Sunday, December 17, 2006

Advent 3C

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 85:7-13; Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 3:7-18

“I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” insisted Robert Wadsworth Lowry, an American Baptist minister in the late nineteenth century. But the melodies in his mind and the poetry in his proclamation would not be stopped. Today, appreciative, receptive congregations continue to sing his gospel songs. “I need thee every hour.” “All the way my Savior leads me.” “Shall we gather at the river?” And this one:

My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul – how can I keep from singing?

How can I keep from singing? That’s how I feel this time of year. How can I keep from singing in these seasons of Advent and Christmas, filled as they are with melody and poetry? I secretly don’t mind that the music starts playing in stores before the end of – what, is it May now when sleigh bells and silver bells start to jingle all the way?!?

I’m sure my love of preparing for and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in song goes back to first grade, when I was in the children’s choir at Otey Memorial Parish in Sewanee, Tennessee. We practiced and practiced our little Christmas anthem. We practiced and practiced a handful of Christmas carols. We practiced and practiced and practiced singing while walking in a straight line carrying a lighted candle. But none of that prepared me for the wonder I felt on the first night of the Annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, when we processed slowly around a darkened All Saints Chapel, illuminated only by the soft glow of our candles, half-singing and half-listening to the university choirs (or were they angels?) singing with us, Once in royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed…. Twelve years later, although at a different school, I was in the university choir, holding a candle, processing slowly around a darkened church, singing the same beautiful hymn.

One week from tonight we’ll all be singing once again all those beautiful gospel hymns – good news of great joy hymns. Our Advent hymns are also lovely, their melodies and poetry reflecting this strange season – sometimes set in darkness and minor keys, and sometimes filled with rejoicing. How can we keep from singing?

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion, the prophet Zephaniah exclaims to Jerusalem and her people. Shout, rejoice, and exult with all your heart! For God is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. Rejoice in the Lord always, the apostle Paul exclaims to the church in Philippi. Again I will say, rejoice!.... The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.

This third Sunday in Advent was traditionally known as Gaudete, from the Latin word for rejoice. The penitential purple was lightened to rose. The readings and even the liturgy itself reflected a shift toward joy. In the Roman missal, a new antiphon was appointed, more hopeful than those sung earlier in the season – we know it as the sixth verse of a beautiful Advent hymn: O come thou dayspring from on high and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

On this day even God rejoices. God sings. God exults over you with loud singing, Zephaniah writes, as on a day of festival. Perhaps C.S. Lewis had this image in mind when he wrote The Magician’s Nephew, one of the books in the Narnia series, in which the lion Aslan sings the world into existence. Madeleine L’Engle imagines in one of her stories that the universe is held together by song. Even science sings – I once had a scratchy record on which astronomers had layered the pulses and beats and sounds associated with wavelengths measured from distant stars. So many ancient melodies and harmonies. So much poetry. How can we keep from singing?

We can read today’s gospel, that’s how. John the Baptist doesn’t sing. He shouts. Zephaniah and Paul sing such lovely songs of gladness and love and gentleness and rejoicing, and then John comes along shouting about slithering snakes, and axes at the roots of trees, and fire burning away chaff. (My homiletics professor suggested that “You brood of vipers!” is perhaps not the most effective way to hold on to a receptive, appreciate congregation!) John was shouting. But then, most of the crowd that came to see John weren’t interested in singing, anyway. They weren’t there to hear a sermon or join the choir. They came because darkness had been looming as Roman rule grew more oppressive and the application of Jewish law more rigid. Fears of impending divine judgment were rising. Most of the crowd that came to see John were interested only in proving their innocence before God. They believed that a quick trip into the wilderness for baptism, which at the time was simply a ritual act of cleansing, would do the trick. They were, after all, God’s chosen people.

Perhaps they had forgotten – as we are still inclined to forget today, in this wilderness season of Advent – perhaps they had forgotten that the wilderness is not a place to rush into and out of. In the story of the Exodus and in all the history of salvation, the wilderness is a place to journey through on the way to a renewed and restored and fruitful life as people of God. Getting wet, whether in the Red Sea or the Jordan River, wasn’t enough. In fact, it was and still is only the beginning of the journey.

By now John was preaching a gospel sermon to an agitated, anxious congregation. What then should we do? they asked him, and it became a refrain. Teacher, what should we do? And we, what should we do? Take your fingers out of your ears, John seems to reply. Let the wilderness filter out the cacophony of sound that assaults you each day, and listen to God’s song of salvation. Hum its melody, learn its poetry, and make your life become that song. Let your life resonate with the ancient song of love and peace and mercy and righteousness and truth and gentleness. Let your life be what God created it to be – a song sounding outward just as a tree bears fruit.

John is preaching repentance, in Greek metanoia, which means a change of mind. Not just washing clean but literally taking out one mind and putting in a new one. Taking out one song, perhaps, and putting in a new one. One is coming, John said, who is more powerful than I and he will fill you with that very song if you let him. He will light a fire for you to carry into the darkness.

How can we sing, though, when we are choked by chaff – things that don’t matter but are nonetheless mixed up with our lives, like bits of husks and stems and leaves mixed up with wheat. How can we sing when we are breathless with anxiety? How can we sing when our voices crack from despair? How can we sing when are throats, like our lives, are aching and raw? When we hurt, the call to rejoice can sound as harsh as the call to repent. And yet, it is precisely our hurt, our voicelessness, our diminishment, our losses, our sadness, and our weight of sin that Advent confronts and calls us out of that we may face the divine judgment, which is….Emmanuel, God-with-us. Remember the good gospel hymn? Good Christian friends, rejoice with heart and soul and voice, now ye need not fear the grave: Jesus Christ was born to save! Calls you one and calls you all to gain his everlasting hall. Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save! The fire he brings is not punishment but refinement, for we all have chaff, we all need a change. The burdens we carry do not make us unfit for Advent’s message of joyful expectation. They qualify us for voice lessons.

It will be true for many of us that the noise in our lives will increase this week – work to be done, cookies to bake, relatives to entertain, parties to attend, traffic to negotiate, gifts to wrap, cards to write, expectations to be met, or not met…. But let us not forget that we are still in the wilderness of Advent. Where might we hear God singing, out in the world, in our life together, and in our own lives? In the gospel of Luke, which has journeyed with us through this season, God is heard through the songs of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Simeon, an old priest who thought he would never see the light. They sing about a world in which all voices are heard and honored and nurtured and comforted.

Perhaps John isn’t shouting, but rather singing very loudly and off-key the same song, and showing us by example that we don’t have to master complex arias, we don’t have to save the world. What then shall we do? Hum a tune in our daily life. Live and sing the good news right where we are. Give a coat. Be honest in our work. Respect others. Be nice. Tell the truth. Share. We’d be surprised what joy the most ordinary songs can bring, suggests Madeleine L’Engle, noting that the melody of one of Bach’s most beloved chorales was the melody of a popular street song. “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred,” she writes, “and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

John’s strident chord of repentance doesn’t seem to belong with today’s songs about rejoicing, but as it resolves it moves us into what will be a new key in that ancient refrain of God’s power to save. It’s a good gospel hymn – may we be receptive and appreciative.

What though my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth….

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am his – how can I keep from singing?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Advent 2C

Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Moving three times in the past six years has given me so many opportunities to take a good look all around myself and not have any idea where I am. We moved most recently, of course, from here to Jackson, where my internal compass is still spinning on roads that only pretend to go north-south or east-west (they curve so gradually that you have no idea you’re actually going at a right angle to the direction you think you’re going), and where the geography of city and suburbs baffles me. My husband works in Brandon, east of where we live, but when we go south from our house to find the road that pretends to go east, we have to drive through Ridgeland, which is north of us.

Moving to Meridian from New York City, from one grid to another, wasn’t as easy as I expected. In New York, 10th Avenue was as far west as you could get before hitting the West Side Highway and the Hudson River, which made working on 23rd Avenue in Meridian, well….that would have been in Jersey, I guess! And whereas in New York the grid system starts to break down south of 14th Street, where streets mysteriously change names, or change directions, or dead end only to reappear again several blocks away, in Meridian, that happens north of 14th Street.

Moving to New York City wasn’t as hard as I expected. If you can count backwards and forwards, you can pretty much get around . I can still picture the little wallet sized subway map I carried with me, with its tiny grid of city streets and avenues that was like graph paper on which brightly colored lines indicated the trains that always rumbled underfoot, and points indicated all the stops. Underground, though, there’s no grid – it’s a tangled maze of tunnels instead – but color-coded signs overhead and on the sides of the trains tell you everything you need to know. Even so, you're sometimes just going on faith when the sign says the number one train is that way, and that way is a tunnel that slopes downhill until its ceiling obscures the end from sight.

As the train approaches your stop, you know that somewhere above you is your destination. Up there is natural light, fresh air (well, fresher than subway air), and sounds other than the rattle of subway cars and the screech of metal-on-metal brakes. Getting up there, though, isn’t just a matter of climbing the stairs. You have to climb the right stairs – there’s usually more than one way out, each leading to a different corner of the intersection of street and avenue. And at the top, you might find yourself facing the street or the avenue or the sidewalk or a building. I never could get my bearings. Many times I set off down the block only to find at the next intersection that I should have gone the other way.

What’s missing from subway maps is the friendly little star they put on maps at the entrance to the mall, the one saying, “You are here.” You put one finger on that star, and another finger on the color-coded block that is your destination in the mall, and then you trace the route from here to there. I always have to check the map at Northpark Mall with its double layer of stores, and in a hurry (especially during this season!) I locate the one I want – second floor, two down from Belk’s. But when I look up, I realize I don’t have my bearings. Am I even anywhere near Belk’s? Many times I set off down the mall only to find at the end that I should have walked the other way. I have to go back and look for the little star. When I know where I am, suddenly the map is readable. A path is prepared. A way is made in the wilderness.

“You are here.” The prophet Baruch writes to Jerusalem, fixing a friendly star six centuries before the birth of Jesus, when the Babylonians seized the Holy City and burned it, destroying the Temple and scattering the people of God, taking many of them into exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had lost her bearings, and her people their hope of ever finding their way home. You are here, in this time, in this place, but look, Baruch writes: you are also here, and he fixes a star on God. Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One. Suddenly the map was readable. A path was prepared. A way was made in the wilderness, traced by God, lighted by God’s glory, and not for the first time God led the way from here to there.

Once before, in the Exodus, God had led the people through what seemed an impassable wilderness from Egypt, a land where they had no bearings, to a land of promise where that Holy City would eventually be built. These journeys are how the people of Israel and the nations that watched them go would come to know God as One who saves, who offers hope, who is infinitely patient along way; as One who loves deeply and irrevocably, who is present in the story and on the way; indeed, as One who makes the way and who is the way.

“You are here.” Paul writes to believers, fixing a star some few decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when the church in Philippi was growing and maturing as a community of faith in the midst of some pretty rough terrain – suspicion, hostility, persecution, and internal division. You are here in this time, in this place. Paul rejoices, though, that the deep Love in which they were held by God, and in which the Philippians held one another - that Love would trace their journey and level their way.

Luke’s gospel is full of friendly stars – full of time times and places – and he fixes a very important one in the reading we hear on this second Sunday in Advent. “You are here.” In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when all these other folks were governors and rulers and high priests, in the region around the Jordan River, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah. This is a real story, Luke is telling us. A real story that happened at this real moment in history, when these real people lived, in this real part of the world. But look, Luke says as he reads in the very next breath from the poetry of the prophet Isaiah, you are also here in a real story about the One who saves. You are here, waiting in darkness, like the Israelites in Babylon to whom Baruch and Isaiah were writing, waiting for the day of the Lord when God will prepare a way and the salvation of God will be seen by all.

Luke portrays John the Baptist as the last in a long line of prophets, like Isaiah and Baruch and so many others who had spoken God’s word when the covenant community lost their bearings by taking off in the wrong direction (as they so often we so often do) or by simply finding themselves far from home. Look for the star, John and all the prophets urged the people. Look for God. From wherever you’ve been wandering on your own, no doubt following some bright light the world has flashed your way (it will burn out, you know, at the top of some peak or the bottom of some valley), from wherever you’ve been wandering, return to God and God will shine on you and make a way for you through the wilderness and the darkness.

In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, in the region around the Jordan, in the darkness with those waiting for a savior to come, the history of the world and the history of salvation were deeply and irrevocably joined in Jesus Christ, Love come down, Emmanuel – God-with-us. Later in this chapter of Luke’s gospel, just after Jesus is baptized by John, Jesus gets his bearings: the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice from heaven says, you are my beloved Son. But by the power of the same Holy Spirit, in a story we’ll be hearing soon enough, the One who Saves was born of a woman, and as the voice from heaven still rings in our ears, Luke writes that Jesus was son of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, tracing the line back through every human generation, making every stop until he reaches Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

And so, everyone who is part of history – everyone, back through the first generation, and up through ours, and in every generation to come – everyone who is part of the history of the world is also part of the story of salvation. In Jesus, God was here at a stop in Jerusalem, in Philippi, in the region around the Jordan, in Mississippi…. In Jesus, God walked with all humanity through all the valleys and hills and gorges and dark places of life. And nowhere is that more evident than in the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus personally brings the good news of God’s love to a wide variety of people: to sinners and tax collectors, to Jews and Gentiles, to women, to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor, to the sick and the hungry...and also to governors and rulers and high priests. All flesh shall see the salvation of God.

On the second Sunday in Advent in the year 2006, in the region of East Mississippi, in the darkness with those waiting for a savior to come, the word of God proclaimed by John comes to us: Prepare the way of the Lord! The Reverend John Pridemore writes, “Originally, the promise was that God would clear the road for the returning exiles. But the road [this gospel] looks down is the road to glory. The stumbling blocks on that path, symbolized by what prevents earth-bound travelers getting where they want to go – impassable mountains, impenetrable valleys, and the like…” …stumbling blocks like taped-off stairwells in the subway, turnstiles that won’t turn, seeing from one side of the tracks that you should be waiting on the other…stumbling blocks like racism, sexism, classism, corruption, violence, poverty, and prejudice…stumbling blocks like pride, despair, fear, self-doubt, greed… “stumbling blocks on that path…will all be leveled,” Pridemore continues. “Then, at the last, ‘all flesh shall see God’s salvation.’ This is Luke’s hope, the Advent hope, and the Christian hope. It is grounded in the universal of the love of God, and it is the keynote of the gospel.”

The season of Advent is a time for us to look all around in our life and faith. It is a time to discern where we’ve been going, where we’ve been wandering, and where we are. What stumbling blocks stand between us and the coming of Christ, what impassable mountains and impenetrable valleys must be leveled? Where is our wilderness? Where is our darkness? Advent is a time for us to get our bearings, to step back and look at the map, and trace the journey from where we are to Christmas day. Paul tells us the way is traced by Love, and John the Baptist will share his suggestions next week. When we finally do reach that destination, where a real star shines down on a stable in which a mother holds her newborn son in her arms and in her heart, then we will see the salvation of God, who says to all the whole world, “You are always here.” Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advent 1C

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

How do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. They are unmistakable. 15% off all holiday candles. Trees for sale. Red bows appear along fenceposts, polar bears drink Coca-cola, and Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown make their annual appearances. Thousands and thousands of lights fill the darkness with a soft white or merry multicolored glow. Inside we hear holiday music, outside we hear Salvation Army bells. 21 shopping days left….The signs are all there!

How do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. They are unmistakable. Pageant rehearsal tonight. Caroling at the nursing home. Shades of purple and blue appear where there has been green, green, green for so long, and the Holy Family makes their annual appearance somewhere in the back of the church, making their way to the creche. Four candles on an evergreen wreath begin to fill this space with the promise of light increasing. We hear new service music, we sing beloved hymns, Come, thou long expected Jesus….

How do we know when the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. A growing belly. Birth pangs intensifying. A star filling the sky with light as the Light of the World fills a stable with love.

How do we know when the big day – that last big day – is drawing near? There are signs for that, too. Fire, earthquake and flood, scripture tells us. In this morning’s gospel Jesus says there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. Distress among nations, roaring seas, confusion, fear, foreboding. ‘The Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.’

How do we know when the big day is drawing near? Look for signs like this, Jesus says: growth. Greening – like leaves sprouting on all the trees. Beginnings where there seemed to be endings. Life where there seemed to be death, life exploding outward into the world, nourished by roots deeper than winter’s soil, warmed by the light that fills the sky.

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, the first day of a new liturgical year in which we celebrate the mystery of salvation beginning with the adventus, the coming, the arrival, the birth of Jesus in the world. Since the 6th century, these four weeks have been set aside as a time to look forward, and backward, and forward again to the coming of Jesus.

We look forward to Christmas by looking backward to that night when God became incarnate in a baby boy, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, with tiny fingers and toes and cry that melted his mother’s heart. We know these stories, we know the signs, and of these signs we are certain.

But in Advent we also look forward to Jesus arriving – Jesus coming – again. We know these stories, we know these signs, but of them we are less certain. They do not lend themselves to candle-lit pageants or jingling bells. So many of these signs are frightening, full of foreboding, full of disaster and dread. Foundations, earth, and even heaven are shaken.

It is important for us to remember that prophecy, and in this morning’s gospel Jesus echoes so many of the great prophets, prophecy is not about predicting the future so much as it is about attending to the present, about living fully as God’s people in the world now, in each and every present moment. All those prophets – and Jesus – lived in times when the world was growing dark, when nations were troubled, when the air was full of foreboding.

And so in every age believers have wondered if the big day, the last day, was drawing near. The signs always seem to be there. Terrible natural disasters. Distress among nations. Fear. Suspicion. Hatred. Violence. Poverty. Hunger. Exclusivity. Just pick up a newspaper, or watch the evening news. Signs of endings all around us, poet Dean Nelson, writes. Signs of endings all around us: darkness, death and winter days shroud our lives in fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise.

While global events press fear and foreboding upon us, the signs that for us take on cosmic significance are those that are most personal, most intimate. We are distressed by war in the middle east; our foundations are shaken when a loved one is deployed. We are concerned about national statistics on drug and alcohol use; our foundations are shaken when a drunk driver doesn’t swerve in time to avoid our friend’s car. When we lose a job. When a relationship is strained or broken. When we fail a test. When a pet dies. When illness threatens. When we aren’t welcomed. Signs of endings all around us. Stand up and raise your heads, Jesus says, when what we really want to do is run and hide.

In the season of Advent, looking forward and looking backward, we remember that Jesus has already come, born in a stable, in the midst of instability. Jesus has already come. The kingdom of God is at hand. The day of redemption has passed, and we are already saved. But it seems the fruit of salvation grows slowly in us. We don’t make it easy: we forget to nurture it, we let doubt and fear and pride grow like weeds around it, so that the Light of the World can barely shine through. And yet it grows, despite us, and like the fig tree and all the trees as summer approaches, our salvation begins to sprout leaves. It begins to show. When we begin to live as Jesus showed us, with hands and feet and eyes and ears just like ours, when we begin to live in the kingdom of God at hand, the leaves begin to appear. New life. Hope. And so, rooted in God’s saving love, we become living signs of what will be when the end finally does come.

For what is beyond that great ending, and was before the great beginning and is present in each and every moment, is God, whose compassion and love, the psalmist declared, are from everlasting. In Jesus Christ, God came literally into our midst, and yet, Madeleine L’Engle writes, “The second person of the Trinity was with us ‘before the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he,’ as the ancient hymn says. All of God has always been part of creation, part of the story, taking us in the everlasting arms as the shepherd clasps a lost lamb,” as a mother clasps her newborn son, singing to him by the light of a star.

How do we know the big day is drawing near? We look for the signs. And although there are signs of endings all around us, the same poet urges us to pray, Come, O Christ, and dwell among us! Hear our cries, come set us free. Give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be. Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Take our fears, then Lord, and turn them into hopes for life anew: fading light and dying season sing their glorias to you. Look for the signs. Look for what brings light, life and hope. Look for wonders growing deep within. Look for transformation. Look for invitation. Look for compassion and love. Perhaps we will see signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, but my guess is we’re far more likely to see signs right here. In a Christmas card from a long-lost friend. In a plate of cookies shared with a neighbor. In gifts wrapped up for families whose trees would be bare. In smiling, however wearily, at the person in front of you as you wait and wait and wait and wait to check out at Walmart. In remembering that this crazy season is not about us, not about our loved ones, not about turkeys or gifts or cookies or reindeer, but about Jesus Christ. This season is about the big day arriving, the day of redemption, the day when darkness was filled with light. This season is about the beginning of a story filled with signs and wonders in the midst of ordinary everyday life – the story of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us – a story that calls us, as the Body of Christ, forward each and every day into a world that needs so desperately to know that it is loved.

Goodness knows Advent is not a calm or peaceful time. We may pause more often in our worship, we may sit in darkness for a time, we may steal a few moments of stillness, but not as a way to run and hide from traffic, endless parties, and stringing lights. Well, not just a way to hide. In Advent we are called to reflection in order to deepen our awareness of God’s presence already planted within us, God’s salvation already taking root and growing and revealing itself in our lives. Preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ – in a stable, in a cloud, or over and over again in our daily lives, in the people we meet, in the experiences we have – preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ is about seeing signs all around us and knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand.

How will the world know the big day is drawing near? May they see us, and we see them. And in seeing one another, God-willing, may we see signs that the kingdom of God is at hand. In words from our old prayerbook, let us pray: Eternal God, who commits to us the swift and solemn trust of life: since we do not know what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving you is always present, may we wake to the instant claims of your holy will, not waiting for tomorrow, but yielding today. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Proper 25B

Isaiah 59:(1-4) 9-19; Psalm 13; Hebrews 5:12-6:1, 9-12; Mark 10:46-52

The folks who invented Daylight Savings must have known something about these last few Sundays in the season after Pentecost. Aren’t we all so grateful for the extra sleep, and for the light of the sun as our morning began! But we know that, although we only set our clocks back an hour, the shadows will seem to fall much earlier across this afternoon, and the afternoons ahead. The sun’s reckoning of daytime will end long before our own, before we’ve run all our errands and accomplished all the day’s tasks.

Shadows are also falling across our liturgical year. The flames of Pentecost are burning low, and there is not yet a star in the sky. In just a few weeks we will enter the season of Advent, the season of deep darkness in which we wait for the light of the world to come.

And yet….even as all this darkness is descending upon us, on the roads out there and on our journey in here, the lists of errands to run and tasks to accomplish are growing. Eight more family members will plan to join you for Thanksgiving. You have just a handful of weeks left to finish the afghan you’re crocheting for the holiday bazaar. Paperwork for end-of-the-year reports is starting to appear. The new Elmo doll your niece wants is out of stock. Have you started your Christmas cards yet? The darkness will be filled with noise and needs and demands and disappointments and crises and crowds and it will seem to be a miracle if we can be still, even for a moment, to pray – to cry out – something like this morning’s psalm, reshaped by one poet to read, “Light up our eyes with your presence, O God; let us feel your love in our bones.”

Shadows have also been falling across the gospel of Mark, from which we have been reading about Jesus’ life and love and work among us during this season after Pentecost. Today we hear he is leaving Jericho. But we will not hear about what happens next – Jesus’ triumphal yet terribly misunderstood entry into Jerusalem amidst cries of Hosanna. And though we will hear Jesus speak to his disciples about dark days ahead, we will not, in this season anyway, hear Peter say, I do not know him, or the crowds shout, crucify him. We will not hear Jesus cry out, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.

Mark’s gospel ends in darkness, even though the sun has already risen when the women visit the tomb, even though a dazzling stranger greets them there and tells them Jesus has been raised and wants them, with all the disciples, to meet him in Galilee. So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

If you’re waiting for more, there’s not any. That’s how Mark’s gospel ends. Alleluia? Happy Easter? Where are the happy, enthusiastic, confident disciples, fired up with their new mission and a clear, strategic vision for telling the good news, ready to win the world over for Jesus Christ? They remain in the dark – the darkness of wherever they are in hiding, the darkness of not knowing what has taken place, but most of all, the darkness of their own alarm and terror and amazement and fear that has blinded them from the very beginning.

That Mark has good news to tell, though, is evidence that the women eventually told their news to someone who listened. I wonder if it was Bartimaeus. It is rare and remarkable that Mark would give us the name of a blind beggar with a brief walk-on part – many scholars believe that Bartimaeus was a member of Mark’s community, known to them, his eyes still reflecting his own encounter with the light of the world. I wonder if Bartimaeus, wrapped in the darkness of the death of Jesus Christ, listened to the women and heard in his heart what he had heard on the road outside Jericho on a day not so long before: Jesus is near. Take heart; get up, he is calling you.

This morning’s gospel reading marks the end of journey along which Jesus has been teaching the Twelve about what it means to be called, what it means to follow on the way, what it means to be a disciple. The beginning of that journey, as we turn back the clock, was near the Sea of Galilee, where a deaf man was brought to Jesus. Ephphatha, be opened, Jesus had said, and immediately the man’s ears were opened. It is a story of healing, but also one of calling, of invitation, to all who will listen – ephphatha, be opened, be opened to my word, be opened to my vision, be opened to my way of living and loving, for it is not what your way has been.

Naturally, the first to stumble on Jesus’ way are the disciples, who see an abundance of loaves and fish as evidence of Jesus’ culinary skill, and not that Jesus, the Bread of Life, satisfies a deeper and more devastating hunger. Do you still not perceive or understand? Jesus asks them when they mention they’re a little short on dinner supplies one evening. Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?

Soon after at Bethsaida, a blind man is brought to Jesus. At first, the man’s sight is only partially restored. I can see people, he tells Jesus, but they look like trees, walking. And so Jesus lays hands on him again, and finally the man sees everything clearly. A strange story, but stranger still that it is not included in our lectionary, because it shines an uncomfortable light on Jesus’ struggle to help the disciples see everything clearly.

In the stories that follow, as we have heard for many Sundays now, the disciples are looking for a kingdom come, a future kingdom in which Jesus, having mightily defeated all who oppress God’s chosen people, takes up his rightful throne and seats the disciples in his cabinet. They are looking for a kingdom that looks like all the kingdoms they have known, in which power and authority are evidenced by strength and superiority.

Over and again, Jesus tries to illuminate the kingdom in their midst, the kingdom already here, in which power and authority are evidenced by vulnerability, by being opened, by being last of all and servant of all, by taking up the cross, by giving everything away, by being like a child, by living and loving out of gratitude for having already been saved rather than out of angling for a seat in throneroom. It is a new vision, and the disciples, but for a glimpse here or there, cannot see it.

And so we arrive at Jericho as the shadows are lengthening, and we meet Bartimaeus, an outsider, a blind beggar on the street. Remember that his disability would have been seen as the consequence of some sin, so that he was not only a burden but also a bad person in the eyes of others. His cloak was his only possession, just enough fabric to cover his bones and collect the few coins that were tossed his way. He was probably dirty and smelly. And he was apparently very loud, shouting over the already noisy crowd, Mark tells us, shouting and saying, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.

It is the last story of healing in Mark’s gospel. Light will fill Bartimaeus’ eyes just in time for him to see Jesus in the shadow of the cross, the gloom of the grave, the darkness of death. And yet Mark tells us, Bartimaeus followed him on the way, his confidence a counterpoint to the confusion, fear, and hesitation of the disciples, his purposeful steps to their stumbling. It is the response Mark hopes all his readers will make (including us) as we hear the good news and see that indeed, in Jesus the kingdom of God has come near, has come into our own places of darkness, into places filled with noises and needs and demands and disappointments and crises and crowds to light up our eyes with God’s presence, to let us feel God’s love in our bones, to share that good news so that, as when one candle gives its light to another, the light increases….

Dr. Susan Fleming McGurgan suggests, “Maybe the point of the Bartimaeus story is not his need, his begging, or his healing, but his calling. A call as powerful as the call of Simon and Andrew. A call as surprising as the call of Matthew or Mary Magdalene. A call as dramatic as the call of Paul. [We must] begin to understand that call and response lie at the heart of each and every gospel story.” Call and response lie at the heart of each and every one of our stories…. Simon and Andrew threw down their nets. Matthew left his tax booth. Mary Magdalene believed she could be loved. Paul, blinded by hate, learned a new way to see. Bartimaeus asked Jesus for a new vision. What happened when we were first called? Not one of them was perfect, and not one of us is, either – we all come with their own disabilities and doubts, sins and shortcomings, fears and failures. We all suffer from episodes of blindness – even, perhaps especially, those of us who can see.

And yet, just as the risen Lord called his disciples out from the dark hiding places of their disabilities, doubts, sins, shortcomings, fears and failures….just as he called them to meet him in Galilee, which was where, turning back the clock, he had first called them to follow him, so he continually calls each and every one of us when we stumble in shadow. Faith gives us the courage to see in the dark.

McGurgan continues, “[We must] embrace the truth that vocation is not defined by role or function. It is not defined by beauty, ability, charm, money, strength, or the possession of two working eyes. It is defined by something greater – something riskier – something far more profound – the courage to throw off what binds you and say ‘yes’ to the call.”

As the shadows lengthen, let us be opened to receive the light of the world, light that even the deepest darkness was unable to quench. Let us see the kingdom in our midst, and by our living and loving reveal it to others who cannot see.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. Alleluia! Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Proper 23B

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:1-8, 12; Hebrews 3:1-6; Mark 10:17-27 (28-31)

I really felt like I had been doing everything right. Carefully, deliberately, I followed all the rules. If I ever found myself in the middle of a mistake, I stopped, took a deep breath, figured out where I’d gone wrong and started over. There was evidence of my effort and of my success all over the place. But I wanted more. So I went to my good teacher and asked, “Mom, what must I do to knit a sock?”

One look at the instructions, and I was shocked, astounded, perplexed, even a little grieved – it looked impossible. If you want to knit a sock, there are two things you must do. One – hold four toothpick-sized double-pointed needles in one hand, and with the fifth needle in the other hand, repeat to yourself “knit seventeen, slip slip knit, knit one, turn, slip one, purl seven, purl two together, purl one, turn….” And two – never, ever forget where your stitch markers are when you’re shaping the gusset, ever. Well. At least you’re just wrapping yarn around the needles – you don’t have to thread one.

Some people can learn to knit socks from a book. Not me. I realized right away I would only learn by following my teacher, watching her work. Mom sat right beside me and walked me through the whole thing, keeping a close eye on what I was doing, gently correcting my technique, encouraging me when I was sure it couldn’t be done, when I couldn’t see the sock taking shape, when I was ready to walk away. With her help, I learned to trust that it would be okay to let go of the needles, to let go of stitches, to trust that there was a pattern, however mysterious, and that if I could stay with it, when I was done the world would be a warmer, more colorful place. At least for one foot, God-willing!

If you want to inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus told the rich man, there are two things you must do. One – never, ever break any of the commandments, ever. And two – give away everything you’ve got, all of it. Well. At least you don’t have to thread a needle – oh, wait, yes you do, with a camel!

As opposed to sock knitting, which didn’t turn out to be so bad, it is indeed impossible for us to follow Jesus’ instructions to the rich man, to the disciples – to us. We break commandments all the time, usually because of our unrelenting grip on everything we’ve got, all of it. There is no way to get a camel through the eye of a needle. Which means it should be impossible for us to inherit the kingdom, to be saved, to have eternal life, and it is impossible….for us. But not for God, Jesus says. For God all things are possible.

It was a mysterious pattern, unlike any that had been seen before. In that time, personal wealth – for that matter, personal health, any sort of success – was believed to be a sign of God’s blessing. Which meant, of course, that poverty and illness were believed to be signs of God’s displeasure. The rich man, who had carefully and deliberately followed all the rules, faithfully kept all the commandments, deserved his wealth, deserved his blessedness – he had earned it. But he wanted more, and so, trusting in the only pattern he knew, he asked, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life, to live forever in the kingdom of God, to be saved?

The rich man was looking for a gauge, a measure by which he could know when he had earned his reward, when he could count his blessings. He was so focused on what he had to do, he didn’t see that Jesus had moved the marker. The measure of his worth, of his blessedness, of his salvation, wasn’t written in the law but, rather, in Jesus’ face.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

The disciples were equally perplexed, caught up in the familiar pattern of “you get what you deserve”. This man, by that pattern, was already blessed, but Jesus told him he had to give all his blessings away, that he’d never be able to thread his way through to salvation if he didn’t. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Well, Jesus, if not this man who has been so righteous, who has been so obviously blessed, then who can be saved? the disciples asked, probably measuring their own chances. They didn’t see that Jesus had moved the marker. The gauge, the measure of their worth, of their blessedness, of their salvation, was in Jesus’ face.

Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Jesus looked at the rich man, looked at the disciples, looks at us, and loves us all. That’s how we are measured. That’s how we are saved. Not by what we do, not by what we have, but by how we are loved by God through the eyes of Jesus Christ, fears, doubts, wealth, baggage, camels, mistakes, sins and all. We are measured not by what is impossible for us, but by what is possible for God – light out of darkness, hope out of despair, life out of death….

That’s good news. It gets even better – hard, still impossible for us, but better.

You see, Jesus’ radical demands of us this morning, of the past several Sundays now – lay down your life, take up your cross, be last of all and servant of all, be like a child, keep the commandments, give away everything you have, all of it – these demands aren’t what we must do in order to inherit the kingdom, to have eternal life, to be saved. They are what we are called to do because we are already kingdom people, because we have already been saved, because Jesus makes it all possible.

How will we measure our lives? The world’s pattern is about the same now as it was then – you are what you own, what you earn, what you have, what you can do. The world’s markers are accomplishment, influence, power, status, success, possessions. How big is your camel? What does it carry?

The rich man measured his life by his wealth. It defined him. His camel carried many possessions, and in the world that probably opened doors for him. In the world’s pattern wealth measures everyone to some degree, doesn’t it? After all, food, clothing, and shelter aren’t free.
Jesus was asking the rich man to give up more than just his stuff. He was asking the rich man to give up measuring himself, his life, his world in terms of that stuff and, instead, to measure it all in love. Did you notice? Jesus doesn’t say, just tie up your camel, leave your possessions behind and follow me. Instead, you lack one thing, he says. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.…then come, follow me.

The kingdom of God is not a trophy to be earned or a treasure to be won. It is a pattern of life marked by grace, measured by love, and, impossibly, revealed by us, fears, doubts, wealth, baggage, camels, mistakes, sins and all. If we would truly follow Jesus, we must be willing to put whatever we love most in the world, whatever we believe measures and defines us, whatever opens doors for us, whatever we would not be the same without – we must be willing to put all our baggage entirely in the hands of Jesus Christ, to place all of who we are in the service of love if Jesus should ask, to give out of how we have been blessed by God, through whom all things are possible. In this way the kingdom pattern emerges here and now, a real glimpse of the kingdom that will one day enfold us all in life everlasting. It was a glimpse that Jesus might have first seen in the loving face of his mother, he enfolded in her arms as she softly sang about the day an angel said to her that all things were possible for God: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;…he has mercy…he has shown strength…he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things….

Discipleship is a perilous journey in the world, whose patterns we will always find both alluring and alarming. It’s easy to get cold feet. But discipleship is about following the one whose own perilous journey made possible what we could never accomplish alone. We learn by following him, looking at him, watching him work. And he stays right beside us, walking us through the whole thing, keeping a close eye on what we are doing, gently correcting our technique, encouraging us when we are sure it can’t be done, when we can’t see the kingdom patter taking shape, when we are ready to walk away with our camels, grieving….

As our collect this morning proclaimed, God’s grace always precedes and follows us, providing richly for us as we thread our way through life’s needles, knitting us together as holy partners in a heavenly calling to accomplish the prayer that Jesus, who so loves us, taught: God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible. Amen.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Proper 22B

Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 128; Hebrews 2:1-8; Mark 10:2-9

Okay, quickly now: If you subtract 35 from 125, add 16 and then add 4, then subtract 6, what have you got? A) The extra credit question on your 10th grade math final; B) A problem you’ve scribbled out the answer to in the margins of the math section of the SAT; or C) The equation you have to do in your head (with the offertory anthem in the background and an attentive acolyte trying to hand you water and wine) every Sunday when you’re the priest counting out wafers before and after communion. Let’s see, 125 wafers in the ciborium, but not that many folk here so take out 35, but the priest host breaks into 16 so add that, and remember 4 families get their babies from the nursery, but 6 or so people out there probably won’t come up for communion, okay, that’s what….10 wafers? Or 20? 50?? Who knows?!?

It never occurred to me that I’d be doing so much math as a priest. It’s not my favorite subject. In college, we got to choose between math or foreign language, a choice that for me was, well, muy facil. I haven’t taken math since high school. I’m not bad at math – I can do it, but it takes effort, and I can’t do it in my head. I’ve never once counted out the right number of communion wafers.

The stories of our faith are full of numbers. Seven days of creation. Forty days and nights of rain. Twelve disciples. Forgive seventy times seven. After three days rise again. Perhaps we should offer a math tutorial as part of confirmation classes. Even so, there’s no accounting for some of the stories, challenging us with some kind of “new math” in which the numbers have a meaning beyond our ability to count days or nights or “I forgive you’s”. God is three in one and one in three?? We, though we are many, are one body?? And today’s equation: A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. One plus one equals….one??

Today’s readings challenge us, not just because of the math involved, but because they have a meaning beyond our ability to add or subtract people from our lives. They are about properties of equality, about relationships, about infinity. And while they are, on one level, about marriage – a topic that, ironically, threatens to divide our church these days – marriage is really just serving as a placeholder for a constant beyond our ability to measure. It’s not a simple equation.

But it all starts when the Pharisees present Jesus with a math problem. Subtraction – Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Of course, they already knew the answer – this was a test, an attempt to indict this man who didn’t play by the numbers. But Jesus tested them right back – What did Moses command you? Of course, he already knew the answer to that one.

In that time, the law reflected the prevailing cultural view that women were the property of men – first the property of their fathers, and then transferred by the marriage contract to their husbands. The marriage contract was really between the two extended families, strengthened financially and socially by their union with one another, and guaranteed a future in the children the marriage was expected to produce. If no children were conceived it was assumed that the woman was barren, and that God’s blessing was not upon the union – the man was then allowed to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her, discard her. Now a shame to her family, she likely would not be received back by them and so would be left alone, a desperate situation in such a patriarchal culture. It was not good for a woman to be alone.

The Pharisees had challenged Jesus before, putting him to the test, adding up in their heads his repeated violations of the Mosaic law. Jesus now challenged them to consider their own violation of the law as God originally intended it to be. Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you, he said to them. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

How profoundly conservative, and how profoundly radical, this insistence that God intended the marriage contract to be inviolable! Conservative, because it was a much higher standard than that to which the Pharisees appealed. Radical, because that standard had nothing at all to do with finances or social status or the promise of children but, rather, was a standard of love and longing, love that chooses to love, love that endures hardship, love that mirrors God’s eternal, infinite love and longing for us. Your question doesn’t make any sense, Jesus was telling the Pharisees. You can’t measure the legal boundaries of love any more than you can measure the circumference of a square.

It was part of the same test, with countless senseless questions, by which the Pharisees and other religious leaders regularly separated people from one another: the good from the bad, the strong from the weak, the rich from the poor, the righteous from the sinner, the party line from the prophet. And so Jesus’ words, set in midst of his continued teaching (that we’ve been reading for weeks now) about what it really means to follow him, his words have a meaning beyond our ability to count wedding anniversaries, just as the sacrament of marriage points beyond itself to something far greater, which is this: We are made to be in relationship with God, with one another, with all of creation. We are made for community, for communion.

We are made for community, because we are made in the image of Community, in the image of God whose perfect love and longing are always directed outward toward the other, toward us. Jesus’ words weave together the two accounts of creation from the book of Genesis, beginning with the first, in which God made the heavens and the earth and the waters and the lights and all the living things that creep or crawl or swim or fly, and it was all good. At the very last, God creates human beings in God’s image, male and female God created them. In this account of creation, to be made in God’s image means fundamentally to be made already in relationship with another who bears God’s image.

We heard the second account of creation this morning, in which God made the heavens and the earth and the waters and the lights and then a human being. But instead of the refrain from the first account, and God saw that it was good, in the second account God looks at all that was made and said, it is not good, not yet….It is not good that the man should be alone. God adds myriad living things to the count of creation, but not one of them is the missing variable. Finally, God creates a second human being, making people literally part of one another, thus making them and all of creation whole. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

If the first two chapters of Genesis reveal how God intended us to be in relationship with God, with one another, and with the world, then the third chapter of Genesis all the way through to, well, October 8, 2006, reveals how we actually live. Made in God’s image, we are made to be in community, to be in relationship, to direct our love and longing outward toward others; but made in God’s image, we are also made to be free, free to choose community, to choose relationship, to choose love. Which means, of course, we are free to not choose those things. From Cain and Abel to a gunman in a schoolhouse, we are free to not choose to be who we were made to be. We are free to choose to be and to act alone, even though, from the very beginning, God said it was not good that we should be alone.

Thank goodness most relationships don’t end so violently, but every ending is tragic because every relationshipevery relationship – has the potential to reveal what it means to be made in God’s image. We aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. We allow differences to define and divide us. We have all known the pain of separation, of a relationship that has been broken. My first broken relationship was from Tracey, my best friend in 5th grade. We argued one afternoon about, of all things, who was better at math, and then we never spoke again. For a long time, the school bus stop in front of her house was the loneliest place in the world.

Sometimes there are situations in which separation contains the only possibility for healing and hope. And yet we painfully recognize these - and all broken relationships - as exceptions to the way life should be, the way we want our lives to be, the way we were made by God to be. And we learn.

The Reverend James Liggett, an Episcopal priest, suggests that God, to help us learn what it means to not be alone, has given us structures “where we can have our humanity drawn, and sometimes dragged out of us. God has given us schools of love, places to grow.” Friendships are one such school of love. So is marriage. So are families. So are all relationships with another person in which love and longing struggle against fear and pride and self-interest. Relationships in which we grow through another, in which we endure difficult times, in which we risk rejection.

The church is a school of love, where we grow into wholeness as many members of the one body of Christ. Here we celebrate our communion, our shared call to spread the good news that God so loved us and longed for us to become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones, so that, though it doesn’t make sense if you measure by the law, we even in our sinfulness and selfishness might never be separated from God.

There may be a lot of numbers in the stories of our faith and in the records we keep – probably incorrect numbers if you’re counting on me! But the only equation that really matters is this: that not just two but many – indeed, all – are made by God to be one. It makes at least as much sense as darkness becoming light, sinner becoming redeemed, stranger becoming friend, death becoming life. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that our unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. May they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Proper 21B

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. He’s not one of us
. Mark doesn’t say so, but I suspect Jesus’ reply to John was accompanied by one of those “are you out of your mind” looks. You tried to stop him? From healing people, from casting out the evils that ensnare human hearts? From trusting in my name? Do not stop him…Whoever is not against us is for us.

Us? The disciples could only see a “them”. It’s how the world teaches us to see, right? Us and Them. For the disciples that day, and for those to whom James wrote in the epistle, it was Us, the faithful followers and Them, not followers. Even as far back as Moses it was Us, prophets who went out to meet God and Them, prophets who stayed home. Today, it’s….well, the categories are infinite, aren’t they? Us, from this country; Them, from another. Us, with one skin color; Them, with another. Us, from this side of the tracks; Them, from the other side. Us, college graduates; Them, no high school diploma. Rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, immigrant and native born, conservative and liberal, labor and management, gay and straight, old and young, Baptist and Episcopalian and Methodist and Lutheran and Catholic, Ole Miss and State…We’re really good at knowing what makes us different. What makes us Us, and them Them. And we’re really good at knowing why it’s better to be Us than it is to be Them. And while this knowledge helps us feel strong and significant and secure, it is also what separates us from one another.

Our differences become dividing lines. Sometimes for the sake of convenience, to distinguish one person or group from another, like telling twins apart, or knowing who at the table is allergic to peanuts. Sometimes out of fear we draw a line between ourselves and people who are different than us, lines that keep us at a safe distance. And sometimes it’s just to make ourselves feel good, so that we can say at least we’re not like them.

Isn’t it strange that “division” and “diversity”, both deeply rooted in our differences, are nearly exact opposites, at least when it comes to the kingdom of God? In the world differences create division, as if differences were walls. The kingdom of God celebrates diversity, where profound and wonderful and difficult and beautiful differences make the whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

And yet even within the Christian community, charged with revealing God’s kingdom in the world, even within the church there is deep division. We are painfully aware of this in our own dear Episcopal Church, our Anglican Communion, where our profound and wonderful and difficult and beautiful differences are fast becoming dividing lines. Like John and the disciples, there are many who want run to Jesus and say, Teacher, we tried to stop them, because they were not following us….

But there are also some who hold fast to the hope that all our many differences are rooted in and nurtured by and sustained by something more profound and wonderful and difficult and beautiful still, something we all share. It is this: We are all created, loved, and longed for by a God who crosses the line. We are all created, loved, and longed for by a God who crosses the line. By God who, Isaiah wrote, dwells in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit. By God who, in Jesus Christ, came down from heaven to earth to live and die as one of us, eyes and feet and hands and heartbeats and bones and dreams and differences and all. By God who, in Jesus Christ, would not let even death divide us from the love and longing that created us in the first place. Jesus lived and died and rose again for Us. Not for us, and them, and them, and maybe even them, but for Us.

There are no lines in the kingdom of God. In fact, when we try to draw lines at all we really just make ourselves the Them. Look at how Jesus lived among us, always crossing lines to be with those no one else in the world would love because they didn’t look right or speak right or act right or come from the right place. The “us” crowd, those who were so certain of their status and authority, their faithfulness and righteousness – the Pharisees, the rulers, the wealthy, the well, and even, much of the time, the disciples – the “us” crowd had a really hard time understanding Jesus. His definition of “us” included all those who had been told their whole lives they were a “them”. Jesus tried to teach his disciples and others over and over (we've been hearing about it the past few weeks) that following him meant embracing his definition of “Us”, embracing all people as if they were himself, showing mercy and pity, being last of all and servant of all. Those who would not were drawing a line between themselves and the community of Christ, between themselves and the kingdom. They would find themselves on the outside.

Perhaps that’s what John was afraid of when he ran to Jesus, We tried to stop him….he was not following us. The disciples had tried to cast out demons and failed. Perhaps John was afraid of finding himself on the outside, of becoming a “them”, as though discipleship were a competition, as though there would only ever be twelve.

Do not stop him…Whoever is not against us is for us. Did you hear? Jesus says “us”, not “me”. Whoever is not against us is for us. Jesus, himself fully God and fully human, is communion, he is community, always reaching out, always widening his embrace. Jesus is God’s love, God’s longing for Us – for all of Us – and following him means making that love known, spreading that good news. It means crossing the line.

Discipleship is not a competition, Jesus explains to John and the others (and to us), but it is costly, at least by the world’s standards. You will have to get rid of, to make a sacrifice of, the things that separate you from others, that keep you at a safe distance.

Get rid of your eyes that see others as “them” and not as “us”, that stay focused on what’s inside the walls around your own life. Eyes that are blind to the periphery, that look at differences but cannot see past them.

Get rid of your hands that grasp at power and status, at being the greatest, so that other people become threats. Hands that shield and protect what is walled up inside. Hands that close tightly around belief, so that nothing can get in or out.

Get rid of your feet that plant themselves proudly in the midst of all you have accumulated, that you prop up in self-satisfaction. Feet that walk you to the center of your world. Feet that run in fear of “them”.

Get rid of these. Cut them off! Tear them out! Jesus says, for it is a sin when we use our eyes or feet or hands or anything at all to separate ourselves, to draw lines, to create an “us” and a “them”. When we separate ourselves from others, we separate ourselves from Jesus Christ, for it is in him and through him that we are bound one another in the first place. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a book entitled Life Together, “The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people” – the exclusion of anyone who doesn’t seem to “us” to belong – “may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in [those sisters and brothers] Christ is knocking at the door.”

Who, because they are different than us, do we try to stop from speaking or enacting God’s word, by ignoring them, or discounting them, or silencing them? Who, because they are different than us, do we try to stop from revealing God’s power in their works of mercy and pity? God has long had a proclivity, it seems, for working through people we would least expect, because they weren’t following us….Our scriptures are full of stories about women and men who were outsiders, who were other, who were Them, who were windows into the kingdom of God. In his same book, Bonhoeffer reflects, “I can never know before hand how God’s image should appear in others.” Because of all our profound and wonderful and difficult and beautiful differences, God’s image won’t appear quite the same way in any of us. That’s why we need all of Us.

Despite – no, because of our differences, we are the Body of Christ. We are – by now we know the sweet refrain! – we are one church in mission. We are the feet and eyes and hands and heartbeats and bones and dreams that bring the inviting, transforming, and reconciling love of God to a world divided in so many ways. One of Mississippi’s own, the Reverend John Stone Jenkins said, or so the story goes, “We have an eternity to figure out theology, politics, personalities, whatever makes us different. We only have right now to be Christ to someone else, to let them be Christ to us.”

Let us, then, go forth in the name of Christ. Let us cross the line, or better yet, understand that there is no line at all, as our hymnal declares, In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Proper 20B

Wisdom 1:16-2:22; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:6; Mark 9:30-37

Once upon a time, a tiny striped caterpillar burst from the egg that had been his home for so long. “Hello world,” he said. “It sure is bright out here in the sun.” So begins Hope for the Flowers, by Trina Paulus. My mom and I read that book over and over when I was a child.

The little caterpillar, named Stripe, began to grow bigger and bigger as he happily munched his way through the leaves on his tree. But one day, mid-leaf, he thought there must be more to life, and so he set out and found all sorts of new things: grass and dirt and holes and tiny bugs – each fascinated him. But nothing satisfied him.

Until....he saw a line of caterpillars, all shapes and sizes and colors, crawling purposefully toward a great column rising high in the air. Stripe joined them, and discovered that the column was a pile of squirming, pushing caterpillars – a caterpillar pillar.

They were all climbing up, but the top was so far away that Stripe had no idea what was there. None of the other caterpillars could stop to explain what the pillar was – they were all so busy trying to get wherever they were going, up there….This is it, Stripe thought. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for. And he plunged into the pile.

Right away, Stripe realized that in the caterpillar pillar, it was climb or be climbed. There were no more fellow caterpillars – there were only obstacles and threats which he turned into steps and opportunities. Some days, with this mindset, Stripe could get much higher; other days, it seemed he could only manage to keep his place as the other caterpillars pushed and shoved around him, all trying to get to the top.

With apologies to Shakespeare, it seems to me sometimes that all the world’s a caterpillar pillar, and all the men and women merely climbers. From very early on in life, when we are still just eating and discovering and growing bigger and bigger, we learn that there is a “top” out there, up there, and that the only way to reach the top is to jump into the pile. It’s climb or be climbed.

Get to the top. Be the best. Be the greatest. Get there first. We work hard, we struggle, some days we make progress, some days we do well to hold our place. The recognition and respect, the prestige and power we…well, we earn (right?) by our hard work makes us feel good, and so we work for more. We begin to measure ourselves and others by our rising and falling, our successes and failures, as though we were measuring our worth.

Of course, first doesn’t always mean best – sometimes first means luckiest, shrewdest, wealthiest, most ruthless in worming their way to the top, wherever that is. Who will be greatest? Who will be first? Which begs the question, who will be last? Who’s at the bottom of the pile? Where does anyone rank in the caterpillar pillar, the ladder of life?

I spend the most time with him. Well, I left the most behind to follow him. I bring more sick people to him than any of you. I called him Messiah....It’s no wonder the disciples didn’t understand Jesus on the road to Capernaum, when he told them for the second time that he would be betrayed and killed, and rise again. They barely heard him – they were too busy arguing with one another about who among them was the greatest. And anyway, messiahs weren’t supposed to suffer and die – they were supposed to save, save God’s chosen people from oppression and restore the kingdom of Israel. The disciples believed, as generations of Jews had believed, that the messiah would be a political and military hero who would rise to power, rise to the top….And now that they knew Jesus was the messiah, the disciples were determined to rank high in his regime. I’ve earned it. I’ve never let him down. He’ll pick me.

Not only did they not understand what the messiah would do – apparently, the disciples also didn’t understand what a teacher could do. Writing on the board, their backs to the class, while lecturing on particle physics, teachers can see and hear everything. The look on Jesus’ face when he asked them what they had been arguing about on the road told them he already knew.

So he started the lesson over. And while in that time students were always adults, it sounds to us more like a room full of children. Jesus sat down and gathered the disciples around him, Mark tells us. And then, using small words, simple statements, and illustrations, he taught them just how one finds a place in the only kingdom that really matters.

Not by climbing. But Jesus played along with their – our? – linear view of worth (worst – best, last – first, bottom – top), and he said, Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. You want to be the greatest? You don’t go up – you go right back down to the bottom of the pile and take care of those who are being trampled underfoot. You’ll find yourself in the midst of the kingdom of God. You’ll be where I am.

We who follow Jesus on this side of Easter morning know that being trampled by the world – being trampled to death – would become the glorious occasion for trampling down death and rising to life again, life everlasting, life that would endure. But the disciples gathered around Jesus that day knew only that going up by going down was going nowhere at all.

But the lesson was only half over. Jesus took a child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is we who are the more likely to miss the full meaning of this teaching. In our world, childhood is precious, a wonder-filled time of eating and discovering and growing bigger and bigger. But children are vulnerable in our world of caterpillar pillars. They are small and weak, unable to provide or care for themselves, unable to repay those who do provide and care for them (unless you count sticky red-popsicle lipped smiles as payment). And so when we hear Jesus say, whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, we hear him urging us literally to care for children but also more broadly to care for all those whose vulnerability, innocence, and purity allow us to glimpse a pillar-less life.

But that’s the easy part of the lesson. The disciples would have heard a much greater challenge. In the Mediterranean world in their time, children were not only not precious – they were invisible, inconsequential, even expendable. Because they were entirely dependent on others, children were a burden, and if the load needed lightening, they were left to fend for themselves. It was climb or be climbed if they wanted to make it to adulthood. Some 60% never did. Children were quite literally last and least of all, the exact opposite of what the disciples were posturing to be in the kingdom they thought was coming.

And yet it was a child, representing all people who were in that time invisible, inconsequential, burden, and expendable, that Jesus brought right into the midst of the disciples gathered around. It was a child Jesus wrapped his arms around, and I suspect that for just a moment it was hard to tell just who was who in that embrace, who was the Greatest and who was the Least, who was the Servant and who was the Beloved. In that embrace, Jesus taught that there is nothing at all linear about the kingdom of God. Instead it is centered in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the One in whom heaven came down to earth, the One who walked into the midst of people no one else would love – sinners, tax collectors, lepers, Gentiles, women, children – and became their servant. The kingdom is centered in Jesus, of whom our prayerbook says, he stretched out his arms of love upon the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

In the kingdom of God, there is no top and bottom, no worst and best, not even last and first. Instead, the kingdom of God reaches out, invites in, opens up, grows bigger and bigger. We don’t climb up to it, we can’t fall out of it. We don’t earn it. Everyone is welcome.

Not at all like the kingdom of the world, where only one person (or one person at a time) can be at the top. That kingdom, our little friend Stripe learned, is lonely and fleeting. At the top of the caterpillar pillar, he found….nothing, emptiness. And worse, in the end the only way to get to the top was to topple the caterpillars who had gotten there first. It was impossible to hold on to nothing….

In the kingdom of God, though, it is Jesus who holds us, all of us, all the whole world. We all have a place in the only kingdom that matters, but we cannot know its full joy until we reach out our arms in love and take hold of those who would measure as last, worst, rock-bottom in the world’s caterpillar pillars and in our private pillars we build so that we can be on top somewhere. Who are the children, the vulnerable, the innocent and pure, the invisible, the inconsequential, the burdens, the expendable in our world? In our communities? Right outside our church doors? We cannot know the full joy of the kingdom of God until we reach out our arms in love and take hold of them, not as their betters but as sisters and brothers. In welcoming them, we welcome Jesus Christ, and are ourselves welcomed into the only kingdom that really matters.

My mom and I sang a song over and over when I was a child – you probably did, too. From very early on in life, when we are still eating and discovering and growing bigger and bigger, or from right now, let us understand, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Proper 19B

Proverbs 1:20-33; Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-30

Who do you say that I am?

Being new on the scene, new in a community, can teach us a lot about who we are, or at least who we are perceived to be. Ever since my family moved to Jackson a little over a month ago, I’ve been filling out lots of forms asking for all sorts of information about myself. Name. Address. Phone number. Marital status. Job title. And lots of places now ask for verification with a driver’s license, so they get even more information. Age. Height. Weight. Eye color.

I am Jennifer. I live in northeast Jackson. I am thirtysomething, I am married, and we have a five-year-old son, and two cats. I have a home number, a work number, and a cell phone number. I have blue eyes, I am five feet three inches tall, and I’m not telling you how much I weigh.

There’s my information. But does all that really say who I am?

Who do you say that I am?

Jesus isn’t exactly new on the scene when he wonders aloud who he is perceived to be. But neither is he well-known – his itinerant ministry keeps him on the road, so that some people have seen miracles, others have heard sermons, and still others have listened to him teach. Whether out of joyful expectation, deep desperation or just sheer curiosity, many people have come out to meet him when he enters their community. Others have kept their distance, suspicious of the man who says and does such strange new things.

Who do the people say that I am? Jesus asks his disciples. And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

The people, it seems, had put together all the information they had about Jesus and decided he was a prophet, one who speaks for God. He fit the description – he announced good news for the poor and oppressed, challenged the rich and powerful, performed signs and wonders, and routinely defied both convention and the laws of nature. A prophet, then? It’s all good information. But does all that really say who Jesus is?

Then Jesus presses further, asking But who do you say that I am? It had been easy to report on what other people said about Jesus. But this was personal. The question was now before the disciples who had been with Jesus in every new community, seen every miracle, heard every sermon, listened to every teaching. Who do you say that I am? Peter answered, “You are the messiah.”

Peter and the disciples had put together all the information they had about Jesus and decided that he was God’s anointed one, sent from God – that’s what messiah means. Their holy scriptures spoke of an anointed one, descended from David himself, a powerful king who would rise to the throne, rescue the faithful, redeem the people of Israel. In some ways Jesus fit the description, although he really didn’t look the part. He claimed to be sent from God, and his words and actions were powerful, spoken with authority, and he routinely challenged both Roman and Jewish leaders. A messiah, then? Good information. But does all that really say who Jesus is?

Who do you say that I am? A prophet. A king. A messiah. Did you notice – Jesus never actually tells the people or the disciples that they are completely wrong. But then, they’re not completely right, either. And so, according to Mark’s gospel, he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know who he is. It’s that he wanted them to know all of who he is, and the disciples just didn’t have the whole picture yet. So Jesus began to teach them.

The Son of Man, Jesus said, 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.

You always have to watch out for that often overlooked but ever important “other information” section on forms. Neither the people nor the disciples had read that part. Who does Jesus say that he is? Not a prophet or a king, but one who will suffer, be rejected, be killed, be resurrected.
This was new information. And it made no sense. If he was capable of signs and wonders, why should he suffer? If he announced good news, why should he be rejected? If he was a mighty king, how could he be killed? What good was a dead messiah, anyway? And on the third day be raised….they didn’t even have a category for that.

And so Jesus offers just a little more information, but in it the key to our being able to say who Jesus is: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

The key to our being able to answer the question, to say who Jesus is, is to follow him. Follow him - not just talk about him but follow him, step for step, heart for heart. To borrow from our own prayerbook, it is to confess Jesus not only with our lips, but with our lives.

Denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus rarely leads to Golgotha these days. But there is a real death that takes place when we become disciples. Denying ourselves and taking up our cross means putting to death the belief that there can be any part, any single moment of our lives that is not lived for God. It means remembering in the middle of a board meeting, behind a lawn mower, on an airplane, at the kitchen sink, in between classes, on the laundry detergent aisle – remembering always that we are in our baptism sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. When we follow Jesus, really follow him, not just telling his story but living it as his hands, his feet, his eyes, his heart, his loving-kindness, our lives speak….When we live as Jesus calls us to live, according to the promises we make at our baptism, we learn something and we say something about who Jesus is.

Who do you say that I am?

Do we continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? Then we are saying something about who Jesus is. Do we persevere in resisting evil, and when we fall into sin repent, and return to the Lord? Then we are saying something about who Jesus is. Do we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Do we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves? Do we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Then we are saying something about who Jesus is.

It is not easy. The expectations of the world are all too often at odds with the expectations of Christian discipleship. Ours is a consumer culture, in which what we acquire, what we have defines who we are; as Christians, though, we are defined by what we give away. Loving-kindness doesn’t typically get us the place on the team, the big account, the car of our dreams, the clothes that make us look the part. But it is in the world of teams and accounts and cars and clothes that we have to live and survive, all too often we set that cross down in order to get ahead or at least keep up. We can pick it up again later, right, when we feel more secure? Even persistant cross-carrying eventually wears us down, the resistance to loving-kindness is so great, the other demands on our time and energy so compelling.

And yet the mark given to us at baptism, this mark, the cross we bear, does not rub off. Let me tell you who I am, Jesus whispers in our weary hearts. I am One Who Is With You Always. When you are being my disciple, and when you are not, I am with you. When you are loving me, and when you are not, I am loving you, and I will not cease loving you and calling you to love. You are my disciples. Now, who will you in your life, by your living, say that I am?

Writer Molly Wolf suggests, “Whatever you’ve got, give it. You don’t know what price tag God puts on it, after all. It’s probably safe to assume that God’s values are not much like ours, and what seems unworthy to us may please God greatly. But don’t worry about it. Just give whatever you have….it will do.”

Like Peter and the rest of the disciples and the whole crowd gathered around Jesus that day, we are called to give our lives away and take up the cross, the burden that loving-kindness must be in a fearful, suspicious, get-ahead-or-at-least-keep-up world. But we do not carry the burden alone. To all those promises we make at our baptism, we respond I will, with God’s help. And we have the help of one another – look around you, at the Body of Christ in this place, the hands, feet, eyes and heart of the One who bore the cross to the very end….and after three days rose again….

Who do you say that I am?

Jesus is how God so loved the world. We are his disciples, and with God’s help, we take up that love and bear it wherever we go. That’s all the information we really need. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Proper 18B

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:31-37

They say that public speaking is the number one fear of people in this country. One report I read actually placed it just behind fear of snakes, with which I think my husband and his Rattlesnake-Jumping-Out-of-a-Tree story would concur, but for many people, the thought of getting up to speak in front of a group makes them want to jump out of a tree. Is it a fear of being heard, or perhaps being not heard? A fear of sounding unintelligible, of mixing up words, of making no sense? A fear of appearing foolish? Google “fear of public speaking” and you’ll find an entire industry aimed at loosening our tongues, healing that fear.

It hadn’t occurred to me that public speaking would be a significant piece of ordained ministry. To my fairly quiet-natured surprise, I found that I’m not afraid in the pulpit or behind a lectern or even (okay, I was a little nervous about this at first) just standing with no notes before a group and speaking.

I’m not afraid, but I am aware of various things that sometimes keep me from being heard, or that make me sound if not unintelligible then unusual, or that make me appear or at least feel foolish. I know my voice is pretty quiet, which can make me hard to hear. I’m told I don’t have a very strong southern accent, but I’ve got a few words that come out quirky, marking me as a South Carolinian southerner. Here, of course, that isn’t a problem, but I went to seminary in New York City where several of my southern classmates had some difficulty being understood. And I know I sometimes wrestle with words, especially when they’re not written down, and then I get a little tongue-tied so that even I am not quite sure what I’m saying.

In elementary school, I was referred to the speech therapist to correct a lisp that I think I still sometimes have. No one ever commented on it back then, and no one does now, but when words with an excess of “s’s” appear I treat them carefully. Of course I would settle in Mississippi. “Th” is a problem, too, so that I’m a little self-conscious when celebrating in Rite One, for fear of sounding like Daffy Duck: All glory be to thee, heavenly Father...for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didsth give us thine only Son…. I’m not afraid of most of the words in scripture, at least not the Latin or Greek ones. But Hebrew, Aramaic – well, they’re more subtle, with combinations of consonants that confound. Ephphatha….Proceed with caution….

Despite that difficult word, it is easy to recognize a story about healing in our gospel reading. But if we open our eyes and look more closely, we see that it is also very much about the power of God working through Christ to save us, to heal us. And if we open our ears and listen very carefully, we hear that the man with impediments in his speech and hearing was not the only person healed that day.

Impediments – obstacles, things that constrain us, that set limits on us, that hold us back. It literally means something that gets in the way of your feet, from the Latin root pede. We all have impediments, we all have something that gets in the way, something that needs to be healed. Something small – a lisp; or something far more constraining – deafness, blindness, immobility, illness. In the communities Jesus entered, Gentile and Jewish, such impediments not only held you back – they also set you apart. It was believed that disability and illness were caused by sin. Healing of the body was evidence of forgiveness.

But today’s readings aren’t just about physical impediments. In fact, they’re hardly about that at all. In our first reading, Isaiah writes just before the Hebrew people were released from exile in Babylon and allowed to return home. In that story, the distance was the physical impediment, and the Hebrews did believe that their exile was punishment for their sins. Finally, God was going to remove that impediment, forgive those sins, heal the people. They weren’t back in Jerusalem very long, though, when it became clear that the real impediments, the real deafness and blindness and immobility in their lives went far deeper than their skin, deeper than their bones. They would need a much deeper healing to be able to hear and see and speak and move in a way that revealed what it meant to be chosen, saved, and called.

The impediments, disabilities, weaknesses, illnesses that are the most devastating in our lives aren’t those that carry a medical diagnosis. After all, people who are deaf or blind, who cannot move independently, who have a chronic illness very often are able to adapt their lives, so that they are not impeded, not held back from living fully and deeply for as long as possible. But there are much deeper, far more dangerous impediments that can cripple any of us, regardless of our physical condition; that can constrain us, deafen us, blind us, and immobilize us; impediments such as anger, pride, greed, hate, regret, resentment. The deepest, the most constraining, is fear.

There is a lot to be afraid of. The world is a noisy place. Glitter, glamour, fame, fortune, military strength, political power, perfection; hunger, poverty, prejudice, cruelty, crime; deadlines, bills, strained relationships, traffic, high expectations, unmet needs, the dog that barks from 5-6:00 every morning….we have to practice selective hearing just to make it through the day. Close our ears, close our eyes – the less we are open to, the less we have respond to. But that doesn’t heal anything, least of all ourselves.

New York City was certainly a noisy place to go to seminary. In self-defense at first, then just because we were accustomed to it, we tuned out the ever-present hum, the sirens, the car alarms, the jackhammers, the traffic, the millions of voices, the airplanes roaring overhead, the subway rumbling beneath, the vendors and prophets on the streets. It’s no use – it’s too loud to pray, we complained.

Only if you’ve grown deaf, a professor gently chided. And he led us in the noisiest silent prayer I’d ever experienced. Listen, he urged us, and pray for what you hear. Are there sirens? Pray for those who are sick, and those who care for them. Are there voices arguing? Pray for relationships. Is the subway passing under us? Pray for those who travel, for those who work. Ephphatha. Be opened.

Ephphatha. It was the very first word the man would hear as Jesus touched him, breathed on him. Healed him. Ephphatha. In the early church it was the first word a newly baptized person would hear after the priest pulled them from the water. Ephphatha. Be opened.

The second word the man would hear – well, Mark doesn’t tell us the word, but he does tell us that it was the man himself who spoke it. His first public speech….what would you say? Was it something like the psalm we just read, I will praise the Lord as long as I live, I will sing praises to my God while I have my being? Was it a simple, I can hear! Whatever the man said, he said it, Mark tells us, without impediment; he spoke plainly, and don’t you know it was music to his ears.

And not to his ears only, but also to the ears of the people who heard him speak, and then they, too, found their voice. Zealously, Mark writes, zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘Jesus has done everything well.’ Do you hear the echo of another story, when God touched the void, breathed on creation, granted life, and said of everything that had been done, it has been done well, it is good….Mark intends us to hear that echo. All those people’s ears worked just fine, and yet they had been deaf somewhere deeper inside until they heard Jesus, who suddenly sounded familiar, speak. Ephphatha. Be opened.

We may all have physical impediments that we wish could be healed as Jesus healed the deaf man that day. Sometimes bodies are healed and life renewed even when every medicine has failed….what would you say in that moment? Most of the time, though, we are very much more like the crowd, like the people who brought the man to Jesus in the first place.

There must have been some there who had known Jesus and followed him for quite some time. There were probably some who knew a little about him and were curious. And there were others who didn’t know what to believe, but who lived by compassion. Perhaps some had never seen the deaf man as they passed by him each day. There they all were, gathered around Jesus, bringing the concerns of their community to him, hearing the word, offering praise and thanksgiving….do you hear the echo of what we’re doing here, now? Aren’t we very much like them!

What impediments are deep inside us? What holds us back from being able to hear and see and speak and move in a way that reveals what it means to be chosen, saved, called? What are we afraid of? What deep down needs healing so that we can endure and perhaps even embrace the noise?

We who have been pulled out of the waters of baptism, who have been touched in the name of Jesus, who are here by faith or curiosity or compassion: we are called to proclaim what we have heard and seen, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, not against the noise of this world but in the midst of it.

What will we say? It doesn’t have to sound perfect. To some we will sound unintelligible. Some will think we sound foolish. But if we can speak plainly, from the places we have been touched by God, then for some….the words will be music to their ears.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees, Isaiah sang. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God….who will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped – ephphatha; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Amen.