Compelled By Love

(A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost B–September 2, 2012–Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

He’s seven years old, and his hands are not always clean. I could say it about almost any seven-year-old I know. But this one is special to me, and when he climbed up beside me on the sofa with his mama’s iPod Touch, inviting me to play Tic-Tac-Toe, I had to be careful not to show my delight. And I had to be careful not to show my dismay at the smudgy surface of the electronic device we were about to share.

My grown-up sons were once that age, and I remember wondering how they managed to acquire a layer with the texture of fine silt. Our standards for cleanliness clearly differed, despite my motherly efforts to indoctrinate them in the ways of civilization. We all have expectations and traditions we hand down from one generation to another, and the expression “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” is a trope for a reason. Keeping things clean turns out to be a smart, evolutionary protection against disease.

And in this era of hand sanitizer, or what another little boy I know calls “Hanitizer,” we’ve all got our guard up against infection. We hold tense discussions about how and whether to serve Communion during flu season. We keep the Holy Hanitizer near the Table and watch as the pastors appear to consecrate their hands before they bless the bread and cup.

I’m not making fun of this. As the person who looks at the glass before she puts water in it, whether it came out of the home dishwasher or the church dishwasher, and who will send a dirty glass back in a restaurant, I hope you will accept my credentials as a person who cares about hygiene.

Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus was talking about anyway.

We can tell from the parenthetical nature of verses 3 and 4 that the gospel writer didn’t much care about the details of the dispute. He knew his audience would be unfamiliar with Jewish practices and gave them just enough to go on, to perhaps make the conclusion of the story comprehensible.

It may sound like Jesus is saying that human rules about cleanliness don’t matter, because nothing can contaminate us on the way in…but those of us who have eaten something that made us ill or caught a virus of any kind will know that’s not a literal truth. Jesus is not running down a practice because the practice is in itself wrong, but because it represents a way of life that misses the message about our relationship with God.

Imagine a community where the rules matter more than the people, where the rules favor people with the leisure time or the domestic help to perform every detail laid down by the authorities.

Imagine a community where the law is the law because it’s always been done a certain way, and that was good enough for our grandparents, so we don’t need to know why!

Imagine almost every human community, anywhere and anytime.

We are creatures of habit and hierarchy, we human beings, and although every generation has its revolutionaries, on the whole we like to see things stay comfortably familiar, even when we are not the ones who enforce the code of conduct.

This is especially true in churches.

We don’t know what led to this encounter in Mark’s gospel. Perhaps Jesus and his friends had gotten a reputation for not keeping to the hand-washing codes. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees set out to trap them in their non-compliance. Somebody, somewhere, noticed and told on them. The religious leaders have come to challenge him for being different, for not being a slave to their rules, for compelling by love rather than controlling by laws.

And while we may want to identify with the disciples, the very location where we sit on a Sunday morning—in the pew we’ve always used, maybe even for generations in one family, right?—suggests we are more like the Pharisees, the religious establishment. It can feel comforting to control our surroundings, to know where everyone belongs and that everything is in its place.

In the first church I served, there was an argument over serving Communion by intinction. A Deacon insisted we must serve juice in little cups because that was the way Jesus did it. We don’t have to do things one way for long before it becomes the only way. And when someone asks why, we often do not want to answer, because we often do not know.

Bruce H tells me that in his childhood church, no one walked directly in front of the altar. When he was a little boy, he was taught to walk all the way around to avoid the possibility. No one explained why. He concluded that walking in front of the altar would land you in Hell! I imagine the real reason was less drastic, but he drew his own conclusion. And we may miss something about those more formal times, even if the reason for the formality was never explained to us. Bruce still walks around the long way.

Are we compelled by love? Or are we controlled by laws?

We tend to like things the way they are. We don’t like it when someone asks why or tells us why not.

Jesus did both those things, and it made the authorities angry. They defined faithfulness by performance of actions. The established rules kept order. Each person knew his or her place. Almost every imaginable human situation and condition had a rule or a punishment attached to it. They had been doing things their way for such a long time that they couldn’t see how far they had drifted from the intent of God’s Law. The Law was meant to preserve the community, both the relationship of people with God and the relationships of people with each other. Instead it had come to divide the people by rank and to lose its focus on relationship with God and others. Obeying the Law meant pleasing the human authorities in order to maintain a position in the community.

If you were ever a seven-year-old on a playground, you’ll know what I mean.

In every human system, there is a pecking order. There are people with power and rules for behavior and codes of relationship. Challenging the established order requires risk-taking. The unwashed hands of the disciples were not a sign of laziness or disrespect for God. Their unwashed hands were a political and theological statement, an act of righteous indignation against the people who by name were the spiritual leaders of the community, but who in fact were the social oppressors.

You see, being unclean or contaminated or defiled meant being closed out from the community. It meant being shut out of worship and commerce and family life. Sometimes a person could make it right. But sometimes a person could not. And the religious authorities had the power to keep them on the outside.

Jesus objected. He came to show us a different way to live in community.

No unclean hands or unwashed dishes or unconsecrated meat for dinner could make a person dirty in the eyes of God, Jesus said. Your system is broken, he said. It’s broken. God cares about how we regard God, not how we respect human authority. God cares about what is in our hearts, not on our plates. God cares about how we love, not how we look.

We can’t be contaminated by anything from the outside. It’s our intentions that cause trouble: our ways of thinking, our treatment of others and our lack of care for ourselves.

Are we compelled by love? Or are we controlled by laws?

I’m pretty fussy about keeping my hands clean. I looked hard at that iPod before I took it in my hand. Its condition was actually a little revolting. But the smile on the face shyly offering the Touch shone brighter than the smudged screen. Nothing from outside can make us dirty, not where it counts. Compelled by love, I played Tic-Tac-Toe…and after he beat me a dozen times, I washed my hands.

In the name of the One who loves us, even when our hands are not clean. Amen.

…shake the dust off your chucks…

(A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost B–July 8, 2012–Ezekiel 2:1-5; Mark 6:1-13)

“Shake it off.”

Those were the mild words of my father, whether I suffered a skinned knee or a disappointed heart or an outraged mind. “Shake it off” was his advice no matter what injury or offense life brought my way.

I did *not* like it. I was an emotional, reactive little girl, a foot-stamper and a door-slammer. I wanted attention and comfort and justice, depending on the wound. How could I shake it off? How could I shake it off if my little brother hit me, or I didn’t get the part I wanted in the play, or the girls in my class picked on me?

Yes, I could do righteous indignation with the best of them even when I was a little girl. When those things happened, I was:

Offended!

Repulsed!

Scandalized!*

These are a few of the interpretations of the way people in Jesus’ hometown felt when he came around to tell them a thing or two about … well, the gospel doesn’t exactly say.

On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” (Mark 6:2, NRSV)

They were about to take care of that. They knew him, and all his family. He was nothing special. He had a mother, and four brothers and some sisters not even worth naming.

They watched him grow up, right there in town, and they knew him better than he knew himself. Hmmph.

Outrageous. Repulsive. Scandalous. He’s no prophet. He’s no healer. He thinks he’s a teacher? He’s a carpenter!

And while he was with them:

He could do no deeds of power.

This bad day comes right on the heels of a stretch of triumphant encounters: Jesus bests the religious authority figures in debates, and he casts demons out of many different people, and he heals the sick, and at the end of Chapter 5, he raises a little girl from the dead.

I can’t imagine this story didn’t get home to Nazareth ahead of him.

Still, the people are offended. Where does Mary’s boy get off, making himself so important? We heard he was crazy. Why not too long ago his own family tried to bring him home and make him stop acting this way.

The story at home was very different from the one everywhere else.

Around the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was respected for his courage and witness during Apartheid in South Africa. But at home, in South Africa, he had a different experience. Matthew Willman, interviewing Archbishop Tutu, asked:

You were often protested against, wrongly quoted and many times lied about during the long years of apartheid. Many believed what the newspapers wrote, did this influence your character and goals in life?

Tutu responded:

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In fact no, I would have hoped I mean that to some extent the main aspect of who I was, was already in place. What many people would not easily believe is that actually I am in fact I am quite reserved. They will say what? that exuberant outgoing Bishop? that very abrasive guy? (laughing out loud) but it’s true…..

It was painful but I learnt to try to develop a skin or a Rhinoceros. I will tell you this, the reason why it was painful was because maybe one of my weaknesses, one of my several weaknesses, is that I love to be loved and nothing could have been more excruciating than to be vilified as a matter of cause.’

I knew from Theology College that when you looked at Biblical paradigms you realized that if you were asked to be Gods spokesperson only infrequently would you be bothered. I mean Our Lord Himself said ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own country, his own City.’ So it wasn’t surprising and to some extent it attested to the authenticity of what you were doing.

Develop a thick skin. Shake it off.

Now, when I read this story, I’m scandalized on Jesus’ behalf. How could they not see who he really was? Remember it was only in Chapter 4 that he gave commands to the wind and the rain, and the wind and the rain OBEYED HIM!!! Seriously! You know that story made it to Nazareth, too.

But there he was, the c.a.r.p.e.n.t.e.r., showing up at synagogue, bold as brass, talking like he knew something. Did he get special training? Did he have a divinity degree? A Masters in Sacred Texts? When he was growing up, was he the rabbi’s favorite? He’s just a boy from a big family who didn’t stick around to help support his mother. Pah! Outrageous. Scandalous. Even someone without any special qualifications should know better than that.

I sympathize with Jesus. I can feel my gorge rising just thinking about it. He’s come home to share the Good News with his own people, and they are, elbowing each other, talking behind their hands, “whispering” loudly enough to be heard quite clearly.

They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3, NRSV)

No wonder he could do no deeds of power…well, except for healing a few sick people.

Shake it off. He must have told himself that. Shake it off. Look at these other people who need help. Shake it off.

All through the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells people, “your faith has made you well.” Sometimes it’s even the faith of another person causing the healing. But where people actively disbelieve, he can’t muster his power to do wonders. He has to muster his power to control himself.

Because don’t lets kid ourselves. He had the power to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits and he had the power to calm a storm and he had the power to raise a little girl from the dead. If he wanted to bring the powers of storm and even death on those – annoying – people in his hometown, he could have. He could have.

Instead he shook it off. And he told his friends to do the same.

Shake the dust off your feet as a witness when people cannot hear what you are telling them. Shake it off and move along.

And we might like to think, “That’s all very well for his itinerant disciples, going to talk to strangers. What did they have to lose? All they had to do was go to the next town.”

It’s harder when you’re trying to tell the truth to people who know you, especially when they’ve known you all your life. It’s hard to talk about something that means everything to you when the people who should understand think you’re crazy or foolish or pretending to be something you’re not.

But I wonder if that isn’t exactly what the disciples faced, and if it isn’t the reason Jesus gave them the advice he did. After all, he didn’t send them to Kenya or France or Maine to spread the word. He sent them to places that were walking distance, places where people would recognize them, places where their third cousins, or their wives’ uncles or their more successful older brothers lived. And those were the people, those relatives, or their neighbors, who would close the doors in their faces.

They weren’t that different from us. We just have more ways to have our feelings hurt by the people who know us best and for goodness’ sake ought to be able to understand where we’re coming from! We can slight each other at home and at church, just like they did, and in the marketplace, but we’ve added the mall and the schoolyard. We can whisper insults behind our hands, a little too loudly, but we can also sling arrows via email or on Facebook, in voicemail and text message.

It’s possible we think a lot of ourselves. Ahem.

And in today’s world, there’s nothing people like to fight over more than differences of belief, whether it’s religion or science or politics. We 21st century people have it down to a fine art of sideways remarks and outright threats and an absolute lack of grace extended to the people on the other side of whatever the issue or question may be. We cling to our outrage.

But Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to fight. He doesn’t tell us to come down like the hammer.

Shake it off, he says mildly. Shake it off. If they won’t listen to you, if they can’t offer you the decency of basic hospitality and a fair hearing, shake the dust off your feet and move along.

He’s telling us the same thing. Shake the dust off your shoes: your Chuck Taylors or your Vans, your Crocs or your Birkenstocks. Shake the dust off and keep moving. Shake it off.

But first you have to try and tell them something about Jesus. He spent his time explaining that God cares more about us than about rules written down in a book. He told them over and over that we ought to care for one another, not to win God’s love and forgiveness but because we are grateful to have it already. He showed them, in his actions, that people who are on the margins of society matter to God, and they ought to matter to us, too. And he promised us that when we are the ones on the margins, on the wrong side of happiness, or success, or acceptability, or strength, or the law, or health, God will absolutely embrace us.

He had phenomenal power, but he did not use it to save himself. Instead he suffered in body to show us that even in death there is hope of new life.

…shake the dust off your Chucks…

It’s the best Good News there is.

But it won’t sound good to everyone. Whether we tell the story of God’s amazing and steadfast love, or simply show it in our actions, some people will respond, and others will close the door on us. They may even slam it.

Then, shake the dust off your Chucks. Remember you are in good company. Take the message to the next person who needs to hear it. In the name of the One who got no honor in his hometown. Amen.

 

*Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, who pointed out that the people were beyond offended; they were scandalized.

It would be better

(Thinking about Proper 21B)

"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." (Mark 9:42, NRSV)

Before we get into the maiming and mutilation of the rest of this tough passage from Mark's gospel, I would like to say, happily, this weekend we will have our Conference Annual Meeting, and I will not be in the pulpit.

But I want to give some thought to this passage, and particularly this verse. I'm coming up on the 7th anniversary of my ordination, and I'm aware of the prickliness of having authority conveyed, the way it makes other people prickle against me, and the way I have often bristled at authority myself. In fact, I disturbed my Field Ed Supervisor by putting a bumper sticker on my Woodie-style minivan that announced "Question Authority." (She mentioned it in my final evaluation.)

I believe a great portion of the journey of faith involves, perhaps even requires, just such questioning.

So I don't always enjoy being the upholder of orthodoxy, the person in authority, or the person who represents on its behalf.

And other times I may enjoy it too much.

When do standards and definitions matter? And when do they become stumbling blocks? 

The whole idea of Congregationalism was to establish norms at the most local level possible. The notion of an overarching structure was anathema. But over time, the advantage of having some loose, very loose, way of joining together for certain purposes became apparent. Ten churches or one hundred churches had a better chance of supporting a mission project than one church alone. Guidelines, if not absolute rules, seemed wise when considering people for ordination.

As we consider the idea that being post-modern and post-Christendom may be leading to also being post-denominational, I find I become protectively if ironically orthodox where my adopted tradition is concerned. I'm not starry-eyed. I don't think my denomination is perfect. If I ran the zoo, so to speak, I might like to see different priorities.

But I don't want to see what I understand as advances in inclusion watered down in any way. I don't want to lose the (mostly) shared understanding that ministry in both its lay and ordained forms should be open to all baptized believers regardless of age or gender identity or physical ability or sexual orientation or marital status or socio-economic background.

Let's back up to verse 40. "Whoever is not against us is for us." The trouble is knowing just what Jesus means here, right? There are a lot of people who wear the same label I do, Christian, who would look at my beliefs above as being against them, and I feel the same way about theirs. How do we move into this post-denominational conversation without stumbling over one another?

Dirty Dancing 2: Jerusalem Nights

Dirty dancing 2 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.

When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”

Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mark 6:21-25)

It’s got to be the worst family story ever. Herodias marries one uncle (still legal at that time), divorces him and marries his brother, yet another uncle, then uses her daughter as the distracting ploy to arrange the execution of the prophet who speaks out about her immoral life.

That daughter, who we know from Josephus’ history as Salome, doesn’t even get her own name in the gospels. In art and in literature she becomes a seductress, even a necrophiliac.

I’ll tell you the truth, I didn’t even know there was a Dirty Dancing 2 until I heard a hilarious segment on “This American Life” about career breaks that aren’t what they seem to be in which “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” host Peter Sagal confessed that a screenplay of his became Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.

I watched a clip on YouTube last night, the pretty daughter standing up to her father and mother, the latter an ice queen played by the positively gorgeous Sela Ward. “Just because you gave up your passion doesn’t mean I have to give up mine!!” The daughter gets a sharp slap in the face from her mother.

This is not what I want from a mother-daughter relationship, though it has some relationship to what I experienced on the daughter end. Be what I want you to be, says the mother, in an effort to control the daughter. In Salome’s case that meant making a spectacle of herself. In my case it meant the opposite.

I don’t have to preach this text, and I’m glad not to in some ways, but I do wonder for those who are, where is the Good News? And yet if we skip over these stories, do we lose the truth that human beings have been just as inclined to live out soap opera plots for all of time? I sometimes hear Christians of a certain ilk blame the times in which we live for the troubles of the world, but we’ve always been this way, some of us at least and all of us to some extent.

I’m not sure that’s cheering. I’d like to see more progress. I’d like to see young women less likely to be objectified, but instead our freedom allows more ways for it to happen.

Mostly I can’t imagine the kind of young woman who would follow her mother’s order so blindly, except to think that she had no construct for justice in her life, that she simply saw life as a game of winners and losers and had figured out how to be on the winning side.

Get Behind Me

(Thinking about Lent 2B…)

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo
great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be
killed, and after three days rise again.He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get
behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human
things."
(Mark 8:31-33, NRSV)

I spent some time Monday working on Snowman's FAFSA and other financial aid documents.

For some reason I find filling them out terrifying. I have no idea what the irrational source of my anxiety might be. The forms scared me silly when #1 Son applied to college, and it's not getting better.

Maybe I'm afraid of making a mistake, or maybe I'm afraid of seeing all the numbers in one place, or perhaps it's just the unknowable aspect of financial aid and scholarships. And this year, when I begin to think of the big picture, I think about the choices I made and feel almost responsible for the state of the world. If I had found some way to go to seminary and send #1 Son to college and Snowman to arts boarding school besides spending the money my parents left (for just that purpose, I might add), would the world have behaved differently, too?

Get thee behind me, Satan!

That's how crazy money makes me.

In a more objective setting, the church, for instance, I can read all the figures and comprehend them, but when it's personal money, there's a veil of every kind of fear and trembling you can name spread over the work to be done: I don't deserve good things. I will steer my child the wrong way. Why didn't I know sooner what I wanted to do when I grew up? And wasn't there some way I could have taken control over all this and made it right?

That's exactly what Peter wants Jesus to do, and that's exactly what gets him an earful.

"Get behind me, Satan!" Don't tempt me to take on the world's values instead of the deeper ones. Don't tempt me to think I can solve it magically instead of living through it.

We're all going to have to live through it, whatever is coming financially. It's going to hit middle-class people (which I thought I was one of, though our household income is a fraction of the $250,000 I keep hearing batted around in debates) and poor people and people who saw themselves as advantaged and those who knew they never were.

Peter didn't want to hear Jesus talking about the way the religious authorities would turn on him. Peter didn't want to think it could happen!!! And somewhere, somewhere, Jesus didn't either. I go back to my thought about the real Devil being the one we know, the one who looks just like us. If the thought had not crossed Jesus' mind, how could it tempt him?

You can come to me offering bourbon, and you will never win me over, because I have tasted bourbon, circa 1982, and once was more than enough. But offer me chocolate cake or cookies'n cream, and you are the devil I know. Tell me my son could go to law school if he gave up the clarinet and I would smile at you thinking you were just being silly, not because he isn't smart enough, but because it just isn't him. But tell me if I did certain things just right he could go to the conservatory of his dreams and I would be tempted to stand on my head to make it possible.

I know my weaknesses, I know my Satans, in their many forms, and they will continue to plague me if I don't show them the proper dominance. Sam, who loves his new cooked diet, gets rumbly now, almost growly, a little insistent, wants his dinner, wants *more* dinner, and he is accustomed to soft words from me and a deep voice from his Papa, and I must find the way to command him with my eyes and my tone. As he slowly moves into a "down," looking confused, I think of Peter, silenced by Jesus, shocked.

Could I try this with my demons, the anxieties about money, the temptation to feed the anxiety with whatever is the choice food of the moment? When a dog knows you are the boss, he relaxes and can enjoy his life more. That would be a kind of resurrection, a new life to move toward during Lent.

Be Aware

Every morning, I begin the day with oatmeal. For the past few months, I've eaten organic quick oats, cooked right in the bowl, in the microwave. I give it a minute, and then stir, then another 30 seconds, then stir again, then one last zap adjusted to the "doneness" of the oatmeal.

Sometimes I forget I've put the oatmeal in the microwave, become distracted by helping LP get out the door to school or read an email on my laptop and begin to think about something else entirely.

But Sam never forgets the oatmeal. He listens for the process to start, comes into the kitchen, and assumes the position, stretched out longwise in the narrow space between the refrigerator and the stove, head up, alert to the possibilities.

This morning, because LP isn't feeling well, I got to the oatmeal later than usual. Before I finished preparing it, Pure Luck put on his outdoor gear and called Sam to go for a walk.

Sam did not move.

He looked at me, searchingly, no doubt wondering, where is the oatmeal? He gets to lick the bowl when I finish, you see, and he looks forward to it every morning. For this he remains alert.

When I got up to read the gospel lesson this past Sunday, I misspoke. Where the gospel writer cautioned, "Beware," I read, "Be aware." Those are the watchwords for Advent, and they run counter to the season in some ways. While we attend to mailing packages and Christmas cards, to finishing Christmas knitting or setting up for the Holly Jolly Fair, to hosting or attending gatherings with friends and family, when will we find the time to be aware?

It sounds simple. I look at Sam. Every morning, he listens for the sound of the lid coming off the oatmeal canister, the quarter cup measure in the oats, the milk pouring into the liquid measuring cup and then into the bowl. Perhaps he even hears the top come off the cinnamon and the quiet sprinkle of the warm brown spice; it's possible, if you listen carefully.

Be aware! Keep alert!

Sam would not go to Pure Luck. I said, "Don't worry, buddy. I'll save the bowl for you. Go now."

And so he did.