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.

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