August 5, 2018

BUILDING UP THE BODY OF CHRIST

Ephesians 4:1-16

No matter whether you agree or disagree with this image about the body of Christ that the Apostle Paul presents to us today in his letter to the Ephesians, you have to admit that his vision about the unity of the body of Christ is worth considering.  Of course, we also have to admit that there is the theory and then there is the reality in which we live.  In this case, the theory about the unity of the body of Christ holds true only if we all are willing to be humble, gentle, and patient human beings as Paul suggests.  However, you throw sin into this mix, and we come out with this body of Christ that is all torn apart by our pride, our fear, and our aggression that leads to all kinds of divisiveness rather than the oneness that we receive by God’s grace as the result of our one baptism and the bread and cup that we share every time that we come to this table.

Putting aside this reality of all of our divisiveness for the moment, let’s concentrate on the ideal that Paul presents to us in this lesson for today.  As far as Paul is concerned, we all are called by virtue of our baptism to lead a life worthy of this calling by making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  If we are to honor God’s call to us in our baptism, then every word out of our mouths and every deed that we perform ought to strive for maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  The key word here is the emphasis on maintaining.  To maintain something is to assume that something already exists.  In this case, the unity of the Spirit is a gift that we already have received from God by virtue of our one baptism into the body of Christ.  We are not the ones who create this unity, but we sure as hell are the ones who are called and given the responsibility to maintain this gift of unity in the bond of peace.

Just to be clear, to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is not equivalent to being nice to everyone all the time.  Nice is not a word that you will find in the Bible.  Nice is a concept and a word that we have created to cover up a whole multitude of sins, especially the sin of not dealing with conflicts in our lives and of refusing to speak the truth in love with one another.  Of course, in order to be able to be this honest with one another, we have to trust that the other person is willing to listen to us and to respect what I have to say just as I am willing to listen to what others have to say.  However, given this option, sometimes it is so much easier just to be nice to the other person and pretend that these differences of beliefs and values don’t even exist. 

At the other extreme, as we have witnessed throughout our Christian history, too often we have ignored this kind of honest dialogue and have chosen to wage war against one another in words and deeds in order to demonstrate and prove that my beliefs are more right than yours, that my rights and values are more important than yours, that my life is more valuable than yours, and that the God that is on my side is more powerful than yours.  So much for making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace!

This dividing wall of animosity, enmity, and hostility that exists within the body of Christ today is nothing shy of a tragedy.  In this regard, we could rattle off a whole list of issues that divide the church today—issues like abortion and the right to choose, gay and lesbian rights, racial justice, the role of women, economic inequality, loyalty to our country, justifiable warfare, healthcare for all, immigrant rights, mass incarcerations, gun regulations, climate science, just to name a few.  Just as the Bible was used to support the positions of members of the body of Christ around the issue of slavery in both the North and the South at the time of our Civil War, so today, followers of Jesus Christ often will turn to the Bible to argue their position on many of these issues that divide us.

Lest we think that this division primarily exists between mainline Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and fundamentalist Christian churches, we have to acknowledge that within every mainline denomination there is this continuum of beliefs and values from radical liberalism to radical conservatism that creates all kinds of tensions and conflicts and tempers our ability to address some of the more divisive issues within our society and culture with one united voice. 

For example, the recent battle over the Keystone pipeline at Standing Rock created a real conundrum for members of the ELCA because we had members of our church on many sides of this issue—those who wanted to respect indigenous rights, those who were concerned about their own job security, those who saw a need for more gas to operate their pleasure vehicles, those who had the care of creation in mind, those whose job it was to dispel the protesters, and those who remained silent and could have cared less about this matter of life and death.

I have said it before, and I will say it again, “For those of us who are members of the body of Christ, what often is at the heart of our divisiveness is not our differing positions on various issues, but rather is dependent upon how we view and use Scripture itself.”  For example, during the height of our anti-nuclear war protests years ago, a very devout Christian argued with me by quoting from the Book of Ecclesiastes and reminding me that according to the inerrant Word of God there always is a time for war.  Of course, we all know how 6 passages from Scripture have been taken out of context for decades and used to condemn any kind of homosexual behavior. Let’s face it!  We can prove almost anything from the Bible—all depending upon whether we read it literally or often times metaphorically. 

One of the discussions that we need to be having within the body of Christ as we speak the truth in love with one another is how we view and use Scripture differently, and more importantly, how we view the purpose of the testimony and witness of Jesus, our Christ, the One whom we claim that we are meant to follow.  In order to keep us focused on this discussion, some people in the Church have been gifted with being apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers for the primary purpose of equipping the members of the body of Christ for ministry by building up the body of Christ—not tearing it down and ripping it apart—until all of us come to what Paul calls the unity of the faith. 

Here is where we often get bogged down, because we can have different understandings about what this unity of the faith actually means.  Growing up in a doctrinally-based Lutheran Church, I learned that the unity of faith meant that we all were supposed to believe that Mary actually was a virgin when Jesus was born.  Given the charismatic influence of my college friends, I was led to believe that being filled with the Holy Spirit would guarantee that more of my prayers would be answered according to the strength of my faith as the result of some charismatic experience that was meant to unite us as one.  Of course, prosperity theology today emphasizes that the amount of your earthly possessions is an actual sign of how much faith you have in God, and the unity of faith has to do with giving God credit for all of your accumulated wealth no matter how you have obtained it.

In order to experience this unity of the faith that Paul espouses, we are to be on our guard that we are not led astray by every wind of doctrine, by every popular theology, by every TV evangelist who asks for a donation to ensure God’s favorable response, by every attempt to align our religious practice with our national allegiance, or by every promise that my personal salvation directly correlates with how faithful I am in this life.  One of the primary responsibilities of those who are gifted to be leaders in the church is to equip the members of the church for ministry, not to make sure that everyone believes exactly the same way.  Besides, when we talk about faith in this context, we are talking about the relationship that we have with God as revealed in Jesus Christ and how much trust we will put in this God to guide us in the way that Jesus has called us to follow.

For this reason, Paul talks about Jesus Christ as being the head of this body—a body in which everyone is gifted with a certain and special role and responsibility to ensure that the whole body is functioning together properly and that each part is contributing to the growth of the entire body.  We accomplish this cooperation and growth by building up this body of Christ in love.  To be honest, this body of Christ is filled with all kinds of diversity, differences of opinions, a vast range of gifts and talents, and so many opportunities even to disagree with one another—all of which do not have to lead to any kind of divisiveness or division if only we would concentrate on building each other up in love.

Jesus Christ is considered to be the head of this body because he was the one who modeled for us what this beloved body or community would look like and how it would function so that everyone from the least to the greatest would be included in this beloved community and no one would lord themselves over anyone else.  We cannot maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace if I think that I am better than you, more powerful than you, greater than you, more important than you, or more righteous than you. 

If we have anything to learn from the way that Jesus chose to live and die, it is this—that with all humility, gentleness, patience, and love, we can use whatever gifts that we have been given by the grace of God to build up this body of Christ so that all the world will notice and will marvel at how we have love for one another and then perhaps also give glory to God.  We can only hope for this kind of global response as long as you and I are willing to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Amen.           

July 22, 2018

ALL THE KING’S MEN

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Jeremiah starts out our lesson for today by lamenting how the shepherds have destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture.  “Woe to you shepherds who have scattered my flock, have driven them away, and have not attended to them,” says Jeremiah.  The term “shepherds” in this context is a metaphor for the kings of Judah and Israel who are the nemesis of Jeremiah’s prophetic confrontation.  Except for King Josiah, all of the kings with whom Jeremiah had a relationship during his lifetime did what was evil in the sight of God and failed to execute justice and righteousness throughout their land.  Consequently, Jeremiah had just cause to hold these kings accountable for their unfaithfulness, and to warn them of the impending consequences if they continued to act contrary to God’s will.  As you listen this morning to a description about the plight of the Judaic people under the rule of these kings, you might want to make the connection with our current political and economic situation because not much has changed in 2700 years.

When Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet, Josiah was the king who ruled over the land of Judah.  While in office, Josiah attempted to correct many of the terrible policies and practices that had been instituted by the kings of Judah before him.  With the aid of his supporters, Josiah was able to eliminate most of the cultic practices affiliated with the worship of false gods, including the practice of child sacrifice.  He also abolished the royal tax, instituted the cancellation of debts and the release of slaves, made conscription into  the king’s military more selective, and reduced the size of the military in order to relieve the people of such a financial burden.  Unfortunately, with the sudden death of Josiah in the throes of battle, all of the kings who succeeded Josiah did what was evil in the sight of God and the economic and social dimensions of Josiah’s reforms soon faded into the past.

These kings would gather men around them who not only would serve as their advisors, but also would serve as the priests and the prophets of their royal court.  Consequently, the royal priests would establish religious policies and practices that would endorse and support the ways of the kings who were viewed as being rulers who could do no wrong because supposedly they were agents of God Yahweh.  The prophets chosen by these kings would tell the people that everything would be just fine throughout the land, when, in fact, people were suffering and dying as the result of the king’s decisions and actions.  The wealthy landowners also were strong supporters of these kings because they were the ones who benefited the most from the laws that were established by the kings who did what was evil in the sight of God.

Once Josiah had been killed and the kings who followed him restored most of the unjust and violent ways of the kings who had preceded Josiah, Jeremiah’s role as a prophet of God Yahweh kicked into high gear, not only in pointing out the unrighteous and unjust ways of these kings, but also in addressing the royal priests and prophets, and the wealthy landowners and merchants, and exposing their complicity in oppressing the widows, the orphans, the slaves, and the sojourners throughout the land.

According to Jeremiah, the kings ultimately were responsible for everything that was going on throughout Judah that would be contrary to God’s will.  Given this caveat, according to Jeremiah’s own words, the wealthy landowners had become rich and grown fat and sleek by taking over the land of those who were less fortunate and forcing them into slavery.  They made their neighbors work for nothing and did not give them their wages.  Consequently, they built their houses by unrighteousness and their upper rooms by injustice because their eyes were only on their unjust gain.

The royal prophets prophesied false dreams in order to make the king look good in the eyes of the people.  They led the people astray by their lies and their recklessness crying out “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace throughout the land.  Similarly, the priests encouraged the people to burn offerings to false gods and did not lead the people in keeping the Sabbath Day.  As far as Jeremiah was concerned, these prophets and priests did not speak honestly, dealt falsely with the people, and were ungodly. 

Of course, the kings received the brunt of Jeremiah’s critique because the kings did not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, did not defend the rights of the needy, and did not inquire of God in terms of how to govern the people.  Any attempts that they did make to stand before God were a sham.  They declared that everything was well when it was not.  They shed innocent blood, practiced oppression, and did violence to their own people.  Any prophet who challenged the ways of the king pretty much could count on being killed by the king. 

All of this unrighteousness and injustice was made worse by the fact that the kings, the priests, the royal prophets, and the wealthy landowners refused to be ashamed for what they were doing to their own people.  As Jeremiah says, “Those who do wrong do not know how to blush.”  They showed no contrition or fear of God, and would not repent of their wickedness.  Meanwhile, they tried to put the blame on God for all that was wrong throughout their land, and make God Yahweh out to be the one responsible for all of their woes.

Walter Brueggemann, in his book, “The Prophetic Imagination,” describes the role and responsibilities of prophets like Jeremiah.  Prophets are people who nurture and evoke a consciousness and perception that serves as an alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture in the land.  Prophets help the people to see the connection between the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.  Prophets have the responsibility to cut through the numbness that the people are feeling and to penetrate the self-deception of the king.

As Brueggemann indicates, denial is the great sin of a king who wants to maintain control over the people by keeping up the pretense that everything is alright and that there is no need for any real criticism or grief.  Rulers who like to dominate cannot tolerate serious and fundamental criticism, and will go to great lengths to stop it.  When a king who does what is evil in the sight of God claims to be the necessary agent of God’s ultimate purpose, the people have every reason to be afraid and to grieve.  At one point in this profound book, Brueggemann points out that Jeremiah is a good example of a prophet who knows how to grieve and lament.

Jesus has this same capacity as we hear in our gospel lesson for today, because he is living in a time not unlike the time of Jeremiah when the Roman governors were doing everything that they could to keep the people in line, when wealthy landowners were keeping the vast majority of people in poverty, and when the religious leaders were more concerned about their pious rituals than the plight of their own people.   As a good prophet does, Jesus came along, looks at the great crowd of people, and has compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd—that is, without a ruler who has their best interest in mind.

Brueggemann points out that compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, because compassion announces that the hurt in a society is to be taken seriously and that the hurt that the people are experiencing due to the oppression and violence of the king is not to be accepted as normal and natural, but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanity.  The one thing that the dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion—the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order.  The dominant culture can manage charity and good intentions, but it has no way to resist solidarity with the pain and grief for which it is responsible.

Jesus’ compassion extended to all of the people who were sick and sought him out to be healed.  As we hear today, “Wherever Jesus went, into villages or cities or farms, the people laid the sick in the market places, and begged Jesus that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak.  And all who touched it were healed.”  Looking beyond the miracle of these physical healings, every person that Jesus healed also was another form of criticism of the religious institution of his day because the people were taught that their sickness was the direct result of their sinfulness for which they had to make animal sacrifices as sin offerings.  Consequently, every person that Jesus healed meant that much less business for the animal sellers and money changers who were ripping off the people and much less income for the religious establishment that benefitted the most from this pietistic sacrificial system.  Jesus was a source of hope for these people not only because of their physical healing, but also because of the economic liberation that they could experience as the result of being healed by Jesus.

According to Brueggemann, offering hope to the people is one of the primary idioms of a true prophet—not the false hope that royal prophets like to espouse, but the real hope that we do not have to accept the reading of reality that is being perpetuated by all of the king’s men who are motivated by their own pride, fear, and greed.  In contrast, Jesus entered this world and modeled for all of us an alternative way—the way of humility, love, and generosity, grounded in a compassion that he held within his being for all people even as we witness in his prayer on the cross, when he said, “God, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Jeremiah offers this same kind of hope to his people today as he speaks on behalf of God Yahweh, and says, “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where they have been driven, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will raise up faithful shepherds for them so that they will have no need to be afraid or be dismayed.  The shepherds that I raise up for the people will deal wisely with them and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days, your nation will be saved and everyone will be able to live in safety because I am a God of righteousness.”  In this same hope for our corporate future as a nation, let us all give thanks and praise to this God of just and right relationships as revealed in Jesus, our Savior.  Amen.     

July 1, 2018

EVERYONE DESERVES RESPECT AND JUSTICE

Mark 5:21-43; Lamentations 3:22-33

Out of all of the stories about Jesus’ encounter with women in the Bible, our gospel lesson for today is one of my favorite accounts because of the way that Jesus not only heals this woman and this young girl, but does so without regard for who is requesting his healing touch and without regard for the purity codes that would have prevented him from touching either this woman or this young girl.  There are a number of details in this account that reveal to us how much Jesus is dedicated to the well-being of individuals while at the same time committed to challenging the systemic structures that would prevent the health and wholeness of all people within a beloved community.  We only have to look beyond the miracle of these two healings to see the truth about the all-encompassing liberation and salvation that Jesus has to offer to all people, regardless of their economic status, gender, or privilege in this life.

By the time that we get to this fifth chapter in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus already has been under intense scrutiny by the religious authorities for the way that he has gathered such a huge following and has disregarded the most sacred laws of the Sabbath.  Jesus’ popularity not only is a threat to their authority and control over the people, he also is undermining the very laws that these religious leaders use to keep their people in check.  Truly these religious leaders have become Jesus’s antagonists. 

Nevertheless, when one of the leaders of the local synagogue comes to Jesus for help in healing his daughter, Jesus pays no mind to the fact that this man is a leader in the very institution that is out to destroy him.  Instead, Jesus immediately goes with Jairus in order to see what he can do to help his daughter get well.  Jesus easily and justifiably could have declined Jairus’ request on account of the animosity that the religious leaders already have shown toward Jesus.  However, Jesus chooses otherwise because he has come to reveal how the beloved community that God desires includes demonstrating love even for one’s adversaries.

However, on the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus is touched by a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years.  According to the purity codes of Jesus’ day, as soon as this woman touches Jesus, he immediately becomes unclean and must avoid touching anyone else until that evening.  That having been said, when Jesus finally arrives at Jairus’ house and goes to heal his daughter, Jesus takes her by the hand and tells her to get up—thus technically making her unclean as well.  However, Jairus totally ignores this fact, because all that is important to him in this moment is that his daughter is alive and well.

Another detail of this story that cannot go unnoticed is the way that Jesus addresses this woman with the hemorrhage.  He says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”  Jesus totally disregards the fact that this woman has been an outcast in her community for 12 years—making her a nobody in the eyes of her own people.  Jesus sees this woman for who she is—a beloved daughter of God and a full member of the beloved community that Jesus came to establish.  This woman, who had been taken advantage of by so many male physicians in her life and had been forced into poverty, was as important to Jesus as was the privileged daughter of this religious leader.  As Jairus watched Jesus heal this daughter of Israel as well as his own daughter, hopefully he has learned through this ordeal that God’s beloved community is open to people of every economic status in this world.

Another important feature of this account is that Jesus did not hesitate to engage with this woman or this young girl even though women and girls were considered to be inferior to men in this Judaic culture.  Women and girls were meant to stay at home and avoid going out in public. If they did go out in public, they would have to cover themselves with two head veils in order to conceal their identity.  In the household, women were confined to domestic chores and were considered to be slaves to their husbands and fathers.  Jesus treats this woman and this young girl with the same respect and dignity that he would any male within the realm of God that he came to reveal.  Whereas most men in Jesus’ day would have reacted in anger toward any unclean woman who had touched the hem of their garment and put her in her place, Jesus responds in love and affirms this woman’s faith as the basis for her healing and her ability to be at peace, not only in this moment, but also for the rest of her life. 

If you recall from last Sunday’s gospel lesson how Jesus chided his disciples for their lack of faith, you will notice that Jesus responds quite differently towards this unclean woman in terms of acknowledging her faith.  She has risked everything to approach Jesus and touch the hem of his garment in the hope that she might be healed.  Then, when Jesus became aware that someone had touched him and tried to determine who this someone might be, this woman overcame her fear and took another risk by telling Jesus the truth and identifying herself as being the one who had touched him.  Whereas this woman might have been concerned about making Jesus unclean, Jesus gives no indication that anything of this sort took place, thereby calling into question all of the man-made rules relating to a woman’s menstruation—of which there were 79 legal paragraphs devoted to this issue of blood in the Judaic Mishnah in Jesus’ day.

This story about Jesus’ encounter with this woman and this young girl raises all kinds of questions for us today about how we men continue to put women in certain boxes and treat them as “less than” simply because they are female.  The ELCA Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice identifies many ways that women are still treated as inferior and are given less than adequate attention, respect, compensation, and care by the men who still exercise so much control over what goes on in our society and in the home.  The worst offenders in this regard are those who turn to the Bible and use selective passages to justify their treatment of women and girls—sometimes in very violent ways.

Take our first lesson from Lamentations for example—a lesson that is filled with all of the male language that so often is used to subjugate women to the domination by the men in their lives.  I will read this passage once again as it is presented in the New Revised Standard Version, and ask you to envision this passage being read by a man to his wife as a way of justifying his domestic violence:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness.  “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”  The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.  It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust, to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults.  For the Lord will not reject forever.  Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.

Based upon this passage and others like it, women of faith have been counseled for eons to stay in abusive relationships in the hope that their husbands or boyfriends will have a change of heart and refrain from any further abuse or violence.  According to this male perspective, to be truly Christian is to turn the other cheek and go the second mile with the man who strikes a blow, then says he’s sorry and asks for forgiveness, only to repeat the cycle over and over again.  Besides, if Jesus could quietly accept such insults, humiliation, abuse, and violence, and then turn around and forgive his torturers and executioners, then certainly any faithful follower of Jesus could and should do the same. 

Why is it that men impose this theology upon the women that they belittle in their lives and expect them to acquiesce, when we men are so quick to fight back and justify our decisions to wage war against those who might call us names, strike us on the cheek, threaten our security, or attack us?  We have so much to learn from Jesus about how to relate with and treat women in our lives.  That’s the real miracle in this account about Jesus healing this unclean woman and this young girl who supposedly had died.  Jesus recognized this woman and this young girl as beloved daughters of God and as individuals who were to be treated with the same agape love, respect, dignity, and justice as every man expects to be treated in this world.

We men lose this respect and dignity every time that we treat a woman as inferior or “less than,” even if the thought is only in our minds.  However, what we don’t lose is God’s love for us, no matter how much we sin and fall short of the glory of God as revealed in Jesus.  Yes, we may be tempted to take advantage of God’s love and promise of forgiveness, and go on treating women in the same way that men have treated women for eons.  However, the purpose of God’s love and forgiveness is meant to transform our lives so that we will be and do what Jesus has called us to be and do—that is, to love, honor, respect, and treat women with the same justice that we trust God has loved us.  Then, and only then, will we be able to go in peace and be healed of our disease of lording ourselves over the women of this world.  Jesus has revealed to us this way of justice and peace in all of his encounters with women in the Bible. Would that we would choose to follow in Jesus way!  Amen.    

 

 

      

                        

 

 

 

June 24, 2018

JESUS’ AWESOME LOVE


Mark 4:35-41; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Have you ever stood in awe of Jesus as the disciples did in our gospel lesson for today?  It seems like wherever Jesus went, people always were amazed at the miraculous things that he did or the astounding words that he spoke.  Here we have a combination of these two dynamics as Jesus said, “Peace, be still,” and immediately the wind ceased and the water became dead calm—not just calm, but dead calm.  It didn’t seem to matter to Jesus’ disciples that he had just chided them for their lack of faith.  They were so awestruck by Jesus’ capability to calm the sea that his critique about their lack of faith went right over their heads.

However, I am curious!  When you visualize Jesus in this boat with his disciples, do you see any women in the boat with him?  Why not?  The disciples were only crossing the Sea of Galilee to get to the other side.  They weren’t going out fishing, which generally was a man’s occupation in those days.  So, why wouldn’t some of the women who faithfully followed Jesus and stood in awe of him as well be included in this transit across the sea?  Then again, if some of the female disciples of Jesus had been in the boat, perhaps they might have demonstrated a little more faith than these men who were afraid for their very lives.  Jesus obviously wasn’t too concerned about dying.  He was fast asleep in the stern of the boat.  So, why were these men, several of whom were experienced fishermen, so terrified?

This morning, I would like you to imagine some women in this boat with Jesus.  That is the frame of mind that it will take for us to begin to recognize that the people who followed Jesus included women, and presumably even some children.  Here is where Jesus was so awesome in his own right because he did so much to break down the patriarchal system that was so dominant in his day as it continues to be to this very day.  I know that I am reading a lot into this gospel lesson for today by placing a few women in this boat with Jesus, but if we don’t change our image of those who were faithful followers of Jesus, then we will miss out on all of the ways that Jesus also was an awesome challenge to the patriarchal system of his day.

Twenty eight years ago, when I was asked by the staff of N Street Village in Washington DC to facilitate a spirituality group for 8 previously-homeless women in recovery who were living in Sarah House, I accepted the challenge and ventured into a world for which I was ill-prepared.  As a way of opening up the conversation, I would read a story about Jesus’ encounter with women in the Bible and then invite these women to share their own stories as they could relate with the conditions of these women in Jesus’ day.  As I listened to their stories about how they had been abused, mistreated, beaten up, prostituted, and raped by the men in their lives, including their male pastors, I couldn’t help but wonder how much I was a part of the system that enabled this kind of male domination and behavior to continue in our society.   

About this same time, one of our volunteer art therapists discovered through her work with these women that one of them showed signs of having a multiple personality.  As this therapist began to explore this means of using art to invite the women to express their various personalities, at one point, 5 of the 8 women in Sarah House were diagnosed with multiple personalities.  A woman who has this condition generally has experienced a severe trauma or traumas caused by other people in her life, and has created a new personality for herself in order to escape from and cope with this trauma.  The skilled staff of Sarah House had not been trained to deal with this newly-discovered behavior, but their motherly intuition kicked in and they would end up reading bedtime stories to these women at night when their child personas would come out.     

As the population of Sarah House was always in transition, I could usually count on at least two of the women in the household at any one time self-identifying as being lesbian.  They were completely accepted in this milieu, but they had their own stories to tell about how they had been shamed and rejected by the fundamentalist churches in which they had been raised.  That they had any faith left to speak of was a miracle in-and-of itself.  The stories about Jesus’ encounter with women in the Bible and his acceptance of the women who were considered to be outcasts or heathen in his day spoke volumes to them about the love with which Jesus walked this earth.

Probably the most painful part of these women’s journey was the separation from their children that they had to endure due to their own choices around their drug addiction, their prostitution, and their criminal activity that sometimes resulted in their incarceration and eventual homelessness.  They longed for the day when they could be somewhat whole again so that they could be reunited with their children.  Until that day, they knew that they had to work on themselves and become stable enough to be able to live on their own without entering the revolving door of becoming homeless once again.

For many of these women, one of the things that had sustained them through all of these trials and tribulations was their faith in God, and especially their trust in Jesus as the one who had been with them in the depths of their suffering and pain, and who had brought them to where they were today—on the road to recovery and a place to call “home.”  If anyone could attest to having survived the stormy seas of life, many of these women could make this claim.  As far as I am concerned, these women are the heroines of faith who could stand up with Jesus in that boat and say, “Peace! Be still.”  They understood the meaning of resurrection.  They knew all about the implications of being given a new lease in life.          

Jesus is all about giving everyone a new lease in life.  The Apostle Paul received this new lease in life when he was called by the voice of Jesus to leave his violent ways of persecuting Jesus’ followers, to put away his sword, and to proclaim the good news about the importance of Jesus’ resurrection and the reconciling power of Jesus’ forgiveness as one of the primary ways that God’s reign would take place in this world.  For this reason, Paul is able to declare in our lesson for today that now is the acceptable time and now is the day of salvation—not some time off in the distant future after we die.  This gift of forgiveness that Paul experienced in his own life was evidence of God’s grace as revealed by Jesus and was the inspiration and motivation for Paul to go out and tell the world about God’s amazing love and the awesome deeds that Jesus had done to reveal God’s love to this world.

As the result of Paul’s faithful endeavors, we learn today that he had to endure all kinds of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.  In this regard, Paul experienced his own stormy seas in this life time and time again.  His message often was not well received by men who were threatened by this message of God’s love that called for a new beloved community in which the patriarchal hierarchy that was the dominant norm in his day would be replaced by a much more egalitarian way of being together in community.  Granted, Paul did have his own issues about women speaking out in the solemn assemblies of the church, but he admittedly was as much in recovery as anyone else in terms of being liberated from these systemic divisions between men and women in order that he might realize Jesus’ vision of a new community and a new way of life in which everyone had a voice at the table and no one would lord himself over others as men are prone to do.

Today, as we celebrate the pride of people of all genders and sexual orientations, we remember and lament the way that straight men, many of whom have professed to be followers of Jesus, have been the primary source of suffering and pain for those who were too afraid to reveal their true identity.  Needless to say, the seas have been very stormy for those who were rejected by their parents, cast out of their faith communities, incarcerated for their supposedly illegal activities, and persecuted and sometimes killed by homophobic men whose own identities were threatened by those who simply wanted to exercise their right to celebrate the way that God has created you and accepts you to be yourselves in this world. 

Given all of the different people whom Jesus welcomed into his company and accepted for who they were, we can confidently say today that people of all genders and sexual orientations certainly would be included within Jesus’ beloved community.  There isn’t a word that Jesus spoke or an act that he performed that would give us reason to think otherwise.  In this regard, Jesus is still very much present with us here today, especially in this meal, saying to all of you who have experienced these stormy seas in your lives, “Peace, be still, and know that I am the revelation of God’s love for you and for all people in order to assure you that God’s grace is not in vain, but that God’s grace is meant to be your liberation and salvation today and every day.”  Amen.                     

June 3, 2018

THE CHALLENGE OF BEING JESUS’ DISCIPLE

Mark 2:23-3:6;
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Today, all of us have the opportunity to affirm our faith and reaffirm the covenant of our baptism as 3 of our young people are confirmed into this community of faith.  In doing so, we recommit ourselves to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the Word of God and share in Holy Communion on a regular basis, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus through word and deed, to serve all people, following Jesus’s example, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.  These five commitments cover the height, depth, and breadth of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and are a reminder to all of us that our whole life is wrapped up in being faithful to the call of Jesus by obeying his commandments and following in his way, not just on the Sabbath Day, but every day of the week.

As important as the Sabbath Day may be, the other six days of the week are no less important when it comes to living the life for which we have been created and to which we have been called by God.  Although the Sabbath Day may have been established as a day when we make sure that we rest from our normal daily earthly labor and routines, the Sabbath Day is not a day when we take a break from being a faithful follower of Jesus and pursuing the justice and peace that are the bulwarks of God’s reign.  That’s the point that Jesus is attempting to make in our gospel lesson for today as he reminds the religious leaders that the Sabbath Day is still a day when we are to make sure that everyone has enough food to eat and anyone who is in need of medical attention will receive the care that they need.

When I was growing up, keeping the Sabbath Day holy primarily meant going to church every Sunday, even when our family was out camping over a weekend on vacation.  Similarly, the opening day of the fishing season always was on a Sunday.  My Dad often would take me out fishing early that morning, but he would always make sure that we would get home in time to make it to church and Sunday School no matter whether or not we had caught our limit of trout.  As much as I might sound critical about such a narrow understanding of this commandment about keeping the Sabbath Day holy, as a pastor, I wish that going to church on Sunday mornings wasn’t as much of an option as it is today.  However, what is most important to me is that you want to be here today, and that you don’t come to church because you are afraid that you might be sent to hell for all eternity if you break this sacred commandment.

Such was the leverage that the religious leaders in Jesus’ day had over the people as the priests compiled a list of 613 deeds that the people were to avoid doing on the Sabbath Day in order to keep this day holy and stay in God’s good favor.  That’s how the religious leaders were able to get all of the people to come to the synagogue on the Sabbath Day, because the people couldn’t do much of anything else on this sacred day.  Jesus is making the point that the Sabbath Day isn’t just about God and me.  The Sabbath Day also is all about how we demonstrate our love for our neighbors in order to make sure that God’s justice and righteousness are being made complete, especially on this holy day. 

The Sabbath Day is meant to be the day when we put our best foot forward, and make sure that we are loving God with our entire being and loving our neighbors as we have been so graciously loved by God.  That’s what Jesus was doing on this particular Sabbath Day, even though it meant violating one of the most sacred laws of his day.  Here is where we are compelled to move beyond our discussion about the meaning of the Sabbath Day, and focus on the faith and courage that it took on Jesus’ part to commit this act of religious disobedience.  It’s no wonder that at the end of this day, the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with Herod’s cohorts in figuring out how to destroy this Jesus.  Jesus already was a marked man, and it’s only the beginning of the third chapter in the Gospel of Mark.

According to our second lesson for today, we also learn that the Apostle Paul was a marked man.  In his attempt to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus and strive for God’s justice and peace wherever he went, Paul has encountered much resistance and opposition from civil and religious authorities.  However, he has not lost heart because as he tells this faith community at Corinth, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; and struck down, but not destroyed.”  Despite all of the trials and tribulations that Paul has had to endure on account of his proclamation of the good news about God’s love as revealed in Jesus, Paul has not lost hope that he will be able to weather this storm and continue to serve all people following Jesus’ example by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, let me be very clear today.  If we are going to recommit ourselves to the covenant of our baptism in Jesus’ name, then we might want to be prepared for some pushback, even by people within the church who are more beholden to an institution that is governed by all kinds of rules and regulations, dogmas and doctrines rather than seeing the church as a living organism of people who are open to the Spirit who has called and gathered us together to hear the Word of God and share often in this Holy Communion so that together we might know more clearly what is the will of God and receive the inspiration, desire, and power to serve our neighbors whatever day of the week it is, just as Jesus has done today.

Having laid this foundation, I (will) come back to our 3 confirmands this morning, and challenge you (them) to hang in there and continue to stay connected with God’s faithful people—whether here at St. Mark’s or in some other community of faith, to open your (their) Bible once-in-a-while so that you (they) remain open to the calling of God’s Word, to share in this holy meal often and be strengthened by the presence and power of Jesus’ Spirit, to let your (their) light of love shine in this world that is so weighed down by fear, hatred, and violence, to keep your (their) minds focused on Jesus as the model for your (their) lives, and to be willing to speak out on behalf of those who are being treated unjustly and oppressed unnecessarily.

One such example was brought to my attention this past week.  Apparently, the City of San Francisco has a policy that the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing only qualifies pregnant women for family shelter before the third trimester if they can prove that they are medically at risk.  According to this Department, very few women qualify for this Prenatal Program in their first and second trimesters.  What this means is that the vast majority of pregnant women who are homeless have to fend for themselves during their first two trimesters, thereby creating a much greater risk that the lives of their unborn children will be permanently damaged if not subject to imminent death. A letter signed by many faith leaders, including our Bishop Mark Holmerud, has been sent to Mayor Farell with a simple request that this policy be changed so that homeless women who are pregnant can qualify for family housing in their first trimester without having to prove medical necessity.

Today is Sunday and supposedly a day of rest, but before we get all caught up in our busy lives on Monday, what if all of us would contact Mayor Farrell and Jeff Kositsky, the Director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, today, and ask them to change this policy?  Today, we supposedly are making a renewed commitment to strive for justice and peace in all the earth, and there are a zillion ways to put this commitment into effect.  However, if we just took on one or two ways today to advocate for a more just society, perhaps our joint effort could have some impact on the liberation of a few pregnant women, just as Jesus stood up for his disciples who were hungry and healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath Day.  Certainly there were many more people in this city who were famished or were in need of a cure, but according to this particular account, Jesus gave an example of what everyone could be doing on this day to challenge the restrictions of an unjust policy and improve the lives of so many people who constantly receive the message that they don’t matter. 

As I have journeyed with these 3 young women over the course of the past 16 months, I can attest to the fact that they have a heart for the well-being of other people.  They may not have completed memorizing all of the books of the Bible or learned the difference between the first, second, and third uses of the law, but they have been well mentored in what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus and in the importance of being a member of a community of faith that has love for others at the core of its existence.  Therefore, I ask you to join with me on this Sabbath Day in affirming them as beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased just as they were affirmed by God on the day of their baptism.  Amen.