Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Picnicking On The Storm; An Introduction

I'm going to have the privilege during the month of September to fill the pulpit at Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, MD.  Broadview is a congregation affiliated with the Alliance of Baptist and committed to being a progressive Baptist voice in Southern Maryland.  I've preached there before, and it's a real pleasure to be going back.

Part of what this means, though, is sermon preparation.  I'm once again wrestling with specific texts and seeking to understand how they might have something to say to us in the here and now-without forgetting their meaning for the "there and then."  In fact, it is most often in understanding the "there and then" that the "here and now" meaning becomes clearest.

The Gospel of Mark is the Gospel which is being explored this year (Year B) in the Lectionary.  Mark was probably the first Gospel written, it is the shortest, and it was most likely written to a Church that was being persecuted by the Roman government.  There were also conflicts with the synagogues (Christianity was first a sect of the Jewish faith, seeking to live out their belief in Jesus as the Messiah within the Jewish community). 

When I first began hearing discussions about Mark, it sort of got the "short straw" when it came to popularity.  Folks didn't give the Gospel writer a lot of credit for literary skill in the same way they did Luke for instance.  But as time has gone on, commentators and scholars have grown to see some really interesting things in the way Mark's Gospel is written.

Two of them that impact where I hope to go this week in the sermon are 1) doublets, and 2) what Tom Long calls "re-reading" devices.

Doublets are when Mark tells two very similar stories, or tells the same story twice in slightly different ways.  An example of this are the feeding stories in Mark 6 and Mark 8.  We'll be looking at the one in Mark 6 on Sunday.  Another example is what I call "storm stories."  The first is in Mark 4, the second in Mark 6.  One of the purposes of the storm story in Mark 6 is to get us to go back and re-read the feeding story in the same chapter.  Listen to verse 50-52:

"But immediately he spoke to them and said, 'Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.'  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.  And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened."  [italics mine]

What?  What has stilling this storm (much less the 'walking on water' bit) got to do with the feeding of the 5000?  Mark invites us with this device to go back a re-read that story and the storm story before it....and all the material between the two....again.  And to now look at all of it through a different lense.

If the feeding of the 5000 (and the feeding of the 4000) are stories that harken back to the Exodus accounts of manna in the desert; then to still the storm in Mark 4 and to walk on the stormy water in Mark 6 are both statements to this small, persecuted, chaos driven group of Christians that Jesus, in God's name, is in charge.  The New Exodus has come.  The New Creation has begun.

{By the way, just for fun, take the verse from the Feeding of the 5000 where it says that Jesus had pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd....then go read Ezekiel 34.  It would have been an obvious connection for Mark's readers, but we often miss it because we for get the Jewish roots of our Christian faith and that Jesus guided in His sense of His calling by the stories of the prophets.}

Thus we see Mark taking the stories that have been passed along about the life of Jesus (He stilled the storm, He feed the multitude, He walked on the water) and framing them in such a way that his particular reader/listener would hear the Good News that "Jesus is Lord" applied to their particular situation.

In the middle of our own chaos-personal, national, world wide-what does it mean to us to hear that Jesus is in control.  What does it mean that the New Exodus is still going on and that the New Creation is still bursting into bloom?  Can we hear the Good News?

Perhaps we need a re-read of Mark today.  It's a fascinating Gospel; particularly for us who surrounded by chaos echo the words of the disciples, "Lord doesn't it matter to you that we're perishing?"  The answer to that question is truly profound.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Being The Face of Love

In the movie Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon) is speaking with death row inmate Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) right before his execution.  Sister Helen says to Poncelet, "I want the last face you see to be the face of love; look at me-I will be the face of love for you."

It seems to me that this is our call as Christians, as the Body of Christ: to be the Face of Love; particularly to those who will not see it anywhere else if not in our face. 

This week I have been privileged, through blog posts, tweets, and facebook to follow the travels of Kevin and Elizabeth Hagan as they travel through Africa on behalf of Feed the Children.  You can find out more about this wonderful organization at www.feedthechildren.org.  Kevin has only been President and CEO for about 3 months now, but the energy he's brought and the vision he has are contagious....even to those of us watching from a distance.

Hearing about Feed the Children's work as Elizabeth and Kevin report their travels has reminded me about the desperate needs in our world for the basics: food and clean water.  There are other things as well:  health care, clothes, housing, education......but the ground level basics are food and water.

Feed the Childen is the 'Face of Love' in the places that they serve.  You can help them with that if you want; there is a way on their website to donate.  And you can pray for their work.

But we can also all think about how we are called to be the 'Face of Love' where we are.  Who needs to see the Face of Love when they look at us?  This is one of the ways that we participate with God in the New Creation...the "Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven".....the "we are laborers together with God".....all of that can be expressed in the shorthand of "I will be the Face of Love for you."

Notice.....there is nothing here about being deserving, or worthy, or meeting any criteria at all.  Matthew Poncelet was a murderer, and the crime he committed was horrible.  That doesn't matter.  The Grace of God expressed in our lives as the Face of Love is not about our making judgements.  It is about our being  a conduit.  Love flows through us freely....like the water so much of our world desperately needs....and suddenly one tiny piece of the world is changed.  For we have joined God in the New Creation.

Thank you Kevin and Elizabeth and all at Feed the Children.  Thank you Sister Helen and all who work for justice and mercy.  Thank you each one who reads this blog and who has been the Face of Love to me.  And thank you to each one who will read it and be the Face of Love to someone on Monday morning.


Monday, August 13, 2012

On Not Trading The Gospel Story

I want to begin this blog with a quote and a story.

The quote is from Thomas Merton.  It's been making the rounds on Facebook (I've reposted it myself) and I find it particularly powerful:

"Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.  That is not our business, and in fact, it is nobody's business.  What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can."

The  story is one I heard told by the Rev. Dr. Tom Long who was talking about Bishop Desmond Tutu and how there were those who were upset with Tutu's willingness to forgive those responsible for the oppression in South Africa.  Dr. Long quotes a lieutenant of Tutu's as saying, "the problem with Desmond is that he believes the Gospel.  He knows the story and he will not exchange it for another."

It seems to me that both of these can point us in the right direction; not just in an election year where such things as entitlements and care for the marginalized are clearly part of the discussion, but also in our personal lives as we struggle with our own attitudes and responses to those who have harmed us or those who we are invited to 'write out' of the story of God's love and care.

As the Body of Christ, we are to be extensions of God's love.  Thus Merton's comment helps us understand that in our love of neighbor God's love of our neighbor wraps around them and its Grace makes them worthy.  In mirroring Christ's love that same Grace embraces us. 

My pastor, Rev. Abby Thornton, talked this Sunday about what a HUGE part of Jesus' teaching was His desire that no one be left behind, no one be left out, no one remain on the margins; not just of what we would commonly interpret as "salvation" but also of the broader description of the "Kingdom of God" which Jesus taught in which basic necessities, healing, forgiveness, liberation, and wholeness were a part.

Someone who I otherwise respect a great deal posted a blog on entitlements with a picture above it of a group of reaching, grasping zombies with bloodstained hands.  Now, frankly, I really don't think this individual believes this....but the problem is that our culture all too often-from pulpit and political podium-has portrayed the marginalized and the needy as just this.

You and I as followers of Jesus have another picture; one that Jesus gave us.  It is His face superimposed upon the face of all who reach out, and on the face of those too weak or too broken or too deprived of hope to reach out.  This is a key part of the Gospel message.  This is where we meet Jesus.  When we fail to respond, the bloodstained hands are our own.

The judgement expressed in this blog falls on me as much as anyone else.....sometimes more.  But we keep trying.  We keep reaching out.  We keep encountering Jesus.  For we know the story and we won't exchange it for another.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wondering and Rambling About What Is Important

It is an interesting week.  The battle around Chick-Fil-A rages on.....REALLY?!?!
I have to ask:  if I believe, as a Baptist, in the "Priesthood of All Believers," what does it say if I am willing to try to destroy the business of someone I disagree with? 

Please do not get me wrong.  I am in favor of the rights of gays, lesbians, transgendered and bi-sexual persons.  I support gay marriage.  I would love to engage in dialogue with any member of the religious community that opposes these things that is willing to actually have a civil dialogue about them.  And I will support financially and politically and personally the movements that seek the liberation of ANY oppressed persons........because that's part of what I think it means to follow Jesus. But I do not think that Jesus would want me to try to destroy the business of someone who has sought to live-out through that business-so many of Jesus' teachings.  If that is the case, if we're in the "agree with me about everything, or I'll try to burn you to the ground" business....if that's the case, we've all got a target on our back, and worse, we've all abandoned the life Jesus tried to teach us.

The picture I have in my mind is of Jesus sitting across from Dan Cathy, a sandwich in His hand, saying, "this is a great sandwich Dan; Let's talk about your attitude toward toward your gay Christian brothers and sisters."  If you want a Biblical basis for this, look at who Jesus ate with....and the response of the religious folks to that practice.

And while this battle rages on.....the convesation about gun control grows strangely quiet.  Now a cynical person might say that this is because the Chick-Fil-A argument brings in votes, while talking about gun control is a pool of quicksand.  The "third rail" in politics used to be Social Security...maybe it still is; but gun control is giving it a run for its money.  A cynic might say that politicians are happy to see people of faith fighting over Chick-Fil-A, because it keeps them from focusing on the things that politicians SHOULD be doing something about-gun control, health care, poverty, war.

Evil loves it when we fight among ourselves.  When we draw lines in the sand. When we seek to destroy each other rather than to find common ground in Christ's love for us all.  As long as Christians are doing that, the hatred that seeks to rule the world wins.

Dan Cathy probably would never sit down for a sandwich with me, we move in very different circles.  But somewhere out there he's got a Christian friend who supports gay rights.  Whoever you are....go take Dan out for a sandwich.