Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"That sermon when you imitated Steve Martin and then preached social justice."

Exodus 3:1-15 & Labor Day (17A, 2014)
Appointed lessons

One of the most spectacular traveling art exhibitions of the 20th century was The Treasures of Tutankhamen. In the fall of 1977, my family saw the King Tut block-buster in New Orleans. After a breakfast of beignets, we did — just as the comedian Steve Martin famously sang about in an SNL skit — “stood in line to see the boy king!”

And, we stood in line for hours. But once we entered the exhibition, it was clear that the treasures were worthy of the hype.

Gold jewelry encrusted with precious stones, an impressive golden throne, a massive golden shrine, striking religious objects, intricate cloisonné coffins: they all projected the power, resources, and extravagance of this ancient empire obsessed with funeral arts.

As I moved from display case to display case, I felt overwhelmed by these objects. Being a child, I didn’t have those words at the time, but I remember the feeling. And, in the midst of being blinded by the riches of ancient Egypt, I recalled the stories of Exodus. I remembered acting them out in Vacation Bible School. I remembered hearing them in church.

Those stories broke through my bedazzlement…and I remembered…how God told Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…”

With the song: “Pharaoh, pharaoh, o-o, let my people go!” echoing in my head, I wondered about the people — the oppressed, exploited, enslaved people — behind those objects of art, behind those opulent displays of power. The ancient Israelites, just one group among many, on whose backs this ancient empire accomplished much.

As I huddled with others around the exhibit case containing the iconic gold and lapis lazuli mask of King Tut’s mummy, I caught a glimpse of my own reflection, and the reflection of others on the plexiglass case. The pharaoh’s face…and our faces.

The convergence of this Exodus story and Labor Day weekend offers us the opportunity to reflect on our own empire, our own practices, to look and listen with God for the suffering of others (and perhaps our own), and then to be part of God’s action plan.

Just as the Exodus story broke through my bedazzlement at the King Tut exhibit to see through to the peoples who were enslaved and exploited in their society, it can now help us see past the bedazzlement of our own lives and society. To see past the slick advertising messages and incessant urging about all we need to be, do, and consume. In this sacred story, God is calling us in our own day and age to look at underside of our industries and practices to the true cost in the suffering of people and animals and damage to our air, water, and land.

I’ll offer just one example: this spring our Agriculture Department proposed a “plan to create faster line speeds in poultry processing plants” making an "already frantic" and dangerous job "even worse."[1] Further, the “painful hand-and-arm condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome”[2] afflicts almost half of all poultry workers. For some, the pain and swelling in their arms is so great that they cannot hug their children at the end of the day.[3]
Let this awareness of suffering break through our enchantment with the $5 cooked chicken at the local warehouse club. And then lead us to ask: how can I make a difference? How can I advocate for change. How can I be part of God’s action plan in this situation?

This is an opportunity for each of us to ask: do I resemble pharaoh? Do I treat those who work for me in the office and in my home with fairness, dignity, and respect? And without discrimination?

From the burning bush, God calls Moses and declares: “I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry; I know their suffering; I have come down to deliver them. I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. I will send you; I will be with you.” Our God is a compassionate God concerned about the well being of all God’s people. The Holy One sees, hears, is moved and moves, and empowers for God’s purposes. God called and empowered Moses. God now calls and empowers us. We are part of God’s action plan. Part of God’s “coming down to deliver.” We have the joy to participate in this ongoing sacred story and God’s saving work.

This sacred story of Exodus has a rich history of helping God’s people with such reflection and action. It is for this reason that slaveholders in the United States were known to remove the pages of Exodus from bibles before they were given to slaves to be used in their churches. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others drew inspiration from Exodus. It continues to hold inspiration and direction for us today.

On this Labor Day weekend, let us go to the mountain with Moses to be reminded of who God is and who we are. May this encounter with God break any enchantment with what oppresses and destroys. May God’s grace empower us to make life-giving choices and to leverage our influence and power for what is ethical, healing, righteous, and just. May we be partners with God in spreading God’s divine, liberating love. So that when people look upon us, they will see the face of Jesus, not pharaoh. Let us remember God’s word to Moses and all who work for justice, “I will be with you.”


[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/17/usda-poultry-rule-congress_n_4979655.html
[2] Ibid.
[3] Labor & Job Justice speaker panel featuring Joerg Rieger, Alexia Salvatierra, Brian McLaren, Bacilo Castro; The Wild Goose Festival, Friday, June 27, 2014.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Trinity Sunday Sermon: The Divine Dance of Love

Trinity Sunday 2014
Appointed Scripture
In the Name of the One God, the Holy Trinity. Amen.

It was my Sabbath day. My day off. And I decided that, instead of doing chores or any of the things on my yawning to-do list, I would really and TRULY take the day off. I enjoy the visual arts, so I headed to the Museum of Fine Arts to take in a special exhibition.

          As I made my way through the galleries, I came upon a painting that caused me to stop and draw in a breath. It was a painting by Paul Gauguin, entitled “Breton Girls Dancing.” In exquisite and sophisticated colors, three girls, wearing long dresses and white bonnets, link their hands in dance on a soft, yellow wheat field. They are accompanied by a small dog, frolicking among the stacks of cut wheat. Their village is in the background, out of which rises a tall Gothic church spire, piercing the early-evening sky. I could almost hear the church bells ring as I looked upon those three, interlocked, dancing figures and whispered to myself, “The Trinity!”

          Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

          Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life.

          “He who loves, that which is loved, and the power of love” (Augustine).

          Today is Trinity Sunday. When we pause after dramatic Pentecost, and look back to recognize the pattern and movement of the Trinity in the sweep of salvation history. It is worth noting that the Trinitarian formula was first used in the context of early Christian hymns, worship and baptism. Only later was the doctrinal theology — One in three and three in One — worked out.

In the concluding words of Matthew’s gospel today, we hear Christ’s instruction to baptize: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

          This is not a perfunctory act or formula, but in fact, incorporates each of us into the life of the living God. What does that look like? I invite you to think of it as joining the divine dance of the Trinity.

 Perichoresis is a word used by early church theologian Gregory of Nyssa and has been put to good use by contemporary theologians. Peri meaning “around” and chorea meaning “dance,” it is a way for us to understand God’s unity, life, and movement of love — in the world and in our lives.

Our foundational reading from Genesis reminds us that God created us for relationship: to be, if you will, dance partners.

Our dance with the Creator: reminds us of who we are and whose we are. The One who created us from the same stuff as stars, who knit us in our mothers’ wombs, who ordered the universe, and who continues to create. When the world and our lives seem out of control, the Creator is the one who brings order to chaos. When beholding the beauty of a delicate flower or the grandeur of a mountain range, it is to the Creator to whom we give thanks.

Our Dance with the Redeemer: Jesus, God with us, who knows not only joy and laughter, but also suffering, betrayal, heart-ache, sweat, and tears. Whose life and death demonstrated and made real divine mercy and forgiveness. Who destroyed death and through him we are lifted to divine life – in this life and the next. When we feel alone or without hope, it is Jesus, the Redeemer, who promises he will be – and is -- with us always.

Our Dance with the Giver of Life: The Holy Spirit, Sanctifier. As close as your very breath is the One who swept over the face of the earth at Creation. Called “Sophia” and “Wisdom” in Christian tradition, she inspires, animates, and brings faith and boldness from otherwise tentative and fearful disciples – then and now. Purifying flame and breath of life. “Breathe on [us], breath of God, till [we] are wholly thine, till all this earthly part of [us] glows with thy fire divine” (Hymn 508).

These three, in a divine dance, include us in their unified movement of love.

On The Trinity, Augustine wrote: “the substance of all things is love – in its three-fold appearance of he who loves, that which is loved, and the power of love – everything created by God has traces of the Trinity.”

Everything created by God has traces of the Trinity. Do we look for it? Do we see it the natural world around us? In each other? And when we look at ourselves?

We are made in the image of God, and in baptism we are engaged in the divine dance of the Trinity.

A few weeks ago, I was leaving the Cathedral office later than usual, and I came upon a couple of students break-dancing on the Diocesan Center sidewalk.

I stopped to watch. I marveled at not only their skill, but also their joy. And, I had to ask myself, and now I ask you: when was the last time that you danced? Taking time out, away from the chores, the to-do list, all that is pressing, serious, and sometimes overwhelming…to trust God and dance.

On this Sabbath day, take time to rest, and recreate. Make a space, to see the traces of the Trinity and divine love in all things. And, as did the early Christians, Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, the Breton girls, and our friends on the Diocesan Center sidewalk…to once again accept God’s invitation into the divine dance of love.



Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Magnetic Pull to Divine Life and Mission

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A:
Appointed Scripture passages

When I was a child, one of my favorite workstations in Kindergarten class was the magnet station. Perhaps you had one in your early-childhood classroom, too. Our magnet station was very popular. So if I didn’t get there first, I would bide my time, gluing macaroni to a paper plate at the nearby art station, waiting for my turn at the magnet station.

Once there, I would pick up the large magnet and sweep it across the table, picking up clumps of metal bits. I would continue to move the magnet around, attempting to gather up every last metal bit so that they all clung to the big magnet. Some would fall off. So, back around I would come to gather them again. Child after child would continue this work, as I imagine they still do today.

In John’s gospel, Jesus describes his mission as this: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). This what he accomplishes in the pivotal events of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. But it seems to me that throughout the gospel, Jesus does this “drawing-all-people-to-himself” business all the time. Through his preaching, teaching, healing, and feeding...and just hanging out being Jesus…he is drawing people to himself and to God.

For example, the story of the Samaritan Woman at the well: through her encounter with Jesus, her conversion, and witness, many people in her city came to believe. She had gone to the well to draw water. Jesus was there to draw all people to himself: offering living water, abundant life — the source of which is God.

In today’s gospel, in Jesus’ prayer, we are given insight into this dynamic and the relationship of the Father and the Son. How the love and action of each of them, together, creates the magnetic spiritual pull on us. God glorifies Jesus in his ministry, and Jesus glorifies God by imparting the divine life to those attracted to him.

Then, as those drawn in, Jesus prompts us to consider our place in this relationship and our place in the mission of divine love when he prays:  “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, […] Holy Father, protect them […], so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Like a child sweeping the magnet across the Kindergarten workstation table, Jesus draws us to him, to each other, and makes us one…for the purpose of mission.

Jesus prays for our protection and unity so that we can continue in his work, not so that we can be a cozy club. In his own life, he shows us what is essential in carrying out the mission. It is this: being connected to God, the source of light and life, and being ever mindful of our identity as children of God. This is how the Divine love in our lives and within our community creates a magnetic spiritual pull on others.

And this process is activated through the power of the Holy Spirit. Today we hear in Acts the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to do all things, including being witnesses, to “those who are far off and those who are near” (BCP, p. 100).

And so, when Jesus is “lifted up”, the two men in white robes ask the dumbfounded disciples, “Why are you standing around looking up to heaven?” As your Canon for Welcome & Evangelism, I must confess, what I hear in their question is this: "You’ve got work to do! You’ve been given a mission!" And this message is for us today as well.

Enlivened and guided by the Holy Spirit, God is now working through us — the Church — to draw all people to God’s self. Through our many and various ministries, together we carry on with Jesus’ preaching, teaching, healing, feeding, and “hanging-out-just-being-Jesus” work in the world.

And as we begin to reach out to downtown and into our neighborhoods through our new initiatives, it is important to remember what it is that we have to share. What it is that the Church has to offer. It is what Jesus offered the woman at the well: Living water, Divine love, eternal life — abundant life in Christ.

God created us for this relationship. Yet many people do not understand the yearning within them, confuse it with other things, and they don’t even have words for it. St. Augustine sums it up best: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”

So, children of God, are you ready? In this age, it is our turn at the table, to be about the mission of drawing all people to Christ — our friends, neighbors, our city, and the world — through the magnetic divine love of God.

The macaroni art can wait.


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why Are You Looking Up?

Ascension Day 2014

I was at my laptop, with my head down, listening intently and transcribing my professor’s theology lecture, delivered in his German accent. There I was -- busily typing away on my Blueberry iBook, and then he spoke of Jesus’ Ascension. Jesus’ bodily ascension. QUOTE (you’ll have to imagine the accent): “Jesus ascended into heaven -- the whole enchilada.” At that, I looked up so fast that I caught his attention and he turned and looked at me – auditorium far left, front row. Awkward moment for me!

OK - Hearing “the whole enchilada” in a German accent was startling to my Texan ears, but that’s not what almost gave me whiplash. It was the Ascension. The Ascension…was why I looked up.

How long have I rattled off the Nicene Creed “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Well, ever since I was a young child, learning to read and struggling mightily to keep up with the congregation! So, perhaps that’s why I never really heard it, or at least not in the “whole enchilada” kind of way.

Ascension Day happens to be a less popular holy day (thank you for being here), and perhaps an even less popular doctrine of the church, notably since the Enlightenment (go figure). And yet, the Ascension is theologically significant! We see allusions to it the psalms of the Old Testament, and the Ascension is central to New Testament Scripture and understanding of Jesus’ return. Central to early Christians, yet moderns would rather move along and get to Pentecost. What is going on?

The Gospel of Luke shares important specifics about Jesus’ appearance leading up to the Ascension. The disciples were telling the story about “what had happened on the road, and how [Jesus] had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them”(24:35-36). The gospel tells that they were “terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost” (v. 37). In response, Jesus said, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then, if the point still hadn’t been made that he is not ghost or an apparition, he asked for food. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish” (v. 43) and he ate it in front of them.

It is this body. This real flesh and bones -- touch me and see -- resurrected Christ who ascends into heaven. The whole enchilada!

Just as the perplexed women at the tomb on Easter morning were greeted by two men in dazzling clothes asking “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Now two men in white robes ask  “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus […] will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

So no wonder the disciples are standing there, looking up, mouths agape. I can’t imagine a universe in which this event doesn’t cause one to be startled, even dumbstruck. Because it has the same effect on us today. Startled, befuddled, mesmerized once again by God…Creator of this universe…”maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen” (Nicene Creed). Given everything God has already done, could this be so hard for God to accomplish?

On this Ascension Day, I find myself dumbfounded once again by God’s steadfast love. That for us and for our salvation, God chose to bind God’s own self with humanity. For in the miracle of the Incarnation in which God entered the world, to be like us in every way except without sin, fully human and fully divine, now ascends into the Godhead. Humanity bound to God forever through Christ. Salvation: The whole enchilada.

So, as God’s people…God’s beloved…we may face the future with confidence and hope in Christ. The One whom we know and loves us so, will be the One who comes for us again. At the end of our lives and at the end of time, we know we are bound in God’s love through Christ…and need never fear.

So I will close, with my head up, with the words of Psalm 121: I lift my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday Sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, Texas

Palm Sunday, 2014

Not long ago, on Shrove Tuesday, I placed last year’s palms into a metal basin and set them on fire. The dry, brittle palms were quickly consumed by the fire: creating an orange glow and black smoke. As the smoke wafted through the night air with bits of ash like black confetti, I imagined hearing the distant “Hosannas” from last year’s Palm Sunday. Last year’s palms became this year’s ashes, marking crosses on foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

The season of Lent passes quickly, like the turn of a page in the Prayer Book, and now here we are: on this bright morning, clutching green palms — a symbol of victory — in our hands, as we celebrate the arrival of this itinerant preacher and healer named Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem. Where he has come to die. 

Jesus, Son of God: friend of the losers and the lost. Friend of everyone  and anyone who might welcome and receive his life-changing good news. 

Hosanna in the highest!

I find there is no Sunday more challenging than Palm Sunday. When we cry “hosanna” in one moment and “crucify him” in the next. When we praise him and call him King, then turn around and deny, betray, and abandon him…when the powers and principalities of this world, with which we are entangled, press down to destroy him and his kingdom.

Palm Sunday lays bare the struggle of discipleship and struggle of being church: that there is a disconnect between what we say we believe and how we live our lives. When we reflect on our history and present lives, sometimes the disconnect is great and sometimes it is small, but today — whatever its size — it is in our face. Like smoke, stinging our eyes.

But this discomfort, it is actually a gift. This heightened awareness that something is wrong, that we’re missing the mark, not getting it right, that we long for a different outcome. It is a gift. It is the gift of God’s grace, stirring within us, already moving us toward greater faithfulness. And greater friendship with God.

Jesus, Immanuel, God with us: friend of the blind and the lame. Friend of  everyone and anyone who might welcome God’s undying love for the whole world, including us.

Now, the danger of Palm Sunday is to experience and get stuck in shame, guilt, and dispair — which is not the good news of Jesus Christ. The opportunity of Palm Sunday is a closer walk and a deeper friendship with Jesus. Trading the role of Pilate for the role of Simon of Cyrene. Trading the role of the running and hiding disciples for the role of the women disciples standing near the cross.

Fourth century St. Gregory of Nyssa said: “This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because we fear punishment, like slaves; not to do good because we expect repayment […] but that we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthwhile.”

This Palm Sunday, those things that cause this disconnect between what we believe and how we live: fear, greed, shame, pride, whatever it may be — let them burn! Let them burn as if on a funeral pyre. Let them turn to ash! And by God’s grace, may this inward, spiritual act free us to know and experience more fully the life-giving, divine love that we see most perfectly in our friend and savior, Jesus. That we, like never before, may become bearers of his life-changing, good news of love.

A love so great, that One lay down his life for his friends.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Aunt Betty, Rae, and Anna: The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple

Sunday, February 2, 2014
I recently received a photograph of my Godchild, Trevor, with his “Aunt Betty.” It was taken in the parish hall of St. Matthew’s in Dallas. Arm in arm, smiling, Trevor’s head tilted towards her’s — you can see they have a special relationship.
“Aunt Betty” is not technically or genetically Trevor's aunt. Aunt Betty is an older woman — and a widow — in the congregation who over the years has developed a special relationship with Trevor beginning when he was an infant. She attended his baptism, has prayed for him, has financially supported the ministries of the church, greeted and engaged him in conversations on Sunday mornings and Wednesday potlucks, and has even been his Sunday school teacher. As I look upon my teenage Godchild, I am so grateful that Trevor has “Aunt Betty” in his life.
As a child, I was blessed with my own special relationship with an older couple at St. Timothy’s in Lake Jackson. Jack and Rae served as my “in-town grandparents.” Jack served on the vestry and Rae served as a Daughter of the King and Altar Guild Directress. Both were my 7th grade Sunday school teachers. Similar to Trevor’s “Aunt Betty”, they supported me in my life and faith development in a myriad of ways, providing special attention, love, and connection that helped to shape me into the person I am today.
I returned to St. Timothy’s last year to serve as supply priest while their priest was on vacation. I will always remember the greeting I received from Rae, now a widow. Open arms and loving smile. She was so happy to see me, just as she always has been. My earliest memories include her smile and love. While I have not lived in Lake Jackson for a very long time, I cannot remember a time without her.
I share these images and memories with you because today we celebrate and remember the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Luke is the only gospel to record this event. It tells us of how a woman and man, both prophets, had the insight and ability to perceive the Christ child in their midst and to welcome him with joy and love.
Given the examples of “Aunt Betty” and Rae, and given that Luke allows Simeon to speak, I would like to take a closer look at Anna this morning.
Unfortunately Anna’s words are not recorded, but Luke slows down enough to share with us some details of her life and faithfulness — beginning with her identity and role as a prophet. She “continues the line of notable prophets from the” Old Testament: Miriam (Exodus), Deborah (Judges), and Huldah (2 Kings; 2 Chron).[1]
The role of the prophet is to speak the will of God. And it is in Luke’s second book, Acts of the Apostles, Peter interprets the events of Pentecost through the words of the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:18).
Anna is a prophet, upon whom the Spirit also rests, and while Luke did not record her words, the evangelist does say: “she began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna was a prophet.
Luke also tells us that Anna was a widow. Throughout the bible, widows are examples of the poor and society’s treatment of them is an index of society’s faithfulness to God.
It is also true that in Luke, widows are empowered. In a number of examples, Luke shows widows as agents of action, change, and justice. This includes Anna with her prophetic voice and praise of God.
Dr. Barbara Reid, in her book on the Gospel of Luke (currently being read by my Tuesday Bible Study),  notes that “Anna is the prototype of what would later develop into a clerical order of consecrated widows whose duties included praying, fasting, visiting and laying hands on the sick, making clothes, and doing good works.”[2]
Indeed, Luke, “who shares more episodes about widows than any other”[3] gospel, lifts up examples of heroic women such as the “Persistent Widow” (chp. 18) and “The Widow Who Gives All” (chp. 21).
Today we learn of the Anna: “a reliable figure of maturity and wisdom”[4]; a prophet, and an empowered woman, carrying out the work of God in the temple.
So what difference does this make for us today? Why spend time with Anna? I say because she looks a lot like Trevor’s “Aunt Betty” and my Rae. Empowered women making a difference and encouraging others in they way they engage those around them with faith and Christ's love.
In an age when families live far apart, and grandparents don’t often see grandchildren, we stand in need of these relationships. In an age when marketers divide and subdivide age groups, economic groups, and any other category that serves their purposes, but in effect divides us and separates us in so many ways…we stand in need of connection with one another. Theologians and social scientists agree: We need and benefit from inter-generational relationships. We need them to live the abundant life to which God calls us.
Perhaps the Junior Daughters of the King remember when we met last week, that I said: never accept the notion that you are too young to have a powerful, deep, and significant relationship with God. And today I will add: never accept the notion that there is not a place for you in the Church, now or in the future. For God may be preparing some of you, even now, to one day be prophets, priests, and bishops.
So today, to all the Annas and Simeons in the congregation — those who may think that they are too old or have little to share or give to younger generations — I say: do not accept this notion.
On this day when we remember the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, let us take note of how a woman and man had the insight and ability to perceive the Christ child in their midst and to welcome him with joy and love. For that is our role and our calling: to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
What would it look like to have so many Annas and so many Simeons celebrating and proclaiming Christ among us in the children gathered here? Well, it would look like “Aunt Betty” and Rae and Jack. And so many of you.
I will leave you with one last image. It is a painting of a modern day version of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. With brilliant colors, the artist depicts the interior of a modern day church. In the foreground is a smiling, elderly man holding a baby. An elderly woman is calling out to the congregation who is already moving toward them. A happy young couple stands near their baby and observe all of this activity and excitement with amazement.
This is a picture of God’s family. Where all of us have a place. Where all have important roles, all are valued; united in Christ and empowered by the Spirit. I say: do not accept the notion that we are to be anything other than that.

[1] Reid, Barbara. “Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke”, p. 91.

[2] Ibid, p. 93.

[3] Ibid, p. 92.

[4] Ibid, p. 91.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Holy Huddle: Mark’s Critique of the Church

Mark 2:1-12
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

This gospel story opens with an image that pastors, priests, and preachers love: a packed house! A packed house is a sign of success; a sign that good things are happening here. “How was the service?” “Oh, it was PACKED!” We love being able to say that.

But Mark does not take this back-slapping, self-congratulatory approach. Instead, Mark invites us to experience this story not from the cozy inside, but from the outside. We are to take our place with the outsiders, unable to reach Jesus “because of the crowd.”

Imagine what that must have been like: you have heard about this rabbi named Jesus and how an encounter with him changes lives. You want that for yourself, and your friends, too. So, you decide to meet Jesus. But upon arrival, you and your friends encounter only walls and people’s back-sides. The group gathered is so tight, there’s no hope of getting in.

Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. Resignation. I think those are the feelings I would have felt. I very well may have turned around and gone home. OK, I would have stomped home. But that’s not what Mark’s group of outsiders did. They did not give up. Something stirred in them that caused them to persevere, to be bold, creative, and to risk!

And they ended up doing the unexpected: they entered through the roof!

The roof of a house like this one would have been made of beams, dried mud, and thatch. Mark tells of their physical effort: they “dug through it.”

So now imagine, from the inside of the house: dirt begins to fall from above, then chunks of dried mud. Imagine the faces of those inside the house: looks of concern, puzzlement, and surprise as a hole appears in the ceiling and is then filled with the faces of the outsiders peering in. I can imagine an annoyed voice from within the crowd asking, “And who is going to pay to repair that?!”

Now imagine the face of Jesus: with his eyes turned upward, his look of concern breaks into a tender smile “when he saw their faith.”

Mark 2:1-12 is a healing story, for the paralytic is healed. It is also a controversy story because tensions between the scribes and Jesus are introduced. But this story is also a critique of the church: Mark challenges us to examine our tendencies to become (what a colleague of mine calls) a “holy huddle.”

A congregation, like the one in Mark's story, engaged in a holy huddle presents walls and backsides to guests and newcomers. “Walls and backsides” can take the form of greeting and talking only to friends, instead of also reaching out to the unfamiliar person or the one standing alone on the perimeter at coffee hour. It can also take the form of insider language and assumed knowledge in print and electronic communications. For Episcopalians, it can also be perpetuating the mindset that inspired that most unfortunate saying, “Everyone who should be an Episcopalian already is one;” instead of realizing that the encounter with Jesus within the Episcopal tradition is something for which many in our lives are longing for and simply need to be invited.

So let us engage Mark’s critique and challenge. May we allow it to change our perspectives and our habits. Instead of a holy huddle with back-sides to the world, let us turn outward. Let us be a thousand points of connection and create pathways between us that lead to the center. For, at the center of our Church — just as it was on day when the paralytic and his friends arrived at that house — is the love of God in Christ Jesus.

May God grant us the will and grace to live into our identity as children of God who welcome the stranger and the outsider. And when we do, Jesus will see our faith.