Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21B] - September 27, 2009 (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Mark 9:38-50)

God’s kingdom will come, by hook or by crook! By hook or by crook will the justice and peace in Jesus come on earth and rule throughout eternity. By hook or by crook will God overturn the systems of sin and death that plague us now and usher his creation into eternal life.

First, the crooks, which are played so well by Eldad and Medad this morning in our delightful text from Numbers: Eldad and Medad—maybe not exactly crooks in the strict sense of the term, but certainly two unsuspecting ordinaries with no claim to authority, get hit with the Spirit of God out of all those hundreds of Israelites. All the usual suspects for Spirit-driven leadership, the certified and recognized elders and leaders, are in a confab with Moses to figure out a solution for everyone’s complaining. The Israelites are complaining about the food on this journey, remembering the delicacies of their former slavery, and Moses is complaining about the Israelites, and is one step closer to giving it all up. This huddle of the certified and recognized leaders and elders is God’s attempt to get things back on track, to bring his people into the Holy Land in one piece. But, back in the leadership vacuum at camp, Eldad and Medad get zapped with what is apparently some extra Holy Spirit and they begin to prophesy.

What exactly happens when these crooks start prophesying is not recorded in Scripture. The term “prophesy” could have meant many different things, from giving orders and commands to discerning the proper direction for the whole group. Up until this point, the gift of prophecy through the Spirit had been reserved for Moses as God guided them through the wilderness. Whatever Eldad and Medad do gets Joshua all worked up. And like a panicky and eager-to-please associate pastor, Joshua runs off to the tent to let Moses know of their shenanigans. Yet Moses’ surprising response shows that God chooses to work through the unlikely uncertified ordinaries from time to time. "Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” For Moses knows that God’s kingdom will come, by hook and especially by crook. Even though they’re unknown and uncertified, Eldad and Medad are simply animated by God’s Spirit, prophesying in the way they are led to do. Unconcerned with safeguarding his own sphere of influence, and unassuming in his role as leader, Moses shows an awareness that all the peoples’ Spirit-given gifts have a role to play in God’s kingdom.

There is a similar scene with crooks in the gospel text, when the anxious and eager-to-please disciples come running to Jesus complaining of the shenanigans of some other person who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name that they didn’t know. “Let him be,” comes Jesus’ surprising response, “for his gifts are not working against us.” Jesus, too, knows that the works of God’s justice and grace will be embraced and performed by people even he won’t know. In fact, Jesus points out, anyone who does so much as gives them a cup of water because they bear Christ’s name, is participating in the in-breaking of the kingdom. God’s kingdom will come, yes, even by crook.

It is an important message for the disciples as well as for the church of today, when unlikely crooks like you and me are baptized and sent out to spread the word. It is an important message for a church of today which often finds itself drawn into competition and conflict with itself and with denominations and congregations all over the world. Modern-day Christian missionary expert Lesslie Newbigin phrases Jesus’ and Moses’ admonishment for the Church in his book The Open Secret in this way: “If we love the light and walk in the light, we will also rejoice in the light wherever we find it—even the smallest gleams of it in the surrounding darkness” (Eerdmans, 1995).

I remember that look of rejoicing on the face of an elderly woman who sat with us one sunny day in a plain brick church with open-air windows in the far interior of China. I was with a group of seminarians on a trip with Luther Seminary to China and Hong Kong, fulfilling our academic requirement for a cross-cultural experience. We had been flown into some of the most remote regions of inner Yunnan province, an area near the border with Myanmar. The villages we were visiting were comprised of impoverished ethnic groups who had been converted to Christianity over a century before. Our guide had informed us that we were likely the first westerners since those missionary days to cross the threshold of their villages. The woman I remember was probably in her seventies or eighties. She was sitting in the church with us as our host, along with a dozen or more of her companion villagers who had been selected to share their experience of being Christian during years of isolation and oppression by the government.

We had been told plenty about our hosts before we showed up, but I’m not quite sure what had been told to them about us because when it became apparent that we were, in fact, fellow Christians visiting from America, this woman’s face lit up with joy, and a bit of puzzlement. She immediately began to shout out at us, looking back and forth between her church leader, the interpreter, and us. “She is utterly amazed…and overjoyed” the interpreter explained, striving hard to convey her surprise and shock. “All these years she has lived in this village, faithfully following her Lord Jesus. She has heard many stories about America and how great it is, but only now has she learned that there are baptized people in America, too…just like her!”

What faith! What surprise! Not one, but two sets of crooks in this remote backwater, gathering in the name of the same beloved Light. "Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

For all these years, God’s Spirit has been pouring onto people all over the place, from poor Eldad and Medad to the inner wilds of China. An important part of our task as disciples, is not to stifle the unmistakable evidence of Christ’s light in others, but to rejoice when we see God’s acts of mercy and sacrifice being done in Christ’s name.

But then, at that point, Jesus’ admonishments to his disciples take a macabre turn. God’s kingdom will also come by hook—like the hook of a pirate who has slashed off his hand, or the patch that covers a gouged-out eye. Or the hook that appears to remove a terrible performance from the stage. Sounding somewhat negative, Jesus further emphasizes the seriousness of their own gospel ministry with a series of rather violent commands. Hanging millstones around their necks for drowning. Cutting off limbs when they sin too much. Tearing out eyes. Being thrown into the pit of hell, “where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” Come to think of it, these high-price demands are probably the kind of stuff Joshua had in mind for crooks like Eldad and Medad on account of their shenanigans, not as a warning for the elite, religious, certified few of Jesus or Moses.

While, on the one hand, Jesus wants his disciples in every day and age to be aware of the Spirit-led works in his name both within and without one’s immediate gospel community, Jesus is also clear about the unity and sanctity of the disciples’ own message. God’s kingdom will come by hook, and if there is someone or some faction within the disciples’ community that is engaged in something that is directly contrary to the gospel message, it must be addressed. The methods mentioned here may sound a little drastic, but the point is we bear a responsibility in paying attention to our message, of being clear about who Jesus is, for example, what his death and resurrection mean, and what the nature of repentance and salvation is.

The arrival of God’s kingdom—which comes in Christ to redeem a broken creation—is not exactly dependant on us, but yet we do play an important part in it by not setting stumbling blocks for others to believe. It is Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the tomb that leads to the complete up-ending and re-making of a sinful world, but the community that follows him becomes the primary vessel for that world’s new beginning. As such, we are to have salt in ourselves, and be at peace with one another. Our community’s life together is important.

Here Jesus mentions salt not so much for the way it brings flavor, but for its preservation qualities (Virginia ham, anyone?). Part of what the community of the baptized is to do—through its diversity and its giftedness, as well as through its quarrels and missteps, is to help preserve the gospel message and the peace it offers. And we do this not principally for our own sake or our own blessed life together, but for the sake of the world. For the sake of the little ones who will see evidence in us of God’s grace. We maintain our gospel-saltiness for the sake of those who have not heard about Jesus yet, but whom God fully intends to have in his kingdom.

And so, even Jesus seems to realize that separating people or even groups from the community may at some times be necessary, even at great cost to the whole community. I should think those times would be few and far between, and undertaken with great forethought and concern, for the community is never the same after it happens. I do think it is worth noting, especially in these particularly tricky times for our denomination, when many people are talking of splitting or transferring membership or lopping off benevolence for mission support to the wider church that, in Jesus’ lesson, the state of the body that goes on to enter the kingdom is not whole and sound. The part that is preserved is still maimed and lame and partially blinded. Everyone suffers the pain that ensues when a member is severed from the body, and the part that survives no doubt bleeds. So often we’re prone to think our moral purity is what comprises our saltiness, when in reality, the ways in which we treat each other in our disagreements can cause us become a bigger stumbling block for those yet to believe.

In all of this, the message stands: by hook or by crook God’s kingdom will come, because it is God’s kingdom. Ultimately God loves the world far too much to let our sin or our stubbornness obstruct the path. By hook or by crook, God decides, will every last child hear of his forgiveness and will his people reach the Promised Land. “It is by hook or by crook”, God must think, as he then watches his own Son’s body, tormented by crooks, be beaten and pierced on the cross. “By hook or by crook,” God declares, as his body is passed around and his blood is poured to the very ones who should be fitted for a millstone. By hook or by crook, God pronounces—with every last Eldad and every last Medad and every last bickering Joshua and every last woman in the dark of China boldly bearing gifts of the Spirit in God’s glorious plan to take over the world in love.

Thanks be to God!

(photo: ethnic Tai group in traditional garb welcoming a missionary delegation, 2000)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18B] - September 6, 2009 (Mark 7:24-37)

If there is one thing I have learned about living in my new city, Richmond, it is that crossing the James River is a big deal. Nevermind that the River has been traversable since the Mayo Bridge on 14th street was completed in the late 1700’s, or that both sides of the city are virtually the same in just about every way. Nevermind that the beloved Ukrops can be found both north and south of the River. To lifelong Richmonders and newcomers alike, such a big deal is made about going to the other side it is as if they are venturing into Indian territory, the untamed wastes of the land “over yonder.”

Conveniently, this attitude is familiar to me, for Pittsburgh, the city from which we relocated, is divided by three rivers, forming three regions that are, in many ways, psychologically cut off from one another. When Melinda tried to order our wedding cake from her favorite bakery in our little borough of Pittsburgh, the baker immediately ripped up the order in front of her once Melinda told her that it would be delivered to the reception site downtown. “Ma’am, I’m sorry to say that Mr. Barkus, the bakery owner, doesn’t let his cakes cross rivers,” the bakery attendant announced matter-of-factly, and then shrugged. No reason was given, and, rather disappointed, Melinda left the store to look for a bakery on the other side of the rivers.

Oh, we laugh, but we are very good at drawing boundaries, aren’t we? It’s one thing when we joke about people on the other side of the river in our own town but really stops being funny when we think people should stay there, on the “other side of the tracks,” or in that below-standard school district, or behind that concrete and barbwire fence. Our playful ribbing about people from another neck of the woods can turn hurtful quickly, and the river—or the language barrier, or the social boundary—becomes a border we’ll never cross.

Well, if there’s one thing we learn about Jesus in the gospel lesson this morning, it’s that he’s not afraid to cross the river! Jesus has left his familiar territory in Galilee and ventured out to the untamed wastes of Gentile territory. Being extraordinarily specific, Mark, the gospel writer, places him in the region of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis. Normally, to the modern reader, such geographical descriptions might seem like superfluous detail, but for the ancient reader, this was newsworthy. If you try to map out Jesus’ route in the seventh chapter of Mark, you will notice two things. First of all, Jesus is not in Israel anymore. He is delivering his cake far beyond any region that has ever been Israel, or even marginally so.

Secondly, Jesus’ itinerary really doesn’t make much sense. To return from Tyre “by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis” hardly makes any geographical sense. It’s like saying you’ll return from Norfolk by way of the Outer Banks towards the Chesapeake Bay in the region of the Valley. I mean, I suppose it could be done, but it sure wouldn’t be a direct route. Scholars have long argued that Mark got something wrong, that he was altogether unfamiliar with the topography of ancient Israel and its neighbors. But I think the point doesn’t matter, and the peculiar, meandering nature of Jesus’ travels proves Mark’s point: Jesus has crossed the river. He has left his comfort zone. Or, to put it differently, he is showing us that his comfort zone is larger than we think it is.

That’s the deeper story of what’s going on here in these texts, both in his testy exchange with the Syrophoenician woman, and with the deaf-mute in the Decapolis. Neither of them is from Jesus’ Jewish homeland—the woman is explicitly named as a “Gentile,” and it is entirely likely that the deaf-mute and the deaf-mute’s companions are not Jewish, as well. In both cases, we see example of people who would have little reason to look to Jesus for healing become exemplars of faith. In fact, some translations of this text have the Syrophoenician woman address Jesus as “Lord,” rather than as “sir,” something that would have clearly sounded strange to the ears of Jesus’ fellow travelers who are probably just thrilled that he started delivering his cakes to the unclean folk on the other side of the river. After ignoring Jesus’ initial rebuke of her, she responds with faith and humility, confident that he is the Savior in whom she may trust.

Perhaps even more surprising than this conversation between Jesus and the Gentile woman is the miracle of the healing of the deaf-mute. As can be heard from our prophet Isaiah this morning, the arrival of God’s kingdom will be marked by the “eyes of the blind being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, and “the tongue of the speechless singing for joy.” The people of ancient Israel had long been looking for these specific signs to mark the arrival of God’s kingdom: the granting of sight to the blind and, especially, the granting of speech to the dumb. It was the ultimate turnaround, you see: those who could not otherwise be understood by anyone could finally respond in praise to the Creator, the highest form of speech around. Therefore, in the healing of the deaf-mute, we have the most profound illustration of God’s in-breaking kingdom to date occurring outside of God’s earthly kingdom of Israel.

And the crowd goes crazy. Even against Jesus’ commands, the Decapolis by-standers are overly impressed: “He has done everything well. He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak!” Can you hear their sense of awe? “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Even here, on the other side of the river. Even here, demons are cast out, tongues are loosed, and Jesus’ lordship is proclaimed to the nations.

The news from Jesus and the news about Jesus are things around which boundaries cannot be drawn. Everyone will hear about it. Everyone will be able to speak about it, even those we may not now understand. And what Jesus sighs to the deaf-mute is what God in Jesus is saying to the whole world: “Ephphatha! Be opened! You, with all your boundaries…be opened!” Be opened to what you can see and learn in Tyre and the Decapolis and from the people at the margins, from people you think are unworthy and unimportant. Be opened to the power of God’s kingdom to transform and renew us in spite of our shortcomings and dumb sinfulness. Be opened to the great life of baptism—where we are made one by Jesus’greatest miracle and where the last great terrifying barrier is crossed for good. Maybe that is what this venture into Tyre and Sidon is—a foreshadowing of Jesus’ journey on the cross, a prophecy, of sorts, that with Jesus as Lord, no part of our existence will be too distant for God’s grace to reign there.

As you’ve heard by now, next Sunday is Rally Day. We will kick off another year of Sunday School and youth ministry and music programs at Epiphany Lutheran Church. Those of you who haven’t taken the chance to see what happens at our Sunday School, both in the adult classes and the children’s classes, are missing the chance to “be opened” to the wideness of God’s reign, because that is what Christy Huffman and Kevin Barger and the dozens of Sunday School teachers and youth group advisors and musicians are doing every Sunday. They, and others, are working hard to “open us up” to the love and healing relationships in Jesus’ name. “Ephphatha,” they say each week, as they open up the Bibles and open up their craft boxes, and open up their instrument cases as they open up our hearts to the surprising ways God works and moves in our world.

When I was in Sunday School as a kid, our classes were grouped according to age (which I suppose is another boundary, but it helps when it comes to teaching). Because we were grouped according to age, however, we had Sophia in our class. Sophia was, technically-speaking, two weeks older than I was, but Sophia was severely mentally retarded, and had been since birth. She actually had the mental ability of a two-or-three year old, and could not speak intelligibly to us, but she was in our class and we learned alongside of each other. Her behavior was erratic and jerky, and we often interpreted her actions as aggressive, although they probably were not meant that way. Our Sunday School teachers consistently helped to mold us, as Jesus would have done, into one class. I often felt very uncomfortable with Sophia, especially in my younger teenage years because, truth be told, I was insecure, and she just seemed too different.

It wasn’t until I was much older when I realized how profoundly formative and rare that experience was. In every other aspect of society, people like Sophia were separated and sequestered from me. My middle school, for example, had separate classes for handicapped and mentally-challenged people, as they called them. They ate at the far tables of the lunchroom—over there in Decapolis and Tyre—so as not to disturb the rest of us. Sophia actually went to that middle school with me. Occasionally I would pass her in the hall, and I doubt she even recognized me. But in church, in Sunday School, we were in the same class. In worship, we ate at the same table, took crumbs from the same hand. In the world, we were often on opposite sides of the river. But in the church, we were together. Jesus himself had grouped us that way in baptism and had given us a Sunday School teacher who was with tender mercy constantly saying, in many and various ways, “Ephphatha! Be opened. “Be opened to the gifts of one another.”

That is what she said…and that is what we hear. And that is what the community of Jesus is supposed to do: proclaiming his power and traipsing wherever he’ll take us in his mission to open the world up…we, the community that crosses rivers.

Thanks be to God!

(image: ruins of Mayo covered Bridge, Richmond, VA )