Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Remembering Where We Came From

This Sunday I return to Broadview where I'll be preaching through Christmas. I appreciate being there with folks that I know and enjoy worshipping with.

  I also always enjoy having the opportunity to preach over a period of time because I get to follow the themes that I see emerging in the Biblical text as opposed to doing a "one and done" kind of sermon.  It's like making a journey with the congregation and we can see things unfolding together.  Advent, the liturgical lead up to Christmas, is, of course, one of the great opportunities in the Christian year to do this kind of preaching.  And the pre-Advent time is a good chance for looking at some things that help us understand the Advent season even better.

This week's scripture, Mark 12:28-34, is one of those opportunities. 

At first, the passage just sounds familiar.  Tom Long sometimes describes passages like this as being like a "senile dinner companion who keeps telling the same story over and over;" we think we've heard it all before.  You know: 'the greatest commandment is love God with all your heart....and your neighbor as yourself....blah, blah, blah.'  If we've spent any time in church at all, we know this passage in some form.  If we went to Vacation Bible School (or some version thereof) we may have sung it.  So there it sits; the senile dinner guest, telling us for the 100th time how he once should hands with FDR.  We smile and pass him a dinner roll.

But if we hang in there a bit, peel back some layers, there is important stuff here.  This is way beyond a lesson in 'say your prayers and be nice to people.'  In the first place, the scribe who asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is doesn't do so until after he's watched Jesus arguing with the different religious leaders.  And these leaders have come from every group.  If we look back to Mark 11:27 and move forward we see that Jesus has been confronted by the "chief priests, scribes, and the elders," the "Pharisees and some Herodians" (the Herodians were Jewish leaders who were okay with Herod being king and were felt, by some, to have sold out politically), and "some Sadducees" (who were an upper crust religious group who were also pretty happy with the status quo).  It's only after this man has watched Jesus handle their confrontations that he asks his question.

The question about the greatest commandment isn't asked to oppose or test Jesus in this story.  It's a "how do we live then in this time and place?" question. The conversation with Jesus is sincere.

Jesus' answer points back to the most significant event in Hebrew history: the story of the Exodus and the covenant made by God with the Hebrews at Sinai.  There God had told these recently rescued slaves that they were to 'Love God and care for neighbor'.....including the stranger in their midst......always remembering that they had once been slaves in Egypt.  Jesus' response is shorthand for "remember where we came from (slavery in Eygpt), whose we are (we belong to the God who brought us out of slavery with a mighty hand), and what we're called to be (that pecular nation that practices mercy and forgiveness toward neighbor, widow, orphan, stranger, enemy).

If one looks at the confrontations with the various groups that went before, we can see that each of them had, in some way, forgotten a part of that history.  These two commandments; to love God and neighbor, were spelled out at Sinai.  The Ten Commandments break down into how to live in relationship to God and neighbor.  They were also the commandments for living a life free from Pharoah and Pharoah's oppression.

Now, here, in the shadow of the Roman garrisons, Jesus tells the scribe, 'remember where you came from, whose you are, and what you're called to be.  This is street level, nitty gritty stuff.  It is subversive at root.  Even in the shadow of Rome, remember that you do not belong to Rome.  You show your freedom in how you honor God...particularly in care for neighbor.

I have to wonder.....particularly as the election we remember where we came from?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Blind Men and A Second Touch

I have the opportunity once again this Sunday to preach at Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, VA.  This makes me happy since I've been there before and really like the people.  I'm grateful to their pastor, Rev. Elizabeth Hagan for inviting me.

I decided that I would play this week with two stories about blindness and Jesus healing blind men.  First of all because they seem to be part of what often gets called a "Markan Sandwich" where Mark either splits a story in half; tells part of it, has Jesus go do something else, and then finishes the story (the passage about the 'barren fig tree' is one of these).  Or, Mark tells two really similar stories and puts important things between them.  This is what I think the case is with the scriptures I'm using this week.

You may remember the cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead.  He would make these really HUGE sandwiches.  Well, this is that kind of sandwich.  Between the first story: Mark 8:22-26 (the story of a man that Jesus had to touch twice to completely heal his blindness) and Mark 10:46-52 (the story of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus) there is a whole boatload of stuff where Jesus teaches about true greatness, what's really important in the kingdom, the importance of the marginalized (particularly children), prayer, and foretells His death and resurrection.

These two stories are strange though.  In the first, Jesus has to touch the blind man twice because when Jesus asks him what he sees, he responds, "I see men, but they're like trees walking around."  In the second story we have one of the few times when Mark names the person who's being healed.  It seems important to explore the 'why' of these facts.

Let's start with Bartimaeus.  It's a very strange name.  "Bar" is the Hebrew word for "son of."  So Bartimaeus would be "Son of Timaeus."  But the name Timaeus is Greek, not Hebrew.  Now it's possible that Bartimaeus' father was a Greek convert, but I think that Mark chose the name for a reason.  Timaeus is a character in Plato's dialogue by the same name.  In this dialogue, Plato outlines his understanding of the make-up of the universe.  In this understanding, everything has an ordered place and should not deviate from it.  Slaves are slaves.  Rulers are rulers.  And blind beggars are blind beggars.  This is the way life is. Don't fight it; keep your head down and keep moving.

So here is Bartimaeus, blind as a bat, because he is a 'son of a world view' that has no real room for the action of God.  One's lot in life is set.  No wonder he is blind.  The good news is that he "calls out"....literally yells or screams to "Jesus, Son of David" to "have mercy."

But it's hard for those of us who have become 'sons and daughters' of a cultural world view.  We've been sold a bill of goods about the way the world is.  We often see people like they were 'things,' like they were "trees walking around."  It's not that we don't love Jesus or want to follow Him.  It's that we need a 'second touch' if we're going to really, truly get a new, alternate vision of our world.

The material 'sandwiched' between these two stories is all about how the disciples don't get what Jesus is trying to teach them.  They are 'blind' to what He is trying to tell them.  They're locked into a world view, a way of seeing life, that makes it hard for them.  This is why I believe Mark took two very real stories of Jesus healing of blind men and placed them where he did. 

Really looking forward to exploring this more with the folks at Washington Plaza on Sunday.  Join us if you can.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Thank You Jodi DiPiazza

I watched the video that is linked to below in my office this morning.  Had a little time and figured I'd check my Facebook page.  It's Katy Perry and a young woman with autism named Jodi DiPiazza singing a duet.  It's preceded by some film of the years of therapy this young woman needed-and got-to get to this triumphant place in her life.

I really try not to cry when I'm in my know, it disturbs folks who drop in when they find you in tears....but this......

And I started thinking about church....and whether or not we make it a welcoming, comfortable place for people like Jodi and her parents.  I'm sure that some churches do-and some don't.  I'm not looking to get into an argument either way.  I'm just looking to raise the question for each of us to answer for ourselves......How would we react to the 'young Jodi' showing up in the pew next to us; the one who screamed and cried?  I'm sure all of us would be really happy to have the Jodi on this video sing at our worship service.....but how would we feel about her throwing toys in our Sunday School room?

There aren't easy answers to how we can best minister to folks with autism, or folks with other significant issues.....and I don't claim to have more than minimal beginnings to even the easiest of answers.  What I do believe is that Jesus clearly calls us to struggle with the questions; because Jesus calls us to welcome Jodi.....because if we take scripture seriously, in some fundamental way, Jesus is in Jodi.  This really isn't one of those passages where there's a lot of wiggle room. 

There are a lot of passages where we can argue about the context of the story, the multiple meanings of the words in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic...but this isn't one of them.  Jesus said, "whoever recieves one of these little ones receives Me."  Doesn't mean it's pretty; doesn't mean it's easy; doesn't mean it's not sometimes (okay...often) messy as hell.  But it DOES mean that that's what we're called to. Jodi and Katy made me cry.  Big deal.  I got a nice warm feeling listening to them.  But what they did that was so much more important was to ask me the question, "am I welcome in your church?  Will you create a place for me?"  They reminded me that the work of building the community of the New Creation is hard, sweaty, challenging in a multitude of ways.

So....Jodi DiPiazza......from me to you....Thank you.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why Ginter Park and the BGAV Is Important

Readers of my last post on the decision by Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) to ask Ginter Baptist Church to withdraw their membership in that body may wonder why I think all of this is such a big deal.

After all, any church that decides to ordain a gay individual shouldn't be suprised to get some blow back....right?  Particularly if that church is Baptist....right? 

To some degree this is true.  Baptists (with some notable exceptions both in terms of individuals, denominational bodies, groups, and local congregations) have significant issues around gay marriage and the ordination of gay individuals.  I don't agree with their negative stance; but I can live with it.  I can live with it because I believe that as history moves forward the church will move with it (even if very slowly)-this has been shown to be true about slavery, women's rights, women's ordination (okay, it's true that Southern Baptists haven't caught up with history yet).  And I can live with it because I'm Baptist, and Baptists hold certain things as foundational.

Among those foundational things are Priesthood Of All Believers; Autonomy Of The Local Congregation; and the concept of "Call."

Each of these points to a basic belief that God is free to act outside of what we might expect.  They point to a belief that the safeguard against any particular group or person determining that THEY and THEY ALONE understand what God desires is to trust in God's communication of God's self with the individual in prayer and study and the local congregation in prayer, study, and conversation.

We don't talk about "Call" a lot these days; but it's an important belief.  Basically it says that an individual comes into ministry because they sense God's activity in their life leading them to make that decision.  The activity could be as quiet and subtle as a set of gifts, skills, and talents that one thinks are best used in ministry; or as dramatic as dreams in the night and a powerful sense that God is purposefully leading in a deeply personal way.  But all along the spectrum is the sense that entering ministry isn't just something that one decides to do on a whim.

And that is tested by the calling together of an Ordination Council by the local congregation.  That Council includes clergy and lay folk who examine the Candidate for Ministry and ask questions about how they arrived at their decision, what problems they might have carrying it out, and their basic beliefs about their faith.

Then this group, this Ordination Council, will pray and talk (sometimes will decide to re-convene later after some issue is addressed) and will examine scripture and, exercising their role in the Priesthood Of All Believers, make a recommendation concerning the individual's request for ordination.  No one I've ever met made the decision to recommend ordination lightly.

Finally, the local congregation will vote (or not) to confirm the Council's recommendation and to set a date for Ordination to occur.

Looking at the process; looking at the safeguards; looking at the ways in which basic Baptist beliefs are exercised all along the way; it should be easy to see why the BGAV is so disturbing.  Their actions are tantamount to a Catholic saying, "the Pope's really not the head of the Catholic church" or a Presbyterian saying, "let's forget about John Calvin, we don't need to look at any of his ideas."  The lines the BGAV crossed are foundational lines....and when they crossed them it was the BGAV, not Ginter Park that put themselves outside of Baptist fellowship.  But because that body is numerically larger, they were able to abuse the power of their numbers to make it appear that Ginter Park had stepped across the line.

I truly, and prayerfully hope that there will be a resolution found to this situation that allows Ginter Park to remain in the BGAV and allows the BGAV to continue to truly be faithful to Baptist beliefs.  But if it isn't, we need to remember.....Ginter Park was the one who acted like Baptists; not the BGAV.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Calling The Baptist General Association of Virginia to Repentance

On October 10, 2012 the Baptist General Association of Virginia stepped away from two of the basic tenents of Baptist faith: specifically the Autonomy of the Local Congregation and the Priesthood of All Believers.  They did so by requesting that one of their member congregations withdraw its membership because they disagreed with a decision this congregation had made within the context of it's life.  A decision made after deep prayer and seeking to be guided by scripture.

It would be different if this were a church with a Bishop or a body such as a Prebytery where power to tell local congregations what to to is vested.  But Baptists have, throughout history, clung fiercely to the belief that the local congregation, guided by the Spirit of God through prayer and study makes it's own decisions; and that those decisions, even if abhorant to other Baptist Christians, must be respected as their right.  The fact that, as one Mission Board member (who opposed the action) pointed out, there is no provision in the BGAV by-laws to support the action compounds it even further.

The fact that the issue at hand was the ordination of an openly gay person is, in my mind, irrelevant to the discussion.  One pastor who voted for the move stated that it's not "in the same category as women in ministry or race relations."  The truth is that it is in exactly the same category; and that category is entitled "What Baptist Believe About Soul Freedom."  But this pastor said, "it's not a question of whether to exclude but where to exclude." 

Taken to it's logical conclusion Congregational Autonomy is now "the congregation is autonomous unless we don't like what you do and can muster enough votes to toss you out."  Priesthood of the Believer is now "you may believe whatever you feel guided by the Spirit to believe as long as it doesn't challenge my beliefs or rock the boat."  By the lights of the kind of thinking that governed the BGAV's decision making, the couragous pastors who signed the Declaration of Barmen in 1934 could have been tossed from membership with the words, "we have to oppose this or there will be consequences.  There are other groups that will take our member churches if we don't come out against these folks.  They've crossed the red line."

Christians have always held dessenting opinions of one sort or another.  Baptists, at our best, have always left room at the Table (and by that I mean the Lord's Table as well) for those we disagree with.

As a Baptist and a pastor, I strongly urge my brothers and sisters of the BGAV to repent this betrayal of basic Baptist beliefs, to prayerfully look at the deepest meaning of their actions and reverse this move away from what it means to be Baptist.  I will pray for their return to Baptist principles and that a way can be found for all of us to work together for the healing of both our denominational bodies and our world.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Marriage, Divorce, And (Other) Scriptures I'd Rather Avoid

As I work toward Sunday's sermon on Mark 10:1-16, I'm tempted to flake out on this passage and go to some alternate, easier to deal with text.  After all, this is World Communion Sunday.  I can preach a nice sweet sermon about how, in spite of all the division among those of us who claim to follow Jesus on the Way, we still gather around the Table where ever we are in the world on this particular day.  It's a valid point; a good point; and one we need to remember.  We're all part of the family and we're all gathered at the Table.

But the Revised Common Lectionary throws us this passage about of the stickiest issues of Jesus' day-and ours.

I'm not neutral on this issues.  I have a dog in this fight.  I've been divorced for almost 24 years and remarried for almost 22. I'm a pastor.  I counsel couples.  I've watched two of my children from my first marriage go through divorces.  I definitely have 'skin in the game' when this conversation gets started.

So let's look at what happened in this passage.  The first thing is that the conversation did not start because anyone was trying to sort out this issue from a perspective of "pastoral care" or concern for anyone.  "Some Parisees came, and to test him they asked, 'is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'" [italics mine].  Like a trick question in a political debate the question is dropped into Jesus lap.

Jesus fires back: "What did Moses command you?"  Their response, "Moses allowed a man to write a crtificate of dismissal and to divorce her" is an avoidance.  Notice that Jesus asks what Moses "commanded" and they respond with what is "allowed." These great 'followers of the Law' are looking for wiggle room already.  And there was a lot of discussion on this topic historically as well, so it wasn't just a trick question.
During this time there were two basic approaches to what the Law meant.  The Rabbis Shammai and Hillel differed dramatically on this issue.  Shammai taught that the only reason for divorce was for a serious transgression such as adultry.  Hillel taught that even trivial offenses-such as burning a meal-might be a justifiable reason. 

 But it may also have been an even deeper trick question because the House of Shammai tended to side politically with the Zealots where as the House of Hillel was more open to a conciliatory approach.  So there were layers and layers of stuff potentially involved in the question.

Jesus, however, cuts straight to the issue of marriage and divorce.  "What God has joined together, let no one rip apart."  The truth is that divorce happens.  It happens then, it happens now.  When it happens, something live and real is ripped apart.  It is painful.  It is damaging.  It tears apart something that was meant to be reflective of God's fidelity and commitment toward humankind.  I don't believe it is any accident that the next verses in Mark are another Markan incident in which Jesus responds to children.  Then, and now, they are the ones most vulnerable to the damage done by divorce....they are the ones most often seen as collateral victims of this tearing, ripping process.

Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses wrote the commandment allowing divorce "because of your hardness of heart."  Divorce is always a failure.  It may be a necessary decision, but it is always a failure and there is always a ripping of hearts.  It is never a decision to be made lightly.

I believe in marriage.  I believe that marriage is to be Eucharistic (meaning that it is to be one of the ways that God's Grace comes to us), and that God's fidelity should be reflected in our care and love and commitment to our partner.  So I believe in the sanctity of marriage.  I also believe that each of these things I hold dear about marriage can be lived out within a marriage between persons of the same sex.  Marriage is no less sacred, no less sanctified, no less Eucharistic based upon the gender of the person involved.

This means that divorce is no less a ripping of the life of the individuals whom God joined when the partners are gay than when they are straight. 

If this is true, then the Church has a HUGE responsibility to persons preparing to enter into marriage, moving through marriage, encountering issues in marriage, or thinking of terminating their marriage.  Because divorce is the tearing apart of what God has joined, we have a responsibility to ALL married persons, gay and straight, to be nurturing an sustaining their life together.

In Jesus' day, one of the great problems (and Jesus addressed it by His actions) was the social attitude toward women.  This attitude was woven into the arguments over divorce.  Perhaps in our day one of the great arguments is the purpose and meaning of relationships....particularly the one expressed in marriage.  Is it that much of a shift from "women are property that you can dispose of if they displease you" to "marriage partners are here for my satisfaction; if the shiney wears off we can move on to something better"? 

What is the alternate vision that we as Christians offer about the meaning of our lives together in marriage?  Owning up to the damage divorce does, and the pain it brings, may be the first step in healing the wounds of those of us who have been divorced and in committing the community of faith to the walking wounded among us and the careful nurturing of the lives of those who make commitments to live in truly Holy Matrimony.