Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, September 30, 2012 Mark 9:38-50 “You Are Not Special”

Cutting off body parts…what a gospel passage! It sounds so scary – if there is a body part that offends you, that is causing you a problem, just lop it off! Perhaps it shouldn’t shock us so much. After all, aren’t we constantly bombarded by ads to have a facelift to make us look a little younger, or gastric bypass so we can get skinnier, or liposuction to vacuum out all our nutritional sins? We don’t think that kind of cutting off of a part that offends us is all that bad, do we?

We struggle to be the way we think we should be, and how we look is just one aspect of it. I think of a scene in that novel, “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” about an overworked young mother, Kate Reddy, in a high-powered job. She realizes late one evening she is committed to bring a pie to her child’s class the next day. She just doesn’t have the time to whip one up, so she runs out and picks one up at the store. But it looks too, well, store-bought, too perfect. So Kate squishes it a bit around the edges, so it looks a little more home-made. Because heaven forbid any of the other moms would thing that this woman didn’t make the pie with her own two hands for her precious child’s school! We laugh at this image, but we know that Kate is not alone. We care about how we appear to others. We want to belong. We want to be approved of by those around us. And sometimes we allow the silliest things, like a pie for a school bake sale, to make us a little crazy in our desire to be seen as a fine, normal, upstanding member of our community.

And in that desire, we do things that get in the way of being authentic, honest, ourselves. We squish the edges of the pie. We get a little nip and tuck from the plastic surgeon. We pad our resumes. We worry that we’re not good enough, so we do odd things that we think will make us look better. In a commencement speech last year, the author David McCullough named this very pointedly: “In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”

McCullough may have named this as a 21st century phenomenon, but Jesus’ disciples were just as likely to fall into this trap as you and I are. Remember last week? In the midst of Jesus telling them the most important part of his story, that he was going to be killed by the authorities but would rise again from the dead, what were they doing? Arguing. About what? About who is more important. Completely missing the point, of course. Thinking about the wrong thing, about who appears to have the most power and favor.

And Jesus loses patience with them, as he is continuing to lose patience with them in today’s passage. They have come to him, complaining about somebody who is trying to do what they are supposed to do – to cast out demons. Like petulant six year olds, they say, “Jesus, Jesus! There’s a guy who’s not one of us, not one of your chosen disciples, and he’s casting out demons. We tried to make him stop, but he wouldn’t. Make him stop! Make him stop!”

In other words, we thought we were the special ones who get to do this. Nobody else should get to cast out demons but us, because we’re special and he’s not. And the subtext is, if this guy who isn’t one of the special disciples does this, then maybe we’re not so special anymore.

And that’s the sort of thing we worry about, isn’t it? What makes us special. What makes us appreciated by others. What sets us apart and makes us appear to be something more than everybody else, whether it’s looking like a 30 year old when you’re sixty, or like a highly educated person when you barely finished college, or like a successful businessperson when your business is always teetering on the brink of failure.

And Jesus once again is faced with the task of explaining to these sometimes frustrating disciples that the thing that they strive for – who is the greatest, who is the one who does the best job of casting out demons – is the wrong thing. The thing that they strive for – being better than the other guy – misses the whole point of Jesus’ teachings. Elsewhere in his commencement address, McCullough shocked the graduates by telling them “you are not special”. Jesus says the same thing. “You are not special. You are not the only one who can do these things. You will trip yourselves up in a thousand ways, and you will find others who appear to be better at casting out demons that you are….and it doesn’t matter. Only loving me and doing the work matters, and anyone who wants to do the work in my name is invited to the party. You need to let go of your need for ego gratification and your worry about what others think of you, and just do the work, and welcome others into the work as well.”

Jesus tells them, “You are going to find things about yourselves that get in the way of doing this – you need to do an attitude adjustment to divest yourselves of those things, not because it will make you look better, but because it will make you BE better. And in being better, you will find it easier to share the burden of the work I lay before you. It will not be all about you.”

What gets in the way when we try to follow Jesus?  Isn’t it often our own expectations of what Jesus wants us to be? We are works in progress – and I stress the word “work”.

When we think of our relationship with Jesus, I suspect we are quick to be nervous. We make up our lists of all of our imperfections and wonder if, when Jesus looks at us, he sees the messed up piles of confusion that we see in ourselves. But I believe that he sees more than that. He sees our possibilities, as he saw the possibilities in the twelve he chose to be his first disciples. He sees how special we might become, even with our messy human imperfections. He sees his love shining through us in a thousand different ways, and that light makes our dark moments just a shadow.

The things that we need to work on are not how we appear to the world – which of us is richer or more important or prettier – but what we do in the world, how we invite others to join us in the work of making the world a better place, a place that is what Jesus envisions for all of us. We cannot do it alone. We shouldn’t pick and choose who does it with us. And I expect that when we’re done, we, like the world, will look a whole lot better, to us and to Jesus.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Meet Me At the Fair

PH and I are hoping to go to the State Fair of Virginia this afternoon, but it may be too rainy to enjoy it.

The State Fair went bankrupt (who knew a fair could go bankrupt?) but was then sold to an out-of-state company which resurrected it at the 11th hour (that'll preach; I'd better remember it for next Easter) and so it is going on this week.

A parishioner who is very talented with baking and crafts has submitted a number of items for the competition portion of it, and I'm looking forward to seeing how many ribbons she has been awarded.

But mostly I'm looking forward to wandering around and seeing the animals inthe exhibits, eating the famous Virginia Tech ag school BBQ sandwiches, a funnel cake (I allow myself one per year), and seeing PH sigh over the two-story tall bright green John Deere combines. He may be a city boy now, but his Grandpa was a dairy farmer in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, and I think that, in combination with the testerone-related love of all things mechanical and large, makes him a sucker for the equipment.

This city girl loves seeing the range of specialty chickens, the 4H-ers washing down their cows and goats and sheep before they show them, the guy who carves the 200-lb pumpkins into fierce monsters, and the beekeepers selling their wares. I am not so big on the carnival rides and games of chance, or the fried pickles or Snickers bars or oreos. They do fry everything short of ice cubes at the Fair.

But mostly I love the people wandering around, the kids tugging on daddy's hand to go look at this or that, the old folks on their scooters, the young folks holding hands. It seems a bit of a world of fifty years ago (complete with the short-shorts on the teenage girls), and it makes me smile.

Pray for the rain to end, will you? I want to go the the Fair.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, September 23, 2012 James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9: 30-47 “The Age of Anxiety”

It was a time when we seemed to have been victorious, and yet strife and tension hung over the world. A major war was ended, and yet the ongoing struggle for power continued like persistent and foreboding aftershocks following an earthquake. We thought everything was settled, and yet it was not. The years to come would bring not a hot war with bombs and planes and guns, but a cold one, with spies and secret missions and subversive activity. And over it all hung the memory of that image, the mushroom cloud hovering over Hiroshima, a terrible weapon that caused greater destruction than humanity could have imagined. That image, etched onto our memory, was not only a reminder of how the war had ended, but what future wars could look like. The genie now let out of the bottle could not be returned.

This was the world that existed immediately after World War II.

Yes, the greatest generation had done its job and defeated Hitler’s Germany and Hirohito’s Japan. It was a victory, no one can deny it. But it did not make the various and sundry corners of the world friendly to one another. Despite the Marshall Plan and other nation-rebuilding activities in the conquered countries, despite the maneuvering to divide up countries into places controlled by western allies and the growing Soviet Union, despite the formation of a United Nations to be an arbiter for peace, tension and fear returned.

It was in that climate that the British poet W. H. Auden wrote one of his longest and darkest poems, “The Age of Anxiety.” An extended allegory, his four characters, each affected by the war and each representing a part of the human personality – thought, feeling, sensation, intuition, sit in a bar and drink and think and talk. And it is clear, in their talk, that they have been broken – shaken, not stirred – by the world in which they live. And the overarching feeling that pervades their lives is, as Auden titles this very long poem, anxiety.

Anxiety, that feeling that something bad is going to happen, that worry that we cannot deal with it. Fear. Concern. Anxiety can make you sick to your stomach, or unable to sleep, or snappish in conversation with your spouse. Anxiety can make it impossible for you to concentrate on your work, and then you become anxious about not getting your work done, and it can go on in a downward spiral until you are utterly immobilized.

Auden was accurate in describing that feeling in the aftermath of World War II. But it was not unique. It had existed long before. If you are following the diocesan program of reading the Bible in a year ,the Bible Challenge, you are now in the midst of the Second Book of Samuel, where it seems to be nothing more than one battle after another. And in between the battles, there is no calm and gentle peace. There is simply worry about what will come next. An age of anxiety.

At the same time, in the New Testament, you’re reading Acts of the Apostles, and hearing about the apostles trying to build a church in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Are you reading happy stories of happy people living in bliss? No, you hear about Saul’s persecution of the disciples of Christ, about the apostle James being killed and Peter being imprisoned. Hard-won victories, troubling events, hints of possibilities, but also disagreement and struggle. An age of anxiety.

It doesn’t seem much different today, does it? It’s election season, and each candidate is determined, it seems, to frighten us into voting for him, or at least against his opponent. Bad enough that we worry about our jobs and our 401Ks and if our children will find employment after they graduate. Bad enough that we read about arsenic in rice and contamination of water so we worry about our health and that of our families. And the news is filled with stories of people in Muslim countries thinking that a crazy video is actually sponsored by the government, rather than the stupid act of someone with his own political agenda, and then there’s the story about the guy who threatened to open fire on kids at a neighboring school. And in our fear, we want to find the quick fix, whether it is locking up everyone who makes us nervous or opening up that bottle of bourbon.

An age of anxiety indeed.

So we hear James’ letter and recognize what he is saying immediately: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” Sounds as if it were just written yesterday, doesn’t it? In the face of anxiety, we don’t deal with the heart of what concerns us, we pick fights around the edges of it. We worry about protecting ourselves with power or goods, as if they would ease our hearts.

And we have the same ‘aha” moment in today’s Gospel: “…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.”

In the face of one of the most anxiety-producing things he had ever said to them, the disciples got into an argument about who was the greatest among them. Not about what it meant – they were confused about that but were too afraid to ask Jesus about it. No, protecting themselves by positioning themselves for power, as if power would stop what was coming next. Creating a wall of illusion so they could believe for a brief moment that nothing bad was going to happen.

An age of anxiety, and a broken human response to that anxiety.

A line from Auden’s poem says it well: 

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

What does Jesus tell the disciples in the Gospel? You’ve got it wrong. Yes, something will happen that will be difficult and painful. And when it happens, the old rules about what works will no longer apply. Things will change, and to get through it, you will have to be willing to be changed, or else you will be stuck in the old illusion of how you want it to be, stuck in that age of anxiety always. 

What does James tell the readers of his epistle? You don’t feel good because you are putting all your efforts into satisfying your desires for things that will make you forget your anxiety, rather than asking God to heal your heart. Unless you are willing to be changed, you will be ruined, as Auden says. Unless you are willing to let your illusions of what will make you feel safe and warm and happy die, you will be stuck in an endless cycle of doing all the wrong things to soothe your anxiety.

It would be quite depressing, all this talk of anxiety and human foolishness, were it not for the prescription that sits quietly at the end of the passages from James and Mark: give it up. Give up the anxiety. Submit to God, not as a person who thinks they have all the answers, but humbly, like a child.

Unless we are willing to get down on our knees and say, as they do in the 12-step programs, “I am powerless to deal with this. I need a Higher Power to help me and I turn myself over to that Power to help me find a new way to healing,” we will find no relief in the present Age of Anxiety.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Glad for Saturday Night

It has been another busy week - aren't they all? - and I crashed this afternoon and had my usual Sunday nap a day early. Still battling the skin infection, which appears to be healing slowly but still hurts.

A marvelous surprise last night. PH and I went out on date night, sharing a pizza in a new place. The cell phone rang, and it was our local public radio station that was calling to tell me we had won the prize in their membership drive. A weekend at the beautiful old Homestead Resort. We have a year to use it, so we will have to figure out when we might need a little break in the action. Since I never win anything beyond $2 on a raffle ticket, this was remarkable.

Grateful for many things this week:
  • a new baby born in the parish
  • the first session of St Giles' Gate, our ministry to children with special needs today
  • getting Saabie back, and the repair cost under $200, not $2K as I feared
  • the loan of a car while Saabie was in the shop by my wonderful Senior Warden and his wife
  • being almost done with one major knitting project, with another that only needs the finish work close behind
  • a new series on Masterpiece tomorrow night.
Today we are grieving the loss of a beloved dog, companion of one of our longtime members who headed up the search committee that called me. I'll be doing an Adult Forum series starting tomorrow on "Will I See My Dog in Heaven?" based on the book by the same name authored by the Franciscan Jack Wirtz. I don't know if Tillie will come to the series, but I have no doubt that if dogs make it to heaven, her wonderful yellow lab Roy will be there.

Waiting for PH to get home from some outreach work. Dinner is prepped and ready to cook: Cornmeal crusted tilapia, roasted new potatoes, sauteed chopped kale with garlic and red pepper. Plus the delicious faux ice cream that you make by whirring some frozen ripe bananas, a couple of tablespoons of cocoa, and a splash of vanilla extract in the food processor until it is just like soft-serve ice cream. Yum.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Random Dots of Saturday Night

It's been a not-so-quiet week Chez Mibi.

  • The front end of the week was consumed by the start of my Doctor of Ministry program at That Presbyterian Seminary outside of Atlanta.   

  • I got home Wednesday night, PH and I headed out for supper, and the clutch promptly gave out on the car. We had it towed to the place that repairs old Swedish cars like mine. The next day, we got the good news and the bad news: good news was that it was only the hose that carries the hydraulic fluid to control the clutch. Bad news was that there were none to be found in the USA. The closest one is in Africa. Not is in Africa. So the repair place is having one fabricated by a local guy - it will take less time than waiting for the one from Africa. Still, it will take until Wednesday or Thursday to get it done, so I am saying prayers of thanksgiving for my Senior Warden, who is lending me their spare car for a few days so PH and I can travel to our separate parts of the universe as necessary.

  • Visited a parishioner to plan the memorial service for her dying spouse. This is always such holy ground, and hearing stories and seeing family reminds me to hold those I love close, and to tell them I love them. Our lives are so ephemeral, and yet they carry such exquisite weight of emotion and meaning.

  • Spent part of the day today out at a community fair event the next town up from the parish's. We had our booth (as did many of the other churches in the area) and gave out hard candy and brochures and such. Our big draw was inviting all the folks walking their dogs to come for the pet blessing service the first Sunday in October. We will see how many pet lovers show up for that - it's usually one of our best attended services outside of Easter and Christmas.

  • We went out tonight to see a movie - the incomparable Frank Langella, whom I have adored since seeing him in "Dracula" when I was in my twenties, is in a beautiful little movie called "Robot & Frank" and you must see it. Poignant story about an older man with some dementia who is given a health care aide robot (this is set "in the near future") who becomes something more than a programmed caregiver. Funny, some interesting surprises that I didn't see coming, a sweet meditation on memory and the loss of it, or not. Go see it if you want to understand what I mean by that little last bit.
Tomorrow is an "easy" if Sundays are ever easy. Our diaconal candidate is preaching - it's stressful for him, but he has more of a natural gift for it than he realizes - and my senior warden is doing an adult forum. A good thing for me after an intense week. Thank God for others who share the load.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, September 9, 2012 Mark 7:24-37 “Word-Power”

Words have power. Dramatic political speeches can bring us to tears. A beautiful poem can transport us to an entirely different place. A word of encouragement can lift us up, over the hard task that faces us. Words have power.

Words also have the power to hurt. Someone calls you a bad name, and you’re stuck rethinking the exchange for the rest of the day, imagining what you would have said as a snappy retort if only you could have thought of it in that moment. A posting on FaceBook or an opinion piece in the newspaper by someone who denigrates all people like you (fill in the blank: women, gays, gun owners, divorcees, people of color) makes you feel angry or soiled or shamed. Words have power.

So what happens when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the anointed Messiah, says a word that shocks, that is meant to shame and denigrate, that is designed to make the person so addressed into an unclean unwanted intruder into the Lord’s space?

Sure doesn’t sound like the Jesus I love.

And yet this is precisely what happens in the first half of our gospel this morning. Jesus is confronted by a woman who is most definitely not an appropriate person for him to converse with – a SyroPhoenician woman. A Gentile, not a Jew, not accompanied by a man, as would have been the social norm in that time, a mother of a demon-possessed daughter. She asks him for healing for her daughter, and he responds “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, you’re not one of the children. You’re a dog, so you don’t get any.

And what Jesus says, in point of fact, is not the word dog, it’s the word that starts with a b, like that television program called “Don’t Trust the B____ in Apt 23.” It is most definitely not a nice word to call anyone. Words have power to hurt, to exclude, and this is what this word in this sentence in this place means. He is refusing her, and he is not only refusing her, he is demeaning and excluding and hurting her all at once.

And she gets up in his face – I can picture someone like Queen Latifah saying this – and says “Who are you calling a b___?” I can also fantasize, as my friend and Biblical Scholar Wil Gafney does, that she says “Does your mama know you’re talking like that? Do you kiss your mama with that mouth?”

But this SyroPhoenician woman doesn’t dress him down for calling her a bad name, she turns his words around on him.

Words have power, sometimes in very unexpected ways. I remember a gathering of a group of clergywomen. Some of the older ones started calling some of the younger women priests the EpiscoPuppies. They thought it was cute, but for these very competent, bright young women, it was demeaning. It made them feel like junior members of the gathering, like they were less than the older clergywomen. And the young women stewed about it for a while, and the next time they were addressed as EpiscoPuppies, one of them said “yes, and you know what EpiscoPuppies grow up to be? EpiscoB____s.”

They turned around the power of the word that was intended to “put them in their place” and used it to defend themselves.

The SyroPhoenician woman follows a similar strategy. She says,” Yes, I may be a b___. You may think I’m less than nothing. But even those of us who are less than nothing get a little bit of something, the leftover crumbs, after all you fine and fancy folk get done with your banquet. And I am calling for my crumbs, right now.”

And suddenly the ownership of power of the words shifts. She takes that awful word and uses its power to get Jesus to pay attention…and as the power dynamic shifts, it opens up Jesus’ ears and heart to a new understanding of what his mission is. He is to care for all of the people, even the ones whom society calls dogs, even the ones who are untouchable, even the ones who belong to the enemy camp, even the ones who believe differently. He hears her, as he had never heard the voice of those who were outsiders before, and the word transforms him. It opens his ears.

How ironic, then, that the very next person who comes to him for healing is a deaf man who has no voice! That SyroPhoenician woman may have felt like that when Jesus called her that cruel name, naming her as someone who didn’t hear the way that Jesus and his fellow Jews heard. Someone who had no voice. Like that woman, this deaf-mute  is the ultimate outsider – he has no words.

He has no words.

I wonder if Jesus would have seen that deaf-mute in such stark relief as a person in need of words of his own had the Lord not experienced the power of words, the Lord who is often called the Word made flesh.  I wonder if Jesus could have loved that poor deaf mute man back into hearing and speaking unless he himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, had had his own ears opened up by that crazy SyroPhoenician woman who got up in his face…

She used the words that he had thrown at her, not to defeat him, but to open him up to all that he was expected to do and be.

And he was forever changed by that. Suddenly, the importance of caring for the poor, the outsiders, the broken ones, became the heart of his mission. It was not simply a chance to reclaim confused Israelites for the One True God. The mission was now for all, and especially for those who were the unlikely ones. He was no longer the Word made flesh for the chosen people of the Hebrew Bible, he was the Word made flesh for the whole broken, conflicted, troubled world. Why not? Words, as we know, have power. And this Word, unfolded into its true and all-encompassing mission, had more power than we can possibly imagine to heal and hold and love and transform.

Our words are less powerful than that, to be sure. But the key to words and power is to know how to use them as Jesus finally did: to love and envelop and heal. And equally important, to listen and truly hear the cries of those who are in need.

Even the words that each of us say have some power. We know that hurtful words can damage. We know that words of love and encouragement can lift people up. That’s a gift that words give us, a gift that makes us unique among God’s creation. So how will we use that power? What words do we need to hear to open our own hearts so we can hear the words of others? What words do we need to expunge from our vocabularies to realize the kingdom of God? We have the power, if we choose. Choose wisely.


Saturday, September 08, 2012

Not the Week I Expected

This was supposed to be a fairly mellow week. Chugging along, not much in the way of evening meetings, prepping for the first session of the DMin. down in Georgia on Monday.

God laughed.

And  I had a bad reaction to an injection I give myself every day. I have taken these shots for seven years without problem, but I must have nicked a vein, because I got the mother of all hematomas - scary enough to take me to the ER on Monday. Hurt. A lot.

By Thursday, it still hurt, but not quite as badly. Still it didn't look right to me, so I managed to get an appointment with the doc to take a look. I had an all-day meeting scheduled that day at the diocesan headquarters, but I figured this would take just twenty minutes or so, and the doc was just about a mile away from the diocesan office, so no problem, right? Two and a half hours later, I finally got ten minutes of the doc's attention and a scrip for antibiotics.  It's resolving itself now, but it was not fun. And yes, I did miss the second half of the meeting, which was aggravating. I actually did want to be there for it.

And an elderly person died, and there was some dispute whether the memorial service would be at his parish or at our church (one of his children is my parishioner and doesn't care for the other parish or its priest), and there was more dispute over who would do the service, and it went on and on from there. I ended up presiding at the service at the other church - too long a story and not bloggable.

And then StrongOpinions was having issues with the boyfriend and the move to Chicago, etc etc. Long distance mothering is hard on everybody.

And then it was Race Weekend here in the Capitol of the Confederacy. NASCAR. A biggie. Traffic is all messed up, affecting not only my neighborhood (about a mile from the raceway) but ....

wait for it

....the cemetery where the interment of the aforementioned deceased gentleman was to occur.  The cemetery was not going to do any interments after noon on Friday, because of traffic. They weren't going to do anything until after Monday noontime, because of the traffic. And this family wanted this done NOW. So we had to make the church's schedule adjust to the cemetery's schedule, which was adjusted due to the racetrack's schedule. Service on Friday at 11 am, interment at 12:15 in the cemetery, reception at the church at 1pm.

It all got done. The service went smoothly, the family was pleased, the interment was beautiful and peaceful, and there was NO traffic jam to or from the cemetery.

A cynical person might say that it was simply a matter of the employees of the cemetery wanting to have race weekend off. After all, it is a bacchanal of epic proportions. Folks were tailgating on the grounds of the raceway at 9 on Friday morning. One gentleman was interviewed on local television, talking about why he liked Race Weekend. "I don't have to be me until Monday." Says it all, doesn't it?

But it was a reminder to me that we all operate on our own inscrutable schedules, and it is not uncommon that the way we think the plan (or the week) will play out is not the way it actually does.

I could be ticked off about it all, but I choose not to. I can only laugh. as I imagine God did when I first thought "well, this will be a light week."

Yeah. Right.