Friday, September 25, 2015

Stumbling Blocks (Reflections on Pentecost 18, Year B)

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)

I have an old seminary buddy whom I’ll call “Jack” (because that’s his name!). Jack told me this story about his seminary intern parish, a large suburban church which was in a long process of recovering from a particularly unpleasant episode. It seems that this congregation was once active and thriving and doing boat loads of ministry. The senior pastor was charismatic and popular and completely involved in all aspects of congregational life—attending every committee meeting and keeping constant contact with the many members of his flock. He was active in the community and the local paper frequently featured his picture.

One morning, however, parishioners saw their pastor’s picture in the paper and they didn’t exactly beam with pride. The pastor had been arrested in a sting operation while soliciting a male prostitute.

One half of the congregation resigned their church membership overnight.

How very painful it is when people we love and respect disappoint us. If those people are supposed to be church leaders, their misdeeds can be annihilating to our faith. In the Gospel lesson assigned for Pentecost 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 9:38-50), Jesus warns us about putting stumbling blocks in the way of the “little ones.” I guess “little ones” could be interpreted as children or those who are very new in the faith. I’d also include in that category those whose faith is fragile, who limp through this life exhausted by economic oppression and bereavement and loneliness. They come to us looking to see the face of Christ, and when that face turns out to be one scarred by our selfish, human weakness, then Christ evaporates and they are left with nothing in which to lodge their brittle hope. And shame on us when we cause that disillusionment.

This week Pope Francis is visiting Philly, and I certainly hope he’ll be addressing the ways church folk frighten people off from church. Sexual abuse or scandal are certainly at the top of the hit parade, but they’re not the only kind of stumbling blocks with which we litter the ecclesiastical ground. There’s arrogant judgment, rather like that which our boy John displays in the Gospel lesson. He just can’t see how anyone who isn’t a member of “the club” could possibly be a true follower of Jesus.

Of course, we also have to beware of judging those who judge other people. Bitterness over our own disappointments causes bitterness in others. We stumble and others trip over our writhing bodies.

And let’s not forget lack of forgiveness. The church, after all, was never a place for perfect people. Jesus didn’t hang around with a very accomplished crowd himself. Throughout the Gospels the Apostles keep saying stupid things and getting the message wrong. Maybe one of the hardest things in our life of spiritual community is finding the grace to see the hurt in those whose words or actions so offend us, and, in seeing that pain, choosing to pray for its healing rather than dwell on the putrid taste it leaves with us. I’ve always liked the saying, “The Church is not a country club for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners. And if you go to a hospital, don’t be surprised if you find sick people!” 

In these times when the institutional church faces so much change and chaos, we might also find ourselves tempted towards what Martin Luther called a “great and shameful sin,” despair. As congregation close or merge and restructure, it is tempting to think all will soon be lost and that we are truly living in the “Post-Christian Era.” Hopelessness, however, not only denies the power and love of the Holy Spirit, but puts a stumbling block in the way of God’s Word. It is the challenge for those of us in the church to offer that cup of cool water to a world that doesn’t even know it is thirsty.

I’m as guilty as the next guy of putting stones in the road of faith. I’ve grumbled, doubted, made snarky remarks about religious practices with which I disagree, and mentally condemned those I thought were screwing up the Christian church as I think it should be. And I’ve got to get over myself. If the church loses its salt, it’s going to be one tough mother of a time putting the flavor back in. I think the Pope has added a little salt by his message of kindness and compassion. That’s what we’re supposed to be about.

Stay salty, my friends. Be kind, be patient, be hopeful. Don’t screw it up for others, okay? And thanks for visiting this week.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Making America Great--Jesus Style (Reflections on Pentecost 17 Year B)

“… on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:34b)

Oh boy! Could there be a timelier topic here in the good ol’ USA for this Sunday’s Gospel reading than this story of Jesus’ twelve buddies on the road to Capernaum mixing it up about which of them was the coolest kid in the class? I say this as this reading (Mark 9:30-37) comes right on the heels of that magnificent Festival of Narcissism called the CNN Republican Primary Debate. Did you see it? Americans spent three hours last week watching ten men and one woman arguing about who was the greatest among them. All the candidates claimed to have won the argument, boasting that their skills, ideas, experience, successes, outsider status, wisdom, good looks, and underarm deodorant made them more qualified than their rivals to be the one who will “Make America Great Again.”

Republican debates: The main event

This gets me pondering two things: First, what does it mean to be great? What do you think greatness is, anyway? Would America be great if we were indisputably the wealthiest nation on earth with the highest standard of living? Are we great because of military power which allows us to open a family-sized can of whoop-ass on anyone who challenges our interests? Are we great because we can make the best cars, shoot the best movies, train the best athletes, and cook the best artery-clogging fast food? Does any of this make America great?

I guess we have to define what we mean by “great” or “greatness.” In the Gospel lesson, Jesus defines it through a willingness to serve others.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (v.35)

The lesson starts with Jesus teaching these guys that he must give up his life in order to be raised by God. They don’t get this (not that I would either if I were in their place!), but they’re too stuck on their own egos to be humble enough to ask for clarification. Jesus has to explain to them that greatness can only be found in humility and sacrifice. To illustrate his meaning, he points to a little kid. Now, in the world of the text, kids were virtually property. They had no importance whatever. If you were a kid, you were pretty much the slave of your parents. I always imagine that Jesus was pointing to a little girl, because she would be seen as being even less significant than a little boy. Then he exhorts these self-aggrandizing male disciples to treat this child as if they were treating their respected rabbi. “I’m here,” Jesus seems to be saying, “in the least important, least powerful, least wise, and least wealthy in your society. I expect you to treat such a one as you would treat me. When you do that, you’ll be in relationship with the Father God. That’s greatness, boys!”

Maybe that’s a cool definition of greatness—the persistent desire to see Christ in others and be Christ for others. I’ll admit, this takes some work. I don’t know that I’m very good at it myself. But that’s the kind of greatness which outlasts all others in my book.

But let me get back to my second question about Making America Great. I’d like someone to tell me: when did we stop being great..? Did I miss something here? Yeah, sure, I know that there are millions of problems in this country with poverty and violence and education and healthcare and the environment and criminal justice (or lack thereof) and tons of other stuff. But I still think our national greatness lies in our belief that all people matter. We still try to provide—however ineptly—education to all of our children. We still believe in care for our elderly through sacrificial social programs. We still reject (I hope!) military force as the first solution to solving international problems. We are still able to speak our minds openly. We still respect freedom of religion. We still provide generous aid to other lands in time of famine, drought, and natural disaster. That all sounds pretty great to me. When the day comes when we as a people reject servanthood for self-interest we will cease to be great and will justly deserve the inevitable decay which must result from pride without compassion.

Greatness is inseparable from righteousness, and righteousness starts with humility.

Thanks again for checking out my blog. You know I love it when you stop by!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Would The Donald Approve? (Reflections on Pentecost 15 Year B)

File:Michael Angelo Immenraet - Jesus and the Woman of Canaan.jpg
"Jesus and the Woman of Canaan" by Michael Angelo Immenraet
Flemish artist (1621-1683) Note the doggie!

I have a sneaking hunch Donald Trump would not approve of the gospel lesson appointed for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary. Here we have in Mark 7:24-37 two examples of Jesus’ power to heal and cast out unclean spirits. The first of these two examples, the healing of the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter, might be a little uncomfortable for a couple of reasons.

The miracle story in verses 24 – 30 shows Jesus’ radical inclusivity. Here’s Our Savior, just coming off feeding the five thousand, walking on the water, and reaming out a bunch of uppity Pharisees (were there any other kind?) just looking for a little R & R on the nearby foreign island of Tyre. It was sort of like taking a weekend in Bermuda or Puerto Rico—you can get away and nobody knows who you are so they won’t bug you. Unfortunately, if you happen to be the Only Begotten Son of God and Savior of the World, folks just won’t leave you alone. Some needy foreign chick with a demonically possessed child (don’t you hate it when that happens..?) comes nosing around the hacienda in hopes that Jesus would cast the demon out of her little daughter. Jesus’ reaction to this is a bit disconcerting:

“He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” (v.27)

Now, if your image of Jesus is that blond, blue-eyed, gentle soul carrying a lamb on his shoulder, the harshness of this reply to a desperate mom might seem a bit shocking and out of character. Of course, if you’re Donald Trump, you might be cheering, “Right on, Jesus! No free exorcisms for non-citizens! And who cares if you call her a dog? There’s too much political correctness in this country!”

But good ol’ Jesus has to go and show compassion to this undeserving foreign woman anyway. Isn’t that just like him..? There he goes, throwing good healthcare away on the unentitled! 

So what do we do with this story? How do we interpret Jesus’ initial reaction to the woman’s supplication? I guess we can take a little solace in the way Jesus words the response—at least in Mark’s version. Here he says “Let the children be fed first,” suggesting that maybe he had a plan to include everyone all along once he got his own people on board. Or, we could challenge our orthodoxy a little and say that the human Jesus, a man of his time and culture, really believed that God’s blessings were intended only for God’s chosen people, but, moved by compassion and the great show of faith by this foreign woman, changed his mind and embraced this unheard-of inclusivity. Either way, we have to go away understanding that Christ’s mercy supersedes our notions of entitlement, race, gender, nationality, or what have you. Mark’s version of the story doesn’t even explicitly praise the woman for her faith. It is just an example of mercy and compassion as the way of Jesus.

Of course, we tend to get hung up on who deserves our compassion and who doesn’t. My parish, I am proud to say, is a participant with Interfaith Hospitality Network. Last month we hosted three young, single, and homeless mothers in our church basement. We provided them and their children with a safe and reasonably clean living quarters and a family-style meal every night. Unfortunately, there are some who complained of the squalor produced in our church basement by hosteling three families for a month’s duration, to say nothing of the noise made by five rambunctious little kids—any one of whom could’ve been taken for the demonically possessed child in our gospel story. There were some who opined that it was too much of a disruption to the church to welcome these homeless folks under our roof, and have suggested that we stop our participation in this program.

Fortunately, the majority of volunteers understand that mercy and generosity to people down on their luck is not contingent on their good housekeeping or their children’s behavior. After all, how can we, who are sinners, ever claim to decide who is worthy of compassion?

I always try to ask myself who am I in the gospel story? Perhaps I should cast myself in the role of the deaf man in verses 31-37 (another foreigner, by the way). I need to be brought to Jesus so that I will be touched and my ears will be opened and I will really hear the radical message of the gospel. Love transcends taxonomy every time. Jesus is telling us all, “Be opened!”

Finally, I have to throw out a thought about the “Messianic Secret,” which ends this gospel selection. Throughout Mark, Jesus tells his followers not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah—an order they constantly disobey. Why doesn’t he want this known? To me, the simplest and most obvious answer within the context of the story would be that “Messiah” was understood in the society to designate an earthly ruler and a military liberator from Roman occupation. Making a fuss over Jesus as the Messiah would only bring down Roman wrath and put a quick end to Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps Jesus knew that in seeing the marvelous works of healing and compassion the crowds saw not God’s love and desire for wholeness but the instrument of their own political agendas. And this is also our challenge, too. We always have to wrestle with our sinful nature—trying not to make Jesus into who we want him to be, but make ourselves into who he wants us to be.

I’m always glad when you stop by. I hope this essay gave you a little something to ponder as you go about living in grace.