"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Divorce and our Over-accepting God

 Pentecost 19, Year B

Mark 10:2-16

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I felt sorry for Pope Francis this week. On the one hand, during his visit, he was lauded in the streets and in the press by throngs of Americans, churched and unchurched, Roman Catholic and Protestant, young and old. Yet on the other hand, the weight of all of their opposing hopes and bottomless expectations must have fallen heavy even upon his shoulders; their fickle praise, too, must have danced before his eyes a like taunting tempter. The liberals in the crowd waved his words about social justice like victory flags and then turned away in disgust when he upheld traditional Roman Catholic teachings on abortion and marriage. The conservatives disdainfully ignored his pleas to abolish the death penalty and to open up our gates to refugees, and yet they raised up his meeting with Kim Davis like a golden trophy.
          As a Christian these days, caught in a world of conflicting sound-bites and oppositional rhetoric, I often feel as if I, too, am constantly being asked to fit myself into one camp or another. Can’t I lament the senseless deaths caused by a flood of mass shootings, searching for positive steps to stop the killing, without seeming to threaten my kind neighbor’s Second Amendment rights? Can’t I talk about welcoming refugees, or pray for an end to war, without being labeled unpatriotic? Can’t I join loving same-sex Christians in holy matrimony without having my theology dismissed as anemic? Can’t I disagree strongly with what Kim Davis is doing and yet still believe in the rights of the conscientious objector? You might be facing different dilemmas, but no matter to which side of the gaping divides our upbringing and personal reflection have led us, I’m sure that each of us knows the feeling—the feeling of being carried down a rough river much too quickly, barely dodging boulders of inflexible opinion, trying to keep our heads above the floodwaters of information surging around us.
          Jesus, like the Pope, is no stranger to opposing camps trying to find out where his loyalties really lie. The scribes and Pharisees lie in wait constantly for Jesus’ teaching to get him on the wrong side of someone. That’s what’s happening in today’s difficult Gospel reading. Before we snatch up Jesus’ words to support our views of marriage or to condemn those whose marriages have failed, let’s take a look at what is happening in this passage.
In Jesus’ day, Jewish scholars were at odds over divorce. Yes, the Law that God gave to God’s people in Deuteronomy was clear: a man could definitely divorce his wife. As always, though, there were details to argue about. The issue for the rabbis was remarriage, as well as what would constitute grounds for divorce. Could a woman be turned out because she burned the pita bread? Or did she have to do something worse, like get caught in adultery?[1] It was always the men who could do the divorcing in the patriarchal first-century world.
          The Pharisees want to know if Jesus is going to uphold this Law, and which side he will take. What interpretation will he bring to scripture? Or will he dismiss the whole problem and thereby prove himself to be the heretic that they believe he is? What is interesting for us is that Jesus doesn’t play the debating game with them at all. Jesus refuses to join sides in the rabbis’ debate. Instead, he pushes the question to the extreme.
Modern rhetorical scholars call Jesus’ technique “over-acceptance.” Actors involved in improvisation do it all the time. Today, on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, I immediately thought of the story of St. Francis and his father. When a bishop ordered young Francis to repay his father some money that he had taken from the family business to fund his religious causes, St. Francis did more than give back the money. He stripped off all of his clothes and dumped them at his father’s feet, standing naked before the crowds. Francis had “over-accepted” the bishop’s demand. Over-accepting is a way to make a point that goes beyond what a simple reply can do. Jesus uses this technique to stay ahead of his enemies, but he also uses it to shake us out of our complacency, to prevent us from settling into easy rule-bound ways of thinking.

Theologian Sam Wells argues that our whole Gospel is a story of over-acceptance. “In the annunciation and the nativity,” he writes, “God overaccepts human life. He does not reject his people, nor does he simply accept them: instead he comes among them as a Jew... [And then] in the resurrection, God shows that even the worst offer, the execution of the Son of God, can be overaccepted - even death and all its causes can become part of the story [of new, everlasting life]."[2]
So what does this mean for us, for us who seek to follow an overaccepting Lord? How do we follow his lead? Certainly, concerning divorce, Jesus knows, as do any of us who have been through it, that the ties of marriage cannot be broken without deep pain. We know that what God has joined together comes apart only in broken pieces, with the tattered bonds trailing behind us like sad rags wherever we go. Jesus does not flinch from this difficult reality. But his strong words are not meant to establish new laws in the divorce courts, either. They are not aimed directly at the joy that might be found in a happy second marriage. They are meant to break through the limiting arguments of the religious scholars of his day. They are meant to take us off of our ideological high horses. They are meant to point to our common dependence on God’s grace, the grace of a God who reaches out to us with the loving enthusiasm of a little child, over and over again.
          On this Sunday that kicks off our Stewardship campaign, what would Jesus say if he came into our parish and a budget committee member asked him, “Hey Jesus, tell ‘em that they need to give ten percent of their gross income to St. Thomas like it says in the Bible?” Jesus might ask for a dollar bill and tell him to give it to George Washington, but to offer up to God everything bearing the imprint of the Creator of heaven and earth. He might also tell us to sell everything that we have and give it to the poor.
          And if Jesus came to coffee hour today, in the wake of the attack in Oregon, and I asked him to tell you that the answer to the violence in this country lies in gun control, he might well tell you instead that violence will continue to explode until we learn to love our enemies and those who persecute us.
          Perhaps the most important words of Pope Francis—the words that each of needs to hear amid the din of political posturing—were his words proclaiming 2016 to be a “holy year of mercy.” Mercy for me, for you, for those that we condemn and for those that we love. The divine mercy of over-acceptance, greater than any solution that we can imagine for ourselves. Mercy that is, in the poetry of TS Eliot, “A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything).”

[1] Mark Hoffman, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2638
[2] Sam Wells, quoted in Jill Dufield, http://pres-outlook.org/2015/10/27th-sunday-in-ordinary-time-october-4-2015/

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Envy, Children, and Spray Paint: An "Intergenerational" Sermon

Pentecost 17 B, Proper 20                                                                              September 20, 2015
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

  Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Be honest now, kids: who enjoys getting their brother or sister in trouble? They’re just asking for it, aren’t they? They get way more attention than they deserve. You just want to get your fair share once in awhile, right, even if it’s at their expense? Maybe you can identify with the big sister in Judy Blume’s book, The Pain and the Great One:
"[My little brother’s] got to be first/ To show Mom his schoolwork./ She says ooh and aah/ All over his pictures/ Which aren’t great at all/ But just ordinary/ First grade stuff…. And I would really like to know/ Why the cat sleeps on [his] bed/ Instead of mine? Especially since I am the one/ Who feeds her./ That is the meanest thing of all.”
Or maybe you feel for the little brother as he fusses about his big sister: “She thinks she’s great/ Just because she can/ Play the piano/ And you can tell/ The songs are real ones … My sister thinks she’s so great/ Just because she can work/ the can opener. Which means she gets to feed the cat./ Which means the cat/ Likes her better than me/ Just because she feeds her.”[1]

I’m not so sure that the cat really loves one child better than the other. But I can sure identify with these kids just the same! Can’t you? Even as an adult, I always have my eyes on other people, just to be sure that nobody has it better than I do. And when I convince myself that they do have it better—boy, does that turn me bitter and unhappy inside! Look at that colleague with every church pew full every Sunday! He has bad theology, and one day he’ll get his comeuppance. And the lady on the treadmill at the gym who runs for 30 minutes while I get tired just walking? It sure served her right when she pulled her hamstring. And the neighbor who just got back from the Bahamas while I was working and shoveling snow from my driveway every day? I’m just going to dump all my snow in front of his mailbox so he can’t get his mail. He’ll never guess it was me, and that inconvenience will sure take him down a peg. Yes, grown-ups and kids alike suffer from the sin of envy: “dissatisfaction with our place in God’s order of creation, manifested in begrudging [God’s] gifts to others.” [2]
Sometimes, we're just coveting. Coveting is wanting things: We covet somebody’s designer purse, or his fancy car. When we envy, however, we are worried about how we measure up with someone else. We feel bad about ourselves, and so we don’t want anyone else to have it better than we do. We want to make them miserable, too. My favorite joke about envy goes something like this: An Englishwoman and a farmer find a bottle with a genie in it. They are each given one wish. The woman tells the genie about a friend of hers who has a beautiful cottage. “I want one like that,” she says, “except with an extra bedroom and a fancier garden.” The farmer tells the genie about a neighbor who has a cow that produces rivers of rich milk, milk that makes tons of wonderful cream and delicious butter. “I want that cow,” says the farmer “… dead.”[3] The farmer suffers from envy.
Envy, because it is so filled with bitterness that it seeks the harm of the other party, is a dangerous sin—one that can result in hatred, murder, and violence. Recall the story of Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures. His older brothers think that their father loves Joseph better than he loves them. They envy his position in the family. But they don’t just rant about it. They lure him into a pit in the desert, where they leave him to be stolen away as a slave in Egypt. In today’s Epistle, James warns us sternly about the dangers of envy: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind,” he writes. 
Jesus’ disciples aren't any better than we are when it comes to envy. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to tell them important things about his approaching death, and they aren’t listening. They can’t concentrate on what their teacher is saying, because they are too preoccupied with their own ambition and envy. Like the brother and sister in Judy Blume’s book, they might have been grumbling things like: “Peter thinks he’s so great and strong just because Jesus calls him The Rock. It so served him right when Jesus yelled out, 'Get behind me Satan!' the other day, when that 'Rock' dared to protest the strange talk about our Lord dying. Maybe now Jesus will think that I’m the strongest one?” Or “Could you believe it back there in that town when somebody recognized Matthew as a former tax collector and started throwing rotten garbage on him? I thought that I would fall down, I was laughing so hard! Maybe now that Matthew has been disgraced, I’ll get to have more respect around here from the others.”
          And what does Jesus do when he overhears his disciples arguing and putting one another down in order to raise themselves up? He grabs the nearest child and takes her up in his arms and says to his envying band of followers: "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." What does he mean? Why a child? Why not a leper, or a blind beggar?
          Children, I need a volunteer to help me now. I need at least one child to come up here so that I can welcome you in Jesus’ name! [I will have arranged beforehand to get at least one child up here!]  …. OK, so if I’m going to truly welcome _______, if I’m really going to make her feel God’s love right now, what am I going to have to do? If I stand straight and stiff up here and stick out my robed hand and pat her on the head, that’s not a real welcome, is it? If she’s going to feel wanted and loved, I’m going to need to get down here on the floor, aren’t I? [Sit down on the floor and make a production of it]. I’m going to have to climb down out of my fancy perch in the pulpit, and bend my creaky knees, risking getting stuck down here or sliding around ungracefully on our nice new hardwood floor. I’m going to have to put away the safety of my manuscript, and look her in the eyes on her level if I’m going to welcome her.
          In choosing a child, Jesus lifts up to us the silent ones, the least and littlest, the vulnerable outsiders. But he does more than that. He also forces us to change our positions. We cannot truly welcome the vulnerable unless we ourselves become vulnerable—unless we bend down low, unless we lay aside our rigid frameworks about how the world works and move outside of our comfort zones.[4] [send kid/s back to seat.]
          On Friday, I joined about a thousand other Louisvillians at the River Road Islamic Center, where unidentified vandals had spray-painted hate-filled red graffiti across the back wall of this mosque. Having read today’s lessons, I wondered how many of our hate crimes are at least partly fueled by envy. Doubting that we have a place in God’s creation, we want to be sure that no one else has one, either. Doubting that we matter in this world, we want to let everyone know that some other group doesn’t matter, either. Empty and bitter, we lash out secretly in ugly words and destructive acts. As I stood there in the hot sun, getting bit by mosquitoes and listening to politicians instead of working on my sermon, I could imagine myself being drawn down onto my knees. I wasn’t bending down to welcome a child, but I was bending my comforting routine. I was bending the stiff joints of my Friday schedule. I was looking at the world from behind a mosque, a foreign architectural form. I was standing with Jews and Muslims, black and white, in a common cause that was outside of the formal structures of my own religion. The day wasn’t about me; it wasn’t all about my church, my religion, my special causes. It wasn’t all about any  one of us standing there. It was about the love of God for each of us. The outpouring, unending, overflowing love of God for each of us, just the same.
          The sin of envy dogs us when we do not believe that we are loved. If Jesus loves a child, a child without accomplishments, without status, then Jesus loves each of us for who we are deep within, not for what we do. There is nothing that we have to do in order to earn that love. There is nothing that we can do to lose it. In order to feel that love, all we have to do is to bend down, lay down our armor, put away our red spray paint, and hold out our hands, too, to the least and the last, to our brother and to our sister. In our mutual gaze, we will find envy replaced with love, as we look into the very face of God.

[1] Judy Blume, The Pain and the Great One (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014).
[2] Rebecca K. DeYoung, Glittering Vices (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press), 51.
[3] Ibid., 48.
 [4] For the idea of bending down, thank you to the Rev. Dr. Brad Wigger in his Convocation address, “A Little Child Shall Lead Them,” Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, February 6, 2014. Found at http://www.lpts.edu/docs/default-source/about_us-chapel_sermons_text/wigger2-6-14.pdf?sfvrsn=2