Monthly Archives: August 2009

Mark 7:1-23: The other side of the story

             Have you ever been caught right smack in the middle of an argument? Have you ever listened carefully to two sides of a story, and found yourself sympathetic to both? There are people in my extended family who don’t always get along with each other, and for some reason they always come to me assuming that I’ll take their side.

            Today’s gospel is sort of like listening in to a family disagreement. The Pharisees are angry that Jesus doesn’t uphold the ritual purity laws that are central to their religious practices. Jesus argues that what we eat does not make us holy. In order to enter into the Good News, we need to enter into both sides of the story. To aid in this, I offer you a very condensed version of what I call “Old Testament 101.”

My version of OT 101 starts with verse 4 of Psalm 137. Psalm 137 is familiar to reggae fans: it begins with “By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down….” Verse 4 asks a question: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Many of the stories we read in the Hebrew Bible, and the religious practices that are described both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, are answers to that question, how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

In the year 586 BC, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, and the Jewish people were carried off to Babylon, where they lived in exile for 50 years. Before this deportation and exile, to be a follower of the God of Israel meant to be part of the land of Israel, and to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. In Babylon, their entire identity was up for grabs. It is in the context of this experience of displacement, the identity crisis of a whole nation, that I ask you to imagine small bands of the descendants of Abraham, sitting around a campfire at night by the waters of Babylon, asking that question: What does it mean to be God’s people without our land and without our temple?  How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? They came up with several answers, including their own creation story, the Sabbath, and the dietary practices peppered throughout scripture. Each of these transcended place, and helped the Israelites to continue to be a people in a strange land.

The ritual purity laws which Jesus bumps up against five hundred years later are the way that the Jewish people became a people. During the time of their exile and during the time of their return, it was the only way that they could affirm their identity as the people of God. It was their song to God in a strange land, their song to God in a strange time. And many of these practices—the Sabbath, keeping kosher, strict teachings on intermarriage—these practices have helped sustain and strengthen the Jewish people during times of exile and displacement ever since. This is how I understand the Pharisees’ side of the story.

Jesus’ side of the story is that there is an even deeper way to be the people of God. As he does all through the Gospels, Jesus does not say he has come to abolish the law of the Jewish people, but rather to call them to be faithful to what underlies the law. Jesus essentially reminds them, and us, that God does not ask for purity of food we eat, but purity of heart.

It is easy for us to dismiss the Jewish elders as overly rigid and as focusing only on the external trappings of religion. But before we interpret this gospel simply as a “dissing” of established and outmoded Jewish practices, let’s take a look around us. We gather each week in a dimly-lit space filled with the trappings of ritual. The candles, the sanctuary light, the altar. Vestments. The roles that some of us play in the service. Special words that we use. (Someone once told me: it’s not “bread,” it’s the “sacred host.”)

I think that if any of us were pushed to answer the question: what would Jesus think about all this? we would have to wonder whether we’ve somehow gotten away from the essence of religion: love, kindness, sacrificial generosity, caring for widows and orphans. And yet, I think that if we really thought about it, we would also say that all of our trappings—the flowers, the organ, the special prayers, when we stand or sit or kneel—are not meaningless or silly to us. They help us to be faithful. Many of us are Anglicans precisely because we like this kind of thing. Because our language and our understanding of light and dark and color and song and silence are all pathways to that deeper way of being the people of God.

When we confuse ritual with discipleship, then we are no longer listening to Jesus’ side of the story. When our ritual keeps us from looking around at who is hungry, who is outside, who is lonely or scared, then it ceases to serve the purpose for which it was created, and we cease to serve the purpose for which we are created. When ritual is a pathway toward living out God’s plan for salvation, when it is an expression of God’s grace that nourishes us in this strange land in which we live, then it becomes part of  how we are faithful, and part of how we follow.

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Any kind of bread

Our family has a favorite children’s author, Tim Egan. I highly recommend any of his books, for the 3 to 6 year old crowd. One of our favorites is called Distant Feathers. It features a giant red bird named Feathers, from a distant planet. Feathers loves bread. Every time the subject of food comes up, and even when it doesn’t, he says:

“I love bread. Any kind of bread. Pumpernickel, rye, whole wheat, sourdough. Any kind. I absolutely love bread. You got any bread?”

This bird has nothing if not focus.

Jesus has the same focus in the sixth chapter of John. Unlike Feathers, however, Jesus’ message has many layers. His hearers—both disciples and opponents—question him throughout the chapter. We don’t get this stuff about eternal life and the bread of heaven. We don’t like all that stuff about eating your flesh. Some of the disciples have been losing interest in following Jesus, perhaps because it’s too difficult to understand him, perhaps because he asks too much of them, or both. Jesus says to the twelve, the faithful ones: Do you also wish to go away?  They answer: “Lord, to whom can we go?”

This is an “Officer and a Gentleman” moment in the gospel. Richard Gere’s character in that 1982 film is not unlike some of the earliest followers of Jesus: rough, confused, alienated from polite society. He enlists in the Marine Corps because he all he wants to do is fly jets. The tough gunnery sergeant played by Louis Gossett, Jr., challenges him at every turn. A pivotal moment in the story is when the Sergeant threatens to kick the younger man out. Richard Gere’s character breaks down and says “I’ve got nowhere else to go.” I’ve got nowhere else to go. Then he belongs.

I think this connection between obedience and belonging is the underlying point of today’s little exchange between Jesus and the disciples. Do you also wish to go away? Lord, to whom can we go?

What if Jesus asked us: Do you wish to go away? And what if we really had to think about it? Those who enter into a faith journey with that desperate feeling: “I’ve got nowhere else to go” are the lucky ones. Many of us—although by no means all of us—are here because we’ve always been here. It’s what we do on Sunday mornings, right? Statistically, the majority of people in Episcopal churches came of age at a time when church-going and Christian identity were one and the same. For centuries layers and layers of culture between the Gospel and our own religious practices have protected us from the parts of Jesus’ message that are confusing or difficult. Marcus Borg points out the distinction between habitual Christians and intentional Christians.

Next time you start to say you belong to St. David’s Episcopal Church, or Trinity Cathedral, or Grace Memorial, try saying “I belong to Jesus.” Or go home practice saying it in front of the mirror. Or practice saying it to your family or your housemates. I belong to Jesus. Let’s say it right now. I   belong   to   Jesus.

What does it mean to say that we belong to Jesus, and mean it? It means that we are—as we often say we are—in Christ. To belong to Jesus, to join with Jesus in God’s mission, is to be intentional Christians rather than habitual Christians. Intentional Christians follow Jesus.

We talk a lot about evangelism, about reaching out to the unchurched, especially in the Pacific Northwest. This is important. Making new disciples is part of what it means to be a disciple. But that kind of disciple-making discipleship is never going to happen if all the people in our pews are Christian only by habit and not by intention. In today’s gospel, Jesus calls forth intentionality. Do you wish to go away?

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I began with the story of Feathers, a big red bird from another planet obsessed with bread, any kind of bread: rye, wheat, barley, bagels. Well, at the end of the story we find out that the distant planet that Feathers is from is called earth.

As the Johnny Cash song goes:

It’s not the barley or the wheat
It’s not the oven or the heat
That makes this bread so good to eat
It’s the needing and the sharing that makes the meal complete

The song continues with the refrain we do well to remember:

Breaking Bread, Breaking Bread
we are gathered here together to break bread

We abread and winere gathered here together to break bread.

In these five weeks of bread gospels Jesus has given us a gift, a way of being with him and with one another even through those times when it is difficult to follow. Gathering to break bread is a way that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. As we gather here each week, we may still wonder whether Jesus’ sayings are too hard to understand or too hard to follow. But we move through our wonderings—or bring them with us—up these steps to this table. We gather here together to follow Jesus, and we gather here together to break bread. Any kind of bread.

The beginning of wisdom

So the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and God said: “Ask what I should give you.”

What would you ask for? The dreamy exchange between God and Solomon conjures up a holy version of a genie in a magic lamp, who offers a wandering hero a single wish. Ask what I should give you. What would you choose? In discerning what he most lacks, Solomon shows that he already has the most important gift for leadership (IMHO). He knows that there is much he doesn’t know. “I do not know how to go out or come in.” In the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, knowing how to go out and come in was code for knowing how to follow God. Walking a straight path, turning neither right nor left—this is wisdom language, wisdom language that we find throughout the stories of God’s chosen people.

Wisdom has many faces. In addition to being associated with several biblical books of advice, like Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and some of the Psalms, wisdom is considered an aspect of the divine, present with God before time began. Those of you who have been to Turkey have probably visited the Ayasofya museum. This magnificent structure was built in the 5th century as a church, named Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, in the ancient city of Constantinople. Fans of the band They Might be Giants should now be humming in your head the tune to “Istanbul not Constantinople…” Wisdom is holy, sacred, an aspect of the divine.

In the gospels, Jesus tells stories about wise men and women. The wise man builds his house on rock, rather than on sand. The wise bridesmaids have enough oil in their lamps to last until the bridegroom comes. To the man who thinks he is wise because he builds larger and larger warehouses for all of his possessions Jesus says “you fool!” And Jesus himself is described as being wise at an early age.

How do we experience wisdom in our lives today? Wisdom is essential for life in the kingdom. Perhaps a better word for wisdom might be discernment. Discern is defined as “to recognize” or “to find out” or “to distinguish with difficulty.” It is perhaps a word we throw around too much, a word we confuse with our own autonomous decision-making. But discernment is not the same as your or I deciding something. In discernment we invite God into the process, and we ask for Holy Wisdom.

In our prayer book, right after baptism we pray for the newly baptized:

Give her (or him) an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

Perhaps we can say that wisdom is all of that: an inquiring and discerning heart, courage, perseverance, joy, and wonder. In some churches, just after baptism the priest will put a bit of salt on the tongue of the newly baptized, and say “Receive the salt of wisdom: may it be a sign for you of everlasting life.”

This suggests that the wisdom we need is not something we can get from a book, or even through the painful and humbly process of growing gray hair. Wisdom is a grace, a gift of the spirit given through sacrament and prayer along with experience. I would venture to say that the ancient writers in the Wisdom tradition, the writers of the gospels, and St. Paul would all agree that a good definition of wisdom might be keeping our eyes on the prize.

For those of us here today working toward living the kingdom of God, the prize is Jesus, life along the pathway Jesus came to teach us, life lived to the fullest with Jesus. Wisdom is keeping our eyes on this prize.

And the opposite of wisdom? Moving in the wrong direction, standing still for fear of moving, making decisions for the wrong reason, or taking our eyes off the prize. We’ve all done all of these things. But luckily God rescues us, through the wisdom of others, through the grace of God in Christ, through the invitation to share in Christ’s life.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore.

Practitioners in the Kingdom: 2 Sam 12, Psalm 51

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”   

Lately I have been thinking about belief versus practice.

We say what we believe every Sunday in the Nicene Creed, in spite of the fact that people are always coming and telling me privately that they don’t believe all of it. At the risk of heresy, I would like to suggest that practice—what we do with our beliefs and with our questions—is even more important than belief. Sacraments are spiritual practice.

Un-holy wars have been fought and generations of blood has been spilled over belief; but practice is where the human rubber meets the theological road. Practice is the living of a sacramental life, a life where the holiness of what we do matches the holiness of who we are as beloved creatures of God.

The David and Bathsheba story includes David’s act of penance, distilled into just a few words: I have sinned against the Lord. The story sets the stage for that great penitential psalm, Psalm 51.

Penitence, which we act out through the sacrament of reconciliation, is one of the ways that we live our lives as practitioners in the Kingdom of God. The sacrament of penance is often associated with the old-fashioned confessional box and private confession. A favorite question for people new to the Episcopal Church is “do you guys have confession?” The answer is yes, and yes. We do have that old-fashioned kind of private confession—minus the confession box. Private confession is available to all but required of none. Most Sundays we have a corporate sacrament of reconciliation within our service. The Peace is part of that spiritual practice of reconciliation. I’ve been at churches where the Peace is treated more like the seventh-inning stretch, a coffee break without the coffee. Next time you exchange the peace with someone, remember that it is a practice that symbolizes God’s reconciliation with us and with all of humanity.

David was a big-time sinner. Think about some of the high-profile political leaders in our own time—even in our own city. David makes them look like the innocent boy next door. And the God of Israel loved David, cared for him, ached for him the way parents ache for their own children. And David loved God. He sinned over and over again, and he always returned to God and asked for forgiveness.

As I was writing my sermon and all this stuff about sin was coming out of my fingers onto the keyboard (when I thought I was going to be talking about the bread of life J), I was thinking: They’re not going to like me going on and on about sin…Especially in the middle of the summer! We don’t like to talk about our sinfulness, not even in church; talking about sin is what gives the church a bad name, right?

Given this common aversion to talking about sin, it is always interesting to me how many people tell me they love the Ash Wednesday service. The Ash Wednesday service brings out our deeply human and god-given need to acknowledge our brokenness and ask for forgiveness. It’s one of the few times in our church year when we get to say Psalm 51 together from beginning to end. Have mercy on me, O God…. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (I can just hear King David saying those words.) For many of us, there is something both comforting and liberating in those words.

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So what is this: Lent???

The power of forgiveness—our receiving and forgiving—is never out of season. The practice of penitence is part of our discipleship toolkit whenever we need it, not just when our church is dressed in purple.

In the 1980s, the church had an ad campaign with photos and catchy tag lines on buses and in magazines. One of the popular ones was a portrait of Henry the Eighth with the tag line: “In a church started by this man, forgiveness goes without saying.” I think it’s safe to say that King David was s spiritual ancestor of King Henry. There was another ad that read simply “sin is in.” The message is one of welcome; we don’t have to check our brains at the door—to use another favorite saying about the Episcopal Church—and we can’t check our sins at the door when we come to church, even if we want to.

I have a magnet on my fridge that features a woman who looks like a blonde Scarlett O’Hara, saying invitingly: “honey, you gotta sin to be saved.” It’s supposed to be funny, but she’s right. As anyone who has been through the twelve steps knows, there is tremendous freedom that comes from accepting and then letting go of all those things that come between us and faithful service to the world God made, the world God loves.

The experience of grace that comes through the practice of sacrament transforms our sins into an offering to God. Then we are then equipped for the worship and service that God longs for. We are never free from sin, but through the grace of the sacraments it is possible for us to be free from the burden of sin. This is true not just of the sacrament of reconciliation, but also of baptism and Eucharist. This freedom from the burden of sin becomes freedom to look outward, beyond ourselves, into the eyes of our neighbors and the needs of the world. When we gather to receive the sacrament, let us offer all of our burdens, that we may go forth into the world as holy, forgiven people and as practitioners in the Kingdom of God.