For November 25 (Proper 29, Year B)

John 18:33-37 (below): In this week's Gospel reading, Pilate mockingly asks Jesus, "Are you King of the Jews?" And in so many words Jesus answers, "Not the way you think of kings. If I were an ordinary king you'd see plenty of violence. But I was born to depend on truth as my only weapon—the truth that God's enfleshed love won't stay dead even if you kill it. My kingdom is not based on the business-as-usual model of this world—it's the relentless, reconciling, enfleshed  presence of God that nobody can banish, not even you."

Well ... we know where that answer got him—crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross. It's only with that anti-crown and from that anti-throne that he lives and reigns among us today. He does live, because the enfleshed life that God lives with him wouldn’t stay dead. And he does reign, because the power he unleashes in the world is the power of a love that will always outlast any attempt to stop it. But this is no ordinary life, and no ordinary king.

The power of an ordinary king looks impressive for a while, but it always fails. Nobody today celebrates the real presence of Pilate or Caesar—any Caesar. We do celebrate the real presence of Christ, and that in itself shows that there's another kind of power at work in our world that may not look impressive but that doesn't fail. That's the power of Christ, the power of God-with-us, the power of God's enfleshed love that won't stay dead even if you kill it.

When Christ is king, all our ideas of royalty get turned on their heads. Trains definitely do not run on time. But enfleshed love remains stubbornly undefeated. This is no ordinary king.

*********

John 18:33-37: Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

For November 18 (Proper 28, Year B)

Mark 13:1-8 (below): This is what I’m hearing these days when I read this passage:

Nothing lasts, no matter how impressive. Jesus’ followers are impressed by the Temple in Jerusalem. They’ve probably never seen any other building as massive or as solidly built. Jesus says it won’t last: “all will be thrown down.” And indeed the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, though not completely (the Western Wall still stands as a holy site). Did Jesus actually predict this, or did Mark embellish Jesus’ teaching after the fact (as most scholars now think)? I’m not sure that matters. You don’t have to have a supernatural ability to predict the future to realize that none of our constructions last forever. Nothing stays the same. All that remains are ... remains.

Beware of people who claim a too-special status. Just because somebody alluringly uses your favorite spiritual terms—or wears collar like me—that doesn’t mean they comprehend the mystery of God’s all-enlivening presence any more then the rest of us do. Maybe if, like Jesus, they keep reminding us that they’re not the magical problem solvers we were looking for, we should pay attention to them. But we should listen to one another together, not to them alone. Jesus is warning us never to follow anyone blindly—not even him. (“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me”—John 10:37.) He didn’t say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!,” but he would’ve gotten the point of that Buddhist koan.

Expect more destruction and conflict—they’re inescapable. And so it seems, right down to today. Just check any news source. Is Mark embellishing Jesus’ teaching again? Maybe, but to repeat, I’m not sure it matters. From the very beginning Christians were celebrating the divinely empowering, living presence of an executed criminal, as we still do in every Eucharist. It’s no use pretending that conflict isn’t all around us.

But conflict and destruction are not the end. “The end is still to come.” People in every generation, including Jesus’ generation, can be so overwhelmed by the conflict and destruction they see that they begin to wonder if they are not witnessing the end of everything hopeful. It’s not the end, says Jesus. Don’t close your eyes to the “negativity” of the world. But don’t let it overwhelm you.

“This is but the beginning of birth pangs.” No matter how bad things get, something new and even hopeful is always coming to birth through them. It may be something we don’t even know how to describe in the terms available to us now. It’s hardly ever what we were expecting. It may not have been quite what Jesus was expecting. God’s universal realm of peace and justice did not arrive in the lifetimes of Jesus’ first followers. But with the worldview-shattering experience of Jesus’ resurrection a new kind of community arose. It had all the failings of any human community, and it still does. Its birthpangs keep birthing more birthpangs. But it’s still haphazardly embodying God’s self-giving love that Jesus lived among us.

*********

Mark 13:1-8: As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

For November 11, 2018 (Proper 27, Year B)

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 (below): Back in 1960, when I was about six or seven, Mom took my brother and me to see a movie called "The Story of Ruth." It was a pretty typical, biblical-epic sort of movie that Hollywood liked to turn out in those days. It's basically a love story about a woman in a neighboring country who falls in love with and marries a handsome, young Jewish man. Then after he's killed for converting her from her country's bloodthirsty idol worship—none of this is mentioned in the Bible, by the way—she moves to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi, also recently widowed—that part is in the Bible. There Ruth falls in love with another handsome, young Jewish man named Boaz. The attraction is definitely mutual. After a few dramatic twists and turns in the story, they get married, and they all live happily ever after.

How nice.

It's a typical Hollywood adaptation. It does to the biblical story what our culture in general too often does. It shows us well-behaved characters and suggests that God was looking out for them precisely because they were so well-behaved. That’s what my Sunday school teachers taught me too. God favors the the well-behaved. So if your own life story doesn't quite measure up to these movie-characters' stories, if you aren't among the decent and well-behaved, God probably won't favor you. God favors the well-behaved. That's the working theology of most American Christians.

But it's not the working theology of the Bible. Often as not, the people God favors are not well-behaved. Often as not, God favors the misbehavors, even the downright scandalous.

Ruth is one of those scandalous misbehavors. Forget about the Hollywood romance. This is an unromantic story of gritty everyday reality, where people do whatever it takes to live in a conflicted world.

Forget about Boaz as the dashing, young man who turns Ruth's head. We're not told anything about his age or his looks. For all we know he may have looked like Henry VIII after all those years of gluttony caught up with him. All we know is that Boaz was well-to-do, that he was a close relative of Ruth's first husband, and that he definitely took an interest in Ruth. We're never told how Ruth felt about him, though she definitely liked the benefits that came with his extra attention.

Oh, one more thing we know about Boaz—he's also a direct descendent of another widow, an infamous, misbehaving widow named Tamar. Way back in Genesis, Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah. After her husband died, Judah was supposed to secure her future by having another son father children with her, only that son, Onan, died too (we won't go into just why he died right now), and Judah decided to postpone trying the same thing with his third son (maybe he thought Tamar was bad luck). Tamar was left wondering if she had any future at all. So she decided to misbehave. She disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her own father-in-law. When her ruse was discovered, Judah at least had the decency to admit that she was more in the right than he was. The point is, if Tamar hadn't misbehaved, if she hadn't behaved scandalously, there would be no Boaz.

Oh, I almost forgot another "one more thing": you wouldn't know this from reading the book of Ruth, but Matthew's Gospel tells us that Boaz's very own mother was Rahab, a Canaanite former prostitute. So centuries later we learn that Boaz owes his very existence not just to one but to two misbehaving women—one who behaved like a prostitute, and another who actually was a prostitute.

As I said, the book of Ruth doesn't mention Rahab, but it's no accident that the book mentions Tamar several times. We're supposed to notice that. Ruth may not have known that story, but Naomi did. She knew that, in a man's world where widows could easily fall between the cracks, sometimes the only way to secure justice was to behave scandalously, like Tamar. She knew that the men in her family should ensure that she and Ruth have descendants, but so far nobody had volunteered to make that happen. Boaz had been generous, but even he hadn't taken that crucial step. Like Judah, the men who should have been stepping up were dragging their feet. It was time to help things along, so Naomi came up with the plan we heard about in today's first reading.

Following Naomi's instructions, Ruth goes to the threshing floor one night, where Boaz and his men are getting in the harvest. That may not sound too scandalous, so you need to know that the threshing floor was where prostitutes plied their trade. Ruth is putting her whole reputation in jeopardy just by showing up there. Ruth waits until Boaz is asleep after consuming a fair amount of wine. Then, we're told, she sneaks up and uncovers his feet and lies down with him. Something else you need to know is that when the Bible speaks of uncovering a man's feet, it's not his feet that are uncovered. It's another appendage entirely. So when Boaz wakes up, he and Ruth are in an extremely compromising position. And given how much he's had to drink, he probably wonders if anything had happened that he doesn't remember now. Ruth takes advantage of his uncertainty and suggests that now the only appropriate thing for him to do is to marry her, as he should have done anyway. And so he does, praising her for her initiative, and that's how Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of none other than King David.

So this most definitely is not your typical Hollywood romance. This is an unromantic story of gritty everyday reality, where people like Naomi and Ruth do whatever it takes to live in a conflicted world.

And thank God they did!

If Tamar hadn't behaved scandalously, if Boaz's father hadn't married a Canaanite woman with a scandalous occupation, there would be no Boaz. If Naomi hadn't cooked up a scandalous plot, and if Ruth hadn't carried it out, there would be no David.

In fact, there would be no Jesus, as Matthew's Gospel points out. Matthew adds two more scandals to this list—David's murderous misbehavior with Bathsheba, and most importantly, Mary's Spirit-filled pregnancy out of wedlock. Without these scandals involving Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and finally Mary, there would be no Jesus, who, mind you, spent most of his ministry hanging out with shady, scandalous characters.

Often as not, the people God favors are not well-behaved. Often as not, God favors the misbehavors, even the downright scandalous.

Why?

Well, according to the Nicene Creed, the creed my Church recites every Sunday, God's behavior is the most scandalous of all. The one through whom all things were made starts hanging out with the shadiest likes of us, sharing the shameful fate of an executed criminal, rising to embrace us all at our very worst. God sacrifices a godly reputation for an ungodly reputation, turning our very idea of godliness on its head. So now even the ungodliest-looking of us find a welcome we never could have predicted and certainly will never fathom.

Like the stories of Tamar, Naomi and Ruth, God's story is an unromantic story of gritty everyday reality, where God does whatever it takes to live with us in our conflicted world. God is apt to break just about any code of decency devised in order to embrace us on our own conflicted terms and draw us into God's all-embracing terms.

Maybe your life hasn't been that well-behaved. Most of our lives haven't when all the details are known. Maybe you've had to do whatever it takes to live in a conflicted world. Maybe you're still having to do that.

Don't think for a moment that you're beyond God's favor. Your behavior can never be more scandalous than God's. Don't imagine that your conflicted terms can't be drawn into furthering God's all-embracing terms. It's happened before. It can happen now. It is happening now. 

Fr. Charles  

 **********

 Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17: Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do." She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do ... So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

 

For November 4, 2018 (Proper 26, Year B)

Mark 12:28-34 (below): This week, after one of the worst hate crimes against Jews in US history, we have a much needed opportunity to focus on the faithfulness that Christians and Jews have always shared in common, something that Christians, in particular, seem to have forgotten all too frequently.* This week’s Gospel lesson points to that shared faithfulness, if we pay enough attention. Here’s what we Christians need especially to notice:

Many Jewish leaders agreed with the spirit of Jesus’ teaching. Yes, Mark mentions only one Torah scholar (“scribe”). But we now need to recognize that many other Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time were offering similar teachings. This scribe represents a whole movement within the formation of early Judaism. And he already knows what Jesus tells him. He asked Jesus about the Great Commandment because he wanted to see if Jesus knew what he and his movement already knew.

Jesus’ creed was the Jewish creed. In Judaism the Great Commandment is called the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5): “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (that’s a translation of Mark’s translation). It’s the fundamental faith statement (or creed) recited every week in synagogue worship (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3198398/jewish/What-to-Expect-at-Shabbat-Morning-Synagogue-Services.htm). Jesus acknowledges it as his own creed too.

Loving God by loving neighbors was also a Jewish idea. To the Shema Jesus adds Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Again, other early Jewish writings made this connection: “I loved the Lord with all my strength; likewise, I loved every person with all my heart” (Testament of Issachar 5:2). So to repeat, Jesus was standing with a movement within early Judaism.

This connection, loving God and all others, was an implication of the Shema: Adding Leviticus 19:18 made that explicit, but it was already implied, because the oneness of God in creation and reconciliation is an affirmation of our own fundamental oneness. It affirms our differences, to be sure. That’s what creation is all about. (Christians could add that this is also what the Trinity is all about, but Jews have developed their own ways of recognizing God’s diversifying unity.) But the Shema also affirms our fundamental oneness. We are all differing versions of one another, so we can never separate loving ourselves from loving others—all others.

Whoever is drawn to live this is “not far from the reign of God.” That applies to Christians, Jews, and all others who are drawn to love others as themselves (including those who are not sure about the “God” part). None of us is quite there yet, but we’re not far. And there’s no reason to make this a competition among faith traditions. If we want to compete, we can compete with ourselves.

So as we grieve, and defy hatefulness, with our Jewish friends, may we Christians especially recognize how much we share in common. Their grief and defiance are ours too, because God is one.

Fr. Charles

*Highly recommended reading: Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2006); Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

********

Mark 12:28-34: One of the scribes came near and heard the Saducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

For October 28, 2018 (Proper 25, Year B): Nevertheless, They Persisted

[This is actually a sermon preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Indianapolis.] 

Mark 10:46-52 (below): Our hearts are broken today. We are grieving. We are angry. We want more than hollow-sounding assurances of thoughts and prayers, however well intended. My reflections on this week’s Gospel were mostly written before I turned on the news yesterday. They do address where we are today, though I think the tone would have been very different. So bear with me as we reflect on this lesson together.

What do the beggar Bartimaeus and Elizabeth Warren have in common? Hint: it has nothing to do with anybody’s ancestry. Try this: “Many sternly ordered [Bartimaeus] to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly.” “[Senator Warren] was warned … Nevertheless, she persisted.” They both persisted. They both persisted nevertheless.

Senator Warren was silenced for speaking out, for being critical of the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General—mind you, not nearly as critical of him as our very own President has become, but critical enough for the majority in power to invoke a little known and seldom observed rule to put a stop to her objections. “She was warned,” said Mitch McConnell, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

To Senator McConnell’s chagrin, that phrase, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” has now become a rallying cry for women who continue to experience efforts to silence them when they speak out. It doesn’t just describe a speech—a speech delivered in a mostly empty chamber that might have gone unnoticed if simply allowed to continue. It describes the efforts of centuries of women who refused to be silenced: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton—the usual suspects—or more recently Rosa Parks, or even more recently, the Me Too Movement, or in the Bible, Tamar, the Canaanite woman, “the persistent widow,” Mary Magdalen, or in our own church, the Philadelphia Eleven, ordained priests before we made it legal, or in our own diocese, Jackie Means, the first woman legally priested on this very spot in 1977. All of them were pressured to quiet down, to stay in their place. Even Jackie was pressured, though if you know Jackie you know that most people didn’t try that with her more than once. Nevertheless, they persisted.

Today our Gospel lesson focuses on another who persisted. He persisted, nevertheless. Bartimaeus also knew what it was like to be shoved to the margins, this time because of a physical disability, forced to beg, and pressured to keep quiet about it. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

And this Son of David stopped what he was doing, invited Bartimaeus to come near, asked him what he wanted, and then, perhaps most surprisingly, declared that he already had what he wanted because of his faith. “Go, your faith has made you well.”

“Your faith has made you well.” Nowadays, we hear that that word “faith,” and we’re tempted to think Jesus is talking about something going on inside our heads. Some have even turned it into that victim-blaming, mind-over-matter Law of Attraction: what you believe either creates or allows everything that happens to you—everything (http://jackcanfield.com/blog/take-100-responsibility-for-your-life-starting-today/). So on that reading I guess Bartimaeus’ beliefs must have created his own blindness, only now his new beliefs must have cured it.

But Jesus isn’t talking about what goes on inside our heads. He’s not talking about beliefs. He’s using the word “faith” the way his own Bible, the Hebrew Bible, uses it. Jesus is talking about the faith of Abraham. There’s a phrase from Genesis (15:6) that the New Testament quotes whenever faith gets mentioned. Usually it’s translated, “Abraham believed God” (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). But that’s not quite what Genesis actually says. First of all, the word for “God” is “YHWH,” which by Jesus’ time, in Jewish ears, had come to mean “the One Who Will Be No Matter What,” or right now we could shorten that to “the Ever-Persisting One.” So that’s God, the Ever-Persisting One. And then the word that’s usually translated as “believed” (he’emin) is more accurately translated as “persisted with.” Abraham persisted with the Ever-Persisting One. Abraham echoed in his own life who God is in every life, the Ever-Persisting One, the One Who Persists No Matter What—the One Who Persists ... Nevertheless.

And so did Bartimaeus. When Bartimaeus refused to be silenced, when he nevertheless persisted, he echoed in his own life the God who is in every life, the One Who Persists Nevertheless, persists no matter what. And that, Jesus says, is what made him well, what has already made him well before he began to see again—his echoing the Life of all lives who also refuses to be silenced.

Of course, Bartimaeus did begin to see again—immediately, we’re told—so I wonder if he noticed what Jesus had just said. Your persisting, your echo of God’s persisting, has already made you well.

It was another version of Jesus’ favorite sermon. You’ve heard it. “The kingdom of God has come near,” the beloved community of justice, peace and wellbeing has begun to arrive right now. Sometimes its arrival brings remarkable moments of healing and celebration—just ask Bartemaus. But sometimes it looks like nothing will ever be better. Bartimaeus may be well, but the Romans are still here; rejection, persecutions, even executions are still going to happen. Jesus can see that, and soon his followers will see it too. In fact, the way Mark tells it, it’s only about one more week before Jesus is dead and all his followers have deserted him in fear. Nevertheless, Jesus preached this unlikely sounding message: God’s reign has already come near. It’s already taken root and can’t be weeded out. It’s persisting, nevertheless, no matter what.

No matter what. These days it may feel as if there’s a whole lot of “what” that’s threatening to drown out even a glimpse of God’s beloved community. I asked one of my sons the other day about whether he felt encouraged by the changes that might happen with the upcoming elections. (He was a political science major in college, so I always consider him more of an expert about politics than I am.) He said the outlook still looked pretty bleak to him, no matter who has control of the House or Senate. No matter who wins, the level of mutual hostility and suspicion seems to be growing. This week alone attacks on trans identities are legally sanctioned. Public figures receive pipe bombs in the mail from a political opponent. A synagogue is attacked, faithful worshipers slain, while our President blames the synagogue for not arming itself. Whole populations are refusing to believe well-attested facts. And despite our efforts to get out the vote, many of the most vulnerable among us will be under-represented at the polls. Sometimes it looks like nothing will ever get better.

Nevertheless, no matter how ridiculous it may look, we gather here to celebrate the longed-for beloved community that has already arrived, that began to arrive even as Jesus headed for Jerusalem to face his own execution, that began to arrive even when it looked like nothing would ever get better. We gather here not just to hear Jesus’ message but to taste and see it in broken bread and poured-out wine. Maybe it looks foolish, but in all of this God is still speaking to us in Jesus’ voice: Your persisting, your echo of my persisting, has already made you well. It’s joined you to the One who will never give up, no matter what, and that is where you will find of the wholeness all of us seek.

Bartimaeus persisted, Jesus persisted, his followers persisted, Jackie Means persisted, Senator Warren persisted, Christine Blasey Ford persisted. Tree of Life Synagogue is persisting. Seemingly insurmountable forces conspired and still conspire to silence them. Nevertheless, they persisted. And despite all that’s happened to counter their efforts, their persistence has made them well, and us well, already. And so will ours today. Believe. Persist. Amen.

********* 

 Mark 10:46-52: Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

 

For October 21, 2018 (Proper 24, Year B)

Mark 10:35-45 (below): Jesus "came not to be served but to serve,” and the community that arose to embody his life (us, that is) came to regard those words as God’s words about God. God comes to us “not to be served but to serve, and to give [God’s] life a ransom for many,” indeed for all.

We believe in a God who keeps turning our standards of greatness and power and success on their heads, a God who defeats our rejection by letting us do our worst and refusing to compete with us, a God who comes to us in the voices and lives of those we tend to discount.

That’s subversive service—not just service, but service that keeps disrupting our built-in wishes to have the whole world under our control, opening us to a world better than we could ever have imagined. That sort of service is the opposite of being a doormat. It’s subversive.

We’re not very good at practicing this. In fact, for most of our 2,000 year story we’ve shown ourselves to be fairly effective at domesticating servanthood. We're good at lapsing into power games as usual. Some of us are good at using lip-service to servanthood as an excuse to get control, but just as crucial, many of us are good at letting others get away with that. Sure, they take advantage of us, but at least life is more predictable that way.

But God’s call to subversive service won’t be silenced, even if God has to work outside the channels we recognize. In Jesus God showed up and keeps showing up not to be served but to serve, and not just to serve but to serve subversively. We're being drawn to serve the God who rules by serving us and everyone else.

Are we ready for that? Are we ready to drink the cup that God drinks, to be baptized (immersed) with the baptism God is baptized with, to give our very lives away to win back a whole world? Jesus says that, ready or not, that’s what will happen to us anyway. Yes, that’s daunting. It’s also our salvation.

Fr. Charles  

******

Mark 10:35-45: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

For October 14, 2018 (Proper 23, Year B)

Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Mark 10:17-31 (below): Our readings this week are all about generosity and social justice. It may be news to many Americans, but putting the urgent needs of the poor ahead of the wishes of the rich is one of the most consistent themes of the Bible.

Amos levels his tirade against the well-off, not because they have things, but because their eagerness to have things shoves neighbors aside and turns them into a faceless crowd. Their possessions become locked doors to shut people out. And they shut God out too. The reign of God is all about being caught up together into the common life that God already is, and you can’t let that happen if instead you’re caught up into a private, insulated lifestyle.

That seems to be the rich man’s problem in today’s Gospel. Jesus takes an instant liking to him and wants him to join his movement, but the man can’t do that and still hold on to all he has, so he gives up and goes away. Jesus comments that it practically takes a miracle to get the rich to join in God’s common life. Fortunately, though, that’s the kind of miracle God has in mind.

And part of the miracle, apparently, is that people who join in God’s common life experience receiving a hundred times more than they gave up—but not on conventional terms.

Jesus is talking about the reign of God, being caught up together into the common life that God already is. And that’s not a life that shuts out the suffering and brokenness of the world.

This is a life offered and blessed and broken and shared, just like bread and wine, just like Jesus’ life, just like God’s life. It’s a life that transforms all the things you and I have from locked doors into doors thrown open to let the pains and joys of the world inside. We’re told over and over again that this is the only life worth living because, in the final analysis, it’s the only life that ever gets fully lived. Anything less is a cheap imitation.

Fr. Charles

******

Amos 5:6-7,10-15: Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Mark 10:17-31: As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

For October 7, 2018 (Proper 22, Year B)

Mark 10:2-16 (see below): In this week’s reading Jesus talks about marriage and divorce. His words  are controversial. I was in a group of seminary colleagues a few years ago, working on a lectionary commentary for the Human Rights Campaign, and this was one of the passages we discussed. Here's what we said, somewhat expanded (and here’s the original):

Some readers claim that Jesus is defining marriage exclusively as a relationship between a man and a woman. But actually, Jesus is answering a specific question about how a husband should treat his wife (Mark 10:2). Nobody was asking him about the status of same-sex relationships or about gender identity.

(It’s important to realize here that, even before Mark’s Gospel had been written, St. Paul had already challenged the absolute status of gender binaries and gender identity in Galatians 3:28—“there is no longer male and female.” And of course, if there is no longer male and female, there is no longer a clear division between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. No, I’m not saying that Paul would have agreed with this. I don’t think he realized the implications of what he said. But the implications are there anyway.)

Jesus emphasizes that when two people become one flesh, God is in that union. Because of that holy union, neither is free to treat the other as disposable property (Mark 10:9-12). This is actually a subversive idea, because in the Mediterranean culture of Jesus’ time, whether Jewish, Greek or Roman, marriage was mostly thought of in terms of the property rights a man had over a woman. Jesus, like some other rabbis, is rejecting the very idea of marriage as a matter of real estate.

What happens today, when married couples find it necessary to divorce, is very different from that sort of real estate transaction. There are still disputes over property, but neither spouse is considered another’s property. So what Jesus says in answer to that question doesn’t apply directly. But Jesus’ principle still applies: even when a marriage must end, nobody deserves to be treated as disposable property.

Children, as well, are not disposable property, because God’s reign belongs first to the most vulnerable among us (Mark 9:14-15).

And here’s one more subversive idea: Jesus makes it clear that even this Gospel lesson is not the last word on relationships. Jesus won’t let us use Scripture as a trump card. Jesus says that Moses’ ideas about marriage and divorce were just that—Moses’ ideas, not God’s ideas. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you” (Mark 10:5). Jesus is recognizing that God’s Word comes to us in our flesh and on our limited terms. God works among us through our limited ways. In other words, Jesus is implying that no Scripture passage is the last word. He deeply respected the laws attributed to Moses. When he criticized the law on divorce, he appealed to a deeper truth found in other writings attributed to Moses. But he was still rejecting the simplistic mindset of “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.”

We have to search Scripture for signs of the open community to which God is drawing us. And we have to let that underlying vision critique passages that seem to fall short of that vision. Moses knew that. Jesus knew that, and so did other rabbis. But many of today’s Christians have forgotten it.

None of us is disposable property—not spouses, not significant others, not children. The terms of our relationships may change. What must not change is the dignity each of us has as God’s beloved offspring, not anybody’s disposable property.

Fr. Charles

******

Mark 10:2-16: Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 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.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

For September 30, 2018 (Proper 21, Year B)

Mark 9:38-50 (see below): Jesus is talking to his inner circle and continuing to challenge their assumptions about leadership and its privileges. We heard some of that last week. This week he says some pretty harsh sounding, frightening things, but we need to remember that all of these are addressed to his future Apostles, to people who might easily abuse their status as leaders.

First, he tells them that they can’t prevent “outsiders” from acting out God’s beloved community (aka, the reign or “kingdom” of God) on their own terms. God is not working exclusively through just one faith community.

Then he warns them of dire consequences if they use their authority to abuse the “little ones” in their own community. Think of all the stories of clergy abuse coming to light almost every day. How angry do you feel about ministers who abuse children? Or what about ministers who take emotional advantage of adults who turn to them fore care and guidance? Why shouldn’t we be outraged at these abuses? Surely we can appreciate Jesus’ outrage here.

Yes, he uses exaggerated language in his warnings: better to cut off limbs, to tear out eyes, so as not to  stumble. If he had meant that literally, all the disciples would have needed wheelchairs and seeing-eye dogs within the week. The college-level term here is “hyperbole” (not to be confused with a geometric curve; that’s a hyperbola—the different spelling matters). It’s like the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” (If you’ve never heard that one, here’s more about it.) But hyperbole aside, Jesus IS saying that, if you find yourself tempted to abuse power entrusted to you, do whatever it takes to put a stop to it. Be unsparing. It’s that serious.

And he’s implying that the rest of us have every right to put a stop to abuse too. Whatever it takes. You should know that nowadays our sponsoring Episcopal and Lutheran Churches have established channels for safely reporting clergy misconduct. So if you see it happening to you or to somebody else, you can contact the offices of either Bishop (in my Diocese contact the Title IV Intake Officer). Yes, they will investigate quietly at first, but they are required by canon law to ensure that justice is done. (We also have canons for removing abusive Bishops—nobody is exempt from accountability. It’s all here in dense legalese.)

One more issue this passage raises is the popular perception that Jesus is threatening people with hell. In fact, that’s how most English translations read here.

But actually, there’s no word in the Bible that means “hell” as most of us understand it today. There’s Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek), the shadowy realm of the dead. There’s Tartarus (mentioned only once in 2 Peter 2:4), where the Greek gods imprisoned the Titans. And then there’s the word Jesus uses here: Gehenna. This literally refers to a fiery garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. (I’ve substituted that phrase where the usual translation says “hell.”)

Here’s what evangelical New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says about Gehenna:

“The most common New Testament word sometimes translated as ‘hell’ is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the south-west corner of the old city of Jerusalem ... The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.” (Found here)

So in other words, Jesus is warning of dire consequences for those who abuse power and harm the most vulnerable. But the consequences are this-worldly, not other-worldly. And in a way, they’re self-fulfilling. If you would-be leaders care for and empower the most vulnerable among you, you have already entered into life, into God’s beloved community. If you use your power to abuse them, you are already in Jerusalem’s city dump, “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” You are blocking the love of God, hindering the new life this love brings.

Leaders are accountable to the most vulnerable. Myself included. Let’s hold them, and us, to no less than that standard.

Fr. Charles

******

Mark 9:38-50 (unofficial translation): John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you who wish to lead put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to the unquenchable fire in Jerusalem’s city dump. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Jerusalem’s city dump. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter God’s beloved community with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Jerusalem’s city dump, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

For September 23, 2018 (Proper 20, Year B)

Mark 9:30-37 (see below): Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

Do we really believe this? I'm not sure I know how.

Politicians, no matter the party, love to say that all they care about is serving the people, but we know that this is NOT all they care about.

There's nothing more ludicrous than people who try to impress us with their selflessness.

For them acting selfless is a strategy for winning a race: act like you don't want to be first, so you can wind up first after all.

But that's not what Jesus meant.

He meant STOP WANTING TO BE FIRST!

And that's the part I don't know how to do.

When I manage to be self-effacing, there’s always a deeper wish, often unacknowledged, that people (or at least God) will commend me for how selfless I am. That’s still wanting to be first.

Or I think about one of my favorite childhood stories, the Ugly Duckling. The “duckling” turns out to be a swan, who can then look down on its nest mates as inferiors. That’s turning the tables, but it’s still wanting to be first.

So I don’t know how to stop that. 

What I do know is that, even when I’m fooling myself about what I really want, sometimes I do forget about myself, and about my status, and that those are the best moments I've ever known.

The word for that is grace.

*********

Mark 9:30-37: Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little 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.”

For September 16, 2018 (Proper 19, Year B)

Mark 8:27-38 (see below): Jesus gives his disciples a pop-quiz. “You’ve heard what people think of me. Now … what do you think of me?” And Peter answers, “You’re God’s Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ.” Officially speaking, Peter’s right, and we already know that. Mark’s already told us who Jesus is (1:1). And here’s Peter telling Jesus the same thing. It’s the officially right answer. So we expect Peter to get an A+.

That’s not what happens—no A+, no “Congratulations,” no pat on the head for Peter. Instead Jesus cuts him off with a warning: “Don’t you dare tell anybody.” Peter gives the right answer, and Jesus shuts him up. And we’re left wondering what’s going on here. In Mark's Gospel it seems every time somebody says who Jesus officially is he tells them to keep quiet. It’s like he’s one of those people who just can’t take a compliment. What’s his problem? What’s wrong with the right answer?

Well, maybe, just maybe, Jesus is worried about all the mischief God’s people can commit once they’re sure they’ve finally got the right answers. Maybe having the officially right answers isn't the point.

Also, Jesus is especially worried about what people might do in his name if they keep calling him Messiah. It’s not that the label is wrong, but it has taken on a lot of baggage that has nothing to do with the kind of difference Jesus wants to make in the world. Instead of destroying God’s opposition he’s going to let them destroy him! It’s not anybody’s version of a success story.

So Jesus rebukes Peter for not getting that, and then turns to everybody else and says, “If you’re going to follow me, if you’re going to get behind me, you’ll have to learn what it’s like to wind up on a cross. You’ll have to fall in love with a world that all too often won’t love back. You’ll have to give up dreams of winning, of putting down your opponents, and start longing for reconciliation. There’s only one way to find your life, and that’s by letting it go into the common life God is bringing to us already. All of us, not just the winners. Let go. Stop trying to win. It may look like dying, and you’re guaranteed to know intense pain and loss, but that’s actually when you’ll finally start living for real.”

Are you ready for that? I’m not. But this is the common life God is sharing with us already, patiently but stubbornly drawing us into a life of self-giving love, however long that may take. That’s Jesus’ unsettling good news.

Fr. Charles

********

Mark 8:27-38: Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

For September 9, 2018 (Proper 18, Year B)

Mark 7:24-30 (see below): This week’s Gospel lesson includes a story about a non-Jewish woman who seems to outwit Jesus and convince him that he can't limit his ministry to fellow Jews. It presents a rather unflattering snapshot of Jesus.

If you're wondering about that, here are two other stories to consider (they’re included below too):

Genesis 32:22-30: Jacob out-wrestles God and forces God to bless him. God names him "God-Wrestler" (that’s what “Israel” means) and concedes that Jacob won the wrestling match: “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Exodus 32:10-14: Moses chides an angry God into cooling off. God actually repents!

All of these stories challenge popular assumptions about Jesus and God—and about the kinds of stories you find in the Bible. People assume that Jesus never needed to be corrected, except it looks like he was this time. People assume the same about God.

Why doesn’t Jesus already know better?

How could God lose a wrestling match?

Why would God need to repent?

Why are there stories like this in the Bible?

************

Mark 7:24-30: Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Genesis 32:22-30: The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel [Hebrew: God-wrestler], for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel [Hebrew: God’s face], saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Exodus 32:9-14: The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord changed his mind [other translations say “repented”] about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.