.”  He goes a little farther around the shoreline to say to other fishermen, James and John:  “Follow me” (Mark 1:16-20).  Surely the sea was dotted that day with those fishing the waters.  We know father Zebedee and several hired hands were in the boat.  The miraculous thing is, four men let go.  They release themselves from their professions and follow along behind the Christ.  They don’t know where they are heading.  That’s exactly what the Via Negativa is like.  Letting go is like wandering around in the darkness a while until what will unfold unfolds.  Releasing what is known, something else has a chance to grow.

With these fishermen, Jesus continues on his journey.  Until the gospel of Mark records in the tenth chapter that a man runs up to Jesus.  He kneels at his feet.  It seems the man wants union.  He longs for eternal life.  He’s followed the religious rules.  Now he wants something More.  Maybe he’s seen it in the life of Christ.  Teaching with profound wisdom.  Making significant differences in the lives of so very many people.  An authority and passion and surge of Life that only comes from deep connection with the Divine.  The man wants it too.  Eternal Life – which isn’t understood in the original language as some sort of heaven in a hereafter.  It’s more a sense of abundant, alive Life now.  Dwelling deeply with God in the culmination of the three and four-fold spiritual paths.  Union.  Communion with the One who created, redeems, and sustains.  Such connection that truly changes lives – blessedly transforming.  The man at Jesus’ feet wants that.  . . .  Inviting him onto the path, Jesus has to tell him to let go.  It’s the first step – the one that gets replicated daily in life behind the Christ.  . . .  The man at Jesus’ feet lacks the willingness to enter the labyrinth.  To purge himself of what is getting in his way of life with God.  He refuses to let go.

What about us?  For those who want to be Christ’s disciples – for those who desire to lead a life worthy of him; are we willing to let go?  And I’m not talking about going out to sell all we have as the way of our release.  Like the man in the gospel, physical possessions might be the block for some of us.  Our wealth might be what gets in our way of life with God.  But what about those of us stuck in a sense that we never could be good enough to be in deep union with God?  What about those of us stuck in our heads – in our left, rational brain so that we can’t logically figure out how being last means being first?  What about those of us who are filling that inner longing with everything else but intimacy with God?  What about those of us who are too afraid of that moment after release – those scary seconds that could last a very long time.  When we could grope in darkness seemingly forever before illumination ever comes.  Do we have the courage to let go?

A man stops Jesus on his journey because he really, really, really wants deep union with God – here and now and forever after.  Shocked at the first step, he has no concept of the spiritual path.  For as an infamous Thirteenth Century theologian once said:  “God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction” (Meister Eckhart quoted by Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, 2000, p. 132).  For only that which is empty can be filled.  Only that which is last can be first.

Does it seem unlikely for us?  An impossible first step to let go?  Thanks be to God, Christ declared:  All things are possible with God (Mark 10:27).  . . .  Rumor has it, the words remained with him on a cross.  Just before his final release gave way to a glorious new morn’!  For that, we eternally give great thanks!

In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

The Heartbeat of the Universe

A Sermon for 7 October 2018 – World Communion Sunday

In a wonderful book called Christ of the Celts, John Philip Newell states that we all must choose.  As we listen to the tune at the heart of the universe, what is it that we hear:  judgement or love?  It seems an important question to consider before launching into a sermon on a text like the one we have before us today.  Late this week after Beebe already had run the bulletins, I wished I would have picked one of the other lectionary texts assigned for this World Communion Sunday and avoided this complicated gospel story all together!  Then I remembered Newell’s question.  What tune resides at the heart of the universe?  What tune echoes throughout the caverns of our souls?  What tune did Christ reveal in full?  . . .  If we believe the tune at the core of it all is judgement, then the story we are about to hear could lead to simple conclusions that we could pick out of scripture to hold as authoritative as we ignore the setting of this story.  A story in which Jesus is being tested on the topic of divorce.  Leaders of his day who seem to have chosen the option of the harsher tune want to trap him.  But if we believe the tune at the center of it all – if we believe that the tune in the center of God’s own heart is love . . . well, then listen.

A reading from the gospel of Mark 10:1-16.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan.  And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.  Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.  But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.  Jesus said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.

 

Now, before we go jumping to any hasty conclusions – or being distracted in a stew of guilt upon the reading of this text – or worse yet:  closing up shop all together in order to dismiss what at first glance may appear to be a text confirming judgement at the heart of the universe; remember the context.  The Pharisees weren’t coming at Jesus with an off-the-wall, out-of-left-field question regarding divorce.  It’s part of the problem of reading small snippets of scripture one at a time – we forget the context.  The question posed to Jesus, this test in which the religious leaders of his day hope to trap him, is far from left-field.  It’s a brilliant, though devious, fast-ball aimed right at the bull’s eye of happenings in their day.  King Herod and Herodias’ marriage!

Here we have Jesus traveling through the region of Judea even stepping beyond the Jordan to the east bank.  You may or may not know that this is supposedly the same place where John the Baptist got the axe (literally!).  Remember that John lost his head because of his words against the swop-a-roo marriage of Galilee’s tetrarch King Herod to his brother’s wife Herodias.  Upon hearing of John’s beheading by Herod, Jesus seeks a break – likely a time to re-strengthen his resolve to be ready to continue, no matter the consequences.  Longing crowds hunt him down, so Jesus returns to public teaching.  No sooner does he, than some Pharisees arrive.  The gospel writer keeps telling us that they are on a quest to test him.  Obviously threatened by him, they try again and again to trip him up.  This time they bring the million-dollar question of divorce.  The actions of King Herod and Herodias certainly have them spinning.  The convenient divorce and re-marriage at the top of the ranks is the context of this encounter.

It’s not a new question for the Jewish leaders.  You see Moses had allowed a man to obtain a certificate to send his old honey along her merry way.  The legality of divorce really wasn’t the question of the day.  The circumstances under which such a certificate of dismissal could be granted was.  . . .  Some said, “Only if she’s caught fooling around with some other man.”  The opposite end of the spectrum refuted, “Ah-uh.  If she burns my toast two mornings in a row, she is outta here!”  In Ancient Israel, men alone legally were allowed to seek such a certificate of dismissal.  Though Roman law allowed women to initiate divorce, ancient Jewish law did not (C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 143).  Which is a reminder that we are walking in the realm of a culture that understood marriage much differently than we do today.  The patriarchs of scripture even practiced polygamy.  Marriage in antiquity had to do with the transfer of property (a young girl from her father to another man) in order, often, to secure more property (more land and large dowries).  One commentator reminds that “in Jesus’ day, when a woman received a ‘certificate of divorce,’ she lost most of her rights (like the right to own property).  She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income.”  The commentator concludes:  “Clearly, Jesus had a pastoral concern for women who could have their lives torn apart by a signature on a piece of paper.  (Because) in the kingdom of God, there should be mutual respect and concern for each other” (David B. Howell, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 142).  Might Jesus have been encouraging an alternate view of marriage?  One radically based on mutual love?

In that spirit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 2018 Book of Common Worship, for the first time in 25 years, has revised the liturgy for marriage.  It now reads thus:  “From the beginning, God created us for relationship and kept covenant with us.  Jesus gave himself in love and taught us continually to forgive.  And the Holy Spirit, given in baptism, renews God’s grace within us day by day, enabling us to grow in faith, in hope, and in love.”  The new marriage liturgy continues stating:  “Those who marry are called to a way of life marked by grace, fidelity, and mutual respect, as they bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys.  As blank and blank” – which means fill in with the names of the two standing before God and everybody in the wedding ceremony.  “As blank and blank make their promises today; families are joined, friendships are strengthened, and a new community of love is formed.  Let us surround blank and blank with our affection and prayer, giving thanks for their love for one another and for all the ways that God’s love is made manifest in our lives” (p. 691).  The liturgy almost makes even me wanna get married!  For what a beautiful reminder of what God has intended for those who marry.  Spouses are to be visible reminders to the world that God designed us for love.  Created us for right-relationship.  And remains with us on the days when loving one another is a great joy and when it’s not.

In light of the gospel text before us today; you might understand why, as I reviewed the new Book of Common Worship this week, I let out an audible gasp.  When I turned past the first liturgy in the new Marriage section, and the second which is fully in Spanish, and the third which is a “Reaffirmation of Marriage Vows;” I found the fourth.  A liturgy unlike any I have seen before.  It’s entitled:  “Prayer at the End of a Marriage.”  It reads:  “Blank and Blank,” again, insert the names of the two people who have given it their all, but for whatever reason no longer can move forward in life as a married couple.  The liturgy begins:  “Blank and blank, we gather here today to pray for Christ’s healing, to seek the Spirit’s guidance, and to ask forgiveness from God and one another.”  The pastor then reads:  “Hear these words of comfort and hope from scripture.  God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.  (So, in the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew,) come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  (Hear also words of the Apostle Paul from Romans):  the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (p. 711).

Can you imagine hearing these words from scripture in the context of marriage’s difficulties?  Can you imagine the healing for all for whom a marriage regrettably comes to an end if again those divorcing would gather with their pastor, children, family, and friends to pray for God’s strength in the midst of what is one of life’s most painful moments?  How might it offer healing for all if, as the liturgy encourages, those divorcing would stand together to speak these words:  “Blank (fill in with the name of the soon-to-be ex-spouse) I return this ring to you, with gratitude for the blessings of our marriage . . . (the liturgy notes read:  at this point) [children of the marriage may be named].”  The person continues by saying:  I return this ring to you with “sorrow for that which is broken between us . . .  and hope for the future into which God will lead us” (p. 713).  The liturgy for “Prayer at the End of a Marriage” closes with a charge to “Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Then the pastor raises their hands over two who’s lives will go a very different way than they once anticipated, to remind them that God does bless and keep them.  Is kind and gracious to them.  Looks upon them with favor.  And will give them peace forever.  Can you hear the tune at the heart of the universe loudly echoing in such prayers?  Through such a liturgy, can you see the Divine heart aglow with Love?

One day long ago, religious leaders wanted to trap Jesus.  They wanted him to declare his allegiance to one party or the other.  They wanted him to align with their hard-hearts or whimsically dismiss women in the ways of their local King Herod.  . . .  Instead, Jesus takes the argument all the way back to the beginning.  He reminds that God so desired mutual connectedness that when God made the first helpmate, the creature declared at long last, “Finally bone of my bone.  Flesh of my flesh! (Gen. 2:18-25).  Oh!  Thank you, thank you, thank you, LORD!  . . .  It’s not a set of divorce criteria Jesus is attempting to set up here in this text from the gospel of Mark.  Instead, Jesus seeks to vocalize, then (by welcoming the children) enact, that Love is the tune at the heart of the universe; for Love is the heartbeat of God.  . . .  Will we be eternally held out if our loves fail?  Are we guilty in God’s eyes if our relationships regrettably fall apart?  I don’t think so.  That would make God’s heart into a heart of stone – judgement over love, turning it all into law – the very thing the Pharisees wanted, and Jesus wanted to steer clear of.  Making God’s gift something other than a gift.  That’s a message we can hold on to on this World Communion Sunday.  A message that reminds that at the heart of the universe is Love; for God is Love.  May all our relationships reflect the very same Love.

In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Such a Time as This

A Sermon for 30 September 2018

A reading from Esther 7:1-10 and 9:20-23.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther.  On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther?  It shall be granted you.  And what is your request?  Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”  Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.  If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”  Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?”  Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”  Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.  The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him.  When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?”  As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.  Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.”  And the king said, “Hang him on that.”  10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.  Then the anger of the king abated.  . . .  Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.  23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Do you ever feel as if we are living in a time absolutely consumed by values unlike those of Christ?  Maybe you look at the lives of neighbors or friends and wonder:  what in the world drives them to do what they do?  Perhaps you turn to the news and think:  does anyone care any more about things like compassion, forgiveness, truth?  If ever it seems like the world around us is like foreign territory, we can give thanks for the biblical reminders that we are not alone.  Throughout the story of faith, God’s people have lived like aliens in another land.  Doing their best to be who God needed them to be, no matter where they found themselves each day.  From Abram and Sarai in Egypt, to the exiles in Babylon.  To Jesus who was a young Jewish boy hiding out as a refugee in Egypt because of the foreign king of his land.  The earliest stories of Christ’s movement remind us that Rome once fatally rejected Christ’s ways – not only killing Jesus, but later putting to death one of his most strident followers Paul, and scads of early Christians too.  If we ever wonder how to be faithful in the midst of a world that lives and moves and values things quite unlike the ways of Christ, then taking a dip back into Scripture might lend some helpful clues.

For instance, consider the life of the great Queen Esther.  Once orphaned by the death of her mother and father, young Esther was lucky enough to have a cousin who took her in.  Though we often refer to him as Uncle Mordecai, he technically was a first cousin who adopted Esther to be his own.  Orphaned children don’t always get a great shot in life.  But Esther had one thing going for her and Mordecai seized upon it.  A delight to the eyes, Esther was absolutely beautiful.  It’s a bit of a harsh story – especially in light of the current climate of #Why I Didn’t Report.  A drunken king is shamed before his kingdom when his Queen Vashti refuses to be summoned to the debauchery in order to be on display.  To save face and keep every man – as Esther 1:22 reads:  “master in his own house,” Queen Vashti is banished from ever again setting foot before the king.  Stripped of her crown, the king demands another.  It is then that Mordecai jumps into action.  His reasoning being he and his people, the Jews, are aliens in a foreign land.  Exiled by Babylonians, they eventually found themselves under Persian rule.  After years of keeping themselves alive, Mordecai figures a beguiling queen who hides her Jewish identity could come in handy someday.  Beautiful young Esther is sent to the palace.  The story goes that she favors the king’s head eunuch so, that she rises in the ranks of King Ahasuerus’s harem.  This is the point of the story when we really don’t wanna know all that Esther had to do.  Scripture merely records that it is her beauty that deeply impresses the king during the times when she went in to see him.  . . .  Though no mention is made of God in the entire book of Esther, we have to wonder if Mordecai alone is running the show, or if Yahweh the Sovereign of the Universe was busy making a way where there seemed to be none.  Esther – keeping her Jewish identity a secret – soon finds herself the new Queen of an empire stretching from India to Ethiopia!

It might be helpful for us to know that when the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah fell, the Assyrians took a divide-and-conquer approach to Israel – flinging their captives wide across the known world.  Some from a tribe being sent there.  Another being sent here.  Still others, all the way over there.  Years later, the Babylonians sent Judeans all together into foreign land.  All the way from Jerusalem, they mourned the destruction of their lives, their land, their Temple.  Psalm 46 poetically reminds what always eventually comes to be:  “the nations are in an uproar,” the Psalmist writes.  “The kingdoms totter . . . the earth melts” (Psalm 46:6).  Which is pretty much what happened.  The nation of Assyria rose.  The nation of Assyria fell.  The nation of Babylon rose.  The nation of Babylon fell.  The empire of Persia came to be.  And it too would see the end of its mighty rule.  . . .  Kings of empires often are inflated.  The stories of Scripture are full of leaders who are puffed up on themselves only eventually to fall.  I guess being a successful invading emperor easily could leave one feeling they can do whatever they want.  After all, if you think you’re at the top; who’s going to be around to tell you no?

The king of Persia was smart enough to know alliance matters.  When someone warns you of an internal assignation plot, you make sure the one who saved your skin is favored.  From all his time at the palace gate, old Mordecai hears that two eunuchs close to the king have grown angry enough to kill him.  Mordecai gets word to Queen Esther who in turn lets King Ahasuerus know what’s in the works.  When a new man rises to position number two next to the king, he doesn’t at all like that Mordecai refuses to bow before him.  Deciding it’s beneath him to have Mordecai alone killed; Haman, the new number two to the king, sets his sights instead on annihilating all the Jews of the empire.  . . .  Scholars believe the book of Esther is a part of Scripture to explain how the Jewish festival of Purim came to be.  According to one biblical commentator, “the purpose of the feast, actually two feasts, are to celebrate the rescue of the Jews from their wicked enemies, their escape from death that turned their ‘sorrow into gladness and . . . mourning into a holiday’ (Esther 9:22).  This liturgical feast was to be made unique by its exuberant gladness, the sharing of gifts of food with one another, and the giving of presents to the poor” (Kathleen M. O’Conner, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 101).  Such deliverance reminds of a brilliant quote we read this week in our new Book Group book Inspired:  Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.  Author Rachel Held Evans writes:  “My Jewish friends like to joke that you can sum up nearly every Jewish holiday with, ‘They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!’” (p. 40).

None of it would have come to pass if not for the courageous Queen Esther – who was smart enough to listen to the wise sage Mordecai when it came time to look beyond her own comfort to the salvation of her entire people.  When Mordecai sends word to Esther to use her position as queen to plead for the lives of all the Jews, he’s eloquently quoted in Esther 4:14 as saying:  “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Perhaps we are living in a world of such challenge as followers of Christ’s way, for such a time as this.  Oh, we may not be beautiful queens of an ancient empires stretching the wide expanse of almost all the known world.  But we are a people of immense privilege living in a land of incredible wealth.  We have been gifted with positions in business and education and industries of service.  We have the pleasure of living in relatively safe neighborhoods in comfortable homes with access to just about anything we could want.  . . .  I’ll never forget the words of another wise sage when I drove her from inner city Nashville to do a minute for mission in the church I was serving in Brentwood.  As a student of Vanderbilt Divinity School who was serving on the staff at a church in subdivisions where corporate wealth was on the rise, it was common to hear fellow Div. School folk questioning if I cared at all for the plight of those in need – as if need only wears a face related to money.  On our way to Brentwood for a minute for mission by Ms. Laura, the founder of the Luke 14:12 Feeding Program of Edgehill United Methodist Church; I’ll never forget the words she spoke to me.  She said:  “Jule, those crushed by poverty need others to speak for them to those who have the power to make a difference.”  She encouraged me faithfully to follow wherever God sent me – no matter what anyone else might think.  With Mordecai, she might as well have been reminding us, saying:  “Who knows?  Perhaps we have come to our positions in life for such a time as this.”

In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther stuck to a doctrine of divided kingdoms – the realm of God and our station in this world as separately distinct from one another.  John Calvin, the genius behind our Presbyterian thoughts and ways, believed there is no separation.  As Christians, we are in this world to make an impact.  Summarized beautifully in the Great Ends of the Church, the missional statements of the PCUSA proclaim, we are here as Christ’s Church for “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; (for) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; (for) the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and (for) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (PCUSA Book of Order 2017-2019, F-1.0304, p. 5).

Indeed, each one of us – wherever we go every week, we are needed for such a time as the one in which we find ourselves today.  . . .  Take heart, royal priesthood.  Be brave, members of the household of God.  The God of Jacob and Mordecai and Esther is with us!  We are here, now, for just such a time as this!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit.  Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

On Being Great

A Sermon for 23 September 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 9:30-37.  Listen for God’s word to us – and remember that the gospel records this as taking place shortly after Jesus is transfigured into dazzling white on the mountain before Peter, James, and John.  Prior to that, for the first time, Jesus told what was to come of him – how he would be killed and rise again.  Listen for God’s word to us in this reading of the gospel of Mark.

“They went on from there and passed through Galilee.  Jesus did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.  33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Being a disciple of Christ is really difficult!  Especially if you read things like the gospels.  In particular the gospel of Mark.  In this earliest written version of the good news of Jesus the Christ, which also is the shortest and most quickly moving; we have to wrestle with pronouncements from Jesus like:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).  No sooner does he gather the crowds to tell them this, than he takes his closest followers away to repeat himself saying:  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31).  Who wants to hear the charismatic teacher they just left everything to follow make pronouncements like:  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31)?  Whether his disciples realized Jesus was talking about himself, or if – as the Greek suggests, the Son of Man meant something more general like the Human One.  As in the True Human – or the One living their true, full humanity; who among us wants to sign up to be on Jesus’ Team when he keeps on talking about really tough stuff?  Sure, he’s telling them about rising after dying – a cycle they knew well as those living close to the land.  But certainly few could fathom the kind of rising again Jesus would experience.  Do any of us really want to register to follow one who says we have to be last of all?  Servant of all – which means, as one commentator reminds:  “The person who was ‘servant of all’ was the lowest in rank of all the servants – the one who would be allowed to eat only what was left after everyone else had eaten their fill” (Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4; p. 95).

As if being the last one, the lowest in the household rank isn’t humbling enough; Jesus grabs a child to drive home his point.  “If you want to welcome me and the One I embody in full,” Jesus says, “welcome one such as this” (Mark 9:37).  Nodding down to the fragile bundle shockingly in his arms, this amazing Rabbi likens welcome of him and the One he embodies to welcoming a little child.  We’ve loved this story in the church.  Seeing it as a sign of our sweet Savior, our Tender Lord taking up into his arms the wee ones of the world.  Yet, that same commentator who clarifies what it means to be the servant of all, reminds that “Mark’s audience would have heard the word ‘child’ as referring to someone like the servant who served meals to everyone else in the household, in that both were seen as without ‘honor’ or high social standing.  A child did not contribute much if anything to the economic value of a household or community, and a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggles for prestige or influence.  . . .  Children and servants were of equally low social status” (Ibid., p. 97).  So why?  Why did Jesus pick up a child as a symbol about which he spoke?  As his followers were arguing about the things of this world – jockeying for position in hopes of being first in the line of the world’s greatest disciples; Jesus held a baby.  In welcoming one such child, what in the world was Jesus asking us to embrace?

Downstairs in the fellowship hall this week during our preschool’s afternoon hours, I was reminded of a few truths about children.  Guided into the room by two teachers, the little ones couldn’t even reach high enough to turn on the light by themselves.  One fell down almost as soon as he entered the room.  Two others had to be reminded that they needed to share the toy both of those little twos had claimed at the same time.  “Each take a turn,” I heard the teacher say.  Suddenly a little voice below me was telling me his momma was at work.  His daddy was coming soon.  What a pleasant surprise when I looked down to see our precious little Ziggy who we’re watching grow each day!  Every few minutes I’d hear his little voice again, telling me the latest of import to him.  One such as those little toddling two-year olds are amazing gifts!  Yes, they are gaining more independence each day.  Ask any mother of a two-year-old how that can be!  But they remain incredibly reliant upon the big people in their world.  Little children require big people.  From the start they need us to feed them and clothe them and ensure they feel safe.  Generally, they can’t get themselves very far in this world – figuratively and literally too.  They can’t drive until at least 16!  Depending on the make-up of our personalities when we arrive at our birth, and the circumstances created by the big people in our lives; we are and remain reliant for about the first 18 to 25 (or so) years of our lives.  Some of us fight against that more than others – as is a part of the process of growing into healthy, contributing-to-society adults.  But for the most part, children are reliant.  And not all bothered by the fact that they are.  Unlike the self-sufficient, go-it-on-your-own value held as great in our culture, is Jesus wanting us to embrace reliance?

Children are authentic too.  I love that about them!  They haven’t yet learned of the social masks the world wants us to wear.  They just are themselves.  Whether bashful or bombastic; ready to take on the world or more observers of all the action; children don’t know yet how to hide who they truly are.  Think of a baby.  When they are hungry, they cry.  When happy, they squeal!  When something strikes them as funny, they laugh.  When they experience pain, they seek comfort.  It’s only as we grow older that we learn what the culture in which we are raised thinks appropriate.  In order to fit-in, we are taught to modify who we authentically are.  To pay no attention to what’s really going on in our body, mind, and soul.  Just adjust to the behavior expected of us by the big people all around.  . . .  It’s such a crazy journey we go through in this life – learning how not to fully be ourselves for the sake of sheer survival, only later in life to have to unlearn all the ways we’ve not fully been ourselves in order to thrive as the blessed ones God has created us to be!  Children truly are unstained by the world – free, at least at birth – to be our authentic selves, which may be the only way we have courage enough to let God be truly God – and others themselves too.  True to who we are; there’s enough space for all just to be.  Unlike the fitting-in-at-all-costs value held as great in our culture, is Jesus wanting us to embrace our authentic selves?

Children also wonder.  Easily.  Often.  And sometimes annoyingly to the big people in their lives.  Children ask why?  They marvel at creepy crawly caterpillars on the ground – usually at the very moment momma or daddy are trying to rush them out the door before they’re both late for all the day holds.  Children stop to smell flowers.  And want to look up at the stars.  They love to play in the sandbox and stomp in muddy puddles no matter how dirty they get.  Look at a three-year-old on their birthday right before blowing out the candles on their cake.  They’re not afraid to let their whole body show their great excitement – awe at the beautiful moments of life.

Unlike the drive to produce – and more and more more quickly – value held as great in our culture, is Jesus wanting us to embrace wonder?

What would it look like to be disciples who heartily welcomed reliance – upon God and one another.  Defiant of cultural pressures to think we’re self-sufficient, ones able to go it all alone.  Unwilling to accept anything other than the truth that we are inextricably bound to God and one another.  What would it look like to be disciples who heartily embraced authenticity – genuinely appreciating the marvel that each of us is so that we all would be courageous enough to be ourselves?  If not everywhere we go in the world, then at least among our families and friends and church.  Because we each are a particular gift given by God to this world.  Beings with certain skills, experiences, and passions that God desires to be used for the highest good of all.  What would it look like to be disciples who absolutely cherished wonder?  Which is the purest form of worship.  Time and space simply to behold the beauty of Creator.  Relish the joy of all creation.  Open yet to newness instead of stuck in ruts of certitude.  . . .  Long ago Jesus took up a child to teach what it looks like to be great.  Unlike the values of our culture, Jesus defines the greatest as those at home in reliance.  Authentic in being ourselves.  Overflowing with incredible wonder.  Welcoming such in ourselves and others; we are invited to remember that with God, that’s what it means to be great.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

True or False?

A Sermon for 16 September 2018

A reading of Mark 8:27-30.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”  30 And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

And one more reading.  This one is a reading of James 3:1-12.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  For all of us make many mistakes.  Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.  If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.  The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.  For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?  12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?  No more can salt water yield fresh.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Today’s sermon is a True-False pop quiz!  So, buckle up and get ready – now!

There once was a mother whose young adult son was taken in the middle of the night from their small home.  Such brutal police raids had become common around there at that time.  Their land was being ripped apart by the color of people’s skin.  Years later, in open court, the police officer involved stood before the young man’s family.  He told of the way the son’s body was beaten, bloodied, and buried by the police.  In great shame he said:  “I am sorry.  Now I see how wrong it all was.  I am so sorry about what I did to your son – to you.  To us all.”  It was hard to hear.  But at last this momma knew what had happened.  Tears streaming down her cheeks, with great courage she said:  “Thank you for facing me to tell me the truth.  I forgive you.”

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

There once was a twelve-year-old girl living in the rural South of the United States.  She was happy with her single momma and sister, living in their little trailer outside of town.  Everyone knew the pre-teen as being rather sweet.  A well-mannered child, who sang in the church choir and went weekly to prayer circle with her mother and sister.  But she also was a little different – some sort of problem at birth which left her a bit behind other kids.  The school bus picked her up daily to take her off to school.  Every day she was poked and teased and had her pigtails pulled on the bus.  The driver never said a word.  One morning, she just couldn’t take the name-calling any longer.  She pulled a handgun from her backpack, and it was as if this sweet, innocent, bullied child snapped.  Reports said no one was “injured.”  No shots ever fired.  She would spend the next two years of her teenage life in jail.

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

There once was a vivacious little girl.  She was creative and imaginative and so much fun!  ABCs didn’t come easy for her.  Neither did her 123s.  The further along she went in school, the more she couldn’t learn in the way the teachers taught.  Every day became a nightmare.  And homework time:  a knock-down drag out – leaving her often to go hide under her bed.  Frequently she was heard telling her family she was dumb.  Stupid.  She just couldn’t learn.  One year she got a teacher who said:  “I know how I can help.”  Though differently than all the other children, the little girl began to learn!

True or false:  the tongue has great power.

You may not know it, but it only took a speech or two.  Explanations of how the country’s economic demise was their fault.  Newspaper ads portraying them dirty, sub-human.  That’s de-humanization.  The process that has to happen in order to go against our own biology which is wired NOT to kill our own species.  One man was able to whip a crowd into an amazing, fear-incited frenzy through name calling and tribal sorting and de-humanizing some in order for some others to go against our natural, instinctual drive to connect.  A plan was born of how to return this presumably superior race to greatness. The rhetoric was:  be wary of certain neighbors.  They’re not like us – not human.  Do not trust them.  It’s all their fault.  The year was 1924, Germany.  A holocaust of eleven million people began – six million who were Jews.  According to one source, the other five million were “gay people, priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters” (https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6555604).  By the time it was all over, somewhere between 50 and 80 million people lost their lives in World War II (https://www.historyonthenet.com/how-many-people-died-in-world-war-2/).

True or false:  the tongue has IMMENSE power.

Do you know the words by the former slave, great abolitionist, and woman’s suffragist, Sojourner Truth?  Words she spoke at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, pre-Civil War, when gathered Christians – mostly white women and men – were arguing over whether women should be allowed equal rights in a burgeoning democracy.  It helps to know a little about the stature of this 6-foot-tall, chiseled, old grandma, who was born into slavery in New York but earned her freedom in 1827.  Her mere entry into the church assembly stirred the northern crowd that wasn’t too sure they wanted to mix their plea for women’s rights with that of the slaves of the South.  Sojourner listened long to the arguments, then finally rose to speak.  She’s quoted as saying:  “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere.  Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!  And ain’t I a woman?  Look at me!  Look at my arm!” she said bearing her muscular shoulder.  “I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me!  And ain’t I a woman?  I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well!  And ain’t I a woman?  I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me!  And ain’t I a woman?  Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it?  [and a member of audience whispers, “intellect”]”.  Sojourner continues:  “That’s it, honey.  What’s (supposed superior intellect) got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights?  If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?”  Pointing to a pastor, she continues:  “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman!  Where did your Christ come from?” Sojourner, the uneducated slave woman eloquently argued, and I quote her:  “Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman!  Man had nothing to do with Him.  If the first woman God ever made (mother Eve) was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone” (as throughout time has been an argument against mutuality for women).  Then, Sojourner said:  then, “these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right-side up again!  And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”  (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.asp).  Woo!  The eye-witness response was recorded as being “roars of applause (while Sojourner) returned to her corner leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude.”  The witness wrote:  “She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty turning the whole tide in our favor.”  The reporter quoted:  “I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day, and turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration.  Hundreds rushed up to shake hands with her, and congratulate the glorious old mother, and bid her God-speed on her mission of ‘testifyin’ (again) agin concerning the wickedness of this (here) ‘ere people’” end quote (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ain%27t_I_a_Woman%3F).

True or false:  even if some still are threatened by this one, isn’t it true that the tongue has great power?  Enormous, beautiful, miraculous, world-changing power!

We could go on.  An innocent insinuation on Facebook.  A text that quickly gets around.  One-liners that ring throughout history.  Words that change the trajectory of lives.  Words like:  I love you.  I am proud of you.  You matter to me.  You are precious in my sight.  . . .  We even heard it today from the lips of that great disciple:  “You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:29).  Two thousand plus years later, thirsty souls still profess the name:  Jesus the Christ, God’s anointed one.  Savior.  Lord of all!  . . .  Indeed, the tongue has amazing, life-altering power!

The book of James is the New Testament’s only work classified as Wisdom Literature (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 62).  It seeks to teach the faithful the importance of living the faith.  Though many of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century rejected James all together.  In particular Martin Luther himself, who spoke of the book of James as “the epistle of straw” (Ibid.); the grand offense being wisdom’s claim that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).  And I guess due to their context in which notions of the grace of God had become something one had to do a work to earn, we can understand the concern.  Nonetheless, the wisdom the book of James seeks to teach is that true religion consists of three marks:  “care for orphans and widows in their distress, (keeping) oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27), and speaking rightly.  For the tongue, like the smallest flicker of a flame, is able to set ablaze an entire forest (James 3:5).  Mature faith is evidenced by these three marks.

Even if you got a few of the true-false questions wrong today, our charge is to go into the world to live the life-giving truth.  May the blaze our words be the start of love’s revolution!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Encounter

A Sermon for 9 September 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 7:24-37.  And to put this reading in context, it’s important to know that Jesus just had come from a pretty rocky confrontation with some Pharisees and scribes who traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee.  Likely they were there to check out what was going on around one gaining fame.  For everywhere Jesus went, he was being begged by the people to be healed.  Certainly, rumors had reached Jerusalem of the one in Galilee who was gathering followers, healing outcasts, and sharing his mission by sending out those learning from him.  When curious Pharisees and scribes find Jesus, they are not at all happy that the disciples of Jesus blatantly disregard the traditions of the elders.  The wise ones of Judaism had declared that food from the market must be washed.  Hands too.  But Jesus’ disciples were eating out in the open – without washing their hands.  The concerned leaders from Jerusalem had to think that if this sacred tradition was so easily being disregarded, what other ways might Jesus and his gang go on to the rock the boat?  Incensed, Jesus lets these Pharisees and scribes have it!  Quoting Isaiah against them, Jesus proclaims them hypocrites.  He charges that they stick to human traditions while abandoning the commands of God (Mark 7:6-8).  Jesus turns to the crowd, likely with these Pharisees and scribes still standing there offended.  He tells them that it is that which comes from the inside out that defiles – not the other way around.  Explaining to his followers in private he says:  “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come . . . and they (are what) defile a person” (Mark 7:23).  Whether Jesus intentionally leaves that place with his disciples to give them a concrete lesson, or if he just has to get away for a bit for a break; next we hear this.  Listen for God’s word to us in a reading of Mark 7:24-37.

“From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.  She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.  31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  33 Jesus took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

In the book The Word Before the Powers:  An Ethic of Preaching, homiletics professor Dr. Charles Campbell writes this chilling challenge:  “The church is called intentionally and habitually to move out of the places of security and comfort into those ‘unclean’ places where Jesus suffers ‘outside the gate of the sacred compounds,’ whether those compounds are shaped by religion or class or race or culture.”  Campbell continues, “Through such dislocation, privileged Christians cross the boundaries that keep the privileged and oppressed apart and take a first step toward solidarity with the poor, which, in a consumer culture, is one way of radically contesting the Domination System” (pp. 153-154).  . . .  So, in 2005 while I was doing specialized ministry with children and their families in a large, upper-class congregation that was 99.8% filled with white-skinned people; I decided to test Campbell’s theory.  We created a ministry opportunity for fifth and sixth graders called the Practice of Encounter:  Kids Connected in Christ.  I might have mentioned this before.  We explained to parents and children what they were getting themselves into – a qualitative research project for a Doctor of Ministry degree in Gospel and Culture.  The gist of it was that once a month for a full school year, the children of the church where I was serving would go across the river to a church near the Martha O’Bryan Center – which, at the time of the Practice of Encounter in 2005 (just four years after 9/11), was in the center of Nashville’s largest, most economically disadvantaged housing project, the James A. Cayce Homes.  One Thursday afternoon a month, a small group from a Green Hills congregation and a small group from a Cayce Homes congregation simply came together.  As children do:  we played games, talked about school, and got to know one another.  This continued once a month – fifth and sixth graders from different sides of our city – merely encountering one another to see what we might find.

For what do we find when we truly encounter one another?  Especially when the ones we encounter are perceived others?  . . .  After a year of the children encountering each other and keeping a journal to write about their experiences, here’s what Practice of Encounter participants said they learned about encountering others.  One pre-teen of the church near the Cayce Homes said:  “even though we are different, we still can have fun together!”  Another said that “everybody has more things in common than people think.”  One child from the Green Hills congregation proclaimed:  “I understand now (after the Practice of Encounter) that we can’t survive without each other.”  At the close of the year in a formal group interview held to discover what the children learned, another from the Green Hills church reported that before the Practice of Encounter, I thought that “neighbors were people next to me; now everyone is my neighbor.”  This was the same child that wrote in a Sunday School class that when she was on the other side of the city with the children there, she “felt really connected to God” (Jule M. Nyhuis in Nurturing Faith in a Bifurcated Generation:  A Practice of Dislocation for Children to Resist the Forces of the Domination System; 2007; p. 31.  Copy available at Columbia Theological Seminary Library; Decatur, GA).

I think about that year-long Practice of Encounter every time we bump into the story of Jesus’ intentional dislocation to Tyre.  All sorts of strangers reside in Tyre.  Certainly, Jesus knew that.  Tyre is a city of Gentiles on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea – filled with Greeks and Romans of the Empire, who in the days of Jesus were despised as outsiders.  Others.  Those most good, God-fearing Jews would steer clear of, as the inherited human traditions had taught.  It kinda makes you wonder if Jesus had some concrete learning lessons in mind as he and his disciples traveled to encounter others.  As if tongue-in-cheek, Jesus calls the woman he would meet in Tyre a dog just to see the reaction he’d get from his disciples—like to see if they got what he really was about?  Maybe wondering if those who already have read the first six chapters of the gospel of Mark would take as much offense to Jesus’ outright refusal of the pleas of that scared Syrophoenician momma, as the Jewish keepers of the law took offense to being called hypocrites by some itinerant Galilean healer who was willing to hold up a mirror to their souls.

So much has been written of these stories taking place outside the sacred compound – beyond the borders of ancient Palestine.  Tyre being in modern-day Lebanon and the ten cities of the Decapolis, north and east of the Sea of Galilee lying mainly in modern-day Syria and Jordan.  Even one way up in the Golan Heights where to this day, day and night, Israeli tanks are aimed across the border to ensure their neighboring nations stay out!  Commentators have wondered if this text shows Jesus’ own cultural biases of Jews sticking to their own tribe for purity and protection sake.  Some feminist biblical scholars decry the Jesus pictured in the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman as a man bested verbally by a woman – her hutzpah as a momma-bear-kind-of-woman fearlessly backing down from no one.  Not even God in human flesh.  Those who need to cling to a high view of Christ’s divinity have trouble with the story of an encounter that seems to broaden Jesus’ understanding of just who he is and how wide is the inclusive welcome of the God he embodies in flesh.  While others see in this story the divinity of Christ as something the human Jesus discovered along the way, like an evolving process – an understanding strongly supported according to the earliest written gospel, which is Mark.  The gospel where a man named Jesus from Nazareth shows up to be baptized, hears his name as the Beloved of God, and is driven into the wilderness to wrestle until he emerges with a call to proclaim the good news of God.  The gospel of Mark putting on Jesus’ lips the words:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  . . .  The more I listen to Jesus’ encounter with the mother, the more I hear a wisdom exchange.  Almost as if Jesus is a wise sage speaking a mysterious riddle to the woman.  Who calmer than one trained for the non-violent protests of the lunch counter sit-ins, simply stands in her truth unflappable.  To remind the wise old teacher that the table of grace is large enough, and potent enough, and enough for those, who some consider dogs – fit only to be under the table, to find also all that they need.  Honestly, I don’t know the best way to navigate what some consider to be one of the most difficult stories about Jesus.

But the text makes clear this:  Jesus intentionally takes a route out of Galilee – away from the ground he’d daily been covering.  He dis-locates himself and his followers to encounter others.  And what he finds there is faith.  Deep faith.  A mother willing to take just a crumb if it means her own child could be healed.  A woman who understands she’s dealing with a God of enough.  A “dog” so absolutely centered in her worthiness so that no other words will crack her trust in the One who can heal – the One who binds us all.  For that’s what happens in encounter.  We learn a bit more of what God’s up to in the lives of others.  The little boxes of the truth we’ve come to know from our lives get opened up bigger – perhaps obliterated all together so that at last we stand in humility before the One who will not be contained.  We bow before the Mystery which is Love itself.  Knowing at last that we all need each other to survive – to thrive!

However we make sense of the story of Jesus’ encounters outside; what’s left to decide is:  will we, the church of Jesus Christ today, intentionally and habitually move out of our places of security – outside the gates of our sacred compounds – open to encounter.  Ready to be humbled by all we will find.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

With the Passion of God

A Sermon for 2 September 2018

Once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary, we are taken into the Song of Solomon.  Today happens to be that day.  True confession from me is that early in my ministry as a solo pastor, a wise retired English professor named Ivol asked me to co-lead a study of Song of Solomon at the assisted living facility where she lived.  She said:  “I’ll handle the poetic context and you handle the theology.”  The request alone should tell you something about the spunk of the woman I was dealing with!  Soon, we were watching the chin-hit-the-table reactions of the ladies who Ivol wrangled up to attend.  Several of them would blush as Ivol recited the steamy poetry of Song of Solomon.  Giggling they would say:  “I had no idea such things were in the bible!  We certainly were NOT taught this as little girls in Sunday School!”  . . .  To ensure none of us find ourselves in our twilight years unaware of the full range of Holy Scripture, listen to a reading from Song of Solomon 2:8-17, 8:6-7.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The voice of my beloved!  Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.  Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.  My beloved speaks and says to me:  “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.  Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.  O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.  Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.  My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.  Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.”

And from chapter 8:  “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.  Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.  Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.  If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

What is your favorite love song?  Every generation has them.  Remember:  “You must remember this:  a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.  The fundamental things apply.  As time goes by” (As Time Goes By, by Frank Sinatra).  When I was approaching adulthood, many loved the one about star-crossed lovers from two different worlds.  Even if they couldn’t be together, Whitney Houston crooned:  “I will always love you!” (I will Always Love You, Whitney Houston).  . . .  What about love songs for God?  Isn’t it one of the reasons so many cherish the hymn Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound?  It’s a rousing song of our love, our deep appreciation, our absolute devotion to God – the One of grace who doesn’t have to be so dedicated to us; but is.  From the haunting Lenten tune of What Wondrous Love is This, O my soul, O my soul to More Love to Thee, O Christ.  Such songs can strike a chord that resonates all the way to the deepest places in our hearts.

Song of Solomon can do that, or the Song of Songs as the book of the bible often is called.  But this little eight-chapter book squeezed in between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah gets minimal respect.  Chances are high that most Christians never have read it.  In fact, it’s been proclaimed the most secular book of the bible because God is nowhere referenced in it.  There’s not even mention of the standard holy-stuff like praying, or fasting, or observing religious celebrations.  There’s not one lick of typical God-infused scripture here.  Nonetheless, it’s in here – ancient Israel’s kind of love song.  Actually, it’s a collection of beautiful love songs – passionate descriptions of love and two lovers’ visions of one another.  And it just so happens to be the songs of two whose love was considered unacceptable in their time.  One mate is believed to be Solomon, the great wise king of the Israelites, famed son of King David.  Though some scholars believe it’s just attributed to him as a way to make it an acceptable inclusion in Holy Scripture.  The other lover seems to be an unexpected choice – which she herself declares in chapter 1:5-6:  “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me.  My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!”  She’s not like all the others her beloved could have chosen.  Her skin is dark from being forced to do manual labor beneath the hot sun.  No one would consider her fit for a king.  It’s the oldest love story out there, right?  Whether class or race or both is the issue, we can’t be sure.  Nor do we know what great wrong caused the anger of her mother’s sons to burn against her.  Was she born by one other than her brothers’ father?  O had her brothers caught their little sister sneaking off before?  History has not left us the code to unlock the mystery.  But, throughout this love song, we do learn that the two lovers had to fight for their right to love.  In their day it was unheard of for two people from such differing backgrounds being together!  The sneers of Jerusalem’s daughters lurk around every corner.  The lovers have to sneak off to the fields in order to be together, hastily seeing one another between this duty and that.  Never being able openly to display their love without being despised.  Likely it made their love grow stronger.  Perhaps their poetry became the place to passionately declare their right to love whomever, no matter the prevailing cultural norms.  In their writing is their insistence on loving whomever their heart desires.

And it’s pretty steamy!  Filled with surprisingly sensual language, it sounds more like one of those Harlequin Romance novels than ancient Holy text.  Here’s how the book begins.  The lover pleads:  “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!  For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; . . . draw me after you, let us make haste” (1:2-4a).  And in chapter 4:9-10, the lover proclaims:  “You have ravished my heart, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.  How sweet is your love . . . how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice.”  And then there’s 5:1 and following where the lover proclaims:  “’Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’”  She responds:  “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again?  I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?  My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.”  Then, of course, these Songs contain my favorite parts – the lovers’ descriptions of one another.  Here’s what ‘ole Romeo declares to Juliet:  “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.  Your belly is a heap of wheat . . . your two breasts are like two fawns, your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Heshbon, . . . your nose is like a tower of Lebanon” (7:2-4)  WHATEVER??!!!  It sounds like he’s calling her some sort of big-nosed, giraffe-necked, pot-bellied freak with deer for a chest!  CLEARLY this poetic beauty is lost on our post-modern imaginations.

So what’s the deal?  What’s the Song of Solomon doing in Scripture and how in the world did it EVER make it into the lectionary – even if only for one week in the three-year cycle?  . . .  Well, a lot – a lot of good that is.  And not just as an allegory of the love between God and the soul or Christ and the Church as some over the years have considered the Song of Solomon.  This little book is in the bible and it has the power to do a world of good as a celebration of human love – a helpful corrective for us.  Because think about it:  what messages have made their way down through history about passion?  It’s something to stay away from, right?  Something to be feared!  Passion lies in the realm of uncontrollable, irrational emotion.  Passion can cause us to do crazy things – spontaneous things – out of control actions.  Think young love first pulling you into it’s grip!

Of passionate love, one commentator writes: “to be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self.”  Love moves us into the realm where human and divine can merge – where we can get a good education in loving and being loved (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4; Julia M. O’Brien, p. 5).  Indeed, it is one of God’s greatest gifts – to open ourselves to the mystery of the passion moving in us.  . . .  And if for another human being in this world, then how much more for the Holy One, who has gone to great depths for us?  Isn’t it time we fervently sing our love songs to the One who got more than a bit passionate in loving an entire creation?  Getting physical, as God took on human flesh to walk among us, fiercely loving for our welfare.  Definitively showing in Christ that love indeed is stronger than death.  Passion is fiercer than the grave!

Song of Solomon invites us to love.  To give of ourselves to one another like the One who passionately loves us every day and at last, beyond the grave.  Brothers and sisters of Christ, celebrating the great gift, in our human love; let us love with the passion of God!

In the name of that Life-giving Father, that Life-redeeming Son, and that Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)