Monday, September 21, 2015

Less Than Perfect

Proverbs 31:10-31, Mark 9:30-37

My grandmother used to announce, from time to time, that she had had only perfect children.  
As a child, I sometimes envied this claim and sometimes resented it, since I knew I wasn’t perfect and suspected that this meant I was supposed to be. As a teen, I discovered irony, and decided that this was some kind of statement that whatever was, was perfect, and felt pleased that I was in on the joke. But I still wondered if I had to live up to perfection.

Do you ever feel like you’re meant to be perfect?
Do you strive to achieve some ideal; feel like you’re being measured against some standard you don’t control, as a child or parent, at work, as an athlete, whatever?

Conversations with friends and family suggest that being a parent is especially likely to give you the experience of never being able to live up to expectations - but so is dealing with your own parents!

My own social media feed is full of hundreds of ways to be a better pastor, or a better church - most of which I would love to do, and definitely should be doing, and can’t possibly excuse not finding the time or the resources to do - except that I clearly haven’t done them.  And our life together is full of opportunities to disappoint one another, to fail in ways great and small.

And if that happens to me, I’m betting that many of you have similar experiences: at work, or in family relationships, or just watching those folks on TV who make fantastic meals with one hand tied behind their back, in perfectly-decorated kitchens they renovated themselves last weekend,  and insist that you, too, can do this easily.

And then we come to church together, and we hear this amazing portrait in scripture of the woman who - one commentator observes - is “working hard everywhere, on everything, for everybody -- from dawn to dusk no less!”  
She’s a perfect housekeeper, business owner, craftsperson, entrepreneur, advisor, parent and spouse.  
Anybody here feel comfortable living up to that?

I’m exhausted just reading it.
And whether you use the lens of today’s translation as a “capable wife,” or the more literal translation “woman of warrior strength,” it’s an impossible ideal, it really is.

The good news about this is that it’s probably not meant to be the ideal that you and I are to live up to.  It’s actually part of an oracle given to a gentile king by his mother - a recording of prophetic motherly advice, recognizable by the advice not to drink too much and get in trouble - and the point of this advice is to praise what is most praiseworthy, and not get caught up in success for its own sake. 

Centuries of scholars have liked the idea that this portrait of the strong woman is meant to be a portrait of God’s wisdom, not a practical guide to housekeeping or the ideal of the disciple.
But when you pick it up and read it centuries later, it still looks remarkably like all those church leadership articles on the internet, and the fabulous parenting and meals and home-improvement projects on Pinterest and TV: a description of success that you and I are supposed to strive for,
and which we will inevitably fail.

And maybe we need that.
Maybe we need to fail, to lose, screw up, disappoint ourselves, and know we can’t live up to what we are supposed to.

Because the world you and I live in puts subtle but strong pressure on all of us to be perfect - to buy happiness from the folks who make commercials, to be athletes and A students and good-looking and popular, to meet our children’s needs and give them success, protect our parents from disappointment or disability, be more generous, spiritual, healthy, you name it.
And what happens in the gospel when we fail is totally different from what happens in everyday life.

That’s the lesson Jesus’ disciples are supposed to learn today.
Jesus catches them in the middle of arguing about who is the best: who is the closest to perfect, and will win success and recognition when Jesus’ kingdom comes. They’ know that they are supposed to strive for spiritual perfection, for success in keeping of God’s law, and that’s kind of what they are trying to prove to each other in this discussion, but they know that Jesus never seems to quite approve of that striving for success. And this time is no exception.
Jesus tells them that the failures will be the winners,
and that the nobodies are the people who are most like Jesus.

(Which must seem odd to the disciples who’ve lived with and followed Jesus, because that man can inspire a crowd and then feed them like nobody else.
Pintrest and Donald Trump have nothing on him.)

But Jesus clearly means it.
Failure and anonymity, being overlooked and ignored, are Christlike.
Not for their own sake, but because they make space for God.

Since there is nothing to be gained from welcoming and honoring the nobodies, 
when we do so, we leave a vacuum of grace for God to fill.
Because there is nothing to be gained by failure, no advantage to being the low one on the totem pole, and overlooked, there’s so much less between us and God in those places.

What would happen if all of us took that idea seriously this week?
If you’re like me, you don’t actually set out to be perfect, but at least once a week, you realize you’ve failed, you disappoint someone, lose an opportunity that’s important to you, run hard and painfully into the ways that you can’t do enough, or be enough, or you’re overlooked and ignored.

What if we learned to look for God in those times and places — not as a consolation, or for healing, or a promise of better — but to look for how our own failures or inadequacies make it essential for God to be in the world.

What if we noticed how much more our loved ones, our world, ourselves, need God when we lose and disappoint and fail; noticed the absolute essentialness of God’s presence and action when we don’t do, and can’t do, what we want to do.
And learned to trust that those empty, awkward, lonely, unfortunate losses and spaces in our lives when we fail are grace, because God is there in spite of us.

How would it be, if we took that more seriously than our own ideals and hopes?
How would it be if that were a stronger force in our lives than the subtle, invisible cultural pressure to succeed?

It might be remarkably like the kingdom of God here and now,
and it certainly changes the world,
and that’s the most important reason in life for praise.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Getting A Reputation

Mark 8:27-38

Do you spend much time thinking about your reputation? Even “managing” it? 
Apparently that’s a thing you have to do in the internet age - my radio news is frequently sponsored by a corporation eager to help you manage that reputation.

And maybe that’s been around for longer than I’ve given it credit for.  After all, Jesus seems to be busy managing his reputation today, asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
That’s easy!  There’s a lot of talk about Jesus in the village gossip network, and the religious circuit - the internet of first-century Palestine. Some say he’s a prophet. Or John the Baptist or Elijah reborn. It’s a mixed reputation: “God-inspired leader” and “trouble-maker” are both implied in those labels.
And it’s pretty accurate to Jesus’ actions - he preaches and teaches like a prophet, calls out the authorities like John the Baptist, and heals like Elijah.

So he moves on to what matters more, the question of whether his friends really know him: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter - as usual - speaks up. “You’re the Messiah!” We know you! We’ve been watching, and we can tell that you’re the one who was promised, the one who will overthrow the foreign oppressors and bring peace and God’s favor back to our nation. You’re going to make everything better!
Now that’s a great reputation to have.

But when Jesus immediately starts to talk confidently about his own death, rejection, and resurrection, Peter gets seriously worried about how it’s going to affect his reputation.  “Look, Jesus, this is bad news. No one’s going to respect you that way. People are going to think you're crazy or doomed - either way it’s bad for business and bad for God.”  And it’s definitely not the way the Messiah should behave.
So now Jesus’ good reputation is actually getting in Peter’s way.

Because Jesus has a name as a man of God, and because the Messiah must be triumphant, Peter can’t really hear what Jesus is trying to say.
I suspect the same thing happens to us, now. I suspect that the reputation Jesus has in the twenty-first century can block our ears - and other peoples’ - to what Jesus is really trying to say to us.

The reputation of Jesus in the 21st century is, de facto the reputation of Christians, of the church.
And judging by the news these days, Christians’ reputation - and therefore Jesus’ reputation - is going to involve Kim Davis or Pope Francis (or both).  So Jesus is - by reputation very interested in marriage and divorce. And also in pregnancy.

Judging by a major survey in the last decade, Christians are - Jesus is - judgmental, hypocritical, political and increasingly irrelevant. Judging by Calvary, Christians are - Jesus is - mostly friendly, nice, often fun, and not terribly big on change.
There’s more to Jesus’ reputation, of course. More Christians and more people with opinions about Christians.  And all that noisy reputation of Christians and the church - good, bad and indifferent - is quite different from what Jesus himself says and does.

If you google “Who is Jesus?” the top five results all give you a short historical or theological description and then quickly turn to the benefits and necessity of committing your life to Jesus, 
of claiming for yourself Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.
Although the “cradle Episcopalian” in me is allergic to conversion pressure, and to some of the theology on these websites, I have to admit that they follow exactly the pattern of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples that we heard today.

When he’s checked his reputation with the disciples Jesus goes big with the invitation to commit. He calls a crowd to him, any and everyone around, and invites them - you and me - to deny ourselves and take up our cross; to get into trouble with him.
To know him not just by word of mouth, but by identifying with him, in action as well as in thought.

To know Jesus, to be able to really answer the question “who do you say that I am?” we have to fully commit ourselves to who he means to be. Not to his reputation, but to his action.

Not by being kind and good, not by being church, but by getting into trouble. Not for trouble’s own sake, but because God’s dream for the world is so different from the world as it is
that taking God’s vision seriously is going to upset everyone who’s comfortable now.  
And that’s dangerous.

Author and religion blogger Benjamin L. Corey says, “When Jesus comes back, I sure hope he doesn’t land in America. Being a progressive rabbi from the Middle East, teaching a message that’s anti-war & anti-rich, while claiming the poor are blessed, and that those who don’t welcome immigrants will be excluded from his kingdom, Christian leaders would most likely have him deported.”

He’s right. We don’t go in for literal crucifixion in the US these days, but Jesus would get in just as much trouble with the politicians, with the powerful - and with folks who just want to live their lives - today as he did in first-century Israel, and he’s inviting us to do it with him.

Here and now, centuries into the collaboration of the church with power and culture and government, it’s hard - probably impossible in spite of all I can say or anything you can read or research - to really sense how much of a disruptive cliff- hanger this invitation is.  To imagine what it means that  Jesus invites us to actually lose ourselves - lose our reputation, our self-image, our plans for the future, even any confidence that we’re right when others are wrong - lose ourselves so that God can make us something utterly different.

When that happens, it’s unmistakable.  
When that happens, you get Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Heroes later, criminals first.
Because when it happens, God gets people who disrupt our hope for a Messiah who is going to make everything easy; people who make the church as uncomfortable and upset as Peter when Jesus started talking about crucifixion and death.
But when it happens the world is transformed.

It happens to Paul.
It happens - eventually - to Peter.
It happens to saints.

And Jesus wants it to happen to all of us, to each of us,
so that the world can be wholly transformed and God can be fully known, by heart and by life, not just by reputation.

The invitation’s still open.  It could happen to you.

Will it?

Sunday, September 6, 2015

I'm Listening

James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 

I don’t really want to be a member of James’ church. It sounds uncomfortable, because I bet he’s one of those preachers who points fingers and calls people out from the pulpit. Look what he’s saying today: My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?
YOU discriminate,” he says. “You treat the rich and the poor differently, and frankly, you’re rude and disrespectful to poor people.”

I’m sure that church had a lot of good people in it. People who gave a lot to charity, volunteered their time to feed the hungry and help neighbors in need. People who sometimes wanted to take a break, because meeting people’s needs really is hard work.
People like Jesus, who’s off today in Gentile country, hoping he won’t be recognized.

But of course, as usual, Jesus is found. Found by a woman, a gentile, of Syrian ancestry, an outsider, with neither power nor advantages, who clearly doesn’t belong and isn’t going to, and who definitely has no right to bother Jesus with her problems.
Jesus doesn’t hesitate to tell her so. He calls her - and her desperately ill daughter - dogs, and says they are not his problem.
But she argues.
Tells him there is enough to go around, even for dogs.
And he agrees with her, applauds her reasoning, and heals the daughter.

Some commentators want that story to be about a test of faith. Others make it a joke between Jesus and the woman, winking at prejudice. But others dive right into the uncomfortable probability that in this story, Jesus is wrong.
And not only wrong, but acting on genuine prejudice and racism.

Are you uncomfortable yet?
I am.
For months now, my inbox and social media and regular news have been full of articles and memes and commentary about racism in America.
And I hate it, because of course I’d like to live in a world without prejudice. I want to be a good person. I’ve absorbed the gospel values at Calvary where we really try to welcome everyone,
to accept and include the folks who don’t fit “normal;” to adapt and include and welcome even when that disrupts our peace and comfort at church.

And I hate it when I have to wrestle with racism in the news, in the church, or closer to home.
I hate it when the news and the commentators tell me I benefit by racism in this country because I am what’s called “white,” even when I suspect - or know! - it’s true.

Maybe even Jesus would have hated that feeling, too.
Though maybe not as much as that one Syro-phonecian woman with the sick daughter, who probably gets ignored often, and is definitely insulted and dismissed by Jesus.
I don’t know if you noticed, but the whole time she’s visible in this story, she’s kneeling on the ground, humbled and humiliated at Jesus’ feet, just the way James complains that his congregation is insulting and humiliating the poor and oppressed who come to them.
In spite of that additional barrier of oppression, the woman argues with Jesus - which no doubt makes him uncomfortable - but he listens.
Listens, in spite of all that the culture and the differences and the status gap between the two of them can do to muffle her voice and ensure that Jesus can’t hear her.
And she changes him. And he changes his mind, and acts differently.

And going on from there, the next thing he does is give hearing and voice to a man who’s been physically deaf and dumb.
“Open up!” he says, and it happens.
Just like it happened to him.

The moral of this story might be that the kingdom of God is more powerful than us, maybe even more powerful than God.  After all, it’s more powerful than Jesus in this story. But that doesn’t absolve us of responsibility to listen, and to take down barriers.

Last Tuesday, I got an email from the headquarters of the Episcopal Church, inviting Episcopal congregations to join with our sisters and brothers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and make today "Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.”

Within hours, my inbox and social media were full of fellow clergy complaining about the short notice, the skimpy, half-baked resources, and the holiday weekend. We were indignant about what felt like a brush off of an important issue, and even more, we affirmed one another in our tiredness and frustration and our inclination not to try to pull this off, but to go our own ways.  
And then late Thursday, one colleague shared a letter from the Bishop of New York.

Apparently he’d heard from a few people about this, though he was supposed to be on vacation.
“I’m listening,” he said. “You’re right that the powers that be have screwed up, me included, when I asked you to do that this week.”
He went on to assure his clergy that they could treat themselves and their congregations and the painful, momentous issue of racism with the respect of more time; offered options for praying the problem on short notice without tearing ourselves apart; and thoughtful, deep, and holy reflection on faith and race, history and present, that honored the pain on all sides of the issue. 

“I’m listening,” Jesus said. “You’re right. Let’s heal your daughter.”
The stories are almost the opposite, in a way, but they’re also just the same.

The gospel story today, the letter of James - even the “quotable quotes” of Proverbs on generosity - are steeped in privilege, oppression, racism, sexism, classism. Our own church, playing last minute catch up with an ecumenical initiative from a predominantly African-American denomination, is steeped in the same things and tripping over our own governance and good intentions.
And it’s just as uncomfortable for me to name these things as I thought it would be, and it might be making you uncomfortable too.

But if even Jesus - fully divine and fully human - participated in the racism of his time, maybe we can stop being afraid of the word. Stop being afraid of the simple fact that we participate in - and sometimes benefit from - a culture that discriminates and oppresses, so that despite the healthy, holy, welcoming, accepting desires of our own hearts, we wind up carrying on the system and sins of racism, whether we know it or not.

If we can accept that truth about ourselves; see our kinship to Jesus in this, too, then we have a better chance of “opening up,”of hearing and listening in spite of the ways fear and good intentions and culture block us from the people and truths we need to hear.
If we can see this truth in Jesus and in ourselves, we have a better chance of trusting God and accepting the hurt when it feels like we’re being blamed, of seeing and acting on opportunities to change and heal, even to change things we didn’t do or didn’t mean to do.

There’s not one simple action to take, for this change and this healing (oh, if only it were that kind of problem) but we can work now to open our hearts, and our ears, and eyes, so that other people can transform us.

On the insert in your bulletin, there are prayers to help our hearts and spirits listen.
Make a commitment, this week, to pray those, and to deliberately face the guilt or the anger or the discomfort of seriously engaging a piece of the uncomfortable commentary on racism that fills the news and the internet these days. If it’s not showing up in your inbox and Facebook feed, you can find something to engage this week via links on Calvary’s website.
Next month the Diocese of Chicago is offering three days of intensive anti-racism training.  The bishop and I will be both be taking that training, and there are still a few spaces available. There’s another training in November.  Ask me for information.

Do something to open yourself up this week, even if you’re tired, busy, and have already done enough.

Because you are, like Jesus, good and faithful, generous and giving; you’ve absorbed the gospel values we depend on at Calvary, of welcome, and inclusion, and acceptance.
Because a system of racism is more powerful than any of us, but the kingdom of God is also more powerful than any of us, with a bigger vision of healing, inclusion, and welcome than we could ever see on our own, 
and sometimes we, like Jesus, need help to open ourselves up so we can be part of the healing God’s kingdom brings.