Sunday, September 16, 2018
Year B Proper 19, 16 September 2018
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, Virginia
“The Cruxpoint of Mark”
Collect: O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Mark 8:27-38 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?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
My favorite movies are the ones with big reveals. I do. I just love them. I love being surprised. I love being shocked. I love when what you are looking at actually is something else entirely. I have a confession, if you did not know this already, but I am obsessed with movies. I own far too many. I could stock my own rental store. I even love bad movies, sometimes just for how bad they are.
But as I started, when I am surprised or taken off guard, those are the ones that are my favorites. The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, or Split more recently, had me delighted. It does not have to be horror or suspense even. Ocean’s Eleven and even You’ve Got Mail are far from scary, but are about missing what is right in front of your face.
We do not think about the Gospel of Mark this way, but this is another example of a slow reveal. Now the people hearing Mark when it was first being read to them and to us who are hearing it now, WE ALREADY KNOW THE REST OF THE STORY. The first verse in Mark gives it away: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He says what he thinks about Jesus, and if you are hearing it you probably already think of Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ. Messiah is the Hebrew version of Christ, and Christ is the Greek version of Messiah. They mean “anointed one.” Now the way we know that we are in a slow reveal here is that in Mark the term Christ is mentioned in the first verse, 1:1, and the next time is when it comes out of Peter’s mouth as Messiah in what is called his “confession.”
A couple of interesting points: Peter’s confession is one of four stories which are included in all four Gospels, not counting Holy Week/the Crucifixion. The other interesting point, that this is the turning point, the “hinge” if you will, in the Gospel of Mark. Everything before this in Mark is to point to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. But it is not named. You can hear the question floating around as he teaches and preaches, gathering crowds to him. “Could he be the One? Could he really?” As I said, we read it tending to already know the answer to the question.
So Jesus is walking with his disciples one day, and like many a leader asks, “What are y’all hearing on the street? What are people saying about me?” We all need to be about market research. For good or bad, it is part of doing anything important. The biblical phrasing is this: “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Now none of these answers are lightweight, and they are pretty packed in and of themselves.
John the Baptist had just been killed by Herod. If Jesus was John the Baptizer he would be a miraculous and threatening incarnation of the vengeance of God. Herod would be doomed by this one he had killed by his wife’s pride, and his daughter’s ignorance in her request.
Elijah is no less important. Elijah who was taken up into heaven is supposed to be the precursor of the Messiah. If you go to a Passover Seder to this day, a chair is saved for Elijah and a glass of wine is poured in case he shows up to announce the way of the Lord, that the Messiah has arrived. Part of the ritual is even to check the door and see if he is out there. (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Elijahs-cup) So if Jesus was Elijah, doing these acts of power, he was the one who would precede the one who came to take back the political throne of David, kicking the Romans out at last. Jesus was not John the Baptizer, and neither was he Elijah.
Nor was he a prophet, and remember, after the height of David and Solomon, MOST of our Scriptures that we have recorded in what we call the Old Testament are devoted to the prophets, the raging men of God who call Israel and Judah back into covenant, back into right relationship with God and right actions toward others, especially the Least of These, widows, orphans, strangers in our midst.
Any of these answers are AWESOME, and point to the power and might of God. But then he shifts it. And Jesus asks the other question. “Who do you say that I am?” Now the Greek here lends itself to Virginia preachers, the you here is plural, so it really is “Who do y’all say that I am?”
And here is the crux. One of the twelve, the loud and bombastic leader Peter, jumps up and gives the Sunday School answer. Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. The other Gospels tell this slightly differently. But here in Mark we get the first of a repeated motif, DO NOT TELL ANYONE! It is called the Mark’s Messianic Secret. There could be many a reason for this, like Jesus’ time had not yet come, or people need to come to this conclusion for themselves.
Do notice that he did not deny what Peter said, nor did he reject it. He said to keep it secret, though we do not know why.
Now the part of the story that breaks my heart, but also points me to the idea that the Gospels are true and real. As soon as we get the cruxpoint, Peter’s confession, he is also the very one who then decides to tell Jesus how to do his job.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
No, no, no Peter says. It is not becoming for the Messiah to suffer. You will be the Triumphant King! You will be the Redemptive Patriot that will return the Throne of David and kick out these blankity-blank Romans. But as usual with the Disciples, these are Adventures in Missing the Point. Jesus, even in his rebuke, is pointing to what is the Point. This world, and its ways, are not what he came for. He is aiming his sights, and in doing so invites us to do the same, he is aiming his sights on the Divine.
There is no point in “fixing the problem” on the level in which the problem was made. Jesus takes us to a higher level. And thankfully, he does not just deliver the rebuke but instructs on how to truly show him to be OUR Messiah, OUR Christ. Notice that all the readings today surround themselves on the what it means to be a Good Teacher. And Jesus delivers.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
When we set ourselves on the Human Things, not the Divine Things, we get caught up in gaining the world. And as Jesus says, paraphrased, What is the point of gaining it all, and then in the end missing what is most important.
We get Jesus cutting to the chase now. You see, in Mark’s Gospel anyway, we are now heading to Jerusalem. Jesus is on his way to the final scene. The tone has shifted, we no longer are asking “Could he be?” We are now hearing him openly saying HOW HE IS, and it is not on our terms. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.
Think of sitting at a family dinner and granpa or granma starts talking about death. It is awkward. It is uncomfortable. (Shouldn’t be, but in our culture it is.) So we try to shush them, “Oh, you are going to be with us a good, long time.” Peter did pretty much the same thing. Jesus is talking openly, and his disciples do not like what they are hearing. They want to joy of triumph without the costs of the victory. They want Palm Sunday to be the end of the week, not Good Friday. Are we any different?
The other type of movie that I really like, are the ones where a director makes a brave choice. Sometimes, they show you exactly where the story will go, should go, but then leave it open ended. It is up to us as to how the story will end. Castaway or The Natural comes to mind. You may not be shown the ending, but the director who has been guiding you makes it clear what the outcome will be. Mark does that as well. In the gospels we see the Resurrected Jesus, except in the Shorter Ending of Mark, what most scholars see as the original ending of Mark. We see an empty tomb, and we have to decide what we are going to do with that. Now Jesus tells us today, and repeats it throughout Mark that he will suffer, die, and rise again. It is up to us what the Empty Tomb means; it is up to us how the story continues.
Each and every day, we have a choice, will we take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him? The question remains. And so does our response. Amen.
Saturday, September 8, 2018
Year B Proper 18, 9 September 2018
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Crumbs of Faith”
Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
James 2:1-17 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Mark 7:24-37 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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 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.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 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. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
In our Rite I of the Eucharist, the rite we use at our 8 am service, there is a prayer that can be said right after the fraction of the Host (the bread in Eucharist). It opens with these words:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.
But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
I was doing a hospital visit with a family, and one of the adult children was there. They no longer go to church, and they said that it always made them uncomfortable when this prayer was said, particularly the line: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. He said that it made him feel inferior, like he was worthless. And taken at face value I totally understand that. It sounds like that.
But I did not let it sit there. I asked if he knew the story it comes from. He did not. So I shared with him this story of the Syrophoenician woman, the one we just read. And how she begged Jesus for a healing. What would we not do for our kids? Anything. Anything at all. Come hell or highwater, which of us would neglect a need of our child? Not one of us, I think.
And this woman was no different. No matter what Jesus said, she was not going to let go. He was, as she saw it, her only option.
Now we do need to talk about about what Jesus said in response to her request. We cannot ignore it, and it strikes our ears as harsh, to say the least. 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.” Is Jesus calling her a dog? It sounds that way. Now I have heard this pitched and stretched a few ways. Some hear Jesus saying what would be expected of him, his cultural baggage coming through. Jews saw themselves as God’s Chosen People. Anyone less is exactly that, less. Inferior. She is lowly, a dog, from one perspective.
Another view, is that yes, Jesus was saying what was expected of him, both by those listening and even by the woman herself. She knew that as a Gentile she would need to beg this Jewish rabbi. The Teacher let all those who had expectations hear what they wanted. Now before he could counter, she fires back with this resounding statement of faith. But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She is not leaving till she gets what she wants, even just a crumb of his power, of his grace.
Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. Was what she said causative? Did she get what she wanted because of her insistence? Was it her tenacious “mama bear” spirit that impressed Jesus? Was he going to heal the daughter anyway, but “played the expected role” so that the healing stood out more? We do not know. We cannot know. So let’s take it as it is. She came for a blessing, a healing of her daughter, and when she left she had it. And found the truth of the statement of Jesus when she arrived home. Jesus models what we hear in the James’ passage: “DO NOT SHOW PARTIALITY!” Exactly. Exactly.
Everyone we meet, every eye we look into, is a Beloved Child of God. God’s Beloved. What if we treated every one that way. Our family members. The person who cut us off in traffic. The person on the news who infuriates us. The person who hates us. God loves them and wants what is best for them, too. It makes us look at them differently. It makes us treat them differently. It changes a stranger into a brother, an enemy into a sister.
When we start acting this way, we play the long game. Often we do not recognize the shift from what Jesus did to what we do. Jesus, the Apostles, and even St. Paul all were intenerants, travelling speakers who came in, did ministry, and most often moved on. They were sent, and that is the meaning of Apostle, those who are sent. We live our faith in a very different way. We put down roots, and we are sent next door, not to the other side of the world. Sometimes it is so much easier to give God’s love to a stranger than the person who keeps doing the jerky thing over and over and over again. For years. But we are called to love them, too. So often that is where our real faith is expressed.
I am reading a novel right now. [Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke] And in it there is an interesting premise. It starts in an English city with a club based on magic. People come, discuss, write articles, and debate magic in a theoretical sense. No one who comes to the society of magicians has any expectation for magic to happen. They like magic, and even call the members of the society, or club, magicians even though not a one of them does magic or has ever seen it done. Then one day someone comes who not only claims to do magic, but actually does. To get him to “prove” his claims, the members of the society make a bet. If he can do an unquestionable magic feat they will stop using the moniker “magician.” Every single one of them will walk away from being theoretical and historical “magicians” because the word actually means something with a real magician walking around and about. And because of the magic, real magic, practiced and practical magic, the club members no longer see themselves or call themselves as “magicians.”
It made me really pause and reflect, of so many churches I have been a part of, there has been too often that feel. That faith expressed in some churches I have been a part of was theoretical and historical only. Jesus did miracles “back then” and we will just gather and talk about how good it was “back then.” For faith to be faith, it has to be real. It has to be practiced here and now. If it just something we ponder, than it is no longer faith. This is nothing new in the church. Within decades of Jesus this dangerous idea had already snuck in. James argues against it near the end of today’s reading.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Somewhere along the way, even at this early stage in the Church’s life, we missed that what we say has to have an impact on what we say and even more on what we do. We can go to Church every Sunday, but what James argues is that what we believe, where our faith really lives, has to come out on Mondays (and Tuesdays and Wednesdays and so on).
I remember when I was like the Syrophoenician woman. I was made to feel that I did not belong. I knew it. I felt it. I was backpacking around Europe right after I graduated college with an old roommate. We had done the whole Eurail pass thing, sleeping on the trains and not bathing much and washing our clothes even less. We landed in Zurich on a Sunday morning, and I was shocked that we actually had about 5 hours to kill. I knew of the Baptist seminary which was about 20 minutes from town by train. At the seminary was a Baptist Church which actually worshiped in English, so I jumped at the chance to go and actually worship in English. We had been touring some of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, but I had not worshiped in a one of them. My roommate was exhausted after a poor night’s sleep, and he decided he would stay with the luggage and I would just run up.
I was so excited I did not think about how I looked, and, worse, how I smelled. I just wanted to see the seminary I had heard so much about. The train stopped in the little village of Rüschlikon, and I wandered up the mountain above Lake Zurich. I arrived just a few minutes before the service. From the very tidy Swiss, I have never felt more judged nor more embarrassed in my life. I just wanted to worship. I sat down. Someone let me know that Church was about to start. I responded that that was why I was there. They were surprised, looking how I did. I was not given a bulletin, and I could tell from the furtive glances and whispers that I did not belong. Just before the service started a man came in, sat down, and someone let him know about “the guest” for the day.
About this point I wanted to crawl in a hole, but I had spent what little Swiss money I had on my ticket to get up there, and by God, I was going to stay. But the man who came in at the very last moment got up, came and sat down next to me. He got me a bulletin, and wanted to make sure I could follow along. Because I was so unkempt, I think most people thought I was homeless having left my luggage at the train station. After the service, I learned that the welcoming man was a seminary professor. And he learned that I was on my way to seminary that fall, and that I was in Church by choice and some effort. Needless to say, I need not worry about the Christianity taught in his classes. He lived his faith in his welcome to me, and his encouragement to me on my path. I have no clue his name, or what he taught there, but I do now and always will remember how he made me feel. He got over my smelly sweatshirt and sweatpants (so I would not be in shorts) and how he wanted me to know that I was welcome there.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? ...So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Next week we will look at and celebrate the many Outreach ministries that are organized through you, the people of this parish. Thanks be to God! And there are hundreds of times a week when we do the simple thing, the godly thing, the Christlike thing, the charitable thing, the polite thing, and we do it because of what we believe and what that belief is making us to be.
Today marks my 365th day at St. James the Less. This last year with you I have been humbled and moved to see your love of God and love for each other in so many ways. Your love for the least of these, as Jesus put it, shows to all who come walking through these doors or out and about in your daily lives what you believe. You have a living, breathing, growing faith and the world takes notice. And as you are living out your faith in your lives keep dropping those crumbs of faith. They are a feast for many for whom that is all they have. Amen.