On Wednesday, we celebrated the feast day of St. Alban, who is noted as being the first British Christian martyr. In our gathering, we reflected on the story of Alban, who until converting to Christianity, was a Roman solider who lived during a time when Christianity was illegal, and who had probably in the course of his duties, persecuted, beat, and perhaps even put to death Christians. And yet, what makes Alban’s story worthy of repeating and being remembered in our Christian history, is the story of his conversion. According to Holy Women, Holy Men, Alban “gave shelter to a Christian priest who was fleeing from persecution and was converted by him. When officers came to Alban’s house he dressed himself in the garments of the priest and gave himself up. Alban was tortured and martyred in place of the priest…[according to the Venerable Bede’s account of the trial, when Alban was brought before the judge, he was demanded to identify himself, to which he replied] ‘My parents named me Alban...and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.’” (HWHM, 434).
Something about Alban meeting this priest and hearing his story changed Alban’s heart. Not only did he become a Christian, but he stood in place of his now Christian brother. He gave his life to save the life of another. And while most of us may not be able to imagine making that kind of choice ourselves, we can recognize in this story the power of love that is given freely one to another. And sometimes the purposes of recalling these stories and sharing them over the centuries, is so that they remind us what it means to follow Christ in the way of love.
In the gospel text this morning from Luke, Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem. This is a precarious time for the disciples and those who had experienced the love and healing that he offered. When we read that Jesus has his face toward Jerusalem, we know that he is preparing for the end of his earthly ministry. So when one of his followers says, "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus’ response is about a willingness to leave everything behind--following Jesus in this ministry meant making the choice to leave everything that felt safe and secure and certain, in order to take the risk to do something bigger in the service of the kingdom of God. It is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls the difference between costly grace and cheap grace. In his book The Cost of Discipleship (43-45), Bonhoeffer defines cheap grace and costly grace this way:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.
Alban’s choice to offer shelter for the priest and stand in for him is an example of costly grace. And we too have the opportunity to make these choices in our everyday lives...even if they aren’t as radical as Alban’s choice.
So where have we seen this costly grace being lived out in our more recent history?
The Freedom Riders who worked to bring equal voting rights to blacks in the south, who were beaten, spit on, terrorized and imprisoned to bring about justice in this country, who were working for the coming of the kingdom of God, who sacrificed their well-being for the well-being of others...this is costly grace. And in a more extreme example, the three young civil rights workers who were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi in June of 1964, having given their life to create just communities where blacks had systematically been denied their voter rights, had been discriminated against and marginalized as Children of God...this is costly grace.
The teachers and school personnel of Sandy Hook Elementary School who shielded children from being killed by a gunman--Victoria Soto, Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach--they didn’t set out for school that day knowing that they would be victims of a terrible crime. Their intention was to love, care for and educate children to one day become healthy adults in the world. And in their love, they lost their lives...this is costly grace.
But grace doesn’t always mean becoming a martyr, right? Costly grace--the giving of oneself freely, out of a place of love and care, the building up of another, or as Eugene Peterson explains, the gift of costly grace is, “a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.” (The Message, Galatians 5:23)
This week there was a video circulating the internet of Angels. And these weren’t the ordinary, chubby little angels of Christmas greeting cards. These were adult men and women dressed in white with huge (and I mean huge) wing panels that came to the the funeral of Drew Leinonen. Drew was a 32 year old victim of the Orland massacre on June 12. They came to stand outside of the funeral gathering to serve as a counter protest to members of the Westboro Baptist Church who had come to yell and spew anti-gay rhetoric at those in attendance of the funeral. The angels far outnumbered the Westboro members and drowned out their protest by singing “Amazing Grace”. Their wings were big enough to hide the Westboro signs from funeral attendees, so that they could grieve in peace. These Angels were the living embodiment of costly grace.
In the Galatians text for this week, we also hear about the gifts of the spirit versus the desires of the flesh. And I’ll admit, some of those desires---well, they’re fun, they’re part of the human condition, and I’m guilty--as I’m sure some of you are as well. But when I read the Message translation of these desires, well, it shifted my perspective a bit. According to the The Message, the desires of the flesh are:
Repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.
Well, dang it...that’s the human condition right there. And while we all struggle with various parts of these desires, when we make the choice to follow Jesus, we continue that struggle, but with the intention of maturing into a place of spirit, of costly grace...a place where we act not out of our own self-interest, but with that “willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.”
So this begs the question...who are we called to be? Are we called to be angels, martyrs, protectors, freedom riders? Are we called to follow Jesus in a way that means we strive for justice and peace? Or do we want to continue on the path of self-satisfaction that doesn’t really satisfy? Are our eyes turned toward Jerusalem with Jesus, or are they focused on something else?
Today is June 19, 2016, a new day from last Sunday where 49 Orlando people died, and 50 people were injured. It’s the Lord’s Day; a day to ponder and stand-up to the demons that continue to speak lies on how to fix broken lives and hardened hearts. Today, along with the words of Jesus, we will ponder how Jesus lived in a world much like ours, where violence struck out without warning; where multiple religions warred with each other, and people lived in fear that they would not have enough food, enough energy to live one more day, or show enough allegiance to the Roman leaders. And then Jesus is born into this world with a different message, “Love your God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbors as yourself.”
Jesus lived out his ministry for three years, and during those years his love for the downtrodden and hopeless resurrected hope that life could be different for all people, not just the poor or demon-filled man, as in our storyline today, but the wealthy who were heart-sick. Jesus came for all. Even us, who sit in our pews wringing our minds and hands in disbelief over the violence we witness, as we watch television or read articles nonstop to find a hint of escape or answer to the world we now live in. Because the bottom line to living in our world today is this, “We are not safe from violence.”
I believe our Gospel lesson today breaks into our world of insecurity and violence in startling ways. This story is the only time in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus deliberately goes to Gentile territory – he arrives by boat having just stilled the storm, and now encounters demons in a disheveled Gerasene man who rushes up to him. Luke paints a stark picture of acute alienation. The man is homeless among his own people; possessed by many demons, he is wild and unpredictable, naked, sometimes chained and restrained, living alone in a graveyard among the dead. This is a man everyone would fear and run from, and then there is Jesus who stands still.
Jesus doesn’t run away when a naked man falls at his feet screaming, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Jesus stands his ground by asking the demons inside this shell of a man, “What is your name?” He said, ‘Legion’, for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.” Jesus complied with the demons, and sends the demons into a herd of pigs who then run down a bank into the lake and drown.
To our modern ears this is a bewildering tale. As one commentator says, “readers who do not inhabit a first-century mental world, where demons are a regular way of accounting for unusual events and exorcism is a recognized way of attempting to deal with them, are liable to be bemused by this episode.” But, let’s not get caught up in the small details on how Jesus deals with this situation, rather, lets listen to the reactions, first, from the man who now sits calmly at the feet of Jesus, and 2nd, from Jesus himself, who tells the man he cannot be a follower of his, but must return to his home and declare how much God has done for him.
At this stage in the story we are more accustomed to hearing Jesus ask people to follow him, rather than sending the man home. This healed man cannot stay around Jesus to feel safe, but is sent home to deal with people in his neighborhood who may run from him, or doubt that he is a transformed man. The healed man’s plea is emotional, because the text says he begs Jesus to stay with him. And let’s not forget the people standing around who witnessed this act of transformation, how do they react to change in this man? They do the obvious, something we might do in church, they ask Jesus to leave because they are “seized with great fear.”
It’s time for us to enter this story. How do we handle the fear of knowing that we can no longer feel safe within the United States? It is tempting to do what the healed man does, ask to stay within the walls of St. Mark’s, praying together to feel safe, and giving ourselves permission not to act out in love toward those being abused and killed. But Jesus does not respond with apathy in this story, he tells the healed man to go out into his neighborhood to declare what God has done for him.
That’s our answer to fear and violence, folks, go out and tell the good news of Jesus. Everyone in this room has people they hang with, and you have a story to tell where violence can be silenced with love, just as Jesus did. Jesus could just as easily have walked right by this demon-possessed man, but he didn’t. He stopped and listened to the demons, and through compassion helped this man to become human.
John Philip Newell in his book, “The Rebirthing of God,” states that the word “compassion is about honoring the relationship between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connection … even when we are filled with doubts as to whether we are moving in the right direction.” Newell goes on to hold up Suu Kyi [Soo Chee] as a living witness of what it means to be compassionate. According Suu Kyi she says that “compassion gives us the courage to see, the courage to feel, and the courage to act” (Loc 466). Suu Kyi challenges us never to forget “that the other nation, the other community, the other family’s child is as precious as ours” (Loc 466).
Jesus stepped into the life of a tormented man, and told him to go back into a community of people he probably had no interest in or experience with, because he had been living as an exile, where his behavior was too crazy and unpredictable to be safe around people. Jesus knows that the man can only show his transformation within the midst of a community, regardless of the fear he may feel. Suu Kyi “teaches that the greatest obstacle to compassion is not hatred. It is habitual patterns of narrow self-interest (Loc 504). U.S. culture mirrors a narrow self-interest politically, socially, and often individually, as the rights of the individual or group take precedent over feeling compassion for others. When was the last time you heard someone express in the news, “We need to practice compassion?”
Paul says in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” To be a Christian means that we are to support and love other people.
During the tennis season one of the parents came up with the idea that we would show our support for the team by wearing t-shirts which said, “We’ve got your back.” The team really grabbed onto this idea that we were all in this journey of playing tennis together, and started each tennis match with shouting this mantra.
Jesus practiced the idea of ‘having the back’ of the disenfranchised by showing his love through being present, sometimes healing, and sometimes reprimanding people who didn’t understand that love wins, not hatred.
I want to live the words found in I Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
But do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and
understand all mysteries, and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing …Love bears
all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things. Love never ends.
Love forces us to act. Do you love others enough to act?
Rev. Deacon Marilyn Roth+
I’ve been struggling the last few weeks with some of the questions that were raised when I went to a conference at the end of May. Yes, we made fantastic six-word sentences about our ministries, we sang incredible hymns and sounded like a choir that had performed for years together, and we told stories of when we’d experienced God in our midst. But something happened at the conference that I could have never imagined or anticipated, and it lead to some important conversations, but I’ve been really struggling about how to talk about it; today’s lessons have given me a platform for what I’m about to share, so please bear with me because it’s been weighing heavy on my heart.
Depending on their life experience, most women will tell you they have experienced some kind of discrimination, harassment, or violence in their lives. Whether it was being passed over for a job, a promotion, or denied access to an opportunity because of their gender, whether they have been “hit on” in a social situation or received unwelcomed physical contact from a man, or worse yet, been the victim of rape or domestic violence, women experience the world differently than men. And add other identifying factors such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, and there are women for whom discrimination, harassment and violence has unfortunately become “business as usual.” And to just say “that’s unfortunate” isn’t enough. The only way to change business as usual, is to let them tell their stories, stand in solidarity with them, and advocate for change. And while there’s been a lot of political talk about a presidential candidate playing the “Woman Card,” the fact remains that women’s lives are different from the lives of men. They make up half the world’ population, and yet, so many women are still treated like second-class citizens.
The issue of sexism is an old topic in the church. We’ve been trying to undo the insidiousness of Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden since forever, and yet, the legacy that has been put upon her, among women like Bathsheba, Jezebel, Delilah, Sarah, Rebecca...these women have all been cast with a legacy of seductresses, deceivers of their male counterparts, and not to be trusted.
We see that in this morning’s story of Jezebel. It’s not a particularly good story in the history of women in the biblical tradition. But Jezebel’s decisions about how to have her husband’s adversary murdered...is really not any different than what David does to Bathsheba’s husband...both set these men up to be killed so they can get what they want; they exercise and abuse the power and privilege that they hold. And yet, in our Christian tradition, we honor David...and Jezebel...well, you don’t name your daughters Jezebel. Her name has become a derogatory term for women.
In more recent times..really since the first arguments against the ordination of women finally moved beyond the polite “well Jesus didn’t have any female disciples, how can we have women priests” to the more concrete issue that many men feared women’s sexuality at the altar...yes, there were arguments made that a woman who was menstruating or a woman who was pregnant were contaminating the Eucharist...that we have finally started to address the issue of gender disparity in the church.
And so at the conference, we tackled the issue head on when a female clergy person was the recipient of a very unwelcomed sexually charged comment after one of our workshops. The next day, our opening workshop was cancelled and replaced by a 3 hour conversation about sexism in the church...everything from wage disparity, being passed over for calls in order to hire another male candidate, the lack of family medical leave in most Letters of Agreement, to the unsolicited comments and touches by male parishioners, clergy and bishops. Three hours...and we barely scratched the surface.
So what does that have to do with the gospel?
Jesus has been asked to dine at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. It would have been customary for the host to have offered Jesus a water basin and towel to wash the dust from his feet, his hands and his face. Instead, Simon ignores the custom.
But in comes an unnamed woman who not only washes Jesus feet, but does so with her tears, and then dries them with her hair. She continues on to anoint Jesus with an expensive perfume. She is ignoring custom. She is a woman who appears unattached to any man who is gathered there for the meal, she has let her hair down in the presence of men (which was really taboo), and as Simon points out, she is a sinner.
Yet, her actions cause her to be rebuked by Simon the Pharisee. She is out of place, out of line, and unwelcome. Her sin is her cause for not being included among “the chosen” as far as Simon can tell. But Jesus has a different understanding of the situation. Instead, she is welcomed as a child of God by Jesus because she has offered love. Jesus understands her washing and anointing as a sign of repentance and love, and so he offers forgiveness and love in return.
For Jesus, being “chosen” wasn’t about who was in and who was out...it wasn’t about someone’s gender or sexuality...it was about forgiveness and love. Those who were willing to change their lives and their hearts were the ones to be included in the household of God.
Now this is good news for us, right? I think it is because it means that we’ve got a chance of being part of the Kingdom! What I gather from this story, and so many of the stories about Jesus healing people, is that being welcomed by Jesus is less about “business as usual” and more about transformation, forgiveness and love. Now I know that we “know” this, but think about how often we get tripped up in our own self-righteousness or rigidity and how often we ignore the stories of those who have suffered the label of “sinner” without even thinking about the times when we’ve been forgiven and included.
And this is the gospel message...there are no outsiders; there is no room in the kingdom of God for oppression, violence or degradation. We are ALL children of God, despite our shortcomings and failures, and because we are magnificently created in God’s image...male and female.
So as I continue to reflect on the ways in which my foremothers of the Jewish and Christian tradition have been manifested in our corporate memory, and the fallout of that legacy even in our current time and place, I invite you to do as well. And I invite us all to consider how we have participated in the unhealthy “business as usual” situations and circumstances where women are left nameless, cast as less than, and unwelcomed. Until we can repair this situation and fully welcome one another...well, we’ve still got a lot of Kingdom work to do. Amen.
Proper 5, June 5, 2016
Last Sunday I shared a little bit about my time with the under 55 Episcopal clergy at the Gathering conference. And for those of you who were here, you may remember that I explained that one of our tasks at the beginning of the week was to create a six-word story that explained our ministry. At the start of the conference, my six-word story was “I can’t say no to God.” It’s true...I can’t say no to God. Long before discernment committees were gathered, or there were even thoughts of seminary, God tugged on my heart in such a way that I couldn’t say no. And as I celebrate 8 years of ordained ministry this month, I still can’t say no to God. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
At the end of the week, we were asked to create a new six-word story. Now this...this was much harder for me. I had gotten comfortable with my “I can’t say no to God” story. I thought I could stump the leadership team by changing my story to “I only say yes to God”...but they told me to keep working on it. Our six-word stories were to be reflective of the conversations and discernment that we had done together as a group, but were unique to each of us. And so after getting really stressed out, procrastinating for a while, checking facebook, watching a couple of episodes of “Unbreakable” on Netflix, and doing everything I could to avoid creating a new six-word story, I sat at the desk in my room, and spent some time reflecting on my life prior to the church...and how much things have changed over the years. I thought about the choices I had made as a young woman, ways that I continue to struggle with the priesthood, times when I had dug my heels in and refused to bend. I thought about things I’d done and left undone, people I needed to apologize to, and people I needed to forgive. And I found myself thinking about Paul’s story on the road to Damascus...how he had started out as a persecutor of early Christians, how he probably had a hand in their torture and death, and on the road to Damascus, the Risen Christ appears to him, strikes him blind, and changes his life forever. And while Paul is problematic for me on so many levels, I can’t help but admire his ability to have such a significant change of heart. On the road to Damascus, Paul was given new life. Like the widows’ sons in 1st Kings and Luke, he was raised from the dead...and everything changed. So I scribbled in my little notebook this six-word story: Standing on the precipice of transformation.
And I really do believe that I’m not standing there alone...each one of us is there, this church, this community, this diocese, the larger church, the nation, and the world...we’re standing on the edge preparing ourselves to be transformed. And I believe that we find ourselves in this place at multiple times in our lives--before leaving home, before getting married, starting a career, having a baby, caring for aging and dying parents and spouses, as we ourselves step into that space between this world and the next. Standing on the precipice of transformation is not a one time event---it’s a lifetime event.
So before I begin to get to philosophical, let’s bring it back to our lessons for the day...where is transformation happening?
In 1st Kings and Luke, transformation happens not only in the raising of the dead sons, but it’s also a statement of liberation. With the development of liberation theology in the 1960s in Latin America, the church began to embrace the idea that God cares for the poor...and these widows in our stories would have been numbered among the poor; and especially so without their sons. At that time, society dictated that a woman had to have a man--be him a husband, a son, a father or uncle--to care and provide for her; she had no status without a man. Had Elijah and Jesus not resurrected these sons, their mothers would have been destitute, without status or recourse. These stories are not just about new or resurrected life, but they are also stories of transformation...God cares about God’s people enough to create miracles, and in these signs and wonders, the community was transformed.
However, what moved me the most of the readings for today is the Psalm because I think it reminds us of our responsibilities for living transformed lives:
In the Vestry meeting this morning, your vestry will be reflecting on their own six-word stories. But I believe that together, standing on this precipice of transformation, we can do the work that God has called us to do--changing lives, being healed, and welcoming the stranger. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.