Monday, September 28, 2015

Are you properly seasoned?

Sermon notes for Proper 10B (9/27/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

The Institute of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health recommend a daily mean intake of around 1500 milligrams of sodium, with a maximum of 2300 milligrams. That’s about eight-hundredths of an ounce, or roughly a teaspoonful.

Sustained intake of less sodium than we require could result in something called hyponatremia or low blood sodium. Sodium is a mineral essential for human life, including maintaining the balance of fluid in our bodies, regulating blood pressure, and supporting the nervous system. Not having enough sodium could result in tiredness, headaches, seizures, and comas and, over time, could be fatal. Too little salt can be dangerous.

Most of us, however, are more familiar with our doctors telling us to lay off the salt. Indeed, if you consume too much sodium, you can take on extra weight, become at risk for high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. So, too much salt can also be dangerous.

So, while salt (or sodium) is essential to human life, having either too little or too much is a risk to health and life.

Have you ever seen those cooking competitions where the chefs have to present their food creations to judges. The one criticism I hear the most often is that the food is under-seasoned which, of course, means that there was too little salt. I do wonder if those judges have some sort of deal with Morton’s but under-seasoning or too little salt does make for quite an underwhelming dish. I was always told that if you forget to salt the water for pasta you might as well chuck the whole lot away. Too little salt makes for bland, tasteless food.

But have you ever added to much salt. I once misread a recipe and added ¼ cup of salt and ¼ teaspoon of sugar instead of ¼ teaspoon of salt and ¼ cup of sugar. Those cookies weren’t my best. Too much salt overwhelms and destroys taste.

“She’s the salt of the earth!” You’ve heard that old expression, right? You’ve probably used it about a few people here. (Fran Henry comes to mind.) The saying describes a person who is decent, trustworthy, dependable, and reliable. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus describes his disciples with that same phrase, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).

At the same time, salting the earth is a destructive practice. The book of Judges relates the account of Abimelech quelling a revolt in his own capital city of Shechem:
Abimelech fought against the city all that day; he took the city, and killed the people that were in it; and he razed the city and sowed it with salt. (Judges 9:45)
Legend also tells of the Roman general Scipio plowing the city of Carthage with salt in 146 BCE during the Third Punic Wars and of Pope Boniface VIII doing the same to Palestrina during the crusades of 1299 CE. In sowing the ground with salt the water table below was ruined and nothing would grow on the land.

Salt, you see, is neutral. In itself, it is simply a mineral, neither good nor bad. But, as with most things, it can be used for good or for evil – for sustaining life or ruing it, for flavoring food or destroying it.

Take something with a grain of salt and you make it more palatable. Rub salt in the wound and you cause more pain.

In the ancient world, it was so valuable that the Romans would often pay soldiers with cakes of salt. So, if a solider was “worth his salt,” he would literally be paid accordingly.

Salt was a powerful symbol in colonial India, such that Mohandas Gandhi would use it as a symbol to topple his British overlords. In 1930, the British levied an excise tax on salt in India, a trade for which they also happened to have had a legislated monopoly. In protest, Gandhi began, with seventy-eight others, a peaceful protest – a 240-mile walk from his base near Ahmedabad to the small coastal village of Dandi. Along the 24-day journey, so many others joined that the procession itself was reported to have been some two-hundred miles long. Upon the reaching the coast, Gandhi broke the salt laws, boiling seawater to make the commodity which no Indian could legally make. Picking up the salt, Gandhi proclaimed, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” The act sparked a large scale act of civil disobedience as millions of Indians across India joined in breaking the salt laws. Gandhi and some 80,000 Indians were arrested as a result of the Salt March. While the British failed to offer any concessions at the time, historians note the event as major turning point in the movement for Indian independence, something finally gained in 1947.

Now, it seems that Jesus does not underestimate the value of symbol, image, allegory, and metaphor. As such, his discourse on salt here is packed with nuance and symbolic value. Undoubtedly, there are many paths that we could trod down as we explore the metaphor of salt.

But today, in light of all that is happening around us I would like to offer a brief comment on the metaphor as it applies to the discussion of religion in contemporary society.

We are all too familiar with a religious fervor that is over-salted. We see daily reports of radical fundamentalist using religion to assault others. In our American context, the news feeds focus on the Islamic fundamentalists but Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, Hindu extremists in India, Jewish extremists in Israel, and Christian extremists in America and the West have all over-salted religious fervor to attack and kill other in the name of religion.

But it’s not just those that are killing others, those that we might label extremists. Kim Davis has over-salted her religious conviction to insist on breaking the law by not doing her job, a job her religion does not require her to have. And some not-to-be-named office-seekers have over-salted by insisting that only their religion should be allowed the presidency.

All of these kinds of extreme ideologues who practice this kind of religion suffer from a surplus of salt. And this is very dangerous because it is almost always focused on destroying, demeaning and degrading others. It is the same kind of over-salted religious fervor that brought about the crusades, that ushered in the killings during the reformation, and that allowed colonial proselytizing to undermine native cultures and traditions.

It is dangerous because such ideologues expect others to live into some fictive standard of behavior. They insist that women must obey their husbands, that men should not sleep with men, and that men must not marry the daughter of a foreign God – all of these are abominations in the sight of God. Yet these same will go off to wear clothing of mixed fibers and eat foods modified by cross fertilization. They will sow discord in the community, tell lies, and condone the shedding innocent blood. They will eat their shellfish, dig into the pork tenderloin, and eat meats that were killed more than three days ago. All of which are also abominations according to Holy Writ.

You see, the danger of this over-salting is that we can fail to taste the goodness of the Lord and to really taste what God’s law is really about:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
“ shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18b)
There is a real danger in over-salting, legalizing, and dogmatizing.

Now, fortunately, we Episcopalians are a little more delicate in our seasoning, right? We use a careful language and remain aloof from emotional outbursts. We just try not to get caught up in all that. We rarely suffer from too much salt.

But remember that the other danger, of too little salt is just as much of a risk and it’s the risk that Jesus actually warns his disciples about in the Gospel today. Has our religion fallen into this trap? Have we lost our flavor? Have we become bland?

Recall the book of Revelation, in which John reveals the message to the church at Laodicea:
I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16)
The church became so bland it could not even see its own need. Have we lost our salt and become so bland that we have lost sight of who we are and what we are to be? The church at Laodicea became ineffectual, so callous to human suffering and so cowering before the saber-rattling of the empire of the day that they were lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. This is what can happen to churches that do not stand up, speak up, and act up when human beings are not treated with the dignity due to those who bear the image of God.

We see the over-salted zealots and extremists, saying, “Thank God that’s not us!”

But what of the diet of bland spirituality served at so many altars?

It’s a balance that we must find – just the right amount of salt. It includes taking risks, being willing to allow failure, making mistakes, and trying new things. And it also includes turning around, going back to what works, avoiding hazards, and steering clear of danger.

It’s never-ending and constantly changing. Its Church.

But here, among the faithful, we persevere. Here, among the faithful, we find motivation to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

It is here, among the faithful, that we sprinkle just the right amount of salt:
  • where there is no need to check your conscience at the door.
  • where your intellect is required.
  • where our worship transforms and empowering us to be daring.
  • where our tradition gives us strength and courage.
  • where every part of you is welcome and every hurt can be healed.
  • where salt is used liberally—but not to excess.
It is here, among the faithful – among the carefully seasoned assembly of the faithful – that we find hope, strength, wisdom, and inspiration to be the salt that God has made us to transform ourselves and the world around. Amen.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Blessed are the peacemakers

Sermon notes for Proper 20B (9/20/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

The International Day of Peace was established in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly to coincide with its opening session. It was held annually on the third Tuesday of September for twenty years, from 1982 to 2001.

In 2001, the General Assembly by unanimous vote established that the International Day of Peace would be celebrated annually on September 21st, a day of non-violence and cease-fire.

Now, each year on September 21st, the International Day of Peace is observed around the world. It is a day “devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.” It is a day on which all peoples are invited to cease hostilities, and to otherwise commemorate peace through education, public awareness, prayer, and reflection. Tomorrow, I will accept from Mayor Howard Wiggs a proclamation in which he does “hereby proclaim September 21, 2015 as International Day of Peace in the City of Lakeland,” thus joining tens of thousands of communities from the around the world in so doing.

While the day is particularly focused on international wars and civil violence, the day is also a great time for us to ponder our place in the fostering peace and in the ways that we might have failed.

So, here they are, four ways that we as individual Christians and as Church might be peacemakers.

First, to be peacemakers we must oppose violence and war. This, I suppose, sounds obvious. I have watched religious leaders offer pleas for forgiveness, heard apologies, and seen sincere acts of penance for the so-called “Crusades” to free the Holy Land, for the Catholic/Protestant wars that tore apart 16th century Europe, and for the religiously supported if not induced subjugation of natives peoples.

But we need not go so far back to see where Christians have failed to promote peace and have, in fact, supported war in the name of our God. In the lead up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, there were a great many influential Christian preachers who whipped up support for the war among the faithful, using the name and character of God for their support.
  • Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, affirmed, "God battles with people who oppose him, and fight against him and his followers. So, even though He hates war, God is not against it" (italics added). Using a variety of Old Testament passages and even some form Romans taken completely out of context, Stanley very cleverly insists that we must follow our government to war because “every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God….There whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-2). What about the governing authority against whom we fight? Or is only ours somehow uniquely ordained? Then there is a clearly slanted reading of Luke 6:27-30 in which the other cheek only refers to individuals not to nations to which I must ask, “Is not the nation made up of individuals?” 
  • Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) and Marvin Olasky (editor of the World magazine and former advisor to George W. Bush of “faith-based policy”) suggested that the war could be an opening for Christians, creating “exciting new prospects for proselytizing Muslims.”
  • Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling Left Behind series, saw the Iraq War as "a focal point of end-times events,” suggesting that by the war we might usher in the coming of Christ.
  • A Jerry Falwell article, published in 2004 on, boasts in its title, “God is pro-war.” And while the article affirms near the beginning that “Christians are to be people of peace,” he proceeds to tell us why Christians should support the war in Iraq.
All this to say that Christian leaders have been using the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, to support violence and war for some time. This must stop!

A Muslim imam recently underscored the very centrality of peace-making in the teaching of Jesus and in the biblical vision of the kingdom of God at a conference held at Messiah College, during a talk on the role Islam in achieving world peace. In reflecting on the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, he commented on the nature of peace and role of peace-making in each. In Islam, one finds a mixed witness from the prophet. In the beginning of his career, Muhammad was indeed a pacifist, living by the code of Salema (Arabic for “peace” and root of the word Islam). Later in his life, however, Muhammed would become a soldier. Similarly, there is a great deal of ambiguity in Judaism. The Hebrew Bible features some quite vivid accounts of wars directed by God. In other sections, however, there is a vigorous condemnation of war-making and an equally vigorous charge for peace-making.

The Imam then talked about Christianity, saying that of the three Abrahamic traditions only Jesus was consistent and unequivocal on the demand to be peace-making. The problem is that many Christians don't get it. But Jesus' teachings on this point are crystal clear:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-44)
The apostle Paul picked up the same refrain in his letter to the Romans:
"Repay no one evil for evil . . . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink." (Romans 12:17, 20)
Yes, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Second, to be peacemakers we must seek justice. The Old Testament offers three marks of justice: welcome the stranger and care after the orphan and widow. In other words, God tells his people to look after those with no power of their own, who are weak by their standards and need protection. The Lord once looked after the Hebrews when they were a stranger in a strange land, when their men, young and old, were killed by their Egyptian masters. And such is the charge that God gives to them and the measure by which God measures their fidelity.

Now, to be honest, the New Testament demands are quite a bit more detailed if not stricter. Jesus, the very Son of God, himself grabs a bowl and towel to serve his disciples and reminds us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In his Parable of the Good Samaritan, though, Jesus transforms what it means to be neighbor, insisting that we must care for even our hated enemies. And in Matthew 25, the demands of justice are reiterated – welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick, visit those imprisoned, and cloth the naked.

Will we seek justice and welcome the stranger…
or better yet, 
will we seek solutions to why so many refugees are fleeing to the shores of Europe and why so many seek to cross the Rio Grande, fleeing the violence of Central America that we helped to foster.

Will we seek justice and care for the sick…
or better yet, 
will we provide adequate health care for all, children and mothers and fathers.

Will we seek justice and visit those in prison…
or better yet, 
will we decrease the amount of human beings who are corralled like cattle into our system.

Will we seek justice and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked…
or better yet, 
work to fix a system that marginalizes its workers, aim to provide living wages, and seek to care for those who are unable to care for themselves.
"Blessed are you for you cared for me, for I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was in prison and you came to visit me, I was homeless and you gave me shelter." And his disciples said, "When did we do any of those things for you?" And he said, "If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me."
ENABLE OTHERS TO FLEE VIOLENCEThird, to be peacemakers we must let people know that they do not have to live in violence and enable them to flee it. I am, of course, imagining with the rest of you the heart-rending stories of those fleeing from Syria, seeking refuge in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

But its not just about those who are fleeing the bombs of Assad and the beheadings of ISIL. We must remind everyone that they do not have to live with violence.:
  • Those suffering in domestic violence, at the hands of someone that claims love.
  • Those suffering hatred and fear because of the color of their skin.
  • Those suffering bigotry based on their sexual orientation.
  • Those suffering discrimination because of their gender.
It is our responsibility to let them know that they do not have to live in violence. And then must help them escape that violence. Today is not the time to outline the answers though a time will come and soon that this church must do just that. So let’s start with a few questions for our own reflection:
  • How do we help people escape violence?
  • When we see people living in violence do we challenge the perpetrators? When we see hatred and bigotry do we name the source and call it to repentance?
  • Do we work to change the institutions that perpetuate violence in all its forms?
Fourth, to be peacemakers we must preach a message of peace and welcoming. From the start, then, our church must be a place of refuge for all who come. Do we truly welcome everyone to the sacramental life of the church? Is our table set, awaiting those who come or are some excluded because they look different, act different, love different, or think different? And is the fountain of baptism accessible to all who come or is it restricted to those who will “fit in” or are “most like us?”

Likewise, our words need to match our sacramental actions. We need to stop preaching with words that bully. In other words, we need to stop using hell to scare people into faith and, for that matter, its corollary, the promise of heaven. Both are scare tactics, bullying words that belie our faith that is borne out of love.

In the section of the letter of James that we heard today, James instructs,
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will craw near to you.
Indeed, resist the devil – resist evil – resist violence, and it will flee from you. Draw near to God – draw near to peace and it will draw near to you.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Are you ready to be sent?

Sermon notes for Proper 19B (9/13/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Have you ever made soup? It’s a simple process, really.

  1. Simmer water or stock or cream with some spices and herbs.
  2. Add something to give it its character: vegetables, mushrooms, tomatoes, chicken and wild rice, beef and barley, clams and potatoes.
  3. Allow it all to simmer together, blending the flavors as it cooks.

Lest I offend the real cooks out there, I know it’s not really that easy to make a good soup. One thing that I have learned about soup or chowder, however, is that during the cooking process you have stir the pot. If you don’t stir the pot all the ingredients settle to the bottom. If those ingredients settle and remain there too long they will burn, becoming charred, bitter, and useless in the soup.

I hope that you noticed that we have an addition to our Bema this week. The Reverend Raymond William Perica was ordained to the diaconate yesterday at the Cathedral Church of Saint Luke by the Right Reverend Gregory O. Brewer, Bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida. It was quite the ceremony – with lots of circumstance and, as the cathedral does so well, just the right amount of pomp.

During his sermon, Bishop Brewer addressed those about to be ordained, challenging them to “stir us up.” The bishop challenged the new deacons to stir those of us who might have become complacent, who might have fallen asleep in the institution (especially the bishops and priests). He challenged the deacons to fulfill the demands of their ordination, made explicit in bishop’s examination of the candidates,
As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God's Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself. . (BCP 543)
I think that the bishop’s message to the deacons, as well as this examination, might be readily applied to all of us. After all, Ray’s ordination to the diaconate was not for him alone. While Ray’s ordination signifies Ray’s special attachment to the bishop in the task of diokonia or service, the sacramental character of the ordination demonstrates a similar notion of service for the rest of us. While Ray’s ordination marked him with the imprint of Christ as the servant of all, a similar notion is found in the baptismal mark of all the baptized faithful. In other words, Ray’s ordination was and will continue to be a sacramental sign – a visible sign of God’s presence in the community of faith, a model of sorts calling us to the very life of service into which Ray was consecrated.

So what might this mean today. Among many other tasks, the deacon is instructed,
You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God's Word and Sacraments… (BCP 543)
As I reflected on this part of the examination, four particular liturgical moments stand out as uniquely diaconal, primary liturgical roles that stand as expression s of the deacon’s ministry.

  • The deacon proclaims the Gospel.
  • The deacon leads the Prayers of the People.
  • The deacon sets the altar, the table of the Lord.
  • The deacon dismisses the people, sending them out into the world.

The deacon is charged with proclaiming the Gospel. Notice, in the liturgy practiced here at Saint David’s, the deacon takes the Book of Gospels from the altar and processes it amongst the gathered assembly, proclaiming it in the midst of the people. The Gospel is taken from its stand, from its place of rest, and brought out. It is then proclaimed – not read or recited but proclaimed – for all to hear. This liturgical action of proclamation, particularly when added to the movement of the Gospel, is a beautiful reflection of the deacon’s task of taking the Good News of God in Jesus Christ to the world.

The task of taking the Good News and proclaiming the story of God’s love is not for the deacon alone. Assuredly, Ray will be a great example of such proclamation, carrying out the task with the earnestness that it deserves. But such a task must not just be left unto the deacon. Indeed not, it must be for all of God’s people, all of the baptized faithful, to share the Good News. The people are asked during the Baptismal Covenant, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” The people respond, “I will, with God’s help” (BCP 304). Just like the deacon, all the baptized are called upon to take up the Gospel – the Good News – the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ, carrying it out amongst the people with whom we live and work, study and play. We are to proclaim the message for all to hear: “God loves you. God loves each and every one of you, with all your faults, in all your differences, with all your brokenness. Jesus beckons, ‘Come, follow me.’”

The deacon is charged with leading the Prayers of the People. In so doing, the deacon reflects the particular demand to “interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” From the start, this means that the deacon must know the needs of the world. As such, Ray must engage himself with the world, discovering the needs, hopes, and desires of the community in which we find ourselves. Ray must then interpret those discoveries for the church so that we might respond. Ray’s leading the congregation in prayer is a sign of such a response.

The task of engaging the world and bearing it up in prayer cannot be the deacon’s alone. Like carrying the Gospel, I am sure that Ray will be a great example as he responds in prayer to the needs of the world. But all of the baptized faithful and all of us who worship here must also be engaged with the world, responding in prayer as needed. Prayer, however, is just the first fruit of our response – a righteous first fruit but only a start. The church’s response must be one of complete service, particularly among “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely” (BCP 543). Bishop Brewer used an apt image for the Ministry of Deacon, indeed for all ministry, when he told us to do as Jesus did and take up a bowl and a towel. So it is that Jesus beckons, “Come, follow me.”

The deacon is charged with setting the altar, the table of the Lord. In setting the table, the deacon models the very servanthood which the title deacon bestows. It is important to understand that the setting of the table is not just about the Eucharistic celebration. Don’t get me wrong, setting the altar for the celebration of Holy Eucharist is important. It is a vital ritual act that makes ready the table for people to approach the throne of grace. It makes ready the table on which the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ will be made present. It is a vital ritual act that signifies the deep and wonderful welcoming of God for all who come to the table of the Lord. As we make know in our bulletin,
This is the table of the Lord. It is made ready for those who love God and for those who want to love God more. So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have been here often and you who have not been here long, you who have tried to follow and you who have failed. Come, because it is the Lord who invites you. It is God’s will that all who want God should meet God here.
But the setting of the altar is about more than just the Eucharistic celebration. It reflects the deacon’s charge to “make Christ and his redemptive love known” to all whom they encounter. The task of preparing the table for Eucharist is symbolic of preparing the church to be a welcoming body for all who might come.

Such it is that the task of preparing the church is not the deacon’s alone. Like carrying the Gospel and responding to people’s needs, Ray will be a tremendous example of preparing the church to be a place of radical welcome. But all of us who call ourselves Christian must be engaged in such preparation so that we might be free and able to welcome all who come to us calling upon the name of God. I was once chastised for using the term “radical” as a descriptor for “welcome” because it might “confuse us with the Muslims.” But I stand by the adjective, demanding that its use is not only proper but needed. Welcoming must be radical, it must be the “root” of who we are and what our mission is about. In setting the altar, the deacon becomes an example to us who must set our hearts and our church to welcome, fully and openly, without reservation and with no conditions, those who come.
Saint David’s is a reconciling, affirming, and inclusive Christian community striving through worship, love, and service to welcome all people just as God created you.
No matter your step on the journey or place in the story: our welcome knows no boundaries of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, culture, gender, economic condition, physical or mental ability, or age.
We believe that God delights in the diversity of creation and so do we!
The deacon is charged with dismissing the people. Through the dismissal, the deacon sends those who have gathered to engage in their mission of proclaiming the Gospel, responding to the needs of the world, and welcoming all into the life of God.

Deacon Ray [speaking directly to Deacon Ray],
In your ordination the bishop asked you,
“My brother, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life an work of a deacon?” 
I heard you respond, “I believe I am so called.”
So, are you ready now to fulfill your duty at Saint David's - to stir us up? Are you ready to be among us at Saint David’s to proclaim the Gospel? Are ready to lead this parish in prayers? Are you prepared to welcome all you come?

Are you ready to send us out?

Friends [speaking to the congregation],
Are you ready now to fulfill your duty here as the baptized faithful – to stir up this church and this community?
Are you ready to proclaim the Gospel?
Are you ready to respond in prayer and with other means to the needs of the world?
Are you prepared to welcome all you come?

Are you ready to be sent?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Gospel Is a Verb

Sermon notes for Proper 18B (9/6/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

There is an old Turkish parable about an old, wise man named Nasrettin Hoca. On his way home from a day in the fields, Hoca stops to help an old widow deal with a stubborn goat. In his dealings with the goat, as you might imagine, Hoca becomes quite dirty and muddy, taking on the appearance and the smell of the goat. (And goats, as a rule, do not smell nice.) Now, at the time of his stopping to lend assistance, Hoca was on his way home to change for a magnificent feast to which he was specially invited. But now Hoca would not have time to go home and change if he wanted to arrive at the feast on time. “It would be rude,” he said to himself, “to arrive late.” So Hoca went to the feast in his patched and dirty and goat-smelly coat. But when he arrives, everyone ignores him and he is offered no food.

So Hoca decides to go home, clean himself, and change his clothes. Donning a marvelous, linen coat with silk lining and golden thread, Hoca returns to the feast. He is welcomed in grand style and offered the tastiest of food.

Suddenly, Hoca begins to put food inside of his coat, saying, “Eat, coat, eat.” He puts food in the seams and in the pockets, “Eat, coat, eat.”

A steward sees him. Going to the host he says, “There is a strange old man over there putting food in coat, in the seams and the pockets, saying to himself, ‘Eat, coat, eat.’

The host then goes over to Hoca to inquire about what he is doing. Hoca responds, “When I came earlier in my old coat I was given nothing but when I came in this different coat I was offered an abundance of food. I merely assumed that you, most kind host, felt that this coat must be hungry.”

Everyone at the feast laughed at themselves, praising Nasrettin Hoca for his great wisdom.

(I have paraphrased the parable here and, admittedly, embellished it in places. A well told version of the parable can be found in the children’s book, The Hungry Coat: A Tale from Turkey, by Demi)

At the outset of the Gospel narrative today the good news might be hard to find. The lesson begins with a woman dismissed by Jesus – rough treatment for one in need from one we are not accustomed to seeing such treatment from. Maybe against the Pharisees or the money-changers at the temple but not rough treatment against a poor woman with a daughter in need. But Jesus was a real man, a human person with real feelings and in the story today Jesus would have a real moment of conversion. His understanding of what he was called to do changed. His mission expanded because he listened to a gentile woman’s challenge. And from that moment, he journeyed on, keeping up with the work of healing, feeding, and teaching.

We don’t learn much of Jesus’ motivations from the Gospel of Mark because the energy of Mark’s narrative is on the actions of Jesus. We are not privy to Jesus’ thoughts only to what he said and did. Jesus just picks up and keeps working tirelessly to demonstrate the Kingdom of God. Yes, it seems that the Gospel is a verb: heal, exorcise, teach, listen, touch, feed, reach across boundaries, make God’s love real in people’s lives.

This is not just good news, friends. This is extraordinary news. God wants us to be whole whatever our circumstances. Jesus woke up to this reality when confronted by the Syro-Phoenician woman, and he never looked back.

Now, there are two parts to God’s desire for us and the world to be made whole. The first is that God’s love is generous and abundant, boundless and accessible to all. The second part is that we, who already know and are a part of the story, are called to enact the gospel, to demonstrate the gospel, and to live the gospel as a verb.

The author of the letter of James emphasizes this point well: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, I dead.” This author had apparently seen far too many people claim that their belief was enough while they watched the poor and the outcast be cast away in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.

There is really no mistaking James’s message. He is quite clear that faith can only be seen in what we do. The gospel is a verb. “Don’t tell me what you believe,” wrote the late Verna Dozier, ”tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”

When confronted by the Syro-Phoenician woman, a person from outside his comfort zone, Jesus did not retreat to the hills or call a church Synod to study whether they should be welcomed. No, Jesus shifted and enlarged his understanding on the spot. He welcomed her into the fullness of God’s love.

Jesus and James challenge us to move from the narrow to the broad, to understand that God’s love is for everyone and that we are agents of that love for everyone. To be agents of God’s love does not mean that we develop halos and a saintly patience (after all, the halos that we pretend to wear might just slip around our necks and choke us). It does mean, however, that we must act as though the Gospel is a verb.

The gospel life calls us to lives full of verbs: pray, worship, give, rejoice, thank, encourage, listen, offer, heal, remember, imagine, share, rest, love. But some verbs are not welcome, according to Jesus and the letter of James: judge, reject, exclude, limit, hoard, forget, despair.

So look around yourselves. Look around yourselves here and now. Look around yourselves in your neighborhoods, at your workplaces, in the markets. Look around yourselves when you are with family and friends and when you are amongst strangers. Where is a gospel verb needed? What incomplete sentences surrounds you? Who is hungry? Who is lost? Who is hurt? What verb can you be?

We have all been given gifts that we are capable of sharing. You can teach someone to knit. You can cook a meal. You can visit with someone. You can lift heavy things. You can help someone support a heavy burden. You can listen. You can offer wisdom. You can change your community. All you have to do is decide that you are a gospel verb.