Sunday, September 20, 2009

Powerlessness as discipleship

Proper 20B
Sept. 20, 2009
Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:6
Mark 9:30-37

There are a lot of myths about children: that they are helpless, self-centered, vulnerable, always happy, supremely innocent. There’s also that pop psychology talk about how we adults must get back to our "inner child."

The other side of the child myth is that they are violent, uncontrollable and incapable of moral reasoning – and must be tried and incarcerated as adults.

Myths like these are popular for good reason. There is some truth in them: children are dependent on adults for health and well-being, and many adults do carry with them the scars of a childhood damaged or robbed by cruel circumstance. Children do fly into violent rages and they often do not understand the consequences of their actions. But myths also can cloud reality, helping us see more of what we want to see that what really may be there.

I think that is part of the point Jesus is trying to make in the gospel. He tells the disciples -- again -- that he will suffer and die and -- again -- they deny it. They don't understand, Mark tells us, and they are afraid to ask Jesus what he means. But they must have been thinking about it somewhat, because they got into a conversation about who was the greatest. Jesus sits them down to teach them (and us!) a lesson: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." (Not what the quarreling disciples want to hear.) And then he takes a child in his arms: "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me."

What is the importance of the child in what Jesus is trying to teach his friends?

In Jesus’ day, children were at the bottom of the bottom. They had no status or privilege, even within the family. For Jesus to use them as an example of what it means to follow Jesus, to follow the way of the cross, is to say that to be a disciple means to be as powerless and socially unimportant as a child. Rather than squabbling over who would be the greatest in the new realm of God, the disciples should model themselves on those who are powerless and insignificant. Jesus is deliberately shocking them.

What shocks us today by the example of a child? What is it about children today that might similarly shock and wake us up to what it means to follow Jesus?

Children don’t have a lot of control over what happens to them. Other people make their decisions and they are vulnerable to the wisdom or foolishness of the adults who care for them. If Jesus were using a child as an example for us, today, of discipleship, the shocking lesson for us might be that we have to give up control over the future, over what happens to us, that we would have to let go.

Wanting to control the future – to control God’s plans -- is part of the disciples' denial of Jesus' statements on suffering and death. They don't want to hear him say, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands." Who would want to hear that? I would not, but by denying it, out of fear or lack of understanding, I, too, would be betraying Jesus, for my denial would reveal that I would rather that God follow my plan for Jesus -- that we all live happily and not too controversially ever after -- than I would follow God's plan, which leaves far too much open to chance and danger.

When God became human in the person of Jesus, he opened himself to a world of chance and change, of arbitrariness and unpredictability -- to life on the streets -- to a world filled with danger, grief, sorrow, loss and, inevitably, suffering and death. Into this world God has poured hope. If we deny the suffering and death, Jesus tells his disciples, we lose the chance of experiencing the hope. Yet if we approach the world with the powerlessness of a child, we can live in that new reality, in that community of equals, where in our powerlessness we can know the true power of God.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jesus keeps asking us: "Who do YOU say that I am?"

Proper 19 B; 9/13/2009
Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19
James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

There is so much about Jesus that we now, here, today, take for granted; after all, we know the end of the story. Our culture is filled with worn cliches about Jesus, who is either our cozy buddy or our moralistic judge. So much of what has happened – actually all of the past 2000 years of western civilization – gets in the way of our understanding of who he really is in the pages of the Gospels.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They trot out the usual answers, drawn from their experience with religious figures: Elijah, who was an ancient Jewish prophet, John the Baptist, who cried out in the wilderness. That would be the predictable thing, to understand Jesus because he was like someone we already knew about. But then Jesus surprises them – and us – by asking them – and us, the readers of this encounter, “Who do YOU say that I am?”

Peter delivers the surprise line now: You are the Christ. You are the Messiah. You are the leader with royal stature and political power to lead us in a revolution against all that oppresses us. You are the one who will deliver us from the power of the Roman Empire and the corruption of the Jewish authorities. You are the Man.

We can hear a tune playing in the back of Peter’s head: “happy days are here again.” Visions of sugar plums, their side winning, the oppression of the cruel Romans routed out, no more crippling taxes, health care with a public option, leaders with true spiritual and moral integrity restored to the Temple in Jerusalem. These plans sound good. Isn’t this where you’ve been heading all along, Jesus?

Then Jesus delivers the really surprising salvo: “Get behind me Satan.” What you have in mind are merely human expectations; you need to set your mind on what God has planned, and for the short term, it won’t be pretty. God has sent me here to confront all those evil things that you mention: the powers and principalities that work against what God has in mind for humanity. But they will fight back, and I will suffer and die. And to follow me means sharing in that fight, in that suffering, even in that death. This way is difficult, but this is the way to life, to justice, to abundance, to mercy, to love, to community, to life.

No, this is not an easy lesson to preach on. It’s so much easier to preach on the abundance Jesus promises, or the healing he delivers, or many times he fed and taught and touched people in need.

The Epistle is a difficult, harsh reading, but it makes a point: Last week the emphasis was, “Watch your actions! Keep them true to your words – faith without works is dead.” This week it is, “Watch your words!” Perhaps Peter should have followed such advice, for his words in answer to Jesus’ question caused Jesus to erupt in an angry rebuke.

I came across a quote from a theologian reminding me that the parables of Jesus are stories about how God is searching for us, seeking the lost and the least, not the triumphalistic and powerful. He wrote, “The Christian Church does not offer men and women a route map to God. Instead it tells them by what means they might be found by [God].”

So often, when we seek God, the temptation is to look for a reflection of our own needs, to find the key to our own selves. But these two lessons remind us when we get in this business of a relationship with God that God takes the lead – God looks for us – God asks tough questions of us – God directs us to places we never thought we’d go. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asks us. This is not the final exam, but it is an invitation to follow him and to find out more.

Healing, like Social Security, is for rich and poor alike

Proper 18 B; 9/6/2009

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-15; Mark 7:24-37

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt created Social Security, he knew it would not work if it was only for a certain group of poor old people, who could be isolated, stigmatized, shunned. The program could be chopped off by later administrations if it was something for “those people.” Social Security would work, he advocated, if it was for everyone: the very needy would be embedded into something that was good for everyone who got old. It was old-age insurance for everybody, rich and poor.

All of our lessons today talk about the rich and the poor, and, like FDR’s plan for Social Security, what we actually read is not what we thought we might be reading, at first glance.

Our Gospel today has this very curious interchange between Jesus and the Gentile, Syrophoenician woman. He seems to make fun of her, telling her her ailing daughter is not worth any more than a dog. Yet the woman persists, gets back at Jesus, and when she returns home, the child is healed.

So we think that this bossy woman caused Jesus to change his mind – and yes, she was outspoken. But where else did we ever hear of Jesus NOT healing one of the many, many people from all walks of life who came to him for healing? Never. So what was it about THIS woman?

The point Jesus is trying to make in this interchange – and yes, Jesus knew what he was saying to her – is that even a woman like this woman – a Gentle, a foreigner, and a well-to-do foreign woman at that – receives the blessings of God’s grace. Like Social Security, Jesus’ healing powers are for the rich and the poor, the native-born and foreign-born, our next-door neighbors and the ones on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

As always in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is is part of the story. Tyre, far up the Mediterranean coast, is a Roman port city, well-to-do, Gentile, Hellenized. “Hellenized” means Greek-speaking, but it also means more. It means people who are part of the upper-class culture of the day, the cosmopolitan, Empire-traveling Greek-speakers. The Syrophoenicians who lived in Tyre moved in the circles of power and privilege and influence. This posh place is where we find Jesus today.

Yet we usually think of Jesus being among the poor – and the poor people of Jesus’ day were given a raw deal by people with power and privilege. Not only was this bossy woman a Gentile, she was part of the elite class that benefited from keep poor farmers and fisherfolk and townspeople at the bottom of the economic ladder.

How astounding then, when Jesus comes to this region, trying to lay low and keep his presence a secret – he seems to be coming here for a kind of vacation, away from all the press of the crowds who want healing and hope -- that a woman of this Syrophoenician, Greek-speaking, urban elite comes barging in. Jesus’ secret was apparently not safe; even this Gentile woman knew this random, roving teacher had the power to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Somehow even she has heard the Good News, she, who Jesus notes, someone supposedly excluded from it. This woman comes from the outside, from the world of power and privilege and empire. She does not live by the covenant with God, but she knows Jesus can help her.

And if we read between the lines of their repartee, we see that Jesus not only helps her by healing her daughter, but that Jesus uses this interchange – this conversation with the outsider, rich woman – to prove to those around him that God’s reign knows no limits. After this, Jesus leaves Tyre, goes north to Sidon, and then takes a journey of 40 miles to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He travels through Jewish Galilee to the Gentile, Roman, Greek-speaking region of Decapolis, another city of “foreigners.” Again, Jesus’ messianic secret is not so well kept. Here a deaf man, with a speech impediment, comes to be healed -- even someone who is deaf has heard the Good News. When God rules the world, EVERYONE falls within God’s saving embrace. The kind of distinctions that humans love so much – rich, poor; native, foreign; “our kind” of religion vs. “their kind” of religion – are not what God cares about.

In the letter of James, we read how the early church lived out this Good New. James continues Jesus’ radical equality: rich and poor are included. The rich should not be privileged, but they are our neighbors. The poor should be treated with dignity – with honor to their “excellent name” – and yes, some of what the rich hoard must be shared with the poor. The mark of a faithful person, James says, are seen in what that person does. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and … yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Sounds like Social Security to me. Maybe all those years sitting in church listening to scripture did something to FDR. Maybe this line, from Proverbs, began to sink in: “The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” Even a rich fellow like him – deaf, in a certain way, and shielded from the poor – understood that the Good News really had no limits, and no, Social Security wouldn’t work if it was only for the poor.

But Social Security, as good as it is, is, after all, only a human-designed program. In the world that Jesus proclaims, in the reign of God, everyone, always, has all that they need, and everyone’s excellent name is honored.