Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Disposable, or Indispensable?": a sermon

“Disposable or Indispensable?”
Year B Proper 20
St. Thomas’, Richmond

Taken from Mark 9:30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

There they were, again, passing through Galilee. And Jesus, again, according to Mark, was asking everyone to keep it secret. He wanted to pass through unnoticed. The Messianic Secret as it is called by Mark scholars is one of the unique parts of this Gospel.

Once again, Jesus predicts his Betrayal, Death and Resurrection. This is the second of three in this section of Mark, where there is a prediction, followed by confusion, and then Jesus gives instruction to the disciples on being disciples.

Looking at Jesus’ Passion prediction, the emphasis is on his suffering and death, mentioning he will be killed two times. This is not a clever ruse. It is a demise. When we have loved ones who speak of their own death, we too dismiss it. We change the subject. We try to move on.

The disciples were in the same pickle.  “What is he talking about? Aren’t we building something here? Isn’t this a movement? Why did I leave everything behind if he is going to die? Maybe he is speaking metaphorically again.” And then I found it fascinating that they were afraid to ask.

I have spoken about this before, but think of all the times in Scripture we hear the words, “Be not afraid?” How many times from Jesus himself?

I think of all the times in my life when I was afraid to say the thing I needed to say, or ask the question I was afraid to ask. I think how some of the worst moments of my life could have been averted. Without the question, presumptions happen, and those presumptions tend to bring about self-fulfilling cycles downward. Next time you feel afraid to ask the question, stop, look at that fear, and if it is just your emotion holding you back, ask!

Our rector Susan, put out a very honest letter this week, naming where we are financially. It was not meant to frighten, because, as someone said, the truth sets us free. If you have questions, ask! Don’t assume. Don’t clam up. Be not afraid!

The disciples did something a lot of us do; it is human nature. I cannot control this situation over here which is scaring me, but I can control this little situation over here. Or, I can start a squabble to distract us all. And that is what all the disciples did with their fear. Talk about Jesus dying? Naaah! Let’s rank ourselves and position ourselves so I do not have to deal with our fear and pain and grief over here.

Jesus heard them. He put up with them. It was like my kids in the back seat arguing over who is a better wizard, Gandalf or Dumbledore, or what other superhero could beat Superman. The conversation is moot, and mostly a form of mental entertainment.

So when they were alone, Jesus spoke to the apostles. He gave them a concrete example of what he was saying. There in his arms, he took a baby. Now, I want you to go to your bulletin. Open up to the passage, and look at the pronoun used for the child. Go ahead.

The passage is too often rendered he. In the Greek, the baby is referred to as an “it.” Not a he. Not a she. An “it.” That is what these 12 smelly men who had just gotten off the road would have seen the baby as, not a male, not even a female. A something, an it. Perfectly disposable in their eyes.

The problem is, and Jesus is making a very clear point, that no one is Disposable. The disciples thought they could not go on without Jesus. But then Jesus does something crazy, in their context anyway. He says:
"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
In other Gospels this example comes with the language, “The Least of These.” Disposable people. The people that everyone looks down on. The people that are Disposable. When you welcome these, we welcome Jesus. Servants, Garbage Men, Homeless, Untouchables by any Name. Disposable.

Jesus is telling them, these who you see as Its, as Disposable, they are me. When you welcome them, you welcome me.

In God’s Kingdom, the Disposable are the Indispensable.

When we try to make ourselves Indispensable (thinking I am the greatest) we are doing the exact opposite, in God’s Kingdom. That thinking is Disposable.

However, when we approach the Disposable (by this world’s standards) and treat them as Indispensable, we are welcoming Christ.

This is a hard teaching. I have said it before and you will hear me say it again. From Mark Twain, rather than Mark: “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that I have a hard time with; it’s the parts of the Bible that I do.”

Jesus is calling for a drastic change in thinking. Even more he is calling for a drastic change in doing, how we act. And by doing so, we come to a whole new way of being. Our friends in 12 Steps have a wonderful phrase about changing behavior till we change ourselves: “Fake it till you make it.”

As we serve the Its of the World, they stop being a number or a statistic, an It. They become a name, and that name belongs to a person, and that person, no matter who they are, is a Beloved Child of God.

Two weeks we witnessed this in the news. A Syrian refugee child’s dead body washed up on the shore of Turkey. Drowned. Little red shirt. Little blue shorts. Sneakers that will never run across the floor again. Face down. It was and is horrific. Aylan Shenu stopped being a number amongst the faceless and nameless refugees. All of Europe saw him, and heard his name. They opened their borders, and opened their doors, for a while. All because of one of the least of these. When confronted with their lack of welcome, things changed.

"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

The Disposable become the Indispensable. In saving them, we save ourselves.

I find it fascinating that both in the Passion Prediction and in the Instruction, Jesus is telling this directly to the Twelve, no one else. He really needs them to get this. He really needs them to understand. I think it is the same for us. After two thousand years have we gotten it yet? How often do we think we have arrived, when we in fact have only just begun the journey. Someone has called Discipleship a “long obedience in the same direction.”

Jesus was on the way to the Cross, and he minced no words and made it clear to his disciples, even though they did not get it. And his words, then and now, “Come, follow me.” What will we do with his teaching? Smile and say we get the point he was trying to make, or go, and do likewise.

Jesus calls us to be Servants of the Lowly. Just as he did for us, he calls us to dispense ourselves, to give ourselves out. In trying to make ourselves Indispensable, we become truly Disposable. Even more than in Jesus day, we live in world where people are famous for just being famous. How sad. But even then, Jesus offers us hope.

"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

May the Disposable become your Indispensable. And may what the world says is Indispensable, let us dispose of quickly.

Remember, Jesus was seen as Disposable, and became Indispensable.  In Psalm 118:22, and then echoed in Matthew:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone.”
May we follow him even there.

An apocryphal prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,

Who is Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Tropical Storm Grace

When I first heard of Tropical Storm Grace, I was taken aback. What a horrible name, I thought. I could not conceive of calling something potentially so destructive Grace. Grace is so important to me, I often use a capital G.

But the more I thought about it, Grace does come in, often unannounced or as a surprise, and messes up everything. Just ask Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. It made me think of that old preacher's line, "I have come to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable." Tropical Storm Grace could be that second part.

Jesus warned us he would be trouble.

Luke 12: 49-53
49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
    and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.'

And trouble he still brings, to my complacency, to my status quo. Prayers for those affected by the literal storm, and God, afflict those of us who need to be affected by your Grace. Amen.

Current status

Friday, September 4, 2015

"Ephphatha! Be Opened!" :a sermon in Response to the Call for a "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday"

“Ephphatha! Be Opened!”
Proper 18, September 6, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA
Text: Mark 7:24-37

There are times and places we need to have our eyes and our ears opened. As Jesus was fond of saying, “For those who have eyes to see, let them see. For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”

We need to be opened. All of us. And if we are open, we need to opened even more. All of us. This week we struggle with the call of the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies for the Episcopal Church for us to “Confess, Repent, and Commit to the End of Racism.” It is a call to prayer, and pray we will. We are Episcopalians; that is what we do. It is a call to act. And act, I pray we will.

For the last several years I have been working with a project on the very issue which we discuss today. I have been deeply involved with Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, a privately funded middle school for children in the East End of the city, mostly coming from the housing projects on Church Hill. In my 5 years there, only one student was not African-American. Children came from varying levels of need, but all with the same hope, a better future.

When I stopped teaching full-time, I was asked to write a reflection on what working full-time at AJC taught me.  Here were my thoughts, then. I forced myself not to think about what I was going to say till I sat down to write it out.  This is what came out...

What I Have Learned at AJC

I have been in the doubly burdensome role of being a teacher and a preacher to the students and staff at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School.  Both come with their own hesitancies and intimidations.  I will have no way of knowing how long any of my lessons will last with any of those who have heard me teach or preach, but I do know that the lessons that I learned will stay with me for a lifetime.

Probably the first lesson I learned during my first year was how to pray.  I have been blessed in my life that even though times have been tight, my family has never been in the position of deep need or want.  Even more, we have never been in position of being unsafe or in fear.  My first year, I remember during prayer requests some of the kids thanked God for waking them up that morning.  Having heard their stories of shootings and other situations around their homes, what had often been a cliche when I had heard it before became an honest and sincere prayer of thanks that the student had been given another day of life.  This touched me in a profound and soul-altering way.   I will never pray the same, and some of my white middle-class privileged assumptions have been pushed to the wayside.  For that I will always be thankful.

Second, you never hold back on love.  Sometimes, though, the most loving actions are to say, "No."  Sometimes, the most loving act is to hold people accountable.  Being a strict, but fair, teacher of high standards gives a gift that too often these students have not had.  Would it be easier to be the nice teacher that had an easy class?  Of course.  Would that help anybody in the short or long term?  No.  And the kids would not respect my teaching or my preaching either one.  Grace comes with grade book sometimes, and to love the kids the best that I can, I had to create a rigorous environment that drove them to be the best that they could be.  My love came out in hard books, and clear, consistent, and hard work.

Lastly, I would have to say that the troublesome issue of race is still something this country and the Church need to continue to work.  I had homeroom with the same group of students for three years, and in the third year of our time together my group of guys (from 6th through 8th grades) and I were able to laugh and joke about stereotypes and differences.  They could ask me about being white, and I could learn from them about being African-American.  They asked me about why white people all looked alike, and why we have funny names.  But it took three years to build trust and the benefit of the doubt so that we could get to a point of honest and mutually-respectful dialogue.  I learned how far we have come and how far we need to go when I was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my 7th grade boys and after about 50 pages one of the students asked who was on the front cover.  The front cover showed Huck and Jim, an escaped slave.  I responded to the question, "Huck and Jim."  The student asked, "Huck is the black guy, so who is the white kid?  Did they have white slaves?"   I said, "No, our slavery was based on racism.  The white kid is Huck, and the black man is Jim."  But then to keep learning, I asked, "So what made you think that Huck was black?"  The student said, "Because he says the N-word all the time.  I have never heard a white person say the N-word."  Wow.  Our society has gotten better, obviously, but that things had been turned on their head to that extent, that this classic novel written to fight racism was now confusing because the white people that this student had had interactions with did not use that word.  I learned a lot that day.

Prayer, love without limits but very clear boundaries, and continuing dialogues on race are all things that I will carry with me, both as a man and a priest.  This time has shaped me, deepened my spirituality and my prayer life, and drawn me closer to God and my neighbor.  "Who is my neighbor?" was asked of Christ.  Anna Julia Cooper School could be a modern answer to that ancient question.  We are all each others' neighbors.

I wrote that before Ferguson, and before Black Lives Matter. I probably would have been a bit more lovingly confrontational with my white readers if I were to write it again today. The conversations I have heard or been invited into too often ignore the privileges that too many of us take for granted.  Peggy McIntosh, in her 1988 essay, White Privilege, Male Privilege confronts her readers after some introductory remarks with some statements that one of the privileged never needs to consider because of the unspoken assumptions inherent in our society. Here are just a few assumptions unspoken with White Privilege.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

9. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

These are just 9, of the 50 she lists.  They cover many things, from traffic stops to band-aids. None of them are easy, nor should they be. They make me see a side of myself I do not want to admit to being there.

I do not want to remember hearing my father and grandmother using racial slurs. I want to pretend that never happened.

I do not want to admit that I got stopped by the police leaving school late one night after an event, and being asked what I was doing up on Church Hill that only ended quickly when the officer saw my collar and the color of my skin.

I do not want to admit, that this city is still reeling of the stigma of slavery 150 years after its end, and we are having to fight to keep the evidence of our crimes against humanity from being obliterated to put up a baseball stadium.  Many would wish any vestiges to be gone forever.  

One of the actions we will be taking this fall is a new offering, Wednesdays at noon we will be having a Lunch Bunch.  Folks can bring their brown bags, and I will be teaching our way through the Reverend Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History.  Ben was the pastoral director of Richmond Hill ecumenical retreat center since its inception 26 years ago. A Rhodes Scholar, Ben’s book gives a detailed account of the past 400+ years that white privilege and power have influenced and shaped this city so many of us love. “Knowing is half the battle,” as G.I. Joe used to say, and if you want to start thinking about what you can do to make a difference and be the difference you wish to see, I hope you will come out for our lunch hour lessons and discussions. The details are on the bookmark in your bulletin.

Even Jesus needed to see with new eyes at times, in the passage today the Syrophoenician woman, we would call her Palestinian today most likely, begged Jesus for a healing for her daughter. She invited Jesus to see her with new eyes. Ephphatha, be opened. And when he was, she received her healing that she so wanted and needed. And she invited Jesus to see her differently. He did; may we be the same.

When Jesus wants our eyes, ears and hearts to be opened, may we respond like the deaf man with the impediment to his speech, also from today’s reading.

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.

Let me speak plainly. As a city and as individual people, we need to be opened to what God dreams for this city and for each of us. The world can be bigger, better, more like the Kingdom, and you and I are called to make it so.   Remember as we pray, “Your will be done, On earth, as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Size of God, And The Size of Our Fears

"How big is God?" she asked.  It made me think.

Is God as big as the Universe?

If God is the size of the Universe, how did God make it?

If God is bigger than the Universe, where does God end?

If God has no end, is size even a question?

Living with precocious kids tends to make one think.  And sometimes their innocent, in-the-moment questions are my middle-of-the-night ponderings.

What if God is not a size?  Small enough to fit in our deepest, darkest recess of our heart so that God can help clean it out, but also so huge that even if our problems are gigantic God is more massive to the point that they are nothing.

Every so often I have to remind myself that the only thing that limits God is my fear. My fears actually. God is bigger, louder, grander, more loving, more subtle, more magnificent, more magnanimous, more everything than my anything. So what stops me from going to God with my anything.  My worries for my wife or my kids? My sins that keep cropping up? My issues with my co-worker? God's got it covered, if I let God in.

That's the funny thing about God. God is not rude. If God is love, the 13th chapter of First Corinthians describes not only Love, but God.  What is God like? "Patient, kind, not envious, nor boastful, nor arrogant, nor rude [emphasis mine].  God does not insist on God's own way; not irritable or resentful; does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never ends." God will let us choose, because God is unbelievably patient. God will always win whatever war of attrition game we think we are playing. God will let us choose, because God hopes in us. So, what is holding me back, steeped in my mess?

The only thing that limits God is my fears.  I feel like FDR.  "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Many might quote at me the phrase repeated in Scripture, "The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom."  Yes, that may be the case.  Many people start their God journey afraid of hell or judgment.  That may be the beginning, but it is just that, the beginning.  

Medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux described the four stages in his treatise, On Loving God.  He starts off by saying that the first stage is loving Self for Self's Sake, a.k.a. Dear God, save my rear end.  We love God because we have to do so to save ourselves, or so the thinking goes. That is why I say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  It cannot stop there.  Those for whom their descriptions of God are like an angry, abusive parent are the ones who have become developmentally delayed. God only needs to smite if God is through with you. I do not see God that way (remember, God is patient, kind, etc).

Bernard went on to say that after loving Self for Self's Sake, we move to loving God for Self Sake.  We begin to see how wonderful, beautiful, magnificent God is.  Instead of an angry parent, God is a beautiful artist.  Distant, unattainable, holy. Remember, "holy" means set apart.  And this second stage of loving God is just that, looking up and thinking, "Wow! So wonderful.  So perfect. So unattainable." It is the idolization of God, almost. It is a love of the ideal of God instead of with Godself.  

But then something funny happens, this distant stranger moves towards us, and invites us into relationship.  I once had a boss, a man I deeply respected.  He was tall, intimidating, and had about the depth of voice as James Earl Jones with a head cold.  Some of the folks who were under me on the hierarchy were terrified of him, and even called him Sasquatch behind his back.  But one day, he invited me to stop calling him Dr. Smith, not his real name, but rather by his first name.  He invited me into relationship.  The respect did not lessen, actually the opposite. It deepened more than I can say. I saw this person of intimidation, then respect, as a cherished friend, and colleague and a great boss. I truly came to love him. This is like Bernard's Third Stage, loving God for God's Sake. This is the level of intimacy and relationship. And one might think that this would be the end of loving God. But Bernard, in his profound wisdom, did not end there.

His final stage on loving God is where we get beyond the fear. Many can love God and be in a profound relationship with God, but never be able to let go of the negative and destructive views of themselves. Are they still sinners? Of course, but they are profoundly and deeply loved. They are not loved in spite of, they are just loved. And in that loving, they are transformed. Bernard's final stage on loving God, is actually Loving Self for God's Sake. That transformative, unexplainable, Grace with a capital G is what we are talking about. When we are enabled to see and act as God sees us and made us to be, it declares the Glory of God.

What limits God, at work in and through my life? My fears.  My insecurities. Not about God, but about me. Think on it. Peter sank while walking on water. Too often I have heard it said that it was because he took his eyes of Jesus. But how can that be? He called for Jesus first! He did not lack faith in Jesus. He lacked faith in himself, in who God was calling him to be and better yet, made him to be. May we be encouraged to be who God made us to be as well, and when we are called, may we have the courage of conviction in our God who calls and in ourselves as we step out of the boat.  

Perfect love drives out fear.  I John 4:18