Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Parable For Our Time

Keep Your Hand On The Plow, Hold On (A Parable for our Time)
In chapter 9 (51-62), Luke announces a new direction for Jesus’s ministry: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The evangelist already knows the outcome of the events he is about to chronicle. It is as Jesus has outlined to his followers: there will be conflict with the civil and religious authorities, he will be executed, he will rise up from the dead and ascend to return to his Father, YHWH, Allah, the One God of all.

So he turns his face toward Jerusalem – that is, like a plowman plowing his field, he means to take a direct route, a straight row, to what he knows is going to be a tough time. His face is set, his mind is set, his heart is set. And as we see in these two vignettes, nothing is stopping him now that he has set his way. For all others, either you are ‘on the bus or off the bus,’ but this bus, like the gospel train, is bound for glory! Glory with a cost, a very dear cost.

This direct route takes Jesus and his followers through an inhospitable Samaritan village. His disciples, evoking the image and actions of the great prophet Elijah, want to rain down fire upon the Samaritans. Jesus says no. His ‘no’ means, “I am not Elijah, and those are not my methods!” It may help to know that earlier chapter 9 also raises the question of just who Jesus is, and his followers tell him that many think he is Elijah, or John the Baptizer, or one of the ancient prophets. So for a second time Jesus makes clear just who he is and is not.

As to the Samaritans, they are a place-holder for all those who have different religious practices than those of the Judeans in Jerusalem. The Judeans believe sacrifices to YHWH are to take place in the temple in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans, quite possibly the faithful remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the Assyrian captivity, believe God is worshipped on Mount Gerizim, now near the West Bank town of Nablus. This dispute had been going on for centuries at the time of Jesus and continues to this day.

We ought to take careful note that Jesus will have none of it. That is, he is not concerned with such intramural religious disputes. Elsewhere he remarks that the day is coming “and now is” when worship of the One God will take place neither in Jerusalem nor on Mount Gerizim, so keep moving. Keep your hand on the plow and your eye on the prize.

Besides, in chapters 10 and 17 Samaritans will be shown to be just as faithful, if not more so, to the purposes of God in the story of the Good Samaritan and one man out of ten who thanks Jesus for being healed – a Samaritan. One might say with a great deal of confidence that for Jesus the truly faithful of any religious tradition are to be respected, even above and beyond the less faithful of our own tradition. Parse that however you wish, but forbidding free movement and practice of those who differ from us is not to be tolerated as Jesus sets his face toward a new way of living in this world with others – all others.

Then there are his retorts to three would-be followers, and in all truth we are not told what decisions they ultimately made. To the first he makes clear that to follow him is no walk in the park – ie there are going to be serious costs to discipleship as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote and discovered first hand. To the second and third he is even more harsh: let the dead bury the dead and go proclaim the coming kingdom of God; there’s no time like Elijah granted Elisha to go say goodbye to family and friends, keep your hand on the plow and do not look back.

Again, I am not Elijah and I am not like Elijah, and the time is now. This journey has begun and there will be no turning back to former times, former attitudes, or even simple farewells.

As inconvenient as it may be, Jesus is speaking directly to us – every single one of us. A vision that looks back, not forwards, is doomed from the outset. First of all, how far back do we go? To prohibition? To before women could vote? To before Civil Rights? To legalized slavery? To old disputes over who says potato and who says potahto? To some archaic and arcane notions that there is only one place or one way to worship, that is to honor with our lives, the One God of all?

The plow metaphor is a powerful one to be sure. Before tractors and mechanized farming, which is a relatively recent human development, there was a man with a plow and an animal, often a horse, donkey, mule or ox. The reins are looped over the man’s head around his neck, his hands are on the plow. To plow straight rows, to meet your goal, to get where you are going literally means keeping your hand on the plow and looking forward, not back. For when one turns one’s head the animal will turn with you and ruin your row. If you let go, the animal will wander to and fro, and you will be thrown to the ground or dragged along with the reins around wrapped around your neck. Either way is disaster and destruction.

We may allow ourselves to think that this is primitive stuff, but we would be wrong. This is a parable for our time – and frankly for all times, which is what makes the Bible so compelling. It is always tempting to look back instead of moving forward. It is always tempting to say you want to go forward but not quite yet. It is always tempting to hold onto ancient disputes rather than plow new ground and plant new ideas, new values and a new sense of justice and peace for all people while respecting the dignity of every human being – which is what we promise in our Baptism into following in the way of Jesus. Jesus, who has set his face toward Jerusalem but as we know went much further than Jerusalem. He honored and respected the enemy Samaritans. He made them conspicuous examples of how to really honor God’s vision for humankind.

Fear is a destructive thing in this world. We can fear others and wall them out, or embrace them like Jesus does. Holding on to the plow and not looking back means to move forward, not back to whatever we might convince ourselves was some kind of golden age. Because it wasn’t. Fewer people enjoyed the freedoms and liberties that more and more people now enjoy.

As Saint Paul, once a persecutor of Jesus’s followers, wrote to the church in Galatia, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5: 24-25) In the same letter Paul writes,” There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” To which we might add there is no longer Christian, Muslim or Jew, there is no longer American, Syrian or Afghan, and the listing can and must go on and on and on. This is the life of the Spirit.

It is this life in the Spirit to which we are meant to hold on, not the passions and desires of those who wish to take us off the way of Jesus. Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Hold on, hold on! Keep your hand on the plow hold on!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Return To Your Home

Return To Your Home
Let me begin by saying it’s good to be back. Please allow me to introduce myself as Normie and Neal Harris’ son-in-law. I used to come to St. John’s back in the days that Rick Lindsay+ and Bill Rich+ were here. More to say about that later.

Understanding this odd little episode in the country of the Gerasenes (Luke 8:26-39) is helped if we go back one episode (skipped over by our lectionary) where Jesus says, ‘Let’s go to the other side…” as he gets in a boat. That is, he is crossing the sea from home territory to Gentile territory – that is un-kosher territory. Somewhat surprisingly the disciples go with him. As Jesus sleeps in the back of the boat – after all he has been busy teaching and healing and even God needed to rest on the seventh day – a big storm comes up. That is, you who choose to follow Jesus better be ready to experience rough waters. The disciples panic. Jesus stills the storm. The disciples ask themselves, “Who is this?” Jesus asks them, “Where is your faith?”

Before they can heave a sigh of relief they arrive to the “other side” and are met by a welcoming committee. It appears to be one man – be it one naked, shackled man in busted chains living in the tombs outside the city. The demons within him negotiate with Jesus. He asks their name. We are Legion, they reply. No doubt a reference to the occupying Roman Legions which consist of six thousand soldiers and another six thousand support troops. So the welcoming committee turns out to be just that – literally a cast of thousands: twelve thousand demons to be exact!

Try to imagine for a moment being one of the disciples. After a harrowing journey across the sea, now this – a man considered so un-safe that the nearby townspeople have chained him in the tombs – he lives among the dead, and he has ripped the chains apart! How does it feel to be following Jesus now? You thought the storm was bad enough! This situation seems truly dangerous. Yet, Jesus engages the man in conversation. Or rather, the twelve thousand demons.

They recognize his power is from God. They beg him to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs. Pigs. A sign that we really truly are in Gentile territory. Seems like a simple quid pro quo – the demons leave the man and go to live in the pigs and the man is restored to his whole self, fully clothed “and in his right mind.” Just one problem. The pigs go head first down a cliff and into the sea where they drown. The swineherds run off and tell the whole city who come out to see what has happened. Pork belly futures tank! The local economy lies in ruins.  

We are meant to be astonished at their reaction to seeing the man sitting, fully clothed and in his right mind. They are afraid and ask Jesus to leave. Now. No good deed goes unpunished. Yet, it seems they were more comfortable having the man demon possessed and chained in the tombs than in his right mind and moving back into the neighborhood. We might think about just how it is we are like this crowd? Who are the people we would like chained up far, far away from us? Why, even when they are revealed to be just like us, are we still afraid of them?

Ah, there’s the rub! We simply do not want to believe they are just like us because that means we are just like them! Even worse, Jesus tells the man, and all people like him, to return home and tell people his story. The man, now, is no fool. He does not want to go home to these people who chained him up and left him for dead, but rather he wants to follow Jesus. Those people still do not like me he is thinking! He begs Jesus not to send him home.

Jesus knows what we all are meant to know: Once you are made whole and yourself again, He is always with you wherever you go. He is at home with you. He is, in fact, your home. As St Augustine once put it, “Our hearts are restless until we find our home in thee.” Jesus is sending and bringing us all home – home to the heart of God’s eternal love. No more fear. No more being afraid of one’s self or of others. We come from Love, we return to Love, and love is all around. All of life is a homecoming – a coming home to God. Once we are home once again we are to tell our story to others so they too might return home.

So as I said, it is good to be back here again at St. John’s. When I first came here I would sit in the pew while everyone else went up for communion. I had some unfinished business from my high school years in the church I grew up in – the church where I was confirmed. It left my heart and soul divided. I almost left the Christian church altogether to convert to Judaism. The details are not important, but all through college and whenever I came to St. John’s with my in-laws, I would stay away from the one sacrament that is meant to join us one to another and all together with God in Christ.

Until one day, after church, just outside the door here, Bill Rich+ said something like, “You know you are welcome to join us at the Lord’s table.” Maybe it was in the way he said it, or the sound of Jesus’ voice in his, but all at once I was fully clothed and in my right mind again. Or, to use the greater metaphor, I had been welcomed home once again. I could once again feel the Love that is all around. I could return home.

We all have more in common with the Gerasene Demoniac than we like to admit. We all have pieces inside of ourselves that need to be put back together. Those of us who are lucky have someone like Bill Rich+ say just the right thing that reminds us not just who we are, but whose we are. We all will return home again to tell our stories. We can go now, or go later. Those of us who go now have something important to do: tell our stories so others might return home too.

So thank you all for being this saving station, St. John’s, and especially for having Bill Rich+ here on the one day I was ready to hear the voice of Jesus calling me home. If not for Bill and St. John’s I might not have had the privilege of a vocation that lets me tell Jesus’ story, which is our story, and find ways to welcome people home into the household of Love in which dwells that most remarkable family: Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Earth Maker, the Pain Bearer and the Life Sustainer. It is, after all, where we come from and where one day we all will return. We can go now, or go later, but one day we all go back to that place from whence we come – the household of Love in the heart of God’s eternal Love.

Thank you, and amen!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Muhammad Ali: Going Home To Be With God

Muhammad Ali: Going Home To Be With God
In our opening prayer this fourth Sunday after Pentecost we pray, “…that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ…” We are those people called to minister God’s justice with compassion.

I sat glued to the television yesterday as The Champ, The Greatest, was sent home to be with God, with Allah, with YHWH, to dwell in the eternal Now of the Tao. I watched as the cavalcade of cars made its way through the streets of Louisville as thousands paid tribute to one who, as Bryant Gumble observed, had early in his life been a polarizing figure, but who in pursuit of ministering God’s justice with compassion became one of the single most unifying figures in the world – the whole world.

As I listened, one person after another told stories of a man from humble beginnings who changed the world we live in by striving for justice and peace for all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. He lived the truth of Islam in a time when the religion of the prophet has been misunderstood and mis-appropriated in so many ways. We heard of how when Parkinson’s robbed him of his mighty voice he said, “Well, maybe God is punishing me for some of the things I didn’t do right….I believe that when you die and go to heaven, God won’t ask you what you’ve done but what you could have done.”

We heard of how he would sometimes wade into the geo-political quagmire to rescue hostages in Iraq in the run-up to the First Gulf War. Fifteen Americans held hostage by Saddam Hussein were released thanks to Ali’s steadfast and persistent efforts. ‘“You know, I thanked him,” said former hostage Bobby Anderson. “And he said, ‘Go home,’ be with my family . . . what a great guy.”

Go home. Be with your family. Another time he was watching an Olympic boxing match won by a young American. After the fight the young man was brought to Ali’s side for the obligatory and familiar photograph of The Champ with a fist aimed at the young man’s face and a smile on his own. When they were done he turned to a friend and said, “I want to see the loser.” They took him to the locker room where there were no reporters, no cameras, just a young man, dejected, sitting on a stool. Ali walked over, put his arm around him and said, “You were great, man. Get up and show me what you’ve got.” For a few minutes they jabbed and sparred as best he could. “You’re going to be fine,” said the greatest. “Keep at it, get back up and you will be fine.” After his own loss to Larry Holmes, a fight in which all the money was on Holmes, Ali ran into an older man who worked at the arena and asked him who he had bet on. The man said, “Why you, of course.” Ali said, “Why did you do that? I didn’t have a chance in that ring!” The man replied, “Because Muhammad Ali gave me my dignity – I would bet on you any time and every time!”

Jesus, we read in Luke 7: 36-8:3, is invited to dinner with a respected Pharisee named Simon. While eating, a woman with an alabaster jar of ointment comes in off the street and begins to “bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” Simon, the putative host, says, to himself, “If this man were a prophet he would know what kind of woman she is – she is a sinner.” Jesus knows what Simon is thinking and tells a story about forgiveness. Then, sounding much like the young Cassius Clay he says, “You did not give me water to wash my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears. You did not greet me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing me since she came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet. Therefore, her sins which are many are forgiven for she has shown great love and compassion.” And to the woman he says, “Your faith has saved you – go in peace, go in shalom.” God’s shalom. God’s shalom is a vision of peace, justice and dignity for all people. Not some people, not a lot of people, but all people. Jesus essentially says to Simon, when you go home to God you will not be asked what you did, but what you did not do.

 Ali embodied that. There were tee-shirts all over Louisville with the words, “I am Ali!” We could all do worse in choosing a role model who challenged Jim Crow America, took stand against an unjust war, and chose to bring out the good in people wherever he went.

We pray that we might become those people who minister God’s justice with compassion. We are called to live lives that bring God’s justice and shalom to all people, everyone we meet – every life we touch. The verses that were skipped over in our weekly readings in Luke (Lk 7: 18-35) have to do with there being two types of people in the world: those who follow in the way of Jesus and those who do not. Then comes the story of Simon and this woman off the streets.

So the texts mean to ask us: Who will we be? One of the Simons of the world who look down with judgment upon others? Or, will we become more like this woman? Or, like Jesus? Or, like Muhammad Ali?

I was somewhat disappointed as I watched things unfold in Louisville yesterday. I had to hunt for one among the hundreds of stations that carried it. Of course it was ESPN, a sports station. I had thought that it would be carried on every major media outlet. I had to flip through the channels since even the guide did not say what was really on ESPN! Yet, my persistence was greatly rewarded. We listened in awe, those of us who did. We laughed, we cried, but most of all we were led to ask ourselves, “What could I do?”

We are but a moment’s sunlight fading in the grass. Soon, like The Greatest, we will be done with the troubles of this world. We’re all going home to be with God. We can, like Ali, be at home with God in this world as well as in the next. We who pray to be those people who minister God’s justice with compassion.

A rabbi who lived around the time of Jesus, Hillel, once said: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And if not now, when? Jesus embodied this ethic. The woman off the streets embodied this ethic. Muhammad Ali embodied this ethic – when none of us were watching, when none of us could see. He’s gone home to be with God. Yet, as we now know, he was always at home with his God as he ministered God’s justice with compassion every day. It’s the only way to be done with the troubles of this world. When we are done with the troubles of this world, God won’t ask what we did, but what we did not do. Amen.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Mercy Now

Be Merciful as your Father in heaven is Merciful – Luke 7: 1-17

The seventh chapter of Luke begins with two stories that on the surface appear to be about healing. Yet, read within the greater context that Luke has set forth from the very beginning of his proclamation of the good news, one begins to see deeper dimensions and layers to these two stories.

In the first, a foreigner, a gentile, and a leader with authority in Caesar’s occupational force, a Centurion, begs Jesus to heal his ailing slave. Suspecting, correctly, that Jesus and others might find this beyond the pale, some leaders of the Capernaum synagogue community commend the military man as one who has helped the community by building them a new synagogue, the remains of which may be what one sees when visiting Capernaum today. Then as Jesus heads to the man’s house, the Centurion sends word to Jesus saying, “You don’t need to come here for I am not worthy to have you in my house. But, I understand how the chain of command works for me and I trust it is so for you as you represent the very highest authority in heaven. You need only say the word, just as I would give orders in the name of Caesar, and it will be done.”

Jesus is moved. We are told has not encountered such humility and such faith anywhere before,  and the man’s slave is restored.

Jesus moves on to a town called Nain. There is a funeral procession for a young man, the son of  a widow in the town. We are told that Jesus has compassion for her and asks her not to weep. Then he stops the procession, touches the funeral bier or casket, and instructs the young man to rise. The young man sits up and begins to speak, “and Jesus gave him to his mother.” Her household was restored. The word spreads.

These stories are not just about the slave or the son – they are about the Centurion and the widow. They are about the power of the Lord as derived from his Father in heaven. They are examples of what Jesus was talking about in the previous chapter (6) in his Sermon on the Plain: to be merciful just as our Father in heaven is merciful. That such mercy means reaching out in compassion for those who are poor, hungry and those who weep. These stories mean to connect Jesus to Israel’s past when Elijah raised a widow’s son from the dead (I Kings: 17-24), and his apprentice Elisha healed a commander of a foreign nation from afar (2 Kings 4:32-37).

And the reader/listener is meant to remember that at his first sermon in his hometown synagogue Jesus made direct reference to these very prior actions of Elijah and Elisha to justify taking his mission beyond his hometown and ultimately beyond Israel (Luke 4:14-30). And we are meant to recall the announcements of the angels at his birth, and the songs of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) and Mary (Luke 1: 46-55) promising that this child, now a young man, has come to restore not only Israel but all of humankind! These are all stories of restoration.

That is, Luke has set the stage for these two stories very carefully so that when read in the context of the whole story we might see what is really going on here and not be tempted to try and explain how the slave and the woman’s son are revived, but rather to see that their stories are part of a greater story – what some have called The Greatest Story – and is part of God’s ongoing story of the restoration of humankind, of all people – not some people, not a lot of people, but all people.

The Centurion is the ultimate outsider – and quite literally a resident alien, and in the minds of most people, an illegal and dangerous alien at that. And yet, like some of our troops today in Afghanistan who build schools for boys AND girls in that country, he has built a synagogue, a house of study, for the people of Capernaum. He is an example of compassion and mercy which Jesus recognizes, the likes of which he has never seen.

As we meet the widow, she has now lost her son. With no husband or son she is poor and without resources – ie there is no one in her household to take care of her. Jewish law demanded that there be special care for women like her. Add to that the grief of a mother having to bury her own child – like Mary Theotokos, the mother of God will be faced with near the end of Luke’s story.

So Luke’s literary skill has the reader looking back to the beginning of the story, even to the very beginnings of prophetic ministry in Israel, and looking forward to the end of the story, all the while inviting us, the listener, to ponder in what ways this is our story as well.

While volunteering one day at Paul’s Place our diocesan feeding center in Baltimore my friend and colleague Bill Rich looked out at the hungry, poor and homeless and widowed clientele and said, “There by the grace of God am I.” These are our stories.

Not only are we to be merciful as God is merciful, a tall order indeed, we must also first recognize that we are, every day that we rise from sleep and begin a new day, recipients of God’s boundless mercy. I say boundless because as these stories and their predecessors in First and Second Kings illustrate, God’s mercy extends beyond boarders, beyond denominations, beyond religious and geo-political boundaries. God’s mercy has no bounds. Created in God’s image as we are, our mercy is to know no bounds as well. Note that in these stories Jesus restores people from far off or up close and personal, and that those restored make no confession of faith in Jesus – that God’s mercy and restoration does not depend on believing in God or Jesus.

This is how the restoration of Humankind happens. This is how unity overcomes estrangement, forgiveness heals guilt and joy conquers despair. This is how we are to represent Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world – not by building walls, condemning other traditions and fomenting fear and despair, but by being merciful.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that being merciful is the one good idea we have been given so far. Perhaps, he mused, we will get a second good idea. His hunch is that music, the one thing common to all cultures and traditions, the one thing that moves the human spirit in mysterious ways, will somehow be that second good idea being born. That’s why it is so important that we sing and play and listen to music – to allow God’s imagination give birth to new ideas as rich and as important as being merciful. For the one thing we might all agree upon the world over is that we all could use some mercy now. The restoration of the world depends on it. Amen.