Friday, September 28, 2012

Peeps Sunday

Scripture for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost includes Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

As tempting as the passage from Proverbs is… this preacher wants to keep in mind that this is an unusual Sunday, with a Ministry Fair awaiting us at the finish line, and Lady Wisdom (whose characteristics we heard last Sunday, and aren’t they echoed in that sketch of a capable wife?), Lady Wisdom whispers to me to remember the KISS principle: keep it short and simple today.

We could call today our Peeps Sunday. We need people to embrace ministries that serve all who come through these doors. Jesus embraces little children: we need peeps to embrace mostly little tasks (little, at least, in the great scheme of life), and to discover, as Jesus invites his disciples to learn, that God is served in little tasks as well as in big ones.

Cradle the little ones, Jesus says, and you will cradle God.

What a contrast to the strategic scheming those disciples were up to. They were writing their acceptance speeches while their master was doing his best to reveal what true servanthood requires. How gently he whistles them in. He realizes it’s a deaf ear they’re turning to him, so he waits until they’re gathered at the table and then asks them, “What were you discussing on the road?”

The silence… was deafening. A capable disciple, who can find?

We’re blessed with a lot of talented, dedicated, generous disciples here at St. John’s. You’re going to see some of them at work here today. I think what distinguishes a disciple from a volunteer by any other name is the commitment to learn, to observe how God is at work, and to allow that discovery to shape the work we do.

This observing, this allowing of discovery, this shaping finds expression in two moments of our weekly worship. One is the silence, the other communion. In silence, servant love is conceived. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given…” In sacrament, servant love is nurtured, repaired, and built.

In our silence, we clear the decks. We offer a little time, sabbath moments, for doing nothing but listening. No turning of pages to keep up or get ahead. No checking our smartphones to keep up or get ahead. No mental list-making to get a leg-up on the week. Just breathing—catching our breath, perhaps for the first time today. Lapsing from control to submission, consciously choosing to be still, letting-go the inner chatter, discovering that it is up to us what we pay attention to.

In communion we find encounter with the God who feeds us, we find solidarity with the people who (like us) need this feeding, and we find purpose renewed in the call to go and feed the people who fill our weekday hours. And we try not to rush out from here when we’re told the liturgy has ended: we keep practicing communion as we greet old friends, meet new ones, and gather around yet another table where food and drink are set for us, giving time and place for yet more encounter, solidarity, and renewed purpose.

Jesus put a child in the middle of the room. Today, Peeps Sunday, several people will locate themselves in this room, inviting you to embrace one or another of the ministries they represent. Even if you’re not ready to embrace one more task in your life, cradle the information you’ll get when you approach one of these people (they’re ready to share with you what their particular form of service involves, and what it gives).

And to sweeten the encounter, refreshments will be served right here today.

Plain-speaking St. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” We have ministries that need peeps, disciples, learners. Today, we’re asking!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lady Wisdom

Scripture for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost includes Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom 7:26-8:1 (in lieu of the psalm); James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Lady Wisdom greets us today from two places, one the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, the other the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, from the library of books known as the Apocrypha, a collection of writings not included in the Old Testament though they sound as if they could have been. A reading from the Bible and a psalm of praise from the almost-Bible, both speak of God’s wisdom as a lady.

What kind of lady? Not a lady to the manor born. More Sojurner Truth. Or Susan B. Anthony. Or Joan of Arc. Golda Meir. Eleanor Roosevelt. Or, if you prefer more subtle candidates but with long arcs of influence, Emily Dickinson. Marianne Anderson. I’ll stop. (I wonder who you would name?)

For sure, she’s no shrinking violet. She cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice; at the busiest corner she cries out, and she is confrontational. She takes no prisoners: if you don’t pay attention to her in good times, she will not run after you in bad times. Ignore her counsel day by day, and when disaster strikes her voice will be lost to you in the storm of panic.

Think of the flashpoints in our world where extremism erupts into violence. Where is Sophia, Lady Wisdom?

Think of our recent political conventions. Did you notice her there?

What fascinates me about this biblical figure is how she pre-figures Jesus Christ in the New Testament. She is a flawless mirror of God’s activity. She transforms all around her. She can accomplish everything, taking ordinary people and making them friends of God and prophets of God. And she is not limited to one culture or one nation: she spans the earth from pole to pole. She re-orders an unruly and wayward creation. She shakes up complacent humanity.

All of these are things that will be said of Jesus Christ, when we step across into the New Testament.

“Who do people say that I am?” he asks his disciples, as he exhibits Lady Wisdom’s clever way to get a bunch of men to fess up what they themselves are thinking. They report what they’ve heard in the streets and villages, answers that show how people are groping for the truth, recognizing the holy but stumbling as they try to name it.

“But who do you say that I am?” he asks, wisely posing a question to knock on the door to their own awakening. Peter’s dart hits the bulls-eye: You are the messiah, the holy one of God.

It has been said, tongue in cheek, that the order Jesus then issued is treasured by many Episcopalians as their favorite commandment: not to tell anyone about him. Evangelism? Ooh, not us!

It was not them either, until he had taught them who he is, what he must undergo, and what will become of him. Peter promptly scolded him for sounding so grim, such a spoil-sport. Which was evidence of a sort that Peter was slowly catching on that Jesus was forecasting not just his own future, but theirs.

And ours, lest we miss the thrust of his teaching and have nothing to say to people regarding him. For this is the one who shows us how to set our minds on divine things as well as human, transforming all around him, making us friends of God, even prophets of God who can look deeply into human experience, name the divine within, and make plain the claim God has upon us.

Which includes our tongues, insists St. James. Very much includes how we speak of God, of one another, and of ourselves.

I love James’s plain way of speaking. He knew the voice of Lady Wisdom. She spoke through him, and her subject is faithful truthful speaking. This is what our world most needs to hear modeled and practiced by politicians that they may lead us without deceiving or dividing us, by religious leaders that they may use their leverage to overcome prejudice and violence, and by all of us ordinary types that we may be open to wisdom, put out fires, bless and not curse, and help one another bear the fruit we are meant to bear.

How will you immerse yourself in wisdom, this fall?

Will you set yourself a goal and a simple pattern to encounter Lady Wisdom and Master Jesus in Bible reading? Try “Forward Day by Day” as a manageable pattern, or a chapter per day of a Gospel?

Is it time to join or re-join or start a small group to help feed your spirit? Talk to me about that. Perhaps a group that starts by reading a spiritual classic and parallels that mind-work with the heart-work of prayer?

The counsel of wisdom is always within reach, closer than breath itself. What are you hearing?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Faith Unlocks our Future

Scripture for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost includes Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

I made two visits and several phone calls to our veterinary hospital this past week, and dropped a bundle of money, all in my role as co-director of assisted living for our aging pussycat. I am relieved and grateful to report that he has successfully come through last week’s dilemma, a loss of appetite caused by too strong a dose of his hyperthyroid medication. His recovery was aided in part by a small dose of an appetite stimulant designed for human use. A bit of nutritional coaching resulted in my buying yet a second and a third brand of cat food carefully calibrated to protect kidney function in senior cats, who evidently require occasional varying of their menu.

A quick check with the concordance shows that the word cat does not appear in the Bible anywhere. Dogs do appear, as we notice today, and while this disparity would puzzle my cat if he knew it—and I’m glad I don’t have to explain it to him—my investment of time and attention and money in his well-being is a story familiar to all dog owners (or should I say all who are owned by their dogs, as I am by my cat?).

Those dogs under the table hypothetically set by Jesus and the woman in today’s Gospel were members of a household. In the disturbing story of her encounter with Jesus, she is a stranger; but those dogs are well-known both to him and to her, as they glide back and forth as figures of speech in this astonishing encounter, a candid sound-clip we’re just not ready to hear.

What does it mean that this woman carries labels, like Gentile and Syro-Phoenician? Geography is a political science. Land lies at the root of every war, and land lies at the root of religious conflict. That she is a Gentile says that she is not Jewish: to Jewish eyes, she is a stranger to the covenant love God has for Israel. That she has Phoenician blood means that, many generations back, her people were Canaanites, the original settlers in what Israel came to call the promised land, the land overrun, taken, and occupied by Hebrew settlers in the name of their God. The prefix Syro- says that, by the first century in the common era, Phoenicia was part of the Roman province of Syria. This woman is a stranger whom it may be timely for us to meet.

But before she stands unknown before Jesus, he is the stranger in her land. He has crossed the border between Israel and the Phoenician region of Tyre, where he enters a house and does not want anyone to know he is there. He has been swamped by crowds seeking his healing, his teaching… and all too often just seeking the buzz that he generates as he goes from place to place. He has had it, he’s exhausted, he needs a place, a safe house, to recover in.

And to make matters more oppressive, in the days before his flight across the border Jesus has been embroiled in controversy with religious conservatives finding fault with how he and his disciples observe the purity requirements of religious law. He has not been cautious in his response, calling his opponents hypocrites. Even his disciples have been anxious and demanding, and he just needs to get away on his own—can you relate to this?

Suddenly, he is not alone. You may think I mean that a woman from Syria has sought and found him. We’ll listen to her in a moment. But first I mean that the Church is crowded into that house with them, watching, listening. I know, St. Mark implies that Jesus desired solitude, but he often had two or three disciples with him, and aren’t we to imagine that we’re hearing what happened through their telling the story?

And their story was of unique interest to the entire young Church, for whom the burning missionary question was, “Is the Gospel of Jesus just for the house of Israel, or does it call to faith also the Gentile world, and women, and children—none of whom commanded much attention before this?

How complex this encounter will be. By the purity standards of Israel’s religion, Jesus and his disciples should not have crossed the border into Syria. By these old values, the Church of Jesus should have no public mission to Gentile Phoenicians.

Consider the encounter another way. Tyre was a coastal port city, wealthy by comparison to the hinterlands of Galilee where Jesus and his disciples came from. Back there, Jewish farmers raised crops on which the wealthy Gentile cities like Tyre depended. Galilean Jews, seeing their produce consumed by strangers, might well feel hostile. The poor in Galilee needed Gentile markets, but might go to bed at night hungry, they and their children.

In this swirling vortex of religious, political, and economic judgment, how is Jesus remembered to have responded to a stranger, a mother seeking the healing of her perhaps epileptic daughter?

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’s answer: “Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”

We’re stunned to hear our Jesus talk like that. He relegates this caring anxious mother and her sick daughter to the category of dogs?

It was a more generous response than first-century religious people would have given: “Stand in line” isn’t “Go away.”

I think Jesus’s weariness is showing. Those endless lines of people wanting to be healed, back across the border in Israel: he cannot forget those children of God… they must come first, for his mission originates in Israel, the chosen covenant people of God.

But is this really the message of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, the master of radical hospitality? Or is he mouthing the expected words that sum up the current state of religion, geography, politics, and economics so that the Church will hear… and be appalled and shocked into change?

“Of course, Master,” she replies in Peterson’s version, “But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”

This is oral combat, says one commentator. And the Syrian woman wins. Dogs under the table are within the household.

We have witnessed what the first-century Church discovered over time: that the bread of Jesus’s body is broken not just for the traditionally religious and the confirmed members in good standing. Jesus receives, perceives, conceives, how radical is the love of God and the mission of his Church.

What he then proceeds to do for a deaf man who could not speak clearly, Jesus does for his Church: he opens our ears and frees our tongues to receive and transmit the gift of faith in the God who calls no one stranger.

James in his letter today asks, “Can faith save you?”

Jesus in his Gospel answers, “Yes.”

Faith in the one God of all, Syrian and Jew, Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, female and male, saves us from treating anyone as stranger. In that respect, faith saves others from getting the worst that is in us.

Faith saves us from wasting our lives asking questions that get us nowhere, saves us by calling us to ask questions that lead to truth.

Faith saves us from the bondage of lies perpetuated by geography, politics, economics, and religion.

Faith unlocks our future.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Keep James in Mind

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Song of Solomon 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

As today’s leaflet reports, I aim to give not a sermon, but a homily—which, customarily, is shorter than a sermon. Traditionally, a homily attempts to be practical and spiritually illuminating, while a sermon by tradition gives an exposition of religious doctrine. (Put it that way, and I should prefer to give a homily rather than a sermon every time I preach.) Homiletics is the academic discipline that teaches seminarians how to preach. (Somehow, I got through seminary without taking a homiletics course—something I’ve never admitted to Thomas Mikelson, who taught homiletics at Harvard Divinity School.) The funny word “homiletical” sounds like “omelette”, which suggests that if it takes three eggs to create a sermon, a homily requires just one. A single text, a single point.

I will choose the Letter of James, because he writes about the importance of doing, not just hearing, the Word of God. His letter pokes a very sharp point into the inflated self-importance of people who claim they believe earnestly but fail to show it by their actions. He hits this nail firmly on its head in this passage:

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (2:18-19, 26)

Here is the flip side to that famous story of two sisters, contemplative Mary and activist Martha, in which Jesus appears to value them both but favors listening Mary over bustling Martha.

James comes down on the side of results. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:14-17)

That was the outlook of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative, a mouthful to say and much about filling empty stomachs. With community service their common denominator, this team of allies filled a vacuum created when the Community Action food pantry lost its funding. On the order of 600 families are now finding assistance and respectful welcome at the Friendship Center on Eagle Street.

I recall a vestry meeting just before summer started. Several members said, “Wouldn’t it be great if St. John’s had a vegetable garden and the produce went to the Friendship Center?” Three of those members, with one spouse and one dog, tilled the northwest corner of the rectory yard and planted chard, squash, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, cabbage, broccoli— just as the fig tree put forth its figs in the Song of Solomon, this garden has produced plentifully!

And I’m reasonably confident that these volunteers would tell you they have been blessed in their doing.

What I notice about James’s discourse (let’s call it a homily) is how he defines religion. It isn’t defined by saying things, or by believing in a certain way, or by worshiping in one way or another, but by the kind of doing that cares for people and contributes to the integrity of the doer, the worker.

Labor Day gets us reflecting on work, reflecting on ourselves as workers, and considering what it means to be unemployed, under-employed, and formerly-employed. Later in this service, as we present objects which symbolize our work, we hope to hear results of such reflecting. Which is why I am serving up a one-egg omelette, not the usual three.

Keep James in mind. Work can be downright holy, work that cares for people, work done with care for the people involved, work that contributes to the integrity of the worker by (to paraphrase Jesus in today’s Gospel) stimulating the human heart to intend what is good, and (to sum up James) achieve it.