Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stopped in Our Tracks

[I was pleased to be invited to preach at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota, this morning. The scripture for today was 1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; and Mark 3:20-35.]

            Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to be with you this morning. I was so pleased to spend yesterday here at Trinity conducting an Anti-Racism Training for the youth and adult leaders who will be going on mission trips to the White Earth Reservation this summer. There were about 40 participants from several area churches, who spent five hours together sharing and reflecting upon their own cultural stories - we all have them - and listening to each other, beginning to build relationships and learning how to engage conversations with people who are different from ourselves in an open-hearted, respectful manner.

            We watched videos that recited some of the history of racism and discussed subjects such as how to have the “what you said is racist” conversation instead of the “you might be a racist” conversation. We practiced listening and speaking in an intentional way, which sounds easy, until you try to do it in a patient, attentive manner. We focused on values such as cooperation, collaboration, and communication, which are all aspects of what we, as the Body of Christ, the church, are called to do in the name of mission. Mission is defined in the Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer as our call to reconcile ourselves to God and to each other in God through Jesus Christ. Relationship - that is our call, relationship with God and relationship with each other through our personal relationship with Jesus.

            So, I want to congratulate all of you here at Trinity for your loving, warm, and ongoing engagement in mission with the people of the White Earth Reservation. It is important work; it matters; and you are making a difference by building relationships. I give thanks for the leadership of your rector, Devon Anderson, and of your curate, Gretchen Roeck, and for their exceptional hospitality, which is an important spiritual gift and part of who we are as the heirs of Father Abraham of the Old Testament.

            I also have the privilege of serving the church as a member of Executive Council, and will complete my term in 2015, as the lay representative from Province VI. Additionally, I am a Lay Deputy from the Diocese of Colorado to General Convention and am serving as Vice Chair of the Legislative Committee on Ecumenical Relations. In this past triennium, I have been blessed to serve as the Ecumenical Partner from Executive Council to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Church Council and to observe first-hand how our full communion partner conducts its business and how it faces the changing religious, economic, and demographic landscape – a landscape that challenges all our churches to reaffirm our core baptismal identity and to seek to be a light and a balm to God’s people. I know that you, as residents of Minnesota, have a firsthand knowledge of our Lutheran sisters and brothers. I do, too, as someone who was baptized and confirmed in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Detroit, Michigan. I came to the Episcopal Church 17 years ago.
            Let us turn now to today’s Gospel and look at how it speaks to us.

            In preparation for writing this sermon, I read quite a bit about the Gospel of Mark and especially some of the writing found in the book, Binding the Strong Man, by Ched Myers. “Binding the Strong Man” refers to the passage in Mark 3:27, which says, “But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

            I had the opportunity to hear Ched Myers speak in 2005 at a TENS conference when I was working as the program administrator for the Colorado Episcopal Foundation. TENS is the Episcopal Network for Stewardship, and I was at the conference to learn about different views of stewardship and how to teach about stewardship in the church. Ched Myers was there as the founder of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries to talk about his life’s work on what he calls Sabbath Economics, a phrase that Myers and Bartimaeus use to describe the theological concept of “enough for all.” Myers comes from a theological perspective, which our own Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori shares, that says that scripture, especially the Gospel of Mark, teaches us that God has a preferential option for the poor.

            Certainly, we all know the numerous Gospel stories of Jesus and his personal interactions with people who were poor economically or poor of spirit, who were at the bottom of the social strata in biblical times and places. These poor people really needed and wanted contact with the Christ in order to have a connection with Jesus’ message of hope and God’s promise of a better life and to gain a sense of who they were and how they fit into a reign of God that was immediate, in the here and now. Last week’s Gospel lesson of the rabbi Nicodemus was an example of how much the people of Jesus’ time wanted to connect with this messiah who was doing and teaching things that were turning the social order upside down. Nicodemus stole out in the middle of the night to find Jesus so that they could have a conversation, so that he could hear what Jesus had to say from Jesus himself.

            We Episcopalians often hear about Sabbath Economics in words that talk about a theology of abundance and how God’s grace and God’s provision for us, his beloved children, is open-handed and unending, flowing from God who loves us unconditionally, and that God’s grace is unearned, unmerited by us. We talk about this abundance of God’s when we talk about our own call to stewardship of all that God has given to us, everything from our families to our jobs to the things that we own, the experiences that we have, our educations, and more. One of the ways that we talk about Sabbath Economics is we say that “Stewardship is everything I am and everything I have, after I say, ‘I believe.’”

            Seven years later, Ched Myers’ teachings at the TENS conference and in his book, Binding the Strong Man, resonate strongly for me, as I have engaged Anti-Racism Training in The Episcopal Church and other religious and nonprofit organizations. I am deeply drawn to the issues of the people at the margins of our society, the people of color, and the people who are poor, lost, lonely, and abject in spirit. In today’s Gospel, there is a call to action, if we listen carefully enough to discern that call in the dense language of Mark.

            Listen to a portion of the Gospel passage again, only this time, in the words of Pastor Eugene Peterson in The Message Bible:  “Do you think it's possible in broad daylight to enter the house of an awake, able-bodied man, and walk off with his possessions unless you tie him up first? Tie him up, though, and you can clean him out.

            Ched Myers’ reading of this passage in Mark is that it is written in symbolic language, and when taken as part of the whole of the Gospel of Mark, this passage reinforces the idea that Jesus was a counter-cultural kind of a guy. Jesus lived his life in direct contrast to accepted norms. Jesus’ opposition to the social order was nonviolent; his was an active resistance to the dominant order and the dominating powers. He chose his disciples and closest companions from unlikely people from the lower classes of Jewish society, fishermen and tanners. He shared meals with Jewish society’s undesirables and talked to beggars, lepers, and women of questionable reputations. Jesus came to make a new society, which was a repudiation of the norms that had the high society, the Pharisees and Sadducees, lording it over the poor and marginalizing them.

            In this passage of Mark’s Gospel, from Myers’ perspective, it is Jesus who “binds the strong man,” trashing his house of social, economic, and religious oppression, and cleaning him out of all that he possesses. The image that I have of Jesus binding the strong man is sort of like when the comic book superhero, Superman, blows with his mighty lungs, and his mere breath stops the bad guys in their tracks. They can’t advance against Superman, because his mere breath holds the bad guys in thrall. The image of Jesus’ binding the strong man is about how Jesus’ human death on the cross is such an overwhelmingly powerful witness of love and sacrifice for us, his beloveds, that we are stopped in our tracks when we finally get the message and meaning of Jesus’ death for our redemption. When we finally get Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross, we are stopped in our tracks. Our concepts of who we are, what’s important in our lives, of our worlds, get totally turned topsy turvy, and we are bound in the amazement and overwhelm of what has been given to us by God’s sacrifice of his beloved son, Jesus.

            The Message Bible continues: “‘Listen to this carefully. I'm warning you. There's nothing done or said that can't be forgiven. But if you persist in your slanders against God's Holy Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you're sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.’” Jesus warns his listeners to pay attention and not to speak or act against God’s Holy Spirit. It is our willfulness, our persistence in our sinfulness, that will sink us, because we risk being cut off from God who forgives all when we perversely, stupidly, willfully, choose separation over connection, doing our own thing over building and strengthening our relationship with God.
            The Message Bible goes on to say in today’s Gospel:  “Jesus responded, ‘Who do you think are my mother and brothers?’ Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he said, ‘Right here, right in front of you - my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God's will is my brother and sister and mother.’” Jesus is upholding the new order that he came to establish, a new family that is his Body born of his suffering and death upon the cross to redeem us from our sins to be his own Beloveds. He is saying that those who choose to obey God, to answer God’s call to be in relationship with God and to accept God’s goodness and grace, are his true family, his true brothers and sisters, his relatives.

            The call to action in this passage of today’s Gospel is this:  Come, my beloveds, and choose a relationship with God and a relationship with each other in God through me, and you will be my relations, my brothers and sisters and my family. Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus says, “Come.” “Come and see.” “Follow me.” Jesus’ call to us is so simple: “Come.” “Come and see.” “Follow me.” And what we have to do, is equally simple. We are called to respond to Jesus’ call by saying, “Here am I, send me.

            Ched Myers in Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries emphasizes what he calls Theological Animation. Basically, Theological Animation says that studying, thinking about, and meditating on theology, on our relationship with God, is not sufficient. We are called to put that relationship with God into action through our relationships with God’s people, with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

            The concept of Theological Animation is supported within our own Episcopal tradition. Bishop Stacy Sauls, The Episcopal Church’s Chief Operating Officer and former diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Lexington in Kentucky, says that “The fundamental missionary activity is remembering in the sense of anamnesis—not reminiscing and not telling, but acting, making present, being the hands and feet and vision and compassion of Christ in the world.”
            Mark’s Gospel this morning tells us that Jesus has come to turn the old order upside down and to establish a new order, and we, each and every one of us, baptized into Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of death upon the cross, is called to play our part in that new order, to be the hands and feet of Christ to bring health and healing to a hurting world. My sisters and my brothers, after we have said the Prayers of the People for the people, and after we have shared table fellowship in the Holy Communion, after the words of dismissal at the end of this service, let us, indeed, with gladness in our hearts, go into the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Amen.

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