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.