Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pentecost 6 (proper 10) Year B, Sunday July 12, 2009

Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Preached by Deacon John Warner

Greek mythology tells us the story of Cassandra, the most beautiful daughter of King Priam, the ruler of Troy during the Trojan War. The god Apollo was so infatuated with her that he gave her the gift of prophesy in an effort to seduce her. When Cassandra did not respond to Apollo’s sexual advances, he tweaked the gift by compelling Cassandra to prophesy; however, none of her prophesies would be believed.

Many a parent, especially a parent of an adolescent, can identify with Cassandra’s plight. We advice, “Don’t stay out too late. You have school tomorrow” or “Don’t charge more on your credit cards than you can pay off in a month.” But like Cassandra, it seems that parental guidance falls on deaf ears. As my daughter, Samantha, has grown into adulthood, I am amazed at how much more intelligent we appear to our daughter than in her earlier years.

In this Sunday’s Collect, we entreat God to give the people the wisdom “to know and understand what things they ought to do.” Considering the political climate in the nation and the church today with opposing parties fully believing that each has the right answer for the collective, there is no better time than now for this prayer. We should be saying this prayer each day for guidance.

In Amos, an Old Testament alternative reading for today, God tells Amos that he is establishing a plumb line before his people. A plumb line is a tool used in construction to provide the carpenter a standard against which to measure whether a recently erected wall is straight up and down—if it is upright—if it is true.

What is the plumb line in our life? What is the standard to guide us in what we should do?

As Christians, our standard is the Bible, a collection of books considered to be sacred. The Bible is also known as the Christian canon—a word which is from the Greek meaning “rule” or “measuring stick.” The foundation for Christianity is the Bible. The inspired Word of God is considered a spiritual plumb line.

The Bible, however, has been a source of controversy throughout history. There have been battles, sometimes bloody ones, over whether the Bible should be understood literally, word for word, or should it be read metaphorically. Should the entire Bible be accepted as relevant for us today or should we “pick and choose” scripture?

David transported the Ark of the Covenant, the vessel which contained, the two tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai inscribed with the Ten Commandments. These ten laws provide guidance for us in our relationship with God and with each other. Should we follow these without question? Are their extenuating circumstances? Is it okay to murder to defend your family even is God’s law is not to murder? Is it acceptable to steal if this act is necessary to feed a hungry child? Can I dishonor a parent if he or she is physically abusive? The Ten Commandments reside in many a courthouse and recently have been seen on a number of yards in our town; however, these religious and secular laws do raise some ethical concerns in certain situations.

When one compounds the difficulty in complying with the Ten Commandments by tacking on the remaining 613 Old Testament laws, the problem of compliance increases exponentially. The difficulty of following the hundreds of laws in the Bible as literally as possible was demonstrated, frequently humorously, by A.J. Jacobs, in his recent book—The Year of Living Biblically. For one year, Jacobs tried to live as faithfully to the rules of the Bible as possible. He found some of the rules life-enhancing such as keeping the Sabbath holy, giving frequent thanks to our God and not gossiping. Others, although sound, were found to be more difficult to follow such as to not covet, refrain from lying or showing restraint in becoming angry. Finally, the author didn’t know what to make of some of the rules of the Bible including one that forbid him from wearing a garment made of wool and linen or drilling a hole in the ear of a slave if he refuses freedom. I, too would find these difficult to follow.

I realize that Mr. Jacob’s stated purpose of living the Bible literally is presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner; however, there is a deeper truth in his experiences. Whenever our faith focuses exclusively on the development of a rulebook for defining moral and immoral behavior, we run the risk of becoming mired in actions to ensure their compliance, discovering rule breakers and punishing the offenders; therefore, losing sight our the true message of the Gospel and what it means to be a Christian.

The 1st century Jews found themselves oppressed not only by the Roman conquerors but also by the complex system of religious laws. John the Baptist, thought by many, including King Herod, to be the long awaited Messiah, a returned Elijah or another prophet, told the crowds that one that was greater than he would soon take the Judean stage.

Jesus proclaimed that a new kingdom of God was at hand—not a kingdom in heaven but a transformative kingdom of heaven now on earth; a kingdom where the law would not be an external measuring stick but one that is written on our hearts. He asks us to be disciples with him on the Way, a life to model founded on principles of love, justice and charity toward others whether than a life of self-centeredness. He relieved us of the burden of the law, not by abolishing it, but to refocus our attention on what is truly important for Christians by summarizing the law, to love your God with all your heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.

In the few minutes we have had together, I have thrown out a number of questions regarding authority and the rule or standard for my life. I have learned that what we should do or what we should not do is not always easy to discern. It is a decision that often requires prayer and reason. However, when I encounter a situation and I am unsure how to proceed, I look for the path that is lit by love, mercy and justice. Decisions made without the filter of those attributes may reflect my sinfulness rather than Jesus’ Way. I don’t know about you, but for me, Jesus is my plumb line, the tool that I use to compare my behavior.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Pentecost 5 (proper 9), Year B, Sunday July 5, 2009

2 Sam 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Cor 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

Jesus had just begun his public ministry, and all was going so very well. He was gathering disciples. He was teaching and healing. He was casting out demons and cleansing lepers. He had quieted a storm at sea, and most recently he had raised a little girl from the dead!

After all this, wouldn’t he be right to expect a triumphal welcome in his hometown of Nazareth? When he spoke there in the synagogue, his friends and family were astonished and dismayed. We hear some of the comments: “We knew him growing up; he’s not a rabbi; he’s just one of us – he’s just a carpenter; how come he’s talking like this?”

We can only imagine the rest of the comments: “You’re the eldest son and your family needs you here at home!” “Your brothers need you in the carpentry shop.” “Why weren’t you here when we got that big order for new tables?” “Why can’t you just come home and settle down like everyone else?” They could only see him as their son, brother, cousin, neighbor, as one of their own. They were offended and scandalized by him, and perhaps even a little afraid of his words and strange power.

We can imagine that in his full humanity he was deeply hurt by their rejection. Jesus would experience rejection again and again, from his own family and from the religious authorities. Ultimately he would be rejected by the crowds on Good Friday and even deserted by his closest companions.

Rejection really hurts, and can be completely debilitating, especially when it comes from those we love and trust and whose opinion we value the most. King David experienced weakness and rejection, later in his reign, as a result of the disarray in his own family. The early Christian community for whom Mark wrote the first Gospel also knew rejection by their synagogues and by their families. Many of them were even martyred for their faith.

Saint Paul speaks of “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ.” Paul was able to heal others, but he didn’t have the power to cure his own “thorn in the flesh”, in spite of intense prayer. And so Paul wrote of the “power that is made perfect in weakness”.

Jesus’ power, also, was made perfect in weakness. He experienced weakness when he “came to his own home, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11) He “was amazed at their unbelief” and was unable to do “deeds of power there”. The only thing he could do was to keep going. While he was feeling the weakness of rejection, and the sting of their unbelief, he could only “lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them”. But the work must go on, and so immediately he began to send out others, two by two. He sent them in greatest simplicity and humility, with no money, no extras of any kind, nothing to rely on. He taught them what to do, and “gave them authority over the unclean spirits”. Although in his hometown he could heal only “a few”, the disciples went out and were able to heal “many”.

In surrendering to grace-filled weakness, Christ sent the others to carry on his mission. Christ sends us also, in our weakness. This is not a weakness that is broken, discouraged, resigned, or helpless. It is weakness that surrenders willingly and gracefully to the greater power of God. It is weakness that shares in the strength of community and of prayer. It is weakness that is self-aware and self-accepting. It is weakness that gives to God the glory, in times of success as well as in times of failure. (We learned of this in the movie that some of us watched here at the church on Wednesday evening. We saw “Facing the Giants” about a losing high-school football team who learn that “if we lose, we praise God; if we win, we praise God.”)

This past summer, someone very close to me admitted that he is an alcoholic. After many years of struggle, denial, and covering up, he admitted that he couldn’t stay sober on his own, without help. And then the next thing he said was that he was so ashamed. This summer, he started on his road to recovery and to self-awareness. He has discovered a new community of people who have been through the same struggle. He has also discovered that only it was only at the point of complete weakness and surrender that he could accept the power of God to be his guide and anchor and strength.

Jesus shows us that it is the innate nature of God to raise up those who have fallen, to heal those who are sick, to lift up the poor and oppressed. This may not happen in the ways that we want, but in God’s own time all will be accomplished. The God and Father of Jesus is present and compassionate with all of the world’s suffering. The Father of Jesus embraces especially the weak and most vulnerable, and asks us to join together in gentle ministry to the most humble and outcast, by harnessing the full power of God to do Christ’s work in this world.

What we ask for and what we get may seem to be completely different, yet in making us weaker than we want to be, God opens to us the richest blessings, as expressed in this poem by an anonymous soldier:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;

I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things;

I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy;

I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;

I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;

I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

We are blessed by a parish family, rich in prayer and in rich Spirit. We are called here to learn to love God and to minister to one another, and in our weakness we may receive the full power of God to teach us to live and enjoy and to bless God at all times and in all that we do.