Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Cross We Take Up

Mark 8:27-38


Why on earth would anyone want to follow Jesus?

Who would want to sign on with a leader who announces that – rather than make the change we want to see in the world, rather than liberate us from the oppressive government or systems we live under – instead, he’s going to become a victim of that oppression, suffering and dying and rising?
A leader who rejects the friend who tries to talk him out of this defeatist and depressing sounding attitude?
And who goes around publicly inviting people to get killed with him?

Who wants to sign up for that?
I don’t.
Just like Peter, I signed up to follow the Messiah who is here to heal and save: heal you, me; save the world from ourselves, and most of all defeat the evil around and oppressing us.

Two thousand years after Jesus lived and taught and died and lived again, it can be easy enough to feel comfortable with Jesus telling his disciples that he’s going to suffer and die and rise.
I hear this, and I recognize the story I know, a story we tell several times a week in the Creed and the Eucharistic prayers. I know the story, so it doesn’t shock me the way it shocked Peter and James and John and probably a couple of Marys, and the rest of the disciples, when Jesus first told them.
It doesn’t bother me, unless I remember that this means that Jesus may not be planning to overthrow the evils I’ve been expecting him to tackle and defeat in our lifetime, any more than he overthrew the Romans oppressing Israel in the first century. Or at least, not in the way I want God to do this.

And it doesn’t bother me that Jesus invites us to take up our cross (I’ve been singing happily about that for nearly forty years now), unless I really think about what it might mean to voluntarily embrace crucifixion – even if it’s only metaphorical.
I’m not especially interested in dying right now, nor in losing my self – losing the identity I’ve gotten comfortable with and becoming someone I don’t even know.  New life sounds more uncertain than attractive, from that perspective.

We’ve learned, over the centuries, how to soften the shock for ourselves, but I think Jesus still wants us to feel it. Wants us to know how radical an invitation he’s offering.
It’s not an invitation to suffering for suffering’s sake, nor because suffering or dying are holy on their own merits, but Jesus’ invitation is to suffering – or whatever work or strain or risk or loss – for the sake of something you love so very much more than yourself.
Just the same way Jesus embraced all that risk for the sake of God’s extraordinary, all-encompassing love for human beings. For us.

Jesus wants us to feel the shock, I believe, and to embrace the risk in his call to us to love as we never dreamed we could love. Wants us to understand that loving something so very much more than I love myself is, indeed, a way of dying to myself. Jesus wants us to know how much that love costs, as well as the incredible reward of abundant life that kind of love can bring.

Sometimes when you love that way you can see and feel that cross in your hands and the weight on your shoulders, as you empty your budget or your schedule or your tear ducts or even your blood into the pain of a beloved friend, a child or parent. Or when you empty your self-image, your identity, your wallet, your emotional and physical strength, into the dream of God or into the pain and need of the world: for justice, peace, good news, healing or daily bread.

Other times, when you love that powerfully, you don’t always know it consciously, or feel the weight of the cross as you take it up.
I don’t always believe, or know, that I love God’s work in the world, or God’s call that way. Often I don’t want to love Jesus quite that much – it’s overwhelming. But I can tell you that the self I used to know was never going to live in New Jersey. And here I am in the midst of life extraordinarily abundant with you.

Sometimes the cross looks like the call of Mother Teresa, Dr. King, or Oscar Romero.
Sometimes it looks like a cross-country move you hadn’t planned on, and which transforms you anyway, lost and saved all at once, by loving something or someone so very much more than yourself.
That’s the cross Jesus invites us to take up; how he invites each of us to follow him, and all of us together.

It’s an invitation we took up, consciously or not, in baptism, vowing to love and follow Jesus, and to live in imitation of him, including dying and rising.
That’s what we do in baptism, if you hadn’t noticed before. What two more of us do today, as Kathy and Reese are baptized. Through the power of the water – water we can’t breathe in, when it washes over us – we die with Jesus, and in the same water, rise to share in his resurrection: to have, in our own lives, eternal life.

A few splashes of water, in a tidy church ceremony, aren’t very dangerous. But we’ve been watching the deadly power of water all weekend long, as Florence pours through the Carolinas. We’ve been seeing all that power that can wash away who and what and where we were and leave us in a whole new landscape, a new life we aren’t even going to recognize at first.

In the promises we make in baptism, and renew any time we participate in someone else’s baptism – promises of proclaiming good news, seeking justice and peace and human dignity, loving our neighbor and seeking Christ – we commit ourselves to taking up our cross: loving God’s mission, God’s people, God’s life, in our daily actions and choices, loving more than we ever dreamed we could love.

And in taking up that cross of love, risking suffering or loss or strain or unintended transformation, we accept Jesus’ invitation to share his divine experience. Loving as God loves, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, risking resurrection, new, unknown, abundant eternal life here and now and always.

It’s probably not what you wanted to sign up for; maybe not what you thought you signed up for when you first met Jesus, or when you were baptized. But it is what Jesus has been telling us all along. That love, cross-shaped and awkward as it may be, is already pulling us through every risk and strain and loss, to resurrection life.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Secondary

Mark 7:24-37 (James 2:1-17)


Have you ever felt that God probably wasn’t all that interested in you? Felt like God had other priorities; and whatever healing or hope or resolution you need is too much to ask?
Or have you felt confident of Jesus’ care? Sure that Jesus will always respond to your prayer, that God must and will heal or restore or resolve what you long for?
Either way, today we heard your story.

It’s not an easy story to read or hear, for many of us. It’s profoundly uncomfortable to hear Jesus call a desperate mother a dog. Jesus himself, who we would like to trust to be perfect, welcoming, universally gracious, insults this woman. Brushes her off, apparently indifferent to this mother and child and quest for healing.

It’s important that we don’t paper this over; that we hear and feel the shock of Jesus betraying our expectations of niceness; and don’t ignore our discomfort.
Because this is a story for and about those of us who aren’t at the center of the Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God has no second class citizens, but Jesus and the prophets of ages past and present have made it clear that God does have very definite priorities. They tell us that universal healing and the gospel start with the children of Israel; that people who are poor, or oppressed, or marginalized – the people who in many cases wouldn’t feel all that comfortable at Trinity on a Sunday morning – these are the people who are God’s first priority.

It’s a priority God wants us to share – we were just reminded about that, hearing the letter of James this morning. And it’s worth noting that the many of us here who are comfortable – wealthy enough, secure enough, powerful enough to live a pretty good life – we aren’t the folks around whom the Kingdom of God and the mission of Jesus is built.
Like this Gentile woman Jesus meets today.

Now, we don’t really know anything about her except that she’s a mother, and that she’s not Jewish. She’s probably a local in the region of Roman Syria where Jesus has gone to get away for a while. She might, in fact, be one of the poor and oppressed, primary to God, “secondaryin Jesus’ mission only because she’s not of Israel.

But some scholars suggest that she represents the wealthy Gentile landlords of the area – people who tended to marginalize or oppress Jews living among them. Not necessarily by intention, but by just how their economic system works. So you could imagine her as, say, Jeff Bezos or Ivanka Trump – people who can usually command priority attention, and buy anything they want – coming to beg healing of the man who is organizing their workers to demand change.

She is, in any case, not one of God’s priorities.
And she knows it.
She starts the whole conversation from a position of vulnerability, begging at Jesus’ feet. And when he insults her, calls either her or her daughter a dog, of lesser value or priority, she doesn’t argue. She stays “under the table” at Jesus’ feet; embraces that secondary status and – with confidence and conviction – points out that there is plenty of God’s abundance to go around. The dogs eat what falls from the table without claiming a place at the table, and there’s enough. Plenty.

She’s right. Jesus affirms her words, her knowledge and proclamation of God’s abundance, of God’s grace which is more than enough for the secondary, the lower priorities, and confirms her miracle.  Her daughter is healed.
And this woman – secondary, subordinate, low-priority – is the person in this story who reveals God’s healing, abundance and grace by her confidence and trust.

It’s good news – for you and me here this morning, for the world – good news that Jesus’ priorities are different from ours.
God’s “nice”, God’s healing, God’s justice; God’s priorities are all different from ours; from yours, from mine; from the unspoken assumptions and priorities of our society (priorities here and now that definitely favor the already rich and already powerful, often at the expense of the most vulnerable).
We need God’s priorities to be different than ours, or the world can’t be transformed, saved, and made whole.

A couple days ago, I got into a conversation where we were trying to imagine a progressive utopia for a fiction writer friend. We had fun building it up – with universally accessible and excellent healthcare, a complete end to homelessness (but, you know, with freedom to live outside if you want), single page tax returns, well-funded education and parks and art and music and more…. But it was clear enough even as we built it that it couldn’t be perfect – there are conflicting and exclusive priorities even in a like-minded utopia. It couldn’t all work outside of fiction.
Not without miracles, anyway.

And the kingdom of God can’t work without God’s priorities being different than any of ours, all of ours. Different enough for true, complete, transformation ; the transformation that heals us right along with the world.

So it’s great news that God’s priorities are different from ours. Even good news that you or I or all of us might be secondary, or even last in God’s kingdom – that eternal reality where the last are first and the first are last.
Because in the kingdom of God, being secondary, being last, is a place of miraculous abundance and great joy. Where the last have the same confidence as that Syrophonecian woman proclaimed: that the least crumb of God’s grace and power is more than enough for everything we need, and seeing others be fed first is cause for hope and trust, not anxiety or fear.

The world we live in keeps pushing us to put ourselves first, to insist on our own priority, or to achieve first place.
Jesus doesn’t.
Jesus heals and loves and redeems the last just as fully as the first.

And when the world tells us that we won’t get enough if we aren’t first in line, tells us to fight to protect our status or privileges, God reminds us that there is more than enough for the very last and least. Enough, not someday in heaven, but here and now; and enough that is probably lavishly more than we would have claimed or wanted from first place.
And that lets us take joy, right now, in seeing others come first, get ahead of us. Even when everyone around us is telling us we’re losing, we know God can’t lose us.

Knowing, embracing, that we don’t need to come first in Jesus’ mission or God’s kingdom can open us up to receive and pour out and share grace and miracles in unlimited measure, confident that God cannot run out.
Because coming second – maybe even coming last – means that no matter what tries to get between us and God, no matter who or what claims to push us down the line, there is nothing, nothing, that can keep us out of God’s healing and favor and blessing.

And if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Unappetizing

John 6:51-58


Anyone here need to go grocery shopping after church?
Or maybe you’ve done a little thinking during the epistle, or during those quiet pre-church moments, about what you should have for lunch or dinner?

Well, do you have blood on your grocery list? Your meal plan? Deep, red, iron-rich blood? No?
Okay, maybe a couple pounds of Jesus-flesh?
No?

Maybe thinking about that just now made you feel a little queasy. (You’re not alone.) Gross. Human flesh. A quart of blood. Ugh.
But would you do it anyway?

A couple of years ago, in Kenya, I was with a group of tourists in a Maasai village who were offered an opportunity to witness a “ritual” and taste a Maasai food staple. One of the village cows was held down, a vein nicked in her neck, and blood gathered in a gourd.
The gourd was then offered to our group – a chance to taste the blood – while a guide explained to us that drinking blood is an important ritual for health and life among the Maasai. Blood is given to nursing mothers, sick family members, or elders; occasionally used as a hangover cure, and drunk for births and weddings – because blood is life.

There were about ten of us tourists in the group. Only two, as I recall, sipped the blood, swallowed the life-giving mouthful. The rest of us declined. Our reasons for drinking or declining varied, but to all of us a gulp of blood just didn’t sound…particularly appetizing.

It’s not supposed to.
Although blood is life – and food – in more than one culture, it’s not supposed to sound appetizing to a Moorestown congregation on a sticky summer Sunday. Nor to the religious leaders and the crowds in the synagogue at Capernaum, listening to Jesus.
After all, drinking blood, even eating meat that hasn’t been entirely drained of blood, has been taboo – against God’s laws – for the people of Israel. On the books for five or six hundred years by the time Jesus says this; understood for much longer. So Jesus’ invitation to drink his blood is revolting and unholy. And that’s not even counting his continuing insistence on eating his flesh.

How does this man think he can give us his flesh to eat???
You and I would probably wonder that just as much as the first century leaders of Capernaum, if Presiding Bishop Curry or some other magnetic Christian preacher showed up here and invited us to eat their body’s meat.
(Still a little nauseating, right?)
And then the promise and the catch: Whoever eats my flesh, drinks my blood, has eternal life: God’s life, life without limits.  And if you don’t chew my meat, drink my blood, you’re dead already.
Jesus is deliberately using graphic verbs. There’s nothing tidy or polite about this.

It’s messy, this life-giving nourishment.
It’s gross. Crude, maybe.
And it’s supposed to be.

You don’t become one with someone else in any polite, detached, and tidy ways. Abiding in Jesus; participating in the life of God, becoming that fully united, doesn’t happen in orderly, scheduled, civilized ways.
It happens in the raw, deep, gritty, chewy, bloody parts of our own lives.
Becoming that close with God happens when we invite God into the parts of our selves, lives, and hearts that we’re too uncomfortable to share with anyone. When we trust God with the anger and shame of having been diminished by a boss or humiliated by a family member; the bitterness of disappointment and failure. When we share with God the messy cabinets under the sink and that never-shiny spot behind the toilet; the gritty choices that come with financial stress, oppressive relationships, or sheer exhaustion.

Abiding with Jesus in the unlimited life of God doesn’t happen primarily in orderly Sunday worship. It happens in the gritty weekdays when we chew over and swallow God’s tendency to inhabit the messy, crude, raw and less-than-socially-acceptable parts of our world and common life: generational poverty, partisan politics – and religious politics! – sex and sexuality, finance and money. (Jesus and God’s prophets talk about a lot of those things, if you hadn’t noticed.)

Though it may start to sound like bad news that abiding in Jesus is not, in fact, restful, tidy, and socially acceptable – not at all like the simple moral values we want our kids to learn in Sunday School – it’s actually good news that love and justice and hope and generosity – abundant and eternal life – are actually radical, disruptive, and messy.

Because, frankly, stability in the world as it is right now isn’t good enough.
Not good enough for God,
for our souls,
for our bodies – our very physical and fleshy, bloody selves –
or for our community.

And getting from the world as it is to the world God dreams of for us is disruptive, messy, and full of difficult, un-appetizing choices. It requires confronting our failures, over and over, and the failures of those we wanted to trust. Embracing our own responsibility for the suffering of strangers and neighbors. And sacrificing comfort and security for healing and life-giving.

Eating and drinking Jesus – recognizing and loving the gift of life in unappetizing choices – prepares and strengthens us for embracing the gift of life in the difficult and unattractive choices of our common life.
The consequences of declining a mouthful of life-giving blood are slight for a tourist, but monumental for the people of Jesus. Because the life-giving power of this eating and drinking isn’t just for you and me. That life that knows no limits is meant to flow beyond us, to heal the world.

If we were already better at drinking Jesus’ blood, it wouldn’t have taken multiple decades and hundreds of young lives for the cultures of sexual abuse and the protection of predators in elite college sports and the Roman Catholic Church (among others) to be acknowledged and addressed and stopped.

If we were more practiced at eating the meaty flesh Jesus offers, we’d have already made the difficult choices to stop school shootings, and street shootings, and cop shootings.

The actions we have to take, the choices we have to confront, that stand between us and the healing of these cultures of violence, silence, abuse, and the disregard for human life and dignity are even more difficult than a mouthful of blood, or raw flesh.
But Jesus invites us – like the crowds at Capernaum – to start now, and open ourselves today and forever to the life-giving power of the difficult, messy, and gritty,
without sugar-coating, and without fear.

If you’re a little upset right now, or still a little queasy; if this isn’t the sermon you wanted to hear on a damp summer Sunday but you paid attention anyway; if it wasn’t the sermon I wanted to preach on a quiet summer Sunday, but it’s ten minutes too late to change it now; if we’re confronting our discomfort together, and at the same time finding a spoonful of vivid hope….
Then we might just have taken a sip, a small bite, of that blood and flesh Jesus offers: the messy, gritty, chewy life without limits that God wants to share with us so much that it cannot be suppressed.
We might just have sipped a bit of that difficult, unexpected, powerful; abiding, abundant, eternal life, for you, me, us; and for the world.