Friday, October 12, 2012

19 Pentecost, Year B, 7 October 2012

Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

The Righteous, we are told by the psalmist this morning, will walk on level ground. “I have lived, and will live, with integrity.”

Sounds pretty good for the most part. Live the right way; do the right things (and avoid the wrong ones) and all will be well. Presumably that means in the opposite case, that the one who does not live righteously, who does all the wrong things and breaks the rules will be punished. We sort of like that idea—it certainly undergirds our notions of justice, and many of our modern public discussions (or battles) over a number of hot-topic issues. The deserving should be rewarded and the undeserving passed over; the good people should get the good stuff, and the wicked ones cast into outer darkness. We want (or we think we want) everyone to get what they deserve.

Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work that way. In spite of his protestations of right behavior, nevertheless the Psalmist is asking for God’s mercy. He (or she) pleads for a favorable judgment against foes and adversaries: “Give judgment for me, O Lord…redeem me and have pity upon me.” Something is already amiss; something has gone terribly wrong. How is it, that those who do the right thing often are not rewarded; or even worse (or so we think) that those who blatantly do the wrong thing are not punished?

It’s not FAIR! We screech in our best five-year-old temper-tantrum voice…internally or externally. I don’t deserve this—this sickness, this hardship, this unemployment, this struggle. And mostly, we are right to say so. Because mostly it’s not about deserving. Mostly, IT happens. IT happens to everyone. We can tell our own stories of when IT happened to me; we can tell other stories, of people we know and love, when IT happened to them.

This morning we begin to read the book of Job. Whom, we are told from the beginning, is a righteous man, who honors God and oversees the well-being of his family and those around him; who pays all his bills on time and gives generously to those in need; who goes to the gym every morning and works out, does his cardio workout and eats plenty of leafy green vegetables…and yet. And yet. In one day (the passage is omitted from the reading this morning) IT happens: Job loses all ten of his children in a terrible accident; he loses all of his livestock and slaves to foreign invaders; and now he loses health and strength and bodily comfort as well.

Thus begins the story of Job, written centuries before the time of Jesus. The book of Job is the closest thing we have in scripture to a theatrical play, with a cast of actors and dramatic speeches on all sides. It takes as its subject a sustained inquiry into the ways of God, which do not always make sense to us human beings. Perhaps there is a pattern, or a plan we can’t see. Perhaps God is intending something in all of this, which is yet beyond our comprehension. Perhaps it’s just random—as the bumper sticker has it, “Stuff Happens”, no pattern or plan at all. The fact is, we don’t know. It remains beyond our ability to know, in the sense of possessing sufficient factual evidence to construct a plausible scenario according to the rules of human logic. God is beyond human logic, as Job will find out.

When Job’s friends come to comfort him, they sit with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, in absolute silence. No one says a word… “For they saw that his suffering was very great.”

I have often counseled families who are in mourning, after losing a loved one, that they are now in the ding-dong zone. The Ding-Dong Zone is that emotionally fragile time where friends and neighbors mean to be comforting, but often try too hard and say things that don’t really help at all. They mean well…BUT.

For which reason, Job’s friends (in this at least) are a good example. They sit with him in silence. They don’t try to explain, or excuse, or make it all better. They do not fill the silence with chatter to relieve their own discomfort. They simply go to be with him. They are there to weep with him. And for then, that is enough.

When IT happens, all explanations are hollow.

Only later, when there has been silence, and weeping, and rage; when IT has been received and acknowledged and dealt with insofar as possible, can explanation and interpretation possibly begin to unfold. And that is what happens in this morning’s second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews.

It’s not really a letter at all—it’s a sermon or teaching document, looking at the ministry of Jesus, using the work and ministry of the high priest in the Jerusalem temple as an interpretive key. Over and over the writer (who was not St. Paul, by the way) contrasts the ministry of the earthly priest in the temple with the ministry of Jesus, understood to be the heavenly pattern and perfection of the earthly temple ministry.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to make sense of what has happened: Christ died and was buried; Christ was raised, and was seen by many before his ascension and return to God. Who is this Jesus after all, and how are we to understand him? The writer makes significant claims for who Jesus is—listen again to the opening lines: (1:3-4)

“He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

And yet…and yet. In spite of this magnificent beginning (from the beginning, IN the beginning, was the Word…echoes of the gospel of John, itself echoing the first chapter of Genesis), in spite of all these amazing credentials, nevertheless… “we…[have seen] Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Somehow that suffering, in his arrest and trial, at the hands of the Roman soldiers and as he hung on the cross had meaning in it, or perhaps meaning was found out later. “Christ died, and was buried; Christ rose, and was seen.” (I Cor. 15: 3-5) The suffering alone is only suffering, even for Jesus; when IT happened, IT required the others, watching and waiting, in silence, to discover that IT was more than just suffering. To see the resurrection on the third day, and thus begin to understand what could God be up to, in THIS?

In “tasting death for everyone”, Jesus participates fully in what it means to be human. There is nothing left out, from birth to death, that he does not undergo as part of the human experience. And so there is no part of our human experience that gets left out of his redeeming, saving work.

When IT happens in our lives—the deaths, the undeserved sufferings, the stuff that makes us look up and ask WHY?—we may not get the answer we’re looking for at all. Because mostly we’re not looking for explanations. We’re looking for someone to be with us. Someone to sit on the ground and weep with us. Someone to help us feel that we are loved, and that we have not been abandoned, and that we will be able to take the next breath, the next step. That light and life and love will come again, even into the midst of our own loss and grief and pain.

Our gospel this morning adresses a subject that has caused enormous loss and grief and pain in many lives. Every person in this room has been touched by divorce, either their own or that of someone close to them. It is part of the world in which we live. The Pharisees are looking to get Jesus into trouble—the verse immediately prior to the section we heard read tells us that they are back in Judea near Jerusalem. In their world, King Herod the Not-So-Great and his courtiers made a regular practice of divorce and remarriages for political advantage, at times between family members of blood kinship. So it may be that this passage is reflecting a political soap opera going on in the background. Again—we don’t know.

We do know that Jesus has been preaching the kin-dom of God from the beginning. He is always directing hearers in a consistent direction: That God, who created all things and called them good, desires the well-being of all the creation and everyone in it. That the world and all who dwell therein have one Maker, and share one source and one ultimate goal. And that when we lose sight of that, and start drawing lines in the sand and circles to keep one another apart, we’ve missed the point altogether. “What God has joined together” doesn’t just mean the bride and groom on their wedding day; it means you and me and all of us together in this world, along with the stars and the starfish and the sub-atomic particles. We are all part of one another, at the heart of things. We may try to divide ourselves from one another—and we do try. We may imagine that we can just walk away, not look back, you go your way and I’ll go my way—but life in God’s creation really doesn’t work like that.

One of my wisdom people, a great mentor and priest in New Jersey (who was himself divorced many years before I knew him) made the comment that “You can’t “un-marry” someone. You always have them with you, regardless.”

This gospel passage and others like it have been misused over the years, creating guilt and shame, to keep people in miserable and even violent relationships that had long since lost any quality resembling Holy Matrimony. That is no longer AS true as it used to be—although we could all tell stories about people we know, for whom that twisting of the Gospel is still operative. Although I suppose there are persons who thoughtlessly get married and then divorced, I don’t think I know any. (Well, maybe one. But he’s got much bigger issues that have yet to be addressed…) No one I know goes into marriage “unadvisedly or lightly” as the Prayer Book says, and part of my ministry as a priest is to help folks who are intending to get married to do so with the best possible preparation available, so that they can be successful in their marriages.

But sometimes IT happens there too. For whatever reason, under whatever circumstances may be operative.

And there also, in the midst of loss and brokenness and shame and anger and all the other attendant emotions that may show up, we look for God’s presence. We look for Jesus’ word to his followers on that Sunday evening in the upper room: Peace be with you. We look for the Holy Spirit to come with fire for cleansing and healing; with breath for life and renewal. We look for Grace, believing always that it is indeed holy, transforming, Amazing Grace that saves us, and restores us, and that will lead us home to God, who created us in his image and likeness and loves us always, even (especially) in the midst of the IT of our lives.

We don’t always get to know what God is up to, in our lives or in the lives of other people. Occasionally we get a glimpse—the tapestry gets flipped over for a moment, and instead of random threads going every which-a-way we see the big picture. But mostly we’re on the back of the tapestry, trusting that even if we don’t understand, even if we don’t see anything sensible in all this, that God is still God, and that we need not be afraid. As people of faith (and even just the tiniest little mustard seed bit of it some days; and some days we have to go next door to borrow some because we are all out ourselves), we hold fast to the belief that God is always present.

That Bidden or Unbidden, God will be there.

Friday, October 5, 2012

18 Pentecost, Year B, 30 September 2012

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9;20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

The Animal Channel has a reality/pet care show entitled “My Cat From Hell.” For those of us who own cats (or who are owned by them) this is an intriguing title, and one that I thought worthy of investigation when I discovered it. The story line is always the same: The pet owners apply to be on the show because their cat (or cats) are acting out in some way that is disrupting the household. The cat guru (a tattooed rock-n-roll musician by the unlikely name of Jackson Galaxy) comes to the house, meets the humans and the cat, observes their interactions, and helps them figure out what’s really going on. Inevitably, there is some source of distress that is upsetting the cat, and the cat is responding to that upset. Remove the source of distress, and the cat will relax and be just fine. And the signal of that relaxing is when the cat allows its belly and chest to be exposed to the humans.

The willingness to expose one’s vulnerable places to other human beings is a signal of great trust. The opening of the midline—from neck to navel—in felines, or canines, or in humans—is a gesture of absolute openness. Arms spread, defenses lowered, hands open to give and to receive. Very different from arms crossed, hands made into fists, tensed to strike, the gestures of self-protection and immanent combat.

The disciples seem to be ready for combat this morning. They have seen someone, someone not of their inner circle, an outsider, who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they want to know what to do about this interloper on their turf.

We know that instinct. That all-too-human habit of drawing lines, and circles, and classifying things and people into “like” and “unlike”, “Us” and “Them.” It is a way of protecting ourselves from the unknown. And it’s a useful way of dealing with the world to a point, but past that point it can become more of a problem than a solution.

Both our Epistle reading from the Letter of James this morning, and the gospel passage from Mark are dealing with this inside/outside dichotomy. In the church, and often here at St. Augustine’s, we use the language of “Family” to describe ourselves. The problem with that language is that in scripture, “Family” in Jesus’ time was not what we think of when we use that word. A family meant more than just Mom, Dad and 2.5 kids. Multiple generations lived together in a household, with attendant slaves, indentured servants, and various others. When Jesus or Paul or other New Testament writers use the language of “brothers and sisters” to address the followers of Jesus, they are making a very particular claim about what that relationship is, or at least ought to be. That concern for one another—and that willingness to be open and present to one another—is a remarkable thing.

The middle of the gospel passage is terrifying. We can’t just take it at face value, and yet people try to do just that. The early Christian teacher and writer Origen cut off his “boy parts” because he felt that that was the only way he could avoid temptation to sin. Which is one way to do it, I suppose. But I don’t think that most of us are going to do anything of the kind…and Jesus knew that. So what’s really going on here?

An exasperated parent says to a child: “I’ve told you a million times—don’t exaggerate!” This is called hyperbole: Figures of speech deliberately drawn so absurdly large as to be laughable, but impossible to miss.

Jesus is using hyperbole to be sure—but the context is an accumulation of the disciples “not getting it.” Over and over they have seen for themselves, they have touched with their own hands and heard with their own ears and tasted with their own mouths the miraculous and outrageous and just plain WEIRD quality of what Jesus has been sharing with them. This “kingdom of God” that he keeps talking about, utterly confounds all the ordinary expectations they’ve been carrying around. He’s just gotten through telling them that the image, the icon of power in this way of living is complete powerlessness, that it looks very much like a little child—who is utterly dependent, utterly trusting in someone outside of itself for everything. And then John—JOHN, the beloved disciple, the closest of all to Jesus, the one who leans against Jesus’ heart at the last supper—asks if they should try to stop someone who is doing good in Jesus’ name “because he’s not doing it the way we do it.”

Jesus surely must have done another double face-palm on this. And in annoyance and perhaps amusement decides to just go with it. “Okay, fine. Have it your way. You want to talk about power like that? You want to condemn other people because they are not doing my Father’s will according to your gameplan? Let’s talk about YOU for a bit. Who is the powerful? Who is the wise guy? Who is the one who’s got it all together? You? You there? Oh really?”

He’s turning on them—more than a little bit—using exaggerated imagery and an over-the-top preaching style to make the point. Which is, NOBODY has got it perfectly together all the time. No one always knows what God is up to, even in their own lives, let alone the life or ministry of someone else in the Christian household. I may not like the message that the pastor of First Church of What’s Happening Now is preaching—but maybe God is doing something through him. I may think that the writings of some Christian author are really drippy and sentimental and vacuous, but who am I to say that the Holy Spirit cannot use those words, and that writer?

Psalm 131: “O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters; nor with things that are too hard for me.” We meditated on that text at our Wonderful Wednesday gathering this week. I have a facial expression that Shannon calls my “You are too stupid to live” look—and I realized that I probably need to cut that out. It’s not helping me, or anyone else, to use that look on someone.

“It is better to cut off parts of yourself, than to throw a rock in the path of another believer.” Not body parts, but parts that interfere with others’ and our own growth in faith.

This concern with caring for others, with making a generous space for others in the household of faith, does not mean we cease to be ourselves, any of us. And it does not mean putting up with abuse, couched in religious language. But it does call us to mutual forbearance, to always look to the well-being of one another as a first principle. And in that, to be vulnerable and open to one another. To hold the position of vulnerability, which is the position of prayer—the Orans position. Breast and belly exposed, hands uplifted and open. To model that in our bodies and in our spirits. To tell the truth about ourselves—that we are NOT perfect, that things are not always “oh just fine, thanks very much.” We cannot possibly follow the instructions of the letter of James—“Pray for one another, that you may be healed” if we are closed off and hiding from one another. We cannot be the body of Christ if we dis-member our own selves from one another.

Jesus is not encouraging anyone to “dis-member” themselves this morning. Quite the opposite. He is urging them to “re-member” who they really are, and WHOSE they really are, and how very LARGE their new family of faith is—and especially to look after and care for those who are on the edges. The little ones, the least of these, the children, the most vulnerable.

To do this—to pay attention to those on the edge, in “re-memberance” of Jesus, himself marginalized, vulnerable, crucified and raised from death on the third day by the power of God—is to participate in the kin-dom of Christ, the household of faith, in this world, in our own time.

May it be so for us.

May it be so among us.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

16 Pentecost, Year B, 16 September 2012

Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Who are your “wisdom people?” The people you know, and who know you even better than you know yourself, to whom you turn when you need to get a grip on reality. We’ve all got such people in our lives. The ones who are intimately in touch with the way things are at the roots, deep down in the heart of the universe. Perhaps a parent, or a grandparent. Perhaps someone who is, for you, what the early Celtic Christians called an anamchara—a friend of the soul.

Our first lesson this morning describes the character and actions of Wisdom in its most perfect form. Wisdom is portrayed as the personification (and mouthpiece) of God’s power and intelligence. She (and note that it is “she”, sometimes called “Lady Wisdom” in the biblical commentaries) represents God’s spirit and presence in the world and human activity, and she is held as an example for all people who are themselves wise enough to know their own limitations. “Wisdom” is not intellect as such, nor cleverness, nor formal education—but something else altogether. We all have “wisdom people” who are in touch with the way things are, deep down at the roots.

And we all have folks who are quite the opposite of wisdom people in our lives. The letter of James gives an indirect description of such a person in this morning’s passage about the power of the tongue. We see this power all around us, especially now as the November elections approach, with seemingly endless talking, regardless of the truth of the statements made, regardless of the chaos and ill-will and misery that such statements may create. The author of James pleads with his hearers to be distinctly different in their lives, and in their speech. He invites them to silence, or at least to think before opening their mouths. A humorous bumper sticker prayer I saw years ago said it well: Dear God, let my words this day be sweet and tender, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.

When I worked for Retriever Payment Systems in Houston, a good friend of mine shared an office with a woman—let’s call her Kate—who was the opposite of a wisdom person. She was loud and brash and self-absorbed, and from my cubicle I could frequently hear her talking all the way down the hall. On such occasions I would send my friend an email: “Tell her to put a sock in it!” Eventually this got shortened to a one-word note: “Sock!” I once left a clean white gym sock in a ball on my friend’s desk, and a few minutes later heard her unmistakable guffaw when she found it, followed by a barrage of “Oh GROSS! What is that nasty sock doing on your desk?”

Once I walked into the lunchroom and found Kate rattling on about something her husband had done, or failed to do, concluding with the statement: “I don’t know why I have this terrible temper, God just gave me this terrible temper, but hell hath no fury like a woman. That’s in the Bible, you know.” (It’s not, by the way…but you knew that already.)

I wanted to ask her: Do you even want to be less angry? Less agitated every single day when you come to work? You can, you know. There are other ways to live—but you’ll have to let go of some old ways. You’ll have to let those ways and habits of yours die.

Jesus and the disciples are on the road, near Caesarea Philippi.

1) Jesus asks them: Who do people say I am? They reply: Some say this one, some say that one, and some say someone else…finally Peter answers “You are the Messiah,” the Christ, the chosen messenger of God. Immediately Jesus warns them not to tell anyone about this (Which is a guarantee that it’s gonna get told!)

2) Jesus responds to their reply: Guess what friends? Following the Messiah isn’t going to mean what you think—it’s not gonna be a ticker-tape parade down Broad Street with a brass band playing Seventy-Six Trombones! It will take everything you’ve got and have ever thought you knew, and turn it inside out and upside down—life as you have known it gets redefined, right now.

(Back in seminary, Professor Charlie Cook used to tell us, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free; but first it will make you strange!”)

3) Continuation of (2), Jesus speaks to the crowds who are following him around…the shadow of the cross is falling chronologically “backward” into this narrative, though Jerusalem is still some distance away. But of course the hearers/readers were hearing the story well after the fact, and perhaps experiencing some kind of persecution, or struggle, in “carrying their own cross” as well. “Those who lose their life will save it; those who try to hold on to their life will lose it.”

This paradoxical statement signals that we’re dealing with more than just bumper-sticker feel-good pop spirituality. But understand also, that what Jesus is saying is not a dreary call to an endless succession of Good Fridays either. This is the Gospel, after all, which means “good news.”

Here’s the news, here’s the paradox: In the dominion of God, in the Kingdom of heaven to which Jesus is always directing his followers, the distinction is about the attitude and behavior of holding on. Clinging tightly to “the things that make for life”—whatever we think those may be—versus refusing to cling, but holding rather lightly.

When we remain open and trusting, in ways that lay us open to mistreatment and abuse, we are not playing it safe. This is a vulnerable posture, to be sure. Chest and belly exposed, arms extended and hands open—it looks just like the cross. It looks just like Jesus, whose hands on the cross were not balled into fists to strike out against his abusers, but who opened his hands and prayed, and continues to pray, for them and for us: Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

To go about in the world, to live lives marked by refusing to seize power or status or possessions, refusing to cling, refusing to meet abuse and violence with the same abuse and violence, but praying also for forgiveness for enemies, to manifest love and joy and peace, patience and kindness and goodness, control of the tongue and control of the emotions—this is to be very STRANGE indeed. It is a rejection of the ways of the world around us, to say (in word and deed) that we belong to another sort of world.

The early Christians thought of themselves not only as part of the Body of Christ, the brothers and sisters of Jesus himself, but citizens of God’s kingdom even now. They lived in Rome and Antioch and Athens, and Canterbury and London and Edinburgh, and Savannah and Atlanta and even Augusta and Grovetown, but they knew that their true citizenship, their true identity, was not limited to earthly geography. They were citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, on a journey, a pilgrimage, to their true and eternal home.

This was the wisdom that gave them courage, and strength, and joy, and the peace that passes all understanding and human comprehension. They did not have to ask “Who do people say that we are?” They knew who they were, and whose they were—and no earthly power system could shake their confidence in that wisdom and knowledge.

May it be so for us as well. May it be so among us today.