Sunday, June 28, 2015

Touching the tassels: Sermon for June 28

Mark 5:21-43

It feels good to be back in the pulpit here at St. Martins. For those who have known me to preach extemporaneously, I have finally come to that place in life when I am beginning to lose words.  So I will be working from a text so that you won’t have wait for my brain to cough up the right word.  It will make the sermon shorter!!!

I would like for us to look at the Gospel reading for today.  It is really two healing stories wrapped into one. It is easy to just choose one of the readings but Mark embeds one of these stories in the other and because of this little literary device, we are invited to look at the embedded one as the more important.

First, it is important to look at what Jesus is saying and doing in this passage.  Jesus is in an area that was religiously diverse in the northern Galilee.  It was not a majority Jewish community.   The first story is of the 12 year old daughter of the leader of the synagogue, Jarius.  The other is the story is of a Gentile woman* who has had a hemorrhage for 12 years.   Even though the story of Jarius’ daughter is a story of resurrection, because of how this story is constructed it tells me that the important part of this passage lies in the story of the Gentile woman who reaches out to touch Jesus.* I bring up the number 12 because it is a metaphoric number. And when you hear the number 12 in the New Testament it is always associated with the coming of the messiah who would gather together all the 12 tribes of Israel in the reign of God. This story is about living in the kingdom where resurrection will not be needed nor will there be a need for healing.

 Jesus came to heal—yes.  But more importantly Jesus came to renew the faith as it was practiced in Israel in the first century.  He was neither a conservative in faith nor a progressive.  He was a radical.  He wanted to get back the roots of faith in God—not just observance of the Law of Moses.  And the root was love of God and love of others.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.” Deut. 6:5

And what we see in these stories is not a NEW gospel, but a reclaiming of what was central to People of Israel’s relationship with God. It is my opinion that Jesus did not come to start a new religion, but to draw all into the realm of God. Not just Jews, not just Gentiles.  But all.
In first century Judaism, how one obeyed the Law labeled someone as faithful, or righteous (tzedek) in Hebrew.    Some followed the laws to the letter—every jot and tittle.  Others, and especially those farther away from Jerusalem followed the laws
‘spiritually’ or allegorically.  But the word ‘tzedek’ also means balanced and that is what Jesus taught.  Faith was a balanced relationship with the Holy One and with humanity.

The Gentile woman was a woman who had tried everything to be healed. She was shunned because she was not ‘righteous’ because a hemorrhaging woman was unclean.  Touching such a person rendered a man unclean, unable to enter the synagogue, unclean to celebrate Shabbos without a trip to the ritual baths.  So this encounter takes all the temerity of this woman to reach out to the rabbi.  She desires to be healed of her illness. She had to reach across the social customs of her society.  This is one story in which Jesus does not initiate the healing; the woman does.  She claims a faith in this man who has not even seen her.  And Jesus confirms her healing: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  He returned her life to balance, to acceptability and removed the shame that her society had heaped upon her because of her illness.
Jesus stepped into the real meaning of Mosaic Law—to the bring wholeness, to bring balance and healing despite all the rules and expectations of how one was supposed to act.  Jesus stepped over the partitions and boundaries of normal expectations so that God’s work could be seen. 

This is what I believe that Mark is trying to tell of the ministry of Jesus.  Mark is the first Gospel and the oldest and in some ways the most revealing of the person of Jesus.  And I take heart in this story of the woman with the hemorrhage.  Because I can hear so much of myself in this story that speaks of balance, of the willingness to not wait to know acceptance in God but to reach out and claim it even when we don’t look like everyone else.

The other thing about this story is that it has so much meaning for our own day.   There is a temptation to think that this is ‘girls only’ passage.  But it isn’t.  It has to do with the kind of healing of all those deep places within us that are ‘ickky’, those places we don’t want to look at.  David Lose, Lutheran pastor and teacher, refers to this ‘ickky
place’ as our deepest vulnerability.  It is that place where we try to avoid looking at ourselves and refuse to talk about, afraid that others would be horrified if they knew.  And consequently we often never become healed.  It is only when we acknowledge that deepest hurt, deepest unclean, part of ourselves that can God’s healing can be claimed. Often those places don’t have anything to do with sin, but it where we aren’t perfect.

The woman wanted healing and had spent 12 years trying to be healed.  But it is when she reaches out to Jesus that she knows the power of God in her life.  She isn’t Jewish—she isn’t one of his flock.  She steps beyond the normal boundaries of polite behavior to claim the righteousness—the tzedek, the balance that she so desperately needed.  She would not allow herself to be bound by convention.  She quit living quietly in her own hell of being an untouchable.

To know the healing of our hidden places requires a thirst to know balance and a willingness to speak the hidden so that it no longer tyrannizes us.  We have to be willing to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect and neither is anyone else.  We spend so much of our time trying to cover up our imperfections rather than live the life that God
has given us.  How much of our lives are spent in trying to cover up those ‘icky’ places in our lives.  Trust me, growing up lesbian in Tx in the 1950’s gets one in touch with the ‘icky’ of life. But unless we are uncommonly well balanced or have had a lot of therapy, I would guess that most of us are hiding something that we don’t even want to look at and won’t let God’s healing to restore us. And because of it we lose sight of the joy living in God provides. This story helps us see what it means to know the liberation that is part of the life of faith.  It is a place of comfort and courage.

But this story is not just for individuals.  Our society has many places where we as a people avoid raising up the places where we are unbalanced until things converge. And it is often in the face of tragedy that we see the consequences of our illnesses.  Over the
past year we have seen increasing instances where racism has raised its ugly head in this nation.  Fifty years ago, Judy and I both were in Selma for the marches that now they make movies about.  And later in the summer we will make the pilgrimage to commemorate the death of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, our Church’s civil rights martyr.  But here we are 50 years later and still finding people being killed or harassed simply because of the color of their skin. We find people killed in their
church. We find children harassed simply because of the color of their skin.  And I don’t care what color we are, we hear the discouraging and disgusting comments from those around us, possibly even from family members, neighbors, colleagues or other students that are designed to diminish others because they don’t belong to whatever group we belong to.  Those of us who are from minorities—however we identify, have known the exclusion and even the terror of not being able to live freely in a country that is supposedly the land of liberty and the home of the brave.

 And even though we as Church say that radical hospitality is practiced here in this diocese, we don’t ever talk about the pain that our thoughtlessness can engender.  Here at St. Martin’s I don’t believe we have had diversity training in this, the most diverse parish in our diocese.

Back in the late 80’s and 90’s I was rector of a parish about the size of St, Martin’s in the DC area.  It was one half Black and one half White.  Early in my tenure and deeply in my Southern stupidity, I made the mistake of asking the 4 persons of color on my vestry what the Black take was on a certain issue.  A six-foot two African American woman, principal of a local high school said, “Lauren, Toby is from Mobile, Alabama, I’m from the Bronx, Norman is from Jamaica and Emanuel is from Nigeria—pray tell
me which Black perspective do you want?” After I wiped the egg from my face we spent the next 10 years learning to listen to the hearts and desires of people who were so different and who had come together to be one because their faith demanded it. Diversity requires the hearts to listen to one another.  To tell of the stories of our fears and joys and to honor the stories of one another

 Here in Fort Worth we have been so caught up with the division of our Church we have not listened to the hearts or the stories of those who are different from us so that
we can hear the call that we all have, to know the healing of God’s love. And how many of us who are in the majority are willing to compromise the way that we have always done things so that the diversity of our parish can be seen and celebrated? Perhaps we need to be willing to talk frankly and in love about our love for God, and how each of us know that One God but live our relationship out a bit differently.  Episcopalians sharing faith??? What a novel thing!!!

When we aren’t willing to embrace what it means to really be one, we never know that balance, that righteousness, tzedek, that Jesus offered to the woman who touched his cloak.  We also will never truly be that nation that invites people from all over the world to our shores if we aren’t willing to recognize that longing to be healed of the boundaries that separate us.

Because I am a teacher at heart, I am going to give you some homework.  I will not be grading papers, but in the end THERE WILL BE A TEST! I would like you each to ask yourselves ‘1. what needs to be healed in my life so that I don’t expect others to be like me?’  2. ‘am I willing to reach out to Christ and allow myself to be healed of my fear?’ It is only when we as a faith community are willing to address those questions that we can claim the radical hospitality that we so desire to offer.  The God who gave Jesus the power to heal, gives us the power in faith to be healed of the fears that keep us from knowing the joy of life.  I am not suggesting that you go shout your vulnerabilities to the world.  But let yourself to reach out to the tassels on God’s garment.  And as a parish and diocese, let us reach out despite our brokenness to know the joy that God holds for us.  This is the Gospel that Jesus proclaims.  AMEN.

(*Following preaching this twice, Judy reminded me that no where in the passage is the woman identified as a Gentile. I went back to the text and she was right!  So I stand corrected about my isogesis.  Spouses are so helpful.) 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Behold, I make all things new!--a preparation for the 78th General Convention

Today I commented on a national church site on which I spoke to the area of TX in which I now live.  After spending 43 years living outside of TX, and now have returned ostensibly to help our diocese recover our Episcopal identity and to live supposedly happily in retirement, I have had to wake up to some realities that I wasn’t prepared to address when I moved here 5 years ago. 

I have been in NY State, MD, CA in the meantime and have watched our Church grapple with racism, prayer book revision, women’s ordination, Latino inclusion, the addressing of the place of LGBT persons in the church without too much schism.  There is a temptation to believe that there was a time before all of this ‘newness’ began we were all one big happy family.  Actually I have never known the Church without an issue that some said threatened us. And when some of those issues didn’t affect me personally, I understood that the Church needed to make allowances for those who it did. 

Faith demands that we constantly bounce what we know of the Holy One off on how we personally live and how we corporately live in the light of the Gospel, the light of how Christ lived.  The journey of faith is constantly making me face the cool comfortable shadows in which I want to walk so that I can see clearly how I participate in my own enslavement to systems that keep me bound. God’s desire for me is to live in the Light, in a way that proclaims with every step that Christ’s is my life.

 Part of the problem of having preached regularly for most of my lifetime is that over the years I have ingested enough Scripture and been forced to unpeel it from its time and place in order to know what it means some 21 centuries later, is that most of my actions I have to regard through an awe filled lot of messages.  But whenever I begin to hear the other messages about how we need to be people of peace and move slowly, I keep hearing “Behold, I make all things new.” It is from Revelation, not my favorite book of the Bible.  Also one of the most operative passages in my life is “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end”. It is in Christ that I begin and I end.  I have no real existence outside of that relationship.  So I know I am beloved by God.  And I know that I am in Christ.  But as a priest I am required to uphold a Church too.  I am not solely my own person.  When I don my collar, I must speak for the Church too.  I cannot go off on my own personal journey without the community of faith which
ordained me.  Do I have a personal conscience?  Of course!  And I live it out always.  I am no good to Church or Christ if I do my own thing in isolation or without thought.
At the same time, different places have different ways of going about living out the same Gospel that challenge me.  And perhaps it is the gap between those who have been formed in this part of the Church and those who have been formed by other regions of the Church that drives up my wariness.

The Episcopal Church has always been a place that accepted ‘local custom’ as a natural way to live out one’s faith.  What has not been proclaimed as sinful is often permissible no matter if it appears to be wrong.  It allows each region of the Church to grapple with issues in due time and often I am so impatient. I would so like the Church where I live to be like the Church I came from, or experienced elsewhere.  But it doesn’t happen that way.  And nothing that I can do will change others overnight.

As the Church gets ready for its 78th General Convention, our triennial all Church meeting in Salt Lake City at the end of the month, many of the issues that have faced the Church over the past 50 years will once more be raised.  I have been a part of much of that history and live with decisions made in their light. And they have been
momentous issues.  Our Church has had a reputation for taking the bull by the horns and addressing the hard issues that face us.  I am proud of that record not because those decisions are liberal or conservative, but because we as a faith community have done hard work in trying to speak of how Christ is present to us.  After the 2003 Convention, those in the pews knew that being LGBT was ‘acceptable’ when a gay man was elected bishop.  After the 1976 convention we knew that women could be priests even though there were those who would not allow it in their own regions.  As a faith community we said what the ideal was whether it was what existed or whether it was even being tried in the local areas.

That has worked for the past 50 years.  Local ‘custom’ has often flown in the face of all the legislative work that Deputies and Bishops could work out in their 2 weeks of
legislative process.  However, there is a problem when local practice tops the rulings of General Convention.  And that is what happened here in Fort Worth.  The ‘local custom’ was at such odds with the workings of rest of Church that the leadership of nine years ago could not accept the decisions of the larger body.  It brought schism when it needed only to have been a point of disagreement and discussion. When we see such issues as life threatening—or soul threatening, there is no place to go except to leave. And while I find real exception in the way that the then leadership did it, I do not find it shameful that they had to leave.  The experience of Church in the local custom was at such variance that the center could no longer hold. 

A response to my comment on the website was one in which the responder admitted that he is opposed to mine and that because of his opinions he is feeling that he cannot find a ‘home’ in the Church any longer because of his holding his particular position.  It touched my own experience of exclusion in the Church because I have held the opposite view.  I hurt for him.  At the same time, I do not require him to renounce his position.  I do not demand that he leave the Church or be turned away from the sacraments and the life of the Church because he disagrees with me.  And that is why I continue to speak up to the growing backlash to LGBTQ presence in the Church and their service in the ordained ministry.  I have no problem that my colleague has a different opinion.  I actually relish it.  It means that the Church is alive and well.  But when his opinion must carry with it exile, the exclusion minorities in the Church, the loss of faithful people who are excluded because of his opinion, then I take issue.  We may disagree, but we may not exclude and that is what the LGBT movement has been about. 

Whether Same-Sex marriage passes at GC, isn’t that important.  Whether we restructure the Church is mere moving the deck chairs on the Titanic in my opinion. The Church that I have known over the past 40 years is changing so fast that I can’t keep up.  I just hope they can continue to send my pension check.  But the faith is still there.  The journey with Christ is still there no matter how it is packaged.  “Behold, I make all things new” is still the journey of the Church no matter what it looks like.  It is still the willingness us of all to listen for those places where those who are denied access to that message and flag them for the Church.  It is willingness to continue to be the outward and opening of life in Christ that will forever call us to this journey no matter if we have buildings or even altars.  It will be those of us who can hear that call who will build the new church, the new diocese, the reign of God.