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.