Monday, June 28, 2010

Lose the trappings. Gain the life.

Proper 8-C June 27, 2010
1 Kings 2:1, 6-14
Psalm 77
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Some years ago, in the early 1960s, there were two popular books by then-young theologians. One was The Secular City, which talked about how little American society seemed to care about religion, or God, or the church – that we were moving into a “post-religious society.” The other was The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, which put some of the blame for this lack of interest held by the wider society in things religious, at the steps of the church door. The church had been domesticated, had become captive to the nice life of the suburbs. The church had become the place where middle class values reigned, where people went to church not because it meant much to them, or God forbid cost them anything too valuable, but because it was the thing to do. The church would bless and sanctify THEIR life style choices, their comfortable homes, the aspirations they had for their children to do well in school, succeed and prosper. Indeed, the church itself was the place to be comfortable, to be friends with people like “us,” whoever “we” were. Looking back, we can really see a dialog between these two books: one of the reasons one theologian noticed that fewer people were taking the church seriously and preferring a “secular city” to a religious world view was that the church had become something that it was not supposed to become, something that Jesus had never intended it to become: a safe place, an orderly place, a place with no poor people, no conflicts, no challenges.

Well, some 40 years later, times have changed. Instead of increasing secularization, society has become increasingly religious. Part of the reason is the richness America receives from immigrants from all over the world: Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and of course Christians from all those places that used to be colonies. Soon after that book was published, the 1960s and ‘70s erupted in times of great upheaval – and so people began to realize that religious texts and faith were relevant – could provide guidance in troubling times.

Ah but there is the rub – and perhaps the explanation to the mindset of “the suburban captivity of the church.” These biblical texts, these words and stories about Jesus, are often themselves troubling. Jesus seems to be offering us comfort at the same time he challenges us to leave everything that is comfortable behind. No wonder people want the church to be a place of order and calm; if we took this Jesus too seriously, what kind of trouble would we invite?

The Jesus we encounter in this week’s Gospel is serious, stern. We are not yet half way through the Gospel of Luke, but already Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, toward his confrontation with the powers and principalities, toward his passion and death. Jesus is on a mission which is serious, and spare: he has no possessions, not even a place to call home. Whoever follows him is required to take up a similar strict regimen: “Let the dead bury their own dead” – the disciples are not even allowed the bare minimum of fealty to their families – “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” If Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, so then are the faces of his disciples – and of all of us who even today consider ourselves followers of Jesus.

Signing up for the kingdom of God means we don’t know what will happen next. Elisha had no idea Elijah would be taken up in a dramatic whirl of fire, leaving him in charge. The disciples following Jesus wanted a better life, and they recognized in Jesus the One who could bring that Good News to them; those disciples just had no idea they had to make such a dramatic and permanent break with everything they had known and loved in the past.

The passage we read today from Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds me of another text from the 1960s: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Remember that when Paul found Jesus, he lost everything else: his status, his job, his comfort zone of being a Jew with power to persecute others. Paul here recognizes that when he lost all those things, he found freedom. He became a disciple of Jesus long after he knew that following Jesus meant following him to his death. As yet another theologian, who reads these texts very closely, noticed that when you read today’s Gospel and this passage from Paul together, as we do today, you see that following Jesus does bring freedom but freedom …

of a very peculiar kind. It is not self-indulgent freedom, but freedom that enhances the neighborhood. The sum of the new freedom is “love of neighbor” …[i]

This church – St. Paul’s Church in Brockton – long ago lost all the things that made it so valuable in the Diocese of Massachusetts: it lost its status, its money, its members – all gone when the prosperity which built this neighborhood shipped out with the last shoe factories for China and Korea. For us indeed, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

But look at it this way: when this church lost all the trappings of its “suburban captivity,” it gained many more things. It gained this neighborhood. It gained people knocking at the door who needed help. It gained a soup kitchen. It gained a reason for being in this place at this time. This church became a follower of Jesus. It became a holy place.

Over the past 25 years, members of this church became disciples of Jesus. You stayed in this neighborhood when you could have moved to the suburbs. You learned that in service you find freedom. You learned that it is more blessed to give than to receive. You learned that the gifts you received by living and working here made your cup overflow with things more valuable than money.

This is what today’s lessons mean for us today: the life of this church is inextricably tied up with the life of the soup kitchen. Being a disciple of Jesus means working for the welfare of this neighborhood, and the resources of the church – our money, our buildings, our people – should be dedicated to that purpose. Read these texts again. Pray seriously and deeply as you do. There is a cost when we follow Jesus on this road, where our tasks are to bring life and hope to the people God has given us to serve.

[i] Walter Brueggemann, “June 27: Discipleship is No Picnic,” A Cast of Emancipated Characters, from Sojourners Magazine, June 2010 (Vol. 39, No. 6, pp. 48). Living the Word.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Seeing the world through God's eyes

Proper 5-C; June 6, 2010
1 Kings 17:8-24; Ps. 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

Death comes in many forms: the gradual death from sickness or old age. The violent death of war, of gunshots on the street on hot summer nights, of crimes of passion or anger. The accidental deaths of children dying too young, tragically before their parents. The cruel, lingering death that comes from famine, poverty, drought. The death of the spirit, that comes from a broken heart, or a profound disappointment, of promises lost or hopes waylaid.

We fear all of these kinds of death, and more, and many parts of the world in which we live are gripped by that fear of death. Paralyzed, people shut off all possibilities of change, all hope that anything could be any different than the way it is now.

One way we indulge in the fear of death is by remaining isolated, singular. We alone have faith in God who has a personal relationship only with us, like we are at the bottom of a long tube. The rest of the world doesn’t really matter, when we live in that kind of fear, that masquerades as faith. If it is just about me and Jesus, well, what is happening in, say the Gulf of Mexico right now is not my concern; there is nothing I can do about it, so hey? A neighborhood like this is not my concern, not if I don’t live here. People coming to lunch at the Table are not my concern, nor are victims of drive-by shootings, or people trapped by addiction or alcohol. The foreclosure crisis doesn’t affect me, nor the stock market’s ups and downs, unless I have an investment portfolio.

The society we live in reinforces that life of fear, and if we remain captive to that ungodly fear of death, then no, there is nothing we can do about all those things swirling around us. Walk by the body of that dead man being carried out; don’t even get too close for fear of contamination.

If we see the world through God’s eyes, however, we see things very differently. We feel things very differently. We feel compassion, and that compassion causes us to act, and through that action, the circle of our self widens out into the world, the great world God has made, and for whom God has endless compassion.

Scholars believe that this letter that St. Paul wrote to the Galatians came early in his career. Reading Galatians, we encounter a wild and enthusiastic man, burning with the spirit and passionate about this Gospel that is so new and life-giving to him. Paul has turned away from a life that dealt in death, and remember, was struck blind, until Jesus came to him. From that moment on, he saw the world through God’s eyes, a world that needed all the welcoming embrace and Good News that it could get.

Our first and last stories from scripture illustrate that Good News, that view of the world through God’s eyes. In fact, Jesus himself cited this story from 1st Kings, of Elijah bringing the widow’s son back to life. Way back last winter, on the 3rd and 4th Sundays after the Epiphany,[i] we read about Jesus’ first sermon in the synagogue in his hometown, the one where he said he had come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind. Great, the people said; do it here. Heal us. Take care of us. No, he said, this prophecy, this work, is bigger than this hometown, bigger than our little world, our own concerns. He reminded them of Elijah, who brought back to life not someone from his own community, but a foreigner; Elijah saw the poor widow of Zarephath through God’s eyes, and saw that God’s compassion and new life must extend to her as well. This really made the people of Nazareth mad; they tried to throw him off a cliff.

So when Jesus brings another widow’s son back to life, this Elijah story must be in everyone’s mind. This is another poor widow, who will be bereft and condemned to a slow death without her son to support her. To touch a dead body would be the height of improper, impure behavior. Death, and fear, and loss, and grief: that is the way the world works, and everyone would think that Jesus should just leave this situation alone.

But remember: Jesus sees the world through God’s eyes, with compassion for the suffering widow. When he raises her son, she too is restored to wholeness. No longer caught in that no place of grief, that tunnel vision of fear, she is now fully restored to her place, as mother, as a productive member of her community.

Jesus healed many people, brought people back to life, gave sight to the blind and set the captives free – but not literally each captive. Surely there were thousands of people Jesus did NOT walk by, and thousands more who only heard about what Jesus was doing, very like we only hear about what Jesus did, sitting here two thousand years later.

But what Jesus and Elijah and Paul, and the Psalmist, want us to know is that Jesus does not have to rub mud on us for us to see the world through God’s eyes. Our dead bodies don’t have to be brought back to life in order to believe in God’s compassion. Letting go of our own fear, and of the hold the fear of death has over us, is enough. You and I may not literally be able to raise people from the dead, but we are called to be conduits of God’s grace.[ii] We are called to see the world through God’s eyes, to see it with the compassion with which God sees it – all of it: this neighborhood, the friends and strangers who come to lunch, the people who have moved to this town from all over the world and who find this city a place of hope and new life.

We are not here to care only for ourselves in this church; indeed, if we did nothing in this neighborhood, did not support the Table, did not work to tear down blighted buildings and create a better, more beautiful block, if we did not work the political system, and raise money, then no, God would not be pleased with us. We would not be seeing the world, and this neighborhood, and these people around us, with God’s eyes.

But we cannot stop here, rest on our laurels of good works. Like that young man who was dead, let us sit up and rub out eyes and begin to speak of compassion and mercy and welcome. There is so much more to do.

[i] Luke 4:16-30
[ii] Susanna Metz,