Sunday, October 4, 2015

Puppies and Divorce

Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Francis.  It is very tempting to just preach on the awesomeness of animals and tell some of the strange stories about the life of Saint Francis.  But the very thing that makes the Gospel today so unwelcoming to preach on, is the very reason I think we need to take a closer look at what it has to say.

This beginning part of this Gospel has been used as a weapon to shame other people so many times that it has become one of the more dreaded passages found in all three of the synoptic Gospel.  The statement by Jesus about marriage has been used to condemn the marriage of same-sex couples and his comments about remarriage have been used to condemn people who do get divorced and remarry.  But was this really Jesus Christ’s intention when he answered the Pharisees’ question?  Or perhaps Jesus had something far more important to say about what the Kingdom of God truly looks like.
Let me start by making what I hope is an obvious point that, while there were certainly homosexuals in the ancient world, there was not anything like same-sex marriage, truly there was not anything like modern marriage, period.

In Jewish law, in the ancient world, a man is allowed to divorce his wife and issue a certificate of dismissal.  In Ancient Jewish custom it was only the man who was allowed to initiate a divorce.  And let’s be clear, this is not divorce like any we see in our country today.  There were no lawyers or alimony: divorce was much more akin to being fired from a job than a modern divorce.  And this could be done at any time, for any reason.  This is why Jesus tells the Pharisees that it is only due to their hardness of hearts that they were allowed to do dismiss their wives, but the certificate would allow her to marry again.  That certificate was all the woman would leave the marriage with, she would be without any safety net or legal recourse. 

This is what Jesus stands opposed to, the abandonment of a wife by her husband.  What may sound unreasonably harsh to our modern ears changes its tone when we understand that Jesus desired to point out the injustice and cruelty of treating a child of God - a person created in God's image - as if she were a possession to be discarded on a selfish whim. 

But Jesus takes this a step further in his later discussion with the disciples.  He states that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." This is one of those saying of Jesus that sounds so definitive, so absolute that it can cause real anxiety in the heart of a person who takes the Gospels seriously.  It is not unlike when Jesus said to pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin, or when in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says that even looking at another person with lust is adultery.  These sayings are of the sort that seem to set the bar for discipleship so unbelievably high that we could not possibly get over it.  But they are also sayings that point to the Kingdom of God.
It is so tempting to want to turn what Jesus says into a new ‘law’ regarding divorce and remarriage.  But I truly think that would miss the point of what Jesus is trying to say.  

Marriage and divorce are things that we should most certainly take seriously, but we live in an imperfect world, where divorce is not always about abandoning one’s spouse, but can be about much deeper issues.

Anyone who has been divorced can attest to the trauma that it causes.  Even the most amicable of divorces can leave a person feeling like a failure.  But can any of us really say that Jesus would want us to stay in relationships that are emotionally or physically abusive, or even relationships that cause such unhappiness that the people involved become bitter and cynical?  There are times when divorce seems like the only way to maintain one’s own person-hood, but it is far from the ideal. 

Ideals are what Jesus proclaims, not as a way to shame, but to encourage us to strive for the Kingdom of God where relationships of all sorts are fueled by unconditional love and forgiveness and are not broken by our pride or selfishness or pain.  In the Kingdom of God we are able to fully honor the image of God in others and ourselves. 

Jesus seems to change the subject at the end of today’s passage, but Mark never puts stories side by side accidentally.  And what looks like a shift in topic is actually the conclusion, necessary to understanding all that Jesus says before.

In these final verses people try to bring children to be blessed by Jesus. But the disciples try to keep the children away, rebuking the people who are bringing them.  Children, like women, were barred from participation in the synagogues and perhaps the disciples saw them in this light, intruders into the arena of adult men conversing with their teacher.  Jesus does not see the children in this way, and says, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  In the ancient world children were defined, NOT by their innocence, but by their complete lack of status.  Not only were they totally dependent, but they were without rights or a say in the course of their own young lives.  It is to people like this that the Kingdom of God belongs, such people do not press their will upon others, such children are free of status and power and therefore do not use their power to abuse, cheat or kill.  Children lack the pride that cuts into relationships, that severs marriages and prevents us from having forgiveness. 

People who do not hide behind pride or status, power or money, that is what people in the Kingdom of God look like.  It is almost too strange to imagine, but we all are marked by God’s image and therefore citizens of God’s Kingdom, but our true natures have been distorted by pride and selfishness.  The things in this world that cause us so much pain, that cause us to inflict pain on each other, these are the things that distort God’s image within us.  It is not our mistakes and failures that prevent us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven, it is our pride that keeps us at arms length both from each other and from God.  Our desire to be independent and completely self-reliant blind us to wonders of our very existence, from the forces that hold our very atoms together, to all the things that had to line up just right, just to get us to this moment, to the sheer overwhelming vastness of the universe in which we live – the control we think we should have and are always grasping for, and having anxiety over – it is not real.  And the realization and acceptance of that brings us true freedom, the acceptance that we are not really in control and that we don’t need to be, allows us to turn our attention to more important matters like love and gratitude and forgiveness.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that I would not be talking about Dogs and Cats today, but I can’t help but point out that the opportunities they afford us to see and practice the Kingdom of God.  Our pets, have no real status in our culture.  They cannot advocate for themselves, and they rely on their owners completely for food and shelter.  They provide us with an image of what it looks like to be without pride, animals never strive to be anything other than themselves.  They are bound to us by their need for us and their love. 

But more importantly, with them we are given an opportunity to see what it feels like to let OUR guards down, to at least for a little while, feel the release that comes with letting go of our pride and our need to control the world around us.  Our animal friends give us the opportunity to love unconditionally and in that we get to experience Joy.  A Joy not unlike what is waiting for us in God’s Kingdom.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

September 27 Sermon: The Super Secret She-Ra Club

Sermon Preached on September 27, 2015 at Saint Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood

Mark 9:38-50

When I was a child I loved making secret and exclusive clubs.  I don’t think any of the clubs me and my friends made had any particular purpose, but there were certain things our clubs always had: a list of rules, a secret password, and a very limited membership.

As children, somewhere along the way, I think that we become very aware that there is value in exclusivity, that a group is only worth something if we can point at something else and say “that is NOT part of us!”  This notion of exclusivity follows us through our adolescence, straight into adulthood.  We join fraternities or societies, we pledge allegiance to countries and constitutions, and these often come with clear guidelines that keep out the riffraff.  On one hand, these groups allow us to create close bonds with likeminded people, and allow groups to focus their energies on a common goal.  And as the president and founding member of the Super Secret She-Ra Club, I can tell you that it feels pretty powerful to be part of an exclusive secret society.

But what happens when we apply that same attitude to being Christians?  The church community can be a very tight knit group, brought together, not just to share common interests, but to be Christ’s body in the world.  This is a huge responsibility, and this idea alone can cause tension between who is seen as in, and who is seen as out.  And this is further complicated by different beliefs surrounding liturgy, music, politics, language - ideas that seem so important sometimes that for centuries Christians have divided themselves over their importance.

In this morning’s Gospel it is clear that the disciples hold a very particular view about what it means to be part of the ‘Jesus club’, and not just anyone is a member. 
What we hear today is a continuation of a much larger conversation between Jesus and his disciples about what it means to truly follow Christ.  You may remember that last week Jesus told them that he was going to be killed, but would be raised again in three days.   But the disciples didn’t understand and instead they started to discuss their own greatness.   Jesus began gently trying to change their perspectives by putting a child in their midst and telling them to focus not on the greatest, but on the least among them.

For some reason, the disciples took this opportunity to tell Jesus how they tried to stop someone who was not a member of their group from casting out Demons in his (Jesus’) name.  It seems perfectly reasonable that they would be concerned about outsiders doing things in the name of Jesus.  Jesus had power, and through him the disciples had been given power too.  They were not comfortable with the idea of other people who were not with them using the power of Jesus’ name.  They had a responsibility to protect the Jesus brand.  But when they tell Jesus about the outsider, he doesn’t seem to be quite as concerned about the situation, in fact he tells the disciples to let others use his name for good, and that “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Jesus does not seem to care about maintaining the boundaries around his group.  Once again showing the disciples that human notions about power and belonging are not important to Christ.  Being a disciple is to see past these human endeavors, these human priorities and focus instead on the ideals of heaven.

Jesus goes on with a list of sayings that seem to be a bit disconnected from his point, but are essential to the overarching theme of what it means to be a disciple.  Quickly the rhetoric of Jesus becomes much more intense when he says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  Jesus turns the concerns of the disciples around on them making it clear that they should each be more concerned about the results of their own actions, and that if their concerns for glory or status cause someone else to fall, then they better wish they had never been born.  This is a pretty extreme declaration for Jesus to make.  But we know, and many here perhaps have experienced, how the actions and values of some who identify as Christian can drive people away from knowing the love of God.

Thomas Merton expressed this well when he wrote:
Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God: for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and selfishness that have chilled his faith.

Being a disciple to Christ is a great responsibility, not just to ourselves and to God, but to each other.  We must learn to see each as God sees us, not divided up into groups based on nationality or political party, but as people just struggling to find our way, people who do not need more burdens or roadblocks.  This is what we take on when we choose to follow Christ.  Ours is the responsibility of inviting others in, rather than keeping them out.  Ours is the responsibility of removing obstacles and sharing burdens. 

When Jesus talks about cutting off our hands and feet rather than being thrown going into hell, as you might have gathered, he was being metaphorical.  But the truth is that we have difficult decisions to make about our lives and how we choose to live them, and it can feel as if we are cutting off limbs when we deny our anger, our jealousy or our want.  Sometimes when we have to choose between Jesus and country, or Jesus and politics, or Jesus and any earthly allegiances, choosing Jesus can seem like the most difficult decision in the world. 

Jesus does not ask this of his disciples, of us, because he wants to make life hard, he does it because he wants to make our lives more meaningful than we ever thought was possible.  He wants us to allow the barriers between ourselves and the love of God to be removed.  Because in that love, in God’s love, is true and lasting peace.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Mark 1:9-15

Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we hear about the time Jesus spends in the wilderness.  But today’s Gospel moves at breakneck speed and if you blink you may miss those forty days in the wilderness entirely. In a few short sentences Jesus is brought on the scene, baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  He then immediately reemerges 40 days later to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Though quite a bit of time passes, 40 days to be exact, we are not given very much information about what actually happens in that time.
The Gospel according to Matthew and Luke spell out the sort of temptations that Satan places before Jesus, but Mark does not let us in on what was said or done by Satan and so we are left wondering just how Satan tormented Jesus.
But there are three things that Mark does tell us.  We are told that Satan tempted Jesus, that Jesus was with the wild beasts and that Angels ministered to him.  Jesus then comes out of the wilderness, presumably victorious over Satan because he immediately proclaims the kingdom of God.
With so little to go on we know that there is no detail given that isn’t important, and in this short account of Jesus’ time in the wilderness we are shown the nature of Jesus and his relationship both to this world and the next.  Throughout the Gospel of Mark we will see these little details of Jesus played out more fully.  When Mark places Jesus among the wild beasts of the wilderness he is placing him among all the qualities of wildness as well.  Throughout the Gospel Jesus is the wild beast who refuses to be domesticated by conventional religious practices or social norms.  Like the wild beasts in the wilderness, Jesus lived free.  He would not be caged by Satan or by people.  This description of Jesus being with the wild beasts reminds me of Aslan from the Narnia stories written by C.S. Lewis who is described as “Not a tame lion, but he is good.”  Jesus too, was certainly good but not tame.   
The season of lent is modeled on the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and during this time we are asked to face temptation, to look in our selves and see how we are letting ourselves be caged, letting ourselves be domesticated by sin.  The wilderness is about finding the strength to accept the awesome power of our own free will and not enslaving ourselves to temporary desires, to the riches of this world or to the small comforts that domestication brings.
What do I mean when I talk about Freedom?  We generally think of freedom in a couple different ways.  We think of freedom in terms of having nothing impinge on our ability to do something, like the freedom of speech.  Or we imagine that freedom means not being forced to do anything we don’t want to do where no outside force can control us against our will.  There is also freedom which refers to having the means to accomplish our desires, this is freedom given to us by having opportunity or currency by which we can pursue our goals.
But these usual definitions are too small to describe the kind of freedom that we are called to by God.  The freedom that Christ lived and showed us in his life was freedom that did not rely on the cooperation of an outside power.  The freedom of Christ is not limited by tyranny or economic hardship, but rather when we possess the freedom of Christ we are given the strength to stand up against tyranny, and to cope with economic difficulty.  Jesus was still free even when he was taken captive before his death, even on the cross.  The freedom that is offered to us in the life of Christ is a spiritual freedom, a freedom to see the world as it is, in all its sinfulness and beauty.  The freedom of Christ is a liberated mind and spirit where we are not controlled by our physical wants or fears.  It is a liberty exemplified by the life of Christ but is also a liberty that we must constantly strive for as Christians. 
I think most people, when asked if they would rather be free or enslaved, they would say they desire freedom.  But I also think that most people, myself included, don’t really take into account just how hard freedom really is.  Like the Israelites travelling through the wilderness for forty years, when we see how difficult true freedom is, we start to long for the security that being a slave brings.  It is amazing how much we are willing to sacrifice for simple comforts and illusions of security.
I point this out because Lent is as good a time as any to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are actually settling for something less than actual freedom.  Thomas Merton said in an interview with Forbes magazine “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”  God’s love comes freely to us and cannot come apart from true freedom.  How often do we settle for too little, how often do we settle for smaller love, love that doesn’t require us to be free?  Too often we are bound by fear and like an animal in captivity we have let ourselves become comforted by our chains.  We spend too much time being afraid and Fear creates a world of scarcity, not enough food, not enough faith, not enough will.  But Jesus, the incarnate God made man, swings wide our cage doors because he is God’s abundance, abundant love, abundant Grace, abundant life. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

In Celebration of Martin Luther King

Our Gospel passage today comes from ‘the sermon on the plain’ found in Luke.  It is a passage that expresses noble and good sentiments, but I would imagine we also think these sentiments are impractical and out of touch with the way the world really is.  But of course that is the point.  The path that Jesus sets out for us is not an easy one, it goes against the grain of the very best of us.  For me it automatically makes me imagine how these words of Christ about peace can be misunderstood as excuses for allowing yourself or others to continue to be misused, or abused at the hands of someone more powerful.  But these are merely excuses because there is a big difference between not returning hurt for hurt, and apathy in the face of abuse.  There was never anything apathetic about the way in which Jesus lived.  When Jesus ‘turned the other cheek’ it was done out of courage, not out of fear.  Nothing about Jesus’ ministry was particularly passive, what Jesus did was illuminate another path beyond violence or apathy, a path of true selfless action.  The path of the cross.
The coming of Christ into the world makes a difference.  The incarnation of God into human history makes all the difference in the way we respond to other people.
Today we are celebrating the life and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr.  Throughout his career as a leader in the civil rights movement Martin Luther King came up against opposition, not just from abject racists but from moderates who, while they agreed with Dr. King in principle about segregation, did not like seeing the disruption of the status quo by protests.  When Dr. King went to Birmingham and led non-violent direct action protests against segregation, he was blamed for the violence precipitated by his peaceful protests, and the violence of other protestors not associated with King.  White moderates could not understand why King could not wait for justice to happen in a way that was less disruptive; they could not understand why King couldn’t work through the courts and not disrupt the everyday life of the town of Birmingham. 
It is easy, I think, to tell someone else that they have to wait for justice when you already have that justice for yourself.  We do not want to give up our own privilege, our own comforts.
But I think it is pretty clear in today’s Gospel that Jesus does not want us to get too comfortable in the life we are living, because it is not the life we are called to.  Our instincts tell us that we must protect our own comforts, our own privilege at all costs.  Our instincts tell us ‘to do unto others as they do to you,’ that an eye for an eye is justice.  Perhaps it is part of our genetic make-up, part of our instinct for survival, but thankfully we are not ruled by our instincts, human-beings have the very real ability to self regulate, to do something despite what our baser selves are telling us to do. 
We may not have particularly pleasant feelings towards our enemies.  We may not want to give our cloak, much less our shirt.  We may not want to turn the other cheek, but that really doesn’t matter because to Jesus, love is not merely a feeling or emotion.  Love is action.  How we feel inside means so much less than how we express those feelings in the world.  There was never anything passive about what Jesus did in his life or calls us to do in ours.  We are not asked to just roll over and be abused, but to react to injustice in our own lives and others in a new way.
Our desire not to sacrifice too much is certainly strong, but Jesus calls us out past our discomfort, past our sense of justice, past our sense of what is fair, what we believe can be expected within a civilized society.  But imagine what the world would be like if those of us who called ourselves Christian actually lived our lives in this way?
Before he was killed Dr. King had expanded his efforts to include issues of poverty and class injustice, because he knew that Issues of inequality and injustice would not be solved merely with the introduction of anti-discrimination laws.  It is just not that simple, there is something within human society, perhaps even within our very nature, that fears the changes that lead to greater inclusion and a more even distribution of power.  Issues of race, gender, religion and sexuality are all issues that make us terribly uncomfortable, they are topics that are generally avoided in small talk, and depending on which side of an issue we stand, they are topics we would really like to forget about.  But as Christians we cannot ignore the troubles of people around us.  We must demand justice, not for ourselves, but for our struggling neighbors, we must not look at our enemies as obstacles but must learn to see the world as God sees it.  God is not blind to the pain we cause each other, God does not ignore the atrocities committed throughout the world.  God knows our selfishness and our laziness, God knows our hate and our jealousy.  But God loves us all the same.
The Rule for Christians is not ‘Do as you would want done,’ but ‘Do as God would do’  If we are to call ourselves Christians then we are meant to rock the boat, to love more by giving more, forgiving more, having more mercy, even to those that we believe don’t deserve it.
Today’s Gospel expresses quite a radical way to live.  Radical love, Radical peace, Radical sacrifice.  It is a complete turning inside out of the way in which we deal with each other.  There is a parable of sorts that was first told by a Rabbi.  It goes like this:
 There once was a man who had a near death experience.
An escort meets him at the boundary of hereafter and with a welcoming smile says, “You’re not ready yet friend; you still have another chance. But you’ll return soon, so let me show you what goes on here on the other side.”
Together they enter a great hall where a long candle-lit banquet table is laden with bowls of steaming, fragrant soups, succulent roasts, perfectly cooked vegetables, aromatic loaves of bread, the finest of wines, fruits of every kind, and a dazzling array of cakes and pies. Diners fill every chair, but shockingly, amid luxurious bounty, the scene is one of pain and anguish. Skeletal forms are twisted and moaning in starvation, with barely the strength to strike at each other with their spoons.
Looking closer, the man sees that all spoons have long handles—longer than the diners’ arms; too long for the diners to feed themselves. “So this is Hell,” gasps our Friend. “Anger and misery amid abundance. Where’s the Devil?” “Evil resides in the hearts of men,” says Escort, “But, come, let me show you something else.”
The two enter another great hall. And in that hall there is another long, candle-lit banquet table, covered with a similar incredible spread of delicious foods, drinks and sweets. Here the sounds of laughter, chatter and song fill the hall while healthy and happy diners are enjoying the company and the bounty before them.
They, too, have long spoons, but they are feeding each other.
“And this,” the Escort tells our Friend, “is heaven.”
The difference between Heaven and Hell is paper thin, and yet heaven requires a radical change in our lives.
When we hear the word extremist it only ever has bad connotations.  The extremists we hear about are murderers who use God as an excuse for their crimes. 
But Martin Luther King Jr. was also called an extremist and while he was at first surprised, even offended, in his letter from Birmingham Jail Dr. King had something interesting to say about extremism and he had some questions for the religious leaders of Birmingham, questions that 50 years later we too need to ask ourselves:
Martin Luther King wrote these words: “As I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice? -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist? -- "Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God." Was not John Bunyan an extremist? -- "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience." Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? -- "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

 Long Spoon Parable Source: