Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pentecost 8C

Today’s gospel sounds a good summer passage, doesn’t it? Jesus telling Martha not to work so hard, and encouraging Mary to sit at his feet, relaxing, taking in his teaching.

It’s like a spiritual day at the beach.

In today’s over-scheduled, under-joyed lifestyle, it seems like a good message. Take a break. Don’t work so hard. Relax once in a while. Put your feet up. Take a vacation.

But do we really need to come to church to hear this message? You can simply turn to the Lifestyle section of the newspaper, or browse the self-help aisle at Chapters. What’s next to come from Jesus, exercise and eat your veggies?

We don’t need God’s only Son, the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him,” As we heard in Colossians this morning, to tell us that we spend too much time at work and not enough time with the kids. We can just turn on Dr. Phil for this homespun wisdom.

So, there must be something else going on. Jesus doesn’t usually waste his time telling people what they already know. And Jesus certainly wasn’t interested in our affluence-induced stress-filledl lives.

Jesus was interested in making disciples, and this was exactly what was happening here.

Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, the place where the disciple sat to learn from the master. Back then, this spot was reserved for men only. Women need not apply. They had their own job to do: cooking, cleaning, cranking out kids. That was women’s work. And Martha was a pro at it. She did her job well. She did was was expected of her. Mary did not. Which was one of the reasons she was so angry.

Martha wasn’t upset just because Mary was slacking off. Martha was upset because Mary was behaving like a man. And Jesus was letting her!

This is hard for us to fathom. Back then, gender roles were rigidly regimented. There were jobs men did, and jobs women did. For one to do the other was shameful, an invitation to scorn. Jesus was showing blatant disdain for traditional cultural morals and social expectations. This alone could have gotten him killed.

Women weren’t considered people. They were property. They had no personal rights. Marriage was an economic agreement. Women married, not out of love, but so they could eat. They had children, not out the union of a man and woman as an expression of their intimacy, but so they could have workers and carry on the man’s family name. A woman’s place was in the bedroom and the kitchen. Not at a man’s feet learning.

And Jesus’ other disciples probably spat blood when they saw this happening. They could point to the bible and quote chapter and verse on why Mary should be in the kitchen with Martha, and Jesus should be making disciples from men only. They could point to Genesis One where God says that women will be subservient to men because of what Eve had done. It was holy scripture, after all.

For Mary to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him like the other disciples, was a revolutionary act. And Jesus was complicit in her revolution. The two of them, at that moment, broadcast to everyone that Jesus didn’t care about maintaining traditional cultural values. Jesus was interested in setting people free. Jesus was interested in making disciples, in bringing all people in God’s fold, that everyone has a right to live as children of God, learning from the master how to live faithfully as God’s chosen.

For us today, I don’t think this passage is only about the role of women in the church and the world. After all, we have women preachers, half our bishops are women (including our National Bishop). Women have careers and are taking positions of leadership. I’m not saying that there’s no more work to be done, but women are no longer subject to the social norms of first century Palestine. At least not here.

This passage is about how we use the bible to reinforce our cultural expectations. Everyone does it. We read the bible to re-affirm what we already know. We find evidence of our predetermined social perspectives in the way we read scripture. In other words, we often find bible passages to back up what we already believe. It’s something we all do.

That’s why, for some, Jesus is a long-haired hippy who’d be found at a peace rally, or protesting the G20. And for others, Jesus is family values conservative who’s demands that we homeschool our kids lest they be infected by secularism.

Those are two extremes, but we tend to find what we want in Jesus. What we want him to bless about our lives and the way we see the world.

But Jesus has a way of pushing through all our preconceived notions about who God is. The God found in Jesus is equally offensive to everyone. Because this God is interested in changing us - and the world corrupted by sin.

The God revealed in Jesus, at who’s feet Mary sat, made people angry so that people could change. The God revealed in Jesus wants to make disciples of all people and of all nations, and will break down any barrier or wall that gets in the way. The God revealed in Jesus is only interested gathering the world to himself. We may not like everything Jesus does or everyone he chooses to be his disciple.

But that’s not the point. The point is that the world is saved. Not our comfort.

So this passage isn’t about Jesus telling us to take it easy occasionally. This bible reading does the opposite. It opens our eyes to the wideness of God’s mercy. It broadens our vision of how God works in the world. It breaks down the walls between deciding who is a faithful disciple of Jesus and who is not.

This passage tells us that God has decided that NO ONE is outside of God’s kingdom. May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pentecost 7C

(NB: With help from Willimon's Pulpit Resource)

Sometimes people ask me, “Do you think Muslims will go to Hell?” It doesn’t have to be Muslims each time the question is asked. You can fill in the blank with any faith group that’s not Christian. Or even non-faith groups like professed atheists.

At it’s heart is the question of judgment. Who will God judge? And maybe by extension, who can WE Christians judge.

I don’t think that question is very biblical. When God is in a judgmental mood, God’s most intense condemnation isn’t for Muslims or atheists, or anyone else those outside the faith. In the bible, God’s saves the most severe judgment for those who seem closest to God: Israel, the church. Especially church leaders.

Today’s gospel, popularly known as “The Good Samaritan” but really should be called “the bad pastor.” The pastor, who ought to be in the business of helping people, passes by the man in the ditch. There is judgment in the story. It’s subtle. But everyone know who Jesus is talking about.

Judgment begins with God’s own house, say the prophets. This happens when we get too high on ourselves, thinking that to be part of God’s people means to be - somehow - better than others.

For those paying attention you might have noticed a common theme that has popped up in my preaching over the last little while. It’s the notion that, as Christians, we’re different, distinctive, our voice is unique, our action are particular.

And while that’s true, there’s also a danger lurking inside that notion. The danger that uniqueness equals superiority. And that we have a lock on doing God’s work.

I think Jesus knew that danger. He saw it in the eyes of the young man who wanted to justify himself. He overturned everything people knew to right and true and threw it in their faces. A priest and a Levite passed a beaten man dying in a ditch, and a Samaritan, of all people, stoops down to lend a hand. And not just a hand. Sacrificially gives so that the man can get the healing he needs.

It’s hard to demonstrate the level of bigoted hatred Jesus’ listeners had for Samaritans, the abject loathing, the searing disgust, without resorting to racist words, or hateful, xenophobic expressions.

Samaritans perverted the faith, trampled over holy traditions. They were dirty and ignorant. They had questionable morals. They married people from other cultures, diluting the blood line (which was VERY important to folks back then). They spat in the face of everything Jesus’ listeners valued.

And Jesus lifted them up as a example of faithful living - over and against the local pastor and church council president, who were demonstrated as being rabidly UNfaithful.

The young man who questioned Jesus knew all the correct answers to all the right questions. But Jesus told this crazy story because he wanted to demonstrate to this fellow Jew that being faithful isn’t about knowing all the answers. Being faithful is answering the questions with our lives.

This is a good story. But it’s a hard story. Especially when we start looking for our place in it. I see myself as the young man trying to justify himself. After all, I value learning, good doctrine. My book-lined office shows that I work hard to have all the right answers. I safe-guard holy doctrine. I teach the faith.

I am also the priest in this story. There were times when working on one of my brilliant, erudite, sermons that the phone will ring, and someone looking for help is on the other line. And I get annoyed. After all, I’m on a roll. I’ve spent the morning dissecting the bible passage and just came up with an ingenious new interpretation to share with the congregation and I want to get it down before I lose it.

(Btw: it’s never any of you folks call. I ALWAYS have time for you, no matter what I’m doing!)

I reluctantly pick up the phone and slide into pastoral care mode. But always looking for when I can get back to stewarding the mysteries of God. I’m tempted to pass on the other side of the road, ignoring those who need help because I’m too busy doing “pastor work.”

Where are we as a church in this story? Are we the young man who knows all the rights answers, who has good theology, who can cite scripture by chapter and verse, but doesn’t know what it means in daily living?

Are we the priest who has other things on his mind and doesn’t see the hurting man just under his feet? Are we the Levite who is so concerned with the proper running of the church that the pain of others doesn’t appear on the radar screen?

Are we the man dying in the ditch, staring our mortality in the face, waiting for someone to rescue us?

Or are we the, dirty, ignorant, Samaritan, who is used by God and held up as an example of the right answer in action?

I think the answer to all these questions is: “yes.”

That’s why Jesus’ parables are so powerful. We find ourselves in them, in every person. This is a parable of judgment. But it’s also a parable of grace. It shows us that we are capable of great neglect and of ravishing faithfulness - almost despite ourselves. That’s how we know that God is a gracious God, a God who works in us, and works in others. We know God is gracious because ANYONE can be chosen to be God’s instrument of mercy.

This parable is a great equalizer. Where everyone stands before equal as saint and sinner. Where even those whom we despise stand next to us, eating at the same table.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Pentecost 6C

“Go on your way,” Jesus tells his followers,  “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road....”

Those 70 followers of Jesus may have listened to his instructions but very few have ever since. And those who do follow Jesus the way he instructs are either labelled “insane” or declared a “saint.”

It’s as if we either feel in our membrane that these instructions are impossible, or we don’t really believe that these instructions are for us today.

They are left in the first century when being a disciple of Jesus was new and exciting. But that excitement has long since settled into the dust of the centuries that have risen and fallen.

In fact, it was during those 20 centuries that Christians actively abandoned these instructions from Jesus. Ignored what Jesus told them to do because it wasn’t what THEY wanted to do. Christians forgot that we were - somehow - different.

Instead of being sent - going out TO people, Christians put down roots and called people to THEM. Instead of travelling light, depending on the power and grace of God to heal the sick and raise the dead, Christians grabbed political power and confusing it with God’s power, establishing personal and institutional empires. Instead of building a people, Christians built buildings - cathedrals - while people around them starved both for food and for God.

Creating empires of the self is a hard habit to break. And we have become unwitting heirs to their legacy.

We read this passage and interpret it as if it only applied to those 70 whom Jesus sent that day.

Or maybe we think that this was just a test for Jesus’ early followers to see who was willing to trust God and who wasn’t.

Or perhaps we say that it was Jesus’ way of proving to his scared and skeptical disciples that God does indeed get involved in peoples’ lives.

I don’t know. There’s not enough evidence to draw a convincing conclusion. But then again, just because scripture meant one thing to one people, doesn’t mean it can’t speak to us differently today.

I think this text challenges us as a western church, and as a congregation. It’s one of those sandpaper passages that  rub up against our comfortable way of being Christian. It pushes up against a middle-class church.

It challenges our assumptions of what ministry looks like. It reverses some of our priorities. People verses building. Mission verses mortar.

I’m not saying that the two are mutually exclusive. But this text, with these instructions, read here as the Word of God and Word of Life, means that God is saying something to us through this passage from scripture. And not just to Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, but to the church as a whole. God asking us to re-consider what it means to live faithfully as Christians.

I was still an Anglican when the residential schools abuse allegations were being dealt with. And within my church in Waterloo Ontario there was a lot of sweat and worry that the Anglican Church of Canada would go bankrupt after paying all the legal costs and restitution to the victims. People were worried that there would be no more Anglican Church of Canada because church funds would be emptied, buildings sold, and seminaries closed.

But a bishop in BC wrote a letter to the Anglican Journal that reminded a frightened faithful that, even if they lost everything, money, buildings, schools. Even if they ended up losing everything, all they needed was a bible, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine, and they were back in business.

This wasn’t good news for those who were interested in maintaining an institutional church.

But for many of us, it was a powerful reminder that we serve a God whose power is made perfect in weakness.

A God whose doesn’t need the cultural trappings of influence.

A God of the cross.

A God who created the universe with just a word, a God who heals the sick and raises the dead with a simple touch.

Sometimes, as Christians, we focus more on what we build rather than of what God is doing, as if we don’t trust God to follow through on God’s promises.

And I’m sure the 70 had reservations about what they were asked to do. That’s why they returned astonished at what God had done despite their fears. “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” They were astounded at what God could accomplish through them.

Pastor Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church in Dayton, Ohio took the congregation from 100 to 5000 worshippers. They were growing so fast that they bought 130 acres to build what they facetiously called the “Disney World” campus. One architect who worked on the Orlando theme park was hired to create a long-range plan for their acreage.

Pastor Mike, said, “As I enthusiastically challenged our people forward, I experienced a discomfort in my spirit and began to question my former measures of success. We had achieved getting behinds in seats, but I realized that all we had really done was accumulate crowds of spectators who were not moving to deeper faith and service.”

So they abandoned their building plans and funnelled their funds to mission. Since 2005, Ginghamsburg Church partnering with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has built more than 150 schools, trained more than 200 teachers, and created a sustainable agriculture program that is feeding close to 80 000 people and building water yards that will serve more than 200 000 people and their livestock in Darfur. (from Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus)

I’m not saying that this is what we’re called to as a congregation. But I’m wondering what God wants for US as a church?

Do we fall into the trap of using the culture’s measures of success when it comes to mission and ministry?

Is God calling us to step out of our comfort bubble and into a life of service in Jesus’ name?

Where is God giving US some holy discomfort?

These are questions that I want you to ponder over the next little while. These are questions that we need need to answer together through prayer, bible study, discussion, and fellowship.

And when we hear God word and act on it, we’ll be just as astonished as those 70 who returned to Jesus proclaiming “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

May this be so among us. Amen.